Our beloved “Doctor Who” has just returned to TV with new episodes. I’m sure many of you have been marking the days with your “Doctor Who” Advent Calendars, eating your Slitheen-shaped chocolates, and hoping/praying that a coma will envelop you so as to make the time pass by more quickly.
But the site’s editor and licensed yoga watcher Mat doesn’t have a fucking clue about the Doctor or his companions or why the word “TARDIS” is supposed to be all-caps. So I thought it might be nice to put together a shortlist of some essential “Doctor Who” episodes to help guide him to our Cyberman-like hivemind way of thinking–namely that if you don’t love this show, you will be destroyed or assimilated.
For the sake of new viewers, I’ll limit the selections to “New Who,” beginning with the Christopher Eccleston episodes and after. Many thanks to Brian and Erin Byrne, both for their help with this list, but also for the spiritual support they provide.
I think it’s safe to say that “Rose” really set the stage for much of the New Who mythology. Not only is it the first episode after the series was off-air for more than a decade, but it introduces the character of Rose Tyler (played by Billie Piper), who loomed large over the first four seasons.
It’s important to meet her when the Doctor meets her, but it’s also a re-cap of the history of the Doctor and his personality. He’s brash, he’s funny, he’s impatient and — as we learn here for the first time — he is the last of the Timelords of Gallifrey. In between the ill-fated TV movie and the new angry, sarcastic, leather jacket-clad Doctor, there was a Time War that left only him standing.
The other thing I like about “Rose” is that, while there are still some early CGI hiccups, it felt like a more polished episode than some that followed. And while the production values have only improved with time, this one seemed professional enough (especially compared to a few of the groan-worthy monsters we’d soon meet).
Not my favorite episode, but it does re-introduce the Daleks — the Doctor’s most dangerous foes — and provides more information about the aftermath of the Time War. If you want to skip it, I’ll understand. The main points are: a) the Daleks are basically like space-Nazi aliens in indestructible robot armor b) the Doctor thought he’d destroyed all of them in the Time War c) Their reunion is not a happy one. Don’t you worry your pretty little head, there’s plenty more Daleks to come.
“The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances”
As Erin said, these episodes are not only amazing but very creepy. This two-parter was one of the first episodes of the new series where the answer to our heroes’ problem wasn’t so straightforward. Here, the Doctor and Rose follow a metal tube marked “DANGEROUS” through the time vortex and into London, 1941, during the Blitz.
There’s a pervading sense of doom and danger throughout, but it’s the appearance of the titular Empty Child — a boy with a gas mask fused to his face, constantly asking for his mommy — that really sets the scene. Is it frightening because you don’t know what’s going on? Or because of the horror of this child who symbolizes both poverty and the ravages of war? Yes. All of the above.
This also marks the first appearance of a fan-favorite character, Capt. Jack Harkness. Also a time traveler, though not a Timelord, he plays a big part in the conclusion of the episode (and the rest of the season) while adding some much-needed sex appeal and humor.
“The Christmas Invasion”
Ever wonder why the character stays the same(-ish) but the actors keep changing? Well, this is the first regeneration of the modern era, with David Tennant taking over the reins from Christopher Eccleston. Here viewers return with Rose to Earth in time for Christmas, but the Doctor is ailing after his regeneration (that’s what it’s called when the Doctor dies and is reborn with a new face and, often, a new personality). This episode, while technically a Christmas special, drops a ton of little plot threads that will be picked up and used all the way through the end of Tennant’s run.
There’s kind of a tradition among the new “Who” that they start on Earth, thwarting an invasion. Tennant has better chemistry with Piper than Eccleston, so it’s good to see him from the beginning. No one will blame you if he becomes your favorite Doctor. He’s very charming.
“Tooth and Claw”
One of the things “Doctor Who” does best is wrap up a science fiction tale with weird history facts and “Tooth and Claw” is masterful. The Doctor and Rose meet up with Queen Victoria and, by pissing her off, end up creating Torchwood — a frenemy turned ally organization that will come into play a bit later. Also, werewolves.
“The Girl in the Fireplace”
Here is another great history episode that is also very touching. Plus, the clockwork bad guys are menacingly weird. It also is one of the first hints of Rose becoming jealous when the Doctor pays any heed of another woman, despite the fact that her ostensible boyfriend Mickey is along for the ride. This is, by far, one of my favorites.
“The Idiot’s Lantern”
Televisions stealing faces! Mod Britain! The Doctor on a scooter! (This is one of Erin’s favorites.)
This is a good example of “Doctor Who” telling “people” stories amidst all the chaos of alien and supernatural happenings. In this case, it’s the story of the Connolly family and patriarch Eddie’s domineering over his wife, son, and mother-in-law. The show is often happy to enforce modern-day mores on the recent past, including an epilogue that sees Eddie cast out.
Also, the Magpie (the episode’s main villain) is creepy as all get out and takes quite a few cues from the early age of television in Britain.
“Army of Ghosts/Doomsday”
Doctors regenerate, but what becomes of the companions? If they last more than a season or two at all, it’s important to see them off with a fitting tribute. For Rose Tyler, who was the longest-running cast member of the new version of the show, they went above and beyond.
We also get to see two of the Doctor’s main foes – the Daleks and the Cybermen – battling each other with Earth in the crossfire. And, as Erin says, this “explains why the Doctor is such a mopey bitch all next season.”
“Human Nature/Family of Blood”
Poor Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman); she was a great companion, though she mooned over the Doctor quite a bit. Still many don’t put her in Rose or, later, Amy’s league. These two episodes, in addition to being two of the best episodes of “Doctor Who,” really showcase what it’s like for a black companion traveling through time — especially when her tour guide and caretaker goes “missing.”
The Family is themselves a very threatening bunch, with a creepy little girl and a pre-“Game of Thrones” Harry Lloyd before he became Viserys Targaryen. But it is the emergence of the Doctor as a real badass that might most alarm viewers. Don’t worry, though. There’s a lot of love about these episodes, including one of my favorite phrases: “I wouldn’t have let me push all those buttons.”
If you’ve ever tried to convince someone (or had someone try to convince you) to watch “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” based on the episode “Hush,” then you’ll have some idea how good “Blink” is. It’s a fairly Doctor-light episode, but it introduces one of the creepiest threats of the modern era, The Weeping Angels.
Maybe not the best primer for fans interested in continuity, but an outstanding episode nonetheless.
There was something fun and innocent about the Donna Noble season, possibly because it emphatically subtracted any sexual tension from the show. Donna (Catherine Tate) was looking for adventure and the Doctor was looking for fun, which led to some pretty light-hearted shows. Some were also kind of forgettable, but for me, “Turn Left” is one of the best.
In a future shopping district, Donna is enticed to get her fortune read and ends up changing the past by “turning left.” What follows is the nightmare scenario of the “Doctor Who” world. Without Donna, what would become of the Doctor and the Earth?
All of which leads to…
“The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End”
You know what I like? I like getting the band back together. And this two-parter has a hell of a lot of the band in it. The Earth is stolen right out from under the Doctor and Donna, bringing together a cast of former companions and characters. Not only do you get classic “Who” companion Sarah-Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) and the members of Torchwood, but also Martha and Rose and a bad guy that should have been dead a long time ago.
There’s pathos and a bit of histrionics, but in the end, it’s very fun and has a big payoff for those who watched the whole series. Maybe this isn’t the one to watch, after all. Maybe save this for when you’ve just been through all four seasons.
“The Eleventh Hour”
If you can’t be bothered to go through all of the episodes above, this is where to start, with the introduction of the Matt-Smith-era of the Doctor. Smith amps up David Tennant’s goofy charm and seems like he’s about to explode in 15 different enthusiastic directions at once.
This one also introduces Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and her boyfriend Rory (Arthur Darvill), who will become his companions. It’s a very fun episode and sets up the next few seasons as the Doctor investigates a crack in the wall of space and time and first hears of “The Silence.”
Ugh…choosing essentials from this next bunch of episodes is hard, so we’ll do them short and sweet.
“Victory of the Daleks” brings Amy and the Doctor to WWII and Winston Churchill where some old foes seem to be fighting for victory against the Nazis.
“Amy’s Choice” introduces a creepy bad guy and a question of what is reality and what’s a dream ( and which one Amy would rather be in).
“The Lodger” is goofy fun and features the Doctor stranded on Earth, trying to deal with things like roommates and jobs.
“The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang” brings back Rory, pits the Doctor against a laundry list of assembled foes, and maybe, possibly, kind of restarts the entire universe.
“A Christmas Carol” is Erin’s favorite of the Christmas specials, and with good reason.
“The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon” sets up the big conflict for the season and, seemingly, the Doctor’s impending death.
“The Doctor’s Wife” is, to quote Erin, “one of the top 5 best episodes ever.” And then she made kind of a throat-cutting gesture if I left it off.
“Asylum of the Dalek” introduces us to the next companion (though how is…still unexplained) and includes a good deal of humor from Rory. “Are…are these your eggs?”
“The Snowmen” is post-Amy and Rory and shows the Doctor withdrawn and hurting after losing his two best friends in the world. The story is kind of meh, but it’s got the new companion as well as my vote for best Doctor Who spin-off with Madame Vastra, her wife Jenny, and the excellent Strax.
Is there enough time to watch all of these before the new season gets into full swing? Probably not; but in this age of Netflix and DVRs, I’m sure you can work it out somehow.