I’m a big fan of Doctor Who, and it’s a flag that I fly happily and have done for decades, even during the dark periods when the show wasn’t strictly speaking “cancelled”, but certainly wasn’t in production.
As such, I rather keenly watched the three recent Doctor Who specials on Disney+ (and, sadly, not the ABC) as soon as I could, both because I’m a keen fan, and because I’m all too aware that some fans are outright jerks who treat the broadcast nature of social media as though it’s a totally private chat. Going online when there’s a new Doctor Who episode is downright dangerous behaviour, because spoilers absolutely proliferate, and I hate that.
Still, there’s a few weeks now between “The Giggle” and “The Church On Ruby Road”, this year’s Christmas special.
The shift to Disney+ changes the publicity around the series, potentially bringing in new fans (this is a good thing) or refreshing the enthusiasm for the series that lapsed fans may have had at one time.
All that time… what should you watch?
This isn’t a definitive list of stories that you MUST watch to count yourself a “true” Whovian, because that kind of argument is just elitist nonsense. Watch one, watch them all, have a tiny screen embedded under your eyelids so you’re watching Who even you sleep, it’s all good.
Except maybe that last one, which feels like it’s medically unsound to a near Clockwork Orange level.
Also, there’s a big problem with this list for Australian viewers, which I’ll address at the bottom.
I never want to get in the way of the Doctor, so let’s start in with the good stuff, shall we?
William Hartnell: The First Doctor
The Dalek Invasion Of Earth (1964)
No, not the Peter Cushing movie one – though that’s a fun and silly romp, especially if you want to see what Wilfred Mott got up to, sort of – but the second ever Dalek story and first invasion of earth. It’s a nicely realised story that also has one of Doctor Who’s first emotional punches at the very end. Remember how I said I hate spoilers? I’m not going to tell you what happens, just in case.
Patrick Troughton: The Second Doctor
The Enemy Of The World (1967)
Patrick Troughton is easily my favourite Doctor (though while I’m old he predates me) and so picking just one was painful to do, not least because it reminds me of how many of his stories are still missing in action. Still, The Enemy Of The World is a solid pick for Australians to watch, partly because it opens on an Australian beach (that’s nowhere near Australia, and it is DAMNED OBVIOUS) but mostly because of Troughton’s powerhouse performance as both The Doctor and story villain Salamander.
Jon Pertwee: The Third Doctor
Terror Of The Autons (1971)
Jon Pertwee has a lot of good stories, and the fandom often bickers about titles such as Inferno or The Daemons or The Green Death. They’re all great – hey, watch even more Doctor Who, I’m sure not going to stop you (though, keep reading on that score) – but for my money, how can you go past the very first appearance of The Master, played ably by the late, great Roger Delgado? Delgado’s performance is the reference mark for every other actor who has ever trod in The Master’s shoes – and for my money, the best of the lot.
Tom Baker: The Fourth Doctor
Pyramids of Mars (1975)
Tom Baker’s tenure as the Doctor sits as the longest for a continually produced Doctor to date, making him long the “default” image of the character. That span of years also means that the quality of stories wobbles a lot (Nightmare of Eden, anyone? No, didn’t think so…). The early years are arguably the best of his run thanks to the show’s darker tone at the time. Pyramids of Mars is an absolutely epic story that shows a truly vulnerable Doctor, a creepy villain and (because thanks, 1970s) just a shade of unfortunate casual racism. Not as bad as The Talons of Weng Chiang, though…
Peter Davison: The Fifth Doctor
The Caves of Androzani (1984)
A story infamously butchered by the ABC on its first showing – seriously, the ABC version is an utter mess – The Caves of Androzani is also Peter Davison’s finest moment as the Doctor, though there are plenty of other high spots in his run.
Colin Baker: The Sixth Doctor
Vengeance On Varos (1985)
I will defend Colin Baker’s run as The Doctor until I run out of breath, even though it was short, controversial, and… yeah, OK, there’s no defending that coat. His run marked a period where the show did some truly experimental stories, and none more so – and more prescient of future TV trends, let’s be honest here – than Vengeance on Varos.
Sylvester McCoy: The Seventh Doctor
Ghost Light (1989)
Dark, moody, mysterious and highly layered, Ghost Light sees not only Sylvester McCoy’s more scheming Doctor in superb form, but also Sophie Aldred’s Ace work some true acting magic. Troughton’s my favourite, but McCoy is a close second – and Ghost Light is a big part of the reason why.
Paul McGann: The Eighth Doctor
Doctor Who: The Movie
Paul McGann never really got a shot to properly develop his Doctor, and that’s a crying shame, because while there are elements of the Fox co-produced TV movie that are a shambling disaster (like, for example, Eric Roberts woeful turn as The Master, though that does make it easy to pick the worst portrayal of the character), McGann shines. It’s just that he doesn’t shine for very long.
Doctor Who: The Movie is currently available for streaming on Stan.
Christopher Eccleston: The Ninth Doctor
The Daleks are iconic, but one problem that both classic and new series has had with the trusty evil pepperpots is in making them truly terrifying the way that they were back in the early 1960s. Most of the time they try to do this with scale, but there’s little that’s enhanced between 10,000 Daleks and 10,000,000 Daleks. That’s not a problem for the simply titled “Dalek”, an absolute must-watch episode that showcases Christopher Eccleston’s remarkable acting ability and the way that you make a Dalek truly scary again – by making just one of them unstoppable.
Dalek is currently available for streaming on Stan.
David Tennant: The Tenth Doctor (OK, and the Fourteenth)
School Reunion (2006)
David Tennant has some truly superb episodes and performances, which made choosing just one genuinely tough. 42 is superb, Blink is amazing, Gridlock is fun, The Fires Of Pompeii is prophetic… I could go on and on, as long as you don’t ask me to watch Fear Her or Love And Monsters. But how can I go past School Reunion, the first episode of new Who to so firmly tie everything back to the classic series in such a superb way? I simply cannot.
School Reunion is currently available for streaming on Stan.
Matt Smith: The Eleventh Doctor
Vincent and the Doctor (2010)
Of course Doctor Who can be scary – and that’s often the point. But good drama should do more than send a shiver up your spine from time to time. Like Vincent and the Doctor, an episode that I can never watch without needing to cry. That’s cry in a good way, mind you, because this is a gloriously simple story told so beautifully well. Even if you never wanted to watch any other episode of Doctor Who ever (you monster), Vincent and the Doctor is worth watching just on its own.
Vincent and The Doctor is currently available for streaming on Stan, Binge and Amazon Prime Video
Peter Capaldi: The Twelfth Doctor
Heaven Sent (2015)
Doctor Who doesn’t need a big cast of characters to be good – sometimes it’s at its very best when it focuses on just the one. Combine a simple concept with the sheer acting force that is Peter Capaldi and you get… Heaven Sent.
Heaven Sent is currently available for streaming on Stan, Binge and Amazon Prime Video
Jodie Whittaker: The Thirteenth Doctor
Doctor Who is a series about time travel, and it’s often played around with what happens when famous figures interact with The Doctor. Often that’s in fantastical ways for the sheer thrill of it, but few “historical” stories have the pure gut punch and force of Rosa. Watch it and find out why.
Rosa is currently available for streaming on Stan, Binge and Amazon Prime Video
Bonus Pick: Best Multi-Doctor Story
The Five Doctors (1983)
The Doctor famously cannot cross The Doctor’s own timeline — except when that happens, typically, but not always around anniversary times. Honestly most of the multi-Doctor stories are quite good and a lot of fun for longer-term fans of the series simply to see The Doctor from one era bounce off The Doctor from another era — but I’d give the nod to the 20th anniversary special, The Five Doctors here. While Tom Baker’s appearance here is all from the never-properly completed Shada, it’s still the most Doctors you’ll ever get in a single official TV story at once time.
Plenty of Doctor Who to watch (but you probably can’t)
But before you set out to have a good old Doctor Who binge, there’s a huge problem.
At the time of writing, Binge has seasons 4-12 of the 2005 “New Who” era to view. Amazon Prime has series 5-12 only, while Stan (owned by Nine, also owners of Pedestrian Media) has Doctor Who: The Movie, the omnibus version of Tom Baker’s infamously never-finished serial Shada (for some reason) and seasons 1-13 of New Who – but nothing from 14, because of course that’s Disney+ territory.
Entertainingly, a quick search on Amazon Prime suggests that Britbox has a lot of classic Doctor Who to watch. That used to be true, but you know what you find if you search for that on Britbox right now?
Oof. That hurts me, right in my fandom.
It’s downright awful that a show that so many Australians have loved for so very long is available in such a piecemeal form to legimately view. With full honesty I’ve got everything that’s been released on either DVD or BluRay (and I had most of it on VHS years before that, because I’m old), but the reality is that we live in a post-physical media world.
Before you gather up your sonic screwdriver-adorned pitchforks and descend upon the House of Mouse, this isn’t actually Disney’s fault at all.
It’s down to the BBC and how it chooses to licence out its content. In the UK, it’s recently launched a complete subsection of BBC iPlayer under the “Whoniverse” moniker with every single story (save the first for… reasons) available to UK residents, as well as commissioning special omnibus Tales from the TARDIS specials and colourised versions of The Daleks and further upcoming Hartnell and Troughton classics.
It’s not technically “free” – UK residents have to pay the TV Licence fee that funds the BBC – but it’s available.
Outside the UK, however, it’s pulled back a lot of those rights, and looking at what’s happened with Binge and Amazon Prime, it may be pulling back even more.
While it’s undeniably true that it would be tricky to sell a streaming service the entire “package” of Doctor Who, which encompasses content stretching back 60 years in colour and black and white, it’s a travesty that there’s so few legitimate ways for Australian Doctor Who fans to get their fix in on streaming services.
Having lived through the dark days of the 1990s, where the only respite were the sometimes-great/sometimes-awful Virgin New Adventures book series, I’ve been in the depths of that darkness before.
Maybe something will change.
If anyone at the BBC is listening… please?
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