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by Jonathan Rothwell

Doctor Who Essential Viewing Guide

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. Who is inherently meant to be accessible, and you can usually get by with a basic grounding of what the show is about and the main concepts.

This guide provides a list of Doctor Who’s major tentpoles, a guide to the ‘critical path’—episodes from earlier series you should probably 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.

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.

See also: The Episode List, documenting every Who episode since 2005

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): It works. Awesome! Move your mouse pointer, or touch, within the grey box.

Major spoilers (casting, ‘shocking’ episode titles, companion/Doctor appearance/departure, monster appearance etc.) are considered ‘spoilers’ until one year after the original airdate. I know this isn’t ideal and am working on a technical solution that allows you to set your own ‘spoiler horizon,’ but for now, be warned.

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 scientist. The war was bloody, and was ultimately won by the Doctor, but it was a phyrric victory: the universe was saved, but there are no more Time Lords or Daleks—an act of the Doctor’s doing, one he feels unimaginable guilt for.
  • 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. They can even change species and sex (although to date all the Doctor’s incarnations have been male humanoids.) In theory, a Time Lord has thirteen lives, but there are exceptions to this.
    • The Doctor is now in his thirteenth body. (There is one lifetime he doesn’t acknowledge: during his ninth incarnation, fighting for centuries in the Time War, he performed acts so heinous that he did not call himself the Doctor—afterwards, he did his very best to forget this life, so his tenth incarnation became the Ninth Doctor. So he is currently, as the Twelfth Doctor, in his thirteenth incarnation, and the ‘lost’ ninth incarnation is known as the War Doctor.)
  • Nobody knows the Doctor’s true name. To everyone, including his friends, his allies and his foes, he is called simply ‘the Doctor’ (with a few exceptions, the most notable example being River Song.) 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

This section lists what I consider the quickest way to go through all post-2005 episodes of Who and have a rough idea of the story so far. This will provide a reasonably good primer on the Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh Doctors and their companions and main enemies.

NOTE: If you visit this guide regularly, you’ll notice that this changed recently in preparation for Series 8. I have explained my rationale behind this here, if you’re interested. (WARNING: contains SPOILERS!)

Ideally, you should watch all of these episodes, in this order. This is not to say that the episodes I have not mentioned are not worth watching; the specific episodes I have chosen introduce major plot points and characters for the show’s many story arcs, so they are useful to see. I’ve also included my own favourite Who stories, which you should watch just because they’re good. I do recommend going back to fill in the gaps, but if you want to be up-to-date and don’t have time to binge-watch the whole thing, this a quick (but not too quick) way in.

  1. The End of the World, Dalek, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances and Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways (series 1) if you want a quick, sweet introduction to the series’ core concepts—and a demonstration of how outright brilliant it can be.
  2. School Reunion and Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel (series 2) Meet Sarah Jane, and the Cybermen…
  3. Blink (series 3) …and the Angels…
  4. The Fires of Pompeii and Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead (series 4) …and River Song.
  5. The Waters of Mars (2009 specials)
  6. The End of Time (2009 specials) To say hello to the Master, and goodbye to the Tenth Doctor.
  7. The Eleventh Hour, The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone, Vincent and the Doctor, The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang (series 5)
  8. A Christmas Carol (2010 Christmas special) because it’s simply exceptional television.
  9. The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon, The Doctor’s Wife, A Good Man Goes to War, The God Complex, The Wedding of River Song, Asylum of the Daleks, The Angels Take Manhattan (series 6 and 7/1.) Find out who River is, say goodbye to Amy and Rory…
  10. The Snowmen (2012 Christmas special) …and say hello to Clara.
  11. All of series 7, part 2.
  12. The three special episodes between series 7 and 8: The Night of the Doctor (available on YouTube here), The Day of the Doctor (the 50th anniversary special) and The Time of the Doctor.

Thank you for reading