Classic Doctor Who in 30 Episodes

How to gain an appreciation for Doctor Who's classic years in just 12 hours.

Doctor Who ran for 26 years in the twentieth century, before it was relaunched by Christopher Eccleston in 2005. With Peter Capaldi hanging up his eyebrows and stepping down from the role at Christmas, this summer is the perfect time to find yourself a darkened room and experience some of the show's past. Throughout the first 26 years, the show went through multiple production teams, along with seven doctors, each bringing new ideas and styles to the program. And so, here’s a handy guide to experiencing the breadth of 26 years of Doctor Who within the space of a single day. This list comprises a look at the different styles of the show, from the original historicals and science fiction stories to the more complicated ideas of the show’s later years, via some classic monsters, villains, and moments along the way. There’s no need to watch these in chronological order either, feel free to dip in and out as you fancy.

#01: An Unearthly Child — Episode 1

"Then by showing an enormous building on your television screen, you can do what seemed impossible, couldn't you?"

Start at the very beginning, the electric opening twenty-five minutes of the grand saga that makes up much of the show’s early years. "An Unearthly Child" starts off as a gentle thriller of two teachers trying to investigate the home situation of an impossibly bright girl — Susan Foreman. In following her they arrive at the Doctor, and discover something incredible...

Not only does "An Unearthly Child" give some indication of our renown time traveller’s humble beginnings with Earth, but the episode itself acts almost as a prologue to the majority of Doctor Who adventures, with the discovery of the TARDIS and the Doctor's reaction to the newcomers being completely unlike that which younger fans might assume. Only through learning from his companions does the Doctor mellow into a character more recognizable. His journey starts here.

#02-05: The Aztecs

"I made some cocoa and got engaged."

One thing you cannot say about Doctor Who is that it’s not ambitious. "The Aztecs" (the people, their city and pyramid) were created in a studio the size of couple of large living rooms. On screen, this trip into the past shows the original time-travelling team at their best, of particular highlight is Barbara and her arc regarding the changing of the Aztec’s brutal customs. Without aliens, this is a full-blooded example of traditional “historical” Doctor Who story and shows just why that original cast is so fondly remembered.

#06-09: The Tomb of the Cybermen

"A bit short? Oh, I shouldn't worry about that. Look at Jamie's."

Another classic — this one is a story that has been written about plenty of times before. Featuring the Second Doctor, Jamie and Victoria, early on in their travels, this is a look at 1960s Doctor Who making a proper science-fiction adventure. Plus, it ticks another of the essential facets of the programme — the traditional quarry planet.

With its headlines of Cybermen, logician factions and a rocket ship, it's easy to forget that it's also home to one of the finest scenes of the 1960s. Coming midway through the story, the Doctor and Victoria talk about their respective families in a quiet reflection of what has come before, and what will come after.

#10-11: The War Games — Episodes 9 & 10

"Time Lords! Try harder! We must get away!"

"The War Games" is long. It is also very good, but we have a limited time here so we’ll just stick to why the story is so iconic — the denouement. Written as a possible finale to the show had it not been recommissioned for 1970, these episodes present us with our first look of the Time Lords as a race, and is arguably their most impressive appearance in the show. It is truly exciting and makes this an essential part of this list. The story beforehand illustrates a devious plot to capture the best soldiers from various wars in Earth's history, to be foiled by the Doctor, but now he can do nothing without asking his own people for help.

#12 — 15: The Three Doctors

"Jo, it's all quite simple: I am he and he is me." "And we're all together, goo-goo-g'joob?"

There are so many fantastic stories we've already skipped over here but its time to check some boxes. Pertwee’s Doctor working with the UNIT family? Check. The Time Lords sending the Doctor on a mission? Check. A multi-doctor treat? Check. Bessie, Jo Grant and CSO effects? Check, check and check. Finale featuring the Doctor’s recorder? Check.

This is a story full of the Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, Sergeant Benton and the rest of UNIT, the "family" set-up home to the Doctor when he's trapped on Earth at the end of "The War Games." But "The Three Doctors" is more than just a box-ticking exercise. It's a romp of a story that enlightens some areas of Time Lord history and has some truly touching moments too, such as the Doctor's goodbyes in Omega's lair. 

#16 — 19: Death to the Daleks

"Next time you get an idea, keep it to yourself, will you?"

A personal favourite of mine, with an extremely creepy score, this story is the true essence of a Terry Nation story. Beginning with the TARDIS landing in the wrong place, human representatives hoping to mine, an abandoned city, Daleks, this is the epitome of an off-world Pertwee story. All these ideas pull together into a classic Dalek adventure (with a great twist — the Dalek’s guns don’t work!), and, despite a couple of effects and what is possibly the lamest cliffhanger in the show’s history, shows exactly why these ideas were so popular with the production team of the era. Interesting, exciting, and featuring one of the best possible-companion characters in the show's history, this adventure is certainly not one to skip over.

#20 — 23: The Sun Makers

"These taxes are like sacrifices to tribal Gods?" "Roughly speaking, but paying tax is much more painful"

A Robert Holmes script at last! Robert Holmes is a legend among classic Doctor Who, writing 73 of the original 696 episodes. This is classic Tom Baker and classic Leela too, as the pair investigate and then instigate a revolution on the heavily-taxed planet Pluto. Get ready for several classic corridor chases, some classic Tom Baker humour and a healthy dose of the robot dog K-9 as well. Classic.

#24: Logopolis — Episode 4

"It's the end, but the moment has been prepared for."

Time for a regeneration. One of the most famous regenerations too: Tom Baker’s fall from a radio telescope after saving the universe from the Master. After seven years in the role, Tom Baker was the most recognisable face of Doctor Who and a hero to an entire generation of children. Previously in his final adventure, the Master had been messing with the TARDIS' dimension circuits, necessitating in a trip to the doomed world of Logopolis — the only planet capable of holding back entropy from destroying the universe. 

The stakes have never been higher for this Doctor, and this episode is also notable in its use of companions — the trio of Nyssa, Adric and Tegan would continue on into Peter Davison's first series, and mark the beginning of the "crowded TARDIS."

#25 — 26: The Kings Demons

"You may disguise your features but you can never disguise your intent."

The fifth Doctor heads off with his multitude of companions for a jaunt with knights, a shape-shifting robot and Anthony Ainley’s take of the renegade Master. A light-hearted affair, this was the annual two-part story that featured in the Davison years to make up their episode count.

Highlighting this incarnation of the Doctor’s youthful charm and this Master’s flair for complex plots, it is the apt little representation of the producer JNT’s early years. Look out as well for the song played at the banquet scene, both creepy and illustrative of the story, it shows that Doctor Who was using musical ideas like "Rains of Castamere" long before Game of Thrones!

#27 — 30: The Curse of Fenric

"There's a wind ripping up. I can feel it through my clothes. Is there a storm coming?"

This is the story which encapsulates the seventh Doctor’s era. It’s pretty good, allowing us to finally tick off the classic trope of monster-emerging-from-water. It's also a really good story too — look out for the parallels between Ace and Rose Tyler, and enjoy McCoy's Doctor facing off against terrible weather and a villain more powerful than most. With Russian soldiers conducting an operation in a British army base during the height of World War 2, this packed adventure also features the most explicit use of the concepts of sex and religion up to this point. Bring all these ideas together gives us a script which relishes putting emphasis on the Doctor's involvements in events. Had the show continued past this season, it could have involved into something quite different.

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Classic Doctor Who in 30 Episodes