Doctor Who season 6 is right around the corner (Saturday, April 23 at 9 p.m. ET). You WHO virgins need to catch up. Here’s a helpful episode compendium to get you up to speed.
Doctor Who holds the distinction of being the longest-running science fiction television series in the history of television. It premiered on the BBC in 1963 and ran continuously, through seven stars and 26 years before being cancelled at the end of 1989. In 2005, the BBC revived the series, and it’s been climbing in pop culture status ever since. Chances are you’ve heard someone mention it in conversation at least once, and you might have even flipped past a rerun one night, but didn’t stop to watch. Rest assured, though, if you’re a fan of science fiction storytelling at all, and you’re not watching this show, there’s a gaping hole in your world.
OK, so it’s essential viewing. It’s cool. It’s legendary. It’s something you really should be watching, but all this brings up a rather obvious question: What in the hell is Doctor Who?
There’s no easy way to explain this, so we’ll just have to take a deep breath. Ready?
Doctor Who follows the exploits of a time traveling alien who has no name to speak of other than “The Doctor.” The Doctor has been played by 11 different actors over the course of nearly five decades (currently it’s Matt Smith), and each change in casting is written into the story as part of the character’s alien biological makeup. He’s an alien, you see, so if he’s mortally wounded he can simply regenerate into another incarnation. The Doctor’s purpose in life is to travel in his time machine, the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension In Space), a blue police call box from the 50s that’s much bigger on the inside and can go anywhere in time and/or space. He often travels with companions. They have adventures, fight enemies, tell jokes and promote general mayhem. It’s wonderful.
Interested? Good, but it’s a rather daunting task to tackle a program with so much history in it. Where, after all, do you begin? Luckily, you can become well-acquainted with Doctor Who with only a moderate amount of back-viewing. The new season, the sixth since the series revived, is set to debut in April, which should give you just enough time to hunt down these 10 Doctor Who stories, all of which will give you a firm grounding in the tone, plotting and general feel of the series.
“Rose,” 2005 – The very first episode of the revived series introduces The Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) as he works to save a London shopgirl (Billie Piper) from an army of living mannequins animated by an alien consciousness. It’s funny, it’s action-packed, and it’s delightfully whimsical. The perfect starter to a strange journey.
“Dalek,” 2005 – The Doctor (still Eccleston) and Rose (Piper) encounter a wealthy collector of alien artifacts in the not too distance future, who just happens to have what might be the last living specimen of the Doctor’s greatest enemy, an alien race who knows nothing but destruction. It’s a perfect introduction to the Doctor’s darker, more frightening side, not to mention an excellent self-contained sci-fi story with a terrific throwback element to the classic series.
“Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways,” 2005 – Eccleston’s final story as The Doctor is a two-part tale that pits him once more against his ultimate enemies, and forces him to make a daring choice. It’s an excellent goodbye to the Ninth Doctor, as well as a prime example of how epic Doctor Who can get, and in many ways serves as the standard by which every other season finale is measured.
“The Christmas Invasion,” 2005 – Though it’s not the absolute best work the Doctor Who crew has churned out since the revival of the series, The Christmas Invasion is immensely important for several reasons. It’s the first full episode to feature the Tenth Doctor, David Tennant (still my absolute favorite of all 11 Doctors), the first of the revived Doctor Who series’ now much-anticipated Christmas Specials and the first of the modern episodes to tackle just how the Doctor regenerates. It’s also got some pretty cool bells and whistles, among them robot Santas that fire musical instruments into a crowd, a killer Christmas tree, and the Doctor sword fighting with an alien atop a spaceship hovering over London.
“The Girl in the Fireplace,” 2006 – The Tenth Doctor (David Tennant), and Rose face off against a squad of clockwork robots who are chasing down a woman in 18th century France. It’s an episode that’s equal parts danger and whimsy, penned by current Doctor Who head writer Steven Moffat. Watch this episode even if you’ve never seen another Doctor Who story. It’s self-contained, and too much fun to pass up
“Midnight,” 2008 – The Doctor leaves Donna behind at a spa and takes trip to see the amazing sapphire waterfalls of a planet Midnight, but after an accident finds himself trapped on a broken-down tour bus with an unseen creature that captures the voices of the passengers, then their thoughts, and then their bodies. This dark episode is a prime example of just how thrilling and dark the series can really get. It’s a study in paranoia and terror, a sci-fi hybrid of Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Wise’s The Haunting, and it contains some of the most brilliant performances of the entire series.
“The Eleventh Hour,” 2010 – The first episode for Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith, his companion Amy Pond (Karen Gillan), and new executive producer Steven Moffat shows the Doctor facing off against a new and mysterious threat, and the looming doom of the universe preparing to break apart. It’s the kick-off to one of the most satisfying storylines of the series, and breathtakingly funny at the same time (Key phrase: “fish custard”).
“Vincent and the Doctor,” 2010 – The Doctor and Amy visit Vincent van Gogh, who’s being harassed by an invisible chicken creature. That should be enough to make you watch it right there, but the episode is also a brilliant version of a common type of Doctor Who tale (The Doctor goes to a point in history and meets someone famous. It happens at least once a season.). It’s funny, action-packed, mysterious, and the ending, in which The Doctor and Amy take van Gogh to the future to show him how he’ll be remembered, will very nearly make you weep.
“The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang,” 2010 – The payoff of the story that began with “The Eleventh Hour.” The stakes have never been higher, and the series has never been better. This is the point where all the little threads Steven Moffat has built up during his time as head writer begin to come together, and flow into one sweeping sci-fi epic the likes of which the Doctor Who universe has never seen before. Even if you’re not impressed with the answers you get, the fact that they’re so deftly woven into the tale means you can only stand back in awe of the storytelling power. And best of all, it only leaves you wanting more.
Doctor Who returns to BBC and BBC America April 23.