So far in my periodical rundown of the best Doctor Who episodes to introduce a newcomer to the series we have reached the eighties, probably the most divisive decade in the entire history of the programme. It contains some of the worst epiosdes ever put to paper (although not the absolute worst) but it also contains some of the best as well. A lot of episodes (particularly those set in the future) can come across as looking very cheap and very tacky these days whereas others could have been made yesterday. But amongst it all, there are still episodes that shine through:
Season 19: Kinda (4 episodes)
Compared to Tom Baker’s last year where the majority of episodes were complete duds, Season 19 is almost the opposite. It has a couple of naff episodes, namely Four to Doomsday and Timeflight, but they still aren’t nearly as bad as The Leisure Hive. It starts with the quite unique Castrovalva (which has some very good concepts but is let down by some dated design work) and reaches its peak with the terrific final episode of Earthshock (‘Now I’ll never know if I was right!’) I think Earthshock might be a little heavy for newcomers so I decided instead to go with Kinda, the story of a jungle planet and a mind invading snake. The plot holds up very well and the design, if a little old hat now, can easilly be overlooked. There are some pretty trippy (and frightening) dream sequences in there as well as some delightfully hammy, over the top acting which is worth the watch alone. The only problem is the snake at the end which is, quite frankly, terrible. But the rest more than makes up for it. If watching on the DVD there is an option to add modern CGI, which improves things greatly by replacing the snake.
Season 20: Mawdryn Undead (4 episdoes)
I had a very difficult time choosing this one, not because the stories are all so good or so terrible, but because they’re just middling. You could enjoy a bit of very young Martin Clunes in Snakedance or marvel at the absolutly gorgeous look of Enlightenment but Snakedance is nothing more than an average rehash of Kinda and Enlightenment probably wouldn’t make much sense to a newcomer. Instead I’d go for the pretty solid Mawdryn Undead which, whilst not perfect, does an adequate job. It inolves something about a group of aliens in a spaceship above an English public school who are stuck in a permanent regenerative cycle. It’s not a remarkable story but it holds itself up and it’s not awful, just a bit dated in places Plus it’s also got The Brigadier (two of him!) and The Black Guardian in it so that makes it a lot better. The only issues are some bad music, grown men dressed as school boys and Turlough (Who is supposed to be an alien but WTF? Where is that mentioned? All we get is ‘I want to leave Earth… I hate this planet’ etc. And then later on in another episode it just casually gets dropped in as though it were there all along.)
Season 21: Caves of Androzani (4 episodes)
The rot that was to plague Doctor Who for the remainder of the eighties had truly set in by this point and the cracks are evident by this season having some of the most terrible stories ever written as well as the worst produced/designed- Respectively Frontios, The Twin Dilemma and Warriors of the Deep. In contrast there are also a few fairly decent stories in The Awakening and Planet of Fire (which rids us of the awful ‘I’m actually an Alien though you’re just supposed to know that’ Turlough.) Theres also the darn good Ressurection of the Daleks but the prize must surely go to the fifth Doctor’s swansong, Caves of Androzani. It basically involves The Doctor and new girl Peri (a fake american- designed to appeal to an American audience) arriving on a minor planet (literally Minor… Androzani Minor to be precise) only to end up down some caves filled with drug dealer types fighting a lunatic in a gimp suit (who was almost to have been played by Bowie but unfortunately wasn’t… though that would have been awesome) And oh yeah, the Doctor and Peri are poisoned by the very thing the drug dealer types are after and need to get to the cure which is right at the bottom of the cave. It sounds absolutely mental but this is actually the best story of the fifth Doctor’s run by an awfully long way. It runs along and never really stops for breath, not even at the end. There isn’t much to fault with it either and had the BBC been really invested in the programme at this point (and had this not been the eighties) then it would have been even better.
The Sixth Doctor
Season 22: The Two Doctors (3 episodes)
Colin Baker gets a tough rap because he was unfortunate enough to come in just when the rot was worst. His first story The Twin Dillema is regarded as awful (oft considered the worst, though in my opinion there have been more recent episodes that make this look brilliant) and his first series has some episodes that aren’t that good either. Attack of The Cybermen is ok but it’s a bit boring, as is Vengeance on Varos. Mark of the Rani, as far as hammy romps go, is ok but it is let down by a script that wouldn’t sound out of place in a ‘TV for Schools’ programme. And Timelash is certainly one to avoid. The best story overall is The Two Doctors which sees the return of Patrick Troughton’s second Doctor (but is a bit of a let down in terms of how often six and two actually meet.) It’s still fun (and a little bit violent) however and as well as featuring the Sontarans it also looks fantastic (It was mostly filmed in and around Seville). The plot is just a bit of an excuse for having the second Doctor show up but that’s forgivable as it’s still better than the rest of this year.
Season 23: The Trial of a Time Lord- ALL OF IT! (14 episodes)
This is a bit of a weird one as it is actually four stories framed around the idea of the Doctor being put on trial by the Time Lords. On their own the individual parts aren’t up to much but when put as a whole what you end up with is a magnificent, if still slightly flawed epic all about dealing with the consequences of our actions. It does go a bit downhill (a bit? Try a LOT) in the last episode but that’s only because the original writer died, the script editor resigned and the producer decided to sod the original ending and hired another pair of writers who made a complete hash of things. The rest however is a glorious mix of good and average with the only bad things being Bonnie Langford’s acting (though the scream at the end of episode 9… wow! Let’s just say it works…) and the fact that you can see that they really needed a bit more money and effort in places. Still, if you can get past the cheapness of it what you find is something that was, at its very heart, way ahead of its time (with the whole interconnected season long arc idea) and with a bit more attention and love it could have been a true landmark in television history. Sadly this was the very middle of the eighties and the rot at the heart of Doctor Who had reached its peak (as evidenced by the way the final episode of this season came about… There’s loads of stuff across the internet about this, including a script for the original version of the final episode if you can find it) whilst the BBC executives only made it worse. Colin Baker never really got the chance he deserved on television but heck, he was good whilst it lasted. Oh yeah… This one also has Brian Blessed being Brian Blessed as well. If that’s not a good enough reason to watch I don’t know what is.
The Seventh Doctor
Season 24: Paradise Towers (4 Episodes)
Any hopes of the rot being completely cured at this stage are sadly deluded as Season 24 is all over the place in many ways, though there are signs of things getting better. It gets off to a weird start with Time and The Rani, which for some reason involves Albert Einstein and a giant brain with the rest not really making a lot of sense either. McCoy’s Doctor isn’t really McCoy’s Doctor yet and Bonnie Langford is still (unfortunately) prancing about and screaming as if she’s trying to make her lungs explode. The other three stories are a little better but none of them really stand out in any good way. I do have a soft spot for Delta and The Bannerman but that’s mainly because it’s so bad that it’s actually good. Dragonfire is ok but it is just a bit clunky and false looking these days (and the plot is actually a bit weird and might put off some newcomers.) The best one for a newcomer is probably Paradise Towers, which is set in a tower block overrun by warring factions and evil robot cleaners. It’s also got Richard Briars overacting the part of a nazi-esque caretaker and a gloriously late eighties vibe to it.
Season 25: Remembrance of The Daleks (4 Episodes)
And finally, after all the rot that had been creeping onto the screen since at least Season 20 (or perhaps even earlier, it could be said, looking back to season 18) things look bright as day and once again the programme becomes as good as it ever was, maybe better. Season 25 and 26 are, on the whole, eight cracking stories that are Doctor Who at its absolute peak (One or two stories are a little weak but they’re nothing like as bad as some episodes… DARK WATER!) Even the sets and effects have stopped looking so clunky and terrible all of a sudden. It can still appear a bit dated but compared to many earlier stories they could have done yesterday. It was quite a daunting task picking just two stories from those eight, because they were so good, but after a long decision I finally came to a decision. For season 25 I selected Remembrance of the Daleks but the others from this season put up a good fight I must say. There’s Cybermen story Silver Nemesis, featuring a time traveling tudor woman, a living statue, a chase around Windsor Castle and a cameo by the Queen (‘I think I know that woman from somewhere’) the circus spectacular of The Greatest Show In The Galaxy (which is great but might be a bit camp for a first timer) as well as Doctor Who’s tribute to Thatcher, The Happiness Patrol. But Daleks stands out because besides being good Doctor Who it’s also good sci-fi… Two warring Dalek factions turn up in London, 1963 looking for a stellar manipulator called the Hand of Omega (which the Doctor, many years before, hid in this exact time). Naturally the two factions get into a big scrap with each other whilst the Doctor and a group of military types avoid getting caught in the crossfire and making sure the right Daleks get their hands on the Hand. Simple really.
Season 26: Survival (3 episodes)
Alas, even though the rot was gone it lingered in the mind of BBC executives and thus they decided to put Dr Who up against Coronation Street… Which effectively killed it. But it didn’t die without one last final hurrah and that came in the form of the aptly named Survival. Again, it comes in a season of extreme highs, including the excellent Curse of Fenric. Fenric very nearly almost won the battle because it is by far a damned superb story about Viking Curses and Enigma decoding machines and vampiric monsters but the trouble I had was that it’s so tied in to the events of previous episodes that, by the end, it would just leave newcomers with some questions (Who’s Lady Peinforte? Where’s Iceworld? etc.) and that isn’t so good. So I went with the final story, Survival- About the Master manipulating a planet of Cheetah People who are hunting people around a London suburb and travelling between their planet and ours (or something like that). It’s a fine example of classic Who but also, sadly, the last.
There is only one full Eighth Doctor television adventure (and one mini one) and both are actually worth watching. The mini adventure (Night of the Doctor) is definitely worth taking a look and, in actual fact, so is the full adventure (Just called Doctor Who, or sometimes, Doctor Who: The Movie.) McGann is an excellent Doctor and his episode is a brilliant example of what an American version of Who might look like, as well as being quite an obvious forerunner for the modern series. It also features Sylvester McCoy taking his final bow and Eric Roberts (Julia’s brother) camping it up to the max as the Master (and chewing the scenerey as well, always good to see a scenery chewer!) There are a few problems with it (opening info-dump, squeaky Daleks… ‘I’m half human on my mother’s side’ etc.) but if you can overlook those then you’ll find it perfectly watchable. If you like 90’s US Sci-Fi like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and X-Files then you’ll probably like this.
And there I will leave things for the moment. Next time I put one of these up (Which I have no idea when it will be) I’ll be covering the latest Doctors… 9 to 12!