My friend Justin did a Top 10 of Doctor Who stories recently and I couldn’t help but vehemently disagree with a lot of it (I mean really, Attack of the Cybermen?) In rebuttal, I figured I’d put up rather than shut up and present my own highly subjective Top 10 of Doctor Who stories (off the TV, not audio and novels and what not).
10) The Caves of Androzani
In the mid-80s, Doctor Who got increasingly dour and violent in tone, despite the overlit, gaudily designed, BBC light entertainment aesthetic permeating the show (go watch an episode of Bob’s Full House and you’ll find the set looks like it’s straight out a Who episode of the time). Most of this sadistic panto era doesn’t work, but the one indulgence of Eric Saward’s space mercenary fetish that does is Caves of Androzani. Written by former script editor Bob Holmes, Androzani revels in its own bleak atmosphere. All the supporting characters are arseholes – the notional villain ends up perhaps being the most sympathetic – and the Doctor almost immediately gives up on the whole place and just wants to leave. It’s an incredibly tense story, culminating in the most visually dynamic regeneration of the Classic era.
9) The Five Doctors
The anniversary Doctor team-up is a good idea, but one perhaps always destined to be more gimmick than substance. The Five Doctors’s writer Terrence Dicks embraces this and so it ends up being more successful than its brethren that try to tell a proper story at the same time. The plot is quite thin – someone on Gallifrey is collecting together various iterations of the Doctor, along with some enemies, for NEFARIOUS PURPOSES! – but it doesn’t need to be more than that (especially as the show originally aired in Children In Need, an annual BBC telethon, so most of the audience would have only a casual knowledge of the show at best). Dicks quickly sets about writing entertaining set-pieces for his varied cast of characters. There’s contrast between the present and original Doctors, and their companions, there’s quick showcases for previous enemies, Jon Pertwee gets to drive his car and lots of Cybermen get slaughtered in a desolate Welsh national park. What’s not to like?
8) The Mind Robber
I should admit personal bias here, as this is the first Troughton, the first black and white Who at all, I ever saw in full. I was convinced that all 60s Doctor Who was this gloriously strange (unfortunately it’s not). The Mind Robber finds the 2nd Doctor and his companions in a strange limbo between places, before arriving in the Land of Fiction. Here a bevy of fictional characters aid and hinder their efforts to find their way to escape. The Mind Robber’s so successful for just how out there it is. No other Doctor Who story could have gotten away with covering Frazer Hines’ sudden illness by replacing him with another actor after the Doctor failed to reconstruct his face properly. But the Mind Robber does it and it works in the world it creates. Subtly creepy and wonderfully imaginative.
7) Pyramids of Mars
The Hinchcliffe/Holmes era of Doctor Who is perhaps the most consistently high quality the show’s ever had and Pyramids of Mars is perhaps the definitive example of their collaboration. There’s a Hammer-esque period horror tone throughout, using both an Edwardian setting and Egyptology trappings, mixed with science fiction elements. Ok, it loses its way a bit near the end, but it’s an atmospheric and stylish story, with a wonderfully sinister villain in Sutekh.
6) City Of Death
Douglas Adams is probably the most famous of Doctor Who writers, but there’s very little you can actually point to and say “look, Douglas Adams wrote Doctor Who”. Ironically, the best of these scant examples doesn’t even have his name on it. City Of Death is credited to “David Agnew”, but was really written by Adams and producer Graham Williams over a weekend, replacing a script by David Fisher they didn’t like. It manages to be both an interesting science-fiction story, about experimentations in time travel, and a brilliant comedy, as sharp as most of Adams’ work. Plus it was filmed in Paris, which unlike most Classic Who foreign location filming actually adds something to the story, giving it a certain bland-yet-exotic charm.
5) Spearhead From Space
Spearhead From Space presents so many firsts and new starts that it’s practically an entirely different programme to the Doctor Who that preceded it. It’s a testament to its quality that the almost total sea change doesn’t matter much. It immediately establishes itself as being legitimately Doctor Who, not least by giving Jon Pertwee an excellent introduction as the Doctor. As well as allowing the new cast to bed in, it introduces the iconic Autons in what is still, over forty years later, their best story to date. Being shot entirely on location using film instead of video doesn’t hurt either, making it one of the best looking and directed Who stories of its era.
4) Bad Wolf and The Parting Of The Ways
The first series finale of modern Doctor Who is still the best the show’s had since it was revived (the only ones close are Army Of Ghosts/Doomsday and The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang). The two-parter manages to do so much right. The Bad Wolf sub-plot, which had gone unnoticed by practically everyone until the previous episode, is brought to the fore and has a delightfully simple and effective reveal (moreso than any during the Stephen Moffat’s tenure), while the climax main story itself, of the Doctor (and also Jack and Rose) being ready to sacrifice it all against the Daleks, is powerful, especially the Doctor’s almost final act of choosing cowardice over killing. This two-parter provides both a satisfying end to Christopher Eccleston’s short tenure as the Doctor, with a great lead in to his regeneration, while still leaving the viewer wishing he’d stuck around to do more.
3) Horror Of Fang Rock
Fang Rock is one last hurrah for the gothic horror of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era, though it’s the first story after Hinchcliffe’s departure and is written by Terrence Dicks. Anyway, set on lighthouse in the early 20th century, it’s a brilliantly atmospheric thriller, that’s also incredibly compact. There’s barely half a dozen characters in the whole thing and they’re all convincingly and economically brought to life (before being killed, natch). Throw in Tom Baker in his stride and Louise Jameson on top form as Leela and you have perhaps the best period horror Doctor Who’s ever done.
Since Stephen Moffat took over as head writer for Doctor Who, it’s easy to see his pet themes recurring. That’s not necessarily a problem – it happens to all writers and script editors. One of those that keeps cropping up is using Doctor Who, a show where time travel is usually almost incidental, to present complexly arranged time travel conundrums (another example of this can be found in Moffat’s story in the Bernice Summerfield short story anthology Dead Man Diaries, which is worth picking up). The thing is, Moffat absolutely nailed this type of story early on with Blink and everything after fails to match up. It seems a bit perverse picking an episode of Doctor Who that barely features the Doctor as one of the best, but Blink’s surrogate lead, Sally Sparrow, is awesome. She’s smart, compassionate, funny, gentle but ultimately strong – essentially many of the qualities you want in the Doctor. This was quite rightly a big break for actress Carey Mulligan, as well as the launch pad for the Weeping Angels, modern Who’s only legitimately successful new recurring monster (no, the Slitheen don’t count).
1) Remembrance Of The Daleks
Remembrance Of The Daleks has it all: an interesting period setting in the 1960s, presenting a chance for Dr Who to re-examine the period of its own birth with fresh eyes; the 7th Doctor at his manipulative best, giving the Daleks enough rope to hang themselves; Ace in her first story as a proper companion being instantly wonderful and endearing; a great supporting cast; Daleks (obviously) including some getting actually blown up; and properly mature, intelligent subtext about racism. Remembrance is a break from the sadistic panto Who of the mid-80s, a mission statement for its creators’ intent to revitalise the show and make it everything it should be and could be again. It’s just a shame no-one at the BBC was paying attention.