Culture Focus // 12 Essential Doctor Who Episodes

Last year we counted down our twenty essential episodes of Doctor Who. Of course, 2013 was the 50th Anniversary of the show and saw not one but two revelatory specials in the form of the epic The Day of the Doctor and Matt Smith’s final bow (for now) as the Eleventh incarnation of the traveller. With only Peter Capaldi’s manic stare to guide us toward this year’s eighth season of the show we decided to take another look at our selection and reflect on what the fiftieth anniversary has added to what many describe as the best show on television…

The Daleks (1963)

Premier episode ‘An Unearthly Child’ may have introduced the premise of the show perfectly but, regardless of the content of the very well received story, the Daleks steered Doctor Who into the national consciousness. In fact, arguably, we wouldn’t be discussing a half decade of the series were it not for the extreme popularity of the creatures themselves. With hindsight there are some aspects of this debut story that look dated but there’s nothing you can fault too much that isn’t technology related.

The charm of Doctor Who is often in the lack of budget rather than a generous slab of budget and with very little The Daleks does a lot. It helps immensely that the episode is monochrome – the visual effect (although not intentionally, obviously as monochrome was standard format at the time) it creates is extremely atmospheric adding much to the overall atmosphere. 

Additionally, at seven episodes this is a classic example of the serial format – establishing several running plot points that would be picked up at various points along the way as the series continued. Arguably the monsters lost their scare factor over time – and it’s in black and white that they work their magic best. The Daleks not only cements the then leads somewhat strained relationship (just a small matter of kidnapping and all that) but it demonstrates that classic Doctor Who was more than often rushed with no time for extra takes – but it was always atmospheric and usually very well written. As a second serial, you couldn’t have asked for more really.

The Web of Fear (1968)

This recently rediscovered piece of television history is well worthy of a watch for many reasons; principally because you can actually watch it now, albeit with the third episode missing. Patrick Troughton was the first actor to bear the scrutiny of ‘the new guy’ contingent and it’s a pity that much of his era is missing, but The Web of Fear is a good excuse to enjoy some often surreal set pieces and the ever evolving nature of the show itself.

When the Tardis almost gets caught in a web like substance in space, it lands on the iconic London Underground. But guess what – there’s yeti’s wandering around the place causing all manner of mischief under the guiding hand of the Great Intelligence. It’s all very surreal – with shots of the coal-ember eyed Yeti’s stalking down long tube tunnels and empty passageways becoming iconic.

Most importantly, this is Nicholas Courtney’s first appearance in Doctor Who – of many more. With the monochrome film still the norm this serial is very atmospheric and every shot looks immaculately composed and often, for example when a Yeti strikes in the home of Silverstein, use minimal light to great effect decades before it became an industry norm. The Web of Fear rocks –and still looks great five decades later!

Spearhead From Space (1970)

With colour just lighting up the viewing experience for British viewers the debut of Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor was a new experience. With a new Earth bound template and a central performance that gels with the viewer immediately it’s a fitting debut for Who in colour. The effects may not be brilliant (but budget and the time it was made are a crucial factor here) but the key scenes still have the desired effect.

Crucially, Spearhead from Space was filmed on location using film rather than the standard videotape so has aged somewhat better than most episodes of the time. Iconic imagery in the showroom dummy formed Autons smashing their way out of windows and going on a rampage? Check! A new outfit for the lead assembled, (not for the first time) from hospital lockers? Check! There is much to enjoy here – and you much reference to this first foray into televisual colour as the series continues.

As a perfect demonstration of  the flexibility of the show’s format it’s a confident first step into colour with a brand new cast (something that would happen only once more when Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor debuted in 2010’s The Eleventh Hour) and began an almost decade long run of excellence for the show. Jon Pertwee, known for his eccentric ways already made for a decidedly more adult tone than had previously been the case and as if that wasn’t enough we get the always reliable Nicholas Courtney as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and a strong, non-screaming turn from Caroline John as Liz Shaw, arguably one of the first female characters to not be there as a convenient device for monsters to leer at and have her scream in terror.

The Talons of Weng Chiang (1976)

In this story, featuring the ever reliable (even if the script was not – which is  definitely not the case here!) Tom Baker and his recently arrived companion Leela and it’s an instant, infinitely rewatchable classic. Talons’ though is in some ways distinctly un-Doctor Who in many ways. That’s perhaps why we like it so much; there are only so many wobbly sets and shouty robots a person can take and here is the perfect intellectually stimulating yet very silly at the same time antidote to that.

As Tom Baker foreshadows a later foray into portraying Sherlock Holmes with his deerstalker and pipe, constantly delivering those witty lines he is known for with a wonderful wit there is murder boiling The titular Weng-Chiang and his frankly creepy assistant Mr Sin are collecting ladies to feed to their master, resident in the sewers beneath the city in a rather excellently designed lair. Of course, the Doctor soon gets involved after a meeting with a still unconvincing giant rat moves things at a pace.

The script from Robert Holmes is taut, witty and gives the serial format of that time a good use. With the main cast getting great words, the supporting cast are also well provided for. The sheer malevolence of the idea of Chang hitting the streets to pick up ladies for his masters sustenance is straight out of the gothic pages of a Hammer Horror film and if you saw Mr Sin stalking you down a dark street with that blade in his hand  we’re sure you wouldn’t be too keen to hang about. The fact that Deep Roy, the only actor to have appeared in Doctor Who, Star Trek and Star Wars as well as a very creepy turn in The X Files, portrays the evil puppet so well is just icing on an already very filling cake.

City of Death (1978)

With some of the highest audience figures for any era of the show, City of Death is another Tom Baker serial that sparkles with wit and invention. Scripted by Douglas Adams under a pseudonym this beautifully scored, beautifully shot on location in Paris and much recommended story is one not to be missed. Throwing together the art world with crime and time travel is a daring narrative feat but one that is handled delightfully.

The true beauty of the story though is found in the location of Paris.  As we see Tom Baker and Lalla Ward running merrily around the city and enjoying the life of a tourist on the Eiffel Tower we see how the location can bring out the best in the cast. Add in the very romantic incidental score and you have something to savour. There is at one point a cameo from John Cleese and Eleanor Bron extolling the beauty of the Tardis in the Louvre . The guest cast too, Julian Glover and Catherine Schell shine, their dialogue and surroundings perfectly adding to sophisticated sheen of the script.

There is a story, of course, but even if it often quite inconsequential to the sheer wit and beauty of the script  it needs to be seen rather than read about. All we’ll say – the Mona Lisa is hiding something behind her smile…

The Curse of Fenric (1989)

The final few seasons of the original run of Doctor Who are perceived by many to be somewhat of a marmite tinged form. But in among the oft-over exaggerated death cries there are some quality moments. The Curse of Fenric is most definitely one of them. Featuring Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor in the beginning stages of his remodeling as more mysterious figure than the one that initially surfaced there are nice touches to be found all over this touching yet occasionally dark story.

Sophie Aldred as companion with a baseball bat sized difference Ace makes good of the script’s acting opportunities and beilds her character up very well while the darker edges of Seven show most overtly in one scene as he uses the emotions of his companion to overcome the frankly creepy looking Haemovores.

It would be a lie to say that this was anywhere near the decline seen during the unsuccessful experiment of Colin Baker’s tetchy, egotistical incarnation. This is the show rising back up to a better quality of story with some dramatic writing that works even today. You can even see some parallels with New Who’s cross episode arcs as small hints lead to the resolution of the story in a very effective manner indeed.

Dalek (2005)

They may be the most famous and the most iconic of Doctor Who’s enemies, but for this reviewer, they’re also the most annoying. As a young Doctor Who fan, I didn’t so much hide behind the sofa in fear as run from the room in irritation at the interminable cries of “Exterminate!”  Even that great source of Doctor Who knowledge Blogtor Who derides them as “fascistic pepperpots” and “mad little bastards.”  They’re irritating, have no redeeming features and you can defeat them just by pegging it up the nearest staircase. Or can you?

And so when producer Russell T Davies brought back the whiny ones as part of the revamped series in 2005 it’s fair to say that news of the episode was greeted with the odd raised eyebrow.

And so we have writer Rob Shearman’s Dalek. Set in a then-future 2012 in an underground bunker in Utah, where squillionaire Henry van Statten has a store of alien artefacts, the Doctor and Rose (played by Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper) are called to the bunker by a distress signal. Separated by van Statten, Rose and the Doctor encounter a creature van Statten calls his “metaltron.”

Eccleston is on top form as he is locked up with the last remaining Dalek in existence. The Time Lord’s horror and naked aggression towards the chained and weakened Dalek is in direct opposition to Rose’s compassionate reaction at seeing a broken creature. But then Rose has no knowledge of, or history with, the Dalek race and her touch – imbued with time energy – reanimates the Dalek, which unleashes destruction that could reach planetary levels.

The episode features a particularly difficult torture scene, which sits uncomfortably with the concept of a family show and may upset really little ‘uns watching, but the wicked van Statten ultimately gets his come-uppance in a completely pleasing manner.

Overall, Dalek is a dark tale that shows the quite terrifying power of a single Dalek and the episode single-handedly revived the race from Skaro as a significant and terrifying enemy for the Doctor.

Human Nature/The Family of Blood (2007) arguably the best two-parter in modern Doctor Who. Written by Paul Cornell and part of David Tennant’s second series co- starring Freema Agyeman as companion Martha Jones, this story is set in 1913 England in a boys’ private school.

Having been pursued by The Family of Blood who want his life force in order to live longer, the Doctor is forced to hide his Time Lord self inside a chameleon arch, which appears as a fob watch-style device, and become human. The Doctor trusts Martha to watch over him, as he loses all memory of being a Time Lord and becomes a man called John Smith who works as a teacher at Farringham School for Boys with Martha as his servant.

While John Smith lives an ordinary life, even falling in love with young widowed school nurse, Joan Redfern, played by the always top quality Jessica Hynes, the Family of Blood land in the words near the village where the school is situated, in search of the doctor. Taking over the bodies of the inhabitants of the school and village, the Family discover the Doctor’s whereabouts when schoolboy and telepath Tim Latimer (a young Thomas Sangster) finds and opens the Doctor’s fob watch, giving him an insight into the Doctor’s world.

The Doctor’s world bleeds its way into John Smith’s dreams and he records it all in a book he calls A Journal of Impossible Things, which includes beautifully drawn images of the Doctor’s TARDIS, his foes and even his previous incarnations.

The Family is a genuinely frightening foe; Harry Lloyd plays Son of Mine with an effortlessly sinister sneer and Lauren Wilson’s Daughter of Mine, a sweet little girl with a red balloon, is out-and-out creepy. As the Family closes in on John Smith, he must make a dreadful choice – to remain human and live the one thing a Time Lord cannot – an ordinary life with the woman he loves – or to become a Time Lord again; lonely and facing almost constant danger.

Tennant is on top form here and clearly revels in playing two completely different characters. It’s a testament to his acting ability that he does so, portraying human torment and the cold power of a Time Lord, with such ease.  Agyeman as Martha shines too, among a cast of the highest quality, as Martha has to battle prejudice – both class and race – to protect the Doctor from his enemies and from his human self.

The Family of Blood ends in the darkest and satisfying of ways as it’s revealed by Son of Mine that the Doctor’s hiding was an act of kindness and we see the vengeance enacted upon each member of the family.  Latmier’s story is wrapped up in the most poignant of ways as the Doctor and Martha visit him, an elderly survivor of the Great War.

This two-parter is widely recognised for its excellence of writing, acting and direction and rightly so. A great episode whether you’re an old fan or new to the show.

Blink (2007)

is frequently voted as one of, if not the best Doctor Who episodes ever. Written by Steven Moffat, Blink is what’s known in the world of Who as a Doctor-lite episode – with little actual screen time given to the man himself.  Instead, lead role duties fall to a pre-fame Carey Mulligan who stars as Sally Sparrow, one of the best non-companions in the history of the show and featuring one of the show’s scariest villains ever, the Weeping Angels.

The Weeping Angels are a perfect and perfectly terrible enemy for the Doctor. When you look at them they are statues and can neither harm nor be harmed.  But look away from them, turn away…even blink…and they become a deadly assassin. A touch from an Angel will send you back in time where you live to death, your potential life taken by the Angel as energy. The Doctor and companion Martha are trapped in 1969 after having been touched by an Angel and it’s up to Sally Sparrow and über-geek Larry Nightingale to get his TARDIS back to him so that he can escape the slow road.

Everything about Blink is superlative, from the script, acting, set design, direction and even the score.  The entire cast excels, even those who only feature briefly. Massive credit goes to Lucy Gaskell as Sally’s chum Katy Nightingale and Michael Obiora and Louis Mahoney who play the young and old Billy Shipton, who must live for years to give a message he’ll never understand to Sally Sparrow.

The script for Blink is knowingly clever, with references to internet geekery, DVD easter eggs and there’s even a Scream 2-style play on plot clichés. But despite its cleverness, Blink is never less than terrifying and I defy you to try not keeping your eyes wide open as Sally and Larry try to flee from a quartet of menacing Angels. Or to see a statue in the street and not be just a little bit scared.

The Eleventh Hour (2010)

…is quite simply the single best introduction to a new Doctor that the show has ever had. David Tennant and Russell T Davies had quit the show and young upstart Matt Smith had been announced as the new Doctor by new showrunner Steven Moffat. In some quarters, there were cries of, “I’m never watching it again!”

The naysayers were proved totally and utterly wrong when The Eleventh Hour aired in 2010. Moffat and Smith clearly set out their stall with this absolute gem of an episode. Moffat gave a fairytale feel to the whole thing and Smith, channeling second Doctor Patrick Trougton, was old and young and mad and wonderful.

Throw in a new villain, Prisoner Zero, new aliens, the Atraxi, a new companion, the fantastic Amelia Pond and a nod to the third and eighth Doctor’s finding their outfits in a hospital and we were set for a completely revived show. If you switched off when Tennant left, man did you miss out. The perfect starting point for anyone new to the show…

The Doctor’s Wife (2011)

In The Doctor’s Wife, acclaimed author Neil Gaiman takes the Doctor’s relationship with the TARDIS and proceeds to break your heart with it. Suranne Jones puts in an astonishing performance as Idris, a young woman in a pocket Universe where an entity called House (voiced by Michael Sheen) consumes TARDISes.

The matrix from the Doctor’s TARDIS is placed in the body of Idris and for the first and only time in the show’s history, the Doctor can talk with the old girl. Smith and Jones absolutely chew up the screen and their relationship is an unutterable joy. And by the time Idris says “This is when we talked” if you’re not blubbing, then you’ve got a swinging brick instead of a heart.

The Doctor’s Wife is a great adventure; it’s sweet and funny and clever. It’s great for anyone unfamiliar with the show and includes some lovely old nods to the show’s history.

The Day of the Doctor (2013)

For the fiftieth anniversary of the show something big had to happen. And it did in the form of a slew of programming on the BBC (some excellent, some not so) which included as it’s crown jewel this multi doctor, game changing and often surprising feature length special.

Featuring the soon to be gone Eleventh Doctor, David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor and the previously unseen War Doctor as portrayed by John Hurt it was a visual feast for the long term fan and an eye opener for anyone new to the show. With a timey-wimey and clever script from Steven Moffat full of humour, Zygon’s and small references to the series as a whole it was simulcast to a global audience and was shown in cinemas in glorious 3-D.

Unlike many movies, the 3-D effects were of great value here with the Time War sequences benefitting especially from the 3-D touch. Key to its greatness is the filmic style it echoes. That overhead view of the Thames is truly a great opening sequence and with many more moments of note you’d be mad not to take at least a little pleasure from The Day of The Doctor. And those cameo’s from Tom Baker and Peter Capaldi?

Truly essential Doctor Who!

Words by Sebastian Gahan and Andrea McGuire. Images © BBC/BBC Worldwide.

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