Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Doctor Who Week: Day 2 - Top Ten Classic Doctor Who Serials

You’ll notice that most of these are Tom Baker episodes. Well, he is my Doctor, after all. I just haven’t seen quite as many of the other pre-modern-era Doctors’ episodes. William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton weren’t that available to me and John Pertwee episodes were shown infrequently on PBS. I enjoyed Peter Davison once I got over the shock of losing Tom Baker, but I just couldn’t tolerate Colin Baker. I really liked Sylvester McCoy, but I believe PBS in my neck of the woods stopped carrying the show shortly after he debuted.

Of course, you also have Christopher Plummer and Paul McGann, but I doubt anybody in their right mind is going to put those particular outings on their Top Ten list. Not that they’re bad, but come on.

10 – The Mark of the Rani
6th Doctor w/ Peri

Colin Baker had a tough job. He had to follow two extremely popular Doctors and share a last name with one of them. While dressed as a clown. I’m not going to lie – Colin Baker is my least favorite Doctor, an opinion shared by many. He was abrasive both in appearance and nature. I don’t dislike him now as much as I did when he debuted in the U.S. (I actually stopped watching Doctor Who for a time), but he still doesn’t really do much for me.

Baker the latter did, however, star in this great episode featuring the returning Anthony Ainley as the Master, the debuting Kate O’Mara as new villainous Time Lord the Rani, Nicola Bryant as American (!) companion Peri Brown and a whole buttload of action and excitement, a trademark of the sixth Doctor’s years.

9 – The Deadly Assassin
4th Doctor

This is one of the rare instances where we get to enjoy the Doctor’s adventures on his home planet, Gallifrey. Deadly Assassin is a favorite of mine because we get to see so much of the Time Lord mythos – a rarity in the show. I am a sucker for anything expanding on the nature of the Time Lords.

Our story begins when the Doctor is summoned to Gallifrey by the Time Lords and en route is struck by a vision of calamity involving the President of the Time Lords. As soon as he arrives it becomes apparent that shenanigans are afoot, because nobody knows anything about summoning him, and he is quickly framed for murdering the President.

Naturally the Master – played this round by Peter Pratt - is involved, along with a Time Lord called Chancellor Goth (seriously). After surviving torture, imprisonment and multiple attempts on his own life our hero clears his name and saves Gallifrey.

This is the only story from the original run of Doctor Who to feature the Doctor without a companion.

8 –The Curse of Fenric
7th Doctor w/ Ace

This was the second to last serial of the 1963 – 1989 original series. I thought I remembered really liking it, but once I looked at an episode listing and saw where The Curse of Fenric was chronologically I assumed I was mistaken about having seen it. I knew I remembered a great one about vampire Vikings on a military base, but I was positive PBS had stopped broadcasting Doctor Who shortly after Sylvester McCoy stepped into the role. Apparently I was wrong because this is indeed that serial. Thanks to the magic of Netflix I was able to watch it again the other day and The Curse of Fenric is as awesome as I remembered it being.

I know I haven’t seen a whole lot of the seventh Doctor’s adventures, but I have liked what I have seen very much. After watching The Curse of Fenric again I definitely want to see more of his work. His companion – Ace – is a rarity for the old series in that her story is fairly integral to the plotline; much like Rose, Martha and Donna in the modern series. A lot of the old companions were just sort of there. As a bonus, Ace is definitely on the Hot Companions list. Sophie Aldred – the actress who portrayed her – is quite easy on the eyes.

The story involves a military installation whose occupants are busy weaponizing a lethal material that has been discovered in the area. This time around, the lethal material in question (there are an awful lot of Doctor Who stories involving somebody stumbling across lethal ooze. You try coming up with %100 new stuff when you’ve been on the air for twenty-plus years, junior.) is not the by-product of some giant, irresponsible corporation but leftover vampire Viking juice. Not only must our heroes contend with the ill intent of the military, there is a Russian platoon spying on the base and – of course – the inevitable confrontation with the quite literally bloodthirsty Vikings.

The only real negative about this episode is the distinct hippie flavor. By this point in the show, the days of “Five rounds, rapid!” Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart were long gone and the show had picked up a distinct anti-military message. But whatever. If I can overlook that sort of nonsense, then so can you.

After watching this one again, I want to see more of McCoy’s Doctor. He has a certain natural gravitas that some of the other Doctors might have been lacking. Granted, it might get a little heavy in the context of our beloved, generally light-hearted science fiction serials; but it was a nice and dramatic change from a lot of the Doctor Who I’ve been watching lately.

7 – Earthshock
5th Doctor w/ Adric, Nyssa, Tegan

So this is the episode where they went and (SPOILER ALERT!) killed Adric right as I was really starting to like the little bastard. He was sort of the rock of the show through the whole recent regeneration process – while Tom Baker’s Doctor was going a bit mad and falling off of giant radio towers and whatnot, Adric was keeping shit together. Not to take anything away from Nyssa. She was still perfectly capable of being nice to look at, Adric was just sort of the one providing continuity through the process. What sucks is that he died not knowing if his final equation was correct. The final shot of Adric’s shattered math badge (the Doctor had to use it to kill the Cyber Leader – gold kills ‘em, you know) with the credits rolling over it and no music playing is just brutal.

This episode was also a pretty good actioner - featuring laser battles with androids in caves, chases through spaceships and lots of diabolical Cybermen. CYBERMEN!

Plus, we get to see what really happened to the dinosaurs.

6 – The Face of Evil
4th Doctor, hottest companion ever - Leela - is introduced

This story immediately follows number nine above, The Deadly Assassin. The Doctor arrives on a planet to find two tribes at war – primitive savages and technologically proficient, uh… non-savages. He meets the super-hot and tasty Leela shortly after leaving the TARDIS, frolicking about in her tight and revealing leather mini-dress; just ready for a good rog… Sorry. Louise Jameson is responsible for a good many early warm feelings that I didn’t quite understand at the time. If you catch my drift.

So the Doctor proceeds to discover that for some reason, this planet perceives him as some sort of Evil God, to the extent that they have carved his visage into one of their mountains to commemorate his evilness and strike fear into the hearts of the young, or some such nonsense. It all gets sorted out in the end and the Doctor bids the planet a fond farewell with Leela in tow, because honestly, even if you are a mostly celibate Morrisey-esque time traveler; are you really going to leave that sweet piece of jungle ass behind? No. You are not.

Luckily for all the horny little boys (and dads) out there in TV Land, Louise Jameson would accompany Tom Baker on a further eight adventures.

5 – The Trial of A Time Lord
6th Doctor w/ Peri

Is the defendant aware that this is actually a whole entire season of Doctor Who and not just one serial?

Is the defendant also aware that The Trial of A Time Lord is somewhat of a mixed bag of awesome and not-very-awesome-at-all?

And is the defendant also, also aware that this is the second Doctor Who episode on the defendant’s Top Ten list to feature the supposedly inferior and disliked – in the defendant’s own words, no less – sixth Doctor, Colin Baker?

To this I say: Shut up.

The Trial of A Time Lord holds one of those special places in my heart because it was sort of a return to Doctor Who. I had been on my I-don’t-like-Colin-Baker strike, but I couldn’t resist the appeal of a night-long Who-fest (I think the last time this had happened was when Tom Baker left and Peter Davison took over). Yes, it was an entire season; but PBS showed the whole five-plus hours on a single Saturday night to support one of their numerous telethons (dammit, I wanted that canvas Doctor Who tote bag, but Mom just wasn’t willing to call up and donate fifty[!] bucks). 

Therefore it was a single viewing experience for me.

As to the Colin Baker point and the story’s quality, well; it remains the very best adventure of the sixth Doctor. The plot is strong throughout, the effects are top-notch for the series and the (SPOILER ALERT!) death of long-time companion Peri is handled well and impactfully. Despite not liking her a whole heck of a lot more than the sixth Doctor himself, I was still quite upset when she met her fate.

All in all, Trial served to make Colin Baker a bit more likeable. About halfway in I was ready to accept him and once more follow the Doctor’s adventures through time.

Naturally, this was his last season. Fortunately Sylvester McCoy was to be the next (and final before the show’s seven-year hiatus) Doctor, and he and I got on well from the start.

4 – Terror of the Zygons
4th Doctor w/ Sarah Jane, Harry, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart

This is one of the earliest episodes I remember watching after being introduced to our Time Lord hero by The Five Doctors in 1983. It might even be the first one I saw after that. It is a favorite of mine because it stars the inimitable Tom Baker fighting the Loch Ness monster.

Part of being a huge nerd is an interest in unusual subjects, and one of my first obsessive interests aside from Star Wars was cryptozoology. For those who don’t know, cryptozoology is the study of modern day mythical (or not) creatures such as the sasquatch, the goat man, the Jersey Devil and ; of course, the Loch Ness monster. By the time I was ten I owned dozens of books on the subject and had read even more courtesy of this building you used to be able to go to and borrow books from to learn all of the things that you can sit at a computer and find out in about ten minutes today. And a loaf of bread was a nickel. Okay, I’m lying about the bread.

So anyway, the Loch Ness Monster – or Nessie, as we nerds refer to it – showing up in this great science fiction show was a HUGE fucking deal.

Over the course of the episode we discover that Nessie is actually part of an evil alien plot (naturally); that a race of evil water creatures called Zygons want to CONQUER THE EARTH! Naturally the Doctor and his team must stop them.

It is worth noting that this is the last regular appearance of Harry Sullivan and one of only two episodes to feature the Brigadier working alongside Tom Baker’s Doctor.

3 – City of Death
4th Doctor w/ 2nd Romana

I came really close to making this one number one. Tom Baker is at his dry, witty best; the villain is fucking absurd and the companion is Hot Romana.

The story takes place in Paris and features a whole lot of time-hopping and extremely well-written plot-twisting. This comes mostly courtesy of Douglas Adams (yes, that Douglas Adams), who was a script editor for the show and ended up writing three episodes. It’s all about an alien (whose head is somehow twice as big as the human head mask he wears) who is trying to go back in time and prevent the accident that stranded him alone on Earth. Naturally if he succeeds this means bad things for those of us that currently call the planet home, so the Doctor must stop him by way of meeting up with Leonardo DaVinci and defacing six copies of the Mona Lisa. Trust me, it all makes good sense in context.

The villainous alien – Scaroth - is played by Julian Glover, a Parisian Inspector is played very well by Tom Chadbon and there is even a brief appearance by John Cleese (!).

I think this is an episode of Doctor Who that pretty much anybody could enjoy, and would likely hook a more casual science fiction fan. I will say, though, that I doubt there is a person on the planet who won’t fall into debilitating paroxysms of laughter the first time Scaroth takes his mask off.

2 – The Keeper of Traken
4th Doctor w/ Adric, Nyssa joins the crew

This series marks the beginning of the end for my Doctor. As much as it bums me out every time I watch it, it is a tremendous episode. It features a peace-loving society with a deep turmoil beneath the surface and that turmoil turns out to be long-time Doctor nemesis and phenomenal dickweed, the Master.

The Master is reintroduced in this, the first of three closely connected series, to smooth the transition from Tom Baker to Peter Davison. I believe the theory was probably that people wouldn’t be quite so upset at Baker – widely regarded as the most popular Doctor (although David Tennant may well have taken that prize) – leaving if they were busy hating the Master. The Master is portrayed by the amazing Anthony Ainley here, and would be until the series’ extended hiatus in 1989.

We are also introduced to Nyssa - played by Sarah Sutton - in this episode. She is definitely on my Hot Companion list and travels with the Doctor for the next thirteen adventures, with a cameo in a fourteenth.

1 – The Five Doctors
1st – 5th Doctors w/ multiple companions

This was the first episode of Doctor Who I ever saw. We were in North Carolina for Thanksgiving and at my Auntie Sue’s house on Wednesday night. The adults were having boring adult conversation, so I retired to one of the bedrooms to watch TV. I don’t recall how far along The Five Doctors was when I came across it, I just know that I was powerless to change the channel. I have seen the telemovie many times since 1983, having owned it on VHS and now the 25th Anniversary DVD; but certain scenes still stand out from that first viewing.

I remember the Second Doctor’s Moe Howard haircut and fur coat making an impression. I recall being scared of this tireless robot pursuing the First Doctor and his companion through a disorienting maze (even if it did look like a giant pepper shaker). What stands out the most, though – and is one of my favorite Doctor Who scenes of all time – is the silent silver assassin android that bars the path that the Third Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith attempt to traverse. As much as the Dalek had made me uneasy, the Raston Warrior Robot chilled me to the bone.

I thought at the time that Doctor number three - John Pertwee - must be the leader, not only because of his stature and regal manner, but also because he managed to survive that terrifying robot. It wasn’t until I found Doctor Who again a couple of years later that I realized all of those men had actually been the same person, somehow (and I wouldn’t actually understand the mechanics of that until years later). You see, television executives want to keep successful shows on TV even after the actors want to leave; hence, regenerations! Okay, so that’s not exactly how the show explains it; but that’s the real story. The fictional one is that the Doctor’s race – Time Lords – can regenerate their physical form twelve times over the course of a normal life span. The Doctor is actually older than Yoda. Naturally, the creative team behind the show gave themselves an out years ago by stating that Time Lords could be granted a second set of regenerations. Good thing, too; because the Doctor is now on number ten (ten regenerations, eleven Doctors – get it?). Two more to go and somebody better start that “Quest For Twelve More” plotline. Either that or a reboot, and nobody wants that. I hope.

So anyway, the story is that some nefarious character is pulling the Doctor’s various incarnations out of their rightful place in the timestream and placing them on Gallifrey to be pawns in an evil (of course) master plan. Shenanigans occur and, needless to say, the Doctor(s) win the day.

What makes The Five Doctors so amazing is that it united all five Doctors up to that point on screen. Sort of. William Hartnell – the man who portrayed the first Doctor - had passed away a few years before; so Doctor number one was played by Richard Hurndall. Hurndall looked very similar to Hartnell and played the part perfectly. Tom Baker was also technically absent, not wanting to return to the role he had abandoned so recently. The footage of the fourth Doctor and his companion, Romana, was taken from an incomplete, never-aired episode. They spent almost the entirety of The Five Doctors trapped in a Time Vortex, never interacting with the rest of the cast.

Despite my favorite Doctor not taking part in the proceedings, I love this story. It is a classic case of taking the past and present elements of a franchise and mashing them together for one big extravaganza, and I am a complete sucker for that kind of thing. The Five Doctors has all the heroes, all the villains and a story that is just good enough to justify them being together.

Doctor Who Link of the Day:
Doctor Who Online

1 comment:

  1. Great read! Who is playing Tom Baker in that creepy photo at the bottom...?

    (Only one disagreement w/ your list: the correct identity of Hot Romana!!!!)