The New Fan’s Guide to Watching Classic Doctor Who

Classic Doctor Who DVDs

1 (Photo via Gordon Dymowski)

With Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary in full swing, with news of both a changing Doctor and back-and-forth rumors about “lost episodes”, many new series fans want to watch the classic series, but don’t know where to start. Or worse, have to endure classic series’ fans attempts to “guide” them. So in an effort to reach new Who fans, here are some guidelines for watching the classic series. (If you want some episode recommendations, please feel free to check out the Doctor Who DIY DVD Guide)

First, there is no “right or wrong” way to watch – the best starting place is probably to check out the list of Doctor Who episodes on Wikipedia, and either watch streaming or rent/borrow the DVD. (Self-promotion department: the Chicago Doctor Who Meetup group holds a classic series screening the third Wednesday of the month at Third Coast Comics) And as you watch, please keep the following in mind:

Classic Doctor Who is a different style of television production – Classic Doctor Who (produced between 1963 and 1989) was a weekly, serialized show produced on a minimal budget (by an entity which was funded by public license fees) using multiple video cameras and film, and was written from a much more theater-based perspective. In addition, some classic Who episodes reflect the attitudes of slightly less enlightened times, and their handling of issues around gender and race can be a bit…well, wonky, to put it mildly. But much of classic Who has some great ideas – and solid storytelling – that really deserve new series fans’ attention. Plus, there are some great stylistic gems, from the neo-Twilight Zone feel of the first episode of An Unearthly Child to the wild, psychedelic feel of The Claws of Axos. TARDIS and Dalek - CNSC Post

No, You Don’t Need to Watch Them In Order – some classic fans insist that you have to watch the series in order. Unfortunately, for many of the missing episodes , that means watching fan-created reconstructions, which are a challenge. When selecting classic episodes, it’s always good to touch base with your own tastes – like classic television, possibly more towards the Lost in Space feel? First and Second Doctor. Like more traditional message based sci-fi? Third Doctor. More horror elements? Fourth Doctor under Hinchcliffe and Holmes. If you like it, trust me – there’s a Doctor for it. (Plus, watching a variety of Doctors makes it much more timey-wimey). One way to consider watching them is clustering by writer, and I would advise checking Doctor Who: The Writer’s Room and Radio Free Skaro for details and insights

Also, You Don’t Need to Watch Them All At Once – Many fans may advise you to watch classic Who stories by watching episode per week, “as it was intended to be”. That is….well, quite simply, not required. Studies show that most people watch television in several episode “chunks”, and classic Who can often lend itself to this kind of viewing. Some of the longer stories (like The Ambassadors of Death and Inferno) almost require watching in two or three episode “chunks” with frequent breaks. (Four part stories, which run about 90 minutes, often feel more “watchable” in single sittings). Watching classic Doctor Who might feel like a chore (depending on story length and quality of writing, performing, and other factors), but having such a wide variety of stories provides for some really unique viewing.

K9 - CNSC PostDon’t Worry About the Audios/Books/Reconstructions/etc – Once you watch – and begin enjoying – the classic series, there will always be reissues of the books, fan reconstructions, and plenty of Big Finish audios featuring classic Doctors. And if you choose not to – and only focus on the classic series – you’ll have hours of enjoyment.

Some Writers Are Better Than Others – If the writer of a classic Who story is Robert Holmes, you’re in for a good time. If you’re ever pointed towards Pip and Jane Baker, however….run. Run as fast as you can. (Seriously, there is such a wide stylistic range of writing – in fact, Douglas Adams is probably the best known writer of Doctor Who, and his City of Death is a near masterpiece – you can easily find a story that you will automatically fall in love with)

But hopefully, this post has encouraged those who are fans of new Doctor Who to consider checking out several stories in the “classic” era. It can be daunting, it can be challenging….but it won’t be boring.

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