16 – Vengeance on Varos

Back in 1984, Doctor Who foresaw Twitter. No, seriously.

Without a doubt the highlight of the Colin Baker era, Vengeance on Varos is a wonderful critique on the way media and individuals treat political officials. When the TARDIS runs short of a mineral vital to its function (more on this later) the Doctor and Peri are forced to travel to the planet Varos to procure the mineral, Zeiton-7. A supposedly improvrised planet, the planet is governed by an elite who are content to keep the planet enslaved, in exchange for selling the mineral at a marked down price to the Galatron Mining Corporation, led by the insidious Mentor, Sil. The figurehead of this elite is the Governor, a man who in reality has little power because all inhabitants are required to vote on his performance, and the penalty for his inevitable failure to meet their demands is potentially lethal Human Cell Disintegration Bombardment.

Let’s not beat about the bush – there are few stories grimmer than this one in Doctor Who’s history – arguably only State of Decay is darker. The story however is also brilliant and superbly realised – arguably the gritty tone is what makes this a triumph, where stories like Timelash and Paradise Towers would fail. While it made the story difficult viewing as a seven year old, ten years later I found myself enthralled by a story I’d completely written off. Had Baker been given more stories of this ilk, we wouldn’t be having conversations about a painfully short tenure as the Doctor; Colin Baker is completely fantastic in this story, displaying a mastery sadly only captured elsewhere in Terror of the Vervoids.

The only reason this story is not higher is precisely because the tone is so grim. I hugely enjoy and respect the story, but I find it difficult to love. The odd comic relief from the two Varosian voters watching proceedings on their television doesn’t really compensate for the continual pessimism and despondency throughout the tale. Unlike some of the other stories at the sharp end of my countdown, I wouldn’t recommend Vengeance on Varos as a good introductory story to classic Doctor Who. But I would absolutely say it is a must watch, and deservedly one of the very best from the original series.

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You can buy Vengeance on Varos on Amazon for £6.99

Next Time: Meet one of Doctor Who’s best double acts, Messers Jago & Litefoot …

17 – The Time Warrior

Quite often in Doctor Who’s history, episodes were used as a launchpad for a new audience; a refresher to what has gone before and an introduction to what is new: typically a new companion – a good example being The Time Meddler. These stories are a fantastic launchpad for fans new to the series – rather than going all the way back to An Unearthly Child (sensational though episode one is) there are several other brilliant entry points. The Time Warrior, the debut story in Jon Pertwee’s final season as the Doctor, very much fits into that mould.

A lot of change was underway in the world of Doctor Who; there was a real sense that the U.N.I.T. family was being broken up. The Doctor had been freed to travel all of space and time in The Three Doctors; and in The Green Death long-term companion Jo Grant had left the series. The latter should not be underestimated – not since Frazer Hines three season stint as Jamie McCrimmon had one companion been on the show for so long. Rather more sadly, Roger Delgado, who had very much been the Moriarty to Pertwee’s Holmes, lost his life in a car accident while shooting location footage overseas. Change was afoot.

Fortuitously for the show, Pertwee was still up for one last hurrah, and long-term Doctor Who contributor Robert Holmes delivered up a sizzler of a script; one that would not only feature the debut of the infamous Sontarans, but also the introduction of the companion would who define what it meant to be a companion for generations to come: Sarah Jane Smith. The Time Warrior then, is what you get when you have a perfect collision of ingredients: great plot, great cast, great production, and some absolutely iconic moments.

Reason one for this story’s strength is the simplicity of the plot: the Doctor is summoned by the Brigadier after a series of high profile scientists disappear. Pursuing the latest kidnapped scientist to the medieval era, he discovers that a Sontaran commander, Linx, has crash-landed there, and is reliant upon the stolen scientists to help rebuild his spacecraft. In exchange for being sheltered, Linx is preparing ballistic weapons for the thuggish Irongron, a criminal who has seized a castle and now plans to conquer neighbouring lands. The Doctor’s seemingly simple mission is to rescue the scientists and stop Linx.

Reason two for the story’s strength is Sarah Jane Smith. Lis Sladen is utterly wonderful in the role; a confident journalist, unafraid to stand up to convention, she casually impersonates her aunt to gain entry to the compound of scientists, sneaks into the TARDIS to follow the Doctor, and proactively seeks to overcome anyone she believes guilty of harm or wrongdoing – even the Doctor himself! Beyond any doubt, Sarah’s debut is the best introduction story for any companion in the entire 50 plus year history of Doctor Who.

Finally, the story itself is a pleasure to watch. Linx makes for a wonderful villain; the revelation of his nature as a Sontaran warrior at the climax of episode one is one of Doctor Who’s most iconic cliffhangers. Pertwee displays all of the charm, ingenuity, and bravado that served him so well in his first four seasons, playing off wonderfully with every member of the cast. And the guest cast do not disappoint – Irongron is very much a pantomime bully, but you get caught up in it; and Professor Rubish provides some wonderful comic relief in the midst of proceedings, as the short-sighted and absent minded captured scientist who aides the Doctor.

If the story had a flaw, it would be that it is almost too simple. I prefer to see the simplicity of this tale not as a vice, but a shining virtue. This was one of the episodes that warmed me to Doctor Who in my very young years, sitting on the sofa while my dad was recording it on UK Gold. I have absolutely no doubt that it will continue to enchant many more generations for decades to come!

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You can buy The Time Warrior on Amazon for less than seven pounds – very much worth it!

Next time: Back in 1984, the BBC foresaw how social media would impact politics, in Colin Baker’s finest hour.

18 – Mawdryn Undead

We have covered in other reviews the stories that comprised Doctor Who’s 20th season. Resolved to celebrate the series’ history, producer John Nathan Turner brought back a returning nemesis for each adventure. In the middle of the season was a loosely linked trilogy featuring the Black Guardian, last seen swearing painful death to the Doctor in The Armageddon Factor. This powerful being, the embodiment of darkness, chaos, and destruction, finally succeeded in tracking the Doctor down, and decided to enlist a helper to aid his cause.

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19 – The Invasion

As covered in last week’s blog, Doctor Who was headed towards an uncertain future in 1969. The show’s popularity had been waning over time, and lead actor Patrick Troughton was giving firm indications that he had little desire to stay on board for a fourth season as the Doctor. Into this mix, the decision was taken to trial a style of adventure that was to shape the next five seasons of Doctor Who; an adventure set not in the far reaches of space, the past, or the future, but on contemporary earth.

The TARDIS lands in 1960s England, broken down and in need of repair. As the Doctor seeks a technician who can aid him in repairing the broken TARDIS circuits, he is delighted to encounter his old friend Colonel Leighbridge-Stewart, last encountered in The Web of Fear, now promoted to Brigadier, and the leader of a new taskforce called U.N.I.T. The Brigadier reveals that U.N.I.T. are investigating a series of unusual disturbances centred around the world’s foremost supplier of electrical goods, International Electromatics. Forced into investigating the organisation when Zoe is kidnapped by their sinister security team, the Doctor discovers that their head, the mecurial Tobias Vaughan, is colluding with an unnamed alien menace, proposing to invade and take over the world. It is only halfway through this eight part adventure that the Doctor and Jamie learn that “some old friends” are Vaughan’s allies: the Cybermen!

This adventure was to provide one of Doctor Who’s most iconic moments, as the invading Cybermen use the London sewers to position themselves all over London, bursting out as the invasion begins. The sight of the Cybermen advancing from St Paul’s Cathedral has to go down as one of Doctor Who’s most memorable cliffhangers; sufficiently so that Steven Moffat would re-use the scene in Peter Capaldi’s debut season as the cliffhanger to Dark Water.

Even above this, The Invasion is eight episodes of excellence, principally due to the utter brilliance of Patrick Troughton as the Doctor, and Kevin Stoney as arch-villain Tobias Vaughan. While very long by Doctor Who’s usual standards, the story never feels padded, and proceeds at an enjoyable pace. The regular crew are supported by a very able supporting cast, while Nicholas Courtney very firmly seized his opportunity to stake a claim for reappearing in future. If this adventure was his audition piece, he passed with flying colours.

The Invasion is sensational in its own right; but is also significant for the groundwork it established for the future. The entire basis of the U.N.I.T. era was gestated in The Web of Fear and The Invasion, before being properly birthed in Spearhead from Space. Here lies the catalyst for U.N.I.T. (and the Brigadier) as season regulars; for earth based adventures; and for the longer stories of Season 7. As I observed in another blog piece, while the U.N.I.T. era is properly associated with Jon Pertwee’s time as the Doctor, The Invasion is not at all out of place from that era; indeed a colourised version of this adventure would fit very well indeed into the Pertwee collection!

A special mention is also due to this adventure for what it has contributed to the DVD collection. Two of The Invasion‘s eight episodes are missing, giving more than enough material for a viable release, but leaving an obvious gap. It was for this reason that this was the very first adventure to experiment with animation to fill these gaps; and arguably the work is among the very best ever done. The subsequent release of The Moonbase, The Ice Warriors, The Reign of Terror, and especially The Power of the Daleks only happened thanks to the BBC having the courage to gamble on animations for this adventure. For that alone, we should be thankful for this adventure … while still hoping we someday get episodes 1 and 4 back!

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You can buy the DVD of The Invasion on Amazon for £5.99

Next Time: Visit the genesis of the great U.N.I.T. dating scandal, as the Black Guardian decides that the Doctor is better off dead …

20 – Spearhead from Space

And so we come to the top twenty! From this point on there is nothing but controversy – every story from this point on is utterly excellent, and almost impossible to choose between. And so it is with the first we come to – Jon Pertwee’s superb debut in Spearhead from Space. There is not a bad word to say about this story – and yet it is not in my top ten. As I have said in previous reviews, often a story has been given what seems a very low number for no other reason that the fantastic quality of Doctor Who as a whole.

Your appetite suitably whetted (I hope!) let me share about the story itself. Faced with financial pressures at the end of Season Six, the BBC decided to cut the costs of Doctor Who so that it could remain on the air. The show was slashed from the 40-odd episodes of the first six seasons (the number varied) to 25; the season would feature four stories, of which three would be seven parters; and the Doctor would be ‘exiled’ to Earth – all of which were intended to reduce the costs to sets. As if all of this change were not enough, Patrick Troughton had also resolved to leave his role as the Second Doctor, determined that his career as a character actor would not be jeopardised by being typecast. His departure indirectly led to his companions, portrayed by Fraser Hines and Wendy Padbury, to also leave the series. Oh, and just for good measure, the BBC decided to broadcast the show in colour.

Bearing all of these background details in mind, and Spearhead from Space is very easily understood as a ‘re-Boot’ from the first six seasons. Perhaps this is what makes it such a good story; there is a definite feel of introduction to it. Nicholas Courtney returns as Brigadier Leighbridge-Stewart, now in a permanent recurring capacity as the head of U.N.I.T., while the lovely Caroline John makes her debut as U.N.I.T.’s resident scientific advisor Liz Shaw – a role that deserved better than Dr Shaw was ultimately to get. For the first two episodes at least, we very much view the story through their eyes – a mysterious meteorite shower in the south of England leading the Brigadier to bring in Liz to investigate. Their investigation is then confounded as an unknown force begins stealing the meteorites; and confused as they find an unknown man next to a familiar blue Police Box. He claims to recognise the Brigadier … but no-one recognises him.

Which brings us neatly to Pertwee. In contrast to Patrick Troughton’s all action debut in Power of the Daleks, Pertwee spends most of episode one unconscious, and only really begins to get his mojo back in episode two. But when he does – he is absolutely scintillating. As far removed as you can imagine from the austere Hartnell or the comical Troughton, Pertwee is a debonair gentleman who charms every scene he walks into. While viewers had now become used to the idea that the Doctor could change, the transition to the U.N.I.T. Era owes much to Pertwee taking hold of the role so brilliantly, and building an instant rapport with John and Courtney.

It doesn’t hurt that the story is brilliant, and features some of the show’s most iconic moments. I guarantee that even if you haven’t heard of the story, you will have seen somewhere the dramatic moment in the final episode when all over Britain, shop window dummies come to life. In a story full of firsts, this story also features the debut of the Nestenes, a plastic based lifeform able to animate all plastic. The ingenious use of a common, everyday item to induce terror in the imagination was a master stroke – so it was entirely understandable that Russell T Davies would re-use the imagery in 2005 for the revival of Doctor ho. Iconic, classic, and brilliant – Spearhead from Space summarised in three words!

Fans wishing to enjoy this adventure have an even more special treat in store. Owing to strike action by BBC engineers (this was the 1970s …) the producers were not able to shoot any scenes in the BBC’s studios. It means that, uniquely in the back catalogue of classic Doctor Who, this is the only episode to be exclusively recorded on film rather than video tape (brief note – the show used video tape in studio as an easier editing medium, and used limited location film inserts where needed). The retention of these film originals enabled the BBC to produce this adventure in glorious high-definition; having sampled both SD and HD I can testify that the colour and sound of the HD version is absolutely gorgeous and the perfect complement for an already stunning adventure. If you do wish to enjoy Spearhead from Space I encourage you to invest in the BluRay – it is very much worth the investment.

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You can buy the Spearhead from Space Blu Ray on Amazon for a bargain £7.00!

Next Time: We investigate the origins of Spearhead from Space, as the nascent U.N.I.T. Organisation repels an invasion from the sewers of London.

21 – Carnival of Monsters

I know several readers will be surprised to see this Jon Pertwee classic so high, above such notable classics as The Enemy of the World or Terror of the Zygons. This is less due to the challenge that you get with the best of Doctor Who (That it’s all brilliant, and it’s like being asked which of your children you like best …) and more due to the fact that it’s a bit, well, crazy! Bright, garish, and very much a product of the 1970s, I didn’t expect to enjoy this adventure at all, which is why I didn’t bother watching the VHS version my dad had recorded off UK Gold back in the early 90s.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I found it free to view on the BBC’s channel on You Tube (sadly no longer the case), and even more surprised to find that I hugely enjoyed it! Having been pardoned by the Time Lords in the previous adventure and granted the ability to travel through space and time again, the Doctor and Jo take the TARDIS for a test drive, and supposedly land on a old steam-ship making its way to India in the interwar years. When the passengers and crew forget about their presence, then proceed to re-enact the scene they had just witnessed, the Doctor suspects that all is not well.

His suspicions are well grounded. On the planet of Inter Minor, showman and confidence trickster Vorg has brought a device called a miniscope to entertain the inhabitants. The scope contains a number of entrapped creatures, including the humans supposedly sailing the Indian Ocean. With the highly xenophobic inhabitants of Inter Minor determined to destroy the miniscope for fear it will contaminate their planet, the Doctor must find a way to escape the miniscope and return the entrapped species to their rightful homes before the miniscope is destroyed … or before the deadly Drashigs entrapped in the scope manage to consume everything they encounter!

The story is played out over three wonderful locations – the steam ship SS Bernice, the plaza of Inter Minor, and the interior of Vorg’s miniscope. The production crew manage astonishingly well for the poor budget, and while Vorg and his assistant Shirna may be dressed in the most hideously outlandish attire one could choose, it weirdly works in the context of the story. The relationship between Vorg and Shirna is one of the real highlights of the story, as the huckster Vorg tries to weasel his way to a profit, much to the cynical Shirna’s despair. Special mentions are also due to three actors who regularly appear in Doctor Who; to Michael Wisher, best known for portraying Davros, who appears in a comparably brilliant role as the Machiavellian and scheming Kalik; then Peter Halliday portrays the bumbling and officious Pletrac, a character almost as incompetent as dear Packer from The Invasion; but not least, this story is the Doctor Who debut for Ian Marter, best known for portraying companion Harry Sullivan in Season 12. All three put in excellent performances.

And that’s really why I enjoy Carnival of Monsters so much. It’s really good fun, really well acted, and reasonably clever in its storytelling. Rather like The Androids of Tara, this is a story I rate rather highly for no other reason than the sheer enjoyment I get from sitting down to watch it.

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The special edition of Carnival of Monsters can be bought in the ‘Revisitations 2’ boxset – highly recommended!

Next Time: One of Doctor Who’s most iconic moments, as shop window dummies spring to life …

22 – The Green Death

Roundly pilloried for its ambitious use of CGI, The Green Death is one of the finest adventures to feature in the U.N.I.T era of Doctor Who, and in many ways marks the beginning of the end of that era. As with many of the Doctor’s adventures of that time, the focus is on an earthbound activity that has potentially catastrophic implications for the planet. Interestingly, this story is very akin to Season 7 finale Inferno, in that there is no alien menace in this adventure, only the ‘enemy’ of human greed and ambition.

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