how to watch doctor who

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.

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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.

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