Ah, Classic Doctor Who. 42 years, 26 seasons, 8 leading men, 30 main cast, 695 episodes, 155 serials and one TV movie—plus two mid-60s theatrical releases. Such a depth of history can be daunting for the newer Who fan, brought into this Gallifreyan exile’s adventures via Doctors Nine through Eleven, since the excellent 2005 reboot.
Add in some natural reluctance resulting from the show’s early reputation for shoddy production values (and yes, the sets really do shake sometimes), an unfamiliar story-telling format (it’s just constant “To Be Continued” plot arcs, one after the other), as well as the inevitable confusion resulting from the legendary “Missing Episodes” (master tapes ruthlessly recycled by a thrifty BBC, back when they knew not what they did), and it’s really no wonder that many consider New Who to have granted them back story enough, and that the decades-spanning stories preceding it—many in black-and-white!—are just not worth the effort.
But there is much delight and wonder to be found in the early escapades of this ancient, time- and space-travelling whimsical genius; it would be a shame for them to remain entirely unexplored by even the most recent of Matt Smith-era converts. To make it all a little easier to digest, then, I’ve assembled a “Best of” selection for each of the Doctor’s earlier incarnations, listing the unmissable serials that will surely help explain many puzzles of the Whoniverse, as well as entertain and amuse—although, admittedly, not always for the right reasons. (The outfits alone!)
We start, of course, with:
THE FIRST DOCTOR
Played by: William Hartnell
First Appearance: “An Unearthly Child” (An Unearthly Child, 23 November, 1963)
Last Appearance: “Episode 4” (The Tenth Planet, 29 October, 1966) *MISSING*
Style: Dickensian chic.
Characteristics: The First Doctor is a fussy, elderly grouch with luxuriant silver locks, a deceptively frail form, and an often patronizing demeanor. However, as the first incarnation of the Doctor’s potential (at this stage) thirteen personalities, it eventually transpires that though he has inhabited this particular body for about 450 years, he is still considered something of an adolescent by the standards of his long-lived people.
Companions: In addition to travelling with his granddaughter Susan (Carole Anne Ford), in an effort to educate her about the universe, the First Doctor abducts her teachers Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) and Ian (William Russell); gives refuge to orphan teen Vicki (Maureen O’Brien); unknowingly rescues space pilot Steven (Peter Purves); liberates Trojan slave Katarina (Adrienne Hill); is plagued by the tiresome Dodo (Jackie Lane); and welcomes sophisticate Polly (Anneke Wills) and sailor Ben (Michael Craze).
1. AN UNEARTHLY CHILD, Season 1, Episodes 1-4
Written by: Anthony Coburn
Directed by: Waris Hussein
Setting: 1963 Earth; 100,000 BC Earth
4 Episodes: “An Unearthly Child” (November 23, 1963), “The Cave of Skulls” (November 30, 1963), “The Forest of Fear” (December 7, 1963), “The Firemaker” (December 14, 1963)
It may seem a little obvious, the idea that one would start with—gasp!—the pilot episode of a series in order to come to grips with its venerable beginnings, but the fact is, the first half-hour installment of this serial, also called “An Unearthly Child,” cleverly sets up the next fifty years of intriguing mystery, chaotic adventure and high-handed interference in other cultures. To wit: the enigmatic Doctor and his erratic granddaughter Susan bedevil that young lady’s two very curious teachers with an old Police Box (bigger on the inside than on the outside), and then inadvertently whisk them off to become pawns in a Paleolithic power struggle. Oh, the serial is chock full of troubling “isms”—sexism, imperialism, flat-out racism, it’s all here—and one can’t help but feel that letting the scatterbrained Susan “Of course, the decimal system hasn’t started yet!” Foreman out of his sight on 1963 Earth calls the Doctor’s wisdom somewhat into question. On the other hand, this is a theme that is often revisited throughout the series, and so it’s nice to see its genesis: the Doctor may be brilliant, but he really doesn’t have much commonsense.
EXPLAINED! Why the TARDIS still appears “camouflaged” as a Police Box, even when such things don’t exist anymore.
2. THE DALEK INVASION OF EARTH, Season 2, Episodes 4-9
Written by: Terry Nation
Directed by: Richard Martin
Setting: Late-22nd Century Earth
6 Episodes: “World’s End” (November 21, 1964), “The Daleks” (November 28, 1964), “Day of Reckoning” (December 5, 1964), “The End of Tomorrow” (December 12, 1964), “The Waking Ally” (December 19, 1964), “Flashpoint” (December 26, 1964)
There are some who might contend that the first appearance of this most iconic of the Doctor’s foes (in the aptly titled earlier serial, The Daleks), might be better placed here, but frankly it is in this, their second appearance, that they truly come into their own as viable, series-long, hide-behind-the-sofa-in-terror-of villains. The Dalek Invasion of Earth sees actual location shooting employed for the first time in Who history, with the giant metallic shuttlecocks trundling around a modern/future London, not actually promising to “Exterminate!” folks left and right just yet, but y’know. It’s implied. This serial is also notable for the departure of Susan (I know; you just met her!), when she falls in love with a resistance leader and is left behind by a selfless grandfather who surely was at least a little grateful to be spared her shrill histrionics throughout his further travels.
Another possibility here is to watch Daleks—Invasion Earth 2150 AD, the 1966 slightly reimagined theatrical version starring Peter Cushing, but while you will certainly still get the gist of the action (and, hey! It’s in color), it is the original Doctor, Susan, Ian and—above all!—Susan’s elegant history teacher Barbara, who make this story the enduring awesome it is.
EXPLAINED! The Doctor’s ongoing need for young female—platonic!—companionship.
3. THE TIME MEDDLER, Season 2, Episodes 36-39
Written by: Dennis Spooner
Directed by: Douglas Camfield
Setting: England, 1066
Episodes: “The Watcher” (July 3, 1965), “The Meddling Monk” (July 10, 1965), “A Battle of Wits” (July 17, 1965), “Checkmate” (July 24, 1965)
Arriving on the English coast in the 11th-C, the Doctor, Vicki and Steven discover that they are not the only time travelers in the vicinity. A mischievous member of the Doctor’s own—still unnamed—race has taken up residence in a nearby monastery, his aim to aid King Harold to defeat the oncoming Norman army, thereby robbing their leader, William, of his “the Conqueror,” and usher in an era of peace and enlightened prosperity. Steven, meanwhile, very new to this whole time travel caper, is adorably flummoxed by events all the way through—really, his is one of the most realistic reactions to such an extraordinary set of circumstances evinced by any of the Doctor’s young associates, and he and Vicki also have some lovely sparky banter.
And there are so many firsts in this episode! It’s an historical tale but also includes sci-fi; it’s the first time we encounter another from the Doctor’s homeworld; the use of anachronism is actually deliberate here; and we learn what TARDIS stands for (extraneous “s” notwithstanding). Also, this one has Vikings!
EXPLAINED! The rules of time travel in the Whoniverse… kind of. Also, how Stonehenge was built! (You knew it had to be aliens, right?)
4. THE ARK, Season 3, Episodes 26-29
Written by: Paul Erickson & Lesley Scott
Directed by: Michael Imison
Episodes: “The Steel Sky” (March 5, 1966), “The Plague” (March 12, 1966), “The Return” (March 19, 1966), “The Bomb” (March 26, 1966)
Now this one is going to be controversial, as it is assuredly not a common favorite, but The Ark just contains so many clever concepts that it is an absolute gem of science fiction-as-parable-ness, and cannot go overlooked. There’s post-apocalyptic dystopia! Accidental plague! Courtroom drama! Slavery allegory! Genetic engineering! Plus the Doctor lives up to his title and cures the common cold. (Though… keeping people with fevers warm, Doctor? Medicine is… different, where you come from.)
More than anything, though, this serial is notable for its narrative style, the way in which it wraps up one crisis in two of its four installments, and then checks back in 700 years later to discover just what the Doctor’s interference has wrought in the interim. Many Doctor Who episodes have dealt with consequences, but none have so dramatically brought home just how damaging, and how dangerous, this capricious time- and space-travelling can be. It would be one thing if Doctor Who followed an “it happened therefore it has always happened” style of time travel, but instead it allows time to be mutable, which means that his presence here in the year 10,000,000 AD (yes, that is 10 million), where the last vestiges of humanity are on a generation ship on their way to a new planetary home, impact greatly on the survival of the entire human race.
The biggest downside of this one is that it is a Dodo story, and Dodo is by far the Doctor’s most irritating companion ever, but Steven’s pompous hilariousness more than makes up for her. And, oh, those future spaceship uniforms! Sexy.
EXPLAINED! Why the Doctor doesn’t tend to travel too far into humanity’s future any more.
5. THE TENTH PLANET, Season 4, Episodes 4-7
Written by: Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis
Directed by: Derek Martinus
Setting: 1986 Earth, the South Pole
Episodes: “Episode 1” (October 8, 1966), “Episode 2” (October 15, 1966), “Episode 3” (October 22, 1966), “Episode 4” (October 29, 1966)
As touched on earlier, one of the tragedies of Doctor Who is the fact that there are so many episodes that remain completely absent from the record. Every now and then one will still crop up—a censored version of an early tale will be found at a regional station in Nigeria, for example (this actually happened)—but the reality of Classic Who is that 106 of the first six seasons’ 253 episodes are just gone. Sadly, one of these is the final chapter of The Tenth Planet, which means that while we get to enjoy three-quarters of the first story featuring the menacing, Borg-inspiring Cybermen as they attempt to drain Earth of its power and, er, assimilate its population, the thrilling finale only comes to us as a soundtrack, some on-set stills, and—oh, pivotal moment!—actual moving images (in both senses), as the Doctor undergoes his first regeneration.
This is not to say that the tireless Doctor Who Restoration Team has not done a bang-up job of it, all things considered; it’s just that the flick book-like recreation of “Episode 4” remains an ongoing source of sorrow that such a thing is even necessary. Nevertheless, The Tenth Planet is a must-see, for the blank-faced, early GPS-voiced Cybermen (who can speak before their mouths even open!) as much as for the unprecedented metamorphosis of its star. Plus, in 1986, the International Space Command is building a base on the moon! Yeah, remember when that happened?
EXPLAINED! The origin of the Cybermen; the apparent limits a Time Lord’s body.
Of course, this is all just the recommendation of one humble Whovian—there are doubtless others who can make convincing arguments for The Aztecs or The Space Museum or, hell, The Web Planet as the greatest of all First Doctor adventures. (Well, okay. Probably not The Web Planet.)
Have at it!
NEXT TIME: The Second Doctor—The Manic Prankster
Rachel Hyland is Editor in Chief of Geek Speak Magazine.