Here we are, at last, at the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who. I have loved this programme since I was five years old and caught part of a repeat of Revelation of the Daleks on BBC 2, completely by accident (by brother liked The Man from UNCLE, which was repeated beforehand). So much has already been said about the series and why it has lasted so long, but I wanted to add a few of my own thoughts. First up, that traditional fan pastime – the top ten list!
For true Doctor Who fans, however, picking favourite stories is something of a Sophie’s Choice – out of over 200, how to pick just ten? This list, then, is not supposed to be exhaustive or perfect or definitive. These are simply the stories that, at this moment, I feel sum up just why Doctor Who is so magical. In no particular order!
The Seeds of Doom
Doctor Who at its most adult, and its most stylish. The Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith (to my mind the greatest Doctor/companion pairing there has ever been) are in Steed and Peel mode, dashing off to Antarctica to deal with a suspicious pair of alien pods in a taut and claustrophobic riff on The Thing from Another World, and then returning to England to face the fruit of one of said pods, along with an eccentric maniac who is desperate for a greener world. People who claim that the Doctor is never violent might want to check out the gleeful manner in which he punches a lackey’s lights out here! The delicious villainy of barmy botanist Harrison Chase (Tony Beckley, also known as The Italian Job’s Camp Freddy and the chilling psychopath in When A Stranger Calls) puts him amongst the cream of Doctor Who villains, ably matched by John Challis (yes, Boycie!) as his nasty henchman Scorby. Extra points for Amelia Ducat, a supporting character who wrenches the scene from anyone she plays against.
Coming at the end of the so-called ‘Black Guardian trilogy’, Enlightenment stands head and shoulders about the previous instalments in offering a tale that is original, profound and superbly well-acted (by almost everybody). The Doctor and his companions end up in a space race (in period sailing ships, of course), with the prize being the mythical Enlightenment. Their fellow competitors are Eternals, beings who exist outside of time. For them, ephemeral human beings are almost meaningless playthings, though one of them takes a liking to companion Tegan. Indeed, Enlightenment has a surprisingly emotional dimension that is absent from much of classic Doctor Who. Tremendous performances from Keith Barron and Christopher Brown more than make up for the more pantomime villainy of Lynda Baron and Leee John. A pity that the final showdown between good and evil is marred by the representatives of both camps wearing birds on their heads, but you can’t have everything.
An Unearthly Child
This is where it all began, of course, but this story is fascinating and wonderful in its own right, quite apart from its place in the show’s history. Two schoolteachers, Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, follow an odd student home, only to find out that her home is a police box in a junkyard. Forcing their way in, they find that all is definitely not what it seems, and end up on the adventure of a lifetime with the unearthly child Susan Foreman and her equally unearthly grandfather, the Doctor. Episode One functions almost as a standalone episode, but the following dark adventure with a tribe of cavemen still stands up well, with William Hartnell’s grouchy Doctor never more alien and the companions never more genuinely terrified.
City of Death
It is sometimes hard to find enough superlatives for this story. Written, at least in part, by Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy scribe Douglas Adams, filmed in Paris and featuring a villain who has since been a baddie in Indiana Jones, Star Wars, James Bond and Harry Potter, City of Death is an utter treat. It was one of the first stories I watched, and based on this I had no idea that Doctor Who was a low-budget affair. The location work is glorious, Paris filmed at a mad dash looking more chic than ever, and the special effects are highly effective. One effects sequence (the dry-run Louvre heist) is almost indecently good. The dialogue sparkles like crème de menthe, and the Doctor and companion exude cool – no doubt helped by the real life romance between Tom Baker and Lalla Ward. Endlessly quotable (‘I say, what a wonderful butler – he’s so violent!’), City of Death is better than bouillabaisse from Maxim’s.
The Curse of Fenric
Chilling, deep and dark. After years of hard science and campy supervillains, Doctor Who went back to horror and didn’t pull its punches. A rare foray by the series into true vampirism, it is the background tale of the Doctor as an elemental force for good, fighting the awful creatures which live in the outer darkness, which makes this a particularly powerful adventure. Equally rare is the focus on the companion, with Ace the first assistant to really receive special attention from the writers (something which would, of course, become de rigeur post-2005). Her relationship with Captain Sorin is very sweet, and the scene in which she breaks down as the Doctor claims not to care about her features some of Sophie Aldred’s very best acting. A roomful of vampire secretaries, a tense attack on a church and the chillingly simple sight of a dead man’s eyes opening underwater – this story is jam-packed with memorable images. Excellent acting work too from Just A Minute host Nicholas Parsons as the vicar who loses his faith – his reading of the line ‘I wish to God he never had…’ still sends shivers down my spine.
This is the episode that marked the triumphant return of the series after a nine-year absence from our screens (and 16 years since it was on as a proper series). It’s a bit CBBC, and the music is wildly over the top, but it was exactly what the series needed to get it back into the mainstream. Billie Piper makes for an excellent audience identification figure, while Christopher Eccleston is a wonderfully mysterious and charismatic Doctor. It leaves in just enough of the old Who magic to please die-hards, but adds a bright, glossy modernity that, while it might be seen as pandering to the reality-TV generation, was actually a canny move on the part of new showrunner Russell T. Davies. While previous attempts to resurrect the show had delved deep into its convoluted mythology (the TV Movie, Death Comes to Time, Scream of the Shalka), the 2005 return put the show firmly back into its rightful place as a teatime family show with levels accessible to every generation. The only real criticism is the oddly coy approach it takes to death, hitherto an important aspect of the show. This would, however, be rectified as the series continued.
Written by current showrunner Steven Moffat at the time when he could really do no wrong, Blink is a standalone episode with barely any Doctor but spades of chilling atmosphere. In years to come, this is the one that people will remember. Just as people still talk about ‘the one with the giant maggots’ or ‘the one with the Yeti in the underground’, so future generations will talk in awed whispers about ‘the one with the statues that come alive when you’re not looking’. The twisty plot works beautifully, the monsters are truly creepy, and Carey Mulligan is marvellous in the lead (it is little wonder that she is now all over Hollywood).
A deliciously barmy and well put-together piece, the very last story made in the series’ original run shows just how much the programme had improved before it was sadly taken off the telly. Exploring themes of identity and evolution, Marc Platt’s literate script contains a barrage of in-jokes relating to Victorian literature (and one lovely Douglas Adams reference). The set design is among the best we’ve ever seen on the show, and the supporting cast is a delight. Ian Hogg’s blackguard rules the roost, every bit the horrible cuckoo, Michael Cochrane takes great pleasure in playing mad, while Sylvia Sims and Katherine Schlesinger are by turns touching and terrifying. Altogether now…♫That’s the way to the zoo, that’s the way to the zoo!♫
The Web of Fear
Recently rediscovered almost in its entirety, this story is a perfect example of the brand of very British weirdness Doctor Who does so well. Robotic Yeti with deadly web-guns, under the control of an evil, disembodied force called the Great Intelligence, patrol the London Underground, beneath a deserted city. A deadly fungus is spreading through the tunnels, smothering everything it encounters. A rag-tag band of soldiers and scientists are holed up down there too, desperately seeking a solution to the menace. Into this potent brew come the Doctor and his young friends, drawn there by the revenge-seeking Intelligence. The template this story draws up – the ‘Yeti on the loo’ scenario, as Jon Pertwee described it – would go on to define the show for the next five years.
The Caves of Androzani
Script editor Andrew Cartmel has since claimed that a Doctor who is like a leaf in the current is wrong for the series, but this story perhaps works so well because that is exactly what it gives us. The Doctor is completely at the mercy of other characters, and only wants to save his friend. Stunningly directed by Graeme Harper – it isn’t for nothing that he’s the only old-school director who has been brought back post-2005 – and blessed with a gloriously uncompromising (and uncompromised) script from Robert Holmes, this is as bleak as the series ever got. Ending with a bloody, bruised Doctor dying to save his companion, it reaffirms the character as a hero, one who will do anything for his friends.
But this is far from all – we haven’t even mentioned Jon Pertwee’s superior dandy, Paul McGann’s wonderful turn in his one-off TV movie (and triumphant return in this recent gem), or Matt Smith’s clown-with-a-frown. We said this list wasn’t going to be easy…from these Doctors you might want to watch Day of the Daleks (Pertwee in a Terminator-style adventure with future guerrillas), aforementioned TV movie which is a fascinating glimpse at how an American-produced series might look, and Neil Gaiman’s The Doctor’s Wife, which gives a new perspective on the Doctor’s relationship with his best ‘old girl’.