First, the most important advice of all:
1. DON’T PANIC! You won’t ruin Classic Who for yourself by watching the “wrong” episode first.
One of the beautiful things about Classic Who is that it’s extremely diverse and has something to offer for just about everyone. So chill! You’re gonna do just fine, and the only people who will judge you are lifeless douchebags.
I know this looks like a long post, but don’t worry! I’m just trying to be as helpful as possible without being too over-complicated. Take your time. Think about what you like, and what you think you’ll want.
2. Most Classic Who stories are very much stand-alone and require no outside knowledge other than the basic Doctor Who mythology with which you’re already familiar.
This means that there’s really no “perfect” or “worst” place to start watching Classic Who. Think upon this for a second: almost all Classic Who aired before the episodes were commonly and easily available for sale. The show understood that no one was going to have the kind of 100% recall a fan would have from going back and watching every episode all over again. So they de-emphasized continuity.
There’s only one exception to the whole mythology-free thing, and it’s really a small one: The Time War and the extinction of the Time Lords occurred after the end of Classic Who.
3. Picking a Doctor
I’m going to give you some general starting-point recommendations for each Doctor. Hopefully you’ll get a general idea of how each era of Doctor Who goes and be able to decide with yourself what you want to stick with in the early days.
Here’s a list of general character traits the different incarnations have. Go through them, decide what character traits you like, and find the Doctor who matches the most of them:
- If you prefer your Doctor to be human and vulnerable, go for the Fifth Doctor.
- If you prefer your Doctor to be alien and unpredictable, choose the Fourth Doctor.
- If you prefer your Doctor to be silly yet intelligent, go for the Second, Fourth or Seventh Doctors.
- If you prefer your Doctor to be dark, dangerous, even violent, go for the First, Sixth, or Seventh Doctors.
- If you prefer your Doctor to be slick action heroes, plump for the Third or Fourth Doctors.
- If you want them to be young and handsome, go for Five.
- If you want them to be older and handsome, go for Three or Four (possibly Six).
- If you want them to come across primarily as parental figures, go for One or Seven.
- If you want them to be cunning manipulators, go for Two, Four, or Seven.
- If you like your stories faster-paced, go for anything after the Second Doctor.
Just think about what you’d like.
As a bit of a further reference specifically for New Whovians:
- The Ninth Doctor’s darker tendencies are similar to those of Six, and his cynicism about humanity is similar to that of the Third Doctor.
- The Tenth Doctor’s vulnerability is something he shares with Five, but his goofy charm is very much a trait of Four.
- The Eleventh Doctor’s manipulative streak when it comes to his own companions is characteristic primarily of Seven. The way bits of personal wisdom are interspersed with the goofiness are similar to Two. And his ability to go up against godlike adversaries with confidence and triumph nevertheless is quite Four.
Once you think you have a couple Doctors you’d like to try out, have a look at the suggestions below. Each suggested season is a slice of what characterizes that particular Doctor’s era, and hopefully contains a sufficiency of good stories.
4. Suggested Seasons to Start With
Season One (An Unearthly Child - The Reign of Terror). Here we see the Doctor at his beginning: a paranoid, near-villainous asshole. The motto of the day is “If we don’t live together, we’re gonna die alone”. The universe is a dark and dangerous place, and the Doctor has to get along with his unwilling (!) companions to survive - a process which humanizes him.
Alternative: Season Three (Galaxy 4 - The War Machines) gives us an incredibly diverse set of stories. A western comedy, a Dalek time-travel epic, an experimental mindfuck story along the lines of Amy’s Choice, et cetera, et cetera.
Season Four (The Power of the Daleks - The Evil of the Daleks). The first “new” Doctor, two of the best Classic Who Dalek stories, a Cybermen story, a companion who’s a dude in a skirt, and the full-blown introduction of the tried-and-true “base-under-siege” format.
Alternative: Season Five (The Tomb of the Cybermen - The Wheel in Space). One of the best Cybermen stories (Tomb), the introduction of UNIT as well as two great villainous species (the Yeti and the Ice Warriors), plus the guy who plays the Doctor also gets to play the villain. Good stuff.
Season Seven (Spearhead in Space - Inferno). One of the most consistently good seasons of Classic Who. Here we see the Doctor as an exile on Earth, his free spirit and strong personality constantly clashing with his own imprisonment and his collaboration with a hierarchical military organization. The season has a strong element of moral ambiguity, with emphasis on the humans as being as villainous - or even more so - than the aliens who come to Earth.
Alternative: Season Eight (Terror of the Autons - The Daemons). A season’s worth of the Master, who is introduced here. All sorts of James Bond-esque escapades and more - plus, the Doctor’s wardrobe expands considerably.
Season Twelve (Robot - Revenge of the Cybermen). The Fourth Doctor in his early days. We’ve got Daleks in one of their best and most important stories. We have another classic in the Ark in Space, which is basically Alien except a few years before. We’ve got Sontarans and Cybermen; and we have Doctor Who Does King Kong, also known as Robot.
Alternative: Season Sixteen (The Ribos Operation - The Armageddon Factor). Ranging from an alien heist to medieval political intrigue with androids to living stone, this is another bit of great diversity. Add to it one of the Doctor’s most memorable companions - the cool, clever Time Lady Romana - and you have a lighter-hearted season with loads of memorable moments and intriguing ideas.
Season Twenty-One (Warriors of the Deep - The Caves of Androzani). Among the show’s most divisive seasons. The running theme is that of a Doctor whose great humanity, compassion and pacifism often stop him from being able to protect innocents and prevent atrocities. These stories are violent, grim, and offer very little hope to counteract it. It’s arresting viewing for some and hopelessly dull for others. The choice is yours.
Season Twenty-Two (Attack of the Cybermen - Revelation of the Daleks). An uneven season for an unstable Doctor. There are weak moments, but as compensation we get some great gems. A fascinating Dalek story, a gritty commentary on reality television, and a two-Doctor team-up.
Alternative: Season Twenty-Three (The Mysterious Planet - The Ultimate Foe). The Doctor defends himself on trial by the Time Lords. Featuring the Master and one of the show’s most-discussed villains - a shadowy figure from the Doctor’s future who may very well appear in the New Series…
Season Twenty-Seven (Battlefield - Survival). I love every single one of these stories. Not only do they explore themes like war, faith, evolution, peace, and love, they do so through the relationship between the Doctor and his companion - Ace, a turbulent and troubled teenager who struggles to understand and accept herself. Some of the most painful yet moving moments between a Doctor and his companion occur in this season. Add to that the Master, inter-dimensional predators, Arthurian legend, Nordic mythology, vampires from the future, and evil from the dawn of time, and you have one of the show’s best runs.
Alternative: Season Twenty-Six. It’s a lot weirder - The Happiness Patrol and The Greatest Show in the Galaxy are hardly one’s idea of average Doctor Who - but they go a long way towards recapturing the experimental vibe of the show’s early years.
6. General advice
- Don’t just listen to me. There are other fans out there with their own opinions, many of them just as valid if not more so than mine. I’ll provide some resources at the bottom of the post. Take your time. Get some opinions.
- More recent stories tend to be more accessible to viewers. Later stories are shorter, faster-paced, heavier on the action and more visually pleasing. Don’t make it too hard for yourself when introducing yourself to Classic Who. There’s no rush to watch everything. Start with whatever feels easiest.
- Think of a four-part story as being the same length as a New Who two-parter. Try to favor the four-parters. This is not to say that the longer stories are worse, but you’ll have an easier time with pacing and speed.
- Again, don’t panic!
7. Resources for the Prospective Classic Whovian
- My own website, kvural.tumblr.com, which has reviews as well as episode recommendations. The recommendations are a little out of date, but they’ll work fine as a very casual resource. I don’t usually self-advertise, but I’m genuinely proud of the reviews I write, and the people who follow me seem to enjoy them too. Additionally, I’m always, always happy to answer questions and go into more detail on certain topics. My ask box is open, and you’re free to write me anything, even if it’s negative or angry.
- The Doctor Who Ratings Guide, a fan-run website with reviews on everything Doctor Who - in every medium (TV, film, comics, audio plays, novels, stage performances) and on every subject (stories, Doctors, showrunners, companions). It’s a great place to go for informed yet contrasting opinions.
- A relatively reliable wiki is of course the TARDIS Wiki.
- The following Tumblr users are absolutely bonkers about Classic Who and I’m sure will have all sorts of loving advice and opinions to give (apologies if I leave anyone out, I have a lot of followers and I can’t remember them all): stovepipehat, grufainia, youre-standing-on-my-scarf, motorcyclecoptor, whatthefoucault, tardiscrash, kaiserpudding, lungbarrows, the-nth-dimension, slythgeek, mosscottage, magsofthemuses, haveievermentioned, brigwife, saphirrewaves, hipsterclassicwho and mystsaphyr. (Sorry again if I left anyone out, it’s a bit off the top of my head.)
That’s about all. Now go forth and watch, my baby Classic Whovians!