So the fifty year anniversary has come and gone. We have two stories back in the archive with rumours of at least one more if not nearly all of them to come and I am resuming my blog with the first of several obligatory 50 themed list. The first is my favourite 50 TV stories from before the 2005 re-launch. I am not saying that these are the best stories (a couple most certainly are not) and there are several stories which on another day and in another mood may have made the list. I am also not claiming to have seen all of the original run. I have generally ignored those stories which are only available as soundtracks or recons as it has been several years since I have seen/heard them; although where a particular story stands out in my mind I have ignored this rule. It is my list and I will be capricious with it if I want to!
We start with the Hartnell era:
1. An Unearthly Child
This is where it all began, with an acknowledged classic not just of Doctor Who but of TV in general. As the Moff has noted this was the first time that TV created an enduring character of its own, rather than adapting one from books or films. What is incredible in retrospect is how brave and brief this episode is. The bravery of the episode is in shrouding two of the four central characters in mystery, then piling onto that enough SF concepts to power a show for 50 years to date, as the actual introduction to the show. It is an almost obtuse way to go about things. The brevity and density of storytelling in this episode is streets ahead of anything else you would see on TV at the time or even the majority of pilots now. The first episode manages to form a short story unto of itself and a the basis for two years’ worth of character arcs too. Finally the whole thing is shot with an Ealing-Noir feel to it that could just as easily have formed the basis for a 60s X-Files. Absolutely essential viewing. 100,000BC is for all intents and purposes a different story, although I am claiming the shadow on the TARDIS cliff-hanger as a final brilliant moment for An Unearthly Child .
2. The Daleks
I am aware of three version of this story. We will start with the TV show itself. This is really the first example of the show doing whatever the hell it wanted to imagine. The absolute cardinal rule of “No bug eyed monsters” is broken the very first time the TARDIS leaves Earth simply because the writer and designer decided to tell the story they wanted to tell. I have already written at length in this blog about why the Daleks are totally brilliant and it all starts here. The fascist overtones are not quiet there in the way we would go on to see and expect, but the other Nation trope of Nuclear War most definitely is. Oh and for what it is worth this is totally the start of the Time War.
The design and production standards are terrific bearing in mind the budget of loose change and the Blue Peter store cupboard. The original Dalek city still looks very striking to this day. The direction is creative. The overall impact of the story was clearly huge launching Dalekmania and guaranteeing the continuance of the show after a rocky few weeks in terms of ratings.
The story shows the core character of the Doctor to great effect. He is first and foremost an alien with a penchant for travel. Although the character is even now beginning to soften we also see the first true example of the Doctor’s recklessness and willingness to manipulate his companions when his curiosity or sense of purpose gets the better of him.
David Whitaker arguably created a definitive and perfect version of this story when he novelised it. Unlike the later novelisations (particularly, but not exclusively those by Terrance Dicks) Whitaker makes his novelisation an genuinely literary effort telling the story from the perspective of Ian and rewriting An Unearthly Child as the immediate prologue. 100,000BC is largely pants anyway so I like the thought of Ian taking some dramatic licence when he comes to write his memoirs!
Finally we have the Peter Cushing film adaptation. Anyone who thinks this is a better more concise version of the TV show can go do one as far as I am concerned. That being said the Daleks work well and Cushing is likeable enough as some dotty old human who likes to be called the Doctor. I’ve now decided that this story is a time war variant of the original with Cushing being a chameleon arched version of the Hurt Doctor.
3. The Keys of Marinus
Okay, this one is not what I or anyone else would call a classic story. However, it holds a place in my affections for two reasons. Firstly, on a personal level, it is one of the first stories I ever saw and was my first Hartnell one. Secondly, it is yet another example of the confidence and ambition of the first year of the show to do and try anything. Another Nation script it is hardly the blockbuster that the Daleks was. However, it does have some really great moments in it. I love the spookiness of the journey with Barbara being the only one to see things as they truly are. Towards the end we get the first real glimpse of the Doctor as a scholar and advocate. None of the episodes and locations are around long enough to get truly dull and the whole thing is really quiet pacey for early 60s TV. Compare this to say the Reign of Terror or The Web Plant to see what I mean.
4. The Aztecs
Oh the Aztecs let me count the ways I love you. Probably the best “pure” historical the TV series ever did. One of the best Who stories ever and one of the best pieces of television produced in the 60s too. As much as this is a pure historical, what is often overlooked is that it is also pure SF story as well as being an engaging dramatic examination of cultural attitudes to morality. A genuine examination of whether a time traveller could affect history and if so to what extend they can and should do so. You will not see a mainstream SF show or film approach this level of thoughtfulness again. This is easily one of the most intelligent stories the show has ever produced, add in some gorgeous dialogue and performances and this is a near to perfect as you can get. Unhappily the new series would never be able to devote the equivalent to a two part episode to a simple exploration of real history.
5. The Romans
We go from the historically sublime to the ridiculous. This is basically Doctor Who doing the best Carry On story. There are a good number of Doctor Who first in this one. It is the first comedy, it’s the first real glance at the softer version of Hartnell’s Doctor, it’s the first time we really see the Doctor playing the fool to his enemies (two and a bit years before Troughton supposedly invented this), it is also (impliedly) the first time the Doctor is responsible for a famous historical incident. William Russell and Jacqueline Hill do more to convince of a relationship in a few minutes at the start than the grandiose writing of the Amy/Rory arc does in two and half years. Vicki gets her first proper story and is immediately far more fun to be around that Susan ever was. There are some nasty moments in this for Ian and to a lesser extent Barbara, but overall the story is one of the best farces you will ever see. Out and Out fun.
6. The Time Meddler
The finale (such as they were back then) to the second season and a real shake up to the established format of the show. Aside from some shenanigans in The Chase this is the first of what used to be called the pseudo-historicals, that is to say stories set in the past with an SF element (other than the Doctor, TARDIS and companions). This is the first story to posit that you can change history (or at least that a Time Lord can) it is also the first story to feature a Time Lord other than the Doctor (and Susan). It stands as the template for literally dozens of later historicals and for my money the Monk is a far more interesting character than the Master was in the Classic series.
7. The Daleks’ Masterplan
I have neither seen the reconstruction or heard the soundtrack to this story, but I have seen the orphaned episodes and got the telesnaps and I also read the novelisations ages again and crickey o riley this may be just about the most epic Doctor Who story ever made. The Daleks would not be as unstoppable or powerful a force again until the RTD era. The Doctor loses two companions and arguable hastens the onset of his own first regeneration. The Monk Returns! Diplomatic SF/Space Opera of the kind employed in Star Trek and Babylon 5 is invented. It has even got a Christmas Special episode in it and features Nick “Brig” Courtney in his first role. Almost certainly the most ambitious Doctor Who story of all time!