Confessions of an old-school Doctor Who newbie

I’ve been watching the BBC reboot of Doctor Who that began in 2005 off and on for a few years (I’m currently catching up on the most recent season with Matt Smith as the Doctor). But apart from maybe catching some random episodes on PBS as a kid, until recently I had never watched any “classic” Doctor Who, the series that ran from 1963 to 1989 and featured seven different actors playing the Doctor.

Luckily for me, Amazon has a smattering of the old serials available on its streaming video service. So I’ve been hopping around, with the goal of hitting some of the high points from each of the Doctors (though I gather that some high points are considerably higher than others).

So far I’ve watched

“Tomb of the Cybermen” (with Patrick Troughton as the second Doctor)

“Spearhead from Space” (with John Pertwee as the third Doctor)

“Ark in Space” (with Tom Baker as the fourth–and longest running–Doctor)

“Pyramids of Mars” (with Tom Baker)

I’ve enjoyed all of these, though “Cybermen” the least due to some pretty slow pacing and spotty acting by some of the secondary players (not to mention some fairly egregious casual racism).

I probably liked “Spearhead from Space” and “Pyramids of Mars” the best. The former is the first appearance of the third Doctor and establishes his new status quo as an exile on Earth who is unable to operate the TARDIS (his space-and-time-traveling police box) and has to join forces with a paranormal investigative arm of the British army called UNIT. (This serial gives off some serious X-Files vibes, and you have to wonder if Chris Carter was a Who Fan.)

One of the fascinating things about Who (and which has been credited by lots of people for the show’s longevity) is that each new Doctor provides an occasion for a virtual reboot of the entire series. In the case of the third Doctor, there was a fairly obvious effort to incorporate elements from the spy/adventure franchises like James Bond and The Avengers that were popular at the time. As someone has aptly described him, the third Doctor was a bit like Bond and Q in one person.

“Pyramids” has the fourth Doctor firing on all cylinders. To Americans at least, Tom Baker is probably the most iconic of the “classic” Doctors (though I realized that before watching these, I had often conflated Tom Baker’s fourth Doctor and Colin Baker’s (no relation AFAIK) sixth Doctor because they both had big, curly hair and wore multi-colored clothes). The plot has the Doctor and his longtime companion Sarah Jane Smith trying to stop an ancient Egyptian “god” (who is of course really an alien) from escaping his imprisonment in a tomb to wreak havoc on Earth.

Baker’s Doctor is more like the Doctor we “nu”-Whovians have come to know and love–an eccentric cosmic bohemian who defeats his enemies through cunning and cleverness rather than brute force and has a special place for human beings in his heart(s). One of the fun things about watching different actors take on the Doctor is that while they each put their own spin on the character, he has certain constant traits that make him recognizably the same.

Next I’m planning to watch one of the fifth Doctor serials, then maybe skip to seven or back to one (I’ve heard terrible things about the Colin Baker years, so I’m putting those off).

There’s no shortage of online advice for deciding which serials to check out–I found these particularly helpful:

Old-School Doctor Who Episodes Everyone Should Watch (at io9)

Primer: Doctor Who (at the AV Club)

Doctor Who: 11 Must See Classic Episodes (at WhatCulture!)

Any Whovians out there want to recommend some must-see classic adventures?

7 thoughts on “Confessions of an old-school Doctor Who newbie

  1. I’ve only seen a few of the early episodes that a friend made me watch 😉 but it reminded me of a cross between the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and FarScape … too silly … it didn’t have all the dread and angst I expect from science fiction, I guess. Maybe I should give it another try.

    1. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that Douglas Adams actually wrote for Doctor Who during the 70s! But in DW’s defense it did often deal with serious themes and the stories often have high stakes and are played more-or-less straight. Though there is always an element of fun and a light touch in the character of the Doctor.

      One thing that may add to the silliness factor is the special effects, which are often just laughably bad (though from what I’ve seen, the show was able to use its limited budget creatively and to good effect at times). One is going to have to bracket that to enjoy the show on its own terms ISTM.

  2. Enjoy watching Classic Series Doctor Who. I love the scene from “The Tomb of the Cybermen” that you’ve posted here. I only watched the whole serial again yesterday.

    I’m currently undertaking a marathon in which I watch every episode broadcast in chronological order, and then blog about it – 50 Years in 50 Weeks. You can check out my blog at

  3. Josh

    Netflix has a storyline of the First Doctor (Wm. Hartnell) online. It’s called The Aztecs. I really enjoyed it. Interesting ethical and historical questions raised, interesting to me anyway.

  4. Pingback: Further adventures in old-school Whovianism | A Thinking Reed

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