Haven’t written anything properly for over a week as I’ve been struggling with a nasty case of sinusitis. Feels good to be back on it, communicating once again.
I’ve been thinking about my favourite Doctor Who stories. Once again, I’ll preface this by saying that it isn’t meant to be a ‘best of all time’ list as I haven’t seen every story so I couldn’t possibly claim to have the knowledge to do that. They’re just my personal favourites out of the stories I have seen. I say this but I know some people will just read it the other way regardless and have a pop at me because there’s too much 4 and 10 in it. What can I say? I have my preferences. So, I’ll just say a bit about each story, why I like it, etc. What I’d really like is some ideas for episodes that have similar themes or that people think are comparable to these that I might enjoy. I know my brother will read this and shake his head at some omissions I have no doubt made. Well, just let me know in the comments which other stories you think I should seek out based on my choices.
My first memory of Doctor Who is, I think, the end of Tom Baker and his regeneration into Peter Davison. I remember seeing that on the telly in the living room up North when I must have been about 5 years old. I don’t remember being an avid fan of the show when I was young. I was brought back into it by my brother years later when he started collecting up the old stories and we would watch them together.
So, here are my favourites…
15. The Talons of Weng Chiang
I’ve always enjoyed the Sherlock Holmes allusions in this story, along with the grim, London setting. An autopsy, a creepy ventriloquist’s dummy, giant rats, an antagonist in a mask, deaths by drug overdose. There’s a whole litany of stuff in this story that ratchets up the creep factor. Tom Baker clearly enjoys the material and, fun fact, this is the only story in which Tom Baker doesn’t wear some kind of scarf. The story comes from Robert Holmes and there is a lot to like in the script. It’s also Philip Hinchcliffe’s final Doctor Who story after a three season run. Holmes and Hinchcliffe had helped, in their term, to bring a gothic, Hammer style to the Doctor which made things occasionally more dark than viewers were used to.
14. Tomb of the Cybermen
I enjoy Patrick Troughton’s take on the Doctor and this is a story that highlights everything that’s best about his performance. It’s also one of the few complete surviving stories from this period of the Doctor’s history. There’s a plot that seems all too familiar regarding mankind’s foolish attempts to control things that cannot be controlled and it’s handled in a very mature way. The story is widely regarded as a classic and it’s easy to see why. It’s gripping and has some genuinely frightening scenes. In fact, there were more than a few parental complaints about the level of violence which had to be defended by the BBC.
13. The Ark in Space
It’s hard to believe that this story predates Ridley Scott’s Alien by 4 years. The story, again by Holmes and produced by Philip Hinchcliffe, is a masterpiece of tension over its four episodes. You know me well enough by now to know that I love a story that takes place in a claustrophobic setting. Here, the Doctor, Sarah-Jane and Harry find themselves on the titular Ark, which has been floating in space long past its intended time. The sleeping crew members have been infected by an alien parasite that will transform them slowly and painfully into nasty Wirrn. One scene was cut out featuring a crew member begging for death as he transforms into the alien. The producers were trying to broaden the appeal of the show to adults (see, not the first time they’ve done that). It’s a great story and holds up very well, regardless of some of the plainly visible bubble-wrap!
I just love this episode. Mostly, it’s for Derek Jacobi’s amazing yet short-lived turn as the Master. The story plays out in the far, far future, a kind of normality to proceedings as we work our way through what seems like a pretty standard plot. The revelation that it brings us to, however, is a piece of pure genius by Russell T Davies and his team. David Tennant and Freema Agyeman do stellar work as well at the end. Tennant’s Doctor lets all his veneer of civility slip away as he yells in Martha’s face, wringing from her the terrible news about who the professor really is. Both their reactions are played perfectly and it’s a nice payoff on the build up of their relationship as they both view it. Great television!
11. The Green Death
This is the only Jon Pertwee story on my list, although I am pretty fond of his portrayal of the Doctor. I love this story of conspiracy because of it’s rural setting. There are some lovely landcsapes used around South Wales. The story plays on all the natural suspicions people have about big corporations and what they’re really up to, also tapping into the global oil crisis fears of the time. It reminds me of Quatermass II and other movies of that ilk from the 1950’s. There’s plenty of shaggy-haired liberal types around protesting about the environment, too, including Stewart Bevan’s Nobel-Prize winner. Producer Barry Letts was always one for a strong moral message in his stories and this concern for ecology here makes this a stand out example. Katy Manning is also great in her farewell story as Jo Grant and there are some nice scenes between her and Pertwee at the end.
10. City of Death
Co-written by Douglas Adams and featuring a great turn from Julian Glover (even though he apparently refused to wear the mask so they had to get someone else to film those scenes, which is a bit disappointing – great actors suffer for their art – look what John Hurt had to go through when filming The Elephant Man). Douglas Adams also managed to snare John Cleese and Eleanor (the number you have dialled is not recognised) Bron for cameos one day they happened to be at Television Centre. The story, involving copies of the Mona Lisa and time travelling back to the beginning of life on Earth, and the script and locations are great. This is the first time Doctor Who ever went to a foreign location and they make full use of the Paris scenery. There are some great visual effects and the story rattles along at a good pace with real gravity in its themes.
9. Caves of Androzani
A great story, and one in which we finally learn the meaning of the celery stuck to Peter Davison’s jacket. It also has a classic bit of self-sacrifice at its climax when the Doctor realises he only has enough bat’s milk to save Peri; not enough for himself. Robert Holmes returned to the team to write this story, which was Davison’s favourite from his run on the show. The role of Sharaz Jek, pictured above, was offered to Tim Curry, Mick Jagger and David Bowie before Christopher Gable took it on. The story riffs on a number of different sources; everything from Beauty and the Beast to Dune. It also contains, at the end of episode 3, one of the greatest cliffhangers in the show’s history, when the Doctor prepares to crash Stoz’s ship. To be honest though, it’s a pacy, entertaining story with the right level of tension and it was a fitting end to Peter Davison’s time in charge of the TARDIS.
8. Human Nature/Family of Blood
This is another simple story that focusses on character rather than big thrills. It’s another tragic chapter in the mistreated companion book too, as Martha Jones is relegated to a lowly custodial role over a Doctor who has transformed himself into a human to avoid being discovered by a family of aliens who wish to harvest his powers. She has to watch over him while he falls in love with someone who isn’t her. Her stoic turn in this story is fantastic and she does sterling work here putting across the sense of duty tainted by the lack of recognition she receives. David Tennant makes a wonderful teacher and there are some wonderful scenes throughout. He also gives another glimpse into the ruthless centre of the Doctor in the way he deals with the ‘family’ of the title at the end. The story is set with the oncoming Great War as it’s backdrop and the tragedy of the lost futures of most of the young people featured is also handled particularly well.
I love this episode so much that I used to use it as the focus of an English lesson every year in Year 6. There’s a knack for creating ‘sympathy for the devil’ in a narrative, to make people feel pity or mercy for an antagonist. This goes far beyond that, as far as creating an uneasy sense that the protagonist you’re rooting for might be more than a little on the dark side themselves. The scene in the chamber between Ecclestone’s Doctor and the trapped, helpless Dalek is filmed brilliantly. The former stalks around his defenceless adversary like a wild animal, the light from its eye stalk casting an unearthly blue glow in the Doctor’s face that make him seem just as dangerous as it. I always used this one as a guide for children on how to describe emotions. Ecclestone has such an expressive face that it his feelings are so accessible to all. Admittedly, outside of this scene, the episode lacks a gravity in its conclusion that would raise it higher up this list, but for emotional charge, you can’t knock it. It was one of Joe Ahearne (the creator of one of my favourite vampire series, Ultraviolet)’s episodes, written by Robert Shearman. According to my brother, who met Shearman at a Chicago TARDIS event, he was quite touched that I used his writing with Year 6, which is nice to know.
6. The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit
This two-parter is a wonderful bit of patient storytelling. The premise of a planet held in perpetual orbit around a Black Hole is an intriguing one and the development of this idea over the two parts is handled extremely well. There are some well-worn tropes here, to be sure, but they are done with a freshness and zing that keeps the story moving and gives a good sense of peril. Characters are built and developed well and Tennant and Piper are on fine form throughout. The ancient evil chained up at the heart of the planet is executed perfectly with a slow reveal of its true nature that builds great tension. There is some great visual effects work, most notably the wonderful creations that are the Ood. They have just the right amount of sinister creep-factor to make them genuinely unsettling. It’s also great to see Gabriel Woolf (Sutekh himself) providing the voice of the Beast. Mainly, it’s just a good, solid sci-fi story by Matt Jones.
A very powerful horror story with very little of the Doctor in it. This standalone episode is a masterpiece of nerve-shredding tension and was a great introduction for many to the talents of Carey Mulligan. In the weeping angels, Steven Moffat created a great sense of fear in the audience, something familiar that children would be likely to see but had never had any cause to be afraid of. I don’t feel that their dread was repeated in the later stories in which they are featured. Here, however, they are used brilliantly. It’s a simple idea, as all the best ones are, and is universally acclaimed as a great entry in the Who canon. There’s a phenomenal amount that goes on within the 45 minute running time of the episode and it’s a masterpiece in terms of the way all these things are woven together. Mulligan is not the only one who turns in a great performance. Her peers also do very well in making this a classic.
4. Girl in the Fireplace
If you’ve been reading my stuff for a while, you’ll know how I’m a sucker for a doomed love story. This one, penned by Steven Moffat, features David Tennant and Sophia Myles playing star-crossed lovers in an episode which showcases both of their ranges. It’s a touching, timeless story that gets you right in the feels at the end when you see the Doctor in the aftermath.
Rose “Are you alright?”
Doctor “I’m always alright.”
It brings me to tears every time. He plays it so brilliantly and is helped out immensely by Murray Gold’s incidental music. The story itself is clearly inspired by the novel, The Time Traveller’s Wife. Really, though, it’s David Tennant who lifts this up to a different level. This performance highlights perfectly why I loved him as the Doctor. He does the weary traveller thing so well and his eyes can show so much emotion. Girl in the Fireplace is widely regarded to be one of his best episodes and one of the best of Russell T Davies’ tenure as showrunner. It’s not quite my favourite though.
One thing I love just as much as a doomed love story is a story that plays out in a claustrophobic environment. That could be anything from 12 Angry Men to Das Boot to Locke. Midnight is a great example of this kind of story. Take a bunch of people, lock them in a room together and wait for the sparks to fly. It’s a wonderful character study, another standalone drama that plays on the well-worn fears we have of an outsider or an impostor in our midst. BAFTA nominated Lesley Sharp does wonderful work as fellow passenger Sky Silvestry and the pair share a mesmerising sequence talking in unison that is an incredible feat of timing. Tennant’s Doctor gets himself into hot water by showing a little too much arrogance for his own good which turns some of his fellow captives against him. Psychological horror is the order of the day in this story, with an unseen enemy whose motives are unclear. That’s the beauty of this story; it doesn’t matter at the end of the day. We don’t have to know about motives. We just have the events and their effects on the characters. Great piece of TV.
2. Genesis of the Daleks
Terry Nation worked up this Dalek origin story which has everything that’s great about Dr Who. It also introduces Davros to us and contains a dilemma at the heart of so many time travel narratives. What would you do? If you could go back to when Hitler was a child, would you kill him? The Doctor has the chance to see to it that the Daleks never exist and cannot wreak the havoc that he knows they will, but can he take the action that seems so obvious? Robert Holmes, script editor, was not a fan of too-frequent appearances by the Daleks and allowed the story to go ahead only because it was an origin story. There are parallels that run throughout the story with fascism and the Nazi party. It is seen in the ideals and dress of the Kaled people and is handled well. Davros was invented by Terry Nation in order to give a voice to the Daleks. Their speech being the way it is, it was impractical to have long monologues given by Roy Skelton in character. His character provides a great foil for Baker’s Doctor, the two sparring intellectually throughout the story to great effect. Tom Baker took the story very seriously, apparently agonising over the language of his “Have I the right?” speech.
1. Pyramids of Mars
My all-time favourite. It’s not perfect and there are plot-holes that don’t stand up to close scrutiny, however in terms of adventure in the spirit of Doctor Who, it can’t be matched for me. Sutekh is a terrifying adversary, clearly beyond the powers even of the Doctor and the scenes between the two of them are dripping with tension and uncertainty. The script, from an original story by Lewis Greifer, was reworked substantially by Robert Holmes into the form it finally took. The themes of Ancient Egypt and extra terrestrials seem very unoriginal now thanks to Stargate, however, the story coming when it did, can be seen as a precursor to this trope. The film borrows heavily from stories like The Mummy and has a cast of supporting characters that seem to fit very well in that sort of tale. Tom Baker is on great form throughout the story, as is Elisabeth Sladen. It is Gabriel Woolf, however, who steals the show by injecting real malice into the character of Sutekh and thereby producing a genuinely scary antagonist.
So that’s my top 15. I’m sure I’ve missed some that are great, too. As I said, just let me know what you think in the comments. I should make an honourable mention to a Doctor Who story that never was. If they had ever got the Blake’s 7 crossover episode together, that might have featured well up on my list. The Daleks were supposed to be the invading enemy at the end of Blake’s second season. Tom Baker would have made an appearance and he and the Liberator crew would have fought them off together. That would have been class. It wasn’t to be, unfortunately. Gareth Thomas and Tom Baker were great friends and they both had high hopes for the possibility of a crossover. As Thomas put it, it didn’t happen because “the BBC didn’t have a sense of humour.” Shame.
Thanks very much for reading. I enjoyed thinking about this and doing a bit of research around it. I should credit the TARDIS fandom site along with Wikipedia for most of the facts that I put in. I hope you enjoyed reading it, even if you disagree with me. If you did, maybe you’ll have a look at a few more of my articles. You can follow me on facebook at:
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My own story, The Ardenna Crossing, edges nearer to being published, which I hope to get done ny next Spring or Summer. I’m nearly in a position to have a professional editor look at it and then it should just be a matter of tidying it up and making some decisions. Look out for cover artwork coming soon.