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New Who to Try

The question came up: “What’s the big deal about Doctor Who? I’ve watched a couple episodes and couldn’t get into it at all.” Tastes differ, and not everybody is going to like it. But if you’re one of the people who might like it and might not, here are some episodes worth trying.

They’re not necessarily my favorite episodes, but they’re ones that might be good for a new viewer.

I’ve only included episodes through the end of Series 8, leaving out Series 9. I would not recommend that series as a starter.

Ninth Doctor – Christopher Eccleston

Rose. This episode kicked off the first series of New Who, introducing the various characters. It’s fun and exciting and silly.

Aliens of London / World War III. Smart political satire mixed in with fart jokes.

Father’s Day. This is a good one for people who like sentimental stories and stories where time travel is explored in new and interesting ways.

The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances. This two-parter won a well-deserved Hugo award.

Tenth Doctor – David Tennant

The Girl in the Fireplace. Adventure in which time travel lends emotional depth to the plot.

The Runaway Bride. Comedy-horror. Actress Catherine Tate is magnificent.

The Shakespeare Code. If you like Shakespeare, you’ll enjoy visiting the actual Globe theater. The monster plot is fun too.

Blink. Seriously frightening monsters. Also, time travel done well.

Partners in Crime. Comedy-espionage with monsters made of human fat.

The Fires of Pompeii. Apocalypse story, as you visit Pompeii and see why it burned.

The Unicorn and the Wasp. The Doctor and Donna meet Agatha Christie and together they solve the classic drawing-room mystery. Also, giant flying wasp.

Midnight. This is a one-scene psychological drama.

Eleventh Doctor – Matt Smith

The Eleventh Hour. This episode features a new Doctor, new traveling companions, and a new storytelling style. It’s sweet and funny and a good place to start.

Victory of the Daleks. Not a bad Dalek episode to start out with. It encapsulates the scariness and the silliness of the number one Doctor Who monster.

The Hungry Earth / Cold Blood. Antiwar plot.

Vincent and the Doctor. A visit with Vincent Van Gogh. Bittersweet, as the Doctor and his traveling companion both know his ultimate fate.

The Lodger. It’s your classic romantic comedy, except for the scary something on the top floor.

The Curse of the Black Spot. Pirate story!

The Doctor’s Wife. Neil Gaiman wrote this one. The time machine finally gets to speak for herself, and she’s amazing.

The Rebel Flesh / The Almost People. Good sci fi with dopplegangers.

Night Terrors. Proper scary. Don’t show it to your kids.

Dinosaurs on a Spaceship. Adventure. Dinosaurs. Spaceship. Fun.

The Snowmen. Victorian thriller.

Hide. Ghost story set in the 1980s.

Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS. This is if you like your time travel hard core and don’t mind getting dizzy.

The Crimson Horror. Lovely Victorian crime drama. Starring Diana Riggs as the villain.

Twelfth Doctor – Peter Capaldi

Deep Breath. This episode features a brand new Doctor, who is much more cantankerous than the last several.

Time Heist. Your classic bank heist fun.

Kill the Moon. This is a strange episode. It features the Doctor abandoning the fate of Earth to three generations of women.

Flatline. Homage to Flatland.

From left to right: Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith, Peter Capaldi. From http://www.doctorwhotv.co.uk/

From left to right: Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith, Peter Capaldi. From http://www.doctorwhotv.co.uk/



Some of the Doctor Who companions, 1963 to present. From http://www.teenlibrariantoolbox.com/


And, of course, the time machine.




Visions of Eternity in Doctor Who: “Heaven Sent”

(Spoilers for Doctor Who Series 9).

The Doctor Who episode “Heaven Sent” is arguably the scariest Doctor Who episode ever to air. It’s the only one where the Doctor, the man who “saves us from the monsters” is completely and believably terrified. He’s trapped in a torture chamber designed specifically to frighten him into divulging a secret. It’s a horrific clockwork castle with rooms that not only move but also  reset themselves at regular intervals, offering him the same nightmares over and over again. When he reaches the end of the nightmare, he dies, forgetting everything, and the whole process starts over again.  It takes him four and a half billion years to escape and face the people who put him in there: the Time Lords.

It’s frightening enough on its own, but it’s also a metaphor for the Doctor’s entire existence. As a Time Lord, he was entitled to a small number of regenerations, where his old body is utterly consumed by fire and a new body is born. By the end of Series 7, the Eleventh Doctor had used them all up and settled down to a comfortable retirement. But the Time Lords stepped in to intervene, and gave him a bunch more regenerations. How many? Who knows! It could be ten, or an infinite number, or four and a half billion.

This knowledge haunts the Twelfth Doctor, as we see in the episode “Kill the Moon.” The Doctor, threatened with shooting, says,

Oh, well you’re just going to have to shoot us, then. . .  You’ll have to spend a lot of time shooting me because I will keep on regenerating.  In fact, I’m not entirely sure if I won’t keep on regenerating forever.

He says it with such cold fury that we see this knowledge hurts badly. In fact, it’s a plausible explanation for why the Twelfth Doctor wakes up so irritable and caustic. He knows he’s trapped.

He’s trapped, and he’s alone, just as he will be in the clockwork castle. “Immortality isn’t living forever,” he explains to Clara. “That’s not what it feels like. Immortality is everybody else dying.”

The Doctor does eventually get out of the clockwork castle trap set by the Time Lords. In the episode “Hell Bent,” which follows “Heaven Sent,” the Doctor ends up on Gallifrey. He battles the Time Lords and rescues Clara, then escapes Gallifrey, lets go of Clara, and completes his grieving process. In the end, he takes off in his TARDIS, all set for the next adventure.

But the metaphor of the clockwork castle stands. And “Hell Bent” reminds us of that metaphor through a series of visual echoes, scattered throughout the show.


The first visual echo is the Doctor eating a bowl of soup and then setting down his spoon. In the clockwork castle, he drops it in shock as he realizes he might have to go on like this forever. On Gallifrey, he uses the act of eating soup as an accusation to the Time Lords. When they ask him to “drop his weapons,” he puts down his soup spoon.

The second echo is the moment when the Doctor puts on his coat. In the clockwork castle, he comes into a room with a fireplace after having jumped into the sea. He finds a velvet coat drying on a rack, takes hold of it, pauses, and puts it on. Then he leaves his wet coat on the same rack to dry. After he dies, the next version of himself who comes out of the transporter will find that same coat. In “Hell Bent,” he enters the TARDIS without the velvet coat. He had taken it off when facing down the Time Lords, as a symbol that he was setting aside his role as the Doctor. Now that he’s in his TARDIS, he takes hold of the velvet coat, pauses, and puts it on.

The third echo is a gruesome one. In “Heaven Sent,” after he has been mortally injured by a monster known as the Veil, he returns to the transporter room, which like the other rooms has reverted to its original state and is therefore holding his pattern. It has no power, so the Doctor burns up his current body in order to provide the necessary energy. To do so, he pulls down on a metal handle that is just like the handle he pulls on in “Hell Bent” to dematerialize the TARDIS.

What is the message we are left with here? Is the universe itself an endlessly repeating hell for the Doctor? Did the Time Lords trap him in the land of the living by giving him an infinite number of regenerations?

I think that yes, this metaphor is part of the message of “Heaven Sent” and “Hell Bent.” And this isn’t the first time such a metaphor has appeared. In the sixth series episode “The God Complex,” a minotaur is trapped in a spaceship that picks up passersby, sets them loose in a maze that looks like a hotel, scares them into turning to their faith, and feeds their faith to the minotaur. The Doctor frees the minotaur, saying:

An ancient creature, drenched in the blood of the innocent, drifting in space through an endless shifting maze. For such a creature, death would be a gift.

The minotaur says something only the Doctor can understand, and the Doctor steps back in shock, saying, “I didn’t mean me!”

Despite his protests, the Doctor does understand the parallel. He also feeds on the faith of his companions, and upon occasion, they also die. He takes the metaphor to heart and drops Amy and Rory off at home, to have their own domestic adventures without him.

He tries to, at least. Like the minotaur, he can’t seem to leave his companions alone. He returns for Amy and Rory and they continue having adventures until tragedy strikes. Likewise, he keeps coming back for his companion Clara, even though he knows she’s risking her life, until she is definitively killed in “Face the Raven.” Even then, he can’t let her go.

And his inability to let go of Clara is what keeps him trapped in the clockwork castle. He could leave at any time simply by telling the Time Lords what they want to know, but instead he chooses to withhold that information for use as a bargaining chip in order to cheat death and save Clara.

In “The God Complex” and “Heaven Sent,” then, we have two visions of eternity, and both are horrible. In one, the Doctor is a monster who can’t release his companions, and in the other, he faces billions of years of torment alone. Is a third vision possible?

It definitely is, and I hope future showrunners will build it. If the Doctor has to face eternity, he shouldn’t have to face it alone. He deserves the company of equals who are also immortal — and who are not his enemy.

The Doctor has been depicted as the man who is always alone, but this is not fundamental to the mythology. In the beginning of the show, he traveled with a granddaughter and her two teachers. In other words, he traveled with family. He was almost never left alone until New Who, and his companions almost never died. 

Of course, actors always leave their roles, and companions always leave the Doctor. But few of these partings have to be forever. People can reappear either on-screen or off. The character of River Song, for example, died in “Silence of the Library,” but her past self continues to show up.

Series 9 has in fact given the Doctor some company in the universe. In the episode “The Girl Who Died,” the Doctor, tired of losing people, finagles immortality for a woman named Me. And in “Hell Bent,” Clara becomes not infinite but in-between-finite. Her death is a fixed point in time. But her body has been magically paused “between one heartbeat and the next,” and she is now free to roam the universe on her way back to her regularly scheduled death.

The Doctor never has to be fully separated from River, or from Me, or from Clara. River wanders all over time and space, and he’s bound to encounter her sooner or later. Me apparently sticks it out until the end of the universe and then moves backward in time to do it all over again. As for Clara, although Clara must stay away from the Doctor, she continues to live with him as a story, or a beautiful song.

So perhaps that moment in “Hell Bent,” when the Doctor puts on his coat and pulls the handle for the dematerialization circuit, is not so grim after all. Maybe, as he’s getting ready to explore the universe, he’ll be in good company. It’s the next second of eternity, and the Doctor has barely begun.

– Kristin


By Robbert van der Steeg (originally posted to Flickr as Eternal clock), via Wikimedia Commons

Ambiguity in Doctor Who: “Hell Bent”

The character of the Doctor in the Steven Moffat era is a trickster. As the Matt Smith incarnation says, “Rule One: The Doctor lies.” In the Doctor Who episodes “Heaven Sent” and “Hell Bent,” the Doctor’s lie is critical to our literal understanding of events.

Spoilers ahead. If you haven’t watched these two episodes, you don’t want to hear what I’m about to say.

The narrative arc in Series 9 hinges on a monster known only as “the Hybrid.” The Hybrid, as prophesied, is a combination of two powerful warrior races that will either bring peace or fracture time itself. What is the Hybrid? And who knows its true nature?

Perhaps the Doctor knows. In the episode “Hell Bent,” he ends up in a torture chamber where he is repeatedly interrogated by a creature who kills him if he does not confess the truth. He makes two statements. The first is a confession, which means it must be true. The second is not a confession and may or may not be true.



Long before the Time War, the Time Lords knew it was coming. Like a storm on the wind. There were many prophecies and many stories. Legends before the fact. One of them was about a creature called the hybrid. Half-Dalek, half-Time Lord. The ultimate warrior. But whose side would it be on? Would it bring peace or destruction? Was it real or a fantasy? I confess, I know the Hybrid is real. I know where it is and what it is. I confess, I’m afraid.

Possibly true:

Hello again. No more confessions, sorry. But I will tell you the truth. The Hybrid is a very dangerous secret. A very very dangerous secret. And it needs to be kept! So I’ll tell you nothing.

After escaping the torture chamber, he makes two more statements about the Hybrid.

He tells the Gallifreyans:

The Hybrid is not a half-Dalek, nothing is half-Dalek. The Daleks would never allow that. The Hybrid, destined to conquer Gallifrey and stand in its ruins… is me.

That statement alone could mean two different people: “me, the Doctor” or Me, the woman that the Doctor immortalized. In fact, both “me’s” do end up standing in the ruins of Gallifrey.

But he later implies to Clara that he does not know the identity of the Hybrid, saying:

It doesn’t matter what the Hybrid is. It only matters that I convinced them that I knew. Otherwise they’d have kicked me out and I’d have nothing left to bargain with.

Finally, when he reaches the universe where he finds only the woman Me, she asks him about the Hybrid. He reiterates that he does not know and offers several theories, and then she offers an interpretation that he acknowledges is plausible.

Me suggests that the Hybrid is a combination of the Doctor and Clara, traveling the universe together. Her two pieces of evidence are the damage to time that he has wreaked in trying to save Clara, and the fact that Missy, “the lover of chaos,” brought Clara to him. He accepts this and allows himself to be separated from Clara.

As viewers, we are also asked to accept this interpretation of the Hybrid. And we do, but only because it’s the most recent one given. The Doctor does not know what the Hybrid is. In the torture chamber, he pretended to know so that he could ultimately escape and save Clara. He was motivated, then, by his love for his friend. A plot of epic proportions narrows itself down to a touching personal event.

But there’s another, deeper reading. In the torture chamber, the Doctor allowed himself to be killed billions of times rather than reveal the secret of the hybrid to Rassilon, the power-hungry President of the Time Lords. When he said the secret was too dangerous ever to be told, the Doctor was telling the truth.

It can get even scarier. The Doctor had three options in the torture chamber: tell the truth and theoretically escape, refuse to tell the truth and allow himself to die the final death, or follow an escape route that requires him to be killed and resurrected billions of times. He takes this last option so that he can save Clara.

Well, suppose the Hybrid is Clara herself. She’s been a Dalek — twice — and has in certain ways become the Doctor. She fits the exact wording of some of the prophecies, which is that the Hybrid is a Dalek/Time Lord combination. If Clara is the Hybrid, then the Doctor’s determination to save her is still personal, but the personal has become an epic struggle for the future of the universe.

That interpretation also changes the meaning of all Peter Capaldi’s interactions with Clara. At the end of “Flatline,” the first episode where Clara is shown explicitly becoming the Doctor (of sorts), Capaldi concerns himself largely with Clara’s moral development. This effort continues throughout Series 8 and 9 and culminates in “The Zygon Inversion” when she does help bring peace. Suppose he knew she was the Hybrid of prophecy, and he spent all that time helping her find the right path. It’s only one of many possibilities for the Hybrid, but I confess I like it best. It gives all the Doctor’s interactions a deeper layer of meaning. There’s more to the world than we can ever see.

Which lie did the Doctor tell? Did he know or not? Who is the Hybrid? Is it still out there, ready to fracture time or bring peace? It will probably always be a mystery. And that’s delicious.

Update #3 to the Feminist Take on Clara Oswald

A couple years back, I started a series of “feminist takes” on Doctor Who companions, including Amy Pond, River Song, and Clara Oswald. I looked at ways they were, or were not, poster children for feminism.

But after three posts on Clara Oswald, I just plain gave up. She was such a squirrelly character that I couldn’t say anything definitive about her. As far as I’m concerned, she breaks feminist analysis. Maybe it’s a mistake to give characters “poster child” awards.

Here’s a recap of my commentary from Season 7. In the first post, I suggested that the character of Clara was suffering from a Bechdel test failure, but that even so, she was pretty amazing — in face, a mirror of the Doctor.

In my next post, I looked at the interactions between Clara and the TARDIS, arguing that it passed the Bechdel test and helped explore her character. But I also felt she was too perfect and not recognizably human. (I wonder if that’s why some fans have had strong negative reactions to her: maybe she’s an uncanny valley character.)

In the last post, I admitted defeat. I thought Modern Clara was a cardboard cutout of a person, but when you combined her with Dalek Clara and Victorian Clara, you got a rich characterization. But I decided to hold my opinions for later.

I didn’t put a post together after the stunning reveal of “Day of the Doctor.” To be honest, I didn’t know what to say. It was just beautiful and strange and blew my mind.

After “Day of the Doctor,” I believed everything Clara said and did. Dalek Clara and Victorian Clara suddenly made sense. Modern Clara did not. Modern Clara was acting like the post-transformation Clara. That’s going to bother me every time I watch Series 7. But it’s a critique of the narrative, not of the feminism. So I didn’t make an update.

Clara was amazing through most of Series 8. She was part human, with all the frailties and strengths a woman would have. But her character was also merging with the Doctor’s. I loved that. As a Doctor Who fan, part of me has always wanted to run off with him in the TARDIS and be his “Doctor Who Girl” (nod to Mitch Benn). And part of me has always wanted to be him. So I got to live vicariously. The episode “Flatline,” where she gets to play the part of the Doctor while he’s stuck inside her Mary Poppins carpetbag, was funny and amazing and thought-provoking too. Loved it.

Also fabulous: Series 8 Clara is transformed. She’s jumped into the Doctor’s – what? Mind? Time stream? She’s been thousands of people who were just as amazing as Dalek Clara and Victorian Clara. After that transformation, I believed every “too good to be true” moment.

Not so great: the narrative didn’t respect her transformation. She got this weird plotline in which she was trying to have a normal life with this Danny Pink character, but she kept lying to him, and she was blamed for all the lies. The Verity podcasters suggested it was an addiction storyline, which I guess it was. But why? Why expect that it would ever be possible for post-transformation Clara to live a normal life? The disconnect jarred me. But once again, it’s a critique of the narrative, not the feminism.

Now here we are in Series 9. This is the “Clara is going to die” series. Also the “Oh, and then she didn’t” series. But in “Face the Raven,” she really did. Except the actress is going to appear in the series finale, “Hell Bent.” How-what-who-I-don’t-even-know-what’s-going-on.

So I have nothing to say, really. I’m on a roller coaster and it’s about to plunge into the depths of the unknown. Maybe when the ride stops, I’ll have something sufficiently feministy to say.

Maybe not.




Speculation for “The Zygon Inversion”

If you haven’t watched the Doctor Who episode “The Zygon Invasion,” this blog post is not for you. Not only might it have spoilers, it will be just plain cryptic. Give it a miss. If on the other hand, you watched it and are thinking, “Wait — what?” and you love speculating, this post is definitely for you.

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Classic Who to Try

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.

Try these:

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.

I suggest:

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.”

I suggest:

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.

How to Watch Classic Doctor Who

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.

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