rothwell.im

by Jonathan Rothwell

Doctor Who Essential Viewing Guide

I’ve introduced a number of people to Doctor Who, but more often than not this process has been complicated by the fact that older episodes tend to be repeated (especially on BBC3 and BBC America) out of order, or in isolated clumps that make no sense if you’ve not seen previous episodes.

Doctor Who is one of the best things on television, and also one of the oldest: last year, it celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. It also has the best theme tune of any TV programme ever made. The continuity has been consistent throughout. There have been no reboots, and major retcons have been explained in-universe. At first glance, then, it might seem like Who is overwhelmingly difficult to get into.

Thankfully, it’s a lot easier than it sounds. A basic grounding in the concepts and watching some of the show’s core “canon” is all that’s needed to ensure you aren’t running to Wikipedia for plot summaries. This page provides a list of Doctor Who’s major tentpoles, a guide of the ‘critical path’—episodes from earlier series you should really watch to be up to date—and short reviews and ratings for each episode of Doctor Who broadcast since the programme’s revival in 2005. I’ll also briefly cover the spin-off series, The Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood.

Did this guide help you get into Doctor Who? Do you think something could be improved? Violently disagree with me on something I said? Please let me know: my mail address is j at this domain.

A word on spoilers

Doctor Who is best enjoyed blind, and so I have endeavoured to make this Guide as spoiler-free as possible. I’ve marked any mildly spoilery information in this guide with a special styling rule: they are invisible until you hover your pointer over them (or touch them, if you’re on a smartphone or tablet computer.) Try it now, with this one (doesn’t actually contain any spoilers): Awesome! Also, $FEMALE_CHARACTER is the Rani. Move your mouse pointer, or touch, within the grey box.

If you’re having trouble, your alternative is to copy-and-paste into your preferred text editor if you must, must read the spoilers. I have not tested this with screen readers, so I don’t know how these react: please let me know if you have suggestions.

Quickest Way In

If you want to jump in and be up-to-date for the newest episodes with the minimum amount of effort, this section will outline the core concepts and the ‘critical path’ of televised stories to watch.

Who is the Doctor?

First of all, it helps to be familiar with Doctor Who’s key concepts. I’ve explained all the critical ones here in the least spoilery fashion I can.

  • Doctor Who centres around the adventures of the Doctor, an alien with a time machine who has an affinity for humans. The Doctor is a traveller: he is simply an adventurer who regularly gets caught up in local affairs. He often travels with one or more human companions, or ‘travelling assistants’: they’re usually young, and join the Doctor on his adventures after being caught up in one of his own.
  • The TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space) is the Doctor’s ship. It can travel anywhere in time and space, it’s alive and has something of a ‘personality’ of its own, and due to a broken camouflage system, it is always disguised as a police telephone box from 1963.
  • The Doctor is from the planet Gallifrey—specifically, he is a Time Lord. The Time Lords were an extremely powerful race that built TARDISes and harnessed the power of the stars and the Universe to drive their civilisation.
  • Some time before the episode Rose, a great Time War took place between the Time Lords and their greatest adversaries, the Daleks, pepperpot-shaped gliding cyborg Nazis ruled over by a megalomaniac. The war was bloody, and was ultimately won by the Doctor, but it was a phyrric victory: the universe was saved, but the Time Lords and the Daleks were placed in a ‘time lock.’ The Doctor is the last of the Time Lords.
  • Time Lords have a way of avoiding death called regeneration. In most circumstances, if a Time Lord is injured or killed, he or she can regrow their body and replace it with a new one, in an explosive process that happens close to death (or sometimes just after.) The result is the same person in a different body, with a new face and with different facets of their personality exposed. The Doctor has done this ten times, and is in his eleventh incarnation. In theory, a Time Lord has thirteen lives; in practice, no-one knows how the Time War has affected the Doctor’s regeneration limit.
  • Nobody knows the Doctor’s true name. To everyone (with a few exceptions, the most notable example being River Song) including his friends, his allies and his foes, he is called simply ‘the Doctor.’ No other name, nothing beyond the title; he chose the name ‘Doctor’ himself. The name of the Doctor is a complete mystery. Some say that “Doctor Who?” is the oldest question in the universe, a question that must never be answered; it is the question the Doctor has been running from all his life. Who is the Doctor? Nobody knows—Doctor who?

Episode critical path

Ideally, you should watch all of these episodes, in this order. This is not to say that the episodes I have not mentioned from series 1-4 are not worth watching; these specific episodes introduce major plot points and characters for the show’s story arc, so they are impossible to avoid. I do recommend going back to ‘fill in the gaps,’ but if you want to be up-to-date, this is your quickest way in.

  1. Rose and The End of the World (series 1) if you want a good introduction to the series’ core concepts
  2. Blink (series 3)
  3. Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead (series 4)
  4. The Waters of Mars (2009 specials)
  5. All episodes marked with a W (watch) in series 5
  6. All of series 6 & 7. There is no way around this: later series have revealed critical details for the over-arching story arcs at a leisurely pace.

Episode guides

Please note: This guide currently covers all episodes of Doctor Who made since 2005. In the future I might prepare a list of ‘classic’ Who episodes that are worth watching; for now, though, Who has been pretty self-contained since the revival with no particular need to read up on the show’s complex backstory.

I define an episode of Doctor Who as a story, broadcast on TV or available online, starring a canonical Doctor and featuring the Doctor Who theme music in its opening titles. For example, The Night of the Doctor counts because it stars a canonical Doctor; the other mini-episode released around the same time, The Last Day, does not, because it doesn’t feature the Doctor, nor does it feature the Doctor Who theme music. DVD extras also don’t count: I simply don’t have the time nor the money to document all of them.

Key: an exclamation mark ! indicates an episode that, regardless of its quality, adds important information to the overall story arc of the series in general. Each episode is marked W (Watch), S (Skip), or A (Avoid.)

The Russell T Davies Era (2005—2010)

The original run of Doctor Who had been cancelled in 1989 following declining viewing figures, a general dislike amongst high-level BBC executives, and the fact that many of the stories and production aspects were suffering from a lack of imagination and a strained budget.

The show continued to enjoy a degree of cachet amongst cult television followers, and a surprisingly good 1996 British/American TV movie had been intended as a back-door pilot for a new series. The story, however, proved impenetrable to many viewers unfamiliar with the series’ past, and this combined with lacklustre marketing from Fox led to no additional stories being commissioned.

Attempts to make further films got in the way of attempts by BBC1 controller Peter Salmon to set the ball rolling on creating a new series, tentatively titled Doctor Who 2000, with Queer as Folk creator Russell T Davies. Eventually, by 2003, Salmon’s successor as controller of BBC1, Lorraine Heggessey, had convinced BBC Worldwide that a new TV series would be a better success than another Doctor Who movie.

Doctor Who returned to BBC1 in March 2005 with Rose, with Russell T Davies helming as executive producer. The Davies (RTD or Rusty) era was marked by unashamedly large-scale plots, often with the fate of an entire planet, race or the whole Universe in the Doctor’s hands. Davies’s stories were also unashamedly character-driven, sometimes arguably at the expense of a plot that made sense. On the plus side, the stories were highly populist, and the production design, aided by advances in computer-generated imagery, showered the audience with an orgy of realistic worlds, warm colours and distinctly less laughable monsters. Davies’s era also introduced Murray Gold as the composer who would provide incidental music and the arrangement of the Doctor Who theme for the titles, and this is a position Gold holds to this day.

Christopher Eccleston, the Ninth Doctor

Christopher Eccleston was the first actor to play the Doctor in the revived show. Jumping into the life of department store worker Rose Tyler (former kiddie-pop star Billie Piper), Eccleston’s Doctor was a damaged and guilty ex-soldier, the last survivor of the Last Great Time War. With a steadfast moral compass and prone to fits of anger and arrogance, the Doctor softened after taking Rose under his wing, ultimately giving his life to save her.

Eccleston left the show after one series, due to creative differences with the production team. His series should not, however, be ignored: while regularly cheesy and with too much silliness, Eccleston’s Doctor was still critical in the character’s development, espeically in later series. (He also played the role with a Northern accent, which makes him automatically amazing.)

# Title One-sentence review Score V
Series 1 (Ninth Doctor, Billie Piper as Rose Tyler)
1! Rose Lightweight, imperfect, but a great intro to the series. 6 W
2! The End of the World Good SF-themed fling to the future. 7 W
3 The Unquiet Dead Creepy and well-acted gas-lit ghost story. 7 W
4! Aliens of London First two-parter; again, imperfect and has weak spots, but a passable Who story nonetheless. 5 W
5! World War Three
6! Dalek Great intro to chilling pepperpot-shaped Nazi. 9 W
7! The Long Game Lacklustre turning point in series 1's story arc. 5 S
8! Father's Day Emotional look at variation on the grandfather paradox. 8 W
9! The Empty Child First genuinely atmospheric and supremely-plotted two parter from current showrunner Steven Moffat. With John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness. 9 W
10! The Doctor Dances
11! Boom Town Deceptively superficial romp through Cardiff. 4 S
12! Bad Wolf Flawed but good conclusion to Series 1 with Daleks, an android-hosted Weakest Link and a giant octopus. Introducing David Tennant as the Doctor. 8 W
13! The Parting of the Ways

 

David Tennant, the Tenth Doctor

David Tennant, of Casanova fame, was cast as Christopher Eccleston’s replacement and went on to play the Tenth Doctor. The influence of his travels with Rose was apparent here: he spoke with the voice of a Londoner (like Rose), he was regularly too compassionate for his own good (like Rose), and became very attached to his companions.

With Tennant’s Shakespearean acting, an ever-stronger array of scripts and an increasing fan base, Doctor Who, having already attained a massive level of popularity with old and new fans alike, went from strength to strength. It even began to make a dent on the American sci-fi market.

In 2009, Doctor Who’s usual thirteen-episode series was replaced by a “miniseries” of four specials. These were the first time Doctor Who was filmed in HD, and all took the Doctor to darker territory than before: in the final two-parter, Tennant’s Doctor left in explosive fashion (along with Russell T Davies, who handed over the reins of the show to the competent hands of his friend Steven Moffat.)

# Title One-sentence review Score V
Series 2 (Tenth Doctor, Rose, Noel Clarke as Mickey Smith)
X! The Christmas Invasion Shaky but bearable start for David Tennant's Doctor. 5 W
1! New Earth Surprising look at mortality and New New York. 7 W
2! Tooth and Claw Three words: Queen Victoria; Werewolf. 7 W
3! School Reunion Welcome return of late Lis Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith. (Also with John Leeson as the voice of K-9.) 7 W
4 The Girl in the Fireplace Touching time-meddling from Steven Moffat. 9 W
5! Rise of the Cybermen Extremely well-set re-imagining of a classic Who villain with a new emphasis on mortality, alternate universes and cybernetic sci-fi body horror. 8 W
6! The Age of Steel
7 The Idiot's Lantern Somewhat poor attempt at 50s Britain with mediocre monster and wasted potential. 3 S
8! The Impossible Planet The Devil appears in this densely-plotted, atmospheric, tense story which introduces the Ood for the first time. Superb. 9 W
9! The Satan Pit
10 Love & Monsters Very poor "Doctor-lite" story with totally unnecessary sex joke at the end. Avoid like bubonic plague. 1 A
11! Fear Her Mediocre glurge set during the 2012 Olympic Games. 4 S
12! Army of Ghosts Mawkish, goofy, but exceptionally tense and unusually tightly-woven farewell to Rose, featuring explosive action. Introducing Catherine Tate as Donna Noble. 8 W
13! Doomsday
Series 3 (Freema Agyeman as Martha Jones)
X! The Runaway Bride Odd and entertaining Christmassy adventure. With Catherine Tate as Donna Noble. 7 W
1! Smith and Jones Another adequately comic Russell T Davies-penned character intro. 7 W
2 The Shakespeare Code Unusually playful and intelligent historical tale. 7 W
3! Gridlock Dystopian return to the events of New Earth. 8 W
4! Daleks In Manhattan Ill-conceived attempt to humanise the Daleks in New York. Has a nominal plot influence for the next series. 5 S
5! Evolution of the Daleks
6! The Lazarus Experiment Decent mad-scientist commentary on death and decay, starring regular writer Mark Gatiss. 7 W
7! 42 Tense sci-fi thriller with dense moralism. 8 W
8! Human Nature One of the highlights of David Tennant's tenure as Doctor, a period story in which the Doctor 'hides' inside a Time Lord device and disguises himself as a human. 10 W
9! The Family of Blood
10! Blink! Terrifying Moffat-penned thriller enjoying well-deserved universal cachet. DO. NOT. BLINK. 10 W
11! Utopia Sprawling, meticulously-filmed, shocking thriller that moves quickly from humble beginnings to apocalyptic events, effortlessly spanning trillions of years. The climax, however, will be love-it-or-hate-it. With Derek Jacobi as Professor Yana, John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness, and introducing John Simm as the Master. 6 W
12! The Sound of Drums
13! Last of the Time Lords
CIN Time Crash Children in Need comedy special. Catch if you can. With Peter Davison as the Doctor.
Series 4 (Catherine Tate as Donna Noble, Freema Agyeman as Martha.)
X! Voyage of the Damned Melancholic Poseidon Adventure remake with superb performances from all. With Kylie Minogue as Astrid and Russell Tovey as Midshipman Frame. 9 W
1! Partners in Crime Very goofy welcome back to Donna Noble. With Bernard Cribbins as Wilf. 7 W
2 The Fires of Pompeii Visceral yet clumsily-written story about changing the past on Volcano Day. (Guest-starring Peter Capaldi, who goes on to play the twelfth Doctor... but also see if you can spot Karen Gillan, a.k.a. Amy Pond!) 6 W
3! Planet of the Ood Highly unexpected, excellent story with themes of slavery. 9 W
4 The Sontaran Stratagem Somewhat lacking action-themed story re-introducing the Sontarans to the programme. With Freema Agyeman as Martha. 4 S
5! The Poison Sky
6! The Doctor's Daughter Occasionally mawkish but very clever tale set on a distant colony. With Georgia Moffett as Jenny. 7 W
7 The Unicorn and the Wasp Definite "romp" status for this Agatha Christie-themed episode. 5 S
8! Silence in the Library Another tremendously atmospheric and scary two-parter from Moffat. A library planet, deadly shadows, malfunctioning AI, simulated reality and a mysterious woman from the Doctor's future. Idea-driven science fiction at its best. With Alex Kingston as River Song. 10 W
9! Forest of the Dead
10 Midnight Extremely well-conceived psycho-thriller set on a bus. 9 W
11 Turn Left Excellent acting from Tate bolsters this alternate-history story. With Billie Piper as Rose Tyler. 9 W
12! The Stolen Earth Unashamed fanwank made a hundred times better than it deserves to be by a heartbreaking dénouement and a suitably menacing arch-nemesis. With Lis Sladen as Sarah Jane, Freema Agyeman as Martha, John Barrowman as Captain Jack, Billie Piper as Rose, and Julian Bleach as Davros. 6 W
13! Journey's End
2009 Specials
1 The Next Doctor Well-acted but ho-hum Victorian-themed hour-long cliché. With David Morrissey as the Other Doctor. 6 S
2! Planet of the Dead A wormhole, a flying bus, giant stingray-monsters, and Lee Evans. Enough said. With Michelle Ryan as Catwoman Lady Christina de Souza. 6 W
3! The Waters of Mars Immediately launched the Specials, and Tennant's Doctor, into darker territory. This story boldly retreads the changing-the-past storyline in a frightening and bleak sci-fi horror environment. The result feels like a flawed yet brilliant cross between Alien and Blake's Seven. With Lindsay Duncan as Adelaide Brooke. 9 W
4! The End of Time Mad, emotionally-charged and with a signature prolonged farewell, this adventure, featuring one of the Doctor' most ancient nemeses and the fulfilment of the prophecy of the Doctor's death. With Bernard Cribbins as Wilf, Catherine Tate as Donna, John Simm as the Master, Timothy Dalton as Rassilon, and introducing Matt Smith as the Doctor. 8 W
5!

 

The Steven Moffat Era (2010—date)

Steven Moffat took over the role of head writer from Russell T Davies with the first episode of Series 5, The Eleventh Hour. Moffat’s era has, so far, been dominated by a heavy reliance on “puzzle-box” style stories.

The storytelling style has evolved from Davies’s loose story arcs to a tightly-woven “master plan” with critical details being spread over multiple episodes, and, in many cases, multiple series: a style that has, to all intents and purposes, succeeded thanks to the availability of the iPlayer, making it easier for casual viewers to catch up on missed episodes. From series 6, the series were divided into two parts, creating a mid-series “hiatus” and to ensure that the tail end of the series was not broadcast during high summer when most people wouldn’t be spending their evenings inside, watching TV.

Matt Smith’s Doctor is at first joined by Amy Pond, and her boyfriend (later husband) Rory Williams. The mysterious River Song, who first appeared in Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, becomes a recurring character.

Although Moffat’s stories superficially seem more whimsical than Davies’s, there are darker themes in his episodes that match his idea of Doctor Who as a fairy story: for instance, the Doctor’s dislike of endings, and his friends’ ageing and death, is repeatedly emphasised. Amy Pond’s arc features grim aspects of a girl who has trouble growing up, and a woman whose reproductive choices are perpetually stifled by third parties. River Song is a character raised by evil forces, mentally damaged and bred as a tool, a means to an end.

Series 7 marked a change in the show’s direction: apart from being primarily aired in the Autumn and early Spring (with darker nights that Moffat felt were better suited to showing the programme) the focus was on “compressed storytelling.” There were no two-parters, and Moffat instructed the writers to “slut it up” and write each episode as if it were a blockbuster movie. This has been matched with themed titles for each episode and “movie posters” issued on the Doctor Who website for each story.

Amy and Rory left in astonishing fashion in The Angels Take Manhattan. In the following episode, The Snowmen, a more melancholy Doctor met the mysterious Clara Oswald, played by Jenna Coleman.

Series 7/2 features Clara as its full-time companion. The filmic style continued, with ever-grander settings, episode titles that could have come from a hall of fame of great movie posters, and a frankly astonishing finale that played with and altered the very fabric of the show.

Doctor Who celebrated its fiftieth anniversary on 23rd November 2013. To mark this event, a special episode aired, The Day of the Doctor. In addition to Clara and Matt Smith’s Doctor, it also saw David Tennant (the Tenth Doctor) and Billie Piper returning, co-starring with John Hurt (of Alien fame.) The special became the biggest drama simulcast in history, being shown simultaneously on six separate continents and also shown in many cinemas.

In June 2013, it was announced that Matt Smith would be leaving the show in the Christmas Special of this year—as good a time as any, on the tail end of the anniversary celebrations. His departure after four years in the role marked the end of Doctor Who’s 50th year on TV, in The Time of the Doctor.

Series 8 has begun filming, and will be aired in one block (with no mid-series hiatus) in late 2014, starring the superb Peter Capaldi as the Doctor.

Matt Smith, the Eleventh Doctor

Matt Smith was the youngest actor ever to play the role of the Doctor, but this is not in any way an impediment: indeed, the performance Smith gives is frankly astonishing. Smith’s Doctor is old, and he knows it: whilst quixotic and bewitching, he is also clearly damaged and weary of his own past.

Prone to mood swings, the Eleventh Doctor is perhaps the most clearly fleshed-out incarnation of the character to date. Beginning his life crashing into the garden of a young Scottish girl with the universe pouring through a crack in her bedroom wall, he spends at least two hundred years chasing a mysterious archaeologist from his own future, fighting mysterious forces who want him dead, and still somehow finding time to don novelty hats in between. Smith genuinely shines in nearly every episode: for a great example, see this scene from The Bells of Saint John, in which the Doctor transitions from whimsical ebullience to a cold, forceful rage in an effortless glide from slapstick caricature to grisly humour.

# Title One-sentence review Score V
Series 5 (Eleventh Doctor, Karen Gillan as Amy Pond.)
1! The Eleventh Hour Bombastic, charming welcome for Matt Smith's Doctor. 9 W
2! The Beast Below Mysterious wibblings aboard Starship UK. With Sophie Okonedo as Liz X. 8 W
3 Victory of the Daleks Only worth it if you like the idea of iDaleks. 3 S
4! The Time of Angels Atmospheric, terrifying successor to Blink! with a Weeping Angel hiding amongst catacombs filled with statues. With Alex Kingston as River Song. 9 W
5! Flesh and Stone
6! The Vampires of Venice A lightweight romp through 16th-century Venice with sinister undertones. 7 W
7 Amy's Choice A bit like Inception, but without Lenny d'Apricot. 7 W
8! The Hungry Earth Meat-and-veg Doctor Who with a rather dull space-opera styled plot. Ultimately given a much-needed kick up the arse by the ending. 6 W
9! Cold Blood
10! Vincent and the Doctor Biggest and best surprise of the series: funny, poignant and sweet Richard Curtis-penned historical drama. With Tony Curran as Vincent van Gogh. 9 W
11! The Lodger Adequate "domestic" story set in Colchester. With James Corden as Craig. 6 W
12! The Pandorica Opens Occasionally too clever for its own good, this fast-moving thriller is Moffat's first series finale. An ancient historical artefact, graffiti from the beginning of time, and a love story spanning millennia. 9 W
13! The Big Bang
2010 Christmas special (Sir Michael Gambon as Kazran Sardick, and Katherine Jenkins as Abigail.)
X A Christmas Carol Beautiful, Christmassy homage to Dickens. A genuinely heartwarming festive fable. Wonderful. 10 W
Series 6/1 (Amy, Arthur Darvill as Rory Williams, Alex Kingston as River Song.)
1! The Impossible Astronaut Shocking from the outset, Steven Moffat's brilliant introduction to Series 6 is exquisitely shot, with a disturbing new villain. With Mark Sheppard as Canton Everett Delaware III. 10 W
2! Day of the Moon
3! The Curse of the Black Spot Pretty but mediocre swashbuckling and sirens. 6 S
4! The Doctor's Wife Simply perfect—high-concept, beautifully written, tight and whimsical joy from the pen of Neil Gaiman. With Suranne Jones as Idris/Sexy. 10 W
5! The Rebel Flesh Somewhat wonky in execution, this feels like a waste of an excellent concept and the beautiful environment of an ancient castle fitted out with biotechnology. Has critical importance to future episodes, however, so cannot be missed. 5 W
6! The Almost People
7! A Good Man Goes to War Ominous, occasionally clunky mid-season finale, with grand settings, creepy monsters and the big reveal—just who is River Song? With Frances Barber as Madame Kovarian. 9 W
Series 6/2
8! Let's Kill Hitler Everything about it is awesome, outrageous, insane, quixotic madness. Occasionally too clever for its own good. 9 W
9 Night Terrors Unusually clever and sinister, let down by stupid mawkish resolution. 7 W
10 The Girl Who Waited Rare, sublime, beautiful, desperately sad timey-wimey drama. With Imelda Staunton. 10 W
11! The God Complex Creepy, The Shining-inspired psychodrama with religious undertones. 8 W
12! Closing Time The return of Craig (The Lodger) in a mawkish yet plot-critical Cybermen story. 6 W
13! The Wedding of River Song Trademark Moffat finale: madness, blistering pace, answers hidden in plain sight, and yet more loose ends to bring us in to next series. All backed up by a superb performance from Matt Smith. 8 W
2011 Christmas special (Claire Skinner as Madge, Maurice Cole as Cyril, and Holly Earl as Lily.)
X! The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe At any other time of the year I'd be tearing into this for a nonsensical plot, physics faux-pas and mawkish sentimentality. It's Christmas, though, and the last five minutes are simply stunning. 7 W
Series 7/1
1! Asylum of the Daleks Prepare for a big surprise near the beginning. Fantastic revitalisation for the Daleks who've been floundering in "reliably defeatable" territory. 9 W
2 Dinosaurs on a Spaceship Unexpectedly dark romp through a spaceship—with dinosaurs. With David Bradley. 8 W
3 A Town Called Mercy Grim, albeit predictable, Spaghetti Western. 7 W
4 The Power of Three Big "what-if" drama featuring UNIT, with heavy-hearted and earnest themes but the lack of a proper resolution. Introducing Jemma Redgrave as Kate Stewart. 7 W
5! The Angels Take Manhattan The Angels are back, and this time they've invaded New York. With River Song and a race through time. 7 W
2012 Christmas special (Neve McIntosh as Vastra, Dan Starkey as Strax, Richard E Grant as Simeon, Tom Ward as Latimer, and introducing Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald.)
X! The Snowmen A reclusive Doctor is beaten out of retirement by the Paternoster Gant: a lesbian Silurian detective, her wife, and a thick Sontaran medic. The monster is fairly standard fare, but it's thankfully a sideshow in a cracking Christmas adventure. 9 W
Series 7/2 (Jenna Coleman as Clara.)
1! The Bells of Saint John A return to creepy form for Steven Moffat's monsters. A story arc is set up with this stunning techno-thriller, with sinister undertones and, at last, a 'proper' debut for Clara. With Celia Imrie. 10 W
2! The Rings of Akhenaten In an episode that might've come from the keyboard of Douglas Adams, a clever, visually beautiful story featuring an adventure to an astronomical religious landmark. A great Who debut for Neil Cross. 8 W
3 Cold War A relative improvement for Mark Gatiss—the best he's put out since The Unquiet Dead. The return of the Ice Warriors, on a submarine. 7 W
4! Hide Classic, atmospheric ghost story with an unexpected twist and complex emotional undercurrents. 8 W
5! Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS Over-use of Dutch angles and the feel of a wasted opportunity let down this visceral thriller aboard the Doctor's ship. 7 W
6! The Crimson Horror Mark Gatiss provides an odd combination of grisly steampunk horror and pure pantomime: astonishingly, it works very well. 9 W
7! Nightmare in Silver More chaotic and rushed than Gaiman's last episode, still a gauche, unconventional take on the Cybermen. 9 W
8! The Name of the Doctor Audacious, thrilling, and toying with the very fabric of the show---Moffat genuinely outdoes himself. Introducing John Hurt as the War Doctor. 9 W
2013 Specials
The Night of the Doctor WEB EXCLUSIVE (watch online here): A starship, hurtling towards its inevitable doom; an ancient sisterhood awaiting a long-foretold return to Karn; the Doctor, dying and rejected, must face his fate. Don't spoil yourself! With Paul McGann as the Doctor, and introducing John Hurt as the War Doctor. 10 W
The Day of the Doctor Exceptional multi-Doctor fun, the perfect balance between a love letter to the fandom and mythos and a rip-roaring plot that tears into the fabric of Doctor Who and re-fashions it as something fresh, yet familiar, and exciting. With Matt Smith and David Tennant as the Doctor, Jenna Coleman as Clara, Billie Piper as the Bad Wolf, John Hurt as the War Doctor, with Tom Baker as the Curator, and introducing Peter Capaldi as the Doctor. 10 W
The Time of the Doctor Maddeningly fast-paced and emotionally draining final adventure for the Eleventh Doctor. Don't watch whilst drunk. With Orla Brady as Tasha Lem, the voice of Kayvan Novak as Handles, Jack Hollington as Barnable, Sheila Reid as Clara's gran, and introducing Peter Capaldi as the Doctor. 8 W

 

Doctor Who will return in the second half of 2014, in Series 8, starring Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor.

Spin-offs

Naturally, Doctor Who has spawned many spin-off series over the years, some with more success than others. Since the series’ revival, there have been two spin-offs: Torchwood, and The Sarah Jane Adventures. (There is also an Australian spin-off series entitled K9, but this features a K-9 so different to that in the Doctor Who universe that it is impossible to see it as interlinked with its parent show in any way.)

The Sarah Jane Adventures

The Sarah Jane Adventures follows the adventures of Sarah Jane Smith, the much-loved companion played by Elisabeth Sladen from the Third and Fourth Doctor’s tenure in the 1970s, who returned to the show in 2006’s School Reunion.

Unlike Who, which is an unashamed family drama, SJA is an outright children’s programme, created by Russell T Davies, who was also the de facto head writer on the parent show. It was broadcast on CBBC in 25-minute slots. Alongside Sladen, it also stars Tommy Knight as Luke, Sarah Jane’s genetically-engineered adopted ‘son,’ and local children Clyde (Daniel Anthony), Rani (Anjli Mohindra), Maria (Yasmin Paige), and Sky (Sinead Michael.) SJA also features the voice of Alexander Armstrong as ‘Mr Smith,’ an alien supercomputer in Sarah Jane’s attic.

Considering it’s a children’s programme, SJA is surprisingly watchable as an adult. The acting is generally good (and Lis Sladen’s performance is exceptional), the characters are reasonably believable, and the plots, while camp, usually crack along at a fair pace. The Doctor also appears twice: first in The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith, and second in The Death of the Doctor (which also features the return of another early companion, Jo Grant, played by Katy Manning.) The SJA cast also appear in the final story of series 4 of Doctor Who itself, and also in the Tenth Doctor’s swansong in The End of Time.

Sadly, the programme was brought to an end by the death of its star, Lis Sladen, in April 2011, shortly after she had been diagnosed with cancer. The filming for the fifth series was cut short, and the completed episodes were ultimately screened with a touching tribute to Sladen, My Sarah Jane.

TL;DR: should I watch it? Probably. It helps to at least have a passing knowledge of the show before attempting Turn Left/The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End. If you have small children, I recommend SJA without reservation.

Torchwood

If SJA is Who’s explicitly kid-friendly spin-off, Torchwood is its polar opposite. Starring John Barrowman as the pansexual ex-con Captain Jack Harkness, who originally appeared in The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, Torchwood is darker, grittier, swearier, more violent, sexier, and is aimed squarely at adults.

For its first two series, Torchwood was, much like Who, in a 50-minute monster-of-the-week format, with the occasional two- or three-parter. Set mostly in Wales, it follows the Cardiff branch of the Torchwood Institute, the organisation behind Doctor Who’s series 2 story arc. It also ties into its parent show much more regularly: Captain Jack appears after his stint as a companion in Who’s series 1 finale, having been made immortal by Rose Tyler as the Bad Wolf-entity. It also stars Who alumnus Eve Myles (from The Unquiet Dead) as Gwen Cooper, and Naoko Mori as Toshiko Sato (from Aliens of London/World War Three.) Joining them are Kai Owen as Gwen’s boyfriend Rhys, Burn Gorman as Owen Harper, and Gareth David-Lloyd as Ianto Jones.

It was clear from the outset that Torchwood was a very different beast to Who. The second episode featured a monster which killed people by having sex with them, feeding off (I kid you not) “orgasmic energy.” The first series was enjoyable, with some hard-hitting episodes (Small Worlds, Countrycide and Captain Jack Harkness are my personal favourites) although its finale lacked a punch.

As the show matured, its second series (although it lacked any real ‘stand-out’ episodes) had a substantially better story arc, with a significant personal undertow for Jack and rip-roaring consequences for the entire team. The finale, Exit Wounds, is superb. Series 2 also features three episodes with Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) from Who itself. (Torchwood’s first series ties in directly with the events of Utopia; The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End takes place after its second.)

Torchwood easily came into its own with its third series, Children of Earth. Serialised over five one-hour episodes, it follows Torchwood as they deal with a sinister conspiracy involving the British government, and the world’s children. It’s horrifying, high-concept, shocking, operatic science fiction at its best, and I heartily recommend it. (It also features the second appearance of the exceptional Peter Capaldi in the Doctor Who universe—who has now begun his third, as the Twelfth Doctor.)

I have not seen the fourth series, Miracle Day, so I cannot attest to its quality (although it is similar to Children of Earth in format, albeit a ten-part as opposed to five-part serial.) The future of Torchwood is currently in limbo: Russell T Davies has placed the show on an indefinite hiatus, due to personal issues.

TL;DR: should I watch it? If you can stomach violence, and sex and sexuality doesn’t offend you, then go right ahead. Much like Who, some of it’s good, some of it’s bad. Children of Earth is certainly worth it. It helps to have seen Torchwood series 2 before embarking on Turn Left/The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End.

Thank you for reading