Ten Under-rated Classic Doctor Who Stories

The Lists Cliff Chapman 7/6/2009 at 12:51PM
Arghhh. I mean hahahahahaha....

Can Classic Who's 'Bertie Bassett' monster BE under-rated? Cliff has a strong argument for this and others...

The great and the good, given a rough deal or just ignored by 'fan consensus' (such as there is one for a programme as variable as Who, with a fandom to match), ignore everything you've heard* and let's re-evaluate Doctor Who's all time... unloved.

*Apart from this list. Obviously.

The Web Planet

The black and white one with the giant ants and Martin Jarvis as a bumblebee.

They say: “Arrgh. Make it stop. Oh... I fell asleep.”

It might look as creaky as it is creepy – come on, it's a Richard Martin show, a director who always seemed to luck-out on the most technically demanding stories of the time – but this bugfest is a joy for being so different, full of truly alien characters with lyrical, unsettling dialogue. The ambition might outstrip the execution, but if you've tried before and struggled, perhaps with the fuzzy old video, take a punt on the considerably crisper DVD and ration this to one or two episodes a night. The piercing chirp might be irritating. The Billy-fluffs might come thick and fast... but drink in the ambition.

Available on DVD

The Myth Makers

The Siege of Troy and a lesson in agentic shift.

They say: “No idear... oh, erm. To much humer. Dr Who is sirious.”

Beware of geeks writing lists... sorry, Greeks bearing gifts. The Myth Makers is doomed to obscurity, having nothing more than a tiny, tiny few seconds of 8mm off-screen footage surviving, It's a historical, so it must be boring. It's by Donald Cotton, and we've all seen The Gunfighters and we 'know' how dodgy that is (see Bubbling Under!). Vicki leaves, and it's funny. Urgh. Do we care?

Well, if we don't, we should. Myth Makers is stuffed with beautiful dialogue and characterisation, poking fun at the leads and conventions of the series to that point. “He appeared to me as an old beggar...” And by the climax, you realise you've been duped. Like The Romans before it, the story is brutal. There's death and destruction, both direct and personal and on such a scale as to be almost inconceivable, certainly in a teatime children's programme. How did they get away with this? Jokes.

The novelisation, and Stephen Thorne's reading of it, are both entertaining compliments to the TV soundtrack and very different to the norm. Just wished they'd gone with the working title for the final episode: Is there a Doctor in the Horse?

Completely missing from the archives. TV soundtrack and Talking book available from BBC Audio.

The Monster of Peladon

The one where they go back to Peladon and it's all very similar.

They say: “Curse of Peladon, but not as good. Make it stop.”

New Nostalgia. The Curse of Peladon was one of the most blatant political allegories in Doctor Who up to that point; Common Market entry divined through Star Trek's Federation – but at four parts and lots of exciting new monsters, it worked well.

Two years later, we see return to the planet, the badger haircuts, the hilarious Alpha Centauri amongst a variety of guest-aliens, a somewhat girly King replaced by a much girlier Queen and a miner's strike allegory... the key change is of course, Sarah Jane, and it's a great story for her, continuing to establish how different she is from Jo.

Less tied to the Doctor's apron strings, striking up an almost touching relationship with Alpha and giving the Queen a kick up the ancestral seat. It could certainly do with a bit of padding stripped out, but the last appearance of the Ice Warriors (ever?) brings the story to life at the halfway point, Alan Bennion continuing to impress with his third Ice Lord, and overall it works for me at least more than many other Pertwee six-parters... including the preceding Dalek story and that following, his finale.

Usually easily available on preowned VHS from eBay or Amazon Marketplace. DVD likely within the next couple of years.

The Invisible Enemy

The one where we meet K9 and go inside Doctor Who's body – Contact Has Been Made!

They say: “You can see the bit of the wall K9 blasts is pre-cut.”

False Nostalgia. K9's debut is considered rather mediocre, yet another of Bob Baker and Dave Martin's scripts where they seem over-optimistic about what CSO, set designers and modelmakers can achieve with... variable results. I'm of the wrong age. Born a few years too late to appreciate it on transmission, I wish this were one of the very earliest BBC videos in the Eighties; even chopped into a compilation and dished out with a dodgy black cover with the diamond logo and a photo of the Nucleus. I'd have loved this when I was seven or eight, and seeing a UK Gold copy in my teens, and then getting the official release right near the end of the range rankles, a missed opportunity.

It's got a brilliant Saturday morning Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon feel, and the first episode is as terrifically scary as many other more celebrated stories with a possessed Doctor. Michael Sheard's tragic Lowe, so pleasant and scared before his conversion, so menacing afterwards, is the standout performance, and 'Contact Has Been Made' is probably the best of the Bob'n'Dave catchphrases.

Available on DVD as part of K9 Tales with K9 & Company

The Androids of Tara

The one with all the doubles

They say: “Silly. Silly silly silly.”

It's The Prisoner of Zenda, obviously, but why not? Doctor Who has borrowed from every conceivable medium in pursuit of rollocking adventures, but books and classic films were the order of the day in the mid-to-late Seventies, and it gives a few decent twists along the way. Robots, castles and sword fighting – not much more young boys of the time could ask for, quite frankly. With a sublime climactic duel between the Doctor and Peter Jeffries' charismatic Count Grendal, deftly drawn characters (squirm at the hint of romance between Grendal and Lamia, and the Prince and Strella!) it's sophisticated, classy and thoroughly respectable. Oh, and best ever Tom/K9 exchange - “A hamster with a blunt penknife could do it quicker!”

Part of the Key To Time season, available on DVD (R1/R4 only at present, or silly money for the Limited Edition R2 set)

The Horns of Nimon

The really cheap one with the Spandex Bull Monsters

They say: “Panto!”

Fan consensus, or at least majority opinion, shifts through time. Horns was a totem of derision for all that was cheap and silly about the Williams era... and it still is, really. The critical re-evaluation of much of the late Seventies period that saw it rise in favour as early Eighties stock fell still leaves Horns short changed. The story's actually rather clever, a good spin on ancient myths, and it serves Romana well. The Nimon don't look particularly good, but their voices are terrific and they have a good, simple raison detre. Big Tom is not the worst he'd been recently (it's a better performance than his half-cut turn in Destiny of the Daleks) and he sparks well against the deliciously bonkers Graham Crowden as Soldeed. I'll concede, however, that the bit where a character splits his trousers in mid-death-fall is somewhat unfortunate.

Available from the usual sources as pre-owned VHS; rumoured for DVD release in January 2010 as part of the 'Myths and Legends' boxed set

Frontios

The one with the giant woodlice who pull the TARDIS to bits

They say: absolutely nothing

The third and final Bidmead story, this is almost conventional for the otherwise dry and esoteric writer, his trademark TARDIS-abuse aside – a taut colony-under-siege with largely great (and gruesome) effects, let down by plasticky Tractators... but the rest of the effects are excellent, cast are first rate, the script drips with wit and horror, and the twist at the end of Part One is pretty shocking.

Turlough's PTSD lapse is wonderfully OTT. Frontios is not so much derided as forgotten amongst the more fan-pleasing or shocking Season 21 stories, and while I suspect it will appear close to the end of the Davison run on DVD, it'll be worth waiting for.

Usually available on VHS, preowned, from the usual sources, in a double pack with The Awakening

The Happiness Patrol

The one with death squads for misery-guts. And Bertie Bassett.

They say: “Bertie f***ing Bassett???”

Most people, when they see the Kandyman, are appalled. Me... I loved him then and now, and he's the crux of this Marmite story. The Kandyman's not just a monster, he's a a brilliant, funny, coldly brutal character, a great synergy of David John Pope's voice acting and the script (“What time do you call this?”). If Russell T Davies wrote the Kandyman today – and don't kid yourself that he'd be any different in looks or character – no one would bat an eyelid. Yeah, so the guest characters are in pink chef's whites, and the sets are clearly indoors, but this a great mix of anarchic Troughton-style Who and heavily Eighties-style, political comedy/thriller.

And amongst it all, Sylvester McCoy has worked out what to do and he's brilliant, particularly in the 'look me in the eye' moment with the snipers, or the final confrontation with Helen A. Characters are distinctive and memorable, often over the top, but not inappropriately. A bit Moore, a bit Ayckbourne, stagey, cheap, darkly camp, it'll rot your teeth but you can't help but let it. “A sort of... melancholy.”

Usually available on VHS (pre-owned)

The Greatest Show In The Galaxy

The one where the Doctor and Ace visit the Psychic Circus and meet a sexy werewolf.

They say: very little.

Another story forgotten; a glossy, atmospheric production, rarely praised, but rarely attacked by those who dislike this most controversial of eras, beyond the odd dig at the rather vague ending and a low-key first cliffhanger. True, it takes a little justification perhaps, but the journey beforehand is first-rate. Beautiful music from Mark Ayres and direction by Alan Wareing, a great cast that balances subtlety and the grotesque, and bags of satire directed at televison producers, television audiences and Doctor Who fandom of the time. The production was nearly cancelled due to an asbestos scare at the studios, and thank Ragnarok it wasn't.

Usually available on VHS (pre-owned)

Battlefield

There will be a battle here, actually.

They say: “Garden centre. Groan.”

I could have filled most of the slots with McCoy stories, really. Well, the knights aren't particularly successful, and the direction/editing is poor (Graeme Harper was considered at one point but unavailable – how things might have different)... but what a great story, with brilliant, rounded characterisation and lots going on. Jean Marsh, so familiar as movie witches by that point, is superb as Morgaine, the most sympathetic and well-rounded villainess the show had seen. UNIT is rebooted extremely well, so much that with Doctor Who's budget -saving earthbound focus in it's last year, you could imagine a Pertwee Era Mark II.

Following Remembrance of the Daleks was never going to be easy, and Battlefield, pitched first, doesn't come close – but the Brigadier is dignified even without dying. Mark Ayres' Special Edition on the DVD improves things intensely, tightening the dodgy shots and restoring deleted scenes, including one which clarifies exactly what Excalibur, the spaceship and everyone is doing there – if only they'd not chopped that out twenty years ago...

Available on DVD as 2-disc SE


Bubbling under – The Gunfighters, for more Cotton-comedy brutality; The Krotons, just for Zoe and further revelations of her marvellously kinky fashion sense; Revenge of the Cybermen, in which the titular monsters are rather poorly reimagined as Canadian desperados but the human and Vogan cast are spot-on; Black Orchid, because it looks great and I love the relaxed atmosphere, even though everyone who made it doesn't seem to (and it's got “where the nuts come from!”); Ghost Light because it's so clever, witty and scary, and it makes perfect sense if you pay attention; and if we're going to go down the New Series route, Love & Monsters because it's very clever and relevant, despite a weak ending; Fear Her because it nails the Doctor, and has that great 'New Adventures novel' feel; and The Lazarus Experiment for lots of great dialogue and a Quatermass vibe.

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