The other day, I was chatting with a friend who mentioned that he was planning to use his upcoming paternity leave to catch up on his Doctor Who viewing ... and that he had seen none of the classic (1963-89) show!
This is not like catching up on Mad Men or Game of Thrones, folks. We're talking 26 years of episodic TV. Furthermore, unlike programs being made today with high production values, good acting, and excellent writing, the quality of Doctor Who over the years has been spotty. And, oh yeah, it's a children's show which for the first 10 years or so had no idea there might be adults watching. Finally, many episodes from those first 10 years are just gone: the BBC needed to free up shelf space or precious videotape or something, so wiped the tapes to reuse them. (No, they're not on YouTube.)
So unless you're able to devote hundreds and hundreds of hours to watching cardboard robots clamber about granite quarries while spaceships with visibly attached strings fly overhead, you need to be selective. And if you've never seen any of those old episodes, where will you start? Well, you could do worse than ask a friend who's been watching Doctor Who since he was a teenager, has seen most episodes that are still available (many of them twice) and has pretty strong opinions on most of them. That'd be me.
I'm not British, nor have I ever lived in Britain. I watched Doctor Who on public TV in North America as a teenager, not as a child. I never hid behind the couch, and I often cringed at the godawful special effects. But I mostly loved the writing and the acting, even (especially!) at its most over-the-top. That's part of the fun.
So I don't have the same perspective on the show as millions of Brits do. I have the North American geek perspective. You have been warned.
The organziation of Doctor Who has always been a bit complex. The basic unit is an episode, typically 25 minutes, broadcast for decades on Saturdays around teatime. (Hey, it's a British show, so we get to use British units of time.) In the eighties they messed around with slightly longer episodes shown on different days, but one thing never changed: every episode was part of a longer serial. Most serials were four episodes long; some were six, a few were two, and one epic from the early days was twelve episodes long.
Each season (aka "series" in British TV-speak) consisted of around 5–8 serials. A couple of seasons (16, 23) shoehorned all their serials into a connected story arc.
Finally, the key to the show's longevity and inventiveness: every couple of years the main character "dies" and regenerates using a new actor, so it's obvious to group seasons by Doctor: first, second, third, etc.
(Incidentally, the episode/serial thing forced the writers to insert an arbitrary cliffhanger every 25 minutes or so; this rarely improved the narrative. It also means the first little bit of each episode recaps the cliffhanger from the previous episode, which is kind of annoying when you're watching episodes back-to-back, rather than a week apart as originally broadcast.)
Anyways, I'm grouping things by Doctor, and recommending serials (in boldface). There's little point in watching disconnected episodes, and watching whole seasons is rarely necessary (or even desirable). (There are a few negative recommendations snuck in there. They're also in boldface, so you actually have to read the text.)
In 1963, nobody had any idea that there were such things as Time Lords and TARDISes. The audience had to learn about them from scratch, in the very first story: An Unearthly Child. Unavoidably cheesy, in that the writing and acting were aimed squarely at children under 10—which is pretty much the case up until the Third Doctor. But essential viewing, if only for historical reasons.
The other thing nobody knew about in 1963 was Daleks, which is why the very second serial, The Daleks, is also important. In fact, I'd argue there are really only two Dalek stories you need to see, and this is one of them.
One feature of early Doctor Who, sadly abandoned many decades ago, is the "historical" story—i.e. one set in earth's past with no sf elements. The first of these was Marco Polo, but all that remains of that is audio and still photos. (Apparently the costumes and sets were quite impressive: the BBC always did have a flair for historical drama.) As second prize, perhaps try The Aztecs, the only historical serial from the first season to survive in its entirety.
Unfortunately I have nothing to say on the rest of the First Doctor; I've only seen a couple episodes that I remember, and they were pretty lame. I should specifically point out The Gunfighters as probably the worst of the early serials. Before this, you might have thought that the BBC was not meant to make Westerns; if you watch the whole thing, you will realize that instead the BBC was meant specifically to do anything, ANYTHING, other than make Westerns.
I'd like to say The Tenth Planet is essential on the grounds that it introduces the Cybermen (as long-running bad guys, second only to the Daleks) and that it features the first ever regeneration. But I've never seen it, and the fourth episode (with the regeneration scene) is lost. Boo.
Sadly, I have even skimpier knowledge of Second Doctor stories than of the First Doctor era. Looking at the episode list on Wikipedia, that shouldn't be a surprise, as only a handful of Troughton serials have survived the ravages of time.
I do vaguely recall ploughing through the final Second Doctor serial, The War Games. It goes on and on for an interminable 10 episodes. Not very interesting, except that it's the first time we learn much about the Doctor's backstory, and it explains why the Third Doctor spends so much time on Earth.
A number of good things happened when Doctor Who entered the seventies. Most obviously, the BBC splashed out and switched from black-and-white to colour. There are no more lost episodes (see Wikipedia for the tedious details of how various episodes were recovered). Finally, the writing and acting got a bit better. Not great, mind you, but watching Pertwee episodes feels more like entertainment and less like fanboy duty.
The Third Doctor's debut serial, Spearhead from Space, is worth watching because it introduces UNIT, a military outfit that defends the earth from alien invasion. (Why doesn't the real world have one of these?) We also meet UNIT's commander, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, a longstanding and much-loved recurring character. This serial also introduces the Autons, baddies who were revived along with the show in 2005.
More importantly, Season 7 features the first serial that is great in its own right, not just as important background material: Inferno. It's a genuine nail-biter, with a mad scientist drilling STRAIGHT INTO THE EARTH's MANTLE OMG. No Balrogs were harmed in the filming of this serial, but it's a rip snorter all the same.
Another long-running character is introduced in Terror of the Autons, the first serial of Season 8. I speak, of course, of the Master. I don't remember this story terribly well, but the Master has been a foil to the Doctor for so long, in so many serials, and was played so deliciously well by Roger Delgado, that it's worth revisiting his debut.
Finishing up Season 8 is The Daemons, which exemplifies a minor trend in Doctor Who: giving a vaguely rational/scientific explanation for apparently supernatural phenomena. I've always liked this kind of story: they tiptoe close to the extreme suspension-of-disbelief required to enjoy horror, but end up making it sf in the end.
There's nothing memorable from Season 9, but the Season 10 finale features giant green glowing maggots. How can you go wrong with a serial called The Green Death?
Season 10 opens with The Time Warrior, a fun story that introduces a new monster (the Sontarans) and one of the show's best sidekicks (Sarah Jane Smith). I've always had a soft spot for serials that actually use the TARDIS to cut between different times and places, and this is one of them.
Having skipped the Third Doctor's swansong, I suppose I should recommend the Fourth Doctor's debut, Robot. It's moderately entertaining, but hardly essential. But it's always fun to meet a new Doctor. This serial also introduces the dapper and genial Harry Sullivan, a companion for most of the next two seasons.
The one essential serial from Season 12 is also the second essential Dalek story: Genesis of the Daleks. This is Doctor Who at its best: trench warfare, genetic engineering, (ab)using time travel to meddle with history, a mad scientist who's also an evil dictator, a brutal ethical dilemma for the Doctor, and snapshots of real people caught up in horrific events. Come to think of it, all televised sf should strive for this.
Season 13 features another classic: Pyramids of Mars. Like The Daemons, this one offers a rational explanation for an apparently supernatural phenomenon, and the phenomenon in this case is a memorably venomous bad guy. Most take-over-the-universe stories are silly, but you can almost believe this particular bad guy pulling it off—and you would not want to live in the resulting universe. This serial also takes advantage of the TARDIS as part of the story, rather than simply a device for dumping the characters somewhere new at the start.
I have a soft spot for The Hand of Fear from Season 14. Although it's a typical rubber monster story, it's pretty entertaining. The last five minutes are important though: every so often we get a reminder that the Doctor is not like us, and this is one of them. If you find the story boring, that's OK, but at least watch the last five minutes of episode 4.
Those last five minutes lead directly into The Deadly Assassin, which is mandatory viewing. It's one of the rare stories set on Gallifrey, the Time Lords' planet. It features political intrigue rather than rubber monsters. And it continues to cast the Doctor in an interesting new light.
And from there it's straight into The Face of Evil (wow, I guess Season 14 was on a roll). Again, this is just plain good sf in its own right, entertaining and thought-provoking in equal measures. Plus it introduces a new companion, Leela, who 1) kicks ass, 2) rarely (if ever) screams, and 3) isn't half-bad looking.
Season 15 opened with Horror of Fang Rock, which eschewed both rubber monsters and take-over-the-universe plots, substituting psychodrama in a tight, confined historical setting. Oh yeah, there's an exploding spaceship too, but it's a minor element. And this serial demonstrates why Leela kicks ass.
The Invasion of Time closes Season 15. It's another Gallifrey story, so another building block in the Doctor's (back)story. I don't recall it being particularly great viewing, though.
Season 16 was Doctor Who's first attempt at a season-long story arc. The first serial, The Ribos Operation, introduces both the arc and the mysterious White and Black Guardians—Manichean figures locked in an eternal struggle for the fate of the universe, sort of Doctor Who's answer to the two sides of The Force. Oh yeah, it's also a fine episode in its own right: no mad scientists, nobody conquering the universe, just schemers trying to make a buck while the Doctor interferes.
The rest of Season 16 was pretty lame. The second serial, The Pirate Planet, is mildly interesting since it was written by Douglas Adams. It's not actually all that good, however.
From Season 17, City of Death is great viewing: it incorporates time travel, explains a hitherto-unknown historical mystery, and has some good acting to boot. There may have been a rubber monster threatening to take over the universe, but such things are OK in occasional doses.
I also quite liked Nightmare of Eden: imagine an Agatha Christie mystery set on a spaceliner in the far future, then add a Time Lord and TARDIS, some sort of weird transdimensional spaceship collision, and hallucinogenic drugs. Oddly enough, it all hangs together.