Thursday, April 01, 2010

 

The Eleven Faces of Doctor Who

On the day after tomorrow, we’ll have a new Doctor Who episode and a new Doctor. Are you as hugely excited as I am? And as desperate to avoid spoilers (though the 70-second preview on Freeview 301’s OK)? Then why not distract yourself with the other Doctors instead? The last time the most popular Doctor ever left he was Tom Baker in 1981, and to ready you for the youngest Doctor ever when he was Peter Davison the BBC mounted a repeat season, The Five Faces of Doctor Who. Here’s how to spend your Easter holiday weekend doing the same. Just don’t tell your local Lib Dem campaign team…

Where To Start?

If you’ve had the misfortune never to see , by the way, and don’t know what it’s all about, click over for a couple of minutes to So Who is This Doctor Bloke Anyway? which reveals that the series’ essentials are actually very simple. Just very strange. A couple of the names have changed since – it was written exactly three years ago – but all the meaning’s still the same. And once you’re done, you should be all primed to want to watch some of it… Which is what today’s article is about.

Before DVDs, videos and more than three TV channels, five old Doctor Who stories – or even four old stories and one that had been on a few months earlier – was almost unbearably exciting. We had a William Hartnell story, a Patrick Troughton story, a Jon Pertwee story, one with all three, and then the final one of Tom Baker’s… Complete with eight seconds of freshly-regenerated Peter Davison looking around blearily at the end (making it five faces, even though technically none of Peter’s stories had been broadcast yet, you see?). These days, of course, you can easily amass an enormous Doctor Who DVD collection, or watch old stories online through legal means or others Lord Mandelson wants to cut your head off for, so a repeat season’s both less exciting and far easier to put together at home.

For today’s exciting suggestions, girls and boys, it’s best have an enormous Doctor Who DVD collection to hand. If you are unaccountably missing such an obvious household necessity, there’ll be a free selection along tomorrow, all sourced in a BBC-authorised way that Lord Mandelson won’t cut you off for except in the case of some horrendous ‘punish first, ask questions later’ cock-up (O noes!).

To get into the spirit of the thing, imagine that you’re a BBC channel controller. What if you were designing an exciting proper repeat season to go out on proper telly and everything? And so – as BBC1 is for brand new Doctor Who and BBC3 is for endless repeats of slightly less brand new but definitely from this century Doctor Who, followed by as many different permutations of young people copping off with each other as can fill up the schedules – you can opt for either The (action-packed with famous baddies) BBC2 Schedule or The (very very slightly more intelligent) BBC4 Schedule. Or make up your own, of course, but that would be insanity.

Of course, if I really were a BBC channel controller, as I wrote a few weeks ago, I’d find it impossibly tempting not either to start at the beginning of Sir Thomas Baker and show his whole lot (his stories being, in general, my favourites), or – ideally – to pour the channel’s entire budget for the year into making swish animated versions of the Doctor Who stories from the ’60s the BBC carelessly burnt and showing all of those (the first two Doctors being, in general, my favourites, and the stories damn well deserving to be brought back to life). But with a new Doctor, you should be balanced, really, shouldn’t you?

For that proper Five Eleven Faces feel, just as they did in 1981, you should start at the beginning with the very first story, An Unearthly Child, and finish with the very latest so far, The End of Time – so you can plunge breathlessly into the TARDIS when it was shiny, new, and utterly incredible, then get those breathless few seconds of shiny, new, and utterly incredible Matt Smith as the battered old TARDIS plunges towards… Where? But unlike the original repeat season, I’m going to recommend other William Hartnell and David Tennant stories to show them off as well – because the Tenth Doctor deserves a story of his own rather than just a big run-up to the Eleventh, and because… Well, because William Hartnell is utterly, sublimely brilliant in An Unearthly Child, but so scarily otherworldly that he’s not quite ‘the Doctor’ yet. That first story, incidentally, was four episodes long and for me the whole thing is terrific, but the very first episode – also called An Unearthly Child – makes an ideal introduction on its own, starting with two ordinary people in our own world who stumble across a futuristic time machine and then travel deep into the past. For either channel, I’d show those first twenty-five minutes as a standalone prologue to the whole series, probably back-to-back with a ‘Why Is Doctor Who Brilliant?’ half-hour celebration piece. I can’t make the latter for you, but I can suggest you start with the series’ first ever episode, perhaps the single greatest piece of television of the 1960s.

The BBC2 Schedule

BBC2’s The Eleven Faces of Doctor Who would be shown on Saturday afternoons or evenings, each story roughly an hour and a half long (four old episodes / two new ones) and edited together into a movie format to grab people’s attention in one go and fit into the same slot each week. As one of the main channels, it would be quite populist, with infamous enemies people new to Twentieth Century Doctor Who would recognise from the last five years. So would you watch it…?
Introducing the Doctor in An Unearthly Child, starring William Hartnell…

William Hartnell is the Doctor in The Dalek Invasion of Earth

First of all the alien invasion stories, with scenes of a deserted London under Dalek occupation it would be impossible to shoot today. There’s grim horror, a famously marvellous closing speech from the Doctor, and some rather splendid DVD extras – including a fab CGI flying saucer that I’d show the story with rather than the slightly disappointing original. And yes, this is one of two stories here that are rather longer than my ‘limit’, but Daleks are a good draw for audiences, and this one was remade as a movie with Peter Cushing… So the idea of re-editing the proper version into movie form entertains me.

Patrick Troughton is the Doctor in The Tomb of the Cybermen

An ancient alien world, superb design, terrific villains and a trap laid by monsters who aren’t as dead as everyone thought… Suspense, eerie music and memorable images are all here, but the heart of it is the Doctor comforting his companion in a simply gorgeous quiet conversation. Introduced to all the old Doctors, Matt Smith saw this story and decided that Pat was his favourite – it’s where he gets the bow tie from – and Pat is so spellbinding in this story that it might just be my favourite single performance from any Doctor.

Jon Pertwee is the Doctor in Spearhead from Space

A newly regenerated Doctor crashes to Earth with a knackered TARDIS and takes a while to find his feet… You might find this influential, with Autons too taking the high street by storm in one of the series’ most memorable sequences. It’s also very witty, with the show almost stolen by the Doctor’s two companions, the bluff Brigadier and sharp scientist Dr Liz Shaw.

Tom Baker is the Doctor in Pyramids of Mars

Horror a hundred years ago, with stiff upper lips pitted against walking mummies and a dark god with the voice of the Beast – perhaps the series’ most chilling villain. All this, plus Michael Sheard (Mr Bronson), Bernard Archard and the wonderful Sarah Jane Smith. The DVD’s packed with marvellousness, too.

Peter Davison is the Doctor in Earthshock

The Cybermen are on the march in a brilliantly directed future war story with a famously tragic ending… In one of the series’ most macho stories – there are many roles for women, but most of them are written as if they could be Arnold Schwarzenegger – it’s also fantastic that the aggressive space captain is played not by Sigourney Weaver but Beryl Reid. This could only be Doctor Who.

Colin Baker is the Doctor in Revelation of the Daleks

A stunning black comedy, with a gurglingly delighted Davros plotting away at the heart of it, some great guest stars, really rather a lot of death and one nearly-Dalek that you will never forget. The director’s so good he’s the only one to direct Doctor Who in both centuries, too.

Sylvester McCoy is the Doctor in The Curse of Fenric

Vampires and counterplotting in World War II, with a story that’s both action-packed and intelligent. It’s also the easiest of all the choices – for Doctors where there’s a choice – for a season of movie-length repeats, as a rather brilliant movie-length special edition has already been created for the DVD. Pop it on, then.

Paul McGann is the Doctor in Doctor Who – The TV Movie

Another newly regenerated Doctor faces a fight on slightly-ahead-of-modern-day Earth, this time in America and against the Master. Admire the Doctor, enjoy the Master, see how pretty it all is, and try to ignore the script. While I took a while to decide on stories for some of the Doctors, with at least a dozen rattling around my head from The Tom Baker Years, sadly there aren’t many to choose between from The Paul McGann Early Evening… Though if I was doing a repeat season on BBC7, he’s had some fabulous audio adventures.

Christopher Eccleston is the Doctor in The Empty Child

Mysterious zombies stalk the night in a very different World War II story written by new Grand Mekon Steven Moffat – witty, scary, uplifting, even award-winning, and introducing Captain Jack. Featuring Richard Wilson as you’ve never seen him before (well, unless you’ve watched it in any of the 832 times it’s been shown on BBC3).

David Tennant is the Doctor in Last of the Time Lords

And, again, I cheat. I could have gone for The Impossible Planet, perhaps the most movie-like Doctor Who story I can think of – or the terrific Daleks-Cybermen-Torchwood battle of Doomsday. So a three-part season finale that adds up to well over two hours, where each episode is so different from the one before that it would make a very oddly-structured movie, seems a peculiar choice. And yet… It has one of the show’s three most stunning regenerations, and the only one of those that isn’t the Doctor. It’s funny, it’s shocking, it’s downright peculiar; David Tennant suffers outstandingly; Martha is heroic; it encapsulates the series’ travels through time and space by going from an alien world at the end of the Universe to our own Earth to Earth gone terribly wrong – most of all, despite its faults, it’s the single one of Russell T Davies’ stories that I keep coming back to watch over and over again for the sheer joy of it. Not least in that the return of the Master is the perfect scene-setter for…

David Tennant is the Doctor in The End of Time, which is on BBC3 again tomorrow night if you don’t have the DVD… And introducing Matt Smith!
That was awfully difficult, you know. I was torn between several for most Doctors, and many for Tom. I jotted down my instinctive choices, then thought, ‘but how balanced is that selection?’ With the most varied and marvellous series ever imagined, can any selection show every angle – a dash of horror, adventures in history, enough wit to make you smile, enough ideas and strangeness and to make you think, and enough action to get you excited…? So, raising my inner geekdom to heroic proportions, I made a great big table of all the elements that needed to be in a repeat season, so it wouldn’t all be the same, and make sure I had stories that balanced out neatly… Which is why I’ve ended up with two pairs of consecutive stories by the same authors, and two set in World War II, two mummy pastiches, and lots of scary ones and probably not enough funny ones, and, and, and… Oh, just watch ’em. The last to be crossed out, incidentally, were Tom’s Planet of Evil (another scary one, with the series’ most stunning alien world), The Robots of Death (a murder mystery with more gorgeous design), and The Pirate Planet, The Androids of Tara and City of Death, simply because all of them are fabulously playful fun.

Tune in to BBC Radio 4 tomorrow at 11am, incidentally, for a programme that will almost certainly feature parts of The Pirate Planet and City of Death – because each was either written or co-written by Douglas Adams. I suspect there may be a remarkable amount about Life, the Universe and Everything, too, Douglas’ novel adapted from an unused Doctor Who script, with bits of several other Who stories flashing into it too. What I always notice is that the two characters who occupy a vaguely Doctorish space in Douglas’ novels – Ford Prefect and Slartibartfast – are squeezed in different directions for the rewritten Doctor Who story, Ford suddenly becoming far more louche and Slartibartfast far more driven… Because if either had kept their usual characters, you’d have noticed them competing (just not very hard) for the same sort of role in the narrative. Somewhere in some alternate universe, there’s a version of the book in which Ford decides to save the Universe with the reluctant aid of a Slartibartfast who wants to sit about just looking at fjords. That is, as you may have guessed, The Doctor and Douglas, Radio 4, 11am, 2nd April.

The BBC4 Schedule

BBC4’s The Eleven Faces of Doctor Who would be shown on weekday evenings, repeated as the original episodes rather than re-edited, but with two shown back-to-back each night to fill the best part of an hour’s slot, and again made up of stories lasting in total roughly an hour and a half long (four old episodes / two new ones), making each spread across two nights or so. As one of the smaller channels, it could find an audience for Doctor Who that’s perhaps more thought-provoking, more satirical and more just downright strange. So would you watch it…?
Introducing the Doctor in An Unearthly Child, starring William Hartnell…

William Hartnell is the Doctor in The Aztecs

Pure history, with marvellous dialogue and a central moral dilemma – Barbara, perhaps the strongest of all the Doctor’s companions, seems to have been put in a position where she can change history and sets out to do it. The Doctor sets out to stop her. Both Jacqueline Hill and William Hartnell are simply stunning… And, if you’re a Shipper for the Twenty-first Century stories, here the Doctor gets engaged (but no tongues).

Patrick Troughton is the Doctor in The Mind Robber

The TARDIS explodes into the Land of Fiction in one of the weirdest, most brilliant of all Doctor Who. From sci-fi to superheroes, mythology to mind games, the inventiveness keeps going – and wait ’til you see the Doctor’s companion losing face. It might fit a little awkwardly into a BBC4 slot, as it’s actually in five episodes – but, as they’re each shorter than usual, the whole thing is barely longer than an ordinary story.

Jon Pertwee is the Doctor in The Time Warrior

Though starting off in Pertwee’s comfort zone of the-just-after-present-day, with a little help from the Brigadier, before long he’s travelling back to a castle in the Thirteenth Century to fight the original Sontaran. It’s the first story for Sarah Jane Smith, too, and she really grabs it – in a very funny story, she also gets the best deadpan joke without meaning to… Oh, and it’s got Dot Cotton and Boba Fett in it! While two of these stories have new effects on DVD that are must-sees, and two more have new effects that I can take or leave, this one puts me in a quandary: mostly, the added CGI offers greatly improved effects that I’d prefer to broadcast – but the final one replaces a stock great big explosion with a feeble one that resembles a dragon sneezing through a gateway.

Tom Baker is the Doctor in The Deadly Assassin

Death strikes on the planet of the Time Lords, as the Doctor and the Master return in a serial that’s exploding with ideas for both story and storytelling. It starts as film noir political satire, then swerves into virtual reality and gritty surrealism, with great cliffhangers along the way and even inspiring The Matrix movies… What more could you ask for?

Peter Davison is the Doctor in The Caves of Androzani

An extraordinary mixture of ‘arthouse’ and ‘macho’ styles, with a terrific script, dazzling direction, rattlesnake-eerie music and compelling actors. A cynical desert war, noirishly twisted love and graveyard humour meet for a revenge drama where everyone’s destroyed in a chain reaction from picking on an innocent – the Doctor. And it kills him: at the end, nice Peter explodes into Colin in a striking regeneration.

Colin Baker is the Doctor in Vengeance on Varos

Politics meets reality TV before reality TV was invented – with an irresistibly horrible new alien villain. Sharp, funny and violent, it’s just the thing to watch before a General Election: Martin Jarvis isn’t every voter’s favourite (though Jason Connery with his top off might be).

Sylvester McCoy is the Doctor in Ghost Light

A Nineteenth Century Darwinian fable that’s witty, intelligent and looks rather splendid, if you like spooky old houses, this is the one for you. It’s the shortest of my picks, at just three episodes, but worth watching over and over (and perhaps necessary), with the Doctor’s friend Ace put to the test not just by alien angels and icy screen legend Sylvia Syms but by the Doctor himself. And apologies to the author, who I know’s read this blog on occasion and doesn’t like one-line reviews; I’ll return to it properly eventually!

Paul McGann is the Doctor in Doctor Who – The TV Movie

Another newly regenerated Doctor faces a fight on slightly-ahead-of-modern-day Earth, this time in America and against the Master. Admire the Doctor, enjoy the Master, see how pretty it all is, and try to ignore the script. While I took a while to decide on stories for some of the Doctors, with at least a dozen rattling around my head from The Tom Baker Years, sadly there aren’t many to choose between from The Paul McGann Early Evening… Though if I was doing a repeat season on BBC7, he’s had some fabulous audio adventures.

Christopher Eccleston is the Doctor in Bad Wolf

The Doctor regenerates again to get you in the mood for Matt, this time giving us a glimpse of David at the end – but it’s Chris’ story, and he’s fantastic. Along the way, there’s more savage TV satire, the most memorable cry of “Exterminate!” you’ll never hear, and the series’ most stunning Dalek action (if you’ve watched my William Hartnell choices, here’s a still more brutal Dalek invasion of Earth and still more groovy saucers, as well as another companion becoming a goddess).

David Tennant is not the Doctor in Human Nature

The Doctor turns human, and his adventures turn into dreams. But the aliens chasing the inner him turn them into nightmares… A gorgeous, moving story in the looming shadow of World War I, John Smith is torn between love and war, while wild-eyed young Son-of-Mine has super, super fun. Perhaps my favourite of all the Twenty-first Century TV stories so far, and a small-scale, heartfelt moment to treasure before the epic that is…

David Tennant is the Doctor in The End of Time, which is on BBC3 again tomorrow night if you don’t have the DVD… And introducing Matt Smith!
This choice seemed easier, though again I drew up a great big grid to make sure it was terribly well-balanced – and so, of course, ended up with several stories by one author, and a clutch of postmodern satires about TV. Rather than The Time Warrior and Vengeance on Varos, by the way, I nearly opted for Carnival of Monsters and The Two Doctors; the former making a slightly better TV satire, though the latter with noticeably worse Sontarans. I probably enjoy the latter two stories more – all four are funny, and often tasteless – but, while The Two Doctors has Colin at his very best, it also goes on a bit too long and has some rather iffy morals… Besides, that would have ended up with four in a row from the same writer, and while he may indeed be my favourite, that’s a bit much for variety.


Finally, if you don’t have time for all of those, to warm up for Saturday why not just go for the epic of time-travelling warlords, where the Time Lords catch up with the Doctor and prove to be utter bastards, that ends in long goodbyes and the Doctor’s regeneration? No, not The End of Time, but the finale for Matt Smith’s favourite Doctor – The War Games.

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Comments:
Very, VERY close to my choices from when you first talked about this - always knew you had good taste ;)
 
Heh! Thanks - I've just gone back and looked at your suggestions from a few weeks ago (it's the second link above, everybody), and I considered every single one of the ones you mention for the first seven Doctors...
 
This is brilliant! I'm definitely haunting amazon.com for these. No Doctor on the shelves here in America, not even the "new" series. Luckily (or unluckily, depending upon how you look at it), I have until the 17th for Matt Smith to air, and could potentially watch all this in that time!
 
Hurrah! Glad to be of service. And all of them have been out for a while, so hopefully they'll be relatively cheap.

Oh, and I've just remembered something that's on tomorrow and added a note about Douglas Adams - anyone who can get hold of BBC Radio 4 should take a peek...
 
Agree about The Empty Child - probably the greatest episode of DW ever - but what about the second greatest, Blink?
 
Great piece! You can find a few old episodes here: http://bit.ly/b4AOZt including PT in The Tomb of the Cybermen.
 
Thanks Lorna and Jeremy! I've heard Colin Baker say The Empty Child is the greatest Who story ever... But though it's also award-winning, and voted the second greatest by DWM readers, Blink's more 'perfectly OK' and 'middling' for me. Given my views on the high standards of Doctor Who all over, I'd still happily watch it, but it's never wowed me. Besides, by the rules I'd set and occasionally broken, it was too short to qualify (though if I were to recommend one single cheap David Tennant disc, it would probably be the one with Human Nature and Blink on it; I reckon my favourite plus everyone else's should stand a good chance of converting someone)!

Which reminds me that I wrote some more Doctor Who heresy this morning, including some links to a few things you can watch for free online; ta for the link, Jeremy - had I not been sidetracked by the above earlier on today, I'd have finished off an article which features that very same link you've just mentioned ;)
 
Now from four years in the future: The Twelve-ish Faces of Doctor Who, featuring proper choices for Matt Smith and introducing Peter Capaldi...
 
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