So there’s this fantastic science fiction show that encompasses over 700 episodes and nearly 50 years of history. It’s about a Time Lord (what?) who travels in his TARDIS (what?) and regenerates into a new body whenever he dies (WHAT).
That sounds like a hell of a lot of work to learn about, but unlike other long-running science fiction shows, Doctor Who makes itself spectacularly easy to jump into. Want a good idea if you’d like this show? Below the cut, I’ll suggest some good jump-on points.
I considered a lot of episodes for this article: “Rose,” (the very first episode of the new series) “The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances,” “The Girl in the Fireplace,” “Smith and Jones,” “Blink,” and more, but I eventually settled on one overwhelmingly excellent two-parter that told a great story while dealing out the facts of the Doctor and his lives.
In the end, if you’re going to like the show, you need to be intrigued by the main character himself. That’s why I feel the best jumping-on point is the third season two-part story “Human Nature” and “The Family of Blood” by Paul Cornell.
After a tense and action-filled opening, “Human Nature” languishes quietly with the the Doctor as he explores a human persona. Within seconds, the plot has required that the Doctor reset himself as the unknowing human John Smith, a professor in a quiet English university village on the cusp of being plunged into The Great War.
As a new viewer, you are learning about the Doctor and his iconography at the same rate as the Doctor himself is learning about them. These touches are subtle and pleasant, as well. The concepts of regeneration, the Doctor’s greatest enemies, how he travels, why he travels, and how he treats those he travels with are all touched upon without coming off forced.
And it only gets better. In the second part, “The Family of Blood,” John Smith himself begins to realize what kind of man he is as the Doctor, and here is where a viewer gets the chance to experience this character when he’s at his most vulnerable and caring, as well as when he’s at his most powerful and dark. (There’s an amazing line of dialogue here that sums this up in the episode that you will probably find yourself repeating to your friends.) The actor playing the Doctor himself here, David Tennant, gets a range to play that he doesn’t often get in the series.
These Paul Cornell-penned episodes are also excellent examples of the following qualities at which the show consistently excels:
1.) Distilling enormous science fiction concepts into potent personal drama.
2.) Turning mundane objects into deliverers of sheer terror.
3.) Producing truly chilling and memorable performances from the guest actors cast as villains. (I hope Harry Lloyd is a nice guy in real life because otherwise…eeeeeeeeeeee.)
It also does something that the show doesn’t consistently do well, which is that it treats the setting and time in the episodes as seriously as we treat the modern day. When the Doctor shows up in your time, it’s usually to upset an apple cart or three hundred, but here it’s well-integrated into the adventure and plays an important part in the story’s development.
These episodes are self-contained, as well. You don’t need to have watched anything else to be able to enjoy them, and you don’t need to continue onward in hopes that the show finds its groove. These are considered some of the best episodes of the entire series and feature a terrific performance from one of the most beloved incarnations of the main character. If you don’t like this, you probably won’t like the show.
Unless you’re just looking to have a little fun with your science fiction. “Human Nature” and “The Family of Blood” are great, but they are serious and eschew the wit and optimism that the show handles better than any other science fiction show out there.
In which case, I would suggest an excellent runner-up in “The Eleventh Hour.”
This episode is the first appearance of the current incarnation of the Doctor and introduces him, his life, and the current companions with large doses of humor. “The Eleventh Hour” also does a powerful job of conveying the exalted fairytale essence of the Doctor himself while keeping him firmly rooted in the eternally-online working-class life of suburban England (and suburban North America, for that matter).
It’s also important in that here the Doctor just gets to be the Doctor. He’s in full-on seat-of-the-pants crisis mode here, saving the day through sheer momentum, cleverness, a comandeered bow tie, and mountains of hope. Sometimes things get quite dramatic, but for the most part, this is what the Doctor essentially is, a madcap intellectual trickster with a heart big enough to hold the universe.
If either of these episodes are enough to intrigue you, then I suggest going back to the beginning with “Rose” and taking it chronologically from there. Like many initial seasons, the first one of the new Doctor Who series takes some time to get going, but once it does, it pays off tremendously, and it’s smooth sailing from there on out.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I feel the most random urge to go rewatch some Doctor Who...
Chris Greenland would like to warn you that giving all of your friends Weeping Angels for Christmas, while being really funny, ultimately results in no friends.