Classic Series Rankings Day 10: 70-61

dr-who-the-master-the-daemons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. The Daemons

I’ve been a fan as long as I can remember. My earliest memories are of Tom Baker regenerating into Peter Davison at the start of Castrovalva, and then of being sent to bed just after the opening titles of the July 1982 repeat of The Curse of Peladon as it would be ‘too scary’ for a three year old (probably true). But I wasn’t ‘in fandom’ until the late 1990s, at a point when BBC Books had just started publishing the Eighth Doctor Adventures. I used to make the faithful pilgrimage down the first Thursday of each month from Leeds to the Fitzroy Tavern, where I, and a gaggle of other teenage boys (Guerrier, Clapham, Robson, Miller, Howells, Belcher et al.), hung on the words of fandom’s Upper Echelons (Paul Cornell, Gareth Roberts, Gary Russell). It was amazing, in that smoky pub, clutching your cheap, warm pint while Tat Wood handed out Yak Butter Sandwiches and Lawrence Miles passed his own, torn-edged A4 fan version of Private Eye under the table. There was a real sense of community. Happy times. Our bible – the teenagers, that is – was Cornell’s Discontinuity Guide, which demolished a lot of the sacred cows of ‘Establishment fandom’ (Howe, Bentham, Haining) with anarchic glee and very barbed wit. The Daemons was one of the most obvious casualties: the Discon Guide’s pointed ‘For a certain age group, this story is the most memorable example of 1970s Doctor Who’ says it all: the old folks reckon this is good, but actually it’s rubbish. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with that even at the time: I’d seen The Daemons, newly restored to colour, in the 1992 BBC2 repeat, and it seemed to me a pretty decent, if not all-conquering, ‘spooky’ Doctor Who. Plus the novelisation was really good. I think my gut feel was right: this isn’t the most memorable example of 1970s Doctor Who. But it’s not a risible failure either. In it’s assertion that the devil genuinely exists and is an alien, it’s just picking up on Quatermass and the Pit, but it’s still a bit more in your face than ‘the Great Intelligence is disguising robots as real-life yeti’ or ‘legends of the Kraken might be partly inspired by sentient seaweed’. This was memorable enough for RTD to re-use the idea in 2006.

  1. The Curse of Peladon

I saw the opening titles in 1982, but had to wait another 15 years to see the rest. The novelisation was pretty good, though. I can see why this was so memorable at the time: Peladon is the first proper alien culture (as opposed to planet) seen since 1968, and the Federation delegates are as memorable as Mission to the Unknown’s planetarians, especially the really hideous Arcturus. I’m not sure if it’s intentional, but Brian Hayles and Terrance Dicks do seem to be sort-of making up for the second Doctor’s brutality towards the Ice Warriors in The Seeds of Death by critiquing his attitude towards them. The ‘noble warriors’ of this story are the basis of a whole slew of spin-off fiction. On top of this, Pertwee is brilliant, as he usually is in the non-UNIT, non-Season Eight stories, and Katy Manning is at her peak. Very good indeed.

 

  1. The Tenth Planet

This one is mostly memorable for the second and fourth episodes, which feature the big confrontation scene with the Cybermen, and the Doctor’s first regeneration. I think these original Cybermen are really eerie and effective in a way that the outer space robot people of The Moonbase onwards just aren’t (though David Whitaker gives it a good stab in The Wheel in Space). Zombie humans from a dying Earth, stripped of their hearts both literally and metaphorically, they’re like grisly medical puppets. You can see why they’re the only other Hartnell-era monster to be brought back, even in a modified, less disturbing form. You could do a good job of mimicking this design in the modern series, but you’d never get away with anything quite so nasty unless the show keeps going out post watershed. Also disturbing is the regeneration. Derek Martinus makes it as unsettling as possible: flickering lights, the console operating itself, the Doctor, wordless and haunted, Polly yelping his name as he falls to the floor and his face dissolves – I wonder if it was like the way the Cybermen dissolved a few moment earlier, to reinforce the horror of the moment. Around the Cybermen and the regeneration, there’s a prototypical base under siege plot that is pretty effective and seriously handled. It’s a shame the absence of part four tends to take up most discussion of this one. If it were back, and we could stop wondering about what was missing, I think we could better appreciate quite how interesting this one is.

 

  1. The Daleks

Not quite the seminal story it might have been: if anything, it’s a reasonably interesting piece of science fiction that could have been tackled as part of Out of the Unknown. The shadow of nuclear war hangs over it, and the Daleks are not quite functioning as the Space Nazis they become in the next story: they’re conceived as alien beings, trapped in their own individual radiation shelters (a point David Whitaker’s novelisation makes even clearer). It starts really strongly, with the very first ‘exploration’ episode – something that happens a lot in the Hartnell era, and then hardly ever again (the first episodes of The Ark in Space and The Android Invasion are exceptions). This is a chance to get to know the regulars a bit better, before the capture-escape business begins, and while it’s quite slow, it also builds a really good sense of mystery and foreboding. Then the Daleks turn up, and they are amazing: the result of writer, director, designer and voice artist all being on the same page to produce something iconic. As with the Cybermen, they’re reformatted a bit in their subsequent appearances, but to a much lesser extent. The rest of the story is wallpaper next to them, and it’s notably weaker once the TARDIS crew escape the city and the expedition through swamps and caves becomes the main focus. Trying to retitle this ‘The Dead Planet’ or ‘The Mutants’ spectacularly and stubbornly misses the point. From the moment it aired, The Daleks are what everyone remembers.

 

  1. The Ambassadors of Death

From one of David Whitaker’s first Doctor Whos to his last: one heavily rewritten by Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks. As such, it’s a bit of a companion piece to The Silurians: both of them suggest that human greed and intolerance are a bigger threat to Earth than alien invasions. Like most of Season Seven, it’s a bit dry and humourless: UNIT is still meant to be an effective military operation and not just the third Doctor’s wingmen, hence the very serious and impressive shoot-out in the first episode. There’s a hint of the slightly weirder direction the series is going to rediscover the following season when the Doctor visits the alien spaceship, but for the most part this is a very straight action thriller with obvious Quatermass overtones. Impressively directed as well.

 

  1. Paradise Towers

Although it looks like it was produced by a mid-1980s, left-wing theatre group, this is a massive step in the right direction after the problems of Seasons 21-23. It’s violent but not lingeringly sadistic and the Doctor isn’t implicated. The seventh Doctor is a vast improvement over the previous version, with a curiosity, a respect for life and other cultures (notice his attempts to fit in with the Kangs’ greeting ritual), and an abiding mood of gentle melancholy. And Mel, for all she’s knocked, has the right kind of get up and go that balances this. The story remains fascinatingly odd: where else would you find a cliffhanger in which Bonnie Langford gets caught in a knitted shawl and menaced by two middle-aged housewives? There’s lots of things that are a bit questionable – the excitable music, McCoy’s slightly garbled delivery, and the crappy neon lights that represent the fearsome thing in the basement. But look past these and you see Doctor Who properly engaging with contemporary society for the first time in years. You see a Doctor with a burning curiosity, angry at those who don’t take an interest in their world or control of their own lives, and proper characters beyond “rebels” and “fascists” – even though the Kangs and Caretakers fulfil these roles, we get a sense of why they fulfil these roles rather than just accepting they’re funny aliens. There’s a lovely moment when Maddy comes round for tea with Tilda and Tabby and they start to gossip like real people rather than theatrically declaiming lines at each other which has been the normal house style since about 1983. There’s some beautiful use of silhouettes as the Doctor searches for Mel, and director Nicholas Mallett makes the most of the multi-level sets. The ending isn’t quite right – basically just an explosion. And some of the design work, especially Kroagnon’s brain, still demonstrates the BBC’s inability to do futuristic well. But these are so easy to look past when you know that this is practically the template for much of the next three years: Kroagnon’s MO is basically copied by Fenric, and ending the story with a funeral is powerful. For all its flaws, this is the best Doctor Who story in some time, and a powerful indication of things to come.

 

  1. The Five Doctors

‘Live forever? Never die?’ The Five Doctors, for all that it takes Season 20’s nostalgia to its natural climax, shows that change and renewal are preferable – as the fifth Doctor says, ‘I’m definitely not the man I was. Thank goodness.’ The Doctors are caricatures, of course – the first Doctor is grumpy but insighful, the second an anarchic tramp, the third a man of action and the fifth an incorruptible hero – but that just proves that the Doctor’s wisdom and ability to improvise comes from having been all of these things, rather than frozen in one state. Against him, the villains all have only one default setting. Hence we get the most Dalek-y ever Dalek chanting exterminate and shooting indiscriminately, Cybermen mindlessly blowing the nearest things up, the Master reverting to petty villainy and the Time Lords succumbing to the corruption of power. Terrance Dicks is familiar enough with Doctor Who history to give us a series of lovely ‘era cameos’ – the first Doctor on Skaro, the second in caves menaced by a Yeti, the third confronting the Master and creating a rope slide (and fan wish-fulfilment of a Cyberman encounter at last) – that pretty much set in stone how we remember these characters. Given the shopping list, this is well structured too, with loads of suspense up front, and a script with a healthy sense of humour and some decent jokes, most notably the third Doctor’s confrontation with the Master and the first Doctor’s casual sexism. It even finds room to introduce a rather good new monster in the Raston robot, with a deadly game of musical statues perfectly pitched at kids (Spielberg and Moffat have both used the same idea) and the centrepiece Cyber-massacre satisfyingly nasty without blood and guts. And there’s a genuine sense of occasion and iconic images – a Dalek mutant seen in situ for the first time; the Dark Tower; Rassilon. The only downside is that the direction, design and acting of the Gallifrey scenes fails to live up to the script’s grandeur. So we have Paul Jerricho massacring every line, Dinah Sheridan fluttering her eyelids and Philip Latham looking like a man waiting for his wife in a Habitat showroom. What we needed was something with the scale and performances of the tomb scenes. I used to bleat that this story was just a panto, spectacularly missing the point that the ‘greatest hits’ Doctors are exactly what the general viewers needed; and I must have overlooked that the final scene is the perfect way to end this story, this season, and even the last 20 years of the show. After showing us the limits of immortality, this is surely the moment when the series should be renewing itself again. And it does – but perhaps not in the way anybody was expecting.

 

  1. The Web of Fear

When this turned up with The Enemy of the World, everyone rushed to praise Enemy and Web got a bit overlooked. I think it’s because Web is exactly as good as everyone always said it was: lots of creeping about excellent underground sets; impressive direction from Douglas Camfield, imposing yeti and a slightly daft conclusion. Given it’s the sixth time they’d attempted this kind of story in 18 months there was no excuse for getting it wrong. Nothing much else to add: it’s great to have it back.

 

  1. Fury from the Deep

And this is the seventh base under siege, one week after The Web of Fear. Opinion’s a bit more divided about this one. From the clips that exist, and the novelisation (‘A classic adventure of the second Doctor now a bumper volume!’), I’ve always been intrigued by it, and it certainly looks like it was well made. But then, I’ve always been desperate to see The Macra Terror as well – sea monsters with mind control powers are obviously my thing. Possibly it’s duller than The Web of Fear. But I think it’s more interesting, and I slightly prefer the unusual domesticity of it to the standard military base under siege of Web. My highest ranked story of the disappointing Season Five.

 

  1. The Seeds of Doom

A lot of Season 13 is, I think, a bit over-rated. Its consistent production values tend to conceal the fact that a lot of it is a tiny bit dull compared to some of the more ambitious serials of Seasons 12 and 14. The Seeds of Doom isn’t dull, but it is over-rated. It’s as straightforward a Pertwee era thriller as Spearhead from Space, enlivened a bit because the villain is much more flamboyant, and UNIT is kept firmly at the sidelines in favour of a couple of really lovely guest performances from Kenneth Gilbert and a very funny Sylvia Coleridge. The Krynoid is a nice re-use of the Axon costume, and the idea of intelligent and aggressive vegetation is well done. You’d imagine had Barry Letts got his hands on it there would have been some more comments on environmentalism and rainforests, and the planet taking its revenge rather than the less complicated ‘it’s an alien plant’ explanation we get here. But it’s very efficient and moderately grips me when I watch it. I struggle to see why it would make a top 20 list. Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen are very good in it.

 

Next time: 60-51

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One comment

  1. encyclops

    We’re on the same page with almost all of this list, apart from a few minor quibbles and the fact that I have almost no memory of Fury From the Deep (I own the novelisation, I must have read it, but I don’t recall a single thing about it). I’ve always found most of The Daleks tedious, but the scenes where the TARDIS crew are being menaced by the Daleks still work for me even if all that mucking about in caves just don’t. It’s better than my memory thinks it is, and better than anybody had any right to expect, even if today it’s been eclipsed by what it spawned. Regarding its proper title: preach.

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