Classic Series Rankings Day 14: 30-21

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  1. The Robots of Death

Lovely design work, and some well-integrated special effects (the red, glowing eyes; the shot of the sandminer bridge). It’s the first Doctor Who story to pick up on the slasher movie genre, with a villain who’s not just a Zaroff-style mad scientist, but also an insane killer. Leela works well in this, and it helps that she’s being written by Boucher for the second time in a row. There’s a sense that after Harry, who was a bit thrown away, and Sarah Jane, who was ultimately defined purely by Elisabeth Sladen’s performance as a foil for Tom Baker, a lot more thought and effort is going in to the new companion. Pardon the pun, but this is gripping.

  1. Carnival of Monsters

Another excellent Robert Holmes script that picks several different genres: the 1920s drawing room pastiche; the giant slug monsters; the alien politicking, and throws them together to create the most surreal serial since 1968. Pertwee is at his best, trying to talk with some hens, explaining himself to the SS Bernice crew, and then trying to communicate in polari. All of these tend to make him look silly, and place him on the back foot – and Pertwee is ‘terrible on the rebound’ in the best sense, as his awesome demolition of the Inter Minorian tribunal shows. Imaginative, ingenious and fun, it’s a shame Pertwee didn’t get more scripts like this one. Actually, it’s a shame all the Doctors didn’t get more like this.

 

  1. The Rescue

As the first introduction of a new regular, this is a milestone story. As with Leela, there’s the sense that a lot of effort has gone in to getting Vicki right, getting rid of the elements that made Susan a bit of a liability, and introducing a character who actually wants to travel through time and space and have adventures. We didn’t get that again until Zoe turned up. Maureen O’Brien was an excellent casting choice: she’s a brilliant foil for Hartnell, slightly spiky and much ‘pluckier’ than Susan ever was. The Doctor seems genuinely delighted to meet her, and Hartnell gives perhaps his definitive performance as the Doctor playing opposite her. The plot is solid enough, with the monster turning out to be a man (a theme Whitaker will return to). Only undervalued by people who think two parters are disposable.

 

  1. Doctor Who and the Silurians

After Spearhead from Space shied away from defining what the new Doctor Who was going to be like, Malcolm Hulke’s script is a more representative template for the next few years, with a race of monsters that aren’t entirely evil and a Doctor who’s open minded and keen to negotiate with them. Terrance Dicks tells the story of him and Hulke brainstorming how to make Sherwin’s ‘stranded on Earth’ formula anything like a workable proposition beyond mad scientists and alien invasions, and they came up with this: we are the alien invaders. Even if, in practice, the story is similar to The Tomb of the Cybermen‘s twist on base under siege, Sherwin’s innovation: The Invasion-style location filming, opens this up a lot, and makes it more interesting than many Troughton six parters. Having the monsters’ squabbles reflect the humans’ is quite nice as well: quite a change from the black and white (sigh) morality of the Troughton stuff, but equally not really very much like any situations Hartnell faced. Pertwee’s reasonably impressive and quirky, fascinated by the Silurians and their technology, mucking about with Bessie, and high-handed and rude to authority figures like Masters. He also gets lots of scenes with test tubes, trying to find a cure for the Silurian plague. This is a bit too long and too sombre to be entirely great, but its heart’s in the right place.

 

  1. The Mind of Evil

After Terror of the Autons pointed a way to a more colourful and ambitious new Doctor Who we get this. It’s easy to see it as a throwback to Season Seven, but I think that’s a bit simplistic: this isn’t a high-tech world of laboratories and research facilities. It’s set in a prison in a castle under the control of an alien mind parasite, while the Master, in a super performance from Delgado, swans round like he’s in the Mafia, trying to steal a missile. Meanwhile, UNIT are trying to protect the first of many peace conferences. Of these strands, it’s notable that the Doctor and Jo are pretty much stuck in the traditional Doctor Who plot, fighting a slimy monster inside the prison. It’s also notable that the Doctor gets menaced by images from previous adventures, including, excitingly, ones from the 1960s. Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks did a lot to introduce continuity into Doctor Who (see also the photos of Hartnell and Troughton in Day of the Daleks, and, of course, actually being in The Three Doctors), and while that’s taken to an unhelpful extreme in the 1980s, here it’s a reassuring reminder to the viewers that while normal service has not yet resumed, they’re definitely working on it. Other than acting as the cavalry, UNIT are very much bumped to the sidelines while we learn more about the Doctor and Master’s relationship (and the Master’s greatest fear is revealed to be the Doctor’s ridicule). Very glossily made, now it’s back in colour The Mind of Evil can be seen as a story much more in the style of Barry Letts than Derrick Sherwin.

 

  1. Ghost Light

‘Perhaps she’ll evolve into a young lady.’ If Battlefield was the McCoy team doing Pertwee, this feels like them moving into Tom Baker Gothic with a story that’s darker – literally – than anything else in the 1980s. At times it’s hard to see what’s going on through a combination of low lighting levels and smeary VT. McCoy and Aldred, in their final recorded story, are at their best: the relationship just works, although there’s something really creepy about the Doctor putting Ace through a traumatic initiative test. Robbed of Season 27, and the pay-off to all of this, the Doctor could be – and was, in the New Adventures – perceived as a bit of a bastard. Fortunately, he’s reflective and sympathetic enough for this to not be his defining feature (the burnt toast speech, and his obvious concern for Ace and Redvers). Ghost Light, with its pleasingly baffling mix of queasy Victoriana and cosmic horror, like the best nostalgia TV, goes for the tone of the Hinchcliffe era rather than its specific details – which in general is why so many of these McCoy stories work when stuff like Attack of the Cybermen and Warriors of the Deep don’t. Plus, with the heavy emphasis on metamorphosis, evolutionary theories and change there’s a real sense that Ghost Light is about something – even if the typically fragmentary storytelling technique of the McCoy era tends to obscure what it might be.

 

  1. Enlightenment

The opening TARDIS scenes are lit beautifully – the Ship hasn’t looked this good since about 1977 – and they’re both funny and suspenseful, setting the scene for an episode that is as witty as it is creepy. The White Guardian’s dire warnings of death, Marriner’s sinister stalking of Tegan and the crews’ odd memory lapses add an ominous overtone to the episode, which the Doctor lifts with a sudden flippancy and confidence that’s been lacking for much of Season 20. In Enlightenment, Davison seems to have relaxed into the role, and the nervous energy that drove his performance until this point is exchanged for a kind of sardonic detachment (or, possibly, he’s just half-bothered from now on), which becomes even more pronounced the following season. As Tegan is oddly subdued, this only gives Davison all the more chance to dominate proceedings And his studied insouciance as he encounters the two most powerful beings in the cosmos is a transcendental moment. The mid-point cliffhanger signals in a shift in tone for the story in a very Moffat-ish manner. From then on in it’s pirates! Lynda Baron is marvellously camp and OTT. This story is overflowing with beautiful ideas and images – the TARDIS being hidden inside the Doctor’s mind; the Black Guardian’s wistful yearning for chaos, the White Guardian’s reference to the echoing void of eternity, and ‘Enlightenment wasn’t the crystal. It was the choice’…

 

  1. Frontios

Christopher H Bidmead returns to the series with an episode that highlights many of his obssessions – the energetic, sardonic and slightly scatty fifth Doctor; the deconstruction of the TARDIS; the casual technobabble, and a certain mythic weight that comes from the high stakes (Doctor’s arrival among the last humans). As in Season 18, he’s put a lot of thought into how this planet works – under attack for 30 years, the colony is being both literally and metaphorically eaten up from the inside – consumed as much by paranoia and fear as the earth itself. Bidmead makes the colony’s leader, young Plantagenet, the perfect example of this – paranoid, weak hearted, like Henry VI a dynastic heir rather than a natural leader. The Shakesperean overtones carry through in his rather declamatory dialogue – which is just the way all Saward’s characters talk, but for Bidmead is a way to make a point about Plantagenet’s reliance on macho posturing and empty bravado rather than real leadership. And, admirably, the design is in tune with this – Plantagenet’s ‘throne room’ looks like it comes from a 1980s RSC staging of The Wars of the Roses, and the lighting works in the story’s favour. It’s also a surprisingly influential story for the new series (and not just The Hungry Earth). There’s a lovely RTD style mention of bizarre aliens – the Arar Jecks of Heiradi, which is as evocative as the Nightmare Child or the Hoothi and their silent gas dirigibles. The moment when Norna is unknowingly menaced prefigures Utopia in its depiction of a cannibalistic enemy without. Everything quite literally comes together in the final episode. In the fifth Doctor’s finest hour the last humans are saved, the retrograde attack ends in a truce, and the Tractators are not killed but reduced to harmless burrowing animals. And then there’s the TARDIS’s reconstruction in a climax that’s so cleverly judged that Steven Moffat pretty much steals it for Blink. It’s the polar opposite of Warriors of the Deep‘s massacre, and about a billion times more satisfying. In fact, barring a clumsy death scene for Brazen and some less than impressive monsters, Frontios is near perfect, and the last scene is beautiful. Peter Davison is glorious: observe his winding up Tegan, chatty, used car salesman banter with the Gravis, and tricksy (almost seventh Doctorish) manipulation of the monster’s greed to reach a bloodless solution. This is quite possibly the best ever performance of any actor as the Doctor.

 

  1. Day of the Daleks

Another one of Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks’ ongoing attempt to restore Doctor Who to its 1960s’ glory days. It wasn’t inevitable that the Daleks would come back, and certainly not in a story that’s a million miles away from the straightforward Earth invasion plots of the Derrick Sherwin show. This is a synthesis of The Dalek Invasion of Earth and The Evil of the Daleks, with travellers from our future who have come back to the present to change history. It’s a more interesting and ambitious twist on the typical ‘changing the outcome of World War Two’ type story than we might have expected. The Daleks are a bit underused, but their presence alone is enough to sell what’s at stake, and, like all Pertwee four parters, its got enough incident to be absolutely compelling.

 

  1. The Power of the Daleks

Hard to be sure because it doesn’t exist, but I think this one is probably as good as everyone says it is. It’s quite calculatingly clever in having Ben and Polly suspicious of the impostor, and using the Daleks as a litmus test of whether he’s got what it takes to be the new Doctor Who. A lot of this (and The Highlanders) revolves around seeing how Troughton reacts differently than Hartnell: his nervousness, and slightly fraudulent air (here reinforced because, to Ben at least, he is a fraud) tends to make the Daleks seem scarier, and I think a huge amount of the success of the ‘monster era’ comes down to Troughton’s ability to make whatever he’s facing – even Professor Zaroff, as the recovery of The Underwater Menace, episode two demonstrated – seem credibly threatening. I think he gets even better at this in subsequent stories, and making him less overtly comical (bits of business like the recorder Q&A and mucking about with ‘Lesterson listen’ in this vanish later on). So influential that they were able to base a 2010 story around one small element of it.

 

 

Next time: 20-11

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3 comments

  1. encyclops

    Leela’s one of my favorite companions for just that reason: she’s not interchangeable. You can’t swap Peri in for Leela and have the story still work (although I think it would be awesome to see Peri with a knife screaming “die, bent face!” at Magnus Greel). I love Romana and Zoe for the same reason. It’s not a moral imperative to have a companion be awesome; I’m not saying regular people make inferior companions. I’m just saying why not have them be specific in material ways? Let Mel program something. Let Peri find some plants (Mark of the Rani again!). Let Nyssa…ion bond something. I like that much better than companions whose most helpful trait is serving as the Doctor’s conscience.

    Love the paeans to Frontios and The Mind of Evil — both easy stories to overlook, but so good.

    I HATED Ghost Light for so many years. I’m at a loss to explain why, though I’m still not a huge fan. I think at first (I was probably 14 or 15) it felt like a student’s idea of avant-garde theater, and more recently (maybe a few years ago) it bugged me because the threat feels so slight — the Doctor just flits around the mansion chatting with the villains, mostly, and Josiah’s plan to seize the throne feels so bathetic. I can appreciate it now, and I do know that every Doctor Who fan of taste is expected to find it the Most Brilliant Thing Ever (or 25th most brilliant, at least), but I don’t know if I’ll ever love it. I’m gratified at least to see Enlightenment pulling ahead of it, a story that gets better every time I watch it.

    • Matthew

      Ghost Light’s a strange one: more than any of the McCoy stories (many of which suffer from choppy editing of crucial scenes) it would have benefited from a special edition. But even if the studio tapes hadn’t been wiped, I’m not sure the explanatory material was ever written or recorded: it’s meant to be like that. What puts it to 25 in the list is McCoy and Aldred’s excellent partnership, some haunting images (the stuffed reverend in a glass case; the policeman in the butterfly drawer) and some very funny lines (‘the cream of Scotland Yard’).

      • encyclops

        I don’t remember ever feeling as though I didn’t understand it; just that it seemed so much more presentational than dramatic. It also appeared at a time when I thought I was starting to outgrow Doctor Who. (How wrong I was!) If I’d seen it a bit earlier or a bit later I probably would have been into it right away. I think its reputation now is well-deserved — flawed in the cutting room or not, it has enough ambition to compensate.

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