With the latest season of Doctor Who coming up this fall, it might be incredibly daunting for those new to the series to figure out where to jump on board. That's understandable, considering Doctor Who has a 55-year-and-counting history. "Classic" Who ran from 1963 to 1989 and amassed nearly 600 episodes (with an additional 100 or so episodes lost to time). Even the rebooted version of the series is 13 years old and consists of 10 seasons and 134 episodes.
So, where does a newcomer start?
Do you start at the very beginning, with the very first episode that ever aired, 1963's “An Unearthly Child”? Or do you go with one of the episodes from the rebooted version that began in 2005? Or do you start with the version of the Doctor your friends seem to love most? Or are there other episodes one new to the Doctor Who experience should check out first?
Fortunately, because Doctor Who centers on a shape-shifting alien with a revolving door of companions, it’s a show that’s constantly rebooting and reinventing itself. Meaning, it constantly provides newbies with several opportunities to jump on board and become die-hard fans in a short period of time.
So here are some episodes that we think are excellent jumping-on points for those of you who want to get up to speed on the adventures of the time-traveling, shape-shifting, nigh-immortal, godlike alien simply known as the Doctor (apparently the Doctor does have a proper name, but we the audience have never been privy to it).
The list has been broken into two parts: "For Total Novices" and "For More Courageous Companions." The former consists of what we think are the best places for a total newcomer to start, while the latter consists of episodes for the slightly more daring viewer (i.e., episodes that require some prior knowledge of the core concept of the series and its backstory).
And we should note that we’re only dealing with episodes from the rebooted series. As for the classic series, books, comics, or audio dramas, we’re afraid you’re on your own. Though, for an excellent crash course on classic Who, you could do worse than checking out Christopher Bahn’s Primer on Doctor Who over at the AV Club. And at IGN, Arnold T. Blumberg offers a great introduction to all the basics of the series. And of course, there’s this video from SYFY WIRE’s own Dany Roth.
So, Allons-y! Or if you prefer... Geronimo!
FOR TOTAL NOVICES:
“Rose” (Season 1, Episode 1)
What better place to start than at the beginning?
Many of the best starting points are those where we’re being introduced to the Doctor for the first time from the perspective of his new companions. Come to think of it, these episodes on the “For Total Novices” list also all take place in the show’s then-present-day England.
Written by the rebooted series' first showrunner, Russell T Davies, “Rose” introduces viewers to the eponymous Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), a young woman who lives in then-present-day London (2005), works in a shop, and ultimately becomes the Doctor’s companion in his adventures through time and space.
After Rose is saved from a group of murderous mannequins (yes, mannequins) by a man in a black leather jacket who calls himself simply “The Doctor” (in this case, the Ninth Doctor, played by Christopher Eccleston), Rose does some digging to find out who he is and winds up on an adventure to save the world from an alien menace ready to take over and destroy the world via plastic.
Along with Rose, we learn about this strange man called the Doctor. His ship the TARDIS, can travel to any point in time and space, and takes the form of an early 20th Century British police call box and is bigger on the inside. His sonic screwdriver is a magic wand that can do whatever the show’s writers need it to do, from locking and unlocking (non-wooden) doors to hacking into computers to completing diagnostics on, well, anything.
Now, a word of warning: This episode, like much of the first season, hasn’t exactly aged well. Season 1 devotes three (THREE) episodes to a family of farting aliens. For real. So, caveat emptor.
"Smith & Jones" (Season 3, Episode 1)
“Like so! See?” We’re completely skipping the second season altogether and going right to the third for the next good starting point.
After Piper left the show as Rose in the Season 2 finale, “Doomsday," the Season 3 premiere introduces us to the Doctor’s next regular companion, medical student Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman). We meet Martha as she walks to work at a London hospital while fielding multiple phone calls from various family members. As she works to put out various metaphorical fires on her family’s behalf, a man (at this point the Tenth Doctor, played by David Tennant) stands in front of her, removes his tie, and walks away. After that odd encounter, Martha gets to the hospital, which is later teleported to the moon.
Once on the moon, a bunch of rhino-looking aliens (the Judoon, if you must know) show up and begin cataloging everyone in the hospital. Their purpose? To find out who is and is not human, since they're after something non-human (“which is very bad news for me,” the Doctor laments to Martha), a murderous blood-sucking alien hiding out in human form.
The episode is fine — it’s enjoyable, funny, but not Earth-shattering — but it’s a story in which we’re introduced to the Doctor through fresh eyes and leads to what I think is a fantastic season of television. Doctor Who Season 3 includes “42,” the “Human Nature” and “Family of Blood” two-parter, and of course, the masterful Weeping Angels episode “Blink.” Plus, I just love the ingenious (and silly) way the Doctor proves to Martha that the TARDIS is a time machine. Watch for yourself to find out how he does it.
"The Eleventh Hour" (Season 5, Episode 1)
A newly-regenerated Doctor (the Eleventh iteration, played by Matt Smith) crash-lands the TARDIS in a garden somewhere in a small English village. There, he meets a young Scottish girl named Amelia Pond (Caitlin Blackwood), who feeds the Doctor fish fingers and custard (after trying out some other foods he thought he craved; hey, “New mouth, new rules”). The Doctor asks young Amelia Pond if she’d like to travel with him. She would. So, he tells her to wait, since he needs to leave for a moment. He promises to return in five minutes...
“The Eleventh Hour” is a fun and exciting race against time in which a newly-regenerated Doctor must save the earth with his new companions Amy (Karen Gillan) and her fiancé, Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill). (No, I haven’t forgotten about young Amelia Pond. You’ll just have to see for yourself how she fits into the story.)
This the first full-episode appearance of Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor and the first episode of the series under the stewardship of its new showrunner, Steven Moffat. It essentially starts the series completely fresh, having sent virtually all its previous recurring characters on their separate ways and tied up all earlier storylines in previous episodes. A reboot to the reboot, if you will.
"The Pilot" (Season 10, Episode 1)
Now, we jump forward five seasons. We move past the Eleventh Doctor's regeneration into the Twelfth Doctor, as played by Peter Capaldi, and to yet another reboot inside the reboot.
Posing as a university professor in (you guessed it) present-day England, the Twelfth Doctor (Capaldi) notices that a young woman named Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) who works in the university’s canteen has been attending his lectures only because she finds them interesting. Impressed, he convinces her to be his private student. Meanwhile, Bill forms a budding romance with university student Heather, who may or may not be connected to a planet-threatening alien plot. Go figure.
Even the title of this episode is a wink to the idea that this is a (re-)starting point. Heck, showrunner and writer Moffat has said, “Series 10 sort of begins the show again. ["The Pilot"] introduces everything you need to know about Doctor Who.” Again, we're reintroduced to the Doctor, the TARDIS, his sonic screwdriver, and his crazy and dangerous world through the eyes of his latest companion, Bill. Plus, if you start the series here, it won’t take too long to be all caught up to the upcoming season.
"The Woman Who Fell to Earth" (Season 11, Episode 1)
Although the series’ new showrunner Chris Chibnall has been keeping details on the upcoming season under wraps, he and new the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker, the first woman to take on the role) have been pretty emphatic that the Season 11 premiere — and the entirety of Season 11, for that matter — is a great place for people unfamiliar with the series to begin their journey with the Doctor.
It’s got a new showrunner, a new Doctor, a new group of companions, a new set of monsters and villains, and even a new composer (with Segun Akinola replacing longtime composer Murray Gold, who’s been on board since “Rose”). So, it looks like you may not need to do any catching up to begin watching the show when it comes back on the air on October 7. Which means... we may have spent a whole lot of time and energy trying to catch you up when we didn’t need to. Huh. No. It’s fine... it’s fine...
Now, onto the second list…
FOR MORE COURAGEOUS COMPANIONS:
“The End of the World” (Season 1, Episode 2)
“Everything has its time and everything dies.”
Although “Rose” is the proper beginning to the rebooted series, “The End of the World” was my entry into the new series. And if I’m being perfectly honest, I actually prefer this episode to “Rose.”
This is Rose and the Ninth Doctor’s first proper adventure in time and space together, in which the Doctor takes his new companion to the year 5.5/apple/26 (five billion years into her future) to attend a party where ultra-rich people (and by “people,” The Doctor means “aliens”) witness the end of the now-abandoned Earth from a nearby space station.
This episode introduces Rose to multiple species from multiple worlds, the TARDIS’ ability to serve as a universal translator to its travelers (which explains why all the aliens on the space station — and show — speak such perfect English), and the Doctor’s psychic paper (which serves as a sort of all-purpose pass/badge when he needs entry into restricted areas — or in this case, an invitation to an exclusive party). This is also the episode in which we learn who the Doctor is... but we’re not going to spoil that here.
“Dalek” (Season 1, Episode 6)
“Dalek” may not be the best episode to start cold — in fact, I’ll straight-up admit, it isn’t — but the reason it’s on this list is all in the title: It’s the first episode of the rebooted series in which we encounter the Doctor’s greatest nemesis, the titular alien race known as the Daleks.
Rose and the Ninth Doctor land the TARDIS in an underground bunker in Utah, which turns out to be a private museum filled with alien artifacts. They meet the bunker's owner, Henry van Statten (Corey Johnson), who shows them the pride of his collection: the shrill, mass-murdering Dalek.
A hate-filled creature encased in a nigh-impenetrable mini-tank, Daleks wants to “EXTERMINATE!” any form of life in the universe that’s not, well, a Dalek. (The Daleks were created by writer Terry Nation as a very unsubtle metaphor for Nazis.) Some people mistakenly believe that the Daleks are robots, but in fact, they’re octopus-like creatures living inside roving machines with plungers and egg beaters to serve as weapons (seriously, give their arm-esque extremities a close look).
Eccleston’s performance as the Doctor absolutely sells the menace that is this unstoppable hate machine. If you want to get a crash-course on the Doctor’s greatest enemy, what it is, and what it can do, this is a good episode to check out. Plus, it leads nicely into “The Long Game,” a fun adventure on a news satellite starring Simon Pegg as a villainous managing editor. Seriously.
“The Girl in the Fireplace” (Season 2, Episode 4)
In this poignant episode penned by future showrunner Steven Moffat, the Tenth Doctor, Rose, and Rose’s boyfriend Mickey Smith (Noel Clarke) board an abandoned spaceship in the far-off future that has a fireplace impossibly connected to the bedroom of a young girl named Reinette from 18th-century France.
As the Doctor and his companions explore the spaceship, they find, among other things, a horse, murderous clockwork androids, and different portals leading to different points in Reinette’s life (played as an adult by Sophia Myles). The Doctor & Co. work to thwart the robots’ attempts on the woman’s life while trying to figure out why a spaceship from the 51st century has windows to the 18th, and why these robots are so focused on this one woman.
This episode is great not just for the way it plays with time — one of Moffat’s specialties — but it riffs on a recurring idea that runs throughout the series: that the Doctor often plays a huge part in his companions’ lives, while they’re often but a blip on his.
“Blink” (Season 3, Episode 10)
“Don't blink. Blink and you're dead. They are fast. Faster than you can believe. Don't turn your back. Don't look away. And don't blink. Good Luck.” Chances are, you’ve heard of this one — most likely because all your Whovian friends will not shut up about it.
Arguably one of the best episodes of the rebooted seasons thus far, this standalone story written by Moffat barely even features the (Tenth) Doctor. In fact, the horror/mystery story centers around Sally Sparrow (Carey Mulligan), a young woman living in then-present day (2007) London who’s investigating a very odd mystery surrounding an abandoned house littered with messages addressed to her, a missing friend, and some stone statues and gargoyles that may or may not be sentient (they certainly don’t appear to move).
It’s a thrilling episode that gives new viewers a taste of what this show can do with its premise. Plus, it reiterates the show’s philosophy on time travel: “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it's more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly... timey-wimey... stuff.”
“A Christmas Carol” (Christmas Special between Seasons 5 & 6)
I wouldn’t have originally thought to put this quirky sci-fi spin on the Charles Dickens classic on this list. But many new fans have told me that this is the episode that won them over and brought them on board. So, here we are.
In this simultaneously odd yet faithful take on the classic story, newlyweds Amy and Rory are trapped on a crashing space liner that’s been caught in some sort of cloud belt. The Eleventh Doctor lands on the planet below and meets Kazran Sardick (played by Dumbledore himself, Michael Gambon), the show’s equivalent of Ebenezer Scrooge, who can control the cloud belt and save the ship — but of course, he refuses. So, the Doctor becomes the spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Future (he is a time traveler, after all) to redeem Kazran and make him save the spaceship.
It’s a very fun and inventive take on the original tale. It's also strangely faithful to the source material. Except the lives of thousands of people are at stake. And it’s got flying sharks. Other than that? Just like the original.
So, that’s our list. We think if you climb aboard the series via one of these episodes, you’ll be an expert viewer in no time. But for those fans out there, what do you think? Which episodes do you think are missing? Let us know in the comments below.