Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Ask The A.V. Club: November 30, 2007


Doctor Who's On First

As pop-culture savvy as your crew is, I was hoping somebody would be a fan of Doctor Who. I keep hearing how great the current show is, but I am retentive and don't want to watch it without a working knowledge of the show up to this point. What should someone who doesn't mind watching hours and hours of classic sci-fi, but has never seen an episode of Doctor Who, put on his Netflix queue? I want to drown myself in that show, but I'm confused as to where to begin and where to continue. Any help would be appreciated.



Christopher Bahn is more than happy to help:

I've been a fan of the show since I was 5, so I hope you enjoy discovering the old shows as much as I did. "Where to start" is a difficult question for a show with such a convoluted history. The basic concept is simple: An eccentric, near-immortal alien known only as The Doctor travels through the universe in a time machine. He often has a human companion or two traveling with him, and along the way he inevitably faces some cosmic menace that wants to destroy the universe or take over the Earth. Explaining the rest of it will take time, but since you said you're ready to drown yourself in the show, I'll throw you into the deep end.

Doctor Who is the longest-running science-fiction TV show in history, with nearly 200 stories stretching across the 26 seasons from 1963 to 1989, plus a failed 1996 pilot for an American version, plus the current BBC series. (That's all complicated enough, so let's ignore for now the many offshoots of the show—including the current spin-off series Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures, books, radio plays, and two pretty awful 1960s movies starring Peter Cushing.) Since the debut, 10 different actors have starred as the Doctor. The changing of lead actors is explained in the show by the Doctor's alien ability to form a new body after a life-threatening injury. "Regeneration," as it's known, was invented to allow the series to keep going when the first Doctor, William Hartnell, became too ill to continue the role. Each new actor brings a wildly different personality to the Doctor, from crotchety old man to urbane dandy to goggle-eyed oddball, and their distinctive approach to the role sets the tone for their years on the series.

Though a cultural touchstone in Britain, the show has been only a cult success in America. The series was always low-budget, and production quality varied a lot over the years; some shows are brilliant, and some are terrible, and even in the best shows, you'll often need to use your imagination to supplement the cardboard special effects.

To get a relatively quick grounding in Doctor Who, you'll want to skip around through the years, and not watch the episodes in order. (You can't do that anyway, since some 1960s episodes were erased years ago by the BBC, which didn't think anyone would want to see them again—and besides, not all of the shows are on DVD yet.) The important thing is to introduce you to the various Doctors and the classic villains and sidekicks. (Or "companions," as the fan lingo calls them.)

Here's a list of episodes to try in chronological order; they aren't necessarily the best shows, but they're all currently available on Netflix. Start with the three-disc set Doctor Who: The Beginning, featuring Hartnell, which includes the first three shows broadcast in 1963, including the pilot episode, "An Unearthly Child," and also introduces the Doctor's most persistent enemies, the robot-like Daleks. Then get a glimpse of the second Doctor, Patrick Troughton, with "The Tomb Of The Cybermen" and "The Seeds Of Death," featuring as villains the evil android Cybermen and the Ice Warriors. Now skip ahead to the third Doctor, Jon Pertwee, starting with his debut, "Spearhead From Space," which also introduces the living plastic Autons and the Doctor's longtime allies in UNIT, a military taskforce that defends Earth against alien invasion. Rent "The Claws of Axos" not because it's a great episode, but because it's the only available Pertwee-era serial featuring his Moriarty-like adversary, The Master. And check out the 10th-anniversary special "The Three Doctors," which brings Pertwee together with his two predecessors.


Now we come to the era of curly-haired, big-toothed Tom Baker, the most popular and longest-running of the Doctors (and my personal favorite)—he played the role for seven years and is probably the biggest influence on the way David Tennant currently approaches the character. Dive into his first season with "Robot," which also features companion Sarah Jane Smith, who later appeared in the Tennant-era series and starred in not one but two spin-off series of her own. Keep going with "The Ark In Space," "The Sontaran Experiment," and "Genesis Of The Daleks," which form a loosely connected trio. The Sarah Jane-era stories "Pyramids Of Mars" and "The Hand Of Fear" are also worth a look. Baker's next major companion is the savage Leela (sort of a science-fiction version of Sheena, Queen Of The Jungle), who co-stars in "Horror Of Fang Rock" and "The Talons Of Weng-Chiang." Next is the season-long arc known as "The Key To Time," comprising "The Ribos Operation," "The Pirate Planet," "The Stones Of Blood," "The Androids Of Tara," "The Power Of Kroll," and "The Armageddon Factor," and featuring Romana, one of the few companions who is, like the Doctor, a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. "The Pirate Planet" was written by Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy author Douglas Adams, as was "The City Of Death," which co-starred Lalla Ward (who would later marry not only Tom Baker, but scientist and author Richard Dawkins) as Romana's second regeneration.

Tom Baker was replaced by the fifth Doctor, Peter Davison, in the trio of episodes "The Keeper Of Traken," "Logopolis," and "Castrovalva." Also check out the Davison-era 20th-anniversary special "The Five Doctors," a semi-sequel to "The Three Doctors."


The next Doctors, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy, aren't exactly blessed with good episodes—the decline in quality that led to the series' 1989 cancellation was all too apparent. But for the sake of completion, check out Baker's "Mark Of The Rani" and McCoy's "Remembrance Of The Daleks."

Skip the 1996 TV movie, which is terrible even by the often-low standards of Doctor Who, and is only worth looking at for Paul McGann's lone appearance as the Eighth Doctor. Now you're ready for the new series—starting with "Rose," starring Christopher Ecclestone as the ninth Doctor, and continuing to David Tennant's current incarnation.


If that's too much to deal with, a decent bare-bones intro to the show can be had with Doctor Who: The Beginning, "Spearhead From Space," "The Three Doctors," "The Ark In Space," "The Sontaran Experiment," "Genesis Of The Daleks," and "The Five Doctors." As with any geek-centric pop-culture phenomenon, you can find out just about anything you want to know elsewhere on the Internet; start with the BBC's website, the Wikipedia page, and the Doctor Who Web Guide.

The Tyranny Of Pee

This guy I work with (apparently he's too lame to send some kind of anonymous e-mail, so he's having me do it) wants me to ask about a skit he saw on TV in the early 1990s but cannot fully remember. It involves a group of people sitting around in a circle similar to an AA meeting, talking one at a time about how they had urges to go to the bathroom but held it in, and how long it had been since they went. He thinks he saw it on Comedy Central. I offered up The State as a possibility, but neither of us could find anything like it online. Any ideas?


Jim Mikoda

Sean O'Neal responds:

The skit your skittish (tee-hee) coworker is looking for is "Encounter" from season two, episode 12 of The Kids In The Hall. In it, Kevin McDonald leads a group of men who "are not going to be tyrannized by their bladders," because on the "car ride called life, if we want to make good time, we're not going to pull over." Unfortunately, I couldn't find a YouTube video, but here's a link to the transcript. It doesn't really do justice to the Kids' brilliant line readings (particularly Scott Thompson's blessed-out "The sound? As it rang off the porcelain? Was like church bells…"), but it should serve as adequate motivation to hunt down the DVD.


For Me And My Golem

I'm looking for what I believe was a TV movie my mom and I watched when I was 6 or 7, in the late '70s. It concerned some sort of humanoid monster that lived on an island and dissolved in contact with salt, like a slug. Why he was on an island surrounded by salt water, I don't know. Other than this, I don't remember anything about the movie, cast, plot, etc., except I thought the title was Logan's Island. Was this an actual movie, or a nightmare from a piece of underdone potato?


DUT Cargo

Noel Murray tracks the beast:

This was an hourlong pilot for The World Beyond, directed by cop-show and B-movie veteran Noel Black, and featuring a mid-list cast that included JoBeth Williams and Barnard Hughes. The plot: A paranormal investigator played by Granville Van Dusen gets called to a remote Canadian island where people are being terrorized by a creature made of mud. The hero was first introduced in a 1977 pilot called The World Of Darkness, then CBS aired The World Beyond in 1978, but the network never picked up the show up as a series. In rare re-airings on UHF stations, the second pilot was packaged as a short movie and renamed The Mud Monster.


I've never seen this show myself, but you'll be happy to know that scores of '70s kids like you were just as traumatized by The World Beyond, and have shared their memories both on its IMDB page, and at this site.

Mean Commentors Suck

When The A.V. Club arranges an interview, do you warn the subject that he or she might be lambasted by the commenters? Has an interviewee ever complained or expressed hurt over the comments? Has any interviewee felt that he or she was "set up? I've just noticed that some of your subjects (Brett Ratner comes to mind) are kind of asking for it. Thanks,



Tasha Robinson answers:

You really don't get to be famous, Nick—even Brett Ratner famous, or maybe especially Brett Ratner famous—unless you develop a thick skin. Given the kind of criticism the Ratners and Uwe Bolls and Michael Bays of the world have to deal with on a daily basis… Well, if some random Internet hate was enough to change their habits, they'd either be out of the business or maybe making good films. So no, we don't warn our interviewees that some anonymous people on the Internet might make fun of them because of our interview with them. They already know, for the most part, and it's highly unlikely that they care. For the most part, artists of all stripes do interviews because they want to publicize something—a new film or book or album, or maybe just themselves. As long as the word gets out about whatever their new thing is, the jibing of some bored commentors is no big deal. And we rarely have contact with our interviewees after the fact, so no, none of them have ever contacted us to complain about being "set up." They know we didn't invent Internet rudeness; there'd be no point in complaining about it to us.


That said, and to answer your second question, we did get a plaintive e-mail the other day from an interviewee's spouse, who was printing out the interview for a clip file, and noticed all the random hate and bile in the comments, and wondered why we put up with such hurtful stuff. So try to play nice, guys. You won't make Brett Ratner make better films by mocking him in a forum that he's never going to see. But you never know who your random act of nastiness is going to wind up hurting.

Next week: A pedophile movie, a sax solo, and more. Send your questions to asktheavclub@theonion.com.