Which brings us back to Doctor Who. There’s no denying that the show’s classic episodes look dated today — shit, most of them looked dated at the time, given the lack of money available to the show’s set and costume designers. But some of the show’s best moments came from working within these constraints. Take early Pertwee-era serial “The Ambassadors of Death,” for instance, which is based around the idea of three astronauts going into space and not coming back. Instead, their suits are inhabited by aliens — but we never see these aliens. The lumbering, inscrutable spacesuits are terrifying, because for seven episodes, you’re wondering just what the hell is in there.
Similarly, there were plenty of moments where the quality of the storytelling allowed the show to transcend its limitations. Tom Baker-era episode “The Ark in Space,” which involves the Doctor and his companions in the far future, stumbling on a colony spaceship that was launched from Earth untold millennia ago. While the colonists are in suspended animation, the ship is invaded by giant parasitic alien insects, the Wirrn, who use the sleeping humans as hosts for their eggs, with the larvae devouring their hosts as they grow, turning into fully grown aliens. The conceit is not unlike Alien — indeed, it’s often been cited as an influence on Ridley Scott’s classic — and its most dramatic scene comes when the ship’s captain undergoes a slow, irreversible change into a Wirrn.
Look closely, and you see that the hybrid creature’s skin is good old-fashioned bubble wrap. But let your imagination run away, and it’s not bubble wrap at all — it’s some hideous, suppurating alien flesh, a harbinger of a ghastly metamorphosis. The episode scared the bejesus out of me when I was a kid, and lost very little of its impact when I rewatched it recently. Good storytelling overcomes its practical limitations.
It was only when Doctor Who started trying to be what it wasn’t that its quality really started to decline. This was most apparent in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when internal divisions at the BBC meant that the show was constantly under threat, but also that its designers started trying to emulate Hollywood storytelling with a squillionth of the budget. This led to otherwise decent serials being undermined by silly special effects — there’s only so much suspension of disbelief you can get away with when confronted with a giant inflatable snake (although, again, it must be said that particular episode gave me nightmares for weeks as a seven-year-old.)
But all in all, vintage Doctor Who — particular the Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker era — remains a rare pleasure, especially if you’re willing to suspend your urge to giggle at the special effects and focus on the storytelling, because its scripts were continually good for the best part of two decades, and its best moments are as good as anything in its genre. Truly, they don’t make TV like this any more. (And if you’re looking for a place to start, we’ve got you covered. Twice.)