A 'Doctor Who' Beginner's Guide: Where To Start Watching The Long-Running Sci-Fi Classic

Fifty years, all of time and space, everything that ever happened or ever will — where could you possibly start? For the long-running BBC sci-fi series Doctor Who, the answer is: anywhere really. But I know that's not exactly what you wanted to hear.

With a 55-year run and multiple actors, showrunners, and spin-offs, getting into Doctor Who can be a bit daunting. But the brilliant conceit of Doctor Who is that you could feasibly jump into any episode and get the gist. However, it's true that there are some episodes that serve better as gateways into the saga of Doctor Who, and in the case of Classic Doctor Who, there are even whole strings of episodes that are missing.

I realize that I'm throwing around a few confusing terms, so let me explain: Doctor Who can be divided into two eras: Classic Doctor Who, which covers the show's initial run from 1963 to 1989, and New Doctor Who, which covers the show's current revival that was launched in 2005. Oh and in between, there was a movie starring Paul McGann as part of a failed attempt to launch a Doctor Who reboot in America. But it's also canon. And I realize I'm making this more confusing.

All you really need to know is that it's about an alien who travels through time and space (though more often than not, to 21st century Britain) with his/her spunky human companions in a spaceship shaped like a 1960s British police box. Known as only the Doctor, this alien has the ability to change into an entirely different person every time he dies in a process called regeneration — a neat trick that basically grants him immortality, and grants the series an eternal lifespan with 13 actors now having played the Doctor. There's a loose continuity that runs all the way back to the beginning of the show, but none of that matters. All that matters is that there's a quirky alien who goes around battling monsters and saving the day, and that Doctor Who is at its core a sci-fi series about love and empathy.

Now that's all you need to dive into the show, which begins yet another new era with the 13th Doctor, to be played for the first time by a woman, Jodie Whittaker. The 11th season of Doctor Who has a new showrunner with Chris Chibnall, which essentially signals a soft reboot for the series. Chibnall himself has stated that season 11 will be a fresh start, with no old characters or villains set to make appearances. But if you want a quick refresher course, or if you want to see if you'll even like Doctor Who before season 11 premieres October 7, here's a guide to how to watch Doctor Who.

If You're a Completionist: "Rose"

First, I recommend you go all the way back to the beginning with "Rose." And when I say the beginning, I mean the very first episode of the Doctor Who revival that launched in 2005. While it seems logical to start with the first episode of Doctor Who that aired in 1963, that's a difficult task for even for the most dedicated Whovian (though I encourage you to visit some of Tom Baker's classic episodes after acquainting yourself with Doctor Who). Scores of episodes from the early era of Doctor Who are missing due to the BBC's purging of its own archives, including much of the First Doctor's run, played by William Hartnell. And the show's low budget and creaky writing may be a turn-off for even the most devout sci-fi fan. But "Rose" will get you to where Doctor Who is now.

The episode introduces us to the Doctor through the eyes of Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), a 19-year-old London shopgirl bored with her mundane life. But one battle with reanimated mannequins and an exploded department store later, she's on her way to travel through all of time and space with Christopher Eccleston's brusque Doctor, who in a bold twist for the new revival, is the last surviving member of his species, the Time Lords. It's a radical introduction for the Doctor, who in the final days of the Classic era was more known for his tawdry quirks than having a personality. But "Rose" reimagines the Doctor as a sort of cynical Superman.

Granted, "Rose" is not a perfect episode. It ricochets so quickly between campy, serious and soapy tones that you get whiplash, and it seems to be torn between paying homage to the classic show while establishing Eccleston's Doctor as a damaged action hero. And let's face it: walking mannequins is a little silly for sci-fi fans used to more serious foes. But it doesn't try to hide what kind of show the new Doctor Who will be, which I like to categorize as "camp and crying."


If You Want an Abridged Version of Season 1: "Dalek"

All right, so walking mannequins aren't for you, and you don't get what the fuss is about this weirdly childish sci-fi show (it is technically still viewed as a children's show in the UK, so that may explain it). Well, like many now-beloved shows, Doctor Who had a rough first season. So I recommend starting with the episode that really kicks it into gear and remains a Doctor Who best today.

"Dalek" is the sixth episode of season 1 and has the formidable task of introducing to a new generation the Doctor's greatest enemy and the show's most ridiculous-looking monster: the Daleks. A remnant of the show's low-budget early years, the Dalek looks like a giant metal can with a plunger stuck onto it that feasibly could be defeated by stairs — and yet it captured the imaginations of thousands of children. But "Dalek" achieves the near-impossible: it makes the Daleks seem genuinely terrifying.

The episode opens on the Doctor and Rose chasing a distress signal to a massive underground bunker in Utah filled with alien artifacts. Captured by the bunker's billionaire owner, the Doctor and Rose must find out the source of that distress signal and the bunker's secret, and most dangerous, part of its collection. "Dalek" is a slow-burn toward a twist that we know is coming (it's in the title, duh) but that payoff works thanks to Eccleston's explosive performance. For maybe the only time in the show's history, "Dalek" treats a Dalek as a complex villain and as more than just a killing machine and thinly veiled Nazi metaphor. And it also clues us in on the Doctor's fresh trauma surrounding his new backstory of the Time War that killed his people. On top of giving the season a much-needed jolt, "Dalek" is kind of the turning point for the season that heralds the darker Doctor Who of the revival.

Follow it up with: "Father's Day," "The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances," "Bad Wolf/The Parting of Ways," and if you're not a Doctor Who fan by now, then this may not be for you.

If You Want the Best of Doctor Who in One Season: "The Eleventh Hour"

Like I said before, each new Doctor and showrunner signals a new era for the series that almost acts like a soft reboot. But with the first episode of season 5, "The Eleventh Hour," Doctor Who almost completely wipes the slate clean. With a new Doctor at the helm, played by a fresh-faced Matt Smith, and then-new showrunner Steven Moffat, "The Eleventh Hour" feels like it comes from a completely different series than the one led by David Tennant.

"The Eleventh Hour" and the rest of season 5 manages to marry that classic Doctor Who camp with modern sci-fi storytelling, making it an easier intro point to sci-fi fans who aren't quite down with the early seasons' low-budget approach. And to this day, "The Eleventh Hour" remains the best introductory story to a new Doctor yet, setting the stage for the fifth season's fairy tale stylings while closing the door on much of the mythology that the Russel T. Davies era had built up until now. It was a smart move — Tennant's heroic, swashbuckling Doctor remains a fan-favorite, and Smith was given the arduous task of following that up as the youngest Doctor the show had seen. The solution: reimagining the Doctor as a Peter Pan figure.

"The Eleventh Hour" follows a confused Doctor as he crashes into the backyard of Amelia Pond, a 10-year-old girl with name "like in a fairy tale" and a mysterious crack in her wall. But he is forced to leave soon after, and promises he will return — only to miss the mark by a few years. It's an enchanting whirlwind of an episode that kicks off the strongest single season of the Doctor Who revival. (People with argue with me that it's season 4, but even the weakest episodes of season 5 are pretty darn good Doctor Who episodes.) From beginning to the end, season 5 of Doctor Who brings the revival into a new era that helped launch the show from cult status into global popularity, and helped Smith move quickly from under the shadow of Tennant. If you want Doctor Who in a nutshell, season 5 is it.

Follow it up with: All of season 5 and beyond.

If You're a Sci-Fi Newbie: "Blink"

There's a reason that "Blink" ends up at the top of every Doctor Who ranking: it's a master class in 45-minute storytelling anchored by a strong performance from a pre-Oscar nod Carey Mulligan and a monster right out of a horror movie.

So if you're not in to the camp, and if you're not into love saving the day — well first, why are you here? But if you're not and you still want to get into Doctor Who, "Blink" is the best introductory episode. The season 3 follows intrepid photographer Sally Sparrow who, while exploring an abandoned house, stumbles upon eerie angelic statues and a message behind peeling wallpaper that addresses her by name. That message is, of course, from The Doctor, who appears as sort of a mythological figure in this episode who guides Sally in a fight against terrifying monsters called The Weeping Angels. "Blink" expertly builds on genre conventions up to a climax that remains one of the scariest scenes that has appeared in Doctor Who.

"Blink" is an episode of Doctor Who that I would show to my friends as an example of the heights of horror/sci-fi storytelling that the show can achieve. But the only problem is that "Blink" is so good that it may not encourage non-fans to dive into the rest of the show. It's an episode for the casual Doctor Who viewer, which, on second thought, is totally fine. Doctor Who has continued to be the phenomenon today because of casual viewers who maybe want to be a little scared for an hour.

Follow it up with: Season 4 of Doctor Who, which holds some of the best standalone episodes of the series.

If You Want a Quick Catch-Up Before the New Season: "The Pilot"

And that leads us to the simplest answer: the last season of Doctor Who before Jodie Whittaker takes the reins.

It may seem counterintuitive to start with season 10 of a revival of a show, but oddly, "The Pilot" acts as a perfect starting place. The season 10 opener follows Bill Potts, a university cafeteria worker who sneaks into lectures by the Doctor's mysterious lecturer. Seeing potential in her, the Doctor takes her under his wing and privately tutors her. One confrontation with an alien water creature later, and Bill is the Doctor's next traveling companion, despite a mysterious reason that keeps the Doctor tied down at the university.

There are some references to previous seasons and backstory, but Doctor Who season 10 feels like another soft reboot in a way. Not to mention the 10th season of Doctor Who is the strongest standalone season since season 5. And that's thanks to the breath of fresh air that is Pearl Mackie's sensible companion Bill, who alongside Peter Capaldi, gave us the best Doctor-companion rapport since the Doctor-Donna (I miss you Catherine Tate). She gives us a fresh perspective on Capaldi's disillusioned Doctor, who wears his grief on his slumped shoulders. But that's all informed by Capaldi's criminally good performance, radiating empathy and emotion with every facial expression. But despite all the baggage he brings, and the ongoing mystery of the season, the wonderstruck Bill injects this season with so much fun that it brings Doctor Who back to its most basic and entertaining. Watching season 10 will give you a sense of what it's like to love Doctor Who before Whittaker takes the reins. Plus, you get to see Whittaker's very first scene which is, in a word, brilliant.

Follow it up with: The season 11 premiere of Doctor Who, airing on BBC and BBC America on October 7, 2018.