I wrote this list of ten stories from the classic series that new-series fans should watch. They’re are not necessarily the best, but all have something to say about the series during its original run – and more in common with the 2005 show that you might expect.
From time to time people ask me which classic Whos they should be watching – often as they’ve come to the series since the arrival of the show back on TV since 2005. Or more frequently since Tennant or Smith arrived. Even more often, I feel an obligation to instruct people in the ways of the show, whether they ask or not.
Frankly Doctor Who is too important to leave to random chance, or one of these ghastly lists constructed by people who are clearly idiots. So, with very little thought and a lot of instinct, a dash of nostalgia and a hefty wedge of 35 years’ experience, here is my Doctor Who watch list for noobs, the inexperienced or insufficiently tasteful.
These are the classic Doctor Who stories you have to watch – not because they’re (necessarily) the best ones, but because they’re important, because you can see a thread that runs through the show’s 52 years on television screens or because they’re simply bloody brilliant. Don’t thank me – just do yourself a favour and watch these must-see Doctor Who stories.
The First Doctor – The Tenth Planet
There’s a lingering question here: what are they?
The arrival of the Cybermen in the series sees the departure of William Hartnell and debut of Patrick Troughton as the Second Doctor – a phenomenon that was daring as it was unusual in television’s early days.
The Doctor regenerates, exhausted by his long life and adventuring, in an adventure that sees the cyborgs at their most human. Rather than succumb to infirmity and death, they choose to augment themselves with plastic and metal – to circumvent their biological limits by turning themselves into something utterly ghastly. We get horrible hints with glimpsed features and their human hands, yet there’s a lingering question here: what are they?
The Cybermen are powerful, ruthless – but they also show a quality they rarely do again in the series. There’s an ingenuousness that makes them all the more tragic – and horrible. Their trademark vow – you will be like us – is not a threat. They honestly think they are helping humanity by robotising them
The purity of the Cyberman concept is never explored so explicitly as it is here – the template for the ‘base under siege’ story and the programme’s first, and most important, rebirth.
The Second Doctor – The Web Of Fear
London cast into a hellish demimonde
Nothing defines the Second Doctor – and his era – so well as The Web Of Fear, a story only recently discovered after being lost in television archives for over 40 years.
This is perhaps an Aristotelian Doctor Who – the kind that people envisage in fond remembrance of Saturday tea-time snuggled around fires – a folk-memory of the programme, charged by the fact that no-one saw this story for over 40 years.
The first episode is one of the best ever; the story’s ingredients are irresistible: A dissonant, nightmarish monster roaming the London Underground; the eeriness of possession and the Lovecraftian Great Intelligence; the de facto debut of UNIT and The Brigadier. London cast into a hellish demimonde.
People may also remember Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor as impish, mischievous, clownish. But there’s much more to The Doctor in The Web Of Fear – a cunning streak is rarely remarked-upon, even a foretaste of the Timelord Victorious.
Watch closely – and ponder just how much of a clown this mysterious time-traveller really is. It’s impossible not to see the influence of Doctor Who’s first Raggedy Man on Matt Smith here.
The Third Doctor – Spearhead From Space
An uncanny valley where Doctor Who thrives
Jon Pertwee’s debut as the Doctor is phenomenally kinetic – a breakneck story directed with real flair by Derek Martinus and heralding the arrival of Doctor Who’s best writer.
Robert Holmes crafts a story in which plastic has a murderous life of its own and shop window dummies slaughter Sunday morning shoppers on Ealing Broadway – surely one of the series’ most enduring nightmares. The theme of plastic equalling violent death is later mined to similar effect in the follow-up Terror Of The Autons.
Spearhead From Space mines the same rich seam as Web Of Fear in taking something familiar and fashioning something disturbing from it – in its way a forerunner of the new series and a spiritual forefather to Rose.
All the Pertwee tropes are here – science, action and horror in equal measure – that it’s all so assured is incredible given that the series start again with a bank slate: a new Doctor, new companions, the Earth-bound setting and in full colour. It does the story no harm at all that it is all shot on film – the reason that Spearhead From Space is the only classic series story available on BluRay.
It’s as confident a reboot for the series as The Eleventh Hour or Deep Breath – but rarely is Doctor Who this dynamic.
The Third Doctor – The Green Death
This story is all about endings…
There’s more than a little of Doctor Who folklore in The Green Death – a story where Welsh miners turn green and die, people are menaced by giant maggots and there’s a Wagner-loving computer as the baddie.
There’s six episodes of very watchable fun – a perfect example of the Pertwee era’s proclivity for environmental parables, silly accents, explosions, conspiracy and teatime-friendly action. That it’s all done so well is a testament to a production team totally at ease with the demands of the show: it’s the UNIT family in all its glory. But just around the corner were tragedy and changes.
The Green Death sees the departure of companion Jo Grant and the next season saw the slow dispersal of the actors and production members, including the sad death of Roger Delgado, who first played The Master. This story is all about endings – more than anyone could have known at the time – and at its heart is a beautiful tale about families growing up and moving on.
There’s nothing of the tears and funks of The Parting Of The Ways or The Angels Take Manhattan – but the Third Doctor quietly leaving Jo’s engagement party and driving into the sunset alone is just as affecting.
The Fourth Doctor – The Ark In Space
Doctor Who is all about Tom in this era
The Ark In Space is not, perhaps, the finest story of Tom Baker’s era – nor is it especially typical of the The Fourth’s Doctor’s lengthy run. But it is a good primer for one of the strongest runs in the series’ history: grisly and gripping, Tom’s second every adventure is an overlooked classic.
There are distinct dashes of Quatermass in this story of an insidious invasion by wasp-like creatures – and a foreshadowing of Alien in tone and style. But fundamentally this is Doctor Who embarking on a completely new idiom from what has gone before. It has several things in its favour – sharp direction, a production team who have a confident take on the show and, best of all, Tom Baker.
This is a de facto debut for the Fourth Doctor that we will come to know and love. A Doctor for whom you could forget and forgive everything; an impossible – and slightly dangerous – Uncle. A definite mad man in a box. Tom is at the height of his powers here and, thrillingly, we have many more years to go. Doctor Who and the audience – both caught up in this brilliant man’s gravity.
The Ark In Space is cracking in its own right – marking a time of body horror and behind-the-sofa thrills. But Doctor Who is all about Tom in this era. And that’s absolutely right.
The Fourth Doctor – City Of Death
Like electrons orbiting the nucleus of an atom
People are inclined to misremember things – and it seems that this is the chief reason why modern Doctor Who goes out of its way to be so whacky – because people think the show used to be a comedy. Well it wasn’t. Well, it wasn’t very often. It sincerely is, however, in City Of Death – perhaps the most sublime nonsense in the show’s history.
Douglas Adams’ parting gift to the show is a riot. It’s explicitly a comedy – but it’s also the clearest example of a trope much-seen in Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who: dicking about with time. That the story also involves a fake Mona Lisa or ten, a French aristocrat who is also an alien splintered through time and time-travelling chickens should leave little room for much doubt. And that’s before we even get to the John Cleese cameo…
Tom is pretty much off-the-leash by this point and it doesn’t always do Doctor Who any favours. However, in City Of Death anything is forgiveable. In its intricate plotting, overt humour and zinging one-liners it’s very clearly a spiritual fore-father to much of the Tennant and Smith eras.
We’ve clearly moved on a long way from The Ark In Space, but this is still Tom’s show and without him it would all come crashing down. In City Of Death‘s madcap energy everything hurtles around The Fourth Doctor, like perfectly-aligned electrons orbiting the nucleus of an atom.
The Fifth Doctor – Enlightenment
Allow this ethereal story to get under your skin.
There is, perhaps, no better exploration of 80s weirdness in Doctor Who than Enlightenment. The Fifth Doctor, nearing the end of a three-story battle against The Black Guardian, finds himself in a clipper race that is much more than it appears.
Add in traitorous companion Turlough, perhaps the most interesting character to travel in the TARDIS in the classic era, and the darkly curious Eternals, competing for the titular prize and there’s a story operating on a number of levels.
Davison’s pleasingly detached performance and a creepy sub-plot involving long-running companion Tegan add further intrigue. It can’t be a coincidence that this thoughtful, seductive story is written and directed by women – rarely are characters afforded so much agency in the series during any of its classic run.
Doctor Who never ventures so far into SF Fantasy – in Enlightenment it pulls it off with rare style. Enjoy it as a straight adventure or allow this ethereal, sensual story to get under your skin.
The Fifth Doctor – The Caves Of Androzani
A world gone mad – immune to the Doctor
Every now and then you get a sense that Doctor Who was important television – too good to miss and so good that it eclipsed the many limitations the classic series struggled against. When Peter Davison’s reluctant Fifth Doctor faces off against corrupt politicians, gun-runners and psychopaths in The Caves Of Androzani you get a thrilling view of how good the series could be when it pulled out the stops.
You can read a lot into Androzani if you want – and there’s much to reward the attentive viewer: a nasty-minded and unflinching look at the baser drives we might recognise in ourselves; a star turn from the wonderful Christopher Gable as unstable anti-hero Sharaz Jek and a production that simply fires on all cylinders, from cast to direction to incidental music.
But fundamentally this is Peter Davison’s show – a fitting swan song for the diffident Five that stands as a statement of what the character stands for. It’s shocking to see a trademark quip rewarded with a vicious slap to the neck here – our hero emasculated. Amongst a world gone mad – immune and oblivious to the Doctor’s charm, wit and ingenuity – there is only heroism, resolve and loyalty.
No epic battles, no end of the universe, just the Time Lord trying to save a companion he barely knows in the midst of machine-gun battles, drug-dealing and scalding hot mud. The Doctor can’t win this time against the impossible odds, but he can still do the right thing.
When the end comes you realise just how much you will miss Davison and his Doctor. Robert Holmes’ true swansong is as good as Doctor Who gets.
The Sixth Doctor – Revelation of the Daleks
A brilliantly sick landmark in Doctor Who
If you watch one Colin Baker story, make it this one. Colin finally seems to relax into the role and, as a result, the Sixth Doctor finally mellows and becomes the character we recognise. A different, sometimes difficult Doctor, but The Doctor nonetheless.
It’s a Doctor who’s almost out of his depth, but fighting for a sliver of humanity amid the horrors of Tranquil Repose, a funereal grave planet that really does conceal a fate worse than death, lurking behind its polished veneer.
Revelation Of The Daleks boasts a colourful variety of villains, ambiguous heroes and grotesques along the way – plus Daleks that are more interesting than ever before, thanks to Graeme Harper’s innovative direction. Davros is made all the more hideous by his humanisation, his vulnerability – more recently spotted in The Magician’s Apprentice – and there is death as gruesome as the humour is black.
It’s a brilliantly sick landmark in Doctor Who’s history; a twisted landscape for the show, in which the complicated Sixth Doctor finally makes sense.
The Seventh Doctor – Remembrance of the Daleks
Doctor Who is fast, thrilling and fun again.
It’s hard to explain just how much of a surge in quality Remembrance Of The Daleks represented at the time of its broadcast. There had always been flickers of quality, even in the dying days, but Ben Aaronovitch’s script gives the show a huge jolt of adrenaline. Suddenly Doctor Who is fast, thrilling and fun again – it’s no surprise that Steven Moffat is such a huge fan of the Seventh Doctor story.
Sylvester McCoy finally feels settled in the role – avuncular yet sometimes distant. A player of games, this Doctor, but importantly someone the viewer can believe ‘has secrets’ – Tom Baker’s favourite description of the odd magnetism The Doctor has in all his incarnations’ best moments.
As the show and the Doctor are reborn, so too are the Daleks. Again they are manipulative and fascistic – their openly xenophobic origins to the fore. With the battle in Totter’s Yard, Sophie Aldred’s Ace finally coming-of-age and a stunning evocation of Sixties London, the show is rattling along as if it had never been away. It’s the perfect launch pad for the show’s strongest run of stories for a long time.
Doctor Who wasn’t long for the world in 1988 but Remembrance Of The Daleks showed how the show could prosper as the end of the decade approached. Together with Season 26 its influence can be seen much further down the line too…