Doctor Who: The Beginner’s Guide

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While in San Fransisco, I spent a good few hours trying to convince my colleague Nicole Lee to give Doctor Who a try. Unfortunately, when I mentioned that there were now 34 years’ worth of show to get through, she blanched a little.

That said, for a show that has been knocking around for 50 years, it’s relatively easy to cherry-pick the stories that are excellent and swerve the ones that are, frankly, utterly dreadful. In my initial drafts, I tried to aim for a comprehensive list, outlining every story that’s good and / or worth viewing. However, that project began to sprawl out of control, and so instead, this will be formatted a little more like The AV Club’s Gateways to Geekery, picking only a select few pieces that’ll let you get into the swing of things.
Before we begin, however, here’s a primer on the bits of backstory you’re going to miss out on:

Doctor Who is the story of The Doctor, an alien from the planet Gallifrey, the only culture to have “solved” time travel. He is a Time Lord, a subset of Gallifreyans who are capable of traveling through time in a TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space). Time Lord society is, by and large, governed by a rule of non-interference which has caused society to become stale, barren and decadent. Conversely, the Doctor is a rebellious, not particularly academic troublemaker with a dark past, who, at some point in his middle life, stole a TARDIS and decided to roam the galaxy with his “Granddaughter,” Susan.

Time Lords are sterile, and are born by being woven in genetic looms, so familial distinctions are pertaining to which house you were born in. They are also capable of cheating death, in a process called “Regeneration,” which happens whenever the actor playing the Doctor decides to leave — either because of infirmity, boredom, because the producer didn’t like them, bad advice or the desire to avoid typecasting. The Doctor has 13 lives, and in 2013 has used 11 of them.

The Doctor is accompanied by a “companion,” usually a young woman (for the Dads, as they’d say in the ‘60s) who acts as the audience surrogate. Sometimes there’s more than one, and in rare and special circumstances, they can even be male. What qualifies a character to be a companion used to be contentious — but in the modern version of the show, anyone who hangs around longer than 5 minutes is considered eligible for what used to be a very exclusive club.

Oh, and regarding the title. Our titular hero is called The Doctor, which prompts the response “Doctor, who?” If you don’t audibly sigh after the second time that joke is made, you haven’t been paying attention.

Back in the day, episodes were serialized across several weeks. For nearly the whole of the show’s pre-1990 run (barring Season 22), each episode was 24 minutes long, and most stories were spread across 4-6 weeks. Post 1996, the series changed to switch to the modern standard of 45-minute episodes.

First Doctor, William Hartnell
‘An Unearthly Child’ (Episode One only)
The story that begins Doctor Who isn’t a very good one, but the very first episode is a masterpiece of suspense, teasing us into the world of a shadowy man who lives in a junkyard. His granddaughter, Susan, studies at Coal Hill School, but her strange, almost alien ways prompt two teachers to follow her home one foggy night. When they see her enter a Police Box in I.M. Foreman’s junkyard, they storm in afterward to ensure she’s safe. That said, don’t watch beyond the first episode — because it really is dire.

‘The War Machines’
By this point, Doctor Who has hit its stride, and has begun to coalesce into a format that it’ll draw from time and again. The template is simple: Doctor turns up to find an alien or technological threat to humanity, teams up with a Government department and with some scientific method, compassion and quick-wits, saves the day. You’ll also notice the ruthlessness with how companion Dodo is bumped off (the producers, quite rightly, disliked Jackie Lane’s wooden acting) and replaced with the excellent Ben & Polly. Also, as ’60s TV was recorded live in blocks of 10 minutes, there are out-takes and fluffs included in the finished broadcast which make for great viewing.

Third Doctor, Jon Pertwee
‘Spearhead from Space’
On the brink of cancellation, producer Derrick Sherwin was drafted in to produce Doctor Who’s seventh year. He decided to re-tool the series, exiling the Doctor to earth, bringing in a gritty, more realistic tone and casting swashbuckling actor Jon Pertwee in the title role. Spearhead from Space not only reframes what the show is (and could be), but the episode in particular was crafted by Robert Holmes, one of british television’s most gifted writers. By a wonderful accident, a set-movers strike (it was the ‘70s, everyone was on strike) forced the show to be filmed on location and on film, rather than on studio videotape. That’s why it looks so utterly glorious and features my favorite cameo from welsh actor Talfryn Thomas as a shifty hospital porter.

Further Watching
The Sea Devils
The Green Death
Planet Of the Spiders (Episode Six only)

Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker
‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang’
Between 1974 and 1977, the show had a producer / script editor pairing of Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes, and the three series that run includes barely contains a duff episode. In fact, were you to watch nothing but seasons 12 – 14, you’d be convinced that every episode of the show was an out-and-out classic. Fittingly, then, Robert Holmes would cap the pair’s tenure with what many regard as the show’s finest episode. The Doctor takes the role of Sherlock Holmes as he investigates a spate of killings in Victorian London’s Chinese population. Mixing elements of Fu Manchu, Victoriana, Sherlock and Holmes natural penchant for perfectly written supporting characters, Talons of Weng-Chiang is beautifully produced, beautifully made and never outstays its six episode length, as many of the other six-parters did.

Modern audiences, unaccustomed to the staid nature of BBC casting may find the casting of John Bennett in (ahem) ‘Yellow face’ to be off-putting (In fact, when the AV Club reviewed Talons, they found it almost impossible to get past Bennett’s performance), but if you can place this episode in the context of the period it was made, then it’s easy to forgive. Speaking of things you’ll have to forgive, the script did call for a giant rat to prowl the sewers of London — but this was British TV, so you’ll just have to ignore the cuddly toy presented as a gigantic predator, okay?

Further Watching
The Ark in Space
The Sontaran Experiment
Genesis of the Daleks
Terror of the Zygons
Planet of Evil
The Brain of Morbius
The Seeds of Doom
The Deadly Assassin
The Robots of Death
Destiny of the Daleks
The Leisure Hive
Full Circle
State of Decay
The Keeper of Traken
Logopolis

Fifth Doctor Peter Davison
‘The Caves of Androzani’
One of the things I love about Doctor Who is that, every now and again, writers will produce a story which is clearly unsuited to the Doctor they’re writing it for. So while the Third, Fourth and Sixth could handle themselves in a dark, almost horrific setting, One, Two, Five and Eight would recoil in horror at such things and find themselves rapidly out of their depth. One such instance is the Fifth Doctor’s swansong, The Caves of Androzani.

You see, I rarely give The Wet Vet (so named because Peter Davison played a vet in All Creatures Great and Small) much time. Partly this is because I don’t like Davison’s passive, weak performance. Mostly it’s because the scripts were predicated upon surprises which mean that they’re wholly unsuited for re-watching (or a modern audience). That rule doesn’t apply to Androzani, in which Robert Holmes was asked back for the first time in five years, and delivers a virtuso script that shoves Davison in a story much more suited to his successor. There’s evil drug barons, a disfigured creature lusting after human contact and Davison finally taking a stand and showing what he’s made of — had Holmes lived long enough to write more of these, I sincerely doubt Doctor Who would never have been cancelled.

Sixth Doctor, Colin Baker
‘Revelation of the Daleks’
Producer John Nathan-Turner wanted a rough and ready anti-hero for mis mid-‘80s replacement and sought to create an abrasive, violent character that audiences would find it hard to love — at least initially. Unfortunately, writers unable to grasp such distinctions, made Doctor Six a swinging bellend of epic proportions, often stumbling into gore fests and barely escaping with his neck. There’s a limited quantity of stories that you can watch that bear his face, and none of them are particularly grand, but Revelation wins my choice here for producing an environment in which the gruesome surroundings (and excellently written background characters) are more prominent than Baker’s scenery-chewing. It’s also, fact fans, based on Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One — but we’re not sure Waugh would have appreciated the tribute.

Seventh Doctor, Sylvester McCoy
‘The Happiness Patrol’
By now, of course, Doctor Who had been cancelled (not once, but twice), as Michael Grade and subsequent BBC Chiefs sought themselves rid of the show that they considered an embarrassment. Producer John Nathan-Turner, in one of his rare attacks of good sense, hired the young, and ambitious man by the name of Andrew Cartmel to assume script editing duties, and within a year, Cartmel had reinvigorated the show, with a subsequent rise in ratings.

By this point, however, the budget (and episode order) had been slashed in half, and the show’s reputation had fallen beyond the point of repair. The tragedy is, of course, that of the three years Cartmel oversaw, nine stories were  good, of which seven could be considered some of Doctor Who’s best episodes. It should also be noted that, like James Bonds, the one you grew up with is the one you’ll love the most, so in the same way that I’m still attached to Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond, Sylvester McCoy is my Doctor.

The Happiness Patrol is considered a joke episode because of the Kandyman, a monster that, unfortunately resembles (Sweet Mascot) Bertie Basset. If you can find your way to seeing past a man in a badly designed costume, however, The Happiness Patrol is a rather wonderful allegory of Thatcher’s Britain and the Gay rights movement in the ‘80s, with some compelling scenes, sparkling dialogue and some beautiful performances. Despite the fact that even the outdoor scenes were filmed in a studio, McCoy’s nuanced performance makes the whole thing believable and for that reason, amongst others, it remains one of my favorite episodes.

Further Watching
Dragonfire
Remembrance of the Daleks
The Happiness Patrol
Silver Nemesis
Ghost Light
The Curse of Fenric
Survival

Ninth Doctor, Christopher Eccleston
‘The Parting of the Ways’
Well, it had to be, really. While New Doctor Who is a shadow of its former self, Russell T. Davies still knew how to tug at those heartstrings. Admittedly, it wasn’t long before he was doing it on an hourly basis, but after a deeply uneven first year (farting aliens, wheelie bins that ate people, farting aliens again) it came good in the end with a deeply affecting, if slightly slow-paced final episode.

Further Watching
Dalek
Father’s Day
The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances

Tenth Doctor, David Tennant
‘Human Nature’
For me, David Tennant is the Peter Davison of the modern Who era, which is why I don’t enjoy his tenure in the show. Too much wet-eyed staring into the middle distance as Billie Piper left, returned, left again and returned and left again. Still, he was at his most arresting playing Dr. John Smith in a script adapted from Paul Cornell’s superior novel.

Further Watching
The Christmas Invasion

Of course, I expect only a smattering of you to even attempt such a gargantuan task. One of the great things about the show is that you don’t have to try these in any particular order, and the bulk of the show is currently available on Netflix, which, at least, enables you to swerve some of the worst of it.

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