Classic Series Rankings Day 13: 40-31

The top 40 countdown: the top quartile of classic Doctor Who stories. This is the hit parade…

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  1. Terror of the Zygons

It’s a real shame this was held back to kick off Season 13, as it’s a much more confortable fit with Season 12. It pokes affectionate fun at UNIT and its inability to deal with an invasion by just about four Zygons without the Doctor’s assistance. They’re immediately memorable monsters: all slimy and orange, like the Axons, while also having a leader able to deal with the Doctor as though he’s a Master-style villain (see also Linx). We also have the slight impression that Broton’s quite happy living as a Duke, and the invasion of Earth is a tiresome imposition probably foisted on him by his less well-heeled Zygon brethren – an idea that must have inspired the recent Zygon Invasion/Inversion. Well designed, perhaps slightly over-ambitious with the Skarasen, beautifully cast and with some memorably nasty moments (especially Zygon-Harry attacking Sarah Jane with a pitchfork), this is really good.

  1. The Dalek Invasion of Earth

This one was the first Hartnell story I ever saw. Much more influential, I think, than the first Dalek story. Adding ‘invasion of Earth’ to the list of stories the series can do is a first: an ambitious opening up of the format which has previously been confined to rather serious adventures in history, visits to strange planets, and the one where they shrink. Clearly there could never have been any other contender for the alien invaders (although The Sensorite Invasion of Earth has a certain ring to it. ‘We are the masters of Earth. Shhhhh!’), and the Daleks are more impressive this time round as they rise up from the Thames, pootle over Westminster Bridge and pose for photos in Trafalgar Square. This is also the story where they become Space Nazis, and, in response, the Doctor becomes Space Churchill, clasping his lapels, giving inspiring speeches, and never surrendering. He obviously enjoyed it because this has been his default character for the next 50-odd years.

 

  1. The Invasion

Given it’s the pilot for Derrick Sherwin’s Doctor Who spin-off series from 1970 (also, confusingly, called Doctor Who), there’s practically nothing here that hasn’t already been done. Sherwin takes a pick and mix approach, taking the director and characters of The Web of Fear (with Travers ultimately replaced by a very similar new professor), the most popular (available) monster and the most memorable villain. The main innovation is UNIT, which is quite like something from ITC: Department S with more hardware. It all works as effectively as you’d expect given it’s a synthesis of tried and tested ideas. Certainly good enough that they’ll do this plot three more times in the next three years (Spearhead from Space and Terror of the Autons which use plastic goods instead of electrical goods and feature a more Great Intelligence style enemy, and The Claws of Axos, which is a bit odder). None of them hugely improves over this, and only Delgado’s Master can hold a candle to Stoney’s Tobias Vaughn (if I ever do a Top Ten Villains list, Stoney will be the only actor to feature twice). There are still six Dalek stories to come, but this is my highest ranked Cyberman story. And they’re not even in it that much.

 

  1. Spearhead from Space

There was a lot riding on this one: the first Pertwee story; the first colour story; the first of the ‘stranded on Earth’ format. Taking these in turn:

Firstly: they’re really cautious about introducing Pertwee. Hartnell and Troughton both got loads more to do in their first episodes. Pertwee spends practically the whole episode lying in bed, with hardly any lines. After that, he’s used quite sparingly, possibly because the production team hadn’t decided on his character (there are reports of a guitar-playing whimsical hippy), so that, uniquely, we don’t have much more idea what he’s like by the end of the fourth episode than we did in the first. On this evidence, he’s basically the second Doctor but taller, which reinforces the idea that, before it was ret-conned, the Time Lords basically imposed a face-change on the Doctor.

Secondly: hardly anyone probably saw this in colour (actually, what was the first colour Doctor Who story that most people saw in colour?). I wonder whether more people saw it in colour in the 1971 repeat than the 1970 original broadcast. I’ve never watched it with the colour down, but it was probably more noticeable that it was made all on film, and so looked more ‘gritty’ than The War Games. I bet this one passed most people by, though. Also, how many times did I write colour in this paragraph? I should’ve gone Pip and Jane and talked about chromatic spectroscopy, maybe.

Thirdly: as an introduction to a whole new type of Doctor Who – a series in which the Doctor is the advisor to UNIT, responsible for investigating new and unusual threats to Earth – it works well enough. Nick Courtney and Caroline John get a slightly flirty first scene, as though they were meant to have a bit of will-they-won’t-they going on, and the Brigadier is clearly set up as the authority figure to the Doctor’s naughty schoolboy (the final scene makes it clear that this was meant to be the status quo). As it happens, this new approach never panned out. Barry Letts (arriving with the next story) and Terrance Dicks hated the ‘stranded on Earth’ idea and with the help of Malcolm Hulke and David Whitaker did everything they could first to subvert it, then to overturn it. Spearhead from Space is therefore a bit of a false start for a series that effectively lasted one year. It’s quite good, but it’s not Totally Doctor Who. Unlike Holmes’ next story.

 

  1. Terror of the Autons

Season Eight was hated – HATED – by a certain subset of 1990s fandom, as representing everything that was wrong with the Pertwee era, and Terror of the Autons was picked out by Paul Cornell as the worst offender. I have no idea where this anger came from, because Terror of the Autons is patently a better Doctor Who story than Spearhead from Space. It actually seems to want to be Doctor Who, to start with: so much so that they practically throw the kitchen sink in in the rush to make it less sombre and ‘gritty’ than the previous season. The premise: a rival Time Lord arrives in a circus from which he plots with disembodied aliens to take over the world using plastic flowers, furniture and toys, is as bonkers as anything the series ever did in the 1960s. It’s like Ian Stuart Black’s approach to The Macra Terror. Holmes takes the archetypal UNIT plot – a disembodied Intelligence threatens Earth with its minions – and then superimposes an Avengers story where a diabolical mastermind manipulates plastic for his own nefarious ends – and he just smashes them together. The result is astonishing (even if Holmes can’t quite find an ending that reconciles the two), and much more interesting and fun than the relatively sane plot of Spearhead from Space. Add to this Barry Letts’ admirable disregard for the cautious conservatism of Lloyd, Bryant and Sherwin (two main sets, four monster costumes, six episodes), and his giddy excitement about the possibilities of CSO. And then add in Roger Delgado’s brilliantly wry performance and Katy Manning’s winsome one (and ignore Pertwee being occasionally obnoxious), and this is something very good indeed.

 

  1. The Romans

After tentatively having some funny bits in The Reign of Terror (which only made the rest of that serial feel more interminably dull), Dennis Spooner goes for it with a proper comedy historical that fails to treat its personages with any respect at all. Nero’s a dirty old man, and there’s a lot of farcical stuff about the regulars missing each other and not even realising they’ve all been in Rome together. Crucially, Spooner recognises that if the show’s going to run and run history has to be more than just an educational backdrop, so he has the Doctor actually become part of events – and laughing about it. Thanks to this lightbulb moment, we’re going to get some of the funniest and best Doctor Who stories of all. All thanks to Dennis Spooner. Thanks, Dennis. Thennis.

 

  1. The Greatest Show in the Galaxy

This is quintessential Doctor Who – the series of juxtapositions, the mix of horror and comedy has never been better illustrated than a clown in a hearse. Stephen Wyatt makes this a hook of a first episode, throwing in the creepy eye-kites, deadly robots, a bizarre cast of characters and an obvious danger in the Psychic Circus. 1960s throwbacks Bellboy and Flowerchild and their magical mystery tour bus trying to escape the commercialism and corruption of the Circus as a metaphor for 1980s Britain. With Peggy Mount, T.P. McKenna and Ian Reddington, the cast is impressive. The location filming is highly effective, and the overall impression is of a confident series that has found its niche again and is firing on all cylinders. The theme is nostalgia for a carefree past, and it inhabits the story in different ways. In one sense, the Circus represents 1980s’ Britain, with the Ringmaster opining that, ‘We’re a success. The others couldn’t take the pace – they wanted to live in the past’ in the face of Morgana’s appeals to 1960s’ free spirits and personal expression. And this is reflected back on Doctor Who itself, with Whizz Kid – the Circus’s number one fan, harking back to past glories and suggesting that previous adventures were the best ‘as far as you can tell from the posters’ as though he’s looking at some telesnap reconstruction. Like Paradise Towers (which it resembles), Greatest Show falls apart a bit in its final act: it’s hard to follow the backstory to the Gods of Ragnarok, and the internal logic vanishes in a lot of garbled exposition so that it’s not entirely clear what’s happening even as we watch it. I suppose Captain Cook’s resurrection as a zombie is handled better than Richard Briers’. If, at the last, Greatest Show‘s reach exceeds its grasp this is still visually impressive and you like these characters enough to forgive it. If they made this one today, the Gods of Ragnarok would be the judges on The X-Factor. I remember enjoying this one so much that I walked out of a Christmas party to catch episode two.

 

  1. The Myth Makers

One of the early beneficiaries of Dennis Spooner’s First Law of Time: ‘You can’t change history, not one line. Unless it makes it funnier’. Donald Cotton’s script is very funny indeed, debunking the Greek heroes and the Doctor (an ‘old beggar’). The dysfunctional Trojan royal family are especially hilarious, squabbling and cracking jokes at each other until we get the end of episode three:

CASSANDRA: Woe to the House of Priam! Woe to the Trojans!

PARIS: I’m afraid you’re a bit late to say ‘whoa’ to the horse.

And after that, a fourth episode called Horse of Destruction. It all goes a bit Blackadder series finale in the last episode, but there are still plenty of genuinely amusing one-liners (‘I’m still very worried about those fetlocks’). Maureen O’Brien and Peter Purves are an even better double act than they were in The Time Meddler. Hartnell, who apparently hated this, is at his most Frankie Howerd, bumbling his way through the story like Lurcio. One of the most charming Doctor Whos ever.

 

  1. The Brain of Morbius

I particularly like the way Christopher Barry embraces the artificiality and expressionism of the studio-bound sets to create a tribute to Universal horror films, especially Son of Frankenstein, and possibly also to Hammer’s Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, which features a similarly piecemeal and unwieldy monster. Robert Holmes rewriting Terrance Dicks makes this much grislier than I imagine the original script was, with some typically florid dialogue, and some slightly too extreme moments (like Cordo being shot, repeatedly). I suspect that all the stuff about the Time Lords was Dicks’, but he adds an extra dimension to them, implying a less idyllic and technocratic society than we saw during the Pertwee years, and going back to the more threatening and amoral characters from The War Games. I wonder how much of this inspired Holmes to The Deadly Assassin the next year. Bunging in the Witches of Karn and their Rider-Haggard style sacred flame is an odd move, but perhaps it’s just a means of getting all the horror clichés out of the way before moving on to a slightly different approach. This is the ultimate Season 13 story.

 

  1. Horror of Fang Rock

Doctor Who pared down to some bare essentials: a deadly and relentless monster; an isolated location; a cast of interesting characters in conflict with each other; a Doctor who’s almost enjoying the mayhem. When they did it in the new series we got Midnight. In the classic series we get this. It’s flawless at what it does; it’s beautifully made for a piece of 1977 TV. It’s Terrance Dicks proving he knows as well as anyone exactly what makes the show work. My top 30 are there because there’s something about them that particularly appeals to me. None of them is better than Fang Rock at getting all the basics not just right, but as right as they have ever been.

 

 

Next time: 30-21

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