1. The Daleks (December 1963 - February 1964)
The first ever episode of Doctor Who, An Unearthly Child, aired on 23 November 1963, but the following three episodes which made up the story had failed to thrill with their unconvincingly bewigged cavemen and ponderous dialogue. The next serial, which began airing just before Christmas, would be the one which cemented the show into the instant hit it became. The Daleks* is still a little rough round the edges; its “outdoor” scenes too clearly indoors and some of the dialogue still rather stilted, but the seeds are clearly there; the Daleks’ outlandish appearance and memorable voices was like nothing that had been seen on TV before, and although the series had begun with its creator stating there would be “no bug-eyed monsters”, it was clear that the Daleks were immensely popular.
Key scene: Menaced by a bathroom plunger, Jacqueline Hill gives it her all as Barbara.
*(Geek note - at this point, like presently, episodes were given individual titles and there’s no “official” name for the story as a whole, so you’ll also see this one as The Dead Planet and The Mutants)
2. The Tomb of the Cybermen (September 1967)
Arguably Patrick Troughton’s most important story as the Doctor was his first; The Power of the Daleks, in which the show had to prove that it could not only replace its leading man but make him a completely new character in the process. Sadly, no copies still exist, while The Tomb of the Cybermen still exists in its entirety. And what an entirety. Although the Cybermen had been seen twice before, Tomb gives the monsters much more depth, menace and some backstory. There is some terrific acting going on as well, and production values are clearly much higher than just three years previously. The second two episodes suffer slightly from a lack of pace, and characterisations are occasionally clumsy, but this serial was such a success both at the time and in retrospect that it has influenced much of what came after.
Key scene: The Cybermen break out of their tombs.
3. Terror of the Autons (January 1971)
Terror of the Autons kicked off season 8 with a tale that, while admittedly a thinly-disguised rewrite of the previous season’s opener Spearhead from Space, is notable for two things; first of all, the scare quotient was higher and based on seemingly “safe” people and items; policemen, daffodils, dolls, telephone wires - all proved lethal. For the first time, the BBC started getting serious complaints about the level of violence and death.
The other innovation was the introduction of The Master, a “Moriarty to the Doctor’s Holmes” as he has been described. Here, played by the superb Roger Delgado, the Master shows why he was to become another of the series’ most loved villains. Originally intended as a one-arc villain who would pop up throughout season 8 and be killed at the end, the Master ended up long outstaying his original welcome. Finally, a new companion for the Doctor, who would become iconic - ditzy, big-hearted Jo Grant. Terror of the Autons is far from perfect, but it does witness the start of something special.
Key scene: Factory manager McDermott is eaten by his chair.
4. Genesis of the Daleks (March-April 1975)
Although they had been wildly popular since they had been first seen on screen 12 years earlier, the Daleks had come to feel stale and overused, an alien menace dissipated by familiarity and some occasional misjudged writing.
Genesis of the Daleks sees the Doctor and his companions sent by the Time Lords to destroy the Daleks at the point of their creation. Notable for the introduction of the Daleks’ creator, Davros (a virtuoso performance by Michael Wisher under an inch of latex), the serial is also one of the first to explore the theme of the familiar enemies in terms of racial purity and Nazism. It has its flaws, and the pace flags occasionally, but it is an all-time classic and lays the groundwork for the show’s iconic monster to be taken seriously again, as well as serving notice that the seemingly zany, silly Fourth Doctor could and would tackle serious subjects.
Key scene: Tom, Lis and Ian emote over two bits of wire.
5. Earthshock (March 1982)
After Tom Baker’s epic 7-year stint in the role, audiences found that the new, young, mild-mannered Peter Davison took a bit of getting used to - thanks to a previous role, one unkind nickname for him was “the wet vet”. However, by Earthshock, the sixth story of his first series, he was growing into the part and the writers were experimenting with some interpersonal drama between companions. Adric, Nyssa and Tegan were often given some scenes on board the Tardis either side of the main story, but Adric in particular seemed to often come across as a whiny know-it-all, earning few fans (think Wesley Crusher and Scrappy Doo). Earthshock is a cracking little story, with the presence of the Cybermen coming as a genuine surprise to audiences. The silver men hadn’t been seen since 1975 and there was no pre-publicity for their appearance here.. What sets it apart is that Adric actually dies. The annoying, self-important little kid that everybody hated remains on board a crashing freighter to steer it away from Earth - not even his own planet. When the credits rolled silently over a black screen with just his broken badge on, even the haters teared up a little.
Key scene: “Oh well, now I’ll never know if I was right”.
6. Vengeance on Varos (January 1985)
Colin Baker’s tenure as the Doctor got off to a bad start when the regeneration-addled Time Lord began by strangling his companion half to death before putting on a dreadful garish costume that nobody except showrunner John Nathan-Turner liked. The characterisation of the new Doctor as a rather bombastic, somewhat pompous man for whom “righteous indignation” was the default mode rubbed many people up the wrong way and to cap it all the writers were experimenting with a more “adult” direction, with more violence and darker themes clashing with the mid-80s pastel-and-neon look of the show. Vengeance on Varos is the Sixth Doctor in a microcosm: some really good ideas, largely well done but fatally undermined by the erratic Doctor (here he sets two deliberately fatal traps for chasing guards and makes a Bond-style quip when two more die horribly in an acid bath). The extreme nature of the violence - certainly for a 1980s family series - seemed not only to turn off the viewers, but also to undermine Vengeance’s message about violence on TV. Nonetheless, this is good overall and worth watching if nothing else for Nabil Shaban’s delightful villain Sil.
Key scene: The acid bath
7. The Curse of Fenric (October-November 1989)
With Colin Baker unhappily relieved of his role, a new actor was cast; light entertainer Sylvester McCoy seemed an unlikely choice and in his first season he struggled with scripts intended for Baker, an insistence from the showrunner on keeping it light and comedic, and Bonnie Langford’s Mel - the fans’ least favourite companion since Adric. However, he matured into the role and by his third series, and the show’s 26th, he had fully hit his stride with a darker, more manipulative take on the character. Young companion Ace (by contrast a fan favourite thanks largely to beating up a Dalek with a baseball bat in her second outing) had likewise matured alongside the Doctor in her second series and acquired new depth throughout season 26.
Fenric is the culmination of many of those storylines and, besides being a cracking vampire yarn in its own right, showcases the ambition and direction of the show in what would unfortunately turn out to be its penultimate broadcast story. Questioning morality in war - and the morality of war, the nature of faith and whether it matters what that faith is placed in, while never getting bogged down in pretentiousness, the serial is a tour de force of writing, acting, location work and special effects.
Key scene: Chess in the bunker
8. Doctor Who: The Movie (1996)
Paul McGann’s incarnation of the Doctor only appeared once on TV, though the 8th Doctor enjoyed an extended run of semi-official adventures in print and audio. The 1996 TV movie was an attempt to relaunch the series with the backing of an American network, and this pilot introduced many of the concepts, while playing fast and loose with some of them, much to the fans’ chagrin. In particular, the Doctor claims to be half-human on his mother’s side and shares a kiss with companion Grace (a contrast to the strict no-touching rules in Davison’s tenure).
It wasn’t a huge hit in the states where the name meant little to most people, while British audiences felt it unnecessarily Americanised a British icon and missed out on the unique charm of the show by shoehorning it into the action series format - but most agreed that Paul McGann made for a splendidly Doctorish Doctor and that they would have liked to have seen more of him. Eric Roberts makes a suitably creepy Master and the TARDIS sets are impressive. It was also lovely to see Sylvester McCoy coming back to do a regeneration scene (which technically makes him the longest-serving Doctor, quiz fans).
Key scene: Stopped by a traffic cop during a motorbike chase, the Doctor offers him a jelly baby. DW: The movie in microcosm.
9. Rose (2005)
It seems odd to say it now, but the 2005 relaunch of Doctor Who was far from certain to be a success. The moment that the press got hold of the story that the show might be coming back, out came all the clichés about cardboard sets, bubblewrap monsters and screaming companions, and several high-profile actors passed on the title role, fearing they would be attaching their name to a notorious flop.
Although the plot is a little light, the tone a little uncertain, Rose successfully manages to introduce the show’s concepts to a target audience not yet born the last time the Time Lord was regularly on TV, while remaining true to the original; paying homage without remaking. If any part of Rose had failed, the likelihood is that the 2005 relaunch would have been a stillbirth. Alongside the immensely effective reintroduction of the Daleks later in the series, the BBC’s current entertainment mainstay owes its success to a great launch.
Key scene: The Auton shop dummies break through the windows in a homage to Pertwee’s first story
10. The Christmas Invasion (Christmas Day 2005)
The first series of the new Doctor Who had been a ratings success, but with a new (and relatively unknown) actor taking over the role after just 13 episodes, it was still a bit of a gamble to put an hour-long special in the middle of the Christmas Day schedule on BBC1. Fortunately, it paid off. In spades. The cartoonish Sycorax aliens might have been a little by the numbers, but David Tennant knocked it out of the park and the writing was confident, whimsical and funny. Still probably the best of the Christmas Specials, this introduces the tenth Doctor in style and gives him the “what kind of a man am I?” arc that remained with him until the end. Perhaps more importantly for DW as a whole, it was the moment it crossed the line from being “That remake of that show we used to like as kids” to something the whole family watched together and therefore the massive critical and commercial success of today.
Key scene: The new Doctor emerges from the TARDIS. In his jammies. And accidentally quotes The Lion King
11. Vincent and the Doctor (2010)
There’s still more to come from Matt Smith and only time will lend the perspective needed to judge an “important” story in terms of the mythos and the show as a whole. However, tucked away in his first series, outside the grand story arc, is this little gem of an episode, important in a very different way. Vincent and the Doctor, written by Richard Curtis, takes the familiar “Doctor meets famous person from the past, battles a monster with them, makes lots of references to what they’re famous for” format (see also Dickens, Shakespeare, Queen Victoria, Agatha Christie and more) and turns it into a sensitive portrait of a talented man with severe Depression. The “invisible monster” that the characters battle is as much Vincent’s own mental illness as it is the poor lost, blind Krafayis hiding in the church. There are stellar performances here from Tony Currie as Vincent and from Karen Gillan whose Amy Pond is still grieving over Rory (even though she doesn’t know that - it makes sense in context, OK?) and whose desperate attempts to “save” Vincent from himself turn out to be to no avail.
It might not be important in the context of Doctor Who as a whole, but in helping people understand a little more about Depression and mental illness generally it is surely deserving of the title “important”.
Key scene: Vincent at his exhibition.