The top 50 Classic Doctor Who stories of all time. Have no doubts, this is THE definitive list, and any other previous lists you might have read are wrong.
- The Happiness Patrol
I have really fond memories of watching this in 1988. The Kandyman is a delicious creation, one of the most joyously brilliant monsters there’s ever been. I wouldn’t go so far as to say anything as daft as ‘only in Doctor Who’ given Ghostbusters did the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man just a few years earlier. But there’s still something subversive and hilarious about co-opting Bertie Bassett into the monster parade. Whether you agree with Cartmel’s politics or not, it’s also joyful to see Doctor Who in this era making some attempt to engage with contemporary politics in a way it hadn’t quite so directly since the next story in this list.
- The Sun Makers
Like pretty much every Graham Williams story it’s a design fail. However, it’s Robert Holmes’ most scabrously cynical script, a gleeful, How Do You Sleep? mauling of the British tax system, wrapped up in the first story in years where the Doctor decides he doesn’t like the way a planet is run and so brings down its government in a matter of hours. There’s a real spirit of Troughton era anarchy to both this one, and The Happiness Patrol, combined with a sense that the Doctor is on a bit of a moral crusade rather than just blundering in: revolution by intent, not as a by-product. This is Holmes dropping the mic on his way out of the script editor’s office.
- Invasion of the Dinosaurs
Malcolm Hulke’s final script is as ‘Hulkey’ as The Sun Makers is ‘Holmesy’. Always a very serious and moral writer, this could sometimes make his scripts seem a bit preachy or sombre. Invasion of the Dinosaurs has an element of that. It also has (rubbish) dinosaurs invading the Earth, a twist sub-plot about a sleeper spaceship, and the ultimate Hulke villains: a group of UKIPpers desperate to get back to a mythical golden age. The ‘baddies’ are not evil, just motivated by backward-looking beliefs that run against Hulke’s idea of the inevitability of material social progress: the British Establishment, including members of the military (and Mike Yates) trying to put the brakes on the onward march of history. I get the sense Hulke didn’t really like the idea of the Doctor working with UNIT very much: The Silurians obviously sets up the Brigadier as a murderer. UNIT doesn’t feature in his next three scripts, and in this it’s infiltrated by the ‘baddies’. The Doctor spends as much time fighting against the army as he does working with it. I like this ambiguity, and the Doctor’s increasing desire to get away: it’s the same spirit that’s present in modern Doctors’ uneasy relationship with UNIT. Season 11 isn’t a moribund placeholder between Jo leaving and Tom arriving, it’s another step towards making the series more interesting than ever.
- Frontier in Space
A bit stronger than Invasion of the Dinosaurs because it’s better made, and benefits from a great appearance by Delgado, who’s obviously enjoying what was meant to be his penultimate appearance. It’s You Only Live Twice in outer space, with the Master and the Daleks as SPECTRE-like villains trying to manipulate the two superpowers into a space war. Pertwee and Manning are both excellent, with the Doctor having to engineer an escape from a prison on the Moon while Jo finally learns to resists the Master’s mind control. Like The War Games, each episode pushes the plot a bit further, while working as a contained 25-minute adventure. Really good.
- The Stones of Blood
My favourite David Fisher script because it crams together a lot of separate 1970s genres – the rural gothic of Children of the Stones; with alien prisons in space; and a 1970s horror sub-plot about a black magic cult and an ancient witch (very Norman J. Warren). I particularly adore the episodes where the adventure is happening, simultaneously, on a courtroom in hyperspace and in a stone circle somewhere in Cornwall. It reminds me of those marvellous scenes in The Parting of the Ways where Rose is stuck in a chip shop while the Doctor and Jack take on the Dalek Empire, and she’s adamant that ‘it’s happening right now’. It’s funny, eclectic and, yes, the kind of story you’d only get in Doctor Who. Tom Baker looks like he’s having a great time. His face while Beatrix Lehmann tries to remember her lines is one of the greatest images in the entire series.
- Pyramids of Mars
A very effective and well made historical, with one of the all-time great guest performances from Gabriel Woolf. Similar to The Stones of Blood, it juxtaposes the puzzles of the Martian pyramids with events taking place in an Edwardian manor house, which is quite fun. I do like these macrocosm-and-microcosm stories: ‘as above so below’. The extensive location filming is really good too. This and the next are the stories everyone must be thinking about when they talk about ‘Doctor Who doing Hammer Horror’. Exactly as good as its reputation, which is very good indeed.
- State of Decay
I think this one is better than its reputation, and is one of the few stories that actually benefits from being made in Season 18. It looks better than most Graham Williams stories, and is remarkably atmospheric. Tom’s performance is also great: suitably sombre and ominous when it needs to be, but with the same sense of humour he developed in the last few seasons. As such, I think it’s an even better performance than he gave in Horror of Fang Rock. I also like all the stuff about the ancient Time Lords battling the vampires, which adds a Morbius-style touch of epic backstory to what could otherwise look like a very straightforward Hammer Horror pastiche. CHB’s obsession with science also works well in this backdrop, when it’s put up against the forces of the supernatural. The Doctor finally wins out by using reason to deduce the nature of the Three Who Rule and their castle, and turning that knowledge against them.
- The Ribos Operation
I stand by everything I said in my 50 Years, 50 Stories review. This one is interesting because it pits Robert Holmes’ idea of the Doctor as a free agent, never more anarchic than in his previous script, against Graham Williams’ modish obsession with vast, George Lucas style light-and-dark-side epics. The result is a story that’s set up as if it’s going to be some huge mythological epic and ends up being one of the smallest and neatest Doctor Who stories of all. The outcome is as finely balanced as the Black and White Guardians, and the strongest story in Season 16.
- The Keeper of Traken
I watched this again recently and was more impressed than I expected. It’s the kind of story where CHB’s interest in science fiction world building really pays off. Traken feels like a place in a way that, for example, Skonnos or Chloris don’t. Season 18 is massively problematic, but its alien environments feel more fully realised than anything since about 1975. With the designers Amy Roberts and Tony Burrough on the same page, and Roger Limb’s great music, this is one of the nicest packaged serials. The plot has a bit of a ‘stately’ pace, but that at least gives some of the characters and their relationships space to breathe: Nyssa doesn’t get masses to do, for example, but she gets much more than a ‘young woman’ incidental character would normally and you can see why they decided to keep her on as a companion. You can’t imagine them getting Janet Ellis back to play Teka as a regular, for instance. I think Tom Baker seems to quite enjoy getting Tremas as a companion for a few episodes, while Adric goes off with Nyssa, and it definitely adds a frisson to the next story, when he’s forced to work with Tremas’ hijacked corpse. Like a lot of Season 18, it doesn’t come close to being great, but it avoids most of the pitfalls of the last three seasons.
- An Unearthly Child
The first episode is obviously astonishing: fast paced, packed with concise character material, and doing loads of info-dumping in a thoroughly gripping way. Then the second episode does a whole load more info-dumping about the Tribe of Gum, and it’s almost as interesting. I love that the first enemies the Doctor faces are primitive humans, both in 1963 and 100,000 BC: ‘the children of his civilisation’ might be insulted by the backwardness of Ian, Barbara and the other human beings, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the Doctor and Susan are any better off once he loses his matchbox. The fact that this isn’t even in the top quarter of my list shows me that however solidly good this is, it was only the basis for a much better, weirder series.
Next time: The top 40, part one…