Welcome to the Weekly Binge, where we take a closer look at the shows that are worth your time. And by that we mean a lot of your time — we focus on the shows that obliterate those nights and weekends that would otherwise be spent on more “productive” pursuits (and when we say “productive,” we mean “less interesting”). So let’s yell, “Geronimo!” and dive headlong into the “fantastic” world that is Doctor Who. Allons-y!
What’s the premise? The series chronicles the adventures of the “Doctor,” an alien called a Time Lord, a race that looks just like humans (the Doctor says it’s the other way around — we look just like Time Lords). The Doctor uses a vehicle called the TARDIS, short for Time and Relative Dimension in Space. And did we mention he stole it? Or maybe it stole him? Anyway, it looks like a 1960s era London police box, and it’s much bigger on the inside than on the outside. The Doctor typically has a human “companion” that travels with him, often (but not always) of the younger, female variety. The companion serves as a sort of proxy for the viewing audience, allowing the Doctor to describe the people, places and things they encounter.
Lastly, Time Lords can regenerate new bodies in case of severe injury or disease. This nifty trick allowed for the show’s creators to recast the role early on without having to re-imagine the whole series. And it means that even though we’re currently on the 11th Doctor — and about to get a 12th — the shows are all within the same continuity (unlike the James Bond movies). Nearly all of the Time Lords were destroyed in the Great Time War, so the Doctor is the only one that he knows of, and he’s basically appointed himself humanity’s protector.
What’s it like? It’s difficult to sum up a show that’s been around for 50 years, but one of the constant elements is that the Doctor relies on his wits to get him out of most scrapes. He’s not carrying a weapon and he’s not relying on technobabble; more often than not, he’s simply outsmarting his foes. He can be charming, sweet, and generous, but he also has a dark side that rears its ugly head from time to time.
The seasons — or series, as they’re called in the UK — can look wildly different, depending on which one you’re watching. The really old ones can look cheap, but the writing is still pretty great, and while the series has evolved and become slicker, it has kept its tongue planted firmly in its cheek. The show has usually relied on solid storytelling much more than shock-and-awe special effects. Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica fans will probably find the show pretty accessible, and if you liked Farscape or Babylon 5, you’ll probably be right at home here.
Where can I see it? In the United States, the series runs on BBC America. The 50th Anniversary Special is coming up on 11/23. Then we’ll get a Christmas special, as well as a new Doctor (Peter Capaldi) in the next series, which starts in early 2014. Past episodes are available on Netflix and Hulu Plus, and DVDs and Blu-Ray are available as well.
How long will it take? That depends on how far back in time you would like to travel. The current incarnation of the series (from 2005 until present) clocks in at seven seasons of about 13 episodes each, plus specials, which will take about three to four weeks of concerted effort to get through. If you want to watch the entire series all the way back to the First Doctor, it will take you an additional two to three weeks. Not everything from the original series is available, so you catch a little break there.
What do the critics think? The Doctor seems to operate mostly off the critics’ radar. But the fifth season is at 100 percent on the Tomatometer. It wasn’t until David Tennant’s tenure as the Doctor that the series garnered critical attention, and his departure and Matt Smith’s arrival made the critics sit up and take notice. Perhaps the arrival of Peter Capaldi next season will activate the Tomatometer once again.
Why should I watch this? After 50 years, the show is more popular than ever. You may have heard some of the speculation about who would replace Matt Smith as the current Doctor. Thanks to the gift of regeneration, the show exhibits no signs of slowing down. In the last few years we’ve seen classic baddies like the Daleks and the Cybermen, and we’ve meet creepy new foes like the Weeping Angels and the Silents. A string of beloved Doctors and companions inspires generation after (re)generation of loyal fans, and have created an expanding universe of Whovians.
What’s my next step? Jump right in this weekend with the 50th Anniversary celebrations! And then jump to whatever point in the Doctor’s timeline you want. It’s all wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff, so begin wherever you like! But our recommendation would be to watch the 50th Anniversary Special, and then pick up the 2005 series featuring Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor. That series is written with new viewers in mind, and it also introduces Rose Tyler, a lot of viewers’ favorite of the newer companions. The next series saw David Tennant as the Doctor, and his tenure really saw Doctor Who capture a broader audience then ever before.