80s Doctor Who started without a bang. In fact, it started with a long, slow, almost comically uneventful pan across Brighton Beach, finally landing on a Time Lady, a tin dog, and a Doctor with question marks on his collar. The 80s belong to Doctor Who’s longest-serving producer to date, John Nathan-Turner, and a whole host of question(mark)able choices he brought to the show.
This is not the time to catalog them all, but just be aware that this is where the unusually consistent quality of the 70s (all the more remarkable given the oft-changing creative teams) gives way to a wildly uneven track record. For every “Kinda” there’s a “Time-Flight,” for every “Enlightenment” a “King’s Demons,” for every “Caves of Androzani” a “Twin Dilemma.” If there’s any era you should cherry-pick, this is it.
And yet the net effect isn’t all bad. Less consistency means more variety, and while some production values declined, others heightened. By and large, the casting of Doctors was still on point, though disastrous mistakes were made in designing a character arc for the Sixth Doctor (strangling one’s own companion is so hard to bounce back from, audience-sympathy-wise). And at least four, maybe five of my very favorite stories hail from this era, so it can’t be all bad.
Once more, the 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.
The Leisure Hive
State of Decay
The Keeper of Traken
Four to Doomsday
“City of Death” is my favorite Doctor Who episode by tradition. But honestly? This one is at least a match for it.
The sequel to “Kinda.” You should probably watch that first, but I watched Aliens before I watched Alien, so whatever’s clever. Another top-fiver.
One of the only classic Who episodes written by a woman. And it’s a top fiver for me.
The King’s Demons
I’m sorry to inflict this on you. Fortunately it’s short.
The Five Doctors
You kinda have to watch this. But keep your expectations low.
Resurrection of the Daleks
Possibly the most batshit crazy Dalek episode since the 60s and until the 2000s. I haven’t watched it since the 80s.
Planet of Fire
This nothing story is the reason you had to watch “The King’s Demons.” Unfortunately it’s a full four episodes.
The Caves of Androzani
A certain kind of fan thinks this is the best Doctor Who story ever. I’m not that kind of fan, so I am only willing to say it’s really, really, really, really excellent.
The Twin Dilemma
Considered by many to be the worst Doctor Who story ever. It seems boring to agree — surely there’s a case to be made for “The Celestial Toymaker” or something — but I’m at a loss to remember any redeeming qualities. You probably could skip over this right to the next story, and I wouldn’t fault you if you did.
Vengeance on Varos
The Mark of the Rani
The Two Doctors
I adore this story. A lot of people disagree, but Robert Shearman, the author of the new Who episode “Dalek” (among many other wonderful things) isn’t one of them, and that makes me feel vindicated.
Revelation of the Daleks
The Mysterious Planet
This is the beginning of a season-long four-story miniseries called “The Trial of a Time Lord.” Unfortunately you need to watch part of it for continuity reasons, and if you do that you need to watch all of it. It’s worth it…once.
Terror of the Vervoids
The Ultimate Foe
Time and the Rani
Another contender for worst Who episode ever. You can’t skip this one though.
Look…Who in the 80s started to veer off in some weird directions. The last few seasons were unusually dark and macabre, and with this season they turned up all the studio lights and did some stuff that could reasonably be described as “goofy.” Once you accept that mode, though, this is the first example of the kind of social/cultural satire that — my opinion — made the McCoy era worth watching. When you get down to it, this isn’t really any sillier than “New Earth.”
Remembrance of the Daleks
Overrated, but still pretty great.
The Happiness Patrol
Underrated; probably my favorite story of the McCoy era. Brace yourself for the weird.
The Greatest Show in the Galaxy
You might have to watch this a few times to figure out what the heck is going on, or why you should care. But I get the hype.
The Curse of Fenric
Also overrated, also still pretty great. With “Remembrance,” one of the two least offbeat and most traditionally-minded stories of the McCoy era.
The only real continuity element here is that this was the end of the classic era. As you’ll see, it doesn’t really end.
Doctor Who (the TV Movie)
Not part of the 80s, but it must be addressed. Bridging the classic era and the new era (at least as far as televised stories are concerned), this has to be seen to be believed. Revisiting it now, I can see elements that worked and were adopted into the new series, but I may never need to watch it again.