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…