21 Doctor Who stories better than their reputation suggests
From the Macra to The Mysterious Planet, Andrew finds the gold in oft-unloved Doctor Who episodes from across the decades...
For the show’s fiftieth anniversary, Doctor Who Magazine ran a new poll ranking the 241 stories up to and including The Time Of The Doctor. The Twin Dilemma came last again, having done so in 2009 survey, and though it does have many faults, it isn’t completely bad. Colin Baker blazes his way haughtily through it, and the story noticeably lacks energy when he’s off screen. Perhaps it might have been marginally better just to have had the Sixth Doctor and Peri go to a Little Chef so he could complain about the service.
In the lower half of the poll (compiled by people rating all the stories out of ten) are some pretty good stories, or at least ones that arguably don’t deserve to be there. We’ve therefore compiled a list of twenty-one stories that are better than their reputation and ranking suggests:
The Macra Terror
If this was made now, you can imagine the pitch being ‘Guy N. Smith’s Killer Crabs series meets The Brittas Empire‘. It feels like a Seventh Doctor story in some respects, taking a bizarre and cartoonish idea and colliding it with a recognisable reality. The end result works well on audio, with its creepy chanting and garish jingles contrasting nicely with Patrick Troughton’s gentle, understated performance. Featuring the similarly under-rated TARDIS crew of Ben, Polly and Jamie, The Macra Terror is sadly neglected due to its lack of surviving footage.
Nightmare Of Eden
If you mention Nightmare Of Eden, people remember the Mandrels. People remember the spangly customs officer uniforms. People remember Tom Baker mucking around.
People also remember the two spaceships meshing together in hyperspace, the ‘Go away’ scene, a jarringly dark descent into addiction, and the bit where the Doctor and Romana jump into a photograph. On the archived BBC episode guide site, Nightmare Of Eden is accompanied with a video clip of Tom Baker ruining a scene with his ‘My arms! My legs! My everything!’ bit, which undermines this otherwise imaginative and entertaining story. There’s even an effective jump scare involving a Mandrel, which is a combination of words I never expected to write.
On top of Nightmare Of Eden‘s ‘Drugs are bad (look, they’ve even mashed up Irongron)’ message, Galaxy 4 is not renowned for its subtle hidden meaning. Some hideously dated Sixties banter ensues when Steven ‘Chuckles’ Taylor finds himself surrounded by blonde aliens toting giant kazoos, but there’s gold to be found in here. The Rills, it turns out from the recently discovered episode, look fantastic, and talk like they’re in an A Bit Of Fry And Laurie sketch. The Chumblies are actually kinda cool,and though the Drahvins themselves straddle the line between tragic and pathetic, Maaga’s soliloquy to camera still ranks as one of Doctor Who‘s most chilling moments.
The Lazarus Experiment
Because there’s a polarity reversal joke. Because the ‘choking on an olive’ woman is quickly destroyed. Because Mark Gatiss plays a Doctor Who villain and has enormous fun with it. Because who hasn’t wondered what a scorpion/corpse/grunt from Goldeneye hybrid would do at a swanky reception for ‘changing what it means to be human’? It’s hokum, yes, but not claptrap. Stop me if I’m getting too technical for you.
It’s not going to be a go-to episode in the Series 3 box-set, but if you’re pressing ‘Play All’ it’s not exactly a tiresome way to spend 45 minutes. If ‘solid but unexceptional’ on Doctor Who is like this, the show is doing well.
There is a surviving fragment of the Berlin Wall which has been turned into an art exhibit on one side, with murals across its entire length. On the other, facing parkland, is a multitude of graffiti in many languages. At the end nearest the train station, written in Biro on concrete, are the words:
There was no graffiti relating to sub-par episodes of Star Trek.
Death To The Daleks
Death To The Daleks features comforting Terry Nation’s tropes in abundance: a space plague, a rare mineral – Parrinium, the mineral located between the anus and testes – and the Daleks’ appearance at the end of part one. There are some boring humans, stranded with only basic provisions such as four billion tonnes of eye-liner, and some incredibly flaky Daleks. The real star is the planet and peoples of Exillon, with the foreboding atmospheres giving way to the friendliness of Bellal, a memorable guest turn by Arnold Yarrow.
The Long Game
I’m convinced that this episode’s reputation is partly due to the sheer tedium of its audio commentary. Like The Lazarus Experiment, it’s mainly an exercise in setting up elements for the series’ arc that’s had a decent story crafted around it. It also has a villain played by a comedy actor and writer who is clearly thrilled to get the role. If The Lazarus Experiment is inspired by Marvel comics, The Long Game taps into 2000 AD, with future burger vans, exposed brains, and huge monsters in the ceiling. It’s fun, a good yarn that obscures the scaffolding it’s built around.
Plus Tamsin Greig’s great in it. Obviously.
The Creature From the Pit
The shadow of Erato looms large over this story, because there’s a bit where it looks like the Doctor kisses a big green thingy. Otherwise, David Fisher’s script leaves plenty of scope for Python-esque silliness, which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. More objectively, Geoffrey Bayldon and Myra Frances are great value as Organon and Lady Adrasta, and Romana gets another go at being the Doctor because Tom Baker’s too busy larking about. Ideally, Doctor Who should be exciting, scary and funny, but sometimes it seems to have been made to accompany a particular kind of wine.
In this case, it’s the one you get in a giant carton with a tap on the side. By the end of the Season 17 drinking game you’ll either be dead or Bernard Black.
The Mark Of The Rani
Well, if you want the Rani to come back, you’re going to have to show people one of her stories. Let’s face it, of the three televised ones (Dimensions In Time was televised, and there’s nothing we can do about that) it’s got to be this one doesn’t it? It’s fun, it’s endearingly silly, it’s got one of the lovelier synth soundtracks, and it’s one of the few stories where you can plausibly believe that Peri would actually travel with the Sixth Doctor.
The Rani is an interesting enough character to have calls for her return, even if she’s not been in the most popular stories. Anthony Ainley gamely plays the Master as Wishy Washy to her Widow Twanky. One can only imagine this pairing happening again now that Michelle Gomez is the Master.
Dinosaurs On A Spaceship
A big, broad smile of a story with a family-friendly helping of death and slavery thrown in. Occupying the much-maligned ‘Bit of a romp’ slot, Dinosaurs On A Spaceship delivers its expected hijinks-with-a-serious-bit gleefully. Compared with The Power Of Three, it might be less original, but it’s better paced and achieves its aims more successfully.
Chris Chibnall’s finest 0.75 hours in Doctor Who, arguably.
Frontier In Space
With the exception of Colony In Space (read the Target novelisation instead, it’s much better) I will happily sit and watch anything that Malcolm Hulke wrote for Doctor Who. It’s a measure of his legacy that Cold Blood/The Hungry Earth failed as a retelling of his original Silurian story because there was nothing there to add.
Frontier In Space is one of Doctor Who‘s rare space operas, and in it you have the equal of Robert Holmes’ universe-building. All the references back to past-Pertwee stories build up to the climax, showing the storytelling devices of the modern-era series arcs and finales were in place way back in the Pertwee era.
It’s a shame about the Ogron-eater, but at least it’s one of the more memorable uniquely terrible monsters.
The Awakening is the best of the Davison two-parters (I know, it’s not exactly got stiff competition), and I retain a fondness for it based mainly on nostalgia. When I was a kid, the Malus was terrifying, and all the medieval etching stuff spooked me too.
It’s a brisk runaround with a good idea behind it, and The Awakening doesn’t outstay its welcome. I remember frequently rewatching my Awakening/Frontios VHS boxset, with it’s slightly off painted cover, going through all six episodes in one sitting.
Speaking of which…
Basically, if Peter Grimwade had directed this, it’d be so much better. A dearth of exciting directors on the show meant that scripts like Frontios lack the thrill-power they deserved. As it is, there are parts of Frontios that scare based on the strength of the idea more than the actual realisation. The monsters of the episode were too ambitious for the BBC in the Eighties. Indeed, the Tractators would still be difficult to realise well now, but it’s more feasible, and their uncurling like wood-lice could be the icky monster money shot of a contemporary episode.
Basically, think of the wondrously implausible nonsense Peter Harness could wreak with the Gravis.
The Underwater Menace
Approach this as a comedy, and it’s instantly much better. You can’t take it seriously as a drama, so why bother? Converted fish-people going on strike in Atlantis is one of the most Doctor Who sounding things ever, no other show would consider it an option. And the mad, Teutonic scientist has a pet octopus. If Phil Lord and Christopher Miller had directed this, we’d bang on about their genius as if they’d also written It (e.g. every single review of 22 Jump Street).
Anyway, I’m still holding out for Series 2 of Atlantis turning out to be a crossover. Maybe Professor Zaroff is Jason’s dad.
The Myth Makers
The Myth Makers is simply very funny for its first three episodes. In a similar manner to Blackadder Goes Forth, it plays war as a broad farce with a series of ridiculous flawed characters taking the roles of legend. Vicki leaves in the role of Cressida, after a story that sees her get a fine line in sarcasm. The Doctor is forced into working for the Greeks, suggesting the Wooden Horse plan that ultimately destroys Troy. Hearing his futile rage and then acceptance in the final episode is quite affecting, especially when you know the fate of his new companion Katarina.
As we further push our Macra agenda, we’d like to suggest that Gridlock is a thematic linchpin of Series 3. For an arc that basically culminates in a bit of an ol’ pray, this is where the themes of faith and ascension begin, with the Doctor describing Gallifrey as an Eden-like lost paradise. But also it’s got Ardal O’Hanlon as a big Irish cat. A magnum o’puss if you will. Plus it’s got bucket-loads of charm, empathy and wit, plus probably the best kind of surprise crabs you’re ever likely to experience.
Attack Of The Cybermen
Part One is pretty good. Part Two is not. It’s a shame because Part One has Colin Baker barging his way through the script with reckless abandon, and Brian Glover excelling in what could have been a ‘Third Doctor era standard yokel’ role. Both are massively entertaining. It’s a shame that this early promise peters out once the main story actually starts, but there are still good moments in Part Two, noticeably the Doctor’s reaction when he realises he’s being played by the Time Lords, and the two ANGRY INTENSE COCKERNEES’ demonstration of Cybermen’s body horror.
The Claws Of Axos
Like Terry Nation stories, sometimes there’s something comforting in the clichés of the Pertwee era. So, we have a renewable energy source, a meddling Government official, a comedy rural person, the Master turns up, Action by HAVOC, and UNIT getting zapped by monsters. The whole thing is worth it for the Master’s totally dismissive attitude to a nuclear explosion and the Doctor’s TARDIS.
The Axons found themselves being used as a backdrop to a Mars Volta tour around 2006, which is kinda cool. Plus, and this is obviously entirely subjective, I find slightly hokey American accents really entertaining.
The Wedding Of River Song
As well as walking reboot buttons, Rory doing a bad-ass Brigadier homage, and the resolution to a plan even the Master would reject as being too needlessly complicated, The Wedding Of River Song threw loads of great ideas at the screen. Live Chess feels like it’s walked in from the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip, on top of space Vikings, Area 52, dinosaurs in Hyde Park, chasms of skulls and the currency of Dalek eye-stalks. In hindsight, it’s promise of a legacy-free dead Doctor wasn’t fulfilled, but if its ideas galore you’re after The Wedding Of River Song is crammed full of them, and good ones too.
The Next Doctor
It’s the ending that really nixes this one. Russell T. Davies admits as much on the commentary. As a result, the main things people remember from this one are the history-baiting Cyber-King, Cyber-Shades that looked like Yetis from The Mighty Boosh, and the underwhelming finale.
Away from the hype surrounding David Tennant’s exit from the show, though, the first fifty minutes of The Next Doctor stand up are great fun. Tennant is excellent, with great guest turns by David Morrissey as Jackson Lake (you must only refer to him by his full name) and Dervla Kirwan absolutely nailing the tone of ‘Doctor Who Guest Villain’. One of those ones that came close, but just needed more time.
The Mysterious Planet
The first four episodes of The Trial Of A Time Lord are the least popular, and yet it contains some of Colin Baker’s best work, the most plausible and warm Sixth Doctor and Peri relationship, and Robert Holmes’ nicely inverting the peasant/technocrats positions, so the peasants are on top, literally if not figuratively. Despite the relatively jaunty tone compared to the rest of the Sixth Doctor era, and the presence of Joam Sims failing to evoke any menace (until she dies screaming, at least), this is darker than it feels. The Earth has been destroyed by fire, with tribes eking out an existence on its surface, and an elite culling itself due to water shortages.
This is undercut by how cheerful the service robot seems at getting to roam about for once. No matter what Dominic Glynn does with the score, the littler blighter still seems chirpy.
Feel free to mention your favourite under-rated episodes in the comments below…
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