What’s the Best Order to Watch (All of) Doctor Who?

With every available Doctor Who episode and its wife coming to BBC iPlayer on November 1, how should you approach a Classic and NuWho rewatch? We have options...

2023 Doctor Who diamond logo on purple space background
Photo: BBC iPlayer

Can you feel that? A great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cancelled their BritBox subscriptions.

Yes, the BBC is finally preparing to do what we have wanted them to do all along and drop 800 episodes of Doctor Who plus extras onto iPlayer, where anyone in the UK with a TV licence can see them at any time.

And now it’s your job to watch them all. The question is, in what order should you watch them? Well, there are several options, depending on just how much damage you want to do to your brain when you attempt this.

Easy Mode: Start With the Accessible Stuff and Work Down

Doctor Who has been many different shows over its 60-year history, and not all of those shows will appeal to different people. If this is your first time approaching the classic series after developing a love for the Doctor’s post-Christopher Eccleston adventures, it’s best to take it carefully.

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Over the years, fans have shared many opinions on which episodes are the best introduction to offer a friend, romantic partner, child, or relative to “Proper” Who, and certain names will keep popping up. Douglas Adams’s “The City of Death”, most of the stories written by Philip Hinchcliffe, “Seeds of Doom”, “Carnival of Monsters”, “Remembrance of the Daleks”, and “Caves of Androzani” are all stories that feature the Doctor at his most Doctor-ish, big showy monsters and clever dialogue – all the stuff that first drew them into stories of Ood and Slitheen. Even the first ever episode, “An Unearthly Child”, shares many parallels with Russell T Davies’s “Rose”, although maybe skip the following three episodes of RADA-trained actors doing their best caveman impressions.

Once they’ve acquired a taste for the stuff, you can go for the slightly more challenging material: Sylvester McCoy stories like “Survival” and “Battlefield”, or the brilliantly nasty “Happiness Patrol”. Or older stories like William Hartnell’s “The Time Meddler” or Patrick Troughton’s “Tomb of the Cybermen”.

Then gradually turn the crank until you’re explaining that “Talons of Weng-Chiang” is widely considered a classic so long as you can look past the Orientalist racism (again) and the way that the story’s plot slows to a crawl for most of the middle episodes.

Keep going, until you’re saying things like ‘The costumes in “The Web Planet” were very good given what they had to work with’ and ‘Actually, there’s a lot to be said for “The Twin Dilemma”’ or even ‘I completely understood the plot of Ghost Light!’ (Just kidding about that last one).

Hardcore Mode: Release Order

For some purists, however, that viewing order is a kind of sacrilege. Would you jumble up all the chapters of Great Expectations and read them in the wrong order? Would you “skip to the good bits” in the Complete Works of Shakespeare?

Of course not. Doctor Who is not just a series, it is an epic saga, in the traditions of Homer’s Odyssey, Beowulf, and One Thousand and One Nights. It should be viewed as its creators intended – in the precise order that the episodes were released.

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This will lead to some hardship – not least because after a promising start you will be dumped straight back into the RADA-trained cavemen again.

Right now, for instance, hordes of American Doctor Who fans are crying out a warning not to try to binge the original series. While Doctor Who aired in the UK as a series of weekly 25-minute episodes with a bit of running around leading up to an exciting cliffhanger, in the USA these episodes were edited together into “movies” to be watched in one sitting. Nobody in the UK can ever say that someone who came to love Doctor Who after watching it that way is not a true fan.

In short, if you’re going to attempt watching Doctor Who this way, you need to ration it out a bit. Not more than one a day, really.

But there are benefits to watching the show in this way. You get to see the Doctor truly evolve from a cranky, amoral old kidnapper into a hero, a trickster, and a clown. At every stage of the series – every stage – there is a little something that gets added to the mythos that will stay forever, and while there can be no pretending that Doctor Who was a show with a master plan, the Doctor has a surprisingly cohesive character arc over 60 years.

Still, maybe you find the idea of mainlining so many of the black-and-white episodes in one go daunting. Or maybe watching the show from beginning to end makes Doctor Who’s continuity seem too consistent?

Whatever your reservations, there is a third way to watch the entirety of Doctor Who. But it is not for the faint-hearted.

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Ultra Hardcore Mode: Chronological Order

No, not in chronological order from the Doctor’s perspective. From everybody else’s.

Start with the RADA cavemen again – but skip the first episode, we’ll get to that later. Or maybe start with Edge of Destruction, where the Doctor and his companions are hurled back to the beginnings of the solar system. Or perhaps the first episode of Castrovalva, when the TARDIS flies back to the Big Bang itself.

You can argue in the comments about the best way to do it. There is no sugarcoating this – you will need a spreadsheet.

But the goal is to watch every episode of Doctor Who in order of the historical time period it is set.

This can lead to some pretty weird story arcs – you’ll see the First Doctor accidentally burn down Rome, then the Tenth Doctor cause the eruption at Pompeii, and then the Eleventh Doctor gets locked in the Pandorica (which will seem pretty reasonable by then) before the Twelfth Doctor teams up with a bend of Legionaries and Celtic rebels to fight a light-eating monster.

The First Doctor will meet King Richard at the Crusades before the Twelfth Doctor fights the Sheriff of Nottingham, and then the Fifth Doctor foils the Master’s attempt to use Prince John in one of his schemes.

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The entire 19th century is really, really busy.

But while figuring out what order the episodes go in will be a challenge, it also gives you a unique perspective on Doctor Who as you practically reverse the premise – staying within the same historical period for a while but hopping around between different periods of the show’s history.

It also reveals some funny quirks of continuity – such as the Second Doctor’s evil twin falling out of the TARDIS at the end of “The Enemy of the World” (set in 2018), right before we see the Thirteenth Doctor fall out of her TARDIS at the beginning of “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” (set in 2018).

And from the 29th century to the 1,600th, there are no stories set on Earth, corroborating “The Beast Below” and “The Ark in Space”’s claim that the planet is being wrecked by solar storms for that whole period (except for “The Ice Warriors” which, awkwardly, is set during a new Ice Age).

It is the most labour-intensive way of watching Doctor Who, and also the one that is likely to cause the most arguments. Which by Doctor Who fan standards, naturally makes it the best.

Over 800 episodes of Doctor Who will be available to stream in the UK on BBC iPlayer from November 1.

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