A Beginner's Guide to Doctor Who - Part 3

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Last week, we covered the “modern” Doctors.  Today, we wrap up our coverage of Doctor Who by going back to talk about all seven classic Doctors.  I tried to list my favorite episodes for each Doctor, but I have to admit, the titles for many of these serials were so generic that I may have missed some.  

Lots to cover here, so let’s get started:

The First Doctor  (William Hartnell)

William Hartnell was the first actor who played the Doctor way back in 1963.  When he started in the role, the Doctor was actually kind of a dark character.  In the first serial, he seemed inclined to kill a defenseless caveman before he was convinced not to.  He also was prone to angry outbursts.  Over time, he softened to more of a mischievous grandfather type.

When Doctor Who starts, the Doctor is living on Earth (in a junkyard), and his granddaughter Susan goes to school, where she excels far beyond the other students.  Two of her teachers become very curious to know more about this girl and end up following her into the TARDIS.  The Doctor panics and ends up basically kidnapping these two teachers.  Though after a few jumps through time and space, they become willing explorers themselves.

Unfortunately, quite a bit of material starring the first and second Doctors did not survive.  BBC made it a policy to wipe out their video tapes, which meant a significant chunk of these episodes were just erased.  There are stills and audio soundtracks from all the episodes, but right now, there are still 26 incomplete Doctor Who serials (97 missing episodes).  BBC has slowly been doing animations for some of the missing episodes, and every now and then, a missing episode or two will pop up.  So for me, it’s always weird when people rank Doctor Who serials, since many of the first or second Doctor stories just don’t exist.

Favorite Serials:

"An Unearthly Child" - This is the first Doctor Who serial.  It does a great job setting the stage and introducing us to The Doctor, the TARDIS, and his companions.  The story itself is about the Doctor and his companions encountering a caveman tribe, and how their presence causes huge shifts in the tribal hierarchy.  

"Keys of Marinus" - I have always been a fan of “quest” type stories.  Keys Of Marinus has the Doctor and his friends tasked with recovering missing keys in a bunch of different locations on the planet Marinus.  Each episode focuses on a different setting the characters had to go to in order to solve a puzzle or mystery to recover the key. It was just a real cool way of telling the story to me.  This format would be used in a similar way later on in the “Key to Time” arc.

"Planet of Giants" - Up to this point, all the Doctor Who stories had basically been time travel stories.  Go to the past.  Go to the future.  Have adventure.  Move on.  This episode was something a little different.  The door of the TARDIS is accidentally left open, and as a result, when the TARDIS materializes on Earth, the TARDIS and all the inhabitants have been shrunk down to ant size.  The Doctor and his companions end up getting involved in a quirky gangster story, the whole time the production crew having a lot of fun with the idea of tiny people trying to make their way through a human world.  Great effects and just a real fun episode that is very well executed.

"The Romans" - This story is from the second season of Doctor Who.  The writing team was starting to get tired of the historical episodes, so when they did The Romans, featuring the Doctor going back in time and meeting Nero, they ended up writing it as a comedy.  There is a lot of slapstick and absurdity in these episodes, and I really find them to be some of the most entertaining episodes of Doctor Who.  

"The Chase" - The Chase features the Doctor and his companions being pursued by the Daleks throughout time.  Honestly, the serial itself wasn’t all that memorable, but this was the last episodes to feature Barbara and Ian as the Doctor’s companions.  Something about their send off has always been very touching to me.  For my money, the first Doctor’s later companions were all kind of lame compared to Susan, Barbara, and Ian, and the show really lost something after the three of them left.   

"The Gunfighters" - To be honest, this is kind of an awful serial, with the Doctor being mistaken for Doc Holliday after the Doctor and his companions head to the OK Corral to get help with the Doctor’s sore tooth.  This leads them to get involved in the events leading to the Shootout at the OK Corral. What I did love about these episodes was that they kept playing a narrative song  called the “Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon” at random points through the episodes.  I don’t know why, but this fairly horrible song amused me to no end when I was watching these episodes.  


The Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton)

After William Hartnell’s health started to suffer, the BBC came up with the idea of regeneration in order to keep their successful series going.  Patrick Troughton was brought into take over the role.  

The producers didn’t want someone who looked or felt like William Hartnell, because they knew that would detract from the show.  One thing you immediately notice about Troughton is that he played the Doctor a little bit more like a cosmic hobo. The Second version of the Doctor is a lot more playful.  He would often pretend to be confused in order to give his enemies a false sense of security.  

During the second Doctor’s run, we were introduced to my favorite companion, Jamie McCrimmon.  While most of the Doctor’s companions were from modern day Earth (or some near future which made they act exactly like they were from modern day Earth), Jamie was unique because he was from the 1800’s, Scottish Highlands.  He wore a kilt and carried a blade.  The Doctor would often tease him for being primitive, but you always understood there was great respect between the two men.  Jamie appeared in more episodes than any other companion.

Like The First Doctor, most of the Second Doctor’s episodes did not survive.  As a result, I haven’t seen much of Patrick Troughton’s episodes.  The show seemed to be having problems finding it’s identity during the Second Doctor’s run.  Troughton was great, and there are a lot of really good episodes, but they just don’t seem to have a strong sense of purpose or direction.  Of all The Doctors, Troughton is the one I've seen the least episodes of so this is going to be a real short list.

Best Stories:

"The Tomb of the Cybermen" - For the longest time, this was the only serial of Doctor Who’s fifth season to survive.  The Cybermen were introduced in Hartnell’s last serial, but I don’t think they really caught on until this serial.  They were made to be genuinely scary (which was difficult being the effects were not up to the standard they needed...so they looked ridiculous), and this episode really expanded on who the Cybermen were and what they were all about.  This is also the earliest Second Doctor serial to have all the episodes restored, so it was my first exposure to the character.

"The War Games" - When the Doctor was first introduced, we didn’t know much him.  They kept his origins a mystery for a long time. The War Games is Patrick Troughton’s last serial, and it is one of the longest serials at 10 episodes.  This episode is the first time we ever hear about Time Lords and Gallifrey.  Basically a rogue Time Lord calling himself the War Chief has brainwashed soldiers from all over the universe to fight in a simulated war planet he developed.  Apparently he was playing Convergence or Secret Wars long before Marvel and DC stole the idea.

This was the also the last Doctor Who to be shot in black and white.  Also, this is the only time the Doctor regenerated without actually dying.  The Time Lords force him to regenerate so they can exile him onto Earth with a busted TARDIS for going Rogue.  On top of all the interesting facts about this episode, I just think it’s a real good story too.

Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee)

Jon Pertwee is my favorite incarnation of The Doctor.  Pretty much every Doctor Who fan has one incarnation that they feel is thee Doctor closest to their heart, and Pertwee has been mine.  I have a fondness for every Doctor, and for a longest time I would have said Chris Eccleston was My Doctor. But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Jon Pertwee had ended up dethroning him. There was just a lot of things that Pertwee did that no other incarnation of the Doctor has been able to match.

When Pertwee took over as the Doctor, the show went through some dramatic changes. For one, Pertwee’s first season was the first to be shown in color.  It was also the first time we didn’t get to see the regeneration on screen (as far as I know, the only other time that would happen was when Paul McGann turned into Chris Eccleston…though later we found out that there was the War Doctor in between those two).

These days, it’s very common for Doctor Who episodes to take place on modern Earth, but the first two Doctors very rarely spent time there.  The first few Pertwee seasons took place completely on Earth, with the Doctor exiled and working for UNIT dealing with all kinds of sci-fi weirdness on Earth, like evil plastic mannequins.

Pertwee’s run as the Doctor also introduced us to The Master, played brilliantly by Roger Delgado.  The Master would provide a much more clever and devious adversary than the Daleks or the Cybermen. You can tell Roger Delgado was having a lot of fun in the role, and Jon Pertwee played off him perfectly.

We also got some great supporting cast here. Brigadier Sir Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart is the head of UNIT, a military taskforce who the Doctor ends up working for on his time on Earth.  A strong willed character, equal in stubbornness to the Doctor.  He also has some terrific companions in Jo Grant, Sarah Jane Smith, and Liz Shaw, who might be the most underrated character in Doctor Who history, just because Jo and Sarah Jane are so fondly remembered.

One thing I loved about Jon Pertwee was that he managed to play the Doctor as very human.  The scene where he has to say goodbye to Jo during her wedding is probably the best moment the Doctor ever got to that point. He could be kind one minute, playful the next, and downright furious the next. There was just so much depth to this version of the Doctor.  He never seemed to be as alien as some of the other incarnations, and he built strong ties to his friends and allies on Earth.

In addition to being a snappy dresser and obsessed over his car Bessie, the Third Doctor was a master of Venusian Aikido…which mostly consisted of the most goofy looking judo moves ever.

If you want to see the Third Doctor at his best, I would definitely suggest that you check out:

"Spearhead from Space" - From pretty much the beginning, it was clear the Third Doctor was going to be a very different character.  He was stranded on Earth, dressed in a flashy manner, and wasn’t avoid to throw down using some Kirk-like martial arts moves.  To me, this is really when the show started to find it’s footing.  In Spearhead from Space, the Doctor faces off against living mannequins (which was also how the Ninth Doctor would make his debut many years later).  It’s a great start for a great run in the show’s history.

"Doctor Who and the Silurians" - I always liked the Silurians because they were very complicated Doctor Who “villains” (which isn’t really the right word for them).  For the most part, they seem willing to try and work with humans to share Earth, but it just keeps ending badly for them.  At the end of this serial, humankind basically commits genocide on them after the Doctor gets the Silurians to agree to seek peace.   Huge commentary about humanity.

"Inferno" - This serials deals a lot with alternate realities, and it’s a real well written.  But, what I really loved was the end.  The Doctor tells off Brig and tries to make a big exit...and ends up in the trash dump, where he has to eat his words.   After a real grim and thoughtful serial, I thought this little bit of humor was very much needed.


"The Green Death" - As I am writing these summaries, I realize that often it is moments in Doctor Who that stick out for me more than any specific serial.  And that is true here too.  At the end of this serial, Jo Grant decides to get married and leave the Doctor.  The Doctor truly cared about Jo, and didn’t want to make it difficult for her, so he slips aways during the wedding.  This is Pertwee at his best.  The loving grandfather with deep melancholy.


"The Time Warrior" - This was the first serial to feature the Sontarans and Sarah Jane Smith, one of the Doctors most popular companions.  This was just a real fun story to me, and the Sontarans were portrayed as badasses here, not just goofy potatoes with an attitude problem as they appeared in many of their later appearances.   And Sarah Jane Smith is truly one of the greatest characters in Doctor Who.  She even got her own brilliant spin off in recent years until the actress unexpectedly passed away.

The Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker)

When most people think of classic Doctor Who, they think of Tom Baker.  He was the first Doctor to get a big exposure in the United States, and his look (including the hat and the epic length scarf) was so distinctive.  Whenever Doctor Who is referenced in another work, it’s usually Tom Baker.

Tom Baker was also the actor to play the Doctor the longest, doing it for a ridiculous 7 years (for the most part, no one else has done it more than 3 years).  He was great in the role.  He had a wonderful sense of fun, and you can tell quite a bit of his gestures and comments were off the cuff.  Tom Baker’s personality was just so big, it was better to stay out of the way and let him do his thing.

Maybe it was because of how long he was in the role, but Tom Baker had some of the strangest companions we had seen.   While he is most remembered for travelling with Sarah Jane Smith, he also had a robot dog named K9.  He travelled a cave woman named Leela.  He travelled with a Time Lord named Ramona (who even got a regeneration of her own).  And towards the end of his run, he even took on an annoying nerd named Audric (who was sort of the predecessor Wesley Crusher...but far, far lamer).   This was the only time in Doctor Who they really experimented so much with the companion, and I’ve always wondered why they haven’t done a lot more of that.  It definitely gave the show some fresh new perspectives at least.  

There were a lot of great serials during Tom Baker’s run.  It was actually hard for me to boil them down to a few favorites.  I will admit, part of the problem is so many of them have real generic titles so it was damn hard to remember which ones I was looking for.  I had to cheat a little and looked at a few other sites to see which episodes they picked for guidance.  

One quick comment, I have seen a lot of websites include Logopolis on their list.  I actually thought that episode was a terrible ending for the Fourth Doctor, with teases of the inevitability of his death, and one of the most ridiculous death scenes I’ve ever seen, so it is not on my list.

Best serials:

"Genesis of the Daleks" - This episode presents the Doctor with a difficult moral choice.  He’s tasked by the Time Lords to go back in time and stop the Daleks before they can become a threat.  In this episode, we learn the origins of the Daleks and meet their creator Davros.  In the end, the Doctor can’t bring himself to kill the Daleks this way, which basically dooms the rest of the universe.  There are a lot of powerful moments here, especially seeing the Time Lords so willing to violate their own rules in order to stop the Daleks.  This episode sets the course for a lot of what happened in Doctor Who in the decades since.  

"Deadly Assassin" - This is an interesting episode because it is the first time we’ve seen the Doctor without any companions.  Actually, this is the only time that ever happened in classic Doctor Who.  This episode was always cool to me because it showed up so much of Time Lord society.  This episode also brings back the Master as a major threat.  

"City of Death" - Supposedly this episode was poorly received when it first aired, but over time, people have built a real appreciation for it.  The episode revolves around an alien who arrives on Earth not with some plot for world domination, but instead, he’s trying to perpetrate one of the most unique art heists ever.  He has DaVinci paint 6 copies of the Mona Lisa so he can sell them all in the far future.  In the Doctor’s attempt to stop this plan, the real Mona Lisa is destroyed...but since he figures DaVinci painted the copies, he feels that it should be fine.   

"Invasion of Time" - This is a real weird and complex story.  It starts with the Doctor returning to Gallifrey and taking over the vacant presidency.  From there, he seems to allow a group of aliens to invade Gallifrey, just so he could set them up for a trap to defeat them.  And then the Sontarans arrive to invade Gallifrey themselves.  This always felt like a serial that should have had too much going on to be good, BUT, they managed to balance it perfectly and create a compelling story with lots of twists and turns.

Honorable Mention - "The Key to Time" - For The Key To Time, they did a whole season which was basically one long story broken into separate serials.  I will admit that not all of the stories aren’t all great, but I loved the idea, and I thought they told a very cool story.  

The Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison)

Peter Davison had the real difficult task of picking up after the most popular incarnation of the Doctor.  He is too often unfairly criticized for having been too young for the role.  But, I think he did a terrific job as The Doctor, even if he wasn’t always given the best scripts to work with (a problem that seemed to happen a lot for the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Doctors).  In fact, David Tennant was a huge fan of the Fifth Doctor, and even patterned a lot of his performance after the Fifth Doctor:


I assume they were trying to find something as marketable as the scarf when they came up with the Fifth Doctor’s outfit.  He basically wears cricket gear, with a stalk of celery on the lapel.  In his last episode, they offered a quick explanation for what the celery was for (if it came in contact with a certain type of radiation it would turn purple).  It’s definitely memorable, though real strange.

Peter Davison’s Doctor ended up with a large supporting cast.  He basically always had at least two, often three, companions throughout the series.  My favorite was probably Tegan Jovanka, who also happens to be the companion who appeared longer than anyone else in Doctor Who history (three years, 1 day), even though Jamie appeared in more episodes.  Tegan always spoke her mind, and just had a certain presence that always drew your attention to her.  

Favorite serials:

"Mawdryn Undead" - This serial introduces Turlough to the series...who is actually one of my least favorite characters.  But I still enjoyed these episodes anyway.  Even though Doctor Who is able to travel through time, they didn’t use time travel as a plot point much in the classic series.  But this story is set in two time periods, 6 years apart, as the Doctor tries to deal with the sinister Black Guardian.  

"Arc of Infinity" - Another episode that takes place on Gallifrey.  A powerful enemy named Omega has set up shop on Earth and has the Time Lords thinking The Doctor is a traitor. The Doctor has to fake his own death to flush out Omega.  I just thought this one had a lot of cool twists and turns, and gave Peter Davison a chance to shine (Omega takes on the Doctor’s appearance towards the end of the episode).

"Kinda" - I had mentioned earlier that Tegan was my favorite of the Fifth Doctor’s companions, and this serial was a huge part of the reason why.  Throughout this story, a powerful alien force is trying to take over Tegan, and she gets the chance to show a wide variety of acting range.  It would have been real easy for this episode to go south, but Janet Fielding’s performance was so good it made up for any quirks in the script.  They tried to do a sequel to this one called Snakedance, but it’s nowhere near as good.

"The Caves of Androzani" - This episode ends up on a lot of people’s all time favorite Doctor Who lists.  It is definitely by far the best script that Peter Davison got to work with.  But even though the whole story is very good, what really strikes me about this one is the end, where the Doctor sacrifices himself in order to save his companion from radiation poisoning.  It is a terrific piece of acting by everyone involved.


The Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker)

Colin Baker is another perfect example of a great actor being stuck with some underwhelming scripts.  A lot of his first season was actually painful to watch.  He seemed to hate everyone and have random outbursts.   

But once he settles down into the role, he did a great job.  His version of the Doctor seems to have a lot of real depth to him. You aren’t always sure how he will act in any specific situation, which really drew my attention to him.  Sadly, just as he hit his stride in the role, he ended up having a bitter fight with BBC, and they basically fired him.  At this point, they seemed to have basically just given up on Doctor Who and were just playing out the string.  As a result, Colin Baker has one of the shortest terms of playing Doctor Who.

He refused to come back and film a regeneration sequence, requiring Sylvester McCoy to wear what might be the world’s worst wig to fake it.



His most memorable companion is Peri, who was supposed to be American (though the actress was British).  There was a bit of a controversy with Peri, who often seemed to appear in sexy, revealing outfits (for the time...her outfits are real tame by today’s standards).  

The Sixth Doctor also has one of the worst outfits the Doctor ever had to wear.  Colin Baker has said that he wanted the Doctor to dress much more simply (he says the Ninth Doctor’s outfit is very close to what he proposed), but BBC was insistent that he had to wear the rainbow jacket with all the question marks.   The fact this Doctor has any fans at all is a testament to Colin Baker’s performance.

Best Episodes:

"Mark of the Rani" - I am always surprised that they didn’t do more with The Rani.  She was an evil female Time Lord with ties to the Doctor’s past.  She only appeared a handful of times, but she seemed to me like she could have been a treat on the level of The Master if they had just given her the chance.  Real odd trivia fact about this one.  After this serial (directed by Sarah Hellings), it would be 22 years until we had another female director work on Doctor Who (Blink directed by Hettie MacDonald).

"The Two Doctors" - Up to this point, any time the Doctor met a prior incarnation, ALL the prior incarnations showed up in some capacity or another.  This time it’s just the Second and Sixth Doctors, along with Jamie and Peri.  The Two Doctors played off each other so well, I kind of wished they had Patrick Troughton stick around a little longer.  Definitely one of my favorite serials!

"Timelash" - This is the last classic episode to introduce a historical figure, though we don’t realize it until the very end of the episode.  So much of this episode revolves about the Timelash, which is basically a corridor through time.  I thought it was a cool plot device and used really well.  My favorite part of this episode is that the Doctor alludes to a past adventure when he was the Third Doctor.  This episode serves as a sequel to that story...but it was a story that completely happened off-screen.  I just liked the idea that the Doctor had a lot of adventures off screen.  

"Trial of a Time Lord" - I almost feel like I am cheating here, but I loved this entire season of Doctor Who.  Basically it was four separate serials that were all used as part of a bigger story.  The episodes require Colin Baker to do some hefty acting, and by the end, I had finally started to become a big fan...just long enough for him to be unceremoniously yanked from the role.   This was a ridiculous decision.

The Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy)

Sylvester McCoy was a unique choice to play the Doctor because he was a man of many talents.  McCoy’s background was comedy, and the Doctor would often be seen putting on little routines (like playing the spoons or giving out quirky proverbs that don’t make a lot of sense).  What is really odd though is that even though he is probably the lightest Doctor, at the same time, he was also the darkest Doctor. This Doctor is disturbingly clinical, and every action seems part of a Master Plan.  He treated his companion as a chess piece, seemingly willing to let her come to great harm as long as it meant he was able to achieve his own cryptic goals.  He even talked what he believed was the last Dalek into committing suicide.   The Seventh Doctor was definitely more than meets the eye.

His companion through most of his run was Ace, a street-tough girl who was also a brilliant chemist. She was constantly carrying around canisters of what she called Nitro-9, eager to blow something up for the Doctor.  Ace had a complicated backstory, and it’s heavily suggested that the Doctor intentionally sought her out.  By the way, Ace’s real name was Dorothy Gale, and she ended up getting swept into the Doctor’s life by a time storm.  I also thought that was kind of cool.

Favorite Episodes:

"Remembrance Of The Daleks" - One thing that really strikes me about the Seventh Doctor was that he seemed to be cleaning house.  A lot of the episodes deal with him making massive moves to take out long time enemies.  In this one, it’s all about the Doctor working to stop the Daleks once and for all.  Granted, it doesn’t stick, but I still thought it was a very striking departure from a lot of what we’ve seen before.  

"Delta and the Bannermen" - This story is just so strange. The Doctor and Mel win a trip to Disney World...but on the way, their space tour bus crashes into a satellite and they end up in a creepy “Stepford-like” town.  In the process, they end up having to protect the last survivor of an alien race.  There is a lot going on in this one, and I thought they managed to balance it all so well.  

"Silver Nemesis" - This serial celebrated Doctor Who’s 25th anniversary.  Similar to Remembrance of the Daleks, this serial seemed to be saying a farewell to the Cybermen.  Over the course of this story, Ace starts to realize that the Doctor isn’t quite what she thought he was.  He may pretend to be a clown at times, but there is a plotting darkness at work in his mind.  

"The Curse of Fenric" - This was the second to last Doctor Who story before it went off the air.  Personally, I thought it was a much better way to end the series than Survival, which featured the Master slowly turning into a cat monster.  The various plots the Doctor has been running all come together here, and we see how much of a “game” he has been playing with the universe and for how long.  We don’t quite get any answers, as the show ended before this could be explored more, but I thought it put a great spin on everything we thought we knew about The Doctor.

One quick thing about Survival, while the producers had some suspicion it would be the end of Doctor Who, it wasn’t confirmed until very late in the process.  McCoy’s beautiful speech at the end of Survival was actually recorded AFTER the first episode of Survival had already aired.  I always thought that was a cool bit of trivia.

OH!  If you want to see what some of the classic Doctors have been up to, you have to check out The Five(ish) Doctors.  This great special was put together by Peter Davison as part of Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary.  It even has a quick appearance by Sean Pertwee (son of Jon Pertwee, also Alfred in Gotham).


That wraps up our Beginner’s Guide To Doctor Who.  Hope you enjoyed it.  Doctor Who returns tonight with “The Magician’s Assistant.”

Here are the prologues leading into tonight’s return!

Click here for "The Doctor's Meditation"