Doctor Who: The Best Of Each Doctor – Volume Two

Chris Jordan continues his look at the best of each era of Doctor Who, this time with Doctors four, five, and six.

Since the first volume of this series was published, there has been some big news about the future of Doctor Who: Steven Moffat announcing that he will step down as showrunner and be replaced by Chris Chibnall, uncertainty about whether Peter Capaldi will remain in the title role beyond the next season... and the announcement that the show will take a year-long break before returning in early 2017. This means that there are some exciting times and fascinating possibilities coming up for our beloved show... but it also means that we now have even longer to wait until we can look forward to new adventures with The Doctor. However, this longer-than-expected gap between series also gives fans a perfect opportunity to get back in touch with Doctor Who's roots, and explore the twenty-six seasons of the original show.

In this four-part series, we are looking at our favorite story arcs featuring each of the twelve Doctors. It will forever remain hotly debated among fans which are the “best” serials featuring each Doctor, but these are our picks – with a certain caveat. This list is intended, in part, to give newcomers to the original series some pointers on where within each Doctor's era they may want to start if they want to see that era at its best. Towards that end, we are adding the extra rule that we will not pick any of the Dalek or Cyberman-focused stories, since – let's be honest – those are already obvious places to start for fans old or new. I don't need to tell you to put Genesis of the Daleks on your watch-list; even if you don't know its brilliant reputation (it really is fantastic), it will likely automatically be on your list just because it's called Genesis of the Daleks. Instead, I want to focus on great stories that may not have the immediate name-recognition of the tales focused on the series' main villains. These are essential episodes that are every bit as good, but may not get as much credit.

We begin this installment at the height of Doctor Who's golden age, with the most iconic Doctor of all time, Tom Baker...

Fourth Doctor Tom Baker: The Pyramids of Mars (Season 13, 1975)

"Incorporeal evil deities
 hiding behind Egyptian
iconography... I must tell my

 friend Howard Philip
about that idea..."
If you ask classic Doctor Who fans to name the greatest era on the original series, just about everyone will probably tell you that it was Tom Baker's first few seasons, under showrunners Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes. Many (even most) eras of Doctor Who have been great, but few have ever been so near to absolute perfection as the stretch between the start of season twelve and the middle of season fifteen. Hinchcliffe and Holmes reinvented the show just as boldly as Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks had at the start of the Third Doctor era – although their reinvention was a bit less pop-culturally obvious, and a bit more inspired. While the Letts/Dicks/Pertwee era had very much been Doctor Who's answer to James Bond, The Avengers, and The Prisoner, the Hinchcliffe/Holmes/Baker era was a rich tapestry of Gothic horror and mystery. Aesthetically, this era drew heavily from the look of Hammer horror films, with loads of fog-filled streets, old dark houses, gloomy castles, and ancient sites of occult rituals. Narratively the era drew from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, Agatha Christie, and H. P. Lovecraft. Yet it nonetheless remained Doctor Who, resulting in a truly unique genre blend that could best be described as Sci-Fi-Gothic. And in the midst of it all was the crazy-eyed and charismatic Tom Baker, who on paper might seem somewhat at odds with the dark tone, but in reality was absolutely perfect in the most insane way. Erratic, unpredictable, and hilarious, Baker's Doctor seemed so natural and inspired that it's easy to imagine that he wasn't even acting; he actually was just such a strange guy that he really seemed like an alien. For most of this brilliant peak he was accompanied by Sarah Jane Smith (Elizabeth Sladen), an intelligent and self-reliant reporter who was not only The Doctor's match in many ways, but also the down-to-earth foil for Tom Baker's craziness. They made a perfect double-act, and she grew into probably the most iconic companion the show has ever had (so much so that she even made a comeback in the new series, and got a spinoff of her own). This era has so many brilliant episodes that it's genuinely difficult to pick just one. The Brain of Morbius, The Seeds of Doom, Genesis of the Daleks, The Talons of Weng-Chiang, The Robots of Death, and The Image of the Fendahl (from the half-season after Hinchcliffe had stepped down but Holmes still remained – in a way the story arc that marks the end of this era) are all worthy. But there's one that, if only narrowly, stands out as the best; one that perhaps best captures everything that makes this Sci-Fi-Gothic period of Doctor Who so good. And that is The Pyramids of Mars.

The Pyramids of Mars is the second Doctor Who story arc I ever saw – back when I was maybe seven years old, rented on VHS from the local library – and it still remains one of the best. A fantastic blend of Hammer-style Gothic horror, Lovecraftian mythology, and classic timey-wimey stuff, this really is the archetypal early Tom Baker tale. The Doctor and Sarah Jane try to pay a visit to U.N.I.T. HQ in the present day, but their flight goes awry and they land at the same building in 1911, when it is a manor house owned by a mysterious aristocrat with an interest in Egyptology. The aristocrat has just returned from an archaeological expedition, and has filled the house with Egyptian artifacts. But some of the artifacts aren't quite human in origin: they are the tools to summon an ancient evil force known as Sutekh, and the Doctor fears that the Old One is about to be awakened, with disastrous effects for time itself. The story arc gives us a classic Old Dark House with a mysterious set of inhabitants, mummy henchmen lurching around killing people (ok, so the mummies look really cheesy, but it's the thought that counts), and a villain pulled right out of H. P. Lovecraft's writing. Just as The Great Intelligence from The Web of Fear was essentially Doctor Who's version of Yog-Sothoth, Sutekh is very clearly modeled after Nyarlathotep, Lovecraft's Crawling Chaos. It's not the only time a Robert Holmes-era script pitted the Fourth Doctor against a Lovecraftian Old One with a different name – The Talons of Weng-Chiang, The Image of the Fendahl, and The Seeds of Doom all likewise draw from his writing – and every one of these mash-ups is extremely entertaining. This is arguably the best of them, though, with Sutekh making a genuinely menacing and creepy villain.

"There are some very strange things going on
here at Downton Abbey, Sarah Jane."
This story arc also captures the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane at the height of their power as a double-act. This is their second season together, and by this point their chemistry is perfect and natural. She is a strong protagonist in her own right – she's not afraid to grab a shotgun and take on some mummies – and she also brings exactly the level-headed balance that the erratic Doctor needs to get through the day. Their first scene together in episode one, in which he is pretentiously soliloquizing about the nature of time and she is having none of his nonsense, is a perfect introduction to the both of them. They are the gold standard for a great Doctor/companion team. Tom Baker likewise gets some excellent solo moments in this story arc: moments of humor, and also opportunities to show off his gravitas as a dramatic lead. His matches of will with Sutekh allow him to really show off the intensity that he could bring to The Doctor's darker moments. If there's one weak spot to this story, it's that the mummies frankly look really, really cheesy. If ever there was a perfect illustration of Doctor Who's ambitious storytelling clashing with its low budget, it's them. If you can get past that, though, The Pyramids of Mars is a nearly perfect example of the show. Not only is it probably the best introduction to the Tom Baker era, it is probably the best introduction to classic Doctor Who in general.


Fifth Doctor Peter Davison: Mawdryn Undead (The Black Guardian Trilogy Part 1) (Season 20, 1983)

"On the scanner... it's so horrible... 
it's...the budget we have to do 
this episode's special effects!"
Following right after the critically acclaimed and culturally beloved Tom Baker years, the Fifth Doctor era had big shoes to fill, and the only way it could stand on its own was to do something completely different. Fortunately, showrunners John Nathan-Turner, Christopher Bidmeade, and Eric Saward were able to do this in a few key ways, and the Davison era stands out as an excellent and unique time on the show, classic in its own right. The big differences from the previous incarnation of the series start with the casting of Peter Davison himself: following Tom Baker's crazy-eyed mad genius, Davison's Doctor was a soft-spoken and unassuming intellectual and humanist. He could get intense, and handle action setpieces like the best of them, but the Fifth Doctor's defining moments are the ones when he gets to use his intellect, responding to threats as a scientist and philosopher. He was much more of a charming normal guy, and brought a youthfulness and vulnerability to the Doctor that was a stark contrast to all who had come before. Matt Smith's Doctor owes just as much to Peter Davison as he does to Patrick Troughton.

The show itself likewise took on a different identity – or rather, two of them. The Fifth Doctor era tends to switch between two modes, each of which can be traced back to the two head writers who shaped this time on the show, Christopher Bidmeade and Eric Saward. Bidmeade's influence (and that of other recurring writers who shared his school of thought, like Peter Grimwade and Christopher Bailey) can be seen in the Fifth Doctor era's intellectual sci-fi mode, in which the show explores philosophical issues in very cerebral tales, not unlike Star Trek. Eric Saward's influence can be seen in the era's action/adventure mode, which dives into some more modern 1980s genre trends, with darker themes, ramped up action, and a slightly more PG-13 feel. These two styles may seem a bit at odds – one is intellectual, one is visceral – but the show generally balanced them quite well, with Davison's assured performance smoothing over any stylistic shifts between story arcs. Both modes gave us plenty of excellent classics: the action/adventure side of the era gave us Earthshock, Frontios, Resurrection of the Daleks, and The Caves of Androzani, and the intellectual side gave us Castrovalva, Kinda, Planet of Fire, and perhaps best of all, The Black Guardian Trilogy.

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The Black Guardian Trilogy came in the middle of the show's 20th anniversary season, as producer John Nathan-Turner and head writer Eric Saward wanted to do something different and more ambitious to add some prestige to this critical year. The trilogy is a loose arc of three four-episode stories, all of which fall into the category of intellectual/philosophical sci-fi tales. The stories themselves are more or less unrelated, but are linked by an overarching arc involving a metaphysical being known as the Black Guardian, and a troubled young alien fugitive named Turlough. The Black Guardian wants The Doctor dead... and he wants to force the conflicted, morally ambiguous Turlough into doing the deed. But as Turlough meets and starts working with The Doctor, he becomes caught in an internal struggle which will decide not only the path of his own life, but whether our Time Lord lives or dies. Mawdryn Undead is the story arc which kicks off The Black Guardian Trilogy, bringing The Doctor and Turlough together, and creating an unusually tense and potentially deadly Doctor/companion relationship. It is also a great story in its own right: a tale of parallel timelines, altering history, alien scientists on a grim mission, and an old friend caught in a dangerous predicament. Mawdryn Undead sees the return of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart for the first time in nearly a decade, and it also places The Doctor's old friend at the center of the temporal disturbances at the story's core. The tale which follows is as thoughtful as it is suspenseful, and raises some very interesting philosophical issues as it winds its twisty time-travel mystery.

"Two Brigadiers in one place... 
great scott, it's like the
Enchantment Under The Sea 

dance all over again!"
This is one of the better Fifth Doctor intellectual sci-fi tales (although it has tough competition from the others mentioned earlier), and is fairly unique among Doctor Who stories in how directly it tackles the concept of time-travel paradoxes. Of course, it's ultimately personal taste whether a viewer prefers the cerebral Fifth Doctor stories or the action-oriented ones, but these have always been my favorite. A story like this shows off just how well-written Doctor Who can be. It also sees Peter Davison feeling the most at home, dealing with abstract issues and philosophical dilemmas rather than villains with guns. The supporting cast is very good in this one as well. The TARDIS team of The Doctor, Tegan, and Nyssa each get separate story arcs, and they all get interesting material. The characters who really end up stealing the show, though, are the Brigadier and Turlough. The Brig gets one of the best parts his character has had since the Third Doctor era, as he gets to play two versions of himself, one of which has a major twist on the character we know. Nicholas Courtney is as excellent as ever in the beloved role: even though it was his first time on the show in eight years, and his first time ever meeting the Fifth Doctor, he's so good that he is immediately at home in the new era. Turlough is a fascinating character: deliberately not likeable in his first story, but that's exactly what makes him so very compelling. A morally ambiguous character who is at a crossroads where he could easily become either a hero or a villain, we see him wrestle with internal and external forces as he tries to choose his path. It's incredibly rare to have a companion on Doctor Who who not only isn't a clear-cut good guy, but who actually has potential to turn into a killer; it was a very bold thing for the production team to attempt, and it paid off in a very strong character arc.

After Mawdryn Undead, the rest of The Black Guardian Trilogy is very nearly as excellent. The second installment in the trilogy, Terminus, is a bit more uneven: the story and themes are very strong, but it is badly let down by a low budget that is simply unable to realize its ambitious visuals. Fortunately, the DVDs of both Mawdryn Undead and Terminus feature optional new CGI enhancements. For Mawdryn Undead that just means a few cool effects shots here and there, but for Terminus it means a major overhaul of that story arc's visuals, which goes a very long way to fix the story's problems and make the whole thing work a lot better. The third part of the trilogy, Enlightenment, is nothing short of excellent: a masterpiece of philosophical sci-fi, and a great culmination to the Black Guardian story arc. That DVD goes even further and features an all-new director's cut, which likewise has spectacularly overhauled visuals, and in this case it makes an already great story arc even better. I was tempted to make Enlightenment my Fifth Doctor pick, but ultimately decided that as the final chapter of the trilogy, it really shouldn't be watched without the other two. I would instead recommend starting with Mawdryn Undead and sticking around for the whole trilogy: yes, it is a bit more of a time commitment if you're just looking to try out the Fifth Doctor era, but it is worth it to see this Doctor's best and most ambitious story arc.


Sixth Doctor Colin Baker: Vengeance on Varos (Season 22, 1985)

"This is the last time I answer a distress call
from a Weyland-Yutani ship."
Just as most classic Who fans will probably tell you that Tom Baker's first three and a half seasons were the greatest era on the show, they'll also probably tell you that the Colin Baker era was the series' weak link; the time when Doctor Who, for a little while, jumped the shark. It's a common stereotype that the Sixth Doctor era isn't very good – but don't be put off by it, because it's a stereotype that isn't entirely true. What is certainly true is that this is Doctor Who's most flawed and uneven era; a time when major behind-the-scenes tension and conflict boiled over onto the show and resulted in some very weak stories that are fully deserving of their bad reputations. But this era also produced a handful of good stories that are still worth checking out – and one absolute masterpiece, Vengeance on Varos, which is as great as the best of any Doctor's reign.

There is no other Doctor Who story arc that is anything like Vengeance on Varos, and there probably never will be. A dark, twisted, political parable about fascism, cruelty, and the sensationalizing of violence in the media, this is probably Doctor Who's smartest and most well-written social commentary episode... as well as the most grim and uncompromising thing that the show has ever done. It is the story of a totalitarian colony where the torture and execution of political prisoners is broadcast live as a combination of propaganda and reality-TV-style entertainment, and where elections end with the losing candidate being put to death. Varos is primarily a mining colony, but the slimy corporate villains (literally slimy – they're slugs) that control the planet are starting to realize that the export of their snuff films is just as lucrative. The Doctor and Peri become imprisoned on Varos, and want to help spark a revolution against the cruel regime... if they don't find themselves as televised victims of the Punishment Dome first.

That description should make it clear just how much this isn't your typical Doctor Who adventure. But it's more than just the atypical level of darkness and (implied, if not actually shown) violence: this is the show's most overtly political story arc, with a couple different thematic levels to the material. Vengeance on Varos reflects very strongly on political anxieties of Britain in the 1980s, but the themes are ultimately just as relevant today, and in some cases are actually way ahead of their time. The dystopian state of Varos was, like so much 80s British dystopian sci-fi, a sly commentary on the Margaret Thatcher regime and the concerns about human rights that she prompted. The storyline about snuff films and the use of torture as prime-time entertainment reflected on the video nasties frenzy of the '80s, when censorship of horror films out of fear for the social effects of filmed violence ran rampant. However, both themes hit home just as strongly today, in the age of reality TV, torture-porn movies, news increasingly being treated as ratings-driven entertainment, and revelations about our post-9/11 government torturing detainees. In a way, Vengeance on Varos is even more thematically interesting 30 years later.

Nonetheless – or perhaps partly because of how much it still hits home
"We need a title for our reality series... how about
The Running Man? No... let's call it Battle Royale.
No, I've got it - The Hunger Games! It will be big."
all these years later – it is still fairly shocking that this story arc exists at all. It's highly unlikely that a story so bleakly on-the-nose about disturbing real-life political anxieties could get green-lit today; the Zygon two-parter from series nine came close, but its allegory was masked behind a thick layer of sci-fi fantasy and a good deal more optimism. That this got produced in 1985, when Doctor Who was still much more of a family-oriented show, is genuinely bizarre. It likely only exists because a perfect storm of behind-the-scenes circumstances emboldened head writer Eric Saward to push for something so dark and gutsy. This was a pretty volatile time behind-the-scenes on Doctor Who: tensions were mounting between the clashing personalities of Saward and producer John Nathan-Turner, and even more tension had developed between the production team and a BBC management that was actively hostile towards the show. All of this created a fairly embittered creative environment, and that bitterness boiled over into the era's scripts, leading to some very dark stories (the grand guignol Revelation of the Daleks), some very half-baked stories that should never have made it to production (the notoriously dreadful The Twin Dilemma), and some that were both (The Two Doctors, the most criminally wasted opportunity in all of Doctor Who). Vengeance on Varos was the one time when Saward and company successfully took all that bitterness and, with furious abandon and genuine passion, channeled it into a bravely controversial masterpiece that they probably wouldn't have dared to try and make in any other era. This is the perfect Sixth Doctor era story: dark Doctor Who done right.

This is also the story arc in which Colin Baker feels the most at home. As the face of this troubled era, he often takes a lot of heat from fans who casually accuse him of being the worst Doctor. This really isn't true: he was actually very good in the role, but just got stuck with a bunch of sub-par material, and a terrible costume that was totally at odds with the version of the character he was trying to play. His vision for the role is actually pretty much just what Peter Capaldi has done: he wanted to play a darker, more uncompromising and volatile version of the character. Unfortunately, only a few of his scripts allowed him to do this particularly well. Vengeance on Varos is the best of them: a fittingly dark script for this dark and complex Doctor. This story arc shows just how much potential he and this whole era had; if more of his stories had been this good, the Sixth Doctor era would be one of the best.

Unfortunately, exactly none of his other stories are this good. One from his next season came kind of close – a semi-sequel to Vengeance on Varos, called Mindwarp – but the next best ones after that fall strictly under the banner of “pretty good.” Attack of the Cybermen, Revelation of the Daleks, The Mysterious Planet, and Terror of the Vervoids are the other worth-seeing Sixth Doctor stories; all of them good enough and thoroughly enjoyable, but flawed. The rest, however, all fall between mediocre and outright bad; victims of a tense creative environment that frankly made it really hard to produce good TV. Then towards the end of Colin's second season, the behind-the-scenes powder keg of tensions and clashing personalities exploded, with Eric Saward abruptly quitting the show after a major conflict with John Nathan-Turner. As Doctor Who was thrown into very public chaos, BBC management decided that a drastic change was needed to give the appearance of regaining control over the troubled production. As the public face of the show, Colin Baker was turned into a fall guy, and was fired from the role of The Doctor; an unjust and undignified end for someone who had been one of the best things about these troubled seasons. At the very least, though, Baker got to make Vengeance on Varos: one genuinely great story which demonstrates very powerfully how excellent his era should have been, and could have been. The better stories of the Sixth Doctor era generally deserve more of a chance than they usually get, but this one in particular is essential viewing for any fan. Don't miss it.


In the next installment in this series, we'll look at two decades of great change for Doctor Who: the second golden age of the later Seventh Doctor years, the Eighth Doctor era's attempt to keep the show alive during its time off the air, and the 2005 relaunch with Ninth Doctor Christopher Eccleston.

- Christopher S. Jordan