10 great Doctor Who series openers

Cameron selects ten tremendous Doctor Who series openers, from Rose to Ribos, and Tomb to Terror...

Over the years, Doctor Who has suffered from what is commonly known as “SOS” or “Season Opener Syndrome”. There’s been some stinkers like Destiny of the Daleks, Attack of the Cybermen and Arc of Infinity and some mundane instalments such as New Earth, Robot and The Dominators. But there are some genuinely good ones out there too – some damn good ones. So here’s ten of the best season openers over the last forty-nine and a bit years of Doctor Who

10. Partners In Crime (2008) 

Despite the levity of the episode, and we’re talking about the Adipose here, this Russell T. Davies beauty managed a couple of mean feats. Firstly, he re-introduced us all to the mighty Donna Noble again (The Doctor and Donna’s meeting through the windows mime is one of my favourites in the show’s history). And secondly, the former showrunner managed to sneak in, without any warning or hints, the return of Rose Tyler. There was an almighty thud as the nation’s collective jaw hit the ground when the onetime shop assistant appeared during the closing minutes -setting up the series in the most spine-tingly of fashions. 

9. The Ribos Operation (1978) 

The Key To Time was a funny old beast. A season-spanning story arc (imagine that, eh?) which featured The Fourth Doctor, played by Tom Baker, with his Time Lord companion Romana, the beautiful and wonderful Mary Tamm. This opener set the premise up succinctly with the appearance of The White Guardian, who commandeers the TARDIS briefly and fills the Time Lord in on the Key to Time, which he had believed to be a myth. In short, The Doctor has been tasked to retrace the six segments of the Key, scattered throughout space and time. The story itself finds the Gallifreyan and his much smarter companion on Ribos – a cold, late-medieval kind of place – with much shenanigans from confidence tricksters, Garron and Unstoffe. The late great Iain Cuthbertson played the former with all his usual guile and panache, creating a most memorable addition to Who‘s one-off characters. But The Ribos Operation is really stolen by a scene featuring Binro, an outcast branded a heretic as he believed in life on other planets. The aforementioned Unstoffe excitedly reveals that all his thoughts and discoveries are, in fact, true. A tremendously moving piece of writing from Doctor Who legend, Robert Holmes. 

8. The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon (2011) 

Steven Moffat certainly knows how to kick off a series (even if he doesn’t always fare so well when closing it). This doozy from just two years ago managed to kill off The Doctor in its first ten minutes, only for the Time Lord to reappear in a diner sucking on a straw. This cinematic two-parter was helped by some delicious filming in the US but also from the inclusion of new monster, The Silence. Their presence, somewhat ironically, was hugely felt across the story and became an instant hit with the audience. And, like Partners In Crime, it had the most shocking of endings to set up the rest of the series as a young girl regenerated in New York City… 

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7. Tomb of the Cybermen (1967) 

I wouldn’t say I was a huge fan of the Troughton era (and by that please don’t misinterpret it to mean that I dislike it per se, it just doesn’t grab me) but Tomb is a neat four-parter featuring the return of the Cybermen. Perhaps, the guest cast are a little stagey but the design and direction make for an impressive tale and fantastic season debut. The tension of the discovery of the tomb remains throughout with a superb claustrophobic feel but it’s Patrick “The Trout” Troughton who thoroughly impresses with his sparkly yet undeniably dramatic performance.  

6. Horror of Fang Rock (1977) 

Perhaps one of the, if not the last great “horror” stories from that era, Terrance Dicks’ base-under-seige story is a taut classic with minimal cast and maximum scares. Doctor Who in a lighthouse at the turn of the twentieth century may not sound like it’s packing much, but the paranoia and fear embedded in this four-parter make for a scintillating watch. It’s typical in some ways; The Doctor and his companion (in this case the feisty and leather-clad Leela, played by the effervescent Louise Jameson) appear and are immediately in the frame for someone’s death – not an unusual position for Gallifrey’s finest. But it’s how the story plays out that’s such a joy, in particular some of the class issues that are addressed. And we get to meet a Rutan – sworn enemy of the Sontarans! 

5. Spearhead from Space (1970) 

Opening stories for new Doctors can be a toughie (let’s not discuss The Twin Dilemma or Time and the Rani) but Jon Pertwee’s debut was fresh and tight. Given that the previous stories consisted of two six-parters and a ten-parter, Spearhead breezed by with a new Earth-bound feel, a new companion and a cracking new alien threat – the Autons and the Nestene Consciousness. The story contains so many memorable moments, such as the shop dummy rampage, and looks like Doctor Who never had before – in colour and on film. It’s on Blu-ray later this year, one to savour in all its technicolour glory. 

4. Terror of the Zygons (1975) 

More from the Baker era, and what a story. As discussed in the recent classic monsters list here, the Zygons are a firm fan favourite – down to their design but also to this tremendous tale. Initially, it was down to be the previous season closer but got bumped due to a change in the broadcast schedule (just imagine that happening now). In many ways, it was a solid goodbye to the old days with the last appearance from The Brigadier until the eighties and Harry saying farewell too (though he would pop in The Android Invasion). The direction from Douglas Camfield is terrific, adding real menace to the titular invaders (though he couldn’t work the same magic with the Skarasen) with superb lighting and damn fine location work. Also well worth a mention is the amazing score from Geoffrey Burgon, whose sounds and atonal melodies haunt and accentuate the story at every turn. 

3. The Eleventh Hour (2010) 

Steven Moffat and Matt Smith faced the Herculean task of starting all over again, and boy did they start again. The Eleventh Doctor’s first outing was a fresh beginning for the show, also treating us with new companion Amy Pond and a new TARDIS (both exterior and interior). The story may have had shades of a previous Moffat story, The Girl in the Fireplace, but the vibrancy of Smith’s performance, the bouncy dialogue and slick direction made for an impressive debut from the incoming team. It’s still one of Moffat’s best stories to date. 

2. Rose (2005) 

Eight years ago. Can you believe it? Eight years Who has been back. Blimey. Anyway, too-soon nostalgia aside, Russell T. Davies and his team brought back Doctor Who in such a way that it seemed impossible and inconceivable that it had ever been off our screens. Hitting the right tone from the off, Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper made for telly’s finest couple and lit up the screen like no other. The story saw a return for the Autons but it was the relationships that made Rose such an engaging and enthralling watch; packing the tale with humour and warmth – ensuring the series would continue for some time to come. 

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1. An Unearthly Child (1963) 

When they started Doctor Who originally, they got it right. So very right. This is where it all began in Totter’s Lane with a rather crotchety old man (who wasn’t too hot on his lines), his hip granddaughter and two caring but perhaps overly curious school teachers. An Unearthly Child is an accomplished piece of television with a wonderful, yet terribly ordinary, mystery at its heart. (I will say that the other three episodes of the story are not nearly as good, so let’s just stick with the opening instalment.) 

Hartnell as a leading man, as it were, is still to this day a formidable character. Almost unlikable and maybe even a “villain” of sorts, he’s not so much as a cool uncle, but an unsettling grandfather. His performance as Doctor Who, or “Dr. Who” as the credits inform us, remains bewilderingly and utterly fascinating. Playing the “heroes”, William Russell and Jacqueline Hill, teachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright respectively, also hit the perfect note from the first minute – a Mulder and Scully for the Sixties. They’re never scared to question or confront their designated driver, emboldening their characters tenfold. 

It’s a testament to the likes of Verity Lambert, Sydney Newman et al that their vision was strong enough to last so long on the back of this extraordinary opener.

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