Doctor Who: The Best of Each Doctor – Volume Three

Chris Jordan continues his look at the best of Doctor Who as the series transitions between its original and modern incarnations with the Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Doctors.

"Thanks for house-sitting while I'm visiting
the Shire."
This installment in our Best of Doctor Who series spans an era of great change for the show. The behind-the-scenes tension that made the Sixth Doctor era so turbulent and uneven may have ended the show's golden age and brought it perilously close to jumping the shark, but the beauty of Doctor Who is that it can always reinvent itself. Much like the Doctor himself, if the series is at risk of death, it can regenerate. And regenerate it did: this article will cover three reinventions of the show, which took place between the later years of the original series and the debut of the new one. While these reinventions had varying degrees of success in terms of actually keeping Doctor Who on the air, all of them were absolutely successful in that they gave us three excellent, very unique eras.

Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy: The Curse of Fenric (Season 26, 1989)

When the Sixth Doctor era self-destructed at the end of season 23, Doctor Who was left flailing and directionless. The show had no real leader for its writing staff as season 24 commenced production: no replacement had yet been found for Eric Saward, and while producer John Nathan-Turner tried to cover that job too, he just wasn't up for the challenge, either in ability or creativity. JNT had no clear vision about where the show should go, his concept for the Seventh Doctor completely clashed with Sylvester McCoy's acting style and ideas for the role, and the new Doctor was introduced in possibly the worst story arc that the show had ever done (Time and the Rani – just don't). By the time a new head writer/script editor, Andrew Cartmel, was hired partway through production, there was nothing he could do to get the misguided season 24 back on track, and it wound up being Doctor Who's weakest. Far from the image of regained control that BBC management wanted to project, it was an embarrassment that easily could have signaled the series' immanent demise. Fortunately, it instead served as just the wake-up call that John Nathan-Turner needed in order to realize that if he wanted to save Doctor Who, he had to totally hand the creative reins of season 25 over to Andrew Cartmel, effectively making him the primary (if not sole) showrunner. This was exactly what the series needed (and had needed for the last three years): a bold, creative, risk-taking newcomer with a strong vision for how to reinvent the series, and the passion to pull it off. And he pulled it off immediately, resulting in possibly the fastest and most dramatic turnaround in television history. The season 25 premiere, Remembrance of the Daleks, took audiences by complete surprise by delivering not only the best Doctor Who story arc in years, but great television by any standards of the time. It was fantastic, and signaled that this was a whole new, drastically improved show. The Seventh Doctor was a completely different character: gone was the miscast clown, replaced by a dark and mysterious (if still very funny) manipulator who is much more than meets the eye. He likewise had a much better companion in the edgy, feminist, and totally badass punk teenager Ace. The special effects were better (you could actually call them... good!), and the writing hinted at a larger and more complex mythos at work in the background. Doctor Who had totally reinvented itself, literally from one episode to the next. By the end of Remembrance of the Daleks, the show's critical reputation had been significantly restored, and as the season continued it was clear that Andrew Cartmel had not only brought it back from the brink, but into a second golden age. It never again became the widely-viewed popular hit that it once was, but it at least grew back into a beloved cult classic with a passionate following. His era would give us several more cult favorites like The Happiness Patrol, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, and Ghost Light; in fact, all but maybe one of his latter two seasons' story arcs are very well-liked. But the greatest masterpiece of this era came towards the end of its final season...

"Look at this, Doctor - it looks like an ominously-
foreshadowing metaphor for our current situation!"
The Curse of Fenric was the second-to-last story arc of the entire original series, and in a way it really is the perfect culmination for Doctor Who, demonstrating very powerfully that the show was ending on a high note. These last two seasons had done something very ambitious, which the show had only done a small handful of times previously: it built a larger ongoing story arc, all about the development of its two central characters. Seasons 25 and 26 are about how The Doctor has some dangerous secrets, and is playing a role in a large and ancient conflict bigger than the show itself. The seasons are also about Ace's growth as a person, as she faces her inner demons and goes from a troubled teenager to a self-confident hero. Both of these plot threads enjoy some big payoffs in The Curse of Fenric. The story takes The Doctor and Ace to a British military base in World War II, where a scientist is working on a Turing-esque computer to translate German codes, and an unbalanced general is trying to copy the Nazi's strategy of harnessing occult powers. Both plans soon have the base under siege as Russian operatives come to steal the machine, and the occult research awakens an ancient and evil force lying dormant beneath the sea. The Doctor's ancient knowledge and Ace's budding heroism will both be put to the test in a thriller that feels like an unlikely combination of Robert Ludlum and H. P. Lovecraft.

There's a lot going on in The Curse of Fenric; an almost insane amount of plot threads that very easily could have unraveled into a confused mess, but instead weave together to form a fascinatingly multilayered story. The Lovecraftian aspects of the tale work extremely well, and the blending of occult mythology into a paranoid World War II plot is pleasantly reminiscent of the backstory of Hellboy. As if that's not enough, Ian Briggs' script adds in some more really interesting and inspired twists as the episodes go along. Adding to the density of the mystery is the Seventh Doctor himself, more secretive than ever. He plays his cards even closer to his chest than usual, and often keeps the audience as well as Ace in the dark where his plans are concerned. As in much of the Cartmel/McCoy era, this storytelling choice successfully adds a renewed element of surprise and uncertainty to the character, despite the fact that at this point we've known him for almost thirty years' worth of television. This mysterious side of The Doctor is what Sylvester McCoy does best, using a sense of humor to mask a darkness and unpredictability underneath.

"The power of the Soviet Union compels you!"
Narratively, The Curse of Fenric is an undeniable win. If there is a flaw to be found in the story arc, it lies in the visuals. While it does make nicely atmospheric use of its locations, the limitations of shooting on video outdoors are often obvious, and the low-budget-80s-TV visual effects notably contrast with the ambitious mythological narrative. The creature effects are particularly uneven: the story's pale, long-fingernailed vampires have a creepy Salem's Lot quality, and the Lovecraftian Ancient One looks great, but Fenric's barnacle-covered sea-dwelling foot soldiers are a very mixed bag, and some of them look like little more than extras in Halloween costumes. But all of these flaws are things that should be easily forgiven by anyone sitting down to watch an episode of 1980s genre TV; that's just the nature of the low-budget beast, and suspension of disbelief is a prerequisite. None of these things are flaws of the story itself; this genuinely is the best possible four episodes that the production team could have made, and the low budget is more of a fact of life than a real fault. This is an excellent case of storytelling ambition overcoming technical and financial limitations to deliver something greater than it can really afford.

There is one other thing that makes The Curse of Fenric very unusual among Doctor Who story arcs: it exists in three different cuts. While it is very good in any form, each cut gets progressively better, so you should try to see one of the superior versions. The most common version – the one you'll generally find on streaming platforms – is the original four-episode cut that aired on TV in 1989; but while that is the version that first made Fenric a beloved classic, it is cut by about twelve minutes from the director's intended version. Some of the cuts were for content deemed too violent for prime-time TV, but most of them were due to time constraints: as mentioned earlier, The Curse of Fenric crams a whole lot of story into four episodes, and all four ran over length and had to be cut down to fit the time-slot. The VHS release of the story arc is an extended version – call it a producer's cut – with six more minutes of footage restored; still not truly uncut, but a definite improvement in terms of pacing and story development. The two-disc DVD release finally restores The Curse of Fenric to its true director's cut: all twelve minutes of missing footage are returned, and the whole thing is re-edited into movie form to restore the plot's intended structure, which didn't quite fit into 25-minute chunks. The director's cut also adds some revamped modern special effects, to improve upon some of the original's more budget-starved visuals. This version is absolutely the one to watch, but since the DVD is out of print in North America, the extended VHS is a pretty solid alternative if you're looking to save some money.

Whichever version you are able to find, though, The Curse of Fenric is one of the greatest moments of the Seventh Doctor era, and possibly one of the finest story arcs in all of Doctor Who. It is a perfect showcase of just how good the final two seasons of the show were, and a perfect argument for it being a second golden age of the series. Unfortunately, the quality of these two Andrew Cartmel-lead seasons were not enough to keep the show alive. While its critical reputation and legacy among fans were successfully restored, the casual viewers who had been pushed away by the turmoil and flaws of the Sixth Doctor era never came back, and at the end of season 26 Doctor Who was canceled due to low viewing figures. At the very least, Cartmel and McCoy ensured that the series went out on a high note; and while the actual series finale, Survival, is likewise quite good, The Curse of Fenric is the highest note of all.

Eighth Doctor Paul McGann: Shada: The Animated Miniseries (Web-series, 2003)
(non-animated alternate pick: Doctor Who: The Movie, 1996)

And you thought David Tennant was the first
hot Doctor!
This is a bit of an unconventional choice; but then again, it reflects a most unusual era. The Eighth Doctor era took several different forms in several different mediums, and kept Doctor Who alive with (mostly) great creativity and critical acclaim throughout the second half of the 1990s and beginning of the 2000s. However, none of its several forms included a regularly-broadcast TV series. In 1996, seven years after Doctor Who's cancellation, BBC decided that the time was right to resurrect the show. They wanted to do a bigger-budget, visually-impressive, revamped version with a more modern sensibility, designed to compete internationally with shows like The X-Files and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Voyager. In collaboration with Twentieth Century Fox, they produced a two-hour movie intended as a pilot for a series re-launch. The movie introduced the world to the new Eighth Doctor, played by Paul McGann (Withnail and I, Alien 3). But sadly, the re-launch was not to be: when the movie was greeted with mixed reviews, more than a bit of fan backlash, and underperforming American viewing figures, Fox pulled the plug on plans for the series, and BBC wasn't in a position to move ahead without them.

It's a shame, because while the movie is certainly flawed, it has some very good qualities that could have grown into a great show, and as a film it is much better than it generally gets credit for. It takes a lot of heat from fans for a few ill-advised or underbaked plot points (especially one in particular, which all subsequent Doctor Who media has wisely forgotten about), and for a truly awful performance from a very miscast Eric Roberts as The Master. But despite those significant flaws, it also has a lot of strong points that deserve to be equally well-remembered. For starters, it looks great: the bigger budget really shows (particularly in the gorgeous TARDIS set), to the point that it took a couple years for the new series to look this impressive again. It is also just an extremely fun slice of distinctly-90s sci-fi: even in the script's weaker moments, it is always entertaining. In that regard, it's a much better pilot for a Doctor Who relaunch than 2005's Rose, which has got to be one of the worst first episodes of a great series ever. But by far the best thing about the 1996 Doctor Who movie is Paul McGann: he is absolutely excellent as The Doctor, and his wonderful take on the character makes the film a must-see in itself. A whimsical Victorian romantic with more than a bit of Oscar Wilde about him, nearly everyone could agree that McGann made a genuinely great Doctor, even if he was stuck in a sub-par script. His Doctor was so well-liked, in fact, that even though he only wound up getting a single televised episode, his era was rescued by other mediums instead.

It didn't take long after the announcement of Doctor Who's re-cancellation for officially-licensed comics and novels to pick up Number Eight's continuing adventures. But the true re-launch of the Eighth Doctor era came in 2001, when Paul McGann finally got a chance to step back into the role, in a full-cast audio series produced by BBC's audiobook partner company, Big Finish Productions. The audio series quickly gained great critical acclaim and made McGann's Doctor an underdog fan-favorite; Doctor Who was back, although not in the way anyone had expected. The series continues to this day, now running parallel to the TV show as a sort of ever-growing prequel. The Eighth Doctor's very best story arcs, not surprisingly, come from this audio line, and many among them would make great introductions to his character; for starters, Sword of Orion, The Stones of Venice, and The Chimes of Midnight from his first two seasons. But this article is supposed to be about the best episodes from the TV series, so I must save those for another time (though in all seriousness, they are highly recommended). Fortunately, in 2003 the success of the Big Finish audio series inspired BBC to give McGann's Eighth Doctor one more on-screen adventure for the series' 40th anniversary. This came in the form of a six-episode animated miniseries, released on their new BBCi web-video channel.

"Ah, the wonders of animation - Gallifrey
certainly never had the budget to look like
this on the old series!"
2003's Shada is a true present to the fans for a couple reasons: not only does it finally give us the chance to actually see another Eighth Doctor story (and a luxuriously long one of six 25-minute episodes, no less), but it also finally realizes one of the most notoriously tragic missed opportunities of the original series. Shada was written by the late Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams in 1979 for Fourth Doctor Tom Baker, but halfway into shooting, a BBC strike canceled the production. The pieces that they shot were eventually released on video, with Tom Baker filling in the rest of the story with behind-the-scenes narration, but enough is missing that it was never possible to appreciate it as a finished story. Now, with only slight tweaks to the script to accommodate the change of Doctors, it comes to the screen fully intact, with Adams' signature style of witty sci-fi in fine form. The balance of science fiction to comedy is understandably more restrained than in the Hitchhiker's series, but his snarky voice, sense of humor, and wild imagination are unmistakable. He came up with an excellent story, combining a fittingly insane evil-mastermind-seeking-to-conquer-the-universe plot with a very interesting look into the lore of The Doctor's home planet, Gallifrey. The script adapts to the early-2000s more gracefully than one might think, though since this is a time-travel series, our heroes conveniently journey back to 1979 to make it period-appropriate.

What is most pleasantly surprising is how at home Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor feels in the script. While the dialogue was (occasional tweaks aside) written for Tom Baker, McGann really makes it his own, and fits it all to his Doctor's unique personality; the whimsical Victorian dreamer, rather than Baker's snarky madman. Thanks to his approach to the material, and his excellent-as-ever performance, Adams' lines genuinely sound like the same Eighth Doctor from the movie and the Big Finish audio series, not that Doctor speaking his predecessor's words. The other two principle leads remain the same as in the 1979 version: Lalla Ward as The Doctor's fellow Time Lord, Romana, and John Leeson as everyone's favorite tin dog, K9. An added prologue reframes the story as a reunion for the old friends, and the two returning co-stars have excellent chemistry with the new Doctor. Between the welcome comeback from these two fan-favorite companions, the long-awaited return of the Eighth Doctor to the screen, and the thrill of seeing Douglas Adams' script fully realized at last, Shada definitely feels like an appropriately celebratory event for the 40th anniversary of Doctor Who.

"We're time-travelling back to the early-2000s,
when Flash animation looked really impressive
despite the technical limitations!
Come on, Fhqwhgads!"
But that said, it's not perfect. The biggest thing holding Shada back from true greatness is the inherent limitations of the medium BBC chose for the series: early-2000s flash animation for the web. The animation is, unsurprisingly, very, very limited. The style is much more like a motion-comic, and if you've seen the motion-comic releases of Watchmen or Buffy Season Eight you pretty much know what to expect: illustrated characters with very limited motion in front of largely static backgrounds, and zero mouth movement during dialogue. They clearly tried really hard to push the medium of early flash animation as far as they could, and you've got to give them credit for trying to break new ground, but they attempted this web series a bit before the technology was really ready. On the bright side, however, the art design is quite cool, in a minimalist, heavily-lined comic-illustration style, and the sprawling environments are particularly impressive. Having the visual representation of McGann's Eighth Doctor adds a whole extra dimension to the usual audio-serial experience we know him from, and the expressiveness of his voice-acting more than makes up for the limited movement of his animated avatar. Keep in mind the historical context of when and how it was released, and it's pretty easy to get pasts its flaws and enjoy its high-quality storytelling.

Nonetheless, the limited animation won't be for everyone, which is why I included the 1996 movie as an alternate recommended story, either for those who just can't get into Shada's art style, or for those who want to see McGann's Doctor in person before they see him as a cartoon. The unconventional nature of the Eighth Doctor era makes it a very odd one to get into. Your choices are to start with a TV movie that looks great but has significant narrative flaws, a web-series that is narratively great but has significant visual flaws, or the excellent audio series that is the best all-around, but doesn't offer a visual introduction to the character. I would argue that Shada may be the best option of the three, but more than with most eras it comes down very much to personal taste. Whichever way you go, though, the Eighth Doctor era is great, and offers a whole lot of wonderfully innovative, medium-crossing content that makes it very worth getting into. Doctor Who may have been off the air in the late-'90s and early-2000s, but it was certainly in good hands.

Ninth Doctor Christopher Eccleston: The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances (New series 1, 2005)

"Why do you look so upset, Doctor?"
"It's another one of those internet trolls who
won't shut up about the damn farting aliens."
After much anticipation and build-up, 2005 finally saw the return of Doctor Who as a full-time television series. Fans had been waiting with nervous excitement to see what this new take on the series would be like: with a big-name television auteur – Queer as Folk's Russell T. Davies – behind the scenes, and a big-name character actor – Christopher Eccleston – in the title role, things looked promising. But then again, some fans still felt burned by the 1996 movie, and remained skeptical. At the very least it was a good sign that, like the movie, this new series was being treated as a direct continuation of all that came before, and not a reboot. Then, the first episode finally aired... and was greeted largely with dismayed ambivalence or disappointment. Although the first season did not air in America right away, I lived close enough to the Canadian border (in Detroit) that I could watch it over rabbit-ears on CBC, and I distinctly remember thinking “what... this is what we waited for?” That first episode simply was not good; easily weaker than the 1996 movie. But we stuck around, knowing that plenty of great shows had bad early episodes, and hoping that it would improve. And it did: episode two was pretty good, episode three was very good, episodes four and five were bewilderingly misjudged... and then episode six was absolutely amazing. It was as if new Doctor Who hadn't known quite what sort of show it should be during those first few episodes, and then it suddenly figured it out, and knew exactly what to do. As soon as the Ninth Doctor came face-to-face with that Dalek, it was totally clear that Doctor Who was back, with a vengeance. From that point forward, the first season was great. Christopher Eccleston made an excellent Doctor: darker and more brooding than any we had seen, but still with that eccentric sense of humor. Billie Piper's Rose Tyler quickly grew into an excellent supporting lead, and the two had great chemistry as a TARDIS team. And in the background of the season was a fascinating new mythology for the series, involving the then-mysterious Time War. As soon as the show figured out its identity and brought its script quality up to par, these pieces all fell into place.

Then, later in the season, we got new Doctor Who's first true masterpiece: a moody, atmospheric, and downright creepy two-part story arc set in the midst of World War II. The hauntingly-titled The Empty Child introduced us to a ghostly plague sweeping war-torn London, somehow connected to a dead child in a gas-mask. It also introduced us to a recurring character who would soon become a fan-favorite: the roguish Captain Jack Harkness, who came off as something like Doctor Who's answer to Malcolm Reynolds or Han Solo. Between the excellent historical sci-fi/horror story and the instantly memorable new character, it was clear very quickly that we were watching an episode that would soon rank among the greats like The Curse of Fenric, The Pyramids of Mars, and The Talons of Weng-Chiang.

"We're here for the midnight screening of
My Bloody Valentine."
The script by future showrunner Steven Moffat is easily the best the show had seen so far, and still remains one of the best he has ever written. It walks a fine line of menacing horror with just enough humor to keep things feeling like Doctor Who without undercutting the carefully-built mood. It also pulls of something very rare for this show, by giving us a threat that genuinely remains a mystery in its supernatural nature for much of the two episodes, following more in a classic ghost-story template than a sci-fi one. The script also showcases excellently the great chemistry between Christopher Eccleston's Ninth Doctor and Billie Piper's Rose. By this point in the season they have grown into a very strong team, and seeing them as a unit interacting with the freewheeling Captain Jack is a lot of fun. This is also one of the first season's most visually strong story arcs, with the London Blitz setting realized quite well, on what was still a pretty tight budget. Heavy shadows, clouds of smoke, harsh beams from search lights, and the entire story being set at night makes for a great blend of historical accuracy with amped-up horror atmosphere.

If you are just getting into Doctor Who, or especially if you are a new-series fan who jumped in sometime during the David Tennant or Matt Smith eras and never saw the first series, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances is an absolute must-see. The Ninth Doctor era does not get nearly enough credit. It is by far the least-seen of the new series in America, as it didn't air in this country during its original run and the series didn't really start to gain a large following here until word-of-mouth spread during David Tennant's first season. It also unfairly has gained a reputation as being a very uneven and not terribly good season, based solely on the problems of its first five episodes. Yes, with the exception of the great The Unquiet Dead, those first five are a deeply flawed challenge to get through. But from episode six (Dalek) onward, the latter almost two-thirds of series one is very good, and at its best even excellent. Even in those early weak moments, though, Christopher Eccleston makes it all work with his strong take on the character; he truly is a great Doctor, and he doesn't get enough credit due to the perceived unevenness of his all-too-short era. While he brings more humor and less abrasiveness to the role, his darker and more embittered take on the character shows strong similarities to what Peter Capaldi would bring to the Twelfth Doctor seven seasons later. The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances leaves absolutely no doubt about the excellence of Eccleston's Doctor, or about the excellence of this era at its best. Don't overlook it.

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Only one more installment in our Best of Doctor Who series remains! Next time, we'll take a look at the finest moments of the David Tennant and Matt Smith eras, and the best of the Peter Capaldi era so far.

- Christopher S. Jordan