"I love Doctor Who, but I just can’t get into the classic series!" is a common complaint among Doctor Who fans, and with good reason. The classic series is unfriendly to newcomers, but fear not hungry Whovians, for some random guy on the Internet has found a solution! After this, you should be able to watch classic Doctor Who stories and actually enjoy them.
"It’s just kinda boring."
I hear this way too often. Yes, the style of classic and modern Who are very different. The hyperactive action and romance of the recent era is missing from the safe and sterile retro series. You just have to adjust to the fact that, despite what many fans may say, they aren’t quite the same show. Enjoy the classic series on its own merits. This isn’t the blockbuster entertainment of today’s TV, classic Doctor Who rests very much on its time period. Rubber monsters, wibbly-wobbly sets and careful pacing are the name of the retro sci-fi game. The corny effects can be distracting at first, but once you fit into the groove of things, you’ll find it weirdly charming. Trust me on that, at least. More cynical viewers will find it best watched with friends and a sense of humor, as it’s a blast to make fun of with a bowl of popcorn and a few drinks. In fact, I was introduced to the classic series at a private screening of The Three Doctors, meant specifically for riffing. It was loads of fun.
“The episode numbers are weird. How do I keep track?”
A quick note on this. The classic series isn’t split into individual episodes like the new stuff. Instead, stories are told over a span of several 20-25 minute episodes, usually between 3-6. You know how some of the new series has two-part stories? It’s basically like that, but every story is told that way. There are multiple serials in a season. The formula changes from time to time, but not too substantially. Just remember:
Episode, Serial, Season.
“The stories are slow and I lose interest after a while.”
Perhaps the biggest difference between old and new Who is its pacing. Watching episode after episode can feel like the story drags forever, but there’s an easy way to retain dramatic tension. Watch the stories as they were meant to be told, episodically. Watch one episode at a time, give them space to breathe, give the cliffhangers time to sink their teeth in. You’ll find the series much easier and more fun to watch when you view it the right way.
“Where do I start?”
Now we get to the heart of the issue. I’d say that you should start anywhere but from the beginning. The first episode of the first serial, An Unearthly Child actually works well on its own, though. It has a timeless feel to that of New Who and gets you excited for the Doctor’s past adventures. I’d say watch that one episode as a prologue to the whole series and skip the rest of the serial because it’s CRAP.
Instead, you should watch the series out of order. Don’t worry about understanding the stories. If you’re familiar with the basic mechanics of the show, i.e. regeneration, companions, Time Lords, villains, the TARDIS etc., you’ll have no problem knowing what’s going on. There are a few ways to get through the classic series comfortably:
1) Watch one serial from each Doctor at a time.
This is self-explanatory. Just root around and pick a story from each Doctor, watch a few of each and see how you like each one. Netflix is a big helper with this, as they have classic episodes for each incarnation of the Time Lord. Sadly, many of the best episodes aren’t available unless you order the physical DVD. Luckily, pretty much every ‘Who episode is available on any given video site and search engine if you look around.
2) Watch the essential episodes in order.
Most Whovians agree that there are a handful of must-see episodes from the classic series. Many will tell you to watch these first, in chronological order. Those stories are listed at the bottom of this post.
3) Watch Tom Baker first.
Tom Baker’s tenure as the fourth Doctor is acclaimed by nearly the entire fanbase to be Doctor Who's best. So much so that his signature space-hobo look is synonymous with the show overseas. His serials are well paced and expertly performed, with simpler stories than much of pre-reboot Doctor Who, with an added sense of mystery and vague gothicism. To make matters better, they’re all self-contained, so you can watch any of them anytime without having to say “Who’s that?” or “What’s that do?” A majority of the Netflix episodes are from this era. From there, you can go back or forwards easily. I suggest the particularly weird stories of second Doctor Patrick Troughton or the darker and more dramatic stylings of Doctor number five, Peter Davison. After you get a belly full of Tom, Pat and Peter, you’ll be ready for the rest of the Doctors, whose serials are much less accessible.
Behold! The must-watch classic Doctor Who serials!
1st Doctor (William Hartnell, 1963-1966)
An Unearthly Child
The Dalek Invasion of Earth
2nd Doctor (Patrick Troughton, 1966-1969)
The Mind Robber
Tomb of the Cybermen
The War Games
3rd Doctor (Jon Pertwee, 1970-1974)
Spearhead from Space
Terror of the Autons
4th Doctor (Tom Baker, 1974-1981)
Genesis of the Daleks
The Deadly Assassin
The Talons of Weng-Chiang
The Pyramids of Mars
5th Doctor (Peter Davison, 1981-1984)
The Caves of Androzani
6th Doctor (Colin Baker, 1984-1986)
Attack of the Cybermen
Vengeance on Varos
Revelation of the Daleks
Trial of a Time Lord
7th Doctor (Sylvester McCoy, 1987-1989)
The Ghost Light
The Curse of Fenric
Remembrance of the Daleks
8th Doctor (Paul McGann, 1996)
Once you watch enough of these, you’ll be caught up on the entire series and you’ll understand Doctor Who better than pretty much any other fan you’re likely to meet.