Doctor Who is back this week, and we’re in a celebratory mood. Still, for all that we like the new series and are generally glad that Doctor Who still exists in 2013, we must confess to being much bigger fans of the original than the 21st-century reboot. With this in mind, we got our biggest Doctor Who fan — namely music editor Tom Hawking — to sit down with Doctor Who FAQ author Dave Thompson and pick out a selection of episodes from the classic show that latter-day fans should check out. Of course, this is only a very cursory examination of 25 years of goodness, and there were plenty of other favorites that we had to leave off, so let us know your picks.
The War Machines (1966)
Getting a hold of episodes from the earliest days of the series is difficult due to the BBC’s policy of wiping and reusing old tapes. Happily, though, some serials survive pretty much unscathed, including this four-part romp, which finds the Doctor battling a self-aware computer that has decided to wipe out humanity. (It’s kinda fascinating how much of this plot turns up in Terminator 2, by the way.)
Dave Thompson: “It just has that wonderful mid-’60s London feel to it, without getting into, you know, groovy dolly birds at the disco. Most shows from that time seemed to fall into those clichés, and this one didn’t. It’s a great story and the computer is really cool — it lives at the top of the post office tower and sends cardboard boxes to kill tramps.”
Tomb of the Cybermen (1967)
The return of the Cybermen, who first appeared in The Tenth Planet, the last of the First Doctor’s stories. This is one of the few Second Doctor stories to exist in its entirety, and it’s really rather spooky, even if this incarnation of the Cybermen do look like animated Lego men.
Dave Thompson: “It’s the classic Cyberman story, and it exists in its entirety. It’s very much [based on] the tomb of Tutankhamen. Visually it’s great — when you actually think of how [hard] that must have been to recreate on screen and [get it] to look as good, it makes a mockery of all that ‘Doctor Who has wobbly sets’ talk. It just looks fantastic.”
The Ambassadors of Death (1970)
In your correspondent’s opinion, Doctor Who really hit its stride with the arrival of Jon Pertwee as the Third Doctor in its seventh season, and all four serials from that year are classics. We’re particularly partial to The Ambassadors of Death, which features three supremely creepy silent astronauts who have returned from an early space mission mute, inscrutable, and apparently invincible — a fact that’s soon put to use by an authoritarian army splinter group with designs on world domination.
Dave Thompson: “This gave us an unusually cynical view of authority — the whole plot was being put together by a bitter military hierarchy. Were we meant to think of the military [as] being capable of such evil and subterfuge? That entire season… Each serial took a very serious eye on politics and world events.”
The Daemons (1971)
The Doctor’s great rival The Master appeared throughout the show’s eighth season, creating a series of increasingly nefarious plots that culminated in this, the season’s final serial, wherein he raises a great evil from beneath a church in rural England.
Dave Thompson: “Probably the greatest Doctor Who story of them all. It has everything. The show has always had an eye for the supernatural, but this has more — it’s like, let’s go full-in for it. The Master, who was such a great enemy at the time, is playing the character to the utmost. You can overlook some of the dodgy special effects because it’s such a great story. It fits into that long continuum of English… not quite horror, but gothic.”
The Green Death (1973)
The last story of Season 10, notable because of its environmentalist undertones and because of its giant maggots, which scared the shit out of many an avid Doctor Who fan in the 1970s and 1980s.
Dave Thompson: “The reason this is so good is because of… maggots. You read so much about this episode, people saying that it was so far-sighted because of its ecological [message], and all that… no. It was great because of maggots. They’re terrifying.”
Genesis of the Daleks (1975)
One of the great Tom Baker stories, and one that ties together plenty of storylines that would feature before and after. It provides the story behind the origin of the Daleks, and has surprisingly serious ethical undertones: the story hinges on the idea of a Dalek-centric version of the classic kill-one-to-save-many ethical dilemma, giving the Doctor the chance to destroy his most enduring enemies before they’re ever born. It’s also notable for the way it plays with the idea of time travel, giving the Fourth Doctor a chance to influence events that would shape the fate of his earlier incarnations.
Dave Thompson: “It’s the first time we’ve mentioned the Daleks, and anything that involves them is gonna be great. But this one in particular… it gives you a look into the Doctor’s morality, and the responsibility that he has. If you’re coming to the show new and that’s one of the first ones that you see, you do get an understanding of [his character].”
The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977)
A genocidal 51st-century criminal and his terrifying Chucky-esque sidekick escape justice by riding in a homemade time machine back to Victorian England. The script and acting are top notch; the production, meanwhile, is rather undermined by the BBC’s regrettable decision to cast a Caucasian actor in makeup as a Chinese character, but if you appreciate the story as a product of its time, it’s one of the best.
Dave Thompson: “It hits what the BBC is really good at, which is the Victorian melodrama. They just pulled out all the stops. The supporting cast is one of the best [the show] has ever had, and the homunculus is almost as good as the maggots. It’s terrifying. The series was action-packed, it had a really good story and very creepy undertones, in a very good set.”
The Horror of Fang Rock (1977)
A genuinely claustrophobic and creepy story set in a deserted lighthouse, where it soon becomes clear that the inhabitants aren’t alone — they’re being stalked by a particularly nasty alien, who’s picking them off one by one.
Dave Thompson: “You can’t go wrong with a lighthouse. Set something creepy on a lighthouse where there’s something stalking the inhabitants… It doesn’t matter what the creepy thing turned out to be, really. It was almost a Doctor Who slasher film.”
The Visitation (1982)
1980s-era Doctor Who hasn’t held up particularly well — the writing was past its best, and the production values were undermined by the fact that the BBC’s new controller Michael Grade spend a significant amount of time feuding with the show’s flamboyant (and controversial) producer John Nathan-Turner. Still, there are gems to be found — like this under-appreciated Fifth Doctor story, which gives a pleasantly outlandish explanation for the Great Fire of London.
Dave Thompson: “This was Doctor Who returning to its early brief, which was to be historical as well as exciting. We go back to the period before the Great Fire of London, and find out what really caused the plague and the fire. It turns out be aliens. Of course it does! It’s really well paced, really well written, and the baddie is quite impressive looking: it’s an alien wandering ’round dressed up as Death. It must have scared the pants off the locals.”
Remembrance of the Daleks (1988)
By the time of the Seventh Doctor, Sylvester McCoy, the show was in pretty bad shape — the short tenure of McCoy’s predecessor, Colin Baker, had been a disaster, and the BBC was more determined than ever to ditch Doctor Who once and for all. Lost amongst the gloom that surrounded the show’s last days are that McCoy’s final two years, namely 1988 and ’89, were actually pretty good. This was the last Dalek serial of the classic series, and it took the Doctor back to his 1960s roots, with pleasantly over-the-top results. (We’re rather impressed by the above fan-made trailer, too.)
Dave Thompson: “This was more or less the 25th anniversary show, although it wasn’t the official one. The Doctor goes back to where it all started to pick up something he left behind, and there’s Daleks waiting for him. It’s very much, hey, the gang’s all here, and we’re going to press every nostalgic button [possible]. It has [companion] Ace running around with a suitcase of nitroglycerine and an exploding baseball bat. And it has a supremely spooky little schoolgirl in it.”
Ghost Light (1989)
And finally, an overlooked gem from the very last season of the classic series. It was a belated reminder that the show could be pretty damn spooky when its BBC paymasters allowed it to be, and a hint towards what might have been a more serious bent for Doctor Who in seasons to come. Instead, sadly, the show was canceled at the end of 1989, and fans would have to wait the best part of 20 years for it to return.
Dave Thompson: “Ghost Light is Doctor Who doing a completely insane haunted house story. A lot of it really doesn’t make sense if you sit down and look at it storyline-by-storyline, but it has so much atmosphere and so many things going on it… It’s just a really good atmospheric [story], so much that you don’t pay attention to the fact you don’t know what’s going on!”