Like many classic genre shows, Doctor Who has fantastic eps and oh-so-painful-WTF-eps. To make matters worse, the show has been going for decades and often assumes you know what is going on so they can get on with the storytelling. So where does someone who has never seen the show…or saw bad eps and friends keep hounding them to try again…even start?
There’s an accidental secret to watching Doctor Who: Contrary to some opinions, it’s not a life-choice, or an addiction. It’s a salad bar. You don’t have to get hooked and watch everything to enjoy it. You can skip around, find what you like (there are two distinct eras, Classic Who and New Who, and different actors in those eras have different tone and styles; the show is constantly reinventing itself like James Bond on acid). If you check these out and like what you see, you can explore at your leisure.
This is a guide for people to look over, pick what appeals to them, and go from there. These are not necessarily the best episodes, merely good starting episodes to give you a taste and see if you like. As such, a major criteria is that the story can stand alone, with no or little introduction.
This is not a ranked list, but we’re going to start with New Who, for two reasons: A) The stories are traditionally shorter and B) Unless you love old B-movies, the shoestring budget and switching between film/video filming (due to guild restrictions) of Classic Who may be a turnoff. We will include some at the end for those who are either new and want that, or are New Who fans and need a good entry point into the classics.
The title listed for each story is a link to a scene or trailer of that episode.
Basic knowledge you need to know: The Doctor is a Time Lord from a distant very advanced civilization called the Time Lords; in New Who, he believes himself to be the last survivor of his people after a great war. He’s rather fond of Earth, having been stranded here for many years in the Classic Who era. His ship is the TARDIS, which can travel in time and space. It’s chameleon circuit is broken, so it’s stuck looking like a 1960’s UK Police Box. That’s the basics.
Extra detail: Because the show has been going since the 60’s, there have been many actors who have played the Doctor. To explain this, there’s a process when a Time Lord is mortally wounded: he regenerates in a new body. Same core character, different face and some different personality traits. And he hates traveling alone, so he almost always has companions with him, traditionally 1-2.
Ok, here we go:
Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead: Two-episode creepy yet wonderful story about the Doctor going to a ginormous library in the 51st century, only to find it surprisingly bereft of life…until an archaeological expedition shows up, led by a woman who knows the Doctor in a quite familiar fashion….but he’s yet to even meet. If that wasn’t odd enough, people start having more than one shadow…and then the dying starts. All the while the library’s computer is stuck with a single message: “4022 saved, no survivors.” David Tennant as the Doctor. Companions: Donna and first appearance of Prof. River Song.
The 11th Hour: First introduction of Doctor #11 and companions Amy Pond and Rory. The Doctor shows up on Earth to stop the world from being destroyed by alien police tracking an escaped prisoner, yeah, yeah, yadda, yadda. This episode is all about the characters and dialog, not the plot. Excellent starter episode for the more manic side of the Doctor, as well as his ability to go from buffoon to intimidating. Matt Smith as the Doctor, showing how he can pull off looking young and ancient from one breath to the next.
Midnight : This is an excellent one-set locked room suspense story (ala Lifeboat) that showcases the Doctor’s personality, and is a great introduction, as no one else in the room knows who or what he is. There is a tourist trap planet, made of diamond, called Midnight. He leaves the main dome to take a tour in a large sealed rover out on the planet’s hostile surface, where supposedly nothing can live. The rover breaks down…and somehow, something is trying to force its way in. Something that takes over one of the passenger’s mind and mimics everything that’s said. The other tourists do no react well to this dilemma. David Tennant as The Doctor.
The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances: Two-episode creepy story about a bomb that drops in 1941’s London, supposedly claiming one victim…until gas-mask-wearing shuffling kids start following people and spreading a freaky virus that mimics the wounds of the original bomb victim. Great story, fun banter and Hammer-Films-Meets-Pink-Floyd chills abound. Chris Eccleston as the Doctor. Companions: Rose and the first appearance of Capt. Jack Harkness, semi-companion/future male lead of Torchwood.
Blink: Beautiful time traveling story that introduces The Weeping Angels to the Big Monsters catalog. The Doctor is not in this much, which makes it a great introduction episode, but the style is a little different from other eps, which rubs a bit of the “perfect introduction” gloss off the ep. The main character gets introduced to the Doctor and just how messed up time travel can be from a video tape recorded decades before…yet he’s having a conversation with someone in the present, warning of killers that only move when you blink. If your main draw to Doctor Who is time travel Twilight Zone mental floss, this is the episode you want to start with. David Tennant as the Doctor. (Note: The video link for this one has scenes from all 3 Weeping Angels stories. But it gives the best example of the dialog and tension from this ep that I could find on YouTube.)
Dalek: Fantastic acting and scenery chewing by both The Doctor and a deadly robot-like pepper-pot as the Doctor confronts a lone member of the race that destroyed his people…and are all supposed to be dead as well. Sort of a Hammer Gothic meets John Carpenter feel to this one. Chris Eccleston as The Doctor. Companions: Rose and first appearance of Adam.
The Girl Who Waited: Like Blink, another exploration of how messy time travel can be, although this one is full of the Doctor, Amy, and Rory, and is very much in the tone of Matt Smith’s Doctor. The trio land on a planet known for its beautiful vistas, only to discover the place is under quarantine due to a plague. Amy gets separated early on amidst robots that act as caretakers and antibodies…and a time stream that flows at a different rate than Rory and the Doctor. The trick comes in making hard choices in the rescue….
Bonus Feature: Time & Space: Two short 5 min comedy bits done for a charity in the UK. What happens when the TARDIS turns itself inside out. Matt Smith as the Doctor trying to fix a screwup by Rory and Amy. Just a fun bit highlighting the breakneck comedic talents of cast and crew. (Links is the full combined story)
There’s another doctor not featured in this list. Peter Capaldi, while absolutely wonderful and aided by much improved cinematography and effects, is not a good place to start. If you decide you like the series and want to check him out, note that his first season is a bit rough til the end, and then takes off running.
Unlike New Who, the Classic series was designed as 30 min episodes (with a cliff-hanger on each), with stories ranging from usually 3-7 episodes. What you find on streaming services or DVD are the compiled “movie” versions of the whole story, with the cliffhanger music cues removed. While period costuming could be raided from the extensive BBC costume collection, futuristic costumes and props (not to mention the monsters) were created on a shoestring budget. This is considered part of the charm of Classic Who. Click here to get an idea, with the Tom Baker trailer.
On the flipside, there can be long stretches of “endlessly running through quarries/corridors” while you wait for them to get on with it. (Not a big deal in 30 min eps, but strung together is decidedly noticeable)
The Talons of Weng-Chiang: The Doctor decides to take his new future-barbarian companion back to Victorian London as an education about her ancestors, but is rapidly drawn into a mad scientist’s plot involving Limehouse Tongs, time travellers, vanishing women, a Chinese stage magician with a psychotic ventriloquist dummy, a Phantom of the Opera type supervillain and, of course, giant Sumatran rats in the sewers. While this sounds completely off the deep end, it’s beautifully presented as a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, and is quite charming and pulpy, with great characters and writing, and a great introduction to Tom Baker as the Doctor. Companion: Leela. Introduction of Jago and Litefoot.
Inferno: A classic “should we really be drilling to the center of the Earth?” 70’s paranoia piece, combined with an alternate timeline universe ala Trek. The Doctor, stranded on Earth and trying to fix the TARDIS, accidentally winds up in that alternate timeline where the drilling project has unleashed a mutant-causing green goo. He attempts to get back to his own timeline to stop the “Must Learn Things Man Aught Not To Know” mad professor in charge of the project. Jon Pertwee as The Doctor. Companions: Liz Shaw, The Brigadier, Sgt. Benton, Bessie. Bonus trivia: This is where the Batman/DW in-joke starts from the Lego Batman video games.
Genesis of the Daleks: This is the introduction of one of the great madboys in science fiction, Davros… a combination of great intellect and genocidal tendencies. The Time Lords send the Doctor on an espionage mission to stop the creation of Daleks, before they’re created. This may sound old hat now, but this was years before Terminator. Although a bit slow to get going, this is a favorite among many for introducing people to the philosophical side of the show (the snippet in the link for this ep gives an example). Tom Baker as the Doctor. Companions: Sara Jane and Harry.
That wraps up this article, please feel free to suggest other stories. Remember, good intro episodes, not just favorites. (Special thanks to the audiences at the Dallas WhoFest for refining the selections, Max Kirkland for use of his prop-TARDIS, and the editors who put together some of the non-BBC trailers on Youtube)