Getting Acquainted With “Doctor Who” – Five Iconic First Doctor Stories

Last month, a surprise announcement came when Disney+ and the BBC announced a new deal to stream new episodes of Doctor Who beginning in 2023. To prepare for Doctor Who’s arrival on the streaming service (which is still a year away), and as Laughing Place’s resident Doctor Who expert, I wanted to do a series of articles to get Disney fans acquainted with the world of the traveling Time Lord.

Each month, I’m going to take a look at each of the main Doctors from the show, starting way back with the First Doctor, William Hartnell, in 1963. But who is the Doctor, you might ask? Well he’s a traveling Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, although at this point in the show’s history, neither of those details were established. The line that best sums up the Doctor, no matter his portrayal is “Never cruel, never cowardly.” All you need to know about the First Doctor is he’s a mysterious, and sometimes grumpy old man, who travels the universe in a Police Box.

In these articles, I will introduce you to what I think are the five stories from each Doctor that best represent that era, and also serve to move the show’s mythos forward. We’ll begin 59 years ago to this day on November 23rd, 1963, with the First Doctor…

An Unearthly Child

  • Writer: Anthony Coburn
  • Director: Waris Hussein
  • Episodes: Four
  • Originally Transmitted: November 23rd–December 14th, 1963

I don’t think we can talk about the beginning of Doctor Who without actually including the first serial, “An Unearthly Child.” Airing on November 23rd, 1963, the same day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, this serial got Doctor Who off to a mysterious start. Just think how the children of 1963 had no idea who this man was, and to suddenly be thrust into a time machine stuck inside a Police Box. It must have been so magical!

We are told the story through the lens of Ian (William Russell) and Barbara (Jacqueline Hill), two high school teachers who come to investigate their student, Susan (Carole Ann Ford), who has been acting rather strangely. From there, they discover Susan’s grandfather, the Doctor, and as they take their first steps into the TARDIS, so do we. The first episode of this four part serial is a wonderful, mysterious way to introduce what would become a legendary show. The other three episodes show the TARDIS’ first trip back in time, to the days of cavemen, and these episodes are not quite as strong. Even if you just watch the first episode, it is an undeniably strong start to the show.

The Daleks

  • Writer: Terry Nation
  • Director: Christopher Barry and Richard Martin
  • Episodes: Six
  • Originally Transmitted: December 21st, 1963–February 1st, 1964

Doctor Who without the Daleks would simply not be the same show, and it didn’t take long at all for the menaces of Skaro to show up, appearing in the second ever serial following “An Unearthly Child.” For as iconic as they are now, the Daleks may never have been. The show’s co-creator, Sydney Newman, famously didn’t want any “bug-eyed monsters” like the science fiction B-Movies of the 1950s in Doctor Who. It was only due to it being the only script available that the Daleks was made.

The Daleks’ presence is immediately felt, with an incredible POV cliffhanger at the end of Episode One, where Barbara is shown cowering as a Dalek approaches. The incredible design and voicework is there right from the start, and that’s all thanks to the imagination of writer Terry Nation. The Daleks clearly draw inspiration from Nazis, with their narrow minded view of perfection and domination. While this particular serial is rather slowly paced at six episodes, it still clearly shows how the Daleks came to be the phenomenon they still are today.

The Aztecs

  • Writer: John Lucarotti
  • Director: John Crockett
  • Episodes: Four
  • Originally Transmitted: May 23rd–June 13th, 1964

Another season one classic is “The Aztecs,” the first story to really deal with the ramifications of time travel. Upon landing in Mexico in the 15th century, Barbara is mistaken for a female reincarnation of the ancient high priest Yetaxa. At first she is apprehensive, but quickly takes on the mantle as a chance to bring an end to human sacrifice. This is where we see our moral dilemma, as the Doctor famously states “You can't rewrite history! Not one line!” This theme is something that would be explored far more in the modern series of Doctor Who, such as in “The Fires of Pompeii,” but its inclusion in just the sixth ever serial is a testament to the show’s vision and longevity. Later episodes would tackle the same theme in a more direct, less padded way, but “The Aztecs” is still a fine early example. It also serves as an example of something that would become a rarity as the series grew older, the pure historical, a story with no science fiction elements, something that the show would quickly stray away from.

The War Machines

  • Writer: Ian Stuart Black
  • Director: Michael Ferguson
  • Episodes: Four
  • Originally Transmitted: June 25th–July 16th, 1966

We now jump towards the end of William Hartnell’s tenure as the Doctor with “The War Machines.” I wouldn’t say this is a particularly iconic story by any means, but it does serve as the first story to be primarily set in modern-day London. It is also a preview of the direction the show would take in the 1970s, by putting Earth’s military forces up against an evil, sometimes alien force. The titular War Machines are nothing impressive by today’s standards, but I do enjoy the hive mind aspect that the controlling computer WOTAN enacts on anyone he takes over, including the Doctor’s companion Dodo (Jackie Lane). Dodo herself gets one of the worst companion exits of all time, where she disappears after Episode Two and it’s just mentioned that she left.

The strongest element of this story to me is a single moment, at the cliffhanger of Episode Three, where the military forces retreat, and the Doctor stands tall and strong as a War Machine approaches, and the camera pans closer toward the Doctor. The heroic nature of the Doctor is something the show would lean into a lot more as it continued, but this is one of the finest early examples.

The Tenth Planet

  • Writer: Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis
  • Director: Derek Martinus
  • Episodes: Four
  • Originally Transmitted: October 8th–29th, 1966

“The Tenth Planet” is an iconic story for two reasons. Firstly, it’s the first appearance of the Cybermen – Cybernetic humans who have been mechanically upgraded, with their emotions completely removed. The concept and design was refined in future episodes, but there’s something eerily creepy about the homemade feel of the Cybermen in their first appearance. Their sing-song voice creeps me out more than any later voice they would adapt.

Secondly, and even more importantly to the show’s longevity, the end of Episode Four features the show’s very first regeneration. Actor William Hartnell had been getting increasingly sick by this point, and the producers decided it was time for a change. In a stroke of pure genius, they decided to “regenerate” the Doctor (a phrase not used at the time) into a completely new man, with a new personality. It was this single decision that has ensured the show’s longevity to this day. We’ll discuss this more in depth next month when we talk about the Second Doctor.

Another note is that quite a lot of 1960s Who is missing thanks to the BBC’s policy at the time to junk old stories for storage reasons. Because of this, only Episodes 1-3 still exist today, however, Episode Four has been animated alongside the existing audio recording.

Classic episodes of Doctor Who from 1963-1989 are available to stream on BritBox, while the modern series is on HBO Max. All new episodes of Doctor Who from next year on will be available on Disney+.

Sign up for Disney+ or the Disney Streaming Bundle (Disney+, ESPN+, and ad-supported Hulu) now