What is a Doctor Who classic? To me a Doctor Who classic epitomizes its era, tells an intelligent and memorable story, has unusual visuals, and features above average performances. Doctor Who is the most mercurial and groundbreaking science fiction program of its kind, so already the bar is quite high for a story to rise from a crop of greatness. The 1970’s is one of the most loved eras of Doctor Who, so selecting what I consider to be classics from this era is no easy task.
In my first of four installments, I explained that in my attempt to create a list of classic Doctor Who stories, I could neither align them from best to least best or limit myself to a small number. This is because of the massive amount of material and the shift from era to era that almost completely rewrote the direction of the program. For instance a great Jon Pertwee story would have no comparison to a great Peter Davison story and vice versa. I decided to break down the eras by decade and try to limit myself to a few select adventures and some notable ones.
I’m hoping the readers will be compelled to provide their own lists as well.
1970’s Part One: Jon Pertwee
In the 1970’s, Doctor Who took a massive shift as a program and attempted to pay homage to many successful styles such as the Quatermass series, James Bond, Hammer Horror and more. It’s a varied era with some successful and less than successful innovations to keep the program appealing to a viewing family that was becoming more sophisticated as they aged and TV programing changed. For three years the Doctor was exiled to the planet Earth. Aligning himself with Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart whom he had met on previous adventures, he became the scientific advisor to U.N.I.T., an taskforce charged with the defense of the planet from alien threats. The Doctor was a stylish and erudite intellectual and dandy who constantly challenged the Brigadier’s more conservative view. The two men clashed against each other producing some interesting stories (and other times seemed to completely alter their point of view depending on the script!). After saving the Time Lords from the power mad Omega, the Doctor regained his ability to control the TARDIS and was once more traveling through time and space, though he retained a connection to Earth and U.N.I.T.
This period saw the program’s viewing figures skyrocket (they had sagged in the Troughton era) and Pertwee became a household icon. A colorful wizard-like guardian, his incarnation of the Doctor was inventive and sympathetic to outsiders and aliens. The Buddhist sensibilities of producer Barry Letts infused a kind of holistic view of the universe while script editor Terrance Dicks’ near constant investigation of the New Scientist kept the program grounded in reality… unless it wasn’t. The Pertwee era lasted five long years and featured some of the most varied quality the program would see until Tom Baker arrived, but when it worked it was the most intelligently crafted period of the program in my opinion (with the possible exception of series 18).
Spearhead from Space
By far the best regeneration story of the classic series (the only contender aside from Power of the Daleks is Castrovalva), Spearhead from Space saw the shift in tone into a down to Earth adventure series with military action thrown in. The alien threat is decidedly creepy, the Doctor is dashing and brilliant and the story full of great ideas such as an invasion taking place through toys and the man-eating plastic chair. This one was also heavily influenced by HP Lovecraft as it featured a bodiless alien entity travelling through space as thought energy rather than in a space craft (this had been seen before in the Abominable Snowmen/Web of Fear).
Carnival of Monsters
Robert Holmes is one of the all time best writers of Doctor Who and has contributed scripts for 5 of the 7 classic Doctors. Of all of his stories, I really like this one. It’s a marvelous blend of comedy and science fiction along with social commentary which Russell T Davies got very excited about in 2005 but fumbled in comparison to the master of the craft. Trapped inside an absurd device along with blood-thirsty monsters and amnesiac humans used by a couple of vaudevillian entertainers, the Doctor’s troubles really start when he escapes. This one has so much going on in it and Pertwee really acts well as a centerpiece of sanity to the madness all around him.
The Master made quite an impression when he first appeared. A Time Lord just as resourceful and brilliant as the Doctor, only evil at heart. Soon the character became something of a comic strip villain, however and his signature tune played over an entire series of stories grew somewhat tiresome. Even so, The Dæmons was a real winner thanks to an impeccable script and the great Roger Delgado rising to the challenge once again. Explaining black magic and the occult as alien technology is a bit glib but very enjoyable. The script, location work and cast makes this one a true classic.
The Time Warrior
An ideal starting point for a new viewer and the perfect breathing point before everything changes, the Time Warrior introduces an excellent new monster, the Sontaran. Trapped in medieval England, the Sontaran captain Styre steals scientists from the future to repair his craft only to attract the Doctor’s attention. Sarah Jane Smith tags along offering viewers a new point of view of the Doctor that is refreshing after three years of Jo Grant who happily tagged along to alien worlds. Again, Doctor Who’s audience was growing more sophisticated demanding a companion who asked questions rather than blindly following orders. The Doctor was hardly bothered by Sarah Jane’s attitude, however, and proved that he was every bit the hero that he claimed to be. A great adventure.
Honorable mentions:Five years of programming means more great stories, though there were some duds too. Some of the noteworthy tales include: Doctor Who and the Silurians, The Ambassadors of Death, Terror of the Autons, The Mind of Evil, Invasion of the Dinosaurs.
Silurians could be one of the most brilliant pieces of Doctor Who in the 70’s. Written by Malcolm Hulke (who contributed many Doctor Who scripts), the adventure invented a new menace that was not an alien at all, but the original inhabitants of the planet. The pacing is a little slow and the story a bit to long, but the same can be said about many 60’s and 70’s Who adventures. Ambassadors of Death is an inspired action/espionage/alien invasion gone wrong story. Terror of the Autons saw a welcome return of the Nestene Consciousness and the first glimpse of the Master at his nastiest. I enjoy the multi-faceted plot of Mind of Evil involving the treatment of prisoners, international politics and terrorism along with a machine that forces one’s deadliest fears into reality. I know many slate this one for many reasons, but Invasion of the Dinosaurs has one of the best first parts of Doctor Who full stop. The Doctor and Sarah Jane arrive in contemporary London only to find it deserted. The mystery surrounding the dinosaur attacks throughout the city is another great Hulke invention that is far more than a deadly plot.
Relatively unknown actor Tom Baker was a risky casting decision as a replacement for Jon Pertwee, the man who had made Doctor Who so successful in the 1970’s. Of course it turned out to be the beginning of the most important and popular era of the program’s history as Baker made the role his own. When faced with the task of portraying a seven hundred odd year old alien, Baker decided to just play himself. Luckily Tom Baker a very eccentric and charismatic actor with a penchant for absurd humor. Returning monsters were rampant in Tom Baker’s first series, perhaps to ensure a smooth transition from one actor to the next, but after that point there were very few old faces to be seen. Ten companions were featured, the Master revived twice over, the origin of the Daleks exposed and the Cybermen returned after a long hiatus during Baker’s reign. With a handful of sweets, mad stare and colorful scarf, the new incarnation of the Doctor faced enemies with a fearless grin. The comedic element was greatly enhanced, often to the detriment of the drama on screen, but Baker’s iconic image is what nearly anyone who has ever heard of Doctor Who thinks of when the program is mentioned.
The 4th Doctor’s seven year-long era can be broken up into three portions according to the producer. Philip Hinchcliffe brought the Gothic horror elements and strong storytelling as well as an increase in on screen violence. Graham Williams had a taste for the wittier comedic touch while John Nathan Turner was assisted by Barry Letts and Christopher H. Bidmead in crafting a modern take on the sci-fi program that firmly established the series for the 1980’s.
Genesis of the Daleks
Terry Nation’s origin story for his Daleks is a major classic. A war story with pulp serial style cliffhangers and a crazed mutated scientist, this is a real golden story. On the planet Skaro, war has raged between the Thals and the Kaleds for generations, reducing the once mighty empires to shambles bent on genocide at any cost. Desperately searching for an end to the war, the twisted scientist Davros devises a method of victory that would forever change the universe. He creates the Daleks.
Only three stories into his reign on the program, Baker was challenged with a very moody script full of horrific imagery and violence that struck a cord with the viewers, war scenes depicted in slow motion while boy generals eagerly plotted their next move on the battlefield. While Elisabeth Sladen and Ian Marter are fantastic supporting actors, Michael Wisher and Tom Baker rule this story with gripping scenes full of quotable exchanges. Used sparingly, the Daleks are once again the terrifying monsters scaring little kiddies to their beds in tears.
Pyramids of Mars
The Hinchcliffe era is full of Gothic dramas that are somewhat repetitive and often derivative of the Hammer Horror films that they payed homage to. Nonetheless, Pyramids of Mars excels at creating an unforgettable mood and atmosphere that pervades the era with an even darker pall of doom and death. Set in the 1920’s, an army of robotic mummies roam the countryside killing anyone who attempts to halt the rescue of Sutekh the destroyer, a being of incalculable power imprisoned on distant Mars. I often find that when I meet someone of my generation with even a vague memory of Doctor Who, this was one of the stories they had seen and it left them with a terribly scary impact. It’s very simple in its goal, but boy does it deliver.
The Talons of Weng-Chiang
When Hinchliffe left Doctor Who, his last story was a real corker. A Victorian murder mystery involving a stage mesmerist, a killer dwarf, giant mutated rats and a scarred war criminal from the future, this one has it all. Along with Genesis if the Daleks, this story is often regarded as the best of Doctor Who full stop in fan polls. Eager to prove public opinion wrong, I had viewed the DVD with a skeptical eye only to find that it really is that good. Again the plot is rather basic and the goal of the story straight forward but the execution is absolutely flawless making the end result a treasure.
The Image of Fendahl
Written by Chris Boucher (Robots of Death), this Gothic-style H.P. Lovecraft-like thriller also has some excellent characters that add a special kind of wit to the story. A horrific tale centered on an alien life-form that is so powerful that it is regarded as a myth to the Doctor’s people, the Time Lords. The action and mood are both gripping in this one and a somewhat restrained Baker gels with Louise Jameson. An unusual adventure as it feels more at home in the Hinchcliff-Holmes era, Image of Fendahl is one of my personal favorites and a great example of the humor/horror/sci-fi mix unique to Doctor Who.
I had to pick a story from Baker’s final year on the program as it was so distinctively different and risky. In the two previous series Doctor Who had become nearly sophomoric in its humor and lead actor Tom Baker, the man most recognized for the success of the series at the time, had become his own worst enemy often sabotaging recordings with silly ideas or egocentric fits. For his final outing, the scripts were just amazing, the most innovative and serious-mindedly imaginative in ages. Warrior Gate was for me the pinnacle of this period. An adventure taking place at the nexus of two realities, the Doctor, Romana, K-9 and Adric encounter a slaving craft full of creatures called Tharils that can navigate the portals between realms. Cruelly tortured by an idiotic crew,one of the Tharils escapes to take the Doctor through the mirrors that line the nexus to show him the history of his people. The previously manic Baker is much more subdued and aged in this series, providing a level of development that we had never seen before in the character of the Doctor.
Witty, clever and gripping, this charming story has stunning visual design that stands up today as well as a superb supporting cast. It also saw the back end of Romana and K-9 who had long outlived their purpose in my opinion.
Honorable mentions: Terror of the Zygons, The Brain of Morbius, The Robots of Death, The Ribos Operation, Horror of Fang Rock, City of Death, Meglos.
There are so many great Tom Baker stories and fond memories that I associate with them that it is nearly pointless to attempt to list them and this blog post is already very very long. Suffice it to say that if you are a fan of Doctor Who there is something in this seven year stretch that you like and echoes of the modern era of Doctor Who abound for fans of the BBC Wales series.
I am sure that I left out a lot of stories that are favorites of others (and my own) and hope that my readers will again chime in with their own lists. Remember, this blog is just me talking to myself without you.
More next time after Tom Baker departs and John Nathan Turner takes the reigns of Doctor Who for the last leg of classic Doctor Who.