Jodie Whittaker’s 13th Doctor has been a ratings success, bringing the show’s numbers to where they were in a pre-streaming world (which means they’re actually much bigger on the inside, joking aside). A big part of that has been a swath of new fans and returning fans. The reasons for those fans are numerous, from the enticement of the franchise’s first female lead, to the departure of former showrunner Steven Moffat, to the many messages indicating the show was rebooting and the perfect time for new fans to jump in.
By now, brand-new fans have made it through an entire season and a (really great) New Year’s special featuring 13, Yaz, Ryan, and Graham — and now there’s at least a year to wait for the adventures in space and time to resume. Where can they go in the massive catalog of Doctor Who that won’t be a bewildering and inscrutable mess of canonical references and story arcs?
The answer, actually, is pretty much anywhere. Outside of a few pockets, Doctor Who has generally been friendly to those diving in anywhere. In some cases, seasons themselves act as clean slates — starting on any of seasons 1, 2, 5, or 10 essentially work. But if you wanted to get a flavor of each Doctor (and their companions) compared to Whittaker’s 13 and her TARDIS team, below is a list of the best Doctor Who episodes to help you sample our favorite Time Lord.
"The Magician's Apprentice" & "The Witch’s Familiar"
Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor had a wildly uneven first season, mostly because it felt like the writing team didn't know what they wanted to do with the character. However, the two-part story that kicked off the 12th Doctor's second season nailed all of it. First off, Capaldi is in a groove here and second, the story hits all the personal stakes that create an emotional performance out of all involved. There are references to canon and Michelle Gomez's wonderfully unhinged Master and a villain with a very personal connection to the Doctor, all without being impenetrable for newer viewers. As a set of episodes, this season is often regarded as the most consistent under Steven Moffat's watch, and the opening episodes show why.
"The Doctor's Wife"
This stellar episode written by Neil Gaiman showcases many facets of Matt Smith's 11th Doctor while providing dramatic shorthand for many canonical elements, from the inner workings of the TARDIS to the Time War that drove the modern series reboot. And it's simply a fun episode while being emotional and mind-bending, making it a prime example of show at its best.
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"Silence in the Library" & "Forest of the Damned"
For David Tennant’s 10th Doctor, many Doctor Who episode guides will point to the classic episode "Blink" as the top of the top. While Blink may be the most clever show in the reboot’s history, it is also a Doctor-lite story written as a bottle episode to save on costs. The pair of "Silence in the Library" and "Forest of the Damned", however, is a Doctor-focused story with a creepy monster, timeline bending, a mysterious heroine, strong emotional beats, and wonderful chemistry with Catherine Tate’s Donna Noble. I personally use this pair as an introduction for completely cold viewers and it has never, ever failed to win them over.
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"The Empty Child" & "The Doctor Dances"
Beyond simply being a wonderfully creepy story about children in gas masks, this pair of episodes acts as a good entry point for newer Doctor Who fans. This was the first season of the reboot, so some character backstory is explained, as well as the introduction of John Barrowman’s Captain Jack Harkness — a figure so popular he went on to star in his own spinoff series, Torchwood.
Classic Doctor Who
If you’ve made it this far, you’ve probably heard a lot about classic Doctor Who—after all, it makes up roughly ¾ of the show’s 55-year history. Tom Baker, the Fourth Doctor, is the one most often associated with this period, both for the length of his tenure and the affection given his Doctor. If you just see best-of clips, his performance clearly shows why he’s so beloved.
As for the actual episodes? Here’s what you need to know:
● Classic Doctor Who is mostly broken up into serialized stories, each being four to six parts, all about 30 minutes each.
● These stories are often shot on a combination of film stock and video, and transition in visual quality difference is stark. Outdoor scenes are usually on film, indoor scenes (soundstage) are usually video, and moving between them can be jarring.
● These are paced like a stage play, not modern TV. So it’s slow, the camera often stays as people walk across the screen. To say that the pacing is not tight is an understatement.
● The music, especially from the Fourth Doctor on, relies heavily on synthesizers circa the 1970s and 1980s. Chris Chibnall’s team brought synthesizers back, but in a modern post-Mark Snow way.
● The Doctors are all great. Honestly, give each one ten minutes and you’ll immediately see the Doctor in them.
Finally, don’t worry if you can’t get into it. There are a handful of gatekeeper fans who will hold it against you, but the simple fact is that classic Doctor Who episodes' pacing and serial nature can be hard to overcome, particularly if you’ve only watched modern television in the Peak TV era. That being said, the performances and writing are nearly always spot on, and the sheer feel of the Doctor oozes into each actor, so give it a go.
With that in mind, here are a list of must-see Doctor Who episodes from each of the classic Doctors—and note that I'm going with more easily accessible picks available on Amazon Prime, though the entire run is available in various ways.
"Curse of the Fenric"
Sylvester Mccoy's 7th Doctor marked the end of the classic era, and though production budgets shrunk, the stories and characters stepped forward. Not only is Curse a strong standalone gothic horror story, it lays the foundation for the type of storytelling seen in the modern reboot, with companion Ace having a more complex backstory that weaves into the narrative and the Doctor proving to have a more complex relationship and approach to the situation at hand.
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"Vengeance on Varos"
Colin Baker’s 6th Doctor came at a difficult time for the show, between creative issues behind the scenes and the show's effects straining to keep up with modern innovations. This particular story features an ahead-of-its-time look at reality television (with murderous intent, of course) and along with some truly laughable sets and effects. The Doctor himself is presented in a far different way than other incarnations, both in his relationship with his companion and his attitude towards his enemies. As a whole, Varos is a thought provoking piece of sci-fi wrapped in a dime store budget.
"The Caves of Androzani"
Often topping polls as the fan-favorite classic story, this sees the affable and generous 5th Doctor veer into darker territory. Like the best stories in Doctor Who, this uses a sci-fi setting to dig deeper into modern issues, this time-turning corporate greed into a literal toxic substance. At the same time, it pits the Doctor in a no-win situation, which amps up the tension as the serial ratchets towards its conclusion.
"The Robots of Death"
Tom Baker's 4th Doctor has many, many excellent stories, so it's hard to pick one as an entry point. This serial, though, works brilliantly as a sci-fi murder mystery where the characters are trapped and get picked off one by one. It also features Leela, who may be the most badass of all the Doctor's companions. And for a show made on a tiny budget, those blank-faced robots sure are creepy.
"The Spearhead of Space"
The 3rd Doctor’s initial episodes establish Jon Pertwee’s Time Lord as stranded on earth, with a rocking new haircut, and teaming up with his friends in UNIT—an organization that has a changing acronym definition throughout the series, but is essentially like a military organization that defends against alien shenanigans. This episode establishes a formula sometimes used in future regeneration episodes, where the newly regenerated Doctor takes some time in waking up, understanding the situation, finding an outfit, and earning people’s trust. It also features a fantastic villain in the Autons, who can implement consciousness in plastic, making mannequins the deadliest things in England.
"The Mind Robber"
Patrick Troughton's 2nd Doctor was often seen as the model for many future Doctors, and much can be said of this serial as well by with its seemingly anachronistic mystery of fairy tale characters and ability to turn childhood icons like toy soldiers into creepy and threatening beasts. Outside of the dated production values, this story feels like it could slot into the modern show, particularly the vine of Matt Smith's Doctor—which is appropriate given how much Smith was inspired by the 2nd Doctor.
"An Unearthly Child"
If you’ve made it this long, you’ve traversed about 20 hours of space and time. Thus, when it gets time to meet the 1st Doctor, it really makes sense to start with the episode that launched the whole thing in 1963. "An Unearthly Child" isn’t the most exciting of episodes, even by early standards. It’s also clearly contradicting later canon (though future showrunners have often joked about how everything is canon because really, it’s a show about time travel and changing timelines). But for pure historical purposes, it really makes sense for you to start out with Coal Hill schoolteachers Ian and Barbara as their concern for a student named Susan leads to the discovery of a mysterious blue box in a junkyard.
But wait, what about 8? If you don't know the history of Doctor Who, then the existence of Paul McGann's 8th Doctor will surprise you. Because he came from a Fox-pilot-turned-TV-movie. Then he became the star of officially-licensed and canonical audio dramas (they’re really good). Then Steven Moffat brought him back for the 50th anniversary with a mini-episode that bridged the classic series and the modern series.
Here's the thing with the 8th Doctor: his TV movie is not good. But McGann himself is fantastic right from the get go; watch it and you'll see the potential for a full series, along with an amazing steampunk TARDIS. Still, your best introduction to him should be the six-minute "Night of the Doctor" short, and if you’re feeling it, then go back and watch the Fox TV movie with tongue firmly in cheek.
And if you're wondering “how is John Hurt involved?” then there are still some surprises in store for you. So go get in the blue police box (or the BritBox service, which will give you access to all of Doctor Who's history) and begin traveling in space and time.
About the author:
Mike Chen is the author of HERE AND NOW AND THEN (MIRA/Harlequin) and a lifelong writer. He has contributed to major geek websites including The Portalist, covered the NHL for mainstream media outlets, and is super proud of his Star Trek: TNG fan fiction. A member of SFWA and Codex Writers, Mike lives in the Bay Area, where he can be found playing video games and watching Doctor Who with his wife, daughter, and rescue animals. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @mikechenwriter.
Featured still from "The Witch's Familiar" via The BBC