Classic Doctor Who: An American’s Guide

BritBox has made almost every episode of classic Doctor Who available to stream. Where should you start?

For the first time ever, the entirety of classic Doctor Who (save for those pesky missing episodes) is available to stream online. BritBox, the streaming British TV service recently launched by BBC and ITV, now have a streaming classic Doctor Whocollection. So break out the celebratory Jelly Babies and let’s dive into this science fiction classic!

BritBox’s Doctor Who streaming collection represents 26 seasons, and 550 episodes of television, which can be a little daunting to the new viewer. But there’s no need to stress. Consider this an American’s guide to classic Doctor Who.Whether you’re a fan of NuWho or have never watched a episode of the science fiction classic, here’s everything you need to know to begin your adventure through space and time…

Check out the complete Classic Doctor Who library on BritBox!

Classic Doctor Who Episodes: A Primer

If you’re an American who didn’t religiously watch PBS in the ’80s and ’90s, then odds are you haven’t seen much or any of the original era of Doctor Who. The British science fiction show has achieved its greatest success in America in the last decade, thanks to recent Doctors like Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith, and Peter Capaldi. If you are one of those “New Who” (or NuWho) fans, then this guide is especially for you.

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This is a Doctor-by-Doctor guide to Doctors 1-7. Each entry offers a brief overview of their Time Lord career in the context of how it relates to their more familiar, more modern NuWho counterparts, as well as to some other modern genre favorites like Outlander and Gotham. Personality traits, companions, and storylines that influenced modern Doctor Who episodes have all been taken into account. Each entry concludes with the “one essential adventure” to check out. 

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Watch Classic Doctor Who Episodes on BritBox!

(Note: Classic Doctor Whowas divided into multi-part serials, which means that one story would be told over the course of several segments. Some serials are missing entirely, while others are missing parts.)

William Hartnell/The First Doctor (1963-1966)

The First Doctor, William Hartnell set the tone for every Doctor that would come after, which is why it might be surprising for NuWho fans just how curmudgeonly the First Doctor is, especially in his first season. Underneath it all, Hartnell’s Doctor still has the mischevious, benevolent, brilliant qualities that have come to define this iconic character throughout all of his incarnations.

The First Doctor’s episodes are all in black-and-white, which may be hard for some modern viewers to get used to, but what the first three seasons of Wholack in polish, they more than make up for in ingenuity. The innovation of the early TV era is alive and well in these episodes,and it can be a lot of fun to see how TV has changed from its nascent years.

Initially conceived as a children’s educational program for the BBC, the First Doctor travels through space and time with his granddaughter Susan, as well as her schoolteachers Barbara and Ian. Though the terms “Time Lord” or “Gallifrey” are never explicitly used, we know from the get-go that the Doctor and Susan are in exile from their home planet. At this point, the Doctor cannot control when or where the TARDIS ends up, which adds another layer of adventure to these early stories.

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Read More: A Celebration of William Hartnell

Number of seasons as The Doctor: Three seasons

Number of episodes: 29 stories/134 episodes

Companions: Susan, Ian, Barbara, Vicki, Steven, Katarina, Sara, Dodo, Polly, Ben

Watch The First Doctor if you like: Peter Capaldi’s curmudgeonly first season; Christopher Eccleston’s no-nonsense portrayal of the Doctor; How to Get Away With Murder‘sAlfred Enoch (First Doctor companion Ian is played by his father William Russell); television history

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One essential adventure: “An Unearthly Child” (Season 1, Episode 1) — The episode that started it all.

Watch William Hartnell Doctor Who Episodes on BritBox!

Patrick Troughton/The Second Doctor (1966-1969)

The original “Bowties Are Cool” Doctor, Patrick Troughton had a huge task in bringing Doctor Whothrough its first regeneration. At the time, no one was sure if Doctor Whowould survive past Hartnell, who had to leave the show due to his ill health. The fact that it did is a testament to Troughton’s charismatic performance.

Known as the “Cosmic Hobo” of Doctors, Troughton’s Doctor was much more childlike and energetic than Hartnell’s Doctor, though with a gravity and power to manipulate that belied his extreme intelligence. The Second Doctor was particularly good at acting the fool to throw off potential enemies. Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith cites Troughton as a particular influence in his performance, so if you like Eleven and are looking for a Classic Doctor to check out, I would suggest the Second Doctor.

A particular highlight of the Second Doctor’s era is his relationship with companion Jamie McCrimmon, a Scottish Highlander who came aboard the TARDIS in Troughton’s second story and stayed through his run. The character of Jamie, who was played by Frazer Hines, inspired Diana Gabaldon’s creation of the Jamie character in Outlander. Hines appears in season two of the Starz TV adaptation of the bestselling series.

Sadly, much of Troughton’s tenure as the Second Doctor has been lost, but there are still some great examples of the Second Doctor’s adventures.

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Number of seasons as The Doctor: Three seasons

Number of episodes: 21 stories/119 episodes

Companions: Polly, Ben, Jamie, Victoria, Zoe

Watch The Second Doctor if you like: Matt Smith’s portrayal of the Doctor; OutlanderRobin Hood‘s Sam Troughton (Patrick’s grandson, whom I would argue has a similar actorly presence); Amy Pond, aka the Scottish best friend companion

One essential adventure: “The War Games” (Season 6, Episode 7) — In Patrick Troughton’s final regular episode, he faces off against aliens hoping to cpnquer the galaxy using brainwashing human soldiers. We first meet the Time Lords. They’re the worst.

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Jon Pertwee/The Third Doctor (1970-1974)

The “James Bond” of Classic Doctors, Jon Pertwee’s Doctor was much more of an action hero than his two predecessors. Suave, technologically-savvy, and always ready to throw a punch, the Third Doctor drove around in a canary-yellow roadster called Bessie. Yeah, Pertwee had style… and it wasn’t just because his tenure as the Doctor was the first to be broadcast in color.

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Much of Pertwee’s Doctor Whoera was limited to Earth, where the Time Lord had been exiled by the Time Lords. Though this narrative move may have been related to cost-efficiency reasons, it led to a more arc-driven story than what had come before. If you like your Doctor Whoensemble-driven, I suggest trying out the Third Doctor.

In his time protecting Earth from both alien and human threats, the Third Doctor reluctantly worked alongside UNIT and fan-favorite character Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (whose daughter Kate appears in NuWho). Though Lethbridge-Stewart was introduced with the Second Doctor and met almost all of the Doctors, his relationship with the Third Doctor remains the most developed.

Another great aspect of the Third Doctor’s run that might be of interest to NuWho fans and modern TV viewers is the relationship between Pertwee’s Doctor and Roger Delgado’s The Master. The Moriarty to the Doctor’s Sherlock Holmes, the cat-and-mouse game between these two is a Classic Who highlight — and very relevant for current episodes of Doctor Who. If you are looking for some background on the Missy/Doctor relationship, try the Jon Pertwee era.

Read more: A Celebration of Jon Pertwee

Number of seasons as The Doctor: Five seasons

Number of episodes: 24 stories/128 episodes

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Companions: Liz, Jo, Sarah Jane

Watch The Third Doctor if you like: The Master/Doctor dynamic; Peter Capaldi’s Doctor outfit (inspired by Pertwee’s); Gotham‘s Alfred (played by Pertwee’s son Sean Pertwee)

One essential adventure: “Terror of the Autons” (Season 8, Episode 1) — The one where the Master shrinks a man to death and hides the tiny body in his own lunch box and makes an inflatable, man-eating chair. What more could you ask for in a Doctor Whostory? Nothing.

Watch Jon Pertwee Doctor Who Episodes on BritBox!

Tom Baker/The Fourth Doctor (1974-1981)

The most recognizable of Classic Doctors, Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor was the first Doctor to come to become popular in the U.S., through PBS broadcasts of Classic Whoin the ’80s and ’90s. He is also currently the longest-serving Doctor in Doctor Whohistory. (Your move, as-of-yet-uncast Thirteenth Doctor.)

Baker’s Doctor is the Doctor for many Classic Doctor Whofans, a Bohemian eccentric wrapped around the shrewd, compassionate, adventurous soul of the Doctor — now with Jelly Babies! The Fourth Doctor is a force of nature, gleeful one moment and gravely serious the next. It’s hard to imagine another actor pulling this kind of capriciousness off as so much of Four is defined by Baker’s iconic performance.

The Fourth Doctor’s reign is an embarrassment of riches, with some of Classic Who’s best stories and companions — most especially Sarah Jane Smith and lady Time Lord Romana. If you like your female characters nuanced, your scarves ridiculously long, and your Doctors capricious, then the Fourth Doctor is the one for you. In NuWho terms, if Matt Smith is your favorite Doctor, then you should give Tom Baker a try.

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Read more: A Celebration of Tom Baker

Number of seasons as The Doctor: Seven seasons 

Number of episodes: 41 stories/172 episodes 

Companions: Sarah Jane, Harry, Leela, K-9, Romana, Adric, Nyssa, Tegan

Watch The Fourth Doctor if you like: The 50th anniversary special (Baker appeared as “The Curator”); Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor; robot dogs; River Song (who is similar to Romana)

One essential adventure: “City of Death” (Season 17, Episode 2) — Filmed on location in Paris and co-written by Douglas Adams, this art heist time travel adventure featuring the Fourth Doctor and Romana is one of the most accessible episodes for modern viewers looking for an entry point into Classic Who.

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Watch Tom Baker Doctor Who Episodes on BritBox!

Peter Davison/The Fifth Doctor (1982-1984)

Peter Davison had big shoes to fill following the departure of Tom Baker as the Doctor, but the job was perhaps made simpler by a conscious decision to cast against Baker-type with Davison. Unlike the Fourth Doctor, Davison’s Five was much more boyishly clean cut. Dressed in a cricket-inspired outfit with a celery stalk as fashionly garnish, the Fifth Doctor was more reserved, indecisive, and outwardly vulnerable than previous Doctors. 

On a narrative level, the Fifth Doctor’s reign is defined by a constant stream of companions. In fact, this era of Classic Who is known as “The Crowded TARDIS” because of the number of companions who were often stuffed into the space-time vehicle, searching for an active role in the story and not always finding it. Though American college student Peri gets much of the story to herself by the time she makes it onto the TARDIS, as an American viewer, it can be particularly difficult to watch British actress Nicola Bryant struggle through that accent.

Speaking of companions, the Fifth Doctor’s reign is also a bit darker than what has come before, featuring the unexpected death of one of the Doctor’s companions. The stakes have rarely felt higher in Classic Who, in a narrative move that is much more common in modern TV than it was at the time. If you dig the Tenth Doctor, then you should give the Fifth Doctor a try!

Number of seasons as The Doctor: Three seasons

Number of episodes: 20 stories/69 episodes

Companions: Adric, Nyssa, Tegan, Vislor, Kamelion, Peri

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Watch The Fifth Doctor if you like: David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor, “The Five-ish Doctors,” celery, “The Doctor’s Daughter” (played by Davison’s real-life daughter Georgia Moffett)

One essential adventure: “Caves of Androzani” (Season 21, Episode 6) — The ominous tone of NuWho’s “Doomsday,” a Phantom of the Opera-type villain, and one of Davison’s best performances as the Doctor? This is one of the best Doctor Whostories of all time. 

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Colin Baker/The Sixth Doctor (1984-1986)

I’m not going to lie to you. The Colin Baker years of Classic Doctor Whoare rough, bless Baker’s multi-colored dreamcoat. As is often common with a regeneration, Doctor Whoproducers were looking for a new flavor of Doctor with Baker’s “Old Sixie.” This translated into the Sixth Doctor nearly strangling Peri to death upon their first meeting. (She’s annoying, but still probably an overreaction.)

Moody, arrogant, and kind of a jerk, the Sixth Doctor is a hard one to love, but he is also an admirably bold character. Morally-stalwart and willing to resort to violence as a last resort, Baker’s Doctor demonstrates an immense capacity for compassion hidden (deep) underneath his egotistical exterior. It’s that cognitive dissonance in his character that underlines the most watchable episodes of the Baker era.

While Baker’s tenure of Classic Doctor Whois perhaps the most popularly maligned, I would argue that the modern viewer is much more tolerant of abrasive protagonists in this era of the TV anti-hero. Give it a try, if outwardly cheerier NuWho Doctors like Smith or Tennant make you roll your eyes.

Number of seasons as The Doctor: Three seasons

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Number of episodes: 11 stories/31 episodes

Companions: Peri, Mel

Watch The Sixth Doctor if you like: The War Doctor; anti-heroes; bold, colorful sartorial choices

One essential adventure: “The Mysterious Planet” (Season 23, Episodes 1-4) — A controversial choice, no doubt! The 23rd season of Classic Doctor Who was one, long story chronicling the trial of Davison’s Time Lord by his Gallifreyan brethren. For modern viewers, the season-long arc might be appealing. This is where it starts. It’s also where the Sixth Doctor starts being nice to Peri, which is a nice change of pace.

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Sylvester McCoy/The Seventh Doctor (1987-1989)

The final Doctor before Doctor Whowould head into “The Wilderness Years” between Classic Doctor Whoand the 1996 Doctor Whomovie, Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor changed a great deal in his three seasons. Starting off as a more bumbling type, McCoy’s Seventh Doctor was much more of a secretive schemer in his darker last season, which showed a lot of morally-complex promise before the show’s cancellation.

One of the best aspects of McCoy’s tenure as Doctor came in the Seventh Doctor’s relationship with Ace, a time-stranded teen punk he takes under his wing. Classic Doctor Whois also written about as having weaker Doctor/Companion relationships and while, generally, this is true, there are some very strong Doctor/Companion relationships in Classic Who. The mentor-mentee relationship between Seven and Ace is one of them, with Ace in particular being a standout Companion reminiscent of Rose’s young, street-smart persona in NuWho.

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Number of seasons as The Doctor: Three seasons

Number of episodes: 12 stories/42 episodes

Companions: Mel, Ace

Watch The Seventh Doctor if you like: Billie Piper’s Rose Tyler; The Hobbit (McCoy appears as Radagast the Brown); spoon-playing

One essential adventure: “Remembrance of the Daleks” (Season 25, Episode 1) — Ace fights off a Dalek with a baseball bat, surely one of the best moments in the history of Doctor Who.

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