Monday, January 4, 2010

Essential Viewing

So, you've got through David Tennant's swansong and are eager for more 'Who?' Can't wait 'till Spring to see it turned up to 11? Want to bone up on your classic series knowledge? My recommendations for the best serial for each of the seven classic Doctors is below. Where possible I've included a clip of the episode, although in the case of One, Five and Seven, they're fan-made trailers.

First: The Aztecs—“You can’t rewrite history. Not one line!” Most people who grew up with First Doctor stories say his fourth story, “Marco Polo” is his best, but that one got chucked in the bin. To save space, the BBC wiped dozens of Dr Who stories from the Sixties (Syndication hadn’t been invented yet) and “Polo” as one of the casualties. However, as historical adventures go, you can’t get much better than “The Aztecs,” which sees The Doctor’s companion Barbara trying to steer the course of Aztec society away from human sacrifice, only to cement it. It was the beginning of a kind of waxing and waning when it came to what you could do with history, but as a story and as an example of what the series could do even with a limited budget, it’s stellar.

Second: The Tomb of the Cybermen—The story behind this serial is almost as cool as the story within it. Though lost from the BBC archives, a print of “Tomb” was found almost twenty-five years later in a basement in a Hong Kong BBC affiliate studio. The story is the second to feature the Cybermen, and easily the strongest story they’ve been in. Troughton’s Doctor plays to his strengths here, pretending to be a buffoon while playing a group of archaeologists against each other, all to buy enough time to stop the Cybermen from awakening from their frozen tombs and slaughtering them all.

Third: The Sea Devils—Does what Pertwee’s era does best. Monsters, The Master, and a plot to take over the world. The Sea Devils are an offshoot of an ancient race of reptiles that lived on Earth millions of years ago, then escaped underground when catastrophe threatened. Now they’re back. Except they’re not all bad. They’re being manipulated by The Doctor’s opposite number, The
Master, played by the incomparable Roger Delgado.

(The guy with this clip disabled embedding. It's here: )

Fourth: City of Death—Tom Baker’s era on the program can be separated in two: the brooding, gothic-horror inspired tales of his early run (such as “Pyramids of Mars” and “The Brain of Morbius”) and the more Star Wars-flavored space opera of the latter end, like “The Ribos Operation” and “City of Death.” Both, incidentally, wear Douglas Adams’ fingerprints all over them, which is why “City” remains my favorite of the Baker era. Adams was script editor for Doctor Who in 1979 before going on to some other sci fi series no one’s ever heard of. “City” brims with Adams wit and flair for language and shows off Baker at his zany, weird best.

Fifth: The Caves of Androzani—It’s kind of a tragedy that Peter Davison’s far and away best serial would be his last in the role, but “Caves” is a classic, one of the all-time greats of the whole series. “Caves” remains an object lesson: rather than being about galaxies exploding or timelines erasing, reality bombs or Dalek armies, this serial manages to ratchet up the tension by placing just two people in danger, The Doctor and his companion Peri, who has been poisoned and is slowly dying.

Sixth: The Mark of the Rani—By the time Colin Baker assumed the role, things had gotten a bit stale. Baker hardly has a good serial to call his own and struggled under the demands of a role that shifted underneath his feet by the time he got it. “Mark” has a lot of classic Who elements—historical setting, bad guys mucking about with time, mindless drone henchfolk—enough to become rote, but Baker, in this serial at least, invests it with enough verve and joy to compensate. It wasn’t until much later with the audio plays, that we got a full idea of what we missed from this era.

Seventh: The Curse of Fenric—By the Seventh Doctor’s era, things were changing again, and “Curse” was meant to be a sign of things to come. Sylvester McCoy had first been charged with portraying the character as a blundering fool, but his portrayal of the character darkened in Season 26, becoming much more the manipulator, willing to place his friends in danger in order to achieve a greater goal.

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