So, ‘The Big Bang’ went off and there’s no more ‘Doctor Who’ until Christmas. Luckily, we’re here with a recommendation list of ten old ‘Who’ stories (well, not exactly ten, but we’ll get to that later) that are worth watching to help the next six months pass a bit quicker.
To pull together this list we polled Shiny Shelf writers and readers, asking which three stories from the original, 1963-1989 run of the TV show that they would recommend to fans of the more recent series. A wide spread of stories were mentioned, but the winner was clear from pretty early on…
1. ‘The Caves of Androzani’
Peter Davison’s final story as the Doctor came top of last year’s ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ ‘Mighty 200′ poll, so it’s probably not surprising that it won our far smaller stick poll too. Martin Coxall described it as “almost everyone’s favourite Davison”, and while other Doctors had their fanbase split across several stories, no other story featuring the Fifth Doctor got more than one vote.
With its brutal villain and high bodycount, ‘Caves’ is as relentless a thriller as the original series produced, and stands up better today than other, gentler paced stories. Stuart Douglas (publisher, Obverse Books) described it succinctly as “fast paced with a memorable villain”, while Rob Buckley (The Medium Is Not Enough) noted that “it’s exactly what would happen if the Doctor landed in the middle of a war: he’d be tossed around from side to side and/or shot and killed, unable to do anything much except try to survive.”
2. ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang’
A close second, ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang’ was bitten at the heels by a few other Tom Baker stories, with noteworthy support for ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ and ‘City of Death’. If ‘Genesis’ and ‘City’ represent the extremes of seriousness and silliness that Baker stretched to in his long stint in the role, then ‘Talons’ is right between the two, successfully balancing almost every aspect of great ‘Doctor Who’: it’s dramatic but witty, has both slow-burning scares and action set-pieces, and is set in Earth’s past while also featuring some of the series’ most evocative SF world-building (world-building that, with characteristic BBC frugality, is done entirely through vivid dialogue).
A lot of ‘Doctor Who’ can be described as pulp or melodrama, and ‘Talons’ embraces these genres: never knowingly underplayed, it creates a Rohmer-esque Victorian world of masked, sewer-dwelling villains, sinister Music Hall acts and threatened beauties. It has, as Matty noted, aged badly in terms of the racial politics of a white actor playing a Chinese character, but in many other respects the production stands up remarkably well, with a strong recreation of the period.
There is a rather giant production fail in there, though. See if you can spot it.
3. ‘The Mind Robber’
While our top two tend to hit the top five of any poll of ‘Who’ stories, ‘The Mind Robber’ is far less consistently lauded. All credit, then, to the imagination of Shiny Shelf readers and contributors, because ‘The Mind Robber’ is as playful and creative as ‘Doctor Who’ gets.
As Shelf contributor and Panel Borders podcaster Alex Fitch so simply put it, it’s “completely bonkers.”
James Griffin praised the story’s “high concept”, especially noteworthy after a long period of the ‘besieged-by-monsters’ stories that Patrick Troughton’s second Doctor is best known for. In light of the recent season, it’s also the most fairytale-like ‘Who’ story of the 20th century. You can buy ‘The Mind Robber’ on DVD.
Another Troughton story to be highly rated by voters is his last, ‘The War Games’. Shiny Shelf editor Jim Smith described this ten-part epic as a “terrific, and surprisingly political, adventure story” that “turns its vast length to its advantage” with “memorable characters, subplots, dramatic reversals and surprising vignettes.” You can buy it on DVD.
4. ‘An Unearthly Child’
While our top three tore ahead of the pack, everything in the rest of the chart scored equally in terms of votes. We’ve placed the very first ‘Doctor Who’ story, 1963’s ‘An Unearthly Child’, highest in this recommendations list because, as blogger Dorian Wright (postmodernbarney) said “It’s never a bad idea to revisit how it all began, nor to see how far the show has come from its roots.” The Thumbcast pointed out that “The seeds for what would be 60s style Who are laid here right from the off – the sense of mystery and exploration, the unease over the main character’s motivations, the other-worldliness of it all.”
While the pace is glacial compared to the current show and the production studio-bound, the first episode of ‘Doctor Who’ is full of touchstones that the series calls back to to this day, and has a sense of wonder in the introduction of the Doctor and the TARDIS, seen through the eyes of ordinary people, that the series wouldn’t replicate in the 20th century. There’s no better jumping on point than the very beginning, and William Hartnell’s performance as the Doctor remains hugely influential to this day, and not just because his photo keeps making cameos.
‘An Unearthly Child’ forms part of ‘The Beginning’ DVD box-set, which also contains the following two stories, ‘The Daleks’ (which also received a couple of votes) and ‘The Edge of Destruction’. You can read Jim’s review here.
5/6/7. ‘Ghost Light’/'The Curse of Fenric’/'Survival’
These three consecutive stories from Sylvester McCoy’s last season (and the final full season of ‘Who’ altogether before the 2005 relaunch) all scored equally, showing a lot of love for Season 26. We’ve bundled them together here accordingly.
While ‘Ghost Light’ is usually praised for its smarts as one of the most literate ‘Who’ stories, and ‘Fenric’ tends to be praised as the closest McCoy’s Doctor got to the elusive ‘action/horror’ formula that powers stories like ‘Talons’ (although Twitter respondent Dorward counsels that ‘Fenric’ should only be watched in its more polished feature length version, as seen on the DVD), ‘Survival’ is the more interesting choice of the three.
‘Survival’ is, barring Paul McGann’s 1996 appearance, the last ‘Doctor Who’ story before the 2005 revival, and both Dorian and the Thumbcast voted for it alongside ‘An Unearthly Child’, effectively book-ending the whole series in their picks. There are plenty of parallels to be had – after years where the series stayed mostly out in space, barely touching normality at all, ‘Survival’ ends where the series began, a drab corner of contemporary Earth, from a yard full of junk to a scruffy patch of parkland.
There’s also an easy segue from the end of one series to the start of the next, in-spite of the sixteen year production gap. Ignore the McGann film, and it’s a short geographic and spiritual jump from the Perivale suburbs of ‘Survival’ to the South London council estate of ‘Rose’. It’s as if the series was groping towards it’s future at the exact point of cancellation, and one way for fans of the new show to get into the old is to start at the end and dig back, peeling away the layers.
8/9. ‘Doctor Who and the Silurians’/'Inferno’
Another season cluster, this time season 7, Jon Pertwee’s first year. Both stories are long (seven episodes each), but use that length to build an impressive tension, with an impressive sense of scale: if you want to see a plague sweep through London or the entire Earth be consumed by fire, this is the season to watch. They’re also smart and thoughtful stories where characters have strong motivations.
The Silurians’ recent TV showing may have been underwhelming, but their debut remains the best use of those monsters and that story (in this case, the pattern of the story really is tied to the creature, their every re-appearance a re-telling to a greater or lesser extent). It’s available in a DVD box set with its two 20th century sequels.
Although ‘Who’ often creates a sense of scale entirely through dialogue (see ‘Talons’ above), ‘Inferno’ is a rare case of ’show, don’t tell’, with a clever plot loop demonstrating the exact fate Earth faces due to a misguided drilling project. It’s ‘Doctor Who’ at its most apocalyptic. You can get it on DVD.
10. Special Mentions
Not one story, but many: the following stories got a couple of nods each, so if you’ve seen the rest, hunt this lot down:
‘The Myth Makers’ Buy CD.
‘The Horror of Fang Rock’ Buy DVD.
‘Warrior’s Gate’ Buy DVD.
‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ Buy DVD.
That’s our Top Ten… ish… which should keep you busy enough until Christmas. Thanks to everyone who participated in the poll. If you’d like to chip in with further recommendations or comments, or argue with the results, please feel free to do so in the thread below.