My leadoff choice is from the first season of the revamped series, where the show truly begins for most mainstream viewers. It functions as a reboot of sorts, while still continuing some mythology and in-jokes from before. Furthermore, Dalek is a great baseline for the structure and pacing of a Doctor Who episode. Temporary casts of characters that exist purely for the weekly plot, a generic sci-fi setting and an ethical dilemma solved with pure moxie and cleverness are all hallmarks of this show.
Despite its compelling story hook and earned pathos, this entry has the gauche feel of the show’s first few seasons. It’s quite tacky because of BBC budgets and its now-dated mid-2000s stylization, and the plot is a tad belabored. But really, the homebrewed campy aesthetic is a proud part of the show’s adventure serial DNA at this point.
Neither of the two showrunners thus far is consistently great at pacing out emotional and story beats, so expect a couple slow spots in the non-highlight hours. Davies tends to drag early on in some of his episodes, but is always dependable to deliver a meaningful, satisfying third act. Moffat overcorrects that problem, packing so many ideas in at the start that he only sometimes ties them together at the end. Davies is indebted to the mythology and family-friendly nature of the classic serials, giving old ideas a new coat of paint. Moffat, on the other hand, is original to a fault, bringing new ideas and stylization to the show even though they don’t always gel.
At any rate, this hour re-establishes the most important of the Doctor’s recurring villains: the Daleks, a merciless and destructive robotic race. Their cold depersonalization and boundless capacity for survival make them the yin to his yang. There’s also a bit of light backstory to get the viewer up to speed, and then we’re off to the races with a very good episode!
Doctor Nine (Christopher Eccleston) does an acceptable job bridging the esoteric, whimsical nature of earlier Doctors and storylines with the realistic ambiguity of the modern era. The one issue with this incarnation (besides the iffy stories assigned to him) is the fact that he only stuck around for one season, giving little time for distinct traits and relationships to develop. But what’s there is admirable: having survived the decimation of his home planet and species in the program’s last canon adventures before a lengthy hiatus, this iteration of our hero is extremely warm and peaceful, determined to overcome his grief. Eccleston gives a jubilant and friendly performance, perhaps the most humble incarnation of the contemporary show.
By the way, this should go without saying, but the mantle of “Doctor” is basically just a nickname for the main character. His race are actually called Time Lords, from the planet Gallifrey. It was caught in a treacherous war with Daleks, which was finally alluded to in a series-halting TV movie in the 90s, before this soft reboot kickstarted the property again. The Doctor’s character evolution would come later. For now, Dalek is a solid start to an epic journey.