The Quintessential Doctor Who


Over the last few days, we’ve been chatting about what makes a quintessential Doctor Who story, because in this house that’s the kind of conversation we have in the empty wastes between Christmas and New Year. The challenge is to find a story that is typical without being generic; that gives an idea what this series is like without just being a collection of tropes.

To get us there, we tackled the Doctors in turn, working out what we considered the hallmarks of each era, then looking for the story that most embodied these hallmarks.


It was hard to define the hallmarks of the first Doctor’s era, largely because the producers haven’t worked them out for themselves. There’s a giddy sense of potential in those first two years, of a show gradually building confidence beyond its initial ‘educational / no BEMs’ remit, until, by the summer of 1965, it can practically do anything. In which case, the first hallmark of a Hartnell story is that it’s unlike any other story, and is the first of its type.


But that’s not especially helpful. So we tried to identify some typical features of a Hartnell. Starting from the moment the TARDIS arrives, and the crew leave the Ship – when it frequently becomes inaccessible to them, either because they’re captured (An Unearthly Child, The Crusade) or because the Ship is behind closed doors (The Aztecs, The Dalek Invasion of Earth). The crew is normally desperate to get away from wherever the Ship’s landed, and only get involved in events because it’s the only way that they can escape.


There’s also an odd dichotomy in that many Hartnell stories are much more epic than in later eras – Marco Polo takes place over several weeks and hundreds of miles; the basic premise of The Keys of Marinus fuelled a 26-episode season in the 1970s; The Myth Makers actually sets the crew down in the middle of an epic. And yet, the stakes are often much more localised – usually it’s just about surviving the adventure in one piece and getting back into the TARDIS. Saving planets, the Doctor’s job description nowadays, is conspicuous by its rarity in the mid 1960s with only Terry Nation’s sci-fi pulp adventures (and Vortis) bucking the trend.


The major exception is The Daleks’ Master Plan, which is evidently the biggest Doctor Who story both in length and stakes in the entire Hartnell era: the whole of creation at risk from the Daleks, the return of the Monk, the deaths of two companions and the end of time itself. Nothing before or after matches up to it, so, tempting as it is to select as the ‘quintessence of Hartnell’ a story that features Daleks, time travel (a major feature in this and only really this era of the classic show), and adventures in history and outer space, Masterplan just won’t do.


But there is a more typical story that still shares many of the ideas of The Daleks’ Master Plan. It’s also by Terry Nation, it also features the Daleks, time travel, history and outer space, and the whole thing is a desperate attempt to escape from this month’s plot. It’s a story from mid 1965, the high watermark of the show’s 1960’s popularity; the peak of Hartnell’s imperial phase. Yes, we picked The Chase.


It’s not the best Hartnell story, but perhaps more than any other it’s the programme showing off everything it can do after two years of experimentation: it crashes the genres the era plays with – historical, space adventure, B-movie epic, silly comedy, creepy horror – together, then throws in the Daleks. It does it with a confidence and swagger that dissipates horribly quickly come 1966. And it’s not quite like any other Doctor Who story, which makes it therefore an ideal choice to represent the first Doctor.


In contrast to Hartnell, it was easy to pick a quintessential Troughton story. It’s obviously The Moonbase: a base under siege, where anything that’s not a white (probably male) human being is clearly evil and needs to be fought. It’s set in outer space and is excited by the prospect of going to the moon (see also The Wheel in Space and The Seeds of Death), has humans falling under mind control (cf. The Macra Terror, The Faceless Ones, The Evil of the Daleks, The Abominable Snowmen et al.). The Cybermen, as prevalent in the second Doctor’s era as the Daleks were in the first’s, appear in the style they’ll adopt for the rest of the classic and new series: evil space robots, rather than the living dead. Oh, and Troughton’s the best thing about it: as so often in this era, the production team rely on him to turn the leaden plots into something approaching gold.


We thought that the tropes of the third Doctor’s era would be easy to define – the Doctor’s funny vehicles, action by HAVOC, UNIT and the Master. They are, but it’s surprising how few stories actually feature them all. We assumed ‘invasion of Earth’ would be the main story style, but in fact Troughton foils these more than Pertwee does (assuming the Silurians and Sea Devils are as ‘Terran’ as humans, and the Daleks are just visiting from an alternative future). That leaves only Robert Holmes’ two Nestene stories and The Claws of Axos to represent the classic alien attack storyline.


More pertinent tropes are a continuing emphasis on the evils of imperialism (Colony in Space; The Mutants); the need for alternative sources of energy and the consequences of unfettered industrialism (Inferno; The Green Death), and an obsession with “New Age” type ideas (The Daemons, Planet of the Spiders). Trying to find a story that covered all of the tropes defeated us, although The Time Monster is a conscious attempt to cram them all into one story. In the end, though, we felt The Claws of Axos was more representative: a weird blend of hippyish psychedelia, alien invasion, a Hulke-ian parable on the folly of human greed and chauvinism, and the Doctor taking his first trip in the TARDIS since 1969.


Identifying the quintessential fourth Doctor story was a near-impossible task largely because Baker stayed so long in the role he outlived two entirely different approaches and stuck around for the start of a third. From the Universal Horror motifs of the Hinchcliffe episodes to the sci-fi comedy of Williams, and the chilly science of Bidmead, there’s no one style that could be called definitive, although operatic costumes and alien planets that look like something from 19th Century novels remain a constant.


But there are some constants: the Doctor didn’t discover his sense of humour when Williams took over: it was there from the off. Unlike his predecessors, this was always a Doctor willing to laugh in the face of death, mocking alien dictators and human fools equally, encouraging Broton to wave a tentacle, and christening Morbius Galactic Chop Suey. Frequently, those enemies have risen from their entombment, in ice or pyramids or underground bunkers to menace the present. And frequently they are either corrupted, or they corrupt others: bodily degeneration, decay, mutation, possession, dissolution are the recurring motifs of this era’s monsters, from the Wirrn and the Swarm to the Master and Meglos.


A story that fits all the above is hard to find. I’m horribly tempted to pick Revenge of the Cybermen: perhaps the clearest example of how the Tom Baker era differs from any previous Doctor Who, including the Troughton years it very superficially resembles. Whereas the Cybermen were treated as the ultimate threat in the 1960s, by 1975 they’re a pathetic bunch of tin soldiers, literally dredged up from history to be roundly mocked by the Doctor. But this would be disingenuous. So let’s go for State of Decay instead: a story commissioned for a Williams season to be made in the Hinchcliffe style, and resurrected under John Nathan-Turner. It features a terrible buried secret returning to menace the present; a space gothic tone leavened by some Williams-era performances, an alien planet that looks like Earth history and Bidmead’s shoehorned-in SF overtones.


Finding Davison’s quintessential story is almost as difficult as finding Tom’s, because the era is so Jekyll and Hyde. It starts off in much the same vein as the end of Tom’s tenure: ethereal science fantasy in the likes of Castrovalva, Kinda and Four to Doomsday. Then Eric Saward comes in with a liking for guns and Alien-style military SF, and churns out The Visitation and the brutally efficient Earthshock. But thanks to Resurrection of the Daleks being held back a year, the ethereal approach dominates Davison’s first two seasons. After that, it’s all massacres, and playing soldiers.


Key tropes of Davison’s era also include too many companions, the males untrustworthy and the females nagging; a slightly breathless Doctor; an invaded TARDIS; lashings of continuity references and compilation flashbacks; stories that take place in two separate space and time locations, plus a black-hat villain. We went back and forth between a few contenders. Frontios is perhaps the only Davison story to successfully meld both science fantasy and military SF. However, we felt Mawdryn Undead was the best fit, because of its oddly ambivalent antagonist, plus the lurking, Master-like menace of the Black Guardian, the return of the Brigadier (and his compilation flashback), and the addition of the murderous Turlough.


The Colin Baker era has been described as ‘like taking a violent shit, because it’s violent and it’s shit.’ While this is unquestionably true, we still put on our rubber gloves and went all Dr Ellie Sattler on it. Many of the tropes are the same as latterday Davison: returning enemies, excessive continuity references, and victory only won at a terrible cost. But we also found new tropes: endless, argumentative TARDIS scenes, the Doctor taking forever to actually arrive at the plot, and solving it by remorselessly killing the baddie. As such, we thought Attack of the Cybermen pretty much sets the era off as it means to go on.


The McCoy years offered much richer pickings. Manipulative, secretive and apparently on a crusade to put a final end to his enemies’ machinations, this Doctor is finally getting something done. He makes a habit of seeking out evils from the dawn of time – the Gods of Ragnarok, Light, Fenric – or fighting Nazis (the Chief Caretaker, Kane, Ratcliffe, Helen A, De Flores), Unlike his recent predecessors, this incarnation spends as little time as possible in the TARDIS, preferring to jump straight into the heart of the action. Once there, though, he’s happy to delegate to Ace to investigate and blow things up, while he observes.


As with most of the first 18 years of Doctor Who, there’s a real sense of purpose and vision behind the McCoy seasons, of most people being on the same page again after several years when the show seemed to be pulling in many directions. There are three or four possible candidates for the quintessential McCoy, but we went with The Curse of Fenric because it’s the best example of all the era’s ideas being applied successfully.


As the story that we’d pick to introduce someone to the classic series? It couldn’t be anything as charming, but atypically safe and nostalgic as The Five Doctors. City of Death or The Caves of Androzani are tempting, but are more representative of the furthest it’s possible to go in those particular styles of Doctor Who. Terror of the Zygons is a good candidate, sitting on the cusp of the show’s two most popular styles – Yeti on the Loo and Space Gothic. The Krotons has a lot of pissing about in quarries. But in the end, we plumped for Remembrance of the Daleks, which riffs on so many of the series’ tropes – base under siege, invasion of Earth, UNIT, weird Dalek alchemy, buried evil, Gallifreyan corruption, mind control – while defining the approach for the next several years (if you count the New Adventures). That juxtaposition of so many stories and genres to make something that seems wholly fresh seems to us to be the real magic of Doctor Who.

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