This week the BBC have filled their schedules with Doctor Who related programming, including documentaries, repeats of classic stories, the wonderful love letter to it’s origins An Adventure in Space and Time, and most obviously the rather good 50th Anniversary episode The Day of the Doctor.
Doctor Who has always been my favourite television programme – even during its sixteen year hiatus between 1989 and 2005, when it was considerably less than trendy to admit as much. From the early monochrome creaky classics of the William Hartnell/Patrick Troughton era, to today’s high-tech Matt Smith era, the adventures of the renegade Time Lord in the TARDIS always caught my imagination.
So many elements of Doctor Who remain utterly unique – the virtually limitless premise (any planet, any time) and the space/time-travelling TARDIS being bigger on the inside. Additionally, the whole Time Lord concept is extraordinary; in particular the regeneration concept, wherein the lead actor can be regularly replaced allowing for subtle changes in personality whilst essentially remaining the same person.
Then there is the endless and often hugely iconic line-up of monsters and villains. These include the Daleks, the Cybermen, The Master and more recently the Weeping Angels and The Silence. Incidentally, in my opinion The Silence are the scariest villains ever seen in the programme and caused me two nightmares as an adult (my then seven-year-old told me I was a wuss when I admitted this to him).
For me the golden era of Doctor Who is still the 1975-77 period, ie first three series of Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor, with Sarah Jane (and later Leela) as his companion. Phillip Hinchcliffe took over producing duties from Barry Letts and alongside script editor Robert Holmes filled this era with classic stories, including Genesis of the Daleks, The Deadly Assassin, The Seeds of Doom, The Brain of Morbius, Pyramids of Mars, The Talons of Weng Chiang and many others. Sadly their tenure also was the most controversial, with Mary Whitehouse, concerned parents and other pressure groups across the UK blasting the BBC because they considered the programme too frightening and violent for children. Utter nonsense of course. The children loved it. Thankfully said children are now making the series.
I grew up in the much maligned 1980s period, when the programme lost it’s mojo somewhat, but even this era threw up some gems (The Caves of Androzani for instance), and ended far stronger than is generally remembered, mainly because it was moved from Saturdays at teatime to Wednesdays against Coronation Street, thus leading to very poor viewing figures.
Herewith my favourite ten stories from the “classic” years (ie 1963- 1989) followed by my ten favourite stories from the “New Who” era. After much hand-wringing I have decided to omit anything pre-Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor, simply because brilliant and ground breaking though many of those stories are (An Unearthly Child, The Dalek Invasion of Earth, Tomb of the Cybermen, The Mind Robber and so on), I simply prefer later material. Besides, for me Doctor Who really hit its stride once it went into colour.
10. The Greatest Show in the Galaxy – Scary robot clowns and other weird happenings at a “psychic circus” on a distant planet. An underrated gem from the Seventh Doctor.
9. Earthshock – My favourite Cybermen story, which also features a Doctor Who rarity: the death of a companion.
8. The Curse of Fenric – Every story in the final series of Doctor Who in 1989 before the hiatus was brilliant. This very dark World War II set vampire tale was the best of the lot.
7. Spearhead from Space – The first Third Doctor story is also the first Auton story. It features the famous mannequins-coming-to-life-in-shop-windows-and-killing-people scene that gave so many children nightmares (a sequence later reprised in Rose, the first story from “New Who” in 2005).
6. Terror of the Zygons – Generally known as “the one with the Loch Ness monster” this is a cracking tale of body snatching aliens. The Zygons returned in yesterday’s episode, fairly effectively for the most part (except that nonsense about them negotiating a peace treaty – judging by their actions here, they certainly wouldn’t have stuck to it).
5. The Daemons – Evil Time Lord The Master (Moriarty to the Doctor’s Holmes) decides to conjure the Devil in this scary mash-up of black magic and aliens that resemble the Devil. Cracking stuff.
4. The Deadly Assassin – Probably the most controversial Doctor Who story of all time. This tale of assassination, conspiracy and Time Lord corruption is the only companion-less installment from the classic era. Featuring echoes of recent historical events, including the Kennedy assassination and the Watergate scandal, it was also deeply scary. One episode in particular set in the virtual reality landscape of the Matrix (I can’t believe no-one in 1999 spotted this blatant plagiarism when The Matrix was released) caused Mary Whitehouse to complain so vocally that it led to Hinchcliffe’s resignation. Boo!
3. Genesis of the Daleks – This hugely memorable Dalek story introduced sinister Dalek creator Davros, whose experiments in genetics eerily echoed that of those in Nazi Germany. The moment where the Doctor has to decide whether or not to annihilate the Daleks before they are even created is a stunningly brave and morally complicated scene to include in a programme aimed at a family audience.
2. The Caves of Androzani – My all time favourite regeneration story features a poisoned Doctor on the verge of death desperate to acquire an antidote for him and his companion. Unfortunately, everyone else is caught up, as the Doctor puts it, in a “pathetic local war” over the production of a life-enhancing drug, which makes said acquisition rather difficult. Tense, thrilling and heroic, The Caves of Androzani often tops all-time-best story polls and it’s easy to see why.
1. Pyramids of Mars – This particularly potent take on Egyptian myth caught my imagination in a way unmatched by any Doctor Who story before or since. Everything about the story is brilliant, including the robot mummies and the stunningly evil villain Sutekh, whose enemy is life itself. It is hardly surprising this story is often quoted by many (including recent producer Russell T Davies) as the reason they are fans in the first place.
10. The Doctor’s Wife – This delightfully surreal Neil Gaiman penned episode sees the TARDIS personified as a woman.
9. The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances – Steven Moffat’s first contribution to Doctor Who is a World War II set tale featuring inexplicable and genuinely scary moments. After watching this, the phrase “Are you my mummy?” will send shivers down the spine.
8. The Girl in the Fireplace – The Doctor travels back to eighteenth century France through a portal in an apparently abandoned spacecraft and meets Madame Pompadour. Another Moffat scripted episode, and a surprisingly touching one.
7. Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead – Moffat again, this time introducing recurring character River Song and the terrifying Vashta Nerada – living killer shadows.
6. The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon – Moffat yet again, introducing the afore-mentioned Silence, who I think are the scariest thing to ever appear in Doctor Who. Tall, imposing and with faces like Mulch’s The Scream, it is revealed these hideous aliens have been manipulating mankind for centuries through post-hypnotic suggestion. When you look away from them, you immediately forget they are there…
5. Army of Ghosts/Doomsday – This Daleks versus Cybermen mash-up ought to have been a disaster, but somehow Russell T Davies made it brilliant. Of course, it is mostly memorable for the stunning, tear-jerker of an ending with Rose trapped in a parallel universe.
4. The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit – Another story where the scariness envelope was well and truly pushed, this features possessed aliens the Ood attacking astronauts on an “impossible” planet orbiting a black hole; the big question being, why isn’t it getting sucked in? Once Satan gets involved, things get even scarier. Think The Exorcist meets Alien, yet somehow just about family friendly.
3. Blink – Another Moffat episode, this time introducing the Weeping Angels – surely the greatest villains to appear since the series was rebooted. The episode also features a pre-superstardom Carey Mulligan.
2. The Waters of Mars – This was a really special one-off episode. Not only did it deliver a scary and hugely satisfying base-under-siege story, the very ending went into seriously dark and morally complicated territory about the dangers of playing God. The cataclysmic events in the subsequent story (when the Tenth Doctor regenerated) ought to have been the consequences of the Doctor’s actions here. Sadly that trick was missed, but this story remains a stand-out regardless.
1. Human Nature/The Family of Blood – A very, very different Doctor Who story (take a bow Paul Cornell), and one that I would argue is the most moving ever. The Doctor modifies his genetic code to become human, and is also brainwashed to that effect, leading him to think he really is a schoolteacher at a boy’s school in 1913. Here he falls in love with Joan, the school matron. What follows is so brilliant that I have re-watched this story more than any in the “New Who” era. The shattering climax, when the heartbroken Joan tells the Doctor “He was braver than you” brings a tear to my eye every time. Actually, there is a lot more I could say about this story – mainly the intriguing Christian overtones, and the lovely way it honours veterans of World War I, but that would require an essay rather than a summary.
Happy Birthday Doctor Who!