So you want to get into Classic Doctor Who? We, here at Sci-fi Fantasy Network, have compiled an Essential Guide to Classic Who to help you pick out the best of the best. Obviously, a lot of this is personal preference and we’d like to try and go for some stories that won’t appear on every ‘essential guide’ list.

We’ll give you five stories to get your teeth into and begin your journey through time and space. For old school fans, some of our entries might surprise you.

1 – The Pirate Planet

Okay, coming out of left field here, and you won’t see this on every list, but trust me when I say that this four part story starring Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor, is absolutely hilarious. It’s from the brilliant mind of Douglas Adams, he of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame. While being tremendously funny, it is also a seriously dark story at times, presenting some pretty horrifying concepts when you stop and think about them for a moment.

Bruce Purchase plays the deliciously evil Pirate Captain, shouting so much you’d think he was Brian Blessed’s brother, coming out with some wonderfully creative curses as well as drawing out some pretty bizarre scenes with his robotic parrot. What’s more, we see a different side to the Fourth Doctor – so often the happy-go-lucky bohemian with a wide grin and a pack of jelly babies, here we see some real rage and desperation from the scarf-wielding Time Lord. As the Pirate Captain’s plans come to light, he can’t help but scream “What’s it FOR?” in a sudden show of emotion that further cements Baker’s place as the best-loved Doctor in many hearts.

What’s more, we see Romana, the Doctor’s companion and fellow Time Lord. Though the two began with something of a rivalry, they are starting to warm to each other, and on a couple of occasions, the Doctor doesn’t begrudge admitting that she does very well, very-very-very well. Mary Tamm gives a stunning performance, as always, bringing charm, elegance, and humour to the role, and really giving the Doctor a run for his money, but she’s not beyond making mistakes occasionally. She really does play a complex character and there’s more to her than snarky remarks if you really pay attention.

2 – The Time Warrior

Meet Sarah Jane Smith. You may have heard of her; she’s a journalist, and soon to be one of the Doctor’s most beloved companions. But you might not know it from this first outing where she seems convinced that the Doctor is a no-good time bandit out to ruin history in some bizarre science experiment gone wrong.

This wonderful romp through medieval England springs from the first interference of the Sontarans – those potato-headed fellows who like fighting and very little else. The Doctor accidentally catapults Sarah Jane into the adventures, leading to misunderstandings, misadventures, and mischief. Soon, Sarah Jane dons some Robin Hood gear while the Doctor builds a fighting robot. Sort of. All the while the Sontaran, Linx, seems to be building an allegiance with the most brutish (and stupid) war lord around.

This is a great story to latch onto as you get to see Jon Pertwee in his full flow. You see Elisabeth Sladen give a truly powerful performance and she all but steals the show half the time – a real break from the common image of the companion as the ‘damsel in distress’ (which is something of an unfair characterisation). Also, this is a great story for some continuity, with the first ever mention of the name of the Doctor’s home planet – Gallifrey.

3 – Enlightenment

Pirate ships in space, men with birds on their heads, and a diabolical scheme hatched by one of the Doctor’s own companions – Enlightenment is a thrilling ride through the stars that may have you on the edge of your seat.

There’s a very neat Special Edition DVD out that has a cut-down feature-length version of the story which I highly recommend for people who are new to the Classic Series. It ups the pace, cuts through some of the bits that might alienate new viewers, and really narrows the focus so you can get in on the action. They’ve also polished some of the special effects, and it doesn’t look too bad, actually. In fact, some of the shots are down right gorgeous. The sight of pirate ships sailing through the stars, soaring over planets, and heading to the city of Enlightenment is breathtaking at times.

Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor is an adorable bundle of awkwardness at times, but he is endearing and still incredibly heroic throughout. His companions, Tegan and Turlough are always a delight to watch. Janet Fielding, Tegan, is something of a precursor to Donna Noble in many people’s minds. She’s not afraid to call the Doctor out on his weird behaviour and actions, she’s not afraid to speak her mind, and she’s not afraid to admit when she’s afraid. Tegan was dropped into the adventures by accident, but keeps going, keeps trying, and keeps pushing the TARDIS team on. Turlough, meanwhile, has a sinister background: hired by the Black Guardian to kill the Doctor, but having grown attached to the Time Lord and his friends, Turlough’s dilemma really comes to a head in this story, and Mark Strickson delivers a brilliant performance.

4 – Survival 

This was the final story of the Classic Series, and bears the most resemblance to the early 9th and 10th Doctor adventures. We see companion Ace’s home – a flat block in a boring neighborhood – but there are mysterious goings-on and a dying planet to save, or be saved from.

While this adventure is certainly very emotionally satisfying for those who followed the Doctor and Ace for two series, it still stands alone fairly well. It’s still got plenty of clout, still got plenty of intrigue, and certainly has plenty of people running around in cat suits – if you like that kind of thing.

Survival has a lot to offer. The Seventh Doctor is devilishly clever, as always, trying desperately to outsmart one of his oldest enemies, the Master. But while he obsesses over his rival, he seems not to notice young Ace slipping away, turning to the wild side, barely resisting the call of the hunt. We see Ace start to discover her feelings, start to take responsibility, and we see her grow up, but still want to hang on to that childlike innocence that spurs her to run and run. There are some very tender moments, but also some slightly ridiculous moments.

For the most part, the visuals are okay, and there are some really nice shots filmed on location. The special effects are dated, perhaps, but I think the story is good enough that you can mostly overlook them and just enjoy it. Both Sylvester McCoy – the Seventh Doctor – and Sophie Aldred – Ace – put in some brilliant performances, and the final speech of the episode may have you tearing up.

5 – An Unearthly Child

Well, we have to include this one, don’t we? Having recommended the final story of the original series, it only makes sense to mention the first ever story. Plenty of places have talked endlessly about this story so I won’t go over too much ground that’s already been covered and re-covered. But I will highlight a few things that I think are worth keeping in mind when considering this story.

It’s incredibly atmospheric, like a lot of the 60s material is. From the misty openings, the otherworldliness of Carole Anne Ford, to the sinister veneer of the First Doctor – this is quite a haunting episode at times. Here we see a Doctor who is not very patient, not very forgiving, and not very happy. He doesn’t want to have companions clattering about his ship, he doesn’t want to be bothered with primitives from the 20th Century, and he certainly doesn’t want to get caught up with humans!

But, thanks to his granddaughter, Susan – played wonderfully by Carole Anne Ford – he soon sweeps a pair of teachers out of time and into space, rocketing from a junkyard, and into the far-flung past. William Hartnell shows off a lot of his acting skills here and you instantly connect with his Doctor, but you may also find yourself identifying with the two teachers, Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright. They are caring, curious, and ready to do anything to protect their student if they believe she is in danger. These characters really will grow on you, and it’s worth while sticking with them.

If you can watch this episode and not immediately want to leap to the next, you will have the willpower of a giant!