This week I finished watching the whole of surviving Doctor Who in order, from An Unearthly Child to Twice Upon a Time. It was actually the second time I’ve done it (the first finished just before The Next Doctor), this time as research for a book I’m writing (because I’ve refined the research parameters as I was going, I need to go back and watch the whole of the sixties again, while the last season or so would probably benefit from another viewing). This is a somewhat topical matter, as Doctor Who Magazine’s Time Team, which was doing something similar (similar-ish, as they changed team members partway) was disbanded and instead the new Time Team has moved on to watching thematically-linked episodes, disconnected not just from their eras, but from the stories they form a part of.
Would I recommend it to other people? Probably not. Doctor Who is too large and unwieldy, and too thematically and narratively disconnected, for it to work well in the way that it does for a shorter, more coherent programme like Blake’s 7 or Babylon 5; you would have to binge-watch at a much faster rate than I was doing (it took me a year and ten months) to have vibrant memories of the beginning at the end. With those series too there was at least some continuity of personnel involved before and behind the cameras, and there were deliberate plot and character arcs over time. With Doctor Who, even recent series, there isn’t always much connection between stories that are close together, let alone those separated by decades (although finishing with Twice Upon a Time did feel like a tying up of matters, with the return of the first Doctor, although it would have been better if I didn’t think it was a really unpleasant and unnecessary attack on the character). A few ‘turning point’ stories gain weight by being seen in order, e.g. The Time Meddler, The War Games and The Day of the Doctor and perhaps some Doctor or companion arrival or departure stories, but not really enough to justify the time involved. I suppose if you’ve never watched Doctor Who before there would be benefits to watching in order… but then again, if you’ve never watched Doctor Who before you probably aren’t used to vintage television, in which case classic Who is going to be a big culture shock, probably big enough to put you off it entirely..
That said, certain ‘arcs’ are worth binge-watching, runs of stories that have strong narrative or thematic progression: the very first three stories (a strong character arc for the Doctor, Ian and Barbara), perhaps season seven, certainly seasons sixteen, eighteen (plus Castrovalva), the Black Guardian trilogy (especially if you watch season sixteen first), season twenty-six and (new) series one. Sadly, though, The Trial of a Time Lord and the eleventh Doctor’s ongoing narrative arc both finish up as deeply disappointing when watched in order; all that wait for a confusing, incoherent outcome (and I’m more fond of those stories than many fans; imagine if I didn’t like them!).
Beyond that, an externally-dictated schedule does at least give me the opportunity to revisit ‘good but not great’ stories that I might otherwise neglect, as well as forcing me to revisit and sometimes to reassess stories that I had down as clunkers. Over the last five years or so, I’ve revised my feelings about certain stories and eras, both from this in order viewing and, before that, in replacing my videos with DVDs and watching many stories in digital clarity for the first time. I’ve turned into one of those strange people who can find something to enjoy in (almost) any episode. Sometimes the turnaround has been quite dramatic. (New) series three is a season that has gone from being one of my absolute least favourites to, if not a favourite, then at least to one I enjoy a lot. Certainly I feel it has the most successful story arc of the Davies years. On the other hand, sometimes you end up being ‘forced’ to watch a good story on a day when you just aren’t in the mood for it (particularly if it’s a heavy-going one for some reason e.g. an emotional episode when you’re down and want a silly one) and it suffers. Occasionally a story just doesn’t seem to work any more due to too many viewings. I used to really like Battlefield, but this time around all the criticisms I’ve heard over the years seemed to make sense. So there are perhaps dangers in viewing in order as well as occasional benefits.