13 – The Ark in Space

A very firm favourite in the Stafford VHS collection, The Ark in Space set the tone and the standard for the Tom Baker era, with an utterly superb four episodes of story telling. Written by Robert Holmes, one of the finest story tellers to grace the classic era of Doctor Who, the story is a triumph of using a limited set and cast to tell a compelling science fiction adventure. The fact that episode one only features the three main cast members, and nevertheless is among the finest 25 minutes of television ever produced, speaks volumes for how superb this adventure is.

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49 – Robot

I think this one may surprise some readers. While Tom Baker’s first adventure is certainly enjoyable, is it really more of a classic compared to stories like Remembrance of the Daleks or The Seeds of Doom?

It was certainly a bolt from the blue when first broadcast. Jon Pertwee had been Doctor for five seasons – at that point the longest any actor had portrayed the Timelord. After a lengthy period the BBC elected on the then unknown Baker to become the fourth Doctor. A shot in the dark perhaps, but Baker establishes himself as a tour de force within seconds of the episode beginning. It’s Baker’s debut more than anything else that makes a good story a great story. Whether the comic moments (including a memorable scene in which it takes the Doctor four goes to choose an appropriate outfit) to the sublime, it is an utter joy to see Baker establish himself in the role.

The story itself is relatively straightforward fare, and bears strong continuity marks to the Pertwee era – in this instance it’s a technocratic think tank with strong fascist tendencies that is using the titular Robot (or, as in the TARGET Novelisation, the ‘Giant Robot’) to perpetrate the crimes required to sieze control of the world. It’s not a very complicated plot by any means – in any other season it wouldn’t be a disappointing story, but nor would it be noteworthy.

Which brings us back to a simple premise – enjoyment. I thoroughly enjoyed Matt Smith’s debut story The Eleventh Hour – a combination of an enjoyable story with a likeable; crazy … yet brilliant Doctor. And Robot is very similar in my estimation. While Genesis of the Daleks will always be my first Baker adventure, and Logopolis will be forever tinged with the sadness of Baker leaving the role, Robot has all of the fun of a new beginning. Add into the mix Harry and Sarah as one of the best TARDIS crews ever, and you can see why this understated four parter is such an enjoyable and appreciated adventure!

The best ever TARDIS crew? It’s almost too close to call …

In my previous post I began to consider what makes for a good TARDIS crew (by which I mean the Doctor traveling with at least two companions) and reduced it down to two candidates for best – the Season 5 crew of the Second Doctor with Victoria and Jamie, and the Season 12 crew of the Fourth Doctor with Sarah-Jane and Harry. So far, we had learned that three was too many for a TARDIS crew, and there was something too unlikeable about the Tegan/Turlough combination to make them endearing to the viewer.

So why do I think the Season 5 and 12 crews are candidates for the best? Well, let’s clear away some pertinent commonalities to begin with – both seasons feature largely excellent stories, so the crew are given strong content to work with. In this regard, the recovery of The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear are hugely significant, as they have allowed a new generation of fans to appreciate the excellence of Season 5’s stories. Without them, Sarah-Jane and Harry would be the runaway winners of best TARDIS crew.

It’s also abundantly clear that the chemistry between the main actors is excellent. The friendship between Pat, Frazer and Deborah is evident in the way they conduct themselves on set, and the same is true for Tom, Elisabeth and Ian – they make a natural team and it increased the empathy the viewer has for the crew. I would go so far as to say, with each there is the sense that you would want to join as the fourth member of the crew, such is the bonhomie. It could be argued that a similar feelgood factor existed within the U.N.I.T. family – oh for a story that featured the Doctor taking Jo, the Brigadier, Captain Yates and Sergeant Benton on a TARDIS adventure …

A curious commonality is between Jamie and Harry. They’re both quick witted, keen to learn, brave, and immensely likeable  – but also just a little bit daft! I think this helps facilitate good story telling – they’re just silly enough not to be on the same level as the Doctor, but not so silly that you spend all your time rolling your eyes at their stupidity (not thinking of any particular companions …) They play the perfect foil in fact to the Doctor being suitably different, and being apt to get themselves into trouble. Their likeability also cannot be overstated – it’s easy to imagine being friends with both of them and their role as occasional comic relief is equally important for adding fun to their stories.

Intriguingly, the biggest difference is between Sarah-Jane and Victoria. As we well know, Deborah Watling left the series largely because she tired (justifiably) of being asked to look pretty and scream into the camera. In contrast, Elisabeth Sladen built upon the culture change that had been slowly taking place since Deborah left of allowing for a more assertive companion – and was arguably the first to truly break free of the ‘get into trouble and scream’ genre of female companion. Despite this significant difference however, there is the similarity that they are both fond of the Doctor, believe him incapable of looking after himself, and apt to be the voice of reason in the TARDIS trio. It is perhaps fair to say that if we leave background production values (and social attitudes) to one side, each is the product of their background – Victoria had a very comfortable background as a Victorian lady whereas Sarah-Jane is a modern day journalist, used to having to make her own way.

Despite that, both work in a way that Wendy Padbury just didn’t as Zoe. It’s worth considering the Season 6 crew, which is the nearest in common to these two crews across the original 26 seasons. Yes, it is a pertinent fact that Pat and Fraser knew they were leaving the show, which undoubtedly had an impact.  But it seems that the TARDIS crew works best when none of the companions are on the same level as the Doctor – I think largely because we are meant to identify with the companion and experience the show through them. We have greater empathy when Victoria ventures into the Underground tunnels alone to find the Doctor despite her evident fear and reluctance … with Sarah-Jane when she encourages her fellow prisoners to escape. When Zoe uses her mathematical skill to prevent the Cyber-invasion on the other hand … there’s a slight air (rightly or wrongly) of ‘too-clever-by-half.’

There is another TARDIS crew (disputedly given how few stories it featured in) that could have come close to matching the crews above – the short-lived combination of the Fifth Doctor, Nyssa and Tegan. Again, one senses the right combination of good chemistry between the actors, a sensible companion and a brave companion, and not too many companions. Interestingly, Nyssa is definitely a very intelligent companion, but she doesn’t quite jar on the viewer to the same extent that Zoe did, while Tegan (devoid of Adric winding her up) works well as the more brash companion. This combination is let down hugely by two factors – at two and a half stories, they didn’t really have a meaningful run as a TARDIS crew; and (more crucially) the stories involved aren’t the strongest.

But which is the best crew ever? I pondered this as I watched both Season 5 (as much of it as survives) and Season 12, and found it tricky to assess. Every story is exceptionally crafted, and I have huge fondness for both crews – it is very sad that we cannot see what the combination of Jamie and Victoria was like in Evil of the Daleks, The Abominable Snowmen, or Fury from the Deep. I’m tempted to say that even if they were found it would not influence my choice, as we have a pretty good impression of what both crews were like. On balance, at the moment, the Season 12 crew edge it – simply because the chemistry between the three is so good. But it is so close, that if more Season 5 material was recovered, I might just change my mind. It really is that close …

74 – The Sontaran Experiment

One of the first things I did after ranking the classic episodes of Doctor Who was to sweep through for the obvious shocks – stories that other fans would feel were definitely over-rated or definitely under-rated. Alongside The Aztecs at 107 and An Unearthly Child at 98 (neither of which, it must be said, earned a massive uproar …) it was the low placement of this serial that I felt sure would enrage fans. The Sontaran Experiment is widely viewed as a classic, and yet it doesn’t make my top 50 – how is such sacrilege possible? (Discerning readers may also wonder why it is ranked lower than the likes of Terror of the Vervoids, but we shall skip past such supposing!)

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