Doctor Who is back, and it’s being a bit of a questionable year. I’ve yet to make my mind up about Let’s Kill Hitler, which has got to have one of the most iffy premises (in terms of taste) of any episode ever made. On the other hand, The Doctor’s Wife was pure gold, demonstrating that getting the likes of Neil Gaiman in to write episodes can really do a lot for the series.
After a long conversation with a marvellous film director, who is connected by one removed to the current series, I offer for your contemplation what I believe to be the best, and the worst Doctor Whos ever made.
A note on the selection — I’ve only included TV episodes since 1970 when colour production began. Watching older Doctor Who’s in black and white is somewhat akin to peering at them through a telescope the wrong way round. It would not be fair to number any of them among the worst, but neither do I think any of them qualify for the best. Your view may differ. Likewise, radio episodes, books, graphic novels and fanfic are also excluded.
#10 The Pirate Planet
Coming in at number 10, Douglas Adams’s The Pirate Planet, series 2 in the 1978–79 Season 16, was the second of the somewhat variable but overall good Key to Time season, where the Doctor (Tom Baker) and his first ever Time Lord (Lady) companion, Romana (Mary Tamm), were set the task of piecing together the Key to Time. As well as incorporating moments of wicked humour, as you would expect from Adams, this story has got everything: bizarre religions (always a Doctor Who staple), psionics, hyper-space, the threat of a black-hole, sonic-screwdriver resistant doors, and a duel between K9 and a mechanical parrot.
#9 The Sea Devils
A completely different kind of series was the Sea Devils, starring Jon Pertwee, which has all the hallmarks of the Pertwee years Hitchockian and horror roots. It plays heavily on the fear of drowning and of things creeping up from the deep, as well as one of the most chilling turns by the Master in his original incarnation of Roger Delgado. The Royal Navy provided a lot of assistance in this series which was set in the (then) present, giving it a level of authenticity which CGI can never replace. It also contains a cameo by The Clangers.
#8 Full Circle
One of the last ‘real-science’ series, Full Circle is a DNA-driven evolution story which, despite introducing the (according to some) annoying character of Adric, and replacing Mary Tamm’s Romana with Lalla Ward, really doesn’t put a foot wrong from the beginning to the devastating plot twist close to the end. I won’t give it away, but it’s a real-science twist which requires a good deal of attention paid by alert viewers, though it does get spelled out a little later. This is the first series in the E-space trilogy.
#7 Death to the Daleks
Doctor Who script-writers have been scratching their heads about ways to make the Daleks scary again ever since the death of Terry Nation. They could do well to go back to this masterpiece. How to make the Daleks really scary? Put them in the way of something even scarier. Jon Pertwee’s Doctor Who arrives with Sarah-Jane Smith on the planet Exxilon where a living city is able suppress the energy of the Daleks, their ship, the Tardis, and pretty much everything else. Add into the mix another primitive religion (the Exillons try to sacrifice Sarah-Jane) and the presence of Earth Marines trying to acquire the same element, Parrinium, which the Daleks are searching for in order to cure a galactic plague, and then introduce a green, repulsive alien who turns out to be the good guy, and you have a superb set-up. When the Doctor and the alien get inside the maze-like city, the whole thing really kicks off.
Doctor Who writers like mazes — the Horns of Nimon, the Five Doctors, the Invasion of Time, and others exploit their power to disorient viewers (as well as making ridiculously cheap set changes), but Death to the Daleks is the best of all of them.
#6 The Doctor’s Wife
Matt Smith’s finest hour, at least so far, has to be when he is marooned outside the universe (go with it) and meets the TARDIS as a woman, who immediately kisses him, and then tries to bite him. This is a Neil Gaiman penned episode, and the brilliant comic-book like gothic scenery makes the most of the potential of CGI, while wisely keeping all of the proximate bits to real scenery. The character of the TARDIS and her back-chat with the doctor is brilliant, but the best bit has to be the complete reinterpretation of the story of how the Doctor stole the TARDIS in the first place. In the introduction to the book Stardust, Neil Gaiman happily acknowledges his debt to CS Lewis, and The Doctor’s Wife shows strong echoes of The Horse and His Boy.
#5 The Caves of Androzani
Peter Davison’s final series as the Doctor is also by far his best. Set in a complex of caves, this series brings together the long-standing Doctor Who hostility to corporate greed, and features a compellingly complex hero/anti-hero in the disfigured roboticist Sharaz Jek, and the wonderfully named villain Trai Morgus. The series explores some of the android territory picked up original in The Robots of Death and The Androids of Tara. I was tempted to put The Robots of Death here instead, but the Caves of Androzani has much more to its plot and more complex characters.
#4 Turn Left
Although the BBC Wales Doctor Who doesn’t do hard science very well (or very much), it did reintroduce the paradox elements of Time Travel which were largely ignored after the early Jon Pertwee series Inferno. Tom Baker’s otherwise exemplary Doctor Who seems to be more interested in explaining away potential paradoxes than he is about exploiting them. In Turn Left, the surprisingly brilliant Catherine Tate as Donna (I wasn’t that impressed with her original appearance in the Christmas Star) takes a right turn rather than a left turn, which means she never meets the Doctor. A string of calamities follows — Donna fails to rescue te Doctor, who dies and is unable to rescue Earth (several times, a rather knowing breaking of the fourth wall). This series takes Doctor Who right back to its Cold War roots, with the ever wonderful Bernard Cribbins as Donna’s grandfather realising that the so-called Labour Camps are no different from the concentration camps of the Second World War. During the course of the episode almost every companion we’ve seen in recent series dies, and it is finally up to Billie Piper’s Rose to guide Donna back to mainstream reality and the time stream we all now.
This is a uniquely poignant and powerful episode. I watched it four times in the end, and couldn’t believe on any occasion that it was only 45 minutes.
#3 The whole of Season 10 (1972−73)
I’m cheating on this one, because I want to put the whole story arc of the Jon Pertwee Season 10 in the number three slot. Beginning with The Three Doctors, the first (and terrifying best) attempt to put more than one doctor together is followed by the even more frightening terror-fest Carnival of Monsters (my sister had nightmares about it for months, as did Doctor Who companion Jo Grant, played by Katy Manning). Carnival of Monsters might just seem like a monster-of-the-week fest, until you see it in context of the next series, Frontier in Space, where someone is manipulating the terror of the humans and the Draconians to cause an all-out galactic war. The someone is The Master, in Roger Delgado’s final appearance. This segues directly into Planet of the Daleks, which is also the direct sequel to the very first Dalek series (recaptured in the first Doctor Who feature film). This was the first Terry Nation commission since 1965, and with characteristic skill he manages to ramp up the Dalek menace, this time by making them invisible. This is, by the way, the first Dalek adventure where they conquer the problem of stairs (actually a shaft, but they’re still changing vertical orientation). It begins with the Doctor in a coma, and half-way through we’re on the point of losing the TARDIS.
The final series in Season 10 would have captured the number 3 spot on its own. The Green Death is a terrifying exploration of the dangers of pollution with a virulent green slime causing maggots to grow to gigantic size. I was terrified of maggots for years afterwards as a result, and also hated macaroni cheese for the same reason. This is a real science episode with the work of the scientist given centre stage, and highlighted the threat of ecological disaster long before the rest of popular culture got interested in it. This was Katy Manning’s final episode as Jo Grant (she returns briefly in the Sarah Jane Smith Adventures), and draws the threads of her character together.
The gem of the 21st century Doctor Whos, Blink is so cleverly written that it could have been made in 1966 using only techniques available then. Exploiting the vocabulary of television, especially the normally (and rightly) avoided jump-cuts, Steven Moffat also goes back to the Hitchcockian and time-travel roots of Doctor Who to deliver a magnificent tour de force which had the nation talking about it for weeks afterwards. In terms of a straight time-travel paradox story, this is not just the best the best of the Doctor Whos, it’s probably the best ever seen on big or small screen.
#1 Genesis of the Daleks
What is so good that it can keep Blink off the top spot? Only something with Doom, Dystopia and Daleks, and the hitherto unknown ingredient, Davros, the Dalek’s creator. Add to that numerous Deceptions and the ultimate moral Decision, along with Tom Baker as the Doctor and Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith, and the cocktail is potent even before the plot is introduced.
Genesis of the Daleks is probably the most adult of all the pre-2000 Doctor Whos, in the sense of being mature and grown up, rather than being about sex. It goes right to the heart of the Doctor Who Cold War preoccupations, pinions the Doctor on the horns of a moral dilemma for the first (and, arguably, the most successful) time, gives us the back-story to the Daleks, gives us, once again, something even scarier than the Daleks in the person of the malevolent but brilliant Davros.
Davros has been a staple of ‘ultimate’ Dalek stories ever since, but the Nazi-Soviet sinisterness has never really been reproduced in the same way. Likewise, the modern Davros figures are geniuses only to the extent that we are told they are geniuses, and are seen enacting complicated plans (which always go wrong). The original Davros comes across as brilliant right from the start, making connections and seizing on possibilities as fast as the Doctor does.
Genesis of the Daleks isn’t perfect — it’s a six parter that could have done with being edited down to four parts. Even so, this chilling conception of the dying days of Skaro’s final world war is unforgettable, and does not dim no matter how many times you rewatch it.
A lot of series almost made it onto the list. Some of the best — in no particular order — are:
Aside from the fact that Peter Davison plays a game of cricket and bowls out the other side’s top batsman at the first attempt, this is a picture-perfect 1930s style country house mystery. There’s not much in the way of science-fiction going on here, but its a wonderful cameo of its world.
The Five Doctors
This would have made the list if it weren’t for Death to the Daleks, which pips it as the best maze series. The Five Doctors is really a series of cameos by three of the original actors, one replacement (for William Hartnell), and some unused footage of Tom Baker, who did not wish to participate. Very good twist at the end, though you might see it coming.
The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances
The chill of the child who has a gas-mask instead of a face drives this 21st century double episode forwards, and the evocation of the 1940s is much better than the rather lacklustre Victory of the Daleks and (in my view) misguided Let’s Kill Hitler. It doesn’t quite keep going to the end, though.
Sylvester McCoy was one of my favourite Doctors, but the material he had to work with was just not as good often as Tom Baker and Jon Pertwee had. Battlefield, though, is an ambitious and near-perfect story which brings back Nicholas Courtney as the Brigadier. It gets really scary at the end, and it does a good job of putting together Doctor Who and Merlin in a package which is more than credible.
The Day of the Daleks
This is the first Doctor Who series I remember watching all the way through, and I was utterly captivated. It’s a great time-paradox story, introduces the Daleks’ nasty sidekicks the Ogrons and picks out the dystopian post-apocalyptic future which is one of the things that distinguished Doctor Who from Star Trek (the Americans believe that the future will only get better, we British know it will only get worse).
Speaking of post-apocalyptic, Utopia gives us the ultimate post-apocalyptic of all time, the very final outpost of human civilisation in a dying universe. And it brings back… the Master.
The Ark in Space
The Ark in Space was absolutely terrifying when it first appeared. Sadly, the bubble-wrap maggot monsters don’t stand the test of time as well as other things.
Revenge of the Cybermen
The Ark in Space — Genesis of the Daleks — Revenge of the Cybermen sequence is based around a space station orbiting the Earth. The final section, giving us Cybermen just after we’ve seen Daleks, is as riveting as the other two. I would have bracketed the season together, except for the weakness of the intervening Sontaran Experiment.
Dalek reintroduced Daleks to the 21st century audiences. In total contrast to the high-gloss nu-Daleks of Victory of the Daleks, which look like they were left over designs from the Renault Megane, Dalek makes the old enemy absolutely terrifying.
The Deadly Assassin
The first time we ever really get to find out what makes Time Lords tick is this series set on Gallifrey, which is also the first time the Doctor has been without an assistant for a long, long time. A strong plot is lifted in the second half by a conflict inside the matrix (a generation before the film of that name) between the Doctor and his unknown opponent across a World War I landscape.
The Doctor’s Daughter
Real life daughter of former Doctor Peter Davison, Georgia Moffett, is the eye-candy in this three-companions episode as female Doctor-clone Jenny, but its Catherine Tate’s Donna Noble who powers this very cleverly conceived and beautifully executed. Although it isn’t ‘real-science’, the resolution of the plot is heavily logic based, and it comes as a brilliant revelation when it does arrive — especially as its Donna, not the Doctor, who works it out.
The Robots of Death
I so wanted to put this one in the top ten. Its only weakness is the out-of-doors sandstorm scenes, which just don’t look very good (and didn’t, even by the standards of the day). Aside from that, the chilling expressionlessness of the robots, coupled with the warrior readiness of Leela, played by Louise Jameson makes this Agatha Christie style murder-in-a-confined-space mystery absolutely first rate. The robots were borrowed a little for the infinitely poorer Voyage of the Damned Christmas Special.
And the worst
Some Doctor Who episodes went wrong when the monster was finally revealed, some had plot flaws that should have been spotted early on, some seemed to be more like wish-fulfilment on the part of the script-writers, and some just didn’t really have anything which should have made them worth making. Those are the bottom half of the table of the worst. The top half are all those things.
#10 Terror of the Zygons
Shaping up like The Sea Devils, Terror of the Zygons builds to the devastating climax of the revelation of the Loch Ness Monster. Unfortunately, the monster is about 1/4 the size you’d expect, totally unconvincing, and seems more like the kind of thing that Lisa Simpson would take pity on than a monster you’d run from.
Midnight isn’t what you’d get if you got Harold Pinter to write a Doctor Who episode. Rather, it’s what you get if you got someone who’d watched The Birthday Party far too often to write it. It has lots and lots of intense acting, but there’s never enough plot and definitely not enough explanation to make it plausible, let alone persuasive.
#8 Love & Monsters
Oh dear. This wish-fulfilment episode aimed at the fans who secretly believe that Doctor Who is real would have been bad enough without persuading one of the Harry Potter actors to play a part which is virtually identical to the Moaning Myrtle character she plays in the Potter films.
#7 Demons Run
The finale of the Donna series, Journey’s End, brought together many of the old companions. This was not a good idea, but there was enough in the episode to make it ok. Demons Run/A Good Man Goes to War, which was the 2011 mid-season finale, doesn’t have anything like the plot qualities of Journey’s End, but it still tries to bring together as many recent figures as possible. The problem is, we never got attached to Churchill’s fighter pilots, the crew of the pirate ship, or any of the others in the way we had with the real companions. That’s in addition to the ‘level in badass’ which Rory seemed to have taken when he faced out an entire Cyberman fleet.
#6 The Horns of Nimon
This was a weak, slow series at the end of a season which had just never got going. Although City of Death had a lot of gloss to it (it was the first ever to be made on location outside the UK, and also featured a John Cleese cameo), the Creature from the Pit was boring and predictable, and the Mandrels in Nightmare of Eden were just laughable. The Horns of Nimon capped this with an utterly unexceptional maze story and a monster which just didn’t work. The series went through a substantial facelift in the next series. Although the Leisure Hive and Meglos were eminently forgettable, the third episode, Full Circle, was a classic.
Boring, incomprehensible, far-fetched and strangely unfrightening, and further ruined by the appearance of the Master who appeared to have lost most of his sinisterness and his touch since his last appearance (at the end of the Deadly Assassin).
#4 The Happiness Patrol
I was totally baffled that they ever thought making a monster which was quite evidently constructed from oversized Bassett’s Liquorice Allsorts (I’m told that there was a lawsuit, but I haven’t been able to reference it) was ever a good idea. The series was supposed to be a comment on Thatcherism. In reality it became a comment on the collapse of Doctor Who.
#3 The Aliens of London
Speaking of unconvincing enemies, the Slytheen, whose main weapon appears to be flatulence, have to be the silliest, especially as they return several times in Doctor and the Sarah Jane Smith adventures. The series wasn’t helped by the seeming inability of the director to decide whether it was being played for thrills or for laughs.
#2 A Christmas Carol
Fun-loving diminutive Kylie Minogue has previous on appearing on TV: as well as Voyage of the Damned she also played in The Vicar of Dibley. Catherine Tate, despite a rather ropey Christmas special appearance, became a compelling companion two series later. Both these ‘famous people in Christmas special’ appearances were saved by not having Minogue appear as a pop star, or Tate as a comedian. If only the BBC could have remembered this simple rule and not put opera singer Katherine Jenkins on the screen as a singer. However, if you’re going to do this, don’t do it in a cheesy remake of the most frequently remade cheese of all time, A Christmas Carol. A Christmas Carol was mawkish when it was first written. Every remake apart from Black Adder’s has just made it worse. However, if you’re going to do that, don’t make Michael Gambon the Scrooge character. Finally, if you intend to do all of that, don’t do it with flying sharks who respond to the power of music.
Seriously, I ask you!
This, of course, means that Steven Moffat as writer comes in with the second best (Blink) and second worst Doctor Who stories of all time. Steven — don’t assign yourself the big budget episodes any more. Go minimalistic.