- Warriors’ Gate
The one great story from Season 18 – as fairytale as Traken, filled with memorable images from the white void and the ruined gateway, to the black and white gardens and the cobwebbed great hall. Dropping a load of crass slave traders into the surreal landscape is the real genius of it: the Privateer crew stop it from becoming an ethereal and abstract story and introduce a tangibly solid threat. It helps that they’re written in a much more believable way than most of the characters this season. I like Doctor Who when it gets weird, and it doesn’t often get weirder than this.
- The Aztecs
The best story from Season One, mainly because it’s four episodes long and isn’t a trek from one place to the next that could go on forever by adding another waystation or key to collect. It also helps that Hartnell and Hill get such good material. I love Hartnell’s little romantic sub-plot with Cameca. I also love Hill’s doomed attempt to save a civilisation, which only, perhaps, saves one man. This idea, that saving one person is sometimes the biggest victory it’s possible to win, is the first hint that anyone gets how the history stories can be made to work as anything other than inevitable tragedies. It’s the same idea that crops up at the end of The Massacre, and, in an even more impactful way, at the ends of The Caves of Androzani and The Fires of Pompeii. Very good.
The design is a bit Wogan, and the direction and editing could be better. But the script is superb. There’s more humanity and humour here than in almost any Doctor Who story: the characters and culture of Manussa are more real than the 1920s of Black Orchid. Martin Clunes is obviously wonderful because he really does project the sense of a bored, overprivileged undergraduate forced to go on holiday with his mother. And their little in-jokes are utterly believable. The script is cleverly structured so that the Doctor fills in the continuity at the same time as Ambril downloads the new history of the Sumaran Empire and the legend of the return. The story has the two on an inevitable collision course because the Doctor knows the Mara but not the culture it sprang from, and Ambril knows everything academically but has no insight into the truth. The Doctor recognises without cultural context he cannot properly understand the Mara’s plan. But while he searches for meaning, Ambril is content with dusty facts. This is made clear in the ‘Six Faces of Delusion’ – Ambril sees it only as an artifact that disproves the legend of the return until the Doctor interprets its real meaning. And the Doctor’s desperate energy is in stark contrast to the general indolence of the Manussans, meaning he comes across as even more of a madman than usual. After the final confrontation with the Mara, the story ends, wonderfully, in stunned, still silence. Excellent.
- The Evil of the Daleks
Episode two looks impressive, and even though all the episodes it’s in are gone, the Dalek Emperor is such an iconic villain that they brought it back 20 and 37 years later. Taking the Doctor back to his beginning for a final showdown with the Daleks is such a powerful idea that it’s been repeated at least four times. The middle episodes might be a tiny bit slow, but the whole story is clearly an epic achievement. The plot is as audacious as anything the series has done before or since: replacing the essence of every human being in time and space with the Dalek Factor is the stuff of modern series finales. In the hands of the original script editor, there’s also the sense that this is the show coming full circle. It starts with a mystery – the TARDIS carried off on the back of a lorry, and the Doctor and Jamie investigating a strange old antique shop, like ghostly echoes of Ian and Barbara poking round the junkyard in the very first story. The Victorian-clothed time traveller Edward Waterfield and his daughter therefore become analogues for the first Doctor and Susan, which makes the Doctor’s family discussion with Victoria in the next story make even more sense. As the stakes raise, just as in those first half dozen 1963 episodes the time travellers are whisked back in time, and then off to Skaro, for ‘the final end’. Although it was never planned as the last Doctor Who story, this was meant to be the last ‘Doctor Who and the Daleks’ story, and you can tell: The Daleks’ Master Plan was more epic, but this one strikes right at the heart of what Doctor Who is all about – threatening to pervert everything that the Doctor has ever achieved, turning the TARDIS into a weapon to spread the Dalek Factor through Earth’s history and twisting all his travels from his first adventure. I think it works brilliantly.
- The Deadly Assassin
As the pay-off to seven years of 1970s’ Doctor Who, this is remarkable. The Doctor began as an exile, stranded on one planet and time. Then the Master turns up, and then the Time Lords start sending him on occasional missions. Finally, he saves their civilisation, and they rescind his sentence. This is the last step: he goes home to prevent the Master from taking the power of the Time Lords for himself. Gallifrey is reimagined as a decrepit and corrupt civilisation, not just aloof and dull, but rotten as well. The gods of The War Games turn out to be just like the gods of human legends: squabbling, petty and mean. I used to complain that Gallifrey looked grim and dismal, but I think that’s the point: why would anyone want to stay here? It’s horrible. And there’s a black hole under a squeaky floorboard behind the podium. Having introduced the idea of the villainous monster with Linx, Holmes (slightly tastelessly, given the circumstances) flips it to have the Master become a monster as well. But it kind of works thematically: shorn of his suave exterior, the Master’s cadaver is like Gallifrey behind the gleaming spires and sparkly control rooms: rotten to the core. The bits in the Matrix are as surreal as Carnival of Monsters, and much more frightening.
- The Massacre
This one is the worst casualty of the BBC binning all the 1960s episodes. There’s nothing left of it at all. Not even a solitary telesnap to give us a hint of what Hartnell’s much-praised dual performance as the Abbot of Amboise might have looked like. The soundtrack probably doesn’t do justice to it, because by all accounts it was spectacularly well made, and Paddy Russell did a great job with Pyramids of Mars and Horror of Fang Rock. We don’t have Hartnell’s awesome soliloquy from the final episode. We don’t have the woodcuts that apparently hinted at the horror of the Massacre itself. The script and audio at least prove it was a smart story, and the Doctor’s eleventh-hour return and desperate departure must have been a shock to the audience who might have been expecting him to do something more to intervene. This is as far as you can go with the ‘not one line’ historicals: the Doctor doesn’t act because the implications are too vast that no-one can predict them. Not a lot of fun, but absolutely fascinating, and always so tantalisingly out of reach. Oh, for this one to turn up.
Don Houghton’s two scripts give Pertwee some of his best material as the Doctor. I’m sure Pertwee enjoyed the amount of screen time they give him. But equally, they put him through the wringer – in the next story from angry prisoners, the Master and an alien that can turn his deepest fears against him. Here, by Socialists. Dropping him into 1984-world on the verge of armageddon, with no back up, tortured and imprisoned, he’s at his most vulnerable. There’s always something disquieting about seeing the third Doctor being assaulted: the Great One turning him into a puppet in Planet of the Spiders is a really nasty moment. These are four episodes of him under attack. It’s like the Tara King Avengers episode Take-Over when Steed, who’s previously always been unflappable and invulnerable, gets shot, sweaty, scared, and desperate. If you can ignore the silly Primords, it’s all very serious. I think it rises above the rest of the equally serious Season Seven, though, because the stakes are so much clearer: we see what happens if the Doctor fails.
- Genesis of the Daleks
Like Inferno, it’s all very serious. David Maloney directs it brilliantly, especially the opening of the first episode (which seems to consciously hark back to The War Games). Davros is a brilliant creation, a half-man, half-Dalek psychopath that repeats the idea of Linx by creating a monster/villain for the Doctor to share the kind of scenes that previously needed the Master. It was designed to be one of the classics from the minute it was commissioned, but all credit to the cast and crew for making sure it is.
- The Ark in Space
This was the first Doctor Who VHS I ever bought, and it was a good choice. Having reinvented the Doctor in the previous story, Robert Holmes now sets about changing the series. The regulars-only first episode is like something from the Hartnell era, and I wonder if this is a hangover from the original story by John Lucarotti. It’s effective, because it makes the Ark an immediately more dangerous environment than anywhere the Doctor’s visited in the 1970s. After that, it’s very like Alien: sci-fi horror. If anything, making the sets look like the gleaming spaceships of the Pertwee era makes this all the more unsettling. Four episodes of creeping tea-time terror for tots. Wonderful.
After a fortnight of fighting giant frogs in space, this must have come as a pleasant relief to some in the audience: it’s so obviously appropriating the look and feel of the late British Empire, with clearly recognisable (and realistic) characters. But it’s also totally Doctor Who – the innovative use of electronic effects and Tegan’s bizarre dream sequences are like something from Top of the Pops 1981 and give the episode a beguiling, unsettling style. It’s probably the best-acted story in Doctor Who’s history. Simon Rouse is astonishing. But then, so is Davison: his horrified response to Hindle’s madness convincing us that this is the Doctor’s most dangerously human enemy. And Nerys Hughes, as the benchmark of normality, is the anchor of what could otherwise have been a self-consciously arty piece. Her rapport with Davison is superb, and it’s a shame she couldn’t have been a full-time companion. Obviously there’s the pink snake – but then, perhaps Buddhist evil always manifests itself as a rubbish version of a common phobia. But against this: ‘you can’t mend people’, ‘it’s all a bit too green for me’, the fifth Doctor effortlessly taking charge and displaying utter confidence in the face of ultimate evil, the lovely coda in the forest (where the Doctor’s regret at leaving Todd for the children of the TARDIS is etched in Davison’s face). The final two episodes are far less arty than the first, but manage to transform Kinda into a Doctor Who story without abandoning the essence of Bailey’s ideas. It’s more elegant and considered than almost any other story, provocative in the right way, beautifully written and structured.
Next time: The top 10 best classic Doctor Who stories