You know, I’ve covered a lot of geeky stuff these past couple months and, assuming you read the title, you won’t be surprised to learn my love of all things nerd also extends to the long-running British TV series, Doctor Who. For those of you who don’t have a clue what Doctor Who is, allow me to provide a brief overview.
How about a little music to set the mood?
In the vast reaches of the cosmos, there is an alien known as The Doctor; a Time Lord who ran away from their home planet in a stolen time machine called a TARDIS. This impossible machine is bigger on the inside, can take it’s passengers anywhere in time and space, and is perpetually stuck in the form of a blue police box from 1963. Often accompanied by one or more human “companions”, the Doctor travels from place to place righting wrongs, defeating monsters, and generally leaving things better than when they arrived.
Additionally, should The Doctor’s body ever sustain too much damage, the Time Lords have the unique ability to “regenerate”. This process can repair the damage and even save them from death, but at the cost of altering their entire body at the cellular level, and one never knows what kind of Doctor will emerge. Though their body (and their fashion sense) may continue to change, one thing never will: The Doctor will always be there to save the day.
As someone who has followed the show since it’s “revival” back in 2005, I can wholeheartedly recommend Doctor Who to anyone who has even a passing interest in science fiction or fantasy. However, I understand that not everyone has the time or the interest to add yet another show to their pile of movies, TV shows, and other miscellaneous media. I’ve currently got a back-list of Marvel TV shows that’s about a mile high, so believe me, I get it. Fortunately, Doctor Who features a number of “standalone” episodes; forty-five minute tales that tell one complete story and aren’t too bogged down in continuity or a larger season long story arc. For those people who can only spare an hour or so, I present nine Doctor Who episodes that you can watch right now, without having to resort to Wikipedia.
So, with all the preamble out of the way, shall we?
Series One, Episode Six
Directed by Joe Ahearne
Written by Robert Shearman
Let’s kick off this list with a staple of Doctor Who, a classic “base under siege” story featuring one of the most popular monsters in the series fifty-five year history: the Daleks. As I stated before though, you don’t have to have watched the classic series to understand what’s going on, as the episode quickly establishes who the Daleks are and what they’re capable of. If you watch any other episode on this list you’ll see the Doctor face off against a number of monsters, but it’s the Doctor’s relationship to the Daleks in particular that really defines the character moving forward. If you’re looking for a thrilling action-adventure featuring armies of soldiers fighting against an unstoppable monster, while also getting a crash course in “Who-ology”, then Dalek is your best bet.
Series One, Episode Eight
Directed by Joe Ahearne
Written by Paul Cornell
If you could go back in time and save the life of someone you loved, would you? More importantly, should you? When the Doctor’s companion, Rose, chooses to save her father from a hit-and-run accident, the result is an emotional roller-coaster ride with all of time and space at stake. While many viewers (including myself) were left cold by the time-devouring “Reapers”, I would strongly argue the emotional core of the episode — the relationship between Rose and her father — is as strong here as Doctor Who has ever been. Watch it, then maybe go give your parents a hug, eh?
THE GIRL IN THE FIREPLACE
Series Two, Episode Four
Directed by Euros Lyn
Written by Steven Moffat
I’m afraid to say much about this one for fear of spoilers, but suffice to say it involves an 18th century fireplace, a 51st century spaceship, a young French woman named Reinette, and an impossible romance. While this episode has a more traditional monster in the form of malfunctioning robots, the real monster of this tale is time itself. As we see repeatedly throughout this tale, time marches on with or without us, and not even a Time Lord is immune to it. I’m usually pretty cold when it comes to the romance genre, but darn it if The Girl in the Fireplace doesn’t still warm my heart every time I see it.
Series Three, Episode Ten
Directed by Hettie MacDonald
Written by Steven Moffat
The perfect “stealth” episode, in that you can hardly tell it’s an episode of Doctor Who at all. Appearances from the Doctor, his human companion, and his time machine are all kept to an absolute minimum here. Instead, the main focus of this episode is a photographer named Sally Sparrow, who is motivated to follow a series of bizarre clues after discovering some strange writing in an old abandoned house: “BEWARE THE WEEPING ANGELS”. Whether you’re a long-time fan or someone who’s just looking for a fantastic one-and-done adventure, Blink is definitely a must-see.
THE UNICORN AND THE WASP
Series Four, Episode Seven
Directed by Graeme Harper
Written by Gareth Roberts
“Thrills and chills” are Doctor Who’s bread and butter, but that doesn’t mean every episode has to be full of jump scares or have a heartbreaking tragedy at the center of it. Maybe you want to watch something a bit lighter with that one free hour of the day you have; something with a little mystery and a couple solid laughs. In that case, I present to you this fun romp of an episode, in which the Doctor solves a murder-mystery with the help of the queen of the genre herself: Agatha Christie. Does The Unicorn and the Wasp feature a revolutionary tale that will shatter all your preconceptions of the murder-mystery genre? Certainly not, but it’s still a pretty entertaining hour of television, so I won’t let it bug me too much.
Series Four, Episode Ten
Directed by Alice Troughton
Written by Russell T. Davies
More than any other episode on this list, Midnight looks and feels like a pure psychological horror. The story takes place in a small space shuttle as The Doctor and a random assortment of passengers take a tour across the surface of a planet called Midnight — it’s beautiful crystal surface bathed in incredibly lethal radiation — when things slowly but surely start to go wrong. To say much more would spoil the ride, but suffice to say this episode shows humanity at it’s weakest point: confused, angry, and scared out of their minds. It’s definitely not an episode for the faint of heart, but if you’re in the mood to take a trip into darkness then Midnight might be just the ticket.
THE WATERS OF MARS
2009 Autumn Special
Directed by Graeme Harper
Written by Russell T. Davies & Phil Ford
Here’s another episode that chooses to borrow heavily from the horror genre, often to terrifying results. When it comes to paying attention to the “rules” of time travel, shows like Doctor Who tend to get a lot more leeway for the sake of moving a plot forward. The Waters of Mars on the other hand has our titular time traveler placed in the center of a situation where it is impossible to interfere without basically breaking time. So, naturally, that’s when his help is needed the most. It’s fitting that this entry comes right after Midnight, as they could almost be seen as companion pieces (pun fully intended). Both stories show characters pushed to their absolute limits, but while Midnight chose to shine a light on the darker tendencies of terrified ordinary people, The Waters of Mars shows us, in no uncertain terms, what can happen if you push a time traveler to the edge. If that sounds like something you’d be interested in then I would highly recommend giving The Waters of Mars a try, though you might need a stiff drink afterwards.
VINCENT AND THE DOCTOR
Series Five, Episode Ten
Directed by Jonny Campbell
Written by Richard Curtis
I don’t want to play favorites but in this case I can’t help myself, I really love this episode. I’m willing to admit Vincent and The Doctor is not a perfect story; the set-up for this adventure is pretty weak — essentially The Doctor spots something “evil” in a Van Gogh painting and wants to check it out — and the “evil” monster itself is a tad on the generic side. However, I can forgive all that because this episode also gave us Tony Curran as Vincent Van Gogh, a heartbreakingly accurate portrayal that captures Van Gogh’s unbridled joy at the world around him and his own inner turmoil. You just want to reach into the screen, give this guy a hug and tell him everything is gonna be alright. Plus, even if I’m not too big on how the episode started I can honestly say the last ten minutes are, no joke, one of the most beautiful endings in all of Doctor Who. Basically, it’s a work of art.
ROBOT OF SHERWOOD
Series Eight, Episode Three
Directed by Paul Murphy
Written by Mark Gatiss
Let’s cap off this post with something light to send us off: Robot of Sherwood. Our story begins with an innocuous request from the Doctor’s companion, Clara, who wishes to go back in time and meet one of England’s all-time greatest heroes: Robin Hood. Despite The Doctor’s insistence that “Robin Hood” is just a made-up story, they reluctantly travel back to 12th century England, Sherwood Forest, and in just a few short moments comes face to face with a grinning archer clad head-to-toe in green. The next hour or so is a briskly told tale with swashbuckling action, plenty of jokes, and quite possibly my favorite take on the Archery Contest ever put to film. On a slightly more meta note, it’s fun to see a story that has not one but two British icons having to deal with the legends that history has shaped them into. Ultimately whether they’re real or not doesn’t really matter, only that their stories continue to inspire others for generations to come. As Robin says, “history is a burden. Stories can make us fly.”
While nothing on my list was designed to be a jumping on point for new watchers, there are plenty of other options if you want to follow the larger story as well. If you want my personal recommendations your three best bets for starting with the least amount of “baggage” are, in order:
Rose (Series One, Episode One): The beginning of the “revival” period for Doctor Who and the ideal starting point for new watchers.
The Eleventh Hour (Series Five, Episode One): A new Doctor, a new showrunner, and quite possibly the best introductory episode in the show’s history.
The Woman Who Fell To Earth (Series Eleven, Episode One (NOTE: premiering this Sunday on BBC and BBC America!)): Don’t be intimidated by the fact that this is Series Eleven; by all accounts this newest season looks to be the cleanest “clean slate” the show has had in years.
Alright, that’s enough of that from me. If you’re new to Who, I hope you found something on this list that interests you, and for those of you who are already watching, feel free to leave a comment telling me some of your favorite standalone episodes, or tell me I’m an idiot for putting The Unicorn and The Wasp on my list and not Listen. Constructive criticism, as always, is welcome.
All images used are the property of their respective owners and have been sourced when appropriate. Doctor Who, including all characters and episodes therein, are copyright the BBC. I own nothing.