At a friend’s request, I wrote up a speedthrough guide to 21st century Doctor Who. Premise: if you don’t have time or patience to watch every story in order, which ones do you NEED to watch in order to know what’s going on? And which ones are the gems in between that you should make sure not to miss?
Another friend suggested, perhaps in jest, that I do the same thing for classic Who. At first I wasn’t going to, considering how long the first one took, but then I decided to take a crack at it and found out I could do it even more quickly. Partly that’s because classic Who stories function much more independently than new Who stories do, but also I just know it better.
Except the 60s. I’m not the best person to recommend stories from this era. First of all, I just don’t like it. It’s all in black and white, and I’m one of the philistines who rejects the conventional wisdom that black and white is superior to color. The First Doctor is my least favorite. The stories tended to be longer and slower.
But there’s a bigger problem, which is that scads of episodes are missing. The BBC destroyed a lot of them to make room. In many cases entire stories were destroyed, or represented by a single intact episode. There are numerous stories in here that I would have included if enough of them remained watchable; “The Daleks’ Master Plan,” for example, is a massive 12-part story that’s definitely a Fan Favorite, but unless you are determined to seek out an audio version or one of the fan reconstructions of the story (which even I can’t sit through), you simply can’t watch it and it’s pointless to recommend.
If you’re a new Who fan looking to crack the classic era…I recommend starting with 1970’s “Spearhead from Space” and continuing from there. But if you’re determined to go all the way back to the very beginning, and you’re prepared to jump around a bit and accept that companions will come and go with no warning, this guide will hopefully see you through.
I haven’t seen all of these myself (I know!) so it’s possible that something like “The Romans” or “The War Machines” is going to be a sleeper favorite of yours. If you fall in love with the 60s, by all means dig into what’s left of them. If not, you’d be forgiven for skipping ahead.
Key to the icons:
Continuity You’ll definitely be confused about what’s going on in the larger story if you skip these.
Fan Favorites There’s a general consensus among fans that these are among the best the series has to offer.
My Favorites Stories I personally love the most. Sometimes I agree with the fans, and sometimes I go my own way.
If a story has two or three of these icons, you should definitely watch it.
only: also definitely watch it. It might not be the greatest story ever but you’ll be lost without it.
only: probably worth your time. You COULD skip it and maybe come back to it, but it’ll be better if you watch it in order.
only: there’s a good chance you’ll think I’m nuts for liking this. But if you really get into the show, it might appeal to you the way it appealed to me. Watch if you have time, skip if you don’t.
An Unearthly Child
The praise for this story is almost entirely about the first episode. The rest of it is…watchable.
The Edge of Destruction
Short and trippy. Anyone who’s fascinated by the TARDIS itself should check this out. I dig it, but it’s hardly essential.
Doctor Who used to do purely historical episodes, with no aliens (apart from the Doctor). Fan consensus is that this is one of the best.
The Dalek Invasion of Earth
The Web Planet
There’s no reason to watch this. I mention it only because it’s one of the absolute weirdest Who episodes ever made, and while that doesn’t mean it’s one of the best…you just kinda have to see it.
The Space Museum
Dreadful. But also the end of an era.
The Time Meddler
The point at which the “pure historical” gave way to what fans call the “pseudohistorical,” which means history with aliens.
We had to skip over a story where one companion left, and another story where a new companion joined. It wasn’t really an improvement. I dig this story though.
The Tenth Planet
Not the best episode ever, really, but remarkable enough that you’d have to see it even if not for continuity reasons.
The Power of the Daleks
The truth is I don’t much like Dalek stories. Even the best of them tend to be dreary. This is supposed to be one of the best but I have a really hard time understanding why. They’ve animated this so you can watch it now, and I don’t want to disparage anybody’s hard work, but…”animated” probably should have quotation marks around it. Have fun.
The Tomb of the Cybermen
The Ice Warriors
The Enemy of the World
An unexpected gem of the era.
The Web of Fear
The monster has appeared before, in an episode you can’t watch. Sigh.
The Mind Robber
Sets the stage for the 70s.
The War Games
It’s a little long, but it’s worth it. Hang in there.