The Doctor Who Tasting Menu

Enthused by Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor, Mr N asked me which episodes of Doctor Who he should watch? He’s working his way back through Capaldi, but, overwhelmed by the prospect of the 800 previous episodes he wanted a bit of a pointer for where else to look.

Of course, once I get started, the danger is I’m not going to be able to help myself recommending watching a few hundred episodes, which isn’t much more help. So I’ve tried to give a strictly limited, but varied selection, intended as a tasting menu for the new Doctor Who fan who wants to dip into the show’s extraordinary and multifarious past, discover some of its different styles and themes, meet some of the regular adversaries and allies of the Doctor, and in so doing see what tickles his fancy.

And maybe, if that’s also you, you’ll see what tickles yours.

1. An Unearthly Child (1963) – and other beginnings

Why not start at the beginning? Especially when the beginning is a quite extraordinary 25 minutes of television. It’s not, in fact, the first Doctor Who ever made – a pilot was shot but a few important changes were made to create this amazingly evocative and exciting mystery in a junk yard. “Have you ever thought what it’s like to be wanderers in the fourth dimension? Have you?”

This is nominally part 1 of a multi-part serial (the common format for Doctor Who’s first 26 years) but you don’t need to watch the rest of the story, this stands alone.

And if you enjoyed this beginning, the show regenerates itself with a whole new cast and production team in:

  • Spearhead from Space (1970) the first ever colour serial, with Jon Pertwee
  • The Movie (1996) the Paul McGann TV movie co-produced by Fox as a pilot (though no series resulted)
  • Rose (2005) the first episode of ‘new’ Who with Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper

2. Genesis of The Daleks (1975) – meet Davros and the Daleks

It no co-incidence that for many people, Tom Baker is their Doctor, since he did 7 seasons on the show, appearing in 172 episodes. One of his most highly regarded stories is also an origin story for the Daleks which introduces the memorable eugenicist Davros. So there are three reasons to watch this serial right away.

If you want more Daleks (and some more Davros) try

  • The Dalek Invasion of Earth (1964) is one of those sequels that’s better than the original: bringing the Daleks to a future Earth greatly amplifies the threat
  • Revelation of the Daleks (1985) somewhat eccentric serial with Davros on Necros, a ‘funeral home’ planet, which also features Alexei Sayle as a DJ
  • Remembrance of the Daleks (1988) the Doctor faces the Daleks in Shoreditch in 1963

3. The Daemons (1971) – meet the United Nations Intelligence Task Force

During the early 1970s, Doctor Who came down to Earth, stranded on the planet, where he worked as a scientific advisor to the military branch dedicated to fighting extra-terrestrial threats – UNIT, which has become a mainstay from Spearhead From Space (see 1. above). The show developed an Avengers-inspired action vibe, and there are several good stories in this era. The Daemons is one of the best, with our regular heroes up against the regular Moriarty to the Doctor’s Holmes: the time-lord known as The Master.

If you want more UNIT try

  • The Invasion (1968) a very early UNIT story with Cybermen in London (note that 2 episodes of the 8 were junked and never recovered – although these have been rather nicely animated)
  • Inferno (1970) which features a parallel universe, so twice as much UNIT, and eye-patches.

4. The Mind Robber (1968) – and other fabulous fantasies

When being able to travel anywhere in time and space isn’t enough, the show can play with its fiction, or here with fiction itself – traveling into the land of fiction, in a absurd but wonderful story that is only enhanced by the happy accident of a key actor being indisposed, because of the imaginative solution it generated.

If you want more surreal brilliance, try

  • Warriors Gate (1981) set in the intersection between universes
  • Enlightenment (1983) with immortals racing sailing ships through space

5. Blink (2007) – and other timey-wimey wobbly-wobbly…stuff

The ability to time-travel is part of the basic premise of Doctor Who, but for years it was just used as a means to get our heroes to a time and place, rarely as part of the story. In Blink time travel is an essential weapon of the antagonists, and integral to the paradoxical way the Doctor helps defeat them  (although he actually features little in this story, whose real star is Carey Mulligan).

If you want more timey-wimey stuff try

  • Day of the Daleks (1972) in which the metal menaces discover time travel
  • City of Death (1979) which involves time distortions and 6 identical Mona Lisas (and it’s written by Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams)
  • The Girl Who Waited (2011) for the personal consequences of getting time travel wrong

I’m going to leave it there because that’s enough to get you started, even though I’m looking at these stories and thinking – well, these are good, but what about the Cybermen (Tomb of the Cybermen), Gallifrey (The War GamesThe Deadly Assassin), the historicals (The Aztecs), horror (The Web of Fear, Midnight) or the political thrillers (The Enemy of the WorldThe Caves of Androzani)?  What, for that matter, about The Sea Devils, The Talons of Weng Chiang, Robots of Death, The Horror of Fang RockThe Keeper of Traken, Kinda,  Battlefield, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, The Girl in the Fireplace, or … plenty more good stuff. But you’ve got to start somewhere, and everyone is going to have their own favourites.

So dive in.

About Simon Wood

Lecturer in medical education, lapsed mathematician, Doctor Who fan and garden railway builder. See for more...

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