“Doctor Who” is a long-running British science fiction show about a time-traveling alien who goes by the name of The Doctor. It first aired on November 23, 1963, and had to be re-aired due to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The original series, which ran from 1963 to 1989, is often referred to as “Classic Who.” The episodes of this first run were called serials and broken up into parts. There are about 160 serials in all, some of which are partially or completely missing. With these lost episodes and 25 years’ worth of content, it can be quite intimidating to try and get into the classic series. However, the classic run of “Doctor Who” has a few good episodes. Whether they introduce iconic characters, capture The Doctor’s personality or are just fun to watch, these serials are worth the while.
1. “An Unearthly Child”
As the very first episode in the series, this one is an important watch. Schoolteachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright are concerned about a pupil of theirs. The student’s name is Susan Foreman, and she is smarter than the teachers in her subjects but also clueless when it comes to common, everyday things. They follow her home one day to find that she appears to be living in a police phone box in a junkyard. Susan’s grandfather, The Doctor, then comes along. Fearing that he is kidnapping Susan, Ian and Barbara force their way into the phone box. It isn’t a box at all, but rather a time machine that is bigger on the inside. The Doctor then kidnaps Ian and Barbara, despite Susan’s protests, because he doesn’t want his secret getting out. The four of them land in the Stone Age, where they get involved with the politics of a tribe.
This episode introduces a number of the show’s concepts: the character of The Doctor, the name of his time machine — the TARDIS, and the fact that companions will accompany The Doctor on his journey. It also establishes that the TARDIS, which should blend in with its surroundings, gets stuck as a 1960s police box.
2. “The Daleks”
This serial takes place right after the first. The Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara find themselves stuck on a radiation-poisoned planet called Skaro. They get caught in a war between an aggressive race called the Daleks and a peaceful race called the Thals. Eventually, the four are able to escape by helping the Thals in an attack against the Daleks.
This serial introduced the Daleks, the most iconic villains in “Doctor Who.” It also introduced their home planet, Skaro. The serial also further expands the Doctor’s alien and somewhat anti-heroic nature, as he pretends that the TARDIS is missing parts in order to make an excuse to explore Skaro.
3. “The Aztecs”
The TARDIS lands in 15th-century Mexico, where Barbara is mistaken for the reincarnation of a priest named Yetaxa. With her newfound power, she becomes convinced that if she can stop the Aztec practice of human sacrifice, she can prevent Spain’s destruction of the civilization. The Doctor warns her of the dangers of re-writing history, but she pushes on. Another Aztec priest becomes suspicious of Barbara and aims to hurt her, and by extension, the others. The Doctor, Susan, Barbara and Ian all get away, but Barbara fails in her goal.
This serial explores time travel and rewriting history, something that will come up often in future episodes. The Doctor also shows character development when he shows concern for Barbara and comforts her at the end.
4. “The Tenth Planet”
The Doctor and his new companions, Ben and Polly, arrive in the South Pole in the (then-future) year of 1986. A new planet called Mondas is approaching Earth. Its inhabitants, a race of emotionless cyborgs called the Cybermen, seek to assimilate all life on the planet. The Doctor beats them, but appears weaker than he was before. When Ben and Polly find him again, he has a new face.
The serial is partially missing, so it is impossible to watch it in its entirety. However, it introduces two concepts: Cybermen and regeneration. The showrunners wanted to keep the show going, but actor William Hartnell’s health was declining. Because The Doctor is an alien, the showrunners decided that he could change his appearance (and therefore the character’s actor) when near death. Given that the show will be celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2023, this decision worked out very well. In this episode, Patrick Troughton makes his first appearance as The Doctor.
5. “The Mind Robber”
In “The Mind Robber,” something goes wrong with the TARDIS. The Doctor’s companions, a Scottish highlander named Jamie and a girl from the future named Zoe, become separated from him when the ship explodes. They are in the Land of Fiction, a place where belief affects reality and characters like Medusa and Rapunzel are real. The man in charge of the place, “The Master,” wants The Doctor to take over. The Doctor, Jamie and Zoe free The Master from mind control and are able to escape back to their own universe by using their imaginations.
The episode, given its premise, is a strange and somewhat surreal one. It shows how “Doctor Who” could work around its many restraints in creative ways. For example, Jamie’s actor wasn’t available to film some parts. Rather than write him out or postpone filming, they cast another actor to play the character. In the episode, The Master removes Jamie’s face and makes The Doctor put it back together. The doctor messes up slightly, resulting in the character having a different appearance.
6. “The War Games”
The Doctor, Jamie and Zoe land on what appears to be a World War I battlefield. It slowly becomes apparent that all is not what it seems; many of the soldiers seem to have memory loss, Jamie encounters a redcoat who believes that the year is 1745 and a Roman chariot is discovered. They are not on a battlefield but are rather among several Earth armies. The Doctor discovers that another of his species, The War Chief, has been abducting soldiers from throughout time for his own personal goals. The Doctor finds that he is unable to fix the situation on his own, so he summons others from his home planet. They fix the situation, but then put The Doctor on trial for breaking their planet’s non-interference laws. He is found guilty, and is exiled to Earth.
While this serial is very long, it introduces The Doctor’s species: the Time Lords. It was also the last serial of the series shot in black and white, as it began to be filmed in color during the 1970s.
The Doctor, now played by Jon Pertwee, works for a military organization named UNIT. In this episode, the organization investigates a drilling project that seeks to harness the energy of Earth’s core. Due to an accident, The Doctor finds himself in a parallel universe in which Britain is a fascist republic and the people he works with are evil. The same drilling project is underway and is able to break through the Earth’s crust, unleashing poisonous gas and turning people into creatures called primords. The Doctor manages to return to his own universe, harrowed by the experience. The project is still underway, but he is eventually able to put a stop to it before things go too far.
This episode shows UNIT, which also appears in the current series of “Doctor Who.” It is the last episode with the Third Doctor’s scientist companion Liz Shaw. It also features Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, an important character in the classic series. Lethbridge-Stewart’s daughter, Kate, is also an important character in the current series.
8. “Terror of the Autons”
A rival timelord, The Master (no relation to the character in “The Mind Robber”), comes to Earth with a plan to destroy humanity and The Doctor. He takes over a deep space radio telescope and uses it to channel something called the Nestene Consciousness, a thing that can control plastic. As a result, objects made out of plastic like mannequins come to life and begin attacking people. The Doctor and his new companion, Jo, foil The Master’s plan, but are unable to prevent his escape.
This episode introduces Jo Grant; The Doctor’s nemesis, The Master; the Nestene Consciousness; and Autons. The Nestenes reappear in the first episode of the current series, “Rose,” and The Master is another one of the iconic villains of “Doctor Who.”
9. “Genesis of the Daleks”
In this episode, the Time Lords give The Doctor (now played by Tom Baker) a mission to go to Skaro and prevent the Daleks from being created. The Doctor and his companions Harry and Sarah Jane are transported to Skaro. They find that the Thals are at war with a race called the Kaleds. Sarah Jane discovers Davros, a Kaled scientist who created the Daleks. Near the end, The Doctor finds himself in a place where he can wipe out the Daleks entirely. However, he faces a moral dilemma and is ultimately unable to go through with it.
This episode features Davros, the creator of the Daleks and a villain who has appeared in the current series. The episode is also regarded as the beginning of the Time War, an event with a lot of importance to the current series of “Doctor Who.”
10. “Pyramids of Mars”
This serial is set in the year 1911 in an old English manor. The current owner, an Egyptologist named Marcus Scarman, is being controlled by an evil alien named Sutekh the Destroyer. Sutekh is the last of a Martian race named the Osirans. Sutekh’s physical form was trapped in one of the Egyptian pyramids and he seeks to free himself from it. Sutekh achieving his goal would end the world, however, so the Doctor and Sarah Jane need to stop him.
This serial perfectly blends historical and science fiction. Sutekh is a threatening villain with the ability to overpower The Doctor. The episode also explores time travel and paradoxes: Sarah Jane asks why they can’t just leave, since she believes that because the future exists, Sutekh never wins. The Doctor takes her back to her time and shows her a ruined Earth. The serial explains why the Doctor can’t simply leave a bad situation.
11. “City of Death”
The Doctor and a Time Lady named Romana go on a vacation to Paris where they discover a fracture in time. They set out to investigate this and encounter a detective named Duggan who is investigating the theft of the Mona Lisa painting. A rich art collector, Count Scarlioni, turns out to be the one behind this theft. He is also an alien whose spaceship crashed at the dawn of time, jumpstarting the development of life on Earth. Scarlioni plans to sell the paintings in order to raise funds for his time travel machine, which he will use to prevent the crash. Because this would cause a paradox, The Doctor, Romana and Duggan set out to stop him.
This serial, like “Pyramids of Mars,” is an interesting one that makes use of time travel and paradoxes. It is also notable for being filmed outside of the U.K. and for being the most-viewed episode of classic “Doctor Who.”
The Doctor, played by Peter Davison, lands inside a cave system full of dinosaur fossils. There are a group of paleontologists inside the cave system as well, and some of them have gone missing. The Doctor and his companions discover that the Cybermen are behind the disappearances. The Doctor then discovers that there is a freighter full of Cybermen who plan to crash the ship into Earth, killing everyone on the planet. One of the companions, Adric, stays on the ship as he tries to stop the Cybermen. The freighter is sent back in time. Adric fails and the ship crashes, killing him while the others can only watch.
As usual, this serial plays with time travel and Earth’s history; the freighter crash was what wiped out the dinosaurs. This episode was also one of the first to kill off a companion character.
13. “The Caves of Androzani”
The Doctor and his new companion, Peri, visit a planet named Androzani Minor. The two of them get caught up in a war over spectrox, a rare ingredient used to make an anti-aging drug. They come into contact with poisonous spectrox, which will slowly kill them unless the Doctor can find the cure. He succeeds in doing so, but as he and Peri struggle back to the TARDIS, he drops one of the antidotes. The Doctor gives the remaining vial to Peri and dies.
The episode is regarded as one of the best of classic “Doctor Who,” and though it is bleak, it isn’t hard to see why. The episode is also Colin Baker’s first appearance as the Sixth Doctor.
14. “Vengeance on Varos”
The Sixth Doctor had a rocky start and an interesting wardrobe change, and as a result, this era of Doctor Who isn’t considered the best. Despite this, though, there were a few good episodes. “Vengeance on Varos” takes place on a dystopian planet run on bread and circuses. Torture and executions are a form of entertainment for the people there, and they vote on what will happen with their televisions. The Doctor and Peri land on the planet, interrupt an execution and become involved with a group of rebels. In the end, the rebels win and the system is overthrown. After The Doctor leaves, though, the citizens don’t quite know what to do with themselves.
This episode is surprisingly dark, but as stated above, is considered to be one of the better episodes due to its take on “video nasties” and the role entertainment plays in the concept of “bread and circuses.”
15. “Remembrance of the Daleks”
The Seventh Doctor, played by Sylvester McCoy, finds himself and his companion Ace in the middle of a Dalek civil war. The two factions are fighting for something called “The Hand of Omega,” a device that would give the Daleks time travel. Things escalate, and Davros makes an appearance. At the end, The Doctor tricks Davros into blowing up both Skaro and his spaceship, then finishes the final Dalek off.
This serial had a shift in tone from McCoy’s first season, which was criticized for being far too clownish. Here, the Doctor schemes and turns the Daleks against themselves. The serial is also regarded as being the show’s unofficial 25th-anniversary episode.
16. “Ghost Light”
The Doctor and Ace visit a very odd Victorian mansion named Gabriel Chase. Its owner, Josiah Smith, is a man obsessed with Darwinism and evolution. The maids in the house refuse to stay inside its walls after 6 o’clock and a hunter who lives there, Redvers Fenn-Cooper, lost his mind after seeing something. The house turns out to have been built on top of a spaceship and belongs to a being called Light who is obsessed with cataloging the different forms of life. Light discovers that life on Earth has changed a lot and decides that he must eliminate all life and start over. Once again, The Doctor is able to save the day through his scheming and by outthinking Light.
This episode fleshes out Ace, who reveals that she has a past with Gabriel Chase. In her time, she burned down the place because it felt cursed to her, and now she knows why. The show once again uses time travel in an interesting way.
17. “Doctor Who: The Movie”
This episode was released in 1996 as an attempt to revive the show. The Doctor crash-lands in San Francisco on New Year’s Eve 1999 and regenerates with amnesia. Faced with The Master wanting to steal his remaining lives, a malfunctioning TARDIS and a potential midnight apocalypse, the new Doctor (Paul McGann) sets out with heart surgeon Grace Halloway to prevent the destruction of reality.
The movie does have many flaws. For example, it is steeped in lore that confused newer viewers, while also making changes that annoyed old fans, such as making The Doctor half-human. It is also pretty cheesy and has been called too American in style. Despite these flaws, though, this episode is regarded as being “so bad, it’s good” and McGann gives his all as a charming and romantic Doctor.
The series later officially revived in 2005, with Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor and Billie Piper as his companion, Rose Tyler. From there, The Doctor has been played by David Tennant, Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi. Currently, Jodie Whittaker plays the first female Doctor. With the recent casting of Ncuti Gatwa as the Fourteenth Doctor, it is exciting to see what “Doctor Who” has next in store.