Saturday, 11 August 2012

Essential Doctor Who — the classic series

Ever since I wrote my newcomers’ introduction to Star Trek, I felt I really should do the same for Doctor Who.

I came to the new, 21st century version of the show as a long-standing fan of the classic 1963–1989 series, but it’s clear that the new series has many viewers who aren’t that familiar with show’s previous incarnation. If you’re among them, and you’re curious, it’s principally to you that I offer this suggested viewing list.

I have selected:
  • one story from each of the first eight Doctors (in the new series, Christopher Eccleston was the ninth, David Tennant the tenth, and Matt Smith the eleventh Doctors). 
  • stories that pair each of those Doctors with the companions with whom they’re most closely remembered.
  • stories that reflect the typical length of four 25-minute segments (I made one exception).
  • stories that showcase some of the series’ recurring villains, although none more than once each (again,I made one exception).
Note that the structure of the classic series was significantly different from that of the new one. Although the exact figures changed over the years, for much of the show’s history, a typical season consisted of around five or six individual storylines, each told in around four to six 25-minute episodes. Each episode (up to the last) within a storyline would conclude with a cliffhanger intended to bring the audience back next week. Early seasons of the show included considerably more stories and more individual episodes; later seasons considerably fewer of both.

Watching these stories now, with the individual episodes back-to-back often seems to produce a little awkwardness; the pacing of the storylines is a little off-kilter. All we can do today to mitigate that is to remind ourselves that they were not constructed to be watched this way, and to extend a little understanding to the show’s writers and producers.

My recommendations then:

  1. “The Aztecs”
    (4 × 25-minute segments, black & white, season 1, 1964, with William Hartnell as the first Doctor)
  2. “The Tomb of the Cybermen”
    (4 × 25-minute segments, black & white, season 5, 1967, with Patrick Troughton as the second Doctor)
  3. “The Claws of Axos”
    (4 × 25-minute segments, colour, season 8, 1971, with Jon Pertwee as the third Doctor)
  4. “Genesis of the Daleks”
    (6 × 25-minute segments, colour, season 12, 1975, with Tom Baker as the fourth Doctor) 
  5. “Kinda”
    (4 × 25-minute segments, colour, season 19, 1982, with Peter Davison as the fifth Doctor)
  6. “Vengeance on Varos”
    (2 × 45-minute segments, colour, season 22, 1985, with Colin Baker as the sixth Doctor)
  7. “The Curse of Fenric”
    (4 × 25-minute segments, colour, season 26, 1989, with Sylvester McCoy as the seventh Doctor)
  8. “Doctor Who”
    (90-minute TV movie, colour, 1996, with Paul McGann as the eighth Doctor)

As with my previous Star Trek article, I’d love feedback from anyone who follows this recommendation.

Update 30 March 2013: Today, The Guardian published an excellent infographic today as a one-page summary of the show’s 50-year history (classic and new eras)—well worth a look.

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