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A Field Guide to Classic Doctor Who

I’ve been a fan of Doctor Who since I was a wee little thing. I spent years in high school trying to convince my friends that this whole Who thing was cool and that they should watch it. And no one ever did. Then New Who happened and the self same friends started to ask me if I watched this awesome new show called Doctor Who. And I laughed and laughed.

But I am still trying to get them to watch Classic Who. And the number one response I get back is, “Where do I even start?” And truthfully it’s not hard to see the massive backlog of episodes as a insurmountable feat of TV watching. The original show aired from 1963-1989. And there’s a TV movie from 1996 that is usually categorized as Classic Who as well.

So let’s just get a few things out of the way first. You do not need to watch every back episode of Doctor Who ever to follow along in any given plot of Classic Who. In fact, due to the BBC throwing out a lot of old episodes at one point during some demonic house cleaning, you couldn’t watch every episode if you wanted to. A lot of the First and Second Doctors’ episodes are just gone.

Secondly, the format of Classic Who is a little different from its newer counterpart. The episodes were a half hour long and stories tended to span 3-6 episodes. Each story is more or less self contained (there is a little bleed over, and a few plots that link up to form a bigger story). When the BBC releases Classic Who episodes to home video they release them by story. You can pretty much pick up any story and watch it, and as long as you understand the basics of Who (mad man with a time travel box) you should be able to follow the story just fine.

So how do you pick a story to watch? Well you could select one at random, look for a story synopsis that looks interesting, or a villain you enjoy. What I normally do though, is decide which Doctor I want to watch and grab one of their stories. So to that end, here is a field guide to Doctor spotting.

The first Doctor and Susan
The First Doctor and Susan

The First Doctor, William Hartnell (1963-1966): This Doctor is something of a grumpy old man. His first set of companions are his granddaughter Susan and two of her school teachers Ian and Barbara. They step into the TARDIS, promptly break something and get whisked off to another place and time with no way to get back except to keep randomly landing the TARDIS in hopes that it will go back. Doctor Who at this point still had some pretensions about educating the kids who watched it, so there are rather a lot of stories about traveling back through time to important historical things. This Doctor introduces the show’s two big recurring baddies, Daleks and Cybermen. When he left the show for health reasons, the producers came up with the brilliant idea to have the Doctor be an alien who would regenerate.

The second Doctor and Jamie
The Second Doctor and Jamie

The Second Doctor, Patrick Troughton (1966-1969): Prolly my fav Doctor, not gonna lie. Gone is Doctor 1’s stuffiness, to be replaced by the somewhat more whimsical streak that we have all grown to know and love. The man busts out a recorder and starts to play it when he needs to think. The Second Doctor brings us the sonic screwdriver, the Brig (Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart of U.N.I.T., although he’s just a colonel when we first meet him. He is one of the longest running side characters in the show) and Time Lords (before this point the Doctor was just “alien”). He also has one of my favorite companions, Jamie McCrimmon, a 18th century Scotsman. Which is why in New Who, when Tennant introduced himself as “Doctor James McCrimmon” during the episode “Tooth and Claw” I made little squeaky noises.

The third Doctor and Sara Jane
The Third Doctor and Sarah Jane

The Third Doctor, John Pertwee (1970-1974):  This Doctor is kind of a dandy, but don’t be fooled. It’s the ’70s now and the Doctor has learned Venusian Karate and he shoots guns and things now. Also the show is in color! Most of his first adventures involve running around Earth with U.N.I.T. And this is where we meet the Master for the first time. He also has a really cool car named Bessy. Sarah Jane first joined the TARDIS crew with this Doctor, and he was the one to give us the great catch-all for technobabble, “Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow.”

The fourth Doctor and Romana
The Fourth Doctor and Romana

The Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker (1974-1981): Also known as the Doctor with the really, really long scarf. Tom Baker is considered by many a Classic Who fan to be the consummate Doctor. His episodes ran on PBS and were many an American fan’s first introduction to the show. With this Doctor we get full on silliness on a regular basis. To balance him out they brought in Romana, another Time Lord fresh out of the academy and top of her class. Or something like that. Anyway she’s cool. She was River Song before there was a River Song. After a bit she regenerates and is somewhat less cool, but still kinda cool. There was also a good bit of his run where Douglas Adams was working as the script editor and writing some of the episodes (Yes, that Douglas Adams.)

The fifth Doctor and Turlough
The Fifth Doctor and Turlough

The Fifth Doctor, Peter Davison (1981-1984): Ok, so my picture lies a little. Peter Davison’s Doctor was not a veterinarian. Before Peter Davison was the Doctor he played Tristan on All Creatures Great and Small, and that is the role I associate with the actor more than anything. He was also the youngest Doctor until Matt Smith broke his record. He wore celery on his lapel, apparently as some sort of gas detection system. The Fifth Doctor is far more sensitive and reactionary than any of the other Doctors. He also has an indecisiveness that was heretofore unseen.

The sixth Doctor and Peri
The Sixth Doctor and Peri

The Sixth Doctor, Colin Baker (1984-1986): He got a big ego. Such a huge ego. Also he apparently got his coat by throwing several other coats in a blender and taking out what was left after the carnage. And then got dressed in the dark. I’mma gonna be real for a moment and say that I don’t like him much. He is so caustic to his companion Peri, and I love me some Peri (she’s a sassy American. Yes, I am biased about this). I think there is supposed to be an underlying affection to the relationship, but damn if it doesn’t seem like Six just thinks Perri is dumb. His four-year contract got cut to just three years, so maybe I’m not alone in thinking this Doctor was kind of a dick.

The seventh Doctor and Ace
The Seventh Doctor and Ace

The Seventh Doctor, Sylvester McCoy (1987-1989, 1996): This Doctor goes through a rather major personality shift. Or rather, he possessed hidden depths. At first it seems that he is just a bumbling professor trope, but as things progress it seems more like he  just uses that to hide his genius, master planner type personality. He wears elaborate question mark patterned sweater vests and always seems to have an umbrella. He also gets Ace as a companion and I like Ace for being a tough, streetwise lady. That big gap in time is because after the show ended he got a brief cameo in the TV movie. Which brings us to…

The eighth Doctor and Grace
The Eighth Doctor and Grace

The Eighth Doctor, Paul McGann (1996): Poor Eight, he only got one made-for-TV movie. Well, and a lot of audio dramas, but that’s another matter. To be totally level with you, I think I have seen that movie a grand total of twice in my life. Once was when it first came out and I was ten years old, and the second time was before I was in high school. My memories of this Doctor are kinda fuzzy. He wears a frock coat. He was the first to kiss a companion. Mainly what stuck with me about the movie was the controversial line about how the Doctor is half human (on his mother’s side apparently). Now, Doctor Who canon is not the most rigid of things, but no one is really quite sure what to make of this one. The fan theories run amok. The only sure thing is that this never gets mentioned again. Ever. I kind of thought that maybe this movie wasn’t canon (like the other Doctor Who movies, but more about that in a moment), but I realized that to get to Eccleston as Doctor number nine, it had to be.

And that brings us to the new series. Or does it? I mentioned some other Doctor Who movies didn’t I? There were two Doctor Who movies made in 1965 and 1966, Doctor Who and the Daleks, and The Daleks’ Invasion of Earth: 2150. They star Peter Cushing as Dr. Who. And yes, it is OK to write it as Dr. Who for these movies because in these movies the Doctor is actually a man with the surname of Who. They retell the stories of the first couple of Dalek serials, but with the details all jumbled and are largely considered apocryphal where canon is concerned. Their big influence on the show is that, because these were the first Doctor Who stories in color, they had brightly colored Daleks (the ones from the show are usually just grey and black). These Daleks got made into toys, and subsequently their design is the most popular iteration of Dalek design.

So now you have the skinny on all the classic Doctors. Still can’t decide? Well, then try one of the sampler pack serials. The Three Doctors, made for the show’s 10th anniversary, has the first three Doctors all working about together. The Five Doctors likewise has one through five, but there is another actor playing One, because William Hartnell had passed before it was shot. The Two Doctors has Two and Six (and Jamie and Peri!). Also there is a little short called “Time Crash” that has Five meeting Ten. You can find it on YouTube.

Hopefully this has demystified Classic Who a bit, and you will all now go forth and watch!

By Opifex

Opifex is a former art student, unrepentant nerd, and occasional annoying liker of things before they were cool. She keeps two sets of polyhedral dice in her purse, in case the first set stops being lucky. That's kind of how she rolls.

8 replies on “A Field Guide to Classic Doctor Who”

To be fair, the Sixth Doctor got screwed over royally, as at the time there was a lot of bias against Doctor Who by the then controller of the BBC (which also led itno the Seventh Doctor’ run and why the series was eventually cancelled).  Add to that the BBC Writer’s strike and you have a complete mess.

Colin Baker’s Doctor was suppose to be dark, a little like Sylverster McCoy’s sometimes was, but it was never fully realised.

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I knew not all was well in the Who home, but I didn’t realize it was quite that bad. Still, I am a firm believer that creative works need to stand on their own legs, and as it is I find it hard to like Six. I still watch the episodes for Peri though.

The drawings are cute indeed. And I still don’t know where to start. To be honest I’m not very fond of the idea of watching black&white, so that’s a start. I’m curious about Romana, so I might have to go there ..or just go with what my library can offer. Crossing my fingers and toes for them to have something.

Thanks! It’s a really hard call for me between Romana 1 and Jamie for favorite companion. I think Jamie wins  out just a little because he is adorable, but I love that whenever Romana 1 gets captured you get the distinct impression that she is only staying captured to amuse herself.

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