The Doctors Revisited Revisited: Where To Start With Sixty Years Of Doctor Who

Robert Dunakin ‘26 / Emtertainment Monthly Staff Writer

Doctor Who turned sixty last week. My instinct, like a lot of people’s, was to rewatch as much of the show as I could. And then I remembered there were a thousand episodes. I started my “sixtieth anniversary” rewatch three years ago, I’m still only about five doctors in. By its nature, a comprehensive rewatch of Doctor Who is all but impossible. Yet still, the show’s nature invites one, with its constant meditations on time, history, and legacy. There’s something alluring about having a familiarity, an affection, for everything that the show’s been in its lifetime, especially given the reverence shown for that past in the show’s current incarnation. For the show’s fiftieth anniversary, the BBC reaired an episode for each Doctor, an event they referred to as “the Doctors Revisited.” In celebration of the show’s sixtieth anniversary, I’d like to offer my own revisitation, picking out the single episode from each Doctor that best represents them, and best represents their era of the series. 

The Time Meddler (1966): sixties Doctor Who is rough. Airing roughly forty weeks out of the year, the early seasons are meandering, cheap, and mind-dullingly padded to fit their runtime. Airing as twenty-five-minute serialized weekly episodes, some of these stories would run across seven, ten, or even twelve weeks, clocking in at about five hours long—the first Dalek serial comes in at just over a healthy three. Unable to recommend one of these in good conscience, I chose The Time Meddler, a brisk four-parter about the consequences of altering the timeline. Here, the Doctor and his companions—the imminently one-dimensional Steven and Vicki— stumble across a rogue time-lord attempting to alter the outcome of the 1066 Battle of Hastings. When it aired, The Time Meddler was a totally new direction for the series, which had previously favored two flavors of serial: science fiction-light adventures into Earth’s historic past, or travels to distant alien worlds and possible futures. With its alien interloper in the Battle of Hastings, The Time Meddler became the first to combine these elements, setting a standard for much of the Who that follows. William Hartnell’s First Doctor is at his best here, matching wits with the titular Time Meddler. Physically limited by his age, Hartnell’s Doctor is always made to think his way out of problems, devising ingenious solutions to the traps and machinations of his enemies. As alluded to above, Steven and Vicki have all the personality of a paper bag, but at this time, the Doctor’s companions weren’t really there to do much more than stand near him and remark at his brilliance. In a story like The Time Meddler, you can’t really blame them. 

The Tomb of the Cybermen (1967): Properly rated as one of the best episodes of the entire series, Tomb of the Cybermen is a chilling, tense, and atmospheric adventure that manages to turn the series’ low-budget and set-bound nature into a feature, not a bug. Tomb of the Cybermen traps Patrick Troughton’s child-like, charmingly eccentric Doctor in an ancient barracks belonging to one of his oldest enemies, the Cybermen. Here, the Doctor works desperately with his companions and a band of archaeologists to escape the tomb with their lives, and there is a constant sense of dread as they are thwarted at every turn. Hartnell’s Doctor could think his way out of anything, but with Troughton’s tenure, a terrible truth emerged: the Doctor only thinks he can get out of anything. The Cybermen are ruthless, cunning, and just as clever as the Doctor. Plan after plan to outsmart them fails, and watching the Doctor unravel as he is pushed to his limit is fascinatingly humanizing. Even more humanizing is his strong relationship with companions Victoria and Jamie, highlighted in an iconic scene between the Doctor and Victoria reflecting on the nature of grief. Here, the show outlines its thesis statement, making this alien outsider into the most human of any of us through the relationships he makes. “Our lives aren’t like anyone else’s,” he explains, capturing the beauty and the danger that lies at the heart of cosmic exploration. 

The Silurians (1970): But the Doctor isn’t human, as he is sometimes painfully reminded. As part of an unusual era of the show that stranded the Doctor in contemporary London as the advisor to UNIT, a paramilitary paranormal investigation team (think SHIELD by way of The X-Files), The Silurians sees the Doctor in desperate conflict with his friends and companions over the titular Silurians, a race of prehistoric reptilian humanoids. The Doctor’s otherness and distance are put on full display as he finds kinship with the cerebral, pacifist Silurians, and as he is put into conflict with Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, one of his most trusted friends, acting under orders to destroy the Silurians. If the Doctor is Sherlock Holmes, then Nicholas Courtney’s sturdy, pragmatic Brigadier is his best-ever Watson. Jon Pertwee’s Doctor is a commanding presence even in his second-ever serial in the part, bringing a physicality and a debonair attitude to the character that, while occasionally more Austin Powers than James Bond, is a welcome departure from his predecessors. Although egregiously padded at seven episodes, The Silurians somehow manages to never feel boring, coming up with engaging plot developments one after another to fill the space. In this way, it represents the show coming into its own, working with writers and creatives better suited to the task of writing a weekly television series. A truncated season length (a mere twenty-five episodes, versus the Herculean forty or more of years prior) also works in this season’s favor. 

The City of Death (1979): The temptation to abandon the original format of this list and just wax poetic about Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor is strong. There are so many absolutely excellent episodes to recommend. Baker is, for many, the definitive classic Doctor. This is completely justified. The first three seasons of Baker’s tenure are the strongest in the original series’ history. Pretty much every episode is a can’t-miss combination of great science fiction ideas and gothic horror set-ups (serials paying homage to Frankenstein, The Mummy, and The Phantom of the Opera are among the highlights), anchored by Baker’s charismatic Doctor and his infectious chemistry with his co-stars. The quality becomes a little dubious afterward, but even still, the Fourth Doctor is so damned entertaining that he makes total dreck worthwhile. Although from a season that is past the Fourth Doctor’s prime, The City of Death is, assuredly, not dreck. Written by Douglas Adams—author of science fiction classics like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the GalaxyThe City of Death is a wildly inventive sci-fi-flavored heist story, involving an alien aristocrat splintered through time, using his fractured self to manufacture priceless relics—namely, duplicate Mona Lisas—and fund the rebuilding of his time machine. Julian Glover—General Veers in The Empire Strikes Back, Kristatos in For Your Eyes Only—brings all the energy of a Bond villain to his turn as the alien Count Scarlioni, dripping with sardonic wit supplied in spades by Adams’ dialogue. Meanwhile, Tom Baker is a grinning, quipping, Groucho Marx-esque menace, keeping everyone on their toes with his inimitable combination of constantly seeming to be two steps ahead and three steps behind. His companion Romana is hilariously put-upon, to this day the only other of the Doctor’s alien race—the Time Lords—to be featured as a companion. Come for the story, stay for the John Cleese cameo. 

The Visitation (1982): Beginning with Tom Baker’s final season as the Fourth Doctor, producer John Nathan-Turner’s time with the series is viewed by many as a creative nadir.Obsessed with making the series more “adult,” Turner’s vision for Doctor Who was serious, grim, and scientific. Instead, it is often pretentious, self-absorbed, and deeply smug. A bright spot in Peter Davison’s underwhelming turn as the Fifth Doctor, The Visitation is one of the only serials where Turner’s new direction works. For all their charm, Tom Baker’s later seasons became deeply silly—the serials around The City of Death are outrageous—and The Visitation’s gloomy depiction of Black Plague-era England is an engaging antidote. The serial’s most compelling conflict comes not from its alien menace, but as Davison’s boyish, energetic Doctor struggles against his bleak surroundings. The alien species Terileptil are a low point for the episode. Although long stymied by a shoe-string budget, Doctor Who’s limitations are on their most garish display in the eighties, in which the show’s ambition is regularly outstripped by its capabilities, resulting in some frankly embarrassing effects—check out 1984’s Warriors of the Deep for a hilarious example. Davison’s companions are an acquired taste, although their familial chemistry with the Doctor is undeniable. Matthew Waterhouse as Adric lives in particular infamy, serving as Doctor Who’s answer to Jason Todd: he was killed off two episodes after The Visitation due to overwhelming fan demand. 

Vengeance on Varos (1985): Please don’t watch the Sixth Doctor. Let me recommend another Tom Baker episode instead. Try Genesis of the Daleks. Or The Robots of Death. Both of these represent Doctor Who at its best. Thought-provoking science fiction that uses humanity’s relationship with technology to explore our relationship with each other, asking where mankind is as a species, and where we could be going. Guiding the viewer through these questions is Tom Baker in top form as the Doctor, equally parts familiar and otherworldly, accompanied by a stalwart companion who can serve as a voice of reason and a conscience for this alien enigma. In contrast to the Doctor is a megalomaniacal, wicked villain, a reflection of our own capacity for callousness. Colin Baker’s time as the Sixth Doctor has none of these things. Inaugurated by The Twin Dilemma, a serial in which the Doctor tries to strangle his companion, the Sixth Doctor’s tenure is an embattled, uncomfortable, regrettable mess. His companions, Peri and Mel, embody the show’s occasionally deeply troubling gender politics, displaying a disquietingly subservient, unbalanced relationship with Colin Baker’s arrogant, violent Doctor. Marred by poor writing and declining ratings, these are seen by fans as some of the darkest moments in the show’s history, and it is easy to understand why. If you’re intent on checking one out, make it Vengeance on Varos, a satire on violence in the media that is often trite, but is at least inoffensive. 

The Curse of Fenric (1989): Sylvester McCoy’s turn as the Seventh Doctor marked the end of the original series, and it’s a shame: after a rocky first season, McCoy’s time in the TARDIS is an overall return to form for the show’s rocky 1980s. The Curse of Fenric exemplifies why, a dark and complex tale that explores the family history of companion Ace amidst a stark World War II-era backdrop. The serial is truly engrossing, one of the few in the classic show that completely justifies its feature-length runtime. Especially effective are the moments of horror delivered by the Haemovores, the vampiric thralls of the titular Fenric. The Seventh Doctor is the culmination of his predecessors, combining the intellectual, chess-master sensibility of the First Doctor with the forceful, man-of-action tendencies of the Third. He’s at his best against Fenric, an ancient evil that pushes the Doctor into asking himself what he really means by defending the Earth at any cost

Doctor Who: The Movie (1996): As Homer Simpson once so aptly put it: “de-fault, the two sweetest words in the English language.” The 1996 Doctor Who TV movie is the first episode to feature Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor. It is also the last. It’s his best episode and his worst episode. Intended as the pilot to an American cable television Doctor Who remake, The Movie is a bizarre “greatest hits” compilation, featuring Dalek cameos, a rushed regeneration, and Eric Roberts—a 1986 Oscar Nominee and contemporary star of films like A Talking Cat?!—as the Doctor’s sinister counterpart, the Master. Too bland to be fully engaging, but too engaging to be fully bland, it’s easy to see why The Movie failed to be the runaway hit its producers were expecting. McGann’s Doctor fails to make much of an impression, as does his companion Grace. Although catastrophically miscast, Eric Roberts is a fascinating trainwreck as the Master, simultaneously performing with the gravitas of his Oscar turn in Runaway Train and his Razzie turn in A Talking Cat?! The film’s production values are akin to a nineties Stephen King miniseries, laden with laughable CGI and baffling production design. A noble failure, Doctor Who: The Movie is emblematic of what makes the show so fun to watch. With more than forty seasons of TV under its belt, Doctor Who has tried an awful lot of ideas. Some of them work, most of them don’t, but none of them are boring. 

Dalek (2005): I can’t believe it took me nine Doctors to recommend a Dalek episode. Poised halfway through the inaugural season of Doctor Who’s slick early-2000s reboot, Dalek is given the impossible task of reintroducing the Doctor’s greatest enemy and figuring out how to make them scary again. Introduced in 1963 to immediate success, the Daleks had atrophied in the intervening decade, becoming a punchline by the time of the original series’ cancellation. Here, Dalek reinvents the alien war machines as unstoppable engines of destruction, emphasizing the Daleks’ capacity for devastation by featuring only one—a gimmick still unique in the show’s history. The episode provides a fantastic showcase of Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor, deftly delivering heavy exposition about the Daleks’ devastating war with the Doctor’s species, the Time Lords. Alluded to in previous episodes, Dalek establishes the modern Doctor as the last son of Gallifrey, and gives a personal stake to his decades-long war with the genocidal cyborgs. The titular Dalek is wickedly calculating, equal parts coldly unfeeling and sadistically gleeful as it “ex-ter-min-ate”-s its way through the episode. The first truly great modern Doctor Who

Blink (2007): Endlessly inventive, there’s very little I can say about Steven Moffatt’s Blink that hasn’t been already. More than forty years into the series, it’s difficult to do something with time travel that feels fresh, and yet Blink manages it. The episode introduces the since-overused Weeping Angels, a species of “temporal vampires”—lot more vampires in this series than you’d expect—sapping a person’s lifetime with a touch and sending them into the past. The most unnerving aspect of the Weeping Angels is, however, that they are “temporally locked.” They can only move when you aren’t looking at them, and even blinking—hence the title—gives them the opportunity to edge closer. Blink hardly features David Tennant’s manic Tenth Doctor at all, instead focusing on one-shot guest protagonist Sally Sparrow. But despite the Doctor’s physical absence, the episode makes his presence felt. Blink becomes about the mystery of the Doctor, imagining the conspiracy theories, urban legends, and lore that would spring up around such a figure in the real world. Despite being deeply rooted in the early 2000s—the plot hinges on DVD extras—Blink manages to feel completely timeless thanks to its human core. It’s imaginative, thought-provoking, and original, serving as a reminder of why Doctor Who has stayed on the air for so many years. 

Vincent & The Doctor (2010): My mom’s favorite Doctor Who, Vincent & The Doctor’s science fiction elements are totally disposable. There’s an alien monster trouncing around the French countryside, I couldn’t tell you off the top of my head what it’s called or what it looks like. What makes this episode tick is Tony Curran as Vincent Van Gogh, providing a heart-wrenching performance as the tortured genius. Curran brings a kindness and compassion to Van Gogh, giving him an effortless sense of camaraderie with Matt Smith’s boisterous, warm Eleventh Doctor. After the success of episodes like Blink, Steve Moffatt graduated to the position of showrunner, bringing an intricacy and complexity to the series that was brilliant at its best and obtuse at its worst. The best Steve Moffatt Doctor Who eschews this narrative complexity in favor of complex characters, providing some of the most satisfying and profound character-driven stories in the show’s history. Doctor Who, modern Doctor Who especially, often explores how the Doctor can’t save everyone, placing him in the middle of historic “set moments” like Pompeii in which he can’t intervene. Vincent & The Doctor is one of these, but all the more impactful for its emphasis on an individual. The episode’s ending is the most beautiful and heartfelt in the show’s history, aided greatly by Karen Gillan’s Amy Pond. 

Twice Upon A Time (2017): Doctor crossovers have been fixtures of the show since 1973’s The Three Doctors. Juxtaposing two iterations of the character, these crossovers get to the heart of who the Doctor is by exploring not what makes these iterations different, but what makes them the same. Twice Upon A Time is unique in that it does so at the end of a Doctor’s time, serving as the swan-song to Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor. The other novelty of Twice Upon A Time is its integration of the show’s history into its narrative, weaving itself around The Tenth Planet, the final story to feature the First Doctor. The First Doctor—played here by David Bradley—makes an excellent foil for the Twelfth, both versions of the Doctor that emphasize his cantankerous and capricious nature. For Capaldi it is an especially effective farewell, as the actor has been a fan of the series since childhood, beginning with Hartnell’s First Doctor. It is made especially interesting by the lack of a companion, creating a sense of isolation for the Doctor, heightened by a Christmastime setting. In an almost Dickensian allusion, past companions return to remind the Doctor of his triumphs and failures, telling a poignant story about loss, memory, and remembrance. 

The Haunting of Villa Diodati (2020): Jodie Whittaker’s time as the Thirteenth Doctor can be difficult to love. It’s certainly no fault of Whittaker’s, who brings an infectious enthusiasm to the part. The blame rests largely on the shoulders of showrunner Chris Chibnell, whose storytelling often felt at odds with itself. It was simultaneously deeply mired in a reverence for the classic series and completely irreverent of the show’s lore and tone, making radical changes to Doctor Who canon that are still the subject of lively debate years after airing. So significant are these changes that the common maxim is that Chibnall Doctor Who “doesn’t feel like Doctor Who.” One of the best-received exceptions is The Haunting of Villa Diodati, which is a practical checklist of Doctor Who tropes. The episode centers itself around a historical event—the writing of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—exploring the secret science-fiction truth of it—an alien menace, as always—following the Doctor, their companions, and a shrinking group of guest characters as they poke around a haunted house—or haunted house-like—setting. Although everything here has been done before, it’s still great fun to watch because of how well it’s being done.

Doctor Who can, at a minimum, be broken up into thirteen distinctive eras, with a fourteenth on the horizon. Somewhere in that span, it’s done almost everything you can think of, and probably quite a few you can’t—a killer robot made of candy comes to mind. The series has inspired countless artists for decades, and if we’re lucky, it will continue to inspire them for decades to come. It’s easy to see why. Across the vast annals of science fiction storytelling, there’s nothing quite as creative or as imaginative as Doctor Who. The best of the show is among the best of television, with unforgettable characters and ingenious stories. Even when it misses, it misses because it’s swinging for the fences, and you have to admire it for that. In almost a thousand episodes, it’s probably done something you’ll find interesting. Come see what all the fuss is about. 

Classic Doctor Who can be found streaming for free on Tubi, broken up by Doctor. Modern Doctor Who is streaming on Max.

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