5 Best Classic Doctor Who Episodes for Newbies

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I entered Doctor Who fandom straight from the placenta, it feels like. My parents were devoted fans who recorded every episode as they aired, usually late on Saturday night on the local PBS station (it really used to be a hard life as an American Doctor Who fan).

As devotees of the reboot, it's easy to dismiss the classic series as "of-its-time" at best or "naff" at worst. But even when I remove my rose-tinted glasses, there are certain classic episodes that rival New-Who in quality and entertainment value.

I used to try and get people into Who by showing them "State of Decay." Perhaps unsurprisingly, no one was convinced (I still love it though!)

I'm not suggesting you should sit through the entire series, but since we're in the off-season, here are 5 episodes I think you should check out if you're interested in sampling Classic-Who. I'd love to hear other people's suggestions in the comments!

(and if you're interested, you can find my Best New-Who Episodes for Newbies here: http://theoncominghope.blogspot.com/2010/11/best-doctor-who-episodes-for-newbies.html)

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Spearhead From Space

For fans of: Rose

The Story:

The Doctor enters his third regeneration in exile, deprived of his TARDIS. But since trouble seems to follow him anywhere, this doesn't deprive him of adventures. He meets an eccentric plastics manufacturer, who's bent on installing his peculiar creations everywhere in the world.

Why You Should Watch It:

As in Rose, this episode introduces a new Doctor and new companions, and they face the Autons. While Rose did an better job of introducing Who to a new generation (and a better job of introducing the characters), the Autons themselves cannot hold a candle to the original; they are TERRIFYING. The way their initial invasion scene is shot and directed rivals the best of horror films, helped along by the subtle soundtracking.

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Mind Robber

For fans of: Blink, Series 6

The Story:

The TARDIS crew begin to have strange hallucinations of home and of other adventures, and the visions become more and more vivid until the TARDIS itself explodes.

Why You Should Watch It:

This episode basically invented fan fiction years before it became a big thing. This episode also takes the idea that Doctor Who is basically an eccentric space fairytale to its logical conclusion, throwing the Doctor and his companions into fairy tales both past and future. Many science fiction shows deal with the idea of aliens requiring humans for their creative prowess; this episode offers one explanation why an alien relies on creativity to sustain its world.

The AV Club has written a great (spoilery) piece about the many layers of meta-narrative in this episode, which is definitely worth a read: http://www.avclub.com/articles/the-mind-robber,59816/

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Caves of Androzani

For fans of: Doomsday, The Rebel Flesh, Midnight (as suggested by hermitknut)

The Story:

The Doctor and Peri land in the middle of a smuggler's war, and quickly become pawns in their game. Adding confusion to terror, you can't tell who's an android and who's not. Finally, a Phantom of the Underworld becomes unhealthily obsessed with Peri. The twin threat leads to one of the most edge-of-your-seat episodes of the classic series.

Why You Should Watch It:

Davison's performance in this episode essentially fuels the entirety of David Tennant's conception of the character. The Doctor will do literally anything to save his companion, he'll battle through hellfire and plague, and it's guilt that drives him to do it. This episode is a terrifically suspenseful thriller, and best of all, it originally starred David Bowie as the villain (imagine the possibilities!)

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Curse of Fenric

For fans of: The God Complex, Empty Child/Doctor Dances, Dalek

The Story:

The Doctor and Ace end up at a military installation during World War II. The scientist believes he's translating coded German messages using his supercomputer, but really he's translating the code that releases a being called Fenric from his watery prison. Things go pear-shaped from there, as Fenric unleashes a horde of vampires.

Why You Should Watch It:

I suppose "because it's awesome" isn't sufficient reason. Suffice it to say, this is one of the most intense Doctor-Companion episodes that exists in the classic series. The fight between the Doctor and Fenric progressed over centuries, and the question becomes, is Ace just a pawn in the Doctor's game, or something else? You need to watch it.

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City of Death

For fans of: (I can't think of a new Who analogue, but feel free to suggest one in the comments! Maybe Vampires of Venice?) (Shadowturquoise has suggested The Shakespeare Code, as the Doctor and his companion enter the stories as tourists in both cases.)

The Story:

The Doctor and Romana go on a romantic holiday to Paris, only to encounter a plot to steal the Mona Lisa. Humor abounds.

Why You Should Watch It:

It LOOKS expensive. The entire episode was shot on location in Paris, so you get wonderful scenes of the Doctor and Romana wandering around being witty (oh the possibilities of a Woody Allen-written Doctor Who screenplay...but I digress). But then again, who needs Woody Allen, since this episode was written by Douglas Adams? Yes, that Douglas Adams.

This entire serial is television magic: the villain is played by Julian Glover, there's a ham-handed gumshoe that's escaped straight from the pages of Dashiell Hammett, and a cameo I wouldn't spoil for you if my life depended on it.

Go on. Which classic who episode do you recommend for newbies? Any that you love or hate?

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12 Responses to “ 5 Best Classic Doctor Who Episodes for Newbies ”

  1. I agree w/ yr choices EXCEPT for "Caves..." I think the pacing was waaay off! Perhaps, I'm biased because I think Davison is my least favourite Doctor but I did enjoy "Black Orchid" & "Earthshock"

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  2. As a fan of New Who who's still getting my bearings in the classic series, I have to say, the serial that completely sold me on Classic Who was Genesis of the Daleks.  I'd seen a handful of other serials and liked them in spite of the campiness, but Genesis blew me away, no "in spite of" about it.  The only possible reason to avoid it is that comparisons are inevitable, and most of the new-series episodes with heavy Genesis influence (think Utopia) tend to come off very badly in comparison.

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  3. I'm sort of surprised you didn't include a Sarah Jane episode since she's still such a favorite - along with being the only classic Who character brought into NoWho.
     
    If I were to pick one of hers, I might go with Hand of Fear just because it was such a lovely farewell for her back then. It shows very demonstrably the relationship that had developed between the Doctor and Sarah and would give newer fans the background for "School Reunion."
     
    On those lines, I'd probably add a Sarah Jane Adventures tie-in to "City of Death" with "Mona Lisa's Revenge," not because it was the best SJA story, but because I get a kick out of the odd crossover. (I just wish the writers of MLR had thought to throw an in-joke into the script that referred back to CoD.

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  4. theoncominghope24 October 2011 12:32

    I'm starting to regret not including this one! But I didn't want to do two from the same Doctor, and I do think city of death is the best episode to bring people in (humor, plotting, etc)

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  5. theoncominghope24 October 2011 12:32

    I was also disappointed they didn't do a CoD ref in Sarah Jane! They didn't in Amy's Choice, either, which was unfortunate. (I would have loved it if Rory smashed the painting and then just shouted "WHAT IS NOT A FAKE?"

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  6. Fair dues! I also tried to start out with an evenhanded variety of Doctors while sampling classic, but it's just inevitable that Four is overrepresented, he's in so many serials and so many of them are excellent.  So let this comment stand as a footnote to the original post: CoD made me grin, Genesis made me a fan.  Definitely worth checking out if you like thinky sci-fi.

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  7. I am not sure I would suggest it for the very first old school who episode to watch, but I would have to include the very first Doctor who episode An Unearthly Child in the list for certian. I went back and re watched it recently and I think it still stands out as one of the most defining episodes. Its how the everything began after all. 

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  8. Nice list!

    There are always going to be other episodes that feel like "must includes", but this seems to cover a good range of eras and story types.

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  9. Thank you for including a Seventh Doctor episode. Though the early stuff was often woeful, Sly McCoy was a perfect Doctor (who set up a lot of what is being done with the character now), Ace a terrific foil for him and his later serials among the classic series' best. 'Curse Of Fenric' is a great choice, I might have gone for 'Greatest Show In The Galaxy' just because it's such delightfully bonkers fun.

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  10. Great list! I just put together a list for a friend who's never gone back into Classic Who, and I tried to find episodes that best captured each of the Doctor's eras, which is different than picking their best episodes. I think you did a great job here. I would have gone with an earlier Tom Baker serial (PYRAMID OF MARS, maybe), I suggested TOMB OF THE CYBERMEN from Troughton's run, but I can't complain at all with your list.

    As for CURSE OF FENRIC, yes, "simply because it's awesome" is definitely reason enough. One of my all-time favorite serials. If we need a reason to watch it, well, as I argued in my review of FENRIC, this is really where New Who starts:

    http://atomicanxiety.wordpress.com/2010/08/19/doctor-who-the-curse-of-fenric/

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  11. When I decided to get into Doctor Who, I decided to find and watch that serial. I loved it, and suddenly I got a LOT of the subtle references 9 and 10 make to having a family once.

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  12. My top 4 classics in no specific order:
    5th Doctor~Earthshock (Great Episode, perfect for lovers of the Cybermen.
    7th Doctor~Destiny of the Daleks (Great Dalek Episode with some humor too!)
    4th Doctor~The Hand of Fear (Sarah Janes final episode in the classic series)
    4th Doctor~Destiny of the Daleks (another great Dalek episode)
    Please Note: I am not an expert on classic doctor who episodes. I have seen some but I generaly re-watch the reboot episodes again :) I know ALOT about them, ask me anything about it, i will know the answer!!

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