Oh, Alright Then… Patrick Magee’s Top 11 Doctor Who Stories

Well, the 50th anniversary of the Greatest Television Show Ever Produced is nearly upon us, and every man and his (tin) dog is jumping on board with bloggings and articles about the programme. I’ve talked previously about how the show has influenced my life, and discussed the last season here. But now, with only a few days to go, I present…

PATRICK MAGEE’S TOP ELEVEN DOCTOR WHO STORIES

After io9’s frankly appalling ranking of every Doctor Who story, and as Australia’s leading Doctor Who nerd, I feel I really ought to redress the balance. So what follows is my alternative (better) list of the best stories from the show’s fifty years. There’s one for each Doctor, although they’re not always the ones you might expect…

I’m posting this on November 21st, which means you’ve got plenty of time to catch up before The Day of the Doctor. I hope you enjoy the list, and I’ll see you all on the other side of the 50th.

An Unearthly Child

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Two teachers think that a 15 year old girl is acting a bit weirdly, and instead of alerting Social Services or the school counsellor they follow her as she walks down a dark alleyway and into a junkyard. Following her in, they proceed to get into an argument with an old man and break into his house. And that’s how it all began.

Conventional wisdom dictates that the mysterious, atmospheric first episode is let down by the following three, but as usual conventional wisdom is completely wrong. Kal and Za’s leadership struggles mirror the dynamic between the Doctor and Ian, and the shots of the skulls illuminated by fire are some of the scariest that the series has ever produced (my mother was banned from watching the show for several years after this episode because it gave her nightmares).

But yes, the first episode is incredible. From the opening strains of that music, to the unnerving shot of a police box in a junkyard, to the mysterious, alien behaviour of William Hartnell’s cantankerous old man… everything works together to produce a piece of television that, fifty years on, stands on its own as a piece of history. As the beginning of a legend, this episode must be seen by anyone who calls themselves a Doctor Who fan.

Things to look out for: The entire story is foreshadowed by the shopkeeper dummy’s cracked head and Ian’s dropping of the torch in the first episode.

Quotable quote: “Fear makes companions of us all.”

The War Games

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The Doctor, Zoe and Jamie land in the middle of the First World War, which turns out to be one of many conflicts being recreated on the planet of the War Lord, with the aid of kidnapped, brainwashed soldiers. After mounting a successful revolt against the War Lord, the Doctor is unable to return the human soldiers back to their proper places and times, and is forced to call on his own people, the all-powerful Time Lords, for help.

The problem with this story is that the intervening forty-odd years have made us think that it’s all just marking time until the know-it-alls from Gallifrey show up. But watched an episode at a time, with the stakes constantly heightening, it’s a fantastic piece of serialised television with an underlying message that those in power are, almost invariably, the bad guys. One of the writers (Malcolm Hulke) used to be a card-carrying member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and it comes across in this, the most anti-authoritarian story for the most anti-authoritarian of all the Doctors.

Things to look out for: The Doctor’s lie to Zoe as they say goodbye, when he’s realised that her memory of their time together will be wiped, is guaranteed to melt the stoniest of hearts.

Quotable quotes: “Well… it is a fact, Jamie, that I do tend to get involved.”

Carnival of Monsters

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The Third Doctor and Jo, on their first trip in the TARDIS after the Doctor’s exile has been lifted, land inside a Space Television. On the outside, the Space Television’s owner – a down-on-his-luck showman called Vorg and his perky companion Shirna – tries to impress a planet of grey-faced bureaucrats with all the Scary Monsters that they can watch.

An underappreciated gem. Robert Holmes (the greatest Doctor Who writer, bar none) serves up a blistering and hilarious satire of television, bureaucracy and Doctor Who itself. The Pertwee era’s camp and glam aesthetic reaches its peak here, and Barry Letts shows why he should have been allowed to direct more of his era’s stories.

Things to look out for: Ian Marter (here playing Lieutenant Andrews) would later go on to play Harry Sullivan, one of the most overlooked companions of all time.

Quotable quote: “Our purpose is to amuse, simply to amuse. Nothing serious, nothing political.”

The Brain of Morbius

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The Doctor and Sarah land on the planet Karn, where they get caught up in a remake of Frankenstein, They Saved Hitler’s Brain and H. Rider Haggard’s She.

The problem with trying to pick a good story from Tom Baker’s run is that there are so many of them – City of Death, The Face of Evil, Logopolis, The Androids of Tara and The Ark in Space all deserve an honourable mention – but for an example of the series’ greatest creative team (producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor/writer Robert Holmes) paired with the Best Ever TARDIS team (the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith) at the height of their powers, it’s hard to go past this one. Philip Madoc delivers an impeccable performance as the mad scientist Solon, and the set design is an absolute masterclass in creating an alien world on a BBC budget. So important that Moffat returned to Karn for the recent minisode The Night of the Doctor.

Things to look out for: The Doctor’s pre-Hartnell incarnations, seen during his mind-bending contest with Morbius, are played by various members of the production crew in a series of silly wigs.

Quotable quotes: “The impossible dream of a thousand alchemists, dripping like tea from an urn.”

Enlightenment

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The Doctor, Tegan and Turlough land onboard an Edwardian sailing yacht that turns out to be part of a race around the Solar System conducted by the mysterious Eternals. After an encounter with the campest pirate queen the universe has ever seen, Turlough is forced to choose between the Doctor and the Black Guardian.

A perfect blend of period drama (which the BBC is very good at) with space opera (which the BBC is… not as good at). Davison’s Doctor is on top form, gently guiding the story and standing aside during the final scene, allowing his companion to make his own choice. Beautiful aesthetics and a cracking script work together to deliver something quite unlike anything Doctor Who has done before or since. After watching this, you wonder why the series hasn’t hired more female script-writers.

Things to look out for: The Doctor replaces his stick of imaginary Castrovalvan celery with a stick of imaginary Eternal celery.

Quotable quotes: “Enlightenment was not the diamond. Enlightenment was the choice.”

Jubilee

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In fascist Britain, a lone Dalek is held prisoner in the Tower of London and wheeled out for special occasions. The Doctor and his companion, sixty-something year old history professor Evelyn Smythe, arrive and try to unravel the mystery of this horrific, alternate world.

Colin Baker was an incredible Doctor, but his tenure was marked by some of the weakest and most needlessly violent scripts in the programme’s history. Fortunately, Big Finish audios have given him a new lease of life, and Jubilee is one of the best. Rob Shearman’s script moves along at a cracking pace, and on the way makes a number of pertinent points about the nature of evil and the dangerous simplicity of official histories. So good that it inspired Shearman’s Series One script Dalek.

Things to look out for: The wheelchair-bound madman in the Tower – “you might say he created them [the Daleks]…”

Quotable quotes: “What will you do when you have conquered the universe? Fight each other, Dalek against Dalek, until there is only one, alone, like you have been…”

Curse of Fenric

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The Doctor and Ace land in a top-secret naval base, where they are caught up in the final battle between the gods and the beasts. And play an awful lot of chess.

Before Russell T Davies gave his companions backstories and emotional arcs, there was Ace. Here, in the second story of the loose trilogy that closes the original series, she is forced to confront her own burgeoning sexuality and troubled relationship with her mother. This is one of the most important stories that the series has ever produced, full of light and shade and reminders that the people who rule us very rarely have our best interests in mind. A masterpiece.

Things to look out for: Just… just watch it. You’ll be glad you did.

Quotable quotes: “And the half-time score: Perivale: 600 million; rest of the universe: nil.”

The Glorious Dead

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The Eighth Doctor and his companions Izzy S and Kroton (the Cyberman with a soul) land on the planet Paradost, where they are drawn into a struggle against the Church of the Glorious Dead and their mysterious leader Cardinal Morningstar. It soon becomes apparent that all reality is at stake, and the Doctor’s oldest friend is waiting in the wings to teach him a lesson…

While the BBC Books had their moments (Alien Bodies and Father Time are probably the best), for many fans the DWM comic strip was the only place to go for the continuing adventures of the Eighth Doctor. The Glorious Dead is one of the greatest epics in Doctor Who‘s history, and experiencing it on a month-to-month basis as it came out was an almost unbearable ordeal: the Doctor waking up next to Grace and Izzy’s apparent death are hands down the best cliffhangers ever, y’hear me? So influential was Scott Gray and Martin Geraghty’s run on the DWM strips that Russell T Davies actually offered them the chance to officially show the Eighth Doctor’s regeneration into the Ninth Doctor.

Things to watch out for: Spidey’s brief cameo in the Glory’s first scene.

Quotable quotes: “…make the reason you die an important one, like trying to stop an evil so big it blots out the whole sky…”

Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways

The Ninth Doctor, Captain Jack and Rose wake up in a series of lethal reality TV shows. When Rose is apparently killed on The Weakest Link, the Doctor and Captain Jack bust their way up to the top floor and discover that the Daleks are behind the whole shebang. So begins the last battle of the Time War, and the mysterious Bad Wolf is finally revealed…

This story is the delivery of everything that Doctor Who‘s comeback season promised: humour, suspense, action and a reminder that you are watching the Greatest Television Show Ever Produced. It’s amazing just how much Russell T Davies manages to cram into the script, and it’s a fitting farewell to Eccleston’s all-too-brief tenure as the Ninth Doctor.

Things to look out for: The hologram of the Ninth Doctor turning to Rose, because he knows her so well, makes me well up with tears even thinking about it.

Quotable quotes: “You were fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. And you know what? So was I.”

Gridlock

The Doctor takes his new companion Martha to New Earth, where the traffic is murder and there are monsters waiting at the bottom of the world.

In amongst all the epic sound and fury that has come to be a hallmark of the new series (q.v. Doomsday, Last of the Time Lords, basically every other season finale), small stories like this one tend to get lost. But here we have an episode about the nature of faith and community, where the benchmark for normality is a talking cat dressed like Biggles and played by Father Dougal. If you don’t love that, you’re watching the wrong programme.

Things to look out for: This episode sees the return of the Macra, the giant crabs who originated in 1967’s The Macra Terror. They only look slightly less convincing this time around.

Quotable quotes: “You think you know us so well, Doctor. But we’re not abandoned. Not while we have each other.”

The Doctor’s Wife

Led by a Time Lord distress signal, the Doctor, Rory and Amy find themselves in a bubble universe run by the TARDIS-devouring House. The Ship’s soul is stolen and placed in the body of a young woman named Idris, and the Doctor’s oldest companion is finally given a voice.

Neil Gaiman is (when he’s not being lazy) one of the most important fantasy writers of the modern age, and his first official venture into the world of Doctor Who is an unmitigated success. Every line has clearly been written by somebody who absolutely loves the show, and Idris’ farewell to the Doctor is just as heartbreaking as any of his companion’s departures. This is a story that absolutely demands to be watched over and over again, and is rewarding every single time.

Things to look out for: The Doctor’s Wife was a joke story title from the 1980s that the producer, John Nathan Turner, posted up on a noticeboard to discover who in the BBC office was leaking secrets to the fans.

Quotable quotes: “I just wanted to say hello. Hello Doctor. It’s so very, very nice to meet you.”

So what do you think? Agree or disagree? Think The Dominators should have warranted a mention? Furious at the lack of The Twin Dilemma? You can contact Patrick on his Twitter account here.

When not ranking episodes of the Greatest Television Series Ever Produced, Patrick Magee is a crotchety old man, dressed as a cosmic hobo in a ruffled shirt and velvet jacket, with a vaguely bohemian scarf and a pleasant, open face. He blusters about, playing chess and kissing surgeons, and comes from a planet with a North. He is sorry, he is so sorry, but thinks bow-ties are cool, and at the end of the universe he will disappear with a wheezing, groaning sound.

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3 thoughts on “Oh, Alright Then… Patrick Magee’s Top 11 Doctor Who Stories

  1. Mine is:-
    Aztecs
    Mind Robber
    Carnival of Monsters
    Robots of Death
    Castrovalva
    Summoned by Shadows (!)
    Ghost Light
    The Night of the Doctor
    Dalek
    Girl in the Fireplace
    Vincent and the Doctor

    1 out of 11 is not bad!

    I’d question you being Australia’s leading nerd. I think I would just inch you out!

  2. The assertion that the faces of the production crew in The Brain Of Morbius are The Doctor’s pre-Hartnell incarnations, and not Morbius’ previous regenerations – some excellent reverse trolling there, Pat.

  3. Pingback: …And The 11 Worst Doctor Who Stories Of All Time (And Space) | Patrick DoubleThreat Magee

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