Doctor Who has been a legend for decades, but the time-travel adventure show has gained a whole new fanbase in the past seven years. Newer fans have an amazing opportunity to travel backwards in time, and rediscover the show’s greatest moments from the first 26 years.
We’ve written before about how to discover 20th century Who — but here are 15 adventures from the original show that are still thrilling, and might help you learn more about the Time Lord.
A lot of classic Who episodes feel painfully slow compared to the zippy pace of the new series. Plus there are the clunky effects, and the sometimes exaggerated performances. But here and there, you still find some gems that hold up amazingly well. We’re probably leaving out some of your favorite stories, so please do make the case for them in the comments!
The Edge of Destruction (1964)
The first two Doctor Who stories have their moments, including the first look at the TARDIS and the first meeting with the Daleks. But this is a quick hit, just 45 minutes, and still just as intense as it was 48 years ago. The TARDIS is malfunctioning, and the Doctor and his friends are trapped aboard with only a series of cryptic clues to go by. And some strange influence starts making the time travelers go nuts and try to kill each other. This story features the first hints that the TARDIS is a living, telepathic entity rather than just a machine — paving the way for “The Doctor’s Wife.”
The Dalek Invasion of Earth (1965)
The second Dalek story is a lot more fun than the first, with a ton of crazy plot devices thrown together to create a weird, wild ride. The Daleks don’t just invade the Earth — they invade 200 years in the future, using a meteorite-borne plague. And the story picks up with the Daleks already having conquered the planet. Plus the Daleks turn some humans into their cyborg servants, or Robomen. And they have a pet squid. And they’re drilling to the center of the Earth. And and and. It’s six episodes, or over two hours, but there’s enough fun to keep you going. This story invented the “alien monsters juxtaposed with familiar Earth settings” motif of Doctor Who.
Tomb of the Cybermen (1967)
Patrick Troughton may well have been the best Doctor of them all — but most of his best stories were junked, and we only have snippets. The exception is this Hammer Horror-tinged adventure, where an archeological expedition travels to the planet of the Cybermen to find out why they died out. The expedition finds the Cybermen’s final resting place and — not really a spoiler — the Cybermen aren’t quite so dead. This story features the Cybermen at their creepiest and most menacing. But also, Patrick Troughton is a revelation in this story: wily and cunning and sweet and mocking. He runs rings around everybody using his special technique: “Keeping my eyes open and my mouth shut.” His quiet scene with his companion Victoria, who’d only just joined him after losing her father, is a marvel. Warning: There’s a weird African strongman character who’s a bit of a stereotype. We’ll be seeing him again.
Doctor Who and the Silurians (1970)
Okay, this one is seven episodes long — which is asking a lot from your attention span. But as a representative of the UNIT era, it’s pretty fantastic. Basically, at the end of the Troughton era, Doctor finally reveals that he’s a Time Lord, and his own people put him on trial for interfering with other races. The Doctor gets given a new face (Jon Pertwee) and trapped on 20th century Earth without a working TARDIS. The Doctor has to team up with Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and his military organization, UNIT. In later years, the collaboration between the Doctor and the Brigadier is cozy, but here it’s a lot more complicated and difficult. The Doctor encounters some creatures who aren’t aliens, and who aren’t just one-dimensional baddies, and his agenda doesn’t necessarily align with the Brigadier’s. The seven-episode length is somewhat justified by a harrowing subplot where a plague starts killing people all across London.
Terror of the Autons (1971)
The story which introduces the Doctor’s arch-nemesis the Master, plus his new companion Jo. The tonal shift from “Silurians” is pretty amazing — this is a rollicking fun-ride, with the Doctor and the Master verbally sparring and outwitting each other non-stop. And yet, it’s also a lot more horrifying, with people being murdered in gruesome ways that the current TV series would probably never dare to portray. Strangulation, suffocation, and so on. This story was the beginning of Doctor Who getting a reputation of being too horrific for children. Also, it’s the best classic story featuring the Autons, the plastic dummies that come to life — their original adventure has some iconic moments, but also a lot of clunkiness. Oh, and the African strongman is back, this time as a circus strongman.
The Time Warrior (1974)
We’re skipping over some beloved stories here, including “The Three Doctors,” the story which brings back the first two stars of the show. But this is one of the most fun Jon Pertwee stories — and it features the debut of the Sontarans, those cloned warrior bastards, and Sarah Jane Smith, arguably the greatest companion from the classic series. A Sontaran warrior named Lynx crash-lands in medieval England, and needs to repair his spaceship. So he buys off a local warlord by offering him advanced weapons, and also travels forward in time to kidnap present-day scientists. It’s a classic example of the “interfering with history” story that O.G. Doctor Who did a fair bit, and also a great taste of writer Robert Holmes indulging his taste for comedy. (Along those lines, there’s also “Carnival of Monsters,” from a year earlier.) The banter between the super-advanced alien warrior and the medieval fighter is pretty great, and throwing the show’s first “feminist” companion into the Middle Ages for her first story yields some great comic dividends.
The Ark in Space (1975)
Yes, the first episode is just the Doctor and his companions poking around a deserted space station and getting into death traps. But it’s actually quite gripping, thanks to the newly regenerated Tom Baker bringing his absolute best game. Fans of Alien will notice some similarities with that film’s storyline here, too — it’s thousands of years in the future, and the Earth is uninhabitable due to solar flares. Some humans have been placed in suspended animation on board this space station, waiting to repopulate the planet. But a race of wasp-like aliens has gotten aboard and laid its eggs inside one of the sleeping humans. They want to use the other humans as a food supply. It’s a different sort of horror than “Terror of the Autons,” but it mostly works great. One problem, though — this story was made before anybody had seen bubble wrap. The designers thought it would be brilliant to use this new material for many of the visual effects, and at the time it worked. Now, however?
Genesis of the Daleks (1975)
The Daleks have appeared on Doctor Who countless times — but this is the only other Dalek story you absolutely have to see. The Daleks were in kind of a rut by the mid-1970s, having starred in a slew of adventures. And then their creator, Terry Nation, went back to tell their actual origin story — and took them back to their roots as space Nazis. The Nazi imagery in this story comes thick and fast, but so do the meditations on the morality of warfare and science. The debate between the Doctor and the Dalek creator Davros is one of the show’s great scenes, and then later the Doctor pauses to weigh the morality of wiping out the Daleks before they even have a chance to exist. Rumor has it Tom Baker and Davros actor Michael Wisher rewrote all of Davros’ dialogue in iambic pentameter, so it would sound more Shakespearean.
Pyramids of Mars (1975)
This is just a lovely, solid adventure story, where the Doctor and Sarah Jane are stuck in 1911 with lethal Egyptian mummies, and an Egyptian god (who’s actually an alien) is trying to escape his entombment. There’s plenty of goodness in here, including the then-standard trope of the character who is no longer human. But mostly, it’s great because the Doctor feels completely outmatched from the start of the story. And writer Robert Holmes shows how to keep a 90-minute Doctor Who story interesting, without letting the pace slack: the Doctor comes up with three separate plans to stop the evil Sutekh, all of which fail horribly. (Instead of the Doctor simply running around or getting captured over and over again, and then solving the problem in the final episode, as in a lot of other stories.) Also, this is Sarah Jane at her absolute best — according to the DVD commentary, Elisabeth Sladen worked with the director to make Sarah Jane more proactive and smarter in this one, even stealing some of the Doctor’s thunder.
The Deadly Assassin (1976)
After the Doctor finally visited his own home planet Gallifrey in 1969's “The War Games,” he went back several times — but this is the all-time classic Gallifrey story, for good reason. This is the story that gives the Time Lords their classic “stiff collars and weird headgear” look that they still have today. And instead of treating the Time Lords like all-powerful, solemn brainiacs, Robert Holmes gives them foibles and even class divides. This story also brings back the Master for the first time in a few years, and it’s one of the few great Master stories. And this story also invents “The Matrix,” a virtual world that’s indistinguishable from reality, years before the Wachowskis got there.
The Robots of Death (1976)
This is just another great story from the Tom Baker era — but as the years go by, it might be becoming my favorite classic Doctor Who story. It’s an Agatha Christie homage set aboard a “sandminer,” a big vessel that churns through the desert on a desolate planet, looking for rare minerals. The people on board the sandminer are riven with class conflict and general neuroses — and that’s before they all start being strangled to death. This story is one of the most science fictional Doctor Who stories, in that it creates a whole plausible society on another planet — but it also focuses heavily on how a society that depends on robots could come to view them. Some people identify with robots, while others suffer from “robophobia.” As the Doctor casually observes, if it does turn out that robots are killing people, “I should think it’s the end of this civilization.” Also, this is arguably the best story featuring Leela, the Doctor’s knife-wielding homicidal “savage” companion.
City of Death (1979)
Douglas Adams wrote three Doctor Who stories, but only two of them were finished — and only one is a total masterpiece. This is the story that people point to when they want to prove that classic Doctor Who could be stylish and clever, not to mention actually witty. In “City of Death,” an alien blows up his spaceship trying to take off from prehistoric Earth, and he becomes splintered across time. He needs to find a way to travel backwards to the dawn of the planet, to stop himself from destroying his own spaceship. And so he hatches a plan that involves, among other things, stealing the Mona Lisa from the Louvre and printing a bunch of Gutenberg bibles. Tom Baker is at his most manic and delightful, and something about the Paris location filming just brings out the whimsy and fun in the show.
Peter Davison had the unenviable task of following Tom Baker, and he often seems like he’s trying to go to the opposite extreme from Baker’s Doctor — more vulnerable, less of a know-it-all. He also seems like an old man trapped in a young man’s body, something Matt Smith has been doing as well. In a lot of Davison’s stories, the more vulnerable thing means the Doctor is awfully passive, causing the storytelling to grind to a halt. But in “Earthshock,” he’s up against the Cybermen, who are desperate to blow up Earth in the 25th century. The Doctor rises to the occasion, but also his air of being slightly out of his depth works, when he’s trapped on a spaceship full of thousands of deadly cyborgs. This is also the story that features perhaps the most shocking ending in the history of Doctor Who.
The Caves of Androzani (1984)
And here’s the other great story where the fact that Davison doesn’t always have all the answers pays huge dividends. The Doctor stumbles into a horrible situation: First, he and his new companion Peri are infected with a deadly disease, and then they’re caught in the middle of an all-out war between a corrupt government and an army of androids, over Spectrox, the most valuable substance in the galaxy. This story shows just how heroic the Doctor can be, refusing to quit even when he’s basically a dead man walking. And it’s a masterpiece of tight plotting — everything that happens in this story is because of the Doctor’s arrival, but the Doctor is only interested in saving the life of his companion. The end of episode three always gives me goosebumps.
The Curse of Fenric (1989)
The mid-1980s were not a happy time for Doctor Who. We’re skipping over the whole era of Davison’s successor, Colin Baker, because it was unwatchable back then and it hasn’t aged well. The early stories of the final classic Doctor, Sylvester McCoy, were also pretty lamentable — and then something weird happened. The show started to regain its edge, and the stories were about something again. There were even hints of an arc that carried on from story to story. The new companion, Ace, was actually a badass who carried around home-made explosives and attacked Daleks with a supercharged baseball bat. The best of these stories, by a huge margin, is “Curse of Fenric,” in which the Doctor and Ace visit England in the middle of World War II and discover some ancient Norse runes that could raise an ancient evil — one that the Doctor himself trapped, long ago. The slightly extended movie version on the DVD is well worth watching. This is a great take on a darker version of the Doctor, and one of the most interesting Doctor-companion relationships of all time.