So I’m late, but lemme lay out some classic Who episode recs, keeping in mind we all have totally different tastes. I tend to have high tolerance for bad special effects and camp if the characters and story are fun and/or the dialogue is snarky or eloquent.
My suggestion is to watch two serials each of the first seven Doctors, selecting from those with companions who have piqued your interest, and The Five Doctors after you’ve watched two or three different classic Doctors. Here’s my picks.
Unearthly Child all by itself, the first half hour episode, sets the stage and feels like time travel all on its own because 1963 was a long time ago. Meet Barbara and her sensible shoes and sweater, Ian the skeptic, the Doctor at his most enigmatic and maddening before the show’s producers had even worked out who or what he was, and Susan, a fascinating mix of younger-audience stand-in and Mary Sue and otherworldly person. If you’re struggling with the rest of the serial, which develops the TARDIS team’s characters but is more than usually dated, I hereby give you permission to skip ahead.
For a full serial, I feel that The Aztecs is a good historical, even though Barbara is White Savior. The side characters are surprisingly complex, apart from the villain (see: Susan’s tutor, the Doctor’s would-be fiancée).
Or tryThe Romans,which is just plain fun, a lighthearted historical with everybody spoofing I, Claudius. It’s goofy, it’s great, it’s got dear Vicki, and you’ll see how much the Doctor has learned and mellowed after a year or so with Barbara and Ian teaching him compassion.
Unfortunately, I’m not as familiar with Second Doctor episodes, most of which were lost and have been rediscovered since I was watching reruns on PBS in the 80s. My favorite of the extant episodes was The Mind Robber, with Jamie & Zoe (I love Zoe; she’s so smart) and the Doctor in a rather Alice in Wonderland surreal episode. Nowadays we’d call it a virtual reality story, but it was decades before the concept existed.
Alternatively, now that The Web of Fear has been rediscovered, I’d suggest that one, although I still need to watch it myself. It introduces Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, one of the most beloved Who characters ever, back when he was a Colonel (soldier, pompous ass, misogynist, yet after a while one comes to love him and his eye-rolling 500% Done With the Doctor moments). Be charmed by the bad special effects and the “monsters stomping around London” plot which was a staple of late 60s/early70s Who.
Third Doctor: My favorite Doctor growing up, it’s hard for me to choose.
I suggest either Spearhead from Space, the first third Doctor episode, with some delightful character moments with the Brig and Liz Shaw, plus the introduction of the Autons, or Terror of the Autons, which is a good story that introduces the Master in his original, suave and charismatic incarnation.
Despite its campiness, I have to put in a plug for my all-time favorite, the ridiculous The Time Monster. It features the original Master in his heyday, Jo Grant being adorably ditzy yet standing up to the Master in her own plucky way, Atlantis, the Brigadier and UNIT, the Doctor’s famous “when I was a little boy” speech, Sergeant Benton and some early well-intentioned attempts at feminism. Laugh. Have fun. Enjoy the campy acting.
Or, for a much more powerful story (although it’s a seven-parter that’s slow in places), I suggest Inferno,which features Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, the third Doctor’s PhD scientist sidekick, and a dystopian mirror-universe. Evil!Brigadier is worth seeing.
Fourth Doctor: I suggest trying two of the following.
-The Masque of Mandragora has great costumes, great setting, the Italian Renaissance, classic Sarah Jane Smith, and hilarious elocution. Plus the cutest damn gay couple in all of classic Who.
- The Pirate Planet is written by Douglas Adams, and is just fun over-the-top 70s SF romp (Romana, but alas, not Lalla Ward’s regeneration.
-Watch City of Death for Lalla Ward; everyone does. Bonus: John Cleese sighting).
- Face of Evil is an interesting alien dystopia, one of the first times a Doctor Screws Up Royally and has to admit it, but more importantly, it introduces Leela the warrior— think a young Xena, about 20 years before Xena— who is another of my favorite companions.
-And for personal reasons, I have to put in a plug for The Keeper of Traken, which is a good late Fourth Doctor story, a fun Shakespearean costume drama / fantasy story that brings back a villain we’ve been missing for far too long (I say, avoiding spoilers).
Fifth Doctor: Best regeneration episode ever, IMO, Castrovalva is still a charming introduction to the Doctor and one of my favorite TARDIS teams, plus Ainley!Master is having a ball being an uncured ham. Kinda is marred by the infamous monster scene at the end— try to find the CGI version— but it’s an interestingly psychological drama dealing with various kinds of madness, sneaking in Hindu symbolism in a very SF setting. It also has Tegan/Janet Fielding being sexy and terrifying. But if you watch just one Fifth Doctor episode, watch Enlightenment — yes, I know, there’s a villain with a dead bird hat, but the basic story concept is fantastic. I won’t spoil it.
Sixth Doctor: Uh. I need to rewatch this period; I really didn’t like it as a teenager. I do recall Vengeance on Varos being awesome, anticipating reality TV by about two decades. The Two Doctors,come to think of it, was also fairly good, if a bit macabre. (Jamie & Two return, and Jacqueline Pierce, Servalan of Blake’s 7 fame, makes a fun sub-villain).
Seventh Doctor: Actually one of my favorite Doctors when he was on the air, I loved most of his episodes (in which I seem to be the minority), but anyway, Battlefield. WATCH BATTLEFIELD. Ace McShane being awesome, ridiculous King Arthur stuff, Jean Marsh coming back in a great role, and the Brig coming out of retirement to be his usual endearing crusty self. If you want more Seven, my next suggestion is the uber-meta Remembrance of the Daleks, one of many times when the Doctor is impressive in his rhetoric, Ace is dangerous, and Coal Hill School makes its first appearance since Unearthly Child. This was the first time in 26 years that the Daleks finally conquered the stairs, which resulted in a hilariously meta cliffhanger.
Eighth Doctor: The movie, of course. And then we get into Big Finish. I would really recommend starting at the beginning, Storm Warning. But you could also jump straight to Seasons of Fear, which I think is one of the better early Charley & Eight stories.
Last but not least, after you’ve seen a little bit of classic Who (a few episodes, not necessarily every Doctor), I suggest watching The Five Doctors as a fanservice introduction to a lot of classic Doctors and companions, plus Ainley!Master being his charming self. Bonus: Gallifrey and the High Council of Time Lords as they really were during classic Who.