Edit: In the four years since I wrote this post, I’ve offered its link to many folks who expressed an interest in Classic Doctor Who. Over time, this post became a bit obsolete: The current Doctor Who series has increased its references to the classic series; previously “lost” serials have been recovered and are worth inclusing. In Dec-2017, I decided to revise this post to change my recommendations somewhat, to update some reference information, and to edit for style when my prose becomes so egregious that even I can’t stand it anymore.
Many of my friends are just getting into Doctor Who. This poses a problem for those of them who want become Doctor Who geeks. The newer series, started in 2005, makes frequent references to events and characters in the “classic” Doctor Who series that ran from 1963 to 1989.
Depending on how you count them, there are 157 serials in “20th-century” Doctor Who (it seems so strange to say that). Each serial typically ran between 4-6 half-hour episodes, which works out to roughly 400 hours; it’s actually less than that, since many early serials were destroyed. That’s a lot of time to invest on geekery, especially since some of those serials are pretty awful.
To ease my friends’ entry into Doctor Who geekdom, I offer my list of the key episodes in the saga of the earlier series. Since the quality of the serial often does not correlate with its significance in the development of Doctor Who, I offer a rating of one to four stars for quality, along with the reason why I feel the serial is worth watching.
There are more serials that I’d rate three or four stars than those listed below. I tried to keep the total down to a reasonable number, and to give a representative sample of each Doctor’s era.
It’s about 96 hours of television, 60 if you stick to ones I rate three stars or higher. That’s still better than 400! For comparison, to watch all the Bond films takes about 50 hours, and to watch all seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer takes about 128 hours.
Some good resources for information on the Doctor’s adventures are:
First Doctor, played by William Hartnell: Cranky, cantankerous, and often downright unfriendly, but with that core of wisdom and a sense of adventure that’s essential to the Doctor.
“An Unearthly Child” (***) – Season 1, 1963, the first serial. Just watch the first episode, which introduces the key story elements that would be part of the series for its entire run: the theme song, the TARDIS, the mystery surrounding the Doctor’s background. The rest of the episodes in this serial I’d only rate as one-star, though episode 2 has some observations about what would be eventually dubbed “the chameleon circuit.”
“The Daleks” (***) – Season 1, 1963, serial 2, 7 episodes. Introduces the Doctor’s most persistent foe.
“The Dalek Invasion of Earth” (**) – Season 2, 1964, serial 10, 6 episodes. The Daleks become a continuing element of the series. It also features the first departure of a companion, when the Doctor leaves Susan behind without asking her permission. It’s worth it to watch just the last ten minutes of the last episode.
“The Tenth Planet” (*) – Season 4, 1966, serial 29, 4 episodes. It introduces the Cybermen, and is the first regeneration story.
Second Doctor, played by Patrick Troughton: Clownish, friendly, and tends to deal with enemies by running away. Every time you hear the Doctor telling a companion “Run!” it’s a reference to the second Doctor.
“The Ice Warriors” (**) – Season 5, 1967, serial 39, 6 episodes. The Ice Warriors from Mars don’t appear as often as the Doctor’s other foes, but they do pop up from time to time in both the classic and modern series.
“The Enemy of the World” (***) – Season 5, 1967, serial 40, 6 episodes. In an acting tour-de-force, Patrick Troughton plays two different roles. It also features a strong black female character in an era when Lt. Uhura on Star Trek was the only other role model.
“The Web of Fear” (***) – Season 5, 1968, serial 41, 6 episodes. This is the one of the best examples of the “base under siege” template that characterized much of the Patrick Troughton era. It introduced Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, played by Nicholas Courtney, the character with the longest history connected with the Doctor.
“The War Games” (**) – Season 6, 1969, serial 50, 10 episodes. This gets two stars because I think it’s overlong for the story it tells. This is significant because it’s last serial for the second Doctor, and introduces the Time Lords face-to-face. Again, you may want to watch just the last ten minutes of the 10th episode.
Third Doctor, played by John Pertwee: Action-oriented, witty, and more earth-bound than the other incarnations of the Doctor. The third Doctor usually worked with UNIT, a United Nations task force dedicated to dealing with alien invasions, led by Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart.
“Spearhead From Space” (**) – Season 7, 1970, serial 51, 4 episodes. Introduces the third Doctor, his exile on Earth, and the Autons. The Autons also pop up a few times in the series; they’re the first enemy that the ninth Doctor faces in “Rose”, the first episode of 21st-century Doctor Who.
“Doctor Who and the Silurians” (****) – Season 7, 1970, serial 52, 7 episodes. The Silurians (like the Daleks, Cybermen, and Sontarans) still play a significant role in the 21st-century series; for example, Madam Vastra (“A Good Man Goes to War”, “The Snowmen”) is a Silurian. This was the first Doctor Who serial I ever saw, back in the early 70s when it was shown on public television in Los Angeles.
“Terror of the Autons” (***) – Season 8, 1971, serial 55, 4 episodes. Introduces the Master, played by Roger Delgado in the Third Doctor era.
“The Daemons” (**) – Season 8, 1971, serial 59, 5 episodes. I can’t help but include this one, because it includes some phrases found in standard Wiccan rituals. I assume that the writer found a typical Book of Shadows in a shop and chose to borrow some material. If you’re not Pagan, skip it.
“The Curse of Peladon” (****) – Season 9, 1972, serial 61, 4 episodes. Not only a good serial, but we get more Ice Warriors, and King Peladon is played by David Troughton, son of Patrick Troughton.
“The Three Doctors” (**) – Season 10, 1973, serial 65, 4 episodes. The first serial in which different incarnations meet each other. I wish the story were better. This serial also features the first glimpse of the Doctor’s home planet, and marks the formal end of the Doctor’s exile on earth.
“The Time Warrior” (***) – Season 11, 1973, serial 70, 4 episodes. Sarah Jane Smith, the most popular of the Doctor’s companions, appears for the first time. It also introduces another of the Doctor’s recurring enemies, the Sontarans, and mentions the name Gallifrey for the first time.
“The Monster of Peladon” (***) – Season 11, 1974, serial 73, 6 episodes. A fun follow-up to “The Curse of Peladon”, featuring some of the most curious wigs ever used on the series.
Fourth Doctor, played by Tom Baker: Everyone has “their” Doctor, and Tom Baker is mine. The first four seasons of the Tom Baker era were repeated endlessly on TV in the early 80s, and I grew to know almost all of them by heart. It’s hard for me to restrict myself to just a few serials, but I’ll try.
“The Ark in Space” (****) – Season 12, 1975, serial 76, 4 episodes. A good story, featuring some very effective set design.
“The Genesis of the Daleks” (****) – Season 12, 1975, serial 78, 6 episodes. The introduction of Davros, who would appear in every Dalek story for the rest of the classic series. This is my favorite serial from the earlier series, and turned me into a permanent Doctor Who geek the first time I saw it.
“The Brain of Morbius” (***) – Season 13, 1976, serial 84, 4 episodes. The Doctor meets “Frankenstein.”
“The Seeds of Doom” (****) – Season 13, 1976, serial 85, 6 episodes. A giant plant tries to eat the Earth; what more do you need to know? This a good “stand-alone” serial to test whether the 20th-century stories can hold your interest.
“The Hand of Fear” (***) – Season 14, 1976, serial 87, 4 episodes. Apart from being a good story, this serial marks the poignant farewell of Sarah Jane Smith as a companion.
“The Deadly Assassin” (****) – Season 14, 1976, serial 88, 4 episodes. The Doctor returns to Gallifrey, and we get our first look at Time-Lord society.
“The Talons of Weng-Chiang” (****) – Season 14, 1977, serial 91, 6 episodes. The Doctor as Sherlock Holmes in Victorian London.
“The Invasion of Time” (***) – Season 15, 1978, serial 97, 6 episodes. The best look we ever get into the structure of Time-Lord society, and we voyage deeper into the TARDIS than any serial before.
“The Ribos Operation” (***) – Season 16, 1978, serial 98, 4 episodes. The first serial in the “Key to Time” saga, which would span all of season 16. It also introduces the character of Romana.
“The Armageddon Factor” (***) – Season 16, 1979, serial 103, 6 episodes. The end to the “Key to Time.”
“City of Death” (**) – Season 17, 1979, serial 105, 4 episodes. John Cleese is in a Doctor episode… for about 30 seconds.
“The Keeper of Traken” (***) – Season 18, 1981, serial 115, 4 episodes. Introduces Anthony Ainley in the role of the Master, whom he would play until the end of the 20th-century series.
“Logopolis” (***) – Season 18, 1981, serial 116, 4 episodes. The last Tom Baker story.
Fifth Doctor, played by Peter Davison: No offense to the actor, but I didn’t like him the way I did Tom Baker. His more restrained approach to the role was too much of a contrast to the more flamboyant image of the fourth Doctor. Also, the series began a gradual decline in quality.
“Castrovalva” (**) – Season 19, 1982, serial 117, 4 episodes. The reason why I’m including this serial on the list is that it’s a regeneration story, and “The Keeper of Traken”, “Logopolis”, and “Castrovalva” are often linked together as “The Master Trilogy.” There’s more of the TARDIS interior, and the set design of Castrovalva is interesting, but otherwise the story is weak.
“Kinda” (***) – Season 19, 1982, serial 119, 4 episodes. One of the better fifth-Doctor stories, taking a mystical approach that was unusual for the series.
“Snakedance” (****) – Season 20, 1983, serial 125, 4 episodes. The follow-up to “Kinda.”
“Mawdryn Undead” (**) – Season 20, 1983, serial 126, 4 episodes. The return of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart after a long absence. Also notable for the origin of the UNIT dating controversy.
“The Five Doctors” (***) – Season 20, 1983, serial 131, one hour-long episode. The only time we get to see four incarnations at once (Tom Baker didn’t choose to appear).
“The Caves of Androzani” (**) – Season 21, 1984, serial 137, 4 episodes. It’s a regeneration story. The common opinion of this serial differs from mine: I don’t like it much, but many think this is one of the best stories of the series.
Sixth Doctor, played by Colin Baker: The era of this incarnation marks the creative nadir of the series. Many toss the blame at Colin Baker, who is often regarded as the Jar Jar Binks of the Doctors. I see him as an actor whose intended interpretation of a dark and conflicted Doctor was contradicted and altered by his superiors. There’s little in this era I can recommend.
“The Mark of the Rani” (***) – Season 22, 1985, serial 140, 2 episodes (the episodes in the sixth-Doctor era were 45 minutes long). I’ll damn this one with faint praise as the least-objectionable of the period.
“The Two Doctors” (**) – Season 22, 1985, serial 141, 3 episodes. Patrick Troughton appears in the last “Doctor crossover” serial of the 20-century series.
Seventh Doctor, played by Sylvester McCoy: Puckish, mysterious, with a twinkle in his eye. The series began to recover from the poor decisions made in the time of the sixth Doctor, but it wasn’t enough to save the series from cancellation in 1989. Many of the seventh-Doctor serials have frantic and confused stories that don’t appeal to me, but there are a few gems.
“Time and the Rani” (**) – Season 24, 1987, serial 147, 4 episodes. A regeneration story. It has some clever moments, such as when the Rani (a Time-Lord villianess) impersonates Mel, the Doctor’s current companion.
“Remembrance of the Daleks” (***), Season 25, 1988, serial 151, 4 episodes. The final appearance of the Daleks in the classic series; we see them climb stairs for the first time. It’s also intended be a direct sequel to the first Doctor Who episode, “An Unearthly Child.”
“Silver Nemesis” (***) – Season 25, 1988, serial 153, 3 episodes. The final appearance of the Cybermen in the classic series. It attempted to increase the mystery of the Doctor’s background, which had been considerably demystified in the fourth-Doctor era.
“Battlefield” (***) – Season 26, 1989, serial 155, 4 episodes. Lethbridge-Stewart returns in a story based on Arthurian legend.
“Survival” (**) – Season 26, 1989, serial 157, 3 episodes. The last of the classic serials, the final appearance of Anthony Ainley as the Master.
To be complete, I should include the 1996 Doctor Who movie (**), the only appearance of the eighth incarnation of the Doctor, played by Paul McGann. In it, the Doctor says that he’s half-human on his mother’s side; whether this statement is canonical or another example of “the Doctor lies” remains to be seen. The Doctor kisses a companion for the first time… but not the last!