Doctor Who: great things in not-so-great episodes

Feature Andrew Blair 8/10/2012 at 10:54AM

The last (almost) fifty years have witnessed all manner of Doctor Who episodes, and even in the show's least great moments, there's always something to admire...

Very early on in its production it was decided that some episodes of Doctor Who wouldn't be as good as other ones. It's a jolly nice thing for Verity Lambert et al to have done. I don't know how I'd cope if every single episode of Doctor Who was as good as, say, The Visitation Part Two.

However, due to complications with the essential nature of art and its tendency towards yielding subjective interpretations of meaning, this plan failed to produce any episodes of Doctor Who that are entirely without merit. Anyone who claims otherwise is either an individual with a gift for hyperbole or a bit of a nodule.

To highlight this, we have compiled a list of great things that come from the poorer episodes of Doctor Who. In order to avoid arguments about what counts as a poor episode, I have limited my choices to stories that came in the bottom fifty of the 2009 Doctor Who Magazine 'Mighty 200' poll, and then listed them in chronological order based on when they were produced. Adding your own examples below would be greatly appreciated, as long as you are aware that Dementors of the Interwebs are ready and waiting to suck every last ounce of joy out of something you like.

Which storyThe Underwater Menace


What's it known for? The mad scientist with a pet octopus; A dialogue-free five minute section where Fish People go on strike; A director who went on to create Eastenders.

What's good about it? The regulars.

We now have two episodes of The Underwater Menace (episode 2, newly found, is yet to be released on DVD. episode 3 is in the Lost in Time boxset), and joy has been unconfined over the visual tics and nuances of Patrick Troughton's performance. However, the audio version enhances the main strength of Geoffrey Orme's script - The Doctor, Ben, Polly and Jamie are a joy from start to finish.

Rewrites, overambition, and over-the-top acting all make The Underwater Menace's reputation as a trailblazing feast of the ludicrous stick, but you have to wonder how much of it is down to Joseph Furst's performance as Professor Zaroff. Originally scripted as being driven mad by the death of his family, Zaroff is the quintessential mad scientist, complete with Einstein hair, German accent and cry of 'Nuthink in ze world can stop me now'. In the hands of a different actor the same lines could be quite chilling. Fortunately, amidst the chaos, the regulars are on form.

Patrick Troughton is still finding the role, and it's fascinating and funny to hear. Polly does scream and faint a lot, but Anneke Wills delivers the line 'You're not turning me into a fish' with exactly the right level of indignance. Fraser Hines, in his second performance as Jamie, makes the most of his lines and slots into the group effortlessly. Michael Craze holds the hold thing together with a fantastically grounded display as Able Seaman Ben Jackson, culminating in his pointing to the Doctor and saying: "Look at him - he ain't normal, is he?

Which story? Colony in Space

What's it known for? Beanie baby alien; Dull colonists; Robots with comedy hands.

What's good about it? The Target novelisation

The book is better. This is the case for many people who read the novelisation of an original series story before watching the actual episode. The visuals are limited only by the reader's imagination, which was not directly affected by inflation, production staff, and Jon Pertwee's demands to have a go on one of those little helicopters.

Plus, as a bonus, both Colony in Space and its novelisation Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon are by Malcolm Hulke. This means that nearly every character will be fleshed out and made three-dimensional, even if said character is about to be scraped to death by a sinister robot.

Which story? The King's Demons

What's it known for? Ye hackneyed olde worlde dialogue; The Master's most cunning disguise yet; The Master's most underwhelming plan yet.

What's good about it? King John's Song

Playing the dual role of King John and a shape shifting android, Gerald Flood delivers each line as if he's on the verge of seeing a nipple. He's unctuous and predatory, like a bad uncle in a George R. R. Martin novel. So what's happening in this story? Turlough gets trapped in a dungeon by a knight who's too fey to be angry; the Doctor makes everyone in the castle hate him, and the Master is diguised as one of the French Knights from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, shouting "Idiots!" and "Medieval misfits!" at the Doctor for the eminently sensible strategy of running away.

Fortunately, while Peter Davison does some background acting, King John gets his lute out and sings a song. You all know the words.

Which story? The Twin Dilemma

What's it known for? Speech impediments; Boss-eyed gastropods; Companion strangulation.

What's good about it? Colin Baker. In general.

The Twin Dilemma came bottom of the last two Doctor Who Magazine polls. It probably isn't the worst story ever, but it suffers from following on immediately from one of the best. After the Fifth Doctor's regeneration in The Caves of Androzani, the Sixth Doctor is given the end-of-season dregs as his first story. It looks cheap, it's directed with all the flair of a fart, and the script is rushed and variable.

Fortunately, Colin Baker is on the scene, and instils his portrayal with the energy and jacket of a thousand angry suns, charging around shouting "Villain!" and "Murderer!" at old men. For the fiftieth anniversary, is it too much to hope that Russell T Davies writes for Ol' Sixie?

Which story? Silver Nemesis

What's it known for? Bored Nazis; Gratuitous American; Unusually potent gold.

What's good about it? Jazz vs Cybermen

When you think about its core elements - The Doctor and Ace versus Nazis versus Cybermen versus a mad time-travelling Tudor witch - Silver Nemesis should be pretty good. It is, unfortunately, barely tethered to reality. Even the extended VHS cut of it doesn't really make much sense.

It is worth noting, however, that no-one has ever seen Silver Nemesis writer Kevin Clarke and jazz maverick Howard Moon in the same place. It would explain the extended sequence where the Cybermen are defeated by Courtney Pine. While Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred yomp about the countryside having an infectious amount of fun ("Hello! I'm the Doctor! I believe you want to kill me!"), the signal to the Cyberfleet is blocked using a Time Lord ghetto blaster and a signed cassette of smooth saxophony.

The sight of three Cybermen reacting in bafflement to the music is priceless, as is the Cyber-Lieutenant's confused comment of "It is meaningless."

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It's more like a great episode in a not-so-great serial, but episode 6 of The Chase has that magnificent farewell to Ian and Barbara. From tooling around with Daleks and Dracula to Hartnell's best ever performance, and a fitting farewell to two of the original cast...

My favourite part of the the King's Demons is still the Master's ill advised line "Your old Doctor you will is week" It never fails to make me giggle.

I f***ing hate jazz and I'm not called Johnny.

I once made mates watch Silver Nemesis............Christ knows what they think of me now.....

Colin Baker is awesome. Exactly as this very site has pointed put, he's The 10th Doctor in a bad jacket. Fact. It's a shame more supposed fans can't or won't realize that. The 6th Doctor is a force of nature, shackled with a lot of crap. Colin Baker and Sly McCoy held this series up on their shoulders when no one else would. We owe them. Let's hope people realize this before they pass away. We owe them.

What's wrong with that clip of King John's song? If there's no better copy on YouTube, at least add a note to the article it's slowed down for no good reason? The real thing is quite peppy by comparison!

Love the sixth Doctor, he really shines in the Big Finish range. But, please don't let RTD anywhere near him!

I like Colin Baker's Doctor in general (especially in the audios) but he is f**king awful in The Twin Dilemma. His shouty, pompous, sneery demeanour manages to be both unconvincing and incredibly irritating.

I absolutely love the infectuous enthusiasm of the TARDIS crew in The Chase, Tom Baker's joyful performance in Robot, the sheer ideas brimming out of Four to Doomsday, the wonderful quirkiness of Gridlock, and EVERYTHING about The Keys of Marinus and Closing Time.

Colin Baker is so much more than the tenth Doctor in a bad jacket. That's not a fact, but it was a very silly thing to say.

The only real silliness is how anyone can take a short phrase & assume the total depth of its meaning is displayed on the surface. You take your time. ;)

Which are all traits of every Doctor, just not rolled into an easily digestible "superhero" that people erroneously believe he's meant to be. He's meant to be aggressive, loud, adversarial, dangerous, arrogant and righteous. All traits of the Doctor, clearly portrayed by Colin Baker. All traits of the 10th Doctor, in particular. No matter how you feel about his persona, he's not a human with a quickly defined list of perfections or flaws. There are layers to be explored. He's an alien. As he says in the episode itself, he's THE DOCTOR..."whether you like it or not." ;)

Only the Doctor can turn back the clock...

Wasn't that line supposedly added to silence the fans disenchanted with Colin's casting?

Colin Baker is the worse thing that has ever, EVER happened to Doctor Who. The man is a atrocious actor.

That's a bit harsh. I think JNT or Pip and Jane Baker would make good cases to take that crown. It wasn't Colin's fault.

No, it was his line in his first episode. Couldn't have been added as it was his first appearance and there was no internet or advanced previews for fans back in the day.

Your uninformed opinion is noted. But not taken at all seriously. LOL! There's always one in the nerd-crowd.....

When you say 'made', do you mean you physically forced them to watch it Clockwork Orange style, or did you just say 'We could watch this, bits of it are quite good?'

Wish somebody would get a grip and at least announce how they intend to include the rediscovered episodes on dvd considering the sad circumstances Doctor Who fans have had to contend with recently.I'm quite fascinated by the ambition and lunacy of early Troughton stories like the moonbase and the underwater menace.The Underwater Menace is nowhere near as terrible as it's reputation suggests despite the fact everybody thought it was ridiculous when they were making it.

I meant by Eric Saward perhaps? It's well known he wasn't Colin's biggest supporter but maybe he was resigning himself the fact, under Nathan-Turner's say so, that Baker was now the Doctor. Certainly this was the first time the Doctor had any major lines after regenerating at the conclusion of the season. Though with The Twin Dilemma the following week they decided to break with tradition. The fans had known Colin was going to be the sixth Doctor since the summer of 1983 and there was some opposition to the casting.

Even in the face of some of the following reply comments to OzzyB, I have to put on record that I thought Colin Baker was a brilliant Doctor, and was very unfairly treated by the Beeb and many DW fans. If I had to rate him - purely in my own estimation - against the other actors who tackled the role, I would place Baker well above Sylvester McCoy and even further above Peter Davidson, and perhaps on a par with Christopher Ecclestone, dismissing the improvements in TV technology in the years between the two. Like Ecclestone, Colin Baker's Doctor was edgy and often felt "unsafe to be with", which is how the Doctor should be (the original William Hartnell Doctor was also edgy and unsafe to be with, establishing the trend.) I much prefer the edgy & dangerous Doctors to the "bland uncle Unctious" variety. Sometimes the Hartnell Doctor even did things more worthy of The Master when he arrived later, such as thinking about abandoning his companions on some alien world because they argued with him. Now, that's what I call the Doctor!

Agreed. Some supposed "fans" (and especially the tween-drama crowd that fall at the shipping altar of Rose/Doctor) seem to believe that they can point to their favorite Doctor and claim that's the definitive version. Unfortunately, the facts of 50 years fly in the face of personal perspectives. The Doctor is a dangerous, crafty, aggressive force of universal nature that bends worlds and people as he sees fit. "Time Lord Victorious" was simply another name for "Dream Lord", which is simply another name for "Valeyard", which is in absolute fact another name for "The Doctor". It's only when he has mortals....aliens or humans....traveling with him that he is exposed and swayed by compassion, tolerance, and forgiveness. Otherwise, he is The Oncoming Storm. William Hartnell, Colin Baker, Christopher Eccleston....these are simply quick glimpses of the real person behind the whimsical and trivial facades he creates to foster ease in those around him. Bow ties ARE cool.....and that doesn't change the fact that The Doctor has killed trillions of beings in his lifetime(s). The Doctor is dangerous. And that's something I think Amy & Rory are about to learn firsthand....

Woah, please drop that superior tone about "True Fans". I'm a fan of Doctor Who both new and old, and William Hartnell is one of my favourites. And yes, I agree that those character traits should be a PART of the Doctor's character, but they're not ALL of his character. The Doctor isn't a superhero, correct, but he is a complex, multilayered hero. This can be portrayed in ways such as showing Tom Baker's cold reaction to people dying in Pyramids of Mars, or Matt Smith locking Future Amy out of the TARDIS after tricking Rory into believing he can save her. He has some unpleasant, alien ways, but other than the first couple of stories he's never been portrayed as a horrible, thoroughly unlikeable sh*t with no redeeming features (and if you've actually watched any of Hartnell's stuff you'll know that
they dropped this portrayal of his character very quickly).

Colin Baker in The Twin Dilemma almost feels like a fanboy trying to tick a checklist of everything that would make the Doctor more "unpredictable" again. He constantly argues against saving people, he insults and belittles his companion in a nasty, non-jovial way for no conceivable reason, he cowers behind her when threatened and tells the villain "Take her, not me!", he's just... not the Doctor. I'm all for the Doctor being more complex and unpredictable, which is why The Girl Who Waited for me was a shining light in a series full of Matt Smith bumming around, but that doesn't mean we should have the pompous, snivelling coward of The Twin Dilemma.

Your opinion is noted. But, doesn't change a word of mine. Thanks for having one. LOL!

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