I’m still looking for that special someone who will do the whole Time Team, watch-every-episode-chronologically thing, but if I were to introduce someone, I might start with these. Though to be fair, my Second and Third Doctor education is spotty. The first category is for the acknowledged genius stories that few people are going to argue with me about. The second is for the ones I personally enjoy despite of, or because, their idiosyncrasies.
Nearly Perfect Doctor Who Stories
The Aztecs (1964) John Lucarotti basically showing how all future historical stories should be done. I would argue the entire first season is worthy of watching, even forty-five years later—it’s one of the best, full of truly creative concepts. Nevertheless, I’d pick “The Aztecs” because the historical context is so well done, the characters are great, and Barbara really gets a chance to shine. Plus, we find one of the Doctor’s guiding principles, “You can’t rewrite history!” Oh yes, and the Doctor’s first on-screen female admirer is revealed, eons before Rose.
The Tomb of the Cybermen (1967) If all the Troughton episodes weren’t incinerated, I might well choose “Evil of the Daleks.” But “Tomb” is a classic. There’s Troughton/Jamie slapstick, Cybermats, one of loveliest reflective speeches from the Doctor pre-2005, and it manages to be both futuristic and historical at the same time: it feels 1920s and Egypt-mania, but it’s Telos of the future. The sight of the Cybermen awakening is still chilling, and the score is memorable. Victoria screams and there’s ample room for allegation of racism. But of all the Cybermen stories, this is the best.
Sorry, Pertwee fans, I just haven’t seen enough to make a solid choice!
Genesis of the Daleks (1974) A classic. Another defining moment in the Doctor’s moral journey, one the current Doctor could do with reminding—not to play God, to believe that sometimes good comes from the most evil things. It’s a reinvention of “The Mutants” aka “The Daleks” from 1963, which was in itself an utterly brilliant story, but Davros is far and away the Doctor’s most intellectually challenging adversary. The production design, so reminiscent of Nazi Germany, is quite good, and the six-parter has some great cliffhangers. There’s humor provided by Sarah, Harry, and a very on-top-of-his-game Tom Baker, and it moves along at a good pace.
Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977) Far and away my favorite Tom Baker story. The setting is magnificently realized, with costumes, props, and sets evoking the era of late Victoriana (as well as prejudices that Matthew Sweet points out in Inventing the Victorians). There are liberal doses of Phantom of the Opera as well as almost every other Gothic text you can think of. Leela breaks the mold as far as companions go, and all the supporting characters are interesting and believable. The writing is clever, funny, and sets a good pace. Robert Holmes at his best.
Horror of Fang Rock (1977) I don’t care if it’s more of the same from Leela and the Doctor. This is a wonderfully self-contained murder mystery with more deliciously arcane characters. The setting is again utterly rich: an Edwardian lighthouse. The dialogue is absolutely sparkling and full of very humorous moments. In contrast to the previous story, it’s full of carnage. And for fan and non-fan alike, the Rutans are a good monster.
The Visitation (1982) I do tend to favor historicals, don’t I? The idea that the Doctor started the Great Fire of London is such a wickedly fun one. Again, the sets and costumes are beyond reproach (other than the poor Tereleptils). Of course I’m partial to the character of Richard Mace, even if Matthew “On the Buses” Robinson claimed Doctor Who was beneath him. And the sonic screwdriver gets destroyed! Hooray!
The Caves of Androzani (1984) Alas, the Fifth Doctor’s last story was his best! Robert Holmes delves once again into the realm of Phantom of the Opera, this time set in a wonderfully weird future. There are some chilling cliff hangers and a thrillingly intricate plot of revenge, murder, and profit. Some unforgettable supporting characters like Sharaz Jek, Salateen, Trau Morgus, and Stotz. Our hearts break as the Doctor gives up his life to save a companion who he has just met. Peri who, later, can be so annoying and cringing, has her moments of humor and sarcasm. And the celery!
The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances (2005) I’ve already watched this twice this year, and every time it ends I want to watch it again. The plot is brilliant, the setting is impressively realized and shows just how Doctor Who has evolved into the 21st century. It’s one of the scariest stories Doctor Who has ever produced but also emotionally wrenching. It’s funny, it’s gritty, it’s sweet. Captain Jack is . . . well, John Barrowman’s days of unemployment are over forever. For squee-ers and non-squee-ers alike, the Doctor and Rose’s “Moonlight Serenade” scene is delightful. Rose and Jack dancing on an invisible space ship near Big Ben in 1941 is one of the most remarkable images of Doctor Who for me. Period.
Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways (2005) I admit, I balked at the resolution to Bad Wolf originally. But then I also went into a dissertation about the Ninth Doctor and Rose, so the big end to series 1 clearly made an impression. The setting is topical and yet very charming, also very bleak. The return of the Daleks was so big and impressive, everything since has just seemed like anti-climax. Jack is wonderful. A knock-out performance from Christopher Eccleston. Everyone can buzz about the first gay kiss on Doctor Who; Lynda is one of the saddest deaths from series 1. And what a regeneration! The last five minutes of this story always make me cry.
Sorry, second series fans, in retrospect I don’t find the season too impressive . . .
Smith and Jones (2007) I was extremely critical of this originally, but I have grown to love it. It’s a competent introduction to the series if you’ve not been watching, and it’s pure fun. I admit the fact it’s filmed in Swansea Uni endears it to me, but it’s very contemporary and clever while hinging on a truly great idea: let’s put a hospital on the moon! The Doctor is his bouncy best, Martha is clearly the stuff companions are made of, and the Judoon are one of the best “monsters” of new Who. The villain is a strange mix of Mrs. Overall and Carmilla, and the kiss—well, I used to balk about that, too, but times change . . .
Blink (2007) Who would have thought that “Doctor-lite” would actually work? Well, it did. Steven Moffat manages to cram so much into forty-two minutes that alternate between sheer terror and mind-boggling paradox. It’s all kept together by the remarkably likeable Sally Sparrow, similarly charming characters such as Billy Shipton and Kathy Nightingale, and truly sparkling dialogue. There are moments of real poignancy, as well, and somehow you don’t mind so much that the Doctor only shows up as a DVD easter egg.
Utopia (2007) As Jamie put it, Who-gasm. What fan’s heart was not pounding as that screen spelled Y-A-N-A and Derek Jacobi opened that watch? Admittedly, in a few years when my memories of the events surrounding the day I watched “Utopia” first have faded, I may feel differently. But for now, I revel in the return of Captain Jack (and so well-directed by Graeme Harper), and a rather simple, old-fashioned Who story that does a somersault by the end of the series. Chantho is another of those would-be companions we wish hadn’t died, and all three of the top-billed actors turn in remarkable performances.
Stories I Like
The Chase (1965) I don’t care if it’s “old twaddle” was Jamie would say, I like it. DWM rather sniffily states that the whole is less than the sum of its parts, but I think the reverse is true. In any case, it’s a romp that appeals to the Gothic Horror fan in me, with its brief stops in a horror movie funhouse from the future and the Mary Celeste. I also love the Beatles in there. And yes, this is where we get to meet Steven (though he doesn’t obtain optimum hotness until “The Time Meddler” when he shaves off his beard. Peter Purves also plays the American goon.)
Logopolis (1980) Someone wrote that Tom Baker gets to play Lear in this, and in a way, it’s true. Such a good regeneration episode. It has a lot to do: introduce Tegan, reintroduce Nyssa, reintroduce the Master, have the Doctor dealing with life post-Romana (and Adric!). Who doesn’t cry when the Doctor falls off the radio tower and says, “The time has been prepared for”? Paddy Kingsland really outdoes himself with the Watcher cues.
Snakedance (1983) What?! you’re thinking. Of course, “Kinda” is the superior story, but when I think costumes in Doctor Who, I think of “Snakedance.” And since costumes are probably more important to me than the average Who fan, I’m really thrilled by the wonderful mix of the historical and futuristic here. It’s not a bad story, either, Janet Fielding gets to act possessed, and it’s actually a bit disturbing in places. No, it doesn’t have the imagination of “Kinda,” but I do like it.
The Five Doctors (1983) Jamie thinks this is “old twaddle” too, but I don’t care. This is what I thought of as Doctor Who for so many years when I was a child—I never would have known about Troughton or Pertwee if not for having seen this. For the amount of characters it has written into it, I think it’s an excellent multi-Doctor story. They play wonderfully off each other (minus Baker and Hartnell, obviously) and I think it’s a good introduction for the non-fan into Who-dom. Though Sarah Jane falls flat on her face, and Jamie (McCrimmon) only gets a cameo, the Brigadier more than makes up for this. I honestly thought it was terribly scary when I was a child, that Tower of Rassilon. And Raston Warrior, bitchaz!
Mark of the Rani (1985) I’ve always been a fan of Colin Baker’s Doctor, who always got a bad rap. Oh yes, I’m willing to sit through “The Twin Dilemma” and even “Timelash” in order to see the man in action. Obviously he has been rehabilitated through radio (Isn’t Doctor Who and the Pirates the best?), but I feel this is one of his original stories that can be watched without shame. Yes, it’s historical, but it introduces the Rani (see below), and although the Master is laughable, many parts of the story are just that—hilarious. The ending in the Rani’s cool TARDIS with the dinosaurs? The Doctor’s crush on George Stevenson (well, I maintain he has one)? Peri actually being mostly likable? The bombastic dialogue? It’s just fun.
Time and the Rani (1987) Before you throw rotten vegetables at me, hear me out. This is the childhood story I remember best, and I can still watch it now and find it quite enjoyable. Post-regeneration stress disorder! I still find early McCoy rather amusing (and that line about “elephants never forget” mystified me as a child; it made me think of elephant graveyards and that the Doctor was sad about elephants dying—don’t ask). Mel is terribly annoying when she’s screaming, but otherwise she has some rather nicely sarcastic remarks. The actors playing the Lakertyans are really actually quite good (check out Donald Pickering from “The Faceless Ones”) and ooo, let’s see Mark Greenstreet out of makeup, and the Tetraps are hella-scary. The plot is nonsense, but that big brain is so cool! And I love the Rani. I really want to see her again (I saw Kate O’Mara in a play in 2007; that was great fun).
Battlefield (1989) The thing about Aaronovitch is that he writes for fans in a non-obtrusive way. He isn’t all caught up in canon and back-story; he takes elements that the fans will recognize and like, but he doesn’t make the story incomprehensible. This is so enjoyable. I mean, Brigadier Winifred Bambera and Ancelyn? They deserve their own TV show. Ace is so kick-ass, and I love seeing the Brigadier again. All the mythology and mystery (thank you, Andrew Cartmel) is fun and intriguing, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously (like Ace being the Lady of the Lake). Jean Marsh is perfect, the only problem being Mordred (and he auditioned to play the Eighth Doctor! Good grief).
The TV movie (1996) Go ahead, throw things at me: I stick by it since it got me back into Doctor Who after a long period of, uh, infidelity with the Phantom of the Opera. Anyway, I watch it frequently, I don’t care if it’s dumb, like “The Chase,” the sum of the parts for me makes it worth it. I like the “new” theme tune, I like the TARDIS interior, I like Dr. Grace, I like Eric Roberts (he really makes me laugh), I like it being set in San Francisco (so sue me, I’m American, I like to see them get away from Britain sometimes), I like Puccini and the Doctor’s description of Gallifrey and the morgue scene. And I loooooooove Paul McGann.
The End of the World (2005) Visually this really impressed me, and emotionally it really ticks all the boxes. I love the “Curse of Peladon”-type parade of aliens, I think it was really ambitious and I wish Cassandra hadn’t been resurrected, it was much more meaningful the way it ended here. It’s a combination of fun (I loathed that Rose called her mom on her mobile, and “Tainted Love” and “Toxic,” but now I love it) and poignancy (Eccleston really pulls out the stops, and the “I’m the last of the Time Lords” speech is so powerful). That hand-holding as they stare at the burning Earth is almost as sublime as a Caspar Friedrich painting.
Oh, and there are so many more, but those are my highlights . . . what are yours?