Given its long history —50 years and counting — Doctor Who might seem impenetrable to the layman. Trust me, it’s simpler than it looks. The Doctor (and he’s never called Doctor Who, just The Doctor) is the last of his kind, a Time Lord from a planet called Gallifrey. He travels in a space-worthy time machine called a TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space) which looks like a basic blue police phone box on the outside, but is far, far bigger on the inside.
He almost always travels with a Companion — usually someone attractive and female — who keeps the Doctor tethered to the here-and-now. When the Doctor gets mortally wounded (or the actor playing the Doctor decides it’s time to move on, he can “regenerate” into a new body.
The Doctor has stopped numerous invasions and prevented the enslavement (or complete destruction) of the human race on Earth and other species on various planets. In doing so, he’s collected quite an array of enemies. There’s the Daleks (an extraterrestrial race of aggressive cyborgs that look like trash cans with a plunger sticking out that like to scream “exterminate!”), the Cybermen (yet another group of angry cyborgs), the war-loving Sontarans, the Weeping Angels (a race of creatures that look exactly like stone statues who attack with blistering speed if you don’t look directly at them).
Welcome to Doctor Who, the new season of which premieres on BBC America on August 23, with a brand new Doctor (Peter Capaldi), the Twelfth, and a traveling companion Clara (Jenna Coleman) who isn’t sure this new Doctor is still the same old chap she’s used to cruising the galaxy with.
What’s important to remember in this new season of Doctor Who is that Capaldi’s version of the Doctor promises to be a bit darker and more forlorn than previous incarnations. And Clara will have to reacquaint herself with this new Doctor, as he won’t be the same happy-go-lucky Time Lord she’s used to. And that’s part of its charm.
The first time I laid eyes on the Doctor, I was smitten. He was being played by Tom Baker, a scruffy British bloke with wild eyes and a mop of curly brown hair. Baker’s Doctor, the Fourth, wore a never-ending scarf and had a habit of offering anyone and everyone — including angry aliens — candy, Jellybabies to be precise.
It was the late ‘70s, and I was already primed for a love of sci-fi thanks to the 1977 release of Star Wars. But this sci-fi was different. Sure it had robots — crudely made and rather clunky — and aliens who looked like cosplay disasters. But Doctor Who had something that Star Wars was lacking: a jaunty hero who would wink and smile at the even the scariest of challengers. He loved to tell a good joke, usually when a villain was threatening his life. He always had compassion for his friends.
And if you were lucky, he’d ask you to accompany him on his next adventure as he did with plucky young journalist Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen), or the rebellious Rose Tyler (Billie Piper); or Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), a runaway bride who would rather be the Doctor’s best pal than romantic interest; or even newlyweds-to-be Amy Pond (Karen Gillen) and Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill).
As a life-long fan it’s hard to explain why us Whovians love the series so much. Doctor Who first aired in 1963 on BBC1 but would later be syndicated in the United States and Canada from the '70s through the '90s by way of PBS. I grew up on a healthy dose of Who.
When friends who’ve never seen the show ask, “Where should I start?” I never say at the beginning. While it is possible to start at the very first episode “An Unearthly Child,” starring William Hartnell as the Doctor, there are, according to Wikipedia, over 800 individual episodes, including one television movie. That’s a lot of Who for anyone.
I usually tell new people to start with the recent episodes that began in 2005, when actor Christopher Eccleston and writer Russell T. Davies (and later Steven Moffat) gave new life to the franchise. When Eccleston left after a single year, David Tennant and Matt Smith were cast as the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors, respectively, and the legions of fans grew by the TARDIS-full.
So, yeah, where would you like to start? Perhaps the best bet is to just go on Netflix or Hulu — where many of the Doctor Who series can be found — and pick something at random. After all, that’s how the Doctor prefers to travel. As the he likes to say, “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint — it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly… time-y wimey…. stuff.”
Or just tune in on August 23 and make this Doctor your first Doctor.
Based in San Francisco, Bonnie Burton is the author of The Star Wars Craft Book, You Can Draw Star Wars Girls Against Girls, and more. She has also written for CNET, SFX Magazine, Bust and Wired. Follow her on Twitter at @bonniegrrl