With the announcement of Peter Capaldi as the 12th Doctor Who, there is an influx of new viewers clamoring at the screen just as there are many devoted fans screaming that they will never watch again.
Doctor Who has been described as a ‘madman with a box’ or a fairy tale in which the hero travels through a magic door into a new adventure each week… but that’s really not true, For a time, the Doctor was exiled on Earth, or on a mission from the White Guardian, or on a systematically wiping out his enemies. It has also been a wholly historical, purely whimsical and deeply disturbing program influenced by Hammer Horror movies.
Doctor Who is a lot of different things to different people. So, in my own small way, here is a suggested watch list to prepare you for the next year.
Everything up to season six is on Netflix. There will likely be a marathon of season 7 on BBC America leading up to the next special.
Tier One- ‘Need to Know’
– The arrival of Matt Smith as the Doctor and head writer/producer Steven Moffat meant a paradigm shift for the program. It also meant a hard reset for new viewers. To hammer home this point, for his first finale, Moffat re-initiated the Big Bang. If you want to be prepared for the new guy based only on the previous guy… this’ll do.
“The Eleventh Hour”-Matt Smith hits the ground running as the 11th Doctor. Additionally, Any Pond is introduced, a companion who would become vitally important over the next three years. The story is pretty basic, but it’s Smiths performance that makes this one so important and the shift from one approach as Moffat imitates Davies to a new one when Moffat develops his own style.
“The Time of Angels”
“Flesh and Stone”-The Weeping Angels and the time-travelling River Song both feature in this story which is fill of ropy ideas and horrific monsters. Again, Smith holds this one together and Karen Gillan is stellar as Amy.
“The Pandorica Opens”
“The Big Bang”-The first big finale, this story wraps together a year’s worth of story lines all about the explosion of the TARDIS. This is key to the workings of New Who as each year seems to include an overarching story that is concluded at the end… kinda.
I skipped a lot here because so much of the intervening years were missable and centered on incredibly convoluted ideas. You’d thank me if you knew.
“Cold War”-There are so few stories this past year that I would recommend, but this one is quite good and features David Warner, references to 80’s pop and the Ice Warriors. While it doesn’t exactly have any key concepts of the program it’s a great story and shouldn’t be missed.
“The Name of the Doctor”-The most recent cliffhanger is almost beyond description. It’s all a run around of cobbled together ideas and weird references to the classic program. But if you want to be in on what’s going on when you watch the next special (and you do), you need to see this one.
Tier Two- ‘Best of the Past Seven Years’
– A total of 82 stories have aired since Doctor Who came back in 2005. This was such a different take on the program that it is referred to as series 1-7 rather than 27 and up, picking up the numbering from the 1989 series.
I have lots of issues with the new series, from the acting to the casting to the writing and special effects, so if you are a fan and are reading this… close your eyes.
The list is still a bit long… so I have noted some choices that are debatable.
“Rose”– It’s a no-brainer, but the series premiere resets the entire franchise for a new audience.The Doctor is an entirely new character -a tragically damaged soul who survived a catastrophe which cost the lives of so many alien cultures he would encounter in the year to come. The tone of the program is new as well, blending pop culture, humor with a whimsical sense of adventure and fantasy. Oh and Rose is in it. She was the first companion to be more important than the Doctor for the next four years.
“Dalek”– Everything you need to know about Daleks in one episode. This one is key because it reintroduces the most memorable foe from the classic series and with so much adoration and attention in Gareth Robert’s script. If you are going to watch Doctor Who, you need to know what a Dalek is.
Debatable-“The Empty Child”/“The Doctor Dances”– Written by Hugo award-winning author and future show-runner Steven Moffat, this is regarded as the first real hit of the new series. Set in WWII, the Doctor tracks a canister through the space-time vortex only to encounter the rogue-ish Captain Jack Harkness. A young girl named Nancy is attempting to maintain order for the many orphans in bombed-out London. A strange virus seems to be transforming everyone into monstrous gas mask-wearing zombies who lurch toward their victims with the weirdest battle cry ever, ‘Are you my mummy?’
This really is a superb story with relatively few flaws. It also gives Christopher Eccleston plenty to do and boy does he shine.
Debatable-“The Parting of the Ways”- I refuse to recommend part one of this story as it is so poor. The second part has the first regeneration of the series, so it is important for that fact, but you can glean much of this from the next episode. It also features the first major ‘magic button’ resolution which would become all too familiar in the following years as the Daleks are whisked out of existence… only to return again and again.
“The Christmas Invasion”– The first regeneration story, this one is key on many levels. The Doctor is remade from an emotionally scarred being into a sexy and flippant being with god-like powers. So much what’s to come is hinted at here from the Doctor being a sex symbol, to the Earth invasion and the focus on Rose’s family.
Oh, and David Tennant also takes over as the Tenth Doctor Who and would be regaled as the most important and popular actor to play the part… ever.
“School Reunion”– The return of two previous companions and the confirmation of several key factors of the classic Doctor’s past make this episode important. It also features some guy from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Debatable-“Rise of the Cybermen”/”The Age of Steel”-The TARDIS ends up in a parallel universe where… blimps float about. Honestly, there are very few differences other than that and the fact that Rose’s dad is alive. The story is meant to reinvent the Cybermen, the second most popular monster after the Daleks, and in some ways it succeeds in this regard. However, the story loses its focus quickly and instead ends up being all about, you guessed it, Rose.
Debatable-“The Impossible Planet”/”The Satan Pit”- This remains one of my favorite stories in the Tennant era. One of the few stories set on another planet, the visuals in this story are stunning. The Ood are introduced as an alien race who later become somewhat important. A planetoid is impossibly in orbit around a black hole. A skeleton crew mans the station with the assistance of the Ood, a slave race. Deep within the ‘impossible planet’, a strange being yearns for release.
Voiced by the great Gabriel Woolf who starred earlier as Sutekh in the Tom Baker classic serial Pyramids of Mars, the ‘Beast’ is a monster so impressive that head writer/producer Russell T Davies had no idea what it would look like.
Sadly the second part suffers greatly as the quality dips, possibly due to massive rewrites in the script. All I know is that the author refused to talk to the press afterwards and never returned. Davies admitted that he was at a loss to the identity of the Beast, which always struck me as odd as he didn’t write this one, leading me to think that he rewrote this one and made a mess of it. Additionally, the guest cast ids phenomenal, including Will Thorp, the lovely Claire Rushbrook, Danny Webb, Shaun Parks and the adorable MyAnna Buring. There’s a lot of repetition in this story by way of exposition that will have you screaming at the TV, but it’s still quite atmospheric and the first genuinely scary story of New Who.
Don’t be distracted by Rose’s weird giant eyes and mouth… or excessive makeup and bad dye job.
“Doomsday”– The Daleks and Cybermen fight each other… but all of this is sidelined by… you guessed it… Rose. Granted, there are a lot of Daleks and Cybermen fighting each other, but they do almost nothing in the end and despite the ‘magic button’ ending, it all pales in comparison to the excessively long closing scene in which Rose makes what many of my male friends have referred to as ‘the face’ when she sobs her way out of the series.
Debatable- “Human Nature”/”The Family of Blood”- One of the most loved of the Tennant era, this story is an adaptation of a novel that was released when the program was off the air in the 1990’s. In the book, the Doctor felt the need to punish himself and also discover his humanity and empathy. Thus he becomes a school teacher in a small English town and falls in love.
The reasoning is less clear in the televised version, but the production value is superb… in part one. Part two takes a nose-dive but even so this remains a moving story that is regarded as the finest material of the new program. It does feature another of those moments where the Doctor plays God and brutally murders his opponents which is interesting and actually pays off in The End of Time. Tennant is really in amazing form here and gives what is likely his best performance as the Doctor in this story. Jessica Hynes of Spaced fame is also a welcome guest star. When fans were polled, this story ranked among the most popular and for good reason.
Debatable- “The Sound of Drums”/ “Last of the Time Lords”-The Doctor has gone through much of the series claiming to be the last of the Time Lords, but in this story we discover that he is very very mistaken. The villainous Master has escaped the Time War, just like the Doctor, and has concocted a mad revenge tactic using the Doctor’s favorite people, humans. There was a lot of anticipation for this one and in the end it was a bit rubbish. But seeing as how the Master is so important in the next story and he doesn’t appear in any other stories, I am including it here. There are so many dire dire moments such as the Master’s iTunes playlist, but what can you do?
Even the most devoted fan of Doctor Who and David Tennant found this one excessive. But if you really want to appreciate how the program can change so drastically, this one needs to be seen.
This story also challenges the limitations of the ‘magic button’ to the extreme.
New companion Martha Jones was a welcome change from Rose… but she is largely overlooked by fandom.
“Silence in the Library”/ “Forest of the Dead”-Where would we be without River Song? This character challenges the importance of the Doctor that you may find yourself saying ‘Rose who?’ as she ended up taking precedence over all other concepts. In fairness, this story does have a decent monster, but they can’t harm the Doctor thanks to the script and that magic device, the sonic screwdriver.
Pay no attention to the new companion Donna.
“The End of Time”– The big big finale that saw the exit of David Tennant and Russell T Davies. This followed a series of ‘specials’ that are all mostly miss-able. This story is so absurd that it needs to be seen to be believed. The Doctor and the Master actually exchange what appear to be force lightning bolts from Star Wars and the Master eats a lot… no kidding.
Despite its massive success (and given the amount of press it receives on a regular basis in the US, it is definitely no longer a cult TV phenomenon), fans have become frustrated with the lack of quality in the program. The longer it has run, the more the new series has been cited for sloppy scripts that fail to properly set up challenges for the Doctor, fail to resolve them properly and also seem to find difficulty in using the resources at hand. Currently head writer Steven Moffat has come under fire for setting up impossible conclusions to conundrums that are absurdly steeped in confusion and over-writing. The concept of death also seems to be beyond the understanding of Doctor Who, as nearly every character who has died has returned to life…. several times.
Compared to the woefully limited amount of funds and time that produced the jaw-dropping Daleks in 1963 or Talons of Weng Chiang in 1977, the new series has no real excuse to not create an amazing classic each week. The impediment seems to be, again- IN MY OPINION, the point of view of the head writer/producer. While Davies saw the Doctor as perpetually looking for love, Moffat sees the Doctor as a magical imp capable of nearly anything. The need to market Doctor Who to a tween audience is also a handicap that the BBC seems reluctant to change. Compare this to the 1960’s when the series was a family program or to the mid-late 1970’s when the script editor/producer saw the benefit of writing to an older make audience and you can see how Doctor Who can be so many different things.
Tier Three- ‘Tell Me Everything’
– Ok. You have watched everything in the above list and you want to know more. Maybe you got hooked and want to delve into the classic series. This is frankly where my heart lives, so I am biased. Sure, it’s flawed and sure the quality control is all over the place but at its heart it was a ground-breaking TV series where innovations in special effects, music and production were being made.
Here’s a list of my personal favorites mixed with some stories that are important in understanding the program as a while or getting a taste of the different eras and approaches that were taken throughout the 26 year-long run. Some of these are on Netflix (where noted) but you may need to find VHS tapes or borrow DVDs of the others from some well-meaning Whovian.
The First Doctor – William Hartnell 1963-1967
An Unearthly Child
The Aztecs (Netflix)
The Dalek Invasion of Earth
The War Machines
The Second Doctor – Patrick Troughton 1967-1969
The Tomb of the Cybermen
The Mind Robber (Netflix)
The Seeds of Death
The Fourth Doctor – Tom Baker 1974-1981
Genesis of the Daleks
Terror of the Zygons
Pyramids of Mars (Netflix)
The Robots of Death
The Talons of Weng-Chiang
Image of the Fendahl
City of Death (Netflix)
The Fifth Doctor – Peter Davison 1981-83
The Visitation (Netflix)
The Caves of Androzani (Netflix)
The Sixth Doctor – Colin Bakrr 1983-85
The Mark of the Rani
The Two Doctors