As I mentioned last Sunday, this weekend marks the 50th anniversary of the premiere of Doctor Who. For those of us who are fans, it’s a big deal culminating in a new special episode that promises to have…lots of stuff happen. None of which will make a lick of sense (Side Note: I’ve never understood that phrase. How do you lick sense? Or is sense doing the licking? How would that even work? Ahem…moving on.) to a non-fan.
But maybe, just maybe, all of this talk of Doctor Who has you curious. Perhaps you’re not ready to jump all the way into a series with so much history and soooooo many episodes. But maybe you’d just like a taste.
Fortunately for you, Doctor Who has many standalone episodes that require almost no knowledge of what’s come before. And it’s always been a show that’s had a tenuous relationship with the idea of continuity. In any case, with some information on the show’s basic concept, you’ll be ready to sample the longest running science fiction series ever.
WHAT IS DOCTOR WHO ABOUT?
Doctor Who is a series about an alien from the Planet Gallifrey who can travel anywhere in space and time thanks to his ship, the TARDIS. He usually travels with a companion, most often a young woman from Earth, and they go throughout space and time getting into trouble, setting things right, and generally being do-gooders.
WHY IS HE CALLED DOCTOR WHO?
He’s not. In the show, he is just referred to as The Doctor. This is a title that he chose for himself, and his real name has never been revealed.
WHY ARE THERE A BUNCH OF DOCTORS?
Members of the Doctor’s species, called the Time Lords, are exceptionally long-lived. The current Doctor claims to be over 1200 years old. While he can live a long time, his body can be killed due to injury, disease, and the other usual things that make us dead. When this happens, Time Lords have a neat trick. They can regenerate. In this process, the cells of a Time Lord become new again, giving him a completely new form. The Doctor has undergone this process many times over the decades, each time resulting in a new body with a new personality (and a new actor playing the part). It’s all the same man, though.
WHY DOES HIS SHIP LOOK LIKE A POLICE BOX? DOESN’T IT GET CRAMPED IN THERE?
The Doctor’s TARDIS, which stands for Time And Relative Dimension In Space, is far larger than it seems. The interior is vast, possibly as large as a planet, and resides in a different dimension than the exterior. In short, as characters on the show often say, it’s bigger on the inside. As for the exterior, the TARDIS is equipped with a chameleon circuit, which is supposed to scan the ship’s surroundings and disguise the vessel as something that blends into the environment. While the Doctor’s TARDIS was in England in 1963, it took on the form of a police box, which was a fairly common site on the streets back then. The circuit then malfunctioned, leaving the TARDIS stuck in the form of a police box ever since. Well…almost. It was fixed once, but the fix didn’t last. There’s has also been the suggestion in the newer series that the circuit works fine, but the TARDIS itself has decided to stay in the form of the police box. It is alive, after all.
Ok. Now that we’ve covered the basics, where should you start? That’s a good question. There are a ton of options. What are your interests? Odds are that after 50 years and several hundred episodes, there's one that might appeal to you. Here are a few possible suggestions, though, all of which are available on Netflix:
(Note – These season numbers start with the 2005 series relaunch.)
For the person who wants to start with the current Doctor – “The Eleventh Hour” (Season 5, Episode 1). Matt Smith’s first episode is really a fresh start for the series. No knowledge of previous events is needed beyond that The Doctor has just regenerated and his TARDIS is crashing. From there, this is a fantastic introduction to Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor, and his companion, Amy Pond.
For the fan of “The X-Files” – “Blink” (Season 3, Episode 10). The Doctor isn’t actually in this episode very much, but that hardly matters. This episode is creepy, twisting, and introduces the Weeping Angels, whom the Doctor describes as "the only psychopaths in the universe to kill you nicely." You can decide if you agree. Additionally, this episode centers around Carey Mulligan, who recently costarred with Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Great Gatsby.”
For the romantic – “The Girl in the Fireplace” (Season 2, Episode 4). This is my all-time favorite episode of Doctor Who and the one that I feel shows the Tenth Doctor, David Tennant, at his best. It’s funny, it’s moving, and it’s a beautiful story. How is an abandoned 31st Century spaceship connected to 18th Century France? What is the significance of Reinette Poisson? And why is a banana daiquiri involved?
For the person who wants to know what a Dalek is – “Dalek” (Season 1, Episode 6). The Daleks are almost as famous as Doctor Who and possibly were even more so in the 1960s, when Dalek-mania (That’s what they called it. I didn’t make that up.) swept through the UK, leading to two Dalek-filled movies starring Peter Cushing as Doctor Who that had almost nothing to do with the TV series. The episode “Dalek” reintroduces the Doctor’s most iconic foes to modern audiences and shows why they are to be feared.
For someone looking to get into the Christmas spirit – “A Christmas Carol” (2010 Christmas Special). Yes, Doctor Who does Christmas specials. Most of the time they involve some kind of alien invasion of Earth and are only tangentially related to Christmas. That is absolutely not true of “A Christmas Carol.” As the title implies, it’s a retelling, in a way, of Charles Dickens’ classic. But in this case Scrooge is Kazran Sardick, played by Dumbledore himself, Michael Gambon. To save the passengers and crew of a crashing starship, the Doctor must show Sardick the error of his ways. There’s singing! Sleigh rides! Flying sharks! Marilyn Monroe! It’s all kind of nuts, but I love it. Forget “A Charlie Brown Christmas” or “Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer.” When Christmas rolls around each year, this is what I watch to get in the holiday spirit.
For the person who wants a taste of the original Doctor Who series – “City of Death” (The Tom Baker Years). Tom Baker, the Fourth Doctor, is the longest serving Doctor at seven years and the one whom most people associate with the role. His Doctor, known for his curly brown hair, toothy smile, and comically long scarf, has appeared on “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy” and is the one most Americans remember thanks to episodes airing on PBS in the 70s and 80s. “City of Death,” despite the title, is a comic adventure set partially in Paris (and it was actually filmed in Paris, giving the story production values that many of the original series stories lacked) involving…it doesn’t matter, honestly. The story was written by Douglas Adams, author of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” who was the script editor for Doctor Who at the time, and it shows his comic touches. Also, Tom Baker is obviously having a ball with the script.
For the artist – “Vincent and the Doctor” (Season 5, Episode 10). The Eleventh Doctor and Amy meet Vincent Van Gogh in a beautiful and touching episode. I don’t want to say too much, but I tear up in the last five minutes every single time I watch it.
Part of the fun of Doctor Who is that the show can be something different every week. There are ghost stories like “The Unquiet Dead” and “Hide,” comedic romps like “The Lodger” and "Partners in Crime," and large scale sci-fi stories like the “Army of Ghosts/Doomsday” two-parter and “A Good Man Goes to War.” Of course, an episode like this weekend’s 50 Anniversary Special may not be the best jumping on point for a new viewer. On the bright side, there’s plenty of time to get caught up on everything before Season Eight begins next Fall!
“…there's something you better understand about me 'cause it's important and one day your life may depend on it...I am definitely a mad man with a box.”
- Alan Decker
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