9. “Doctor Who”
Where to begin with “Doctor Who”? No, really: where to begin? This BBC standard can seem more than a little overwhelming and off-putting at first with hundreds of episodes spanning six decades. Ten actors have come and gone as the title character, with a lanky, bow-tie-wearing bloke (Matt Smith) currently occupying the eleventh spot. Only children would be swayed by its sometimes gleefully low-budget special effects. Plus, it’s just frakking weird. But this season (and the previous one that introduced Smith in the role) is a semi-reboot, the perfect place for would-be fans to start. Tenth Doctor David Tennant is a fan favorite, and ninth Doctor Christopher Eccleston brought a bit more darkness to the role, but we’ve come to love the charm of the eleventh Doctor and his two companions, Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and Rory Williams (Arthur Davill). For the uninitiated, “Doctor Who” follows a centuries-old Time Lord as he bounces through the universe--and beyond--in his TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space). He appears human, but he’s as alien as they come, boasting a millennium’s worth of experience and wisdom behind his 20-something face. He jumps everywhere from a 29th-century space ship to a 17th-century pirate ship, solving problems and fighting aliens, armed with his trusty Sonic Screwdriver and joined by his companions. Even though the show is called “Doctor Who,” the crush-worthy Amy and and ever-devoted Rory lie at the series’ heart with one of TV’s most believable, affecting romances. “Doctor Who” is undeniably science fiction with all the hallmarks of the genre (and we’re admittedly pretty geeky), but at its best, it’s the best kind of idea-driven sci-fi, far more intriguing than most big-screen examples, which tend to be action movies in disguise. Showrunner Steven Moffat (writer of Spielberg’s upcoming “The Adventures of Tintin”) was behind most of the best episodes of the Eccleston/Tennant era, and he’s brought new ambition to the show now that he’s in charge, aided by intricate season-long macroplots that make the show more compelling than ever. It’s enjoyably silly at times -- and done perfectly by the affable Smith, who like Tennant, seems destined to be a giant movie star when he leaves the show -- but that’s nicely balanced by moments so heartbreaking you’ll bawl and ones so dark they seem to be made entirely of your worst nightmares.
Must-See Episode: Moffat’s “Blink” is the perfect entry point for newcomers, featuring an early starring role for Carey Mulligan, and introducing some terrifying new villains while standing alone from the show’s mythology. But, of the more recent era, “The Doctor’s Wife,” penned by sci-fi legend Neil Gaiman and featuring a villainous vocal turn from Michael Sheen, is a real classic, showcasing everything that the show does so well: terror, tears, big ideas and laughter.
It’s incredibly difficult to talk about “Fringe” and what it means in the scope of primetime television today. It began with major hype, touted as a J.J. Abrams’ sci-fi special way back in 2008 when it premiered (to pretty large numbers), but the first-season wasn’t great, mostly feeling like a freak-of-the-week “X-Files” rip-off. Since then, those numbers have dwindled dramatically, even as it’s gotten bolder and better, so much so that when it was renewed for a fourth season recently, viewers were shocked. What’s “Fringe” all about? Well, that’s exactly the problem. It’s an incredibly serialized, yet somewhat procedural show about FBI agent Olivia Dunham (the really excellent Anna Torv) and her mad scientist father-son pair Peter and Walter Bishop (played by Joshua Jackson and John Noble, respectively). These three investigate so-called fringe incidents; for those in the dark, supernatural and unexplained coincidences. It gets even weirder for those who stick with it as the science fiction quotient has recently been upped exponentially with Olivia and the Bishops finding ways into an (wonderfully-imagined) alternate universe and revealing plans for war between the two universes. Throw in some doppelgangers, shapeshifters and pseudo-science speak, and it’s easy to see why most people would ignore this totally weird show. Those people should reconsider because “Fringe” is telling stories unlike any other on television and, at the same time, reaching emotional beats that others are not. It might not make sense at first -- one of the downsides to the show is that you’ll have to start from the beginning, and slog through that inconsistent first season -- but you won’t regret starting up. And some of the formal stuff is the most surprising around: few other shows have the balls to do a noir-ish musical episode, or an episode that’s partially animated in a “Scanner Darkly” style, or spend a handful of episodes with its lead character possessed by the soul of Leonard Nimoy, complete with pitch-perfect impression. Only “Fringe,” for sure. Although fans need those ratings up to get a fifth season, as “Fringe” has been stuck in the Friday night death slot come fall.
Must-See Episode: The beautifully directed, heartbreaking “Subject 13,” entirely set in flashback, showing that the paths of star-crossed, universe-jumping lovers Peter and Olivia have been entwined for longer than previously believed.