24 Aug 2013

How to become a Doctor Who fan

This is completely unrelated to my regular column 'why you should watch' for the mere reason that I want to focus that column on shows of the past rather than current ones. And it's not as much that I don't have the patience to wait until Doctor Who is completed before I write it an entry in that column, rather than that I think that history has already proven Doctor Who will never truly ever be over. Even if the current show reaches an end, there will be more in some way shape or form, it's a continuous franchise not likely to ever truly die out.

For those who don't know, Doctor Who is a British television phenomenon dating back fifty years. It's divided into two main instances; classic who and new who. The classic who refers to the television series that aired from 1963 to 1989, plus a movie in 1996. The new who refers to the television series that started in 2005 and is still currently running. It's important to note that the new series is not a remake, but rather a continuance of the classic series.

The show centres around the main character, a two-hearted alien calling himself 'The Doctor'. A common misconception for non-fans is to refer to him as 'Doctor Who', but as the man himself insists, it's just 'The Doctor', the show title is merely reflecting on the most typical response he receives when introducing himself to anyone. Shortly put, the show title is actually an inside joke.

The Doctor is a Time Lord, the race that first discovered and honed the power to time travel. He's anciently wise, but with the patience and enthusiasm of a child. He travels in a vessel that he calls the TARDIS (an acronym for Time And Relative Dimensions In Space), which is an infinitely large ship, but is contained and camouflaged on the outside as an old style police telephone box.

Naturally, one character cannot be played by the one same person for the entirety of fifty years, and there's actually been eleven people who have taken on the role of The Doctor so far, and number twelve is already preparing to take over the role this coming Christmas. The way the show explains the Doctor's change in looks over time is that he has the ability to regenerate either at will or whenever he's mortally wounded. To cheat death he changes every single cell in his body and emerges as a new version of himself, each with a different look, each with a different personality, each with a different style, but always the same man deep down.

The Doctor is a free spirit, who travels through time and space to experience adventure, but his attitude towards signs of trouble can be summed up in this single quote; 'There's something that doesn't make sense, let's go poke it with a stick'. The man loves trouble. Not one for travelling alone, he usually takes a companion or two with him on his journeys. Most of them are humans, and most of them tend to be female (although there have been some male companions in the mix both in the classic and the modern series). Some stay for just a short while, others for much longer.

Some would classify Doctor Who as a science fiction show (it's also considered a family show in the UK), and while they are not incorrect in doing so, I just don't think it does it justice. Because what is great about Doctor Who is the fact that it can be anything. Any genre, any storyline. It can take place in the past, present or future (sometimes all three in the one same episode), it can feature anything from historical characters to aliens (often in the same episode), it can be anywhere from earth to the end of the universe. Want to battle witches with Shakespeare? Solve crime mysteries with Agatha Christie? Spend Christmas with Charles Dickens surrounded by ghosts? This seriously is the show where anything can happen.

Where to start?

With a franchise with such a long continuous history, it can be a bit difficult for newcomers to figure out where to even start, especially as depending on which fan they ask, they will get different responses, depending on which Doctor they personally favour and whether they are a classic or modern fan. So, I'm going to try and explain where in the show it makes sense to start and help you determine which suits you more.

For the most part, I think it's a good idea to start with the modern era of the show. For the most part, each persona of the Doctor will have their own separate story arc, which can be watched independently of one another, so once a person has gotten into the modern show, there is no reason they cannot go back and watch episodes from the classic era. You could say the two shows centres on two very different phases of the Doctor's life, namely his life before and after the last great Time War.

The Modern Show

Some people like to introduce people to Doctor Who through recommending specific episodes (like the one called "Blink" in season 3, which is the favourite of many), but I really don't recommend it, as Doctor Who already bounces all over the walls as it is. To truly be able to appreciate any single episode, you need to be able to place it in some kind of context - otherwise you might end up like me, who refused to watch the show for several years after I had caught a random episode at a convention and became utterly confused with the whole thing. There needs to be a starting point, some way for a viewer to get at least some kind of backstory and or introduction to the phenomenon as a whole, which is why I will be recommending two different season premieres as potential starting points for a newcomer.

Now, there are three different Doctors so far in the new series (but another one will take over this coming Christmas), and out of those, I would say there are two natural starting points a person could choose from. Either with the series premiere which introduces the Ninth Doctor (played by Christopher Eccleston), or the season five premiere which introduces the Eleventh Doctor (played by Matt Smith). I will explain why the season that introduces the Tenth Doctor (played by David Tennant) is not a good starting point for a newcomer further down.

Eccleston's Doctor being the first incarnation we see in the new series naturally gives plenty of explanations to the audience as to who he is and what he does through his interaction with Rose Tyler, the girl he's just met. It's certainly easy enough to follow, but the reason I feel compelled to give an alternative is that the first season suffered from a lower budget than the rest of the series, and frankly the series premiere is not all that impressive as an episode altogether (but the overall season gets much better once you get past that).

Tennant's Doctor is probably the most popular incarnation of the Doctor (and while I consider Smith to be my Doctor, I can see why so many favour this particular incarnation), but I still wouldn't recommend his introduction as a good starting point for a newcomer. It's expected that viewers have already seen the previous season, already is familiar with the characters and the mythology of the show. So while it introduces a new Doctor, it isn't a new story, therefore it just doesn't work as a newcomer's starting point.

Smith's Doctor's introduction, however, functions very well as a starting point in the show. Because we are more or less looking through the eyes of little Amelia Pond, who is meeting the Doctor for the first time (and the Doctor has just regenerated into this particular body). We get enough information in that episode to be able to follow it even if we are completely new to the series entirely.

Since we do not know how they will handle the transition into the Twelfth Doctor (played by Peter Capaldi), there no knowing whether his introduction will make for a doable starting point for a newcomer, but seeing as he will most likely be inheriting Eleven's current companion, Clara, I think it's highly unlikely. We'll see.

As for whether it's a better idea to start with season one or season five, I think it really depends on the viewer. Different viewers will respond differently to different Doctors, which is why I believe a newcomer always should be presented with some kind of alternative - a second chance to get into the show. So, if you start with the series premiere and don't quite respond to it, I urge you to give the season five premiere a shot, just to make sure. And I would give the same recommendation the other way around, if the season five premiere doesn't quite convince you, try and give the regular series premiere a chance before giving up.

The Classic Series

I will admit it right away, I have not (yet) watched all of the classic series. I am working on it, but it's a pretty time consuming task to say the least, as we're talking about 26 seasons (I'm about half way through) covering the tale of seven different Doctors (and we shouldn't forget the movie that features the Eight Doctor either). However, I will do my best to advice you on how to best get into the classic series through how I personally experienced it.

Now, while with the modern series I specifically did not recommend watching episodes out of order, I will give slightly different recommendations with the classic series. Because, I can tell you right away that watching the classic series from start to finish is definitely not for everyone, not even Whovians. Because as great as the series was for its time, it has not really survived the passing of time, and you need to acknowledge that when you dive into it.

Another reason I do not necessarily recommend watching each and every episode is because there are just so many, which wouldn't have been such a bad thing hadn't it been that they really didn't have enough material to fill all those episodes, so some storylines just end up feeling very dragged out (especially in the case of the First and Second Doctor, whose 40 half hour episodes a season were in black and white as well - not to mention that a lot of them went missing, so sometimes all you have is audio plus some still images to tell the story), the characters at times represent outdated gender roles (the chivalrous heroic male, the screaming, helpless female), and you need to just ignore how badly constructed some of the creatures and effects are and instead appreciate them for the creativity that went into making them in spite of the rather restrictive budget.

Unless you are a stickler for watching everything, I'd rather recommend talking to classic who fans, get their recommendations on which are the best storylines for each of the Doctors, use those to get an idea of what each of the Doctors are like, and if you end up liking any of them specifically, then go back and watch their story arc from start to finish. I believe that will help you get a better relationship with the classic series than forcing yourself through each and every episode of every single Doctor.

Being primarily a modern who fan, I still think it's important to have some classic knowledge, because after all, this is where the show started, it's all part of the current Doctor's history. And there really are some gems to be found, trust me on that. A lot of it might be a bit dated by now, but that doesn't there isn't great stuff in there from time to time. Below I have included the most fantastic fan made trailer for the upcoming 50th Anniversary Celebration, which gives insight into all incarnations of the Doctor to this date, as well as a lot of the companions that travelled with him.

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