Watching Doctor Who sounds daunting. 789 episodes tell 229 individual stories across 33 seasons over 50 years, encompassing all of time and space. It holds the record for most episodes of a science fiction television show, ever. More than all six series of Star Trek put together. And for some reason right in the middle there's a tall guy with curly hair and a twelve-foot scarf offering you a Jelly Baby, which is a problem if you’re American because we don’t know what a jelly baby is.
If you’re new to the show (or have only watched New Who), choosing where to start seems difficult. If you’re particularly ambitious, you can start at the beginning and keep skipping around to a relative minimum to get the maximum effect of revelations and story arcs. And then go back and fill in the gaps until you've watched every one. That's what I did.
But there are easier, less time-consuming ways of enjoying the show. Many of you have lives, which I hear are a thing. This is a guide for people interested in watching this show but not sure where to begin.
If you're familiar with the new show and ready to dive into the Classic series, or just want to start there, here's my guide to Classic Who.
Here's what you need to know:
The Short Musical Version, courtesy Craig Ferguson
Doctor Who follows the adventures of an alien known only as The Doctor. His ship, the TARDIS, travels anywhere in time and space. On the outside, it looks like 1960s police box...
... but it's bigger on the inside.
He travels with Companions, usually human women for reasons best left to subtext, and together, they travel everywhere and everywhen, fighting monsters and turning worlds upside-down before falling out of that world and into the next.
It's the greatest premise a TV show could possibly have - it can go anywhere, be anything. Its stories range from whimsical comedy to powerful drama to horror to anything else, and often all of them at once. Its realm is all of imagination and storytelling.
The Doctor sometimes changes his form in a "regeneration", which you might be best to discover yourself. Consequently, the Doctor has been played by 11 different actors.
"Classic Who" refers to the original program (1963 - 1989, covering the first 7 Doctors); it was followed by a 1996 TV movie with the 8th Doctor, and "New Who" starting in 2005, covering Doctors 9 through 11.
Not sure if the show is for you? Just want to sample a few episodes? Try one of these:
Blink (Series 3)
The Eleventh Hour (Series 5)
The Impossible Astronaut (Series 6)
They're all available on Netflix Instant, and that friend who's always trying to rope you into the show definitely has at least one of those on hand.
So, where do you begin?
Although it's a continuous show, it's a show that constantly reinvents itself, so there are many good starting places. Personally, I began with the original episodes from 1963 and moved on more or less in order, skipping to episodes that sounded interesting based on their Wikipedia description. However, as the old series was incredibly low budget and had more old-fashioned pacing, it may not be the best place to begin for most people.
Starting With New Who
Generally, the best place to start is with the first season or series of New Who, generally referred to as Series One.
The first five episodes are a bit rough, but stick through them - it pays off in a big way. Despite the uneven start, the season is an absolutely brilliant introduction to Doctor Who.
Once you're into Season 2 and you're getting comfortable with things, it's probably worth checking out a few classic episodes; at least some of them will definitely be worth your while. My Classic Who guide gives some suggestions.
If you're in a hurry to catch up to the episodes currently airing, the current Doctor started at the beginning of Series 5.
His first episode, The Eleventh Hour, is a brilliant introduction. That said, there are several episodes that will work much better dramatically (and will make more sense) if you're already familiar with a few concepts and characters. So even if you do start with The Eleventh Hour, after watching the second episode of the series, The Beast Below, it's worth going back and watching these episodes of New Who to catch up on a few important points:
The Empty Child
The Doctor Dances
The Parting of the Ways
The Christmas Invasion
Silence In the Library
Forest of the Dead
Sit back and have fun!
And finally, here's a link to my guide to watching Classic Who.