Classic Doctor Who on BritBox: The best episodes for New Who fans
Mark Harrison | On 19, Apr 2020
Offering 626 Doctor Who episodes broadcast between 1963 and 1996, BritBox is bigger on the inside. If you’ve watched all of the new series already, then why not join us as we turn on the TARDIS randomiser for a monthly primer on the adventures of the first eight Doctors…
It’s testament to the reassuring, escapist quality of Doctor Who that the now-regular lockdown tweetalongs of new series episodes have become popular in the past few weeks. Organised by Doctor Who Magazine’s Emily Cook, the hashtaggable events have so far covered episodes such as The Day Of The Doctor, Rose, Vincent And The Doctor, The Eleventh Hour, Heaven Sent, and the 2008 two-part season finale The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End.
When it comes to the classic series, there are currently fan watchalongs of 1988’s Remembrance Of The Daleks (#UnlimitedRicePudding!) and the 20th anniversary special The Five Doctors (#GameOfRassilon!), which, outside of the 1996 TV Movie, (#DressForTheOccasion?) seem like the most suitable candidates.
But for our money, some other New Who-alike serials should be in the running. So, for this month’s column, we’re looking at all the serials currently available on BritBox and highlighting the “ahead of their time” stories that you might not have been pointed towards just yet. Any of these would be a good jumping-on point for new series fans who’ve yet to venture further back than 2005, so we’ve picked one story per Doctor – happy viewing!
The Aztecs (Season 1, 1964)
“You cannot rewrite history. Not one line!” While some of the First Doctor’s successors might scoff at this iconic moment, the programme has explored the responsibilities of time travellers since almost the very beginning. Boasting a terrific performance from Jacqueline Hill as the Doctor’s history teacher companion Barbara Wright, this jaunt to 15th century Mexico holds up remarkably well more than 55 years after it was made. Plus, watch William Hartnell channel the spirit of Matt Smith as he gleefully informs his companions that he’s accidentally got engaged to one of the locals…
New Who Counterpart: The Fires Of Pompeii (2008)
The Moonbase (Season 4, 1967)
We only briefly mentioned this Second Doctor serial in last month’s Cybermen-centric column, but it’s more a landmark for the base-under-siege genre that has become Doctor Who’s bread and butter over the years. Recognised as an early moment of the Doctor specifying about his moral compass, (“There are some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things… They must be fought.”) the serial sees the Mondasian meanies invading a lunar base with designs on controlling Earth’s weather. It’s not the Cybermen’s finest hour, not least because they’ve gained a whole bunch of superpowers off-screen, from shooting electricity out of their hands to a knack for sarcasm that gives us the hashtag…
New Who Counterpart: Nightmare In Silver (2013) or Kill The Moon (2014)
Day Of The Daleks (Season 9, 1972)
While Genesis or Remembrance is usually the first Dalek serial that people get recommended, this Third Doctor adventure jives with the running theme of an Earthbound run of stories – that humanity may really be their own worst enemies. As such, while it’s a story that the Daleks are in (the first since 1967), they don’t overpower the intrigue surrounding a faction of guerrilla fighters who have travelled back from the 22nd century to assassinate a world leader. And just check out those improved special effects on the BritBox version…
New Who Counterpart: Into The Dalek (2014)
The Robots Of Death (Season 14, 1977)
Leela (Louise Jameson) has only just boarded the TARDIS with the Fourth Doctor at the outset of The Robots Of Death, a none-more-classically-titled mystery that follows an apparent robot uprising onboard a mining vessel. Borrowing equal parts from Asimov and Agatha Christie, this is a brilliantly designed and wittily written caper that influenced later stories like Voyage Of The Damned and Oxygen, but also set an evergreen template for the “first trip in the TARDIS” episode. But of all of Who’s tales about robots gone wrong, this stands apart as an all-timer of the Fourth Doctor era.
New Who Counterpart: Voyage Of The Damned (2007)
Enlightenment (Season 20, 1983)
As referenced in Season 12’s Can You Hear Me, the Eternals are immortal beings who indulge in amoral fancies to pass their endless lifetimes. The Fifth Doctor and his companions encounter some of them in Enlightenment, which presents a race to the titular prize between two ships, the SS Shadow and the SS Buccaneer. Although this is the third part of the Black Guardian trilogy of serials that introduced new companion Turlough, (Mark Strickson) it also works as a standalone story. Besides, Barbara Clegg’s story is by far the best of the three and a truly underrated gem.
New Who Counterpart: Can You Hear Me? (2020)
Hashtag: Let’s make it sporting, choose #TeamShadow or #TeamBuccaneer!
Vengeance On Varos (Season 22, 1985)
Russell T Davies’ first season of New Who was very much shaped by the influence of contemporary television, and so too was 1985’s Vengeance On Varos. Well regarded among the Sixth Doctor’s bumpy first season, this Running Man-flavoured serial takes place on a former prison colony planet where the impoverished population are glued to tortuous TV shows, a la Davies’ Bad Wolf. Dark, satirical, and entertaining, this one also gives us one of the best cliffhangers of the 1980s.
New Who Counterpart: Bad Wolf (2005)
The only other classic serial penned by a woman comes right at the end of Doctor Who’s original run. Rona Munro remains the only writer to contribute to both the original and 21st-century incarnations of the series, and her first, 1989’s Survival, leaves off where Davies would pick up in 2005 with its London council estate setting, where the Seventh Doctor and Ace discover that young people are being abducted and spirited into another dimension. Also including the final TV appearance of Anthony Ainley as the Master, this is a definitive story that is (in every sense of the word) closer to New Who than anything else the original series has to offer. And blimey, that final monologue…
New Who Counterpart: The Eaters Of Light (2017)
Classic Doctor Who is available on BritBox as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.