25 underappreciated Doctor Who stories

Feature Cameron K McEwan 26 Apr 2013 - 07:00

Cameron sings the praises of twenty-five classic and modern Doctor Who adventures that deserve more love. See what made the cut below...

Doctor Who fans can be an odd bunch at times (and by that I mean all the time), what's gold to one is dross to another. And when you think everyone is agreed on a genuine stinker (Timelash, for example), you'll find it has admirers in abundance. But what's here are some of the stories that, for whatever reason, get overlooked, underseen and, perhaps, undervalued - in no particular order.

The Awakening

Two-parters often get forgotten about (in classic Doctor Who at any rate) and this Peter Davison story, whilst perhaps best known to Who fans for a famous blooper featuring a horse, has some tremendous imagery and beautiful location shooting. Best of all is the villain of the piece, The Malus, who put the willies right up me as young boy. Its appearance in the TARDIS as an almost monkey-like being is unsettling, whilst its full appearance featuring a giant head may remind older readers of the arcade game Sinistar (which also scared me as a youngster).

Planet of the Dead

Considering how bold and "out there" this one-hour episode is, the amount of derision the David Tennant Easter special gets kind of baffles me. Gareth Roberts and Russell T. Davies produced a romptactular spectacular with planet-hopping on a bus! The Tritovore made for an interesting and friendly alien but it was the unnamed nasty flying stingray-like creatures that devoured planets and created their own wormholes who chomped through the romp most threateningly.

The Ambassadors of Death

I suspect, since the DVD of this story was released last year, that this Jon Pertwee seven-parter (yes, you read correctly - seven) is currently being reassessed by fans. There's a tremendous energy throughout (okay, perhaps a couple of episodes could have been snipped) but its change of locale and story twists are more than enough to make this a hugely pleasing outing. Best of all are the cliffhangers (and there are some crackers in The Ambassadors of Death) which find the famous Doctor Who sting acutely breaking in on the action with a fraction of a second to spare, very modern and very exciting. The use of in-episode stings, which punctuate the start-of-episode recap are also to be highly commended for their ingenuity.

The Leisure Hive

Kicking off the Eighties in measurable style, and by that I mean glitzy, this Tom Baker four-parter saw the beginning of the end for his time in the TARDIS. The Argolins were straight out of a David Bowie video but the Foamasi were an interesting and excellently designed alien (despite their realisation not being quite so excellent). Highlights include seeing Baker getting his limps ripped apart and an expertly executed aged Doctor, a top make-up job. It was a fresh start for the decade and a signpost of things to come.

Aliens of London/World War III

Ok, so some of you don't like The Slitheen. I'm not a fan of Game of Thrones but I don't go on about it. For the first time in Who's history, we got a proper alien invasion story that involved the world and we saw this evidenced (through what would become a Russell T. Davies trademark, rolling news items), witnessing the ramifications on the population, not just The Doctor and his companion. The crashing of the ship into Big Ben and then into the Thames was a marvellous slice of imagery, and an iconic moment for the show displaying its new-found ability to utilise special effects convincingly. And who doesn't love the Space Pig?

The Ark

Detractors of this William Hartnell outing often cite aliens The Monoids and invisible Refusians but any story that features the line "Take them to the security kitchen!" needs to be appreciated. In all seriousness, The Ark is notable, and well worth watching for a few things: the interference that The Doctor and his companions have unwittingly caused (bringing the common cold into contact with an alien race); the results of this many years down the line when the TARDIS returns to the same spot; and a cracking and visually beautiful cliffhanger to its second episode.

Black Orchid

Another two-parter and another set in the past for Peter Davison and his young gang. Its brevity serves the story perfectly in this Agatha Christie-esque tale with a dark, and horrific, family secret at the heart of the tale. The location shooting is a joy, not mention tremendously English, and the costumes are a blast - though The Doctor's harlequin outfit is deeply unsettling with its eerie mask and deceptively colourful facade. Also worth noting is Black Orchid's terrific cast, featuring Michael Cochrane (recently seen as Reverend Travis in Downton Abbey), Barbara Murray (Passport to Pimlico) and Moray Watson (Rumpole of the Bailey), and that incredibly moving denouement.

Dreamland 

You might think I'm cheating with this one, but this is a bona fide Doctor Who story from the BBC and even broadcast on television. From The Waters Of Mars co-writer Phil Ford, a companion-less Tenth Doctor goes on a computer-generated animated adventure into the heart of Area 51 in the late 1950s, where the Time Lord discovers some Men In Black and a nasty alien at work. Cast-wise, this tale is quite the eye (or ear, rather) opener, there's Georgia Moffett (The Doctor's Daughter), screen legend David Warner (Tron), Stuart Milligan (President Nixon in The Impossible Astronaut two-parter), Lisa Bowerman (familiar to some as Bernice Summerfield in the Big Finish audio adventures) and even Nicholas Rowe (well "known" for portraying Sherlock Holmes in Steven Spielberg's Young Sherlock Holmes). Fact fans may also note, that The Sarah Jane Adventures used elements of Dreamland in the Phil Ford stories Prisoner of the Judoon and The Vault of Secrets.

The Greatest Show in the Galaxy

Clowns! Killer clowns! Aargh! Some of you may be saying. Whilst certainly not under appreciated by Sylvester McCoy fans (all twelve of them), those who are less impressed with The Seventh Doctor's run will find much to enjoy in this 1988 four-parter. Apart from the meta-inclusion of Gian Sammarco (television's original Adrian Mole) as Whizz Kid - a thinly veiled parody of the Doctor Who fan (nice prophetic bow tie though), the highlight is most definitely Ian Reddington's role as Chief Clown. A superb performance and, still to this day, one of Who's finest villains.

The Android Invasion

Often overlooked due its placing in the legendary "Season 13", where every story is a classic, and sandwiched between fan-favourites, Pyramids of Mars and The Brain of Morbius, this Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen four-parter has so much going for it, and very little against. The Kraals are a fantastically designed monster and their simple Earth invasion is refreshing, but it's their titular androids that make for such a haunting viewing. Witness as Sarah Jane Smith's face falls off to reveal the ghostly circuitry beneath. *Shudder* Again, the location shooting serves the story, from Who legend and "creator" of the Daleks, Terry Nation, well with some stunning village shots (The Doctor tied to a cross) and the opening "death" of a UNIT soldier. The very essence of classic Who.

The Mind of Evil

Like previous entry The Ambassadors of Death, I suspect this six-parter from 1971 will be reassessed on its release later this year on DVD. Now restored to full colour, some of us were lucky enough to see the "new" version at the recent BFI screening in March. And what a cracker this is. Despite being a six-parter, The Mind of Evil keeps its pace and interest maintained throughout. Whilst not quite gritty, prison scenes add to the chaotic nature of the tale and there's yet another delicious appearance from Roger Delgado as renegade Time Lord, The Master.

The Unicorn and the Wasp

Due to its humour and light tone, a trait loathed by certain parts of Doctor Who fandom, this Gareth Roberts story breezes along and its triumph, by and large, is down to the cast and the fun script. The story itself, a knowing Agatha Christie pastiche (perhaps a little too knowing, at times), has laughs and giggles galore and the cast, featuring legends like Felicity Kendall and Christopher Benjamin and top acting talent such as Tom Goodman-Hill and the beautiful Fenella Woolgar (as the aforementioned real-life crime writer). But it's that delightful chemistry of Tennant and Tate who make for the most emtertaining of comedy duos, kissing and deducing their way through this summer picnic of a Who story.

Frontios

For me, this is a genuine classic and it perturbs me somewhat that there are fans out there who dislike this Peter Davison tale so much (but such is the life of a Doctor Who fan, I accept this). I mean, it has the TARDIS BREAKING UP INTO PIECES!!! That should surely be enough but there's more. "Monsters" of the piece, The Tractators, whilst not perfect on screen, are one of Doctor Who's most interesting additions - think giant woodlice that suck people into the ground. It's a proper horror story in the guise of a science-fiction tale, a trope that Doctor Who does all too well.

Terror of the Vervoids

More Agatha Christie style fun here as The Sixth Doctor embarked on his own Murder on the Orient Express (someone is even seen reading the book in the story). It's a solid tale and if you removed the frankly tedious Trial of a Time Lord moments from it, you'd be left with a cracking Who story with a damn threatening monster, The Vervoids. Of course, there's more than meets the eye to these guys and their needs, but I shan't spoil that for you.

Doctor Who (The 1996 Paul McGann TV Movie)

One of my biggest gripes for The Eighth Doctor's one night stand in the middle of the Nineties is its name. We all just call it The 1996 Paul McGann TV Movie rather than its proper, and rather useless, name, Doctor Who. Anyway, title grumbles aside, the only on-screen appearance of Paul McGann as everyone's favourite Gallifreyan (to date) does have much in its favour (despite an ending that not only makes little sense, it actively pisses on the show's history and the very notion of what it means to be a time-traveler) - namely Paul McGann. The Withnail & I actor puts in such a wonderfully Doctor-y performance that it would ensure a career in audio and books for years to come.

Boom Town

The Slitheen! Again!!! Though, it should be noted, the beasts from Raxacoricofallapatorius barely make an appearance in their true form, leaving wonderful actress Annette Badland to strut her stuff so brilliantly across this episode. Never before, or since, in Doctor Who have we seen The Doctor, here played by everyone's favourite grumpy northerner Christopher Eccleston, dine with his prey before execution. "Dinner and bondage. Works for me," leers the alien during a fascinating tete-a-tete where the morality of The Doctor is laid bare by his captor in a Cardiff restaurant; the sublime meets the ridiculous (you can choose which is which in that metaphor).

Victory of the Daleks

I had to be in the minority when the new Dalek Paradigm came along. I was quite fond of their colourful and rotund appearance (being a fan of the Peter Cushing movie Daleks, you see) but this Mark Gatiss tale featuring The Eleventh Doctor has got lots more going on than simply giant gaudy pepperpots. Churchill, spitfires in space and tea-serving subservient Daleks - it's got it all! In all seriousness, the notion of the mad little tanks scheming around, luring The Doctor in to reboot their species (or something like that) reminds us how clever the Daleks can be.

Nightmare of Eden

What this extraordinary Tom Baker four-parter lacks in production values and acting, it makes up for in ideas and barminess. The Mandrels, the "monsters" of the piece, may well have looked and acted like they stepped out of The Muppet Show but this is a gritty tale of drug-running on an intergalactic scale. The Fourth Doctor is appalled as he gets embroiled in something he genuinely believes to be evil but by the time we hear him bellow, "My fingers, my arms, my legs, my everything!" any notion of gravity has somewhat dissipated. It was a story, I should say, that utterly terrified me as a child and, if you can get over the performances, which, I have to admit, are gruesomely hilarious, and the production (poor, at best) then there's much to admire. I suspect, however, there's now more to have a giggle at than think about.

Love and Monsters

Until the appearance of Peter Kay as The Abzorbaloff in the final third of this 2006 episode starring Marc Warren, Love and Monsters could have been an out-and-out classic loved by all. The very notion of a "Doctor-lite" story is, without wanting to lay on this over-used word, genius. Wanting to focus on the "other" people affected by The Doctor's life is admirable and, indeed, here is utterly fantastic. Typical Russell T. Davies and typically emotional and engaging as a result; and what a cast too! Shirley Henderson, Simon Greenall, Moya Brady and Kathryn Drysdale add beautifully to LINDA (London Investigation 'n' Detective Agency) whilst Camille Coduri give us so much more with Jackie Tyler, and how it feels when left daughterless. Praise should be delivered for sheer balls and ingenuity, reinvigorating Doctor Who in such a thoughtful and pleasing fashion. AND there's ELO - perfect!

The Pirate Planet

As the second story in the infamous Key To Time season, this story from Douglas Adams (the man behind the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, as if you didn't know) is positively bristling with ideas. The planet in question is hollow and has been materialising around other planets, mining their resources leaving tiny remains all in a bid to attain immortality. Best of all is Tom Baker's face-off with The Pirate Captain, a Darth Vader-esque man/machine hybrid -  "Appreciate it... appreciate it! You commit mass destruction and murder on a scale that's almost inconceivable and you ask me to appreciate it!" The Doctor questions in disbelief. Brilliant stuff from Baker. As you'd expect from Adams, there's humour and concepts galore.

Mawdryn Undead

Talk about timey-wimey, The Fifth Doctor was getting up to all sorts of flim-flammery back in the Eighties/Seventies in this four-parter which acts as a sequel, of sorts, to The Key to Time season mentioned above. For its time, and even re-watching now, Mawdryn Undead is an extremely pacey piece which darts between two time zones in the most pleasing, and modern, of fashions. Despite the UNIT dating controversy (using The Brigadier as teacher in The Eighties) fans can revel in the fake Doctor, the titular Mawdyrn (who's traveling with his chums through eternity doomed to a life of perpetual death) who tries to convince Tegan and Sarah that he has merely regenerated. Design-wise, it's a triumph with a beautiful ship, super brain-bulging aliens and a haunting score from Paddy Kingsland.

The End of the World

Easy to forget about this little beauty as its previous story, Rose, tends to get much more attention (for good reason). After showing us modern-day London, Russell T. Davies took us far into the future to watch the Earth burn but also watch how The Ninth Doctor and his new companion were getting on. Like a couple of entries here, it was an Agatha Christie-style tale, and again in space - a simple, solid story. Rose was still coming to terms with her new BFF and their relationship was a little frosty but after the revelation of the Time War and the need for some chips, all was well. Only two stories in and the new cast and crew were assuredly steering the show in the right direction with story and heart.

Invasion of the Dinosaurs

Another story often put to the side due to the main monsters of the tale, the Dinosaurs. Yes, they are bloody terrible. Laughably so, I shan't disabuse you of that notion - there's absolutely nothing positive to say about them at all, from design to execution. But it's the story in this Jon Pertwee six-parter that's worth the re-evaluation. Someone is tampering with time and using the prehistoric baddies to evacuate London, all in the noble cause of the environment and the future of mankind. In an exciting twist, trusty old Mike Yates turns out to be a traitor (believing he is in the right), adding to the layers of this intriguing tale. Invasion of the Dinosaurs is worth watching alone for the opening episode with its eerie empty streets and unfolding mystery, classic Who.

The End of Time

Lots of negativity was hurtled towards David Tennant's swan song as The Doctor (don't worry kids, he'll be back!), mainly due to its protracted denouement, but as a finale, The End of Time is nothing short of breathtaking. The goodbye scenes, which many loathed (and by many, I mean a few people on the internet - not real people), are a testament to the Russell T. Davies era and how far we'd come in Doctor Who. The Time Lord cares about humans, and cares about the those he travels with and those whose lives he had touched - these final moments are beautiful and incredibly moving. I am unapologetic about that, they are stunning scenes in Who's history. But The End of Time is so much more than the farewells; there's the bold and much-longed for return of The Master AND the Time Lords. The renegade's insanity is revealed as is the macabre nature of The Doctor's people; graphically detailed in the final days of the Time War. For some, the show would never be the same again.

The Five Doctors

There are very few Doctor Who stories I can just stick on and watch at any point, regardless of mood - and this 20th Anniversary Special is one of them. In fact, it's probably the Doctor Who story I've watched the most over the years, never tiring of the multi-Doctor fun. Some "fans", and I use the term quite wrongly, are sniffy about this and often ignore it, possibly because it's such a joyous affair. But what should be remembered is the fact that aside from the sheer delight of seeing five Doctors together on screen (well, OK, three) the notion of searching for immortality is fascinating, especially when there are corrupt Time Lords sniffing around. Best of all, for me, is the Raston Warrior Robot - when we gonna see that guy again?

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