The Trusty Plinko Stick Guide to Classic Doctor Who Part 2
Carrying on from the first post (in which I cover the first two Doctors and suggest that the best starting point for the newbie crowd is actually the 20th anniversary story "The Five Doctors"), here are more recommendations for folks who want to check out the original Doctor Who series. Some of these stories are quite good, some are bad-but-enjoyable, and some might even be just plain bad (but still important to the overall series for one reason or another), but these are my suggestions. And they are just that: suggestions. Feel free to follow or ignore them as you like, and if you classic series Whovians out there feel there's anything I've left out or woefully misjudged, please let me know in the comments.
Anyway, bust out your frilled shirts, cravats, plaid cloaks, Venusian aikido manual, and the keys to your favorite yellow roadster as we continue with...
3rd Doctor – Jon Pertwee
- Spearhead from Space – Lots of firsts here... Pertwee's first story, the first story filmed in color (the first shot entirely on film, for that matter, and it looks great, but don't get too used to that), the beginning of the Doctor's relationship with UNIT as its scientific advisor, the debut appearance of the Autons and the Nestene Intelligence, and the start of an (almost) entirely Earth-bound run for the series (storywise it's because the Doctor was exiled by the Time Lords; serieswise, it was to cut down on costs. It's an interesting era for the show, and at times feels more like The Avengers than what you typically think of as Doctor Who (with the Doctor as Steed and various attractive & capable women standing in for the Kathy Gale/Emma Peel/Tara King role), but when it works well it's still a hell of a lot of fun.
- Inferno – The Doctor tries to get the TARDIS working again in order to escape exile and winds up transporting himself to an alternate reality where all his friends are eeeeeeeeevil, a la Star Trek's "Mirror, Mirror" (with the evil Brigadier's eyepatch playing the part of evil Spock's beard). As with many 6-parters, it feels a bit padded, but it's a lot of fun and the regular cast clearly enjoyed playing their fascist counterparts.
- Terror of the Autons – The Autons return, but who the hell cares because the series's greatest non-metallic monster, the Master (originated here by Roger Delgado), debuts. Every story from this season (and several throughout the next) features the Doctor's own personal Moriarty, and though that might be overuse, Delgado and Pertwee play off one another brilliantly, truly selling the idea of two former friends who realize now that one of them will most likely end up killing the other. The Doctor's companion Jo Grant first appears here, too, and she's fun, but honestly, this one is all about the Master for me. Several actors have portrayed the character since this era due to Delgado's tragic and untimely death, and though they all have their moments, none of them hold a candle to this man. He was the Master, and you would do his bidding.
- Day of the Daleks - Admittedly I don't remember this one really well, but I remember enjoying it quite a bit when I was 10. There's a lot of mucking about in the whole "you can't change history / a time traveler can't undo something he's already done" debate, the "Blinovitch Limitation Effect" gets thrown around for (IIRC) the first time, and as the title implies, the Daleks reappear (for the first time since early in the 2nd Doctor's era), and they have gun-toting ape-men (Ogrons) for helpers, and who doesn't love a gun-toting ape man?
- The Three Doctors – The 10th anniversary episode, and the first time we see multiple versions of the Doctor team-up. William Hartnell was quite sick in real life at this time, so he doesn't do much more than offer advice from a TV monitor, but Pertwee and Patrick Troughton are amazing together, constantly annoyed and bickering with one another as you'd likely do, too, if forced to hang out with your embarrassing past (or future) self. The plot of the story itself is kind of silly, the monsters hokey, and for some reason the Brigadier seems to lose IQ points in the high double digits, but there's a lot of fun to be had.
- Carnival of Monsters - A weird little story in which Doctor Who takes a side step into Irwin Allen territory (all I'll say for now). Garish costumes, bad special effects, and about $100 worth of odd in a $10 package. I can't say that I like it, really, but it's strangely interesting all the same.
- Frontier in Space / Planet of the Daleks – Two stories that make a bigger one. You have Delgado's final appearance as the Master, there's Ogrons and Daleks, and the lone appearance of the Draconians, who seem to have cast a long shadow in fans' minds despite this being their only "canonical" (i.e., on TV) showing.
Green Death – Once again, maybe two episodes too long, but lots of dodgy giant insect puppets and Pertwee in drag, so at least it tries to keep things interesting. Most notable for the departure of Jo Grant, and the Doctor's bittersweet (if not outright sad-as-hell) reaction to this event sweeps away the idea that classic Who was altogether free of the sort of romantic Doctor/companion feelings that we see in the new series.
- The Time Warrior – We meet the warlike, potatoheaded Sontarans for the first time (well, a Sontaran at any rate), but more importantly the late Elisabeth Sladen debuts as prime "Doctor Who Girl" Sarah Jane Smith (who rather than being impressed with the Doctor right off the bat, is very suspicious of him for most of the story and even almost gets him killed a few times).
- Planet of the Spiders – Pertwee's final story, which hinges off a plot point from The Green Death, plays with some funky Time Lord regeneration practices that we'll see again 7 years later, and in fact uses the term "regeneration" for the Time Lords' bodily renewal process for the first time. It, too, goes on a bit too long, so if you get bored skip ahead to the final episode.
4th Doctor – Tom BakerBaker played the Doctor for 7 years, and in the eyes of many people he is the Doctor to this day, so there’s a lot to pick from with him. Still, I think I managed to keep this list fairly manageable.
- Robot – Tom Baker's debut. Very silly in spots, particularly in the beginning as the Doctor settles into his regeneration and pretty much any seen with the titular robot (especially as it grows), but it's fun. Shot entirely on video, which they won't do again for years and years. Looks a bit cheaper, but it's consistent throughout (I hate that "film in the field, video in the studio" thing BBC did for so long).
- The Ark in Space / The Sontaran Experiment / Genesis of the Daleks / Revenge of the Cybermen / Terror of the Zygons – Five individual stories that all make up one big adventure. You can watch them all individually of course, but I think if you watch them all and get the bigger picture of the story it's that much better. The best of the cycle, inarguably, is Genesis of the Daleks - which may be the best Dalek story ever, actually, and for being a six-parter it doesn't feel padded at all - so if you're going to watch just one of these, watch that one. The Sontaran Experiment is fun, too, and at just two episodes moves along at a nice clip. Most people dump on Revenge of the Cybermen, and yeah, it has all kinds of problems, but it was one of my very first Whos and remains a sentimental favorite.
- Pyramids of Mars – Incredibly popular in Who fandom, but I've never really warmed up to it. Though to be fair, it does have some great moments, like Sarah mocking the Doctor's maudlin speech in episode one. She also claims to come from the year 1980, which will confuse the hell out of fandom for years as everyone tries to figure out just when all those UNIT-related stories take place.
- The Deadly Assassin – Fun whodunit featuring the return of an old foe and lots of palace intrigue on Gallifrey. Pretty much everything we know about Time Lord society going forward (and backward, for that matter) stems from this one serial, making it one of the two or three most important stories to the show's mythology. This one should not be missed.
- The Robots of Death – Basically Agatha Christie in outer space. Brilliant production design throughout, definitely one of the best examples of the show rising above it's budget. The robots, the costumes, the mining vessel they're on, even the logo for one of the tools that figures into the plot... so much thought into the look and feel of this one. The story is good, too, of course. One of the two best "random sample" stories you could pick if you're new to the Tom Baker era.
- The Talons of Weng-Chiang – Doctor Who does Sherlock Holmes. Fantastic story by Robert Holmes, with one of the best "double act" sets of non-companion characters in the show's history (Professor George Litefoot and theater impressario Henry Gordon Jago, characters so popular they almost got their own TV spin-off and, many years later, did get their own audio series spin-off from Big Finish). The characterization of the villain, a Chinese man played by someone who is not at all Chinese, may come off a bit racist these days, though, so you've been warned.
- The “Key To Time” series: The Ribos Operation, The Pirate Planet, The Stones of Blood, The Androids of Tara, The Power of Kroll, The Armageddon Factor – A season-long story where all of the individual serials combine to tell one larger, connected story. The Doctor is forced into a mission by the White Guardian of Time and given a new Gallifreyan companion, Romana. Uneven, but fun overall. You could watch these individually, but it's probably best to watch the whole thing. The Pirate Planet was written by Douglas Adams, so there’s that.
- City of Death – Co-written by Douglas Adams. Fun and very funny story set in Paris featuring aristocratic art thieves, the Mona Lisa, an alien from the dawn of time, time travel experiments, and a British cop who can't stop hitting people before they can actually talk. Maybe my favorite original series story ever, and the other best "random sample" story from the 4th Doctor's run.
- Shada – Another Douglas Adams story, but one famously unfinished due to a BBC strike. Stitched together for VHS release in the 90s, though, with Baker narrating the gaps in the footage, and it was also recently re-released on DVD with this version, along with the webcast version recorded with the 8th Doctor, Paul McGann, for Big Finish and BBCi. Worth watching to see how much of this plot Adams ended up reusing in the Dirk Gently books.
- The Keeper of Traken / Logopolis – Keeper follows on in a way from The Deadly Assassin (though I won't say how to avoid spoilers), and leads directly into Logopolis, in which we learn a whole lot about higher maths and Block Transfer Computations and the like, a mysterious stranger who seems to be tracking the Doctor's moves and making him very melancholy indeed and, at last, his regeneration into the show's then-youngest-serving Doctor, Peter Davison.