With the new season of Doctor Who coming up on us quickly on April 23, there’s a level of anticipation and excitement among fans online I’ve not seen for quite some time. What’s interesting is I continually find myself running into new fans who have only ever seen the new Doctor Who series that has been going since 2005.
Indeed, to a generation of Doctor Who fans, there have been only three Doctors since they discovered the adventures of the Time Lord: Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, and Matt Smith. And inevitably, many of these fans find themselves wanting to dive deeper into the mythos and legend of the good Doctor.
And why shouldn’t they? The series has had a legacy spanning close to half a century, with some amazing stories being created from some of the greatest creative minds including Terrence Dicks, Douglas Adams, Terry Nation, and so many more.
Tom Baker, the Fourth Doctor, maintained the role the longest out of all the Classic Doctors and new fans have a tendency to gravitate towards his adventures alone. However, as even Baker would emphasize, while he was indeed THE Doctor, he was also part of a significant timeless crusade that had major contributions from his predecessors, and from those who followed him.
Often I get asked what Classic Doctor Who episodes I recommend for people new to the series, and so eventually I decided to put together a top ten list for people to check out.
The only order this list is in is chronological – bear in mind, there are more episodes out there worth checking out (hell, I might get around to making a part two to this list some day). Have a look…
The First Doctor (William Hartnell):
An Unearthly Child
If you’re going to check out Classic Doctor Who, it makes sense to also have a look at where it all began. The episode clearly shows its age – but it was first, and William Hartnell truly cements himself as the mysterious time traveler from the get-go. Here we get the first glimpses of the Doctor not being of this Earth, and we learn that he, and his granddaughter Susan, have been exiled from their culture. In the first episode, the audience follows companions-to-be, Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, as they discover the mystery of the Doctor and his TARDIS. From there, they end up in 10,000 BC and are captured by primitive humans. If you’re making a list of Classic episodes to watch, this is surely an addition – it is a must-see for any hardcore Doctor Who fan.
The Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton):
Tomb of the Cybermen
The Cybermen were first introduced in the First Doctor serial entitled The Tenth Planet, and would return to face Patrick Troughton‘s Second Doctor in The Moonbase. The Tomb of the Cybermen finds The Doctor with companions Jamie McCrimmon and Victoria Waterfield landing on the planet Telos where they stumble across an archaeological expedition of Earth scientists attempting to access an ancient Cybermen tomb. It later pans out that it is not specifically a tomb, but more of a “stasis area”, where a group of Cybermen have been in some kind of suspended animation. This episode is significant in that it introduces the Cyber Controller, and just as importantly: the Cybermats, which make a return in Matt Smith’s Doctor Who Series 6.
The Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton):
The Cybermen came up a few times during Troughton’s incarnation of The Doctor, and The Invasion is a very significant chapter in Doctor Who history for a number of reasons. Firstly, it sees the return of a character played by Nicholas Courtney called Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, who will later feature very prominently during the era of the Third Doctor. Secondly, the design of the Cybermen finally reaches its iconic classic standard, and their reveal as they attempt to invade the Earth is nothing short of spectacular. Additionally, The Invasion is the first story that sees script editor Terrence Dicks join the Doctor Who team – his presence and work in Doctor Who will continue for many years into the future. On top of these points is that the story is one in which Troughton outdoes himself in his performance as the Doctor, and is a very well written tale – especially considering the saga stretches out across eight episodes. I can’t help but also mention, this adventure also features my favorite companion of all time, Zoe Herriot, played by Wendy Padbury.
The Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee):
Spearhead from Space
While younger fans may scoff at its significance, Spearhead from Space was important for two major reasons. Firstly, it was the debut of Jon Pertwee as the Third Doctor, and secondly, it was the first ever Doctor Who episode to have been produced in color. All episodes from the Hartnell and Troughton days were in black-and-white. Nicholas Courtney returns as The Brigadier in this episode as a permanent cast member, leading up his UNIT team that The Doctor will soon join up as their “scientific advisor”. Interestingly as well is the fact that we never see Patrick Troughton’s regeneration into Jon Pertwee. The regeneration is implied as extremely recent in the episode, and as Pertwee adjusts to his new form as the Doctor, he finds himself facing against new villains in the plastic army of Autons, controlled by the Nestene Consciousness. This scenario is echoed in 2005’s Rose, when Eccleston faces the Nestene Consciousness again, also after a recent regeneration never seen on film.
The Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee):
This episode is a favorite among many Classic Who fans for many reasons – but one in particular is that it’s really the first time The Doctor falls into a parallel universe. Nicholas Courtney’s portrayal of bizarro Brigadier is spectacular and menacing, though amusing at times as well. One aspect of the story that was quite typical for the era was that many environmental and political concerns and ideas were beginning to creep into the story-writing. Script Editor Terrence Dicks has claimed repeatedly in DVD commentaries that this aspect of Doctor Who was something that would unintentionally permeate into the scripts, and was never intentionally done. Despite this, aspects and concerns of the current era always end up reflecting themselves in the Doctor Who saga in some way or form, and it was really in the Pertwee era that it became much more apparent.
The Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker):
Genesis of the Daleks
Repeated singled out as perhaps one of the greatest adventures of Doctor Who ever made, Genesis of the Daleks was a ground-breaking achievement and essential step in the evolution in the Doctor in many ways. Terry Nation, creator of the Daleks, decided to take the audience back to when the villains were first created by the tyrant Davros. The episode comes to many important climactic points – one in particular that would have ramifications for Doctor Who forever: faced with the choice of eradicating the Daleks, he finds himself questioning whether he has the right to do so or not. Tom Baker facing the moral dilemma the Doctor is dealing with was such a powerful motivating scene, that it burned itself as an aspect into the character of the Doctor himself – and was a very formative moment in the evolution of the series. Additionally, Genesis of the Daleks features fan-favorite Elisabeth Sladen as a very young Sarah Jane Smith, and her crossing paths with Davros will be referred to again in the new series during David Tennant’s reign as the Tenth Doctor.
The Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker):
The Talons of Weng-Chiang
Claims of misguided racial casting aside, there’s something about The Talons of Weng-Chiang that make it such a memorable serial from the Tom Baker era. To begin with, the episode has a wonderful “Jack the Ripper” meets “Sherlock Holmes” feel, as the Doctor lands in Victorian London with companion Leela, not wearing his typical hat, but a Holmes-style deerstalker hat. The entire adventure follows just like a murder mystery, as the Doctor finds himself investigating the followers of an ancient god known as Weng-Chiang, the strange ventriloquist dummy with a mind of its own, and gigantic rats in the sewers! It is a spectacular story, and Baker’s performance as the Fourth Doctor is as classic and as eccentric as ever. Also – see if you can spot the toy Batmobile that gets taken out of his pockets when you see this episode!
The Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison):
The Caves of Androzani Peter Davison had big shoes to fill following Tom Baker, but he truly held his own as the Fifth Doctor. His work during his three years as the Doctor came to a climax with his swan song episode, The Caves of Androzani. The most significant aspect about this episode may be indicated by some as his regeneration into Colin Baker‘s Sixth Doctor; but the power of the storyline goes beyond that. From the beginning of the adventure, the Doctor and his companion, Peri, have been infected with Lethal Spectrox Toxaemia Poisoning. They are both dying, and while it’s awesome having a crazy looking villain in a gimp mask (Sharaz Jek), the key component of the story is how far the Doctor will go to save his companion. Davison’s performance and display of the lengths he will go to and the determination the Doctor has, is especially memorable – a performance echoed by Christopher Eccleston when his rescue of Rose Tyler causes his regeneration.
The Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker):
Trial of a Time Lord
Some fans play down Colin Baker’s performance as the Doctor, but there are a few very cool episodes from his era, even if his costume was an indication of very poor fashion sense! The 23rd season of Doctor Who followed the theme of Trial of a Time Lord, and it was a significant chapter in the story of the Doctor. During the series, we meet a new character called The Valeyard, who is prosecuting The Doctor for the Time Lords. As time would later show, The Valeyard is in fact an entity that was somehow created between the 12th and 13th Doctors, possibly during regeneration. Clearly, this event has not quite happened to the Doctor (as we know it) just yet, but it’s believed that The Valeyard was made up of the negative, evil side of the Doctor. This concept was explored in the recent episode Amy’s Choice, where The Dream Lord turned out to be a negative entity created from within The Doctor. Could the Dream Lord turn out to be the basis for what would eventually become The Valeyard? Time will only tell, but in the meantime, his appearance and presence in the Trial of a Time Lord series is one worthy of a look.
The Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy):
The Curse of Fenric Sylvester McCoy‘s tenure as The Doctor was a welcome change by many fans. While many pointed his performance as hearkening back to the likes of Patrick Troughton and Tom Baker, McCoy also brought his own element to the Doctor. One of the best episodes from the era of the Seventh Doctor was The Curse of Fenric, which saw the Time Lord face off against Vampires!! Technically, they were creatures known as Haemovores, but the vampiric monsters brought a creepiness factor back to Doctor Who. From there, the story twists and turns into a convoluted chess match (both literally and figuratively), as it turns out an old enemy of the Doctor’s, named Fenric, has returned.
Honorable Mention: The Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann)
Okay, it’s not from the classic era, but it is worth a mention for new fans to check out at least. The Doctor Who TV Movie from 1996 divided fans on different levels, and would also later see the rise of some major retcons in the expanded universe. However, it is still technically part of the Doctor Who canon, and the most significant aspect of this adventure is that it is a nice little bridge between the old Classic episodes and the new era of Doctor Who. Paul McGann also did quite well as the Doctor, but never really got a chance beyond this one story. He later would reprise his role as the Eighth Doctor in audio recordings, but this was the only television adventure he was a part of. There have been rumors for many years we may see him return, perhaps in a cross-over with current Doctor, Matt Smith – or perhaps even for the 50th anniversary. This remains to be seen, but McGann’s effort as the Eighth Doctor is worth a look at, even if it is to just see this one episode that bridges the gap between old and new.
Incidentally, as I close out this article, I want to give some major credit to the artist behind the header image you see near the top of this article. See, we usually have a small little post-text we pop in at the end of an article to give credit for sources… But that artwork is spectacular, and I feel it deserves more credit than just a little mention.