Doctor Who - a beginner's guide
Who's saying what
See what I did there?
Yeah. Sorry about that.
Anyway, the world of nerds (incidentally, there are over six million gradients of nerd on the nerd rainbow, so odds are, you're part of it whether you want to be or not), is buzzing right now. This young guy in a bow-tie called Matt Smith is popping up everywhere, and all of a sudden, people who have no idea what Doctor Who is are insisting on knowing more.
Doctor Who is the longest running science fiction show there is, and along with decades worth of episodes, there are hundreds of hours of audio plays, a ridiculous amount of novels, comics... essentially, the expanded Doctor Who universe is staggeringly vast, and looks like it's going to keep expanding, like some sort of terrible infection.
Doctor Who originally ran from 1963 to 1989, and was then cancelled. There was an ill-fated attempt at a reboot in 1996 in the form of a telemovie, which collapsed like a wet cake hurled jealously into a nearby duckpond. The series was then rebooted in 2005 by Russell T. Davies, the man behind Queer as Folk, but between '89 and '05, the Doctor Who narrative was built upon in a myriad of other mediums, meaning that when Christopher Eccleston appeared as the ninth Doctor in 2005, things could have gone terribly wrong; fans are so very easy to disappoint and piss off, and a lot was at stake. Their universe had been growing without help from Russell T. Davis, and there was a real chance it'd be ruined.
The thing is, they loved it. Almost everyone did. And now, there's an eleventh Doctor. And if you're new to the notion of Doctor Who, you're probably finding it incredibly hard to follow both this article and all the hype surrounding the latest series. But if you find the prospect of playing catch-up on decades of back-story daunting, fear not! I've prepared a bit of a crash course for you. There are several things you need to know if you're to start watching the series, and here they are.
First of all, the Doctor is a Time Lord. Time Lords are a race of people from Gallifrey, a far-flung planet, and most of them are platinum douchebags. And in spite of this (or more likely because of it), they are time travellers. They harness the power of a black hole to travel through time and space, but have weird contradicting policies about non-intervention (again, douchebags). Their culture discovered time travel, and proceeded to evolve into an austere, arrogant, opulent and dazzlingly gaudy society; imagine ancient Rome combined with Art Deco, combined with a metric shitload of paper mache. So... not a very subtle aesthetic. They also eventually turned into absolute megalomaniacs and committed some minor war crimes. Anyway, The Doctor is a brilliant but eccentric Time Lord, and doesn't appear to have a name (at least not one he gives freely). He got sick of the Gallifreyan approach to life, stole a Tardis (a time machine), and headed off to do some good.
Secondly, the Tardis. You may have seen pictures or footage of it at various points, and noted that it looks like a big blue box, which isn't exactly the most practical or logical look for something which is going to be parked in different time periods. And that's a fair point; land in the year 1699 in a blue box and emerge wearing modern clothes, and you'd very likely be burned for being a witch. And being burned is, to put it mildly, going to be a fairly suckful way to have an adventure. However, the Tardis is meant to be able to blend in with its surroundings, by using something called a chameleon circuit, named either after the lizard of the same name which can blend in with its surroundings, or after lord Alfred Pennyweather Chameleon, who, after a particularly stiff drink on his sixtieth birthday, spontaneously threw up and transformed into a large blue box.
So, The Doctor has stolen his Tardis, rescued his granddaughter Susan from an unnamed peril on Gallifrey, and eventually decided a safe place to materialise would be London in the sixties. The chameleon circuit in the Tardis has a good hard think (Tardises are sentient, and share a psychic link with their pilot) and decided a nice, inconspicuous form to adopt would be that of a police phone box. At which point the circuit promptly broke, so now it permanently looks like a large blue box, regardless of where it lands. People either notice it but can't get in (without the key, an army could literally batter the everloving shit out of it and not make a dent), or don't notice because a perception filter is in place. This basically means that if you see a large blue box parked in front of you, your brain literally cannot process it and denies its existence, much in the same way my father cannot and will not acknowledge the fact that I was born with webbed feet. He can't do it.
So what about the name? Well, Tardis stands for Time And Relative Dimensions In Space, and on the inside it's infinitely bigger than it is on the outside. It's an endless expanse of corridors, bedrooms, libraries, swimming pools, and so forth. Rumour has it that on the lower levels, there's a small theatre where Death of a Salesman runs three months a year. The real marvel of the Tardis is that it travels in both time and space, but can be a tad erratic in terms of accuracy. And although it is a time machine, there are rules. Once the Doctor lands he establishes a timeline of his own and cannot cross it - for example, if he lands with a friend, buys a pie and his friend gets eaten by a bear, he cannot go back and stop the bear; this would entail going back into his own timeline, which is a big no no. It's like crossing the streams in Ghostbusters. And just like crossing the streams, travelling in your own timeline, when it actually does happen, creates a huge, chud-like mess everywhere.
Thirdly, if time lords are killed, they can regenerate into another form (and another actor), and they get to do this twelve times before they're dead for good. Imagine your puppy, Faust, has died. Why you have a puppy named Faust, I don't know. Regardless, the next day your parents present you with a new pet, and declare that Faust never died! This is Faust, right here! And your infantile brain is freaking out, until they explain that FAUST REGENERATED. HE'S THE SAME DOG HE JUST LOOKS DIFFERENT, GET OVER IT. HAVE THE ESKIMO PIE. IS GOOD ESKIMO PIE. And so forth. Matt Smith, the newest Doctor, is number eleven on the list. And whilst each one is the same character (same experiences and memories), they each have a distinct personality and dress sense. It's the same dog, but it's also a different dog. So, to summarise: Time Lords get thirteen incarnations. The Doctor, THE BEST TIME LORD EVER, is on his eleventh. All clear? Good. You get a DELICIOUS ESKIMO PIE NOW.
Fourth, The Doctor has mortal enemies. Given that he buzzes around time and space, he's bound to encounter a vast array of bad guys, but there are two he runs into repeatedly. The first are the Cybermen, once human, but augmented with cybernetic technology and now emotionless and psychotic, much like a race of Perez Hiltons. The (arguably) greater threat are The Daleks, who similarly began as humanoids, but were mutated and reduced to grotesque genocidal blobs in robotic shells, determined to wipe the universe clean of non-Dalek life. The Doctor once had a chance to wipe out the entire Dalek race at the moment of their inception, which he chickened out of; a decision he's been paying for ever since. And whilst Daleks might look like violent pepper-shakers and sound like angry gym teachers over a busted PA system, they're genuinely dangerous and should be avoided if you ever run into them. If you do run into them, odds are you're hallucinating as a result of a violent stroke.
Finally, The Doctor likes to travel with companions. You see, The Doctor considers Earth his home away from home, and having foiled so many attempts by malevolent forces to destroy it, he's developed an extremely intimate fondness for it, and by extension its inhabitants. Which means that the majority of friends he has are humans, and some are lucky enough to be asked to join him on his adventures. Am I bitter I haven't been chosen? You have no idea. He also enjoys the company they provide him with, and some would argue that his companions are, from a plot perspective, the real heroes. Those people are called assholes, and you should kick them about the nose and throat.
At this stage, the best way to play catch-up would be one of the following three options:
1) Watching all the episodes from the beginning. Having pretty much done this myself, I can attest that this method does in fact rock, although it will also hamper your ability to interact with real people somewhat. Example: I arrive at my best friend Luke's house after four solid hours of Doctor Who. He proposes we go to the shops and then to the nearby pachinko parlour. I propose, in a British accent (Paul, why are you being British?) that we need to re-reoute the power couplings (what power couplings?), reverse the polarity (what polarity?) in order to defeat the Sontaran invasion fleet (what the fuck is a Sontaran?), and our day unravels into an unruly heap of man-slapping and table tennis.
2) Get someone who has taken that bullet for you, and get them to recommend the best from each Doctor, thereby circumventing all the British pachinko power coupling bullshit with grace and aplomb.
3) Strap said fanboy to a chair, peel away his skull, and eat his brains. If you have a Mayan prayer-stick handy, this should allow you to absorb his knowledge. His delicious, bloody knowledge.
I shall now proceed to carry out the second option for you, mostly because I enjoy my brain where it is. Here's a breakdown of each Doctor, and which stories from each are must-see.
1. William Hartnell.
Hartnell's Doctor was a brilliant, cranky old man with a searing intellect and a short temper. His adventures were usually historical in nature, and he tended to treat many of his companions as inferior beings, though he did have a gentle side. From certain angles, he resembled and angry bird of prey.
Recommended: 'An Unearthly Child, The Dalek Invasion of Earth'.
2. Patrick Troughton.
Troughton played the Doctor as what has been dubbed a 'cosmic hobo'. He played the recorder, wore awesome pants and was a bit mad.
Recommended: 'The Invasion, The War Games'.
3. John Pertwee.
Pertwee's Doctor wore velvet jackets and cravats before they were cool. He knew venusian aikido, enjoyed car chases, and had a deft sense of humor. He also had an enormous rubbery nose.
Recommended: 'Spearhead from Space, The Sea Devils , Planet of the Spiders'.
4. Tom Baker.
Tom Baker's Doctor was a bohemian genius in a twelve-foot scarf. Erratic, seemingly bumbling, but with moments of intense lucidity and anger. He had a jellybaby fetish and enormous teeth.
Recommended: 'Genesis of the Daleks, The Talons of Weng Chiang, Planet of Death'.
5. Peter Davison.
Peter Davison's Doctor was the gentlest and most compassionate incarnation thus far. Cast as The Doctor at the age of 29, he worse kickass Edwardian cricketing gear, had a thing for celery and was a total Baldwin.
Recommended: 'Earthshock, Mawdryn Undead, The Caves of Androzani'.
6. Colin Baker.
Colin Baker's doctor was arrogant and unpredictable, and his jacket made puppies bleed. Most people agree his Doctor sucked, though to be fair, it wasn't Baker's fault; the production team at the time were enormous cockbags.
Recommended: 'The Trial of a Time Lord'. Maybe.
7. Sylvester McCoy.
One of my favorite incarnations. McCoy's Doctor was a scheming, diabolical genius with a dark past and a question-mark umbrella. Yes, you heard me, an actual question-mark umbrella.
Recommended: 'Remembrance of the Daleks, Curse of Fenric, Survival'.
8. Paul McGann.
Paul Mcgann, of Withnail and I, was only in the 1996 telemovie, sadly. The movie itself wasn't great, but his dress sense in it was boner-inducing.
Recommended: All the 8th Doctor Big Finish radio plays. They rock balls.
9. Christoper Eccleston.
Christopher Eccleston was the first doctor of the new Doctor Who run. He dressed like a Russian U-Boat commander, had huge ears and was very fond of running. Recommended: 'Rose, Dalek, The Empty Child, The Doctor Dances'.
10. David Tennant.
Tennant's Doctor, dressed in chucks and Ben Sherman, was painfully engaging, and liked to say sorry. Like, all the time.
Recommended: All of them. Even the average ones were pretty amazing.
Which brings us up to speed. Pretty much. You see, every time a new Doctor saunters into view, we're forced to batter our brains into recognising him as the same character we know and love; the eons old adventurer who can't sit still for more than thirty seconds. So far, Matt Smith, now forever to be known as The Eleventh Doctor, is shaping up to be a kindly, vague history professor type of guy, struggling to keep track of his terrifyingly swift problem solving skills. He's also got a tint of ferocity, which given his past, is to be expected. Half the fun is going to be watching how he defines himself, both in relation to his ten predecessors, and how he makes his incarnation of the Doctor unique. And thus far, he's doing a bang-up job. See? I'm like fifty percent more British than I was before I started writing this article.
Hopefully you've found this invigorating and not disheartening; believe me when I say that whilst you can start with Matt Smith's Doctor number 11 without any priming, delving into the past of Doctor Who adds so much more to the experience. All you need to catch up now is a good video store, a lot of free time, and your obsession with this incredible universe should grow like the back hair of Robin Williams in a humidifier. Meaning it'll become unchecked, rampant and a little bit disturbing for friends and loved ones.
And if you ever need to talk, you know where to find me.
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