Once viewed by many TV lovers as a niche sci-fi program, Doctor Who and the TARDIS have been popping up with increasing regularity on television screens around the globe. In the past few years, the cult British staple has become a full-on global phenomenon. These days, being a Whovian is, as the eleventh Doctor (played by Matt Smith) would say, “Cool.”
However, with over six seasons of the Russell T. Davies 2005 series relaunch plus three spin-off shows (Torchwood, The Sarah Jane Adventures, and K9) available online and in stores, it can be an especially daunting task to get started – and that’s not even taking the hundreds of classic Doctor Who episodes into consideration.
Fortunately, we’ve put together the following handy guide to help viewers figure out which episodes are a good barometer for whether or not someone will enjoy the series, where to find the show online (in addition to retail shelves), as well as a complete list of Doctor Who episodes, specials, shorts, prequels and tie-ins - including where the Torchwood, Sarah Jane Adventures, and K9 crossovers fit in (assuming you want the “complete” Doctor Who experience).
That said, our guide will only focus on the modern series (starting in 2005) – since the copious amount of content in the classic chapter could be pretty daunting for most viewers who are new to Who. We recommend that interested viewers follow our guide and then, if they’re up for it, go all the way back to the beginning of the franchise with Season 1, Episode 1: “An Unearthly Child” (1963) – which featured the first, and grumpiest, iteration of The Doctor (played by William Hartnell).
Most Doctor Who fans agree that the first episode of the 2005 Russell T. Davies reboot is not a prime example of Doctor Who at its best – and could be off-putting to viewers who are testing out the show for the first time. As a result, we’ve selected three Doctor Who episodes that offer a good sample of what potential viewers can expect from the series – without spoiling too many of the larger story arcs and twists.
That said, as Matt Smith once mentioned while talking about season seven of the series, Doctor Who is about “evolution and regeneration.” Anyone even remotely familiar with the show knows that The Doctor changes form (and actors) from time to time and companions come and go every few seasons. For that reason, our featured episodes will contain mild spoilers for the timing of certain Doctor and companion exits but nothing that will undermine the moments when they actually happen.
If you want to avoid even the most basic spoilers then our best recommendation is to just start at the 2005 relaunch, with Season 1, Episode 1: “Rose,” but keep in mind that the series premiere isn’t representative of the larger show’s quality. Anyone that chooses to start with the premiere should plan to stick with the series for several episodes – to get a much better sense of why Doctor Who is a worthwhile endeavor.
For viewers who aren’t overly-concerned about having a vague timeframe for when a new Doctor might be en route or when a companion might leave the series, below are three Doctor Who indoctrination episodes. This isn’t to say that these three episodes are the absolute best but each one will, for the most part, provide a solid standalone story experience and should help prospective Doctor Who viewers get a sense of the show - without the need for a lengthy canon rundown or, more importantly, overarching series spoilers.
That said, if at any point you’re feeling like Doctor Who might be a fit – forget about our subsequent recommended episodes and jump to the 2005 premiere.
- Blink (Season 3, Episode 11) – A “Doctor-lite” episode. An entirely standalone story centered around Sally Sparrow (played by a pre-fame Carey Mulligan) and her run-in with one of The Doctor’s most feared enemies.
- Midnight (Season 4, Episode 10) – A “Companion-lite” episode. Stuck in the middle of nowhere, The Doctor must battle a terrifying enemy who turns the Doctor’s greatest weapon against him.
- Love & Monsters (Season 2, Episode 10) – A “Doctor-lite” episode. Elton Pope (played by Marc Warren) recounts The Doctor’s impact on a group of strangers as well as the love story that grew out of them all coming together to share their experiences.
It’s hard to imagine any would-be Whovian not seeing the promise in the series after “Blink.” Assuming we’re correct, save “Midnight” as well as “Love & Monsters” for in-context viewing. Like any quality piece of television drama, Doctor Who episodes are most enjoyable as part of a planned out seasonal arc.
Additionally, here are some beginner picks that Moffat and Smith gave:
1. The Ark in Space (1975) – The Doctor and his companions Sarah (Elisabeth Sladen) and Harry (Ian Marter) are on a seemingly deserted space station many years in the future. Station Nerva is not as empty as it appears, though; onboard are the cryogenically preserved survivors of Earth’s destruction, as well as an insect-like alien race, the Wirrin, which are determined to use the humans–and the Doctor–as hosts to grow their monstrous larvae.
2. City of Death (1979) – The Doctor (Tom Baker) and Romana (Lalla Ward) is pitted against a time-traveling alien (Julian Glover) whose body, fragmented by an accident, spurred evolution millions of years ago. Written by “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” author Douglas Adams.
1. The Empty Child (Season 1, Episode 9) - The Doctor and Rose travel back to London in 1941, at the height of the Blitz. A mysterious cylinder is being guarded by the Army, while homeless children (living on the bombsites) are being terrorized by an unearthly child. Rose meets the dashing Captain Jack Harkness – has she found a hero even better than the Doctor?
2. The Doctor Dances (Season 1, Episode 10) - The Child’s plague is spreading throughout the wartime London, and its zombie army is on the march. The Doctor and Rose form an alliance with intergalactic con-man Captain Jack, but find themselves trapped in the abandoned hospital. The answer lies at the bombsite, but time is running out…
3. Blink (Season 3, Episode 11)
Doctor Who is a complicated show full of enough wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff to make any veteran Whovian’s head spin. For that reason, we’ve also put together a list of tips for watching the series that should help newcomers make sense of certain informational bits that might be confusing at first. We’ve also compiled notes that, first and foremost, stress the importance of Christmas episodes and other specials – as well as address a number of frequently asked logistical questions.
- Doctor Who is the question, The Doctor is what he’s refered to as, Doctor is what people call him.
- Doctor Who is always written as Doctor Who, never Dr. Who.
- The Doctor has a name but will only reveal it in special circumstances, to certain people (viewers do not know it).
- The Doctor is 900+ years old and can regenerate. Originally he could regenerate 11 times (for 12 incarnations) but was recently given new regeneration energy.
- Regeneration can occur willingly or as the result of dire circumstances. All memories stay while personality quirks and traits change. However, the Doctor can learn traits from previous incarnations (i.e. to not be too serious).
- Accept that you’re not going to like any incarnation of The Doctor at first. You will also initially hate every newly regenerated Doctor replacing the previous Doctor.
- Similarly, be aware that you will likely not be happy with each new companion at first.
- Christmas Specials are part of the overall story – with lead-ins and cliffhangers to the previous and upcoming episodes/seasons.
- The “Season 2008-2012 Specials” are also essential to the overall Doctor Who story – linking the show’s fourth and fifth seasons.
- Doctor Who has a companion series called Doctor Who Confidential, which shows the making-of/behind-the-scenes of each and every episode. Doctor Who Confidential only aired in the UK but is available on the US DVD & Blu-Ray releases. The BBC canceled Doctor Who Confidential following the season 6 finale.
- Doctor Who DVDs are expensive because they also include every episode of Doctor Who Confidential for the season, plus commentaries, video diaries & more.
- Every episode of Doctor Who (seasons 1-7) is available on Amazon Prime Instant Video and Netflix (in the US).
We’ve already shared a few episodes that can whet your appetite for more Doctor Who but which of the Time Lord’s adventures are the overall best? We’d never be so bold as to put together a “best” episodes list – since there are plenty of high quality installments in the series that appeal to viewers for different reasons. However, we’ve listed our personal favorites below for the sake of discussion.
- The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang
- Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead
- Vincent and the Doctor
- The Girl in the Fireplace
- The Name of the Doctor
- The Girl Who Waited
- The Time of the Doctor
- Human Nature/The Family of Blood
- Father’s Day
Honorable Mentions: Time Crash, Stolen Earth [Ending], The End of Time [Ending], and The Day of the Doctor.
It was hard for us to narrow down our choices to just ten (plus a few honorable mentions) – so we again invite you to share your favorite episodes and Doctor Who memories in the comment section.
The Complete Doctor Who Episode List
(Bolded episode titles are used to highlight exceptional, not simply good, episodes in each season)
Season 1 (2005)
2) The End of the World
3) The Unquiet Dead
4) Aliens of London (Part 1)
5) World War Three (Part 2)
7) The Long Game
8) Father’s Day
9) The Empty Child (Part 1)
10) The Doctor Dances (Part 2)
11) Boom Town
12) Bad Wolf (Part 1)
13) The Parting of the Ways (Part 2)
Season 1 (cont’d)
Born Again [Children in Need Short] [YouTube Link]
14) The Christmas Invasion [Christmas Special]
Season 2 (2006)
(Tardisode prequel shorts were made for each episode in season 2)
1) New Earth [Tardisode YouTube Link]
2) Tooth and Claw [Tardisode YouTube Link]
3) School Reunion [Tardisode YouTube Link]
4) The Girl in the Fireplace [Tardisode YouTube Link]
5) Rise of the Cybermen (Part 1) [Tardisode YouTube Link]
6) The Age of Steel (Part 2) [Tardisode YouTube Link]
7) The Idiot’s Lantern [Tardisode YouTube Link]
8) The Impossible Planet (Part1) [Tardisode YouTube Link]
9) The Satan Pit (Part 2) [Tardisode YouTube Link]
10) Love & Monsters [Tardisode YouTube Link]
11) Fear Her [Tardisode YouTube Link]
12) Army of Ghosts (Part 1) [Tardisode YouTube Link]
13) Doomsday (Part 2) [Tardisode YouTube Link]
Torchwood Spin-off Begins (2 Seasons; 2 Miniseries)
14) The Runaway Bride [Christmas Special]
Season 3 (2007)
The Sarah Jane Adventures Spin-off Begins [Children's Show] (5 Seasons)
1) Smith and Jones
2) The Shakespeare Code
4) Daleks in Manhattan (Part 1)
5) Evolution of the Daleks (Part 2)
6) The Lazarus Experiment
8) Human Nature (Part 1)
9) The Family of Blood (Part 2)
10) Blink [Read the original short story HERE]
11) Utopia (Part 1)
12) The Sound of Drums (Part 2)
13) Last of the Time Lords (Part 3)
The Infinite Quest [Animated Episode]
Time Crash [Children in Need Short] [YouTube Link]
14) Voyage of the Damned [Christmas Special]
Season 4 (2008)
1) Partners in Crime
2) The Fires of Pompeii
3) Planet of the Ood
4) The Sontaran Stratagem (1)
5) The Poison Sky (2)
6) The Doctor’s Daughter
7) The Unicorn and the Wasp
8) Silence in the Library (Part 1)
9) Forest of the Dead (Part 2)
11) Turn Left
12) The Stolen Earth (Part 1) [Torchwood Appearance]
13) Journey’s End (Part 2) [Torchwood Appearance]
Season 4 Specials (2008-10)
(Season 4 specials are typically found solely by title, not within season 4 itself)
1) The Next Doctor [Christmas Special]
2) Planet of the Dead [Easter Special]
K-9 Spin-off Begins [Children's Show] (1 Season)
3) The Water of Mars [Autumn Special]
The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith (Part 1 & 2) [The Doctor on The Sarah Jane Adventures] [Dailymotion Link; Part 2]
Torchwood: Children of Earth (No Doctor. Its aftermath is visually referenced in “The End of Time Part” 2)
4) The End of Time (Part 1) [Christmas Special]
5) The End of Time (Part 2) [New Year's Special]
Season 5 (2010)
1) The Eleventh Hour
2) The Beast Below
3) Victory of the Daleks
4) The Time of Angels (Part 1)
5) Flesh and Stone (Part 2)
6) The Vampires of Venice
7) Amy’s Choice
8) The Hungry Earth (Part 1)
9) Cold Blood (Part 2)
10) Vincent and the Doctor
11) The Lodger
12) The Pandorica Opens (Part 1)
13) The Big Bang (Part 2)
14) A Christmas Carol [Christmas Special]
Season 6 (2011)
1) The Impossible Astronaut (Part 1)
2) Day of the Moon (Part 2)
3) The Curse of the Black Spot
4) The Doctor’s Wife
5) The Rebel Flesh (Part 1)
6) The Almost People (Part 2)
7) A Good Man Goes to War (Part 1)
8) Let’s Kill Hitler (Part 2) [Prequel Short YouTube Link]
9) Night Terrors
10) The Girl Who Waited
11) The God Complex
12) Closing Time
13) The Wedding of River Song [Prequel Short YouTube Link]
Death is the Only Answer [Doctor Who Confidential Short] [YouTube Link]
14) The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe [Christmas Special] [Prequel Short YouTube Link]
Good as Gold [Blue Peter Short] [YouTube Link]
Night and the Doctor [DVD Minisodes]: Due to wobbly wobbly timey wimey stuff these minisodes cannot be placed exactly in the episodic timeline but are best watched at the end of season 6.
Bad Night [YouTube Link]
Good Night [YouTube Link]
First Night [YouTube Link]
Last Night [YouTube Link]
Up All Night [Daily Motion Link]
Season 7 (2012-13)
1) Asylum of the Daleks [Prequel Short YouTube Link]
2) Dinosaurs on a Spaceship
3) A Town Called Mercy
4) The Power of Three
5) The Angels Take Manhattan
P.S. [Season 7 Mid-Season Finale Deleted Scene] [YouTube Link]
6) The Snowmen [Christmas Special] [Prequel Short YouTube Link]
7) The Bells of Saint John [Prequel Short YouTube Link]
8) The Rings of Akhaten
9) Cold War
11) Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS
12) The Crimson Horror
13) Nightmare in Silver
14) The Name of the Doctor
The Night of the Doctor [50th Anniversary Prequel Minisode] [YouTube Link]
The Last Day [50th Anniversary Prequel Minisode] [YouTube Link]
15) The Day of the Doctor [50th Anniversary Special]
16) The Time of the Doctor [Christmas Special]
Season 8 (2014)
1) Deep Breath
2) Into The Dalek
3) Robot Of Sherwood
5) Time Heist
6) The Caretaker
7) Kill The Moon
8) Mummy On The Orient Express
10) In The Forest Of The Night
11) Dark Water
12) Death In Heaven
Doctor Who season 8 premieres Saturday, August 23rd, 2014 on BBC and BBC America.