Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Not Another Doctor Who Top 10, Honest

Prefect Slog
As I sat down this week to enjoy my regular dose of Space:1999 courtesy of ITV4 the horrible wrongness of the opening music (a feeling like tuning into Doctor Who to find the unique Ron Grainer theme replaced with, say, the non-music that fronted every episode of JMS’ B5 spin-off, Crusade) tipped me off that they had jumped to the start of Series Two and the introduction of metamorphosing Maya. I’m sure it will be fun to continue (re)watching them, but right from the outset you know it’s an altogether different series, the point where the whole thing went all Frieberger and cheese - to coin a phrase. Anyway, the unexpectedness of the jump was owing to the fact that I couldn’t really say whether ITV4 have been showing these in the relevant order: as familiar as I am with dear old Space:1999 and the rest of the Gerry Anderson catalogue, I simply don’t have that same intimate knowledge of episode titles, episode order and what have you that I have with some series. Doctor Who, for instance, I’ve long had what amounts to an episode guide in my head, although with a lengthy programme of therapy and learning not to care to quite such an unhealthy extent, it’s become more of an impressionistic work and not the factual compendium with the worrying level of detail it once was. Thank goodness for that, because I wouldn’t want anyone mistaking me for a Fan with a capital F. Still, the fact that I rattle off a review of the New Series episodes each week and am still enthusiastic about the nice continuity touches (Doctor James McCrimmon, International Electromatics, Sarah Jane Smith – sigh!) is an indicator that I still give an f, no matter how lower case it might be.

Anyway, given that I’ve moaned a bit about certain aspects of New Series Who that have been less than satisfying, especially in the light of how the Rise Of The Cybermen fell somewhat short of expectations, I thought it was a good time to leaf through that internal episode guide of mine and come up with a list of my own Top Ten Doctor Who stories.

Now, bear in mind that these lists are about as changeable as a British summer and that, unless you’re compiling a Top Ten of Chantelle’s brain cells (in other more depressing news, the woman has just landed herself a £300,000 deal for her autobiography – dear God) it’s almost impossible to sensibly limit yourself to ten. This exercise was, in any case, prompted by Stuart Douglas, fellow Doctor Who fan and friend-in-blogdom, responsible for Half A Dozen Streets And A Bit Of Wasteland. So I absolve myself of all blame.

As with his worthy list, these are in no particular order:

The Talons Of Weng Chiang (TV – Classic)

A popular choice, apparently, but a fairly obvious one. Okay, the fluffy giant rat could do with being a bit more terrifying and a bit less Basil Brush, but Talons gets away with it. Frankly, I could forgive a lot more of Talons, but there’s precious little else to forgive. It's smogbound Victorian London, it's deadly Chinese Tongs, it's Mr Sin, Magnus Greel, Chang, it's Jago and Litefoot, it's Leela – it is, dare I say it, the Good Old Days. This is not just good Doctor Who, it's essential Doctor Who. Horror and history and science fiction, dark and humorous, great characters, bags of atmosphere and gorgeously realised.

Spearhead From Space (TV – Classic)

You can keep your Roses, this is the best introductory story for any Doctor post-Hartnell ever. (We'll allow David Tennant a few points of handicap for the fact that his was at Christmas so had to incorporate spurious Santas and deadly Christmas trees into what was otherwise a fun romp.) This is the one in which the Autons first broke out of shop windows and this is the one in which they didn’t move around like a bunch of jerky street mimes. This is the one in which they’re scary. The Doctor’s erratic and out of it for much of the time, but thanks to Pertwee’s charisma and screen presence when he is on, we get to know him fairly early. And it introduces Liz Shaw. Sure, the Nestene is just a blob in a tank and a lot of rubber tentacles, but anyone who thinks the CGI blob and the ‘climactic’ fight at the end of Rose is any better has been duped by the often flimsy illusions of better technology and bigger budget.

The Ambassadors Of Death (TV – Classic)

Ah, Season 7. How to choose? They all feature Liz Shaw and so score valuable points over the rest, but it really doesn’t help when it comes to deciding between them. Well, Spearhead’s already earned a slot. I can hardly include Inferno after having a go at the alternate Earth setup in Rise Of The Cybermen – although Inferno, which does suffer from the fact that the Primords are A Bit Rubbish™, is better in that respect since the parallel Earth featured there is more interesting than the real one. So I’m left with a really tough call between Doctor Who And The Silurians, to use its full title, and Ambassadors. Ambassadors has all the requisite James Bond stuff, decent sci-fi stuff that’s half-Quatermass, half-Avengers and one of the best endings ever. It has a similar moral resonance to Silurians in that the monsters are not villains and both stories are presenting something novel. Both stories are long and Ambassadors does involve a lot of runaround (but since some of the running around is done by Liz, we can certainly forgive that) to fill it out, but to be honest every time I’ve watched either of them I just enjoy immersing myself in the adventure for the long term. In the end, well, it comes down to that ending I guess – the Doctor walking away and handing the actual task of first contact over to humanity – and the fact that this one was responsible for what must be my earliest childhood memory of Doctor Who: the simple but effectively creepy images of the alien ‘astronauts’. So Ambassadors wins not by a nose but by a whisker.

An Unearthly Child (TV – Classic)

This is the best introductory story, full stop. It’s that perfect bridge between the world of the mundane – teachers at a school – and escapism – one of the pupils knows far more than she should but also has telling gaps in her knowledge, and her Grandfather has a time/space ship in the shape of a Police Box in the corner of a local junkyard. With Ian and Barbara we’re crossing over into a whole new dimension and it’s all conveyed with that vital sense of wonder. Their reactions are perfect. Susan’s suitably ‘alien’, and the Doctor is a terrifically remote figure, all the more engaging for his famous irascibility and smug superiority. Never mind all the gubbins with the cave people afterwards - they had to go and travel somewhere so it might as well have been One Thousand Pence, BC. It’s the first episode that counts.

The Aztecs (TV – Classic)

I felt the need to name a purely historical story, and this is the one that stands out best to my mind. Some nice moral questions raised for Barbara and a romance for the Doctor.

Fury From The Deep (Novelisation/Audio)

I'll admit it may well be better in my imagination than it ever looked on screen, but thanks to the highly effective combination of the novelisation and a couple of listens on audio, the imagined version remains intact. Again it scores oodles on atmosphere, it's a great setup for the base under siege scenario and manages to make seaweed creepy, for goodness sake. Plus it has some strong emotional touches with Victoria’s impending departure in the, er, pipeline. Lovely.

Planet Of Evil (TV – Classic)

This one I’m including as an alternative to The Ark In Space, which is brilliant and also gave me lots of welcome nightmares as a kid. (Stuart included Ark in his list and I was tempted to do the same for all the same reasons he cited, but at the same time I didn’t want this gem to be overlooked.) Unlike Ark, it doesn’t have Harry and that is a point against it, but the horror is just as effective and the memories just as vivid. It’s Jekyll and Hyde with a Forbidden Planet vibe, and Sorenson is great in the Jekyll/Hyde role. Also, take note ye makers of New Who (and here’s another reason for including it), it features an alien planet, creepily effective and effectively creepy and all managed on a fraction of today’s budgets. Prentis Hancock is a bit annoying but what else do you expect from Paul Morrow? The one they really needed to enlist from Moonbase Alpha was Sandra Benes, who would have spent the entire story screaming her lungs out. Right up until the mostly-invisible monster with the crackly energy outline sucked her soul out and spat out her horrific dried-up husk of a corpse. Luckily plenty of other Morestrans were on hand to die for our viewing pleasure. Plus Sarah Jane Smith is as gorgeous and terrified as she can be.

Caves Of Androzani (TV - Classic)

Ah, Graeme Harper, what happened? From the superb melodrama of Androzani to the mellow drama of Rise Of The Cybermen. This story’s giant rat is the Magma Creature, of course – a big plastic walking bat that looks, let’s be honest, a bit guano. The odd thing is, it’s really not needed and adds nothing to the melting pot. And what a melting pot. As with Talons, there’s that balance of humour and horror, but here it’s stretched taut as a tightrope, walking a fine line between taking itself incredibly seriously and sending itself up. Morgus talking to camera is completely mad but it really works. Sharaz Jek is a memorable Phantom Of The Opera who does all but break into a chorus of ‘The Music Of The Night’, and the Doctor’s not trying to save the day for a change, he’s just caught up in everyone else’s conflicting motivations, trying to save Peri and paying the ultimate price. Finally, a Davison story that makes you sit right up and pay attention.

Fear Itself (BBC Eighth Doctor Novel)

Best EDA I had the pleasure of reading. (And that’s no offence to the others.) It just had that perfectly judged balance of substance and pace, atmosphere and action, dark and light. Nicely written throughout, some great character material – special mention to poor underrated (and often underserved) Anji – and a lot of neat sf ideas pooled together in a very Doctor Who-ish mix.

Heritage (BBC Seventh Doctor Novel)

Quite simply better than any Sylvester McCoy story on the telly. Doctor Who meets Unforgiven, and better than that makes it sound. The atmosphere is so palpably dark that you feel the presence of monsters where (at least in the expected sense) there aren’t any, and yet somehow it gets away with throwing a dolphin into the mix without detracting from any of it. Quite the opposite, in fact, because Bernard is portrayed with the same conviction as the heartfelt human story at its core. Arabella the crow is as well characterized as the human cast. It also kills off Mel and should therefore be considered definitive, canon and all the rest.

And, bubbling under at Number 11…

One I Haven’t Written Yet

Dear me, that sounds conceited, but I’d be lying if I pretended otherwise. Somewhere in me lurks a great Doctor Who story, one of the best, and it wants out. Of course I do have other things to write, quite possibly better things too, but until it’s written that Doctor Who story is not going away. I think it’s probably more of a ‘classic’ Doctor Who, so until we see the return of what was the Past Doctor range to the bookshelves I expect I’m stuck with it, although I may have to just get on and write it in my spare time to get it out of my system. Time will tell.

It can’t have escaped anyone’s notice – least of all mine – that there aren’t any New Series entries here. I don’t think that need be very telling – plenty of great ‘Classic Series’ stories are necessarily missed off the list too! New Series highlights such as The Empty Child and School Reunion might have nudged out The Aztecs, for instance, but for the fact that a pure historical helps to represent the range of stories Doctor Who can do effectively. But to pursue that line is to extend a Top Ten to a Top Twenty, then a Top One Hundred and so on until we’ve ranked all the stories in whatever medium according to their various pros and cons. And none of us wants that, do we? I’ll leave that to the Fans with capital Fs. :)


Stuart Douglas said...

Good choices all, with the possible sole exception of Ambassadors which, I'm ashamed to say, I've never seen. But even allowing you to ignore the wonderful Inferno, is it better than Doctor Who and the Silurians? Actually I hope so since I'll be trawling the net to find a copy to download this evening :)

Two out of a top ten in common isn't bad going, really, given the huge amount of Who out there - and I had Heritage at 11 and swithered between 'Ark in Space' and 'Talons' for quite a while.

But you are a man of infinitely refined taste, as your fondness for the best seventies female companions amply demonstrates :)

Stuart Douglas said...

Oh, and write your Doctor Who novel in your own time and then put it on your website as a reward for the loyal fans who have always spoken very highly of 'Shell Shock' and 'Drift' (Still have about 80 EDAs before I..sorry, they reach 'Em Chem' :)

SAF said...

Lol, yes, I cheated and skipped I don't know how many EDAs. I like to think I just picked out the good ones, but it didn't always work out ;)

Silurians and Ambassadors were really such a close tie, so I wouldn't like to say whether one was actually better than the other. I just plumped for the one in the end, mainly out of an irrational fondness based on that first childhood Who memory. At the end of the day it won't matter a jot when I have all of Season Seven in my DVD collection anyway, so no biggie ;)

And that fondness for the best seventies female companions is set to stay, so we'd best just accept that and salute our shared good taste with a toast :)


TimeWarden said...

To a nine-year-old, "Fury" looked terrific and remains my favourite "Doctor Who" story, not least because it boasts no less than three exceptionally strong cliffhangers! The visual atmosphere is as vivid as the audio suggests and my one niggle, at the time, was the ease at which they were able to return to the TARDIS mid-story, when you consider where it was parked!

"Inferno", good as it is, covered similar territory, namely the depletion of the Earth's natural resources without regard to its replenishment, but weakened the concept with the parallel universe element.

Years later, I had the surprise of my life when I discovered "Fury" had been directed by my Dad's grammar school maths teacher. Hugh David (David Hughes as he was then) married the English teacher and she went on to guest in "The Ark in Space". It's a small universe!

SAF said...

Thanks, Timewarden. Cool to know my perception of 'Fury' is not wrong. Not as cool as a bona fide Who connection, but fairly cool anyway ;)