TV on DVD: A New Doctor Who Fan's Guide to Old Doctor Who

This Saturday on BBC TV, Doctor Who returns for its fourth season. Or is it the long-running time-traveling series' 30th season? Both are accurate enough, as the newly revamped Doctor Who, a huge international hit, is a continuation of the BBC staple that premiered in 1963 and ran continuously -- despite numerous shifts in style, tone, and lead actor -- until its forced "hiatus" in 1989. The "classic" series, which for years was a familiar import on PBS stations across the U.S., is now firmly set in marble as a "cult" favorite, with special fannish attention bestowed upon actor Tom Baker's seven iconic years as the wayward Time Lord.

Throughout the U.K., Doctor Who carries a rich 45-year history as part of British popular culture. In the U.S., many new fans first encountered the show much more recently, with the revived series rerunning on the Sci Fi Channel, then selling well as DVD boxed sets. Since before the new series began, DVDs of serials from the show's earlier years have been essential items for longtime fans, and a new release this week -- conspicuously timed for the debut of the latest TV run -- makes a good starting place for new fans wanting to explore the historical markers that bridge the new show with the old one. So let's start with this week's choice Doctor Who DVD release, then continue our time travel with other DVDs that connect old Who with new Who.

The Time Warrior

It's no secret that this upcoming season showcases the return of the Sontarans, the alien race of cloned warriors whose endless intergalactic war against the Rutans (and anyone else who happens along) makes them a particularly arrogant menace throughout time and space (even if they tend to look like South Park's Mr. Hanky in body armor). The Doctor has encountered and defeated assorted Sontarans over the years, but they were introduced in this crackerjack four-part Middle Ages adventure from 1974. It stars Jon Pertwee as the Doctor in his third incarnation.

Also debuting here is spunky journalist Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen), who ends up traveling with the Doctor into his fourth incarnation. Sarah Jane returned 30-odd years later in the new series' episode School Reunion, and now she has her own series and is slated to return again at the end of the new season. Fans looking for further continuity references can also see U.N.I.T., led by unflappable Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, having a rather bad-luck day trying to contain the alien menace snatching scientists right out from under their noses. The Time Warrior comes to Region 1 (the U.S. and Canada) DVD this week.

An Unearthly Child

William Hartnell in the BBC's Classic Series 'Doctor Who'

Here's where it all started. Doctor Who's first episode, broadcast November 23, 1963 (the day after JFK's assassination), remains one of the best half-hours the show ever produced. The Doctor is a mysterious old grouch with an unknown past (the concept of Time Lords was still years away) and his sole traveling companion is his granddaughter Susan -- that is, until two of Susan's school teachers investigate their bizarre pupil and stumble into a series of adventures across time and space via a junkyard police box. "Have you ever thought what it's like to be wanderers in the fourth dimension? Have you? To be exiles...?"

An Unearthly Child begins a modestly effective romp involving cavemen and the secret of fire, but on its own it's a necessary addition to any Who fan's library. That's especially so now that it has been grouped in a DVD boxed set titled Doctor Who: The Beginning, which also includes The Daleks, the first serial to introduce the show's most popular alien baddies -- and a generation of children to the benefits of hiding behind the sofa.

BBC Warner's 'Doctor Who: Genesis of the Daleks' (Episode 78) dvd box art

Genesis of the Daleks

Speaking of the Daleks, those metal-cased mutants have been the Doctor's most persistent nemesis since that second serial back in 1963. Making Doctor Who a sudden and unexpected success, "Dalekmania" swept through school children the way Beatlemania was wigging out the teenagers. So of course the Daleks have been a big presence in the new series.

Soon after the show restarted, we discovered that in the intervening years the Doctor's race, the Time Lords, were wiped out in the Last Great Time War against the Daleks. Back in 1975, the Doctor found himself thrown into his foes' very origins in Genesis of the Daleks, a six-parter widely considered by fans to be among the show's finest serials. On a mission for the Time Lords, the Doctor, Sarah Jane, and Harry must either avert the Daleks' creation or adjust the embryonic creatures' evolution into a less aggressive species. But would exterminating an entire race at its birth make the Doctor any better than the Daleks themselves?

Genesis of the Daleks sees the introduction of Davros, the obsessed, monomaniacal scientist who created the Daleks. He encountered the Doctor in several subsequent stories, and rumor has it that he'll return as the Big Bad in the new season's showdown finale. In fact, rumors say that it'll take the combined efforts of all of the current Doctor's previous companions -- including Rose Tyler, Martha Jones, Capt. Jack Harkness, and Sarah Jane -- to help the Doctor defeat Davros again. Just rumors, mind you, but new series' creator Russell T. Davies has said that the Last Great Time War began right here in Genesis of the Daleks, with the Time Lords launching the first blow as a pre-emptive strike.

The Invasion

Speaking of old enemies who have returned in the new show, the Cybermen are second only to the Daleks as classic unkillable Doctor Who monsters. These prosthetically over-enhanced humanoids first appeared in 1966, in the final serial of the First Doctor. Since then they have returned with various modifications and with varying success, although no Cybermen serial beats 1968's The Invasion for sheer slam-bang thrills and early Doctor Who at its finest.

Not only do we have the Second Doctor and his companions working to save Earth from a Cyberman army in the heart of London -- the squad of metal giants marching down the steps of St. Paul's Cathedral is an iconic Doctor Who image -- but we also see the beginnings of U.N.I.T., the top-secret paramilitary organization established to combat alien threats on Earth. The Doctor and U.N.I.T. maintained a sometimes strained working relationship for decades afterward. By the way, the Second Doctor's brash young Scottish companion is Jamie McKrimmon, whose name the Tenth Doctor pilfered as a disguise in the 2006 story Tooth and Claw.

Because two of this serial's eight episodes have been lost, on the DVD they are reconstructed via animation using the original audio tracks, and the production team did a good job with it.

The Caves of Androzani

When actor Peter Davison reprised the role of the Fifth Doctor in 2007's Children in Need

"mini-episode," Time Crash, that was the first experience many new fans had of the Time Lord that the current incarnation gushed was "my Doctor." Davison was only 29 when he took over the role from Tom Baker in 1981, making him -- by his own admission lately -- a bit too young and green for the demanding part, despite his success as Tristan Farnon in the television version of James Herriot's All Creatures Great and Small. Davison has said that he didn't fully come to grips with playing the Doctor until this serial, his final story. Fortunately it's one of the best of its era, with a sometimes brutal thriller plot and bullet pacing. Don't let the silly and unnecessary "magma beast" monster tarnish an otherwise first-rate adventure.

Roger Delgado and Jon Pertwee in BBC Warner's DVD set 'Doctor Who - Beneath the Surface'At the climax of the 2007 season, the episodes The Sound of Drums and Last of the Time Lords marked the return of the Master, the evil Time Lord who has been out to destroy (or at least annoy) the Doctor since 1971.

Actor John Simm did a fine job giving the newly resurrected Master a manic energy and charisma. Yet for my money, there has still never been a Master better than the original, played with suave, cool élan by Roger Delgado. A recurring foe of the Third Doctor and U.N.I.T., this Master is at his best on DVD in The Claws of Axos and especially, coming to DVD in the U.S. and Canada this June, The Sea Devils. In The Sound of Drums, a throwaway gag involving the Master mistaking the Teletubbies for a strange alien life form is a winking reference to a similar scene in The Sea Devils.

Finally, here are three classic Doctor Who DVDs that have only tangential connections to the new series, but they're among the best the series has to offer and I recommend them for fans old and new alike:

Pyramids of Mars

Here's one of the greats starring Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor and Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane, both at their (and this era of the show's) peak. In a Victorian gothic mansion, strange things are afoot. The master of the house, away in Egypt, has been replaced by a sinister Egyptian and cloth-wrapped robot mummies roam the grounds killing people. Beneath a pyramid, the last of the Osirans -- Sutekh the Destroyer -- waits to be freed, to at long last bring his "gift of death to all who live."

The actor who in 1975 provided the voice of Sutekh returned in 2006 to give a voice to "The Beast" in the two-part story The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit. In the 2006 story Army of Ghosts (featuring the return of the Cybermen and our first look inside the Torchwood Institute), a mummy case briefly glimpsed within Torchwood's warehouse of alien artifacts was a reference to Pyramids of Mars, according to Russell T. Davies.

The Talons of Weng-Chiang

This atmospheric six-parter is another fan favorite from the Tom Baker years. While in Victorian London, the Doctor and Leela (Louise Jameson) must face a foe from the future -- a time-traveling war criminal from the 51st century. The evil genius may be a crazed fiend, but he's still wary of Time Agents dogging his heels. Capt. Jack Harkness is a Time Agent from the 51st century. It's a small cosmos.

Image of the Fendahl

Okay, this one's a stretch, and this serial isn't as successful as the previous two, but I'm fond of it. In rural England, in a laboratory run by Dr. Fendelman, a twelve million-year-old skull is being examined. When the artifact glows with unearthly power, death and destruction follow. The Doctor (Tom Baker) begins to think the unthinkable -- the Fendahl, a nightmare horror from the Time Lords' own mythology, is awakening.

This moody, Lovecraftian 1977 story bears "spooky doo" similarities to the recent Doctor Who spin-off series Torchwood. The local "hauntings" are the result of a nearby "time fissure." The Doctor explains Ma Tyler's "sixth sense" by saying that psychic ability is a common side effect of growing up near a time fissure. He gives the same explanation for another character's clairvoyance in the 2005 Doctor Who episode The Unquiet Dead, though the phenomenon is referred to as a "time rift." Various alien manifestations, usually quite nasty, resulting from a time rift are now commonplace plot devices on Torchwood. And what about Ma Tyler and her relatives who add so much character to this story? Any relation to Rose, perhaps? Hmmmm....

All these and other vintage Doctor Who serials are available on Region 1 DVDs from BBC Warner. They come with quality extras such as lively commentary tracks, "making of" featurettes, and archival material such as rehearsal footage and BBC promotional pieces.