A Doctor Who Beginner's Guide: Where To Start Watching The Long-Running Sci-Fi Classic

Sixty years, all of time and space, everything that ever happened or ever will — where could you possibly start? For the long-running BBC sci-fi series "Doctor Who," the answer is: anywhere really. But I know that's not exactly what you wanted to hear.

With nearly 60 years on the air and multiple actors, showrunners, and spin-offs, getting into "Doctor Who" can be a bit daunting. But the brilliant conceit of "Doctor Who" is that you could feasibly jump into any episode and get the gist. However, it's true that there are some episodes that serve better as gateways into the saga of "Doctor Who," and in the case of Classic "Doctor Who," there are even whole strings of episodes that are missing.

I realize that I'm throwing around a few confusing terms, so let me explain: "Doctor Who" can be divided into two eras: Classic "Doctor Who," which covers the show's initial run from 1963 to 1989, and New "Doctor Who," which covers the show's current revival that was launched in 2005. Oh and in between, there was a movie starring Paul McGann as part of a failed attempt to launch a "Doctor Who" reboot in America. But it's also canon. Not to mention the audio dramas that fill in the gaps and create whole new characters and origin stories.

Before you get overwhelmed, let's break it down in its simplest terms.

What you need to know about Doctor Who

"Doctor Who" is about an alien who travels through time and space (though more often than not, to 21st century Britain) with his/her spunky human companions in a spaceship shaped like a 1960s British police box. Known as only the Doctor, this alien has the ability to change into an entirely different person every time he dies in a process called regeneration — a neat trick that basically grants him immortality, and grants the series an eternal lifespan with 13 actors (plus a few extra ones) having played the Doctor. There's a loose continuity that runs all the way back to the beginning of the show, but none of that matters. All that matters is that there's a quirky alien who goes around battling monsters and saving the day, and that "Doctor Who" is at its core a sci-fi series about love and empathy.

But if you want a quick refresher course, here's a guide to how to watch "Doctor Who."

If you're a completionist: Rose (season 1, episode 1)

First, I recommend you go all the way back to the beginning with "Rose." And when I say the beginning, I mean the very first episode of the "Doctor Who" revival that launched in 2005. While it seems logical to start with the first episode of "Doctor Who" that aired in 1963, that's a difficult task for even for the most dedicated Whovian. "Rose" will get you to where "Doctor Who" is now.

The Russell T. Davies-penned episode introduces us to the Doctor through the eyes of Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), a 19-year-old London shopgirl bored with her mundane life. But one battle with reanimated mannequins and an exploded department store later, she's on her way to travel through all of time and space with Christopher Eccleston's brusque Doctor, who, in a bold twist for the new revival, is the last surviving member of his species, the Time Lords. It's a radical introduction for the Doctor, who in the final days of the Classic era was more known for his tawdry quirks than having a personality. But "Rose" reimagines the Doctor as a sort of cynical Superman.

Granted, "Rose" is not a perfect episode. It ricochets so quickly between campy, serious, and soapy tones that you get whiplash, and it seems to be torn between paying homage to the classic show while establishing Eccleston's Doctor as a damaged action hero. And let's face it: walking mannequins are a little silly for sci-fi fans used to more serious foes. But it doesn't try to hide what kind of show the new "Doctor Who" will be, which I like to categorize as "camp and crying."


If you want an abridged version of Christopher Eccleston's era: Dalek (season 1, episode 6)

All right, so walking mannequins aren't for you, and you don't get what the fuss is about this weirdly childish sci-fi show (it is technically still viewed as a children's show in the U.K., so that may explain it). Well, like many now-beloved shows, "Doctor Who" had a rough first season. So I recommend starting with the episode that really kicks it into gear and remains a "Doctor Who" best today.

Written by Robert Shearman, "Dalek" is the sixth episode of season 1 and has the formidable task of introducing to a new generation the Doctor's greatest enemy and the show's most ridiculous-looking monster: the Daleks. A remnant of the show's low-budget early years, the Dalek looks like a giant metal can with a plunger stuck onto it that feasibly could be defeated by stairs — and yet it captured the imaginations of thousands of children. But "Dalek" achieves the near-impossible: it makes the Daleks seem genuinely terrifying.

The episode opens on the Doctor and Rose chasing a distress signal to a massive underground bunker in Utah filled with alien artifacts. Captured by the bunker's billionaire owner, the Doctor and Rose must find out the source of that distress signal and the bunker's secret, and most dangerous, part of its collection. "Dalek" is a slow-burn toward a twist that we know is coming (it's in the title, duh) but that payoff works thanks to Eccleston's explosive performance. For maybe the only time in the show's history, "Dalek" treats a Dalek as a complex villain and as more than just a killing machine and thinly veiled Nazi metaphor. And it also clues us in on the Doctor's fresh trauma surrounding his new backstory of the Time War that killed his people. On top of giving the season a much-needed jolt, "Dalek" is kind of the turning point for the season that heralds the darker "Doctor Who" of the revival.

Follow it up with: "Father's Day," "The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances," "Bad Wolf/The Parting of Ways," and if you're not a Doctor Who fan by now, then that's it.

If you want to get what the fuss about this David Tennant is: The Girl in the Fireplace (season 2, episode 4)

David Tennant is the first actor in "Doctor Who" history to return to the lead role — but as a different iteration. To this day, he's still the most popular actor to play the Doctor in the revival series, and for good reason. Tennant brought a swagger and new-age romance to the series that had long been characterized by stuffed shirts and stuffier old men. Instead, the Tenth Doctor was dashing, he was dangerous, he was charming, he had sword fights on top of spaceships in his bathrobe and made Arthur Dent quips while doing it. He was more human and loving (and kissable) than any Doctor before him. And no episode better characterized this than the achingly romantic time travel tragedy "The Girl in the Fireplace."

The Steven Moffat-penned season 2 episode follows the Tenth Doctor, Rose, and Mickey (Noel Clarke) as they land on an abandoned spaceship full of portals to 18th century France — specifically, portals into the life of Madame de Pompadour, the chief mistress of the king and an influential patron of the arts. But she's not all that when the Doctor meets her: she's simply a scared little girl named Reinette who spots him through her fireplace. Through the mysterious portals, the Doctor runs into Reinette at various points in her life, the two falling in love even as Reinette is hunted by terrifying clockwork monsters.

"The Girl in the Fireplace" is a perfect time travel tragedy, a self-contained story that is a stellar showcase for Tennant's particular charms and talents. It's hard for any 45-minute love story to be convincing, but Tennant and guest star Sophia Myles manage to make you believe that theirs is a love for the ages.  When the episode reaches its inevitable sad conclusion, the Tenth Doctor is shattered, Tennant conveying a quiet heartbreak that solidifies his Doctor as the ideal romantic hero to follow on many more time-travel adventures.

Follow it up with: "The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit," "Army of Ghosts/Doomsday," "Gridlock," "Human Nature/Family of Blood," "Partners in Crime," "Midnight," "The Waters of Mars."

If you want the best of Doctor Who (and Matt Smith) in one season: The Eleventh Hour (season 5, episode 1)

Each new Doctor and showrunner signals a new era for the series that almost acts like a soft reboot. But with the first episode of season 5, "The Eleventh Hour," Doctor Who almost completely wipes the slate clean. With a new Doctor at the helm, played by a fresh-faced Matt Smith, and then-new showrunner Steven Moffat, "The Eleventh Hour" feels like it comes from a completely different series than the one led by David Tennant.

"The Eleventh Hour" and the rest of season 5 manages to marry that classic Doctor Who camp with modern sci-fi storytelling, making it an easier intro point to sci-fi fans who aren't quite down with the early seasons' low-budget approach. And to this day, "The Eleventh Hour" remains the best introductory story to a new Doctor yet, setting the stage for the fifth season's fairy tale stylings while closing the door on much of the mythology that the Russel T. Davies era had built up until now. It was a smart move — Tennant's heroic, swashbuckling Doctor remains a fan-favorite, and Smith was given the arduous task of following that up as the youngest Doctor the show had seen. The solution: reimagining the Doctor as a Peter Pan figure.

Penned by Steven Moffat, "The Eleventh Hour" follows a confused Doctor as he crashes into the backyard of Amelia Pond, a 10-year-old girl with a name "like in a fairy tale" and a mysterious crack in her wall. But he is forced to leave soon after, and promises he will return — only to miss the mark by a few years. It's an enchanting whirlwind of an episode that kicks off the strongest single season of the Doctor Who revival. From beginning to the end, season 5 of Doctor Who brings the revival into a new era that helped launch the show from cult status into global popularity, and helped Smith move quickly from under the shadow of Tennant. If you want Doctor Who in a nutshell, season 5 is it.

Follow it up with: All of season 5 and beyond.

If you're having trouble getting into the grumpy Peter Capaldi Doctor: Mummy on the Orient Express (season 8, episode 8)

There are many people who might have watched through the Tennant and Smith eras, but dropped "Doctor Who" with the arrival of an older, grumpier Doctor in the form of Peter Capaldi's Twelfth Doctor. But if you're ready to give him another chance, there's one episode that's the perfect introduction for the Twelfth Doctor: "Mummy on the Orient Express."

In the episode, the Doctor and Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) land on a space-bound train modeled after the Orient Express for "one last hurrah." They've had a fight over his thoughtless tactics and Clara has declared that she won't be traveling with him anymore. But the passengers on the train are being picked off one by one by a mummified monster that can only be seen by the victim right before they die — and naturally, the Doctor is on the case.

Penned by Jamie Mathieson, "Mummy on the Orient Express" might at first seem like a strange first episode to watch for Capaldi — it's eight episodes into Capaldi's debut season and picks up immediately after the last episode where the Doctor and Clara had an awful fight that seemed to mark the end of their friendship. But what it so brilliantly does is reveal the reason behind the Twelfth Doctor's callous, verging on cruel, exterior. With the tension between Clara and the Twelfth Doctor threaded throughout an episode where the monster represents the ghosts of past trauma, "Mummy on the Orient Express" is a barnburner of an episode, and one likely to convert you over to the Twelfth Doctor.

Follow it up with: "Flatline," "Under the Lake/Before the Flood," "The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion," "Face the Raven," "Heaven Sent," "Hell Bent," "The Husbands of River Song."

If you want a fresh start with the best Doctor: The Pilot (Season 10, episode 1)

It may seem counterintuitive to start with season 10 of a revival of a show, but oddly, Steven Moffat's "The Pilot" acts as a great starting place. The season 10 opener follows Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie), a university cafeteria worker who sneaks into lectures by the Doctor's mysterious lecturer. Seeing potential in her, the Doctor takes her under his wing and privately tutors her. One confrontation with an alien water creature later, and Bill is the Doctor's next traveling companion, despite a mysterious reason that keeps the Doctor tied down at the university.

There are some references to previous seasons and backstory, but "Doctor Who" season 10 feels like another soft reboot in a way. Not to mention the 10th season of "Doctor Who" is the strongest standalone season since season 5. And that's thanks to the breath of fresh air that is Pearl Mackie's sensible companion Bill, who alongside Peter Capaldi, gave us the best Doctor-companion rapport since the Doctor-Donna. She gives us a fresh perspective on Capaldi's disillusioned Doctor, who wears his grief on his slumped shoulders. But that's all informed by Capaldi's criminally good performance, radiating empathy and emotion with every facial expression. But despite all the baggage he brings, and the ongoing mystery of the season, the wonderstruck Bill injects this season with so much fun that it brings "Doctor Who" back to its most basic and entertaining. Watching season 10 will give you a sense of what it's like to love "Doctor Who."

Follow it up with: All of season 10, until you're very sad that you didn't appreciate Capaldi while he was the Doctor.

If you want to see if Jodie Whittaker's female Doctor is any good: It Takes You Away (season 11, episode 9)

There were a lot of expectations going into Jodie Whittaker's debut as the Thirteenth Doctor: she was the first female Doctor in the show's history, she was ushering in a new era with showrunner Chris Chibnall following the steadily declining popularity of Steven Moffat's run, and she seemed absolutely perfect for the role. Unfortunately, it was rough going for the first female Doctor.

The best way to describe Whittaker's run was middling, full of promise and potential, only to squander it almost immediately. Whittaker was wonderful in the role, but more often than not, was let down by shoddy writing. Still, that doesn't mean there weren't a handful of good episodes in her era, the first of which might stand up there as one of the most singular episodes of "Doctor Who."

"It Takes You Away" is a curious little episode penned by Ed Hime, following the Thirteenth Doctor, along with Graham (Bradley Walsh), Ryan (Tosin Cole), and Yaz (Mandip Gill), as they arrive at an isolated cabin in modern-day Norway. There, they find a blind teen girl whose father has disappeared and has remained hiding in fear of a creature that "takes you away." Eventually, the group finds themselves stumbling into a reflected parallel universe, where they're confronted with ghosts of loved ones that tempt them to stay. "It Takes You Away" is by far one of the best episodes of Whittaker's run, if only because it's so unlike any "Doctor Who" episode before. It's scary, it's quirky, it's mysterious, but it's also haunting and lovely in a way that shows you the glimmer of what Whittaker's era could have been.

Follow it up with: "Nikola Tesla's Night of Terror," "The Haunting of Villa Diodati," "Village of the Angels," "Eve of the Daleks."

If you're a horror fan: Blink (season 3, episode 10)

There's a reason that "Blink" ends up at the top of every Doctor Who ranking: it's a masterclass in 45-minute storytelling anchored by a strong performance from a pre-Oscar nod Carey Mulligan and a monster right out of a horror movie.

So if you're not into the camp, and if you're not into love saving the day — well first, why are you here? But if you're not and you still want to get into "Doctor Who," Steven Moffat's "Blink" is the best introductory episode. The third season episode follows intrepid photographer Sally Sparrow who, while exploring an abandoned house, stumbles upon eerie angelic statues and a message behind peeling wallpaper that addresses her by name. That message is, of course, from the Doctor, who appears as sort of a mythological figure who guides Sally in a fight against terrifying monsters called The Weeping Angels. "Blink" expertly builds on genre conventions up to a climax that remains one of the scariest scenes that has appeared in "Doctor Who."

"Blink" is an episode of "Doctor Who" that I would show to my friends as an example of the heights of sci-fi horror storytelling that the show can achieve. But the only problem is that "Blink" is so good that it may not encourage non-fans to dive into the rest of the show. It's an episode for the casual "Doctor Who" viewer. But all the same, "Doctor Who" has continued to be the phenomenon today because of casual viewers who maybe want to be a little scared for an hour.

Follow it up with: "The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances," "The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit," "Human Nature/Family of Blood," "Midnight," "The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon," "Hide," "Listen," "Knock Knock."

If you're just here for the history: Vincent and the Doctor (season 5, episode 10)

This is a time travel show, so we should get some history, right? Well, look no further than "Vincent and the Doctor," the episode whose one scene with Vincent van Gogh crying goes viral every few years, and set the standard for the "celebrity historical" episode that Nu Who has never been able to improve upon.

Written by Richard Curtis, "Vincent and the Doctor" follows the Eleventh Doctor and Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) on an adventure to 1890 Auvers-sur-Oise, after noticing something odd about one of Vincent van Gogh's paintings in modern day. They immediately befriend the lonely, outcast Vincent, who alone is able to see the invisible monster murdering various villagers.

As a sci-fi adventure, "Vincent and the Doctor" is fairly simple, but as a character drama featuring Vincent van Gogh, it's exquisite. In his sole writing credit for "Doctor Who," Curtis manages to tap into the emotionality and hope inherent in the show, even as the episode delves deep into van Gogh's depression and mental instability. It's a fantastic episode to start off with, and to get you excited for more historical adventures with our kindest time-traveling alien.

Follow it up with: "The Unquiet Dead," "The Shakespeare Code," "The Fires of Pompeii," "Rosa," "Demons of the Punjab," "Nikola Tesla's Night of Terror," "The Haunting of Villa Diodati."

If you're not really a sci-fi fan: A Christmas Carol (season 5 Christmas special)

If you're a newbie to sci-fi (and again, "Doctor Who" is very loosely sci-fi), maybe you can ease your way in via a familiar story that the show does a light sci-fi riff on: "A Christmas Carol."

The Steven Moffat-penned season 5 Christmas special is almost an exact adaptation of the Charles Dickens Christmas classic, with a few minor details: It's set on an alien planet surrounded by a thick cloud belt full of fish that can fly — and the space liner carrying companions Amy and Rory (Arthur Darvill) is crashing through it. The only one who can save them is the miserly Kazran Sardick (Michael Gambon) but he can't be bothered, even if it's Christmas. So the Doctor decides to visit him as the Ghost of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, in the only way the Doctor can: by going back into Kazran's past and influencing him to be a better person.

The time travel rules are all over the place in this episode, but its heart and fairytale fancy are all in the right place, which is why "A Christmas Carol" is such a good gateway episode for those who might be a little intimidated by robots and spaceships. Plus, there's a flying shark!

Follow it up with: Pick and choose! This show is so loosely sci-fi that if you're won over by this episode, you'll likely be 100% in.

If you want that cold, hard sci-fi: Gridlock (season 3, episode 3)

You may have gotten the impression by now that "Doctor Who" doesn't care much for the sci-fi part of its sci-fi label. But that doesn't mean the show doesn't dabble with hard sci-fi concepts like dystopias, transhumanism, clones, and time distortion. The season 3 episode "Gridlock" does have a few "Doctor Who" quirks (cat people!) but it's sci-fi in the "Fifth Element" vein, a little weird, a lot colorful, and embedded in a rich world that has managed to persist despite being a dystopian nightmare.

Written by Russell T. Davies, "Gridlock" follows the Doctor and Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) as they land on New Earth, the far-future planet where humanity has made their home after the destruction of the Earth. But the former paradise has fallen into disarray after the proliferation of addictive mood drugs, leaving the survivors to try to escape for a better life in the eternally gridlocked Freeway. But something sinister lies in the smog beneath the cars, where Martha is kidnapped by a couple is hoping to get into the fast lane.

"Gridlock" is "Doctor Who" for the sci-fi lover, a fantastic gateway for people raised on "Star Wars," "The Fifth Element" or "Blade Runner." Now, it's not as cerebral as most hard sci-fi, but the unique "Doctor Who" approach to these classic sci-fi standards makes it worth watching.

Follow it up with: "Utopia," "Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead," "The Doctor's Daughter," "The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People," "World Enough and Time."

If you just want the lore – Russell T Davies edition

First, why are you coming to "Doctor Who" for lore? Second, continuity doesn't really much matter in a show for which even the BBC has stated canon doesn't matter.

But all right, you're in for this show but you don't want the so-called "filler" episodes. Here's a quick and dirty list of episodes that will give you the best sense of what's canon in the show.

  • "The End of the World" (season 1, episode 2) – Where we learn that the Doctor is the last of his kind, and that Gallifrey, is home planet, was destroyed.
  • "Dalek" (season 1, episode 6) – Where we learn that not only is the Doctor the last of his kind, he was the one who destroyed both Time Lords and Daleks alike in the Time War.
  • "Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways" (season 1, episode 13) – Psych, the Daleks are back and will always come back! All of the Doctor's suffering is for naught! And hey, what's this nifty regeneration trick?
  • "The Christmas Invasion" (season 1 Christmas special) – The Tenth Doctor is here and he's handsome.
  • "Rise of the Cyberman/Age of Steel" (season 2, episode 5 and 6) – Alternate realities exist! And the new Cybermen are introduced.
  • "Army of Ghosts/Doomsday" (season 2, episode 12 and 13) – That dang alternate reality is back and it took Rose with it!
  • "Human Nature/Family of Blood" (season 3, episode 8 and 9) ­– We're introduced to the Chameleon Arch and the fob watch, which give Time Lords the ability to change their species.
  • "Utopia/The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords" (season 3, episode 11, 12, 13) – The fob watch comes back. Also, the revival series gets its first of many meetings with the Doctor's oldest archnemesis, The Master.
  • "The Stolen Earth/Journey's End" (season 4, episode 12, 13) – Goodbye to the Tenth Doctor, and to the Doctor-Donna.

If you just want the lore – Steven Moffat edition

Russell T. Davies may have brought the revival to life, but he wasn't the only one to make some major changes to canon. Though Moffat's story and character contributions were somewhat divisive and would be largely ignored by his successor (again, there's your fickle canon), they still made a lasting impact.

  • "Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead" (season 4, episode 8, 9) – Meet River Song.
  • "The Eleventh Hour" (season 5, episode 1) – The Eleventh Doctor is here and he's handsome, in a weirder way. There are also cracks in time.
  • "The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang" (season 5, episode 12, 13) – The Doctor reboots the universe.
  • "The Impossible Astronaut/The Day of the Moon" (season 6, episode 1, 2) – Silence will fall.
  • "A Good Man Goes to War" (season 6, episode 7) – Who is River Song? Find out ... probably.
  • "The Name of the Doctor/The Day of the Doctor/The Time of the Doctor" (season 7, episode 13, 2013 specials) – The 50th anniversary special has big ramifications for Gallifrey and the Eleventh Doctor.
  • "Dark Water/Death in Heaven" (season 8, episode 11, 12) – The Master is back, and they look different.
  • "Extremis/The Pyramid at the End of the World/The Lie of the Land" (season 10, episode 6, 7, 8) – Missy's redemption arc begins.
  • "World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls" (season 10, episode 11, 12) – Missy's redemption arc ends.

If you just want the lore – Chris Chibnall edition

The Chris Chibnall era shook up the entire canon of "Doctor Who" ... or did it? That's too soon to say, but one reveal may have changed the entire course of the show's history, changed the definition of the type of hero the Doctor is, and forced the Doctor to reckon with their identity in a way they never had before. Or maybe they won't! Who's to say? Regardless, these are the episodes to watch to find out exactly who the Timeless Child is.

  • "Spyfall, Part 1/Spyfall, Part 2" (season 12, episode 1, 2) – The Spy ... Master.
  • "Fugitive of the Judoon" (season 12, episode 5) – Meet the Fugitive Doctor.
  • "The Haunting of Villa Diodati" (season 12, episode 8) – Who is the Lone Cyberman?
  • "Ascension of the Cybermen/The Timeless Children" (season 12, episode 9, 10) ­­– The Timeless Child prophecy has major ramifications for the Doctor's identity.
  • "The Power of the Doctor" (2022 special) ­– Something went wonky with the Thirteenth Doctor's regeneration!

But what about the Classic era?

So it's really bothering you that you can't watch "Doctor Who" from the very beginning. The fact is, it's impossible to do a straightforward binge of "Doctor Who" from its very first episode in 1963 ("An Unearthly Child") to modern day.

Scores of episodes from the early era of "Doctor Who" are missing due to the BBC's purging of its own archives, including much of the run of the First Doctor, played by William Hartnell, and the Second Doctor, played by Patrick Troughton. And the show's low budget and creaky writing may be a turn-off for even the most devout sci-fi fan.

So to dive into the Classic era, it becomes more of a pick and choose situation. Do you want pure historical episodes with less of an emphasis on aliens? Check out the First Doctor's era. Are you a fan of base-under-siege stories? The Second Doctor's for you. Want a little James Bond flair in your "Doctor Who"? Give the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) a chance. Craving some Douglas Adams whimsy? He actually wrote a few episodes for the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker). Maybe you want a family-friendly ensemble affair — check out the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison). Want to see the divisive era that basically got the show canceled the first time? See Colin Baker's Sixth Doctor. And if you're interested in seeing the show try its hand at darker, more modern stories, check out the latter half of the Seventh Doctor's (Sylvester McCoy) run. And, of course, there's always the TV movie.

The thing about "Doctor Who" is that there's something for everyone — from horror, to sci-fi, to fantasy, to comedy. And hopefully this beginner's guide gave you the gateway episode you needed to get into "Doctor Who."