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[GUEST POST] A Newcomer’s Viewing Guide to Doctor Who

William Ritter lives and teaches in Springfield, Oregon. The Sherlock Holmes–style adventure Jackaby is his first novel. He began writing Jackaby in the middle of the night when his son was still an infant. After getting up to care for him, Will would lie awake, his mind creating rich worlds and fantasies—such as the one in New Fiddleham. Follow William at his website and on Twitter as @Willothewords.

Doctor Who Distilled

by William Ritter

Your fervent, occasionally unhealthy enthusiasm for Doctor Who has finally piqued the interest of your last non-Whovian friends. You’ve been scribbling “Bad Wolf” in the margins of their history books for years, freaking them out by staring unblinkingly at every stone angel you see, and answering their legitimate questions, such as “What have you done with all of my left shoes?” with a cheeky “Spoilers!” Well, congratulations, all of your hard work has finally paid off—they’ve reached out an arm and given you the chance to pull them aboard the TARDIS!

One problem—that big Peter Capaldi party you’ve been planning is right around the corner! Your Whovian hold-out doesn’t have time to sit down and start from the beginning! You need to cherry-pick the best of the best. (Trust me, don’t leave them to their own devices. My brother-in-law tried “giving it a go” three times on network television. By pure chance he got “The Girl in the Fireplace” EVERY time. He is a fan now, but he’s developed a Pavlovian response and weeps uncontrollable whenever he hears the opening credits.) I don’t recommend starting a newbie with the classic series either—not because it isn’t worthy, but because fine wine is wasted on an unrefined palate. So where to begin?

Without further ado, because I know you’ve got darling little Dalek cupcakes and Cybermuffins to bake before the big day, here is Doctor Who Distilled. In just 5 hours of screen time, these episodes showcase the breadth of Doctor Who. They feature Eccleston, Tennant, Smith, and Hurt’s incarnations of The Doctor, and introduce viewers to Rose, Martha, Donna, Amy, Rory, Jack, River, and Clara.

“The Doctor Dances”

(s.1: ep.10) 45 min
Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor
Billy Piper as Rose Tyler & John Barrowman as Cpt. Jack Harkness

MEMORABLE LINES: “Are you my Mummy?” & “Just this once, everybody lives!”

Eccleston’s finest. Set in the middle of the London Blitz with a plot involving rogue time agents and alien tech, it provides a nice cross-section of the space and time aspects of the series. It has a more somber tone, (none of the farting rubber aliens of the season’s earlier episodes), but it is also the moment that the 9th doctor decides that he wants to be fun. In spite of war, sadness, and misery—or perhaps because of it—he wants to laugh and flirt and hope. The doctor dances, giving the first real sign that he is ready to become the Doctor fans will come to love in Tennant and Smith.

BONUS: Along with the already popular Rose Tyler, this storyline introduced Captain Jack Harkness, an instant fan favorite for his cheeky grin and sweet yet insufferable swagger.


(s.3: ep.10) 45 min
David Tennant as The Doctor
Freema Agyeman as Martha Jones & Carrey Mulligan as Sally Sparrow

MEMORABLE LINE: “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey…stuff.”

In spite of the notable scarcity of the Doctor on screen, “Blink” remains one of David Tennant’s finest stories. The plot highlights just how creative the series can be with time travel, obviously an important aspect of the show. It also introduces the Weeping Angels, villains who quickly took their place amongst the Daleks and Cybermen in the rogues gallery of terrifying Doctor Who adversaries. Blink gives incoming fans a taste of the suspense the series is capable of. “Don’t even blink. Blink and you’re dead.”

BONUS: This episode teasingly celebrates the nerd. Incoming fans can relate to Sally Sparrow taking it all in as Larry enthusiastically gushes over how neat the Doctor is. “That’s my favorite. I’ve got that on a tee-shirt.” Like Sally, though, they are being gradually brought into the fold.

The Fires Of Pompeii

(S.4: ep.2) 45 min
David Tennant as The Doctor
Catherine Tate as Donna Noble

MEMORABLE LINES: “Every waking second I can see what is, what was, what could be, what must not. That’s the burden of the Time Lord, Donna. And I’m the only one left.”& “You were right. Sometimes I need someone. Welcome aboard.”

In addition to giving fans a taste of the tremendously funny Catherine Tate, this episode also demonstrates the emotional weight behind the Doctor’s adventures. The concept of a fixed point is never more clear than when the story must end with failure. Pompeii must burn. Everyone must die. No companion has done more than Donna to help the Doctor see, in the face of these terrible burdens, that he needs the little victories. “Just someone. Please. Not the whole town. Just save someone.” Both actors are at the top of their game in this episode, from irreverent and brash to heart-breakingly tender.

BONUS: As is a common trend in Doctor Who, two actors playing small parts in this episode would later return as much more significant recurring characters. Karen Gillan, playing a nameless soothsayer, would become Amy Pond-a redheaded firecracker to rival Donna Noble. The actor playing the Roman Caecillius is none other than the upcoming Doctor, Peter Capaldi.

“The Doctor’s Wife”

(S.6: ep.4) 45 min
Matt Smith as The Doctor
Karen Gillan as AmyPond, Arthur Darvill Rory Williams, Suranne Jones as The TARDIS

“Then you stole me. And I stole you… Borrowing implies the eventual intention to return the thing that was taken. What makes you think I would ever give you back?” &
The Doctor: “She’s a woman. And she’s the TARDIS.” / Amy: “Did you wish really hard?”

Amy and Rory are marvelous companions, but one of the most iconic and consistent characters in Doctor Who is the TARDIS. Like The Doctor, it has experienced surface changes over the decades, but the heart of the little police box remains the same. This episode, written by Neil Gaiman, gave the time machine something it had never had before-a voice. Gaiman’s affection for the series is obvious in this endearing and exciting tribute, and he conveys in just one episode the deep and abiding love the Doctor (and every loyal Whovian) feels for this mad blue box.

BONUS: This episode is bigger on the inside. It looks like a neat, tidy package with a simple story arc, but it’s loaded with references and allusions to episodes as far back as the sixties, and some of the biggest series revelations yet to come. Like a glimpse at the heart of the TARDIS, it contains the past and future all at once, and your Whovian hold-out will suddenly know more about the Doctor Who universe than they could possibly fathom.

“Let’s Kill Hitler”

(S.6: ep.8) 45 min
Matt Smith as The Doctor
Karen Gillan as AmyPond, Arthur Darvill Rory Williams, Alex Kingston as River Song

“You’ve got a time machine, I’ve got a gun. What the hell. Let’s kill Hitler.”
& German Officer: “What are you doing here?” / River: “Well. I was on my way to this gay gypsy bar mitzvah for the disabled, when I suddenly thought, ‘Gosh. The Third Reich’s a bit rubbish. I think I’ll kill the Führer.’ Who’s with me?”

River Song is one of the most masterfully crafted and enjoyable characters in the series, but also one of the most difficult to pin down in a single episode. As knowledgeable a time-traveler as The Doctor-and in some ways an even more capable one-she proves to be one of the few people who can go toe-to-toe with the Time Lord. “Let’s Kill Hitler” shows her most dramatic character development as she evolves from the Doctor’s greatest enemy to becoming his greatest love. All the while, it also captures the madcap, irreverent tone that defines Matt Smith’s run.

BONUS: Having now sped through each of the doctor’s companions for the last decade, your Whovian hold-out will be able to spot the images of Rose, Martha, and Donna as the TARDIS attempts to bring up a voice interface to the dying Doctor (a trick the TARDIS showed off in “The Doctor’s Wife”).

“The Day Of The Doctor” Special

75 min.
David Tennant, Matt Smith, John Hurt, & (briefly) Peter Capaldi as The Doctor
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald & Billie Piper as The Moment

The War Doctor: You’re me? Both of you?
Ten: Yep.
The War Doctor: Even that one?
Eleven: Yes!
The War Doctor: You’re my future selves?
Ten & Eleven: Yes!
The War Doctor: Am I having a mid-life crisis?

The 50th anniversary special stood atop everything the series had done in the past and reached up to set the scaffolding for the future. The revived series began with Eccleston’s Doctor emerging as a war-weary Doctor Who had just brought about the destruction of his home planet of Gallifrey, leaving himself broken and alone, the last of the Time Lords. This was an enormous fundamental plot jump from the original series, and the guilt and pain of this development continue to weigh on the Doctor’s heart as Tennant and Smith carried on the story. “The Day of the Doctor” was a much-anticipated answer to all of the questions fans had about the epic Time War, and its climax brought a cathartic peace to the deep hurt the doctor had been feeling throughout the revived series. Finally, and most significantly for the incoming Peter Capaldi, it gave the doctor a driving purpose. “It’s taken me so many years, so many lifetimes, but at last I know where I’m going. Where I’ve always been going. Home. The long way around.”

BONUS: A cameo by the most popular Doctor of the original series, Tom Baker, reveals that the writers know precisely what they are. They are curators, and that is the greatest role in storytelling. This celebration of the series pays homage to literally every doctor to ever fly the TARDIS, including a very first glimpse of the twelfth. In the process, the special encapsulated all of the drama, suspense, tenderness, and silly banter that make Doctor Who such a beloved phenomenon.

Oh, I almost forgot-you’ll need one more episode. Don’t worry, they won’t notice you’ve gone a little over five hours, time is wibbly-wobbly, remember? Forget what some blowhard on the internet suggested, show them your favorite episode. Doctor Who is built on love. From writers, actors, and directors down to the smallest fans, the series succeeds because it is loved. So, pop out the fish fingers and custard and hit play. Doctor Who is on.

7 Comments on [GUEST POST] A Newcomer’s Viewing Guide to Doctor Who

  1. This is a well-timed post, Will. Dr. Who ads are constantly interrupting my watching of Star Trek TNG and Orphan Black, so I finally have decided to try it out. I’ve seen a couple of episodes. I think “Blink” was one…and I had to immediately get rid of the little angel statue in my garden. (Not that she was made of stone or anything, but you can never be too careful!) Anyway, the prospect of starting from scratch seemed, well, insane. So thanks for this. I’m sure I can queue them up on Netflix.

  2. I’d love it if the ‘resemblance’ between the 12th Doctor and Caecillius is at least lampshaded at some point.
    (The last time this happened, with the 6th Doctor and another Time lord, it was, sadly, not…)

  3. I made a list like this for my brother. I included the ones you list with the exception of the “Fires of Pompeii.”

    I also had “The Empty Child” with “The Doctor Dances” since they are one story.

    “Rose” is a great introduction to the premise of the Doctor so it should be number one.

    I also included “The Girl in the Fireplace” and a few others I don’t recall at the moment.

  4. I just looked over the list of all the episodes of the reboot.

    For readers like my brother, I recommend

    ‘The Shakespeare Code” because it had Shakespeare, witches, and references to Harry Potter.

    “The Unicorn and the Wasp” had Agatha Christie, and “The Unquiet Dead” had Charles Dickens.

    “A Christmas Carol” was a playful reboot of Dickens’ classic, and “The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe” was a retelling of the first Narnia novel.

  5. The very last story I’d recommended to a new viewer is Let’s Kill Hitler. It’s appalling tripe of the highest order. An absolute dog’s breakfast with no redeeming features whatsoever, it makes the grave mistake that anyone give’s a tinker’s about River’s childhood. Avoid at all cost.

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