He’s a time-travelling alien called the Doctor. He gallivants around with a human companion, bumps into figures from history, and when he’s on the brink of death, he regenerates into a brand new body. That’s more or less the basics of the British television icon that’s been adventuring in space in time for more than 50 years.
Start with: Season Five
When David Tennant departed and Matt Smith stepped in, a number of behind-the-scenes goings-on changed with them — most notably, showrunner Russell T. Davies handed Who’s reigns to writer Steven Moffat. As such, the show essentially tied up the loose ends of the RTD era and brought closure to its major players, before starting again in season five with a blank slate: new Doctor, new companion, new adventures.
The ball is set rolling right from the start. The season’s first episode, “The Eleventh Hour”, stands as a great introduction to Smith’s Doctor and the first dangling thread of a mystery that runs throughout the 13-episode block. Like the best buffet, there’s a bit of everything, and despite a somewhat sagging two-parter (“The Hungry Earth”/“Cold Blood”) by the time you get to “Vincent and the Doctor” and head towards the fate-of-the-universe finale, you’ll see the show’s range that encompasses adventure, comedy, and tears.
Then watch: Season Six onwards, or Season One onwards
Like the TARDIS itself, putting season five under your belt gives your journey a couple of options: keep going forwards in time, or take a trip back to the start of the modern era. Continue to season six and beyond and you’ll see Smith’s Doctor head some great standalone stories (“The Doctor’s Wife”, “The Girl Who Waited”, “The God Complex”, “A Town Called Mercy”). After he goes big with the show’s 50th anniversary special, throwing into the mix a new Doctor in the form of John Hurt, you’ll be taken into more recent history with the current Doctor, Peter Capaldi. Shelving his foul mouth from The Thick of It, but none of the angry eyebrows, Capaldi applies a stark shift to the Doctor’s character as he brings a new approach to his own share of great episodes (“Listen”, “Heaven Sent”).
Your other option is to wind the dial back to 2005, with the first season of Doctor Who’s modern era. Keep in mind, the show had been dormant for 16 years at this point, so its return does demonstrate an occasional wobbly foot. In particular, the very first episode (“Rose”) has trouble nailing its own tone, wavering a line between startling brutality (a faceless alien force outright shooting terrified crowds) and bizarre slapstick (um, a guy gets eaten by a burping wheelie bin). But soldier on and you’ll experience wonderful moments like “Father’s Day” and “The Doctor Dances” via a Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) who we are given all too briefly. Then comes the Tennant era, and with him, episodes like “Blink”, “Midnight”, and the stunning two-parter “Human Nature/Family of Blood”. Here, you’ll see why Tennant still stands today as one of the series’ greats.
Once you're indoctrinated: Classic Doctor Who
Classic Doctor Who has always been the butt of special effects jokes, ribbed for cheapo monsters and spaceships that were little more than bubble wrap and fairy lights. That’s because, well, that’s exactly what they were. (One character even gets swallowed by an inflatable chair. But for stories that endure, and demonstrate a powerful hold on and influence in the sci-fi genre, look no further.
With the modern series — or perhaps even without it — you’ll be no stranger to the Doctor’s most iconic foe, the Daleks. Begin your classic era journey with “Genesis of the Daleks”, an origin story of sorts concerning those shrill-voiced plunger pushers. Amid the obvious allegories (Space Nazis! Space Nazis!) there’s a great examination and dialogue duel of what right one has to end not just a life, but an entire race. Then check out “The Ark in Space” to see Ridley Scott’s Alien four years before Ridley Scott did Alien, along with “Remembrance of the Daleks, the closest analogue to the modern era in terms of pacing and action, and a great showcase of a Doctor regarded as a master strategist beneath an unassuming panama hat. For historical tentpoles in the show’s timeline, see “Tomb of the Cybermen” to see how Patrick Troughton as the Second Doctor gave a slice of humour to William Hartnell’s stern-faced First Doctor, “Earthshock” for a starting reminder that not everything ends in hugs and rainbows, and for an extra trip, the docudrama “An Adventure in Space and Time” for a look at how Doctor Who was first brought to screens way back in 1963.