The Series: Doctor Who
Where You Can Stream It: HBO Max
The Pitch: A hyperintellectual alien travels through time and space (though more often than not, to 21st century Britain) in a spaceship shaped like a 1960s British police box, going on wacky misadventures with his/her spunky human companions.
Why It’s Essential Viewing: Doctor Who is often described in reverent terms as the longest-running sci-fi TV series in history. But to categorize this wonderful, baffling, silly, stupendous show as science-fiction wouldn’t do it, or the genre, justice. Sci-fi is really just an umbrella for the famous BBC series to play with genre and structure — it can be a character drama one episode, a campy comedy the next, a mythic fairy tale, a Gothic horror tale. Sure, there’s a loose continuity that runs all the way back to the beginning of the show, but none of that matters. All that matters is that there’s a quirky alien who goes around battling monsters and saving the day with his big old brain and a whole lotta heart (two of them, in fact).
With a 57-year run and multiple actors, showrunners, and spin-offs, getting into Doctor Who can be a bit daunting. (If you’re intimidated, dive into Doctor Who starting with the 2005 revival, or read our handy guide.) Centering around an alien protagonist known as only the Doctor, the title character has the ability to change into an entirely different person every time he dies in a process called regeneration — a neat trick that basically grants him immortality, and grants the series an eternal lifespan with 13 actors now having played the Doctor. But the brilliant conceit of Doctor Who is that you could feasibly jump into any episode and get the gist.
One episode, the Doctor may be battling killer robots in contemporary London; another, looking for ghosts with Charles Dickens; or another, stuck on a train on a diamond planet attempting to outwit an invisible entity that feeds on the paranoia of the surrounding passengers. You never know what to expect when you tune into an episode of Doctor Who, which is only limited by the imaginations of its writers, and, of course, by the very limited budget of the BBC. It’s the perfect blank slate for great genre storytelling, and while that storytelling isn’t often great (in fact, it’s more often not), Doctor Who never feels stale thanks to its evolving nature. It’s a show that constantly reinvents itself, as its title character does — since the show was revived in 2005, it has been a campy horror series, and a soap opera, and a fairy tale.
But despite the fact that change is built into this show’s DNA, Doctor Who always feels inarguably Doctor Who. That’s because no matter how many times it reinvents itself, Doctor Who is at its core a sci-fi series about love and empathy. It has a protagonist who sometimes acts a little too cold and alien, but who cares so deeply that they will inspire those around them to show the best of humanity. It’s hopelessly sentimental and optimistic, but don’t we need a little bit of that nowadays?