Classic Series Rankings Day 7: 100-91
- Planet of the Spiders
The 100th best Doctor Who story could easily have been 50 places higher if I’d only thought about the first and final episodes, which are both wonderful, impressive and moving. They have a genuine ‘end of an era’ feel that’s every bit as final as Logopolis while at the same time actually feeling like part of that era. I suppose the difference is that while Logopolis was deliberately excising Tom Baker from his series, Planet of the Spiders is celebrating its leading man, with all of his silly idiosyncrasies. Mysticism, pointless action sequences, ‘moments of charm’, mention of Jo Grant, a return for Captain Yates – it’s all here. Sadly so are the four middle episodes of pissing about between Mummerset and Metebelis III.
- The Mark of the Rani
This is by far the best story for Colin Baker’s Doctor. Amazingly, the difference is how it’s written. After three stories where he’s throttled Peri, bashed a copper and shot the Cybermen, drowned one guard in acid and set a poison vine trap for some others, this is the first one that makes the sixth Doctor look like something other than a massive sod. The bit where he turns down a gun because ‘I’ve given them up’ is sweet. Big Finish and Colin Baker have basically been living off this Pip and Jane script for the last 17 years. It’s also beautifully directed, and with Ainley and O’Mara vying for the villain’s position it’s vastly more enjoyable than anything else in Season 22.
- The Seeds of Death
Much, much better than The Ice Warriors. Partly because this was largely written by Terrance Dicks, who’s a much better Doctor Who writer than Brian Hayles. Partly it’s because it’s got more incident, more interesting locations, and some very neat direction from Michael Ferguson. Having decided he’s leaving, Troughton’s behaving like it’s the last day of school, growing his sideburns and apparently having a great time mucking about in the foam machine. That said, it’s a bit more violent than normal – the Doctor goes round with a heat gun boiling the Ice Warriors alive before consigning their fleet to a lingering, fiery death (what’s that Terrance, ‘never cruel’?) – which is odd.
- Delta and the Bannermen
Very small scale but utterly lovely and sweet. A clever person somewhere has probably written a whole book about how this prefigures RTD’s version of Doctor Who (and not just because it’s Welsh). It’s suddenly back to juxtaposing a series of disparate events – a battle in a space quarry, heritage tourism complete with the genius idea of the chameleon arch, an American satellite launch and a British holiday camp. Also, Delta threatens to take the Bannermen to an interstellar court, which sounds a lot like the seed of the Shadow Proclamation. Sylvester McCoy does a lot to restore the essential ‘Doctorishness’ that was lost with the previous Doctor. There are so many lovely choices by McCoy that there is more to like about the character here than in the sixth Doctor’s entire era. Take his baffled reaction to Ken Dodd’s Tollmaster, his funny business with an apple in the Shangri-La canteen (which is entirely incidental, but adds a lovely humorous note to lift the exposition-heavy scene), and his compassion for Ray, whom he takes to the front of the dance floor so she can see Billy, then dances with her, and finally abandons his pursuit of Delta to comfort her while she cries. This is wonderful.
- The Faceless Ones
Ben and Polly are written out in an unpleasantly offhand way, which is a bit of a downer. Otherwise, I think this is probably a very underrated story. Like Delta, it smashes together interplanetary crises with the mundane reality of package holidays and airport bureaucracy. The difference is, it’s the first time Doctor Who has really done anything like this since the very first episode, where a Police Box in a junkyard was the doorway to the whole of space and time. Making everyday objects and places uncanny is one of the great things about Doctor Who. Robert Holmes ends up doing it better than Hulke and Ellis (especially in his third Doctor stories), and The Web of Fear is better remembered, but I think this one is a hugely important extra strand of storytelling, beyond base under siege and space adventures, which helped the series outlast the 1960s. I hope this one turns up.
- The Space Museum
Obviously the first episode is weird and trippy and brilliant. The subsequent three episodes are a bit less imaginative, but still a lot funnier than they’re given credit for. In Season Two, under Dennis Spooner, the series is moving from alternating science fiction and historical stories to alternating ‘serious’ and ‘comedy’ stories. Hence The Romans, The Web Planet, The Crusade and then this. After that there’s a Dalek story, the comedy historical The Time Meddler, Galaxy Four (which I suspect was written as serious science fiction), and The Myth Makers. The best thing about The Space Museum, though, is Vicki gleefully leading the Xeron revolution: her finest hour, the moment she really fulfils the idea of youthful revolution, and a triumph for Maureen O’Brien. Plus, obviously, the lovely ‘Mod’ design work. This is the most 1965 story ever.
- Silver Nemesis
I have never been able to understand arguments that this is the ‘worst story’. It’s got Lady Peinforte, Dolores Gray and a diffident Anton Diffring, plus McCoy and Aldred having the most fun any Doctor and companion have had since 1979, mucking about in the countryside. Clearly it was a mistake to run this in the same series as Remembrance of the Daleks (although had it ended the season, as planned, it might have given a nice sense of closing the anniversary circle), and the choppy editing sacrifices coherence for pace. However, the Cybermen look great with their new chrome finish, and the little steps back in time to the 1600s are really well done. Fun.
- Colony in Space
Not, on the surface, fun. But it is the first Doctor Who story since 1969, and they were having to find their feet a bit. I think it’s Pertwee’s best performance in Season Eight: his joy at getting the TARDIS working again, at being able to explore the universe and visit alien worlds are brilliantly pitched, and makes me a bit sad that this wasn’t his ‘norm’. All credit to Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks for deciding to revive Hartnell Doctor Who, though, with a companion snatched away and desperate to get home, and mixing it with the influence of Star Trek by being so blatantly a sci-fi parable ‘about’ something. When the Doctor says, ‘Before I was stranded on Earth, I spent all my time exploring new worlds and seeking the wonders of the universe.’ I can practically hear ‘explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life, and new civilisations’. It doesn’t entirely come off, but I’m delighted they tried it, and it was clearly successful enough that the whole ‘stranded on Earth’ format was pretty much dropped the following year.
- The Mutants
One of the first consequences of Colony in Space, and a conscious sequel, visiting the Earth Empire that was expanding in Colony at the moment of its decline and fall. On the surface, this is quite a similar piece of work: again, it’s ‘about’ colonialism, with the Doctor representing Barry Letts’ liberal orthodoxy and opposing the increasingly corrupt and decrepit Imperial Establishment. However, it’s by Bob Baker and Dave Martin, and the result is what would happen if you crossed Colony in Space with The Claws of Axos, with a load of strange and interesting (and expensive) ideas – like a race of people mutating from insects to angels – superimposed on a Hulke parable. I think it’s only dull if you try to watch the whole thing at once. Episode by episode, it’s like eating a Refresher bar: fizzy and sugary, but with some substance to chew over.
- Planet of Fire
Poor Peter Grimwade. He gets a bit of a rough ride, but he’s the fourth major contributor to early 1980s Doctor Who, and with a lot less to answer for than JNT, CHB or Saward. Planet of Fire isn’t a great story, and suffers from the usual ‘laundry list’ criticism. But it gets some things notably right. Turlough is more strongly written than he has been since the ‘Black Guardian trilogy’ and his exit’s sensitively handled. Peri is also introduced well, the ‘spoiled rich girl’ vibe rubs up against the sense that Howard is quite manipulative and cruel. Her tentative petulance towards him (and later, the Master) implies she’s not very confident and needs a mentor, in a way that’s going to make the series actively unpleasant to watch at points during the next couple of years. Obviously the end has the fifth Doctor pick up a gun and murder (or at least euthanize) Kamelion, which fits with the character development in Warriors of the Deep and Resurrection of the Daleks. I’d like to think Planet of Fire is a deliberate lead in to The Caves of Androzani. Turlough was the fifth Doctor’s penance for Adric (Turlough is rescued from a spaceship about to explode, and is then conspicuously given Adric’s room. The Doctor then manages to mentor him to a point where he comes to terms with his alienation from his home planet and goes off to lead the Trion people to a better future – something, as Earthshock made clear, the Doctor failed to do with Adric). However at the moment where the Doctor’s ‘atoned’ for Adric by ‘saving’ Turlough, Kamelion’s violent death reminds him that he can’t save all his friends. It’s this guilt that drives his desperate attempts to rescue Peri in the next story. Sadly, I think I invented this psychobabble plot in my head.
Next time: 90-81
Another really interesting installment. I love your praise of Mark of the Rani, The Mutants, and Delta and the Bannermen, three often-underrated stories. I’m less convinced about Silver Nemesis (I always found the Lady Peinforte stuff insufferable for some reason), but you’ve almost sold me on the weirdly off-kilter and disturbing Planet of Fire.