To be fair, we were at the mercy of Netflix, whose roster included a bizarre sampling of serials from 1963-1989. Instead of seeing complete story arcs and pivotal plotlines, we were exposed to a standalone bit of fluff here, the middle of a story arc there...and not a consistently random assortment, either, where each of the various Doctors was featured once or twice. There was a single serial each with the first, second, and seventh; two with the fifth; four with the third; nine with the fourth; and none with the sixth (unless you count any cameos they made in someone else's show). Confusing, to say the least, but varied enough that—statistically speaking—you'd think at least one episode in 25 years would pan out a little differently.
Still, I imagine Star Trek would seem pretty tiresome if you had two episodes from TOS, one from TAS, four from TNG, one from DS9, nine from VOY, and one from ENT, with no context whatsoever, and they're basically all the one where somebody gets replaced by an evil android. Or an evil shapeshifter. Or an evil transporter clone. Or an evil alternate universe twin. Or an evil mind parasite that takes over their body. Actually, I think I'm just describing all of The Original Series. Oh, well.
My wife, who grew up watching Doctor Who, did some research and was able to fill in the massive gaps between serials for me. Hearing about the Daleks, the Time War, the Doctor's various regenerations, the Master, the history of the TARDIS, and the fates of a few of the Doctor's companions was intriguing—it sounded like a great show; when could I start watching? Oh, right. I'd already seen 18 serials—which translates out to something like 24 hours of television, or an entire season of any other show.
If it were just me, I would've simply skipped ahead to the next Doctor at the first sign of tedium. I'm enough of a sci-fi junkie that I'll subject myself briefly to things I don't like for the sake of self-education, but to power through 24 hours of questionably entertaining entertainment, and then agree to watch through the entire new series with the ninth Doctor and his successors...that takes the kind of insanity that only comes from being an in-law.
It wasn't just my wife, but her whole family who grew up on Doctor World Health Organization. Any time we go to visit, it's a guarantee there'll be at least one extended conversation about the show, which is typically where I bust out the Game Boy and they lose me for the rest of the weekend. Both for my own edification as a sci-fi fan, and as a son/brother/nephew-in-law who would like to be able to communicate with his extended family beyond what's for dinner and no I'm not playing Mega Man again, it's important to me to press on.
But oh, is it a challenge.
I liked Hartnell, the first Doctor, well enough. Despite the awkwardness of jumping right into a story ("The Aztecs") with no idea who these characters were, where they came from, or why they were gallivanting across space and time, the overall quality of the first serial was pretty good for its time. None of the characters left too much of an impression on me, but as I'd soon discover, that's not necessarily a bad thing—I'd rather have low-key heroes and villains than abrasively prominent ones.
Troughton, the second Doctor, struck me as a cartoon. Combined with his screamy companion What's-Her-Face, "The Mind Robber" was a bit painful to watch with how over-the-top some of the performances were, especially against such a mishmash of antagonists and supporting players—it felt less like a land of imagination and more like a land of, "Well, I guess we could throw this in." On the plus side, Upbeat Scottish Guy was the first Doctor Who character I liked, and not merely liked "well enough."
The third Doctor, Pertwee, remains my favorite. Intelligent, rational, and stern-yet-gentle in a fatherly sort of way. I liked the Brigadier he served with. I liked the woman who seemed to be shaping up to be his first companion. I liked that I finally got to see a first episode with a new doctor, "Spearhead from Space," so I had some context for a change. Things were looking up, I thought to myself.
Then the first companion was replaced by Jo, who aggravatingly caused more trouble than she resolved, constantly ignoring or countermanding the Doctor's orders and failing to exercise basic common sense. This made "The Three Doctors" and "The Carnival of Monsters" a little less enjoyable, but at least those episodes began to showcase some of the more interesting aspects of the Doctor Who universe (the diversity of creatures, for instance) and exercise more of the show's storytelling potential (finding an excuse to get Hartnell, Troughton, and Pertwee working together was brilliant).
Then came "The Green Death," and with it, a decade of shoddy writing. Pacing slowed to a crawl as the serials became less about telling a good story and more about keeping the Doctor detained or waiting for the Mystery Monster to bump off all the expendable characters before the Doctor takes any real action. So much padding for so little plot.
Thus began the reign of Tom Baker as the fourth Doctor, who I understand is a fan favorite. I must have missed all the fun episodes, because most of what I remember about him is how harshly he interacted with his inferiors, his distinctive scarf and hair, and that trademark grin that he flashed right before doing something needlessly reckless. I liked K-9, loved the tribal alien something-or-other companion, gradually warmed up to Romana I, frowned at how Romana II was starting to remind me of Jo, and was excited to see four consecutive serials pertaining to a single storyline—finding the pieces of the Key to Time. I grew weary of the Doctor's constant disregard for the people and situations around him, and had trouble getting to know him when his personality was so inconsistent—he'd go from angry to frightened to laughing in the face of death and back again.
It doesn't help that "The Ark in Space," "Horror of Fang Rock," and "The Power of Kroll," which all transpired during this era, were some of the most plodding, unproductive serials yet. I also admit to falling asleep more frequently during the second half of the Netflix roster; not sure if this is the cause or the symptom of my displeasure with these shows.
Credit where credit is due, however: "The Pirate Planet" was hands-down the best serial of the lot—and not simply better than the others, but legitimately good sci-fi in its own right. Good action, meaningful character interactions, great pacing, some humor, a few plot twists, many interesting locations, memorable villains, and plenty of creative situations and solutions. All around, a very well-told story and solidly entertaining television...which shouldn't be much of a surprise, because it was written by The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy scribe Douglas Adams. If I can't call myself a Doctor Who fan, it's not because the ingredients aren't there; it's because the people behind the camera rely too heavily on, "Look! Weird stuff! And the characters are inherently likable!" to sell the story.
The fifth Doctor, Davison, was a refreshing amalgamation of Pertwee's controlled cleverness and Tom Baker's spontaneity—he might throw himself haphazardly into a situation, but at least he seemed to have an idea of how to get out of it. I'm inclined to say he's my second-favorite Doctor, though his companions were...tolerable. I was not completely enthralled by Snippy, Whiny, and Well-Meaning-But-Impetuous Boy-Child. I also wasn't too keen on either of the serials I saw him in, "The Visitation" and "The Caves of Androzani”; the former would've been more appealing to me as a straight-up "androids have invaded 17th-century England" story instead of some convoluted Terileptil plot to wipe out humanity with rats and bracelets, and the latter focused so much on political intrigue and military strategy that the Doctor and his companion were almost incidental characters up until the very end. Doctor...Who? Oh, the main character. If you say so.
Netflix thoughtfully left out any episodes starring the sixth Doctor, Colin Baker, so you're getting off the hook with a sentence instead of a paragraph.
By the time we got to the seventh Doctor, McCoy (I'm a Time Lord, not a doctor!), I was hoping for a departure from what I'd seen so far; a reinvention, if you will, or at least a storytelling style more in line with the better-paced, character-focused sci-fi I grew up with from the late '80s. Instead, I got "The Curse of Fenric": same ol', same ol', with better film quality. And oppressively bombastic music. It sounded like a bad Sega Genesis game. Like Hartnell, I didn't get much of an impression from McCoy, but that's also because I was too busy shaking my head at the parade of fools who chose to gaze in horror at the slowly approaching sea vampire zombie fish people instead of running away at quadruple their speed. Ace, his companion, was another obnoxiously independent tagalong; I don't mind tough guy/tough girl characters, but all I can think of is her yelling at the doctor about how he never tells her anything, and her flirting with a guard in the most incomprehensibly flirtatious way I've ever seen—like, using something to the effect of, "my, the sun is comprised of helium," as a pickup line. Odd, self-centered, and prone to emotional outbursts is not a character trait combination I find appealing.
Skipping over the eighth Doctor, McGann, due to his absence from Netflix, my wife and I proceeded to the new series of Doctor Who, watching the first two episodes with Eccleston, the ninth Doctor. Well, he wasn't in our living room with us; we were the ones watching him on the screen.
This Doctor looks destined to be my third favorite, possibly slipping past Davison for second place. He's passionate, efficient, and mysterious (but not irritatingly so). Likewise, Rose is on track to become my favorite companion, or at least in my top three. A little rebellious, a little inquisitive, a little sentimental, a little overwhelmed...a little of everything, making her feel more like a well-rounded and real person than the previous companions, who took two or three character traits and ran with them.
What I like about this new series is that it takes the time to develop the characters, hints at things yet-to-be-revealed, pays tribute to previous shows, keeps a steady pace, and goes beyond the needs of the episode to consider the ramifications of an entire universe filled with weird aliens and time travel and whatnot. What I don't like about this new series is that the climax of each episode superficially creates drama by putting the characters in a tight spot and stretching out their inaction for far longer than necessary, too many people get needlessly killed off, and the aliens are way too weird for me. I appreciate that the aliens are far more diverse than the large, speechless beasts of Star Wars and the multitudinous ridgy humanoids of Star Trek, but...talking skin? Gross.
Overall, I'm liking the direction of this new series, but there's still something about the execution that's holding me back from professing I'm a Whovian, or a Whoite, or whatever fans are called. Who-heads? I suspect, once again, that the writers are responsible. Everything else—acting, costumes, makeup, lighting, set design, you name it—is just as good as it's ever been, if not better. I'm not sure yet about the storytelling; the body count of the innocent is already too high, and overreliance on manufactured tension makes for tedious viewing (see: The Hobbit).
As a side note, in the first episode of the new series, Mystery Monsters terrorize the neighborhood, and the Doctor gets captured by them. The more things change...