How to Who: On Starting to Watch Classic Doctor Who

While you can start with the first episode and go from there, you can’t watch Doctor Who, from the very beginning, in its entirety. Literally, it is impossible. The BBC recorded over old film to save money, and so a lot of the second Doctor’s stories and some of the first Doctor’s stories have been lost.

You might also find starting from extant first Doctor episodes maddening for several reasons. The pace is slow, it’s black and white, the film quality is poor, and they haven’t decided what they want to do with the Doctor as a character yet. He’s a creepy trickster who seems to lack the moral core that centered later Doctors. Even his alienness is in doubt. In his virgin outing, he tries to bludgeon a caveman to death with a big rock. A human companion (action science teacher Ian Chesterton) has to call him out on that.

The first Doctor, or One (Doctors are traditionally referred to by their numbers in fandom), does become more cuddly. But while he’s certainly interesting, he’s never Tinkerbell Jesus Ten, shedding a single emo tear for your sins. If you’re into that, he might not do it for you.

In lieu of the Completist Dream of Who, here are some good options:

1) Start from the first One episode, “An Unearthy Child.”

If you do this, do it in the knowledge that there WILL be gaps, and that the aforementioned things are true. If you’re a hardcore nerd about other things, and think you could see yourself becoming one about Classic Who, it might be worth investing in Running Through Corridors, Volume I, a guide to One and Two era by comedian Toby Hadoke and New Who/Big Finish writer Rob Shearman. The blog TARDIS Eruditorum also serves as an excellent companion (hah) to the early serials. These erudite and loving discussions of the episodes’ plots and conditions of production may enhance your viewing experience.

2) Start from Two’s last episode, “The War Games.”

It may seem odd to start with the end of an era, but War Games sets up the plot predicaments of the very watchable next few series, it’s a complete Two serial that gives you a good taste of early Who, and it might introduce the Master (though this is a big point of contention). I adore it, but it’s LONG, and black and white, and that’s a drawback for some. It also has a rather silly amount of capture/escape cycles and the always-insipid “Humans are uniquely violent and evil!!” premise, but it’s an excellent episode. The ending is wrenching. And it leads easily into Three era.

3) Start from the DELIGHTFUL and relatively brief “Spearhead from Space,” the first story of Three’s era.

It’s IN COLOR!!, as almost all episodes will be from this point on. However my beloved Three has some real clunkers under his belt, and you will probably try to suffocate yourself with a household pet during “The Ambassadors of Death.” (Yes, Death’s a country now, check the UN site.) Three era has a strong ensemble cast and solid organizing conceit (the Doctor is stuck on Earth for most of it), which I think works well for the uninitiated. The Master is a frequently-reoccurring major villain here, as he is in Five’s era, and he’s always a fun time.

4) Start with the Doctor Who twentieth anniversary special “The Five Doctors.”

As the name might suggest, this features all five of the early Doctors. (Sort of. Someone is decently impersonating the departed William Hartnell). Having seen all five, you can pick a Doctor who appeals to you and watch his entire run through.

After some spotty watching-around, I did this, starting with Five (Peter Davison). I then went back and watched other eras more completely. I find Five’s era, with its relative brevity and approachability, particularly newcomer-friendly. Chunks of Four’s era are also very welcoming, as this era is blessed with excellent Douglas Adams (of Hitchiker’s Guide) scripts and good pacing.

5) Start with Four’s “Key to Time” arc.

It’s self-contained in some ways and has a strong, over-arching plot that’s easy to follow. It benefits from a happy pairing of Doctor and companion, and, as I mentioned, some excellent writing and script editing from Douglas Adams.

6) Watch particularly good eps out of order and get around to more painful ones once you’re more used to the gestalt Classic Who experience.

…I have done this one too, sloppy as it sounds.

There are many good lists ranking the episodes out there, but there are also many, many… questionable lists available elsewhere online and in print. It is a truth universally acknowledged that there is no such thing as a critical consensus on what’s actually good Doctor Who. I could find or make you what I feel is a good list, but what approach is For You is really up to, well, you.

7) Track reoccuring characters and/or monster you’re particularly interested in.

You can follow, say, the Master, the Brig, or the Cybermen, and watch all their episodes. Wikipedia (or even better, TARDIS Wiki) can give you good breakdowns for this.

There are a lot of entry points into Old Who, and what works for you will depend ENORMOUSLY on what you want your Doctor Who to do and to be. Comedy, hard sci-fi, space-opera, a highly political text, grim dystopianism – there actually IS something in Classic Who for everyone, because the show persisted so long and used its format to approach and appropriate so many storytelling genres. I mean look at “The Daemons,” Who‘s fun-but-also-rubbish attempt at capitalizing on the popularity of Video Nasty/Satanic Panic horror films. Or better yet, don’t look at “The Daemons” just yet. I’m not sure you’re ready for Olive Hawthorne’s jelly (she’s the lusty, wiccan Miss Marple-ish Rural English Character of the Week).

Don’t be afraid to stop watching things you don’t like, and maybe don’t start with reconstructions, the TV movie, or “Scream of the Shalka” (though when your Classic palate is more trained up, you may well want to try them). At the end of the day, it’s also worth mentioning that even in Classic Who serials I don’t like, there are almost always elements I love—particularly good lines or character moments, etc. At its worst, Classic Who is still a bit lovable and worth a watch, and at its best it can be a transcendently great text, capable of making you think and feel, of sticking in your heart like a burr.

Happy Whoing! 

Erin Horáková is a southern American writer. She lives in London with her partner, and is working towards her PhD in Comparative Literature at Queen Mary. Erin blogs, cooks, and is active in fandom.


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