Doctor Who: the 10 best classic episodes to watch on iPlayer

Elisabeth Sladen and Tom Baker in The Seeds of Doom
Elisabeth Sladen and Tom Baker in The Seeds of Doom

“Welcome to the Whoniverse,” goes the BBC blurb. “Where every Doctor, every companion and hundreds of terrifying monsters live.”

November 1 marks the start of Doctor Who’s anniversary month, building up to the sci-fi institution’s 60th birthday on November 23 – and its three anniversary specials airing on BBC One from November 25. Expect an array of celebratory programming, kicking off tonight with Talking Doctor Who and Doctor Who @ 60: A Musical Celebration on BBC Four. Also launching on iPlayer today is nostalgic new series Tales Of The TARDIS, reuniting beloved Who duos from the show’s history.

Hardcore Whovians, however, are most excited by the fact that more than 800 “classic” episodes have been added to iPlayer, making it the streaming platform’s biggest ever Doctor Who collection. The post-2005 reboot series have always been there but making the show’s extensive back catalogue available enables viewers to travel back in time with any of the Doctors.

Yes, the TARDIS doors have been well and truly flung open but where to start? We’ve waved our sonic screwdriver at the screen and selected the top 10 vintage episodes to watch:

1. The Talons Of Weng-Chiang (1977)

One of the scariest episodes of the Tom Baker era, this Victorian chiller saw the Fourth Doctor don a deerstalker to fight a creepy Chinese magician, a murderous ventriloquist’s dummy and giant rats in the sewers of London. Mashing up Sherlock Holmes, Fu Manchu, The Phantom of the Opera and Jack The Ripper, it was horror with its tongue in its cheek but no less terrifying for it. The Chinese stereotypes have dated badly but Russell T Davies calls the script “some of the best dialogue ever written… up there with Dennis Potter”.

Timelord trivia: The double act of mortician Professor Litefoot and theatre-owner Henry Jago proved so popular that they got their own audio series. A TV spin-off was even mooted. Ali Bongo was a consultant on the music hall magic scenes.

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2. The Caves Of Androzani (1984)

The peak of Peter Davison’s stint was his swansong. When the dying Fifth Doctor landed on sandy planet Androzani Minor, he became caught up in the deadly drug war between ruthless mining magnate Trau Morgus and masked madman Sharaz Jek’s android army. A tense, pacy tale of political duplicity and bitter revenge.

The Caves of Androzani
The Caves of Androzani

Timelord trivia: Davison’s regeneration scene, in which visions of former companions swirl around him, has been hailed as the franchise’s best - although Davison jokes that he was upstaged by Nicola Bryant’s cleavage as he lay in companion Peri’s lap. The role of Sharaz Jek was offered to Tim Curry, Mick Jagger and David Bowie. The latter declined because filming clashed with his Serious Moonlight tour.

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3. The Mind Robber (1968)

One of the most enjoyably bonkers stories of Patrick Troughton’s tenure, this psychedelic fairytale saw the TARDIS removed from reality and materialising in an empty white void. The Second Doctor and his sidekicks promptly fell into the “Land Of Fiction”, a computer-controlled fantasy world populated by fictional characters including Medusa, Rapunzel, D’Artagnan and Gulliver. Other trippy images included a unicorn, the Minotaur, life-size toy soldiers, a forest of words and everyone trapped in the pages of a giant book. You didn’t get that on Blake’s Seven.

Frazer Hines as Jamie and Wendy Padbury in The Mind Robber
Frazer Hines as Jamie and Wendy Padbury in The Mind Robber - BBC

Timelord trivia: All Gulliver’s lines are taken from Jonathan Swift’s original novel. When actor Frazer Hines came down with chickenpox, the production worked around it by having companion Jamie turned into a cardboard cut-out. No, really.

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4. Genesis Of The Daleks (1975)

You’re spoiled for choice with Dalek adventures but to our mind, this origin story is the greatest and most epic of them all. The Timelords sent the Fourth Doctor to the planet Skaro shortly before the Daleks existed, with orders to stop their creation by crippled scientist Davros - the first time we met the rasping cyborg. There’s thought-provoking depth to the philosophical debates about committing genocide for the greater good (“Have I the right?” agonises the Doctor) and it’s a powerful portrayal of the brutality of war, complete with Nazi allegories.

Timelord trivia: Dalek designer Terry Nation’s inspiration for Davros was Dan Dare’s foe The Mekon. During rehearsals, actor Michael Wisher sat in a wheelchair with a paper bag over his head . However, he was a heavy smoker, so he cut two holes in the bag so he could smoke beneath it.

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5. The Dæmons (1971)

Another story to give viewers nightmares, this Hammer-style folk-horror followed an archaeological dig in the Wiltshire village of Devil’s End which accidentally awakened an horned, cloven-hoofed alien. Hang on, was that The Master posing as the local vicar? Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor, companion Jo (Katy Manning) and UNIT soldiers had to fight witches’ covens, a gargoyle come to life, an impenetrable dome and pitchfork-waving villagers to save the world.

The Dæmons
The Dæmons - BBC

Timelord trivia: The BBC received complaints about blowing up a church for the story’s climax, even though it had just been a convincing model. The shot of an exploding helicopter is a repurposed, unused clip from Bond film From Russia With Love. Sooty puppeteer Matthew Corbett had a cameo as a hooded cult member, arranged by his friend Katy Manning.

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The Seeds Of Doom (1976)

An action-adventure in the Bond movie mould. When mysterious plant pods were found frozen in the Antarctic ice, the Fourth Doctor, companion Sarah-Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) and UNIT were called in to investigate. Stolen by a power-crazed botanist, the deadly alien seeds germinated, infected humans and started making plants attack animal life. A cautionary ecological tale, full of thrills, with shades of The Quatermass Experiment and The Avengers.

Timelord trivia: Mary Whitehouse wasn’t a fan, saying: “Strangulation – by hand, by claw, by obscene vegetable matter – is the latest gimmick. And just for a little variety, it shows children how to make a Molotov Cocktail.” Look out for John “Boycie” Challis as a sinister henchman.

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The Aztecs (1964)

We can’t quite go back to where it all began because An Unearthly Child isn’t one of those on iPlayer. Instead we’ve picked arguably the best William Hartnell episode which is available. When the TARDIS landed inside a 15th century Mexican temple, a superbly realised period drama unfolded. History teacher Barbara (the never better Jacqueline Hill) is mistaken for a goddess and, in one of the earliest examples of the show grappling with the morality of time travel, clashes with the First Doctor when she tries to end the Aztec tradition of human sacrifice. “You can’t rewrite history,” insists the Doctor. “Not one line!”

Timelord trivia: Director John Crockett told the actor playing blood-thirsty high priest Tlotoxl to “make all the children in the country hate you”.

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Pyramids Of Mars (1975)

Another ingenious blend of history and futuristic sci-fi, this atmospheric Gothic frightener saw an archaeology professor excavate an ancient Egyptian tomb and awaken malevolent alien Sutekh, imprisoned there by his own species. Aided by robots disguised as mummies, Sutekh set out to destroy the jewel in a pyramid on Mars which was keeping him prisoner. The iconography of Egypt and Mars were ingeniously combined, while Tom Baker was in his eccentric pomp as the Fourth Doctor. Jelly baby?

Pyramids Of Mars
Pyramids Of Mars - BBC

Timelord trivia: Exterior scenes were shot at the Stargroves estate in Hampshire, a Victorian Gothic revival mansion owned by Mick Jagger at the time. Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen improvised some physical comedy moments, based on Marx Brothers routines.

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9. Tomb Of The Cybermen (1967)

“You belong to us. You will be like us.” The earliest Patrick Troughton story to exist in its entirety is a great one - and coined much of the Cyberman lore still used decades later. The Second Doctor got caught up in an expedition to the plane Telos to unearth the remains of the Cybermen, who died out 500 years before. Or did they? A metallic menace was stirring and the besieged humans started being picked off one-by-one. The black-and-whiteness makes the basic Cybermen look chillingly blank and there’s a spine-tingling speech from Troughton: “Our lives are different to anybody else’s, that’s the exciting thing…”

Tomb Of The Cybermen
Tomb Of The Cybermen - BBC

Time Lord trivia: This is 11th Doctor Matt Smith’s favourite classic adventure. When the Cybermen reseal themselves in their casings, it’s the footage of them awakening played backwards to save money.

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10. City Of Death (1979)

The late, great Douglas Adams co-wrote this witty, wildly inventive romp. While holidaying in Paris, the Fourth Doctor and ”Timelady” companion Romana (Lalla Ward, who later married Tom Baker) detected cracks in time - the result of experiments by dapper-suited, seaweed-faced Scaroth (Julian Glover in scenery-chewing form). His evil empire was funded by travelling back to Renaissance Italy, making Leonardo da Vinci paint multiple versions of the Mona Lisa and selling them for a fortune in the future. Showrunner Steven Moffat later said: “Douglas Adams brought the revelation of what Doctor Who would look like if it was written by a genius.”

Tom Baker, Lalla Ward and Tom Chadbon in The City of Death
Tom Baker, Lalla Ward and Tom Chadbon in The City of Death - BBC

Timelord trivia: It notched the highest ratings in Who history with 16.1m viewers, partly because ITV was off-air due to a technicians’ strike. Look out for cameos from John Cleese and Eleanor Bron as English art critics.

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