Top Doctor Who Classic DVD Releases

Published: May 30, 2014

The first 26 years of Doctor Who are vast and intimidating, and the DVD range does nothing to help the casual viewer. Instead of tidy season sets you will see hundreds of random titles, with no clues as to continuity, story order, or significance. Fear no more! Here's your guide to the top-ten must-see highlights of the range.

  1. The Beginning

    This set might as well be called "Season 1A", covering as it does the first half of the show's very first season.

    Whereas a season of modern Who consists of a straight run of episodes, all tied together with a rough plot arc, each classic season is broken down into a run of serials, with each serial further broken down into episodes. So The Beginning is a collection of Doctor Who's first 13 episodes, divided up into three serials: An Unearthly Child, The Daleks , and The Edge of Destruction. To complete the half-season, the set also includes a cut-down reconstruction of the lost fourth serial, Marco Polo.

    Over the course of these four stories we follow the show's original protagonists, the schoolteachers Ian and Barbara, as they stumble on the Doctor's time machine and get whisked into a life they never asked for. We witness the TARDIS as it becomes stuck in the shape of a police call box, as the Doctor first meets his eternal nemesis the Daleks, and as the TARDIS crew first discovers that the Doctor's ship might be more than just a dumb machine. Through the eyes of Ian and Barbara we watch the Doctor change from an imperious, even violent, figure into a more humble and empathetic character. We get our first taste of the past, the future, and the surreal -- the eclectic mix that would come to define Doctor Who.

    The set is also packed with long, entertaining special features detailing the show's origins, making it a must for anyone interested in classic Who. Although in some ways the show hardly resembles its modern counterpart -- with its black-and-white studio-bound filming, its methodical pacing, its angry and irresponsible Doctor, and its serial-based pacing -- in other ways it is startling how little has changed.

    From the start, the show took itself seriously. As daft as the show might have looked on paper, everyone knew they were making something special -- and so they made sure that it was good. Looking back on it now, for all of its 1960s trappings the show is surprisingly modern. Particularly in the case of Doctor Who, there is no better place to start than at the beginning.

  2. The Time Meddler

    And here we come to the show's first turning point. The original protagonists, Ian and Barbara, are gone. This leaves us with the Doctor -- previously a supporting, trickster character -- as our identification figure. Sure we get a great new male lead in Steven Taylor, but here the Doctor takes control of his series like never before.

    Here, we get the first whiff of a backstory. We meet another of the Doctor's race, and learn that the Doctor's TARDIS may not be as unique as we had been lead to believe. We also are also presented with a total revision of the show's ideas about time travel. Whereas before time was presented as immutable, with any attempt to change it already preordained in its sequence of events, here we meet an outsider whose whole goal in life is to mess with history -- just for the fun of it. And here, with the notion that time can in fact be altered, we have the recipe for all future explorations into time travel.

  3. The War Games

    From the Time Meddler we get the idea that time can be changed. Skip ahead a few years, and we see where that really comes into play.

    We're now on the Second Doctor. William Hartnell's First Doctor collapsed in the anticlimax to a dull serial that also introduced an early prototype of the Cybermen, which in turn Patrick Troughton's Doctor would go on to fight for the next three years. Half of those serials are now missing from the archives, though what survives is some of the best Doctor Who ever. Go track down Tomb of the Cybermen, The Enemy of the World, or The Mind Robber if you really want to blow your mind.

    Then we come to Troughton's epic farewell, The War Games. This ten-part serial (over four hours long!) starts off simply enough, with the Doctor and company apparently landing behind enemy lines in World War I. Quickly, though, it becomes clear that things are not all that they appear. There are evil plans afoot, larger than anything the Doctor has seen before -- and for all of his tricks and all of his cunning, this may finally be a problem that he can't escape from.

    It is in this serial that we finally learn who the Doctor is, or at least what he is. He is a Time Lord, and there is some heavy baggage that comes with being a Time Lord.

  4. Beneath the Surface

    This is a curious box set, packing together two of the best-ever Doctor Who serials and their less well-regarded sequel. Here we will focus on the first two discs.

    Following Troughton's trial and effective execution for his crime of curiosity, Pertwee's newly-born Third Doctor wakes to find himself exiled to Earth, unable to work his TARDIS, and trapped in the employ of a parmilitary group called UNIT.

    It is in Pertwee's second serial, The Silurians, that we see the real friction and significance of his new position. At the and of all-time great Doctor Who writer Malcolm Hulke (co-author of The War Games), Doctor Who becomes an adult morality play, steeped in politics and cultural ethics.

    As it happens, humans weren't the first sapient people on this planet. Long before our ancestors came out of their burrows, the Earth was the domain of a race here dubbed the Silurians. These were a reptile people, warlike but rational -- and in some cases actually reasonable, if one can get past a mutual fear.

    Can we, though, get past that fear? Can they? Can the Doctor hold back the military and biological might of two paranoid races, and find a peaceful solution? Or will this struggle end in total genocide -- of either their race, or our own?

    The Silurians was new territory for Doctor Who, and even today stands as one of its crowning achievements. Never again would the show explore such a complex struggle in such a delicate way. If you want to know what Doctor Who can be at its very best, The Silurians is a must-see.

    The second serial in this set is a fun follow-up, also from the typewriter of Malcolm Hulke. There's nothing new here, except for the addition of the Doctor's dark counterpart, the Master. Over the course of the previous season we met the Master and followed the Doctor and UNIT as they tracked him down and eventually caught him. Now he is in captivity, yet still pulling the strings of his captors. Meanwhile the Sea Devils, aquatic cousins of our friends from the previous story, decide that they want to retake the planet for their own. It's good stuff, but we've been here before and the story knows it.

    The last serial in this set comes from over a decade later, and the start of Fifth Doctor Peter Davison's final season. Here the Silurians and the Sea Devils attack a human sea base, in an even more blatant parable for cold war friction. Doctor Who fans hate this one. It's not terrible; it's just sort of unnecessary.

  5. The Deadly Assassin

    Pertwee's tenure continued much as it did. Eventually he won a lift of his exile and again began to wander the cosmos -- now with more control over the TARDIS than he'd ever had. Soon after, the UNIT family began to break up with the departure of Jo Grant and the betrayal of Mike Yates (who later redeemed himself in Pertwee's final story). With the dissolution of the UNIT format we get a newly free-spirited Doctor in Tom Baker, the longest-serving and oddest of all the Doctor's incarnations.

    For a couple of seasons he puttered around through low-budget pastiches of popular horror movies, and then in The Deadly Assassin the show hit another turning point.

    With the departure of long-time companion Sarah Jane Smith, the Doctor finds himself alone for the first time -- and a with The Time Meddler, with him as our sole point of reference the show takes a turn into its own continuity. For the first time we explore the Doctor's home world, Gallifrey, exposing the decay behind its veil of awe and mystery. We learn of its decadant, semi-mystical politics, not unlike the Roman senate. We learn that Gallifrey's prime is long in its own past, and that even its most clever scientists really have no idea how its basic technology works.

    The powers that drive Time Lord society have been passed through the ages not as science but as secret totems and icons of legend and status. All of the principles of Time Lord law and culture are laid bare as a sham -- while at the same time the brilliance of past achievements is finally demystified and brought into Gallifrey's present, forcing a social revolution that even the Doctor is reluctant to accept.

  6. New Beginnings

    It is the end, but the moment has been prepared for.

    Tom Baker's tenure was a downward spiral of dwindling budgets, meandering storylines, conflicting visions, a descent into self-parody, and an ever-growing sense of apathy from the lead actor. For his final season, new producer John Nathan-Turner brought the show a sense of 1980s gloss and new script editor Christopher H. Bidmead brought a new creative focus to the storytelling. As Baker's Doctor marched toward his fate, Season 18 turned into a somber exploration of entropy in all its permutations -- crumbling societies, mutations, and an extended arc about the heat death of the universe.

    Over the three serials in this set -- The Keeper of Traken, Logopolis, and Castrovalva -- Bidmead's vision for the show comes into its own. We see the Doctor confronted with a fairy tale world not unlike his own Gallifrey, which has been static far beyond its natural time. With the addition of a serpent, in the form of the now-decayed form of the Master, Traken finds itself uniquely vulnerable, with catastrophic results.

    Fresh from the chaos at Traken, the Doctor decides that he has had enough of his own statis and seeks out a legendary planet of mathematicians to help him fix the TARDIS chameleon circuit, allowing his ship to change shape once more. Little does he realize that all of this has been anticipated, and that Traken was just the first act of a horrible long game, placing the Doctor at the center of a universe long past its natural point of collapse.

    Suffice to say, the Doctor survives but Tom Baker does not. In the next serial we visit a mathematically modeled society based on an M.C. Escher drawing, while Peter Davison's Fifth Doctor copes with the harsh after effects of change. Even this, however, plays into the Master's plans to attack the Doctor at his most vulnerable. Thanks to the Master's hatred and growing insanity, yet another culture stands at the brink -- but is the Doctor strong enough to save it?

  7. The Caves of Androzani: Spcial Edition

    And here again we skip to the end. Davison's poor, gentle Fifth Doctor has had the most violent and dispiriting run of any incarnation to date. First he the lost boy genius Adric to an exploding spacecraft. Then one after the other his remaining companions left, his longest confidant Tegan fleeing in tears after a particularly grisly death toll. The Doctor was forced to put a long-suffering robotic companion out of his misery. In the previous serial, even the Master seemed to meet his final death.

    Here the Doctor moves on, accompanied by a girl he only just met, and lands her in the most hopeless, dispiriting situation he has ever known. Androzani Minor is the nexus of several conflicting parties -- a drug kingpin with an android army, a gang of gun-runners, and several politically motivated groups. There isn't a redeemable soul in the lot, and from the moment they land the Doctor and Peri find themselves at the mercy of the machine.

    The Caves of Androzani shows the Doctor pushed to his limit -- poisoned, dying, helpless, and desperate. Over its four episodes the Doctor scrambles against distressingly petty and callous forces to exert control over his own fate. In this world he doesn't matter; he isn't the protagonist. As soon becomes clear, he can't even hope to survive. Yet maybe, at a stretch, he will be able to protect his new friend -- that girl who he hardly even knows, for whose fate he has now become horribly responsible. If he can just save her, fix this one mistake, then maybe that will make up for all of his past failures. Or maybe not.

  8. The Trial of a Time Lord

    How quickly things change, and how much things stay the same. From Androzani, in fan polls often considered rated the best story in all of Doctor Who, we transition to new Doctor Colin Baker and the story often rated the single worst in all of Who. This may not be a fair assessment, as after Androzani any other story would take its knocks, but it does hint at the turbulance of the next couple of years.

    Halfway through Baker's first season the show was cancelled, for reasons best explained in the documentaries on this set. After fan and media outcry the BBC backpedaled and said the show would return after a short rest to rethink its admittedly controversial approach. Baker's Doctor was portrayed as unlikable and violent. His clothes were ridiculous, which forced the set and costume designers to compete with its colors, lending the entire show a loud, garish tone. The scripts were weak and even more unpleasant than during Davison's run. Clearly something had to change.

    Except when the show came back, nothing really did. Instead, mirroring the show's real-life difficulties, the production team made the entire seaason about the notion that the Doctor was on trial. Although the experiment didn't really work, it is also one of the most important and -- if you can take a step back -- interesting things that it ever did. And it's certainly the most important event of Colin Baker's tenure.

    In principle The Trial of a Time Lord is fourteen-part epic that takes the structure of A Christmas Carol by showing the Doctor's purported misdeedes in the past, present, and future -- all tied together with the framing device of a courtroom trial. In execution it's really just a bunch of sub-standard serials intercut with reaction shots and injerjections from the courtroom. In turn those serials have their own names, which allows the viewer to break the season down into four stories: The Mysterious Planet, Mindwarp, Terror of the Vervoids, and The Ultimate Foe.

    Over the course of the season we see the Doctor soften somewhat, lose another companion in the most shocking way, solve a cozy murder mystery involving humanoid plants, and meet his dark side -- a projection of all his worst qualities, from between his twelfth and final incarnations.

    This season is also Baker's unfortunate swan song, as after its completion BBC executives ordered him replaced. Famously, he was so put out as to refuse to return for a regeneration scene.

    For all its hints of joy -- in particular the surprisingly pleasant third act of the story -- Trial is a fascinating study of a show in turmoil. If you want to understand 1980s Doctor Who, look no further. This season is a car crash in slow motion, but it is a very educational one that looms large over the show even today.

  9. Remembrance of the Daleks: Special Edition

    And then we see the light. By 1988 pretty much everyone had given up on Doctor Who. We had a new and promising Doctor in Sylvester McCoy, but the high pantomime of his first season did nothing to instill confidence in the show. Yet over the course of that season new script editor Andrew Cartmel began to push his influence, and for all the production problems the scripts became smarter, more ambitious than they had been in years -- probably since Tom Baker's final season.

    With the start of the show's 25th and penultimate season, Cartmel's vision had come to fruition. Doctor Who was back, in a big way. To build on the show's silver anniversary, Cartmel brought the show back to its origin. Part of this is overt, in returning to the setting of the show's very first serial, An Unearthly Child, and unveiling what the Doctor was really doing in London all that time ago. Cartmel's real plan was more subtle, though.

    His idea was to return to the mystery of the show's early black-and-white days, when we didn't really know much about the Doctor; when he was still a mysterious, often unreliable trickster figure. From this point on, McCoy's Doctor was the great manipulator. Beneath his clownish surface was a brilliant if imperfect chess master, plotting out the moves of everyone around him a hundred steps in advance -- who was then forced to scramble at the last second, when things didn't turn out quite the eay he planned.

    With this new aloof Doctor we get a new kind of companion in Ace, a self-confident if troubled young woman who serves as the Doctor's muscle. Much has been made of Ace's role in inspiring the self-sufficient companions of the modern series, such as Rose and Martha, and indeed starting with Remembrance you can see how the modern show came to be.

    It doesn't hurt that Remembrance is probably the best Dalek story of them all, and a good contender for the best story of the whole of the 1980s. Here is where we start to take on a depth of theme and character absent from the show since the days of Malcolm Hulke, and a strength of creative direction that breathes a new life and a vibrancy into Doctor Who -- one that lasted just one more season before the BBC pulled the plug, but that lived on in novels and audio plays until it manifested again in Russel T Davies' new vision of the show.

  10. Doctor Who: The Movie

    In the middle, though, we have this curiosity. About halfway between the show's cancellation and its triumphant revival, the BBC partnered with Fox and Universal to produce this backdoor pilot for a proposed American co-production. Despite some early waffling about a reboot, in the end the production team decided to make a direct continuation of the original show. So they brought back McCoy to kill him off, and to set up a brand new romantic lead in Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor.

    Although its plot makes very little sense, prior to its 2005 revival the movie is Doctor Who at the pinnacle of its status. This was an expensive production, and it shows. Its photography is still some of the best that the show has seen, and its special effects are fresh even two decades later. The characters are written brilliantly, with some of the best lines you'll find in Doctor Who. Overall the movie is fresh and different, and in retrospect it feels very brave.

    Whether for the right reasons or not, the movie takes many risks and makes many mistakes that expanded what Doctor Who could be about. Here we have the Doctor as a romantic, if essentially chaste, figure, setting up the relationship dynamics of Eccleston's, Tennant's, and Smith's Doctors. We have a gorgeous and dramatically different new TARDIS interor, setting up the huge changes in the modern series. The movie also sets up the presence of the Eye of Harmony in the bowels of the TARDIS, and the "pixie dust" of the time vortex that Rose Tyler used to good effect.

    Other issues, like the plot thread about the Doctor being half-human, have been quietly ignored in the years sinse -- but by doing things "wrong" and forcing people to think of ways to justify those things in the context of the show as previously understood, gadflies like this movie also force people to question their preconceptions. Well, why not change the TARDIS interior? Why not allow the Doctor to express a full range of emotion? How is regeneration supposed to work, anyway?

    Without this movie we wouldn't have Doctor Who as we now know it. It changed the show's frame of reference just enough to make others realize that they could keep changing that frame of reference, and do new and exciting things with what could have become a very static thing indeed -- which if Christopher H. Bidmead has taught us anything, is the surest path to oblivion.

There are other highlights, many of which I have mentioned along the way, but these are the big, important moments of change that expand what Doctor Who is as a show and thereby made it what it is today. Most of them are also really good stories, or failing that endlessly fascinating in their deviations from the norm. If you want to get started with Classic Doctor Who, you might as well go for the legs. Knock these down, and you're all set to fill in the blanks.