By Tom Holste
Sep. 19, 2018
Yesterday I gave you a quick overview of what Doctor Who is all about. Today, in honor of the 13th Doctor, I’m picking 13 stories that will give you a good overview of the series.
To be clear, I’m not recommending that you skip all the episodes other than the ones I’m going to name. As it is, the Doctor Who purists would probably be livid with me that I’m not insisting that you start from the beginning. But I’m just trying to give you a quick sampling to see if you want to start watching the show with the new season. If you like what you see, I highly recommend you go back and watch the earlier episodes for greater context, and just because a lot of them are really terrific.
The modern episodes are available on Amazon; the classic episodes are available on the Britbox streaming service. (Alternatively, many libraries have episodes available for rental.)
Note: With the relaunch in 2005, the numbering of the seasons got reset to keep things simple for new viewers. So episodes from 2005 are referred to as “Season 1.” That system worked for me until I could grasp the bigger picture, so I’m also going to use modern Who numbering unless otherwise indicated.
- “Father’s Day” (Season 1, Episode 8) – Here’s a sweet time travel story where new companion Rose Tyler (played by Billie Piper) asks the Doctor (played here by Christopher Eccleston) for a chance to see the father she never knew, only to learn the consequences of messing with history.
- “The Empty Child”/”The Doctor Dances” (Season 1, Episodes 9 and 10) — The Doctor and Rose find themselves in World War II London, trying to fend off a mysterious child with bizarre powers. In addition to being a fan-favorite storyline, this two-parter introduces Captain Jack Harkness, a rogue time traveler with omnivorous sexual tastes. If you’re not sure how appropriate the family level of viewing is for this series, this storyline will be an effective barometer for what’s to come.
- “Bad Wolf”/”The Parting of the Ways” (Season 1, Episodes 12 and 13) — In the exciting season finale, the Doctor, Rose and Jack travel to the future where they must fight the Daleks, the Doctor’s oldest foe (introduced in 1963, the first year of the show). This storyline also gives essential information on the Time War, an event that shaped the Doctor as we know him today.
- “Genesis of the Daleks” (Classic Series) — Let’s jump back a bit to the 1970s, and watch a storyline featuring Tom Baker, the most popular actor from that era to play the Doctor. In this story, representatives of the Doctor’s home planet send him back in time to Skaro, the home planet of the Daleks, with a mission: Destroy the Daleks before they ever come to be. In addition to giving you a feeling for the classic show, this is one of the series’ most acclaimed storylines. (Instead of hour-long episodes, the classic series aired stories in half-hour multi-part serials. If the pacing is too off for you, you might want to try a fan edit created for modern sensibilities, although technically you should buy the source material before downloading a fan edit.)
- “School Reunion” (Season 2, Episode 3) – The first episode that I’ve selected with the
next Doctor, played by David Tennant, is set on Earth in modern times. While investigating an alien invasion at a school, the Doctor runs into a familiar face from his past: Sarah Jane Smith, a former companion who you just met in “Genesis of the Daleks” (and part of the reason why I recommended that story). In addition to being a fun story, this episode shows that the writers really do care about the history of the series, and Tennant’s enthusiastic performance does a lot to sell the importance of this reunion.
- “The Girl in the Fireplace” (Season 2, Episode 4) — A time-twisting tale that takes place in both the past and the future, as the Doctor attempts to unravel the mystery of why robots from an abandoned spaceship in the 51st century are stalking Madame de Pompadour in Paris in the 1700s. This episode highlights how clever and ambitious the new series could be (and also how heartbreaking).
- “42” (Season 3, Episode 7) — The Doctor and his new companion Martha Jones are stuck on a spaceship in the future that’s getting pulled into the sun, and they have exactly 42 minutes (the length of the episode) to figure out how to stop that from happening. While not usually cited as a fan favorite episode, this story plays with the show’s format in an innovative way. This tale is from Chris Chibnall, the head writer of the new season, and gives you an idea of what you might expect from him.
- “Blink” (Season 3, Episode 10) — Another unusually formatted episode seen entirely through the perspective of Sally Sparrow, a young woman investigating the disappearance of her friends at the hands of aliens who disguise themselves as statues known as Weeping Angels. Even though the Doctor is barely in the story, this is considered one of the finest Doctor Who scripts ever written. For that, you can thank Steven Moffat, who also wrote the “Empty Child” two-parter and “The Girl in the Fireplace.”
- “The Fires of Pompeii” (Season 4, Episode 2) — Although touched on in a few episodes you’ve already seen, rarely have the ethics of time travel been so well debated by characters as they are in this episode, when the Doctor and his new companion Donna Noble land in Pompeii just a day before a volcano will erupt and destroy the city. The Doctor insists that history must stay on track, so they can’t interfere or save anyone; Donna insists that it’s inhumane to leave these people with the knowledge that the time travelers have. It’s exciting, suspenseful, and touching, and both characters make the case for their respective points more eloquently than I’ve heard before or since in any piece of time travel fiction.
- “Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead” (Season 4, Episodes 8 and 9) — The Doctor and Donna land in a planet-wide library that’s become mysteriously deserted, and when a crew lands to investigate, the Doctor must save them all from the threat that lurks in the shadows. This brilliant, chilling story introduces River Song, another time traveler with an unexpected connection to the Doctor.
- “Vincent and the Doctor” (Season 5, Episode 10) — Now we’re shifting over to another new actor to play the Doctor (Matt Smith) and another new companion (Amy Pond). When the Doctor discovers an alien presence unintentionally lurking in a painting by Vincent van Gogh, he and Amy go back to try to stop the alien with Van Gogh’s help. Smith’s brilliant comedic performance is on full display in this episode, while at the same time the show deals sensitively with the issues of depression and suicide that plagued the famous painter. (This is a good stand-alone episode, but it’s even more moving if you watch it again in the context of the full season.)
- “The Doctor’s Wife” (Season 6, Episode 4) — Even though we haven’t spent much time in this list on episodes involving the Time War, that event and the tragic choices the Doctor made there inform much of the new series. In this fascinating tale, the Doctor responds to a distress call that may lead him to some surviving members of his race, but he isn’t prepared for what he and Amy and her husband Rory (long story) find there. This is one of the episodes that dives into something frequently hinted at but rarely so directly addressed in the series: The TARDIS knows where to take the Doctor and his companions because it’s actually sentient.
- “Flatline” (Season 8, Episode 9) — Skipping ahead a bit, here’s an adventure with the Doctor as played by Peter Capaldi, with a companion named Clara Oswald. In a fun and unusual story, the Doctor gets stuck in the TARDIS when the exterior shrinks, so Clara must find a way to get it back to regular size while fending off an invasion by an unusual group of aliens that can inhabit two-dimensional wall paintings.
So that does it for my list. I can hear outraged Doctor Who fans now: “Where’s ‘Army of Ghosts’/’Doomsday’? Where’s any story featuring his great nemesis, the Master? Where’s the 3-part ‘Journey’s End’ Season 4 finale? Where’s the 50th anniversary special, ‘Day of the Doctor’? Where’s…” (Fill in the blank here.)
To that, I can only again say: This is not a definitive list of the only Doctor Who that new viewers ever need to see. This list is the equivalent of a taste test at Baskin-Robbins to whet their appetites. Also, many of the episodes listed above only have their greatest emotional impact after you’ve been on a much longer journey with these characters. They work best in their original context, in the proper episode order.
If this blog post is successful, perhaps I’ll do a list of another 13 great stories, mixing in some more classic tales as well. But hopefully this list will get any new viewers out there interested in the upcoming season, where Jodie Whittaker takes over the role.
So, fellow Whovians: Which 13 episodes would you pick?