It seems the BBC and BBC America’s attempts to make “Doctor Who” more high profile in the states are working. More and more people are asking me about the show as I’ve made no secret of my love for it I discovered the old series in 1991 when it used to air on KCET, LA’s PBS station and have kept in constant contact with it every since.
Since people know the show has 40ish years of history, they all ask the same thing, “where do I start?” So, today, I’m offering a primer on the show and a definitive answer on where to start.
1.) “The Doctor? Doctor who?”
“Doctor Who” is about an alien time-traveler known only as “The Doctor.” His real name is hidden in mystery and, really, it would spoil the fun to have that question answered. Whenever the Doctor is seriously injured, he can regenerate and heal the wounds, but the process is so traumatic that it changes his appearance and aspects of his personality. This allows the part to be recast every three-to-seven years. To date, there have been eleven incarnations of the Doctor, but the process is intended to be limited and he has only two more regenerations before he must face a final death.
2.) “Anywhere in time and space.”
The Doctor’s time machine is called the TARDIS. It is an acronym people like to say, but it really doesn’t matter. The TARDIS is disguised as a 1950s police phone booth. According to the show, the TARDIS should be able to blend in with the local surroundings, but the mechanism got stuck. In reality, the show’s initial producers realized that idea would cost a lot more money than wheeling a phone booth prop onto the stage every week. The shape has now become iconic. The ship’s interior is much larger inside and filled with fantastic technology that works except when it doesn’t. Never look for it to be consistent because the would also spoil the fun.
3.) “And as many companions.”
The Doctor has always had a traveling companion with him. Though he initially went around with his granddaughter and her human schoolteachers, he has generally traveled around with a young woman from whatever era the show is being produced in. While this relationship is generally chaste, the newer series flirts with a romantic aspect between the Doctor and his pretty girl assistant. Even in the old show, there are occasional hints of it. The companion allows the Doctor to explain mad, wild ideas that generally do not make a lick of sense. She also gets into trouble and screams.
4.) “We are the superior beings!”
This is a Dalek, the Doctor’s greatest enemy. Yes, they look ridiculous and sound even more so, but they terrify kids for reasons that no one can really articulate. Unless you were exposed to them as a child, they’ll never quite make sense. That said, they are meant to be the most ruthless species in the galaxy. Inside the tank is a little glob of squid-like mass that is eternally paranoid, frustrated, and shouty. The Doctor has fought them numerous times and even when it looks like they have been utterly defeated, they always come back.
5.) “It opens doors.”
This is the sonic screw driver. It’s the Doctor’s magic wand. It can open any door in the universe except when it can’t. It also has a million other function that only make sense to the Doctor.
“Doctor Who” is about big, mad, goofy exciting things. Sometimes it can be quite serious and high quality, but it’s meant to be something of a family show and can go into crazy spirals. That’s the fun of it. It’s survived for so long because the format is so flexible. It can be funny one week and scary the next. It has always been a tough show to work on for just that reason and sometimes that fatigue is apparent on screen. When it works, however, it’s magic.
7.) “Okay, where to begin?”
Honestly, the best place to start is 2005’s “Doctor Who: the Complete First Series” and its first episode, “Rose.” It slowly lays out the concept without hitting you over the head with 40 years of story. The subsequent episodes slowly let elements from the old series flow in, but it is mainly concerned with re-introducing the Doctor to the world. The new show is 48-minute, generally single episode format with an over-arching storyline that pops up throughout the season (or series as that term is seemingly interchangeable in the UK). Christopher Eccelston played the Doctor and is generally good in the part. Since he only stuck around for one year, though, he never really sunk into the role.
If you want to skip to one of the show’s high points, I suggest the third season episode, “Blink.” I think it’s the best episode of the show … which is curious because the Doctor (played by David Tennant) is hardly in it.
Now, if you want to delve into the old show, I suggest the 1977 story “The Robots of Death.” The original series, which ran from 1963 to 1989″ had a 25-minute multi-episode format. Stories generally ran four episodes, but occasionally stretched out to six or seven parts. “The Robots of Death” is a four-part starring Tom Baker as the Doctor. If you have a hazy memory of the show, it probably of him and his trademark super-long scarf. This particular story is well-written and features both the highs and lows of the show’s often variable production values. If you enjoy this, you can go back all the way to the first episode, “An Unearthly Child,” but skip the subsequent episodes of that first storyline. That first 25 minutes is magical, the cave man story that follows is not. From there, you can venture forth with whatever you find interesting from the descriptions on Netflix (which carries all of the available stories; many of them on instant download.) The old show has very little continuity and can be watched in the same hodge-podge way the Doctor travels the universe.
8.) “Have you seen them?”
Sadly, no. As the BBC never expected the arrival of the home video business, video tapes were routinely wiped and reused throughout the 60s and 70s. While film recordings were often retained, a space shortage in the 70s saw a lot of those film cans destroyed. Many of the earlier stories, particularly the ones featuring the Second Doctor Patrick Troughton, have completely vanished — probably forever. Other stories survive as an episode or two. One story had enough episodes extant that the BBC’s home video division commissioned animated versions of the missing episodes using surviving audio tracks. As a consequence, the old series is not available in season box sets.
“Doctor Who” was not the only BBC program to have parts of its history junked. While none of these other shows have the world-wide interest “Doctor Who” has, it is nonetheless sad this material can never be recovered as it forms a picture of the early days of British Television.
10.) “Sorry. Must dash.”
So, there you have it, a primer on the series. If it still seems daunting, don’t worry. Just go forward from the new show’s first episode. While both versions of the show are connected, knowledge of the earlier one is not required. Also, remember it’s supposed to be an adventure. The particulars will only cause you a headache and really, the Doctor moves to fast for that.