Doctor Who viewing guide

Doctor Who is one of the oldest things on TV. It’s been running for 55 years! That’s ages. And unlike, say, Star Trek, it’s not as easy as ‘pick a show name and stick with that to start with, then branch out.’

A close-up on an old police public telephone post in London. It is blue, with a blanking plate reading "POLICE TELEPHONE WAS FREE FOR USE OF PUBLIC." Graffiti to the left says "Bad Wolf".

This guide, when it was on my old website, was much longer. It had a listing of every single episode since Doctor Who came back on TV, with marks out of ten and ‘critical paths.’ I’ve made it much simpler and more manageable now. Partly because I hadn’t updated the old one for years, partly because the producers have made an effort to make the show more accessible.

Who is Doctor Who?

Doctor Who is a show about travelling in space and time.

The Doctor (that’s the only name she uses—no-one knows her birth name) is the main character. She is an alien, a Time Lord, and travels the universe in the TARDIS, a ship that camouflages itself as a police telephone box from 1963. She usually brings some human friends in tow, gets into scrapes, and rights wrongs along the way.

When their bodies are wounded, aged, or dying, Time Lords can replace them with a process called regeneration, giving them a new face, a new voice, and sometimes a change in their gender or apparent species. The Doctor is currently on her thirteenth (ish) body, which is also the first time she’s been a woman.

In the real world, of course, regeneration is a way to re-cast the Doctor. The Thirteenth Doctor is played by Jodie Whittaker.

Some recent favourites

Want to be reasonably up to date with the newest stuff, so you’re ready when series 12 drops sometime in 2020? Try this if you don’t have the time for much else…

All these episodes are from Doctor Who new series 11, broadcast from late 2018—early 2019. Starring Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor, with Bradley Walsh as Graham, Mandip Gill as Yasmin, and Tosin Cole as Ryan.

  • The Woman Who Fell To Earth (written by Chris Chibnall, directed by Jamie Childs): the Thirteenth Doctor falls from the sky and lands, very neatly, in a train in Sheffield. She makes some new friends, and is caught in a race against time while her body’s still rebuilding itself.
  • The Ghost Monument (written by Chris Chibnall, directed by Mark Tonderai): A serviceable follow-up. A race against the elements on a hostile world as the Doctor rushes to return to her ship.
  • Demons of the Punjab (written by Vinay Patel, directed by Jamie Childs): The Doctor’s friend, Yaz, has been given her grandmother’s old watch, and senses there’s something she’s not being told. Team TARDIS follow the watch and land in Partition-era India, with Yaz’s Nani about to marry someone who isn’t her grandfather. A startlingly simple and powerful Doctor Who episode and an instant classic.
  • The Witchfinders (written by Joy Wilkinson, directed by Sallie Aprahamian): The Doctor becomes embroiled in a witch-hunt. King James VI and I is enamoured by the Doctor’s friend Ryan. And all the while, something dark is moving in the earth, in the soil.
  • The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos (written by Chris Chibnall, directed by Jamie Childs): A mysterious planet swimming in distress signals provides the setting for a small-scale, but enjoyable, and rather tense, closure to the arc that began with The Woman Who Fell to Earth.
  • Resolution (written by Chris Chibnall, directed by Wayne Yip): Something terrible has been awoken at a dig site under Sheffield. The thing begins its killing spree quickly, as the Doctor realises she is chasing one of her oldest foes, a violent monster hell-bent on exterminating anything not like itself: a Dalek.

Some deeper cuts

If you want to delve deeper into some of Doctor Who’s enormous body of episodes, you might enjoy these:

  • Blink (new series 3. David Tennant as the Doctor, Freema Agyeman as Martha Jones, Carey Mulligan as Sally Sparrow, written by Steven Moffat, directed by Hettie MacDonald): This is proper horror. Statues that will send you back in time and feed on your lost days. Deft, sharp, terrifying. Don’t blink.
  • The End of the World (new series 1. Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor, Billie Piper as Rose, written by Russell T Davies, directed by Euros Lyn): The Doctor takes Rose, his new friend, to the future—to the end of the world. But something’s not right on the observation platform, as the blooming sun begins to engulf the Earth…
  • Dalek (new series 1. Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor, Billie Piper as Rose, written by Robert Shearman, directed by Joe Ahearne): The Doctor was the only survivor of the war between the Time Lords and the Daleks… wasn’t he? Directed with urgency and horror, this is a corker.
  • Planet of the Ood (new series 4. David Tennant as the Doctor, Catherine Tate as Donna, written by Keith Temple, directed by Graeme Harper): when Doctor Who goes ambitious and it lands well, it’s the best show on television. This story of a species forced into servitude is just that.
  • The Eleventh Hour (new series 5. Matt Smith as the Doctor, Karen Gillan as Amy, written by Steven Moffat, directed by Adam Smith): An almost perfect, laugh-a-minute, fast-paced introduction to the Eleventh Doctor, and the little girl whose garden the TARDIS crashes into one night…
  • Mummy on the Orient Express (new series 8. Peter Capaldi as the Doctor, Jenna Coleman as Clara, written by Jamie Mathieson, directed by Paul Wilmshurst): The Doctor and his friend Clara have pushed each other to the limit. They have lost their patience and agreed to part ways. But there’s time for one last hurrah. A journey on a spaceship styled like the Orient Express—but one by one, the passengers and crew are starting to die suddenly…
  • City of Death (classic season 17. Tom Baker as the Doctor, Lalla Ward as Romana, written by David Fisher, Douglas Adams and Graham Williams, directed by Michael Hayes): A good way to dip your toes into some classic, pre-revival Doctor Who! Paris. An attempted theft of the Mona Lisa. Time distortions. Bouillabaisse! A charming story from the late 1970s that’s still enjoyable today.
  • Thin Ice (new series 10. Peter Capaldi as the Doctor, Pearl Mackie as Bill, written by Sarah Dollard, directed by Bill Anderson): The Doctor and his student Bill have landed in London in 1815, on the frozen surface of the River Thames. Below the surface, something is taking children… Watch this, then watch all of series 10. It’s brilliant.

Fear makes companions of all of us…