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How to Get Into Classic Doctor Who Without Going Insane

"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.

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"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! (The best stories are in bold.)

image 1st Doctor (William Hartnell, 1963-1966)
The First Doctor’s era is perhaps the series’s least accessible. The stories are slow and the effects, combined with poorly preserved footage, make his serials quite hard to follow. Those who stick around will be rewarded with some of the best performances that Doctor Who has to offer and exquisite character development, as the Doctor evolves from a cold-hearted schemer to the lovable grandfather we know him for today.

An Unearthly Child
The Daleks
The Aztecs
The Dalek Invasion of Earth

image 2nd Doctor (Patrick Troughton, 1966-1969)
The Second Doctor is just behind the tenth and fourth in popularity. His clownish antics and chess like intelligence make his stories much more immediate than his predecessor’s. Though the Troughton era loses the gradual character development and creepy moodiness of Hartnell’s, the stories are generally more coherent and entertaining. 

The Mind Robber
Tomb of the Cybermen
The Invasion
The War Games

image 3rd Doctor (Jon Pertwee, 1970-1974)
The Third Doctor’s era is all action. A surrogate James Bond, battling his foes with sweet space-aikido and crazy gadgets. Most of his stories lose the eerie element of the last two incarnations, but the pace ramps up big time. It may be too camp for some, but for those who dabble in the retro, it’s a treat.

Spearhead from Space
Inferno
Terror of the Autons
The Daemons

image 4th Doctor (Tom Baker, 1974-1981)
I’ve said enough about number Four, so I’ll spare you the summary.

Genesis of the Daleks
The Deadly Assassin
The Talons of Weng-Chiang
The Pyramids of Mars

image 5th Doctor (Peter Davison, 1981-1984)
Things take a dark turn with the Fifth Doctor. Though number Five is a quiet, kind-hearted soul, his stories are especially dark and gritty, full of sympathetic villains and high body counts. The colorful, fun element is gone during this era, but for a time, ‘Who took itself seriously and it was a sight to behold.

Black Orchid
Earthshock
Mawdryn Undead
The Caves of Androzani

image 6th Doctor (Colin Baker, 1984-1986)
The Sixth Doctor was a well-meaning sociopath whose stories were as manic and unforgiving as he was. While retaining the violence of the previous era, Colin Baker’s stories also brought back the bright colors and out-there camp from the early years. It makes for a garish and fascinating juxtaposition, centered around a lead character that challenges the audience to like him, just like today’s antiheroes like Don Draper, Walter White, or Jaime Lannister.

Attack of the Cybermen
Vengeance on Varos
Revelation of the Daleks
Trial of a Time Lord

image 7th Doctor (Sylvester McCoy, 1987-1989)
The Seventh Doctor’s is where Old Who begins its evolution into New Who. In some ways neoclassical and some ways revolutionary, the Seventh Doctor’s stories change drastically, starting out as crazy 80’s nostalgia fuel, to the smart and surprisingly mature series that will look familiar to Eccleston/Tennant/Smith fans. McCoy’s Doctor starts out as a bumbling uncle and ends up as a sombre dealer of justice. His later stories are much more watchable than his early ones, as the sun sets on the neon-colored Old Who and the show begins to take a moodier direction.

Dragonfire
The Ghost Light
The Curse of Fenric
Remembrance of the Daleks

image 8th Doctor (Paul McGann, 1996)
The Eighth Doctor makes his only serial-length appearance in the self-titled TV movie. Fittingly for its time, Number Eight is boyish, handsome and more happy-go-lucky than he character’s ever been. He’s so lovable that he’s a top fan-favorite despite having under and hour’s screen time. The story itself is a fast-paced romp that draws not only on tried and true nerd-culture aesthetics as 'Who had done for over thirty years, but also what was hip during its era. Mid-90’s urban culture makes for a fresh influence for Doctor Who, making way for the street-level, action-centric stories of Eccleston’s run. It’s not as brainy as it’s been before, but if you’re into 80’s-90’s blockbusters like Batman, The Terminator, or Men in Black, the TV movie can be a blast. He appeared again for a 50th Anniversary short called The Night of the Doctor as well, but was just that, a short to promote a big event.

Doctor Who
The Night of the Doctor

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.

More of my Doctor Who posts can be found here. Allons-y!

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