And now — the follow-up “Where to Start with Classic Who” post. Now, see, I have a problem because there is a lot more classic Who than there is new series. One might use the technical term “shitload.” So I’ve decided to pick a few episodes — one or two from each Doctor — and talk about them more in-depth rather than trying to cover a number of episodes I think might make good starting points.
The Unearthly Child (1963) “Start at the beginning. Go on until the end. Then stop.” It’s excellent advice but, sadly, with original series Who you can only follow parts of it. Whole stories — mostly from the first two Doctors, William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton — are missing, partial, or badly damaged. Some of them have no visual and have been resurrected by the BBC through their audio tracks alone. Personally, I’m enough of a fan that I’m still into these, but it can be irritating for the new convert, purist, or someone whose Doctor turns out to have big holes in his seasons. Anyway, Child is the first episode ever. First broadcast in November of 1963 on a Saturday evening (my dad has a vague memory of watching it), it looks, sounds, and smells like exactly what it is: next-door to live TV. It’s black-and-white, it’s grainy, the sound is crackly, bits of the set fail to work as they should (check the TARDIS doors), and things are introduced that are never ever relevant again in the show but were clearly big things when it was first being designed by Sidney Newman and Verity Lambert. However. Not too sound too airy-fairy but there is something about Child that makes it pretty damned watchable. There are great characters: the teenage Susan (Carole Ann Ford) and her teachers, Ian (William Russell) and Barbara (Jacquelyn Hill), to say nothing of the Doctor (Hartnell) when he first appears. And the Doctor can come as something of a revelation to new series fans because he isn’t nice. He’s grumpy, short-tempered, snappy, selfish, and down-right inconsiderate a lot of the time. There’s very little that’s soft and fluffy about this first regeneration — and to get to the soft you have to use dynamite.
As an immediate follow-up, I suggest The Dead Planet (1964) It does go on a bit — so does Child, though, so if you got through one, you’ll get through the other just fine. And it is the first ever Dalek episode. It’s a little involved, kind of soap-opera-y and the Doctor is deeply unpleasant.
If you find Hartnell’s your thing, may I also suggest The Romans, The Chase, The Ark, The Crusades or The Space Museum?
Tomb of the Cybermen (1967) I’ve never been as familiar with the Patrick Troughton canon as I would like to be, but I love this episode. There’s a great “Making Of…” documentary on the DVD which I thoroughly recommend if for nothing else than the stories from the poor guys playing the Cybermen. Plus you get fun stuff about Mary Hall-Whitehouse: a self-appointed, one woman censorship board. Additionally, this is a pretty fair introduction to the Cybermen — far more has been done with the Cybers in the new series, I feel, than was ever attempted in the old series which I think is awesome because I always (don’t tell) preferred Cybers to Daleks. There are some lovely character moments for the Doctor in here; watch particularly for his discussion with new companion Victoria about his family.
If you’re into Troughton, I always enjoyed The Mind Robber and The Dominators and I have a dim, dim, dim, dim memory of loving The Krotons and being really freaked by his last episode, The War Games.
Spearhead from Space (1970) The first episode for Jon Pertwee (3). If you’re curious about the costume — and, really, who wouldn’t be? — he was asked to come to the initial read-through for the part in costume. Apparently, this is what he had in his attic; they were his grand-dad’s old outfits from some sort of stage performance (if I remember the story correctly.) And, anyway, even if it’s a total urban legend, who cares? It’s a great story: and don’t you want to believe that he had these duds in his attic? Space isn’t the best Pertwee episode ever, but his seasons depend more than the two Doctors who preceded him on a story arc — fixing the TARDIS; finding the Master — and so it’s a little harder to pick a mid-season intro. Space also introduces a new companion, Liz Shaw (Caroline John), and re-introduces, from the Troughton era, Brigadier Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) who is made of solid awesome. The Brigadier shows up for almost every Doctor and his last appearance, in an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures, was just great stuff: the Brig on his old form, kickin’ ass and takin’ names. Anyway, Space will also introduce you to the Nestene, so if you’re a new series fan, this is handy background info. It’s also a fun little adventure romp, plenty of comedic turns (Pertwee was a noted comedy performer, well-known for his abilities in radio comedies such as The Navy Lark), and running.
If you love Pertwee, may I suggest The Sea Devils, Carnival of Monsters, The Green Death, or The Curse of Peladon.
Robot (1974-1975) Okay, as I said in the comments to my last post, I’m a 4 girl. I can’t help it: Tom Baker episodes were not the first ones I saw (technically, that would be Hartnell’s Planet of the Giants), but they’re the first ones that won me over — and totally terrified me. Our tape cut off the end of The Robots of Death and, if you happen to know that episode, I’m sure you’ll agree with me that there’s little more traumatising than having the screen go black as everyone is trapped in the bridge by reprogrammed homicidal robots. Augh. Anyway, Robot does feature robots but is nothing like that. Baker’s first episode, it has some of the same feel to it that Eleventh Hour does — Pertwee had just completed a very popular turn as the Doctor and the stamp of his episodes was so strong that it carried over and Baker had to exert his personality in that framework. Luckily for us, Baker has a nice strong personality, so it all worked out fine. Robot also has great companions: the Brigadier, Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter), and Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen), who came into the TARDIS crew with 3 and stayed over the regeneration. Robot is fun, pretty fast-moving, sometimes silly (don’t look at the robot costume too closely), and pretty much proves that 4 is going to hit the ground running.
Other good intro episodes for 4 include The Ark in Space, Genesis of the Daleks, The Ribos Operation, The Face of Evil, Horror of Fang Rock, Masque of Mandragora, and, if you’re in a darker mood, episodes like Full Circle or The Leisure Hive. If you want sheer, eye-wateringly bad Victoriana, go for The Talons of Weng-Chiang — and I say that as someone who loves Weng-Chiang in all its painfulness.
Now I feel I’ve almost taken up enough of your time, but I feel I would be remiss without mentioning Castrovalva and Four to Doomsday which I always think of as a pair to introduce Peter Davison (5). He has great later episodes — including shows like Earthshock (not a good intro episode at all but wonderful stuff once you get into it a little) and Terminus — but I love Castrovalva and I love the villains in Doomsday. It gets a bit repetitive but there’s wonderful problem-solving and watching the three (relatively) new companions learn to bounce off each other and take account of each other’s strengths is always entertaining.
Castrovalva is, I think, one of my favorite “mind fuck” episodes — I won’t spoiler it here, but pay attention to the details and don’t be put off by the long first section; it really is worth it. If Moffatt wrote this story and threw it out there in Season 7, we wouldn’t even blink. I think Davison’s era really starts to show some of the strains the show was under after Baker departed; it was trying to change but was trying to stay the same at the same time — there were budget constraints; fan constraints; writer constraints — and some of the cracks start to show as time goes on. More so in Colin Baker’s episodes than Davison’s, but still; if nothing else, you can make a compelling argument that the Doctor and Tega (Janet Fielding) n is the first time there’s been anything like a whisper of romantic attachment between the Doctor and an assistant.
Colin Baker (6) I genuinely never got a feel for; anyone who knows his episodes well — speak up in comments!
For Sylvester McCoy (7), I’d have to suggest going with something like Dragonfire, Ghost Light, Curse of Fenric, or, oddly enough, Survival — the last episode of the classic series. Survival is another story, along with Fenric, that would seem completely in keeping with the new series if Moffatt wrote it now. You could argue that Ghost Light has already been rewritten — as Blink.
Fellow Whovians … what are your favorite Doctor Who classics … and where would you recommend a friend (and soon-to-be-fan, obviously!) start?