It’s one thing wanting to learn what’s so good about Doctor Who. But if what you really want is to be able to hold your own in a conversation with a true fan, know this: your best hope is to trick them into doing all the talking.
So, yes, fine, get these basics into your vocabulary. The Doctor – never, ever call him Doctor Who or you’re in trouble – is a Time Lord who travels through time and space in his Tardis which is disguised as a police box. Practice that sentence until it’s second nature and you’re convinced that it makes sense.
Then you should know that the Doctor is getting on for a thousand years old now and for all but about two months of that, he’s had a companion in the Tardis. It’s most often a woman and you can carbon-date the age of the fan you’re talking to by which companion makes them go misty-eyed.
After that, pick a Doctor to call your own. But be careful. If you say Peter Capaldi, it sounds like you only know the current one. Equally, though, if you choose William Hartnell then you just sound old.
Tom Baker’s your safe bet. Patrick Troughton is liked best by the intelligentsia but they can also dance with the devil and say that Sylvester McCoy is underappreciated. Don’t choose Paul McGann unless you’re willing to back it up: he only did one TV movie so you have to know about all of his Doctor Who radio stories too (although his appearance in The Night of the Doctor – the seven-minute prequel to the 50th anniversary special – made him a talking point again).
Jon Pertwee is a steady, reasonable, dated but still solid choice. Peter Davison was a good Doctor in a weak time for the show. Colin Baker is only fantastic on radio where you can’t see his Technicolor Dream (nightmare?) Coat. Christopher Eccleston revitalised the show, then David Tennant showed us how the Doctor should be played.
After that, learn about some controversial stories. It’s a risk because you might have to defend your choice but usually you can get the fan to talk about how much you’re wrong and how infinitely better their preference is.
With William Hartnell, for instance, their choice will be The Daleks. Tell them Edge of Destruction is better: it’s the cheap one set completely in the Tardis and you can enthuse about its psychological depth.
Alternatively, look a Patrick Troughton fan in the eye and say yes, Evil of the Daleks is probably pretty good – if the missing episodes are ever found – but the first and last of The War Games beat everything. That was Troughton’s last story and it was a marathon of padding but the opening episode was very intriguing and the last one showed us the Time Lords for the first time.
Those Time Lords then exiled Jon Pertwee’s Doctor to Earth where everyone thinks The Daemons was the bee’s knees. Choose Spearhead from Space instead and when fans ask why, simply say “Blu-ray”. It’s the sole classic Doctor Who story that can get a full HD quality Blu-ray release because it was the only one made entirely on film.
They can’t argument with that. Equally, there’s no disputing that the fans are spot on about Tom Baker: his best story is Genesis of the Daleks. But to get the conversation going, ask what they think of The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Its sole flaw is a rubbish giant rat.
Rubbish giant props are a problem in Doctor Who. Consensus and even common sense says that The Caves of Androzani is Peter Davison’s finest hour but actually it’s Kinda. Which has a rubbish giant snake. But up to then, it’s got some of the show’s finest acting and a superb Buddhist vs British colonialism theme.
Poor Colin Baker had a harder time with his stories. Try rolling your eyes and saying “megabyte modem” as if that’s an amazing, dangerous thing. Then say The Two Doctors because at least that one had Patrick Troughton guest-starring.
Sylvester McCoy might as well have been two Doctors himself: he was a clown at first and then they tried to make him darkly serious and mysterious later. You’d be safe picking Ghost Light because few people understood that one. You’d be a brave, brave soul picking The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, since it wasn’t.
Skip over Paul McGann if possible. No offence to him, but there’s not a lot of wriggle-room when his one screen story was only a single 90-minute TV movie. If you do find yourself in a conversation about the eighth Doctor, suggest you’d like to see a miniseries charting his journey towards becoming John Hurt’s enigmatic ‘War Doctor’. And watch his re-introduction here (don’t worry, it will only take up about the same amount of time as reading this article).
If you do skip McGann, you can go straight into Christopher Eccleston and what the fans call New Who. Be sure to quote “Lots of planets have a North” and to say that his leaving should’ve been kept as a surprise to the end. Then pick Steven Moffat’s The Empty Child as his best. You’ll get no disagreement but you will spark a row about how Moffat is doing now that he runs the whole series.
You’re allowed to bow your head with regret that David Tennant has left. If he were still there, we’d be sick of him, but he’s much missed. Matt Smith is too… pick The Eleventh Hour as his best. It was his first. So you might seem like you’re being a bit snide about everything else he did afterwards, but it was genuinely very good and showed him as a natural in the role.
Finally, things are different for Peter Capaldi. No tricks, no conversation starters, just watch him. He’s great…
William Gallagher writes Doctor Who audio stories for Big Finish
He has also published Self Distract – from Doctor Who fan to Radio Times and Big Finish, available as a Kindle download for £1.93 at Amazon