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So long, and thanks for all the fish!
Like many people, I often discover shows late. My love for Community, for example, is something I’ve only recently embraced. Thankfully, we live in a great age of technology, where access to every previously aired episode is available for immediate consumption. Sometimes it’s great, but there are other times when “catching up” can seem entirely too daunting.
At least, that’s how I initially felt about Doctor Who.
I mean, come on, the longest running science-fiction show EVER? As of September 2012, the show has aired over 785 episodes covering 225 unique stories. It has been an establishment in nerd-dom since 1963. How do you start preparing yourself for a series like that? Where do you begin? Is such a huge commitment even worth it?
The answer is a resounding yes.
So, with the debut of the seventh season (of the 2000’s revival) this month, I’m here to tell you there’s no better time than the present to become a Who fan. It doesn’t take long before you fall head over heels in love with the brilliant, fast talking Doctor and his magical time machine. It’s helpful, though, if you know a few things before you dive right in. Here are 10 important bullets to prepare you for the epic saga that is Doctor Who.
The show follows the adventures of a titular alien, traveling under the pseudonym of “Doctor”, from the planet Gallifrey. The Doctor looks physically human, but is physiologically very different (he has two hearts and is capable of completely regenerating his body). He possesses a dizzying intellect, holds an expertise in virtually every subject from medicine to cheese-making, and fosters a deep love for humanity. He travels through time and space with a companion, hoping to show them the universe, but often ending up in a wild, mostly dangerous, adventure.
Really old. We’re talking older than Yoda. It’s often said that the Doctor himself isn’t sure exactly how old he is. Last time he was asked, his reply was about 1103 years. Although the Doctor faces death, destruction and likely extermination in virtually every episode, he’s survived this long due to a time lord’s unique ability to regenerate. Near the time of his death, he can heal himself by completely remaking his body. This takes a massive amount of energy and appears to be very painful. The Doctor said once that, barring any terrible accidents, it might be possible for him to live forever.
The current Doctor, as portrayed by Matt Smith, is in his 11th regeneration. Although each Doctor retains the memories and experiences of the previous versions, his personality, likes and dislikes, tastes and mannerisms change with the regeneration process. For example, 10, as portrayed by the truly gifted David Tennant, preferred the exclamation “Brilliant!” and “Allons-y!” while 11 (Matt Smith) is partial to “Geronimo!”. His outfits also change. Number 4, (Tom Baker) is fondly remembered by his signature scarf, while 11 is partial to bow-ties. Even his accent changes, as 9 (Christopher Eccleston) is remarked to have a distinct Northern dialect. A friend once recommended I watch the first episode with each Doctor to get a feel for the show. It’s something I completely endorse, unless you don’t like picking favorites.
The Doctor is capable of traveling to almost any moment in time or any place within the universe (and sometimes, outside of the universe). The Doctor has traveled from the Big Bang to the year ten trillion and back again. Traveling through all known time and space is bound to get a little hairy, so there are some general rules. You’re not able to alter certain, fixed historical points. The Titanic always sinks and, try as you might, you can’t kill Hitler. You also can’t cross over and alter your own timeline to prevent yourself from getting into craziness in the first place. Sure, there are paradoxes and times where the rules are treated more like guidelines, but there are consequences (nothing big happens, just the universe exploding; you know, no big deal).
He travels in a “borrowed” type 40 TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension In Space) transporter. The Ship is old and often prone to break downs and technical malfunctions. For example, the craft’s chameleon circuit cloaking device is broken and the TARDIS appears as a 1963 London Police Box. This insignificant, unassuming blue call booth is actually a gigantic vessel, complete with a library, cafeteria, squash courts, swimming pools and, of course, a control room. Although the Doctor has been flying with her for roughly 900 years, the TARDIS often fails to transport him to his desired place or time, exchanging pristine vistas and calm beaches for settings where his help is truly needed.
The Doctor travels with companions. Often a young, human, female, and frustrated with their dreary, earth bound, day to day monotony. There have been many notables, including the current couple: Amelia Pond, “the girl who waited”, and Rory Williams “the last centurion”. Companions keep the doctor going and keep him moving forward (figuratively, of course). They offer friendship on long, lonely journeys. They motivate him. More often than not, however, they fall into a trap or danger and need to be saved by the Doctor. The Doctor is often torn between his guilt and anxiety of endangering his friends and the chilling solitude of traveling alone.
For the children of Britain, it’s often joked that Doctor Who is typically experienced while hiding behind the sofa. A few episodes into the series, it’s not too hard to understand why. There are some really scary villains and our protagonists often find themselves in very tough situations. People are trapped and they suffer. Sometimes, people die. The Doctor does his best, but he can’t save everyone, not all the time.
Generally, time lords are taught to practice non-intervention when traveling through time and space. The Doctor, however, cannot tolerate cruelty and injustice and is will do whatever it takes when threatened. Although generally considered a compassionate character and a champion of non-violence, he is a veteran of many brutal conflicts. He is one of the only known survivors of the last Great Time War, between the Time Lords and the Daleks that destroyed Gallifrey. Other villians, mostly aliens, exist like Cybermen, Weeping Angels, rogue Daleks and the renegade Time Lord, the Master. His primary “weapon” against these brutes is his quick wit. He doesn’t have a gun, a laser or a blaster. He does, however, have a sonic screwdriver. It’s a multifunctional tool that can pick locks, perform body scans, and sometimes disable weapons. But mostly there’s just lots (and lots) of running.
The humor can be very dry, but don’t let this dissuade you. This show has been a UK pop culture staple for so long that the current writers, actors, and producers all grew up with some exposure to the Doctor. Steven Moffat, head writer and executive producer, told Entertainment Weekly that he’s been watching it for ages and loves being a part of the show. It’s obvious, too; since Moffat has taken over as head writer, we’ve seen a depth and development to the characters that wasn’t present in earlier seasons. The production value is also amazing, and it’s refreshingly clear that the people working on the show genuinely care about it.
You can stream all of the episodes since the 2005 revival right now on Netflix. You can also start in medias res by catching the episodes as the air on BBC and BBC America Saturday evenings at 9pm EDT. Many of the older episodes can be found, too, but you might have to do a little more digging. If you want to start at the very beginning, here’s one of the best guides to setting up your queue I’ve seen.
So, what are you waiting for? Time to start that not-so-new adventure that’s been captivating hearts and minds for generations and that’s sure to keep you glued to the computer for months. Check out #newtowho on bbcamerica.com/doctor-who and we’ll see you right back here after the Christmas special!