How to Get Started with Doctor Who

Hello World, I’m Chris Pirillo — and this is another TGIF, filled with Tips, Guidance, Information, and Facts!

Today’s Topic? How to get started with Doctor Who.

A lot of people have been lucky enough to grow up with British stalwart sci-fi series Doctor Who since it first broadcast 50 years ago, but a curious newcomer doesn’t have to be intimidated by half a century of backstory to get bitten by the Whovian bug. I admit that, in spite of a lifetime of people telling me that I should check out Doctor Who, it took me a while to get over this hurdle. Now that I have, I will say this: once you become a Doctor Who fan, you want the whole world to become a Doctor Who fan. You shake your head sadly at the uninitiated, knowing that the vast emptiness they’re probably feeling in their lives is likely the absence of Doctor Who.

If you’re trying to wrap your brain around where to jump in to a story that’s probably been going on longer than you’ve been alive (or figure out how to introduce someone else to the show), here are some shortcuts that should help.

The main character is simply known as “The Doctor.”

  • Upon introduction, he is frequently asked “Doctor… Who?” It’s a question that’s never answered, hence the program’s name.

  • The fact is, even after 50 years, his most faithful viewers and traveling companions still don’t know his real name.

The casual observer might mistake The Doctor as Human, but he’s actually from a time-traveling race known as the Time Lords from the planet Gallifrey.

  • Time Lords have the ability to “regenerate” through physical trauma that would kill most other species, a process that can radically change his or her appearance and personality.

    • This is one key to the show’s longevity; 13 actors have thus far played the role of The Doctor.

    • You’ll probably grow to love them all, but having a “favorite” Doctor is perfectly natural. You’ll see.

  • Time Lords have long lifespans. In his current incarnation, The Doctor is likely older than 1,000 years old (and may be closer to 2,000).

  • Time Lords have two hearts. (So if you see someone with an “I ♥♥ Doctor Who” shirt, you’ll know why.)

The Doctor travels through time and space in a machine called the TARDIS (short for Time And Relative Dimensions in Space).

  • He stole it from a repair station on Gallifrey. Like a beaten-up Ford Pinto from the ’70s, it doesn’t always do what it’s told.

    • Trying to control a broken time machine isn’t without consequences; ending up in the wrong place/time has led to many unintentional adventures.

  • Whereas a TARDIS in working order has a chameleon circuit that allows it to blend into its surroundings, The Doctor’s TARDIS is stuck in the form of a UK police box from the 1960s.

  • It is dimensionally transcendental — or, as most remark, “bigger on the inside.” Imagine a mobile mansion squeezed inside of a box the size of a typical portable toilet. That’s the TARDIS.

  • More than a mere machine, the TARDIS possesses a certain level of sentience.

The Doctor has a fondness for Earth and its people. Most of his traveling companions originate from this little blue planet.

  • Or, as The Big Bang Theory’s Amy Farrah Fowler observes, “For someone who has a machine that can travel anywhere in time and space, Doctor Who sure does have a thing for modern-day London.”

The Daleks are The Doctor’s oldest and most-mentioned enemies.

  • They’re a race of once-humanoid mutants from the planet Skaro, irradiated from generations of nuclear war.

  • They rely on metallic travel machines (created by evil genius Davros) for life support and resilience in battle, leading some to the mistaken impression that they’re robots.

  • They are humorless and without pity toward “lesser” (i.e., all non-Dalek) beings.

  • They’re intent on wiping out all non-Dalek life in the universe; most conversations with Daleks include (or consist entirely of) one word: “EXTERMINATE!”

With these basics out of the way, you can comfortably proceed to watching the show without feeling completely lost. But where to begin? You could start with the “classic” Doctor Who era from the very beginning with 1963’s An Unearthly Child (currently found on Netflix and Hulu), but be warned that it is in black and white, the special effects are worthy of Mystery Science Theater 3000 B-movie mockery, and the pacing will probably seem a little stilted to a modern audience. If you’re not daunted by this fair warning, I applaud your spirit and wish you all the best in your viewing adventures!

Or you could take my approach and begin with 2005’s episode Rose (also found on Netflix and Hulu as well as Amazon), starring Christopher Eccleston as The Doctor. It’s the first of the “new” Who and a fresh restart of the venerable sci-fi series — designed to introduce The Doctor and his universe to newcomers while satisfying fans of the classic series as a continuation of the ongoing story rather than being an actual “reboot.” You can safely start here without knowing any of the above information; you’ll be filled in on the details as the series progresses, and you can get sufficiently caught up by the time the 2014 season begins rolling out in August.

If you decide to check out the classic series at any point between its 1963-1989 run, I’m told that 1979’s City of Death is worth your while. It was mostly written by The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams, it features a cameo of Monty Python‘s John Cleese, and it stars Tom Baker — many a fan’s favorite — as The Doctor.