- 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.
- 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 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.
The top 40 countdown: the top quartile of classic Doctor Who stories. This is the hit parade…
- 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.
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.
- Nightmare of Eden
Bob Baker’s only solo script suggests he should maybe have gone it alone sooner, as it’s better than anything he co-wrote with Dave Martin. This one sheds the gauche re-tellings of Greek myths for a direct and effective script about drug smuggling and addiction, pepped up with a very neat sub-plot about an overhead projector that’s also a doorway to other worlds. I’m sure Moffat must have half remembered it when he came to write about Zygons escaping from paintings. It suffers badly from the same problems as a lot of Season 17: insipid direction and weak design that doesn’t do the material any justice. But production issues aside, it’s a thoughtful, imaginative script with some excellent touches all about the blurring of boundaries (the two ships fused together in hyperspace; the monsters that are also victims; the concept of being able to step inside a television).
- The Daemons
I’ve been a fan as long as I can remember. My earliest memories are of Tom Baker regenerating into Peter Davison at the start of Castrovalva, and then of being sent to bed just after the opening titles of the July 1982 repeat of The Curse of Peladon as it would be ‘too scary’ for a three year old (probably true). But I wasn’t ‘in fandom’ until the late 1990s, at a point when BBC Books had just started publishing the Eighth Doctor Adventures. I used to make the faithful pilgrimage down the first Thursday of each month from Leeds to the Fitzroy Tavern, where I, and a gaggle of other teenage boys (Guerrier, Clapham, Robson, Miller, Howells, Belcher et al.), hung on the words of fandom’s Upper Echelons (Paul Cornell, Gareth Roberts, Gary Russell). It was amazing, in that smoky pub, clutching your cheap, warm pint while Tat Wood handed out Yak Butter Sandwiches and Lawrence Miles passed his own, torn-edged A4 fan version of Private Eye under the table. There was a real sense of community. Happy times. Our bible – the teenagers, that is – was Cornell’s Discontinuity Guide, which demolished a lot of the sacred cows of ‘Establishment fandom’ (Howe, Bentham, Haining) with anarchic glee and very barbed wit. The Daemons was one of the most obvious casualties: the Discon Guide’s pointed ‘For a certain age group, this story is the most memorable example of 1970s Doctor Who’ says it all: the old folks reckon this is good, but actually it’s rubbish. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with that even at the time: I’d seen The Daemons, newly restored to colour, in the 1992 BBC2 repeat, and it seemed to me a pretty decent, if not all-conquering, ‘spooky’ Doctor Who. Plus the novelisation was really good. I think my gut feel was right: this isn’t the most memorable example of 1970s Doctor Who. But it’s not a risible failure either. In it’s assertion that the devil genuinely exists and is an alien, it’s just picking up on Quatermass and the Pit, but it’s still a bit more in your face than ‘the Great Intelligence is disguising robots as real-life yeti’ or ‘legends of the Kraken might be partly inspired by sentient seaweed’. This was memorable enough for RTD to re-use the idea in 2006.
- The Green Death
This is the exact midpoint of this countdown, which means that The Green Death is, according to me, the median of quality for Doctor Who. I think that’s probably fair. This is pitched, like Planet of the Spiders, as an ‘end of era’ adventure. This time, it’s Jo getting the best companion departure yet – fitting, since she’s so great. I like that she kind of gets an Emma Peel departure – short of marrying the Doctor, which would be series ending, she marries a ‘younger him’. All this is lovely. BOSS is a great villainous computer, almost like its been programmed by the Master. Does that typical Doctor Who thing of putting a sentient supercomputer with mind control powers, a colony of giant maggots and a glowing-green virus all together in one story, when any other series would pick one of those ideas and go with it.
- Image of the Fendahl
This is another one that, on paper, should be at least in my top 20. It’s got everything that appeals to me: spooky skulls; slithering monsters; an M.R. Jamesian buried evil; a whiff of the BBC ghost story strand; Wanda Ventham painted gold. It’s better made than almost anything else in Season 15. But, don’t you think it looks tired? There’s nothing wrong with it as such, it’s just so much like what we’ve seen several times before, not done quite so well. I struggle to find any enthusiasm for it.
- Planet of the Spiders
The 100th best Doctor Who story could easily have been 50 places higher if I’d only thought about the first and final episodes, which are both wonderful, impressive and moving. They have a genuine ‘end of an era’ feel that’s every bit as final as Logopolis while at the same time actually feeling like part of that era. I suppose the difference is that while Logopolis was deliberately excising Tom Baker from his series, Planet of the Spiders is celebrating its leading man, with all of his silly idiosyncrasies. Mysticism, pointless action sequences, ‘moments of charm’, mention of Jo Grant, a return for Captain Yates – it’s all here. Sadly so are the four middle episodes of pissing about between Mummerset and Metebelis III.