As I noted in my New Who skip/watch list, it can be intimidating knowing where to jump into the new show, with its 10 seasons and five Doctors. But this is nothing compared to Classic Who, which lasted 26 seasons and seven (or eight, depending on how you count) Doctors.
The good news is that Classic Who really isn't reliant on over-arching storylines, so it's easy to jump in with any Doctor. The bigger question is where the most appealing starting place is. Because of the show's wildly differing quality (and, admittedly, often dated SFX), it's important to choose a strong moment to enter. Once you're hooked on the charm of the cast and the whimsy of the premise, it's much easier to overlook silly things like "budgetary constraints" and "cheesy dialogue" (mostly).
First of all, a word about format. If you're familiar with the new show, you'll be expecting quick 45-minute adventures. In Classic Who, almost every adventure is four or six 25-minute episodes long. This allows for much more epic, in-depth story-telling in some cases, and in others, it means a lot of filler. You'll get used to the pace, you just have to settle in for a while. Now, I get frustrated with the rocketing pace of the new show!
Where to Watch?
Britbox has almost all of Classic Who streaming and it's really the best option. Some of the missing episodes are available as animated reconstructions from the BBC and others as fan reconstructions around the internet. There are a handful of episodes available to buy digitally on Amazon Prime or Google TV.
It's probably best to start with a Doctor who's both funny and consistent, as well as one from an era with a high quality of writing and direction. The show's golden period stretched from the second to the fourth Doctor, so these are the Doctors I recommend as introductions, in this order (keep scrolling if you just want to read the epis0de-by-episode list):
1. The Fourth Doctor - Tom Baker
I began with Tom Baker, who is magnetic and amusing and heroic and happened to join the show during the fantastic collaboration of a wonderful producer (Philip Hinchcliffe) and a wonderful script editor (Robert Holmes). With his huge toothy grin and mile-long patchwork scarf, Baker became the iconic image of the Doctor, and it's easy to see why. He also had a wonderful selection of companions throughout his run, including the Best Companion of All Time™ Sarah Jane Smith. If you're a New Who fan you will be familiar with her, so that's another possible reason for starting with Baker.
Baker doesn't have the greatest opening episode (though it was my first Classic Who episode, so I'm affectionate towards it) - there's a clunky villain and it's still in a format better suited to the Third Doctor. It's fine to jump forward and watch Robot later, so I'd recommend Pyramids of Mars. It's witty and despite some rather lame mummy henchmen, has a spine-chilling Big Bad.
2. The Second Doctor - Patrick Troughton
While Tom Baker was often accused (plausibly) of simply playing himself, Patrick Troughton was a real character actor who beautifully guided the Doctor through the first transition to a new actor. He didn't play it safe - after the impish old Edwardian First Doctor fell to the floor of the TARDIS in The Tenth Planet, up Troughton popped as an odd and alarming cosmic hobo who would - amazingly - reinvent the authoritative adventurer known as the Doctor. William Hartnell did great things with the character, but the Troughton era took the show into a realm of immense mythological scope.
Troughton has an excellent opening episode, but it's almost entirely lost, and I wouldn't recommend a new viewer start out on a reconstructed lost episode. Instead, begin with the first complete Troughton episode: Tomb of the Cybermen. It has some cringey bits (especially the inclusion of a stereotyped black character), but it's funny and atmospheric and a good starter.
3. The Third Doctor - Jon Pertwee
I love Pertwee, and his first season is one of the absolute strongest the show ever did. His era is a bit cozy and features one of the show's best supporting casts giving it a familial atmosphere. That said, the period is also atypical. The Doctor is stranded on Earth, condemned to exile by the Time Lords. He has to settle in and get used to having a job: the scientific adviser for the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (UNIT). For that reason, I'd recommend starting with a more typical season of the show to get used to it.
However, if the Doctor and a regular cast of friends and frenemies (Pertwee and Roger Delgado's Master are a great pair) having thrilling adventures on 1970s Earth sounds like fun to you - check out Pertwee's perfect first episode: Spearhead from Space.
Since I'm assuming you're the sort to be a die-hard fan already, I'm also including some tips for how to go from Classic Who to the Big Finish audio dramas that both redeemed controversial Doctors like Six and gave character arcs to short-lived Doctors like Eight
It's also possible, by the way, to simply begin at the beginning, in which case, keep reading from here....
Essential - Watch - Maybe - Skip
Season 1 (William Hartnell)
This is a show trying to find its feet. Is it an ensemble show, or is the main character the mysterious man billed in the credits (really) as "Dr. Who"? Is it an educational children's history show or a scifi horror drama? It's all of those things! So many classic moments which still work, from the first scenes in An Unearthly Child to the grim moral dilemma of The Aztecs. If you're up for it, it's also totally possible to start the show at the beginning.
An Unearthly Child - Watch - I’d watch the first (superb) episode of the serial - which is eerie and strange - The Twilight Zone meets Narnia, but the rest is very cheesy and painfully dated. Skip all of that and go on to good stuff.
The Daleks - Watch - A decent introduction to the Doctor’s most iconic enemies. There’s a lot of filler later on though. If I were being honest, this is more of a "maybe," but from a history-of-the-show viewpoint, it is iconic. If nothing else, watch the unsettling first Dalek cliffhanger and the brutal first full appearance of the monsters.
The Edge of Destruction - Watch - A tight, paranoid 45 minute drama inside the TARDIS - worth seeing. This is also a turning point for the Doctor, who until this point has been cold and withdrawn.
Marco Polo (all episodes missing) - Skip - All of this seven-episode serial is lost, which is a terrible shame - the reconstructed version makes it seem like this would have been visually spectacular. The story itself is interesting and epic in scope, but it meanders in the middle and ultimately, not enough happens to justify its length (or at least, not enough to seek out a reconstruction).
The Keys of Marinus - Skip - Not bad - a sequence of adventures from Terry Nation - but not exactly great either. A filler episode.
The Aztecs - Watch - A really terrific, fascinating historical episode which lets the characters sink their teeth into some solid drama. Do we have a right to interfere in history? Barbara takes it on herself to try. Best of the First Doctor, in my humble opinion.
The Sensorites - Skip - A few nice moments, but it’s largely tedious and too long. Do, however, watch Susan give us our first description of the Time Lords' home planet. And here's a nice scene as the group reflect on their adventures.
The Reign of Terror (episodes 4 - 5 missing) - Maybe - If you’re willing to endure a few reconstructed episodes, this is a good, dark serial where our heroes have to stay alive in the French Revolution. The Doctor ponces about in a plumed hat, which is worth the price of admission. It inspired this tweet, which I'm proud of.
Season 2 (William Hartnell)
The second season is a bit more pedestrian, but still has fine moments. The TARDIS team have bonded and William Hartnell is much more avuncular and twinkly in the lead role.
Planet of Giants - Watch - A fun, short (no pun intended) adventure where the team get miniaturized and has to thwart an evil plot.
The Dalek Invasion of Earth - Watch - Kind of overrated, but full of iconic visuals, and the last scene is rightly considered one of the First Doctor’s best, as he delivers a speech for all time. No, I'm not going to link to it - go watch the episode.
The Rescue - Skip - A middling, short story which introduces companion, Vicki. There's nothing here that's unmissable.
The Romans - Watch - It’s a fun, dorky historical and Ian spends a lot of time in a toga, so it comes highly recommended from me. Also the First Doctor accidentally ends up swept up on a journey that leads him to the court of Nero himself where he has to engage in "the gentle art of fisticuffs." Clearly, the Doctor is starting to take a more proactive role in the story.
The Web Planet - Skip - It’s not awful, but between some really weird stylistic choices (Vaseline on the camera lens?) and a fairly slow plot, it’s pretty skippable. I do love the weird character designs and movements, though - props for ambition, ambition for props.
The Crusade (episodes 2 & 4 missing) - Watch - A terrific historical, which is compelling despite the two missing episodes. Julian Glover guest stars as Richard the Lionheart and Jean Marsh as his sister Joanna - the two have extraordinary chemistry. It all just works.
The Space Museum - Skip - Not super memorable. Neat idea, but it doesn't go anywhere.
The Chase - Maybe - Character goodbyes probably make this adventure worth watching - farewell, Ian and Barbara...(if you skip, here's their exit, which you definitely need to see.)
The Time Meddler - Maybe - A bit slow, but this is the first Time Lord we meet who isn’t related to the Doctor (and with his own TARDIS), so that’s pretty cool. It's a neat medieval milieu as well.
Season 3 (William Hartnell)
An uneven season which grows stronger as it progresses, and shoots for the moon with the ambitious epic The Daleks' Master Plan. The Doctor really starts to contemplate his losses and the weight of his traveling. Hartnell is also much stronger here - his health is still not what it was, but he's certainly not flubbing lines as often as he was in season 2.
Galaxy 4 (episodes 1 - 2 & 4 missing) - Skip - While there are some really good moments in the second and third episode (plot reversals! dramatic dream sequences!), it’s just not worth it for the long periods waiting for robots - "Chumblies" - to trundle across the ground.
Mission to the Unknown (missing) - Maybe - This one filler episode was created to set up The Daleks' Master Plan and give viewers something to watch while all the main cast are on vacation. The original is missing but some fans remade it, and you can watch it here.
The Myth Makers (all episodes missing) - Skip - Just kill me now. This story was probably pretty entertaining when it could be seen, as the Doctor gets mistaken for Zeus at the siege of Troy and that had to be fun, but it's a chore to listen to tons and tons of exposition in still pictures. The third episode picks up a bit, but it's all too brief. It also helps to be familiar with Greek mythology - or rather, Shakespeare - as it turns out (spoiler!) Cressida and Diomedes were actually Vicki and Steven. Vicki - I mean, Cressida - ends up falling for Troilus and that's how she leaves the TARDIS. Meanwhile, Trojan maid Katarina joins the TARDIS team.
The Daleks' Master Plan - (episodes 1, 3 - 4, 6 - 9, and 11 - 12 missing) - Watch - A dark, immense tale which does what The Chase wanted to do, but better. It's a bit bloated, but it also doesn't shy away from some real consequences for the Doctor, and William Hartnell has seldom been better. A magnificent epic. Do, however, skip The Feast of Steven, which is a Christmas filler episode that my sister aptly described as "one long headache."
The Massacre of St Bartholomew's Eve (all episodes missing) - Maybe - The story’s a little bit hard to follow in a reconstruction, but the ending is serious and thoughtful, as Steven grapples with the realities of non-interference in history. If nothing else, you have to watch that ending, which is really excellent drama - and which melds into a Hartnell monologue with near David Tennant levels of Doctor Pathos. Also - hahahaha - he totally kidnaps Dodo because she reminds him of Susan.
The Ark - Watch - A dorky time travel adventure that originates several important scifi ideas that will pop up in the show again.
The Celestial Toymaker (episodes 1 - 3 missing) - Watch - A gonzo ride into the mind of the Celestial Toymaker, a god who forces his captives - in this case, the Doctor, Steven, and Dodo - to play a series of nonsense games or be trapped in his universe for eternity. It's interesting and, for those days, high concept. Slightly overrated, yes (season 6's The Mind Robber is the platonic ideal of this type of tale), but it's a neat story.
The Gunfighters - Maybe - Here’s the thing - you get to see daffy old William Hartnell get mistaken for Doc Holliday in Tombstone. But on the other hand, it’s too long and they repeat the earworm theme song every three minutes. I don’t know, I rather liked it. It's part of the First Doctor Experience.
The Savages (all episodes missing) - Watch - Alas, there's nothing left of this episode, which is a shame, because it's an interesting morality tale in which the Doctor gets to be thunderingly righteous in the aid of an oppressed minority people. He even talks about human beings in terms of souls, which makes his argument all the stronger.
The War Machines - Maybe - The last complete Hartnell episode. It's an okay story, introducing new companions Ben and Polly and providing an exit for Dodo Chaplet. Kind of forgettable otherwise, though. Polly is the best female companion we've had since Barbara. Watch her meet Ben here, to get an idea of their personalities.
Season 4 (William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton)
It's happening! William Hartnell's increasingly frail health prompts the BBC to find a way to recast the lead in their hit series. Remarkably, instead of casting a William Hartnell lookalike, they decide to go with Patrick Troughton, an impish little man with a Beatles moptop and a twinkle in his eye that may be friendly or may be cunning. He's certainly not the man we knew, and he's not interested in holding our hand through the craziness of the first regeneration.
The Smugglers (all episodes missing) - Skip - A rote historical episode in which nothing of note occurs. If you want, you can watch the first scene, where Polly and Ben realize they've accidentally ended up on an adventure through time and space (and it really was an accident, instead of the usual kidnapping! Character development!)
The Tenth Planet (episode 4 missing) - Watch - Not the most exciting plot, but it's the introduction of a key villain (man, their design here is so much better than the new series) and the occasion of the first regeneration. I'd say essential, but since it's harder to get a hold of, I guess not. Still, it's a big moment in the show's history.
The Power of the Daleks (all episodes missing) - Watch - It’s worth watching a reconstruction (I always prefer the fan-made versions of cobbled-together screenshots instead of animated versions), as this one’s a classic. Patrick Troughton is a zany, alienating, unpredictable version of the man we knew as the Doctor. He may be good, but is he safe?
The Highlanders (all episodes missing) - Skip - The Doctor is still attempting to find himself, which translates to dressing up every chance he gets, putting on silly accents, and coveting a selection of hats. The main important thing which occurs in this episode is the introduction of new companion, Jamie McCrimmon, but otherwise, it's a bit of a snoozefest.
The Underwater Menace (episodes 1 & 4 missing) - Skip - There are a few fun bits with Patrick Troughton mugging in funny hats with his recorder, but it's slow. Really slow. Check out this famously corny line delivery so you will get the memes.
The Moonbase (episodes 1 & 3 missing) - Watch - A taut (and in Classic Who, that word hardly ever gets used) base-under-siege episode and one of the best episodes for this iconic villain. A fine Polly episode too. Troughton has found his Doctor.
The Macra Terror (all episodes missing) - Skip - The Doctor and company land in a utopian society that - you won't be shocked - turns out to be not so utopian after all. Despite all the decadence on display, there's clearly a dark secret undergirding this paradise, and the Doctor is determined to find out what it is. This is kinda quirky and intriguing, but despite the genuinely memorable monster and some cool atmosphere, it doesn't end up going anywhere.
The Faceless Ones (episodes 2, 4, 5 & 6 missing) - Maybe - The Doctor investigates a murder mystery at an airport. It's fine. The aliens have an interesting motivation for stealing "faces." It's mostly notable for how it shows the developing relationship between Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines - they make a terrific double act. But Polly and Ben barely feel involved, ironically - as it's their last episode. If nothing else, watch the final scene.
The Evil of the Daleks (episodes 1, 3 - 7 missing) - Maybe - An interesting episode which starts to introduce a more complex side to the Daleks, and showcases the Second Doctor's more manipulative side. It features one terrific showdown between Troughton and the Daleks which is worth watching, but the rest of it isn't really worth the slog through reconstructions.
Season 5 (Patrick Troughton)
Finally, some complete Patrick Troughton episodes! Let's be honest, you probably didn't slog through the previous almost-entirely-missing season, so this season is probably your introduction to the man, the myth, the legend. He's firmly established in the character by now, with a wonderful rapport with his definitive companion, 18th Century highlander, Jamie McCrimmon. A great season, introducing a handful of new monsters, though it ends with a clunker.
The Tomb of the Cybermen - Watch - A terrific Cyberman story with some truly funny and charming moments. Its only downside is an unfortunately stereotyped African strongman. Still, the first fully complete Patrick Troughton episode shows him at the height of his charms alongside his best companion, Jamie. We get a magical "bigger on the inside" scene and one of Troughton's greatest monologues. We're reminded that the Doctor is ancient and mysterious - but also relatable.
The Abominable Snowmen (Episodes 1 & 3 - 6 missing) - Watch - A strong adventure set in the Himalayas with a well-developed supporting cast and a mysterious new villain. Victoria really starts to show some spunk here, redeeming herself after her damsel in distress act in Tomb of the Cybermen. Check out Josh Snares terrific reconstructions of episode one, three, and four.
The Ice Warriors (Episodes 2 - 3 missing) - Skip - A lot of this episode works, with Peter Sallis turning in a particularly good supporting performance. The Ice Warriors, however, are so slow and sinister that they end up becoming a bit boring, and Victoria is back to her old screamer ways (seriously, one week she's Sarah Jane, the next Mel Bush). The episode is also prone towards preaching on and on about the evils of computers - we know, we get it.
The Enemy of the World - Watch - The Doctor meets his evil doppelganger in this spy thriller. It’s really fun and lets Patrick Troughton flex. Who does Bond. It was lost for decades, but was one of the two serials - the other is The Web of Fear - discovered in Nigeria. Pause a moment and appreciate that - after decades, a lost Doctor Who episode turned up in Africa and just happened to be a classic. Actually, both of them are classics. What a wonderful world.
The Web of Fear (Episode 3 missing) - Watch - A terrific episode set in the London underground - the Yeti are a bit cheesy, but features the introduction of a super-important recurring character, and it’s a great episode for atmosphere. Another great Victoria episode, too.
Fury from the Deep (All episodes missing) - Watch - This was the final serial I watched (well, "watched") and I must say, it was an excellent note to go out on. Riveting, unsettling, and quickly paced, this is the rare reconstruction which kept me on the edge of my seat throughout (I watched Loose Canon's reconstruction but I might actually look into getting the animated version). In addition to all its other charms, it has a great emotional arc for Victoria as she starts to decide she's had enough of the TARDIS life.
The Wheel in Space (Episodes 1 - 2 & 4 - 5 missing) - Skip - It's the introduction of young genius companion Zoe Heriot, but there's not enough here to make it worth watching. You do get this line: "Logic, my dear Zoe, merely enables one to be wrong with authority." And Jamie coins the Doctor's long-time alias, John Smith. Here's Zoe meeting the Doctor. And the Doctor welcomes Zoe on board with a little pleasant hazing. Both of those clips are good to watch, and if you were wondering how Jamie was taking Victoria's exit, here's a reconstruction of that scene.
Season 6 (Patrick Troughton)
Troughton's final season is a mixed bag, but when it's great, it's incredible. Iconic moments abound and the season pushes the show's mythology towards truly incredible heights.
The Dominators - Skip - Meh. Truly awful costumes. Quite forgettable story. Frazer Hines and Patrick Troughton are funny, but sometimes somebody needed to remind them to take the show seriously.
The Mind Robber - Watch - My all-time favorite Classic Who episode. Very strange and meta, questioning the very fabric of the show itself. Insanely ambitious and ahead of its time - the episode tends to split audiences, but its whimsy (some may claim "silliness") is bolstered by boundless creativity and smart plotting. A true Hall of Fame episode.
The Invasion (Episodes 1 & 4 missing) - Watch - A fun thriller set in London - lots of important plot elements start lining up for the third Doctor’s era. Return of Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart, intro of Benton and UNIT, and the super iconic shot of Cybermen at a famous location. Not strictly essential, but there's so much here that will turn up later that you really need to watch it.
The Krotons - Skip - Really quite a bad episode. Dull and unmemorable.
The Seeds of Death - Maybe - A fun futuristic episode, introducing yet another key villain. Fantastic set design. It features what may be Patrick Troughton's most iconic line (and line reading).
The Space Pirates (Episodes 1, 3 - 6 missing) - Skip - Robert Holmes's second episode does not live up to the heights to which he will eventually rise as a writer. It's supposed to be about pirates! Not the boring personal drama between a man who looks like he walked right out of a TV Western and the daughter of his rival! Or something! Boring.
The War Games - Essential - The second Doctor’s swan song, an ambitious epic which sometimes feels like Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory (I'm not kidding - and in fact, to my delight, I once observed as much to Frazer Hines). Overlong, but packs a real emotional punch, and introduces a ton of the show’s mythology. Patrick Troughton has never been better.
Season 7 (Jon Pertwee)
The Third Doctor's first season brings Doctor Who into the marvelous world of color. Jon Pertwee was primarily a comic actor, so it came as a surprise to everyone (including him, a bit) when he played the role " as himself," drawing on his background as a Naval Intelligence operative during the war. He's supported by a marvelous cast, including Nicholas Courtenay as Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart (if you liked Kate Stewart in New Who, this is her dad.) While I love the gentler side he shows in later seasons, Pertwee may be at his best in his first outing, still showing the immaturity and unpredictability which characterized his predecessor's "trickster" persona.
Spearhead from Space - Essential - The first episode, due to a strike, was shot on location and entirely on film instead of tape which means it looks fantastic, even now. It's also a really great regeneration episode (topped only by The Eleventh Hour, in my opinion) which introduces the Doctor’s new milieu and sets up the supporting cast who will anchor the show for its earthbound years.
Doctor Who and the Silurians - Watch - Most people like this one - I did not. I'm giving in to peer pressure here, though, to say I'm probably wrong. Check it out, but don't blame me if it's a boring seven episodes starring ugly green aliens from the dawn of time.
The Ambassadors of Death - Maybe - An okay episode with some sassy stuff from Liz Shaw, who I like.
Inferno - Watch - A searingly intense ride with some great acting from the show’s regulars. The classic show sometimes struggles to have emotional stakes, but certainly not here.
Season 8 (Jon Pertwee)
The Third Doctor's second season isn't quite as experimental, swapping out the daring Liz Shaw for the more traditional (if adorable) Jo Grant, but it does introduce the Third Doctor's definitive villain, and there are some solid stories here.
Terror of the Autons - Essential - Introduces two important characters: the Doctor's new companion, Jo Grant, and his arch-nemesis, the Master. The Doctor has clearly started to acclimate to his new role, though he's not happy about it.
The Mind of Evil - Watch - A solid political thriller that doesn’t entirely make sense. Just roll with it.
The Claws of Axos - Maybe - Not essential, but a fun story.
Colony in Space - Skip - A dull story which picks up just a bit near the end. This scene is the best part.
The Dæmons - Watch - A cheesy, fun adventure set in a pastoral village. Doctor Who meets Midsomer Murders. The UNIT family has an outing (this is probably the best UNIT story ever) and the Doctor seems to finally have accepted his place on Earth. Also, the introduction of the Third Doctor's catchphrase!
Season 9 (Jon Pertwee)
A weaker season, though Pertwee is always charming.
Day of the Daleks - Maybe - What could have been a middling story is bumped up a bit by a startling third act twist. Pertwee has a grand old time wining and dining. It's not a classic, but it's entertaining.
The Curse of Peladon - Skip - Starts out weird, and Alpha Centauri is absolutely embarrassing, but it has some interesting character dynamics, and Jo gets to shine here. Its politics are really obvious - a commentary on Britain's entry into the EU. Still, I'm gonna say no.
The Sea Devils - Watch - The Master and the Doctor get into a sword fight and the Doctor gets to ride around in a hovercraft. Nuff said. The plot is nothing to write home about, but Pertwee is so awesome you don't care - he gets involved in all sorts of exciting action.
The Mutants - Skip - Pretty boring, but the ending has some weird and striking concepts it embraces.
The Time Monster - Maybe - Cheesy and clunky. It’s kind of a mess. But it does have individual striking moments - a sweet scene between the Doctor and Jo (aww), what happens to Benton (LOL), the conversations between the Master and Jo (what the heck). I rather love this one. "So Bad It's Good" category.
Season 10 (Jon Pertwee)
The show arrives at its tenth anniversary, with a season more inventive than the previous one. We get our first multi-Doctor story and the show starts to gravitate back towards a more traditional travel-oriented premise. Still, the show is beginning to a feel a little comfortable with itself - the Tom Baker shot in the arm that it needs is still a season away.
The Three Doctors - Watch - One should never skip multi-Doctor episodes, and this one is a delight. It’s easily my favorite multi-Doctor classic episode, and maybe my favorite overall. Pertwee and Troughton are a wonderful double act, though it's a shame William Hartnell was too ill to contribute very much.
Carnival of Monsters - Watch - A delightfully wacky episode in which the Doctor and Jo are trapped in, basically, an ant circus for miniaturized humans.
Frontier in Space - Maybe - The first half’s rather dull, but then the Master turns up and gives an excellent, and sadly, final performance (Roger Delgado would die soon after in a car accident in Turkey). He's in league with...the Uruk Hai? Sorry, Ogrons.
Planet of the Daleks - Skip - There are nice reflective moments here - Pertwee gives a nice speech to a side character about bravery. Jo Grant is more proactive. But too much of it is spent with the Doctor or Jo sidelined for plot reasons (he's in a coma - but when he wakes up, he takes the time to switch clothes before dealing with the immediate crisis) and the non-Dalek villains clearly suffered from a lack of budget (they're invisible). An underbaked side romance for Jo just makes the story feel all the more Who-by-the-numbers.
The Green Death - Essential - Okay, it’s cheesy and preachy and...well, the monsters are actually pretty gross...but you have to see Jo Grant’s exit. It has real pathos, and has one of the best performances Pertwee ever gave.
Season 11 (Jon Pertwee)
A new companion! Pertwee and Elizabeth Sladen have some great moments in this season (The Time Warrior is one for the ages), but it's clear the UNIT years have run out of steam. Behind the scenes, Pertwee had decided that he didn't want to go on without Delgado or Katy Manning, so this season feels a bit like it's treading water before an inevitable exit.
The Time Warrior - Watch - Introduction of Everybody's Favorite Companion™ Sarah Jane Smith and a near-perfect adventure story, combining an iconic new monster with a fun historical setting and sizzling dialogue. My platonic ideal for a Doctor Who episode.
Invasion of the Dinosaurs - Watch - A fun, plot-heavy episode with some big implications for the UNIT fam and some very poorly realized dinosaurs. I understand some lame people don't like this episode because Jon Pertwee fends off an obviously fake pterodactyl with a mop. Clearly you just don't like fun. Possibly my favorite Doctor Who meme resulted from this episode.
Death to the Daleks - Skip - Nothing much happens in this one. Kind of forgettable.
The Monster of Peladon - Skip - A cheesier, more plodding sequel to Curse of Peladon. Sarah Jane has a few fun girl power lines, but it's very skippable.
Planet of the Spiders - Maybe - Some really cringey character and design moments in this, but it’s a regeneration story, so you kind of have to watch it (I'm just so annoyed by the cringey stuff that I don't have it as "watch.") Pertwee's final moments are touching. We get a little more closure for Mike Yates.
Season 12 (Tom Baker)
Tom Baker arrives in a blaze of glory. He has great companions, great writing, an incredible wardrobe, charisma out the wazoo - Baker really had all the luck. It's for those reasons that I often suggest starting with Baker, because this was the golden moment when the show was firing on all cylinders (much as I love other eras).
Robot - Watch - While this serial isn’t ideally suited to Tom Baker (it's written like a Pertwee episode), it’s not bad, plus, there are some classic moments from the new Fourth Doctor. If this is your jumping-in point, realize that the robot itself is extremely clunky and unimpressive, even by Classic Who's standards.
The Ark in Space - Maybe - I find this one overrated. Coupled with a painfully dated monster makes this one that I wouldn’t recommend to new Classic viewers. Maybe save for later?
The Sontaran Experiment - Maybe - Short and sweet, but nothing really special.
Genesis of the Daleks - Watch - A truly great episode. Space Nazis and the first appearance of Davros in this moody and atmospheric "morality of time travel" adventure.
Revenge of the Cybermen - Maybe - Baker’s first encounter with the Doctor's other most iconic robot foes is pretty forgettable.
Season 13 (Tom Baker)
Tom Baker and Sarah Jane return for a second season. Harry Sullivan, alas, doesn't make it beyond episode one, as they'd realized that with a young Doctor they didn't need an athletic male companion to do the derring do anymore (I think Harry should have been kept for other reasons, but anyway.)
Terror of the Zygons - Skip - A Scottish doppelganger thriller with a poorly realized Loch Ness monster.
Planet of Evil - Skip - Dull.
Pyramids of Mars - Watch - Terrific. Evil mummies, British manor houses, Doctor having a midlife crisis? Yes, please. This is always the one I point new viewers towards. Sarah Jane is clearly becoming more proactive, the Doctor has some real complexity and darkness to struggle with, and while the mummy henchmen are a little corny, the big bad is amazing.
The Android Invasion - Maybe - Doctor and Sarah return to a Pertwee format. It’s fun. Doppelgangers abound.
The Brain of Morbius - Watch - Weird, wacky Gothic Frankenstein story. Mad scientist Solon makes this one. Accidentally foreshadows an important twist in the new show.
The Seeds of Doom - Watch - A fun thriller which is like Bond meets The Thing. I don't think the author got the memo about the Doctor being a pacifist.
Season 14 (Tom Baker)
While this season starts off weakly, it goes on to be one of the strongest the show ever did. Experimental, confident, intense, and funny, the show wasn't missing a beat.
The Masque of Mandragora - Skip - A middle of the road historical story. Nothing special. The Doctor makes a heroic escape on a horse after tripping a guard with his scarf? Eh.
The Hand of Fear - Watch - Sarah Jane’s exit is quite sweet, though the story's nothing special. Pay attention for Tom Baker's subtle, unspoken disquiet throughout the tale, as he begins to realize Sarah Jane has become as reckless as he is (real echoes of this story show up in Face the Raven).
The Deadly Assassin - Watch - A fun, super-dark story in which the Doctor’s caught up in political intrigues on Gallifrey. Feels like the Classic analog to Heaven Sent.
The Face of Evil - Watch - A strange story about superstition and technology. Introduces new companion Leela, and gives Tom Baker some great moments. That first cliffhanger!
The Robots of Death - Watch - A stylish mystery story. I watched a horribly mangled version of this episode, so I'm probably not the best authority on it. Most people like this one a lot.
The Talons of Weng-Chiang - Watch - While overrated, there are some brilliant inventions here. The Doctor goes toe-to-toe with a mysterious Gothic villain (and his henchman, in unfortunate and dreadful yellowface prosthetics). Showman Henry Gordon Jago and pathologist George Litefoot are terrific. If you enjoy those two, you should check out their Big Finish spin-off series, Jago and Litefoot, where they investigate paranormal and supernatural phenomena in Victorian England. The first five seasons of the show are currently available for free on Spotify. It's easily the best Doctor Who spinoff. I adore it.
Season 15 (Tom Baker)
Producer Philip Hinchcliffe leaves (alas), and with his departure the show starts to transition to a more PG approach. Not everybody likes the robot dog (Tom Baker certainly didn't!) but there's still a lot of good to be found in this era.
Horror of Fang Rock - Watch - The last of the great hammer horror inspired stories finds the Doctor and Leela trapped in a lighthouse battling a murderous (and a bit poor realized) monster.
The Invisible Enemy - Maybe - Introduction of a surprisingly fun new companion: K-9. Not the world’s greatest episode otherwise.
Image of the Fendahl - Skip - Wacky episode set in a village with a few scientists and an evil alien skull. Nothing notable except a supporting role from Wanda Ventham, but she'd already turned up in The Faceless Ones.
The Sun Makers - Watch - The Doctor takes on a slightly cartoonish but entertaining dystopian regime. K-9 is a badass. I like this one. It’s Robert Holmes, so check it out.
Underworld - Skip - Pretty unimpressive.
The Invasion of Time - Watch - Important plot stuff. Leela departs.
Season 16 (Tom Baker)
With Leela departed, it's time for yet another companion - and the first season to try serialization, as Romana and the Doctor search for the "key of time." As an experiment, it's just okay, but while it's not up to the earlier heights of the Tom Baker era, this is a solid collection of episodes.
The Ribos Operation - Watch - It’s not the best episode (a bit too much sitting around talking Plot Details for my liking), but there’s important set up for the season, and as it's a Robert Holmes-penned episode it's certainly watchable. Besides: new companion!
The Pirate Planet - Maybe - A Douglas Adams-penned episode. It’s just okay. Why is it that Doctor Who just can't do pirates well?
The Stones of Blood - Maybe - This faux-Gothic adventure has its charms - nothing special about the story, but it’s quippy and Beatrix Lehmann is delightful as an elderly professor who should’ve become a full-time companion.
The Androids of Tara - Watch - Great fun. The Doctor and Romana end up in a world with knights in armor and androids and a delightful mixture of time periods.
The Power of Kroll - Maybe - A strange, atmospheric episode by Robert Holmes. Kind of trippy. The Doctor reveals a hilariously unexpected new skill.
The Armageddon Factor - Maybe - Probably? Another season finale with a lot of plot stuff going on. Tom Baker is great in the final scene.
Season 17 (Tom Baker)
A...sort of new...companion. Unfortunately a pretty uneven season with one classic.
Destiny of the Daleks - Maybe - A rather unmemorable first episode for Romana II.
City of Death - Watch - A great episode with a big budget, penned by Douglas Adams. Almost always in top 5 lists.
The Creature from the Pit - Skip - Unremarkable episode except for an unfortunately designed monster (even more unfortunately named: Erato). To be avoided.
Nightmare of Eden - Maybe - Some interesting scifi concepts and a bit of heavy handed moralizing. It’s okay.
The Horns of Nimon - Skip - Camp classic. I love Romana’s pink riding outfit and Graham Crowden’s hamminess, but there’s just not enough here to call it good. On the other hand, its ham is beloved by the fans and there are hysterical video parodies that you won’t fully appreciate without seeing the episode...
Shada - Maybe - It’s unfinished, but I liked this one. Probably not worth forging through, but some excellent moments and concepts - a shame it was never completed.
Season 18 (Tom Baker)
Tom Baker's final season regains a sense of purpose and weight as the dread of his regeneration grows. No more of that "oh, by the way, it's a regeneration episode" randomness of previous Doctors. Everybody knew what was coming here.
The Leisure Hive - Skip - Pretty cheesy, though it does have Tom Baker in old age makeup, which is fun.
Meglos - Maybe - A kind of fun Doctor doppelganger story.
Full Circle - Maybe - Introduction of new companion, Adric. Not a great episode, but it explains why Adric is always going on about getting back to "e space."
State of Decay - Skip - Evil vampires. Adric being an idiot.
Warriors' Gate - Watch - A great episode, and the exit for Romana.
The Keeper of Traken/Logopolis - Essential - Tom Baker's final bow, and the introduction of two new companions.
Season 19 (Peter Davison)
Peter Davison had the unenviable task of following the wildly popular Tom Baker. He does so admirably, with a fey and amiable lightness of touch dramatically at odds with Baker's vain showboating. Unfortunately, the writers don't always know what to do with Davison's new approach, but when the episode gives him the opportunity, he can be great.
Castrovalva - Watch - Essential, a new type of regeneration story. It’s easy to see the influence in New Who. I love the high concept set design, and the throwbacks are nice.
Four to Doomsday - Skip - Nothing happens in this one.
Kinda - Maybe - A weird hallucinogenic adventure. Pretty well-regarded, but I wasn't crazy about it.
The Visitation - Watch - A solid historical with some great Davison Doctor moments. I know this one isn't widely loved but I enjoyed it.
Black Orchid - Maybe - It’s lightweight, but fun. The Doctor and co. visit the 1920s.
Earthshock - Essential - You'll see why when you've finished. A really serious twist makes the show's stakes really matter again. And Adric is even kind of...likable in this? Davison gets some great moments too.
Time-Flight - Skip - Deathly dull. Read the summary to figure out the one important plot development, but only if you're planning to watch the next episode.
Season 20 (Peter Davison)
An odd season, but one which features a fantastic arc with new companion, Turlough. There's fan service, but it's understated, and it's not afraid to push the limits of what's possible.
Arc of Infinity - Skip - A weird Time Lord adventure in which we see the return of an old villain. They're on location in Amsterdam, which is neat, and a plot point from Time-Flight is undone, but if neither of those things is all that important to you, skip it.
Snakedance - Maybe - Very weird, in the same way as Kinda.
Mawdryn Undead - Watch - It’s a bit slow, but it features the return of the Brigadier, so it’s unmissable. It begins the Black Guardian trilogy, which focuses on new companion, Turlough.
Terminus - Skip - A dull middle episode in the Black Guardian trilogy. Though one important thing happens.
Enlightenment - Watch - A really terrific conclusion to the trilogy. Strikingly realized art direction and good pacing make this one of the Fifth Doctor’s best episodes.
The King's Demons - Skip - A rather mediocre historical featuring The Mastahhhh. It explains the origin of Kamelion, but do you really need to know that? Nope.
The Five Doctors - Maybe - It’s the return of some familiar faces, but it’s really uneventful and not as good as The Three Doctors.
Season 21 (Peter Davison)
Peter Davison's final season grows stronger as it goes, though it's off to a rough start.
Warriors of the Deep - Skip - A famously awful monster and a mess of a plot. Solid ending scene though.
The Awakening - Skip - I remember nothing about this one.
Frontios - Maybe - The Doctor and company visit a planet where the human population is just holding onto survival. The plot is nothing to write home about, but some of the Fifth Doctor's best lines appear here. "Tell them I came and went like a summer cloud."
Resurrection of the Daleks - Maybe - On the one hand, it's got some cool moments but all in all, it just doesn't amount to much except a lot of death. It's so violent, in fact, that it results in this final scene, which you should watch. As companion exits go, it's not bad.
Planet of Fire - Watch - The end of Turlough’s story, the intro of a new companion, and a pretty good episode.
The Caves of Androzani - Essential - Essential, also a highly respected, ghoulishly dark episode ending Peter Davison’s tenure in the TARDIS. There are parts of it that don't work for me (some of the fourth-wall-breaking is kinda cringe and I'd give a lot to have literally any other companion accompany the Fifth Doctor to his doom), but the iconography of the ending is extraordinary.
Twin Dilemma - Skip - A truly dreadful opening episode for Colin Baker's benighted TV run as the Doctor. Yes, it has some hilariously bombastic moments from the pompous Sixth Doctor, but the episode itself is painful. Be kind to yourself and skip. Maybe watch his first scene, though, just because Colin is clearly having a lot of fun with it.
Season 22 (Colin Baker)
All right, we need to talk about the Sixth Doctor. He's flamboyant and arrogant and unlike any other Doctor and I love him. His tenure on the show featured a dreadful run of episodes, and he starts off with the worst companion of all time, bumbling "American" Peri Brown. But he manages to thoroughly redeem himself in the audio world of Big Finish. I'll return to that at the end of this section.
Attack of the Cybermen - Maybe - Less painful than some Baker stories, but not terribly inventive. A ton of throwbacks, which are kind of random but fun. There is an intensity here that might make it worth watching, and the Doctor fixes the chameleon circuit!
Vengeance on Varos - Maybe - If you want to see at least one Colin Baker story, this one is an interesting and grim satire of reality TV that, if not great, is at least a good episode in the era’s style. Doctor Who does The Hunger Games, sorta? But even grimmer. I enjoyed the story, even if I think its sensibilities are not really Doctor Who-ish.
The Mark of the Rani - Skip - This has nice bits - it has some good locations and gets Colin out of the rainbow suit, which is nice. It brings back the Master and introduces a new female villain: the Rani. But it's mostly forgettable.
The Two Doctors - Skip - Oh dear, where to start? It’s horrifying watching poor whimsical Patrick Troughton forced into the grimdark circus that is the Colin Baker years, but at the same time, it’s Patrick Troughton. He’s back! With Jamie! Which is delightful! But what a waste!
Timelash - Skip - Widely considered the worst Who story of all time….an opinion with which I disagree, (I tend to prefer bad to boring) but it is, of course, absolutely dreadful.
Revelation of the Daleks - Skip - I almost went with "maybe" for this one. The plot is not that great, but it looks fantastic. Classic Who's best director, Graeme Harper, returns with moving cameras and pleasing color and mise en scène. But the first episode sidelines the Doctor and Peri for so long that the story seems like it takes forever to get anywhere. Colin Baker's Doctor is gentler here. Still, is it worth it? Probably not.
Season 23 (Colin Baker)
For Colin Baker's second season, the writers decided to try for an extremely experimental approach: one massive story framed by a trial. The Doctor is on trial before the Time Lords, accused of genocide - the first three episode are retrospective pieces of evidence presented by the prosecution. All in all, the four episodes are known as Trial of a Timelord:
The Mysterious Planet, Mindwarp, Terror of the Vervoids, and The Ultimate Foe.
Skip, Watch, or Maybe? This is tough. It's a weird and high concept series that still has some but not all of the problems of the previous season. The Doctor is kinder. It's an interesting, twisty plot - but it does still have a lot of the same pitfalls, and I don't point to any part of it as definitively great. I'm gonna go with Maybe.
Here's where I'm going to stop you and explain why I love the Sixth Doctor so much. After the show was cancelled, a group of fans formed Big Finish, a company which produced audio dramas set in the world of Doctor Who. They turned in some of the most wonderful story-telling the show's world has received, and much of it influenced (and is still referenced in) the revived show (remember the Eighth Doctor listing his companions? That was Big Finish.) I recommend you head over to Spotify now and start with The Marian Conspiracy, a wonderful introduction to his most wonderful of companions, elderly history teacher Evelyn Smythe.
Colin's final story is The Last Adventure, in which he battles the Valeyard. On the original show, Colin was fired and so Sylvester McCoy regenerated with an obscured face and a blond wig. But The Last Adventure ends with a re-written regeneration, segueing smoothly into the opening of the next episode. Many fans have made animated versions of that scene from the audio drama, but this deepfake one is the best, giving Colin, finally, a decent send-off. (If you want something a bit funnier, try this.)
Season 24 (Sylvester McCoy)
Sylvester McCoy starts off with an absolute dump of a season. You can probably skip to the next season safely, but check out the final scene of Dragonfire, below.
Time and the Rani - Skip - An embarrassment of an introductory episode. The best part is Sylvester McCoy playing spoons, if that tells you anything.
Paradise Towers - Skip - I like parts of this. There are weird friendly cannibal ladies. And a Tom Hiddleston lookalike. Oddly enough, it was based on a story which was later remade as a film starring...Tom Hiddleston. The premise is okay. But it's all drenched in that terrible 80's Who dreck and over-acting.
Delta and the Bannermen - Maybe - Soooo this one is really weird and probably an episode most people dislike, but I think it's fun. The Doctor and Mel think they're going to 1950s Disneyland, but they end up at a Welsh hotel which is the center of a drama featuring several extraterrestrial visitors. It's possible that I liked it was because the rest of this season is dreadful, but it's the best of the early McCoy panto period for sure.
Dragonfire - Skip - The main reason to watch this is that it's the exit for Mel and the entry point for the first really good companion we've had for ages: Ace McShane. The episode's not great, but Mel's goodbye is very good. McCoy delivers a touching speech. Watch the goodbye and the speech here.
Season 25 (Sylvester McCoy)
Finally! The downward trend begins to reverse itself. The Seventh Doctor has a great new companion and a show which seems to remember its history and its dignity. No more panto. Mostly.
Remembrance of the Daleks - Watch - The show reinvents itself. We have a new companion, a new tone, and we might as well have a new Doctor, as Sylvester McCoy reveals the Doctor's dark side. Sylvester McCoy said at a convention I attended that he based this shift in portrayal on his grandmother who lived to over 100 - that "weariness" and age is something he tries to convey - and succeeds beautifully.
The Happiness Patrol - Watch - I once saw a clip from this episode and was utterly horrified at the depths of camp to which 80's Doctor Who had sunk. But when I actually got around to watching it...it's good. The story is set in a futuristic, fascist society where no one is allowed to be sad. There's also...the Kandy Man, who looks like a children's show character, but who is, with his high reedy voice and horrifying ways of killing people, an unexpected success as a villain. So is Helen A. - the society's dictator (based on Margaret Thatcher, but that wasn't obvious to me as a modern American viewer) played by a mustache-twirly Sheila Hancock.
Silver Nemesis - Maybe - Corny, uneven, heavily incorporating elements of Arthurian legend which will be important to the Seventh Doctor's mythos.
The Greatest Show in the Galaxy - Watch - Most of this is really good, though some late Sylvester clowning nearly sinks the whole affair. Creepy clowns galore! And a definite Mad Max vibe to the waste land in which the Doctor and Ace find themselves.
Season 26 (Sylvester McCoy)
The final season of the series has its ups and downs, but continues the trend of pushing the story in interesting directions. You can definitely see concepts that will be picked up again in the revived show, over a decade later.
Battlefield - Maybe - Cons: It's got a cheesy plot and villain. Pros: It's the return of the Brig. Do you need another pro?
Ghost Light - Watch - A strange, incomprehensible Victorian tale which reveals important details about Ace's past and clearly foreshadows a more New Who-style companion arc. I'm probably not selling it well, but it's entertaining!
The Curse of Fenric - Watch - Zombies and Vikings and paradoxes, oh my! This is a startling, dark story which continues the thread begun in Ghost Light. Some excellent acting from McCoy, and Ace gets to show some range.
Survival - Maybe - The final episode of the show is nothing special. Something about mutant animals and ancient instincts and blah, blah, blah - but it does have a beautiful ending scene.