Doctor Who’s set to celebrate its 50th anniversary next year. It’s basically a national treasure in Britain. Half the country’s grown up watching it. And right now, tonight, is the absolute perfect time for you to jump into this show if you’ve never seen it. WETA UK begins Doctor Who with the first episode of what is *technically* Series 28 (I think?), but that doesn’t matter, because this is also the episode that marks the series’ return after a 16 year hiatus. Referred to by fans as the “reboot,” the series was reinvented and restarted for a new audience in 2005 with the introduction of the Ninth Doctor, played by Christopher Eccleston. Its initial episode, Rose, basically serves as a second pilot of sorts and explains all the history you’ll need to know to feel completely up to speed on the show’s premise and the Doctor’s backstory.
I promise this system works. Nine is “my” Doctor – fan code for the particular incarnation of the character that gets you hooked on Who – so I didn’t go back and start watching earlier installments (like those featuring Tom Baker, William Hartnell and Peter Davison’s Doctors) until well after I was already a die-hard Whovian. This is a perfect entry point to the series and to the “Whoniverse” as a whole.
But why should you bother? Well, I thought you’d never ask. Doctor Who is not only my favorite television series – of any type, genre or era – it’s a wonderful example of how television can remain smart and interesting and brave and relevant over an extended time frame, without condescending to its audience. It is, quite simply, one of the best television series ever made, and certainly one of the best things airing on any network right now. Great writing, fun adventures, scary monsters and characters that will make you laugh and cry at the same time. TV doesn’t really get a lot better than this.
Click through for some specifics about why, if you’re a person that loves quality television programming, you should give the WETA UK premiere of Doctor Who a chance tonight. And I promise I won’t even say I told you so afterward.
Did any of you ever see the musical tribute that late night host Craig Ferguson did for Doctor Who? If not, take a second and watch the clip below, because it’s not only hysterical, it’s actually kind of a great three minute introduction to the basic concept of the show. Even if it is full of singing puppets and people in some seriously bizarre costumes. It’s still awesome.
Anyway, this clip says that Doctor Who illustrates “the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism,” which is maybe the most succinct way I’ve ever heard of describing what makes this show, at heart, so incredibly fantastic to watch.
Yes, Doctor Who is science fiction show. Yes, it’s about a 900 year old (ish) humanoid alien who has a fantastic blue box that can travel through all of time and space. Yes there are lots of aliens and monsters and occasionally really cheesey special effects and, I promise you, none of that actually matters so much at all. You don’t have to love sci-fi to watch this show – at their hearts, the stories of Doctor Who are fairly straightforward tales about friendship and love and hope and bravery and loss and what it really means to care about something more than yourself.
So, why should you watch?
Do you know like we were sayin'? About the Earth revolving? It's like when you're a kid. The first time they tell you that the world's turning and you just can't quite believe it 'cause everything looks like it's standin' still. I can feel it. The turn of the Earth. The ground beneath our feet is spinnin' at 1,000 miles an hour and the entire planet is hurtling around the sun at 67,000 miles an hour, and I can feel it. We're fallin' through space, you and me, clinging to the skin of this tiny little world, and if we let go... That's who I am. ~”Rose”
The Doctor. The show revolves around a character known simply as “the Doctor.” (No, his name is not actually “Doctor Who.”) The Doctor is a Time Lord, a particular species of alien from a planet called Gallifrey who have the power to travel through time and space. He’s the last of his kind. The Doctor is an amazing character – lonely and loving, angry and sad, beautiful and terrible, all at the same time. He’s a hero, with so much heart and compassion, who will go to any lengths to right wrongs, save everyone in danger, and give even the worst villains the chance to change. This is not to say that the Doctor does not have flaws – he’s got plenty. But you’ll love him anyway. It’s pretty hard not to.
The other awesome (and occasionally heartbreaking) big fact about Time Lords is that when they get sick or injured, instead of dying, they can regenerate a new body. This “new” Doctor will look and act differently, and have different dominant personality traits, but retain all the memories of his previous incarnations. This has allowed the actor playing the Doctor to change over the years – we’re currently on number Eleven – and this trick gives the show the chance to basically reinvent itself every few years, because all the Doctors are very different, and his “companions” (basically, sidekicks) rotate in and out on a regular basis as well.
Doctor Who has also been blessed with some truly great actors in its leading role, who all bring something unique and fantastic to the part. Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor is incredible – angry and rageful and menacing, but at the same time humorous and endearing and sweet. (I’m a bit biased.) David Tennant who takes on the role of the Tenth Doctor in Series 2 retains several key pieces from Eccleston’s incarnation within his own performance, but still manages to create his own completely separate version of the character, with a unique set of mannerisms, personality quirks and defining traits.
The universe is big – it’s vast and complicated and ridiculous. And sometimes, very rarely, impossible things just happen and we call them miracles. ~”The Eleventh Hour”
The Endless Creativity/Possibilities. You can go anywhere with the Doctor – really. Episodes can take place in the future, the past, on alien worlds or in alternate timelines. In Series 1 alone, you’ll witness the end of the Earth five billion years in the future, meet Charles Dickens, visit the London Blitz, travel to a bizarre game show world who produces the reality television of the future (including the best version of The Weakest Link *ever*), and spend some time in regular old London. Future seasons will introduce you to Queen Victoria, Shakespeare, Agatha Christie and Winston Churchill, as well take you to Pompeii, show you a black hole, put you on board a space version of the Titanic, and introduce you to a wide variety of amazing aliens some nice (Cat People!) and some not (Weeping Angels).
The series’ setting is rich enough that it’s certainly never boring and it’s so populated that it actually feels like a real universe – constantly building upon and refreshing itself and expanding as the stories continue. And for those of you who like some continuity along with your monsters-of-the-week, there’s generally a larger storyline arc going on in the background of each episode. One shot characters make frequent return appearances and the science fiction elements allow the writers a tremendous amount of leeway both in the ways in which they can tell stories and the risks they can take, creatively. Want an episode where the Doctor doesn’t realize he’s the Doctor? Done. Want an episode in which the Doctor barely appears? Done. Want an episode that shows you what might have been if one person made one different choice in a seemingly tiny moment? Done. The possibilities with this show are endless.
You can spend the rest of your life with me, but I can’t spend the rest of mine with you. I have to live on. Alone. That’s the curse of the Time Lords. ~”School Reunion”
The Amazing Companions. The Doctor is very old and can travel anywhere – it makes sense that he doesn’t want to do it alone. There are a series of “companions” – really sidekicks, in a way – who travel with the Doctor and have adventures. They’re all awesome, and they help give us as the audience a frame of reference for these fantastical stories.
One of the things that makes Doctor Who so appealing, is that it’s not just the story of a Time Lord, but also the story of the people he meets, and the people they become as a result of traveling with him. The companions are just as important as our lead character – you’ll certainly love them just as much – and their stories illustrate how ordinary people can do truly extraordinary things, and can become more than they ever thought they could be, thanks to the experiences they gain with the Doctor. You’ll inevitably have some companions you care about more than others (I love Rose beyond all sense, for example), but they’re all interesting, unique and compelling, even the ones that only stick around for an episode or two. It’s another reason why, despite this fact that this show is about an alien, that Doctor Who doesn’t feel alien. You'll care about all these people precisely because they're so very human and you'll cheer for them when they achieve great things.
You don't just give up. You don’t just let things happen. You make a stand. You say "no." You have the guts to do what's right when everyone else just runs away! ~”The Parting of the Ways”
The Fact That It Expects You To Keep Up. Doctor Who is ostensibly a “kids’ show” on paper, but it’s one of those rare programs that really respects the intellect of its audience. It encourages you to be an engaged, active viewer. The series expects that you’re a reasonably smart person who enjoys clever plots, snappy dialogue and characters with layers. Considering a lot of what passes as mainstream television these days, this is pretty well amazing.
The storylines of the individual episodes are widely varied and can run the gauntlet from humor to horror to romance to mystery. Every episode is wonderfully clever and well-crafted and encourages viewers to be active participants while watching the show. You’ll laugh and cry and be scared, often within the same episode. You’ll want to use some of the characters’ better quips and one-liners in real life (not that I am in any way guilty of that ever, cough). It's the sort of television that makes you feel
We’re all stories in the end. Just make it a good one, eh? ~”The Big Bang”
Nearly 50 Years of Viewers Can’t Be Wrong: The Universality & Accessibility of the Stories. This is a science fiction show – that’s what it says on the tin, anyway – but don’t let the aliens and time travel fool you, this is a sci-fi show that anyone can love. Yes, it’s got aliens and whatnot, but its stories are universal. As much as an episode might be about creepy store mannequins who come to life on the surface, it’s also about friendship and bravery and love and hope and just everything. It can be a romance, or a mystery or a comedy or an adventure, so it’s very easy to find some aspect to enjoy. You can very easily laugh, cry and cheer over the very same episode. And most of all, Doctor Who does its best to remind us always that love and intelligence and reason can conquer fear, ignorance and hate. It reminds us that humanity is, at heart, good, and capable of truly amazing things. This is what has made Doctor Who so appealing for so many years and hopefully what will keep people watching for many more.
So, try it out tonight! The first episode, Rose, airs at 10pm tonight on WETA UK. (And for the already existing Whovians, stick around, I think there’s going to be a rewatch post series of this in our near future!)