It’s that time when we bloggers make lists, best of the best compilations and recommendations on various subjects. I’m not much for lists personally. I can be found describing many Doctor Who stories as my ‘favorite,’ which always makes me self conscious because surely one is meant to have only one favorite rather than several. In any case, I have lots of favorites.
In the case of Doctor Who, a program over 40 years old and featuring over 11 actors on the part (if you count spin-offs and the Peter Cushing films), I can’t bring myself to compose a single list of what I consider classics. Instead, I’m going to break it down into four categories; the 1960’s, 1970’s, 1980’s and the BBC Wales program (I’m leaving the interesting stuff for last). I’ll try to restrict myself to just a few main choices and will note a few ‘runners up’ as well.
The 60’s is a tough era because so much of it is not available as it appeared back when it first aired. I have braved a few reconstructions but it’s not the same and leaves this period of Doctor Who sadly lacking in material for rating.
1960’s Part One: William Hartnell
William Hartnell played the first Doctor with such gusto and sincerity that the delivery of his defiant dialog to various alien threats was bombastic and bold, challenging the weird and terrifying monsters who had sent children hiding behind the sofa. This was the version of the Doctor who fought against the creatures that went bump in the night with strength of purpose. This is a quality written into every incarnation, but it was so strong with Hartnell who genuinely believed in the part and was playing the role of hero to children at home, even his own granddaughter. As an actor, Hartnell had devoted his life to the craft and he likely knew that this was to be his final role. As such, it’s probably no surprise that he embraced the role and infused it with so much energy and enthusiasm that the character is still with us today.
There was no room for flowery prose of an insistence from the supporting cast that the Doctor would win in the end. In many cases the companions doubted the Doctor’s motives, but he always came through in the end.
Dalek Invasion of Earth (click to read my full review)
The first Dalek story is a high water mark, a magnificent mixture of high adventure, science fiction and prophetic horror. With the demand for more Daleks on screen, the sequel had a lot to accomplish and did so with flying colors. Dalek Invasion of Earth starts with a robotized zombie committing suicide by drowning himself in the Thames as the TARDIS materializes into a bombed out London of the near future.
When the Doctor discovers that the Daleks have escapes their fate on Skaro, he takes the mission of stopping their progress on Earth personally. As this is the second Dalek story, it is the only time that such a declaration held any dramatic cache. Ever since it has been without question that the Doctor will stop the Daleks, but in this case he roars at them like a champion.
The direction is stunning with eye catching sequences of the Daleks roaming all over London, declaring their supremacy in Trafalgar Square in chilling visuals as a maddening drum beat dominates the soundtrack. The Daleks travel by flying saucer, have adapted massive skirts and radar dishes to travel almost anywhere and have even enlisted the human race against itself with their robo-men (strangely played for laughs in the Peter Cushing version). It’s an obvious choice perhaps, but Dalek Invasion of Earth remains one of my all time favorite Hartrnell stories.
The War Machines
A less obvious choice for a 1960’s classic is the War Machines. A predecessor to many Troughton adventures and in some ways the message of the Cybermen, the War Machines is essentially a pulp science fiction thriller in which technology has progressed so far that machines can do all of the thinking for mankind, then the unthinkable happens and the machines revolt. The plot is nothing new, but the storytelling style is very different for Doctor Who as two new characters are introduced (the under-rated Ben and Polly) and the superfluous Dodo is cast aside.
The real reason that I love this one is because of the echoes of what is to come along with the Doctor’s stalwart courage against insurmountable odds. It’s something else to see the Doctor, a frail old man in a cloak, stare down a war machine as it lumbers toward him, the military cowering in the background. For me, it is one of those defining moments of the character as the Doctor has no real plan or scheme just yet, he is simply so sure of his success and reviles the robotic threat posed against a helpless population. Great stuff.
Honorable mentions: The Aztecs, The Romans, The Time Meddler.
All three of these stories are wonderfully written and very clever as well. The Aztecs is also remarkable in that it allowed a supporting cast member to take the limelight! The Romans by Dennis Spooner is a wonderful mix of comedy and adventure the likes of which Doctor Who has rarely seen since. The same can be said about the Time Meddler which introduced the idea that the Doctor is not the only member of his race by showing the Meddling Monk played by the incredible Peter Butterworth.
Because of the lack of material on screen, several stories are missed such as Marco Polo, the Dalek’s Master Plan, The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve and The Savages.
1960’s Part Two: Patrick Troughton
With the loss of the leading man, a replacement was not an easy task. Veteran character actor Patrick Troughton stepped into the role with such energy that can only be imitated by his successors. Troughton’s era is mainly the same story over and over, monsters attack, the Doctor defeats them. Whereas the previous era had some variation of historic and science fiction stories, the second life of the series was all about the monsters. The Cybermen, Ice Warriors, Yeti, Quarks, Krotons and more were battled during the short three year stint that defined the program all over again.
Tomb of the Cybermen
Tomb of the Cybermen is the earliest complete story from the Troughton era. Before it was recovered in 1991, it was regarded highly by fandom as a lost classic. Images of the Cybermen emerging from their honeycomb tombs and the terrifying Cybercontroller towering over his troops haunted fans of the program for ages. When it was finally released on VHS, it was apparently derided by fans and removed from, its point of reverence, which… if true…. is ludicrous.
Tomb of the Cybermen not only has some of the best dialog and character interactions (check out the amazing scene between Troughton and Deborah Watling as he discusses how strange and remarkable their lives are… something that not even the BBC Wales version has achieved) but it also makes the Cybermen damned creepy. These are the steel-encased boogey men that come in the night and whisk you away to be ripped apart. I am a huge fan of the 60’s Cybermen stories and have watched the reconstruction of Moonbase more times than I’d like to admit, but this is an excellent adventure. The Doctor is shown as manipulative, cunning, brave and rather neurotic as he places himself into deadly situations only to freak out when threatened. The second incarnation of the Doctor is a Chinese puzzle, appearing to be a cartoon character on the surface while beneath he is a brilliant mastermind. There are many moments that spotlight the greatness of the 2nd Doctor, I’m just listing this one and the next as personal favorites.
The War Games
Another case of an obvious choice, the War Games could be the second Troughton adventure I saw all the way through on public TV(after the Seeds of Death). War Games is a few episodes too long but it is poised on the most interesting and entertaining concept that Doctor Who has ever explored, so the length can be excused surely.
The Doctor and his companions think that they have landed on Earth during one of its many wars only to discover that there is something far more sinister at work. Alien beings using technology very similar to the Doctors are pitting armies against each other in a weird historic conflict over several war zones. The victors are trained and equipped as the deadliest army ever assembled. The problem proves so difficult that the Doctor concedes to call upon his own people to put everything back in place, and nothing is ever the same again.
The Troughton era was full of humor, action, stunning special effects such as stop motion animation and other visual trickery and a menagerie of monsters. The last adventure seemed to be a cacophonous crescendo of madness that closed one chapter only to start another.
Honorable mentions: The Macra Terror, The Faceless Ones, The Enemy of the World, The Abominable Snowmen, the Ice Warriors and the Invasion.
The Troughton era was hit the hardest by the BBC wiping of tapes, with what appear to be many excellent stories lost. I have watched reconstructions and can vouch for this three year period as being one of the best and perhaps the one I am fondest of. The Macra Terror is an oddity, full of paranoia and social statements aplenty and I mourn its loss daily. The Faceless Ones was an exercise in horror and the single remaining complete episode is a stunner. There is simply too much high quality material here and my attempting to summarize it is almost an insult.
More to come as I venture into the 70’s where curls, stripes and sweets took over Doctor Who. Please feel free to chime in with your own choice selections below!