In 2005, Doctor Who returned to screens in the form of Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor, Billie Piper’s Rose and Russell T. Davies as head writer. To everyone’s surprise, not only was the show a hit but with the arrival of David Tennant as Ten, it had returned firmly to ruling the roost of Saturday Evening entertainment, introducing a new generation to the extraordinary adventures of the renegade Gallifreyan. Of course, being new to the franchise and determined to explore its roots, many are daunted by the sheer fifty plus years worth of books, audio dramas, comics, plays, games and of course, the Classic Series. Eight different Doctors, dozens of companions and ten times as many aliens to meet: Just where can you start? And even if you found a Doctor or story you like the look of, can you then stomach the very different format (four to six part serials) as well as the decidedly less than state-of-the-art special effects or, Rassilon forbid, black and white?
Well, I’m here to offer ye, Whovian newborns, four entry points for the old series that are like some of your favourite stories from the new series. They’ve also been considered for importance in the programme’s history, as well as not being too heavily tied to continuity that would render them inaccessible. Now, are you sitting comfortably? Good, then we’ll begin:
1. If you liked The Waters of Mars, you should check out The Tenth Planet.
Now we dive in with black and white territory, and how else to entice those who are wary of monochrome than with the first appearance of the Cybermen, as well as the first regeneration story? A dying First Doctor, along with sailor Ben and secretary Polly, arrives on Earth as its long lost twin Mondas makes its return to orbit, bringing with it, its emotionless, upgraded hosts. Like many base-under-siege tales, the tension in this one is thickly smothered as the Earth scientists and the Doctor tries to uncover what is going on and distrust is rife.
The black and white adds so much atmosphere and gives the admittedly crude looking Cybermen a haunting, otherworldly quality on the snow. Naturally, they are the show stealers and this story portrays them at their most basic, raw and, arguably, most realistic: cold, unfeeling and indifferent to pleas for mercy or the deadly consequences of Mondas’ return to the Earth. Their weird high pitched voices also play out like a distorted parody of humanity, only adding to the creepiness.Those alone would be enough to recommend, but as said, this was the first regeneration tale too, and the story’s sombre atmosphere’s and frequent allusions to mortality and death compliment the final, poignant and simultaneously sad yet hopeful scene of the First Doctor becoming the Second.
2. If you liked Amy’s Choice, The Girl Who Waited or other more abstract stories, you should check out The Mind Robber.
Once again returning to the 60s, this is an odd one, starting out as abstract sci-fi psychological horror, before morphing into a literal storybook as the Second Doctor, highlander Jamie and math wiz Zoe meet up with a number of beloved figures from literature, such as Gulliver, Cyrano De Bergerac, D’Artagnan and even a comic strip superhero! This is Classic Who at its most high concept and playful, often mixing great unease and eeriness in this giant storybook with plenty of amusing interactions as the capricious and impish Second and his friends meet the various characters and journey through their nonsensical worlds.
The black and white, once again, adds to the nightmare quality of the whole ordeal, especially when the TARDIS explodes and Jamie and Zoe are left floating in a void. And it isn’t just limited to doing the usual ‘trippy-bonkers’ material either: Jamie gets turned into a literal cardboard cutout and the Doctor ends up rebuilding his face wrong, thus resulting in a new Jamie, played with a more pronounced accent by Hamish Wilson. It’s a really fun sequence and wonderfully contrasts yet complements the Land of Fiction, a place where anything and everything, good and bad, can happen.
3. If you liked The Zygon Invasion/Inversion or other UNIT stories, you should check out Spearhead From Space.
It was a toss-up between this and Terror of the Autons, both featuring the living plastic entities that also helped bring back the series with 2005 ‘s Rose, and both season openers for Jon Pertwee’s dashing Third Doctor. Both follow the same basic mould: an alien entity is producing and controlling plastic mannequins and objects to conquer the Earth. In the first story, it was the cephalopodan Nestene Consciousness and in the second, it introduced us to villainous Time Lord the Master, played by Roger Delgado. Both are perfect encapsulations of this era of the programme: the jump to colour meant a more vibrant colour palette of costumes and sets, along with a focus on more Earth-based sci-fi tales that commented on aspects of British life (in this case, the rise of plastics and how much they had become a part of people’s lives and homes).
The show imaginatively manages to make mundane things like mannequins, dolls and appliances really scary, always allowing for great tension as you never know what could attack our regulars, foreshadowing a lot of Moffat’s methods. The cast is impeccable and has wonderful chemistry with each other: the brash yet charming and gentlemanly Third Doctor, his assistants in the brainy Liz Shaw or the ditzy but loyal Jo Grant, the long-suffering but dedicated chap Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and of course, the refined, cruel and devious villain in Delgado’s Master. What just edges out Spearhead over Terror is it being Three’s first story, providing an easy jumping-on point for newcomers.
4. If you liked Dalek, you should check out Genesis of the Daleks.
Yes, an easy one but frankly, if you have any appreciation for the screaming pepper pots, why not visit the story of their creation? This one has earned its reputation through and through: seeing a time when Daleks will rule all creation, the Time Lords send in Four, along with journalist Sarah Jane Smith and medical officer Harry Sullivan, to avert the creations of the Daleks by mad scientist Davros at the height of the Thal-Kaled War on Skaro.
There is so much to talk about that a mere paragraph or two could not do it justice, so I’ll limit it to the following: incisive parallels and commentary on the climate of fear and propaganda during World War 2 and the Cold War, pushing the Doctor’s morality the furthest and darkest of the entire Classic Series as he ponders the now iconic `Do I have the Right?’ question, and of course, Michael Wisher’s cold, brilliant and ruthless Davros. His chilling scenes debating morality with the Doctor alone would have been worth the whole six-part story, but the wonderful tension, powerful ideas and unapologetic bleakness where no one is safe only elevate it further. It is worth every last drop of hype it has ever gotten, and one of 70s TV’s finest productions.
And there you have it: Five quality starting points for you to delve into the astonishing and varied world of Classic Who. Naturally, there were so many others I could’ve selected (see most of the Tom Baker era bar Revenge of the Cybermen, The Android Invasion and Meglos), but simpler is often better. Perhaps down the line, I may do the same for the audio dramas produced by Big Finish, of which there are so many great options including but not limited to The Chimes of Midnight, Spare Parts, The Harvest and Son of The Dragon, but well, that’s another list for another time.
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