Welcome to the Brains of Morbius! Here, the geek intellects of Ken and Mike will merge to talk about pop culture, games, fantasy, Doctor Who, and related magnificence. Join the discussion!
Let’s get this underway with our respective takes on the best stories of our mutually favorite TV show, Doctor Who. First off, the Top 5 of Classic Who:
Mike’s #5. Inferno
A Doctor Who “mirror universe” story, by all rights, should be all sorts of juicy fun. And while there are no evil goatees here, the Alt-Brigadier’s sinister eye patch lets the viewer know pretty quickly that this is going to be fun. What makes this particular story so compelling is the fact that when the Third Doctor is flung into a parallel dimension, he still fights just as hard to save it, even though it’s populated by the evil counterparts of his friends … and he’s devastated when, for once, he fails to save the day. It makes his grim determination to succeed in saving his “own” Earth in the final episode even more gripping.
Ken’s comment: By rights, a 7-part story shouldn’t work. Hell, they often had a tough time maintaining a good story across 6 episodes! Don Houghton wrote an amazing script, and you could tell the actors relished playing their “evil” selves. The Doctor’s failure IS devastating and really well handled. It’s also notable for being one of the few stories in those continuity-light years to actually be referenced in a later story (“The Mind of Evil,” also written by Houghton.)
Ken’s #5. The Curse of Fenric
Doctor Who is usually never better than when its roots are showing, and when those roots are Hammer Films, it’s impossible not to embrace the eeriness. McCoy’s Doctor is at his mysterious, Machiavellian best, manipulating everyone on chessboards both real and metaphorical. The creepy atmosphere, superb acting, and plot payoff make up for the iffy vampire effects.
Mike’s comment: “Fenric” is by far the most ambitious story of the McCoy years, and it pays off in spades. It’s clever, gloomy, and brooding – a far cry from his hammy first season. There are many moments where you’re not quite sure what the Seventh Doctor’s really up to. If only McCoy had been given the opportunity to build on this for one more season….
Mike’s #4. The Tomb of the Cybermen
Troughton’s performance in this “base under siege” story is so powerful that it’s left its mark on pretty much every other actor to have played the role, even up to today. As the Tomb is discovered, the Second Doctor acts the innocent fool, bumbling around and wondering what’s going on … but as the story unfolds, it’s clear that he’s manipulating everyone else to do what he wants, and to do whatever’s necessary to stop the Cybermen. Troughton somehow manages to be heroic and funny while being dark and ruthless and calculating all at the same time, and it’s a treasure to watch.
Ken’s comment: It’s a classic tale, no doubt about it. The emergence of the Cybermen from their tomb is brilliant. I have trouble with some of the supporting characters – like the tough-talking and somewhat dumb Captain Hopper – but Troughton’s Doctor is a must-watch bundle of energy, even though I don’t see him as the manipulator you describe. I’ll have to look for that on a rewatch! The Doctor-Jamie-Victoria relationship is delicious fun.
Ken’s #4. The Dalek Invasion of Earth
Perhaps the first epic tale in the series’ history, the second Dalek adventure – set on a dark, conquered future Earth – has plenty of surprises, close calls, and tragedy. The first cliffhanger’s emergence of a Dalek from the Thames and the concluding departure of Susan (the first cast change EVER) push this already-excellent story to the top.
Mike’s comment: The story takes all the promise – and the fear – of their initial appearance, and ups the ante by moving them to a location all too familiar to the audience. The images of the Daleks gliding through the streets of London are still iconic even today. For my money, it’s Hartnell’s best story, and also his best performance as the First Doctor.
Mike’s #3. The Robots of Death
On the surface, it’s an Agatha Christie murder mystery in space. Peel away that top layer, though, and there are rich, elegant levels upon levels beneath it to explore. All the characters are fleshed out with complex motivations, and how they all interact with each other – and with the Fourth Doctor and Leela – is just a joy to watch. It’s a magnificent story that keeps the viewer guessing from beginning to end about exactly what’s really happening, and who’s really responsible for the murderous robots slowly killing off the crew of the mining ship. (Not to mention that the early scene of the Doctor explaining to Leela how the TARDIS can be “bigger on the inside” remains one of the best scenes in the entire history of the show.)
Ken’s comment: I love that scene with the Doctor and Leela! Not much to add in praise of this excellent Philip Hinchcliffe era tale, aside from 1) all the cliffhangers are top notch, and 2) the Doctor’s means of defeating the villain is supremely clever and one of my favorite resolutions.
Ken’s #3. Earthshock
In the debate over Best Cyberman Story, “Earthshock” prevails. The script (by Eric Saward, prior to his descent into the Abyss as script editor) generates so much energy in the crackling first episode that you don’t care about the plot holes later on. (WHAT is the Cybermen’s plan?) All of Davison’s scenes with the Cyber Leader are, ahem, excellent, and Davison himself is in top form. It also makes you care about Adric. ADRIC! Take a moment to appreciate the twin surprises of his death and the big reveal at the end of Episode 1 – they’d be nearly impossible to pull off today.
Mike’s comment: I really like this story, but it’s kind of like an episode of “24” to me – it’s best just to lose yourself in what’s happening, and don’t scrutinize the plot too closely (in particular the details of the Cybermen’s plan, which doesn’t make a lick of sense). It doesn’t hold up well under repeat viewings for me for that reason, but nevertheless it’s still all sorts of fun, and must’ve been mind-blowing to viewers when it first aired.
Mike’s #2. Pyramids of Mars
“1980, Sarah, if you want to get off.” Why does the Doctor interfere so often in the affairs of other worlds? This story demonstrates admirably what would happen if he didn’t, as he demonstrates to Sarah Jane Smith. It also happens to be the best story of Tom Baker’s early Hinchcliffe era – creepy, disturbing, and horrifying at times, especially when the Doctor confronts the god-like Sutekh … and you’re not quite sure how even the Time Lord can defeat such evil.
Ken’s comment: This came SO close to cracking my list, right up to the moment that I wrote this. One element that makes Sutekh so scary and formidable: As viewers, we’ve never seen the Doctor in agony before. Oh sure, the Doctor has felt pain, but you always knew that he’d get the upper hand. Here, he looked helpless against the seemingly omnipotent Sutekh. Actor Gabriel Woolf radiates power and malevolence while staying seated until the climax of the story! That’s bad-ass.
Ken’s #2. Genesis of the Daleks
No one is more surprised than me that two Dalek stories made my list. This great 6-parter (another tale from the Hinchcliffe gothic horror era of Who) is packed with “Holy crap!” moments. The ethical debates – first between the Doctor and Davros and, later, between the Doctor and himself – are intense, and remain among the series’ best and most remembered scenes.
Mike’s comment: Origin tales usually suck. This one doesn’t. Easily the best Doctor Who story featuring the Daleks, not to mention the most thought provoking. And Michael Wisher’s portrayal of Davros is sheer brilliance – he’s more cold, calculating and ruthless than his Dalek progeny, and his performance is much more nuanced than later OTT portrayals of the character by other actors would be.
Mike’s #1. The Caves of Androzani
It’s a story where the Doctor doesn’t save the universe, or even a planet. Instead, it’s simply about the Doctor and Peri being in the wrong place at the wrong time – landing in the middle of a “pathetic little local war” between ruthless mercenaries and a fanatical rebel leader – and the lengths that the Doctor will go to in order to save his friend, no matter what the cost. It’s the Doctor at his bravest, and his most heroic, and it absolutely deserves its reputation as the best Doctor Who story of all time.
Ken’s comment: It’s fantastic. And I’ll correct you on one point in a way that makes this story better still: Peri isn’t even the Doctor’s friend! They’d just met a short time earlier (I’m not counting the dozens of Big Finish audios that’d fill the gap years later). He needs to rescue Peri because he’s responsible for her. That makes his actions and desperation even greater. And that brings us to…
Ken’s #1. The Caves of Androzani
It deserves all the praise. The cinematic direction by Graeme Harper was unlike anything the series had ever done, full of tension, undercurrents, and dissolves, with shockingly effective breaking of TV’s Fourth Wall at times. The guest characters are so complex and so well acted that you feel that you could happily watch a miniseries starring any of them. The Doctor is dying from the first minute, it’s Davison’s last story, yet you still don’t know what’s going to happen. “Is this death?”
Mike’s comment: No surprise that I 100% agree with this. Everything’s clicking on all cylinders with this story – it’s easily Robert Holmes’ best story, and he’d already written some great ones; Graeme Harper’s direction is surprisingly modern and appropriately moody; and Davison gives everything he has and then some in his final appearance. A must-watch of the Classic series.
What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Incensed that there’s no love for “The King’s Demons” or “Timelash”? What are YOUR Top 5 of Classic Who? Leave your reply and let’s do some Time Lord Wrestling.
-Ken & Mike