One of the secrets to “Doctor Who”’s longevity is its genre variety. There is a “Doctor Who” story for practically every genre, from horror to comedy to historical. I am going to be going through some of the show’s favorite genres and providing a couple recommendations for stories to watch. If you’re a mood watcher or are craving a particular genre, this should help you find your next watch! Wherever possible, I’ll provide one classic and one new story, and I am considering both story quality and how well each story epitomizes its genre.
Alien Invasion: When people think of “Doctor Who,” they generally think of aliens and alien invasions. It is a sci-fi show after all. For Classic Who, I have to recommend “The Invasion.” At a whopping eight parts, it’s one of “Doctor Who”’s longest stories and also one of its best. It features the Second Doctor (yay!), UNIT (yay!) and some absolutely iconic Cyberman moments. It really set the blueprint for other alien invasion stories moving forward, and it’s one of the show’s most-referenced stories. For Modern Who, I think I’m going to go with “The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End.” While it’s not a personal favorite story of mine, it is a much-beloved series finale and invasion story. It’s got the Daleks at their most insane, with some great Tenth Doctor moments and a massive companion reunion. You should watch a good chunk of Series 1-4 to really appreciate it though.
Pure Historical: Pure historicals are a Classic Who-only genre. They are historical stories that have no alien or sci-fi element beyond the TARDIS. If you’re a historical drama fan or history nerd in general, these are certainly worth watching. The first truly great pure historical is “The Aztecs.” It features one of Doctor Who’s greatest companions, Barbara, at her most powerful (she is literally pretending to be a goddess). It’s a complicated exploration of a historial society, and we’re outside of Europe altogether! Yay! Another pure historical that I adore is “The Crusade.” Now, this story is partially missing, meaning you’ll have to deal with audios and screencaps, but it’s absolutely worth it. It’s a harrowing adventure, with one of the show’s best TARDIS teams. Plus, Ian (another one of the show’s greatest companions) gets knighted by Richard the Lionheart. Which is awesome.
Pseudo-Historical: The term “pseudo-historical” refers to stories with a historical setting and an alien element. They have become the more popular historical genre in “Doctor Who,” although sometimes the history/alien element can be hard to balance. In Classic Who, one of my absolute favorite pseudo-historicals is “Horror of Fang Rock.” There are a lot to choose from, to be honest, but “Horror of Fang Rock” has the right balance of history, horror, aliens and amazing character moments. It’s got companion Leela at her best and some fantastic Fourth Doctor one-liners. Plus, it features the Rutans, a creature oft-mentioned in “Doctor Who” lore but rarely seen. For the modern series, it has to be “Demons of the Punjab.” Here, the aliens are less of a threat, but to say more would be spoilers. “Demons of the Punjab” is a heartwrenching depiction of the Partition of India. There are some beautiful Thirteenth Doctor moments, and you will cry at the end.
Horror: Horror was the favorite genre of producer Philip Hinchcliffe, who was on the show from Season 12 to Season 14. Since then, horror has been a recurring genre, especially in the hands of showrunner Steven Moffat. However, my favorite Classic Who horror story doesn’t come from Hinchcliffe’s run, it comes from the final classic season, with “The Curse of a Fenric.” It’s a creepy, sometimes lyrical, World War II/vampire story. This is the only Classic Who story to give me nightmares, and it even doubles as a coming-of-age story for companion Ace. In Modern Who, the choice is obvious. It has to be “Blink,” the iconic series three story that introduces the Weeping Angels. Essentially a fifty-minute horror movie, “Blink” is extremely beloved and for good reason. It also has the virtue of being absolutely terrifying.
Comedy: On the flip side of horror, we have comedy, another favorite genre of “Doctor Who.” Classic Who doesn’t have quite as many straight comedy stories as Modern Who, but it does have “Black Orchid,” a charming little two-parter with the Fifth Doctor and his team of three companions. It features the whole TARDIS team dancing the Charleston, Five playing cricket and a surprisingly poignant ending hidden amongst all the laughs. It’s definitely one to check out if you want an undemanding introduction to Classic Who. For Modern Who, the equivalent story is “The Unicorn and the Wasp.” Also set in the 1920s, it has some of the best of the Ten/Donna double act, a giant wasp and Agatha Christie. It’s a ton of fun and a nice episode to just throw on when you’re having a bad day.
Political Allegory: Sometimes, “Doctor Who” throws subtlety to the wind and delivers a story that is so clearly a political allegory for something else. It was very popular in Classic Who, and my favorite version of this story is “Genesis of the Daleks.” It is one of Doctor Who’s “Nazis-are-bad” stories but probably the most overt of all of them. I mean, the bad guys are literally doing Nazi salutes. It’s dark and twisted with one of the most terrifying conclusions in the show. It’s also one of the best “would you kill baby Hitler?” think pieces in sci-fi. In Modern Who, I really enjoy “The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion.” Now, the political allegory for terrorism isn’t perfect, and the sensibilities of this story can be painfully European, especially when it comes to assimilation. However, it’s worth watching for awesome Capaldi moments, some of Jenna Coleman’s best acting and Zygons, who are undoubtedly one of Doctor Who’s coolest monsters.
Base Under Siege: Base under siege stories are what they sound like. There’s a base, or otherwise closed setting, and it’s under siege, usually by the monster-of-the-week. They were very popular in the Second Doctor’s run as a way to save money, but they often became great along the way. To be honest, choosing just one Second Doctor base under siege to recommend is heartbreaking, but I think it’s going to have to be the absolutely iconic “The Tomb of the Cybermen.” At four parts, it’s an easy watch. Two and Jamie are adorable together, the Cybermen are awesome and as a base that’s under siege, this setting gets the job done. New Who doesn’t have as many base under siege stories, but when it does, they are fantastic. I think the best is “Under the Lake/Before the Flood,” a Capaldi story with healthy doses of horror and human, as well as a really mind-bending time-travel narrative. It’s one of my most rewatched stories because it’s just that good.
Spy Thriller: I love “Doctor Who” spy thrillers! They are fast-paced and a ton of fun. The greatest Classic Who spy thriller (and one of the greatest “Doctor Who” stories of all time, full stop) is “The Enemy of the World.” It is Troughton at his absolute best, playing two roles—the Second Doctor and the villainous dictator Salamander. The story is harrowing, with so many twists and turns that you’ll probably get dizzy. It also has two of Doctor Who’s greatest supporting characters in Astrid Ferrier and Fariah. In New Who, I’m going to go with “The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon.” Yes, this story is a lot of things, but I think it is ultimately a spy narrative, with the Eleventh Doctor and companions going undercover to solve the mystery of the Silence. The moon landing is also involved, and if you’re looking for a “Doctor Who” thriller where a lot of stuff happens, this is for you.
Weird and Wacky :It was hard for me to think of an accurate title for the genre of “bizarre sci-fi madness” so this is the best I have. Some “Doctor Who” stories are just weird, and to use the show’s own phrase, timey-wimey. My favorite weird and wacky Classic Who story is “City of Death,” a much-beloved Fourth Doctor story. It’s written by Douglas Adams of “Hitchhiker’s Guide” fame. The Doctor and Romana are in Paris and uncover a plot to steal the Mona Lisa. And then a lot of crazy stuff happens, concluding with going back to when the Earth was primordial soup. For Modern Who, I’m recommending “The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang.” It’s the Series 5 finale, so definitely watch a bit of Series 5 to really get this one, but oh my goodness, so much happens. The world ends, and is then rebooted. Plus there’s a wedding, Romans and Winston Churchill. I’m also going to throw in a bonus recommendation for this category since it’s such a common genre: “The Mind Robber,” a Second Doctor story and a contender for the weirdest story “Doctor Who” has ever made. Two and co. fall into the Land of Fiction and strange events occur. One episode takes place entirely in a white void. It’s very fun.
Romance: Romance didn’t come up much in Classic Who, unless the show needed to marry a companion off to get them off the show. In New Who, it got a lot more popular. The most true-to-genre romance story in New Who is “The Girl in the Fireplace.” It’s another story that will make you cry, but in the best possible way. Reinette, the female lead of the episode, is an inspired character. The alien subplot doesn’t make a ton of sense, but the romance between Reinette and Ten works against all odds. If you want a romance episode with some more established characters, then I recommend “The Husbands of River Song.” It’s a sweet reunion between River Song and the Doctor, this time the Twelfth Doctor. It has a comic beginning and a bittersweet ending, and the whole thing is absolutely adorable.
Alien Historical: An alien historical is a story with an alien setting but a strong historical element. It’s confusing but actually fairly common, especially in Classic Who. Now, I have to recommend “The War Games,” which is my favorite “Doctor Who” story of all time. It is hard to truly capture how amazing it is. At ten parts, it is very long and all the better for it. It is the Second Doctor’s swansong, full of jaw-dropping twists and it keeps increasing in scale and intensity until the Time Lords themselves have to get involved for the very first time. My other recommendation is another Classic Who story—“The Androids of Tara,” possibly one of the most underrated stories of all time. It’s a swashbuckling medieval drama set on an alien planet. Count Grendel of Gracht is one of “Doctor Who”’s greatest villains, and the Fourth Doctor swordfights. It’s amazing.
Tragedy: You didn’t think this article would end on a happy note, did you? I mean, this is “Doctor Who,” and if you don’t cry at some point something is wrong. Classic Who wasn’t as fond of tragedy, but the modern series loves it. One of the most understated and beautiful tragedies is “The Girl Who Waited,” which explores the depth of the relationship between companions Amy and Rory and rips your heart out in the end. And Modern Who’s greatest story, and the show’s greatest tragedy, is “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead.” It introduces the iconic River Song only to promptly kill her off. It’s tragic on first viewing, and tragic after you really get to know River in later episodes. If that’s not enough, Donna has a tragic subplot of her own. It’s terrifying, heartbreaking and you will ugly cry at the end. And on that cheering note, I think that’s the end of my recommendations.