An Open Letter

Dear Classic Series Doctor Who Neophytes Preparing to Attend Their First Doctor Who Convention:

What follows is completely subjective, idiosyncratic, and the suggestions contained therein are subject to change without notice. In short: Feel free to ignore all of this.

In consultation with Who nerds of both recent and long-time vintage, I've compiled a list of "Must See" classic Doctor Who serials before you attend a DW-focused convention, such as L.I. Who and Chicago TARDIS in November or Gallifrey One in February. Publishing the list now, theoretically, allows you the time to a) watch them all without rushing and 2) should you wish, find a flavor of classic DW you like and pursue it further. After all, the two best ways to fit in with a bunch of experts, in any topic, is to 1) know a LOT about one specific thing, or B) know a little bit about a wide swath of things.

This list includes at least one story from every classic Doctor (except the Eighth Doctor, whose one on-screen appearance, the 1996 BBC/Fox TV movie is, alas, not really all that good), and is a pretty good cross-sampling of the different feels, eras, and themes of the show. They’re also all available on DVD, and many are streaming from various sites, etc. I’ve marked some as optional. Of course, they’re all optional—but of these seventeen, seven are more optional than others, to massacre the English language. Final note: these are not necessarily the "Best" stories, or the "Fan Favorite" stories, or even my favorite stories—instead, they’re "representative"  stories. Because I'm a nerd, I provide not only the name of the story, but also the season, the number of parts, the month in which the first episode of the serial aired, and the story number. 

In order of transmission:

“An Unearthly Child” (Parts 2-4 optional) – Season 1; 4 parts; November 1963; Story 1. This is the first Doctor Who episode ever. It’s a 4-parter that introduces us to the Doctor (William Hartnell), his granddaughter Susan, and schoolteachers Ian and Barbara, as well as the TARDIS. The story after episode 1 is not as interesting (it’s about cavemen trying to learn how to make fire), but that first episode is still one of the best 30 minutes of TV DW’s ever created. A perfect intro episode. Also, bear in mind: the information we get about the Doctor, Susan, and the TARDIS in the first episode of this story? That's pretty much all the backstory we get for, literally, years.

“The Aztecs” (optional) – Season 1; 4 parts; May 1964; Story 6. First Doctor, Ian, Barbara, Susan. Back in the B&W era, DW used to do purely historical stories. The TARDIS would land, the Doctor and his companions would get caught up with either minor or major historical events, and then scurry on back to the TARDIS. No aliens, no sci-fi elements (save the TARDIS), just history unfolding before your eyes. The ratings for these stories were always lower than those with the Daleks and the like, so the show eventually stopped doing them. When they were good, however, they were very good; such is the case with “The Aztecs,” which finds the TARDIS landing in an Aztec temple and Barbara taking a lead role. It’s a story that aspires to be Greek tragedy or Shakespeare, and goes a lot further toward those lofty goals than many attempts that followed it.

“The Time Meddler” – Season 2; 4 parts; July 1965; Story 17. First Doctor, Vicki, and Steven. This is the first full story for new companion Steven Taylor, an astronaut from Earth’s future. It’s also the first time…well, I don’t want to spoil the surprise. Let’s just say it’s the first “pseudo-historical,” wherein the TARDIS crew lands during a historical period, but realizes something a bit sci-fi is going on, a template the eventually came to replace the "pure historical" stories such as "The Aztecs." Rather funny, it's a nice demonstration of how the character of the Doctor softened over time without changing his essence. It also has a some great “Billy fluffs,” the name for the moments when William Hartnell fluffs his lines but everyone kept going because there was neither the time nor the money for a retake. This is a good one to know as little as possible about when watching for the first time to maximize the surprise.

“The Tomb of the Cybermen – Season 5; 4 parts; September 1967; Story 37. Second Doctor, Victoria, and Jamie. This is Victoria’s first full story as a TARDIS companion, and it’s her only story that still exists in full (Although "The Ice Warriors" has been released on DVD with its missing episodes animated.); it’s also the earliest Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton) story we still have. (Read here for more info about missing episodes, etc.) Victoria is a young Victorian lady (yes, I see what they did there) whose father was killed by the Daleks in the previous story which, sadly, doesn't exist in its entirety in the archives. While not the first Cybermen story, it’s probably their most iconic appearance in the classic series. It’s also more than a touch sexist and racist, even for the time. Still, it’s full of moments and images that continue to define the Cybermen and has some classic Second Doctor moments.

“The Mind Robber” (optional) – Season 6; 5 parts; September 1968; Story 45. Second Doctor, Zoe, Jamie. One of the weirdest classic DW stories, this gem pretty much defies description, especially the odd, disorienting, and slightly terrifying Episode 1. In essence, it’s the TARDIS’ first trip to a parallel dimension. Or inside the human mind. Or maybe it’s all a dream. Seriously, no-one knows with this one, and it’s awesome. Also, because of a number of behind the scenes factors, it has not only two actors playing Jamie, but also the shortest individual episodes in classic DW, meaning that, at 5 parts, it’s  essentially the same length as most 4-parters.

“The War Games” (optional) – Season 6; 10 parts; April 1969; Story 50. Second Doctor, Zoe, Jamie. Yes, 10 parts. Yes, that means it’s pushing 5 hours in length. That’s why it’s optional. And the only reason I would call it that. It’s one of the best examples in the classic series of how classic DW works: chases; people getting arrested, locked up, and sentenced to death; clever concepts realized cheaply; fantastic starring and guest performances; and a core idea that’s fun, engaging, and surprising. To say much more would be to give away some of the places this story goes and some of the many firsts and lasts it contains, but if you decide to watch it, do yourself a favor: as with "The Time Meddler," don’t do more research about it in advance. Just watch it, an episode or two a night, and then see the show change forever.

“Inferno” (optional) – Season 7; 7 parts;  May 1970; Story 54. Third Doctor, Liz, the Brigadier, UNIT. Again, it’s only the length that relegates this story to optional status. A brilliant story that seems to be about one thing, turns into a story about something else, and then circles back again, it’s a great example of the new, Earth-bound vibe of DW in the early 70’s, Jon Pertwee’s more action-oriented take on the Doctor, and the beginnings of what came to be called the UNIT family. It’s also Liz Shaw’s last appearance as a companion, not that anyone was aware of it at the time. The actress, not entirely by her choice, left after the season ended and a new companion was brought in for the beginning of Season 8 with only a brief mention on-screen of Liz's departure. On a personal note, this story has, possibly, my favorite line from any Doctor, ever.

“Carnival of Monsters” – Season 10; 4 parts; January 1973; Story 66. Third Doctor, Jo. After a few seasons of Earth-bound, military heavy, “threat of the week” style stories, the Doctor here takes his first self-directed trip in the TARDIS in a while and lands on the S.S. Bernice in the Indian Ocean in 1926. Or does he? Written by Robert Holmes, universally regarded as one of the best writers ever to work for DW, this is a clever, witty story that also functions as a biting satire. Jo Grant, it should be noted, was the Third Doctor’s companion for 3 seasons, seasons during which the show was undergoing one if its almost cyclical surges in popularity, making her one of the longest tenured and best-remembered companions of the classic series.

“The Time Warrior” – Season 11; 4 parts; December 1973; Story 70. Third Doctor, Sarah Jane. Another Robert Holmes script, this story features numerous firsts: the first appearance of a Sontaran, the first appearance of new companion Sarah Jane Smith, and the first use of the word “Gallifrey” to name the Doctor’s home planet. Yes, it took until season 11 to mention the name of the Doctor’s home planet, even though the show had shown it to us several times by that point. Elisabeth Sladen, in the role the she would come back to over thirty years later, makes a powerful first impression as Sarah Jane--the iconic Doctor Who companion for many fans. This story, my nerdy friends tell me, also features the actor who would later play Boba Fett—whoever that is, exactly.

“The Ark in Space” – Season 12; 4 parts; January 1975; Story 76. Fourth Doctor, Sarah Jane, Harry. Robert Holmes writing again, this time in his capacity as Script Editor, the name the Brits have for the person who made sure all the stories got written on time and made sure they shared tone and characterization with the stories around it. Thus, when scripts fells through, as occasionally happened, the Script Editor often had to pick up the slack. Indeed, the different eras of DW are often discussed in terms of Script Editors and Producers, and this story, with the partnership of Holmes as the new SE and Phillip Hincliffe as the incoming Producer, marks the beginning of the best-remembered era of the show. “The Ark in Space” is also notable for the show’s first episode which doesn’t feature any other characters aside from the three leads. And let's not forget Tom Baker who, in only his second story as the Doctor, has already taken the role and made it his own.

“Genesis of the Daleks (optional) – Season 12; 6 parts;  March 1975; Story 78. Fourth Doctor, Sarah Jane, Harry. This was a really hard one to tag as optional. However, it’s six parts and I know that freaks newcomers out. This is the story that does for the Daleks what the new series parallel earth story “Rise of the Cybermen” / “Age of Steel” tried to do for the Cybermen: give them an origin and a creator. Fortunately, this story is much, much better than that one and features the first appearance of possibly the single greatest and most interesting villain in DW: Davros. Throw in some more excellent performances, great cliffhangers, and genuine moral questions, and you got yourself a classic DW story. There's also a giant, mutant clam.

“City of Death” – Season 17; 4 parts; September 1979; Story 105. Fourth Doctor, Romana II. Tom Baker played the Doctor for seven seasons, the most of any Doctor, and by the last few years of his run, the show had essentially become “The Tom Baker Comedy Half Hour” given Baker’s natural desire to make the kids at home love him. When presented with the right script, though, his comedic timing and tendencies could be put to good use; this script, largely written by then Script Editor Douglas Adams (yes, that one), knows how to use Baker’s talents. The filming in Paris helps cement this story in many fans' minds as the best of the era. (BTW, Romana II is so dubbed because Romana, being a Time Lady, had regenerated at the beginning of Season 17 when they changed actresses.)

Kinda – Season 19; 4 parts; February 1982; Story 118. Fifth Doctor, TeganAdric, and Nyssa. One of the earliest stories featuring Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor, this weird, meditative, heavily symbolic story has its basis in Buddhist thought and philosophy. Not well loved by all fans, especially those who like their DW quick-moving with lots of lasers and evil alien invaders, its devotees (myself included) passionately argue that, in an era when too many stories essentially involved the Doctor killing things (whether he wanted to or not), this story, with its focus on confronting the evil inside all of us, was just what the Doctor ordered. (I refuse to apologize for my bad punnery.) Unfortunately, Nyssa barely appears due to some weird contract shenanigans that caused her to be written out for one story. 

“The Five Doctors” (optional) – Season 20; 1 90 minute episode; November 1983; Story 129. Fifth Doctor,TeganTurlough. Also featuring the Second Doctor with the Brigadier, the Third Doctor with Sarah Jane, a faux-First Doctor (Hartnell had died and his part was recast) with Susan, and cameos from Jamie, Zoe, Liz, Mike Yates (a prominent figure during the UNIT era), the Fourth Doctor and Romana II. A classic romp with The Master, The Cybermen, a Dalek, and Time Lords, this story isn't exactly a work of great drama, but it does offer fans of the show a chance to revel in memories and see their favorite characters back on the screen again. It also makes some fans go completely beserk trying to work out its continuity, which is a virtue in and of itself.

"The Mark of the Rani" -- Season 22; 2 45 minute episodes; February 1985; Story 139. Sixth Doctor, Peri. For the 22nd season of DW, the program briefly switched to a 45-minute episode length, with most stories being 2 parts long. Colin Baker, who played the Sixth Doctor, was the victim of quite a bit of behind the scenes drama and was fired after just two seasons, essentially for being the face of the show at a time when it was losing viewers and support from the BBC. Still, he got some good stories, including this one, which features the Master, playing second-fiddle to a renegade Time Lady called the Rani, and a devastatingly handsome young man named Luke. For some fans, picking a favorite Sixth Doctor story is something like choosing the lesser of several evils, but this story stands as a good example of what DW could do, even during its most troubled period.   

"Remembrance of the Daleks" -- Season 25; 4 parts; October 1988; Story 148. Seventh Doctor, Ace. Sylvester McCoy played the Seventh Doctor for the last three years of the classic series run. His Doctor and the stories in his era took on a darker, slightly sinister edge that would be picked up in the revived series.  This story, which uses the Daleks almost allegorically in a story about racism, also plays heavily with series continuity and seeks to explain why the First Doctor was in that junkyard in 1963 to begin with. It is also Ace's first full story as the companion, having been introduced in the previous story. The actions in it, and in "Genesis of the Daleks," have been retconned by fans as being preludes to the events of the Last Great Time War, much discussed in the revived series.

"Survival" -- Season 26; 3 parts; November 1989 ; Story 155. Seventh Doctor, Ace. The last classic DW story, this is about as close as the classic series ever got to the sort of urban realism vibe that the new series picked up with the character of Rose Tyler. It features Cheetah People, council flats, and in his only appearance with the Seventh Doctor, the Master. It deals heavily with questions of evolution and survival of the fittest, leading the Doctor to exclaim, in a moment that defines the character, "If we fight like animals, we die like animals!" The production team also correctly suspected that "Survival" may be the last story for quite some time, so they quickly wrote a brief voiceover for the Doctor which plays over the final moments, summing up the philosophy of a show that had endured for twenty-six years: "There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, and the sea's asleep, and the rivers dream. People made of smoke, and cities made of song. Somewhere there's danger, somewhere there's injustice, and somewhere else the tea's getting cold! Come on, Ace - we've got work to do!" 

Early the next year, the Doctor Who production offices were closed for the first time since 1963, and the show, while not forgotten, wouldn't return in earnest until 2005.

Now, before you watch any, or all, of these stories, a few quick things to remember:

1) The stories were mainly shot in studios on videotape, often as if they were going out live. That's how the BBC made programs back then, which gives some stories the same flat, undifferentiated appearance of a sitcom or a soap opera. Outdoor shots, along with those involving very large sets or models, were often done on film as opposed to video, and the visual difference between the two is striking, the filmed scenes look much more "high-quality" than the videotaped scenes to the modern eye.

2) The special effects are often not very special. As a science fantasy series, DW often calls for aliens, spaceships, lasers and the like. Unfortunately, even with very talented people working on these things, the effects often fell short of what was desired, even at the time. Looking back on them now, they can be positively silly. Effects, alas, don't age well. For example, a film that won an Oscar for Visual Effects was mercilessly mocked by the MST3K crew.

3) The Time War, the destruction of Gallifrey therein, and the Doctor being the Last of the Time Lords are all inventions of the new series. Once they were introduced, the Time Lords were a recurring presence in classic DW, though the Doctor never exactly got along with them, for various reasons.

4) These were stories meant to be watched serially, either week to week, or over a series of days, depending on their scheduling. Watching them in that fashion may help those classic DW staples, the cliffhanger and reprise at the beginning of the next episode, work better for you.

Now, head off, find some stories to watch, and happy viewing!

P.S.--Thanks to my friends who've spotted copy errors in this and in previous posts and called them to my attention so I can look smarter than I actually am. Chris and Erika (@dubbayoo & @HollyGoDarkly on Twitter, respectively) deserve  special commendation.


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