Over on popular social media site Facebook, one of my pals said she was planning to explore the world of classic Doctor Who and I took it upon myself to recommend two stories by each classic Doctor as an introduction (one from each seemed simply too few). As part of my campaign to become a major force in Doctor Who fandom, I present my list here, with non-spoilery notes as to why I have picked them. If you are classic-Who curious, consider starting here. If you are already familiar with classic-Who, consider leaving comments berating me for my poor choices.
The First Doctor was played by William Hartnell, from 1963 to 1966. Initially the Doctor is almost anti-heroic, having basically kidnapped two school teachers and taken them with him and his granddaughter on his travels through time and space. At first it is the disgruntled school teachers who fulfil the more heroic roles required by the plot, but that gradually changes.
- “The Daleks” – the second story from the First Doctor and the series’ first not set on Earth (in classic Doctor Who it was not unusual for stories to be set on other planets). This is notable for its introduction of the titular Daleks, whose massive popularity is said to have pushed the series in a more science-fictiony direction than originally envisaged.
- “The Tenth Planet” – the last story from the First Doctor, as William Hartnell was retiring due to ill health (one of the episodes had to be hastily rewritten to explain the Doctor’s absence, as Hartnell was too ill to record it). The story introduces the Cybermen, who would go on to be the other one of Doctor Who‘s star monsters, and it ends with the astonishing twist of the dying Doctor transforming into someone else (something that is now unremarkable in Doctor Who but back then was a real “with one bound, Jack was free” moment).
The Second Doctor was played by Patrick Troughton, from 1966 to 1969. The recordings of many of his stories were wiped by the BBC, so picking ones to recommend is not easy.
- “Power of the Daleks” – this is the first Second Doctor story. As the title suggests, it features Daleks, as apparently the production team decided was a good idea to have familiar monsters while the audience found their feet with the strange new Doctor. Important caveat: all original visual recordings of this story were lost, but home audio recordings have been combined with new animation to recreate the story; if you fear animation this may not be the story for you.
- “The War Games” – this is the last Second Doctor story. it goes on a bit (ten 25 minute episodes). At the start it appears to be a straightforward historical adventure set on the Western Front in the First World War, before we discover that something else entirely is going on. The story is notable for the first appearance en masse of the Time Lords, the Doctor’s own people, from whom he is estranged.
The Third Doctor was played by Jon Pertwee, from 1970 to 1974. Doctor Who is now in colour. Initially the Third Doctor finds himself marooned on the Earth, with UNIT (a military organisation whose members serve as helpful cannon fodder) providing a larger supporting cast than previously seen.
- “Inferno” – the Doctor is drawn towards the Inferno project, where scientists are working to drill through the Earth’s crust to access the limitless stores of energy to be found down below. Things start to go very wrong, and thanks to an audacious plot device we see them going wrong twice. As well as the UNIT army types, this also features their scientific advisor, Dr. Liz Shaw (played by Caroline John), one of the great Doctor Who assistants.
- “Terror of the Autons” For this one the Doctor is still stuck on Earth, but now he must deal with an attempted invasion by the Autons, plastic people animated by a malign alien intelligence (who later appeared in the first new Doctor Who story). Worse, the story introduces his great adversary, the Master (played by Roger Delgado), another Time Lord, an old friend of the Doctor, but also a psychopath seeking power and his own advancement. And if that wasn’t enough, there is a character from Northern Ireland.
The Fourth Doctor was played by Tom Baker, from 1974 to 1981. The Fourth Doctor is my Doctor, as little me started watching the series with his first story. I find it hard to narrow his stories down to just two, not just because of my familiarity with them but because I genuinely think that the first three seasons of the Fourth Doctor are the highlight of the show’s entire history, with almost the entirety of the stories being all-killer-no-filler.
- “The Seeds of Doom” – beginning in Antarctica before moving to rural England, this story’s themes of infection and transformation are reminiscent of both Alien and The Thing, both of which came out several years after this was broadcast. It also features one of the all-time great barking mad human villains.
- “The Robots of Death” – this is set on an alien world where decadent humans have creepy art deco robots to do all the work for them. The Doctor lands on a sand miner, on which a small group of humans and their robot crew are extracting valuable minerals from sand storms, only the humans are being mysteriously murdered. The writing and characterisation is very strong in this one and the art design of the robots is also impressive. The story features Leela, the Doctor’s knife-wielding savage companion, impressively portrayed by Louise Jameson.
The Fifth Doctor was played by Peter Davison from 1982 to 1984. My recollection of this Doctor is that he was surprisingly un-dynamic and spent a lot of his time being sad about how things turned out.
- “Earthshock” – massive caveat, I have not seen since this since it was first broadcast, but I remember it packing a real punch and being packed full of what 2000 AD readers know as Thrill Power. The story features the surprise return of an old enemy (the surprise being somewhat spoiled by their appearance on the DVD of the story) and one of the more downbeat endings in Doctor Who‘s history).
- “The Caves of Androzani” – the last Fifth Doctor story, this one was written by great Doctor Who writer Robert Holmes and sees the Doctor caught up in a complex struggle over between a corrupt plutocrat and a phantom-of-the-opera style robot builder of questionable sanity.
The Sixth Doctor was played by Colin Baker from 1984 to 1986. It is a bit harder to pick stories from Colin Baker’s tenure as there are not that many of them (those three years include 18 months when the show was on hiatus). Also, the programme is somewhat on the slide in these years, with Colin Baker’s entire second season taken up with the frankly terrible “Trial of a Timelord”. But there is still some good stuff in there.
- “Vengeance on Varos” – on the titular planet the apathetic population can watch live torture on their television screens and if they don’t like decisions by the planet’s leader they can vote to give him electric shocks. Meanwhile a creepy slug-like alien (played by Nabil Shaban, a fascinating character in his own right) is pushing the Varosians into an unequal trade deal. The violence in the story was controversial, despite the anti-violence theme of the story, but I suspect that by our standards it would look pretty tame.
- “The Two Doctors” – the Sixth Doctor meets up with the Second Doctor! And they find themselves up against warlike aliens the Sontarans and some other gourmand aliens who have travelled to Earth in order to eat people. Somewhat unusually, the aliens land in Spain rather than in England. I think this one has a poor reputation, but I remember it as being an enjoyable romp.
The Seventh Doctor was played by Sylvester McCoy from 1987 to 1989. His tenure is the hardest for me to pick stories to recommend. For all that I still like his portrayal of the character, the stories he was given are generally poor and are marked by something of a collapse in production values. I have also seen relatively few of his stories in their entirety, both because I was at a stage of my life when watching television no longer seemed a priority and because they were not really worth watching. Perhaps I am missing some gems here, in which case I invite readers to point out my errors in the comments.
- “Remembrance of the Daleks” – in a burst of metafictionality, the Doctor returns to London in 1963 just before the broadcast of the first episode of Doctor Who, only to find that the Daleks are trying another of their invasions. While perhaps the story is not the strongest, this is pretty atmospheric and features one of the greatest end-of-episode cliff-hangers.
- “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy” – I remember this as being set in some kind of strange alien circus and being a bit weird. Features clowns.
I hope you found that interesting, whether you are familiar or otherwise with classic Doctor Who. It has certainly piqued my interest in rewatching some old stories.
The First Doctor, his granddaughter Susan, and the Daleks (Randomwhoness: Revision, reversion and The Daleks (1963/4))