Classic Series Rankings Day 16: The Top Ten Doctor Who Stories Ever

Mindrobber_ep2

  1. The Mind Robber

The ultimate Doctor Who collage: sci-fi robots, comic strip heroes, creatures from myths and legends, classic historical literature and fairytales lining up to battle the Doctor: all of time and space, everything that ever happened or ever will. The white void in the first episode, and the TARDIS explosion cliffhanger are incredibly powerful images, and the finale, summoning characters to do battle, is astonishing. Maybe not quite as inventive as is sometimes claimed – it’s not like The Avengers and The Prisoner hadn’t touched on similar ideas – but the way it makes a virtue of the unexpected extra episode and Frazer Hines’ sickness absence deserves all the praise it gets. If anything, with its focus on wordplay, childhood, pop art, and breaking the fourth wall, this is the most 1960s story of all. However, the bit of spit at the corner of the Master of the Land of Fiction’s mouth is the most disgusting thing in the whole of Doctor Who.

  1. The Time WarriorLisSladenJonPertwee

The third Pertwee ‘changing history’ story (if you count Inferno‘s prophetic alternative future). This one is more conventionally like The Time Meddler, which means Robert Holmes can get to be more playful with the characters. But that isn’t to say this isn’t quietly radical, and hugely influential. Nothing like it had been done since 1965. After it, the (eurgh) ‘pseudo-historical’ becomes one of the mainstays of the series, both Classic and New. After years where the monsters were usually in league with humans (or the Master) who acted as spokespeople, The Time Warrior goes ahead and synthesises the roles of monster and villain into one character. Linx is the template for every great Doctor Who baddie in the future, from Davros to Bonnie the Zygon. This is another pacey, funny Pertwee four parter with the added benefit that Pertwee is absolutely at his best, upping his game because there’s a new regular coming along, and because he gets to be the clever action hero without UNIT stepping in his way. The story is very ‘new series’ as well in the way that the Doctor really is every bit the wizard he appears to be, with various people being won over to thinking he is the most remarkable man. Pertwee’s scenes with Elisabeth Sladen are excellent: he’s as condescending as ever, but clearly with tongue in cheek, in a way that’s designed to rile and test Sarah Jane. If anything, it reminds me of Hartnell’s scenes with O’Brien: the Doctor is clearly enchanted with this new person, and is doing everything he can, including name-dropping Gallifrey, to impress her. I really think the Pertwee and Sladen team is every bit as classic as Pertwee and Manning, or Baker and Sladen. It’s the one that always springs to my mind when I think of the third Doctor, because it’s the pairing in The Five Doctors, and because this was the first Pertwee story I saw (on the VHS ‘movie’ version). I wonder whether it’s because The Five Doctors and The Time Warrior were my formative experiences of Pertwee that I like him so much better than people who had to sit through Seasons Seven and Eight. I think The Time Warrior is essentially so perfectly done – a very funny script, a lush-looking period setting, a winning Doctor and companion team who are a little bit in love, a memorable and well designed villain, a hint of timey-wimey and the Doctor inspiring the incidental characters to save the day – that every subsequent production team has had a go at emulating it. In its quiet way, as much of a milestone as The War Games. Even the title sequence marks it out as a new beginning.

 

  1. The War GamesUnknown

Does what The Mind Robber did but substitutes histories for stories, to become an amazing fusion of the historical, the pop-art collage, the space adventure and the Sherwin action-epic. Then it tops it all by introducing the Time Lords, and wrapping up the whole of 1960s Doctor Who in the story that then becomes the BC/AD boundary for the classic series. Dropping Troughton’s Doctor into one of the worst moments in history must have been a shockingly effective moment for the handful of people still watching in 1969. Gradually revealing this to be literally a theatre of war, another take on the Land of Fiction, manipulated by aliens from a secret, Troughton-era space base is a brilliant twist. Then adding the final twist: to win, the Doctor must lose and to his own people at that, probably got them talking in the playgrounds. The pacing is really good given it’s 10 episodes long. Every episode works on its own merits, including the last one. The Doctor’s ‘death’ is deeply horrible. The best Troughton story because it takes the bits of the era that worked best (the Doctor as an anarchic, free-thinking force against mind-controlling aliens; the arty design work; The Evil of the Daleks‘ steady escalation of scope) and drops the bits that don’t (mainly the tired base under siege format).

 

  1. The Curse of Fenricimages-3

This one is brilliant for the same reason as The Talons of Weng-Chiang: because it focuses on having lots of the ‘iconic’ elements of World War Two, without actually being specific about the history. We’ve got evacuees, the Dresden bombings, Bletchley Park, Russian Communists and Hitler’s office, all from different moments of the war. It also chucks in a buried evil from the dawn of time and, like Talons, a foe from the future. It’s also well directed, atmospheric, with possibly Dinsdale Landen’s best ever performance in anything. All of this is wrapped up in a very literate and sensitive script with some beautiful moments (the Doctor’s reading of the runic translation as, elsewhere, something rises from the depths, and a message burns itself into a wall). Sadly, the TV version is compromised by editing, so the top 10 placing is down to the DVD Special Edition. Hey, I don’t make the rules.

 

  1. The Daleks’ Master Plandoctor-sara-and-steven

Hard to be certain, but I think this is probably the best Hartnell story, mainly because it’s so eclectic. It’s got the Daleks, the Monk, weird planetarians, scary monsters, Mavic Chen: the best villain of the 1960s, comedy episodes, very serious episodes, past, present, future, alien worlds, jungles, swamps, deserts, volcanoes and ice planets. It’s as ambitious as one of the Star Wars prequel movies and much better. It was directed by Douglas Camfield. Fans who saw it at the time remember it fondly. The episodes that exist are great, and they’re not even the best ones. As the biggest threat this Doctor ever faces – the destruction of time itself – and with the Daleks at their World Distributors finest, it’s got a decent claim to be the greatest Doctor Who story ever. Like The War Games, this is a fusion of everything Doctor Who could do up to the point it was made, and was so memorable that Barry Letts tried to re-make it in 1973. It also feels like the recipe for at least some of Steven Moffat’s season finales: multiple locations and returning characters; a grand alliance of monsters; time itself being undone.

 

  1. SurvivalDoctorMaster

I can remember watching this at the time, with no idea it was going to be the last Doctor Who story to air that side of puberty. I love seeing the TARDIS land in suburban streets, the Doctor hunt alien cats in front gardens, corner shops and youth centres. I love Ainley’s performance as the Master, and Aldred’s as Ace. I love the languid menace of the Cheetah people, playing with their prey and lazing about on their disintegrating planet. I love seeing the Doctor and Ace in a grotty council flat one minute and a world with a pink sky and planets the next. What makes Survival almost the greatest McCoy story is the way it takes the studio-bound political allegories of Paradise TowersThe Happiness Patrol and Ghost Light, and actually drops them into Britain in 1989, so that we get all the benefits of the location VT and all the interesting ‘oddball’ stuff as well. In other words, like The War Games, it’s almost a synthesis of approaches the series can take: ‘We can do high concept. We can do “yeti-on-the-loo” homages. We can do horror. Now let’s do all of them together’. The result is something that, while obviously still a product of the 1980s and not the 2000s, kind of works on the same basis as a lot of RTD’s Doctor Who. This is one of the most enchanting stories ever. But the kitling is rubbish, so right until the end they were making sure there was a crap monster.

 

  1. The Talons of Weng-ChiangTalons 4

This one has the crap rat: maybe they should have set the kitling on it. My favourite thing about Talons is that Magnus Greel is a foe from the future. Doctor Who in the 1970s made a big thing about buried evil coming back to menace the present, or aliens in the past. Talons turns this upside down, having our twisted future come back to menace our past. Stating that there will be another four World Wars by the year 5000 is a much darker and more cynical view of the future than the Pertwee era’s (which generally implied humankind had joined together in some kind of outward-looking Empire or Federation). Jago and Litefoot are the best incidental characters in the programme’s history: their audio series is the best thing Big Finish does because, like Talons, it subverts or muchs about with all the familiar iconography of the Victorian age. Talons is a collage of Victoriana: Jack the Ripper; Hammer’s Phantom of the Opera; Sherlock Holmes; Fu Manchu; Dickens, without picking just one of those ideas to pastiche. Tom Baker is at the top of his game as well: he relishes every line, milking Holmes’ grisly humour. What could possibly be better than this?

 

  1. The Caves of Androzaniimages-1

Clearly the best story ever. In context, this feels like a synthesis of series 21: it’s set on another desert planet of caves (polished smooth like glass), with an unwieldy monster, poison gas, androids disguised as humans and a military SF feel. However, rather than a cod Shakespearean monotone we have people speaking in slang, and characters with distinct voices (Morgus, the politician, flowering up his language with talk of ‘our glorious pioneers’. Stotz and his men, coarse and bantering). There’s also Davison, finally given a script that’s not trying to fight against the ghost of Tom Baker, and able to put his own spin on it. He is astonishing. Obviously, this is directed better than any other classic Doctor Who story (slow dissolves, and an emphasis on voyeurism, with camera lenses, screens and projections), lighting and solid costume design: all these elements working together make this special. But what elevates this to being the BEST DOCTOR WHO STORY EVER! is the way it picks up Season 21’s ideas of ‘there should have been another way’ and ‘it’s stopped being fun’, and pays them off. Everyone on Minor dies, victims of the chain reaction triggered by the Doctor’s arrival. And the Doctor himself realises this: this time he refuses to lose another friend, to surrender to the violence and horror of this nasty world, or to buy into its cheap, base motives. As the whole planet collapses around him, the Doctor wins his smallest and most important victory: saving a single human life. This is the pay-off Donald Tosh was straining for without quite nailing in The Massacre, and it’s so powerful they re-used it as the climax of The Fires of Pompeii in 2008. The only problem being, this is explicitly meant to be the endpoint of Season 21’s ‘victory at a terrible cost’ – the Doctor paying with his life. The Twin Dilemma, if nothing else, is at least colourful and silly in a way that Doctor Who hadn’t been for ages. The only fault with Androzani is it was so good they tried to do another season just like it.

 

  1. City of Deathimages

This whole ‘ranking all the stories’ thing is a bit pointless. Some Doctor Who stories, like The Curse of Fenric, are evidently fun and watchable. Others, like Timelash, are thoroughly bad and the only reason anyone would ever watch them is because they have the Doctor Who logo slapped on them. Most stories fall somewhere between the two extremes. You could argue forever whether The Caves of Androzani is better than The Talons of Weng-Chiang and no-one would win. Is Doctor Who the Movie really ‘worse’ than The Daleks’ Master Plan? I’m sure it’s better made, even just by dint of 30 years of technical advances and the possibility of doing re-takes when someone mucked up. So this whole exercise has been a massive waste of time. That said, City of Death is clearly better than any other single Doctor Who story. It’s witty, with Douglas Adams’ best script. It’s well acted. It’s got some great location filming. It’s got Tom Baker, at the absolute top of his game, and Lalla Ward being marvellous (well I think they’re marvellous). Just when it’s getting a bit cosy in Paris, the Doctor steps back in time to 15th Century Italy to get Leonardo da Vinci to sabotage some copies of the Mona Lisa. Then John Cleese wanders in from the set of Fawlty Towers. There is no Doctor Who story before or since that is better than this one. I love it and I want to have its babies.

 

  1. Remembrance of the Daleks

‘Remembrance’ is an incredibly appropriate title for a story that plays on fond memories of the show: of course, the Daleks and the 1960s but also UNIT and the 1970s. The Doctor mis-speaks Gilmore as ‘Brigadier’, and we learn that Rachel has been drafted in like Liz Shaw from Cambridge. Throw in a second in command called Mike who’s a misguided traitor, and you have a synthesis of the generic ‘popular memory’, if not the fannish specifics, of the UNIT years. And Aaronovitch also links Omega and Rassilon, the two giants of Time Lord continuity, in a way that’s both fan-pleasing and is easy to explain to non-fans. As I’ve done these rankings I’ve recognised one of the things I most admire about Doctor Who is its ability to cut and paste different genres or stories into a collage (or photomontage). Remembrance takes this approach to Doctor Who itself: the very beginnings of the show, its biggest monsters, the mythology of Gallifrey the third Doctor’s earthbound exile with UNIT, and the Doctor as ‘some space vagrant’. It makes the Daleks more interesting than they’ve been since at least Genesis (with a new death ray effect so good that the new series copied it), and the single Dalek in Totter’s Yard feels like part of the inspiration for Dalek. McCoy and Aldred are the best pairing since Tom and Lalla: unlike most 1980s TARDIS crews they seem to enjoy being together, especially since at this point the Doctor hasn’t taken to manipulating her like a punk psychiatrist. McCoy’s performance is a step change over the previous season, playing some great moments of physical comedy and channelling Troughton to declare, ‘I can do anything I like’ as he snatches his umbrella from the jaws of the Dalek shuttle. Behind the scenes, it also finally feels like the show can also do anything it likes – sending a Dalek up the stairs, landing a spaceship in a playground and staging a full-scale street battle on the streets of 1960s’ London between Dalek factions. Even Barry Letts never managed that. Only the final use of the Hand is disappointing, but even then the lovely detail of the tiny escape pod fleeing the Dalek mothership is a gorgeous, subtle touch. This makes everything that’s gone before a prelude in a way that only The Evil of the Daleks and The Deadly Assassin have previously managed. That it manages to be the best anniversary celebration ever, without having to drag in past Doctors or actually showing us the first Doctor and Susan leaving Gallifrey, is even more remarkable. This is the ultimate Doctor Who story.

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3 comments

  1. encyclops

    Only three of your top ten stories would even crack my top twenty. Which is what makes lists like this so fascinating, when they are. I love the cases you make for these unusual (but hardly unsupportable) choices.

    The hints as to your age could explain a few things. I have strong suspicions about the ideal time to fall in love with pop culture in general and Doctor Who in specific. It sounds like the McCoy era happened during that critical period for you, whereas for me it was on the other side of puberty, and as I’ve implied in a previous comment, was ushering Doctor Who out the door for a while until I fell in love with it again after the new series started and I revisited all my old friends. Which include Weng-Chiang, an excellent story whose Fu Manchu elements have made it less fashionable these days than it deserves to be; the Pertwee era (I love him AND Seasons 7 and 8), including Time Warrior for which you make an eloquent case; Androzani, far too “gun” to crack my personal top ten but of course it’s everything you say it is and I do love it; and of course City of Death, my traditional favorite.

    I quite like Survival, and Remembrance is pretty good, but for some reason I still struggle with Fenric. It might be the edit, it might be the sound (dialogue in most of the versions I’ve watched being drowned out by the incidental music), or it might just be the story, which should be epic and chilling but somehow never engages me. And maybe that’s the direction. I can’t help feeling that if Graeme Harper had done it, I would have adored it. But instead when I think of Fenric I think of scenes like those two girls, newly vampirized, descending on their governess (?) with all the genuine menace of a school play, and I can’t take it seriously. That might be why I tend to prefer the more stylized McCoys — the Happiness Patrols, the Greatest Shows, even the Paradise Towerses — where the lighting and the costuming and everything else help the atmosphere rather than destroying it. But all right-thinking people feel differently, and you can’t take seriously the opinion of the teenage kid I was at the time, thinking he was outgrowing this show for Blake’s 7, of all things.

    I’ll waste your time with one more remark, which is that yes, Troughton’s “death” was horrible, and yet can you imagine the show killing him off any other way? Throwing him off a radio telescope, for instance? Maybe I can see him being poisoned or bathed in radiation but a brutal death seems such an awful thing to do to the cuddly second Doctor. At least he’s allowed a bit of comedy and charm to his administrative reboot. Then again McCoy (who held Gallifrey One in absolute thrall when I was there — the man was born to work a crowd), that funny little elf, went out in a hail of bullets.

    Thank you for writing and posting these — I’ve really looked forward to them and have been surprised that, as many times as I’ve read and thought about these same stories, it’s possible for someone very clever to come up with new perspectives on them and influence the way I watch the next time I put them on. Terrific stuff!

    • Matthew

      Thanks for the comments – they’re insightful. I like your point about the second Doctor’s ‘death’. How else could they have done it? I don’t know. It’s an appropriate end, but amazingly downbeat – the most anarchic Doctor captured and neatly neutered by the Time Lords. There’s something disturbingly Orwellian about it, when Winston, after all his little rebellions, is straitjacketed into becoming a productive member of that society.

      Now, I look forward to reading your list!

      • encyclops

        Yes, it really is awful to see him humbled that way — the Orwell comparison seems apt.

        I wish I had your dedication! I admit shamefully that there are a number of 60s stories I’ve never attempted in any form — recon, audio, novel, even a few of the ones I’ve actually bought on DVD (a friend has borrowed my copy of The Romans and I’m not sure when I’ll ever get it back!) — so I couldn’t do a full ranking, and even if I tried, the endgame would drive me mad. It might be fun to try and defend some of my weirder choices, though. If you want a taste of how it would go, you could peek at http://encyclops.com/tag/50th-anniversary/ and start at the bottom; there are definitely some choices in there I’d swap around if I were to redo it right now (I’d probably pick a different Troughton, for instance, now that the excitement has died down), but that’s where my head was at circa “Day of the Doctor.” The annotations are somewhat geared toward an audience that might not have seen much of the classic series (I wrote it for http://fanboyplanet.com/) but they give a sense of what the hell I could possibly have been thinking.

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