With Dr Who’s 50th anniversary and imminent return just around the corner, and many of my compatriots racing to jump on board this fan wagon, I thought I should take a moment and write up some guides to Who viewing. With so much Doctor out there, it can feel overwhelming to try to immerse oneself in the canon, especially when it comes to the older generations of Who episodes, in which each story is multiple episodes long, and definitely not made for a modern TV viewing audience. So here I present a viewing guide for getting to know Dr Who–Doctors 1-3.
When it comes to experiencing the very old Doctors, there are two ways you can go about it: The Long Way or The Short Cut.
The Long Way is a very rewarding experience, especially if you are at all interested in the history of television, and experiencing how much the medium has changed in the last half a century. As a pop culture nerd, I found dipping into he earliest doctors tremendously rewarding, not just to learn about the canon, but to watch how televised story telling was once treated.
- For the First Doctor, William Hartnell, I highly recommend “Doctor Who and the Aztecs.” Doctor Who, for those who don’t know, was originally conceived as a children’s show, designed to teach history. The Aztecs is a firm example of that idea. The time travel isn’t because time travel is cool. The time travel is so the Doctor can take you back in time and let you experience living history. It is a manageable four episodes long (anything that’s more than four episodes long should be avoided except by the most avid fans), and it is a shocking experience for a modern eye. It in not “television” as we know it today. Instead it is a “televised stage play.” Everything is extremely still, and furthermore, startlingly quiet. Moreover, the casual racism on display is jaw dropping. This is a story meant to educate little white children about the white man’s burden. Today it holds that same educational ability–of just how far we really have come. This episode has the Doctor travelling with his original three companions, one of whom is Susan, the Doctor’s granddaughter. The other two are Barbara and Ian, a pair of Susan’s teachers, who contribute to the over all “educational television” aspect of the show.
- For the Second Doctor, Patrick Troughton, I would suggest “The Tomb of The Cybermen.” This is another black and white 4 parter, but a little less creaky than The Aztecs, which aired only four years earlier. This one is a good follow-up because it gives a sense of how the concept of Doctor Who was breaking away from the “educating history” direction. It is not the first episode with the Cybermen, but considering how much New Who has relied on them for an anchoring villainous monster, it is a good education as to their history in the series. The companions in this series are Victoria and Jamie, both from the late 1800s. Proof that the Doctor didn’t always feel the need to take companions from our modern age. (Hint hint, Mr. Moffat!)
- For the Third Doctor, Jon Pertwee, the best place to start is “The Claws of Axos”, because this was the one that introduced the Doctor’s arch-enemy, The Master. I also like this series as a next step because it is another four-year jump from The Tomb of the Cybermen, and the changes that came with the switch to color are remarkable. The pace has sped up, there are shots that aren’t a cardboard set. The effects are still laugh out loud horrendous, but were cutting edge for 1971, so give them a break. This series also contains my least favorite companion in the history of ever, Jo Grant. You can hate her along with me.
The Short Cut: Yes, I know. I have just suggested watching 12 episodes of Doctor Who–one episode short of an entire modern-day season–and we’re only three Doctors in. For those who don’t have that kind of time to spend, there is the handiest-dandiest of short cuts to help you. For, to celebrate the 10th season of Doctor Who, the writers gave us the episode “The Three Doctors.”
Yes, all three doctors, one four part serial. Now, it is far heavier on the second and third doctors than the first, due to Hartnell’s age and health–his memory was badly shot, so we only appears via a view screen in the TARDIS, where he could be cue carded without it being obvious to the audience. (It was also his last work as an actor–Hartnell died shortly after it aired.) But if you’re looking for an easy cliff note version to give you the first ten years of Doctor Who, in color, and at a pace a modern audience can sit through easily, this is the serial for you. Plus you can still discover just how godawful Jo Grant is!
Even if you choose to Short Cut, there is one Third Doctor episode which, in my mind is non negotiable. It falls post-The Three Doctors in the chronology, so if you choose to Short Cut, you can then easily follow it up with this one.
- “The Time Warrior.” A lot of the concepts that we recognize in New Who are introduced in this serial, starting with the Doctor’s home planet of Gallifrey. The Sontarans (who appear semi regularly in New Who) are also introduced. But most importantly, I think this episode is a must watch because it introduces the longest running–and first feminist!–companion, Sarah Jane Smith, who went on to anchor her own spin off series during the New Who era. More than watching this serial for the Third Doctor, this serial is to be watched for the introduction of this character to the Whoniverse.
Tomorrow: Our Old Who Viewers guide will take on the two most iconic Doctors–Tom Baker and Peter Davison.