Doctor Who: The Classic Series

Created by Sydney Newman, C E (Cecil Edwin) ‘Bunny’ Webber and Donald Wilson

Produced by Rex Tucker (1963), Verity Lambert (1963-1965), Mervyn Pinfield (1963-1965), John Wiles (1965-1966), Peter Bryant (1966-1969), Derrick Sherwin (1969-1970), Barry Letts (1970-1981), Philip Hinchcliffe (1975-1977), Graham Williams (1977-1980) and John Nathan-Turner (1978-1989)

Doctors played by William Hartnell (1963-1966), Patrick Troughton (1966-1969), Jon Pertwee (1970-1974), Tom Baker (1974-1981), Peter Davison (1982-1984), Colin Baker (1984-1986) and Sylvester McCoy (1987-1989)

Having already written about the revived show, successfully brought back to our television screens by Russell T Davies in 2005, I now turn my attention to the so-called “classic series” with a look at some of my favourite stories from the period 1963 to 1989.

I am one of those old farts inclined to bang on about how televisions were still steam-powered when I first started watching the show. I certainly saw it during the William Hartnell era and I was watching regularly when Patrick Troughton took over, but I reached an age where I could better understand and respond to it on an emotional and analytical level with the arrival of Jon Pertwee. He remains my favourite Doctor. I also had a huge puberty-driven crush on Katy Manning, who played Jo Grant between 1971 and 1973, which probably still has an influence on this choice.

Pertwee, like William Hartnell before him, played the Doctor as a rather stern patriarchal figure, often exhibiting a short fuse and bad temper. In this respect, he is not entirely dissimilar to Sylvester McCoy (the seventh Doctor) and even Christopher Eccleston (the ninth Doctor and the first incumbent of the role when the show was revived).

My original intention had been to choose my ten favourite stories (they were told over multi-episode stretches back in those days, usually four to six episodes) and write something about each one. However, I quickly realised there are too many gaps in my knowledge and too many faded memories to make this a viable approach.

I know of people who can name every single episode of the show and have an encyclopaedic recall of every infinitesimal detail. I am not one of those people. I recall very much enjoying the period when Peter Davison inhabited the lead role, given the impossible task of taking over from Tom Baker and doing so superbly well in the circumstances. He had his fair share of memorable companions - Tegan (Janet Fielding), Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) and Peri (Nicole Bryant). I even liked Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) up to a point. The problem is that I have not watched any of these episodes in many years now and I only have memories of isolated storylines or scenes within episodes. As a result, stories from this era are absent from my list.

So, here are a few thoughts about some of the episodes I do remember. I will only reference a tiny number of the Doctor Who stories here and they are not intended to represent the best of the show. They are simply some of my favourites based on my own very unreliable memories.

‘Terror Of The Autons’ was first broadcast in January 1971 and brought us the Nestene Consciousness. It was the opening story of Jon Pertwee’s second season as the Doctor (the eighth season overall) and also introduced Jo Grant, who I have already mentioned. It also introduced The Master, a fellow Time Lord and adversary, as played brilliantly by the late great Roger Delgado.

It could be that I have such fond memories of this story because I somehow associate it with the Cybernauts, who appeared in The Avengers during the classic Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) era. Russell T Davies returned to this theme, reintroducing the Nestene Consciousness, in ‘Rose’, the wonderful opening episode of the first season of the revived show in 2005.

Season eight closed with ‘The Daemons’, which I have always considered to be my all-time favourite Doctor Who story. It is, in many ways, reminiscent of old Hammer films like ‘The Devil Rides Out’ and ‘Quatermass & The Pit’. An archaeological dig being carried out near a village called Devil’s End aids The Master (posing as the local vicar Mr Magister) to use magic rituals to summon Azal, a devil-like creature. There is plenty of black magic hokum and references to paganism, visualised via the Maypole and Morris dancing. A suitably creepy aura is achieved and the story unfolds at an unhurried pace.

‘Carnival Of Monsters’ came in season ten, the last one to feature Jo Grant, and was first broadcast in January and February 1973. The Doctor and Jo find themselves on a cargo ship crossing the Indian Ocean in 1926. However, all is not as it should be. When a prehistoric sea monster attacks the ship the Doctor realises they are exhibits in an alien carnival sideshow. This was probably one of my favourite stories once upon a time. In retrospect, it is a little bit silly in places (not something that is uncommon in Doctor Who), but the first half in particular still appeals to me very much.

Tom Baker made his first appearance as the Doctor at the very end of 1974. His companion at this time was Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen), who had taken over from Jo Grant in 1973 and remains, for many fans, the quintessential companion, although some fans are all-too predictably dismissive of her acting ability. She made a much heralded and welcome return to the show in 2006 in the episode ‘School Reunion’, which in turn paved the way for the spin-off show ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’. Baker is far and away the most popular Doctor and the longest-lasting incumbent of the role. He stayed for seven seasons, right through to 1981. He could pull in more than 14 million viewers per episode, an all-time high for the show, although there was much less direct competition back than. The new show averages something in the region of 8-9 million viewers, which in many ways is more impressive.

‘Terror Of The Zygons’ opened season thirteen and was broadcast in August and September 1975. Baker, who has never been shy of using the most demonstrative of acting strokes, plays the Doctor here as a kind of over-the-top Scottish Sherlock Holmes. This was not the first time the Doctor had encountered alien sea monsters, but here we also get some enjoyable Loch Ness Monster bunkum thrown in for good measure. The story also includes one especially interesting line of dialogue when the Doctor says, “Oil? An emergency? Ha! It’s about time the people who run this planet of yours realised that to be dependent on a mineral slime just doesn't make sense.”

‘Planet Of Evil’ was broadcast in September and October 1975 and is undeniably heavily influenced by the classic 1956 sci-fi film ‘Forbidden Planet’. The Doctor and Sarah Jane arrive on a planet covered with strange vegetation and discover the sole survivor of a geological expedition, who is unbeknown to them under the influence of an alien entity.

‘The Brain of Morbius’ also draws on the influence of ‘Forbidden Planet’, whose main character was called Morbius (or Dr Edward Morbius, to be entirely accurate). It was broadcast in January 1976. Deriving its primary inspiration from ‘Frankenstein’, much the same way that the season two Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode ‘Some Assembly Required’ would do some 21 years later, this tells the story of a deranged scientist (played with relish by the Welsh actor Philip Madoc) who is attempting to build a body to house the brain of a rogue Time Lord known as Morbius. There is also a nod in the direction of feminism via the Sisterhood, who protect the sacred elixir of life. I think this might just be my favourite Sarah Jane story.

‘The Talons Of Weng Chiang’ was the closing episode of season fourteen and was broadcast across six episodes in February, March and April 1977. By this time the Doctor had a new companion, Leela (Louise Jamieson), a kind of faux-savage female warrior figure. She was apparently named after the Palestinian militant Leila Khaled. Set in a Victorian London that is shrouded in smog, once again Baker is in Sherlock Holmes mode (he did in fact play Holmes in a 1982 BBC adaptation of ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’).

I seem to recall this Doctor Who story causing a mild ripple of controversy at the time because of suggestions that the show was becoming too violent and too graphic, given that it was aimed primarily at a younger audience. It does convey a very convincing sinister aura. Even in retrospect the episode still has the capacity to cause the occasional jolt – and I was always taken aback just a tad by the depiction of the opium dens, which even now would hardly be typical fare for a so-called “kids show”.

As an aside, contrary to popular literary myth, there is actually no definitive evidence that there ever were opium dens in London during this period.

Season seventeen brought us the famous ‘City Of Death’, first broadcast in September and October 1979. Douglas Adams was one of the writers. Doctor Who had long survived on a tiny production budget, as evidenced by the tin-foil sets, but the huge popularity of the Tom Baker era meant on this occasion they were able to film on location in Paris and encompass cameo appearances by John Cleese and Eleanor Bron. The story deals with a rift in time and the discovery of six additional genuine Mona Lisas. The Doctor was now accompanied by Romana, played here in her second incarnation by Lalla Ward.

Lalla Ward was the stage name of The Honourable Sarah Ward, the daughter of the 7th Viscount Bangor. She and Tom Baker were briefly married and these days she is married to the eminent Oxford ethologist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.

I have to bypass Peter Davison and his successor, the shoddily treated Colin Baker, and move on to the seventh Doctor, played by Sylvester McCoy. He is not the most universally loved incumbent of the role, but he played it for three seasons from 1987 to 1989 when production was suspended by Jonathan Powell, the then Controller of BBC1. He also appeared in the 1996 television film version, a joint BBC/FOX production, to hand over the baton to Paul McGann. McCoy was surprisingly but deservedly chosen in preference to Tom Baker in a 1990 Doctor Who Magazine readers poll to find the favourite Doctor.

McCoy’s first season as the Doctor was a somewhat eccentric affair, with lunatic guest appearances by the likes of Richard Briars and Ken Dodd. Also, his companion, played by Bonnie Langford, would be unlikely to find a place on many people’s lists of favourite characters. A new companion had been introduced by the time of the final story in the season, the unfortunate Langford’s last before leaving the show.

The twenty-fifth season of the show, McCoy’s second, saw him come into his own. I like this darker take on the Doctor, presenting him as a more manipulative kind of character. McCoy had excellent on-screen chemistry with Sophie Aldred, playing his new companion Ace, and the season began with the return of the Daleks in ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’. However, it is the twenty-sixth and final season of the original show that I want to concentrate on. It opens with ‘Battlefield’, broadcast in September 1989. It marked the return of Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), who had been a mainstay of the show between 1968 and the end of 1974. This story manages to take the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and add a side order of aliens and nuclear weapons to the mix, with the Doctor cast in the role of Merlin.

‘Ghostlight’ followed in October 1989. Set in 1883, the Doctor takes Ace to a house she had, before she met him, burnt down, and forces her to confront the fear she harbours about the evil she believes to have suffused the house. In this respect, the story is reminiscent of Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot’, which asks if a house can be inherently evil. The story throws in everything including the kitchen sink and the writers at this time cannot be accused of being bereft of ideas. A lot of it is quite hokey, but it achieves a spooky ambience that I like. It also harbours some shared themes with ‘The Unquiet Dead’, an excellent episode from the first season of the revived show.

‘The Curse of Fenric’ (October and November 1989) takes us back to the time of the Second World War; a period returned to in brilliant fashion in the new Doctor Who episodes ‘The Empty Child’ and ‘The Doctor Dances’. On this earlier occasion we are treated to a story that offers us the genuine delights of Nicholas Parsons as the local vicar, a code-breaking machine called Ultima (presumably intended to represent the Enigma machine), a Russian commando unit making an incursion into a secret British navel base, teenage evacuees, and strange vampire-like creatures that emerge from the sea. It’s very convoluted; it’s very silly; it’s all great fun from start to finish.

The season and the show (up to that point) came to an end with ‘Survival’ (November and December 1989), a strange dreamlike story in which Ace returns home to visit her friends and comes into contact with cat-like aliens called Cheetah People. The Master also makes one of his periodic returns here, played now by Anthony Ainley (Roger Delgado having tragically died in a car accident while filming in Turkey in 1973). This is not the best story of the Sylvester McCoy years and it is certainly not one of the better Doctor Who stories across all twenty-six seasons (as was at that time), but I have very fond memories of it.

Terror Of The Autons written by Robert Holmes
The Daemons written by Robert Sloman and Barry Letts (using the shared pseudonym Guy Leopold)
Carnival Of Monsters written by Robert Holmes
Terror Of The Zygons written by Robert Banks Stewart
Planet Of Evil written by Louis Marks
The Brain Of Morbius written by Terrance Dicks and Robert Holmes (using the shared pseudonym Robin Bland)
The Talons Of Weng Chiang written by Robert Holmes (based on an idea by Robert Banks Stewart)
City Of Death written by Douglas Adams and Graham Williams (using the shared pseudonym David Agnew) from a draft script by David Fisher
Battlefield written by Ben Aaronovitch
Ghostlight written by Marc Platt
The Curse Of Fenric written by Ian Briggs
Survival written by Rona Munro

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