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Doctor Who is a mainstream hit in the United Kingdom, as was the classic version. Even during the 16 years in between the cancellation of the original series and the 2005 revival that introduced Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor, the Time Lord could be found on bookshelves, in comics, in audio dramas and on television reruns that ensured people never fully forgot him.
But for a long time, it was harder to watch Classic Doctors in action if you lived in the United States. However, some of these multi-episode stories have begun to appear on Netflix; many more are available on DVD. And in the build-up to the show’s midseason premiere on Saturday, BBC America has been airing classic adventures of the previous Doctors. But where is a modern-day fan meant to start? Which stories should they watch out for? Here’s a guide to some very interesting tales of the first eight incarnations of the nameless hero from Gallifrey.
FIRST DOCTOR: WILLIAM HARTNELL
“The Sensorites”: The TARDIS crew discovers a spaceship filled with dead people who rise to greet them. They then meet the Sensorites and become involved in a conflict where paranoia has made enemies of everyone. A story that focuses on morality, this tale includes the first description of Gallifrey and the first time real attention is given to the telepathic abilities of Susan and the Doctor. The aliens are also evidently cousins to the Ood race seen in modern-day Doctor Who (as indicated by their physical resemblance to each other and a remark made in “Planet of the Ood”).
“The Dalek Invasion of Earth”: The second-season premiere made the Daleks the very first recurring enemy and also significantly raised their profile. When first they met the Doctor, they were limited to their home planet Skaro. In this story, they had spread to the stars and already conquered the human race, proclaiming “We are the masters of Earth!” It was quite startling for young viewers to see footage of London streets being completely empty, save for Dalek patrols. Along with all this, “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” was the first time that a cast member left.
“The Time Meddler”: Closing off the second season, this adventure was a game changer. Since Ian and Barbara had left the TARDIS during the previous story, the cast had shrunk from four central characters to three. Secondly, while Ian and Barbara sometimes took lead, new companions Steven and Vicki both saw the Doctor as in charge: “He’s the crew, we’re just the passengers.” The Doctor stepped up his game starting with this adventure, becoming more of a heroic leader (even if he was still immature and short-tempered at times).
The arrival of Steven and Vicki also meant that, for the first time in the program, the Doctor did not have passengers desperate to find a way back home but rather people who were excited by the prospect of unpredictable adventures. Finally, this story confirmed that the Doctor and his TARDIS were not unique. A previous story, “The Aztecs,” had implied changing history was so difficult that trying to do so would only invite danger and disappointment. But “The Time Meddler” cemented that a time traveler could alter the past under the right circumstances, changing the whole world as a result, adding a new element of danger to the Doctor’s adventures.
“The Daleks’ Master Plan”: Sadly, much of this story has been lost, but we still have the audio tracks, so the BBC was kind enough to recreate it as an audio play. The epic 12-part saga features political intrigue, betrayal, the very first Christmas episode, a villainous time traveler, and a new Dalek war machine known as the “Time Destructor Device.” This arc also stepped up the violence, stakes and scare factor. Many people die, including a companion or two!
SECOND DOCTOR: PATRICK TROUGHTON
“The Evil of the Daleks”: Another lost story, this also exists as an audio drama available for purchase. The Doctor and Jamie McCrimmon become involved in a Dalek plot that takes them into the 19th century, where two scientists are discovering their own form of time travel through the use of mirrors (later used again in the modern-day episode “Turn Left”). A new companion is gained while the Doctor is recruited to help the Daleks isolate the “human factor.” A dynamic story that involves the Doctor realizing that perhaps Daleks have a potential for good, it also features the first appearance of the Emperor of the Daleks.
This story was originally intended to be the final Dalek story; it was five years before the monsters appeared again on Doctor Who.
“The Tomb of the Cybermen”: As far as many fans are concerned (including actor Matt Smith), this is the high mark of Second Doctor stories. The Doctor, along with Jamie and new companion Victoria, lands on Telos, a planet long ago conquered by Cybermen and used as a cryogenic base. This story features the first appearance of a Cyber-Controller and has the Doctor discuss his family for the first time since Susan left three years earlier. It’s also the first time he gave a number for his age, saying that “in Earth terms” he was probably about 450 years old.
“The War Games”: This 10-part story is a little long at times, but there was nothing like it before. The Doctor, Jamie and 21st-century girl named Zoe wind up on a world where each area hosts a different battle from Earth’s history. Time and space have been stretched to a breaking point because of a secret cabal of villains and the War Chief, a man from the Doctor’s planet. During all the chaos, we finally learn (at least part of) why the Doctor left his home and why he’s been running ever since. The final episode takes us to Gallifrey as the Doctor stands trial for his crimes as a renegade Time Lord. This adventure ends the Second Doctor’s career and leads to exile on Earth that lasted for three years.
THIRD DOCTOR: JON PERTWEE
“The Mind of Evil”: The Doctor is working as scientific adviser “Dr. John Smith” for UNIT. He and his assistant Jo Grant investigate a new machine that seemingly eliminates the mind’s capacity for evil, but further inquiry leads to the discovery of the Master, a prison riot and a new alien menace. Along with including interesting images of the Doctor and the Master’s fears, this story had the two enemies actually work together.
“The Three Doctors”: Gallifrey is under attack. The Time Lords are trapped. Only the Doctor can save them, but he can’t do it alone. So the Time Lords break the “First Law of Time” and arrange for the Doctor to be aided by … himself. This 10th-anniversary adventure teamed up the first three incarnations of the Doctor, starting a tradition of multi-Doctor team-ups every 10 years. We also learned about Omega, who helped found Time Lord society.
“The Time Warrior”: This story introduced the Sontarans and journalist Sarah Jane Smith. It’s a fun four-part romp that involved witty dialogue, high-flying adventure, and a companion who saw herself as the hero’s equal rather than an assistant. While previous traveling companions had been stuck with the Doctor because there was no way to determine where the TARDIS would land (or, in the case of Liz and Jo, they were literally employed to be his assistant), Sarah Jane was different. Now that the Doctor had greater control of his ship, it meant Sarah Jane remained not because she was stuck with the guy for a while but because she chose to be there.
FOURTH DOCTOR: TOM BAKER
“Genesis of the Daleks”: The Doctor, Sarah Jane and their friend Dr. Harry Sullivan are suddenly teleported to ancient Skaro. The Doctor is told by the Time Lords that they foresee a possible future where the Daleks will conquer the universe, destroying them (and others) in the process. The Doctor’s mission (whether he accepts or not) is to learn how the Daleks were created, then either slow down their progress, learn new weaknesses or possibly avert their birth entirely. Along the way, the Doctor meets the mad scientist Davros and questions whether he even has the right to destroy a race for crimes it hasn’t committed yet. According to Russell T. Davies, you could see “Genesis of the Daleks” as the opening shot of the Last Great Time War.
“Pyramids of Mars”: The Doctor and Sarah Jane learn of a great pyramid on Mars, a prison for the dark god Sutekh, one of the mighty Osirans (whose powers were greater than the Time Lords). Now, with an army of robot mummies and a human avatar, Sutekh intends to escape and eliminate all life in the universe. A well-written adventure, this is considered a classic by many. It also features the Doctor actually showing Sarah Jane just how malleable time and history are when cosmic forces and powerful enemies are involved.
“The Deadly Assassin”: This is the only story of the classic series to feature the Doctor acting without a traveling companion or assistant. After receiving a telepathic summons from the Time Lords and parting with Sarah Jane, the Doctor returns to Gallifrey for the first time in years. But when he has a vision of the president of the High Council being assassinated and sees that none of the Time Lords were expecting him, the Doctor realizes he’s been led into a strange trap. This entire four-part story takes place on Gallifrey, showing us Time Lord society for the first time and the secret power source of all TARDISes, while also revealing that Time Lords had a limit of 13 lives (which was a major plot point for this and several other adventures).
It also features the Doctor mentally entering the Matrix of Gallifrey, a computer system made up of the brain patterns of dead Time Lords and containing a virtual world of its own. Basically, the Doctor was having Tron-like adventures in “the Matrix” years before either Tron or The Matrix hit theaters.
“City of Death”: Douglas Adams wrote it. Yeah. Wait, that’s not good enough for you? Fine. This also features the Fourth Doctor with his companion Romana, another Time Lord (and actually a better student than he). There’s a mystery about the Mona Lisa, a crack in time, a detective who thinks with his fists, and a man who seems to exist in multiple times and places (rather like a certain girl who enjoys soufflés). We also hear a bit about the Doctor’s friendships with Leonardo and Shakespeare.
FIFTH DOCTOR: PETER DAVISON
“Kinda”: A visit to a strange world leads to a battle between two societies ; there are also sci-fi elements that bring to mind the Garden of Eden and its famous snake. A story that has action, mystery and lots of banter, “Kinda” is an excellent showcase of the Fifth Doctor at his best and how different he was from the previous incarnations. It also features a device that deals in delta waves, though notably less powerful (and deadly) than a similar device that the Ninth Doctor would construct years later.
“Earthshock”: Sometimes things don’t go well. An alliance is forming to combat the Cybermen, so the vicious cyborgs have decided that the best solution is just kill all life on Earth in one swift go. The Doctor does his best to help while avoiding a murder charge. But even if he wins, he may lose this time. This story closed the Fifth Doctor’s first season and had a couple of shocks for viewers at the time.
“Caves of Androzani”: With his new friend Peri Brown, the Doctor lands on Androzani Minor (Androzani Major would be mentioned years later in “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe”). Very quickly, the two are exposed to a lethal poison, but before they can get proper treatment, they wind up in the middle of a war involving large businesses, gunrunners and androids. Along with being a great story for Peter Davison, this features a moment where the Doctor fights off an oncoming regeneration and is the first Doctor Who story directed by Graeme Harper, who went on to direct several episodes of the modern-day program, including “Rise of the Cybermen,” “Doomsday,” “Utopia,” “Time Crash,” “Turn Left,” and episodes of The Sarah Jane Adventures.
SIXTH DOCTOR: COLIN BAKER
“Vengeance on Varos”: The TARDIS seems to be dead in the water. Unwilling to spend the next thousand years or so trapped in his own ship, the Doctor is able to make an emergency landing on Varos. Unfortunately, he lands in the middle of a massive reality-TV game show where people are forced into fighting for survival while viewers vote on whether they live or die. During this early point of his life, the Sixth Doctor was very pragmatic and could be a bit cold, much like his first incarnation, and this adventure is an excellent example of what kind of man he was. It served as a precursor to later stories “The Happiness Patrol” and “Bad Wolf.”
“The Two Doctors”: Although at the time it introduced a few things that seemed to contradict previous continuity, those have since been explained by Doctor Who writers Paul Cornell, Terrance Dicks and others. This is a rather interesting story that serves to contrast the two incarnations of the Doctor rather than rushing into a straight team-up. We get a decent look at some of the Sixth Doctor’s best qualities and get to laugh at some of his best lines. Trivia note: This adventure also resulted in the hero becoming a vegetarian for a while.
A few factors led to the Sixth Doctor not having the best stories (or the best support) during his run. However, Big Finish Productions has released many audio dramas over the years featuring Colin Baker reprising the Doctor, causing his incarnation’s popularity to notably rise. Audio dramas we recommend include “Holy Terror,” “The Apocalypse Element,” “Doctor Who and the Pirates,” and a trilogy of stories that includes “City of Spires,” “The Wreck of the Titan” and “Legend of the Cybermen.”
SEVENTH DOCTOR: SYLVESTER McCOY
“Remembrance of the Daleks”: This story marked the Seventh Doctor changing from an odd adventurer to a manipulative master planner, earning him the nickname of “the Dark One” from many fans and later referred to in several novels as “Time’s Champion.” Deciding he would proactively hunt and defeat evil, this story has the hero dealing with not one but two Dalek armies engaged in a civil war. It also ties into plot elements from “The Three Doctors” and involves the Doctor returning to the junkyard where we first met him in the TARDIS in 1963. This is also the first official adventure with his new companion Ace, who gets to fight Daleks with a cosmic baseball bat.
“Battlefield”: Through many of his incarnations, one of the Doctor’s best friends has been Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, who helped found UNIT and whose daughter recently appeared in the episode “The Power of Three.” Here, the retired Brigadier joins forces with the Doctor again to defend the Earth from Morgaine le Fey and her son Mordred. What is their ultimate plan? And why do they keep calling the Doctor “Merlin”?
“The Curse of Fenric”: A bizarre story of paradoxes, blood drinkers, possible future timelines, and the revelation of just how Ace really came into the Doctor’s life. The idea that a companion would have a mystery about them that would be slowly revealed over different episodes was a new one, later reflected by characters such as Donna Noble and Amy Pond. This story also showed just how manipulative the Seventh Doctor could be, deliberately causing others to lose faith in him and see him as sinister in order for his plans to work.
EIGHTH DOCTOR: PAUL McGANN
Sadly, Paul McGann has only appeared in one on-screen story, the 1996 Doctor Who TV movie. But his performance gained many fans, and in 2001 he began reprising the role in audio dramas for Big Finish and BBC7. He has done this for more than 12 years now, resulting in more than 60 full-length, fully cast adventures and making him a very popular incarnation of the Doctor.
Some of these audio dramas you should check out include “Storm Warning,” “The Chimes of Midnight,” “The Natural History of Fear,” “Terror Firma,” “The Girl Who Never Was,” “Human Resources,” “The Earthly Child,” “Lucie Miller,” “To the Death,” and the “Dark Eyes” mini-series.
And that concludes our look at the Classic Doctors. Now go out and enjoy!