Wednesday, June 1, 2011

How to Get Into Doctor Who

So maybe you just realized you have BBC America in your cable package, and you want to check out this "new show"* everybody's talking about. Or perhaps you've been a sci-fi fan for a while, and, naturally, have heard of Doctor Who, but just never got around to checking it out. Then this guide isn't exactly for you.

If, however, you are one of those people who has been hooked into watching the show by the growing media attention it's receiving here in the states, then maybe it is. If you're addicted to Doctor Who, want more, but don't know where to start, I suggest you take the following steps.

First, however, make sure you're up to date with the current Doctor's (Matt Smith) era. Don't forget the Christmas special!

1. The New Series
Granted, the episodes of the Moffat era are still the new series, but it's important to go back and watch the Russel T. Davies era as well. And yes, you have to go back to the beginning ("Rose") and watch the ones with the big-eared guy (Christopher Eccelston). You can't just watch the David Tennant episodes.
Recommendations: Like most modern TV shows, there's a story arc to the seasons, so don't watch out of order. Although, if you must, "Blink" is a great episode without heavy continuity.

2. The Tom Baker Era
We've left modern TV story telling behind, and have entered the realm of the serialized drama. The Classic Series stories were told across multiple episodes (usually 4), and so the pacing's a little slower and a bit hard to adjust to. You're starting with Tom Baker's reign as the Doctor for several reasons. First of all, as the longest running (on TV) Doctor, he was, before the revived series, the actor most often associated with the role. And, as the British often joke, the only one the Americans thought was the Doctor. Also, this tends to be one of the most well-loved times in the show's history. More importantly, though, I suggest that you start with the episodes featuring Sarah Jane Smith and then move on to the other companions. That way you'll have a familiar face to bridge your transition from the New to Classic Series.
Recommendations: The best thing about the Classic Series is that, for the most part, the serials can be watched in any order. I'd recommend "Robot," "The Ark in Space," "The Sontaran Experiment," "Genesis of the Daleks," "The Masque of Mandragora," "Pyramids of Mars," "The Brain of Morbius," "The Hand of Fear," "The Deadly Assassin," "The Robots of Death," "The Talons of Weng-Chiang," "Horror of Fang Rock," "Image of the Fendal," The Key to Time (comprised of 6 serials), "City of Death," The E-Space Trilogy (3 serials), "The Keeper of Traken," and "Logopolis."

3. The Peter Davison Era
After Tom Baker, Davison is probably the most accessible Doctor to modern audiences, especially since he appeared in the "Time Crash" sketch with David Tennant.
Recommendations: Davison was a great Doctor, but his era was not without its problems. (Like, for example, an entire serial about how great the Concord is. Avoid that one.) But there are still some very strong episodes from his run such as "Castrovalva," "Four to Doomsday," "Kinda,"** The Black Guardian Trilogy (3 serials), "Planet of Fire," "The Caves of Androzani," and, let us not forget, "The Five Doctors." Multi-Doctor episodes are always good fun, but this one's top-notch.

4. The Jon Pertwee Era
Go back to the Doctor before Tom Baker next. Yes, he's an old guy, but he kicks ass. This era, with some great, action packed stories, often rivals Tom Baker's for fan favorites. And with the heyday of U.N.I.T. (back when it was the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce) and the introduction of the Master, it's no wonder. If you like Earth invasion stories, this is the era for you.
Recommendations: "Spearhead from Space," "The Silurians," "Inferno," "Terror of the Autons,"** "The Three Doctors," "The Sea Devils," the Peladon stories ("Curse" and "Monster of"), "Carnival of Monsters," "The Green Death," and "The Time Monster."

5. The Sylvester McCoy Era
At first off to a rocky start, the McCoy Era soon fell under the head writership of Andrew Cartmel, who gradually made it a slightly darker, more mature Doctor Who. Too bad they were canceled two seasons later.
Recommendations: "Remebrance of the Daleks," "Ghostlight," "The Curse of Fenric," and "Survival." "Battlefield," "The Happiness Patrol," and "The Greatest Show in the Galaxy" sometimes get a lot of put-downs, but I thought they were rather good. Watch "Delta and the Bannermen" if you dare.

6. The Colin Baker Era
Oh, dear God, the coat! THE COAT!!! Once you get past all the 80s excesses, there are still a few good moments in this Doctor's run.
Recommendations: "Vengeance on Varos," "The Mark of the Rani," "The Two Doctors," "Revelation of the Daleks," and "The Trial of a Time Lord."

7. The Paul McGann Era
Confession time: Paul McGann is actually my favorite Doctor, though I rarely admit it. See, he was only ever in one 100% official Doctor Who release. And it was not well received. For one thing, it's bad. Not awful, and certainly not the worst thing ever done in Who history, but not great, either. And it was controversial. ("The Doctor's half human?! And he KISSES GIRLS?!?!?) Worst of all, it was--gasp!--American!! (Not that much, really.) But, it does have its redeeming qualities. It's much closer to the New Series in style and tone, McGann puts in an excellent performance, and there are moments--few though they may be--that are quintessentially Doctor Who.
Recommendations: Doctor Who: The Movie

8. The William Hartnell Era
If you thought the rest of the Classic Series stuff was slow and the effects cheap, then wait till see these. The first two Doctors' serials are not going to be everyone's cup of tea, but there are still some good ones if you have the patience for it.
Recommendations: "An Unearthly Child,"*** "The Daleks,"*** "The Edge of Destruction,"*** "The Aztecs," "The Dalek Invasion of Earth," "The Time Meddler."

9. The Patrick Troughton Era
Same problems as you'll find with the Hartenell era, only the majority of his episodes seem to have gotten themselves lost. Most of what's left is pretty bad. And, um, kinda trippy. It was the 60s, you know.
Recommendations: "Tomb of the Cybermen," "The Invasion," "The Mind Robber," "The War Games."

10. Torchwood
The first successful Doctor Who spin-off series, Torchwood really put its parent show on the map in the U.S. It was billed as "Doctor Who for grown-ups," which means that everybody has sex with each other, and Jack dies. A lot.
Recommendations: Watch in order, especially as it gets better as it progresses. The Children of Earth mini-series was heartbreaking.

11. The Sarah Jane Adventures
The return of Sarah Jane Smith to the New Series was so well-received she got her own spin-off show. Some say that it's better than Doctor Who itself, and, frankly, that claim is hard to argue against.
Recommendations: Watch in order, though, since it's a children's show, the continuity isn't unfathomable if you don't. I prefer the episodes with Rani to those with Maria.

12. Big Finish Audio Adventures
Now you're leaving the world of television behind for the more turbulent waters of the fandom. Extreme lack of continuity ahead. Start with the audio dramas (think radio plays), since the Doctors and a lot of Classic Series companions are in them.
Recommendations: The ones feauring Charlie Pollard as companion both the 8th and 6th Doctor (in that order). You won't want to be spoilered, so go in release order, although if had to recommend one to listen to out of order, it would be "The Chimes of Midnight."

13. BBC Audio Dramas
The BBC has, on an off, done radio plays with the different Doctors, some of which were actually broadcast, others of which were released straight to CD. BBC Radio 4 Extra (Formerly Radio 7) has become the home of the 8th Doctor's semi-official adventures, and recently they've even persuaded Tom Baker to reprise his role as the Doctor for a few dramas.
Recommendations: The 8th Doctor series, especially with companion Lucie Miller. They should be heard in order, but my personal favorite, "Horror of Glam Rock," is only the second one in the series, and it is awesome.

14. Virgin New Adventures
After the series was canceled in 1989, Virgin bought the rights to publish books about the Doctor's continuing exploits and took the series in the darker, more mature track Cartmel had set it on. The quality varies from wonderful to God-awful, but most are competently written and entertaining. Oh, and they're also out of print, so good luck finding them.
Recommendations: There is a certain level of continuity in the series that suggests they should be read in order, but, as you pretty much have to read what you can get your hands on, just use the internet to fill yourself in on what you've missed. Anything written by either Classic or New Series writers are usually pretty good, but I think the best writers of this series are Paul Cornell and Kate Orman. My favorites are Cornell's Human Nature and Lance Parkin's The Dying Days, but, really, anything with Benny Summerfield as companion is good.

15. Eighth Doctor Adventures
After the TV movie, the BBC got their publishing rights back, and produced a series of novels about the continuing exploits of the 8th Doctor. About the same quality as the VNAs, they tend--most of the time--to be a bit lighter and have a tendency toward more whimsical plots. And they are also out of print.
Recommendations: Same problem with continuity as the VNAs. A lot of the good authors from that series carry over as well (especially Orman), but the best new author in the series is Paul Magrs. His Mad Dogs and Englishmen is made of win. Other favorites: The Blue Angel, The Banquo Legacy, Father Time, Earthworld. As a general rule, though, anything with companion Fitz Kreiner is going to be better than without.

16. Virgin Missing Adventures, Past Doctor Adventures, Short Trips and Side Steps
The VMAs and PDAs are series of novels from Virgin and BBC books giving new adventures to the old Doctors. Short Trips are collections of short stories in the same vein. Same quality concerns as the other novel series, though they are often looked upon as "lesser works" in comparison to the "continuing adventures" novels. Mostly out of print.
Recommendations: The continuity slots in with the TV series in most cases, so they can be read in any order. And a lot of the same authors who wrote the VMAs and EDAs wrote these as well. Goth Opera of the VMAs is continuity heavy, but it's by Paul Cornell and it's got vampires. Fear Itself, the only PDA novel with the 8th Doctor, has a great plot twist.

17. Comics
The problem with the Doctor Who comics is that there are several different series, including one that is only published in America, so the continuity is all over the place. However, they are fairly well-regarded among fans, especially ones featuring shape-shifting penguin Frobisher as companion, and the 6th Doctor graphic novel written by Colin Baker himself.
Recommendations: IDW's graphic novel Doctor Who: The Forgotten.

18. Cartoons
The Doctor has occasionally appeared in poorly animated form. Most recently, the David Tennant's Doctor has been in short cartoons both with companion Martha Jones and by himself with a character played by his fiancee/TV daughter. Before that, though, the BBC made some adventures with various Doctors in flash animation for their website.
Recommendations: Webcasts of "Shada" and "Scream of the Shalka." The former is a remake of the unfinished Tom Baker era serial by Douglas Adams, with Paul McGann as the Doctor and Lala Ward reprising her role as Romana--excuse me, President Romana. The latter is a new adventure of a future Doctor played by Richard E. Grant. Personally, I would like to see an action figure boxed set of these two Doctors. That comes with little tiny plastic wine bottles....

19. New Series Adventures
Novels of the doings of the 9th Doctor onward. The nice thing about the VNAs and EDAs was that they were a more grown-up than the TV series. These, however, are more targeted toward kids. Read if you are that desperate for more 9th, 10th, or 11th Doctor. Or if you're a kid.

20. Other Licensed Stuff
Congratulations, you are now a die-hard Whovian. Read novels and listen to audios that feature various companions and Doctor Who villains without the Doctor. Or watch fan-produced videos with original Doctor Who actors staring as Characters Who Are Totally Not Owned By The BBC. Nope. Not At All. *Whistles Innocently*

*Laugh with me now, Brits.
**As of writing, only available on VHS in the U.S.
***Originally, the episodes in a serial had individual titles, not the series itself. These are the generally accepted titles of the first three episodes.

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