Classic Series Rankings Day 11: 60-51

 

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  1. Nightmare of Eden

Bob Baker’s only solo script suggests he should maybe have gone it alone sooner, as it’s better than anything he co-wrote with Dave Martin. This one sheds the gauche re-tellings of Greek myths for a direct and effective script about drug smuggling and addiction, pepped up with a very neat sub-plot about an overhead projector that’s also a doorway to other worlds. I’m sure Moffat must have half remembered it when he came to write about Zygons escaping from paintings. It suffers badly from the same problems as a lot of Season 17: insipid direction and weak design that doesn’t do the material any justice. But production issues aside, it’s a thoughtful, imaginative script with some excellent touches all about the blurring of boundaries (the two ships fused together in hyperspace; the monsters that are also victims; the concept of being able to step inside a television).

  1. The Macra Terror

Ian Stuart Black’s best script sounds it like was effectively creepy. It’s takes the corrupt and parasitic society of The Savages and the mind control plot of The War Machines, and it sticks them together to make a third, better story. This is the basis on which future Doctor Who is increasingly able to operate: juxtaposing a lot of story elements that don’t fit together. On paper mind-controlling crabs that eat gas hiding in a holiday camp sounds like one of those baffling, camp B-movies from the 1960s. In practice, this is the first classic Doctor Who mash-up that will give us in the future: yeti conquering the London Underground using cobwebs; alien space octopuses in league with an evil version of the Doctor using plastic flowers to conquer the world; shape-shifting aliens and their space cow invading the Earth via Loch Ness; a spaghetti-faced alien stealing priceless artwork to avert the course of human history etc. This is a truly astonishing and visionary piece of work: in its own way more bonkers than The Underwater Menace. I think this is where classic Doctor Who really begins. No wonder RTD brought back the Macra.

 

  1. Shada

I think this would have been better than Nightmare of Eden had it been completed, although it’s hard to be sure just how good it might have been, hence it’s slightly middling placement. The bits that exist are certainly funnier and better made than almost anything else in the Graham Williams years, and Douglas Adams is the first writer to do something interesting with Robert Holmes’ concept of the Time Lords as a species that has forgotten more than it remembers. I really like the idea of Chris and Clare getting caught up in the adventures of two runaway Time Lords: they’re the Ian and Barbara of the 1970s. The Krargs look quite effective with the lava effect superimposed. Even finished, I don’t think it would have held a candle to City of Death, but as the novelisation and even the 1992 VHS proved, this would have been, by some considerable distance, the best of Williams’ season finales. All credit to JNT for doing the right thing, and trying to get it finished.

 

  1. Castrovalva

Not solely populated by the beardy old men that plagued Season 18, Castrovalva is more promising than Logopolis because Bidmead spends time deftly sketching in a society with its own history and mores. As such, this is a charming and effective exercise in world building, complete with some of Bidmead’s nice one-liners (‘that’s democracy for you’). He’s hardly remembered for his comic touch, but it’s these one liners that stick in the mind better than the more laboured “hard SF” stuff. The story ends on an upbeat, energetic note that suggests that this Doctor is going to work out splendidly. As an opening story for the new Doctor, Castrovalva works well, with the final episode giving us the fifth Doctor on a plate – energetic and witty, and trying to win through intelligence and persuasion rather than technical wizardry or Hai! karate. It’s a very attractive approach, albeit one that in the hands of an unsympathetic script editor and absentee producer requires more thoughtful management than it usually gets. And the audience could have done with a signpost telling them that part four is the norm for this Doctor rather than another bout of post-regenerative wobbles.

 

  1. Marco Polo

Possibly the story that took Doctor Who’s ‘educational’ remit most to heart, with all the bits about condensation, melting footprints and history lessons. Everyone who watched it seems to remember it as an all-time classic, and given it was apparently sold to every single country in the entire world, it was probably one of the most watched serials ever. Odd, then, that it seems to have vanished without trace, with only the telesnaps and production photos to confirm that it must have looked amazing. That said, I’m more politely interested in this one than anything. If Ian Levine could only save one seven parter from Season One, I’m glad he made it The Daleks.

 

  1. The Crusade

It’s a very good script, but it has the same problem as Marco Polo, and a lot of the early historicals: a bit too much reverence for the source material. So, while I think this is very good, and looks much more impressive than some of the 1965 sci-fi episodes, I much prefer The Romans or The Myth Makers, which debunk or ridicule some of their historical figures. Or The Aztecs, which doesn’t feature any personages at all. While I think it’s a stupid criticism to claim the historicals don’t work because we ‘know what’s going to happen’ (we don’t know how: who’d’ve guessed the Doctor inspired the fire of Rome; or turn out to be the exact double of the Abbot of Amboise?), it can be a bit weary when the Doctor Who story is overtaken by real events – leading to the damp squib ending of The Reign of Terror, and the slightly anticlimactic fourth episode of The Crusade. Another one I’m politely interested in, but don’t actually think is all that entertaining.

 

  1. The Gunfighters

This is much more like it: the last historical that focuses on real-life figures, but treating them, quite rightly, as fictional characters. I bet even if Philip Morris decided to give back Marco Polo tomorrow, it wouldn’t overtake this one in the rankings. Actually funnier than Carry On Cowboy, a wonderful parody of the Western genre, and with the last great script for William Hartnell’s Doctor. It’s really nicely directed as well. While I’d swap The War Machines for The Massacre or The Ark for four more episodes of Master Plan in a second, nothing could persuade me to give this one up.

 

  1. The Time Meddler

I get really annoyed by people claiming the characters in The Time Meddler are Saxons. They’re Northumbrian, which if anything would have made them either Angles or Danes. But by 1066, I’m pretty sure they would have thought of themselves as English. Anyway. Having been reaching for this plot in The Romans and The Chase, Dennis Spooner finally nails it: a story that makes the historical viable. It’s a genius move, having a mischievous version of Hartnell’s Doctor going round breaking the rules. The cliffhangers are all good, but the reveal of the Monk’s time machine is the best one this season. Hartnell and Butterworth are both brilliant, but so are O’Brien and Purves. It’s such a shame they’ve only got two more stories to go, because I think given a bit more time this could have been the classic 1960s line-up. Very, very funny (the opening is my favourite TARDIS scene ever); clever and intriguing. Between this one, The Macra Terror and Spearhead from Space you could bring the series back for the 21st Century.

 

  1. The Awakening

This is the story that introduces Peter Davison’s orange trousers, and with them my favourite ever interpretation of the Doctor. Davison’s great throughout his era: he’s finding his feet in Four to Doomsday, and is slightly tentative in The Visitation, but after that he’s nailed it. But then in Season 21 he relaxes a bit: suddenly, the slightly Troughton-tinged panic lessens, the occasional high pitch in the voice is dialled down. The energy is still there, but it’s less nervous, more decisive. And the sarcasm that’s always been there increases a notch, particularly where Tegan’s concerned (‘The toast of Little Hodcombe’ here, and the ‘funny walk’ stuff in the next story). I think Peter Davison’s definitive performances are given in this and the next four stories. Oh, this is quite fun as well: the Malus and its miniature gargoyle are the most visually impressive monsters of the Davison era. The plot’s clever: having time fracturing in the village and ghosts seeping through is very Sapphire and Steel, with the added bonus of lots of summery and charming location filming which tends to make this look more expensive. Easily the best Davison two-parter.

 

  1. The Pirate Planet

The first time I saw this I must have been about 16 years old, and I watched the video with one of my school friends who was extremely impressed when he saw it was by Douglas ‘HHG2G’ Adams. I have to confess that I’m not such a massive Adams fan: I admire his stuff, but I always preferred Fawlty Towers’ style of humour to Monty Python’s. This one has a very good script, with some great twists (the nurse as the villain, with the ranting Pirate Captain as her front man), but it does suffer from the same problem as a lot of Season 16: the production looks very flat and boring, which tends to sap the life out of Adams’ story and mean that most of the burden falls on the actors. Luckily, they’re mostly up to the job: especially Bruce Purchase and Tom Baker, who gets his best moment in the whole season after he’s uncovered ‘one of the most heinous crimes ever committed in this galaxy’.

 

 

Next time: The top 50 begins!

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One comment

  1. encyclops

    That’s such a good observation about Time Meddler + Macra Terror + Spearhead = the RTD era. I’ve always found Nightmare of Eden charming, and Castrovalva positively enchanting, the latter being probably a top ten story for me. I know that’s crazy, but again, it’s at least partly nostalgia, and partly the continued sense of danger (Bidmead scripts are great for that), the TARDIS as an unsafe place (ditto), the cheery sense of the eponymous city as a potentially real place with tons of character, that climax with the recursive occlusion, the revelation about the history books, the incidental music…I just love it. And Adric is at his most charming when he’s chained up, I think most of us would agree, though perhaps for diverse reasons.

    I’ll say of The Pirate Planet that even though I AM a big Douglas Adams fan, I’ve always found it far less than the sum of its parts. It’s just a horrific slog for most of it, the ranting Captain utterly tedious from the instant he appears. I want so much to love it but I can’t. 51 seems far too high but I’ll allow it. 😉

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