“All of time and space; everywhere and anywhere; every star that ever was. Where do you want to start?”
This year, Doctor Who celebrates its 52nd anniversary, originally airing on November 23rd 1963 (and repeated the following week just in case people were more interested in the Kennedy assassination, news of which broke in the UK as the show was going out.
Over those 52 years, to date, Doctor Who has had 252 televised stories, two 1960s Dalek-centric cinematic spinoffs, two charity spoofs, and a deluge of print (novels and comics) and audio spinoffs. And we haven’t even touched on independent, fan-produced media!
Let’s home in on those 252 stories. If you’re interested in getting into Doctor Who and want to sample a flavor of the show’s long history without spending any (or any more) money, where on Earth should you start?
Well, online is the best place. Many Doctor Who episodes can be found free to watch, as well as on subscription services such as Netflix and Hulu. If you want to get into the show fast, and enjoy the most important episodes of Doctor Who‘s entire televised history, start with this list.
The Modern Era, 2005-2015
If you want to watch any episode of Doctor Who since 2005, you’ll find it on Netflix. This covers all four modern Doctors, Christopher Eccleston (2005), David Tennant (2005-2010), Matt Smith (2010-2013) and Peter Capaldi (2013-). It also covers an extremely strong collection of stories.
Doctor Who Series 1
Rose: The first episode of the revived series, successfully reintroduces the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston), the TARDIS, time travel, alien invasions (the Autons again) and puts the minds of fans at ease.
Dalek: Rose (Billie Piper) befriends the last Dalek in an episode that adds considerable back story to the Time War arc.
The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances: In World War Two-era London, the Doctor and Rose find a community terrorized by a small boy wearing a gas mask. They also meet Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman, Torchwood and The Arrow), a time-traveling con man.
Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways: The Doctor, Rose, and Jack are stuck in futuristic game shows like Big Brother and The Weakest Link, where elimination means just that. But something else is going on, a bigger plan of conquest that they must uncover and stop before it is too late.
Doctor Who Series 2
School Reunion: In a tearjerker for classic series fans, the new Doctor (David Tennant) bumps into his old companion, Sarah Jane Smith.
The Girl in the Fireplace: Foreshadowing the Doctor’s meetings with three future companions, the TARDIS travelers land on an abandoned spacecraft with gateways to pre-revolution France, specifically into the timeline of Madame de Pompadour, with whom the Doctor promptly falls in love.
Army of Ghosts/Doomsday: This season’s revived villains, the Cybermen, invade via Torchwood’s research into the origins of a mysterious sphere, with terrible consequences for the Doctor and Rose.
Doctor Who Series 3
Blink: The Doctor and his new companion Martha (Freema Agyeman) are trapped in the 1960s, after the TARDIS is captured by the Weeping Angels, so the Time Lord uses a series of DVD extras to talk to Sally Sparrow (Carey Mulligan) in the present day to help free them.
Human Nature/Family of Blood: Hiding in 1912 to evade the Family of Blood, the Doctor rewrites his biology to become human, saving his essence in a fob watch, while Martha poses as a maid. But Dr. John Smith has fallen in love…
Utopia: On the last planet in existence before the death of the universe, the Doctor, Martha, and Jack encounter Professor Yana (Sir Derek Jacobi), a kindly old scientist helping the last humans escape in their rocket to the fabled Utopia. But Martha discovers the professor has a fob watch, suggesting the Doctor isn’t the last Time Lord…
Doctor Who Series 4
Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead: The Doctor and Donna (Catherine Tate) visit the biggest library in the universe to find it apparently abandoned. Until River Song (Alex Kingston, ER) arrives.
Midnight: The Doctor embarks on a solo trip around a waterfall made of sapphires on the planet Midnight, while Donna relaxes in a spa. A mysterious, powerful alien somehow gets on board, creating a claustrophobic thriller.
The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End: The Daleks are back, with a plan to detonate a reality bomb to destroy all life in creation so that only they remain.
Doctor Who Specials:
The Waters of Mars: Landing on the Red Planet, the Doctor discovers he is caught in the catastrophic events of Bowie Base One, a mission to Mars which he knows is doomed. Can he stop it?
The End of Time: The Master (John Simm) is not dead. He haunts the nightmares of every human on earth. Only the Doctor can stop him, even if it costs him his life…
Doctor Who Series 5
The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone: The Doctor (Matt Smith) encounters the Weeping Angels and River Song once again, and discovers a huge crack in the fabric of the universe.
Vincent and the Doctor: Discovering a monster in a painting by Van Gogh, the Doctor and Amy (Karen Gillan) find a tortured soul who is able to hear color. This episode was written by Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and Love Actually).
Doctor Who Series 6
The Doctor’s Wife: The Doctor, Amy, and Rory (Arthur Darvill) encounter House (Michael Sheen) who transfers the essence of the TARDIS into a woman, Idris, so that he can begin to ingest the time machine. Written by Neil Gaiman.
The Girl Who Waited: Amy is lost in time, and when the Doctor and Rory find her again, she has aged. Will Rory stay with his aged wife, or abandon her to try and find the younger version?
Doctor Who Series 7
The Angels Take Manhattan: The Weeping Angels have flocked to Manhattan, their power even bringing the Statue of Liberty to life. Can the Doctor stop them? And if so, at what cost to his friends?
The Snowmen: Sad at the departure of Amy and Rory, the Doctor looks for a quiet life in Victorian London, where he meets Clara (Jenna Coleman) and discovers his old enemy, The Great Intelligence, who encounters the Doctor for the first time.
Hide: The Doctor and Clara visit a 1970s mansion and meet Professor Alec Palmer (Dougray Scott) who is attempting to communicate with the well-documented ghost that haunts the property.
The Day of the Doctor: The Tenth and Eleventh Doctors, David Tennant and Matt Smith, encounter their “lost” incarnation, played by John Hurt, and save Gallifrey from destruction in the Time War. This is the show’s 50th anniversary special.
Doctor Who Series 8
This run is yet to be added to Netflix, but when it is, look out for Deep Breath and Flatline. These episodes, like the rest of the 2005-2014 run, can be found on iTunes.
Deep Breath: The Doctor has regenerated, and Clara is in mourning for her friend. Meanwhile, clockwork androids from the future are cannibalising people for spare parts. Can the Time Lord (Peter Capaldi) recover in time to stop them?
Flatline: A two-dimensional invasion of Earth traps the Doctor in the TARDIS, leaving Clara to deal with the attack on her own.
With so many modern Doctor Who episodes to watch, these are the ones that you should consider unmissable. But don’t miss the others, if you can avoid it!
If paying for individual episode on iTunes and/or subscribing with Netflix isn’t for you, don’t miss the BitTorrent Bundle of Doctor Who episodes released to celebrate 10 years since its return to TV. For just $12 you get episodes featuring all of the modern incarnations.
Bonus: The Eighth Doctor Regenerates
In 2013, as part of the run up to the show’s 50th anniversary and the addition of a new incarnation of the Doctor (John Hurt) sandwiched between what fans had hitherto known as the Eighth and Ninth Doctors (Paul McGann and Christopher Eccleston), The Night of the Doctor was produced and uploaded to YouTube and the BBC’s official Doctor Who website as a prelude to The Day of the Doctor.
Classic Doctor Who Catch-up, 1963-1996
During the classic era of the show, before Doctor Who was put on ice for 16 years (save a one-off BBC/Fox/Universal co-production starring Paul McGann), stories were serialised over a number of weeks. Some were as short as two episodes (occasional specials and fillers notwithstanding) while others ran to as many as 12 episodes.
The classic Doctor Who adventures are mirrored both by the TV production standards of the day as well as the job of running a TV show.
Since 2005, Doctor Who has had just two executive producers in the “show-runner” role. In the original run the comparable role is held by two positions, the producer and the script editor. Until 1980 the show had eight producers and 12 script editors in just 17 years (and one producer and three script editors in the final nine of its original run).
This resulted in an interesting mix of story types, tones, and eras, which mostly affected the tenure of Tom Baker, who not only worked with four different show producers from 1974-1981, but also creator of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams, as script editor. (Fans of Adams might be interested in a BBC documentary he made predicting the rise of the Internet.)
So, where should you start with classic Doctor Who? At the beginning, of course…
The First Doctor
An Unearthly Child: the original 1963 episode in which a pair of school teachers (Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, played by William Russell and Jacqueline Hill) investigate a mysterious pupil (Susan, played by Carole Ann Ford), only to find out she’s the granddaughter of a strange old man, a “Doctor” (William Hartnell) who is in reality a time traveler – oh, and he kidnaps them too, to keep his secret.
Many people make the mistake of ignoring the following three episodes, which sees the TARDIS travelers helping a tribe of cave dwellers rediscover the secret of fire, but you shouldn’t make the same mistake. The interaction between these “primitives” is very well written.
The Daleks: The subsequent serial introduces Doctor Who‘s greatest villains, the mutant space Nazis better known as the Daleks.
Dalek Invasion of Earth: The Daleks invade Earth in the mid-21st century, and the Doctor and his friends help the surviving humans to repel them. Susan, the Doctor’s granddaughter, stays behind.
The War Machines: A malevolent computer in London’s Post Office Tower intends to use telephone networks to take control of the world, in a story that is not only 30 years ahead of its time, but also the template for the show’s format four years later.
The Tenth Planet: Cybernized humans from Earth’s twin planet Mondas attack the Moon, in the first appearance of the Doctor’s other mortal enemies, the Cybermen. Here they are at their most disconcerting, but the real event is the death of the Doctor.
The Second Doctor
The Power of the Daleks: The new Doctor (Patrick Troughton) comes to terms with his “rejuvenation”, as Ben and Polly look on bewildered. But the Doctor’s greatest foes certainly recognize him.
The Web of Fear: Recently rediscovered, this is another Earth-based invasion story with an evacuated London littered with a mysterious, mind-controlling web, terrorized by robotic Yeti, and the whole situation managed by the disembodied Great Intelligence. The Web of Fear introduces Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart, who would later become a regular cast member as a promoted brigadier, and the events of this story were recently spun off into a new series of original novels from Candy Jar Books.
The War Games: Although the Doctor has encountered his own kind in previous episodes, this is the first time we discover that he is a Time Lord, as he calls in his own people to help end the horrendous plan of the War Chief, namely to forge a galaxy-conquering army by pitting the best of Earth’s conflict forces against each other across time. But the Doctor has been on the run for years, and as punishment for breaking the Time Lords’ strict policy of non-intervention, he is forced to change his appearance, and banished to Earth.
(Much of the Second Doctor era is missing, thanks to the BBC’s unfortunate policy of trashing old video tapes in the 1960s and 1970s.)
The Third Doctor
Spearhead from Space: Unable to fly his TARDIS and slightly amnesiac, the Doctor (Jon Pertwee) teams up with Lethbridge –Stewart at UNIT, a force put together to defend Earth from alien invasions. Right on cue, the Autons (dangerous plastic mannequins controlled by the Nestene Consciousness) are unleashed.
This story is the only classic era serial available in HD format, due to it being recorded entirely on film. The Blu-ray version is available on Amazon.
The Mind of Evil: Throughout this era of the show, the Doctor is pitted against another Time Lord, the evil Master (Roger Delgado), and here he spins his most audacious plan, attempting to plunge civilization into war.
The Three Doctors: The Time Lords call upon all three versions of the Doctor to combat a threat from beyond the universe – an ancient, lost Time Lord known as Omega, who exists purely as antimatter.
The Green Death: An ecological tale of the dangers of industrialization and pollution, the serial combines mutated maggots and insects with a mad (albeit somewhat laissez-faire) computer, but the Doctor’s victory is muted, as his best friend, Jo, leaves his side for a human scientist.
The Fourth Doctor
Ark in Space: The recently regenerated Doctor (Tom Baker) lands on a satellite in the far future, where he discovers the remnants of mankind in suspended animation and an alien presence waiting to use their bodies as hosts.
Genesis of the Daleks: Sent back in time by the Time Lords, the Doctor, Sarah, and Harry (Lis Sladen and Ian Marter) must avert or delay the development of the Daleks, and meet their creator, Davros. Written by Dalek (and MacGyver) creator Terry Nation, this is a pivotal story cited by revival show-runner Russell T Davies as the firing of the first shot in the Time War.
City of Death: Written by Douglas Adams and guest starring Julian Glover (The Empire Strikes Back, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Game of Thrones) with a cameo from John Cleese (who stars in most of Monty Python’s eight best sketches), this is one of the wittiest and cleverest sci-fi scripts ever brought to TV. It also features David Graham as Professor Kerensky, best known as the voice of chauffeur Parker in Thunderbirds and Thunderbirds Are GO!.
Full Circle: Written by 17-year-old fan Andrew Smith, this stunning tale portrays evolution and the ignorance/willful manipulation of history as a threat to civilization. The Doctor and his Time Lady companion Romana leave with a stowaway, Adric.
(I discussed Full Circle with Andrew Smith at a small Doctor Who convention in 2013, and you can listen to the conversation online [No Longer Available].)
Logopolis: The Master is back, and leads the Doctor into a trap that can only have one terrible ending – his death.
The Fifth Doctor
Earthshock: The new Doctor (Peter Davison) discovers some androids attempting to detonate a bomb to avert a galactic peace conference on Earth. He soon learns that they are being controlled by his old enemies, the Cybermen, in a plan that results in the death of his companion, Adric.
The Caves of Androzani: After his companion Peri is accidentally poisoned, the Doctor must try to find an antidote. Unfortunately, this means dealing with megalomaniac corporate chairmen, gunrunners, an android-building genius, and military idiots caught in a standoff. Peri is eventually saved, but at the cost of the Doctor’s own life.
The Sixth Doctor
Vengeance on Varos: Not long after his regeneration, the Doctor (Colin Baker) and Peri find themselves on Varos, in a strangely prescient drama about the future of TV, which predicts reality TV and voting, as well as directorial manipulation.
(Colin Baker’s time on Doctor Who was cut short by an edict from BBC management which resulted in the show being postponed for a year and the actor replaced.)
The Seventh Doctor
Remembrance of the Daleks: A story that celebrates 30 years of the show, two opposing factions of Daleks attack London in 1963, determined to get their hands on some Time Lord technology the Doctor hid there on his first visit.
The Curse of Fenric: The Doctor (Sylvester McCoy, now better known as Radagast in The Hobbit movie series) and Ace find themselves in Northumberland during World War Two, where an ancient Norse god is awoken to play the final game with his Time Lord foe.
Survival: The TARDIS returns Ace to Perivale in London, where she finds things have changed since her departure. The final serial of the show’s original run also marks a return of the Master, who is, remarkably, even more insane than the last time he appeared.
Bonus: Doctor Who on the Radio
As if all of that wasn’t enough, it’s also possible to enjoy Doctor Who in audio form, for free, if you have access to BBC iPlayer (if you’re not in the UK, a VPN may come in useful here).
BBC Radio 4 Extra is the place for audio drama and comedy, and the network regularly broadcasts stories produced by Big Finish, which owns the audio rights to original Doctor Who drama with Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, and Paul McGann all starring, along with many original and new companions and villains.
Better still, in their utter love of the show, Big Finish has made some of these stories available internationally… absolutely free! Visit their Soundcloud page, where you’ll find trailers and full episodes alike.
So, Where to Begin?
You’ll probably have noticed that despite me filtering out most of the show’s 252 stories, this remains a long list. My recommendation, as a fan of 37 years and counting, is to start with the 2005 and 2006 series episodes, and then decide from there whether to proceed through to 2014 or start watching the classic era.
If you have considered binge-watching this lot, don’t be put off. I recently watched the first four series of Game of Thrones in three weeks, so getting through this volume of TV in a short space of time is certainly possible. The choices above should help you to digest as much important information about the Doctor’s travels through time and space without watching the full run.
(NB: what episodes are available where is subject to change. For example, until early 2014, most of the Modern Era episodes were also available on Amazon Prime Instant Video.)
Doctor Who is very much online! So, let me know if you have any questions regarding the Doctor and his many adventures to date. Are you an existing Doctor Who fan looking for places to watch the show online? Are you new to the series and keen to find out where to begin? Feel free to let me know any thoughts you may have on the show in the comments section below.