The 50-year-old British sci-fi program Doctor Who had a big day yesterday. With much fanfare, the BBC announced that Peter Capaldi would be taking on the role of the 12th Doctor. The simple fact that there have been 11 other actors playing that role can be a frightening prospect for potential new fans, but taking the leap isn't that hard.
Contending with 50 years of history is an intimidating thing even for season television critics. During BBC America's presentation at the Television Critics Association, The Hollywood Reporter's Tim Goodman tweeted: "I will just dutifully type Doctor comments w/o comment since that's a show I never watched, felt intimidated by the history, stayed away." The Daily Beast's Jason Lynch wrote: "Doctor Who is first up. I guess this is where I confess that I've never watched an episode of Doctor Who. (ducks)."
But jumping into Doctor Who is rather easy. Yes, there may be 50 years of history, but as Barnaby Edwards of the New York Doctor Who fan group explained to us in a telephone call, "that 50 years of history isn't that intimidating." That is, when you actually look deeper.
Doctor Who is an example of something we don't see much of outside of police procedurals these days: it's an anthology show. Unlike, say, Lost or Breaking Bad, you don't need to have watched every episode to know what's happening most of the time. And in the age of Netflix you don't need to feel pressured to watch every single episode available. As Edwards noted, you can sum up the premise in "a sentence:" The Doctor is an alien known as a Time Lord who travel in time around the universe in a spaceship known as the TARDIS with a (usually female) companion. When a Doctor encounters something fatal, he regenerates, which explains why different actors with different personalities can have played him over time.
But where on Earth do you get started? Well, first off: no one is asking that much of you. All four of the Doctor Who fans I spoke with told me to start within the context of the modern series, which rebooted in 2005. The original series, which began in 1963, experts aid can be tougher to get into just because it's an older model of television, which is paced more slowly and, in England, resembled a theatrical production. But there are different ways to enter even the series even when you just contain yourself to those seven (yes, seven) seasons. (FYI Netflix only has the rebooted series so that in itself is self-containing. Update: a commenter rightly points out that the classic series is available under a different title on Netflix.)
Matthew Dow Smith, a comic book artist behind Doctor Who titles, explained in an email that until Matt Smith, who currently plays the doctor, announced that he was leaving Smith (the other one) "always recommended his first episode, and told people if they liked that to go back and watch the rest of the new show." He added: " I'm surprised how many people then come back interested in a good starting point for the old show. Soon, I'll be recommending starting with the new Doctor's first episode and then going back if you like it."
Lynne Thomas, the editor of the book Chicks Dig Time Lords, wrote in a separate email that she usually explains that since "it's a show about time travel, so there's no way to do it wrong so long as you start at the beginning of a given story as that's less confusing." She said you can wait for Capaldi, but that would leave you waiting. Both she and Graeme Burk, co-author of two books on the Doctor, suggested starting with either the first season of the updated show, wherein Christopher Eccleston plays the ninth Doctor, or the fifth season, the start of Smith's run as the eleventh. Edwards also noted you can just watch the most recent season to acquaint yourself, and that there are individual episodes that standalone as great examples of storytelling that may get a viewer hooked. One such example that both Edwards and Thomas recommended is "Blink." The episode features a pre-fame Carey Mulligan as a girl who has to defeat terrifying monsters knowing as the Weeping Angels with clues from the Doctor who is stuck in 1969.
I started my own personal Doctor Who adventure before consulting with any of these experts. (Though I did reach out on Twitter, and heard a similar suggestion.) As I read reports from the show's Comic-Con panel something told me I would like it. I enjoy sci-fi, am a bit of an Anglophile, and like shows charming yet not-totally-well-adjusted male leads. (See Doctor Who executive producer Stevan Moffat's Sherlock.) I watched that pilot episode featuring Eccelston first. While I enjoyed it I wasn't enthralled, so I jumped ahead to the second season which began David Tennant's run as the Doctor. I somehow knew I would like Tennant having read that he was a favorite Doctor and having seen this Comic Relief sketch totally not getting all the Doctor Who jokes. Tennant, I guess for now, is my doctor, as fans like to call their preferential actors. I zoomed through his first season, and by the last episode I was sobbing as the Doctor got separated from his companion Rose, a shopgirl from a working-class family who I would like to consult on eyeliner tips. Tennant, in my limited experience, has been a charming, accessible doctor. He's jokey, but not silly, sweet, but not saccharine, and kind of a looker without being a heartthrob. Plus, he's just a darn good actor. (See: Broadchurch or the fact that his Hamlet has been called the "greatest" of his generation.)
Wikipedia has been my friend on this jaunt. Whenever there's something that pops up that I think may be a callback, I Google it. The appearance of Sarah Jane Smith—a companion of older doctors—in the episode "School Reunion" merited a search, as did the history of the Cybermen villains. BBC America is also helpful when it comes to learning the history, producing the Doctors Revisited documentaries, featuring a #NewToWho section on their website, and pitching the show as accessible at the TCAs.
Having seen only one full season, I'm in no way a Doctor Who expert, but I do feel like a budding fan, and one that will be accepted into the fan community even though Burk explained he doesn't think Doctor Who fans sell themselves very well. "I don't think Doctor Who fans do them much of a service either," he said. "They make it so it's vast and impenetrable." And while, yes, it can seem "vast and impenetrable" the fact that the Doctor and his stories are ageless are helpful. "I think that the inherent flexibility of Doctor Who as a storytelling medium makes it welcoming to new fans," Thomas wrote. "If you don't enjoy one part of it, it will completely change (actors, production teams, etc.) over time, and there's 50 years worth of history to catch up on!" I may not catch up with the modern series by November, but you can bet I'll be tuning into the anniversary special, and you need not steer clear of it either.