DOCTOR WHO: A Viewer’s Guide for Beginners

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This is a DOCTOR WHO Viewer’s Guide for Beginners, written for those of you who know next-to-nothing about DOCTOR WHO, and sure to annoy (and possibly infuriate) those of you who know next-to everything. From time to time, I get asked questions like, “Where do I start?” or even “How do I start?” and there’s not really an easy answer because there’s so much to go through and so many different iterations of the character and so many different tones and styles at play. This post serves as a basic answer to that question.

(I’m figuring you know he’s a Time Lord who stole a space/time machine and regenerates into a different iteration when he dies. If not, that’s why we have the internet.)

A few years ago I was asking myself that same question. I watched the Tom Baker WHO a bit as a kid, but I was never a huge follower of the show. It wasn’t on regularly and I never felt the need to track it down. Unlike a lot of people, I don’t have a “My Doctor.” When I dumped cable and signed up for Netflix I knew I wanted to dig into DOCTOR WHO. By that time I had seen most of the relaunched WHO but most of it was in bits and pieces. So where should I start?

For me, I decided to grab a few Hartnells, a few Troughtons, and then advanced from there, watching one Doctors run at a time. I started this blog halfway through the Sixth Doctor’s run and watched and reviewed as I went. When I finished, I went back to the start, so I’m committed to seeing it all. I don’t claim to be an expert – I still haven’t seen everything let alone have written about everything, and I haven’t listened to any of the audio dramas or read any of the books or comics, but the opinions I do have are on display all over the Anxiety, and you can read all of them at the Doctor Who Index Page.

Let me explain what I’m doing here – this is not meant to be a comprehensive guide to anything and everything DOCTOR WHO. What this guide does is provide a starting point for people who are interested in investigating DOCTOR WHO and need help figuring out how to make nearly 800 episodes, 224 stories, 11 Doctors, and 50 years of television consumable in an easy to digest manner.

If you’ve seen the majority of DOCTOR WHO serials this list will likely get you to shake your head and wonder, “How could that idiot have forgotten INFERNO? HORROR AT FANG ROCK? SCHOOL REUNION?”

Two things: 1. Feel free to tell me what an idiot I am in the comment section and leave your own suggestions. I can take the bruising and the readers will appreciate the extra ideas. 2. Remember that this isn’t supposed to be a comprehensive guide. You don’t teach someone how to drive an F1 car on the first day of driving school. (At least not in Massachusetts. Maybe it’s different where you grew up.)

My approach is to offer two types of serials: a Typical Serial that best embodies a particular Doctor (or Doctor’s era) and an Outstanding Serial that signifies the best a particular Doctor has to offer. My theory is that if you give new viewers nothing but the best they might get spoiled and not appreciate some of the really good serials, the same way if you start out by learning how to drive an F1 car that a Ford Fusion might not ever do it for you.

Which would be a pity, since it’s much better to drive a Fusion to work every day instead of the RB8. Admittedly, it’s not as much fun, but the RB8 doesn’t give you an accurate version of what a normal car is like, and so I’ve designed this guide to give you both typical serials that exemplify a Doctor’s era so that you can decide whether you’d like the rest of that era or not, and then a couple outstanding serials to show you the high points.

Again, this is by no means a comprehensive list. I could do the entire list again with an entirely different set of serials, but these are the ones I suggest to people.

THE FIRST DOCTOR: WILLIAM HARTNELL (Seasons 1-4)
Typical Serial: THE ROMANS and THE SPACE MUSEUM
Outstanding Serials: THE DALEKS and THE DALEK INVASION OF EARTH

With THE ROMANS and THE SPACE MUSEUM, you get an historical serial and an off-world serial. And while it’s a bit repetitive to name two Dalek serials, these are both the first two Dalek serials and two of the best.

THE SECOND DOCTOR: PATRICK TROUGHTON (Seasons 4-6)
Typical Serials: THE INVASION
Outstanding Serials: THE TOMB OF THE CYBERMEN and THE WAR GAMES

Look, there’s so few Second Doctor serials that have survived (there’s only 1 from Troughton’s first two seasons) that we’re lucky we’ve got some really good ones to watch. THE INVASION is a long, 8-episode serial and two of the individual episodes have been been animated. It’s a Cybermen serial but the Cybermen don’t really appear all that much. TOMB and WAR GAMES are both top notch serials – the first has the Cybermen and the second, well, as I said about WAR GAMES when I reviewed it: “WAR GAMES is not the story to give people new to DOCTOR WHO, but if you’re a fan you owe it to yourself to sit through the four hours it’ll take to view it, though I’d recommend spreading it out over a few nights. WAR GAMES is one of the most important serials in the show’s entire run, and also one of its best – even if it’s hurt by the constraints of a 10×25 format.”

So … yeah … watch it third. If you like what you see in INVASION and TOMB, you’re ready for WAR GAMES.

THE THIRD DOCTOR: Jon Pertwee (Seasons 7-11)
Typical Serials: DOCTOR WHO AND THE SILURIANS, THE CLAWS OF AXOS, and THE TIME WARRIOR
Outstanding Serials: THE DAEMONS, THE GREEN DEATH, and INVASION OF THE DINOSAURS.

The Pertwee era gets three Companions, each of them distinct from one another, and I’ve included one of each here. The highly intelligent Liz Shaw appears in THE SILURIANS, which doubles as the typical Pertwee-era UNIT/laboratory serial, the likable Jo Grant appears in the somewhat goofy CLAWS OF AXOS, and Sarah Jane Smith makes her debut in THE TIME WARRIOR. They’re also chosen for other reasons; the Pertwee era contains some very average scripts and loads of padding (almost every 6-episode serial should really be 4 episodes long), but the strength is Pertwee’s dedication to the part and the sheer enthusiasm he brings to the table. In SILURIANS, we see his total dedication to believing in the good in people, and there’s plenty of great conflict with the Brigadier. In AXOS, we see him making the absurd believable, and in TIME WARRIOR, we see Pertwee’s confidence and mischievousness on full display.

As for the Outstanding Serials, DAEMONS represents perhaps the single best performance of Roger Delgado as the Master. The Master shows up all over the Pertwee era until Delgado’s unfortunate death (including AXOS), and many of his serials are below average. Delgado always gives his best to the part, however, so it’s nice to see a serial finally match his abilities. As for THE GREEN DEATH, I struggled between including it or INFERNO; both are outstanding serials and both have reasons for not including it. Ultimately, I decided on GREEN DEATH because INFERNO is largely an alternate universe tale. GREEN DEATH has the final appearance of Jo Grant and so a new viewer won’t get as much out of it as a long-time viewer, but there’s such warmth and sadness in the final episode that I think anyone watching it will be pulled in by the obvious love that the Doctor and Jo (and Pertwee and Katy Manning) have for one another. And then watch TIME WARRIOR for Sarah Jane’s debut, and then hit up INVASION OF THE DINOSAURS, a crackingly good serial from Malcolm Hulke that completes this three serial run.

THE FOURTH DOCTOR: Tom Baker (Seasons 12-18)
Typical Serials: ARK IN SPACE, IMAGE OF THE FENDAHL, ANDROIDS OF TARA, CITY OF DEATH
Outstanding Serials: GENESIS OF THE DALEKS, PYRAMIDS OF MARS, THE TALONS OF WENG-CHIANG

I’m sure I’ll get the most grief about this section, as selecting serials for the Tom Baker DOCTOR WHO is both the easiest and hardest because so much of it is so darn good that my opinion often shifts between what I like, what I really like, and what I absolutely love. Remember that everything is relative and a “typical” serial for Baker’s Doctor is likely just as good, if not better, than the Outstanding Serials of other Doctors. It’s very likely you’ll find someone telling you that ARK IN SPACE is one of the very best – and I wouldn’t disagree with them. That’s how good large patches of the Baker era really are. In short, the Baker era represents the very best of DOCTOR WHO and it’s likely you’re going to spend lots of time here figuring out your own favorites. There’s not many DOCTOR WHO fans who dislike Baker’s run.

What I’ve tried to do is give a wide array of serials that show off the numerous Companions the Fourth Doctor traveled with during his tenure. ARK and GENESIS involve Sarah Jane and Harry. PYRAMIDS is a Sarah Jane story. WENG-CHIANG and FENDAHL are Leela stories. TARA stars Romana I and K-9. CITY has the delightful Romana II.

Rest assured, grab any 7 serials from throughout Baker’s run and you’re likely to get a good feel of the best of WHO.

THE FIFTH DOCTOR: Peter Davison (Seasons 19-21)
Typical Serials: EARTHSHOCK, SNAKEDANCE
Outstanding Serials: MAWDRYN UNDEAD, CAVES OF ANDROZANI

Peter Davison is a fine actor, but he’s lacking in the charisma department and he’s been burdened with the worst set of Companions in the show’s history. Now, a lot of people – David Tennant and Steven Moffat, most notably – really like Davison, so perhaps you will find lots to love in this era, but for me the Davison run is the most painful to watch. And I say that while fully admitting that the Fifth Doctor’s run is of better overall quality than the Sixth Doctor’s run, but where the Sixth Doctor’s era is like watching an automobile fall apart at top speed, the Fifth Doctor’s run is like watching a Beetle operate at half-speed.

Having said all of that, I completely agree with the notion that there have been no bad Doctors; each of these men bring something special to the character and Davison does, as well. The Fifth Doctor has the air of a scholar, and he’s given three younger charges over his tenure: Adric, Nyssa, and Turlough. If the show had made an emphasis to develop these teacher/student relationships – concentrating on taming Adric’s ego and building Nyssa’s confidence – we might have had something. Unfortunately, Davison came in during a time when the BBC was losing confidence in the show and the writing got really, really lazy.

That said, it should be noted that when DOCTOR WHO MAGAZINE polled their readers to rank the first 200 serials in the show’s run, the readers voted CAVES as the #1 DOCTOR WHO serial of all-time. My opinion isn’t nearly that high (I think it’s closer to the 50th best serial than the 1st) but it’s still as good as anything in this run.

THE SIXTH DOCTOR: Colin Baker (Seasons 21-23)
Typical Serials: REVELATION OF THE DALEKS, THE MYSTERIOUS PLANET, and MINDWARP
Outstanding Serials: THE MARK OF THE RANI, THE TWO DOCTORS

Rememeber what I said about everything being relative? Welcome to the idea of an “outstanding” Sixth Doctor serial.

REVELATION is odd because while it’s pretty good, it also shows how Eric Saward (the script editor who also wrote this serial) really had no interest in using Colin Baker, at all. It’s one of the better overall serials of the truncated Colin Baker era, but the Doctor and Peri feel like secondary characters in the story. MYSTERIOUS PLANET is typical in that it starts pretty good, with some really wonderful interplay between the Baker and Nicola Bryant, and then completely falls apart. And MINDWARP … well, as I said in my review: “MINDWARP, to me, is now the strongest case to be made for my argument that the Colin Baker era was ahead of its time. In fact, it’s now quite obvious to me that it totally outstripped John Nathan-Turner, Eric Saward, the writers new and old, the music composers, and the special effects guys’ abilities to deliver the stories they were trying to make. I have no doubt that in the hands of Russell T. Davies or Steven Moffat, MINDWARP would rank as one of the ten best serials in DOCTOR WHO’s entire history.”

That’s a bit hyperbolic, perhaps, but MINDWARP is as frustrating as any serial from any era, based solely on what it could have been versus what it is.

I’ve listed THE MARK OF THE RANI as an Outstanding Serial because it’s a very solid historical and serves as evidence of what could have been if Colin Baker had been given stories he could do something with, as opposed to stories that seemed openly hostile towards him. The same can be said for THE TWO DOCTORS, which brings back the Second Doctor and his long-time Companion Jaime to add a much needed spark to the show.

You really owe it to yourself to watch The Twin Dilemma, Timelash, or Ultimate Foe to see just how bad it can get. Colin only gets two seasons and most of it is him really trying to make bad material work. Unfortunate. I’ve heard his audio dramas made years later are much better.

THE SEVENTH DOCTOR: Sylvester McCoy (Seasons 24-26)
Typical Serials: THE GREATEST SHOW IN THE GALAXY, SURVIVAL
Outstanding Serials: REMEMBRANCE OF THE DALEKS, GHOST LIGHT, and CURSE OF FENRIC

Here’s the deal with the Seventh Doctor – forget the first season because they’re still dealing with the mess of the Colin Baker era (of which Baker was one of the least significant problems). The serials are good compared to what came before but substandard compared to what came after. By the start of the second season (REMEMBRANCE), script editor Andrew Cartmel’s stamp on the show was starting to take hold and a new companion (the fantastic Ace), and a new sense of purpose, and a new direction infused the show with some much-needed energy. Where the Davison and Baker II eras felt like they were caught between how television used to be made and how it was currently being produced, the final two seasons of McCoy’s run start to feel contemporary.

Of these, GREATEST SHOW and SURVIVAL are very solid and best exemplify the kind of stories and the kind of Doctor that Cartmel and McCoy were after.

FENRIC is among the very best WHO serials of all time, and REMEMBRANCE is one of the very best Dalek serials. GHOST LIGHT is one of the strangest serials in WHO history, and a true hate it or love it story. You can guess what position I take by its inclusion here.

THE EIGHTH DOCTOR: Paul McGann (One TV Movie)
The Typical, The Best, The Only: THE TV MOVIE

It’s not very good but I was stunned at how much Russell T. Davies took from this special. The idea of the romantic Doctor, the lovestruck Companion, the ornate TARDIS … this is a very important serial and a deserves a great amount of credit for bringing DOCTOR WHO forward. If you’ve been watching the Doctor for years, I can see how you’d be completely turned off by THE TV MOVIE, but if you came in with the relaunched WHO, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how familiar it feels.

THE NINTH DOCTOR: Christopher Eccleston (Series 1)
Typical Serials: ROSE, THE UNQUIET DEAD
Outstanding Serials: THE EMPTY CHILD / THE DOCTOR DANCES, DALEK

The Russell T. Davies relaunch brought with it a whole new attitude and approach to DOCTOR WHO, with a stronger emphasis on action, emotion, and a much greater emphasis on the Companions as individuals. The biggest difference, however, is in the format. Gone are the multi-part serials and in their place are one hour, largely stand-alone episodes. It’s a thoroughly modern show, and it’s largely been a fantastic ride.

I’ve included ROSE as a Typical Serial because it demonstrates the new approach better than anything that follows. ROSE is the first story of the relaunch and it largely focuses on Rose Tyler, one of the most divisive characters in the show’s history. Davies loves Rose, to the point that at several points along the way DOCTOR WHO feels more like THE ROSE TYLER WORSHIP HOUR. You’ll find plenty of fans (often the long-time fans) who hate her, and plenty of fans (often the relaunch fans) who love her. I fall somewhere in the middle, though tilted more towards the love side than hate. THE UNQUIET DEAD is an historical serial that sees the Doctor and Rose travel back in time to hang out with Charles Dickens and some ghosts. It’s a perfectly good, perfectly ordinary episode.

For the Outstanding nods, I’ve gone with the EMPTY CHILD/DOCTOR DANCES two-parter. Written by the Eleventh Doctor’s showrunner, Steven Moffat, this two parter is both creepy and fun and wonderfully uplifting. It introduces the world to Captain Jack Harkness and it’s one of the greatest stories in the show’s history. DALEK brings the Daleks back, and while Davies’ overall treatment of the Daleks is substandard, Robert Shearman’s script about the last remaining Dalek (until he’s not) is brilliant and emotionally charged, bringing out the best of Eccleston and Billie Piper.

THE TENTH DOCTOR: David Tennant (Series 2-4)
Typical Serials: THE IMPOSSIBLE PLANET / THE SATAN PIT, GRIDLOCK, and PLANET OF THE OOD
Outstanding Serials: THE GIRL IN THE FIREPLACE, HUMAN NATURE / THE FAMILY OF BLOOD, SILENCE IN THE LIBRARY/FOREST OF THE DEAD, and THE WATERS OF MARS

David Tennant’s tenure as the Doctor is clearly one of the most important in the history of the show, solidifying the relaunched WHO as a hit and introducing a whole new legion of fans to the character. It’s also one of the more controversial eras – while most people can agree that the Fourth Doctor’s run is awesome and the Sixth Doctor’s run isn’t, the Tenth Doctor’s run has plenty of loyal supporters who think it’s the greatest thing ever and plenty of detractors who think it’s overly emotional melodrama.

I think it’s largely terrific television, and while Davies may have cared more for the Companions than the Doctor, at times, I give him full credit for giving us three fantastic Companions in Rose Tyler, Martha Jones, and Donna Noble. I’ve included one of each here to give you the best sampling.

For the typical serials, the IMPOSSIBLE PLANET/SATAN PIT two-parter tells a good story and shows off a very enjoyable Doctor/Rose relationship. GRIDLOCK splits up the Doctor and Martha, but it has a great example of their relationship at the end as Martha stands up to the Doctor and demands some answers. And from the Donna Noble era, I’ve included the episode that made me fall in love with Donna as a Companion in PLANET OF THE OOD.

For the Outstanding Serials, I’ve also given one from each era. THE GIRL IN THE FIREPLACE is the yearly offering from Steven Moffat, and it’s a wonderfully inventive tale. A lot of Rose devotees dislike the episode because it has the Doctor falling in love (at least for an episode) with another woman, but I think it’s fantastic, and proves that Billie Piper is at her best as an actress when Rose is uncomfortable. The HUMAN NATURE/FAMILY OF BLOOD two-parter is from the Martha Jones run, and Paul Cornell delivers a top-notch historical effort of a memory-impaired Doctor. And we’ve got another Moffat-penned story with SILENCE IN THE LIBRARY/FOREST OF THE DEAD, notable for the introduction of River Song. I’ve also added the Companion-less WATERS OF MARS because it’s just that darn good.

Two serials that I didn’t include are also really worth a watch are LOVE AND MONSTERS and BLINK, but I didn’t include them here because they’re so-called “Doctor Lite” episodes. As such, they’re not highly representative of the series, but they are both enjoyable. BLINK, in fact, is one of the very best stories in the history of the show.

THE ELEVENTH DOCTOR: Matt Smith (Series 5-present)
Typical Serials: VAMPIRES OF VENICE, THE LODGER, A GOOD MAN GOES TO WAR / LET’S KILL HITLER
Outstanding Serials: THE ELEVENTH HOUR, THE BEAST BELOW, PANDORICA OPENS/BIG BANG, and A CHRISTMAS CAROL

The Matt Smith era has given us two very different seasons: Series 5 was largely fantastic, and Series 6 was largely a disappointment. I think history will have a kinder opinion of Series 6 than we had while watching it, but watching it unfold as it happened, it was a bit of a letdown, largely due to Moffat seemingly running out of ideas of what to do with the Doctor’s Companions, Amy Pond and Rory Williams.

For the Typical Serials, VAMPIRES is a highly enjoyable stand-alone tale, LODGER is a breezy bit of fun that sees the Doctor having a “normal” life that represents the variety of Series 5, and GOOD MAN/KILL HITLER kind of perfectly sums up how Series 6 just doesn’t quite work as well as it should.

On the Outstanding front, ELEVENTH HOUR is the finest first episode of any Doctor in the entire history of the show. Both Smith and Moffat are brilliant here, delivering a highly imaginative and fun story. THE BEAST BELOW is a story I have a higher opinion of than most people, but I think it does one of the very best jobs in showing a Doctor and a Companion growing together. I’ve included PANDORICA/BIG BANG because it’s the finest of all relaunch series finales and A CHRISTMAS CAROL because it’s the best of all Christmas episodes, both of which have been seasonal traditions since DOCTOR WHO returned to the airwaves.

And that’s that on the Viewer’s Guide for Beginners. While not comprehensive (and after writing nearly 3,800 words on the overview, I have no desire to attempt the Comprehensive Guide anytime soon), I think anyone who’s looking for a means of entering the vast ocean that is DOCTOR WHO can benefit from what’s here. If nothing else, it offers a plan of attack, which will give you a foundation for getting your brain around nearly 50 years of television.

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