Monday, January 26, 2009


Why Is Doctor Who Brilliant?

The best television programme ever made, and one that’s become much more than just a television programme… Last November, Doctor Who was forty-five years old, and I began a series of posts looking at each year and picking out the most brilliant thing about it. I published 2008’s post twelve hours ago, so here’s a round-up of what I aimed for, which years most enthused me and just how to find them all.
“If you could touch the alien sand and hear the cries of strange birds – and watch them wheel, in another sky – would that satisfy you?”
And hasn’t it all been brilliant? Or, at least, good (go on, click – it’s a fab clip).

Some Doctor Who stories are adored. So are some whole periods of the show. Others get less attention, or nothing but criticism. I love it all – even the bits I’m less keen on than other bits. So my aim was to pick something that I could enthuse about for every single year since the show started, from the overlooked and the frowned at eras as well as those which are universally feted. It’s easy to get caught up in criticism, and slagging something off is often more fun to write than praise. I wanted, then, simply to say why Doctor Who was brilliant.

I also knew I have a tendency to go on a bit, and (partly as a result) to start things but not finish them. So, to guard against writing far too much for one year and never getting on to the next, I set myself several little rules as challenges. I won’t list them all, but the opening paragraph would set the scene, rounding up as many good things from that year as I had room to mention; then I’d name the story I’d chosen as the pick of the year, with a quotation from it and a paragraph about it; and finally I’d say how to get hold of a copy. I set one word limit for the introduction, title and quote – which I occasionally ended up breaking or, towards the end, just putting in more than one quotation – and another, 45 words (for 45 years), to write about the chosen story itself. As other forms of Doctor Who (the Target novels and the New Adventures in particular, but also comic strips, other books, audio plays and more) have always been as ‘real’ and thrilling to me as the TV series, I treated any Who I liked, in whatever medium, on the same basis. I also decided that I’d only name a story or its author in the introduction as a particular recommendation, and (most difficult of the lot) that I’d only write positive things. I can find something to pick holes in for every story, from the top of the lot to the fair-to-middling (and much more for those below that), but I set out not to mention anything that I didn’t like. Although I’d only say things I believed, just for once even the tiniest criticism could wait at the door. And I pretty much managed it, though a couple may have snuck in at the back…

Some stories were easier to be glowing about than others, and so were some years. I found that, having set out in part to take a fresh look at years I didn’t think much of, I could be genuinely enthusiastic about at least a part of them all – though two or three were a bit of a struggle, I managed it. There were plenty of years, on the other hand, where I wanted to praise much more than I could fit inside my self-imposed word limits (and a good dozen where a brilliant runner-up story was very close to being my ‘pick’ for the year). Of the last few entries where the drafting’s still fresh in my mind, for example, 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2007 all had stories that I’d have loved to have raved about cut for space. There was something about the fives, as well – I said when writing about it that 1975 might just be Doctor Who’s most brilliant year for me, in part because it was when I discovered the series, but 1995 and 2005 were extraordinarily exciting, too. My favourite eras of the show have long been Billy Hartnell’s, Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe’s, and the New Adventures, so I’d happily point anyone towards the mid-’60s, or 1975-78 (well, 1975-81, quite easily), 1989, 1994-96, 2005, 2007… And while I loved writing about each of those, the others were a joy, too. So if you’ve been reading them, I hope you’ve found something to be enthused about.

The Ten Faces of Doctor Who

I’ve not really answered the question in my late-at-night-administrative meanderings above, have I, and I fear I won’t come up with any great insight at this hour. To make up for that, here’s a shorter, pithier piece on the essentials of Doctor Who that I prepared earlier, which has a crack at answering the question. And is readable.

Along the way, I’ve been cheered by quite a few other people’s Who enthusiasms – among my favourites were the lovely Nick, who sent me his own complete 46 years of picks; the Doctor Who author who told me he was enjoying them; and Neil and Millennium, who each picked a year to join in on. I came across Calapine’s list of favourite bits – and “Worsts,” which I’ll resist temptation on – which had quite a few that had me nodding. One of her changes to the list she was working from is something I heartily disagree with, but as I’m being fluffy and positive for one more night I’ll merely point you to a hint.

Stuart, impressively, has been inspired by the fabulous 1981 repeat season that kept those of us around at the time going when we were agog for Peter Davison to appear, and has begun work on an update of The Five Faces of Doctor Who entitled (roll of drums) The Ten Faces of Doctor Who. He’s come up with some persuasive reasoning for the first five stories he’s picked, as well as some terrific clips, so I’m fascinated to see what his next five will be. I’d love to see the BBC remind everyone what’s brilliant about William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGann, Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant.

Stuart’s so far chosen The Dalek Invasion of Earth, The Tomb of the Cybermen, Spearhead From Space, The Ark In Space and Frontios, all rather good and a couple of which I’d probably have picked myself. Having just done 46 individual picks, rather than being fagged out I’m actually feeling quite upbeat about the whole series in all its many forms, so I was tempted to do my pick right now. But, partly because I don’t want to gazump him – he still has five more Doctors to go – and partly because making another big list already might be a bit much, I thought I’d do something else instead.

Picking a full set of 46 stories might be a bit much for you, but if you enjoyed reading my selections, why not pick what ten stories – there you go, that’s a more manageable number – that you’d show if you were in charge of a repeat season? To help you get your thinking cap on, what sort of ‘repeat season’ would you want, and where would you want to show it? I reckon if I were in charge of BBC1 or BBC2, I’d go for ten stories edited into feature-length ‘movies’ (probably with the new DVD special effects, where they have them) and show them on ten Saturday afternoons or evenings, but if I was Mr BBC4, I’d show them in their original episodes, probably one story a week stripped across weeknights, and be more relaxed about showing talky historicals. What do you think? And would you pick the best story from each Doctor? The best individual performance by each Doctor? The best representation of each Doctor’s era (easiest for Pat’s monsters and Pertwee’s UNIT; trickiest for Tom, with his massive variety, and Peter, with his split between ‘arthouse’ and ‘macho’)? Do you balance your ten to reflect the series’ diversity, with comedy, action, drama / past, present, future, or pick them to appeal to people who’ve come to the series in the Twenty-first Century, with Daleks, Cybermen, the Master and Sarah Jane? Go on, have a rummage.
“’Pon my Sam. I may have had a bang on the head, but this is a dashed queer story.”
Update: rather belatedly, I did devise my own ‘BBC2’ and ‘BBC4’ The Ten Eleven Faces of Doctor Who sets. Almost at The Eleventh Hour, you might say (groan).

Why Doctor Who Was Brilliant – Year By Year

At last, the point of this post. I’ve written about why Doctor Who was brilliant for 46 separate years, so here they all are for you to click on and open – which I thought I’d bettter do on discovering that the less-useful-than-they-look labels at the bottom of each post only find you the last twenty. If there are any you’d like to read, here’s the easy way to do it. Because the only real answer to ‘Why Is Doctor Who Brilliant?’ isn’t to be found in someone telling you, but in you watching or reading or listening to it for yourself, and that’s why I kept my recommendations short (if numerous!). Here are some of the best stories to dip into:

1963 – An Unearthly Child
1964 – The Aztecs
1965 – The Crusade
1966 – The Daleks’ Master Plan
1967 – The Evil of the Daleks
1968 – The Mind Robber
1969 – The War Games

1970 – Doctor Who and the Silurians
1971 – The Mind of Evil
1972 – The Curse of Peladon
1973 – Carnival of Monsters
1974 – Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion
1975 – Genesis of the Daleks
1976 – The Deadly Assassin
1977 – The Talons of Weng-Chiang
1978 – The Androids of Tara
1979 – The Iron Legion

1980 – Full Circle
1981 – The Master’s Doctor Plan (The Keeper of Traken / Logopolis / Castrovalva)
1982 – The Tides of Time
1983 – Snakedance
1984 – The Caves of Androzani
1985 – Revelation of the Daleks
1986 – The Trial of a Time Lord: The Mysterious Planet
1987 – Paradise Towers
1988 – The Happiness Patrol
1989 – The Curse of Fenric

1990 – Doctor Who – Remembrance of the Daleks
1991 – Doctor Who: The New Adventures – Timewyrm: Revelation
1992 – Doctor Who: The New Adventures – Nightshade
1993 – Doctor Who: The New Adventures – Lucifer Rising
1994 – Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures – Venusian Lullaby
1995 – Doctor Who: The New Adventures – The Also People
1996 – Doctor Who: The New Adventures – Damaged Goods
1997 – Doctor Who – Alien Bodies
1998 – Doctor Who – The Witch Hunters
1999 – The Curse of Fatal Death

2000 – Doctor Who – The Shadows of Avalon
2001 – The Stones of Venice
2002 – Faction Paradox – The Book of the War
2003 – Jubilee
2004 – Death and the Daleks
2005 – Rose
2006 – Doomsday
2007 – Human Nature
2008 – The Fires of Pompeii

And it doesn’t stop there…
“No. No. Don’t tell me how it happened. Although – hope I don’t just trip over a brick. That’d be embarrassing. Then again – painless. Worse ways to go. Depends on the brick…”
This year will see a few more stories for David Tennant, and a great deal of speculation and anticipation about Matt Smith. I’m looking forward to it – and, while I’m waiting, delving into so much of the past inspired me at last to wake up my long-neglected Doctor Who blog, and I’ve gone right back to the very beginning.

Update 1: DWM gets in on the ‘Why is this brilliant?’ concept, gloriously.

There will, eventually, be more updates, as the comments below make clear that I didn’t quite answer the main question. I will, one day, though I still think ‘just go and watch it’ will provide a better answer than any article ever could.

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Phew, I'm delighted to see that you've got to the end of your year-by-year run down of Who. I've been deliberately not reading them until you finished, in order to get a feel for the full sweep of the show. I now have a perfect lunchtime reading ahead of me!

And you do need to do your Ten Faces of Dr Who - don't worry about gazumping me (I'm going to do the concluding five tomorrow I think), the more the merrier!
Thank you!

Hope you enjoyed your five-hour lunch ;-)

And I shall tune in tomorrow to see what else the Waste Land Channel's running with. I'm agog (though not for Mr McGann, unless you're branching off into BBC7).
My ten... I'd want to just go for 'the best', but bear in mind I'm far less familiar with McCoy, Pertwee and Davison than the others...

Hartnell - What I'd really like to show is 'Doctor Who In An Exciting Adventure With The Daleks'. Take the first episode of An Unearthly Child and edit The Daleks down to about three episodes long and show that as one thing. If that's cheating, then just An Unearthly Child.

Pat - Tomb Of The Cybermen. There's very few others that are short enough and that survive...

Pertwee - It'd have to be The Time Warrior. That and The Green Death are by far my two favourites for him, and Time Warrior's more new-viewer friendly, as well as being another Famous Monster.

Tom - City Of Death. My *favourite* is Logopolis, but I don't think that would work out of context, while the *best* is probably something like Genesis, but I wouldn't want everything to be a Dalek story. City Of Death would be a good compromise choice.

Peter - to my shame I actually only own four Davison stories on DVD at the moment - Resurrection, 5 Doctors, Castrovalva and Warriors Of The Deep - all of which would be, for their own reasons, very wrong (I *love* Castrovalva, but it's even less usable than Logopolis for something like that). I'll plump for Androzani, though I've not rewatched it in a while...

Colin - It's difficult to choose one for him, because he was so often let down by other factors. I'd go for The Two Doctors over Revelation, as I don't want it to be "all Daleks all the time" and I'm going to plump for...

Sylvester - Remembrance Of The Daleks.

McGann - Shada. (What, you thought I'd choose the TV Movie when we have a cartoon written by Douglas Adams?)

Eccleston - Dalek. Much of the Eccleston series has paled in retrospect as its faults have been kept for the Tennant series. Even this one isn't flawless, but it's by far the best.

Tennant - Uh... Blink. Even though it has Moffat going "Ew, look at the nerdy nerdy nerds!" It's a great bit of TV, and has practically none of Tennant's Doctor in it (I find it literally impossible to think that the character Tennant is playing is the same one the first seven actors played...)
"what sort of ‘repeat season’ would you want"

I remember UKGold running a weekend where they showed every Daleks series. The problem was I was meant to be writing leaflets that weekend and it didn't help me finish the job...
Brilliant vid - saw another on there, beautifully put together: 45 Years in just over 45 seconds.

Roughly speaking, my Ten Faces season would be original-sized episodes in that lovely Friday night BBC2 slot, showing off the juicy human drama of Hartnell, the crazy excesses of Troughton's era, Pertwee up against the Master and the Daleks, Tom Baker with Liz Sladen, Davison on Androzani [because I watched it recently and it's shockingly good], Colin Baker in a surefooted cheesy romp with some old-school Time Lords, and Sylv as the lonely-God-in-waiting:
An Unearthly Child, The Aztecs, The Mind Robber, Frontier in Space, Terror of the Zygons, Androzani, Terror of the Vervoids, Ghost Light, with Dalek (because it's simply crucial) and Fires of Pompeii (if only to make the case that he doesn't always land in London or Cardiff).
By the way, I have loved your 'Brilliant' series. But as I'm sure others (other bastards like me) have told you still have not answered the question
posed in your overall post. Why is it brilliant? I suspect the easier is, why is it so easy to love?
And I think it may be because it never quite succeeds. In its
representation of this figure, not entirely heroic, not a saint or a
god, not immortal and not mortal, unemployed, clever but not wise, a
narrative of serials without dogma or canon to guide it, neither
fantasy nor sci-fi, neither serious nor truly comic, it will always fall short in some way. (Or at least, never in a definitive way.) So it has that feeling you have in the
theatre, where you conspire with the production. You see recognise
something real and at the same time you appreciate it for being
invented. Like a joke. Or a Van Gogh.
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