How to Watch Classic Doctor Who
With Doctor Who on hiatus for the next year, many fans are looking to the classic series to feed the habit. So we thought we’d put together a ‘how to watch’ guide for anyone thinking of getting into the twenty-six seasons (and a movie) that ran from 1963-96. There are a number of methods and which one works for you will be very much up to you. We’ve collected some of what we think are the best ways to get into it and enjoy it.
A good way to dip into the good stuff is to have a flick through lists of episodes and stories that are considered the essentials. Indeed, we’ll be doing an Essential Guide to Classic Who soon! This involves watching the show in no particular order, but getting a good taste of what each Doctor and era was like. Watch the important episodes, the best written episodes, and the most famous episodes. Learn the Doctor’s dark history, see the Daleks being born, and Time Lords in hilarious costumes.
This method might appeal to those who have enjoyed Steven Moffat’s less linear storytelling and the isolated stories. There’s often not a series-spanning narrative to follow like a trail of breadcrumbs, nor is there an awful lot of continuity that is 100% essential to enjoying most of the best stuff.
Moreover, this is a great way of familiarising yourself with each Doctor. You can get a sense of who they are and how they act. Compare how each Doctor reacts to certain settings, monsters and situations, how they treat their companions, and how they find their solutions.
You won’t get bogged down slogging through the sometimes drawn out stories, or missing stories, that litter some eras of the classic series. You can just hop to and fro between the best of the best.
From Genesis to Revelation (though not necessarily starting or ending with either) following the Doctors’ encounters with the Daleks is a fantastic way to compare and contrast them. You can see how the conflict escalated, you can jump across the timelines and watch as they become arch enemies. It’s a very quick way of diving into each Doctor’s timelines and gives you some flashes of brilliance from both our heroes and villains.
Although the first Dalek story (The Daleks), is a six part epic which can exhaust some viewers, it’s well worth sticking out. The Dalek Invasion of Earth, for example, is a wonderful spectacle of post-apocalyptic London and gives you plenty of dark concepts to chew on. Is every choice the Doctor makes right? Will Susan be safe in the devastation? Why did the Daleks do all of that anyway?
Most of the Second Doctor’s Dalek stories are missing, in part or in whole. But if you’re feeling determined, there are some reconstructions and audio-adventure-style releases out there. The Power of the Daleks, which was the first story for the newly regenerated Doctor, has some great moments.
The Third Doctor’s Dalek stories are a tad hit and miss, in many people’s view. But Planet of the Daleks is well worth a watch, if nothing else than for its scenery. Colourful and inventive, the creators really put a lot of effort into creating a very alien world and then plopping the Daleks right into it makes it all the more sinister and chilling.
The Fourth Doctor’s best known Dalek story is, of course, Genesis of the Daleks and it really is a must-watch story. See Davros for the first time. Find out how the Daleks were made, what drove them to become these monstrous creatures, and how did the Doctor come to terms with having the chance to end his greatest enemies before they even began to exist?
The Fifth Doctor saw the Resurrection of the Daleks. A time-crossing thriller with spaceships, betrayal, explosions, and a truly emotional end. This story will tug on your heartstrings if you let it, and seeing Terry Molloy’s performance as Davros (whom I interviewed
) will give you new appreciation for the character.
Revelation of the Daleks, with the Sixth Doctor, again asks some pretty dark moral questions. It also teases the Doctor’s ultimate death (as Steven Moffat was tremendously fond of doing also). Davros is back, but now there seem to be splits in the Dalek camps, rumours of bigger things to come, and some standout performances from all.
Remembrance of the Daleks is one of my all time favourite Dalek stories, with Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor truly becoming the sinister trickster at last. With two factions of Daleks – Imperial and Renegade – it’s a war of Dalek against Dalek with the earth caught in the middle. Plenty of continuity for eagle-eyed viewers, but nothing to alienate new fans. Well worth getting your hands on.
A method recommended by many, and was actually the way I got a number of my personal friends into classic Who, is to start with The New Beginnings Box Set. With The Keeper of Traken, Logopolis, and Castrovalva, it guide you through the Fourth Doctor’s final adventures and introduces you to the Fifth Doctor, as well as giving us a new Master, and some real head-scratching stories.
The box set can be a great way to give yourself a taste of the 80s era, which may be closer to the Doctor Who of the early Russell T Davies era. You get to see the legendary Tom Baker, a regeneration, and then it sets you off into the Fifth Doctor era, which you can then keep up with into the Sixth and Seventh, too.
The Keeper of Traken is full of mystery and myth, lots of political twists and turns, and the deliciously evil Geoffrey Beevers as the Master (see our interview
). Logopolis is great for fans of intricate and complex plots that take a while for you to get your head around. Also, this is where Anthony Ainley has his first outing as the Master, and his beard. Finally, Castrovalva lets you see the Fifth Doctor, newly regenerated and completely doolally. There are, again, mind-bending aspects to this story and you may keep guessing at what the hell is actually going on.
And, of course, there is the great challenge! Watching Doctor Who from beginning to end, right from 1963 onwards. There are some real gems early on, like An Unearthly Child, The Daleks, The Aztecs, and The Dalek Invasion of Earth.
Often the stories take their time, which newer viewers used to the fast pace of the newer episodes may take some adjusting to. Due to budget restraints and a viewing public more used to gradual build stories, there are some adventures that stretch over six or more episodes. Sometimes these work out, sometimes they don’t. If you like your stories to take their time, then you’ll probably enjoy them!
Then there are the missing episodes. If you’re starting from the beginning, you’re going to encounter them pretty soon. Marco Polo is a very early story that is almost entirely missing. There are some which have been lovingly reconstructed with still photographs and the audio tracks, or else with newly commissioned animations. For the completist, they’re perfectly fine, but they’re not for everyone.
The big advantage is that you get to see the show as one long story, following the Doctor from the junk yard in Totter’s Lane, right the way through to the hillside of Perivale as he walks into the sunset. You get to see him change, you see new companions come and go, you see monsters, you see the development of the special effects, and you see the writers change and shift. It really gives you a new perspective on the show as a whole.