With almost 60 years of Doctor Who, it can be hard to know which adventures of the Doctor in the TARDIS are most important, but it’s not impossible.
- Doctor Who offers multiple jumping-on points for new audiences, making it accessible to newcomers.
- There are key moments in the show’s 60-year history that form the ongoing story of the Doctor and their companions.
- Episodes like “An Unearthly Child” and “The Daleks” are essential for understanding the show’s origins and its most iconic enemies.
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As a brand-new era of Doctor Who launches on Disney+, viewers may be looking for a road map as to how to navigate 60 years of important stories and mythology. The beauty of Doctor Who is that its very format provides multiple jumping on points for prospective audiences. Unlike other big TV shows, Doctor Who is not anchored to one particular time and place, and so there’s the possibility that every trip in the TARDIS is someone’s first. All that being said, there is a rich tapestry of mythology that ties Doctor Who‘s six decades together, and inspecting the details of that lore can be an intoxicating experience.
It can also be an incredibly daunting prospect, what with almost every Doctor Who story for all 13 Doctors now available at the click of a button. Piecing together Doctor Who‘s history at random is a hugely enjoyable jigsaw puzzle, but there will always be people who want to cut to the chase. With that in mind, there are a number of important Doctor Who stories from the past 60 years that form key moments in the ongoing story of the Doctor, their companions, and their many enemies.
20 An Unearthly Child – The First Doctor (William Hartnell)
Broadcast 23 November – 14 December 1963
While the ongoing Doctor Who rights dispute makes it harder to watch the first adventure, “An Unearthly Child”, it’s worth tracking down on DVD. This is where Doctor Who began, and the pilot episode is a masterclass in building atmosphere and tension. Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) accidentally stumble into the TARDIS while investigating the living arrangements of their strange pupil, Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford). The subsequent caveman adventure isn’t quite as atmospheric, but William Hartnell’s Doctor immediately makes an impression as an angry and suspicious alien traveler, whose irascibility belies a more sensitive side.
19 The Daleks – The First Doctor (William Hartnell)
Broadcast 21 December 1963 – 1 February 1964
Terry Nation’s “The Daleks” is when Doctor Who truly arrived, as it introduced his arch-enemies. The Daleks became cultural icons in their own right, with a short-lived movie franchise, comic strip adventures and merchandising. The serial has been re-edited and colorized as part of Doctor Who‘s 60th anniversary celebrations, which makes it a perfect time to revisit this first encounter between the Doctor and the Daleks. Terry Nation essentially established the format of Doctor Who‘s alien adventures; the Doctor and their friends teaming up with oppressed rebels to overthrow their oppressors.
18 The Tenth Planet – The First Doctor (William Hartnell)
Broadcast 8 – 29 October 1966
Regeneration in Doctor Who is the key to the show’s longevity as it provides a science fiction explanation for changing the leading actor. With William Hartnell’s health failing, the BBC had to find a way to replace their leading man. And so, the concept of the Doctor regenerating every cell in their body to become someone else was born. “The Tenth Planet” was the story that introduced this idea, alongside being the first appearance of Doctor Who‘s other big bad, the Cybermen. Steven Moffat later paid tribute to the importance of “The Tenth Planet” by sending Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor back there prior to his regeneration into Jodie Whittaker; the first regeneration from a male to female actor.
17 The Invasion – The Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton)
Broadcast 2 November – 21 December 1968
Patrick Troughton’s Doctor Who era established both the affectionately named “base under siege” trope, and also introduced the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce into canon. “The Invasion” is UNIT’s debut story, in which the newly formed organization has to combat a Cyber invasion of contemporary Earth. They’re aided in their battle by the Second Doctor and Jamie (Frazer Hines), who had both previously met now-Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) in “The Web of Fear”. UNIT are now an indelible part of Doctor Who canon, and will be seen fighting the Toymaker (Neil Patrick Harris) in the 60th anniversary special “The Giggle.”
16 The War Games – The Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton)
Patrick Troughton’s final Doctor Who story, “The War Games” is an epoch-shifting moment for the show. It’s the first story to properly introduce the Doctor’s people – the Time Lords – and it’s the story where their difficult relationship with their own people is first teased. The Doctor summons the Time Lords to help him to defeat the War Chief (Edward Brayshaw) who had been enslaving armies from across human history in brutal games. The Doctor sacrificing their freedom and their life to save the lives of countless others would become a defining trait of the character, and it starts here with Doctor Who‘s forced regeneration.
15 Terror of the Autons – The Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee)
Broadcast 2 – 23 January 1971
The Doctor’s arch-nemesis, the renegade Time Lord known as the Master (Roger Delgado) is introduced in “Terror of the Autons.” Effectively the Moriarty to the Doctor’s Sherlock Holmes, the Master would become a key part of Doctor Who mythology from 1971 onward. The Doctor and the Master’s rules of engagement are firmly established in this story, in which the Master tries to kill the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee), right up until he realizes he needs the help of his nemesis to survive the coming of the Nestene Consciousness. This is generally how their fractuious friendship would play out for the next five decades.
14 The Three Doctors – The Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee)
Broadcast 30 December 1972 – 20 January
“The Three Doctors” is essentially Doctor Who‘s first anniversary special, even though – as the season 10 premiere – it aired months before the special day. It established that the Doctor’s regenerations don’t always like each other and that they can team up during the gravest emergencies. In “The Three Doctors”, William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee are brought together by the Time Lords to defeat their fallen idol, Omega (Stephen Thorne) from destroying the universe. As well as establishing the multi-Doctor story, “The Three Doctors” establishes some of Gallifrey’s pre-history, lending some texture to the Doctor’s mysterious origins.
13 The Time Warrior – The Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee)
Broadcast 15 December 1973 – 5 January 1974
It took over a decade before Doctor Who revealed the name of the Doctor’s home planet, and it gets it’s first mention in Robert Holmes’ classic story “The Time Warrior.” The story also introduces one of Doctor Who‘s best second-tier villains, the Sontarans, and beloved companion Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen). Sarah was such a beloved companion that she would later return to Doctor Who opposite David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor, and even got a show of her own. The arrival of Lis Sladen as Sarah signalled the start of a golden age for Doctor Who that still resonates today, and it starts in “The Time Warrior.”
12 Genesis of the Daleks – The Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker)
Broadcast 8 March – 12 April 1975
When Russell T Davies brought back Doctor Who in 2005, he conceived of the Time War as a key part of the show’s mythology. RTD established that Doctor Who‘s Time War began with “Genesis of the Daleks”, when the Time Lords tasked the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) with averting their creation. The Doctor’s moral dilemma over whether to commit genocide is one of Doctor Who‘s finest moments as it tackles the complexities of such a decision. The Doctor’s decision would later have wide-reaching consequences for the entire Doctor Who universe, but it also fleshed out the Daleks’ backstory by introducing their creator Davros (Michael Wisher).
11 The Deadly Assassin – The Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker)
Broadcast 30 October – 20 November 1976″
Almost 13 years after Doctor Who debuted on BBC One, “The Deadly Assassin” is the first example of a story fully set on Gallifrey. It’s also a gripping political thriller, in which the Master (Peter Pratt) frames the Doctor for the assassination of the Lord President of Gallifrey. The story is notable for expanding the mythology of the Time Lords and establishing the 13 regenerations rule. 47 years later, and that limit has been shattered by various later revelations. However, Robert Holmes’ portrayal of the Doctor’s home planet as a corrupt society continued to influence future Gallifrey stories in the Doctor Who canon until as recently as 2020.
“The Deadly Assassin” was “The Timeless Children” of its day, inspiring fury from fans, including a memorable review from the Doctor Who Appreciation Society which asked: “WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THE MAGIC OF DOCTOR WHO?”
10 Resurrection of the Daleks – The Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison)
Broadcast 8 – 15 February 1984
The next big moment in the history of Doctor Who‘s Time War is the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) story “Resurrection of the Daleks.” Following the Time Lords’ attempts to have the Daleks erased from history, the psychotic pepper pot aliens plot to replace the Fifth Doctor and his companions with android duplicates. The Dalek plot to turn the Doctor into a deadly assassin is thwarted, but it’s far from being the end of the Time War mythology in Doctor Who. On top of this, “Resurrection of the Daleks” is one of the most brutal Doctor Who stories of the classic era, finally convincing Tegan Jovanka (Janet Fielding) it was time to leave the TARDIS.
9 Remembrance of the Daleks – The Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy)
Broadcast 5 – 26 October 1988
“Remembrance of the Daleks” is essentially Doctor Who‘s 25th anniversary special, even if the honor actually goes to the less monumental “Silver Nemesis.” It returns the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) to Shoreditch, London in 1963, where he has unfinished business. Having left behind a devastating Time Lord weapon, the Seventh Doctor sees it as an opportunity to defeat the Daleks once and for all. Unfortunately for the Doctor, his classic Doctor Who speech about the ripple effect comes back to haunt him as he effectively triggers open hostilities in the Time War.
8 Rose – The Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston)
Broadcast 26 March 2005
Russell T Davies’ bold new vision for Doctor Who brought the series bang up to date while also retaining the weirder aspects of the show. The debut of the Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) is mysterious and abrasive in a similar vein to William Hartnell but with the heart-pumping urgency of 21st cenury television. RTD’s Doctor Who relaunch establishes the format of the modern version of the show. It’s highly likely that RTD’s second era will have a similar feel to it, albeit updated for the IP-driven age of streaming. “Rose” is a perfect distilation of the magic of Doctor Who in a 45-minute time slot.
7 Dalek – The Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston)
Broadcast 30 April 2005
If there’s a Doctor Who story that demonstrates the key differences between the classic and modern approaches, it’s Rob Shearman’s “Dalek.” The story established that it was the Daleks who were the aggressors in the Time War that destroyed Gallifrey in Doctor Who. It also established that Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor wasn’t the breezy eccentric incarnation that old school fans had got used to. “Dalek” introduces a Doctor who has been fundamentally changed by his traumatic experiences from the Time War, setting up the more emotionally nuanced portrayal of the character that defines the modern series.
6 Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways
Broadcast 11 – 18 June 2005
“Bad Wolf” and “The Parting of the Ways” is Doctor Who‘s first-ever season finale, an epic battle between the Ninth Doctor, Rose (Billie Piper), and Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) and the Daleks. It’s a phenomenal Doctor Who adventure that does something quite rare in the entire 60-year history of the show; it gives the Doctor a redemptive arc. Before 2005, the Doctor was generally an uncomplicated, shambolic hero. After 2005 they became someone who had to reconcile their past with their future, making Christopher Eccleston the perfect actor to play the character at this pivotal moment for Doctor Who.
5 The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End – The Tenth Doctor (David Tennant)
Broadcast 28 June – 25 July 2008
If there’s a Doctor Who story that prefigures Russell T Davies’ MCU-style approach for the Disney+ era, it’s his two-part season 4 finale. “The Stolen Earth” and “Journey’s End” reunited David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor with his former companions and stars of their own spinoffs, Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures. It was the most ambitious and epic Doctor Who story ever conceived, and even introduced the controversial Meta-Crisis Doctor, who also played a big part in the end of Donna Noble (Catherine Tate). With Catherine Tate and David Tennant returning for Doctor Who‘s 60th anniversary, it’s clear that the story of “Journey’s End” isn’t over yet.
4 The End of Time
Broadcast 25 December 2009 – 1 January 2010
David Tennant’s Doctor Who finale brought the Time Lords into the modern era, and Russell T Davies returned to Robert Holmes’ idea of a corrupt political system. Timothy Dalton’s Rassilon is an incredible Doctor Who villain, who deems that the Time Lords must survive at the cost of all other life in the galaxy. It’s down to the Doctor and his surprise ally, the Master (John Simm) to stop the Time Lords and save the Earth. What makes “The End of Time” so brilliant is that, after an epic struggle between Earth and Gallifrey, the Doctor dies saving the life of one man – Wilfred Mott (Bernard Cribbins).
3 The Day of the Doctor – The Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith)
Broadcast 23 November 2013
Modern Doctor Who‘s first anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor” by Steven Moffat, was a thrilling culmination of 50 years of history that ensured the show’s future. Teaming up David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor and Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor, Moffat’s anniversary tale gave the Doctors the chance to save Gallifrey from destruction in the Time War. In doing so, they redeemed John Hurt’s War Doctor by enabling him to defeat the Daleks and save the Time Lords in glorious, celebratory fashion. “The Day of the Doctor” is one of Doctor Who‘s most cinematic entries, even giving The Hunger Games: Catching Fire a run for its money at the box office.
2 Hell Bent – The Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi)
Broadcast 5 December 2015
After bringing back Gallifrey in “The Day of the Doctor”, Steven Moffat had to reconcile the fact that the Time Lords are actually villains. The Doctor Who season 9 finale “Hell Bent” saw the Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) return to Gallifrey to stage a hostile takeover. What’s so perfect about the finale of Peter Capaldi’s second season of Doctor Who is that he’s deposed Rassilon (Donald Sumpter) not to revolutionize the Time Lords, but to save his best friend Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman). It’s a powerful portrayal of the Doctor’s loyalty to their friends, and how it transcends their supposed loyalty to their own people.
1 The Timeless Children – The Thirteenth Doctor (Jodie Whittaker)
Broadcast 1 March 2020
Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who era turned the mythology on its head when it revealed that the Doctor wasn’t actually a Time Lord, but an alien from an unknown species. The Doctor, therefore, formed the genetic blueprint of the Time Lords, which is a fairly meta-commentary on how, 60 years ago, the Doctor was one of a kind. It fundamentally changed how viewers understood the mythology of the Time Lords and the Doctor, and restored mystery to the central character. Russell T Davies has promised that one of the 60th anniversary specials will tie into the revelations of “The Timeless Children”, which cements this divisive story as the most important Doctor Who stories of recent times.
Doctor Who streams weekly on Disney+ from November 25.