Doctor Who: great things in not-so-great episodes

The last (almost) fifty years have witnessed all manner of Doctor Who episodes, and even in the show's least great moments, there's always something to admire...

Very early on in its production it was decided that some episodes of Doctor Who wouldn’t be as good as other ones. It’s a jolly nice thing for Verity Lambert et al to have done. I don’t know how I’d cope if every single episode of Doctor Who was as good as, say, The Visitation Part Two.

However, due to complications with the essential nature of art and its tendency towards yielding subjective interpretations of meaning, this plan failed to produce any episodes of Doctor Who that are entirely without merit. Anyone who claims otherwise is either an individual with a gift for hyperbole or a bit of a nodule.

To highlight this, we have compiled a list of great things that come from the poorer episodes of Doctor Who. In order to avoid arguments about what counts as a poor episode, I have limited my choices to stories that came in the bottom fifty of the 2009 Doctor Who Magazine ‘Mighty 200’ poll, and then listed them in chronological order based on when they were produced. Adding your own examples below would be greatly appreciated, as long as you are aware that Dementors of the Interwebs are ready and waiting to suck every last ounce of joy out of something you like.

Which story: The Underwater Menace

What’s it known for? The mad scientist with a pet octopus; A dialogue-free five minute section where Fish People go on strike; A director who went on to create Eastenders.

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What’s good about it? The regulars.

We now have two episodes of The Underwater Menace (episode 2, newly found, is yet to be released on DVD. episode 3 is in the Lost in Time boxset), and joy has been unconfined over the visual tics and nuances of Patrick Troughton’s performance. However, the audio version enhances the main strength of Geoffrey Orme’s script – The Doctor, Ben, Polly and Jamie are a joy from start to finish.

Rewrites, overambition, and over-the-top acting all make The Underwater Menace’s reputation as a trailblazing feast of the ludicrous stick, but you have to wonder how much of it is down to Joseph Furst’s performance as Professor Zaroff. Originally scripted as being driven mad by the death of his family, Zaroff is the quintessential mad scientist, complete with Einstein hair, German accent and cry of ‘Nuthink in ze world can stop me now’. In the hands of a different actor the same lines could be quite chilling. Fortunately, amidst the chaos, the regulars are on form.

Patrick Troughton is still finding the role, and it’s fascinating and funny to hear. Polly does scream and faint a lot, but Anneke Wills delivers the line ‘You’re not turning me into a fish’ with exactly the right level of indignance. Fraser Hines, in his second performance as Jamie, makes the most of his lines and slots into the group effortlessly. Michael Craze holds the hold thing together with a fantastically grounded display as Able Seaman Ben Jackson, culminating in his pointing to the Doctor and saying: “Look at him – he ain’t normal, is he?

Which story? Colony in Space

What’s it known for? Beanie baby alien; Dull colonists; Robots with comedy hands.

What’s good about it? The Target novelisation

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The book is better. This is the case for many people who read the novelisation of an original series story before watching the actual episode. The visuals are limited only by the reader’s imagination, which was not directly affected by inflation, production staff, and Jon Pertwee’s demands to have a go on one of those little helicopters.

Plus, as a bonus, both Colony in Space and its novelisation Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon are by Malcolm Hulke. This means that nearly every character will be fleshed out and made three-dimensional, even if said character is about to be scraped to death by a sinister robot.

Which story? The King’s Demons

What’s it known for? Ye hackneyed olde worlde dialogue; The Master’s most cunning disguise yet; The Master’s most underwhelming plan yet.

What’s good about it? King John’s Song

Playing the dual role of King John and a shape shifting android, Gerald Flood delivers each line as if he’s on the verge of seeing a nipple. He’s unctuous and predatory, like a bad uncle in a George R. R. Martin novel. So what’s happening in this story? Turlough gets trapped in a dungeon by a knight who’s too fey to be angry; the Doctor makes everyone in the castle hate him, and the Master is diguised as one of the French Knights from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, shouting “Idiots!” and “Medieval misfits!” at the Doctor for the eminently sensible strategy of running away.

Fortunately, while Peter Davison does some background acting, King John gets his lute out and sings a song. You all know the words.

Which story? The Twin Dilemma

What’s it known for? Speech impediments; Boss-eyed gastropods; Companion strangulation.

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What’s good about it? Colin Baker. In general.

The Twin Dilemma came bottom of the last two Doctor Who Magazine polls. It probably isn’t the worst story ever, but it suffers from following on immediately from one of the best. After the Fifth Doctor’s regeneration in The Caves of Androzani, the Sixth Doctor is given the end-of-season dregs as his first story. It looks cheap, it’s directed with all the flair of a fart, and the script is rushed and variable.

Fortunately, Colin Baker is on the scene, and instils his portrayal with the energy and jacket of a thousand angry suns, charging around shouting “Villain!” and “Murderer!” at old men. For the fiftieth anniversary, is it too much to hope that Russell T Davies writes for Ol’ Sixie?

Which story? Silver Nemesis

What’s it known for? Bored Nazis; Gratuitous American; Unusually potent gold.

What’s good about it? Jazz vs Cybermen

When you think about its core elements – The Doctor and Ace versus Nazis versus Cybermen versus a mad time-travelling Tudor witch – Silver Nemesis should be pretty good. It is, unfortunately, barely tethered to reality. Even the extended VHS cut of it doesn’t really make much sense.

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It is worth noting, however, that no-one has ever seen Silver Nemesis writer Kevin Clarke and jazz maverick Howard Moon in the same place. It would explain the extended sequence where the Cybermen are defeated by Courtney Pine. While Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred yomp about the countryside having an infectious amount of fun (“Hello! I’m the Doctor! I believe you want to kill me!”), the signal to the Cyberfleet is blocked using a Time Lord ghetto blaster and a signed cassette of smooth saxophony.

The sight of three Cybermen reacting in bafflement to the music is priceless, as is the Cyber-Lieutenant’s confused comment of “It is meaningless.”

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