Doctor Who: The Best Of Each Doctor – Volume One

Chris Jordan begins a four-part review series by looking at the best story arcs featuring the first three Doctors.

Well, here we are again... that sad, long, depressingly chronological stretch of the year between the Doctor Who Christmas special and the premiere of the next series in the late-summer or early-fall. Seven or eight months when time ceases to be that wonderfully chaotic ball of timey-wimey stuff, and we are left to experience reality in linear order, like one of The Doctor's left-behind former companions. But fear not, fellow Whovians: there is an easy solution to the time-travel withdrawal we all feel between seasons. This time provides us with the perfect opportunity to delve into the rich history of Doctor Who's 52-year (on and off) lifespan, and explore the classic series.

Of course, the idea of watching classic Who can appear very daunting to
a newcomer: the original show was on for 26 seasons, and sitting down to watch the complete series is an insane time commitment which only the most dedicated even consider putting themselves through. I'll tell you right now – don't do that. Don't try to go straight through from 1963's An Unearthly Child to 1989's Survival, watching every episode along the way. It will take an eternity, you'll hit some patches that will really try the patience of a modern viewer, and it just isn't the best way to experience all that Doctor Who has to offer. Not to mention, quite a few early episodes of the show don't exist anymore (more on that later...), so a straight watch-through is technically impossible. The right way to approach the series is as The Doctor himself would: hop around in time and space, and have adventures along the way. Sample some of the greatest classics from each different Doctor's era, and from there explore more of the eras that grab you the most.

The show reinvented itself so many times over the years that it's more useful to think of Doctor Who as a series of variations on the same concept, rather than one constant show. Just as The Doctor changes his face seven times throughout the classic series, the show changed forms just as much. If you're a fan of the new Doctor Who who wants to sample the original, it's definitely best to try slices of each era before diving in to any one. Even if you're taking that approach, though, where to start within each era can still seem like an overwhelming question, and getting advice from fans is always helpful. Every classic-series fan will have different favorite story arcs for each Doctor, but here are my recommendations of arcs within each era that belong at the top of anyone's must-see list.

Over the course of four articles, I will review one of my favorite picks for each of the twelve Doctors – with one added rule. If you're a new-Doctor Who fan, you already know that any episode with iconic villains like Daleks or Cybermen is probably worth seeing. Some of the original series' most loved episodes feature them, and usually also feature them in the title – The Dalek Invasion of Earth, Tomb of the Cybermen, Genesis of the Daleks, Remembrance of the Daleks, etc – and those titles are probably all you need to know to put them on your watch-list. As such, I will not be reviewing any of the story arcs that prominently involve either of those famous foes, so I can instead focus on arcs that a newcomer might not know to check out without a recommendation. With that rule in place, I present my top (non-Dalek, non-Cyberman) picks for the first three Doctors...

First Doctor William Hartnell – The Crusade (Season 2, 1965)

"I knew I should have gotten Indiana Jones
for this crusade too!"
The Crusade is a fairly unlikely choice for two reasons. The first of those reasons is a big part of exactly why I picked it for my recommendation; the second makes me wonder if maybe I shouldn't have. Yet this is such a fantastic story, of a variety so unique to the First Doctor years, that I cannot think of a better one to introduce a newcomer to exactly how good this early era could be. All the way back in the show's second season, Doctor Who had not yet settled into a storytelling routine or even a distinct identity; its possibilities were still wide open, and as a young show it could still experiment with any type of story it wanted without having to worry about whether that story “felt like Doctor Who.” In particular there was one narrative format that these early seasons explored quite frequently, but which the Second Doctor era dropped altogether: the pure historical drama. These were story arcs in which the Doctor and company would land in the midst of actual historical events and get caught up in the human drama surrounding that point in history. No aliens, no sci-fi plot devices (aside from our time-traveling heroes being present, of course), just the intrigue and excitement of things that actually happened, and the fascinating people who made them happen. This style of Doctor Who was ultimately discarded in favor of more fun sci-fi, but it produced a few truly great dramatic stories, and The Crusade is possibly the very best of them.

In this serial consisting of four half-hour episodes, The Doctor, Barbara, Ian, and Vicki land in 12th Century Palestine, in the midst of the Third Crusade, and find themselves caught up in the tense military stalemate between King Richard “The Lionheart” and the Saracen ruler Saladin. What follows is not the military adventure serial that one might expect from a show of this vintage, but instead a very intelligent and thoughtfully-written character drama about the psychological and personal tolls of a bitter war of attrition. Just as unexpectedly, The Crusade does not opt for the old cliché of “British good, Palestinians bad” that one likewise would expect from an era in which British TV still frequently used brownface. Instead we have a deeply nuanced portrayal of two complex and conflicted sides, both of whom have attributes of corruption and moral justness, and both of whom have heroes and villains in their ranks. Richard and Saladin are both sometimes sympathetic, sometimes cruel, but always understandably human. The script tears down the adventure-serial trope of hero vs villain, and gives us two leaders who both want to do the right thing for their people, but fundamentally disagree on what the right thing is. It is this emotional depth which makes The Crusade's tale of intrigue and political tension so compelling and suspenseful; this is Doctor Who showing that it isn't just a sci-fi show, but a great drama as well.

"...and then the critic said, "no base genre like sci-fi
will ever produce legitimate drama!" And I said,
"I'll show you, you pompous snob!""
This highly literary script is brought to life by an excellent cast, lead by Julian Glover (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) and Jean Marsh (Willow) as Richard The Lionheart and his sister, Princess Joanna. Glover in particular is fantastic, bringing some serious gravitas to the wonderfully complex portrayal of Richard. This story arc also showcases the great dynamic between the first Doctor and his original companions, Ian and Barbara: a truly excellent TARDIS team. Ian and Barbara made a great double-act – intelligent, resourceful heroes, with Barbara representing a very strong female lead for the mid-60s – and they both get some great material in this story. The Crusade likewise gives the First Doctor a chance to show the full, complex range of his personality, which is so much more than the cranky old curmudgeon that he is often stereotyped as. Across these four episodes we see William Hartnell's Doctor as a cunning manipulator of situations, a fiery old man who is as quick and sharp with a sword as he is with his snarky wit, and as a warm and sometimes genuinely funny grandfather figure. There are a lot of reasons why William Hartnell made this character iconic, and here we get to see all of them.

Unfortunately, now we need to deal with the second reason why The Crusade is a rather unusual recommendation; the reason why I almost wondered if I should disqualify it from the list despite its excellence. You see, due to a series of terrible and shortsighted decisions on the part of BBC management in the 1970s, large chunks of the first and second Doctor eras were more or less destroyed, along with loads of other early British television. I say “more or less” because while the film and video elements were destroyed, the audio from every one of these nearly-100 lost episodes survived intact thanks to the archiving work of fans, who would make bootleg audio tapes from the television broadcasts. This essentially leaves these lost episodes as glorified audiobooks or radio plays, which were eventually remastered and released by the BBC on CD, and later on Audible. It's better than nothing, but still a sad fate for such a large chunk of these early seasons. Half of The Crusade was lucky enough to survive this destruction intact, but the other half – episodes 2 and 4, to be precise – were lost, and now only exist in this audio-only form. The whole serial, including the two audio-only episodes, can be found on the Doctor Who: Lost in Time DVD set, which collects all the “orphaned” episodes effected by the BBC archive destruction. The lost episodes can also be found on YouTube as fan-sourced reconstructions which pair the audio with surviving still images from the episodes to rebuild their visual components.

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I realize that to a newcomer, starting with a serial that only half-exists in its complete form might seem rather off-putting. If that's the case, you could always try one of the more accessible First Doctor classics like The Dalek Invasion of Earth or The Aztecs; just be sure to keep The Crusade high on your list of must-sees. But if you're feeling adventurous and are willing to explore a truly great slice of Doctor Who history even with the audio-only episodes 2 and 4, I highly recommend it. This story arc demonstrates all the best qualities of the William Hartnell era, and shows that Doctor Who doesn't need aliens or monsters to be great; its power is all in the writing.

Second Doctor Patrick Troughton – The Web of Fear (Season 5, 1968)

"Monsters in the subway tunnels... I can't wait
to tell Clive Barker about this."
A strong argument could be made that the Second Doctor era is when Doctor Who really became the show that we know it as today. While the First Doctor era jumped between different styles and tones (including the straight historical drama of The Crusade) with somewhat uneven results, it was around this time that the series found a consistent voice and identity as a sci-fi/adventure saga. This era also saw The Doctor become the main character we now know so well. William Hartnell's First Doctor was more of a grandfatherly mentor or professor character, and the action/adventure heroics were usually left to the younger companions like Ian and Barbara. When Patrick Troughton took over the role, the now-younger Doctor became the all-around hero of the show, in action as well as intellect. This era also introduced many of the plot points which would shape the story arcs of the series for years to come: this was when we learned about Gallifrey and the Time Lords, and when the people of Earth formed UNIT in response to extraterrestrial threats. The First Doctor era made the show great in the first place, but the Second Doctor era perfected the format.

This era also gave us some extremely memorable new villains, a couple of whom recently made long-awaited comebacks in series seven of new Doctor Who: the Martian reptiles known as the Ice Warriors (see The Ice Warriors and The Seeds of Death), and the disembodied evil force that calls itself the Great Intelligence. The Intelligence in particular was a very memorable foe, and the main villain of the original series' fifth season. It was quite a different sort of threat for the Doctor to face: while most of the bad guys on Doctor Who were aliens or robots or whatnot, the Great Intelligence was modeled after H. P. Lovecraft's Old One, Yog-Sothoth. A formless, omnipotent malevolence that exists outside time and space, the Intelligence wanted to find a way back in to our reality so it could devour our world – and the Second Doctor fought it in two six-episode story arcs during season five. Sadly, the first of those two story arcs – The Abominable Snowmen – is among the lost episodes that were destroyed by the BBC in the 1970s, though its one surviving episode is in the Lost in Time box set. The second of those arcs – The Web of Fear – used to be among those lost episodes as well... until a surviving print was miraculously found just three years ago. This story arc is now the newest addition to the library of surviving Second Doctor stories – and it happens to be one of the very best.

The Doctor and his companions, Jamie (an 18th Century Scottish Highlander) and Victoria (a teenager from Victorian England), land in present-day London to find that something is very wrong. The city is deserted, except for a panicked and overwhelmed military force barricaded within the tunnels of the Underground. London has been taken over by the Great Intelligence, its Yeti soldiers, and a sentient fungus which acts as the Intelligence's physical form – and now the Doctor and company are among its prisoners. This sets the stage for a claustrophobic and atmospheric horror tale with elements predicting Aliens and The Thing; or more accurately, elements inspired by Them and The Thing From Another World. The cramped and shadowy tunnels of the London Underground not only make for some great suspense setpieces, but also allow the Doctor Who production team to create one of their most visually-striking story arcs yet. While the original show has a well-earned reputation for low-budget visuals, the art design of The Web of Fear looks absolutely great, and is reminiscent of the look of Hammer horror films from around the same time. Between these visuals and a very strong script, this story arc brilliantly shows off the finest points of the Patrick Troughton era.

"Stay away, that fur looks ticklish!"
"RAAAR... wait, you mean I'm not scary?"
The opening minutes of the first episode alone make a perfect introduction to the funny, flippant, yet deceptively cunning Second Doctor, who will remind new-series viewers more than a little bit of Matt Smith. Troughton was absolutely brilliant in the role, with pitch-perfect comic timing, and the great script for The Web of Fear gives him plenty of excellent material. By this point he, Jamie, and Victoria made an excellent team as well: the three actors play off of each other extremely well, and have a great team dynamic every bit as strong as the one eventually developed between Eleven, Amy, and Rory. This story arc also introduces them to another soon-to-be-recurring character, who would go on to be one of the most important co-stars in the entire classic series: a military officer trapped with them in the Underground, named Alistaire Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart. Yes, the iconic Brigadier, who will soon be the founder and commanding officer of the alien defense force, UNIT, though here he is just another soldier who doesn't believe in aliens until he meets the Doctor. Almost as soon as he is introduced in The Web of Fear, the long-standing dynamic between him and the Doctor is already established: an exasperated straight-man/authority-figure foil to the freewheeling and sarcastic Time Lord. With the not-yet-Brigadier in the mix, the script gives us an excellent team to face the sinister Great Intelligence, which is equally well-developed as a cruel, manipulative, and seemingly-omniscient force, in classic H. P. Lovecraft style. The supernatural game of cat and mouse which unfolds between these two sides is loads of fun to watch, even across the lengthy running-time of six half-hour episodes.

There are a few downsides to this story. For starters, the six episodes are occasionally padded; not so much to be a real problem, but watching the story arc (which aired over a month and a half) in a couple sittings may be better than a single two-and-a-half-hour marathon. Then there's the matter of the Yeti, the Great Intelligence's foot soldiers. I think they're fantastic classic-Who creatures, with a memorable presence and quite a bit of nostalgic charm, but one could just as easily accuse them of being really cheesy-looking. There's no denying that they're basically just guys in fuzzy suits which are awfully cuddly-looking, despite the enormous claws. All I can really say about them is, welcome to classic Doctor Who, where suspension of disbelief is every bit as necessary as a TV on which to watch the show. I maintain that they are great villains – just bring your sense of humor and let the lo-fi effects be part of the charm, rather than a distraction. Probably the biggest downside to The Web of Fear is that one of its episodes – part three – is still lost. On the DVD, this episode is presented as the surviving audio track, accompanied by a large number of still photos with Ken Burns-style motion effects and subtle animation. For just one episode out of six, this really isn't bad – it's perfectly easy to follow, and the photo-reconstruction is very well-done. It's just something that a newcomer needs to be aware of, so it's not a total shock when the third episode of the story arc suddenly turns into an audiobook with slideshow.

Ultimately, though, these are just minor drawbacks. The Web of Fear is the Troughton era at its finest, with a great script, a wonderfully menacing threat, strong visuals, and well-written character development with a sense of humor. I had listened to the version that was available on CD back when it was still a lost episode, and even in that form it was so good that it shot to the top of my list of missing story arcs that I would love to see recovered. When it was announced in 2013 that surviving prints of five of its six episodes had been found, it was a dream come true – and I can safely say that it turned out to be every bit as great as I was hoping it would be. I still hope that maybe someday a print of The Abominable Snowmen will likewise be found, so the complete Second Doctor Vs. The Great Intelligence arc can exist once again. But in the mean time, this stands as one of Troughton's best story arcs, and it's only appropriate that the most recently recovered serial of his makes such a good place for a newcomer to start.

Third Doctor Jon Pertwee – Inferno (Season 7, 1970)

"Yes, I know Austin Powers has made my costume
look silly in hindsight... you don't have to rub it in!"
The first few years of the Third Doctor era are one of the most unique times in the history of Doctor Who. When Jon Pertwee took over from Patrick Troughton and a new showrunner, Barry Letts, took over the production team, the show changed from black and white to color, and the visual change was accompanied by a complete overhaul of the series' format. The premise of the show more or less changed completely, as the Doctor was exiled on Earth after being put on trial by the Time Lords, and his TARDIS was permanently disabled as a condition of his sentence. Doctor Who ceased to be a time-travel show, and became an Earth-based alien invasion/paranormal investigation series, more along the lines of the new-Who spinoff, Torchwood. Trapped on one planet in one time, the Third Doctor got a job as the scientific adviser for UNIT, working for Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. Rather than having one or two traveling companions, the Doctor now worked with an ensemble cast at UNIT headquarters, including scientist colleagues Liz Shaw and Jo Grant, and the Brig's soldier underlings Sgt. Benton and Mike Yates. The Doctor himself was reinvented as a cool, no-nonsense man of action; very much the post-James Bond version of the character. Jon Pertwee's son, by the way, is Sean Pertwee, the gruff and badass reimagining of Alfred on Gotham, and he seems to have borrowed more than a bit of his attitude from his dad's version of the Doctor. However, just because the Doctor didn't have use of the TARDIS anymore doesn't mean the show became too much less timey-wimey; writers still came up with plenty of reality-bending adventures for our Time Lord and his UNIT cohorts to get mixed up in.

One such mind-bender, from Pertwee's first season in the role, still stands as not only the best parallel-universe story that Doctor Who has ever done, but also one of the best parallel-universe stories ever told by anyone anywhere in sci-fi. Inferno, an epic seven-episode story about alternate realities, fascism, and the potential for cruelty buried deep inside human nature, is nothing short of absolutely brilliant. The serial opens as UNIT is overseeing a drilling operation aimed at harnessing a newly-discovered natural gas, and the Doctor decides to tap into the mining facility's power to conduct some experiments in hopes of getting the TARDIS working again. The experiment doesn't work as planned, and causes the Doctor to slip sideways in time, to a parallel version of Earth in which England is a fascist state, seemingly after a Nazi victory in World War II. And to make matters worse, a parallel version of the same drilling operation has just triggered a natural disaster which could mean the end of the world – the end of both worlds, unless the Doctor can get home and stop our reality's version of the project.

The natural disaster plot is strong, and makes for some excellent
"For the last time, stop calling me Nick Fury!
And really stop calling me Halloween Jack!"
suspense setpieces, but the real purpose of the script is to explore the frightening possibilities of a parallel world which is a lot like ours, but with the balance of power tipped towards fascistic cruelty. Our whole ensemble cast of main characters are still there on this parallel Earth, but are villains instead of heroes, having been shaped in fundamentally different ways by their crueler world. The kindly Brigadier in particular is transformed into a brutal and sadistic SS-commandant-style thug. Using this plot, Inferno asks some fairly heavy philosophical questions: to what degree is a person's moral compass part of their core identity, and to what degree is it a product of their environment? Are the good people the Doctor knows still somewhere inside these alternate-universe doubles, and are they redeemable? Or are they completely different people due to their alternate upbringing? What does it say about our universe's Brigadier that under different circumstances he could just as easily be a Nazi-esque villain? Should we view him as less good a man if his heroism is due more to the environment which made him, rather than himself on some core level? It's rare that Doctor Who gets so deeply into philosophical issues, and that's just one more part of what makes Inferno arguably the most brilliant serial of the entire Third Doctor era.

Yes, Inferno is a really, really long story arc, at seven half-hour episodes. But while here and there you may find a tiny bit of padding to stretch it out (mostly in the form of extraneous, but still very fun, 70s action sequences), there really isn't much. The story is so compelling and thematically fascinating that it earns all seven of those episodes, and uses them to more deeply explore its complex world and the issues that it raises. I might recommend breaking this one up over a couple viewing sessions, instead of binging on almost two months of Doctor Who in a single just-over-three-hour stretch, but this story is so great that its length should not be at all alienating if you break it up into digestible chunks. Not only is it one of the smartest and most innovative Pertwee-era stories, it's also one of the best parallel-universe stories you're likely to find anywhere.

Check back in a few days for volume two of this series, as we look at the finest adventures from Fourth Doctor Tom Baker, Fifth Doctor Peter Davison, and Sixth Doctor Colin Baker!

- Christopher S. Jordan