Thursday, January 17, 2013


One-Day Doctor Who Fandom Challenge: Favourite Season Countdown

To start their celebrations of Doctor Who’s fiftieth anniversary year, Jennie and Caron have embarked on a thirty-day “Fandom Challenge”, daily choosing their favourite and least favourite aspects of the series. I’ve not. Aside from my inability to get my finger out (and Richard and my both being rather ill at the moment), I don’t really like answering ‘least favourites’… So, to make up for that, here are my top ten favourite seasons (if you want me to answer another question from the meme, suggest it and I’ll think about it). And this isn’t a countdown of my favourite Doctors… Not least because Matt Smith, Patrick Troughton and Colin Baker might all be nipping at the heels of my favourite, and none of them get a look in. While the Doctors may have a quite a bit to do with it, this is much more about the stories, with of course quite a bit about me, too (my top two will be predictable as ever). And although it was reading about Jennie’s favourite season and Caron’s favourite season that inspired me to think about this, I completely disagree with both of them. Hurrah!

10: Season Seven – Exiled to Earth (1970)

Possibly Doctor Who’s most consistently strong season, where I could stick every single story in front of you and say, ‘There, that’s really good, that is.’ The Doctor has suffered the egregious fate of being exiled to Earth as Jon Pertwee, and ends up semi-working for the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce. This means we get the awesome Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), at pretty much his most awesome and, to start with, very much the lead, and Dr Elizabeth Shaw (Caroline John), the companion so brilliant and capable that she could only last one year. On the downside, it can be rather too consistent: in theory, it’s virtually all on Earth in the same period (the 1980s, probably. What? What?). I say ‘in theory’, because perhaps surprisingly, what you might think of as the UNIT paradigm of day-after-tomorrow Earth (probably being invaded) lasts precisely one story before they start undermining it. Still, with the Doctor all mouth and no TARDIS and with not much sense of playfulness, there’s something vital missing. Still, if you like your Who with a bit of a Quatermass flavour and a strong moral centre yet also lots of shooting, this is a bold, terrific relaunch for the series.

Great stories: Doctor Who and the Silurians, Spearhead From Space, The Ambassadors – SPROING! – of Death

9: Season Twenty-Nine / Season 2007 / Series Three – You Are Not Alone (2007)

One of the two Twenty-First Century seasons that really stand out so far, this captivates me with a powerful through-theme about what it means to be human, running alongside the Doctor’s story as ‘last of the Time Lords’. In both themes, after a fun but less focused season in between, this is from lead writer Russell T Davies’ natural, more reflective, more pessimistic successor to 2005’s return. From the mirroring of the last of Boekind and the last of the Daleks, then the last of humanity, to the ‘A Deal With God’ mirroring of the Doctor’s watch against the Master’s, the themes are carefully intertwined. This season’s favourite horror trope is more thematically consistent again, too: where Season 2005 was all walking dead but 2006 packed in a wide variety of horror / fairy-tale tropes, this time there’s a strongly vampiric feel, with repeated transformation and consumption of humans – starting with the Empress of the Racnoss, who feasts on us, transforms Donna and has a history much like that of the Great Vampires and the Yssgaroth, and carrying on through the plasmavore, the Carrionites, the various Dalek-human hybrids, Professor Lazarus transforming to give himself more life then sucking the life from his victims, the crew sucking the life out of a sun and possessed by it in vengeful turn, the Family wanting to consume the Doctor’s long life, the Weeping Angels leeching life and time from their victims, the cannibal Futurekind and the “Toclafane” prolonging their lives but losing their humanity, to ultimately – and most disturbingly – the Buffy vampires-as-demons-entering-a-human-body-and-giving-it-superpowers-while-overwhelming-the-personality idea inherent in the way that both John Smith and Professor Yana meet their ends… With the bonus of David Tennant finding his feet as the Doctor in suffering (and possibly through Freema Agyeman’s Martha Jones giving him a kick in the arse).

Great stories: Human Nature / The Family of Blood, Utopia / The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords, Gridlock

8: Season Thirteen – Body Horror (1975-6)

Tom Baker’s second season as the Doctor, and his second in one year – and what a year! – sees more horror, but of a very different kind to Season Twelve. The Doctor himself is at his most grim and brooding; Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah Jane Smith really comes into her own; and where the previous season had strong underlying themes emphasised by its own largely monochrome colour palette, here it’s as if the colour leads the stories – but what colour! The most visually startling of any Twentieth Century season, it explodes into rich, visceral, organic colours for stories which are, appropriately, the series’ most consistently horrific, with a recurring motif of body horror and possession and scientists changing from the previous season’s fascists to dangerous meddlers who disturb something horrible. Science was the sterile future; now it awakens the dark past and the all-too-fertile body. This time, there are very few references to Doctor Who, but an awful lot to famous horror stories: Frankenstein, the Wolf Man / Jekyll and Hyde, Mummies, Triffids, zombie android body-snatching pod-people… Plus starting with the Zygons, the series’ best one-off monsters between the Quarks and the Reapers. While in theory the season returns surprisingly often to UNIT, paradoxically it’s only to emphasise how far away the series has moved, and the defining stories are the ones with the fabulous historical setting, dark god and glorious score, the stunning alien world and nightmarish sci-fi burial alive, and the series’ own myths and black humour that herald what’s to come. This season establishes what feels like the most settled old Who pattern – five four-episode stories followed by a big six-parter that takes what’s gone before to its natural conclusion – but its vivid, thrilling tone has its own weaknesses: everything tends to get blown up at the end, there are very few women, and there’s little playfulness to leaven the mood. For all those reasons, it’s a terrific though flawed season, and perhaps the very best ever to show to small boys.

Great stories: Pyramids of Mars, The Brain of Morbius, Planet of Evil

7: Season Twenty-Six – New Games (1989)

Doctor Who’s last TV season of the Twentieth Century draws elements from many earlier ones – echoes of the very first story in its earthly child, of Season Seven’s almost entirely Earthbound setting and a world destroyed in the finale, of early Tom’s horror stories – but has an assured, mature confidence of its own. And though the BBC brought Doctor Who on screen to an abrupt pause, Season Twenty-Six looks forward, too, inspiring one of the greatest eras of Doctor Who, though sadly most of the New Adventures weren’t on the telly. That’s a fitting legacy for one of the most intelligent, innovative and impressive years in the history of the series. Sylvester McCoy had already become a darker Doctor; here, he and lead writer Andrew Cartmel add more subtle shades, with a more complex character and morality than the judgemental destroyer of the previous year. This gives his companion Ace (Sophie Aldred) more focus, with female empowerment another running theme (as the current DWM explores), and she brings the recognisable world in whatever strange setting she finds herself. There’s still often a dark feel, with a hint of magic – every story has something unearthly and unexplained, and each of them is packed with ideas and, looking forward to post-2005 Doctor Who, passion too.

Great stories: The Curse of Fenric, Ghost Light, Survival

6: Season Sixteen – The Key To Time (1978-9)

If Season Twenty-Six has a hint of magic, this marvellous season revels in it, the series at its most fairy-tale, fluffy and fun. Tom Baker’s enjoying himself as the Doctor, Mary Tamm’s Romana is icily fabulous, and this is easily the best season for K9 (John Leeson), all now collected together in a DVD box set for the show’s first serious ‘story arc’. Which, despite impending doom for the entire Universe, is rarely serious at all. The sheer entertainment of the actors and the style is massively boosted by some of the best writers ever to work on the Doctor, who include Douglas Adams, Robert Holmes and David Fisher (the most underrated, but who for my money gets the best balance of character and wit here, and is rather grown-up about sex). A compelling Doctor and companion having masses of fun, witty scripts, love, magic, a story arc, vivid women characters and even filming in Wales… It could almost be the series in the Twenty-First Century, if you stepped up the pace and budget and added all the old enemies. While the sparkly magical themes of quests, citadels and evil queens appear very cohesive on the surface, the battles between or rejection of gods underneath keep pointing in different directions – perhaps because producer and writers had different ideas about all-powerful superiors. And the stories themselves feature the Doctor sent on a mission from God, at which point he gets involved in a small-time scam and ignores the ‘important people’; the Daily Mail’s worst nightmare – young people today who are gay hoodies; a fabulous killer lesbian and sausage sandwiches; a summer holiday running around the countryside, playing at swordfighting with a moustache-twirling villain; more buttocks and tentacles on show than Torchwood; a skull on a stick, and the most Doctorish possible answer to absolute power…

Great stories: The Androids of Tara, The Ribos Operation, The Pirate Planet

5: Season Eighteen – Decay and Change (1980-1)

Tom Baker’s final season is something wonderful and strange, not the dry science it’s often dismissed as but a much older sort of story underneath: I may be the only person who loves both this and Season Sixteen to bits equally, and sees that amid their very different tones, both are making, in their own way, sci-fi fairy tales (just as Mr Moffat says he’s making today, and just as distinct from each other as they are from his). The ultimate in Who ‘concept albums’ from lead writer Christopher H Bidmead, this is one of those seasons that work best when you watch all the way through. Events cast shadows before them, and with Season Eighteen the long shadow of Tom’s departure, no wonder it’s so often hymned as “Change and Decay”. But it’s really the other way round – just as it’s wrong to see regeneration as a funeral, in a season of Decay and Change, every story features things set in their ways before collapsing, then ends in rebirth, whether people, societies or ultimately our heroes. By the season’s end, everything has changed, but with an irresistible sense of hope. Sombre yet still wittily quotable, beautiful but scary again, with gorgeous music and every penny seeming well-spent on great design thanks to new producer John Nathan-Turner, five stories out of seven brilliant and only one a bit saggy, I’d call it a triumph were it not for the sober tone. It makes for two striking bookends, as well: though all of Tom’s seasons have an unusual degree of thematic unity, this one closes his reign more coherently than any other since his first; and, the first season broadcast in the ’80s, it’s way ahead of any other season of the decade until the final one.

Great stories: The Keeper of Traken, Logopolis, Full Circle (Warriors’ Gate, The Leisure Hive)…

4: Season One – Wanderers in the Fourth Dimension (1963-4)

Several brilliant people invent the best idea ever invented in the history of the world and Verity Lambert and David Whitaker put it on TV with the impossibly brilliant William Hartnell as the Doctor to take us on adventures in time and space. And it’s not just a cracking concept, but a cracking start, nailed from the very beginning with perhaps the greatest single piece of television ever made, and the pieces rapidly come together with that theme, with the TARDIS, then with the Daleks and their world. The sound and visual design is inspired, and unlike anything else: weird and disorientating; dark and atmospheric; busy and terrifying; gleaming white and mind-expanding. The stories find their way into shaping the Doctor and the series in a diverse but strangely discrete assortment – for the only time, strictly split into either Earth and history or sci-fi and otherworldly – that set an amazing standard with five of the first six adventures simply superb. The great line-up of companions, especially teacher and goddess Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill), do as much as the Daleks to prompt the Doctor into becoming the hero. And everyone involved creates what, fifty years later, is still an astonishing launch for a series that’s still being carried forward today on the ever-expanding edge of that first explosion of imagination.

Great stories: The Aztecs, An Unearthly Child, The Daleks

3: Season Twenty-Seven / Season 2005 / Series One – The Trip of a Lifetime (2005)

At last, Doctor Who was back on television, and more fantastic than I’d dared to hope. This is still the most coherent of the Twenty-First Century series so far, just beating 2007, with its strong running story of Christopher Eccleston’s war survivor and Billie Piper’s shop assistant journeying together and bringing out the best in each other. Yet though the key themes are of the Doctor’s journey from suicidal survivor guilt to new life and love and Rose’s from shopworker just going with the flow to deciding the fate of all time and space, with underneath it all the looming and receding shadows of the Bad Wolf and the Time War, there are two other underlying ideas with very different tones to them. On the one hand, keeping all the stories within our solar system, from human history to the end of the Earth, makes the series not just down-to-earth but about the wonder of humanity… On the other, there’s a recurring motif of the walking dead. The Autons are plastic zombies; the Doctor and Cassandra, last survivors who ought to be dead; the Gelth zombies; aliens walking round inside dead humans; the Dalek is another last survivor who should be dead; zombies staff the Satellite 5 control room; Pete, dead but walking; gas-masked zombies; Blon Fel-Fotch Passameer-Day Slitheen as Margaret Blaine, another sole survivor, again walking around in a dead person; and a Dalek army made entirely from the dead. A bright and optimistic series, then, but – as Russell T Davies said – steeped in death. The first three episodes together (or simply that trailer) are just about a perfect introduction to Doctor Who, and it’s notable how many seasons since have started off with the same present-past-future template all covered within three weeks – and it’s not just those: there’s not a single weak story in all ten. While the music and visual design (barring the TARDIS) is no longer alien and bizarre, it still looks different to anything else on TV: matching the thematic consistency, this season simply glows, beautifully. Oh, and it’s all eerily (and, given Russell’s love of it, surely deliberately) reminiscent of Season Twelve, too, in both the structure and content of the stories…

Great stories: Father’s Day, Boom Town, Rose

2: Season Twelve – New Birth and Cold Science (1975)

This was the first Doctor Who season I ever saw, and I’ve always loved it. Yet if anything I’ve only grown to appreciate it more over the years. Striking out in a bold new direction, in come Tom Baker as the Doctor, Robert Holmes as lead writer, Philip Hinchcliffe as producer and the greatest titles ever. Here are companions intelligent, capable Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) and adorable, pretty Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter). And it’s one of the most thematically unified seasons in the show’s history, on top of obvious links to get you from one story to the next. On screen, it’s the cold, monochromatic style that hits you – the vibrant new Doctor in red and a swirl of scarf often the only dab of colour – but the design theme reflects the scripted themes of fascistic elites placing survival at all costs over what makes us human, a mixture of sterility and rebirth. These cold abusers of science include: the nuclear blackmailers out to ‘reform’ society on scientific lines; the chosen survivors set to resettle a world; the alien mechanically testing humanity to destruction; thrilling new villain Davros devising the ultimate form of scientific ‘progress’ overwhelming individual feeling and decision; and the battle between humanity and its half-machine ‘descendants’ (though the last story falls to bits on delivery, hey, not even everything Holmes and Hinchcliffe touched could turn to gold). With other recurring motifs such as compelling speeches, disturbing torture, and even great big phallic missiles, this is an amazingly coherent season. I was coming up to three and a half when I started watching this, and I’ve got no idea what my life would have been like if I hadn’t. Tom Baker’s first three seasons are written through me like a stick of rock, and the Doctor, Harry and Sarah Jane seem as natural a team as I could imagine. I love this period. It scared me as a kid, inspired me growing up, and I still find new ideas in it today. What more does a television series need?

Great stories: Genesis of the Daleks, The Ark In Space, Robot

1: Season Fourteen – Dark Religion (1976-7)

Tom Baker, Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes – and Doctor Who – reach their height in a season with a sense of history that both builds on and goes way past what’s gone before, in style and substance, theme and design. Motifs of survival, vengeance and possession continue; colour palettes of sterile monochrome and visceral colour give way to darkness; rebirth and scaring small boys evolve into growing up; and science as fascism and science as dangerous meddling give way to science as sheer intelligence, for good or evil, pitting rationalism against dogma. You can still see them borrowing from horror, but there’s also much invention and experimentation, with a greater variety of settings and styles than in any season since the ’60s now the Doctor’s at last fully a wanderer again. Most of this season features rich, dark design aiding literate scripts in building believable societies, with the Doctor a Renaissance man in a dark Universe of ancient secrets and fallen glories, the stories often taking place at the fringes of or as codas to great events. The horror is both more full-blooded than before and leavened by vivid characters, much black humour, more satisfying conclusions than just a big bang and the Doctor finally coming out of a year-long sulk. I was five for this season, and during it Doctor Who was making my mind pop with ideas and inspiring me to start reading: I think it was Isaac Asimov who said the stories you loved the best are those you come to when you’re fourteen. Well, I wasn’t, but Doctor Who was, and made me feel like it (and did an Asimovian murder mystery here into the bargain).

The season’s key themes are laid out in The Masque of Mandragora like a manifesto. Enlightenment-set, it puts the importance of intellect and making up your own mind centre stage, pitching it against intrigue and dogma – so from here, the season unfolds into three main underlying ideas. The mind is this year’s battlefield, whether championing intelligence and rationalism or delving into the darker themes of mental domination and madness, with not just the human mind at stake but computer, robot, pig and even electronic group minds. That’s complemented by the running theme of growing up, from Marco trying to outgrow both superstition and his uncle, to the Doctor returning home before finding himself another world’s absentee dad (then saddled with heretic ‘granddaughter’ Leela). And on a personal note, I had a very religious upbringing, so I felt this was speaking my language: it’s impossible to miss the religious elements throughout the season, usually in opposition to intelligence and individuality (imagine!). Everyone’s in a cowl, even the TARDIS looks like a chapel, and if you split the season into two halves (as they did, on first broadcast; how modern), both have the same structure: a Catholicism-inspired society where an evil god sets religion against science and it’s the Doctor’s fault, taking the role of Adam or Prometheus; then the Doctor faces a self-styled scientific messiah; then a masked, post-death villain from another time mixes technology with religious trappings. This has been my favourite season since it first aired, and I’ve got more out of it as I’ve got older, as good as Doctor Who ever gets – so far… And to complete this Fandom Challenge, watch a fan-made Season Fourteen trailer here.

Great stories: All of them. Obviously. But in particular, three that stand out as among the best the series has ever produced: the Art Deco character study in psychological horror and extraordinary worldbuilding; Doctor Who in the inner city, with gangs, guns, stabbings, drugs and prostitution – which, ridiculously, turns out to be one of the most quotable and sheerly enjoyable works of television ever made; and the greatest Doctor Who story ever told, not least because it tells so many stories and fires off so many ideas in so much style – so that, to take just one thing about it, after Part One you’d pin it as ‘just’ a brilliant comedy horror driven by satirical dialogue, but it then overturns expectations into first nightmarish surrealism and then an action epic where hardly a word is uttered. Isn’t that the very definition of Doctor Who, that nobody should know what’s coming next?

And if you don’t know the stories that were coming last, they were, of course, this time in ascending order, The Robots of Death, The Talons of Weng-Chiang and – if you watch only one from this page – The Deadly Assassin.

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I am stunned that you disagree with me :P

Also I think I forgot to do my post yesterday...
...But agree on Colin.

And you did inspire me, even if only to answer one question out of the thirty!

Good luck catching up with yesterday. I've not got round to my weekly post from Saturday yet. Oops.
I'm doing better at keeping up with blogging of late, but I'm not perfect.

And yes, I keep polluting the We Are Whovians board on pinterest with Colin pictures to balance out the Tennant *evilgrin*
I think it's good when we disagree - there's so much that's good about this show and it affects us all differently. Think of it as a celebration of diversity:=).
You old hippie, Lindsay :P

Excellent post, personally have to say I think Season 26 would top it for me. But then I am a Seventh Doctor and Ace fanboy. I've always found Survival rather fantastic.
You're just an old hippie in metallers' clothing, Jennie ;)

And, yes, my "Hurrah" was celebrating just that.

Thanks, Jae, too, with you on that... Though, as you can tell, I grew up on the first three Toms and they're as deeply embedded as anything (though appreciating the subtexts as I got older may have pushed some seasons ever higher and caused the shallower one of the three to bob, if slightly). And yet, while Tom's will always be my favourite screen era, as my intro hints he's not quite my favourite Doctor - though that one does get a season here...
bah. guilty as charged :p
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