Doctor Who premiered on BBC 1 on November 23, 1963, the day after President Kennedy was shot. The most recent season finale aired on BBC 1 on June 26th, 2010. If you’re good at math, that means the show has been around almost 47 years without any signs of stopping. In total there have been 212 stories comprised of 769 individual episodes. That’s just a gargantuan amount of televised material and for anyone interested in getting into the show might be deterred by the sheer volume, but fear not, oh my Whovians, hope is here. I’ve spent the better part of last year plowing through every episode I could and putting together a list of the essential Doctor Who stories. Their essentialness is based on being either important to the mythology of the series, integral to the understanding of later things, or just worth watching. Many of the master tapes for 1966-1968 stories were wiped by the BBC and no longer exist in visual form. They can be heard via audio recordings with linking narration added, and there’s also quite a few episodes not yet released, but in the interest of brevity, we’re going to stick to stuff already out on DVD. It’s still pretty extensive, but it should lighten the burden a little bit. We’re going to go Doctor by Doctor.
The First Doctor is played by William Hartnell who had the role from 1963-1966. The character’s origins were at that time unknown and his race unnamed. He also started as a bit of a tricky anti-hero, an opportunist who leaves it to his human companions to be the morality of the show. He was gruff, irascible, and stern with everyone around him.
Story 1 – An Unearthly Child
Two concerned school teachers, Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, follow gifted yet perplexing student Susan Foreman home to meet her mysterious grandfather. They end up in a junkyard where they meet a dismissive, obstinate old man with a blue police box. The teachers eventually force their way inside when they hear Susan’s voice and find that the box is bigger on the inside. And that’s all in the first episode. The next three involve the new companions (some would say “hostages”) going with the Doctor and Susan to pre-historic times and getting embroiled in the politics of cavemen.
Why it’s important:
It’s the first one, duh. You get a whole heap of info in that very first episode including, the Doctor “Who?” the TARDIS, and the fact that the Doctor and Susan are from another planet but can’t go back (it’s unclear that this point why.) The Doctor is kind of a dick in the first several episodes and even contemplates killing a wounded caveman so they won’t have to carry him. Not quite the man we would later know.
Story 2 – The Daleks
After going way the hell back in Earth’s history, the TARDIS takes the weary travelers way the hell in the future and to a distant planet that, they find out too late, is dangerously high in radiation. They explore and find nothing more than jungle petrified beasts. The wily Doctor sees what appears to be an abandoned, blown-out city and tricks the gang into investigating. They soon find that the city is not abandoned but is inhabited by the metallic, tank-like creatures called Daleks. They learn the Daleks were once humanoid creatures that have been irreparably mutated by nuclear war and now can only survive in their rolling sarcophagi. The Daleks decide to use the intruders to once and for all destroy their oldest foes, the Thals. This story is a classic, no doubt, but there are a couple episodes that definitely feel like padding. For instance, there’s a whole episode essentially devoted to a crew of infiltrators swinging from one side of an underground cavern to another. Individually. You see each person go. Episodes 5-6 can be glazed over, but the rest are absolutely essential and worth watching.
Why it’s important:
It’s the very first appearance of the Doctor’s greatest and most persistent adversaries. It sets up much of their mythology, like the planet Skaro and their war with the Thals, which plays into later stories. It’s also the first time we see what kind of stories can be told in the reaches of space-future.
Story 3 – Edge of Destruction
After the ordeal with the Daleks, the Doctor attempts to fix the TARDIS’ navigational control, resulting in an explosion. The travelers are knocked unconscious and when they awaken, they are all suspicious of one another and acting altogether out of character. Clues soon begin popping up that explain that the TARDIS itself is making the crew behave this way, in an attempt to make them aware that they have been flung to the beginning of the universe and are on the verge of being destroyed.
Why it’s important:
This short story takes place entirely within the confines of the TARDIS and has no guest cast. After the previous eleven episodes, the show’s cost had gotten too high and they needed a couple cheap episodes to help recoup expenses. However, from a story standpoint, it was important for the crew to hash out their differences and come to an understanding with each other. It’s also the first real allusion to the TARDIS being itself alive and the fifth member of the crew.
All three of the previous stories are available in the “Doctor Who: Beginnings” box set which is chock-full of interesting documentaries and commentary.
Story 10 – The Dalek Invasion of Earth
The TARDIS lands in London to the delight of Ian and Barbara, but it isn’t the same city they left. The streets are all but empty and there’s evidence of war. They find out it’s the year 2164 and they spy flying saucers overhead. Big surprise, it’s the Daleks who have enslaved the greater London populace. The crew takes up with a small band of rebels and work to liberate London from the metal marauders. There are scenes of Daleks leading groups of people into subjugation, rebels trading and bartering for rations and supplies, and even a group of Daleks advancing across Westminster Bridge with Big Ben in the background.
Why it’s important:
It’s the first time a Doctor Who villain has returned, something which would prove to be the cornerstone of the series. It’s also the first true Earth-based alien menace, again, not the last. There are clear allusions to WWII and the Blitz of London, as well as of people being put into “concentration camps,” which lead to the allegory of Daleks as Nazis. At the end of the saga, Susan has fallen in love with a young Earth resistance fighter and the Doctor tells her to stay. This, too, is important because it sets up the convention of the Doctor having rotating companions.
Story 17 – The Time Meddler
The Doctor, having dropped off Ian and Barbara to their own time in the previous Dalek story, “The Chase,” is now traveling with future orphan Vicki and brash spaceship pilot Steven. They arrive in England in 1066, just before the Viking invasion and the Battle of Hastings. The Doctor comes across a monastery on a hill where he can hear many monks chanting, but only sees one. The Doctor finds a gramophone (or record player for you people who’ve never heard the word) playing the chants and also finds a toaster and an electric teapot. The Monk then traps the Doctor in a makeshift cell. Steven and Vicki meanwhile do some exploring of their own and find that one of the peasants has a wristwatch he picked up from the Monk. They investigate and the Monk delights in being able to trap two more. The Doctor escapes and finds out the Monk is planning on changing the events of the Battle of Hastings, thus altering the course of history. Then things really get interesting when Steven and Vicki find that the Monk has his own TARDIS.
Why it’s important:
It’s the very first time we meet someone of the Doctor’s race, besides Susan. The term “Time Lord” had not yet been invented, but the presence of a second TARDIS and the Doctor’s awareness of the Monk as a “meddler of time,” is significant. It’s also, really, the first time the Doctor acts entirely out of altruism, without any hint of personal gain. He must protect Earth and time because he is morally compelled to do so. This shaped the character through the rest of the intervening years.
Due to the BBC’s brilliant policy of “junking,” or erasing, old master tapes in the 70s, we now have only three complete stories from the First Doctor’s third and final full season, but luckily we still have the majority of the first two to tide us over. This policy did have a drastic effect on Second Doctor Patrick Troughton, which we will deal with in the next installment.
In the mean time, enjoy some Classic Who.