We're only a few episodes into the Thirteenth Doctor's first series, so now is as good a time as any to start Doctor Who. New writers, new Doctor, new companions -- it's basically a reboot of the show within the reboot. As long as you've got a basic knowledge of the show, you're prepared to give it a go -- that basic knowledge being that an alien known as "the Doctor" travels time and space in a ship called the TARDIS, often taking on a travel companion or two from Earth, but when the Doctor dies, he regenerates a new body, and while his memories return, his personality is always slightly altered post-regeneration.
So, if you'd like to start, but don't know where, here are thirteen episodes you can drop right into the series with just in time to meet our first female Doctor.
The obvious place to start would be with the first episode of the current reboot. The 2005 revival of the show following its cancellation in 1989 continued the same core idea, beginning with the ninth incarnation of the Doctor, but was made knowing that a good chunk of its audience would be first-time watchers. It's not a perfect episode, plot-wise (it's about living mannequins), but it's a good place to start if you're thinking of watching the show chronologically, especially for the Ninth Doctor's new companion, the titular Rose.
If you want to jump in and see the show at its best before making that commitment, though...
Doctor Who's reboot meant it needed to reintroduce a lot of staples of the show so that new fans could understand them. That is where "Dalek" comes in. This was the sixth episode of the reboot, so it was the first time new fans would see Daleks, one of the Doctor's sworn enemies, learn of the Doctor's past, and get a glimpse into the darker parts of his personality. It's a good, strong episode, and early enough in the series that you really don't need prior knowledge of the show to get into it.
3. The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances
While the Ninth Doctor is, sadly, often overlooked, this two-part episode is on nearly everyone's list of favorites. It follows the Doctor and Rose to war time England, where a child in a gas mask haunts the streets, asking anyone he comes across, "Are you my mummy?" It's creepy, it's heartfelt, and it's Christopher Eccleston's Doctor at his finest. Often credited as the moment new watchers were officially hooked, this one's one of the best, if not the best, of the Ninth Doctor's run.
4. The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit
Of all of the episodes on this list, the Tenth Doctor's episodes are my favorites to start with. So, if you want to start with one of the best and you like weird religious horror, have I got an episode for you. It's another two-parter, because one episode is never enough, that follows the Doctor and Rose after they land in a closet with "Welcome to Hell" scrawled on its walls. The door out of that closet reveals a human crew studying the surface of, as the title would suggest, a planet that should not possibly exist. The twin episodes begin as the sort of trapped crew, Alien-esque story sci-fi loves, and end questioning the history and nature of religion beyond Earth's atmosphere when the creature chasing the crew begins to show its true face. It's basically just a space-horror film, too, so dropping in without knowledge of the larger plot of Doctor Who is more than acceptable. (It's even got some foreshadowing dropped in to keep you wanting more.)
Literally, every list of Doctor Who episodes on the internet is going to have this episode on it. "Best Episodes of Doctor Who," "Scariest Episodes of Doctor Who," "Episodes of Doctor Who Starring Celebrities You Didn't Know Were In Doctor Who" – and, "Best Episodes of Doctor Who To Start With."
It's a Doctor-lite episode: The Tenth Doctor and his third-series companion, Martha, only appear for a slight fraction of it. Instead, the episode follows Sally Sparrow, a 22-year-old photographer who breaks into a crumbling, abandoned house for the AestheticTM to find that the house (as well as its stone residents) has been waiting for her. People begin disappearing, DVDs with half-written dialogue hidden in the extras keep cropping up, angelic statues don't seem to stay where you last saw them – and all of it is tied back to this one girl. It's a perfect introduction to the use of time travel, aliens, and clever plotlines in Doctor Who, and gives you a glimpse into the world of the show before really being introduced to the Doctor himself, which can definitely be useful for starting a show as fast-paced as this one.
The title is a little misleading though – you probably shouldn't blink.
In contrast, this episode is all about the Doctor, and it's possibly my all-time favorite episode of the show. It's companion-lite this time: The Doctor leaves his fourth series companion, Donna, to her spa day for a 4-hour cross-planet space-bus ride to their latest planetary pit stop's main attraction, a sapphire waterfall. The planet outside is so harsh that nothing can survive even its sunlight, so the Doctor and his fellow bus riders try to fill the windowless bus ride with small talk and stories. Then something starts knocking on the door.
This episode continues to be terrifying the fifth time, let alone the first. It also really is a stand-alone episode – you could probably jump in even if you don't know who the Doctor is. So, if you want to see Doctor Who at its best, you're in the clear to meet one of its simplest and scariest inventions.
7. The Waters of Mars
This show likes to hammer home that the Doctor is a dangerous character when he doesn't have a companion to keep him in check, and this episode is one of the best examples of that. The Doctor arrives on Mars shortly after the discovery we've all been dreaming of, microscopic life in the planet's water. When things start going sideways, though, the Doctor has to choose between saving this infamous Martian expedition or letting history play out as it's meant to, and with no one else there to assure him he's making the right decision, it all comes down to him. In the absence of a companion, it becomes a study in the Doctor as the last of his race, specifically in the wake of a prophecy foretelling his own demise, and it's one that, if the Tenth Doctor's other episodes couldn't do it for you, is guaranteed to hook you in.
8. The Eleventh Hour
Another new writer! Another new Doctor! And new companions! It's another reboot within the reboot, meaning it's another perfectly fine place to start the show. If you'd rather start watching chronologically a little further into the show than "Rose" so you have less catching up to do, "The Eleventh Hour" is a good bet. The Doctor crash lands post-regeneration in the front yard of a little girl left home alone and finds that the crack in her bedroom wall is actually a crack in space and time. After leaving for a moment to stop the crashed TARDIS from acting up outside, he returns to find something's gone very, very wrong in his absence. It's the start of a new era of Doctor Who, and while I highly recommend going back and watching a few episodes on this list once you're well into the show, there's nothing wrong with starting here.
9. Vincent and the Doctor
Not all of the Doctor's encounters with real historical figures are perfect, but this one has to be one of the best. The Doctor meets Vincent Van Gogh, whose mental illness has begun to manifest as actual demons only he can see. The episode isn't really about the aliens this time around, though. It's about Vincent, the nature of mental illness, and the ability to find beautiful days between difficult ones. If you want to see Doctor Who at its most heartfelt, this is definitely the episode to start with.
10. The Girl Who Waited
The majority of this list isn't from Steven Moffat's era as showrunner on Doctor Who, mainly because he was so focused on the plot that it's difficult to find a good episode that doesn't require prior knowledge of the show. This episode, however, manages to craft a really cool premise without the extra plot details. The Doctor promises his companions, Amy and Rory, a planet filled with wonder, but when they land, they find only a white door and two buttons: red and green. What follows is a series of moral dilemmas that test the Doctor and his companions as they traverse a sterilized wonderland. It may not have as much impact if you don't know the companions already, but it's still a good window into the types of plots Moffat's era is fond of when he gets it right.
The Eleventh Doctor's life turned his twelfth incarnation closed off and sour, meaning a lot of time was dedicated at the top of Twelve's first series to uncovering exactly who this new version of the Doctor was. At this point in the series, he has been traveling alone for a bit and, after spending so much time in his own head, has decided to recruit his old companion Clara to investigate one of his and the rest of the universe's greatest questions: why do we fear we are not alone when we know we most definitely are? This one episode takes the Doctor and Clara forward and backward in time, to the literal ends of the universe and to childhood bedrooms, and it's the sort of creepy adventure inspired by our very human fears that Doctor Who makes its best episodes out of.
12. The Pilot
This episode is appropriately named "The Pilot," because, despite airing in the middle of the Twelfth Doctor's run, it acts as a sort of new beginning to the show. The Doctor has become a professor on Earth and notices a certain student, Bill Potts, has been dropping in on his lectures simply because she enjoys them. Between their months of classes together, Bill notices a puddle that seems to distort the face reflected in it and, inevitably, finds help in the form of the Doctor. It's literally written as a new start to the show, so if you want to get just a bit of background before heading into the Thirteenth Doctor's series, this is definitely the place to start.
13. The Woman Who Fell To Earth
Yes, you can start on series 11. There's a new showrunner and a new Doctor, meaning the show is basically getting another, other reboot. The show is the best it's been in years, and while you might want to go back and watch earlier episodes in the future, the first episode of the new series is a great place to start. After a particularly violent regeneration, the Doctor is thrown from her TARDIS as it dematerializes, leaving her falling to Earth without her one unearthly possession. Once on solid ground, she stumbles into new aliens, new companions, and what is essentially a new TV show. The new showrunner, Chris Chibnall, has even said that each of this series' episodes are going to be individual stand-alone stories, so it doesn't sound like previous series are going to have too much baring on this one. The new series is only five episodes in, too, so you can catch up easily enough, and still have time to watch a few of the other episodes on this list in the downtime each week.
You can watch all of Doctor Who now on Amazon Prime.