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Doctor Who: 12 Stories for 12 Doctors (part 1)

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!

Time_meddler_uk_dvd1. 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)

51kU8Y-t1CL._SY300_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)

Dvd-spearheadSE3. 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)

Warriors_gate_us_dvd4. 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.

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Top 10 Favourite Films

For some reason this list always seems like the big one – even though I’m not that much of a film person. You can tell by the way I have a reasonably secure top ten list!

It’s an eclectic list, and one with surprisingly few SF entries. Most of them are films I watched for the first time as a young-ish teenager, which isn’t that much of a surprise. There’s one big exception (in the number three slot) and the fact that it makes this list continues to boggle me. Most of them are genres and types of films I don’t usually like. I don’t know what that says about me!

A few quick honourable mentions: The Princess Bride (1987), West Side Story (1961) and The Amazing Spider-Man (2012).

narnia10. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005)

I don’t know why I like this film so much. On some level I actually kind of hate it, its weird saccharine tone blended with with out-of-place attempts at grittiness – it’s an awkward film.

It’s also my go-to comfort film. I don’t know quite why; it just seems to hit all the right emotional highs and lows. It pushes all the right buttons. It’s brightly-coloured and upbeat and I love it to bits. I’m not going to lie: I once watched it three times in one day.

Not exactly one of the best fantasy films ever made – but it’s a really good adaptation of one of my childhood favourites. Throw in some brilliant casting – James McAvoy could not be more perfect as Tumnus – and you’ve got a film I can’t help loving.

dirty dancing

9. Dirty Dancing (1987)

Is this my favourite romance film? Yes, I think it is.

I’ve come back to Dirty Dancing a few times as I’ve gotten older and it reads differently each time. When I first watched it Baby was a grown-up, sophisticated teenager I admired; then I began to appreciate the romantic and sexual side of the film more and she became subject to a cheerful kind of envy; now it seems very much a film about being right on the threshold of adulthood. (As I write this, I’ll be formally graduating from university in about eleven hours…) Who knows – maybe in a few years I’ll come to appreciate the sense of nostalgia more.

The romance; the music; the dancing; the wonderful pinkness of it; I love this film.

truman8. The Truman Show (1998)

The Truman Show is one of the most frightening films I’ve ever seen. I was probably too young for it when I first watched it. It’s chillingly paranoia-inducing. And…  it’s  a Jim Carey Comedy.

This is a brilliantly constructed film. The television set that is Truman’s prison is beautifully realised; you can tell, after watching this film, just how it’s organised, how it’s funded, how actors and crew members move around it without ever alerting Truman to the truth.

It’s also one of the few films that manages to get the same emotional response out of me every single time I watch it. The sense of creeping paranoia, the gradual slippage of reality, and then the beautiful moment of catharsis that is the ending – ‘say something, damn it! You’re on television!’

7. The Blues Brothers (1980)blues brothers

This film was part of my childhood long before I watched it. My parents had the soundtrack and liked to play it in the car. I remember it as a strange and disjointed collection of songs I didn’t understand.

Then I was finally allowed to watch the film – it’s rated 15 – and my god is it funny. I always forget till I re-watch it just how funny car pile-ups can be. Or how weird and wonderful Carrie Fisher’s murderous cameos are. And of course as I get older I understand more and more of the jokes – naturally.

But it’s the music, I think, that really makes this film as good as it is – the music and the sheer calibre of the performers who were on board. It’s not just a comedy, it’s a musical comedy – a musical comedy of the highest order.

grosse6. Grosse Point Blank (1997)

Grosse Point Blank is like The Princess Bride – more or less every scene in it is memorable and quotable, to the point that I sometimes wonder why none of them have gone memetic. Oh, well. Popcorn!

It’s primarily a comedy, but it’s also a thriller; it has genuinely good action scenes; it’s a romance and it’s a redemption story. Martin Blank is a fascinating and complex lead – as well as one of the most relatable cold-blooded killers ever put to film.

And it has a great soundtrack. The slightly discordant selection of eighties songs permeates the whole film – I could make a list just for film soundtracks and Grosse Point Blank would be up there.

 

station5. The Station Agent (2003)

I always find it very difficult to explain what it is that makes The Station Agent so good. ‘You see, it’s about a man with dwarfism who loves trains, and then his only friend dies and leaves him a disused train station – and then he meets a woman who’s just lost her son and a man who runs a roadside food truck – and then, well, things happen‘.

It was not just my introduction to Peter Dinklage but, I think, the first time I’d seen an actor with dwarfism in a serious role. It’s certainly the only film I know of that treats dwarfism as a serious subject. It’s very quiet. It’s low on dialogue and high on visual storytelling. It’s very gentle – but also, at times, emotionally harrowing.

jesus4. Jesus Christ Superstar (2000)

I’m cheating a little with this one because it’s technically a filmed stage version rather than a film – and a direct to video version, at that.

Admitting to preferring this film to the more acclaimed 1973 production can get you a lot of flack in some circles – but I saw this version first, I grew up with it, and I love it in all its cheesy glory. For the longest time I didn’t even know there was another film.

I love Jesus Christ Superstar in all its guises, but for whatever reason the 2000 revival has the edge for me. Maybe it’s just nostalgia, but I love the post-apocalyptic, gritty visuals, I love the Darth Vader-esque Roman soldiers, I love the soundtrack, and I love the way it blends film and stage musical. It has close-ups and camera tricks, but also the surreal tone and visuals of a stage production.

3. Spartacus (1960)

spartacus

Best Roman epic of all time or best Roman epic of all time?

Spartacus might be the oddest choice on this list. I’m a queer woman – and Spartacus is an unapologetic testosterone-fest. But it’s a self-aware testosterone-fest.

The Classical Epic is generally an idealistic genre. And Spartacus is idealistic, but it’s also realistic. The realism in part comes from the constraints of history – the Spartacan revolt was ultimately a failure and the mass crucifixion depicted here really did happen, though Spartacus himself was mercifully spared on account of already being dead – but the film just owns it.

It’s also a great piece of visual storytelling, neatly sidestepping the wordiness of many Classical Epics. The silent shots of the Roman army advancing speak louder than words ever could. It’s a truly great film.

serenity2. Serenity (2005)

I’ll be honest: my love for Serenity is partly due to my love for Firefly, the tragically cancelled sci-fi series it’s sequel to. Which is strange, because as a sequel to Firefly I find it quite unsatisfying.

But as a science fiction film on its own terms, Serenity is incredible. It’s a dark thriller, a western and a sci-fi epic. It masters the ‘used future’ and what I’d call the ‘useable future’ – you can imagine what it would be to live in this world: what you would eat, how you would get around, what your life would be like.

I’d read Serenity as a meditation on the nature of evil. There’s no single villain here; the closest is the Operative, but as he himself acknowledges, he has little real agency. What there is instead is the Alliance, a group of politicians who honestly and earnestly believe that they are doing what is best for the people – by creating monsters.

empire1. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

What can I say? I’m that kind of nerd.

The second act of the trilogy is usually the strongest and this is no exception. Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars film. Anyone who says otherwise is wrong. In fact, I’d say it’s the only truly objectively good film in the series. After the shaky awkwardness of A New Hope but before the odd Ewok-filled wackiness of Return of the Jedi – perfect.

What I love about Star Wars in general – and Empire in particular – is that everything feels big. It feels heavy. You look at the spaceships knowing they’re models, but they feel heavy and metallic. You can imagine how they fit together. There’s a strong sense of space (ha) throughout the film; it’s like Serenity in that you can imagine what it would be like to be in the space ships and buildings depicted. Everything feels solid.

And to me, that’s the essence of SF: making the unreal feel real.

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