❉ Jim Sangster is your guide to watching every episode of Doctor Who in order.
What is the mark of a real fan of a TV show? What separates you from just the casual viewer? Surely it’s that you’ve watched every episode, right? Pursuits like cosplay and fan fiction are equally valid forms of devotion, of course, but there’s still something rather noble about just… watching it all. Thanks to Netflix and the like, it’s fairly each to binge if you’re a fan of The West Wing or Star Trek, but Doctor Who offers up a few tantalising stumbling blocks to the eager aficionado – namely that not every episode still exists.
The sheer cost of making and storing TV was extremely prohibitive in the 1960s – not just for the BBC but for “The Other Side” too, as fans of The Avengers, Callan or Ace of Wands can confirm. So it’s a fact that currently 97 black-and-white Doctor Who episodes are listed as missing from the archives. Thanks to the foresight of a few likeminded viewers back in the 60s, the audio tracks to these episodes do survive. They’ve all been released commercially on CD with bridging narration to explain what’s going on, and these can also be found on Audible and other audiobook providers. Some enterprising fans have also combined the audio with surviving photos, including photos of the episodes as they were broadcast, so it’s possible (via DailyMotion) to watch reconstructions of every missing episode.
We should also acknowledge that those early missing episodes date from a period in television history where fast editing and epic special effects just weren’t possible. They’re really slow if you’re only familiar with TV in a screen ratio of 16:9. In short, tracking down a means of watching every episode and then working your way through them in order takes some effort. There’s a reason why many fans who’ve embarked on this task call it “The Pilgrimage”.
But why embark on such a course when it’s so easy now to cherry-pick and watch stories or episodes in any order you wish? It’s a fair question. The pilgrimage has provided the backbone to many blogs, books and YouTube reaction videos – and plenty of the pilgrims who’ve gone before you will testify that the experience of watching the characters and the series itself develop brings with it a new appreciation for Doctor Who. You get to see how the production team chose each cast replacement to provide contrast to their predecessors. You begin to understand how the introduction of bigger studios, location filming, faster editing and colour changed how the stories were told and how the production adapted to each new innovation.
Watching stories in context can also change your opinion of stories you’ve previously dismissed, or were perhaps influenced by accepted fan lore (for instance, the 1965 story The Gunfighters is much more enjoyable than pretty much every guide might lead you to believe – despite the musical numbers – and it has a greater number of on-screen deaths than most modern episodes).
Doctor Who’s universe has expanded over time to include original books, comics, audios and Chad Valley Give-a-Show Projector slides, but for the purposes of this essay, we’re just going to stick to what’s been on TV, with only occasional sidesteps elsewhere to suggest further viewing.
First, some basic facts. As of October 2019, there are over 850 episodes to get through. The original series ran from 1963 to 1989 and consensus agrees that these episodes are sub-divided into “seasons” of decreasing length as you get closer to the end. The seasons are also further divided into stories (some of which don’t even have titles we can all agree on, but generally you can go on what it says on the DVD or CD), and the stories are made up of anything between one and fourteen episodes. When old fans flinch as new fans asking “what’s your favourite episode?”, this is why.
There are three stand-alone episodes of note from the 1990s, the authenticity of which are disputed but you might as well count them. Then from 2005 onwards, you have a combination of “Series” (with stories of usually one or two episodes) and “Specials” (mostly shown at Christmas). Oh, and there are also short episodes, also known as TARDISodes. Or prequels. Or minisodes. We’ll get to them later – and there are loads of ‘em.
If you’re not used to “old TV”, you might find these early episodes much, much slower than you’re used to. Personally, even if you’re an experienced viewer, I recommend that you don’t attempt to watch more than two episodes of the old series in one sitting, especially during the long run of episodes that mainly consists of reconstructed episodes. It gives you times to savour the episodes and also spares you the risk of getting a headache from the sound effects and music used at the time. I should also add at this point, I love this show, for all its flaws, and merely offer these suggestions as a caution for those who may be approaching these stories afresh.
Right – so we’re ready to start our pilgrimage and fortunately the first thirteen episodes have been released on DVD as “The Beginning”. And from the very start there’s a… complication. Although the first episode broadcast on 23 November 1963) is “An Unearthly Child”, the version that aired was in fact the second attempt at that episode. The first version, often called the pilot episode, is also available as a bonus feature on the “Beginning” box set and it offers some interesting variations on the characters of the Doctor and the titular schoolgirl Susan – as well as some entertaining goofs involving the TARDIS doors. If you choose to include this in your pilgrimage, it’s an interesting diversion but it’s by no means essential and you can happily skip it.
In this introductory run of episodes, you’ll see the TARDIS for the first time, and the Daleks, and hopefully you’ll see how a tiny studio was put to astounding use to create an entire alien world. And then… your next decision.
If you want to, you can watch a short summary of the seven-part historical adventure Marco Polo on the “Beginning” box set. Or you can listen to the commercially available audio CD, or watch a fan reconstruction. As this was a fairly prestigious production for Doctor Who, there’s a LOT of visual material available; that’s not something that can be said for some later stories, but hopefully by then you’ll be into the rhythm of them and it won’t matter so much. Towards the end of season one, you’ll reach The Reign of Terror, a six-part historical where two episodes are missing. Here, you have another choice – the DVD contains animated episodes utilising the audio track, while fan reconstructions using off-screen photos are also available.
Season Two fairs extremely well for surviving episodes, with only two instalments of The Crusade missing. Sadly, to date there are no official animated versions so you’ll have to go with either the narrated audio CD or the fan reconstruction. Season three however contains the most gaps between surviving episodes, which is a shame as it’s also the most ambitious and courageous run in the show’s history. There are a couple of comedy historicals that suddenly turn grim in the final chapter; an ever-changing roster of TARDIS crewmembers; the most epic twelve-part battle against the Daleks, containing the first ever Christmas episode; and two separate attempts by the production team to find a way to get rid of William Hartnell…
❉ From 2020, Britbox will carry all surviving episodes of Doctor Who, and other streaming services such as HBO Max will stream the modern era.
❉ Jim Sangster is an author, TV historian and regular contributor to Doctor Who magazine. He’s also been a talking head on numerous documentaries, including contributions to the Doctor Who DVD range. He lives alone, surrounded by Daleks.