With the Doctor Who 60th anniversary special set to hit screens next year, now is as good a time as any to revisit the show’s history. From Dalek invasions of Earth to random romps across space to historical shenanigans involving Nero, the classic series has much to offer across its 26 seasons of television. However, many people do not know where to start with Classic Who.
Despite the plethora of quality episodes and adventures from Classic Who, many will find the show to be unapproachable by modern television standards. The pace is slower, the production is noticeably cheaper, and the stories often feature unnecessary filler. Still, some stories contain the dynamism of the modern show, and the following represent the best entry points for those seeking to check out classic Doctor Who.
Spearhead From Space
Jon Pertwee’s first story as the Third Doctor, “Spearhead From Space” sees the newly regenerated Time Lord adjust to his exile on Earth as the plastic-based Autons attempt to take over the world. Amidst it all, the Brigadier is searching in vain for the Doctor as UNIT investigates a crashed meteorite.
Offering a clean break from what came previously in the show, “Spearhead From Space” introduces audiences to a version of the Doctor who could be considered something of a swashbuckling hero, much like David Tennant’s incarnation. It also features several chase scenes and a shootout between UNIT and the Autons, making “Spearhead From Space” an action-packed story that is almost always in motion.
City of Death
Featuring the episode of Doctor Who with the highest viewing figures, “City of Death” is a fun romp that follows the Fourth Doctor and Romana as they try to uncover the machinations of Scarlioni, one of Doctor Who’s best one-off villains. It’s also got the Mona Lisa, a bumbling PI, and several scene-chewing performances, all of which add to the story’s charm.
The biggest selling point for “City of Death” is its cheeky energy. Having been co-written by Douglas Adams, the script features gags galore with Tom Baker bringing his smile to every scene he’s in. It’s a performance unlike any other, and the sheer joy is enough to sell anyone skeptical of the 100-minute runtime (which is typical of every story from the era).
The last story aired during Doctor Who‘s original run, “Survival” stars the Seventh Doctor and Ace as they investigate the disappearance of her friends in (then) modern-day Perivale. Though it might seem ironic to show new viewers the last episode of the series, it works as an introduction because of its focus on Ace.
Like much of the modern series, “Survival” makes the companion the protagonist of the piece while the Doctor acts as a supporting player. This choice along with the brisk pace and familiar setting make “Survival” a very approachable episode for those unfamiliar with classic Doctor Who.
Akin in tone to episodes like “Rosa” and “Demons of the Punjab,” “The Aztecs” is a pure historical from Doctor Who season 1. It features the TARDIS team stranded in 15th century Mexico, with Barbara attempting to end the Aztec practice of human sacrifice so the civilization might avoid massacre by the Spanish conquistadors.
“The Aztecs” is among the first episodes of Doctor Who to play with the idea of fixed points in time, and it does so without the aid of aliens or monsters. The drama stems from Barbara, an audience surrogate, attempting to change history for the better and although she fails in her efforts, she does succeed in changing one person’s life. It’s this character-oriented approach that makes “The Aztecs” great for beginners.
Carnival of Monsters
Another story from the Third Doctor’s era, “Carnival of Monsters” sees the intrepid Time Lord and his assistant Jo materialize on the SS Bernice which appears to be stuck in a time loop. They soon discover that they’re trapped in a machine and must navigate their way out before it overheats and kills them.
While there aren’t any major companion introductions or familiar villains in the episode (save for a brief Cyberman cameo), “Carnival of Monsters” is still an accessible episode because of its plot. It leans in on some of the timey-whimey elements that make “Blink” and “Heaven Sent” such classics, and, importantly, has fun playing with these elements.
The Five Doctors
The show’s 20th anniversary special, the story follows the first five incarnations of the Doctor as they’re taken out of time by a mysterious force and placed in the Death Zone. Together, they must work their way toward the Tomb of Rassilon to escape.
Despite the episode’s paper-thin plot, it’s a fun romp that offers a taste of each incarnation up to that point in the show’s history. This sampling of personalities makes “The Five Doctors” a solid debut for new viewers, and the constant confrontations with some of Doctor Who‘s best monsters ensure that no one will be left bored with the adventure.
The Time Warrior
“The Time Warrior” is a great place to start for fans of Doctor Who‘s historical episodes. It’s set in the Middle Ages and is the debut of Doctor Who‘s great companion, Sarah Jane Smith, along with one of the series’ more iconic villains, the Sontarans.
Beyond the familiarity that Sarah Jane and the Sontarans bring to “The Time Warrior,” it works as an introduction for the uninitiated because of its charming simplicity. Scientists are getting sucked into the past by the titular Time Warrior, and the Doctor teams up with Sarah Jane to investigate. The pacing is tight, Sarah proves herself immediately, and there’s some fun to be had with castles.
Remembrance of the Daleks
Perhaps the most explosive episode in all of Doctor Who, “Remembrance of the Daleks” is set in London, 1963 as the Dalek Civil War races toward Earth to obtain the mysterious Hand of Omega. With just a rag-tag team of scientists and military personnel, it’s up to the Seventh Doctor and Ace to prevent the two Dalek factions from taking control of the weapon.
Unlike many episodes of classic Doctor Who which requires an episode’s worth of time to build up toward any action, “Remembrance of the Daleks” treats the audience early on with a small unit of soldiers getting decimated by a lone Dalek. For the next three episodes, the pace never lets up, even as the Doctor pontificates about ripples across time.
Terror of the Autons
The closest Doctor Who ever got to be a James Bond adventure, “Terror of the Autons” introduces audiences to the Doctor’s arch-nemesis, the Master. Played to perfection by Roger Delgado, the renegade Time Lord teams up with the Autons to invade Earth.
Despite being the start of the rivalry between the Doctor and the Master, it’s companion Jo Grant who proves the most effective in stopping the villain. She’s the one who discovers the Master, rescues the Doctor, and gets to do all sorts of action-style heroics. In this way, she emulates the companions of the modern series, thus making “Terror of the Autons” a great jumping-on point.
Genesis of the Daleks
The only six-parter on this list, “Genesis of the Daleks” deserves its runtime due to the focus on the creation of the Daleks against a bleak backdrop of nuclear war. Though the angry pepper pots aren’t around for most of the runtime, their sadistic personality can be seen in their creator Davros and his Kaled flunkies.
What makes “Genesis of the Daleks” such a great introduction for viewers is that it gives them an explanation for why the Daleks are the way they are. While not played as a mystery, that question works as a great hook that will keep viewers going across all six parts, which are some of the best-written episodes in the show’s history.
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