A Cherry Picker's Guide to Doctor Who
19 June 2015
Doctor Who is a British TV series with a long history. Its first broadcast was in 1963, and its current incarnation has run for eight seasons. Most TV series require you to start at the beginning and watch every episode, but although that has its delights, you don't have to do that with Doctor Who, since many of its best episodes are written so that you can enjoy them as a self-contained film. This is my personal suggestions of how to watch Doctor Who by cherry picking individual episodes.
For most episodes of Doctor Who, all you need to know is the rough premise. The Doctor is a Time Lord, a human looking alien, who travels through time and space with various companions (usually human, young, and female). This setup allows writers to set self-contained stories in any setting: historical, futuristic, and current. His spaceship is called the TARDIS, from the outside it looks like a blue British Police Box from the 1960s, its inside is a large trans-dimensional space. Each episode usually sees the Tardis appear and the Doctor and his companion find some sticky predicament focused on some malevolent alien. They resolve the situation, often with a notable lack of violence. The Doctor is strikingly not like the usual action hero, he rarely uses weapons: relying on his wits to defeat any threats.
Doctor Who is one of the longest running TV series, it began in November 1963. You can divide its history so far into two broad periods: Classic Who runs from its beginning until 1989 when the series was cancelled. New Who runs from its reboot in 2005 until today, where it's still going strong. Classic Who was a children's show that appealed to many adults. The writers of New Who mostly fell in love with Classic Who as children (as I did) and went on to write a show that should appeal equally to adults and children. I saw my first episode of New Who with two friends my own age and their pre-teen daughters, who hadn't seen Classic Who as we elders had.
If you want to explore Doctor Who from scratch, I would start with New Who. Classic Who has its charms, and some remarkably good serials. But the quality of Classic Who varies from very good to truly awful, and comes with special effects that vary from cheesy to truly awful. So although I'll suggest a couple of Classic Who serials later on, most new viewers should start at New Who. Although there is some references to Classic Who, you can appreciate New Who without knowing anything about Classic Who.
I'm focusing on cherry picking here, but plenty of people enjoy starting from the beginning of New Who and taking a completist approach through every episode. There are certainly rewards for the completist approach, with some good internal references and many great episodes that you can't appreciate by cherry picking. You don't need any advice to be a completist, but I will say that you should give it until at least the sixth episode (Dalek) before you decide it's not for you. In particular the fourth and fifth episodes (Aliens of London / World War Three) are two of the weakest episodes in New Who, with some annoyingly juvenile humor.
For my picks I'm selecting episodes which are both my favorite episodes, but also episodes that don't rely on any surronding story arc. If it is valuable to see other picked episodes first, I'll mention that. There's also an argument for watching some individual series completely, and I'll mention which of those I think are worth considering for that.
The first question is where does a cherry picker begin, and I generally advise starting with Blink, which is on most people's short list for greatest Who episode ever. It actually doesn't feature the Doctor that much, and mostly ignores the companion of that series. But it's a clever plot, superbly acted by a young Carey Mulligan, and lots of wit in the script. Deservedly it won a BAFTA drama award, a rare event for a sci-fi story.  The episode was written by Stevan Moffat, who since went on to be the showrunner for Doctor Who. He's also the co-showrunner for Sherlock, and the writer of Jekyll (a superb six-episode miniseries). I rate him with Joss Whedon as one of the best writers of our time.
So start with Blink, but after that you can mostly pick and mix as you like. I'm going to list my picks chronologically series by series, but you don't have to do them in that order. If any episodes require you to see some others first, I'll point that out. You should get used to different actors playing the Doctor - there is a clever techno-babble reason why multiple actors can play the same character, which doesn't affect a cherry picking watcher. Each actor emphasizes different aspects of the same character. Companions are different people, but again the cherry picking choices I've made don't rely too much on their ongoing story.
The first series was the reboot of Doctor Who, making it return to the screen after a silence of fifteen years. The driving force for the reboot was Russel T Davies, who already had garnered a fine reputation as a TV writer. Playing the Doctor in this series is Christopher Eccleston, sadly in his only series as the Doctor, with Rose (Billie Piper) as his companion. The standout episode of the first series is Moffat's The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances. Most movies aren't this good, and this double episode introduced the Moffat approach of combining fright and wit. The other cherry pick I'd make from the first series is Dalek, which reintroduces the Doctor's iconic enemy in a story for them that still hasn't been surpassed.
The first series also has one of the better story arcs, so may be worth doing the full series, if only to really enjoy the final two-parter which isn't worth watching without that context. (A tip if you do watch the whole series: don't watch the trailer for the next episode at the end of Boom Town, as it gives away an important part of the plot of Bad Wolf.)
The second series has David Tennant playing the tenth Doctor . My main cherry pick here is again the Moffat episode:The Girl in the Fireplace. I also think the two parter The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit is worth watching.
The third series continued with David Tenant but brought in a new companion: Martha. Blink comes from this series, but another outstanding highlight of series three is Human Nature / The Family of Blood. You do need to have watched a few Whos to really get into the Doctor's nature and character to appreciate this one, (I'd suggest watching the series 4 picks first). It was the first episode for me to reach the same heights as The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances
For the fourth series Tenant was joined by the already well-known comedienne Catharine Tate as the companion Donna. Again Moffat came up with an outstanding thriller Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead. But there are also other great highlights here. The Unicorn and the Wasp is probably the most out-and-out comedy in Who, a wonderful send-up of the Agatha Christie country house murder mystery (featuring Agatha herself, as only Who can). Russel Davis also came up with a taut character-driven thriller Midnight. I also really enjoyed Turn Left, but am not sure whether to recommend it here as it makes many references to non-cherry-picked episodes. However I think you can still enjoy it without following those references, if only for some great acting from Tate and Bernard Cribbins.
After the fourth season there was a year of specials, which generally isn't counted as a series. From this set, I'd pick The Waters of Mars, which was a fine take on the "base under seige" style of Who plot.
With series 5 there was a wholesale change. Russel Davies gave up the role of showrunner, handing over to Moffat. Tenant also gave up the role of the Doctor. Matt Smith became the eleventh Doctor, and we got a new companion in Amy, later joined by her husband Rory. The first two episodes of the Moffat era: The Eleventh Hour and The Beast Below are both worth picking. I also would pick the two parter The Time of Angels / Flesh and Stone, although for this one it's important to have seen Blink first (to know about The Weeping Angels) and Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead to know about River Song. River Song becomes an important character in various episodes in series 5 and 6 after this. Series 5 is also another good series to watch all the way through, with good development up to the finale. But if you want to stay with cherry picking, do watch Amy's Choice, and perhaps Vincent and the Doctor.
One of the traditions of New Who is to have a Christmas special episode for broadcast on Christmas Day. Davis did the earlier christmas specials, and I don't put any of them on my pick list. But I do pick Moffat's first special A Christmas Carol, as a clever remix of the Scrooge story starring Michael Gambon.
With series 6, Moffat decided to break the pattern of earlier series and start the series with a two-parter The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon", which opens the series with a bang. The unresolved question from this episode may entice you to watch this whole series, and that's not a bad choice. If you would rather cherry-pick, you shouldn't miss The Doctor's Wife (written by Neil Gaiman) and The Girl Who Waited.
Series 7 is a series of two distinct parts, with a halfway split seeing the departure of Amy and Rory and the arrival of the new companion Clara. My cherry-picking suggestion here is to see The Asylum of the Daleks first (which sort-of introduces Clara). Then see The Snowmen which picks up the Doctor after he is sadly separated from Amy and Rory and sort-of introduces him to Clara. Moffat does some clever meta-textual stuff here, which you can only appreciate fully if you're a completist but those two episodes still stand strong even without fully getting the meta-text in the background. I would also pick out The Crimson Horror, which is a comedy with a fun performance from Diana Rigg.
Series 7 finishes with the Big Event episode of Who so far, the 50th anniversary special (The Day of the Doctor), broadcast 50 years after the first episode. Naturally there's a huge amount of references for the fans in this episode, which unites both Tenant and Smith's Doctor, together with John Hurt's sort-of Doctor. It still stands alone for pickers, so don't let the lack of background stop you watching it. Before you do, however, catch the minisode: the The Night of the Doctor on youtube. It's a remarkable coup of story-writing to get so much into a seven minute episode (although it does help to know that Paul McGann played the eighth Doctor, the one that immediately preceded the New Who period).
With series 8, Peter Capaldi takes on the role of the twelfth Doctor, and brings a darker, less charming Doctor to the scene. Not everyone liked this take on the character, but I do as it reminds me of My Doctor (the 3rd - Jon Pertwee). It also is my favorite full-series arc, with some great character development and interplay between the Doctor and Clara. For cherry pickers, however, I'd pick out Into the Dalek, Listen, Kill the Moon, and Mummy on the Orient Express, but ensure you see the others before you see Mummy on the Orient Express since that last episode gains a lot from getting familiar with Capaldi's Doctor.
As I write this, the latest Doctor Who episode was Last Christmas, the latest Christmas Special, which is also a pick for its wonderful mashup of Alien, Santa Claus, and another movie you'll recognize.
So how about Classic Who? There's lots of Classic Who, but if you're going to explore it, I should pick out a couple of places to start. Unlike New Who which goes for single or double episodes, Classic Who had short serials of 4-6 half hour episodes. I would start with City of Death, which has the iconic Tom Baker as the fourth Doctor, Romana as a Time Lord companion, and a script that clearly shows it was part-written by Douglas Adams. After that I have to point you to some 3rd Doctor (since he's My Doctor), and pick out Carnival of Monsters, written by Robert Holmes, generally rated as the greatest of the Classic Who writers, and features Jo Grant who was the companion I best remember.
For articles on similar topics…
…take a look at the tag:
Wikipedia has staggeringly detailed descriptions of Doctor Who and all its various episodes, again showing the perhaps troubling dedication of Whovians.
There is quite the cottage industry of analysis of Doctor Who out there, one I enjoyed is Philip Sandifer's TARDIS Eruditorum.
1: Blink also achieves Doctor Who's higher purpose. You see Doctor Who is only secondarily about entertainment, it's primary purpose was always to scare the living daylights out of small children. I may be too old now to get behind the sofa, but I do remember how much I enjoyed it.
2: Doctors are referred to both by the actor who played them, and also by their number in sequence, counting both classic and new who.
3: Vincent isn't one of my favorites, but many Whovians like it. It has a different appeal to most of my other picks, so is worth it if only for a change of pace.