The Science Fiction Classic Show Doctor Who confuses me like no other TV show I have ever seen. An alien (that looks suspiciously like a series of British persons) flies around time and space in a phone booth, fighting far more horrifying aliens with nothing but his wits and the mystical power of funny hats.
But amidst the time travel and questionable fashion choices, there is apparently a pretty decent show to watch in there. Here are the essential 20 Who serials (British speak for a series of episodes that follow the same story arc within a season) to watch for a casual fan to determine if they like it before they embark on the arduous task of watching almost 800 episodes that comprise the entire show (it’s been on since 1963.)
20. The Daleks (1963)
Here we have the 2nd series of the first season, comprising 7 episodes from 1963-64. The First Doctor (more on that in moment) with his companions (more on that later as well) crash land in the TARDIS (aforementioned phone booth time machine) on a remote world. There they meet the beings that would become one of the Doctor’s mortal enemies: the Daleks, who look like battlebots on wheels with the chicken pox.
After being captured by the Daleks, they learn they’re engaged in mortal combat with the pacifistic Thals, which somehow makes all the sense in the world and no sense at all at the same time. They escape, attempt to broker peace between the two of them, and when that fails, decide to train the Thals in the ways of war so they can murder the crapsicle out of the Daleks, which they proceed to do. Genocide complete, the Doctor and his friends port off on the next adventure.
19.The Daleks’ Master Plan (1964)
This epic 12 part serial is the next on our list, marking the longest serial in Doctor Who history (seriously, 12 half hour episodes? It takes less time to read a Harry Potter book) This season two chronicle again features the diabolical Daleks, who are not as exterminated as originally hoped. This time, they’ve developed a weapon that ages people into oblivion, and with the help of some traitorous humans and other assorted assholes, plan to take over the world or melt the Earth or something.
Should probably mention at this point that over the course of the show, the Doctor goes through a lot of companions, mostly attractive females that he never has sex with. The reason for this is obvious, as one companion is sucked out of an airlock into space, and another is aged into dust during the course of this serial. Of course, the day is saved, so hooray we guess.
18. The Tenth Planet (1966)
We fast forward to season four here, in this four part serial that takes place at the South Pole. Earth is being approached by a twin planet, Mondas, populated by another persistent villain in the Doctor Who Universe: the Cybermen. Cybermen are robots that used to be human but upgraded themselves including the removal of all emotion in thought processes. Basically, they’re as coldly calculating, emotionless, and shiny as say, Colin Powell.
But anyway, people and robots fight each other with laser beams, threaten to nuke one another, and then Mondas just blows the fudge up because of the Doctor’s mind powers or something. Speaking of the Doctor, he seemed ill throughout this serial, and at the end, the guy just drops dead. Well crap, what now? Not to worry, sports fans, through the magical power of regeneration, The Doctor is reborn as the Second Doctor, played by a different actor. See, when original actor William Hartnell left the show, the writers came up with the idea of the Doctor reincarnating himself to keep the show going. This is part of the reason why the show has continued for so long, because the main character has been played by, to date, 11 different actors so far.
17. The Tomb of the Cybermen (1967)
The Doc and his friends land on the planet Telos, where an archeological dig into a mountain is underway. A 500 year old tomb is discovered, and going inside, they discover the frozen remains of our old friends, the Cybermen.
A plot is soon uncovered that members of the expedition plan to revive the Cybermen and use them as an army. Things go awry when the Cybermen do wake up, and revert to their old ways of trying to forcibly turn everyone in the vicinity into robots. The four part serial ends when a dude with robot arms gets into a slug fest with a Cyber Controller (like a Cyber boss) and ends up electrocuting them both.
16. The War Games (1969)
Another epic ten part serial, this one sees the Doctor uncovering a plot to conquer the universe using soldiers kidnapped from time periods past on Earth. The Doctor foils the plot, with the help of his race, the Time Lords, which, as it turns out, don’t like him very much. Why? He stole the TARDIS and has gone rogue across time and space without their permission, intergalactic joy riding, if you will.
They sentence him to exile on Earth and straight up kill him, forcing him to regenerate into the Third Doctor.
15. Terror of the Autons (1971)
Here we introduce the being that would become the Doctor’s archenemy, the Joker to his Batman, if you will, the Master. A rogue Time Lord with a TARDIS and a seriously bad attitude, He wishes to rule the universe by becoming master of all matter, hence the name.
In this particular adventure, the Master creates Autons, essentially living mannequins with laser beam hands who kill things. They were introduced in previous series. It’s full out war between the Master and his Autons and the Doctor and his Troops from UNIT (The United Nations’ version of Time Cops mixed with the X Files) before the Master is foiled and ports away. The two continue to do battle throughout the season.
14.The Three Doctors (1973)
When the Time Lords exiled the Doctor to Earth, they broke his TARDIS and forced him to forget all knowledge of how to surf the waves of Time and space. But, in this serial they find themselves under siege and the only person they can think of to help is the Doctor. So, they somehow summon all three incarnations of the man seen so far, who go to an antimatter universe populated by a Time Lord named Omega, who everyone thought was dead. He’s trapped in this universe, permanently alone, and it’s driven him insane and to the point of revenge against the people who’d abandoned him.
The Triple Threat Doctors destroy Omega using a trick out of Angels and Demons: matter touching antimatter causes the annihilation of both. As a reward for saving the day, the Time Lords restore the Doctor’s memories and fix the TARDIS, allowing him to port around the universe once more.
13. Genesis of the Daleks (1975)
We’ve now moved on to the Fourth Doctor in the show ,the Third having been killed by radiation poisoning. His TARDIS is intercepted by the Time Lords, who want him to go back in time and stop the creation of the Daleks, because, seriously, those guys are meanies. So they transport him to Skaro and off he goes. He meets the scientist behind the Daleks, Davros, who wants to rule the planet with them and take out the Thals, who have been at war with his Keled race for a long while.
But the Daleks turn on Davros and kill him along with every other living thing in the facility. They achieved sentience and declared themselves a master race. Considering they were originally intended to be a Nazi allegory, I guess this sort of makes sense. Having set back their development by several hundred years, The Doctor gets the Hell out of there.
12. Logopolis (1981)
We come in at an awkward moment: The Doctor has just completed a quest and is suddenly thrust into another, this one to prevent the heat death of the universe itself. At work here is the Master, who is up to his usual chicanery. The fight is over a computer program that can stop the entropy from engulfing the entire universe, but the Master wants to hold it hostage. The Doctor saves the day, but falls to his death in the process, regenerating into the Fifth Doctor.
11. Earthshock (1982)
A group of Cybermen, discarding all traces of subtlety at this point, rig a massive freighter the size of a celestial body to smash into the Earth, creating a cataclysmic event that would likely kill everyone on the planet.
While the Cybermen force the Doctor to take them to the TARDIS to escape the doomed freighter, one of his companions, Adric, is forced to remain behind. He believes he can decrypt the cipher blocking access to the ships controls and stop the attack. In the struggle, they warp in time from the far future to the far past. The Doctor is able to kill the remaining Cybermen, but one still on the freighter shoots the controls on the thing before the answer is given, dooming Adric as the ship smashes into the Earth, revealing itself to be the “asteroid” that killed the dinosaurs.
10. The Caves of Androzani (1984)
On a mining planet, a rare and valuable drug called spectrox is harvested for the population of a nearby planet. This is controlled by a conglomerate that will do anything to keep its hold on things, including murder. This is the situation the Doctor finds himself in on this planet, Androzani Minor. A war is raging on the planet between the forces of the mining company and androids under a rebel general who doesn't realize he’s being sold weapons by the same guy he’s fighting against.
It quickly turns into a bloodbath, with characters falling like dominoes. Even the Doctor succumbs to poisoning, and is reincarnated as the Sixth Doctor. It has consistently been rated one of the top Doctor Who serials of all time.
9. The Trial of a Time Lord (1986)
This essentially encompasses an entire season, where the Doctor is put on trial again by the Time Lords for meddling in other people’s affairs. His enemy is the Valeyard, who acts as a prosecutor, delivering distorted evidence to try to convict the Doctor.
There turned out to be treachery afoot, as the Doctor was being given a sham trial to get him executed, thus silencing a witness to a mistake made about mass genocide on Earth. You know, that sort of thing. The Valeyard fights the Doctor with the assistance of the Master, and their epic battle concludes in a time matrix, because, why not. The Doctor saves the Day again, and off he goes.
8. Remembrance of the Daleks (1988)
The Doctor travels to the ‘60s to recover a time traveling device left there at some point in the past. Things go awry when Daleks show up, and fight with the Doctor over the Omega Device, as it’s called. Then more Daleks show up, and the two groups start fighting each other. See, a group of renegade Daleks have declared themselves independent of the other Daleks, and want the device to prove their superiority. The Imperial Daleks aren’t about to have that, and so the Doctor is caught in a Dalek civil war on Earth. Also, the Daleks showed off an interesting new trait.
Out of nowhere, Davros appears at the head of one faction of Daleks, in possession of a superweapon. The Doctor goads him into firing it-right into Skaro’s sun, causing it to go supernova and blow the crap out of Skaro, thus blowing up the entire history of the Daleks, yet again. But still, they’re here. Time Travel, amiright guys?
7. Survival (1989)
The Seventh Doctor (Did I mention the last one was the Seventh Doctor as well? Because it was) takes his companion, Ace, back to her home, which has gone all screwy. A portal to another dimension has been opened, and, I kid you not, Cheetah People are coming through and eating people, transforming humans into Cheetahs.
Behind it all, of course, is the Master, who seems to be stuck on the Planet of the Cheetah People with no way to escape, except by dimensional bridge, and something something. Anyway, Cheetah People fight real people and there is killing, then the Master and the Doctor go for one final showdown before the Doctor just leaves the guy there as the planet blows up (this is a common thing in the world of Doctor Who, planets just blowing themselves to pieces) This is remarkable in that it’s the last serial in the original run of the show, after 26 seasons, the show is canceled. But that’s not all she wrote, folks, because…
6. Dr. Who: Television Movie (1996)
An attempt was made to bring back the series with this made for TV movie starring the Eighth Doctor after the Seventh is killed. The Master is back, and he’s out to destroy the Earth by using something called the Eye of Harmony to warp the fabric of spacetime. This is of course, after he was condemned to death by the Daleks, yet he came back to life once more, because, no one can die in this series.
The Doctor had to fight a Chinese guy who’d been subjected to mind control by the Master, who also hopes to steal the Doctor’s regenerations for himself, because, apparently even he can’t live forever. There is a fight to end all fights between the Doctor and the Master before the Doctor hurls the villain into the Eye of Harmony, sufficiently melting his face off. Although popular in Britain, this movie was primarily directed at Americans, who didn’t catch onto it, and the planned new TV series was put off.
5. Rose (2005)
Finally, Dr. Who was back on the BBC, with this episode introducing us to the Ninth Doctor. It also centers around Rose Taylor, who becomes another companion. The Autons have arrived, commanded by the Nestene Consciousness, which is hoping to destroy all life on Earth. The Doctor arrives on the scene just in time to rescue Rose from an attack by the Mannequins, blowing up the building in the process.
After killing more Autons by chopping off heads, they discover the Consciousness itself is here, and set up shop underneath the London Eye (for the uninitiated, that’s a really tall Ferris Wheel, in London.) The Doctor defeats that crap with some plastic melting face raper goo, or something like that, and the day is saved.
4. The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances (2005)
It’s World War Two in London when the Doctor shows up, ready to face the Germans. Instead, what he gets are zombies wearing gas masks. A spacecraft crashed into a building, killing a small boy named Jamie. The ship, a hospital craft with healing powers, restored Jamie to life, but mistook the gas mask he was wearing and the little kid mentality for a template for all humans, and when the healing power becomes airborne…well…
They find the poor kid’s mother, who was pretending to be his sister, and the day is saved. But, the Germans drop a bomb on the little reunion, and almost screws the whole thing up. But, the day is saved again by a new character, Capt. Jack Harkness, who swoops in and takes the bomb out to explode in space. Jack Harkness would go on to star in a spin off series, called Torchwood.
3. Utopia/The Sound of Drums/ Last of The Time Lords (2007)
Just to let you know, we’re now in the Tenth incarnation of the Doctor. We’ve missed some stuff, but the gist of the three part story arc is that the Master is back, again. Sigh. Only this time, he really put a good one over on The Doctor and Co. Not only did he steal the TARDIS from the Doctor, he got himself elected Prime Minister of Great Britain, declared them criminals, then released an alien robot plague upon the Earth to kill everyone.
A year goes by before he’s finally stopped, and time goes back to the way it was before his minions showed up. Then his wife shot him, he didn’t regenerate, and then the Doctor burned the body. So perhaps this time he’s actually dead? One can only hope so.
2. The Stolen Earth/ Journey's End (2008)
Another old enemy returns in this one-The Daleks. Led by Davros, they have stolen planets including Earth and clustered them all together to create a reality bomb, which will destroy reality itself. The Daleks subjugate Earth, shoot the Doctor, and everything looks pretty bad.
Then, plot twists happen. All of the Doctor’s companions from the show’s reboot return to combine a super asskicking on Davros and his Daleks, blowing up their ship and such. One of the companions loses her memory, so that’s bad, but other than that, it was a good ending for team Doc.
1. The End of Time (2009-10)
For those of you hoping that the Master was just going to stay dead this time, I’ve got some bad news: he’s back. This guy is like friggin’ cancer. Anyway, the Master’s going to fudge up time, because what else is new. This time he’s dragged the rest of the Time Lords into this, even though they’re supposed to be dead too. But since when has that ever stopped anyone on this show?
Anyway, The Time Lords were supposed to have perished in a cataclysmic war with the Daleks which blew up both planets and killed most of the inhabitants. Prior to the Master showing up, The Doctor thought he was the last Time Lord. But they have a plan for an epic comeback, and it’s not good. So the Doctor has to solve the problem the way Horatio always does: by shooting at it. Supposedly it worked, and the Master and the Time Lords are gone again, but certainly not written out of the show, but it cost the Doctor, for he died and became the Eleventh Doctor, which is now his current form.
There, now you’re caught up on almost 50 years of television. Now go watch the new season, or better yet, never talk to me about this show again. Not one word, because I don’t want to hear it. My mind is still spinning. Or, watch this show, I don’t care anymore.
By Ben Adelman