Doctor Who is not a normal television show. It has two stories—each episode has its own plot and resolution and all those typical things. But there's also a deeper meaning, lessons and morals that apply to real life. Doctor Who isn't typical sci-fi in that it isn't full of violence and complicated tech-talk—the story revolves around the characters.
Basically, Doctor Who is about a man called "the Doctor." (Doctor Who? you might ask. Exactly). The Doctor is an alien from the planet Gallifrey. He ran away a long time ago, stealing a spaceship called "the TARDIS" from a repair shop and building a tool called the "sonic screwdriver." He travels through time and space, landing wherever and whenever he wants. Often, he picks "companions" up and travels with them for a while.
Note: Sometimes, the Doctor is referred to as "Doctor Who" or "Dr. Who." This is the way he was named in the credits when the show first began; in modern times, however, he is properly called only "the Doctor." This can be confusing for new viewers. Warning: Many members of the fandom will get really annoyed or angry if you call him "Dr. Who."
Rarely does the Doctor actually know what's going on. He frequently lands in a place he hadn't intended, or stumbles upon crises he didn't know about. But no matter where the Doctor goes, trouble always finds him. He and his companions will find a problem and fix it, saving everyone in the process.
Usually he responds to chaos with pleasure: the Doctor thrives on craziness and adventure. He and his companions genuinely enjoy running from aliens and trying to save lives. Many episodes are funny and lighthearted and nice.
But sometimes episodes are sad, or tragic. The Doctor has lived for a long time. He can't win every time. He's been hurt so many times and lost so much that it seems sometimes like he won't continue.
But he always goes on. He lives his life, constantly moving and adventuring and finding joy in the most basic of things.
Doctor Who is the longest running sci-fi show in the world. It first aired on November 23, 1963. The Doctor was played by William Hartnell, and he was accompanied by his granddaughter, Susan (Carol Ann Ford), and two of her schoolteachers, Ian Chesterton (William Russel) and Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill).
The show was initially very popular, despite the challenges it faced behind the scenes, but its populatiry was cemented after the second serial by the introduction of the Doctor's most famous enemy—the Daleks.
The show continued, old companions leaving and new ones arriving. However, in 1965, Hartnell's arteriosclerosis began to worsen, impacting his ability to remember lines (the show was filmed essentially live). The original production team also departed at this time, and Hartnell didn't get along with the new team. Everyone wanted the show to continue, but it was agreed that Hartnell needed to replaced, just as the many companions had been replaced. But how?
The writers came up with the idea of "regeneration." When aliens like the Doctor are approaching death, they are able to remain alive by renewing themselves. In the process, they change completely, becoming basically a whole new person—played by another actor. This is how the show was able to continue without William Hartnell. And this is how the show has continued on for so long.
Over the next 50 years, many people would play the Doctor. Officially, there are twelve Doctors. Within the fandom, they are commonly referred to by their numbers—William Hartnell's Doctor is One, Patrick Troughton's is Two, and so on. The current Doctor, played by Peter Capaldi, is Twelve.
Note: There is some confusion about the numbering system due to events that occured during Series 4 and Series 7. You may sometimes encounter references to "8.5" or "Ten and a half." Generally, however, the above numbering is used within the fandom.
Despite having a mechanic for continuing the show forever, the show's popularity eventually died down. In the 80's, the show lost its way because of behind-the-scenes drama. The Sixth Doctor was unpopular, and the BBC was facing budget cuts. The show became darker and more violent, and lot of people at the BBC began to hate it, including the Controller of BBC 1. The show was scheduled against Coronation Street, a very popular soap opera, and ratings dropped even more. In 1989, Doctor Who was cancelled, ending the classic series, or "Classic Who."
Even though the show was over, the fans never gave up. In the 90's, Doctor Who continued in the form of novels, comedy sketches, audio dramas, and fan films.
By 1996, fans were pushing for a continuation of the show. An American company was interested, but only wanted to commit to a telemovie. It was hoped that Doctor Who: the Movie could lead to the show being picked up and the production of an American reboot; thus, the movie picked up where the show had left off, which was somewhat alienating to new viewers. The movie was made, but the show was not continued. Doctor Who remained on hiatus.
Then, in 2005, Doctor Who returned to our screens at last, beginning the new series, or "New Who." It was a clean start, inviting to new viewers, and had a budget much larger than that of Classic Who. Most modern fans of Doctor Who have seen only the new series. If you want to start watching Doctor Who, this is where you should start.
Even if you think you're ready to dive in, you might want to try a few episodes before committing to the show. The first episode isn't really the best example of how the great the show can be. We're got a few recomendations for beginning to watch.
Why You Should Watch It: Blink is regarded by fans as one of the best episodes of Doctor Who. It's representative of the show in its focus on characters, time-travel craziness, and general creepiness. It's slightly unusual, however, in that the Doctor is barely in the episode. Overall, it's a very good episode, and if you like it, you'll probably like Doctor Who.
What It's About: When Sally Sparrow breaks into an old house, she's looking for the perfect picture. Instead, she finds some creepy statues and a mysterious message addressed to her from a man called the Doctor. It's from the year 1969, but he somehow seems to know what's happening in modern times. She finds a secret video hidden on her DVDs of the Doctor's half of a conversation. He's trapped, and the only person who can save him is Sally herself. The only the problem? The creepy statues aren't just statues.
Why You Should Watch It: The Unicorn and the Wasp is one of the more lighthearted episodes of Doctor Who. It shows off the humor of the show, as well as the extent to which the writers love to interact with history. It's a typical historic episode, and gives you an idea of what to expect from the average episode.
What It's About: The Doctor and Donna arrive in the 1920's and happen upon Agatha Christie, the famous mystery writer. Soon after, murders start occuring. The whole thing is like one of her books—a party, a man found mysteriously dead, a thief in disguise, and a long lost family member returning home—except for one thing: there's a giant alien wasp on the loose.
Why You Should Watch It: Vincent and the Doctor is another historical episode. It reveals some of the deeper messages in the show, and also gives you a sense of the Eleventh Doctor, many people's favorite. It's got a very different feel to it than The Unicorn and the Wasp; it's much quieter and more introspective, giving you get a deeper look at characters in a way that doesn't really happen in an episode as lighhearted as The Unicorn and the Wasp.
What It's About: The Doctor and Amy are visiting an art museum when they find a monster hidden in one of Vincent Van Gough's paintings—they need to speak to him immediately! They take the TARDIS and happen upon him, becoming his friends and accompanying him on his painting trip. They fight the monster, but end up saving Vincent in a way they had never intended.
Why You Should Watch It: Flatline will give you a peek into the darker side of Doctor Who. It's got funny moments, but the plot forces the Doctor and Clara to confront issues deeper and darker than terryifying monsters. You get a sense of Twelve and the way his past affects him, plus you get to see how a companion acts without the Doctor.
What It's About: The Doctor is trying to get Clara home, but they're forced to land when something goes wrong with the TARDIS. It shrunk! Something is stealing energy from their ship, and it's up to Clara to find out how to fix it when the Doctor is trapped in the tiny TARDIS. She's an excellent replacement for the Doctor—but is she good?
Doctor Who really isn't a complicated show to watch, despite the intimidatingly steep learning curve. It's especially easy through the use of HelpMeWatchWho. You just have to pick a starting point, decide which episode types to include, and you're set!
HelpMeWatchWho includes many different episode types. They're divided into two groups: primary and secondary types. The primary types on on the top of the list. Primary categories are main shows: Classic Who, New Who, and Doctor Who's three spin-offs, Torchwood, Sarah Jane Adventures, and Class. More information about the spin-offs can be found in Introduction to Spin-offs, but basically, if you're watching for the first time, you should include New Who and whichever spin-offs appeal to you. Torchwood is extremely dark and very adult (ages 15+ for sex and other mature themes), while Sarah Jane Adventures is aimed at children (but is still written at Doctor Who-level). Class is aimed at teens, and basically a British Buffy. We recommend including all three (age permitting) in order to fully experience the interconnected plotlines of Doctor Who.
HelpMeWatchWho also includes several secondary episode categories (for more information, see Introduction to Minisodes). Second-tier episodes mostly consist of "minisodes," mini-episodes that provide additional detail to main episodes. They're not necessary to watch, but they provide more continuity and context to the main episodes. They're also pretty funny. Also in the second tier are "other" episodes, which are released in a different format, including video games and short stories. "Alien files" are short in-universe clips about aliens encountered in the show that recap everything we know about a species. They don't really provide any additional information or narrative, but they're a nice reminder about previous encounters. "Missing episodes" refers to Classic Who—this doesn't matter if you're only watching New Who. We recommend including all secondary types; at the bare minimum, minisodes add crucial background without which the main show seems a little random.
There are many opinions on starting points for Doctor Who. We've picked what we think are the three best jumping-on points.
Rose is arguably the best place for new viewers to begin watching. It's the very first episode of New Who, so it's meant to be watched with by people with little or no knowledge of the show. Major elements of the show are introduced and explained. If you begin watching here, you'll miss few to none of the references made in later seasons, and you'll get to experience the full story of the show as it was meant to be watched. However, Rose is a rather weak episode by itself. If you're going to begin watching here, you should commit to at least the first three episodes. The End of the World and the Unquiet Dead are much better episodes, and give you a much better idea of the show.
The Eleventh Hour is another good starting point. Season five was introduced a new Doctor, a new companion, and a new showrunner. The whole dynamic of the show is changed from the previous series, which is barely mentioned, and everything is reintroduced for the benefit of new viewers. Starting here allows you to catch up to the current episodes more quickly, and allows you to begin with many people's favorite Doctor. However, starting with the Eleventh Hour robs you of the suspense and greatness of the first four seasons, and skipping Nine and Ten is frowned upon by many within the fandom.
Doctor Who returned in 2017 after a yearlong hiatus with a new companion. This offers a chance for new viewers to jump on and get introduced to the show at the same time as a character. It's a good place to start if you're not too picky about knowing every detail about the show, or if you just want to start watching what's current. If you start here, you may be confused about references or inside jokes to previous events, and you'll miss out on some amazing things in the first nine seasons.
Once you pick a starting place, it's important to watch the show in its intended order. Doctor Who has a lot plot arcs and convoluted timelines and chararcter development that really are best experienced and understood when viewed in the intended order. It may seem sometimes as if the suspense may kill you, but trust me—once everything is revealed and you finally understand, you will be so glad that you waited to find out.
There's a joke on the Internet about how England has 7 actors and 2 sets. Doctor Who doesn't do much to dispell this; a lot of sets and actors are repeated in unrelated roles. Just try your best to ignore it; usually, it's not acknowledged.
Yes, the Doctor spends a lot of time in contemporary England. It happens to be the home of most of his companions. Approach this with "suspended belief"—even if it seems implausible, it's what happens, okay?
But despite its flaws, Doctor Who is worth it.
So go on and get started! No matter where you start watching, Doctor Who is an amazing show.
And remember, no matter what happens, there's one thing you must understand: