Thursday, 21 November 2013
The 20 Best Doctor Who Stories - An AAA Guide (Happy 50th Birthday Dr!)
Dear all, we're going to take a temporary pause from our newsing, viewsing and perusing the world of music-ing to celebrate a very special 50th birthday. No, not mine - I'm not that old (though this site has indeed added at least 20 years to my life - by rights I should be on my seventh generation by now!), no it's time to talk about my other life passion Dr Who. Now I seriously considered writing a Dr Who site as an alternative to a music one when I first started Alan's Album Archives - before I discovered so many brilliant sites had beaten me to it (take a bow 'Science Justice Eek!' 'Den Of Geek' 'Adventures with the Wife in Space' 'Reviews in TIme and Space' 'From The Archive: A British Television Blog' and 'Time and the ---!', classy sites all) and an amazing series of Dr Who books ('About Time' by Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles) so wonderfully detailed, witty and erudite that it became my goal with this website to write something that detailed and that readable all at the same time (no rude comments please - at least I've tried).
Between them, those sites and books cover so much ground I haven't felt there was much more really to add. However, there's always been a lot of cross-pollination between the two subjects (the 'About Time' series has a six-year comparison between Dr Who and The Beatles that's spot on) and longterm fans of Alan's Album Archives will know that not having much to say hasn't stopped me drip-feeding you bits and pieces of Dr Who lore down the years and posts (especially in our time-travelling April Fool's Day issues!) So for one week only it's not Alan's Album Archives but Alan's Adventure Almanac, with this 'top 20' my handy top twenty guide to my favourite ever Dr Who stories from all eras (some are controversial choices, so feel free to moan at me in the comments section and list your own favourites - that's what sites like this are for and debating is a national past-time with Dr Who fans, right up there with knitting long scarves, buying eleven different versions of the same Radio Times publication because of a 'special edition' front coverand dreaming about owning our own robotic dog).
Seeing as there are so many great Dr Who stories to choose from (this was so nearly a 'top 50' but I thought I'd spare yours and mine's eyesight), I've reluctantly cut out the black and white era stories where less than half of the episodes exist in the BBC archives - rumour has it they won't be missing for much longer heh-heh-heh (what a year to be a Dr Who fan!) - I can always go back and add them in a future post (this writing lark is just like time travel, though npot quite as much fun!) (A quick plug for 'Marco Polo' 'Dalek's Masterplan' 'The Massacre' 'The Myth Makers' 'Power Of The Daleks' and 'Fury From The Deep', though, classics all if the soundtracks, telesnaps and reconstructions are anything to go by). As ever for Alan's Album Archives, we're listing our stories in chronological order for that full timey-wimey evolutionary effect. Oh and if Dr Who isn't your thing then don't worry - we'll be back to more music discussion next week but, hey, I had to do something; a birthday like this only comes around every 50 years (unless you have a time machine of course...)
1) "The Edge Of Destruction"
(Season 1 Story 3, February 8-15th 1964)
The first two Dr Who stories set out so many of the benchmarks and landmarks to come, climaxing with the Dr overthrowing the Daleks for the first time (another story that only just missed out on appearing on this list), a victory that's as great as any in the timelord's future. Where can the Tardis crew possibly go next? Through the Twilight Zone is the answer, with one of the weirdest, strangest stories the production team ever made (and there'll be a lot of those on my list!) Legend has it this two-parter was made on the hop 'in case' the series had to be axed after 13 episodes (series were broken up into 'quarters' and 'halves' of the year back then and the two preceding stories had taken the total to 11), had to feature no one except the regular crew and had to be set inside the one long-term set available to the crew, the Tardis set (for budgetary reasons). It should have been the recipe for disaster, especially following such a big 'hit' (some fans argue it is - but if you too have a lot of emotion invested in the original Tardis crew then this is as good as television gets). Writer David Whittaker knew the series better than anyone and really makes the most of his opportunity to re-set what we know about the characters and their spaceship before our very eyes. The Tardis is the single greatest vehicle in fiction, with mysterious origins (especially in this era) and it's also effectively 'alive', enjoying a link to the Dr that no fictional hero has ever had and which is stil isn't fully explained after 50 years of adventuring. The Tardis has never been drawn more vividly than here, where it tries to communicate with the characters to save itself being blown to bits (even if scaring them out of their wits probably isn't the best thing to do!) William Hartnell is at his very best here, making the Dr as alien and strange as he's ever been, convinced that his human passengers are trying to sabotage his precious ship which even the last eleven episodes of mutual danger hasn't overcome. It doesn't help that Ian, our hero for the past 11 episodes much more so than the Dr himself, spends most of the episode acting 'strangely' after the Tardis tries to knock him out for touching the 'wrong' controls. The Dr's grand-daughter Susan is torn between the two sides and finally gets some long-delayed emotion to play off due to the conflict. And Barbara, one of the greatest of all Who companions and the teacher all of us wish we'd had, works out the clues, her sheer outrage at the Dr's actions leading her to refuse to take no for an answer. The plot is kept finely in balance across the first episode (Have the companions really sabotaged the ship? Is the mysterious Dr responsible? Is the Tardis acting out of his control? Has something alien got inside the ship and the crew?) and the resolution (spoiler alert sweeties!) that The Tardis is heading into the distant past via a 'fast return switch' (sweetly marked onto the control panel in pen) is a great pay-off in my eyes, turning the Tardis in one moment from the greatest invention ever made to something that's fragile and liable to break down at any moment, which as close to summing up British spirit as you can get. How can the four regilars possibly get out of this one, eh? Best of all this story has a huge impact on the stories to come, making all the regulars get to know and trust each other in a way that the past two adventures (which so often splits them up from each other) never does and they really do 'learn' from this story, becoming a much closer team from next story 'Marco Polo' onwards. Spooky, mysterious and Sapphire and Steel-ish long before that series was ever aired (It didn't help that the first time I saw this story was on the much-missed BSB's Dr Who weekend, when they showed the episodes the wrong way round by accident!), 'Edge Of Destruction' may have been a last minute rush job but it features the series' greatest writer at his most eloquent and the original and in many ways best cast at their most charismatic. You can pick holes in it if you want to (and many have), but without this story establishing the characters I doubt the series would have lasted five years, never mind fifty.
2) "The Aztecs"
(Season 1, Story 6, May 23rd - June 14th 1964)
It won't surprise anyone whose read this site regularly that my two prized lessons at school were English and Music, this site being a neat mixture of the two. I've not really had much of a chance to dabble in my other loved lesson of history, however, except in oiur April Fool's Day time-travelling editions, a subject I'm equally passionate about and the Aztecs cropped up on the curriculum, so many times down the years I feel as if I know the characters in the period better than my own family (one of my teachers was so passionate about the subject he even wrote a very good musical on the theme, which more than deserves a revival). The history strands in the first three-and-a-bit series of Dr Who are of even more interest to me than the future space ones, full of human monsters that are often far more evil than the Daleks or Cybermen. Some of the later historicals simply use the setting as an excuse to do what Dr Who always does somewhere old and odd looking, but in this first season Dr Who was made to educate as well as entertain and 'The Aztecs' is a huge success on both levels. Most pulp science-fiction shows would make all of the Aztecs bloodthirsty sacrificers, savages to the 'modern' humans, but this story is really about the contrast between the blood spilt in the name of superstition and the race's more intellectual pursuits, thousands of years ahead of anything in the West, revealing that no one civilisation is all 'good' or 'bad'. After all, it was only five stories ago Ian and Barbar 9and the audience) were reduced to treating the Tardis and the Doctor as 'superstition' and 'magic', because it was something beyond their comprehension. Barbara, worthy history teacher that she is, thinks she can change the Aztec's world for the better when the Tardis crew are greeted as 'Gods', but this is a nastier world than the Tardis crew are used to (even after visiting Skaro) and they are soon well out of their depth, pawns in a game that started centuries before their arrival. Seeing William Hartnell's Doctor (my personal favourite) clash horns with Jacqueline Hill as Barbara (one of the greatest ever companions) over what can and cannot be changed in history results in tight, taut television that made the subject come alive far more than any textbook I ever read and is impressively accurate too (history doesn't record the sudden arrival of a big blue police telephone box, but everything else is as it happened here or as near as!) 'The Aztecs' is Dr Who at its most grown-up, superbly acted and with the best costumes and settings in monochrome Dr Who. It should be on every school syllabus.
3) "The Space Museum"
(Season 2, Story 7, April 24th-May 15th 1965)
This story doesn't have a very good reputation among fans and admittedly goes badly downhill after the first episode but...oh, what a first episode, perhaps the single greatest 25 minutes in the programme's history! The Tardis - which is still mysterious enough this early on in the Dr's adventures to do anything - jumps a time-track and the crew arrive on the planet Xeros effectively an episode early. After playing around with a Dalek (Hartnell is never funnier than in this story - his clash with the city rulers during which he tries to 'dupe' them with pictures of the Tardis crew bicyling on to the planet is probably the series' funniest moment not to feature Tom Baker) the crew find an exhibit featuring...themselves! Stuffed! In glass jars! Clearly seeing a vision of their future, the question is how do they escape it? The Dr tries to argue with the rulers (and gets stuck in a freezer for his troubles). Ian and Barbara try to do nothing and accidentally get lost. New companion Vicki (the series' best ever companion in my opinion, as feisty and likeable as Rose 40 years later but with a much more interesting 'back story' that's never fully explored and as childlike and adult as the writers need when situations arise) tries to overthrow the planet with a bunch of local hippies, 'viva le revolution!' One of these decisions works and the crew are saved - and frustratingly it's never revealed which one of the Tardis crew saved everyone. But that's all in the future: that first cliff-hanger has the Tardis crew gradually realising the Tardis effect is wearing off and they're suddenly becoming visible again with a crowd of guards around the corner, which is one of those golden 'get-out-of-that' moments this show does so well... Sadly Glyn Johns only wrote this one script for the series (despite appearing in 'The Sontaron Experiment' as an actor) and the idea gets badly mangled in production, but oh the brilliance of that central idea. We, err, 'borrowed' the idea of a 'Space Museum' for our April Fool's Day edition this year because it was so good (where the AAA Museum is a run-down collection of music from across the galaxy in need of repair), although surprisingly all the 'readers' seemed to arrive there on time without jumping any time tracks (as far as we know...perhaps you'll be the first?!)
4) "The Tenth Planet"
(Season 4, Story 2, October 8-29th 1966)
The sheer audacity of it: replacing the central character at the heart of the series. And he dies, not from some heroic deed but from the impact of the stresses and strains of the adventure, with the story a thematic study of thre cycle of life versus death and the futility in trying to extend life past it's natural pattern. The last part of this story is missing and Hartnell spends most of what does exist unconscious on the floor, so it's hardly the dignified ending one of the series' greatest actors deserves, but oh how he shines on those last classic arguments he has in episode two (I love them all, but Hartnell will always be my favourite Dr, outwitting, outshining, outarguing and outcharming any other being he comes across). And what a menace to depose: the first appearance of the cybermen, back when they were truly scary (the rather drab 21st century remake of them is the single biggest mistake of the entire Russell T Davies years, turning them into wannabe transformers) and weren't featured every week (Troughton spends so much of his time fighting the cybermen it's a wonder he doesn't start looking for them on every planet he lands on). The costumes are simpler here, with human body parts sticking out past the silver casings and the voices are a basic mix of robot and human, which in any other monster would be a crass example of budget-cutting. But here the fact that you can still 'see' the actor in the suit is so in keeping with the race of monsters who have the single best back story in all of Dr Who. The cybermen may be 'monsters' now, but it's out of necessity not choice, as 'Earth's twin' Mondas - home to the cybermen, at least for now - gets none of the benefits the humans do. In fact the human's actions in this story (example - base commander General Cutler) going to great lengths to save themselves from the Cybermen, are doing so for exactly the same reasons of survival (giving the commander an off-screen son to mourn is a touch of genius). No wonder the cybermen try to adapt in order to survive, no wonder they have lost their 'humanity' along the way, no wonder they seem to have it in for humans, no wonder this story takes place with a logic even the best of Dr Who doesn't always have (although sadly the story's idea of the more advanced future we were all going to enjoy in 1986 is more than a little out). The first cliff-hanger, when the still-un-named cybermen walk towards a base at the South Pole through snow, is one of the show's greatest moments, right up there with the first shot of a dalek eyestalk in 1963, a later variation of the cybermen down London's sewers, the Yeti in the underground and Pete Davison's Dr trying to stave off his inevitable regeneration long enough to save companion Peri in 'Caves of Androzani' part three. So many great moments are strung together in this story, with the under-rated companions Ben and Polly at their finest (of all the companions wrenched away from everything familiar across time and space, it's Polly's mixture of fright, awe, curiosity and feistiness that's the most blievable amongst all of them in my opinion - or is that just because I know I'd end up being the companion making the tea while everyone else solves the mystery?), this is Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis throwing everything at the series, half-expecting it not to work, but instead watching the world's hardest working TV crew pull it all off with style. Later attempts to simply repeat and 'improve' this story are missing the point: it was already perfect to begin with and later 'bases under seige' stories all pale against this one in some way. With the possible exception of...
5) "The Ice Warriors"
(Season 5, Story 3, November 11th-December 16th 1967)
The best of the many Patrick Troughton stories featuring Earth bases under 'siege' (the Tenth Planet was so successful the basic idea is re-used a good 15 times over for the rest of the decade), The Ice Warriors are my all-time favourite Dr Who monster. If an alien race came down from the sky tomorrow I'd expect them to act and think just like The Ice Warriors, who out of all the races seen in Dr Who are the ones that are made up of the same mixture of fright, confusion, courage, jealousy and hurt as most humans, just many times more intelligent. The Ice Warriors are rather like Star Trek's Klingons, with a martial code of honour that doesn't stop them being reasonable and intelligent in the right circumstances and Bernard Bresslaw, wasted for so long in the Carry On films, shows just what a great actor he could be dressed up in a suit and made to act mainly with his hissing 'voice' (the production team hired him merely for his towering height to fit the costume they'd had built - it was a lucky break that they got such a great performance from him, one of the best in the history of Dr Who). Like the almost-as-good Silurians invented three years later, the brilliance of the story is that the Ice Warriors aren't really 'monsters' at all and arguably have more right to life than the scheming humans. Writer Brian Hayles also manages to make these same humans interesting and belivable, far more than the 'ciphers' they can be in some other stories and the arguments between Clent and Penley of science versus individuality is the perfect backdrop for a big green alien from mars who might or might not represent the rest of his kind. Varga, the only ice warrior we see here, is another well drawn character whose background and motives make perfect sense and Patrick Troughton's Doctor seems suitably reluctant to stop him, taking his life only when so many others are in danger. Some fans argue that this story is too 'talky' - and for once the 'missing episodes' (2 and 3) don't seem to be the important ones, as the story has barely moved on by the time we rejoin the action in episode four. But 'The Ice Warriors' is Dr Who at it's most intelligent and thought provoking, ironically making the deepest story in some time the backdrop for a story about a (not so) little green man from Mars that most non-fans assume happens in every Dr Who story.
6) "The Mind Robber"
(Season 6, Story 2, September 14th-October 12th 1968)
Put any other fictional hero in this story, where fiction is fact and characters speak in lines from books, and they simply wouldn't fit: Captain Kirk would have a fun time throwing around the Karkus and Darth Vada would have had an interesting subplot revealing he's really the father of Gulliver, but all these cardboard characters would soon get out of their depth in a land where you survive by your words and wits more than your actions. The Doctor is a character who hasn't just seen the world, he's read up on it too and as the world's single greatest bookish fictional character he really belongs in this world full of strangeness and shadows, where nothing is as it seems. For those who haven't been lucky enough to visit, the land of fiction is a world made out of characters who don't really exist and who only speak in fairytale-like prose or lines written for them by their 'creator' (although watch out for the moment Gulliver is genuinely needed for the plot in episode four and - briefly - starts talking like any normal character). The unseen-till-the-end power behind this story wants to trap the Doctor not to kill him or rule the galaxy but because his imagination is so much greater than the clapped-out human being used to 'imagine' the planet. Behind the scenes so many things problems hit this story it's amazing it was ever made: previous story 'The Dominators' is bad for you') ended up an episode short so the first episode of 'Mind Robber' was again written quickly, could only use the regulars and had to be set in a 'white void' (which is actually the studio without set dressing). In fact this first episode is a superb bit of plotting, making this world stranger and the stakes bigger than ever before, as well as adding much needed depth to companions Jamie and Zoe, Troughton's greatest set of companions ironically it's probably my favourite single episode of Dr Who post-'Space Museum') . Even after this first episode was recorded, Frazer Hines caught chicken pox during the making of this story, leading to a 'substitute Jamie' being cast at the last minute - the crew get around this via the triumphant invention of a 'guess Jamie's face' puzzle which the Dr gets wrong! (great as Frazer Hines is, Hamish Wilson is even better in the role!) Again the 'monster' of the story isn't really a monster but a human lost in time who wants to get back home at any cost, even if it means replacing himself with the Dr (the fact that he's called 'The Master' four years before that character was invented - although there's nothing to prevent them being one and the same person - makes for a fascinating little 'extra' to the story too. Troughton is never better than when conjuring up fictional characters to 'fight' the Master and is at his most articulate here when he speaks up for individuality and human emotion, everything the Dr has always stood for encapsulated in one breathless scene in episode five. Previous story 'The Dominators' (easily the weakest of the black-and-white stories, with the suspect moral that pacifism is cowardly and fighting shows strength) suddenly seems like a lot longer than simply five weeks before...Sadly writer Peter Ling never had another story accepted by the production team again, which is a tragedy given how wonderful a lot of his future ideas sound (one of them features time running backwards, with the Dr arriving at the 'end' of the adventure and having to work out how he solved the problem in the first place!)
7) "The War Games"
(Season 6, Story 7, April 19th-June 21st 1969)
Last time around replacing the lead actor was a gamble, but this time around the production team know both that it can be done and that even more than just the lead actor will be changing in the new year: In 1970 Dr Who will be broadcast in colour, exiled to Earth because of the twin evils of Time Lord exile and budget cuts with all-new companions, apart from the Brigadier and UNIT who have only appeared in two stories to date (nowadays we moan at one change - fans in 1970 had to cope with all four). With lots of stories commissioned for the sixth series coming back 'unusable' for one reason or another (my most recent Dr Who purchase is the audio 'lost story' 'Prison In Space' from this period, a world full of corporal punishment-loving female rulers, which has to be heard to be believed!) Troughton's grand finale suddenly became a ten parter, written by another two of the series' greatest writers Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke taking on alternating episodes (and writing 'wild' cliffhangers that the other would have to get themselves out of in a form of competition...) Yes it's overlong and often repetitive, but the central idea at the heart of 'The War Games'- which starts off like a world war one setting and then gradually pulls back to reveal a 'timelord' mastermind taking soldiers out of all periods of Earth's history to make the best crack team of fighters for his own evil ends - is one of the single greatest conceits in the show's history. The pay off, though, is the final episode where the Dr unwillingly calls in his 'own people' in to help sort out the mess, after six years of speculation (the planet 'Gallifrey' was still un-named in the series until 1973, remember, amazing as that seems now) and we learn more about the Dr's background in a single episode than we have in the past six years, learning why he ran, who he ran from and why he has kept on running ever since. Usually in Dr Who most companions leave because they fall in love, are needed on other planets or on rare occasions die (Rest In Pieces, Adric! - why couldn't the same happen to Bonnie Langford's Mel?!) but here the Dr is forced to part from Jamie and Zoe, returned to their own terms with their memories of the Tardis wiped, in one of the very saddest scenes scenes in the series, a doomed rescue attempt showing how they'd risk anything to be with their friend again. A superb epic that might not get everything right but one that builds to an amazing climax by episode nine and with a pay-off that's exactly what the series needed to keep itself fresh and interesting, 'The War Games' is a worthy finale to the monochrome era and the series has never made better use of shadow or light.
(Season 7, Story 4, May 9th-June 20th 1970)
The Dr, now Jon Pertwee, is exiled to Earth just in time for all manner of alien invasions, which is very lucky for us earthlings really (thanks time lords!) One of the biggest threats during this first 'colour' series, though, is caused not by aliens but by narrow-minded humans drilling to the Earth's core for goodness knows what reason and with no regard for the consequences (what with the debate over the UNIT timeline and all, I reckon 'Inferno' is set in the present day and concerns 'fracking', so let's all hope David Cameron turns into a hairy Primord sometime soon). The Dr can't do much to help, though, as for much of the story he's trapped in Dr Who's first proper parallel world, a world where even the people we've grown to trust and care for over the course of the series turn nasty. Nicholas Courtney may have been wonderful as the brigadier (not to mention Bret Vyon in the 'Dalek's Masterplan') but he's simply superb as the evil scar-faced Brigade Leader, while scientist Liz Shaw, a little too sophisticated for the series as a scientist who knows as much as the Dr and so needs none of the 'why doctor?' explanations the series needs to run smoothly, finally gets a role to get her teeth into, torn between obeying her boss and the Doctor's warnings she fears might be true. Don Houghton rarely wrote for the series after this, which is a terrible shame as he understood the workings of UNIT better than any one else (later stories treat the soldiers as either comedy relief, buddies having a laugh or a bunch of unthinking one-minded soldiers we don't mind getting shot) and Pertwee's Dr, alternating between alien aloofness and human indignation, was never better than here either, the viewer's only link between worlds for much of the story. The fact that we actually see the destruction of Earth (albeit the parallel world version) also ups the ante much more than other stories around this one, making Inferno a gripping epic where things are getting more and more out of control until the bitter end (under the biggest single threat of cancellation until the troubled 1980s, this was half-planned as the series' grand finale and would have been a very fitting one, with even the Dr unable to put everything right by the end).
9) "Terror Of The Autons"
(Season 8, Story 1, January 2nd-23rd 1971)
The first entrance of the original incarnation as The Master (well, as far as we know officially - see above) as played by Roger Delgado is superb. Very much written as the Dr's evil twin rather than the bumbling comic villain he became later on, this Master is a very real threat, every bit as clever and relentless in his pursuit of success as the Doctor but twice as deadly and ten times as ruthless. This was the story that gave Mary Whitehouse kittens, what with its toys coming to life and suffocating plastic chairs, although these would simply be yet more window-dressing were it not for the Master's casual dismissiveness of human life (Mrs Whitehouse' s complaint, that it would put children off taking their teddy bears to bed, rather misses the point that this doll is an ugly troll that's already frightening the adults in the story before it starts moving; no, it's The Master's icy aloofness that makes this story the single most frightening Dr Who story of all time). The return of the Autons is another masterstroke, the plastic shop dummies being much better used in this second appearance and the idea of aliens infecting plastic just plausible enough (well, do you know all the ins and outs of how it's made?!) for to make the plotline seem like a real threat (an easily recognisable menace, that doesn't take long to explain but with high visual impact, the Autons were a masterstroke choice of villain for the first episode of the 'new' series in 2005 too). Of course the Dr wins, companion Jo Grant isn't really converted to the dark side via hypnosis by The Master past the end of this story and it all comes right in the end - but there's a feeling, right up to the very end of 'Terror Of The Autons', that the Dr really has met his match this time around and might not be so lucky next time. In all, 'Autons' is a tale full of memorable moments that are still among the most remembered features of Dr Who in the 70s even now...
10) "The Invasion Of Time"
(Season 15, Story 6, February 4th-March 11th 1978)
Another story that seems to get a bad press from Dr Who fans, but it might well be my single favourite (broadcast) story from the 1970s. For once, Tom Baker's doctor isn't reluctantly called or trapped into coming back to Gallifrey, he's gone there by choice to solve the menace and take up his rightful role as 'president' after events in a story from the previous season. But somehow he's not himself for this adventure, petulantly demanding all sorts of unusual trinkets and treating his old teachers and colleagues worse than most Dr Who Villains treat narrow-minded politicians and brainless soldiers. It's a measure of how good Tom Baker's acting is in this story that, for three-and-a-half episodes at least, he manages to wipe off the first fifteen years of Dr Who history by making us think the Dr really has turned evil and he relishes the part, playing it with just the right level of eye-rolling and understated sneering. Of course it's all a ruse to fool new tin-foil race The Vardans into thinking he's on their side (and yes, I do mean tin-foil, look I know the effects are pretty poor, but if effects are how you measure the worth of a series rather than plot, acting or imagination then Dr Who really isn't the show for you in the first place). But, for once, The Dr guesses wrong and yet another of the series' all-time greatest cliffhangers comes at the end of part four when the Vardans are revealed to be patsies for another, much bigger force (I won't give away which one in case I get into trouble with their leader because he's bigger than me. Sontar-ha your majesty! Oops...forget I said that...) All this and the first proper investigation of the Tardis' many corridors since 1964 (featuring swimming pools and art galleries) makes 'The Invasion Of Time' a classic Who story, with only the rather unexpected departure of one of the timelord' s more believable and better acted alien companions (Leela) seeming out of place. Oh and hub-caps have never been so integral to a plot-line! Excellent all round.
(Intended for Season 17, Story 6, January 19th-February 24th 1980)
Alas the great 'Shada' was never finished, thanks to a technician's strike two-thirds of the way through recording and the change of the main cast not long after which meant the production team never had time to 'finish' it. That's nothing short of a tragedy, because for years Douglas Adams' third and easily his best go at combining his unique take on the world with the world of Dr Who is so often dismissed as a so-so story so ambitious that it could never possibly be made to work. You see 'Shada' probably features more ideas per minute than any other Dr Who story, taking in Douglas' Cambridge past (where he felt most of his old professors were strange and doddery enough to be timelords in disguise; after three years in Carlisle I concur), curious flying spheres that drain memories, heat-pulsating Krargs, timelord prison planets and - gloriously - the disguise of absent-minded timelord Professor Chronotis' Tardis as his Cambridge rooms. However, rather than just throwing ideas at the story as that shoping list rather makes it sound, all of these ideas are needed in terms of the complex but understandable 'plot' of Shada, all neatlyheld together by Douglas' wittiest dialogue (Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy or otherwise) that makes you both care for and root for the characters. What's more the footage that does exist (and the cast were only about 10 days away from finishing everything they needed for the story - boohoo!) more than pulls this complex plot off, with each special effect as good as anything in Dr Who in 1980 (even the under-written Krargs, added under protest at the last minute so as to include a 'monster' in the story, look amazing). This is one of those stories so well written and genuinely exciting to cast and crew that everyone seems to have poured their hearts into this one, performing with more conviction than usual for 1980s Dr Who, and in the second Romana (superbly played by Lalla Ward) Tom Baker finally has the companion he's been crying out for since his first appearance, someone on equal terms who sees life differently to him and isn't afraid to argue with what he says but clearly secretly admires him too. The fact that only parts of 'Shada' now exist (linked by Tom Baker on the video/DVD or filed in by the excellent Gareth Roberts in his equally excellent novelisation of the story) as opposed to - say - predecessor 'The Horns Of Nimon' (which is simply an empty Dr Who plot performed as a very bad pantomime) is one of the great crimes of our age. Even great timelord criminal Salyavin, with all the horrors he committed, wasn't responsible for anything as devastating to life, the universe and everything as the BBC production crew going on strike just as the series was getting good again!
12) "Warrior's Gate"
(Season 18, Story 5, January 3rd-24th 1981)
The usual comment on this story is that 'I haven't got a clue what's going on - but it looks really good'. As Fantasy (as opposed to sci-fi) as Dr Who ever got, this is a wonderful story that's based on symbolism rather than plot and still makes its own sort-of sense (much more than it's close cousin 'Ghostlight' does anyway). For starters, the plot was long rumoured to have been worked out by the author flipping coins and consulting the I- Ching, although the whole story genuinely hangs together with it's own internal logic (as opposed to, say, 'Time and Rani', which might have helped with a bit of coin-flicking and random bits of plot). The last in a trilogy set in 'E-Space', 'Warrior's Gate' is the only one of those three stories brave enough to build a universe so wholly different to our own it couldn't have been done in our own 'N-Space', a world where lost voyagers are forced to use 'time-slaves' The Tharils to get anywhere at all, where most sets are made up of black-and-white photographs dipped in colour, where much of the studio itself is 'used' as the set and in which mirrors are portholes to alternate time-streams. I love Dr Who when it's brave and clever and attempts ambitious things no other series would even dream of doing and, after 'The Mind Robber', this is the series' best example of that ambitious nature, television so different to what came before it that it seems to have genuinely wandered in from another universe. After all other series, like soap operas or crime dramas, have to follow a particular pattern week after week but Dr Who is wonderfully, gloriously loose-structured and adventures like this one relish the fact that there are hardly any rules for making it and those that do exist are made to be broken. Steve Gallagher's intelligent script wasn't that well received at the time or even nowadays particularly, being so completely out of step with everything else made in the rather cliche-ridden season 18, but if you're a Dr Who fan with the patience to cope with the mistakes in getting this off-kilter script to the screen, the imagination not to need a linear plot and the belief that this script works to its own inner rules then you too might well long for another script as ground-breakingly out-the-box as 'Warrior's Gate'. The tharils are also a clever and totally believable alien race, sweet enough for the viewers to root for but creepy enough to be a natural cause of so much of the human edginess around them. Even K9, in his last appearance, actually has something to do other than shooting or arguing with the doctor while Adric will sadly never be this likeable or reasonable again. This is how 1980s Dr Who should have worked all the time...
(Season 18, Story 7, February 28th-March 21st 1981)
Tom Baker had been the Doctor for seven whole years by the time he hung up his scarf, so surely his last story would be another epic, right up there with his predecessors' farewell stories, the ten-part 'War Games' and 'Planet Of The Spiders'? (another under-rated gem that nearly made this list, 20 minute hovercraft chases and all). But no: Baker's doctor has already defeated so many larger-than-life characters that giving him another huge villain to defeat would have been wrong somehow. Instead Christopher Bidmead - the series' most intelligent writer since David Whittaker - seeks to give Baker a humble way out, one in which he's 'haunted' by 'the watcher', a 'ghost' from his future that even we never get to meet properly or understand and in which, for the first time in the series' history, to all intents and purposes, he loses, badly. The Master (great shock return in the last story 'The Keeper Of Traken' by the way, another story that only just missed the list!) actually destroys great sheathes of the universe after luring the Dr to the planet Logopolis and the Dr can do nothing about it, lying dying at the foot of a radio control antenna, the very backdrop where the Dr and Master first clashed in 'Terror of the Autons'. Before that the idea of a planet of mathematicians holding the world together (surely the twin planet of Hitch-Hikers' Magrathea), visions of the Dr and crew trapped inside a series of Tardises inside each other like a set of Russian Dolls, Tegan's Aunt Vanessa callously being shrunken and murdered by the Master (strangely her death is never mentioned by Tegan again) and the fact that the planet the Dr saved in the very last story is wiped out forever by the Dr's mistakes means the stakes have never been higher than this, even if there's a calm, rather sombre atmosphere to 'Logopolis' no one at the time was expecting. Tom Baker seems like an extra in his own programme, his witticisms and extrovertness causing more trouble than help in this story as he, like the third doctor before him, learns that being an all-conquering timelord means you don't necessarily get things all your own way...A very bold and daring story, with the single most moving regeneration outside the first guaranteed to bring a tear to the eye, as each of the Dr's companions come mentally forth to bid him farewell, the camera suddenly moving closer to see his dying breath as we suddenly realise that we, too, are one of the companions at his feet willing him to recover..Sterling stuff! This is indeed the end of an era, but thankfully the moment has been prepared for...
(Season 20, Story 5, March 1st-9th 1983)
By and large Peter Davison's stories are my least favourite. Making the Dr more humble and generally the quietest, stillest figure in the room could have worked nicely, but then the production team decide to fill the Tardis with three squabbling teenagers and way too many writers and directors try to fill the 'space' of Tom Baker's Dr with larger-than-life costumes, aliens and ideas that are in danger of turning the series into a pantomime. However, where the much-maligned (sometimes unfairly - ie 1980 to 1981 and 188 to 1989, sometimes not - the middle years) John Nathan-Turner's period excels is the few times this template doesn't occur, making the more 'ordinary' and humble story shine out like a beacon in the middle of all this formulaic pattern, with a world that suddenly seem all the more believable for not being filled with giant alien frogs, bright pink snakes and Anthony Ainley's Master. This is the one Davison story that truly works in every department (although 'Kinda' and 'Frontios' in particular come close), with the oh-so Dr Who idea of Edwardian sailing ships in space leading to the discovery of a race of 'eternals', who are the single best Dr Who creation since the Silurians for me (their motive for disrupting people's lives - the sheer boredom of living so long and knowing that all other creatures die before long anyway so life doesn't matter - is a brilliant constraint and one I 'borrowed' for my first Dr Who story for this site 'Lost and Found'; The Eternals are a race you desperately want to hear more of even though they only appear in this one story). Barbara Clegg, the first female writer to pen a story for the series, clearly knows the Tardis crew better than most of the others, filling in many of the gaps in companion Tegan and Turlough's characters, especially the former whose hot-headed nature is revealed to be a front in this story like never before (the 5th Dr era's most interesting character, it's interesting how many of the best episodes in this period are about Tegan). The 5th Dr himself is still a shadowy, not-quite-there figure, none of this year's writers quite sure how to write him (and Davison, wasted in the role, not quite sure how to play him) but even that makes sense here, with even the Dr relegated to 'ephemeral' status in this story, a meddling incompetent when seen through the eternal's eyes who'll die before too long anyway without knowing the pain of living a really really long time (especially if he keeps using those regenerations up this quickly...) One of Dr Who's more under-rated stories and, interestingly, yet another on this list hit by production problems (the date for recording had to be changed at the last minute, with many of the intended cast changed very close to recording - Linda Baron, better known for her role in 'Open All Hours', is particularly good as a sort of proto-Rani, although she's more likeable and fun than Kate O'Mara ever was - no, honest, I didn't mean, it, don't turn me into a floating head!...) 'Enlightenment' is another intelligent script performed by a srong cast where everyone really seems to know what they're doing.
15) "The Happiness Patrol"
(Season 25, Story 2, November 2nd-16th 1988)
When John Nathan-Turner interviewed new script editor Andrew Cartmel for the role he ended the session by asking him what he would most like to achieve during his years with the programme. Seeing as we're deep in the middle of the Thatcher years in 1988, with the last recession biting badly and Poll Tax riots about to come into play, it seems only natural for Cartmel to snap back 'I want to bring down the Government!' This is the closest he came to his goal, sadly, encouraging new Who writer Chris Clough to go all-out in his send-up of Thatcher (aka 'Helen A') and a world of class division where the haves and have nots of the Dr Who Universe have never been further apart (We'll ignore the Krotons keeping Gonds as slaves for now - that's another of my favourite stories that only just missed the list, incidentally!) This Government is so paranoid that people will overthrow it that being unhappy is outlawed, on pain of excruciating death, forcing people to pretend that life' s just groovy baby and that blues music, in particular, is against the law. I could have done without the Bassetts Allsorts creation The Kandyman (Rowntrees were not amused at the similarity and sued, understandably I think) but even this creation - often pulled out of context to show how 'bad' Dr Who had become by the late 1980s - makes sense inside the story, as even the sweetest things in life turn out to be bad for you if you have too much of them. Many fans never really 'got' Sylvester McCoy's Dr, but after a shaky first season and now with an edgier, darker past (that sadly was never explored as the series was taken off the air just when 'revelations' were due to have been made) he's as good as any of the other Dr's here, easily believable as a 1000-year-old alien carrying the weight of the universe on his shoulders. Sophie Aldred is also the best Who companion since Romana as the much-loved Ace, clearly a 'real' person in a way that others like Bonnie Langford's 'Mel' and Nicola Bryant's 'Peri', no matter how well played (well, Nicola anyway) could never be. If the greatest crime in the galaxy is having so many lost classic stories wiped and the second biggest crime is the fact that Shada never got finished, then the fact that Dr Who was cancelled after its best two seasons in a decade is the third. Regular readers will know our low opinion of the Coalition Government, so viewing this story is sadly as close as we can get to revenge for their part in our current downfall and I for one long for a re-match with 'David C' and is lover 'Nick C' (it's hard to imagine David Cameron weeping for a pet like Helen A does here for Fifi in the last scene though - he'd be more likely to leave her 'accidentally' down the pub and then illegally sanction her instead).
(season 1A, Story 6, April 30th 2005)
Like many fans, I was deeply worried about the return of Dr Who, after years of trying to convince my long-suffering friends that, yes, honestly it could work in the modern day and no, really, there were children out there who'd love it like I did, honest. 'Rose' was a better first episode than we'd dared hoped for, with the next two stories alternating 'futuristic' and 'historical' stories setting out the programme's exceptionally wide boundaries just like the days of old, a neat touch. But it was 'Dalek' that made me cry and proved that this new series of Dr Who wasn't just worthy of the name but was already stepping in directions even the old one hadn't matched for quite a while. Juggling an enemy that half the audience knew inside out and half the audience had never met before must have been a huge obstacle for writer Robert Shearman, not least because yet more production problems meant that the use of the daleks was only 'okayed' by Terry Nation's estate at the last minute (an early version of the Toclofane would have been the replacement). Giving us just one lone dalek, dealing with its back story as an alien who only knows how to destroy despite having no reason to once its race is (apparently) destroyed and seeing the Dr's apparently over-the-top hysterics as the dalek casually sits there staring at him, captive, is classic Dr Who, exciting and exhilarating but also poignant and balancing several ideas at once. If you didn't know the daleks then the Dr is the 'nasty' alien here, ranting and raving away (and bringing out the best in Christopher Eccleston's short-lived time as the timelord). If you do know their background then you feel the Dr's frustration as no one around him, even new companion Rose, considers the alien enough of a threat and you can see the bloodbath about to come by the end of the story. Back in the 1970s and especially the 1980s the Daleks had been devalued from their beginnings as a race of mutants fuelled by revenge and anger into yet another robot creature who don't feel pain yet love inflicting it on others until they get shot enough times. 'Dalek' is such a clever episode because makes us remember the origins of the species without having to keep referring back to Davros and everything that came 'after' 1975 and making us feel for the dalek every bit as much as the doctor. It was almost a shame when the daleks came back in the final two-parter en masse after this superb bit of writing and acting, which added more to dalek legend in one go than a whole army of dalek annuals, spin-off series and special editions of Dr Who Magazine... Let's hope Shearman writes some more for the series soon!
17) "Human Nature/The Family Of Blood"
(Season 3A, Stories 8 and 9, May 26th-June 2nd 2007)
After a slightly shaky second 'modern' series (written quickly as Russell T Davies was convinced he'd only get one series in which to cram as many ideas possible) things are really back on track by the third. For me Martha was a lot more likeable than Rose, quieter but more self-sufficient than most past companions and much of this story relies on her support of the doctor. 'Human Nature' started off as arguably the best of the many 'New Adventures' books written to fill in time between the 7th and 8th Drs while the series was off the air. Paul Cornell's clever script (with some clever additions by Russell T added to make it more visual) has the Dr hiding his timelord origins from 'The Family Of Blood', creatures trying to track him down. Hiding as a history teacher (in homage to Barbara) at an English school in 1913, David Tennant gets his first real opportunity to show off his acting range within the series and the viewer doesn't half feel for Martha as the Doctor ignores her or is rude to her throughout most of the story, acting more like Hartnell's grumpy Dr than his own bouncy 'Tigger' interpretation of the role and hinting at his inner darker side. One of the sad features of modern Dr Who is that by making so many of the stories stand-alone 50-minute parts we don't get the same amount of classic cliffhangers we used to, but the one we get between these two 'parts' is a classic, the viewer all but pleading for the Dr to follow Martha and return to his 'old' self while the monsters are ready to pounce and the First World War gets ever nearer, ready to wipe out even the few characters who survive life at this school in this story. Clever, emotional and with more character added to the Dr than we'd seen since the Tom Baker years, this is modern Who at its absolute best.
(Season 3A, Story 10, June 9th 2007)
As if that wasn't enough, current showrunner Stephen Moffat (a quick cheer for his 'Press Gang'series, the single greatest TV show ever made after Dr Who) then topped 'Human Nature' a week later with a story that barely features the Dr and Martha at all. Based on a superb short story written for the 2005 Dr Who Annual (in which main character Sally Sparrow is much younger), this story introduces the new series' best new creations (closely followed by the 'Ood', although I have a soft spot for the Hath too) the 'Weeping Angels', statues that feed off a person's timeline but as a consequence end up sending them back in time. For a series about time-travel, it's surprising how few times Dr Who plays with time within a series (1965's 'The Ark' is the closest example before this, jumping ahead 200 years between episodes two and three, which is a great idea, but the dialogue is a bit too clunky to make this best-of list even if the alien Monoids do have some spiffing Beatles wigs that naturally we at the past-preserving Alan's Album Archives think are less funny than the skinhead look everyone seems to be wearing now.. ) 'Blink', though, makes fine use of 'hints' given to Sally Sparrow by her friends sent back into the past and the Dr's own warnings, both those written in true horror movie mould physically on the wall and the very clever and modern idea of a DVD 'Easter Egg' (and, yes, the Dr's warning is indeed an 'Easter Egg' on the DVD for this episode!) Considering this is yet another story with a production problem (well - sort of; the production team was commissioned for 14 episodes a year including Christmas specials but only had the resources and time to make 13 so made two at the same time, with the Dr and Martha spending most of their time watching Derek Jacobi return as the Master in 'Utopia') 'Blink' is a very clever, very inventive, very emotional piece of television and Carey Mulligan (as Sally Sparrow) deserves her own spin-off series every bit as much as Torchwood and the much-missed Sarah Jane.
19) "Silence In The Library/Forest Of The Dead"
(Season 4A, Stories 8 and 9, May 31st-June 7th 2008)
Another Moffat script, from the days when his stories always made sense, didn't have some cheap get-out clause inserted near the end and the weight of the whole production wasn't on his shoulders, this is a script whose pay-off still hasn't arrived yet five years on. Clearly a huge influence on 'The Time Traveller's Wife' this story has the first appearance of River Song, later the Dr's Wife and most important person in his life, but meeting the Dr out-of-order so that he doesn't know her yet (we still don't properly know who she is yet, other than Amy's daughter created in some way by The Tardis, but my money's on her being a future version of Clara or perhaps a regeneration of Romana - you heard it here first, folks). Her death, before we've properly met her yet (and which will haunt the Dr for some time, knowing what fate has in store for her) is a superb bit of acting and writing even before the twist that, shucks, she hasn't actually died. Before that, though, we have the wonderful and very Dr Who-ey idea of a planet library filled with nothing but books, the Vashta-Nerada that live in shadows and feed off human flesh (and are the creepiest monsters since the Phillip Hinchcliffe days circa 1975), a little girl whose really the back-up computer in charge of the planet and a fascinating alternate timestream for companion Donna in which she has a whole life away from the Dr complete with the husband and children she's always wanted and never has in the series proper (Catherine Tate, an unusual bit of casting in many ways and not always comfortable with her character in 'ordinary' circumstances, excels herself with emotionally charged scenes like this one). There are so many ideas whizzing past your head it's often a strain to keep up, but despite its complexity this is a very easy to follow two-parter with another clasic cliffhanger and a storyline that hits just the right notes of warmth and horror.
20) "The Eleventh Hour"
(Season 5A, Story 1, April 3rd 2010)
Following David Tennant was going to be a hard task for any actor and to be honest Matt Smith wasn't quite up to the job (although he's the best of all the actors so far whenever the script calls for the Doctor to seem absolutely hopelessly alien and out of his depth when trapped on Earth - Pertwee's Dr wouldn't have lasted five minutes with UNIT if he'd acted like the 11th Dr does in 'The Power Of Three'). However my hopes were raised with his debut story, again written by Steven Moffat, with the best entry for any companion ever when the Dr lands in Amy Pond's garden and - thanks to a few accidents with time - turns up eight years late when he's due. Dr Who has had many re-launches across the years and this one - which starts off by making the Dr charmingly eccentric and alien (the fish fingers dipped in custard is a nice, quotable touch) and ends up with him powerful and scary, the only solution for Earth's latest crisis even though nobody seems to be listening to him, like the days of old - is the best since Troughton's debut (now sadly lost. Or is it?) Frankly it's all a bit of a shame when Amy turns up as an adult halfway through this story - no disrespect to Karen Gillan, who does what she can in a part that basically calls for her to be a Scottish version of Tegan but with less reason to be that annoying, but Amelia Pond is a much more interesting character when she's aged ten. Lots of 'first stories' feature the Drs not quite settled into their roles yet, but the cleverly titled 'The 11th Hour' (it introduces the 11th Dr, in case you hand't twigged that - although then again now we have John Hurt's 'Dr' that title makes absolutely no sense at all) sees Matt Smith understanding 'his' doctor perfectly from the off so it's a shame that he never again has quite this much scope for his character to play with again (the 11th Dr has spent most of his time on the Tardis surrounded by characters much more interesting than himself, from Amy herself and fiance Rory to current companion Clara and even Rory's dad). Forget what's due to come, though, 'The Eleventh Hour' is classic storytelling that weaves the new Dr and new companion into the plot so cleverly you've half forgotten about Tennant's Dr when it ends - and given how impressive his four years were in the role that's high praise indeed.
So what will the future have in store? Personally I'm deeply disappointed by the casting of Peter Capaldi from what I've seen him in (surely anyone from the cast of 'Being Human', the only series that's come anywhere close to Dr Who since it's return, would have been ten times better?) and the last season of Matt Smith's was generally speaking the worst in many a year (apart from the last thrilling 'Name Of The Doctor' episode anyway and Paul McGann's recent shock return which did more in six minutes of screen-time than his TV Movie' from 1996 did with 90 - that bodes well for this week's anniversary special, so I guess I should just let zygons be zygons). But then I've been proved wrong before - every time Dr Who seems to be getting stale, smug, losing direction or ideas it always surprises me. No other programme has ever made it to the age of 50 before and stayed so true to its original identity (even with a terrible 16 year gap between 1989 and 2005, separated by just one terrible American TV Movie, that typically started just after I'd discovered this wonderful new world) and few make it to the second year with anything like as much passion, intrigue, ideas and power that this series has even on it's off-days. Let's hope that, in 50 years time, when 'Alan's Album Archives' has been revealed as the true source of Gallifrey's 'Matrix' (which existed long before the films of the same name made it a cop out clause for bad dialogue and kung-fu moves), we'll be able to update this section with at least another 20 episodes of pure television magic (frankly I'm itching to go back and make this list a top 50, but I'm aware I've bored all my non-Who followers long enough). Stranger things have happened after all - such getting a series this complex, breathtaking and open-ended on television back in 1963 for a start, never mind making it that good for so many years and making it ever-so-nearly-as-good the second time round too. Happy birthday Doctor from all of us at Alan's Album Archives! But remember - it's far from being all over...
There are also two original Dr Who scripts written for this site for your perusal:
‘Lost and Found’ http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/dr-who-lost-and-found-script.html
‘The Vikings’ http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/dr-who-vikings.html
Not to mention a feast of time-travelling 'April Fool's Day' spoof newsletters, most of which feature an appearance by one or other Doctors (heck, Alan's Album Archives is sponsoring the programme by the time of it's 100th anniversary, apparently, so we'd better get a move on in terms of followers...)
(#1, published 2009, set in 2034): http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2009_03_29_archive.html
(#2, published 2010, set in 2110): http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2010_03_28_archive.html
(#3, published 2011, set in 2026): http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2011_03_27_archive.html
(#4, 'Swedish Elizabethan' edition, published 2012, set in a timeless universe): http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012_04_01_archive.html
(#5, 'Max's Space Museum' edition, published 2013, set in 7114): http://www.alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/news-views-and-music-issue-7114-maxs.html