In case you couldn’t tell from my semi-regular ramblings about obsure audio plays, I’m something of a Doctor Who nerd. I’ve seen every episode (even the ones missing from the archives – I watched fan-made reconstructions and liked them), listened to many, many hours of Big Finish audios, read a whole stack of books, and even delved into the comics, on occasion. My biggest ambition right now is to one day write an official Doctor Who story.
In short, I love Doctor Who. So, without further ado, over the next three weeks I’m going to share with you my top 12 Who stories – one for each Doctor!
1. The Time Meddler (William Hartnell, 1965)
The final story of the second season, and, in my opinion, Doctor Who’s most underrated game-changer. During the Hartnell era, the show alternated between sci-fi and historical stories, and The Time Meddler is initially played as a historical: the Doctor and his companions land in 1066, on the eve of the Norman Conquests. But all is not as it seems. A mysterious monk has moved into the previously deserted local monastery – and he has technology from the future!
In retrospect this’ll sound like a common or garden Doctor Who story, but this was the first time the show really blended sci-fi and history like this, introducing what would become one of its genre mainstays.
And that’s not all. Episode two has what is, in my opinion, one of the most game-changing cliffhangers in Who history, when Vicki and Steven discover the secret behind the Monk’s time travel…
Plus, it’s just an all-round fun story, with a delightful villain, new companion Steven Taylor, and William Hartnell at his funniest. Thoroughly recommended.
(Runners up: The Aztecs, The Tenth Planet)
2. The War Games (Patrick Troughton, 1969)
Patrick Troughton’s final story, and probably the single biggest gamechanger in the show’s history. It’s so well-known in the fandom, I’m not going to avoid spoilers: in The War Games, the words ‘Time Lord’ are uttered for the first time. The Time Lords themselves appear for the first time in episode 10, and boy do they make a memorable entrance.
And yes, episode 10 – The War Games has a run time of over four hours. The Time Lords don’t show up for three and a half. What happens in the first nine episodes? Well, the Doctor and companions Jamie and Zoe land in the middle of the First World War, arrested, and tried as spies and deserters. The commanding officer is secretly an alien, who hypnotises his human underlings into pronouncing them guilty! Zoe and Jamie are sent to different prisons – and the Doctor is sent for execution!
The Doctor is saved from his execution – by (watch closely) soldiers in US Civil war era uniforms. Then Jamie meets his cellmate – an 18th century Redcoat. And then things get weird.
The War Games has been accused of padding, and to be honest, it’s true. It probably ought to have been a six-parter. But it’s ten straight episodes of Patrick Troughton – I’m not about to complain!
(Runners up: The Mind Robber, Power of the Daleks)
3. Spearhead from Space (Jon Pertwee, 1970)
I’m not going to lie, Jon Pertwee is far from my favourite Doctor. It wasn’t hard to pick a favourite of his stories – in his whole 5-year run there’s only a handful I wholeheartedly like. Fortunately those I like, I really like.
Spearhead from Space was Jon Pertwee’s first story, Doctor Who’s first story in colour, and an all-round radical departure from what had come before. Due to budgetary constraints, it was decided to ground the Doctor on earth for a while, so he begins this story newly regenerated and sent into exile by the Time Lords.
For the next couple of seasons, there’s no time travel, no new planets, very little of the TARDIS – just the Doctor dealing with alien menaces, practically in the viewers’ back garden. This earth seasons, for all they can be a bit samey, have a reputation for being especially scary.
Spearhead from Space is a prime example. It introduced the Autons, who, frankly, have never been as scary since, deep, deep in the uncanny valley. Compared to the rest of the Pertwee era, it’s a snip at 4 episodes (a little under two hours) and perfectly-paced. I really can’t recommend this one enough.
(Runners up: The Time Warrior, The Monster of Peladon)
4. Warrior’s Gate (Tom Baker, 1981)
One of Tom Baker’s last stories, and highly underrated, in my opinion. Actually, I think his whole last season is underrated, but Warrior’s Gate is undoubtedly the highlight.
The final story for companions Romana and K9, Warrior’s Gate is in some respects the true end of the Tom Baker era – his remaining two stories have a downright funereal tone and devote a lot of time to introducing new companions for incoming Doctor Peter Davison.
What’s it about? Good question. Trying to escape from the E-Space, the pocket dimension where they’ve become trapped, the Doctor and his companions land in a mysterious white void. Also in the void is a human slaving vessel, also trapped… and a castle. The castle is some kind of interdimensional gateway and by stepping through a mirror within, you can travel into the past. Maybe.
The humans are carrying a cargo of alien Tharils, whose psychic abilities power human time machines. The Tharils built the castle and used to enslave humans, until they were overthrown themselves. They’ve somehow predicted this whole thing and are quietly manipulating events to their advantage. Maybe.
Meanwhile, the white void is shrinking…
Warrio’s Gate is seriously weird and seriously creepy. Some sequences are dripping with symbolism. Others are cryptic ethical commentaries. Even the Doctor doesn’t seem to fully understand what’s going on. The human characters certainly don’t understand what’s going on. I’ve watched it several times and I still don’t get it. But I love it to bits.
(Runners up: Genesis of the Daleks, The Robots of Death).
So, that’s my first four picks. Next week: Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester Mccoy and Paul McGann.