I keep meeting people who like New Doctor Who and either can’t get into Classic Who or wonder where to start.
My answer to “where to start” is always: in the middle. You can’t go too far wrong by grabbing any Classic Who episode, watching it, and then turning off the TV for a day or a week. That’s because the show was produced in half-hour(ish) segments with cliffhangers at the end of each one. There might be anywhere from two to eight episodes per story (which is called a serial). Since it was the nature of television that viewers would often miss some of the episodes in any given serial, there was always enough backfilling that a viewer could figure out more or less what was going on.
So let’s suppose you try watching just one episode. One of two things will happen. One: you’ll be so interested that you’ll want to watch the next part of the serial. Two: you’ll decide that particular serial is boring, but at least you’ve gotten the flavor of the show. And you can rest assured that there will be a lot of different kinds of stories you can try. Also, there are a lot of different flavors of the Doctor and the companions.
I started with Patrick Troughton, the 2nd Doctor. I recommend any of his stories. They’re over-the-top, inventive, frivolous — lots of things I like, but that might not be everyone’s cup of tea. It was shown for one hour a week, which is twice as much as originally broadcast, but still manageable.
When Patrick Troughton regenerated into Jon Pertwee, I was shocked and dismayed. I had no idea that regeneration was part of the story, I didn’t much like the character of the new Doctor, and I didn’t like him being stuck on Earth for such a long time. I warmed up to him more by the time his companion Jo Grant showed up and adored him by the time of “Planet of the Spiders.”
I was down with the whole regeneration business by the time we got to Tom Baker. By then I was on a quest to find the old Patrick Troughton episodes, and the old William Hartnell episodes. I had to join a local Doctor Who club to do it . . . and later became the president and stored a life-size foam replica of the TARDIS in our family’s shed . . . but that’s another story.
William Hartnell episodes are awfully slow by today’s standards. I wouldn’t recommend starting there for most people, and if you do, absolutely don’t start with The Gunslingers.
You can’t go too far wrong watching the very first episode of the first serial “An Unearthly Child,” because it introduces the concept and the Doctor and the companions. However, you don’t have to watch the rest of that serial if you don’t want to. You could skip ahead to any other serial in Season 1, depending on what you like. Sci fi? Daleks? Historical fiction? I particularly enjoyed the episodes “Edge of Destruction” and “Brink of Disaster” because they were written with zero special effects budget and just featured suspense and characterization. Your mileage might vary, though.
In the next post I’ll talk more about some of my favorite Classic Who episodes and why I liked them.