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Now is the perfect time to start watching Doctor Who

Ncuti Gatwa and Millie Gibson stand in the TARDIS in Doctor Who.
BBC Studios

Last week, Doctor Who premiered its first new season since 2021. Picking up where its 60th-anniversary specials left off at the end of last year, the show’s season premiere installments (titled Space Babies and The Devil’s Chord) took viewers on separate trips to a largely abandoned spaceship in the future and back in time to Britain in the early 1960s. The episodes, in other words, kicked off Doctor Who‘s latest season in fittingly quirky fashion.

The prospect of jumping into a show as long-running and seemingly complex as Doctor Who may seem too daunting for many people. However, while it might not necessarily seem like it, now is actually as good a time as any to start watching the beloved BBC sci-fi series. Not only is its newest era just beginning, but it’s also been years since the show’s future has seemed as bright as it does right now.

Here’s what non-fans and first-time viewers should know before diving into Doctor Who.

What is Doctor Who?

David Tennant peers out of the TARDIS in Doctor Who.
BBC Studios

Doctor Who is a British sci-fi series that originally premiered all the way back in 1963 and has aired nearly 900 episodes since then. The show has been a TV staple in the U.K. for decades, but it is largely separated into two eras: The classic Who run, which lasted from 1963 to 1989, and the NuWho era, which began when the series was revived following a 16-year hiatus in 2005.

There have been a few multiyear gaps between episodes since then, but Who has consistently remained on the air and in production for the past 19 years.

What is Doctor Who about?

Doctor Who stars Ncuti Gatwa and Millie Gibson pose near a futuristic door.
BBC Studios

Created by Sydney Newman, C. E. Webber, and Donald Wilson, Doctor Who follows the Doctor, an alien of unknown origin who — according to a divisive retcon introduced a few years ago — was found and adopted by a member of what would eventually become a species known as the Time Lords. The Doctor is a humanoid being with two hearts who has the ability to travel throughout the universe and into the past, present, and future on his spaceship, the TARDIS, which looks from the outside like a midcentury British police phone box, but is much bigger on the inside.

The Doctor always travels with at least one human companion, and Doctor Who follows them as they embark on different adventures throughout time and space and battle various threats. Most importantly, the Doctor is capable of regenerating into a new incarnation whenever they’re on the verge of death. It’s for that reason that Doctor Who has been able to stay on the air for so long. Every time one of its lead actors decides to step away from the role, the Doctor simply regenerates into a new incarnation — thereby allowing an entirely new actor to take over the character and show.

How many actors have played the Doctor?

EVERY Regeneration of the Doctor | Doctor Who

A total of 16 actors have portrayed the Doctor at one time or another. Throughout the show’s NuWho run, the character has been played by Christopher Eccleston (The Leftovers), David Tennant (Good Omens), Matt Smith (House of the Dragon), Peter Capaldi (Criminal Record), and Jodie Whittaker (Broadchurch). Jo Martin (The Marlow Murder Club) also briefly played a version of the character during Whittaker’s run known as “the Fugitive Doctor,” while legendary actor John Hurt (The Elephant Man) briefly appeared as “the War Doctor” during Matt Smith’s run as the character.

In October 2022, Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor regenerated into the Fourteenth Doctor, who was portrayed by returning Doctor Who star David Tennant across three specials that aired at the end of 2023. In the third of those specials, Sex Education and Barbie star Ncuti Gatwa made his debut as the show’s latest and current lead, the Fifteenth Doctor.

Where should I start with the show?

If you want to watch Doctor Who in real time right now with the rest of the show’s new and returning fans, then we’d recommend starting with the first episode of Gatwa’s current run as the character, which officially began with The Church on Ruby Road, a Christmas special that aired at the end of 2023. That special is available to stream on Disney+, as are Space Babies and The Devil’s Chord.

You could, of course, also go back and dive into any of the classic or NuWho eras. That’s what a lot of the show’s fans have done over the past 15 years, including this writer, who started with the series’ 2005 return season and eventually caught up to it in the middle of Matt Smith’s run. That said, Gatwa’s era does seem like a particularly promising one for first-time Who fans to start with.

Not only has Gatwa already made a charismatic mark on the long-running series, but his run as the Doctor is also being led by showrunner Russell T Davies, the writer who brought Who back in 2005 and helped it reach new heights throughout its Eccleston and Tennant seasons. Davies’ Who successor, Steven Moffat, has also penned an episode of Gatwa’s first Doctor Who season, which means that this era of the show features work from two of the men most responsible for its modern-day popularity.

Do I have to watch previous Doctor Who seasons?

The Doctors all stand in a line on a Doctor Who promotional poster.
BBC Studios

No! As strange as this may seem, you don’t actually have to know a lot about Doctor Who to start watching it. Every time a new actor takes over the show, it more or less reboots itself, reexplains the basics of its premise, and opens the door for new fans to join the party. (Case in point: Space Babies, the first of Who‘s recent pair of season premiere episodes, delivers all the information that one needs to start watching the long-running sci-fi series.)

If you wanted to develop a deeper understanding of the show’s past, you could always go back and watch some of its past seasons, nearly all of which are fairly easy to find and stream nowadays. You don’t have to in order to watch its newest episodes, though.

What are some must-see Doctor Who episodes?

Carey Mulligan looks ahead in Blink.
BBC Studios

One of the best things about Doctor Who is that, as dependent on longform storytelling and multi-episode arcs as it is, the show is also exceptionally good at delivering bottle episodes that can be enjoyed entirely on their own. With that in mind, here are some memorable NuWho episodes that we’d recommend to any new Doctor Who fans who want to get a sense of what the show is capable of delivering when it’s at its very best. (As noted below, they’re all available to stream on Max.)

  • Season 2, Episode 4: The Girl in the Fireplace (Max)
  • Season 3, Episodes 8 and 9: Human Nature and The Family of Blood (Max)
  • Season 3, Episode 10: Blink (Max)
  • Season 4, Episode 10: Midnight (Max)
  • Season 5, Episode 1: The Eleventh Hour (Max)
  • Season 5, Episode 10: Vincent and the Doctor (Max)
  • Season 7 Christmas Special: The Snowmen (Max)
  • Season 8, Episode 4: Listen (Max)
  • Season 10, Episode 1: The Pilot (Max)

Where can I watch Doctor Who?

The Doctor and Ruby stand near a piano in Doctor Who.
BBC Studios

The first 13 seasons of Doctor Who‘s NuWho era (i.e., 2005-present) are available to stream right now on Max. Those seasons encompass all of Eccleston, Tennant, Smith, Capaldi, and Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor Who episodes.

The series’ more recent Tennant- and Gatwa-led episodes, meanwhile, are streaming now on Disney+. Those who are interested in revisiting the show’s classic 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s episodes can stream those on Tubi as well.

New episodes of Doctor Who premiere Fridays at 7 p.m. ET on Disney+.

Editors' Recommendations

Alex Welch
Alex is a TV and movies writer based out of Los Angeles. In addition to Digital Trends, his work has been published by…
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