A Beginner’s Guide To Doctor Who DVDs

A short while ago I was having a discussion about Doctor Who with my friend Tilt, as part of a larger gathering of people that included several Doctor Who fans. Tilt was arguing that as one gets to see more vintage TV, the less special Doctor Who seems, and that the show only gets so highly rated because of fans with blinkers. I was arguing that while the show had its ups and downs, there *were* plenty of ups. The conversation then went something like:
“I mean, it was hugely uneven in quality – you had stuff like An Unearthly Child, which I’d seriously put up there with anything, but you can’t sustain that for 26 years without producing some rubbish, so of course there’s stuff like Warriors Of The Deep
At which point someone chipped in “But Warriors Of The Deep was good!” and I had to argue about this, thus proving Tilt’s point (just to note the fan in question is not an unreasoning zealot or anything like that, but he did choose a bad show to defend).

Most of the guides to Doctor Who on DVD out there tend to be written by the kind of fan who defines himself (I tried writing ‘themselves’ there but my verb-agreement nerve started twitching, and to be frank they are all male) as a fan first and foremost, and following them will probably lead very quickly to buying The Three Doctors and being surprised it’s not a masterpiece of Gothic terror, as you were told, but some silly nonsense about jelly monsters, or saying “This Lost In Time thing doesn’t make sense! It’s just a jumbled mess of different bits with no story!”. (Honourable exception here goes to Alex’s guide, which overlaps quite a bit with this one, but seems to be trying to provide a thorough guide for people who want a LOT of Doctor Who on DVD).

This guide, on the other hand, is intended for people who may never have seen the old show at all and who want to figure out what the fuss was about, and don’t want to spend much money doing it. I’m going to suggest *one* DVD per Doctor, all of which can usually be picked up for under a tenner. I’ll also mention three box sets you should get, because the box sets of DVDs are often far better value than buying the individual stories.

The very first thing you should buy if you don’t mind spending a little money on trying something is the Davros box set, which can be bought from Big Finish for forty quid. This is about as good an introduction to the series as you could hope for – five stories, featuring four different Doctors, and with three-and-a-half different production teams, and at least three of the stories (Genesis Of The Daleks, Revelation of the Daleks and Remembrance Of The Daleks) being considered among the very best of their respective Doctors’ tenures. On top of that there’s also several audio dramas – Davros, featuring the sixth Doctor, which is as good a piece of Doctor Who as you’ll hear, Juggernauts, another Sixth Doctor story, and still pretty good, Terror Firma, an overly-continuity laden story featuring the Eighth Doctor that you have no hope of ever understanding, and some stories about Davros with no Doctor in there. Even if you only enjoy half the set, that’s still something like twelve hours of entertainment, not even counting the several discs of documentaries and other bonus features.

The other two box sets I’ll recommend will come in their respective chronological places – they can both be picked up for around a tenner from Amazon, and so don’t really require any special expenditure, unlike Davros.

The First Doctor
If you’re going for a single story from the first Doctor (who is *horribly* underrated by fans generally, who only remember his occasional fluffed lines and forget that the show was taped ‘as live’ in those days, with no second takes, and who don’t seem to notice what a subtle, solid performance he gives) then it should be The Dalek Invasion Of Earth, which is essentially “What if the Nazis won the Second World War?” but with Daleks instead of Germans. That said, what you really want to be getting is the The Beginning box set (currently nine quid on Amazon), which contains the first three stories – the absolutely astonishing An Unearthly Child, The Daleks, which is a little padded to modern eyes but does introduce the famous monsters, and Edge Of Destruction which is unlike anything the show tried again.

The Second Doctor
Unfortunately, almost nothing exists of Patrick Troughton’s time as the Doctor, the BBC having decided to set fire to it all in one of their regular clever decisions that also consigned their coverage of the Moon landings, Where Was Spring? and tons of live footage of the Beatles to the fire – because no-one could ever have use for any of those things, right?
Of the few surviving stories, probably the best for a beginner is Tomb Of The Cybermen – shorter and punchier than most of Troughton’s stories at only four episodes, it’s essentially The Mummy set in space. Fandom remembers it for the scenes of Cybermen smashing their way out of their tombs, but the bit that sticks in my mind (other than the unfortunate ethnic stereotypes) is the quiet scene where the Doctor comforts his companion Victoria, whose family had died in a story just before this one.

The Third Doctor
Jon Pertwee’s era as the Doctor isn’t a favourite of mine, but that’s more for the setup for the bulk of it (the Doctor stuck on Earth for most of it, working as an adviser to the military) than for Pertwee’s performance, which was, when he was given a decent script, as good as any of them. For an absolute beginner, probably the best story to go for is The Time Warrior – a fun pseudo-historical romp by Robert Holmes, the series’ best writer, which has no great depth but is full of wonderful moments.
(My recommendation for Pertwee after that is simply to avoid anything except The Green Death where Jo Grant is the companion, and concentrate on stories with Liz Shaw or Sarah Jane Smith).

The Fourth Doctor
Choosing a single story for Tom Baker is harder than any of the others, because of the sheer length of time he was in the role (he was there for seven years – Pertwee was there for five, and all the others for three). But if I have to choose, I’d go for City Of Death. A comedy story co-written by Douglas Adams, with some of the best production values the series ever had, gorgeous music, perfect performances, cameos by John Cleese and Eleanor Bron, and multiple genuine Mona Lisas (all but one of which had “This is a fake” written under the paint in felt pen), it’s not the most adventurous or challenging story ever, but there isn’t a moment where it’s not entertaining.

At the other end of the scale, I’d also suggest the box set New Beginnings – Tom Baker’s last two stories and Peter Davison’s first. Fans mention a lot of things about these stories – the return of the Master, new companions, regeneration and so on – which have to do with the stories’ ‘significance’ to the show, but aren’t important to the casual viewer. What is important is that these are from the brief time when script editor Christopher Bidmead (who wrote two of these three stories and essentially rewrote the third from scratch) was trying to make the show about ideas (as well as doing ‘story arcs’ and so on years before the more modern shows were doing them – this trilogy of stories came after the ‘E-Space Trilogy’ and all six stories are essentially one continuous one, though you don’t need to have seen the E-Space stories to appreciate this). Logopolis (the middle story of this box) is essentially the show you’d get if you tried to fit Neal Stephenson’s Anathem into two hours, and works astonishingly well, while Castrovalva is a story based on Escher pictures.

The Fifth Doctor
Peter Davison’s time as the Doctor isn’t a favourite of mine, even though he was the Doctor I grew up with – too often he was given tenth-rate scripts and expected to carry them on his performance alone, and in several stories it feels like he’s the only one who’s bothering to try at all. He did have a few good ‘uns though – like The Caves Of Androzani, his last story, in which he gets caught up in a complex web of political intrigue and assassinations while trying to save the life of his companion. Written by Robert Holmes, this is very stagy and artificial, but in a good way (Alex WIlcox rightly compares it to House Of Cards, except with more firing squads and plummeting spaceships).

The Sixth Doctor
While Colin Baker gave one of the best performances as the Doctor, he’s the hardest to recommend DVDs of, because he only did two full series, one of which (Trial Of A Timelord) was a gigantic story-arc in a box set that’s perhaps the very definition of ‘patchy’, and even more than Davison he was lumbered with terrible scripts. However, Vengeance On Varos is a frankly stunning piece of TV by any standards. The script, by Philip Martin, is clever, combining political commentary with postmodernism in a way that was still interesting in the 1980s, and actually uses the self-referential nature of the story to create one of the best cliffhangers the show ever had, Martin Jarvis’ performance as the ruler of Varos is extraordinary, but the show is really made by Nabil Shaban’s performance as Sil, the last truly great villain created for the show.

(ETA I just thought of the best description of this while talking to James Graham in the comments – Vengeance on Varos is the closest TV ever came to 2000AD in its prime

The Seventh Doctor
Other than Remembrance Of The Daleks (already part of the Davros box mentioned earlier) it’s hard to find a Sylvester McCoy story one can recommend wholeheartedly – at this time the show’s budget was being slashed, and some of the scripts in McCoy’s first series were, frankly, risible. But The Curse Of Fenric comes close. If you buy the DVD, watch the re-edited ‘film’ version rather than the original episodes, which were cut to shreds to fit the running time. The story itself has a little too much going on (a Russian invasion in the middle of World War II *and* vampires from under the sea *and* evilevilfrombeyondthedawnoftime *and* resolving Ace’s mother issues *and* an Alan Turing analogue) but it works thanks to some great performances, especially (and this will sound ridiculous, but it’s true) Nicholas Parsons as a vicar losing his faith – the scene of Parsons reading 1 Corinthians 13:13 from the pew to an empty church is worth the price of the DVD in itself.

In 1989 Doctor Who was taken off the air and never came back…

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50 Responses to A Beginner’s Guide To Doctor Who DVDs

  1. Terence Eden says:

    I heartily agree with all of those – although for Tom Baker I’d chose The Hand of Fear.

    I’d also point out that, whatever the quality of the scripts, the quality of the DVDs is always amazing. Reading what http://www.restoration-team.co.uk/ do to turn gritty film and damaged video tapes gives me a new appreciation of the finished product. For anyone with an interest in the history of television and its preservation / restoration, the DVDs & accompanying website are a goldmine.

    But then I am one of those geeky males.

  2. James Graham says:

    Useful, and I didn’t know Beginnings was now down to nine quid (snapped up immediately), but I’ve watched the New Beginnings boxset and it sums up everything I hate about old Who. Wooden acting and lots of babble about arcane concepts that don’t really go anywhere. I will agree that Bidmead’s scripts were about ideas, but they weren’t very interesting ones (making a story out of an Escher painting being a case in point). And they certainly weren’t about character.

    Personally, I find I get on better with the Hartnell stories for the simple reason that the series was so much less in love with itself back then and Hartnell’s performance is fantastic.

    Over the last couple of years I’ve snapped up a handful of Doctor Who DVDs and haven’t been particularly impressed by any of them. I’ve really tried to but haven’t been able to shift the impression that the series was being made for half a dozen obsessives by producers who genuinely seemed to think that people wouldn’t notice if they inserted plenty of cleavage and gave the main character question mark motifs on his collars (or, in the case of Colin Baker, something considerably and horrifically worse).

    • I agree with you about Hartnell – definitely a very, very underrated performer.

      I also agree that too often the show *could* be the way you describe – especially in the 80s (rather bizarrely, the audio adventures made by Big Finish with the last three Doctors for a tiny group of fans are overall far better and less fannish than the TV shows made for a supposedly mass audience with the same actors). In general, it’s not a good idea to pick up anything from the 80s sight unseen.

      I can see what you mean about New Beginnings, but I put it in there as much because it’s so different from everything else in the series – people who like it will like it a *LOT*. From the list above, I think you might like Vengeance On Varos (being a 2000AD fan – it’s the closest thing ever put on TV to 2000AD in the Wagner/Grant/Mills heyday) and City Of Death (because *everyone* likes City Of Death – and like I say in the main post, it’s the polar opposite of New Beginnings. I put them both in to show the sheer range of the show in Baker’s time).

      But yes, there are a number of really quite bad stories indeed during John Nathan-Turner’s time as producer (Nathan-Turner was producer from Tom Baker’s last series to the show’s end, and introduced the cleavage and question marks, as well as the strategy of pandering to hardcore fans rather than the general public – it sounds to me in fact that what you dislike about the programme is specifically John Nathan-Turner’s production style), and I would never try to defend say Warriors Of The Deep, Timelash, Time And The Rani, Timeflight or the last half of Trial Of A Timelord as being watchable by anyone other than a real fan.

      I can guarantee though that none of the stories I’ve listed are anything like those – I’ve very specifically chosen only stories that could be enjoyed by someone who’d never really seen the show before. I think you’d like the ones I’ve picked out far more than you’d like a random selection of stories.

      Which isn’t to say you’d *necessarily* like them – I’m not one of those people who tries to persuade people to keep trying something they don’t like…

      Out of interest, BTW, which ones did you pick up?

      • James Graham says:

        The Three Doctors (I actually quite enjoyed the Pertwee/Troughton banter and overall this is the one I enjoyed the most), The Sontaran Experiment, the Brain of Morbius and the aforementioned New Beginnings threesome.

        I’ll certainly give City of Death try (if for no better reason than the fact that it was written by Douglas Adams – I enjoyed the Shada audio they did for the 40th anniversary). I also almost bought the Deadly Assassin the other day although I’m waiting for it to get a bit cheaper. I vaguely remember Vengeance on Varos when it was first aired – I will consider it but I struggle to associate Baker, C and McCoy with anything positive.

        JNT was indeed the person to whom I was referring. I often struggle to understand why so many Whovians can despise Russell T Davies so much yet make excuses for Turner.

        Out of interest, what would you say are the top five audios to listen to? I’ve generally enjoyed the ones I’ve listened to (Shada, A Natural History of Fear, Storm Warning, Zagreus) but there are so many it is hard to know where to begin and Big Finish don’t seem to help much.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          Yeah, I would never have suggested any of those – The Sontaran Experiment was a low-budget filler story done essentially because they’d run out of money and wanted to reuse a costume from the year before, The Three Doctors is unbearably fannish (although the Pertwee/Troughton interaction *is* good) and the Brain Of Morbius, though OK for what it is, I’ve always thought hugely overrated.

          You enjoyed Zagreus? You must be the only person ever to have done so ;)

          As far as Big Finishes, my top five would be:
          Jubilee, by Rob Shearman – this was the basis for Dalek in the new series, but is much better than that, a wicked black comedy.
          Doctor Who And The Pirates – a musical featuring Bill Oddie. Better than that sounds,
          The Kingmaker, by Nev Fountain, is a wonderful broad historical comedy about Richard III,
          Spare Parts – an origin story for the Cybermen
          Davros – almost a two-hander between Colin Baker and Terry Molloy, with some satire about Holocaust denial thrown in
          and The Council Of Nicea – one of several very good straight historicals that feature the Fifth Doctor, Peri and Erimem (an audio-only companion – an Egyptian pharaoh). This one dealing, as one might suspect from the title, with the council of Nicea and the anathematisation of the Arians.

          I’ve reviewed all of these (I think) under my Big Finish A Week tag, so you can look at those reviews (and if you like the other ones) before deciding whether to try any of them.

          • James Graham says:

            Hmmm… let me clarify my “enjoyment” of Zagreus. I was thoroughly confused by it, was intrigued by certain aspects of it but wasn’t so sold as to go backwards and buy NeverLand – partly because I suspected that wouldn’t answer all my questions and I’d end up buying lots of dreck before getting any answers.

            I DID like a Natural History of Time though, although it didn’t have very much to do with Doctor Who.

            • Andrew Hickey says:

              Your reaction to Zagreus was about the same as mine – and you’re right.

              In general, you can tell the quality of a Big Finish audio with a sort of rough heuristic:
              Audios with McGann are probably going to be continuity-laden and incomprehensible.
              Colin Baker is uniformly better than he was on TV, but his best audios are the ones with Evelyn Smythe as the companion.
              Davison is reliably solid, but rarely outstanding. His best stories are historicals with Peri and Erimem.
              McCoy is actually better on audio with Bonnie Langford than with Ace, surprisingly enough – Big Finish made it a mission to ‘rehabilitate’ the character of Mel.
              Numerically, Big Finish were at their best between roughly the thirty-fifth and eightieth stories (around the time of the eightieth their original producer left) though they’re getting better again recently.

              So the best stories are things like Davros, the forty-eighth story, featuring Colin Baker.

              Oh, and avoid Flip-Flop at all costs. It’s practically BNP propaganda, and I’m astonished it ever got made…

          • Andy Hinton says:

            I love Spare Parts, as much for the cybermen voices and the cyber-planner voices as anything else. But then, I’m an awful sound techie type.

            As for Big Finish recommendations, surely The Chimes of Midnight should be on that list?

            • Andrew Hickey says:

              I was never a huge fan of Chimes of Midnight, even though I love Shearman’s other stuff.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          Oh and DO NOT, I repeat DO NOT, try The Deadly Assassin. I quite like it, but it’s an ‘fans only’ one. Unless you’re really, really fascinated with the details of Gallifreyan political intrigue and Tom Baker being clever, it could quite easily put you off the show for life.

          Also I think people tend to make excuses for JNT but not RTD because JNT (or at least his media persona) was a far more pleasant person, and he was always the first to acknowledge his own weaknesses (primarily that he neither knew nor cared the first thing about scripts). I think Davies has a worse influence on the show because he essentially combines the two roles of producer and script editor, and so has far more power than someone like Nathan-Turner.

          But yes, their faults are very much the same.

          • James Graham says:

            A Dave Sim fan who cares about the pleasantness of a creator?! :P

            Seriously, I really don’t understand this loathing of RTD. He had his faults, major ones, but his populist instincts have mostly been sound (and have saved the franchise) and when he’s good he’s very good.

            But since you’ll never agree with me we should probably end it there.

            • Andrew Hickey says:

              Oh, I don’t care about their personalities, I’m just saying why JNT gets something of an easier ride these days. Also, he’s dead, and people don’t like to speak ill of the dead…

              The reason I ‘loathe’ Davies (as a writer/producer, not a person) is that the show he’s produced has only the most superficial resemblance to the one I love, but pretends to be the same one. During Nathan-Turner’s time as producer, the character of the Doctor remained recognisably the same. The character David Tennant’s playing has very little to do with that character…

              • James Graham says:

                I don’t accept that he changed the character any more than previous incarnations did, although I can understand if you didn’t like the direction they took. More to the point, some of the aspects which I think are detrimental to the character, specifically the whole Time Lord-as-God thing, seems to emanate from McCoy era and in particular the New Adventures book series which the fanbase applauded.

                I have to admit to preferring Eccleston over Tennant and it remains to be seen where Matt Smith and Stephan Moffatt will take it next.

                • Andrew Hickey says:

                  Oh, I agree about the Lonely God crap, which does, as far as I can tell, come from the books (I’ve never really bothered with those, though I do have a soft spot for some of Lawrence Miles’ stuff). But the whole “The Doctor is a special lonely god who invented all the timelords and is Time’s Champion” nonsense is just as annoying in the books as the new series, yes.

                  I much prefer Eccleston to Tennant myself – Eccleston was recognisably playing a character that was something like the Doctor, even if sometimes he seemed to be fighting the scripts.

                  I doubt I’ll be impressed with Moffat – his Who work seems to me to be better-structured than Davies’, but to have even less grasp of the character of the Doctor. Blink was a marvellous piece of TV once you get past the whole ‘let’s laugh at the nerds’ bit, but the idea of the Doctor ever calling anything “timey-wimey-wibbly-wobbly” just seems unutterably wrong…

          • Alex Wilcock says:

            You’ll be shocked to learn I disagree with you on The Deadly Assassin :D

            I wouldn’t not show The Deadly Assassin to someone who’s never seen any of the series at all because it’s such a swerve away from the ordinary, but to anyone who’s familiar with the basics of Doctor Who (most people, these days), I don’t think it would pose any problem, and I can think of many people to whom it would have a particular appeal, from new fans who want to see Time Lords to, of course, anyone interested in politics… Besides, it’s full of surprises (even structurally, where a talky studio-bound satire turns into a grim action story in a swamp), and surprises are good for you, aren’t they?

            I’ve got a lot of time for both John Nathan-Turner and Russell T Davies (though I think both made some terrible mistakes), so I’ll keep my head down on that argument!

            • Alex Wilcock says:

              I wouldn’t not show The Deadly Assassin…

              Well, that was an embarrassing double negative when distracted by the Toady Programme, wasn’t it?

            • Andrew Hickey says:

              Oh, I could imagine The Deadly Assassin being a good one for *some* people with a handle on the basics, but given which ones James has said he likes/dislikes, I suspect it wouldn’t be for him…

              I have a lot more time for JNT than for RTD, because when he was paired with good script-editors (Bidmead and Cartmell) he could do good work. But I’m not one of those who hates RTD and thinks he should die either – he just makes a programme that’s not for me…

              • James Graham says:

                Actually, I’m still tempted to watch The Deadly Assassin. I don’t have a problem with a series having internal continuity. It isn’t as if I’ve gone through life not knowing what a Time Lord or Gallifrey is.

                • Andrew Hickey says:

                  Fair enough – it is a good one, but I suspect it won’t be to your taste given what you’ve said…

        • Andy Hinton says:

          I think you’re being a bit unfair on fans, there. There are plenty out there who won’t accept a single excuse for JNT. I certainly wouldn’t dispute that he more or less killed the series.

        • Alex Wilcock says:

          I think The Brain of Morbius is hilarious, but each to his own.

          I wouldn’t give someone The Sontaran Experiment in isolation – though it’s very atmospheric and has a great villain, the end deflates very quickly, but the shortness of it might appeal to a Twenty-first Century fan – but for people who’re used to the ‘DVD season box set’ approach I’d certainly recommend the run of Tom Baker’s first four stories on DVD: Robot, The Ark In Space, The Sontaran Experiment and Genesis of the Daleks. Two fun little stories and two outstanding ones, and they work much better as a set, with both direct overarching plot arcs and recurring themes. And a remarkably similarity to the 2005 series…

          I’d never recommend Zagreus to anyone, though.

          • Andrew Hickey says:

            Oh, I *like* Brain of Morbius – I just think it overrated. It’s a solid in-the-middle story rather than an all-time classic.

            And I definitely agree with you about that Baker story-arc (though it does raise the problem of the ‘conclusion’ of the arc… ;) )

            • Alex Wilcock says:

              And I definitely agree with you about that Baker story-arc (though it does raise the problem of the ‘conclusion’ of the arc… ;) )

              Perfectly simple. At the end of Genesis, we see our heroes travelling back to Nerva – at which point, plainly, they pick up the TARDIS and immediately travel on to new adventures.

              And as the terrible story that rather expands that situation isn’t out on DVD yet, no-one need know any different ;-)

      • Holly says:

        I’m not one of those people who tries to persuade people to keep trying something they don’t like…


        Well this is true but I think I had something to do with making it so :)

    • Alex Wilcock says:

      I think James’ view of New Beginnings rather proves the point of variety – but I love it just as much as, say, the playfulness of The Key To Time, the horror of Pyramids of Mars or the outrageous black comedy of The Talons of Weng-Chiang, while there are people who’d love New Beginnings as a work of art (not just the Escher; beautifully shot, gorgeously scored, extraordinary atmosphere) but disdain one or more of the others I’ve just mentioned. And The Keeper of Traken not about character? Nonsense, James! The whole story comes out of people’s fatal flaws. The only real problem I have with it is that the character who ought to be central to it – the woman at the heart of a tragic love story – is the only one who can’t act.

      • Andrew Hickey says:

        I *adore* New Beginnings myself – Logopolis in particular is my very favourite Doctor Who story, with the other two not far behind – but I can see how it could irritate many people…

  3. Prankster says:

    Wow, this is great. As an almost-complete Who newbie (Whobie?) I was actually considering digging around for some recommendations on what to watch. It’s good to have some recommendations from someone as discriminating as yourself, who seems to be in the same ballpark as me taste-wise (I have seen a little of NuWho, and despite my extremely limited experience with the classic show, it pretty clearly sucks).

    • Glad to be of help. Just remember that the ones I’ve chosen have been picked, in part, for how different they are from one another, so try a couple before coming to any conclusions about the old show (there was, after all , more than a quarter of a century of it). You might find, for example, that you love William Hartnell but hate Colin Baker, or vice versa…

      • Prankster says:

        I’m quite forgiving when it comes to old TV shows and movies. When something has a fanbase like Who does, I always give it several shots, as well. And I know they were working under various restrictions, like having a really teensy budget. But if I can enjoy classic Star Trek, I’m sure I can find something to like in Who. It’s mostly a case of me not getting around to it (not being British, or having a supply of 100 burritos).

        Almost certainly going to start with City of Death, due to Douglas Adams involvement.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          Oh, the ones I’ve suggested don’t really suffer from the budget things – I deliberately chose ones that could be watched by someone who only knows modern TV – but they’re all very different. City Of Death is whimsical comedy, while Tomb Of The Cybermen is slow-moving Gothic horror transported to the future, while Vengeance on Varos is violent postmodern black comedy and Genesis Of The Daleks is Dostoyevsky for eight-year-olds, with pseudo-Shakesperean dialogue and Nazi imagery.

          During its time on the air, Doctor Who was at least six or seven completely different TV shows, and it’s entirely possible to love City Of Death and hate Tomb Of The Cybermen , or vice versa.

  4. Oliver Townshend says:

    Never watched any first Doctor. Suppose I should now.

    I grew up on Patrick Troughton, and while I have the memories, rewatching them isn’t the same (except for the Mind Robber which I watched at the time from behind the couch and gave me nightmares I still remember), and there’s very little to choose from. I’d agree that Tomb of the Cybermen is good. One day I’ll get to watch the War Games again…

    For Jon Pertwee, I think the Green Death is excellent, and has a wonderful Mark Gattis take off in the extras on the DVD. I also enjoyed Spearhead from Space and Planet of the Spiders, but almost nothing involving the first Master (there are some dreadful ones in there, some without endings!).

    For Tom Baker, almost anything in his first 4 years is worth watching, but with Douglas Adams turning up he started to get silly. Personally I’d recommend Genesis of the Daleks, which is generally very good and full of interesting moral discussions as well as some great scariness from the Daleks and some good character stuff, with both companions being used for more than just exposition. As it is a re-introduction of the Daleks, it can be watched by newcomers.

    For Peter Davison, the more I watch, the less I like. The scripts aren’t great, with too much irrelevant exposition, and the surplus of the companions. Personally I enjoy The Visitation, with some fun characters and villians, the companions being generally useful and a bit of mystery.

    For Colin Baker and Sylvester Mccoy I’m not enough of a fan, so can’t really recommend anything, although I must say Fenric left me cold and baffled.

  5. Alex Wilcock says:

    Great idea, and sensible price range. I don’t agree with all your choices, but who will? The whole point of Doctor Who is its variety… And, as you’re attempting, the trick is to keep the variety of styles and settings while avoiding the variety of quality!

    I think the Davros Collection’s a great bargain at the moment, too, but I probably wouldn’t suggest it as the very first thing; it’s much more all of the same warlike tone than The Key To Time is generally playful (thank goodness for Revelation of the Daleks’ black comedy, but I look forward to Key being re-released, and ideally more cheaply), which might be a bit much all at once. Quite a wide mix of Big Finishes on there, too, though Davros and Terror Firma are terrific – I know you call it over-laden, but I ignore most of the continuity and just go for the characterisation. Terry Molloy is extraordinary in it.

    Yay for your Billy-praise! He’s slowly become my favourite Doctor over the years, and both The Beginning and The Dalek Invasion of Earth are fantastic releases (particularly if you watch the latter with its CGI saucers, TV21-style in both senses). My main reservation about the latter is that it doesn’t have that much Hartnell in it; if I were to show off one story with for the many facets of his performance, it’d probably be The Aztecs.

    The Tomb Of The Cybermen’s an excellent choice for Pat – one of the best performances for any Doctor, particularly in the scene you pick out – but it’s been deleted to make way for a rumoured forthcoming Special Edition (the same treatment may be coming up for Spearhead, Robots of Death, Talons, Androzani, Varos and the TV Movie, though they’re all still available now). The two other surviving Troughtons of outstanding quality are The War Games and The Mind Robber, each of which have superb extras (Games is best for the extras, Robber for price).

    I rather agree with you on Pertwee, too; for me, his best performance is probably Inferno, but I wouldn’t recommend it for a beginner. I used to think the same on his companions – Liz is brilliant, Sarah’s fab, Jo’s a screamer – but I’ve warmed to Jo through Katy’s performance, particularly in the stories where she has less time paired with the Doctor (it’s as if he emits some sort of field that suppresses her IQ). So I’d go for Spearhead From Space, Doctor Who and the Silurians (if you can find it on its own), or Carnival of Monsters – funnier and more thrilling than The Time Warrior for me, and by the same author. I might pick a different Tom story, but then, of his 20 or so DVD releases so far I could happily recommend 15 or so to anyone, so where to start? I think you’re slightly harsh to Peter, but Caves is definitely his best story by a mile. Interesting variation of my name…

    I’m slightly torn on a second Colin Baker story (after Revelation of the Daleks, easily his best on TV, which you’ve recommended as part of the Davros story). Vengeance and Varos and The Two Doctors are both good but flawed… The Two Doctors has an extensive set of extras which perfectly mirror the story itself – some of them are brilliant, unmissable and intensely watchable, while others go on way to long and bore you to death, so Varos is probably the more accessible story for a newcomer, but The Two Doctors is arguably Colin’s best performance – relaxed, warm and interested, he’s finally given a script by someone who writes a good Doctor. So it depends whether you want to show off a story or a Doctor.

    “Vengeance on Varos is the closest TV ever came to 2000AD in its prime” – I’d say much the same of The Curse Of Fenric, actually. It’s just as good as you say it is (perhaps better; I don’t have a problem with too much going on, thinking the multiple layers really work), Nicholas Parsons really is that good – as is Dinsdale Landen, also known for light entertainment but absolutely electric here – but, as well as feeling very filmic, particularly in the Special Edition, I get a lot of 2000 AD from it. There’s the mood of World War Two vampire story ‘Fiends of the Eastern Front’, for example, while the Haemovores have much in common with humanity’s future in ‘Nemesis Book 6’, in which humans have returned to the sea, but it all goes horribly wrong in a time-twisting plot with vampiric undercurrents (though there it’s the past preying on the future, rather than the other way round.

    And I rather disagree with you on Twenty-first Century TV Who, but that’s another story…!

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Gah. Sorry about misspelling your name – I seem to be making a habit of that (see the comments to my Wednesday Comics post).
      I thought of The Two Doctors, but Varos *just* had the edge for me, probably because it’s an episode shorter – Two Doctors could be tighter.
      I see what you mean about Fenric, but I’m thinking more of tone than plot points – almost everything in Cartmell’s time had 2000AD ‘inspiration’ (though I think the underwater vampires probably came from an Alan Moore Swamp Thing story) but Varos has the right ‘feel’.

      (Sorry for the brevity of these replies, BTW – typing at work)

  6. Alex Wilcock says:

    Funny you should mention Warriors of the Deep… My beloved Richard glanced at my ‘Nine Doctor Who DVDs you must own’ in response to you yesterday and said, “You’ve got no Pertwee. Why not add Beneath the Surface? Then they can always give away Warriors of the Deep.” I have to admit, if Doctor Who and the Silurians was released on its own – fantastic story, and with arguably the best single extra in the range, the BBC4-quality documentary on politics in the series – it would certainly be on my ‘absolute must-have’ list like a shot. But it’s paired with an exciting but empty sequel and a final story that’s… Not as good as the rest, so the box set’s more of a microcosm of Doctor Who as a whole, for good and, er, not so good ;-)

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Tend to agree, although I had an unwritten rule here as well that I wasn’t going to go for any *very* long stories. Silurians is my favourite Pertwee, but Time Warrior seems more accessible.
      And that documentary *is* fantastic, isn’t it? In fact the documentaries have tended to be exceptional recently – I *loved* the ones on the Espace trilogy box, with the exception of the one about Romana’s dresses. That’s one thing where I thought the Deadly Assassin DVD fell short – that Fear Factor piffle.

      • Alex Wilcock says:

        My favourite Pertwee, too!

        I see what you mean about long stories, though The Master’s Doctor Plan (New Beginnings) is 12 episodes…

        And I agree with you – up to a point – on the Fear Factor; there was some good stuff in there, but it meandered too much (as well as being too short! No structure). And, given that the scariest bit of Who has to be 1975-1977, with Assassin slap-bang in the middle of it, it’s just plain weird that it completely neglected Hinchcliffe.

  7. Alex Wilcock says:

    Ooh! Forgot to say. The Beginning is a quid cheaper at sendit.com right now, at £7.89. Bargain!

  8. Oliver Townshend says:

    Sendit seem to have an awful lot of cheap Doctor Who. Care to do a non-beginners guide?

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I couldn’t really do better than Alex’s one, linked in the post. He lists thirty or so choices, and while it’s a bit Tom Baker heavy and I’m not as keen on The Leisure Hive as him, it’s a pretty fair selection…

      • Oliver Townshend says:

        Thanks. It looks good, although a little old. now all I’ve got to do is convince the wife that Hartnell and Colin Baker are worth watching…

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          He’s got updates at the bottom which bring it up to May this year…
          And just show your wife the first episode of An Unearthly Child for Hartnell. EVERYONE likes him after that…

        • Alex Wilcock says:

          I think Andrew and I share similarly unusual views about Billy and Colin being brilliant Doctors, so happy to help them make a breakthrough in your household…

          On Billy, of nine releases I’d strongly recommend three, partly recommend another three and, er, put the remaining three to the back of the queue!

          As Andrew says above, The Beginning is superb, with “An Unearthly Child” itself one of the best pieces of television ever made, though the characters are harsher than they ever will be again; The Dalek Invasion of Earth is great fun, especially with the CGI saucers switched on, but has rather less Billy; and The Aztecs is both a superb story and probably the best for Mr Hartnell himself, stern, cunning and romantic.

          After those, I’d partly recommend The Rescue and The Romans (I’ve seen them called the Vena, Vidi, Vicki box) are both fun little stories, with Billy loveable in one and comedic in the other, and some fabulous documentaries; The Time Meddler, which has some great moments and invents mixing history and alien interference; and The War Machines, which invents the Internet scare.

          Then there’s The Web Planet, of which I’m very fond but few other people are any more, the forthcoming The Keys of Marinus, which has good moments and quite bad half-hours, and Lost In Time, on which the Hartnell fragments are almost uniformly brilliant, but just that – fragments. So I’d leave each of those until you’ve got the others first.

          As for Colin – great Doctor, few TV stories to choose from, and fewer still that are much cop. Revelation of the Daleks, cheapest in that Davros Collection, is by a long way the best, though Colin’s not in it much. Andrew recommends Vengeance On Varos; I’d say it’s probably his next-best story, but if I were trying to encourage someone to like his Doctor, I’d go for The Two Doctors. Colin’s definitely at his best when Bob Holmes is writing for him, though Bob’s not necessarily at his best when writing for Colin (Colin’s marvellous in Bob’s bits of The Trial of a Time Lord, too, but it does go on).

          Agree with any of that, Andrew? ;-)

          • Andrew Hickey says:

            Pretty much all of it. Your rankings of Hartnells I agree with entirely, and I agree that Colin’s far more likeable in The Two Doctors (and even more so actually in Trial). I just think The Two Doctors could do with 45 minutes cutting out of it, while Vengeance On Varos is close to perfect.

  9. Geoff says:

    Hi Andrew.

    This is a great article and I agree with you on so many details.

    I’ve always thought that Hartnell’s Doctor was vastly underrated. In fact my favourite two Doctors are the first two which surprised my brother as he was always a believer of the whole “your favourite Doctor is the one you grew up with” theory. Incidentally I mainly grew up with McCoy’s Doctor whereas he had grown up with Tom.

    I always defend the fluffs too. I’ve always thought the fluffs added a touch of realism to the show that has never been seen since on television since. Do we all not fluff words and sentences in real life? Sometimes we speak without thinking and do make the odd fluff ourselves.

    There are a lot more other little details which, for me, make the 60’s my favourite era of Doctor Who. I feel the acting was far superior (both from the regulars and supporting artists) and the stories, for the most part, were more consistently better than some of the later eras. Another little detail I loved was how characters would be dirtied up to reflect certain stories. Dalek Invasion Earth would be a good example as opposed to the nice, healthy clean rebels of the Cushing movie. This element sadly disappeared after a while.

    In contrast to Hartnell though Troughton has neither been underrated or overrated as he always has been a fan favourite. I think in the old days this was more a case of the mystery about him since so few of his stories exist in the archives but now with the material available in many forms (audios, reconstructions, books etc) it has changed to Troughton’s actual performance than the mystery.

    Sadly though, in my opinion, most of Troughton’s best stories no longer exist at all with the exception of a few clips but even listening to him on the audio you can just imagine what was happening in those stories and of course the telesnaps do give you a rough guide to most of his era. Something fans tend to forget are those telesnaps. It is true that Troughton’s era is largely gone in terms of visual material but at least we do have most of it in more than one form (audio and telesnaps) with only Space Pirates really suffering.

    In contrast I find that Hartnell’s era suffers a lot more in this respect with a few stories devoid of telesnaps and in some cases no visual material at all (The Massacre and Mission to the Unknown spring to mind).

    I’ve often thought that Tom is overrated. When he was good he was good but there were times when he could tend to go a bit overboard with his acting.

    Colin on the otherhand I’ve always thought was also underrated (and I’ve thought this long before Big Finish entered the scene). Ironically his stories don’t really grate on me as I feel his performance can make even some of the less tolerable stories watchable such as Timelash and Terror of the Vervoids.

    I also agree with you on all that you have said on the new series for the same reasons that you gave.

    I really can’t think of one story under Davies’ run that really appealed to me. At least Turner did produce some very good stories and whilst it his true that’s more down to the script editor credit must also be given to Turner who, as producer, had the final say and could have turned them down.

  10. Paul says:

    Seriously… You don’t mention the new Doctor launched by Russell T. Davies at all? I understand wanting to remain purist, but c’mon… Eccleston was a mediocre Doctor, but David Tennant is my favorite Doctor since Tom Baker… Plus the whole Captain Jack Harkness/Torchwood elements make the show an even larger animal. Regardless of what you may think of other things, Stolen Earth/Journey’s End had all the pathos of the Doctor leaving another two companions, while bringing back a classic companion (Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith, with the folks from her spinoff show) and resurrecting from an alternate universe the first relaunched companion and her compatriots, Davros, the Daleks, Torchwood, UNIT, the humor of “Former Prime Minister Harriet Jones,” prophecies fulfilled, Davros meeting Sarah Jane again….

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Just because Russel Davies’ show calls itself Doctor Who doesn’t make it so, and discussing it in the same context is much like if the Bootleg Beatles started releasing albums as ‘the Beatles’ – i wouldn’t mention them in a context of Beatles albums either…

  11. Michael says:

    The only problem with introducing newer fans to classic Who via “City of Death” is that there is literally nothing else like in the canon. So, if they like it and want to see more of the Tom Baker era, there is nothing else really to give them.

    I really think “Ark in Space” is an ideal entry point. It’s fairly self contained and it’s got Baker really settling into the role, but not to the point that he’s out of control. A great script by Robert Holmes and one that shows that story and style often triumph over the visuals.

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