Essential Doctor Who

*** UPDATED JUNE 8, 2011 ****

I got an email a while ago from someone who was a new fan of Doctor Who and, among other things, wanted my recommendation on which episodes were essential viewing. I compiled a list and sent it to her, and I have since decided that I should put up a list on my blog. For her I sent only three episodes from each Doctor, but there’s a few more episodes than that which are really recommended.

Sadly, there’s a lot of missing stories that I have not viewed. You see, back in the 1970’s the BBC wiped a great many of their master recordings. This included shows such as The Avengers, Z-Cars and Dad’s Army, as well as, sadly, Doctor Who. Over the years a great many of them have been recovered, but there’s still lots missing. Most of what’s missing are Second Doctor episodes, but there’s quite a few First Doctor ones that are gone as well. The curious can see some of the episodes from incomplete stories on the “Lost in Time” collection. It’s a bit esoteric, but worth seeing.

For purposes of this list, I am including only complete stories that have been released on DVD and that I have watched and find to be essential.

The First Doctor – 1963 – 1966

The First Doctor, played by character actor William Hartnell (view him younger and in color in The Mouse That Roared), was a mysterious time traveler, origins unknown, who moved through space and time in his police box-shaped TARDIS, known for being bigger on the inside than the outside. While at first he was something of an anti-hero and disinclined to involve himself in whatever was happening, he began to slowly evolve and soon started putting himself in the way of evil at every chance.

This version of the Doctor was something of an old man. He was often cranky and cantankerous, frequently prone to doing things he wanted to do even if it put his companions in danger, and, on rare occasions, a kind, gentle man who showed genuine affection for those around him. The way his character changed throughout the four seasons he was on the air is part of his real charm.

“An Unearthly Child/The Daleks” – This DVD set includes the first-ever adventures of the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan. Thus it is by definition essential viewing. But even better than that, you also get “The Daleks”, which contains the first appearance of, you guessed it, the Daleks. It’s a great set of stories and a great DVD set!

NEW – “The Keys of Marinus” – This is an odd little story, or rather, set of stories. It’s six broadly connected episodes focusing on the Doctor and friends trying to find the missing segments of the Key to Time the Keys of Marinus. It plays kind of like a video game where they get each one and then walk to a man with an ! over his head for the next step on the quest. But this enables them to tell some really interesting different types of stories including, of all things, a police/courtroom drama.

“The Dalek Invasion of Earth” – The return of the Daleks, plus a fairly dark and epic storyline and the end of one companion’s journeys with the TARDIS. All around great!

“The Rescue / The Romans” – “The Rescue” is no great shakes, but it’s not bad. The real quality piece on here is “The Romans”, which is one of the earliest existing “historical” episodes, as well as being essentially a comedy. It’s a really fun episode and a nice break from what’s gone before.

Entirely too pleased with himself.

NEW – “The Space Museum/The Chase” – As with the previous discs, the first one on here, “The Space Museum”, is no great shakes, though it’s wonderful seeing the First Doctor hide inside a dalek. But the real win on this set is “The Chase”. It’s not a great story, though it’s not bad and features daleks and Dracula, so there’s that, but it’s an important one for it marks the departure of the last original companions. Yes, Ian and Barbara leave at the end of the story, leaving Vicki alone with the Doctor. It’s a sad moment, but it’s only the first of many departures we’ll see over the decades.

“The Time Meddler” – What’s up with the mysterious Monk and his vaguely odd abbey? The first of the psuedo-historical adventures.

“The War Machines” – The Doctor returns to “contemporary” Earth, loses one companion and gains two others. The last fully-intact First Doctor story.

The Second Doctor – 1966 – 1969

William Hartnell was getting fairly old and in frail health. The show was doing well and the powers that be wanted to keep it going. What to do, they wondered. What to do? Eventually some brilliant sod hit upon the notion of regeneration, and thus a new Doctor was born!

This new Doctor was very different from the original. Patrick Troughton, largely known to non-Who fans from his brief role in The Omen, played the character as rather comedic and disarming, presenting him as something often referred to as “a cosmic hobo”. But despite his charm, very real strength and ability lay within.

As mentioned there’s very few of this Doctor’s adventures that exist in full. Not all of those have been released on DVD. Nevertheless here’s the best of those that have been, including one special one.

“The Tomb of the Cybermen” – First fully-existing story featuring the Second Doctor. It also has Jamie and Victoria (in her only fully-existing story), and features the return of the last villains faced by the First Doctor, the Cybermen!

NEW – “The Dominators” – This is an interesting one. When I first saw it back in the 1980’s, I clearly didn’t like it, since I had no fond memories. This is doubtless due to the Quarks, which were intended as a replacement villain for the daleks. After you watch this story, you’ll realize just how insane that idea is. But anyhow, I watched the story again on DVD and I must say, my memories were faulty. This is a much better story than I’d remembered it being. The story is solid, and the guest actors, particularly the lead Dominator, do a very good job. Even the Quarks come off better than I remember. This isn’t a perfect episode, but it is a solid one and worth seeing.

“The Invasion” – Another Cybermen story, but this one is quite unique. See, two of the eight episodes are missing, and when animated copies were offered to the DVD company at cut-rate prices, they jumped on it. As a result, those episodes are recreated in animated form. They look a bit naff at a times since they’re done with Flash, but they still work surprisingly well! To make matters even better, this is a first-rate story, and features not only Zoe, but UNIT, Sargent Benton and the Brigadier!

NEW – “The Seeds of Death” – Say hello to the Ice Warriors. They’re the original inhabitants of Mars, something I’m sure John Carter would be surprised to hear. They’ve been mentioned in the new series but haven’t turned up yet. This is probably the best use of their characters and also an interesting glimpse of what the producers thought a functioning future version of Earth might be like. Plus you get to see Troughton being his usual insane self. Always a plus.

“The War Games” – A ten-episode spectacular to mark the end of the Second Doctor’s time in the TARDIS, and also the last episode in glorious monochrome! Thrills, spills, chills and lots of scenes of the Doctor and his companions being captured. Repeatedly. Still, a marvelous story, and a great setup for the next Doctor!

The Third Doctor – 1970 – 1974

The Time Lords have forced the Doctor to regenerate and exiled him to Earth. Punishment for all the times he defied their laws and interfered with other words. He arrives in the 1970’s (possibly), and teams up with UNIT. With them, and sometimes despite them, he fights against alien invasions, strange, possibly magical forces, and runs into his best enemy, the Master.

Jon Pertwee’s Doctor was another great departure from what had gone before. He was much more of a dandy, and an action and science oriented sort of man. He drove a bright yellow roadster, frequently took the side of aliens over humanity when he thought humanity was in the wrong and became the first Doctor to have an adventure with his other selves. All of his stories, thankfully, exist in full, so let’s have a look at the best!

“Spearhead from Space” – A new Doctor, a new companion, and new enemies in the Autons. The only original series story shot entirely on film, it looks and feels quite a bit different from anything that had gone before. It truly does an exceptional job of setting the stage for the rest of the Third Doctor’s tenure in (though usually out of), the TARDIS.

“Doctor Who and the Silurians”/”The Sea Devils” – The DVD I link to here actually contains two Third Doctor stories and one Fifth Doctor story. I’m listing it here because the complete set is a great deal and the stories are all excellent! You get to see some of the moral complexity that was introduced during the Third Doctor’s tenure, you get to meet the Silurians and the Sea Devils and you also get to see the first, and best, version of the Master (though not in his first appearance which is not yet available on DVD). Really it’s a set you can’t go wrong with, especially if you’re someone new to the series.

NEW – Inferno – See the Doctor face an evil mirror version of the Brigadier! No, he doesn’t have a goatee, but he has an eye patch and no mustache. Truly a force to be reckoned with. This is one of the few episodes to deal directly with the notion of alternate universes and is just a generally fascinating story.

NEW – “Terror of the Autons” – Well, here we are. The first appearance of the Master. The man who is Moriarty to the Doctor’s Holmes. In this story the Master turns up being suave, polite, sophisticated and utterly ruthless. He is in almost every way the Doctor’s exact opposite. Roger Delgado really tears up the screen with his performance and makes this a truly must-see story.

“The Three Doctors” – Not the best story the show has ever had, but far from the worst, and certainly the best multi-Doctor story. Yes, you get the Second and Third Doctors running around trying to stop a bad guy while the First Doctor advises them from a TV screen. It actually works out reasonably well and the interplay between Troughton and Pertwee alone makes for a must-see story.

Hello, Sarah Jane.

NEW – “The Time Warrior” – The introduction of the Sontarans, aka: Potato Heads in Space! Oh, and Sarah Jane Smith gets her first appearance here, too. She’s no one important. This is a good pseudo-historical episode featuring knights, castles, aliens and all sorts of fun! It’s well worth seeing.

NEW – “Planet of the Spiders” – The last adventure for the Third Doctor, and the last “true” UNIT adventure. With this story you have Mike Yates, Sergeant Benton, the Brig, Sarah Jane Smith and the Doctor together for one last adventure. The story is a bit confusing and lately when I see it I want to whisper “There’s something on your back!”, but mostly it holds up well and the regeneration scene at the end is very satisfying and moving. It’s also quite bittersweet to watch this now in the wake of the recent deaths of Nicholas Courtney and Elisabeth Sladen.

The Fourth Doctor – 1974 – 1981

If you’ve only ever seen one episode of Doctor Who, it likely was one with the Fourth Doctor, played by Tom Baker. With his powerful voice, distinctive look and exuberant personality, he quickly became one of the most, if not the very most, popular Doctors ever. For seven years he adventured around in time and space with no less than nine different companions. He fought the Sontarans, the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Master and even ran afoul of the Black Guardian.

Tom Baker’s portrayal of the Doctor really is something to see. He brings a level of energy that was missing with the previous Doctors and which, arguably, the new series has continually tried to recapture, with David Tennat coming the closest. He really is amazing in the role and has had some of the best stories of the entire series. Here’s the essential ones currently out on DVD.

“Genesis of the Daleks” – The Time Lords come up with an idea to rid the universe of the Daleks. They decide to send the Fourth Doctor, only on his fourth adventure, to Skaro to prevent the creation of the Daleks. There he meets up with their creator, Davros, one of the most enduring villains of the series. The story is excellent and really well-acted. It’s heavy on the Nazi imagery (sometimes a bit too much so), and is frequently at the top of the list of best stories ever. I’d say that if you only see one Doctor Who story, this is the one to watch.

“Pyramids of Mars” – Egyptology was a major thing back in the 1970’s, and leave it to Doctor Who to get into the act. This story is a wonderful pseudo-historical and ties in nicely with Egyptian mythology. The only real weak point are evil mummies that kill you with… er… group hugs. Ahem. Otherwise, a great story!

“The Deadly Assassin” – An excellent story, and the only one of the original series to feature the Doctor traveling solo! Something nasty is afoot on Gallifrey. Someone is offing Time Lords left and right. The Doctor shows up just in time to be a suspect and then to help solve the case. With great shades of The Manchurian Candidate, more Time Lord lore than you can shake a stick at and a really good plot, this one is a definite must-see!

“The Talons of Weng-Chiang” – Production values on the original series were never higher than in this story! The Doctor and his companion, Leela, a warrior woman from a fairly primitive planet, arrive in old London Town in the 1880’s. They’re looking to have a good time at the theater and then stumble onto murther! Murther most foul! The Doctor, very much channeling Sherlock Holmes, begins to investigate! Heavy on the atmosphere, with a great story, exceptional acting and, as mentioned, very high production values, this is also a story that ranks at or near the top of every list of best stories compiled for the series. It’s certainly the best pseudo-historical ever made, and if you only ever see one of those, make it this one.

“The Key to Time” – The Doctor gains a new companion in the form of Time Lady Romana. Together with her he travels around the universe in a season-long story arc centering around their efforts to get the Key to Time and stop the ruthless Black Guardian. This set of stories is not everyone’s cup of tea, and one of the stories within is arguably one of the worst ever made for the original series. But that said, you can’t fault them for a lack of ambition and most of what’s in here is really good!

NEW – “City of Death” – An all around great story with Baker at his manic best! The screenplay was massively rewritten by Douglas Adams and you get a brief cameo by John Cleese. Add in location filming in Paris and Julian Glover as the villain and you have a really incredibly good story!

“The E-Space Trilogy” – These stories see the departure of two companions and the addition of one (the constant focus of my lusts when I was a teenager, Adric). These are terribly good stories and are all worth seeing. They also do an excellent job of clearing the decks for what’s to come.

“The Keeper of Traken”/”Logopolis” – “It is the end,” Doctor says at last. “But the moment has been prepared for…” Yes, it certainly was. These two episode form a minor arc that leads into the last of the Tom Baker years and the start of the Peter Davidson years. While fans are somewhat divided on how the Fourth Doctor meets his end (really? That’s the best they could come up with?), and many really dislike the “strange white figure” concept, there’s no denying that these are strong stories, and not only see the farewell to Baker but also the addition of companions Nyssa and Teagan. Truly these stories cannot be missed!

The Fifth Doctor – 1982 – 1984

With the departure of Tom Baker, the series was set for some major changes. The TARDIS now carried a new Doctor played by noted, and notably younger, actor Peter Davison. The youngest actor to play the Doctor until Matt Smith, Davison brought a fresh new air to a series some thought was growing stale. With a crowd of three companions, something not seen since the Second Doctor, we got a whole series of wonderful stories, a hugely epic 20th anniversary special and the tragic death of a character.

The Fifth Doctor once again squared off against some of the same old adversaries (the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Sea Devils, the Silurians, Davros, the Master, the Black Guardian), but still managed to find time for some new enemies, and also got to embark on the last of the historical adventures; the sadly awful “Black Orchid”, about which I have written before. But there’s also a hell of a lot of good stories with him, too! Also, to this day he remains the only Doctor from the original series to appear in the new, albeit in a ten-minute short film. We fans will take what we can get!

“Castrovalva” – Hmmm… that link seems familiar. Anyhow, this is part three of a trilogy. It follows directly on the heels of “Logopolis”, and shows the Doctor’s regeneration starting to fail. Much of the story is kind of iffy, but Davidson’s performance is good enough to compensate and there’s some truly bizarre images that make for fascinating viewing.

NEW – Kinda – A really strange story with lots odd, atmospheric content. This also features a really meaty role for Janet Fielding who has a great time playing Tegan and the Mara. Good enough that it spawned a (nice but not required), sequel.

“Earthshock” – Notorious for featuring the first death of a real companion (Sarah Kingdom and Katarina just don’t count, dammit!), this story also features the return of the Cybermen as well as some great performances by Davidson and Matthew “Adric” Waterhouse. It’s a bit depressing at the end, depending on how one feels about the companion who dies, and it’s certainly a great story.

The Black Guardian Trilogy – An old companion leaves and a new, rather suspicious companion, joins. Turlough is the name of the latter and he’s a terribly iffy character throughout the series, always anxious to sell out at just about every opportunity, at least at first. He’s introduced in this three-part story arc that also features the welcome return of the Brigadier and the less welcome return of the Black Guardian.

“The Five Doctors” – Really, it’s more like “The Three-and-a-Half Doctors”, because Tom Baker didn’t want to be in it, and William Hartnell was dead. He’s replaced by Richard Hurndal who looks and sounds quite a bit like the First Doctor, if you’ve never seen nor heard the First Doctor. The story is mediocre in the extreme, but on the other hand you get to see the First (sort of), Doctor, the Second Doctor, the Third Doctor, the Fifth Doctor, Susan, Jamie, Zoe, Liz, Mike Yates, Sarah Jane, K-9, Tegan, Turlough, the Cybermen, the Daleks, a Yeti and a slew of Time Lords! Made for the 20th anniversary this is also the only 90 minute episode, and if you get this DVD version of it, make sure to listen to the commentary by David Tennant and some of the people from the new series. It’s something of an Easter Egg on Disc 2 and well-worth listening to.

“The Caves of Androzani” – We say goodbye to the Fifth Doctor in this story. It’s a very good story, with some wonderful acting, particularly by Davison, especially in his final moments. Something of a shadow hangs over the tale, since we know he dies at the end, but he goes out doing what he should have done and sets the sage for the most controversial Doctor of them all.

The Sixth Doctor – 1985 – 1986

Ask ten fans of the series what they think of the Sixth Doctor and you’ll get at least ten different opinions, if not more. From the very start the producer, John Nathan-Turner (another one to ask ten fans about), wanted to have a very different sort of Doctor. He wanted someone a bit more abrasive and hard to like, someone that would grow on the audience. His choice, relatively unknown actor Colin Baker, did very well at the first part of that formula, but perhaps somewhat less so at the second part.

To be honest Baker never really had a chance as the Doctor. He was dressed in what is possibly the worst outfit ever on the show, and saddled with some rather odd plot lines. He did too well initially at being unlikable, and in the end failed to grab hold of the audience. For the first time in the show’s history, it was put onto an 18 month hiatus. It was then brought back for a shortened season which hadn’t been planned as Baker’s last, but nevertheless ended up being so, as he was fired at the end. He refused to come back for a regeneration scene (and who can blame him?), and so his unexpected last words were, “Carrot juice?!”

The character does have a following, however, and has redeemed himself in the eyes of many through a series of novels and audio adventures by Big Finish. Those will be addressed in a separate article on the spin-offs. Meantime, here’s the essentials for the Sixth Doctor!

“The Twin Dilemma” – The story here is frankly crap. It concerns some weird twins with the unfortunate names of Romulus and Remus (names made more unfortunate by the fact that neither of the rather adorable actors playing the twins can say “r” without it sounding like a “w”. Why they weren’t renamed Castor and Pollux I’ll never know), who get kidnapped by some guy who needs their math powers to do some thing against some aliens and take over the universe or something. I’ve never understood it nor cared for it. But the story is worth viewing to see the totally different take Baker has on the character right from the start. First he tries to strangle Peri and then he tries to sell her out. Damn! Now that’s some change we can believe in! Or not, since as I mentioned, he got fired.

“Vengeance on Varos” – In many ways a rather prescient story, this one tells us of a world where reality TV has gone horribly wrong. It also introduces us to the completely repulsive character of Sil, who turns up later on in the series and in at least one of the audios. He’s quite fascinating and a great example of the sort of creatures the series could make when they really tried.

“Mark of the Rani” – A very decent story that introduces us to the Rani, a renegade Time Lady, and brings back the Master. It’s also set in 18th century England was filmed in a preserved coal town. You get some fascinating glimpses of life back then as well as a pretty damn fine story!

“The Trial of a Time Lord” – Unintentionally this was the last set of episodes with the Sixth Doctor, but at least he gets to go out with a bang! Featuring the return of Sil, as well as an appearance by the Master, and special guest star BRIAN BLESSED, this set of stories also sees the departure of Peri and the… well, not arrival, exactly, but first series appearance of new companion, Mel. It’s a pity that this was the end of the line for the Sixth Doctor, but at least we went on to someone almost universally liked.

The Seventh Doctor – 1987 – 1989 (and 1996)

The Seventh Doctor was played by Scots actor Sylvester McCoy and he brought a very interesting take on the character. His Doctor was far darker than what had gone before and very ruthless and manipulative. This was partly due to the so-called “Cartmel Masterplan“, which was supposed to restore some of the mystery to the character. There’s several hints through out this Doctor’s episodes that he was something more and different than he claimed. Hints were dropped that he might’ve been directly involved with the experiments that started time travel for the Time Lords, and certainly his primary companion, Ace, was more than she appeared to be, or so the Doctor believed.

Unfortunately we didn’t get to see the Cartmel Masterplan come to fruition. Several of the first stories with the Seventh Doctor were truly awful, including such crap as “The Happiness Patrol”, “Paradise Towers”, and “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy”. By the time the show returned to form with some exceptional stories the audience had stopped caring. The show was put on hiatus in 1989 and wouldn’t return for almost seven years. The time between was filled with a series of “New Adventures” novels, including the famous Lungbarrow, which finally brings the Cartmel Masterplan to some sort of resolution.

But before the cancellation there were some great stories! Let’s see what they are (and notice that none involve Mel. She was created for the Sixth Doctor and would’ve worked well with him, but did not work at all with the Seventh).

NEW – “Time and the Rani” – This is a fundamentally broken story. It’s stupid, ill-conceived and makes little to no sense. It also turns the Rani from an interesting character to just another Time Lord bent on taking over the universe. It’s a real waste. So why is it here? Well, because it’s the first story to feature the Seventh Doctor. That’s it, really. There’s really nothing good to say about this story other than that.

“Remembrance of the Daleks” – What was the Doctor doing on Earth with Susan back in the day? Turns out he was there to hide a Time Lord artifact of great power. Now the Daleks have shown up to find this artifact, and opposing them is the Doctor, Ace and… some other Daleks? A hell of a great episode.

“Battlefield” – The last appearance by the Brig in Doctor Who, though he did show up later on The Sarah Jane Adventures. This was a very good story to send him out on. It’s steeped in Arthurian legend and seems to indicate that an alternate universe version of the Doctor is actually Merlin. It’s a bit off and a bit odd at times, but it’s a great storyline and really good example of what the show could do when it tried.

“The Curse of Fenric” – This story delves a bit into Ace’s past (as does a less worthy story, “Ghost Light”), and also contains World War II, vampires and Soviets. It’s a busy story, but it holds up quite well!

“Survival” – Click the link. See that picture on the cover? No, not Ace. The one with the Doctor holding a rock. Yeah, he’s about to bash that into the Master’s head. A dark story, you ask? Oh, yes. The Doctor and Ace return to her home town to find it overrun with odd cats and to discover that many of her friends have disappeared. Eventually the friends are found and have gone through some changes, as has the Master. This is, sadly, the last story in the original series. It goes down on a high-note, but it’s sad that it was the end for many, many years.

The Eighth Doctor – 1996 (or possibly 1996 – 2005)

Which Doctor has more stories than any other? If you include all the spin-off media (books, audios), then believe it or not that answer is the Eighth Doctor. Yes, despite having only one, really crappy, TV appearance the Eighth Doctor was instrumental in keeping the series alive from the time of his movie until the new series launched.

Played by Paul McGann in the movie and audios, the Eighth Doctor is something of an enigma to me personally. I’ve not read too many of his stories nor head many of his audios (a friend who has is going to come up with an essential list of those), but I will say that his appearance in the Doctor Who movie is the only thing, the one and only thing, that makes that movie worth seeing. Well, that plus Chang Lee. He’s terribly cute.

NEW LINK – Doctor Who – This film is bad. Very bad. I’ve written one of my little snarky recaps about it, that’s how bad it is.

And yet despite it’s awfulness, it is worth seeing. Why? First, it occupies an interesting middle ground almost directly between the old series and the new, and contains elements of both plus things unique to it. It also features the Seventh Doctor’s final appearance and the previously mentioned great performance by Paul McGann as the Doctor. He showed some real potential in the role and it’s a great pity a new series with him as the Doctor wasn’t commissioned (or possibly not such a pity). It’s also worth picking up the new DVD release (which I link to above), for the wonderful commentary by Paul McGann and Sylvester McCoy!

The Ninth Doctor – 2005

When the series returned in 2005, veteran producer Russell T Davies, best known for the groundbreaking Queer as Folk, hired actor Christopher Eccleston to play the Doctor. At first there was some question as to whether he was the Ninth Doctor, the Tenth, the First or something else. This was eventually settled and it was determined in cannon that he’s the Ninth Doctor.

The Ninth Doctor was a veteran of the Time War, a particularly nasty conflict that waged between the Time Lords and the Daleks, finally ending with the destruction of both. The Doctor apparently had a hand in this somehow, and was, as far as he knew, the only Time Lord to escape alive. He eventually regenerated and fled to Earth, where he began a whole new series of adventures!

Now as with the Tenth Doctor, all his stories are released not as individual stories, but rather in boxed sets. I am including a link to the set in the first episode discussed for the Ninth Doctor, and the rest will be linkless. Enjoy!

“Rose” – Not really a great story, but it does bring back the Doctor, the TARDIS and the Autons. It also introduces us to Rose Tyler, one of the most… well, interesting companions. She’s a brassy, sassy, nineteen-year-old Londoner and eventually gets all teary-eyed and weepy. But she starts out strong, and here you get to see her at what’s arguably her best, before she morphs into Davies’ Mary Sue.

“Dalek” – Guess who’s back? But only one Dalek. Still, even one is enough to put some serious pain into the world. There’s a lot of twee stupidity in this story, like some man who owns the Internet, but there’s some incredible action scenes and, well, a Dalek that flies!

“Father’s Day” – An attempt at a touching story that sometimes works. It features Rose saving the life of her father in the past and then weird time creatures that pop up and start killing people. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it is some of the best acting of the series by everyone in the cast and is worth seeing.

“The Empty Child”/”The Doctor Dances” – Say hello to the first story by current series producer, Steven Moffat! Moffat specializes in stories that are heavy on the high octane nightmare fuel, and this is the first one. It starts with some creepy British kid wandering around the bombed-out ruins of London during the Blitz and ends… well, just watch it and see how it ends. Also this story introduces future Torchwood leader Captain Jack!

“Bad Wolf”/”The Parting of the Ways” – Another rather crap episode story wise, but it does include more Daleks than you can shake a stick at, plus you get to see Captain Jack nekkid! Full of drama and unfortunately the real beginning of Rose’s transformation into a Mary Sue. Also sadly this is where we bid farewell to the Ninth Doctor. Goodbye, Doctor. We hardly knew ye.

The Tenth Doctor – 2006 – 2009

Well, what to say about the Tenth Doctor? He was manic, occasionally depressive, had variable morality, was rather unlikable at times and could be exceptionally annoying. But on the other hand, as played by David Tennant he was also very interesting, very charismatic and always entertaining to watch.

In a very real sense, Tennant’s time as the Doctor is why the series has taken off so much in the UK. True, Eccleston did a great start getting it off the ground, but it was Tennant who really ran with it. He did a great job of acting like someone who was incredibly knowledgeable and ancient, but who nevertheless had a fascination for humanity and was occasionally burdened down bey dark memories of horrible things he’d done. His Doctor wasn’t perfect, but he was always fun.

Since he had three series plus the specials, that’s how I’ll break down what stories are worth seeing.

Second Series

“School Reunion” – The story doesn’t make a lot of sense, but when you have Sarah Jane Smith and K9 at the party, who cares? Yes, our favorite companions are back for this fun little story set at a school where children are being killed and apparently eaten. Yes, a delightful romp for the whole family!

“The Girl in the Fireplace” – Moffat is back with this award-winning story! The TARIDIS lands on a derelict spacecraft where the Doctor finds a portal to pre-Revolutionary France. Therein he meets a little girl, and runs into her several times throughout her life as she grows up to be Madame de Pompadour. A sad, touching tale featuring one of the coolest looking sets of villains ever in the form of some clockwork robots.

“Army of Ghosts”/”Fear Her” – In a less-than-great episode, the Doctor, Rose, Mickey and Jackie went to an alternate universe where they met Rose’s Dad and had an adventure against the Cybermen. It wasn’t good. But it did lead into this story, which not only shows us something of Torchwood, but also features a battle between the Cybermen and the Daleks as well as the Doctor finally getting rid of Rose! Well, for now anyhow.

Third Series

“The Runaway Bride” – Here we meet Donna Noble, the Doctor’s companion through the fourth series. She just gets the one adventure with him to start with, and it isn’t really exceptionally great, but it does show us her character’s start, and that alone makes it worth watching. Well, that plus you have to love a car chase that features the TARDIS zipping along down a busy freeway.

“Human Nature”/”The Family of Blood” – Based on the New Adventures novel Human Nature, this story features a man named John Smith who teaches at a boy’s school in 1913 England. He’s completely human, so why does he keep having dreams of alien worlds, and a strange blue box? And what’s up with this woman, Martha, who keeps acting like she’s there to keep an eye on him? A fascinating story with some real heart to it.

“Blink” – Say hi to Sally Sparrow, a young woman who finds herself experiencing a whole lot of time oddities. First her friend disappears and then sends her a letter saying she’s in the past. Then she meets a nice young man who she starts to like, only to have him disappear into the past as well. What’s up with all these odd images of a man in glasses she keeps seeing on TV screens? And what’s with these strange statues of weeping angels, which seem to move when you aren’t watching them? A wonderful, exceptional story by Moffat. Full of atmosphere and creepiness and a definite must-see.

Fourth Series

“The Sontaran Stratagem”/”The Poison Sky” – Now with Donna Noble firmly by his side, the Doctor returns to Earth to investigate some strangeness. While he’s there we get return of the Sontarans and UNIT! Plus the return of former companion Martha, who left at the end of series three. A story that could’ve been better, but nonetheless works quite well, provided you don’t mind hearing Sontarans chanting.

“Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead” – The Doctor and Donna visit a mysterious library that takes up an entire planet. There they find that everyone is missing. All they encounter are predatory shadows and a group of visitors lead by a woman named River Song, who seems to know the Doctor quite well. Perhaps a little too well. Seriously creepy, but also very good, and a great setup for River Song’s return with the Eleventh Doctor.

“Midnight” – What’s this? A great episode that was written by Russell T Davies?! Well, even a stopped clock is right twice a day. This story focuses around the Doctor and a group of people trapped on a train together, and the Doctor discovers his greatest weapon is useless.

“The Stolen Earth”/”Journey’s End” – The return of… well, everyone. Yes, we get Rose, Martha, Captain Jack, Mickey, Jackie, Sarah Jane Smith, Luke Smith, K9, Harriet Jones, former Prime Minister, Ianto Jones, Gwen Cooper, Wilfred Mott, the Judoon, the Daleks and Davros! Just that list alone lets you know you’re in for a wild ride, and while part two cannot in any way live up to the potential of part one, it’s still a decent pair of episodes. Just try not to be pissed at what happens to Donna.

The 2009 Specials

“Waters of Mars” – A really sad, creepy story that shows just how close the Doctor is at times to turning into the Master. His victory speech at the end of the episode, and the two things that happen right after that, give us a clue as to what he could become if things went really, really bad.

“The End of Time: Part One”/”The End of Time: Part Two” – They’re back! Yes, the Time Lords have returned, as has the Master. The Doctor’s companion for these stories? Wilfred Mott, Donna’s grandfather! Guest starring just about everyone from the Davies era, this story works well as a final send off for the Doctor, Rose, Martha, Mickey and Donna. I defy any fan to not get at least a little choked-up.

The Eleventh Doctor – 2010 – ?

We’re now a series-and-a-half into the 11th Doctor’s stories. The current series is definitely one of the best ever, and certainly the best of the new series. The Eleventh Doctor has proven to be very interesting and entertaining and Matt Smith has done a great job in the role! Supporting characters like Amy, Rory and River Song have also all proven to be really good and have brought a new dimension to the series. They’ve also helped step up the series’ profile here in the States with BBC America getting their highest ratings ever and advertising the crap out of the show. Heck, Matt Smith was even on an episode of The Late, Late Show, which gives you an idea of how popular the show is becoming here!

That in mind, here’s the essential viewing (so far), for the Eleventh Doctor.

The Fifth Series was a bit uneven, with some really great stories and some… well, there were the Silurian episodes, and let’s just leave it at that, shall we? This is a happy place.

“The Eleventh Hour” – The Doctor, newly-regenerated, crashes the damaged TARDIS on Earth. There he meets a seven-year-old girl. She helps him adjust and then asks to come with him. He says sure, he’ll be back in five minutes. She packs her things and sits down to wait. She waits quite a long time before he comes back. Not a perfect episode, but a decent start to the new series and a good idea of the “flavor” of stories we can look forward to (hopefully not fishstick and custard flavored).

“The Time of Angels”/”Flesh and Stone” – The Weeping Angels are back, as is River Song. She hasn’t been to the library yet, but she knows the Doctor and he knows her. We aren’t yet at her first meeting with him. Got that? Anyhow, there’s lots of unpleasant nightmare fuel here, as well as some really effective scenes centering around Amy, plus the mystery of River Song deepens. The first really good story with the new Doctor! Here’s to hoping we get many, many more!

NEW – “Vincent and the Doctor” – A sad, sweet story about Vincent van Gogh. The Doctor and Amy meet the man and get to know him. They help him fight off an invisible monster and try to cheer him up. In a wonderful, heart-warming moment, They even bring him to 2010 so that he can see a museum exhibition of his works. A really excellent story with wonderful performances by all, particularly Tony Curran as van Gogh.

NEW – Series Six, Part One – Series six has been broken up into two parts. I’ve seen the first seven episodes which are being released on DVD in July. Here’s what’s essential from them.

Every episode.

There, that was easy. 😉 Oh, you could probably skip “The Curse of the Black Spot”, but really each episode builds off each other in such an amazing way that you won’t want to skip any. From the regenerating Time Kid, to Schrodinger’s Baby to the true identity of River Song each episode is required viewing in a way that no other series has managed to be so far. Really a superior set of stories and probably the best series thus far since the return of the show


5 Responses to “Essential Doctor Who

  1. InvaderDweek Says:

    this list really helped me, especially now that me and my parents are planning to go into Classic Who!

  2. Jim Says:

    I have a lot of quibbles with the list (Why not “The Aztecs” or “The Ark” for Hartnell? Where are “Inferno” and “The Green Death” for Pertwee?) but I bet every fan would have a different list.

    • Chris Says:

      At the time I wrote this, I hadn’t seen “The Ark” nor “Inferno”. I have seen “The Aztecs” and “The Green Death”, but wasn’t overly impressed. “Inferno” should be added to this list, though. I’ll be updating it sometime soon, so thanks for the suggestion! 🙂

    • Michael Amann Says:

      On the Pertwee side I loved the Claws of Axos. That was a great alien and highly xenomorphic. I love those kinds of creatures and Dr. Who always had lots of them. That’s partly why I love the show. I also love the idea that humans aren’t the greatest thing in the universe which is the premise of Star Trek. I love how creatures in the Whoniverse basically think humans are piddly in the grand scheme of things. I particularly liked that this theme was echoed in The Hungry Earth and Cold Blood. Humans are referred to as “apes.” Love it. Love the deep costuming and elaborate alien society. Classic Dr. Who. Did I digress? I didn’t think I would like Vincent and the Dr. But think about it, what if you could show Mozart or Bach what they would become many years in the future after living as misunderstood and undervalued geniuses? That would be INCREDIBLE!

  3. Rashmi Says:

    I think you missed a few very good ones…Series 2 had the Impossible Planet and the Satan Pit, they had their flaws but they were entertaining. Series 3 had Utopia and the Sound of the Drums (the Last of the Timelords was a bit of a letdown but..meh) and Series 4 I somehow liked Planet of the Ood, The Fires of Pompeii wasn’t so bad either. But these were just my picks.
    Series 5, I think the Time of the Angels and Flesh and Stone two parter deserves a mention. Wasn’t a fan of Series 6 myself. Too much River Song and Amy Pond. Just too much.

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