#newtoWHO: Vulture Recapper Ross Ruediger’s First ‘Doctor Who’ Experience

Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen. (Photo: BBC)

Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen in ‘Doctor Who.’ (Photo: BBC)

1. Who introduced you to the show?

It wasn’t a who, but rather a what, and that’s Starlog magazine, which, long before folks bookmarked their favorites or shut down their browsers, was the go-to resource for sci-fi TV and movie fans. Issue #36 from July 1980 (the mag’s fourth anniversary issue), featured on its front cover The Empire Strikes Back, Alien, Battlestar Galactica, and about a half a dozen other now-iconic properties.

One concept that was completely foreign to the then 9-year old me was something called “Dr. Who” (these days, the abbreviated form of the title is borderline blasphemy), and on the front cover of Starlog this Doctor appeared deadly serious, despite also looking like a lost Marx Brother. Inside the issue were a mere few paragraphs on the show next to another picture of Tom Baker, this time crouched down in an alien forest next to Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah Jane Smith — a now rather famous publicity still from “Planet of Evil.” In this shot, Baker not only looked serious, but also downright malevolent.

Based on this photo it was impossible to believe that this man could be the hero of a TV series, and surely that pretty woman with him wasn’t there by choice? Who was this strange, bug-eyed freak that was so clearly cut from a different cloth than that of Captain Kirk, Buck Rogers or Luke Skywalker? That image stuck in my head for years.

 2. What was your first episode (and Doctor/Companion), and what about the show grabbed you?

It was still another four years – the summer of ’84 – before I encountered the Doctor proper, by stumbling across the program late one Sunday night on PBS. More absurd than it taking me that long to find the series was the fact that the story I tuned into that night was none other than the burned-into-my-brain “Planet of Evil”! In hindsight, what were the odds?

Spending 90 minutes at the edge of the known universe, on the violent, alien world of Zeta Minor with Baker and Sladen, made the 12-year-old me all but disown Star Wars and Buck Rogers overnight. From the trippy opening credits to the Doctor’s harrowing final journey to the anti-matter pit with Professor Sorenson, it cast its hypnotic spell. This science fiction was unlike anything I’d ever encountered, and to this day, the Zeta Minor set remains for me one of the most bizarrely moody chunks of atmosphere on this or any sci-fi series. I never turned back after that night and the subsequent discovery that I had 20 years worth of catching up to do.

3. If a curious viewer wanted an introduction to Doctor Who, which episode would you suggest they start with and why?

For the new to “Who” viewer in the year 2012, there’s no better installment to kick things off than the first episode of the new series, “Rose.” Those 45 minutes are absolutely designed to immerse new viewers in the possibilities of the show’s universe, and Russell T Davies did so marvelously. If that episode hadn’t worked, it’s possible we wouldn’t be sitting here talking Doctor Who today.

Is it the best episode ever created? Of course not; not even close. If the first episode of any TV series is its best, that’s not saying a whole lot for that TV series. “Rose” is merely an introduction; the promise of greatness around the corner, and if you start there and keep watching, there is plenty of it to come.

Now, if you’ve exhausted every episode of the new series, then you owe it to not only yourself, but also Doctor Who as a concept, to go back and start finding out where it all came from. In that case, there are probably a dozen different stories I could recommend for a dozen different reasons, but for simplicity’s sake, I’ll not second guess, and go with “Planet of Evil.” If it was good enough for me, it should be good enough for you.

You can always read more of Ross Ruediger’s thoughts on “Doctor Who” at The Rued Morgue.