A guide to Doctor Who for newbies (video) [updated]

Want to know what all the fuss is about? We’re here to help with a beginner’s guide and ten episodes to get you hooked.

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Doctor Who

Doctor Who Photograph: Toenex Lacey


Does all this week’s brouhaha about the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special, The Day of the Doctor (airing tomorrow at 2:50pm on BBC America), have you scratching your head and asking, “Doctor what, now?” We know, we know, it’s daunting. Odds are that by now, at least one of your geekier friends has tried to talk you into watching this proudly quirky BBC sci-fi series, but the proposition can be overwhelming. To help you out, we offer this handy beginner’s guide. We’ve got the key facts you need to know to jump in, followed by a list of ten episodes to get you addicted to the show—all of which are available to watch instantly on Netflix.

The basics:

1. The Doctor is a time-traveling alien called a Time Lord. He journeys through time and space, saving the day and more often than not mucking things up a bit. Even though he can go anywhere at any point in history, he spends an inordinate amount of time in 20th- and 21st-century Britain. You know, just coincidentally.

2. His ship is called the TARDIS, which stands for Time and Relative Dimension in Space. It’s massively powerful and infinitely large, but from the outside it looks like a 1960s-era London police box. As the Doctor is often wont to repeat, it’s bigger on the inside.

3. The Doctor can regenerate. He’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000 years old, give or take, but he “dies” and wakes up in a new body every now and again. This was a nifty way for the original showrunners to explain casting a new actor in an existing role—and a big part of the reason for the show’s longevity. There have been 11 Doctors so far, and Peter Capaldi will play the 12th incarnation.

4. There’s always a companion. The Doctor gets lonely, so he likes to pick up stray humans to travel around with him. They generally hail from the time period that the series is being broadcast in, are plucky and clever, and are usually young, attractive British women. You know, just coincidentally.

5. The Doctor has a lot of enemies. They’re usually aliens, and, let’s face it, their prosthetic rubber faces and metal costumes can look kind of ridiculous—but iffy special effects are part of the show’s charm. His central nemeses are the Daleks, who are basically a bunch of interstellar Nazis that look like metal saltshakers holding toilet plungers. And they can be surprisingly scary.

6. The series is 50 years old. In total, there have been 798 episodes, and one ill-advised TV movie, since 1963. Do not let this daunt you. Go ahead and skip anything before 2005; this is when the show was resurrected after a 16-year hiatus, with Christopher Eccleston in the role of the Doctor’s ninth incarnation. David Tennant took over later that year, and Matt Smith, the current Doctor, jumped into the role in 2010. The baton will pass to Capaldi this December.

7. His name is the Doctor, not Doctor Who. Get this right, and the show’s fans will welcome you into the fold with open arms.

Got all that? Good. Now here are our top ten episodes—in chronological order—to check out if you want to dip your toe into the universe (the Whoniverse?) of Doctor Who:


"The End of the World" (Season one, episode two)
In this early episode, the Ninth Doctor takes his new companion, London shopgirl Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), 5 billion years into the future to watch the Earth get swallowed by the sun. Featuring an impressive array of aliens, plus the Doctor succinctly and eloquently explaining his M.O.


"The Empty Child" and "The Doctor Dances" (Season one, episodes nine and ten)
In this two-parter, the Ninth Doctor and Rose show up in the middle of the London Blitz, where they encounter a creepy zombie child in a gas mask and a sexy con man from the 51st century. Fun, horror and lots of banana jokes ensue.


"Tooth and Claw" (Season two, episode two)
A recently regenerated Tenth Doctor and Rose save Queen Victoria from an extraterrestrial werewolf in a Scottish manor house. Do we need to explain why this is awesome?


"The Girl in the Fireplace" (Season two, episode four)
This episode is Doctor Who at its most creative: On a spaceship in the distant future, the Tenth Doctor finds mysterious portals into 18th-century Versailles, where he gets glimpses into the life of Madam de Pompadour.


"Blink" (Season three, episode ten)
Starring a pre-fame Carey Mulligan, this is the show’s most absorbingly terrifying installment. It’s better if you go into this one blind, so we’ll just say: Whatever you do, don’t blink.


"Partners in Crime" (Season four, episode one)
When comedy great Catherine Tate (The Office) jumped in the TARDIS as new companion Donna, she added a massive infusion of humor and pathos. This is one Doctor Who’s funniest installments, featuring the above brilliant bit of slapstick from Tate and Tennant.


"The Fires of Pompeii" (Season four, episode two)
The Tenth Doctor and Donna deal with the very real ethical repercussions of messing around in history. This episode also gets special mention for a cameo by Doctor-to-be Capaldi as an ancient Roman patrician.


"The Eleventh Hour" (Season five, episode one)
Matt Smith makes his debut with a bang in this caper-tastic season six opener, in which a newly regenerated 11th Doctor blunders his way around the time-space continuum and crash-lands into the life of his new companion, Amy Pond (Karen Gillian).


"The Lodger" (Season five, episode 11)
The 11th Doctor tries his hand at living like a human in small-town England for a few days, with hilarious results. James Corden, who featured in One Man, Two Guvnors on Broadway last year, guest stars as the Doctor's put-upon roommate.


"The Doctor's Wife" (Season six, episode three)
Even if you don’t understand everything that’s going on, this 2011 episode about the Doctor’s it's-complicated relationship with his TARDIS is engaging from the word go. That’s largely due to the fact that it was penned by fantasy scribe (and longtime Who fan) Neil Gaiman.


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Editor: Marley Lynch (@marleyasinbob)

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