The TDF Top 10: Classic Doctor Who (1963 – 1989)

In the next Doctor Who TDF Top 10, Baz Greenland picks the 10 greatest stories of the classic era (1963-1989)

In the next TDF Top 10, we continue our Doctor Who theme with a look back at the 10 greatest stories for the classic era…

Picking the best episodes of Doctor Who – particularly those in the classic era – often comes down to who your favourite Doctor is. If, like me, Tom Baker is thew gold standard, then the chances are, you’ll be drawn to the early years of the Hinchcliffe era where he travelled with Sarah, Harry and Leela. I could list the ten greatest stories from that era alone and they would be all be regarded as classics. If you like the Earth-bound Quatermass-style stories of the 70s, you’ll probably have a few Jon Pertwee stories among your favourites. For high-tension monster, ‘base under siege’ stories, you’ll most likely find comfort in the Patrick Troughton era. The vibrant horror and mystery of Sylvester McCoys stories might be your bag. The truth is, each Doctor has some great episodes – arguably Colin Baker less so (though there are many wonderful gems on his continued run at Big Finish). Picking ten, quite simply, isn’t enough to do the show justice.

From the rich historicals of Marco Polo and The Aztecs to the dramatic debut of the Daleks, there is plenty of magic in the early stories featuring William Hartnell as the Doctor. While some of the black and white entries go on far too long, the imagination and wonder of those earlier serials really helped cement Doctor Who‘s success. His successor Patrick Troughton brought a very different Doctor as the show doubled down on its monster mania, with some delightful companions like Jamie and Zoe. There is something rich and absorbing in the Third Doctor era; with a heavier focus on UNIT and Earthbound tales of monsters, mad scientists and the debut of the Master, Jon Pertwee’s Doctor Who was something altogether different to what had come before. Again, some of its stories rang on far too long, but there are plenty of classics to choose from.

Tom Baker, my favourite Doctor, has too many great stories to narrow down. His performance still has the greatest impact on the show to this very day – from gothic horror to comedy – there is so much to enjoy. While Peter Davison’s Doctor was much gentler in comparison, the violence and high drama of his tales pack plenty of charm. Colin Baker was a great Doctor lumbered with bad stories, often shockingly dark and violent, but there was still some intriguing stories in his two seasons. While he started off poorly, being little more than a clown, Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor emerged as one of the best in the final two years; paired with Ace, he brought mystery and magic back to the show. And we have to include Paul McGann – potentially one of the best televised Doctors – in a clunky, Americanised 90s TV movie. Again, his Big Finish entries are some of the best in the range, but he’s not in consideration here.

These then are my favourites across the 26 seasons. Picking stories, rather than individual episodes, allow me to present The TDF Top 10: Classic Doctor Who


10. The Masque of Mandragora



A story so good, it convinced Elizabeth Sladen not leave the series after series 13 closer The Seeds of Doom. This series 14 opener, Sladen’s penultimate story in the classic series as Sarah Jane Smith, is an underrated classic. The Fourth Doctor and Sarah encounter the mysterious Mandragora Helix and follow it to 15th Century Italy. There they encounter a dangerous cult – Brethren of Demno – the ruthless Count Frederico and a plot to overthrow the throne.

The Masque of Mandragora is a delightful historical adventure, with Renaissance Italy beautifully realised, the plots and machinations of Frederico and the mysterious cult leader Giuliano making for forbidding villains and the threat of the Mandragora itself the icing on the cake. Tom Baker and Sladen are on superb form and there’s plenty of humour too – the Fourth Doctor confronting a swordsman and sticking an orange on the end of the sword is hilarious.


9. The Web of Fear



After the debut of The Great Intelligence and the robotic Yeti in The Abominable Snowmen (sadly all but episode two remains lost), the enemy returned in this terrific adventure in the London Underground as the Doctor, Jamie and Victoria battle Yeti and a mysterious webbing that is taking control of the bowels of the city. It is a story packed with tension, with the webbing in the tunnels looking wonderfully atmospheric and the Yeti themselves a formidable threat.

But it is two guest stars that really shine in this story.  Tina Packer is superb as Anne Travers, a female scientist that has plenty of wit and charm. It’s a shame she didn’t return or become a full time companion, though the Third Doctor’s first companion Liz is surely inspired by her. Most significantly, The Web of Fear features the debut of Nicholas Courtney’s Alistair Lethbridge Stewart. He would return next season, promoted to Brigadier and remain a formidable presence in Doctor Who for years to come…


8. City of Death



Possibly the funniest Doctor Who story ever written, Douglas Adam’s City of Death platys up Tom Baker’s comic talent as the Fourth Doctor and Romana II take a trip to Paris. They soon become embroiled with Julian Glover’s nefarious Count Scarlioni / Scaroth and the mystery of the missing Mona Lisa.

Teaming up with Tom Chadbon, delivering a very dry performance as quasi companion detective Duggan, there are plenty of quips and slapstick moments and a fun time travel twist or two. Making great use of the gourgeous Paris setting, City of Death is a bold and entertaining farce and the highlight of Baker’s later years on the show.


7. The Invasion



While Tomb of the Cybermen sees the Cybermen at their most terrifying, it is also an episode packed with some unfortunate racists and sexist overtones, resulting in its absence from the list. However their best story of the classic era is another Second Doctor tale that sees them invading modern-day London. The Second Doctor, Jamie and Zoe are reunited with the now Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge Stewart and the foundation of UNIT is born.

The Invasion boasts a terrific villain in Kevin Stoney’s Tobias Vaughn, a megalomaniac that wouldn’t be out of place in a James Bond film and huge Cybermen moments; the sight of the enemy marching down the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral is as iconic as anything in Doctor Who‘s history and directly inspired Peter Capaldi’s Cybermen story Dark Water / Death in Heaven.


6. The Caves of Androzani



The Fifth Doctor has plenty of good episodes but also some rather lacklustre efforts too. Too many companions and a Doctor that didn’t always seem effectual in an increasingly violent era of the show, meant that Peter Davison’s era struggled to find a consistent tone. Fortunately, his final story is an absolute classic. Not only is it the best regeneration story, it also regularly tops the list of Doctor Who stories.

The Doctor and new companion Peri find themselves racing the clock to survive a deadly poison while being trapped in the violent machinations of John Normington’s ruthless Morgus and Christopher Gable’s monstrous Sharaz Jek. It’s a intense four part story with plenty of shocking cliff-hangers, plenty of surprises and a final tragedy – the Doctor saving the life of Peri who he barely knows, at the cost of his own. It is a shame the Fifth Doctor era didn’t have had more stories like this.


5. Inferno



This alternate Earth story wraps up Jon Pertwee’s first year on the show in absolute style. The Doctor’s attempts to fix his defunct TARDIS sees him transported to an alternate Earth where the Brigadier and companion Liz are part of a Nazi-like military dictatorship and the Inferno project – an ambitious project to drill into the Earth for thermal energy, is several hours ahead of the Doctor’s own Earth.

There’s an amazing tension running throughout the seven-part story as the alternate Earth builds towards its eventual destruction while the similar events leading to doomsday take place in our Earth. It’s a race against time for the Doctor to find his way back and stop the same catastrophe, with Pertwee’s arrogant demeanour as the Doctor humbled by the events un folding, making for an instant classic and the highlight of his five-year run.


4. Genesis of the Daleks



The greatest Dalek story of all time sees the Fourth Doctor, Harry and Sarah transported back to war-torn Skaro to stop the creation of the Daleks by their creator Davros. It’s the ultimate ‘would you go back and kill Hitler as a baby’ storyline, with the Time Lords’ actions setting the spark for the Time War to come.

It’s dark, gritty and violent, with the Nazi-like Kaleds and their war with the Thals offering a fascinating new insight into Skaro’s past. Davros quickly emerges as one of Doctor Who‘s greatest villains, Michael Wisher delivering a masterful performance beneath the make up while Peter Miles’ Nyder is a terrifying character, inspired by the worst of Nazi Germany. At it’s heart Genesis of the Daleks is a powerful morality tale and superb origin story for the Daleks. The Doctor’s inability to kill their creator speaks to his compassion and ultimately makes the story a failure that will have dramatic consequences in the years to come…


3. The Curse of Fenric



When Doctor Who finally succumbed to cancellation in 1989 with season 26, the biggest tragedy was that it went out on one of its best seasons. The Curse of Fenric the penultimate of the classic era,is also one of the show’s greatest as the Seventh Doctor and Ace find themselves in World War II England, facing off against an ancient Norse curse, invading Russian soliders, vampiric Haemovores and a ancient evil in Fenric itself.

Far from the bumbling clownish persona of his first season, Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor is something far darker and mysterious here, manipulating Ace as her storyline comes to a dramatic head in his battle of wills against Fenric. You can imagine that McCoy’s Doctor  would be considered even higher in the rankings of great Doctors if The Curse of Fenric had been the first of many more darker stories to come, with the mystery of his persona at the heart of it.


2. Pyramids of Mars



While Davros might be lauded as one of Doctor Who‘s best villains, it was Sutekh a year later in Pyramids of Mars that shines brightest. Gabriel Woolf delivers a chilling vocal performance as the Egyptian God (and would return to Doctor Who to voice the Beast in David Tennant’s The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit two-parter). Facing off against Tom Baker’s Doctor, Pyramids of Mars features one of the best interplays between hero and villain across the 57-year run.

It’s a wonderful, gothic story, with robotic mummies rampaging rural England and a bloodbath ensues – it is one of those Doctor Who stories where no one survives beyond the Doctor and his companion Sarah. With  Bernard Archard as a menacing second villain in Marcus Scarman, there is a rising tension throughout as the Doctor heads towards his dramatic showdown with the dog-faced god.


1. The Seeds of Doom



An unexpected number one perhaps, given the entries before it? The Seeds of Doom doesn’t always get the recognition it deserves, capturing the magic of the Hinchcliffe era perfectly with its blend of horror, spectacle and an absolutely perfect double act in Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor and Elizabeth Sladen’s Sarah Jane Smith. The sixth part adventure sees the Doctor and Sarah face a deadly alien menace in the Krynoid, a dangerous plant-based lifeform that threatens to the destroy the planet.

“Have you met Miss Smith? She’s my best friend.”

The connection between Tom Baker’s Doctor and Elizabeth Sladen’s Sarah is one of the strongest in the entire show’s run and this story perfectly encapsulates the magic as they work together to stop the Krynoid and stop the nefarious machinations of British biologist Harrison Chase. The first two parts play as a tense Antarctic adventure, before heading to rural England for a gothic mansion with a deadly alien plant life. It’s The Thing, before transforming into The Day of the Triffids, and the perfect example of Doctor Who firing on all cylinders…


I couldn’t end this article without a few more honourable mentions. In consideration for the top 10 were…

  • The First Doctor: The Aztecs, The Dalek Invasion of Earth, The Time Meddler
  • The Second Doctor: Tomb of the Cybermen, Fury From The Deep, The War Games
  • The Third Doctor: Spearhead from Space, The Silurians, The Sea Devils, Frontier in Space
  • The Fourth Doctor: The Ark in Space, Planet of Evil, The Brain of Morbius, The Deadly Assassin, The Robots of Death, The Talons of Weng-Chiang, Horror of Fang Rock, Image of the Fendahl, State of Decay
  • The Fifth Doctor: Kinda, Earthshock, Snakedance, Enlightenment
  • The Seventh Doctor: Remembrance of the Daleks, Ghostlight, Survival

What are your favourite stories from the classic Doctor Who? Do you agree with the choices below? Let us know in the comments below and check out our TDF Top 10: Modern Doctor Who


Updated: Oct 12, 2020

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