Suppose you like New Doctor Who and you want to try out Classic Who, but maybe you don’t know where to start, or maybe you watched a serial and you got bored because it was too slow. Don’t despair: there’s no wrong way to watch Doctor Who. But, as I mentioned in my last blog post, you might not want to start at the beginning and watch straight through. Think of it as a buffet. Start at any part of the table, pick up some stuff, and watch it. That’s what Italo Calvino would have done.
One thing to keep in mind: the show is made up of stories, or serials, with several episodes each. You don’t always have to watch every episode in a serial to get the gist of it.
In this blog post, I’ll suggest some serials that might be fun as starters. Be forewarned: there’s plenty of sexism, racism, ableism — any kind of “ism” you can think of, it’s in there. The show is a product of its time. Also be aware that every single one of these serials is ridiculous. I mean, seriously — a time traveling police box?
Accept it and move on. There’s plenty of fun to be had.
First Doctor: William Hartnell (1963-1966)
Ah, the mid 1960s. Globally, that was a great time for experimentation in film and TV. The first Doctor, William Hartnell, began as an irascible old man who kidnapped two schoolteachers in a fit of pique. And the show began as a combination of history lessons and outer space adventure.
An Unearthly Child – The episode that started it all. It firmly establishes the Doctor’s character as an erratic and unpredictable man with a time machine. The focus, though, is on his granddaughter Susan, an exceptionally bright young woman. If you like, you can watch just the first episode in this serial and skip the rest.
The Daleks – First appearance of the iconic pop hit monster. They are scary, even to my modern sensibility.
The Edge of Destruction – A psychological thriller set entirely in the TARDIS. They had no special effects budget and very little time to write the script, and they did a lot with what they had.
The Web Planet – If you enjoy giant bug monsters on a low special-effects budget, watch an episode or two. I watched them all and I still have their spacey wacey high-pitched chirping in my head.
The Space Museum – This serial is a puzzle involving time’s multiple dimensions. It deals with a topic central to time travel stories: can you change the future or not? And there’s a subtle jibe in the script at the phenomenon of female characters leaving the TARDIS to get married.
The Time Meddler – The villain is the Meddling Monk, a time traveler like the Doctor. In apparent contrast to the Doctor, the Meddling Monk tries to change history for the better. What happens when he tries to stop the Viking invasion of 1066?
Second Doctor: Patrick Troughton (1966 – 1969)
Patrick Troughton’s acting superpowers are his slapstick and his ability to panic magnificently. He’s often compared to Moe from the Three Stooges. He’s got a warm personality and a melodious voice. Every so often he impersonates the villains so well that you do start to wonder. He’s the first Doctor I ever saw, and my favorite.
The Tomb of the Cybermen – The first appearance of second most famous Doctor Who monster. And they’re scary.
The Enemy of the World – The Doctor’s doppleganger is a ruthless dictator, and I had great fun watching them impersonate each other. It’s beautifully written and well acted, although the dictator’s accent is a weird combination of Italian, German, and Latin American.
The Web of Fear – All the wandering through abandoned subways you could ever hope for.
The Mind Robber – More ridiculous than most, and also one of the most inventive. Lovely metafiction.
The Krotons – This is the story that made me sit up and take notice of the show. The character of Zoe, a young woman, outdoes the Doctor on a math test. Go, Zoe!
The War Games – This one has ten episodes largely about wandering through battlefields, getting captured, escaping, and getting recaptured. I found the endless escapes fascinating and enjoyed watching the Doctor talk smack to generals. Somebody else might be deathly bored. Either way, I wouldn’t recommend watching more than two episodes at a time.
Third Doctor: Jon Pertwee (1970-1974)
Jon Pertwee is a dandy, with his ruffled sleeves and aristocratic accent. He’s paternalistic and arrogant. If you can’t stomach that, move on. I’m fond of him because sometimes I crave the illusion that somebody else knows what’s going on in this crazy world of ours. He was also the perfect Doctor to be challenged by 1970s “women’s lib.”
Inferno – A nightmare parallel world, in which drilling down to the center of the earth leads to worldwide cataclysm. Most vivid end-of-the-world scenario in Doctor Who, both Classic and New. It’s not pleasant getting there — the parallel world is more authoritarian, and all the characters we rely on are corrupt. There’s a hint that the Doctor has become the ruthless dictator we last saw in “Enemy of the World.”
Terror of the Autons – The Autons are a scary “uncanny valley” kind of monster, so successful that they were brought back as the villain for the first episode of New Who.
The Mind of Evil – Features a standoff between the Doctor and his arch-enemy the Master, including a lot of psychological drama. The Master became a favorite villain who appeared in quite a few of the following serials.
The Three Doctors – This serial brings together Jon Pertwee, Patrick Troughton, and William Hartnell. It’s fun to watch the dynamics between them, especially since they dislike each other so much.
The Time Warrior – This serial introduces Sarah Jane Smith, a long-term beloved companion. She enters as a determined women’s libber and confident journalist, who thinks the Doctor is a villain and opposes him with great gusto.
Planet of the Spiders – The Doctor goes on a solo mission to face the consequences of his actions, and Sarah Jane investigates a suspicious meditation group while also using compassion as a secret superpower. It’s full of mental powers and cool caves.
Fourth Doctor: Tom Baker (1974-1981)
This Doctor is many people’s favorites. He’s the “all teeth and curls” one with the long scarf. He adds comedy to all the serials, some of which are just plain cheesy and some of which deal with more serious topics.
A few to try:
Robot – This story deals with machine intelligence and ethics. Sarah Jane rocks it as a journalist / spy.
Genesis of the Daleks – This is the Dalek origin story, and introduces Davros, who genetically modifies the compassion out of his people. It asks serious questions: What if you could go back in time to stop the architect of a genocide? And what is the ethical responsibility of science?
Revenge of the Cybermen – Tom Baker faces off against the Cybermen.
Pyramids of Mars – Okay, lots of cheese here, including robots disguised as mummies and then Tom Baker disguised as a robot who’s disguised as a mummy . . . but I liked that they brought in a god from a non-Western mythology. Plus, Sutekh, destroyer of all, has a great voice.
Brain of Morbius – Major cheese, as the villain is a Doctor Frankenstein type. There is also a powerful group called the Sisterhood of Karn, who have a relationship of equals with the Time Lords but who are strangely idiotic in their understanding of the lifegiving “sacred flame” they guard. I suggest it because the Sisterhood of Karn becomes really important, and much wiser, in New Who.
Warrior’s Gate – A stone gateway, a magical mirror, and a struggle by the Doctor’s companion, Romana, to help stop slavery. She leaves the Doctor and the TARDIS as a hero.
Logopolis – It has math, the Master, and a cool looking world. It’s fun.
Fifth Doctor: Peter Davison (1982-1984)
This is the friendliest, pleasantest, most pacifist Doctor. He’s a nice guy.
Here are a couple of good ones:
Castrovalva – This serial takes place in an Escher-like world with a dangerous secret at its heart. The Doctor is unconscious for much of it, leaving the companions to carry off the adventure.
Kinda and Snakedance – These two serials can be watched separately or together. The Doctor and his companions visit the same world, aeons apart, to face the same monster. The Mara manifests physically as a giant, low-budget snake, but also exists in the inner reaches of the mind. Both serials tackle colonialism and introduce non-western ways of thinking about our world.
Black Orchid – This is a classic tale of a Victorian household with a secret in the attic. The Doctor impersonates . . . well, a doctor. And there’s a costume ball.
Mawdryn Undead – A paradox with disastrous consequences. It also introduces an “evil companion” who spends the next several serials trying to muster the nerve to kill the Doctor.
Enlightenment – This serial concludes the enjoyable “evil companion” plot, so you might not want to watch it until you’ve seen the rest. But it’s got outer space sailboats piloted by bored and lonely immortals. And people get to dress fancy and dance. First serial written by a woman.
The Five Doctors – Okay, if you can only watch one Classic Who serial, this is it. An evil mastermind is playing with Doctor Who action figures. Or, in other words, all the Doctors and some of the favorite companions are pulled out of time and into a forbidden battlezone on the Doctor’s home planet, where they get to reprise the best of their old roles.
Sixth Doctor: Colin Baker (1984-1986)
Sadly, the fifth Doctor was poisoned, and the regeneration went wrong. Colin Baker flirts with insanity throughout his serials in what was supposed to be a satisfying story arc but was cut short by fan disapproval and/or failures at the BBC. He’s mercurial, arrogant, patronizing, and prone to occasional fits of violence. Sometimes this comes off well.
Here are a couple serials I liked:
Mark of the Rani – Rani is a Time Lord scientist who lacks ethical constraints. In this serial, she’s taking advantage of the Luddite riots to drain hormones out of workers. She lures the Master into helping her and kidnaps the Doctor. It’s always fun to see smart villains with actors who relish their parts. Also, she pairs off quite nicely with this unbalanced version of the Doctor.
The Two Doctors – This one features Colin Baker, Patrick Troughton, and genetic manipulation by a mad scientist. There’s a lot of fun as Troughton starts turning into an Androgum — a species with a taste for sentient flesh.
Seventh Doctor: Sylvester McCoy (1987-1989)
This is my second favorite Classic Who doctor. He brings vaudevillian fun and a lovely Scottish accent, but under the surface is a lot of Machiavellian scheming. His run was cut short by the cancellation of the show.
I suggest any serial by him, but particularly:
Paradise Towers and Happiness Patrol – Two shows with two different brightly colored dystopias. In Paradise Towers, rival gangs fight with red and blue spray paint, elderly women eat their neighbors for tea, while something monstrous is gradually making its way up from the basement. In Happiness Patrol, blues are outlawed and execution is by candy syrup.
Ghost Light – It’s another creepy Victorian house with a madman in the attic. There are also things coming to life that should have stayed dead, a Pygmalian story, and a monster who didn’t factor evolution into his plans. The Doctor (and the show too) shows interest in character development for the companion, Ace. This is a first.
The Mark of Fenric – This serial, set during World War Two, involves spies, codebreaking machines, complicated evil machinations, and also a rare glimpse into what women do during a war. Ace has even more character development.
Survival – Because cats.
Okay, that’s it: a Classic Doctor Who starter course. Enjoy.