Kanderson’s Fave Who, Part 2: Classic Who #10-1
By Kyle Anderson on August 6, 2012
Hello again, friends. You’ve had a few days to guess what illustrious ten stories are my very favorite in Classic Doctor Who history. The last I heard, Vegas bookmakers were taking bets up to as high as 3/5 of a penny. So, that’s pretty good. The betting has closed, however, and now you get the results. Again, it’s worth pointing out that even if a certain story doesn’t make my list, it doesn’t mean I don’t like it. It also means, in some cases, that I’m using one or two stories as placeholders for a bunch, which I’ll explain as the situation arises. I have pre-ambled the shit out of this list, haven’t I? Let’s get the fuck to it.
10) FRONTIER IN SPACE (6 episodes) 1973
This is one that just recently made it to my favorites. I’m an enormous Third Doctor fan anyway, but this story from Doctor Who’s tenth season is the one I find myself returning to a lot more than most. It’s one of the only times the series has done true Space Opera, and actually does it rather well. It concerns the Doctor and Jo Grant becoming pawns in the Master’s scheme to pit the two great empires of Earth and Draconia, who already have a tenuous truce, against each other, which would effectively lead to the utter destruction of both planets. Written by one of my favorite writers, Malcolm Hulke, this story is basically an interstellar interpretation of a Cold War spy adventure. Both Earth and Draconia believe the Doctor is a spy for the other side, and he gets subjected to torture for telling the truth, which is sort of a brave place for the show to go. It’s not as action-packed as many Third Doctor stories, but the themes and storytelling are very strong. Also, the design for the reptilian Draconians has to be one of my favorites ever, and is up there with the best stuff in Star Trek.
9) HORROR OF FANG ROCK (4 episodes) 1977
Doctor Who does a slasher movie, but it’s at a lighthouse in the early 20th Century and instead of a guy with a knife, it’s a shape-shifting alien. For my money, this is the last story in what I would consider the “Golden Age” of the classic series, starting with “The Evil of the Daleks” in 1967. Though this story began Season 15, with producer Graham Williams taking over for Philip Hinchcliffe, it feels very much like a holdover from the Hinchcliffe years, with its Gothic horror setting and dark subject matter. Writer Terrance Dicks, never one to shy away from murder, has a small group of lighthouse workers, a shipwrecked cadre of stuffy rich people, and the Doctor and Leela being preyed upon by some kind of malicious entity, and, because it can change shape, no one can be trusted. It’s scary and suspenseful, and it also has a fair amount of dark humor from Tom Baker, who gives a terrific performance. “Horror of Fang Rock” was not the final dark Gothic story of the season (Robert Holmes stayed on as script editor until the middle of the season, which saw “The Image of the Fendahl,” in which the Doctor actually assists with a suicide), but it is the very last story before K-9 was introduced and the series as a whole became much lighter and sillier. I use “Fang Rock” here as a surrogate for “Robots of Death” and “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” which I also love a lot. All three are very similar in tone and style, so I just picked this one to represent them all. Don’t yell at me.
8) THE TIME MEDDLER (4 episodes) 1965
As I said last time, I’m not the hugest First Doctor fan, but I absolutely love this story and call it easily my favorite of the Hartnell years. This is, perhaps, the first time the show started to look like what it would eventually become with Troughton and beyond. The ostensible heroes, Ian and Barbara, departed in the previous story and so Hartnell remained the only original cast member and therefore truly the lead and, finally, truly the hero. It sees the Doctor, Vicki, and new companion, Steven, arrive in 1066 before the Battle of Hastings. He soon discovers strange anachronisms coming from the nearby monastery, specifically a gramophone playing monks chanting. It turns out that a member of the Doctor’s own race (not yet named Time Lords) is here to change history, making the Norman invasion unsuccessful by staving off the Viking onslaught with sophisticated weapons from the future. Though Hartnell sits an episode out (common for the time), he’s still very much the lead of the story, taking it upon himself to right the wrongs perpetuated by the Meddling Monk. This is the first story to be a “pseudo-historical,” meaning a historical Earth story but with sci-fi elements. Just a fantastic story, a little slow in parts but still head and shoulders above most of Hartnell’s output.
7) THE WAR GAMES (10 episodes) 1969
Patrick Troughton’s final story is a hefty one. It’s a wonder, given what happened to most of his stories, that each of the ten episodes still exists, but I’m so very glad they do. The story begins with the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe arriving in what appears to be the middle of WWI. Soon, though, things start to go wrong, as the head of the British line puts them on a rather one-sided trial for espionage, finding them guilty. When they attempt to escape, they’re suddenly beset by an Ancient Roman army. It’s soon learned that they’re in the middle of an elaborate alien-controlled war simulation, using a dozen different wars from Human history to conduct various experiments. The Doctor works his way up the chain of command until he sees The War Chief, whom he immediately recognizes as a fellow Time Lord (this is where they’re named) and it becomes clear the only way to clean up this awful mess is to call his people for aid, though it would mean effectively turning himself in (he was a fugitive at this point). He is then put on trial, which leads to perhaps the saddest Doctor departure/regeneration ever. Yes, it’s lengthy, but it changes and grows so much throughout and becomes a real spiraling nightmare by the end that you never lose interest. Troughton is also the friggin’ man in this, but that’s kind of nothing new.
6) THE BRAIN OF MORBIUS (4 episodes) 1976
This story comes right in the middle of the Hinchcliffe-Holmes years that began Tom Baker’s stint as the Doctor and is a good representation of the sci-fi/horror adaptations for which they are so well known. Most people prefer “Pyramids of Mars” to this one, which is a take on the mummy movies of the 40s, but I’m definitely in the “Brain of Morbius” camp, a version of the Frankenstein story rewritten by Robert Holmes from an original script by Terrance Dicks (credited writer is the pseudonymous Robin Bland). Morbius, a powerful and dangerous Time Lord, was thought destroyed long ago; however, his brain remains alive and his servant, the brilliant scientist Dr. Solon (played by the brilliant Philip Madoc), is attempting to make a body for him using body parts taken from the bodies of space pilots who have crashed on the planet. He has, as yet, been unable to find an adequate head; however, the Doctor and Sarah Jane’s arrival changes things a bit. This story has a castle on a hill, bubbling beakers in a dark laboratory, a hideous creature, an Igor-like henchman, torch-wielding villagers (their storyline is weird, but I still like it) and even a bunch of thunder and lightning. This is as close as the series has ever come to being true literary Gothic. And it’s got some really great gallows humor from Baker and Madoc, and Elisabeth Sladen does blind acting quite well indeed.
5) THE TIME WARRIOR (4 episodes) 1973
This story began Jon Pertwee’s fifth and final season and introduced new companion Sarah Jane Smith. Written by Robert Holmes, it sees the Doctor and stowaway Sarah Jane traveling to medieval England on the trail of missing modern-day scientists. It turns out that they’re the prisoners of Sontaran warrior Linx, who plans to develop weapons for their endless war with the Rutans (the bad alien in “Horror of Fang Rock”). He’s also making future weapons for the warlord Irongron, who snarls better than anyone. Sarah Jane teaches feminism to the women in the castle while the Doctor is hailed as a wizard. It’s a really fun, sort of silly story that’s got a lot of great characters and swashbuckling action. And any time you can get a story actually shot in and around a castle, you’re in great shape.
4) THE CAVES OF ANDROZANI (4 episodes) 1984
What’s this? A Peter Davison story this high on the list? While it is true I prefer the early 70s, there’s no denying a good story when you see it. This also is the third Robert Holmes story in a row. D’ya think I like him? Holmes’ first story in seven years is also the Fifth Doctor’s heroic final adventure. Unlike most regeneration stories that have some kind of universe-wide implications foisted upon it, this is one of the most intimate stories in the whole of the 80s. The Doctor and new companion Peri travel to Androzani Minor just to look around, quickly contract the deadly Spectrox Toxemia, and become embroiled in the petty drug-related squabbling of the hideous yet brilliant Sharaz Jek, greedy businessman Trau Morgus, and mercenary leader Stotz. The Doctor’s only goal is to protect and save his friend, and if that means he has to die in the process, then so be it. It’s arguably the most noble and selfless moment in the Doctor’s history and easily Davison’s best performance. It’s an absolutely fantastic story and the best regeneration in history. Not a big leap to pick what topped Doctor Who Magazine’s Top 200 poll in ’09, but it rightly deserves to be there.
3) THE TOMB OF THE CYBERMEN (4 episodes) 1967
This story was lost and thought gone forever until 1992 when it resurfaced in, of all places, Hong Kong, and, boy, are we lucky we have it. This story began Season 5 and saw the return of the Cybermen after the long absence of three stories. In it, the Doctor, Jamie, and new companion Victoria arrive on the planet Telos just as an archaeological expedition is about to open an ancient tomb. The Doctor is very wary that they probably oughtn’t to go in, but he’s also curious and wants to make sure whatever’s buried in there stays buried. You can tell by the title who’s in there, though. This serial has some of the most indelible images in the series, with the Cybermen awaking from their cellophane honeycombs to the tune of the library track “Space Adventure.” Also, as if it needs mentioning at this point: Troughton, Troughton, Troughton. The story opens with one of the best explanations of what the TARDIS is, and what the Doctor is, ever shown. There’s also a wonderful quiet moment between the Doctor and Victoria where they discuss missing their families and the nature of being a time traveler. It also should be mentioned that there’s some troubling racial stuff in the story that shouldn’t be overlooked. All the “good guys” are British or, to a lesser, more stupid effect, American while the villains are all Egyptian or Middle-Eastern. And there’s also a big, silent brute who’s black. It’s not the prettiest, but it’s more in keeping with action/adventure/Mummy movies (and the UK) of the time than it is about the politics of the show, which is generally incredibly progressive when it can be. Still, this is a great story, especially to show people who want to know what the Classic series was like.
2) THE SEEDS OF DOOM (6 episodes) 1976
Like “The Brain of Morbius” which directly preceded it, this comes from Season 13, arguably one of the best whole seasons ever. I absolutely adore this story, top to bottom. Like a lot of six-parters of the day, it’s really a two-parter and a four-parter put together. It sees the Doctor and Sarah Jane going to Antarctica at the behest of a British Minister to examine an expedition’s discovery of alien seed pods. Unfortunately, these seed pods contain a creature which infects people and turns them into plants. This draws the attention of Harrison Chase (the fantastic Tony Beckley) who sends his henchman (SCORBY!!!!!) and lead scientist to steal the pods by any means necessary. The Doctor and Sarah then travel to Chase’s enormous estate to retrieve the pod and stop the inevitable bad stuff. A fantastic sci-fi action script by Robert Banks Stewart coupled with direction by the superb Douglas Camfield give the story a truly cinematic quality, despite being shot on video. Baker’s performance is a bit gruffer than usual, though he still possesses his trademark impertinence and quip-making (“Have you met Ms. Smith? She’s my best friend”) are still very much on hand. The Fourth Doctor gets to kick ass in this story, too, getting into a fistfight and crashing through a skylight to take out baddies when necessary. This is a story I keep returning to over and over and I’ve yet to grow tired of it. It’s genius. Watch it now.
1) The Whole of Season 7 (25 episodes) 1970
This is a big ol’ cheat, I admit, but screw it; it’s my list. After “The War Games,” the series changed drastically, in both storytelling and production. Exiling the Doctor to Earth in the “near future,” (a way to cut the cost of building extraterrestrial sets) and being filmed in color for the very first time, this could almost be considered a totally new show. The Doctor remains (now played by Jon Pertwee), but he’s lost the use of his TARDIS and instead is employed as the scientific advisor to UNIT, led by Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), working alongside the brilliant Dr. Liz Shaw (Caroline John). The writing for all of Season 7 was much more adult and the threats to Earth were thoughtful and believable. It began with Spearhead From Space by Robert Holmes, which introduced the regulars as well as the Autons and the Nestene Consciousness, which was followed by Doctor Who and the Silurians, by Malcolm Hulke, which has the Doctor trying to prevent a war between the humans and the long-dormant reptile race living just underground who want to retake their planet; then came The Ambassadors of Death, credited to David Whitaker but mainly re-written by Hulke and script editor Terrance Dicks, which had scientists using Martians to create panic, and the season ended with Inferno, by Don Houghton, in which drilling into the Earth’s crust awakens primordial evil and also has the Doctor falling into a parallel dimension where Liz and the Brig are fascist stooges. I had contemplated simply putting “Inferno” as my number 1, but the whole season is effing brilliant. Classic Doctor Who got no better than this. Sure the last three stories are 7-parters, but they never get boring and don’t condescend to the audience. Genius from top to tail. The Third Doctor rules. PertWEEEEEEEEEE!
So there it is, folks; my top stories from the Classic series. A pretty good list, I think you’ll begrudgingly agree. Next week? You guessed it: New Series! Wanna take bets on ones that absolutely will NOT make the list?