I have been a fan of science fiction for most of my life. In my youth, this alone did not define me as a complete dork (band, show choir, competitive debate, lack of athletic ability, and acne all played an important part), but I did carry an appreciation for it into adulthood. Where the genre is concerned, though, there is precious little that can compete with Doctor Who. In celebration of its 50 year anniversary this year (its debut episode aired the day after the Kennedy assassination in 1963), it is my mission to indoctrinate additional fans. Before you judge or reject me outright, read the following list. I’m going to outline the seven stories from the new series (the classic series is an acquired taste, so let’s start slowly) most likely to engage someone with no familiarity with the series. I promise that no prior knowledge of the show is needed to enjoy any of these.
*One last note. This is not necessarily the list of episodes I think are best overall, as there are quite a few as good if not better. However, many of those require familiarity with the series all the way through at least from the beginning of the 2005 reboot. This list requires no previous familiarity with the series, and these episodes don’t even need to be watced chronologically. I am only listing the episodes chronologically because I’m anal retentive and need them to be listed that way. I am not ranking them, as I think they’re all pretty awesome. If you only watch one, though, pick “Blink.” Trust me, you will love it. That’s the episode that got my partner hooked.
1) The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances (by Steven Moffat)
This two part story is the best of the first season of the revised series. The story is set in 1941 during the London Blitz, and involves an investigation into a strange affliction causing gas masks to be permanently fused to people’s faces. This story is the first glimpse into the writing power of Steven Moffat, who has always managed to bring an engaging and creepy quality to a series that admittedly can be cheesy at times. It’s dark, it has creepy kids, a creepy hospital, and an eerie feel without becoming grotesque or violent.
This is the only story on my list from Christopher Eccleston’s reign as the Doctor (he left the show after only one year), but it is a brilliant example of how amazing he could have been in the role had he stayed longer. Of note: aside from Rose, the standard issue companion, this episode introduces Jack Harkness, who goes on to be a semi-regular companion on Who as well as to star in the spinoff Torchwood.
2) The Girl in the Fireplace (by Steven Moffatt)
From the second season of the revised series (and David Tennant’s first season in the role), comes this heartbreaking tale set in 18th Century France and revolving around Madame de Pompadour. The Doctor and his companions find a spaceship adrift in the far future, which inexplicably is linked through portals (such as a fireplace) to several periods within the life of Madame de Pompadour.
The episode is a brilliant example of what Doctor Who has done best from the very beginning: beautifully dovetailing hard science fiction with historical facts and people. Sophia Myles is so wonderful in her portrayal of Madame de Pompadour that I was able to completely ignore the fact that the episode is a love story for the Doctor (not an easy feat considering how I usually react to such typical romantic drama on this show). This is one of the few examples of a Who episode that can actually cause misty eyes, so be warned.
3) Human Nature/Family of Blood (by Paul Cornell)
The story Human Nature (from the 3rd season of the revised series) was originally a Doctor Who novel published during the 90s, when fans had no show to watch. Yes, I read a lot of them–including this one, but that isn’t important as I’ve already admitted to being a geek. The point is that the story was so good it actually warranted creating a real series episode out of it–more than ten years after it was published.
In the story, the Doctor is forced to wipe his mind of his Time Lord identity and become fully human in order to escape aliens. Only his companion Martha knows his identity, and possesses the device–disguised as a fob watch–that will return his memories and identity once it is safe to do so. I include this story not just because it is an engaging romp with a classic-series-monster-story feel, but because it illustrates to the potential new fan the importance of the companion in the series. The Doctor almost always travels with someone (usually an attractive younger female for ratings purposes), and this episode shows how vitally important they are and the degree to which the Doctor implicitly trusts them with his life. This story is also fun because it allows the new and old fan alike a glimpse into how the Doctor would behave if he were indeed human. And here, he really believes he is just a school teacher. This one is a lot of fun.
4) Blink (by Steven Moffat)
***If you ignore the rest of this list and only agree to watch a single episode of Doctor Who, this is the one to watch.***
This is–hands down–my favorite episode of the revived series. Ironically, the episode actually contains very little of the Doctor himself, instead focusing on the character Sally Sparrow, played by Oscar-nominated actress Carey Mulligan. After a friend of Sparrow mysteriously disappears, Sparrow and the friend’s brother (who works in a DVD rental shop) learn from a series of DVD easter eggs that the Doctor has been trapped in the past by the same creatures that caused her friend’s disappearance.
This episode introduces the Weeping Angels, who have made a few additional appearances in the recent series since. Though the revived series often relies on the standard villains from classic Who (Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans, etc.), the Angels are all new–and they’re awesome. The creepy factor is turned way up here, again–in Moffat style–without being over the top cheesy. And a non-fan will easily be able to enjoy this episode as essentially a supernatural horror short film. I won’t take no for an answer on this one. Watch it.
5) Silence in the Library/Forrest of the Dead (by Steven Moffat)
There are several magnificent things about this 4th season two-parter. The companion during this season is Donna Noble, played by the hilarious Catherine Tate. Doctor Who needs a balance of dark drama and humor in order to work, and Catherine Tate manages to pull off both with ease–especially in this story. The qualities that make her my favorite companion so far of the new series are all on display here. Another huge bonus in this story is the appearance of Alex Kingston as River Song, a role she has reprised several times since. River Song is a mysterious character who summons the Doctor to the Library and seems to know all about him, despite the fact that he has never met her. Her expedition team to this planet-sized abandoned library joins with the Doctor and Donna to battle a hidden evil lurking in the shadows.
The cinematography of this episode is brilliant, with much use being made of the dark shadows and sparse areas of light. The library set is gorgeous and a perfect backdrop for this creepy story. The concept of the unseen enemy proves to be even more unsettling here than the typical monster. The mystery of what the library is and who seems to be controlling it is engaging. Finally, the acting from Kingston’s River Song and Tate’s Donna is first rate. The typical monster story is given a fascinating twist here, and the mystery of River Song begins with a bang.
6) Midnight (by Russell T Davies)
I am including this episode because it is unique in two respects. One, it is a “bottle show,” in which most of the action takes place within a confined space (in this case a small transport vessel for tourists on a planet called Midnight), and two, the companion is mostly absent from the story and you see the Doctor working–for the most part–alone. The Doctor here has left Donna behind at a resort to explore a desolate part of the planet with a group of tourists, when their vessel is attacked by an unseen force.
One may expect that an episode that takes place entirely within a small space will be limited and boring, but this is anything but. The small space lends itself well to a feeling of claustrophobia, and (as with the monster in Silence in the Library), the unseen force here is much scarier than a standard issue monster, especially when it seems to possess one of the crew members and then the Doctor himself. David Tennant really shines as the Doctor in this episode.
*And as a bonus to classic series fans, one of the passengers in the tourist vessel is played by David Troughton, the son of classic Who’s Doctor #2, Patrick Troughton.
7) The Doctor’s Wife (by Neil Gaiman)
First of all, Neil Gaiman is a fantastic author, so this was a highly anticipted episode for me. But even for the non-fan, this story provides an interesting glimpse into the world of Doctor Who. If it isn’t already clear, the Doctor is a time traveller, and his travelling machine is called a TARDIS. In this story, the TARDIS’s consciousness is fully transferred into a human body, by aliens who lure the Doctor and his companions to an asteroid and trap them to steal the TARDIS’s energy.
It isn’t as weird as it seems, as both the new and old series make it clear that the TARDIS is a sentient being in and of itelf and not just a machine. And though I am generally opposed to romantic entanglements for the Doctor, seeing the consciousness of the vessel he has travelled in for hundreds of years transformed into a human female (brilliantly played by Suranne Jones), is both touching and humorous at the same time.
This is the only story in my list to include the newest Doctor–Matt Smith. This is not because I don’t care for Smith (I actually prefer him to his predecessor David Tennant), but because his episodes have tended to be more geared towards long story arcs, requiring that the viewer see his seasons from the beginning.
So that’s it for the beginner lesson. Watch these (you will likely be hooked), then go back and watch from the beginning of the series reboot in 2005. There is a lot more good stuff to see once you have a handle on the show. We can get into the classic series once your addiction is full-blown.