Doctor Who 50th Anniversary: Five Essential Stories

We've dug into the last half-century to find you five of our favourite Doctor Who stories. Using finely tuned logarithms and ensuring the inter-rositer is charged up to 10, we have chosen stories from the second, third and fourth doctors, along with one each from Mr Ecclestone and Mr Tennant. image
First up is Tomb of The Cybermen, with Troughton's space hobo turning up on Telos just as an expedition sets out to find the remains of the titular monsters. Accompanied by Jamie and Victoria, the Doctor discovers that some of the explorers want to go further than finding the silvery cyborgs, and actually are bent on taking over the universe with the Cybermen as their infantry. Unsurprisingly, once awaken their discovered troops don't share their perspective on partnership, and soon the Doctor and his companions are fighting for their lives, and for the future of us all.

From the writers of the eco-thriller series Doomwatch, we are, not for the last time, faced with well-meaning adventurers who bungle into a nightmare only to be rescued by the Doctor. It all begins with Victoria learning about the Tardis and the Doctor's age (450 at this point) and moves into familiar territory as we first learn the Cybermen are not dead but sleeping. The sequence where the monsters arise, breaking out of their cells like metallic offspring is a classic with as much eerie power today as when it was first broadcast.imageThe Cybermen, of course, were responsible for the end of the first Doctor and came to be a key monster during Troughton's time - this being his second of four encounters with them. As much of Troughton's work is still missing due to the BBC's nonsensical approach of junking recordings, this serial is his only complete battle against his signature villains and often cited as a key inspiration to Matt Smith in modelling his performance much later on.

Well if the second Doctor enjoyed a scrap with the Cybermen, the third Doctor was positively dogged by the Master. His arch nemesis and fellow Time Lord appeared eight times during the Pertwee reign, and The Daemons was the fifth of these encounters coming at the end of Pertwee's first season. Written by Robert Slomon and Barry Letts under their pseudonym of Guy Leopold, The Daemons is regularly thought of as the best of the Doctor's serials.

Whilst tinkering with Bessy, Jo tells the Doctor of a TV programme that night covering an archaeological dig which starts a heated conversation about the supernatural. Whilst poo-pooing the idea, the Doctor starts to realise something very dangerous is afoot and tries to stop the dig. Meanwhile, the local vicar is revealed as a rational existentialist with a strange interest in the occult, and when the dig results in all hell breaking loose, this cleric is ready to welcome it.

Now, Les Anderson has written in greater detail on these very pages about how amazing this serial is. You can read his fine review here, but note his excellent line describing the story as "Quatermass and the Pit meets Dennis Wheatley". This is a kiddies TV story that is genuinely scary at times and as thrilling as you'd like as well. imagePertwee's patrician charm is in full effect as he puts Jo down for insulting Lethbridge Stewart when he has just called him far worse, but rescues it all at the end by accepting the simple magic of may day celebrations when he spends the whole serial denying such a concepts existence. The scary element is allowed full reign until we are all provided with a very happy ending complete with bucolic, very English imagery.

Best moment? Lethbridge Stewart's very military response on seeing a live Gargoyle, "Jenkins, chap with the wings there, five rounds rapid"!
Robert Banks Stewarts Terror of The Zygons happily mines Scottish stereotypes much as the previous tale threw out the English spinster, Vicar and the Maypole. Tom Bakers Doctor, once described as half Harpo half Groucho, arrives in the middle of the Highlands with tartan scarf and head-dress to do battle with Nessie and shape shifting aliens.imageThe story itself has been reviewed by Gary Couzens recently here, but I disagree with Gary's estimation of the serial being not the "greatest Who but..a good one". I don't think Baker ever inhabited the role as completely as he does here, displaying a deftness with his wit when addressing megalomaniacal aliens and gently subverting his military employers. Similarly, why the Zygons only ever made a single entry as his enemies (until the 50th anniversary) is beyond me as they are terrific villains with their organic technology and striking appearances.

The tale is about oil rigs being smashed to pieces off the Scottish coast and UNIT being called in to investigate. Sarah Jane, Harry and the Doctor begin to unravel a tale of doppelgangers, Scottishness (bagpipes, whisky - the full John Laurie) and a strange beastie in the loch. After evading Nessie's clutches and uncovering the Zygon base, we enter a race against time to stop the destruction of London and save the world from slavery under our orangey chums.imageSure the Nessie effects are a bit aged, think Harryhausen, but there's plenty of peril and much of the Doctors quipping to keep you entertained. If you just can't wait until their reappearance in the 50th special, then there's a nice new DVD available from all good retailers.
We speed forward nearly 30 years to the northern Doctor in the two part story, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances. Christopher Ecclestone didn't hang around long, allegedly due to the way a director treated extras, but he did help the series to reboot, remodeling into the saturday night centerpiece it now is. His Doctor was avuncular and more than a little lonely, worn down by the people he'd lost and the things that he'd seen. Whilst this first season of new Who did have a few misfires - farting aliens I am looking at you - it also had Mark Gatiss' The Unquiet Dead and this elegant two-parter from Steven Moffat. imageSet in London during the blitz, Moffat has the Tardis chasing down a rogue object to Earth before Rose and The Doctor get separated. Rose goes to help a stranded child but finds herself holding on to a weather balloon thousands of feet up and about to fall, when, a dashing American sounding captain rescues her in his...spaceship. Meanwhile, the air-raid warning has sounded and The Doctor has followed a young woman as she scavenges from the houses left vacant by those hiding in the shelters. She is acting as an informal mum to the waifs and strays lost in the area and the Doctor discovers she is being chased by a ghostly young boy in a gas mask.

The story develops from this set up and we get a lovely cameo from Richard Wilson as a faithful doctor, a plug for the national health service and an ingenious and heartwarming sci-fi tale with a deliriously beautiful ending. Throughout Russell T Davies' tenure as showrunner Moffat delivered ingenious stories, but I favour this episode over Blink and The Girl in the Fireplace for its warmth and the sheer joy it builds to in the perfect climax where rights are wronged when the truth sets everyone free.

As the current showrunner, Moffat has had more of the functional episodes to write, the less attractive ones, and has had just criticism for his tricksy devices and overly elaborate plot arcs. At the beginning of his contribution to modern Who, he gave the world this clever and sweet two-parter where "everybody lives"....
Like Moffat, Russell T Davies had to write the prosaic and less praised episodes - the ones where the action is kept to a minimum or where the Doctor is largely absent so that you don't overspend and your star gets a rest. He also felt the weight of the series finales, having to up the ante, time after time. Yet, what Davies did for the show is deserving of sainthood. Not only did he badger the Beeb into starting it again, this time with proper budgets, but he brought through all sorts of writers like Moffat, Gatiss, Chris "Broadchurch" Chibnall, Paul Cornell and created two franchise series in Torchwood and Sarah Jane investigates. In no time flat, Who was saved and became the cash cow it now is.

And he could write too. Midnight came in the usual place for the money saving episode in the fourth new series and it is quite effects light and location simple, and, above all, it is brilliant. It begins with chintzy cheeriness as Tennant's Doctor wants to go on a sight seeing trip whilst on a break with Donna (this is also a Donna light episode, thank God). Failing to convince her he joins the trip with his fellow passengers, littered with familiar TV faces - Leslie Sharp, Carol off Eastenders, David Troughton, Merlin etc. But the trip soon stops due to, first, mechanical failure and, secondly, having the drivers killed off. Some kind of presence is outside the ship and wants in, when it gets in what will become of the passengers?

I say this proudly - Doctor Who is for nerds, outsiders and the bullied of the world. Davies always knew this and his writing champions the underdog and the excluded brilliantly. Midnight is an examination of the mechanics of xenophobia, how hysteria reduces a group of decent people to a dumb whole, a dumb persecuting mob. Firstly the presence takes hold of Sharp's Sky and the mob wants her jettisoned, then the presence subdues the Doctor and soon he is facing obliteration due to the fear of the othersimageThe original ultra light tone gives way to a taut, scary 30 minutes where the terrifying thing is fear itself as scared people stumble and bungle towards a lynching. Davies would follow this episode with the equally brilliant Turn Left, where again his strengths are obvious - writing great lines for good actors to do the rest. Midnight took our love of Tennant's charming handsome Doctor and showed us just what is was like to be vilified, ostracized and nearly murdered because of others fear - a quite brilliant conceit and my favourite single episode of new Who

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 22:55:15

Doctor Who

The long-running BBC TV science fiction series that started in 1963 and recently celebrated its 50th Anniversary. 2017 saw Peter Capaldi regenerate into the show's first female Doctor played by Jodie Whittaker. The Thirteenth Doctor's first season debuts in 2018, with Chris Chibnall replacing Steven Moffat as the current showrunner.

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