Saturday, October 11, 2014

My Top 26 (Complete) Classic Doctor Who Stories

So my long project of watching classic Doctor Who stories has unfortunately come to an end. It took me close to a year and a half to accomplish this goal but what a wonderful experience it has been. What I want to do now is to lay out the 26 episodes I would save if forced to ever part with my own classic Doctor Who collection. Why 26? Well, I'm taking my cue from Loren Rosson's blog, The Busybody, whose list of the best classic Who stories has inspired me to compile my own, and as he did 26 because there were originally 26 seasons of the classic show I shall do likewise. I should note that in many ways this list is incomplete as I have not seen all of the lost/missing episodes that have been reconstructed to one degree or another. (For those who do not know there are many episodes, mostly from the 2nd Doctor's era, that have been lost or at least partially missing.) I have seen some of them but not all of them. Thus I'm restricting this to my favorite 26 complete stories from this great era of Doctor Who. Moreover, I'm simply going to list mine chronologically based on when they first appeared as I found it quite difficult to actually rank them. Ok, here we go:

1. The Beginning [An Unearthly Child, The Daleks, Edge of Destruction] (Season 1- Stories 1,2,3: 1963/4)- So I'm cheating here because technically these are three separate stories. But I choose to see them as one long story that's fundamentally about getting the companions Barbara and Ian and The (First) Doctor and his granddaughter Susan to overcome their initial suspicions of one another and ultimately to come together as Doctor Who's first ever TARDIS "team", and this isn't something that is achieved until the end of the third story, "Edge of Destruction." There are no doubt plenty of better DW stories out there, but this is where it all began and for this reason alone I would save it. I suspect that many new Who fans will find the pacing of these original episodes slow, as I initially did, but one eventually gets used to this format, and I actually came to prefer it over the quick 45 minute episodes that now characterize the show.

2. The Aztecs (S1-6, 1964): When I first started watching New Who one of the things that became immediately clear to me is that I didn't particularly care for any of their "historicals." I expected to have the same reaction to the historicals in Classic Who as well. Instead I ended up really enjoying the historicals. Perhaps these kinds of stories just play better in black and white or perhaps it's because one of the things that the BBC was particularly good at then was producing historical period pieces. Whatever the reason this particular DW historical, "The Aztecs", is a solid one. Yes, it has some silly moments, especially companion Ian's fight scene. But at least this story has the nerve to do what some of the new Who episodes with similar themes fail to do. A good comparison to make here would be with the 10th Doctor (David Tennent) story "The Waters of Mars." In this particular story the Doctor finds himself in a situation of not being able to help the first Mars colony from being overrun because it is supposedly a "fixed point in time." So we see the Doctor waffle a bit, even going to his TARDIS but ultimately is unable to standby and watch everyone be killed and so intervenes. (Yes, I realize this particular incarnation of the Doctor is supposed to be  a bit arrogant and this is part of his motivation here and that his actions are important in terms of his upcoming regeneration. Even so I still think it would have been a better story had it ended with him just leaving the crew of Bowie to their fate.) Contrast this with how the first Doctor operates in this story. Through a series of events his companion Barbara winds up in the position of High Priest over the Aztec empire and one of the things she immediately wants to do with her new found power is to abolish human sacrifice because it's such an offense to her modern sensibilities. But the Doctor berates her for this high minded moral attitude and eventually convinces her not to exercise her power in such a matter. This first incarnation of the Doctor is a realist and NOT the crusading moralist/savior figure that he would later become. For my own part, I've come to prefer this form of the Doctor and for this reason I cherish William Hartnell's Doctor.

3. The Sensorites (S1-7, 1964): Most DW fans I think have mixed feelings about this one, but I adore it. Yes, it has lots of problems, most notably some dodgy special effects and a few plots holes. Even so this story is a significant one in that it's the first adventure in which the Doctor and his companions meet another alien race that isn't simply out to kill them. The result is a story with some political intrigue and since that's right up my alley, I enjoyed this one. But, yes, not for everyone.

4. The Romans (S2-12, 1965): Another really good historical. It's clear everyone had a great time with this one. William Hartnell is in fine form here as the Doctor. Also, a great Nero.

5. The Chase (S2-16, 1965): Now here I know I'm in the minority. The reason I think many are dismissive of "The Chase" is because it plays the Daleks up for laughs, and I suspect most DW fans prefer to have their Daleks frightening or, at the least, menacing. For my part I've never just been a huge fan of the Daleks and so had no problem with the comedic role they often have in this story. Also, people have rightly complained that there isn't much of a plot here and that the other aliens used in this story are a bit rubbish. And yet I still really enjoyed this one. More importantly though it sees the departure of the Doctor's first set of companions (if we are not counting his granddaughter Susan who left in an earlier story), and it's a tear jerking moment. My own emotional reaction to their departure (they remain my favorite set of companions) was the key moment when I realized that I was beginning to really fall for classic Who.

6. Enemy of the World (S5-40, 1967/8): I mentioned briefly above that there are many missing episodes of classic DW from its first six seasons. The second Doctor's era suffered the most which is a shame because Patrick Troughton's depiction of the Doctor is quite enjoyable. From time to time one of the "lost" stories is found and one of the more recent to be discovered was "The Enemy of the World." This is another story with a good deal of political intrigue which might turn many away from it. But it really is a fine one and Troughton is really given the chance to shine as he plays both the Doctor and the main villain of the story, Salamander. I think he pulls this off well even if his Spanish accent is a bit off. Also, this serial was the first to involve Barry Letts (the director of the story) who would later become one of Doctor Who's more well known producers.

7. The Mind Robber (S6-45, 1968): A unique one up until this point in DW's history. Much more esoteric than other stories at that time most of which during Troughton's time were heavy on the "base under attack" trope. No outlandish monsters or anything of that nature here. Just a good cerebral story. Marred only by a less than satisfactory ending.

8. The War Games (S6-50, 1969): The last black and white DW as well as Troughton's swan song. At ten episodes this one is bloated (lots of running around, being captured, escaping, running around, being captured again, etc) to say the least and the master plan of the villains (one of whom is a fellow Time Lord) is silly. Still, this last 2nd Doctor serial is notable for being the first time that "Time Lord" is used as a description of the Doctor's race. But that's not the reason this story is on my list. The reason I am very fond of this one is because the resolution of the plot is one that pivots on the rare instance of the Doctor being unable to fix the problems that the villains have created. In short, the Doctor fails and is forced to call on his own people to handle the situation. Here the Doctor comes to the limit of what he is capable o,f and it's so refreshing to see after new Who got me used to a Doctor who pretty much solves every problem that comes his way.

9. Inferno (S7-54, 1970): Jon Pertwee's time as Doctor 3 is a conflicting one for me. On the one hand I really like Pertwee's Bond like take on the Doctor but on the other hand this is also a frustrating period because the production team decided to basically ground the Doctor (he is exiled by the Time Lords as part of his punishment) on Earth which means instead of having adventures in Time and Space he's mostly left helping a military group called UNIT fend off various alien invasions of one kind or another. The motivation to make this change (they even at one point considered getting rid of the TARDIS!) was partly based on budgetary concerns but also because they were trying to imitate the success of a previous set of sci fi stories known as Quatermass. This is also the period when the Doctor's arch nemesis the Master is introduced which is a character I never warmed to (I didn't warm to him in the new series either) though I very much liked Roger Delgado in the role. But the other exasperating feature of the so called UNIT era are the multiple 6 and 7 part stories. Again, this was mainly a budgetary issue (less sets to be made throughout the season and so forth) but the result is that for the first few seasons you get very little variety in the stories being told. And yet despite all of this "Inferno" is not just one of the better stories from Pertwee's era but is one of the best of any DW story I have seen. This story is a bit ahead of its time in the sci fi genre as it deals with parallel realities which also means our principal actors get to play multiple parts and, in particular, Nicholas Courtney as the "evil" version of his Brigadier character really stands out. Also, this is another story in which the Doctor doesn't really succeed. At least, the destruction of a planet, even in a parallel reality, goes down in my book as a failure. And even at staggering 7 episodes at no time is it ever slow or boring. Simply one of the best.

10. The Curse of Peladon (S9-71, 1972): A rather under appreciated story in my judgment. Maybe because it too deals heavily in political matters. In fact, this story is a reflection of the then current negotiations the British were having with the EEC (precursor to EU) concerning future membership. Unlike its later, and, awful, sequel, "Monster of Peladon", "The Curse of Peladon" uses this geopolitical backdrop to good storytelling effect. I'm also partial to this story because it's the first time I realized that, even if I wasn't too keen on her as a companion, Katy Manning as Jo Grant did at least have good chemistry with Jon Pertwee. But in the final analysis it could be that I just really like this story because after so many earthbound tales it was a relief to see the Doctor back in his TARDIS and travelling to an alien planet.

11. Carnival of Monsters (S10-66, 1973): Robert Holmes is the best writer DW has ever had. Though he had penned a few stories prior to this one, including Pertwee's opener, with "Carnival of Monsters" Holmes really began to hit his stride. A story full of wit and proof that DW can be entertainingly high brow. Also, some decent monsters.

12. Robot (S12-75, 1974/5): As a story not a terrible one nor a particularly good one. But it goes on my list for one reason: it is the debut story of Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor, my favorite incarnation of the Time Lord.

13. The Ark in Space (S12-76, 1975): Truly the beginning of a new (and the best) era of DW with producer Philip Hinchcliffe taking over control as well as Robert Holmes becoming the new script editor. This story is the first of this era and a near perfect one if you can overlook some dodgy special effects. More importantly, Tom Baker finally starts to settle into his character, and it's a pleasure to watch unfold.

14. Genesis of the Daleks (S12-78): So before I went back and started my project to watch all of classic DW, this was one of the few classic stories I had managed to see, and I loved it then. I must confess that the new show burned me out on the Daleks pretty quickly, and so I was thrilled to see an "original" story concerning them. Although in some respects this isn't really a Dalek story. Its concerns are more broad than that. Chiefly, it sees the inaugural appearance of Dalek creator, Davros. Later on this character would become a one dimensional and cartoonish (though "Revelation of the Daleks" just about gets it right) but here he is multifaceted and so one of the more interesting antagonists the Doctor has ever encountered. Lastly, this is the story in which Tom Baker fully becomes the Doctor.

15. The Pyramids of Mars (S13-82, 1975): On  a ranked list this one would be easily in my top 5. Another Robert Holmes script (though penned under a pseudonym) and a good example of the horror/gothic turn that came to mark the Hinchcliffe era. Some notable features: (1) on display is the excellent chemistry between Baker's Doctor and Elizabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith, (2) the "villain" Sutek is unlike most other DW antagonists in that he's not really evil simply a nihilist and as a true nihilist he thinks all forms of life are meaningless and should therefore it does not make sense for any life to exist, well, apart from himself of course, and (3) The Doctor obstructs Sutek's plan in a plausible manner that avoids the all too common use of non-sensical technobabble. I don't normally go for the "Doctor saving the universe" thing but it works great in this story.

16. The Brain of Morbius (S13-84, 1975): A character obsessed with getting the Doctor's head so he can complete a new body for his master? That's the premise and so, yes, while derivative of the Frankenstein mythos the story is done in such a clever manner that it nevertheless seems fresh. Interesting also for introducing some more key Time Lord mythology. Sladen is probably at her finest here.

17. The Face of Evil (S14-89, 1977): There is a recurring story motif in both new and classic Who that goes something like this: the Doctor travels to some planet, sees that the people are being oppressed, helps them to over throw the existing regime, then gets back in his TARDIS and promptly leaves. Time Lords are evidently not into nation (or world?)-building. (Late 60's Who especially made use of this motif as revolutionary fervor was very much a part of the global scene then. Also, it's repeated acts of the Doctor such as these which indicates for me that if he is politically anything it would be "anarchist") Anyhow seeing this kind of story again and again provoked the idea in me of a DW story in which the Doctor returns to a planet that he helped initiate a revolution only to see that the resulting political vacuum left behind in his wake has actually made things worse than they were before his intervention. Then I watched this story "The Face of Evil" in which something similar to the idea I had occurs though stripped of the political dimension of my idea would have had. In other words this is a story in which the Doctor's prior actions of getting himself involved in the affairs of a group proved to have devastating consequences. And so he is forced to fix a problem of his own making. (To be fair the first series of new Who did something similar to this in the episode Bad Wolf, but it was a minor feature and not done to as good effect.) Moreover, this is also one of the more intelligent stories as it deals with questions concerning the nature of religion and how religious thinking can evolve. High brow stuff: no farting aliens here. Two other things worth mentioning, namely, this story is Louise Jameson's debut as the savage companion, Leela (ultimately one of my faves), and also has one of the greatest Tom Baker ad libs when the Doctor threatens someone with the chilling words, "Don't move or I will kill you with this deadly jelly baby!"

18. The Talons of Weng-Chiang (S14-91, 1977): Again, though it would be near impossible to rank my favorite DW stories there's no question where this one would go: at the top. Yes, this is my favorite DW story that I've seen to date. Since I could gush about it all day I will just mention a few things about it. For starters, I was primed to like this one because I'm a big Sherlock Holmes fan. By that I mean this is basically a Sherlock Holmes story. It is set in Victorian England, there are a series of mysterious disappearances that need solving, and the Doctor wears a deerstalker cap! This story was also written by the great Robert Holmes and features some of the best onscreen dialogue in TV (or film for that matter) which is exhibited best in the great rapport that the characters Henry Jago and Professor George Lightfoote have with one another. All in all a perfect story with just two minor flaws: a rubbish rat that looks more cuddly than threatening and a Westerner playing a Chinese man wearing less than convincing eye prosthetic reminding one of Mickey Rooney's outrageous character in Breakfast at Tiffany's. No matter: still the best DW story of all.

19. Horror of Fang Rock (S15-92, 1977): Though producer Phillip Hinchcliffe had been pressured to leave by this point this story in many ways still bears his mark and can be rightly thought of as the capstone to this remarkable period in DW's history. Terrance Dicks, the writer of this story, had long been a stabilizing presence in DW having been script editor for all of the Pertwee years and penning Baker's opener. Here Dicks provides one of the best structured and paced stories in the DW canon. This one is best experienced so I won't say any more except that it is worth owning simply to see Leela slap a hysterical Victorian woman.

20. The Pirate Planet (S16-99, 1978): I have a sense that fans are divided by this one because it is played largely for laughs which is not surprising as it is the first DW story by the writer of the famous Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams. Since I'm a fan of Adams' work I really enjoyed this one and think Adams' style of humor fits well with Baker's characterization of the Doctor. I can understand why many might find the excess humor problematic though. In fact I'm open to the possibility that I have inflated the quality of this story given that it shines so brightly in an otherwise dull season of DW. (This is the Key to Time season.) Even so when I want to introduce Baker's Doctor to those who haven't seen him this is the story I'll usually expose them to first.

21. City of Death (S17-105, 1979): Another story penned by Douglas Adams but unlike "Pirate Planet" is generally considered one of the best all time DW stories. And I agree. This story is the first time the DW team were able to go on location outside of the UK and in this case, Paris. Features great guest appearances by such notable names as Julian Glover and Catherine Schell as well as just an all around interesting story which was a remarkable feat given that Adams and then producer Graham Williams cracked this story out in a weekend that itself was based on a story idea by another DW writer, David Fisher. Unlike Adams prior story this one does manage to achieve a proper balance between drama and comedy. Unfortunately the last great DW story with Tom Baker as the marvelous Fourth Doctor.

22. New Beginnings [Keeper of the Traken, Logopolist, Castrovalva] (S18-114/115/116, 1981): Ok, so I am cheating here again by including three stories. But even more so than the three I treated as one above this set of stories really is one long serial. While the quality of this one is not on par with the other stories on this list I just wouldn't be able to give this one up as it features Baker's last story as the Doctor. I would have wished Baker's swang song could have been a bit better, but we still get treated to what is in my mind one of the better regeneration scenes that itself is set up with great dread and foreboding. Moreover, though I never quite took to Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor I do think that his first story "Castrovalva" is actually one of the better opening stories for a new Doctor.

23. The Five Doctors (Special 20th Anniversary story, 129, 1983): This is another one not likely to be found on most other lists of this kind, but I had lots of fun watching this anniversary story. Yeah, it's plot is a bit lame and it would have been better if Baker had agreed to come back but, again, I just enjoyed the hell out of this one. Stays on my list.

24. The Caves of Androzani (S21-135, 1984): As I noted above I simply never took to Peter Davison's characterization of the Doctor. He was just too, well, normal. Not alien enough for my tastes. And yet his swan song is truly one of the greats. Indeed most fans, at least according to the lists I've seen from Doctor Who Magazine regularly rank this story very high and it used to be at number one before the new series came along even now it usually lies at least in the top five. I don't think it's the greatest DW story ever, but it does deserve the acclaim it has received. After a long period off veteran DW writer Robert Holmes was asked back to write Davison's final story. And one of the things he noticed about this version of the Doctor's previous stories was how easy he seemed to have it. Thus, Holmes decided to put him through hell in this story. Davison's Doctor gets slapped, shot at, shoved into mud, and more. But perhaps the best thing about this story is the fact that the plot doesn't hinge on the Doctor saving the universe or even this particular planet. No, the Doctor and his companion, Peri, simply get caught up in a shitty situation, a power struggle between at least three competing factions, neither group really better or worse than the other. For this reason the story has a remarkably real feeling to it. I wonder if this is why so many consider it to be the best DW story. As great as it is though it is simply a little too derivative of some of Holmes' previous stories for me to rank it as the best.

25. Vengeance on Varos (S22-138, 1985):  In my opinion Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor is quite under appreciated. I really liked his take on the Doctor partly because I could envision him as a sort of younger version of the First Doctor. But coming on the heels of the extremely nice Fifth Doctor, Baker's initial characterization of the Doctor as a bit violent and unstable (e.g., he attempts to strangle his own companion in his first story because he mistakes her for a spy) I can see why many fans had a hard time warming to this incarnation. However, again, since I prefer my Doctors tetchy and unhinged I immediately took to Baker as the Doctor. And I would argue that his first full season as the Doctor is overall a really strong one, apart from "Timelash." perhaps. For instance "Revelation of the Daleks" just missed being on my list. The standout story from this season though is "Vengeance on Varos" which up until that time really was one of the more original DW stories. Prescient too since it partly anticipates what would become reality TV as the story pivots on a population encouraged to watch state punishments on their monitors at home. Additionally, this story includes one of the more memorable villains from DW history since Davros' first appearance, a slug like creature named Sil and played wonderfully by Nabil Shaban, a dwarf actor. After such a strong season Baker would then get saddled with a fairly forgetful season with a story arc called "Trial of a Time Lord" which would prove to be his undoing as he would become the only Doctor ever "fired" from the role. A terrible shame in my opinion.

26. Remembrance of the Daleks (S25-148, 1988): The last story on my list and, sadly, the only one I have featuring Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor because he was the best one since Tom Baker played the role. Unfortunately, he just didn't get very many good stories though his last season was overall good with stories such as "Ghost Light."  But this particular story is another of those that I can say with confidence would be in my top 5. It is also my favorite Dalek story. One of the things I really liked about McCoy's Doctor was that underneath his bubbly exterior he was really dark and manipulative. You see his manipulative side more clearly in the later stories "Ghost Light" and "Curse of Fenric." But here it's more subtle and so for me works to better effect than in those stories. One appealing thing about this more manipulative take on the Doctor is that it gets him more involved in the stories in that he's almost directing the events himself instead of just sort of being swept up in them which by this point had become standard fare for 80's DW. So just on this level it was refreshing to have this kind of Doctor. In this particular story the Doctor immediately takes charge, knowing exactly what he wants to do and how he's going to do it from the outset. But ultimately why I like this story is because where as the Fourth Doctor couldn't bring himself to commit genocide of the Daleks (or the later 9th Doctor in "Parting of the Ways" for that matter) the Seventh Doctor has no moral hangups on this score and, better, apparently no guilt for his actions at the end either. It is a shame that classic DW was cancelled while McCoy's Doctor was just hitting its stride, and it would have been fascinating to see this darker form of the Time Lord unfold.

Whew! Well, that's my list. These are the 26 classic Doctor Who stories I simply couldn't live without.  

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