MY FAVOURITE THINGS…
by David J Howe
Over the years I have written extensively about the history of Doctor Who. I’ve delved into each era of the show with a methodical precision in order to eke out the facts and details which readers hopefully find as fascinating as I do. One thing I’ve never done, however, is to try and come up with a definitive list of my own, personal, favourite stories. The problem is, you see, that such a list will vary depending on my mood. However, there are certain constants. Stories which enthralled and entertained me on their first viewing, and which continue to enthral and entertain me even when I’m watching them for the second, third, or even twentieth, time.
This, then, is an attempt to look at those stories which fall into my own personal ‘classics’ list, those that are just outside of it at this moment in time, and a couple of others which I like, but not quite as much as the others listed here.
If you ask me tomorrow what my favourite stories are, however, the list I give might be different …
The Talons of Weng-Chiang
I suppose that most lists of ‘classic’ Doctor Who would include this seminal tale from 1977. Tom Baker was the Doctor, Robert Holmes was the writer and David Maloney was the director, and the end result was music to the senses.
I recently had the urge to sit down and watch 'Talons' again – something that rarely happens, as a matter of fact. Usually I’m far too busy to watch Doctor Who for pleasure. The interplay between Henry Gordon Jago, proprietor of the Palace Theatre, and Professor Litefoot, a police pathologist, was sheer delight, Weng-Chiang (or Magnus Greel) was a wonderful snarling, yet slightly tragic villain, and John Bennett turned in an Oscar-deserving performance as the inscrutable oriental man of magic Li H’sen Chang.
Supporting the cast – which was perfect down to the last detail, including a convincing hag who witnesses the rat-chewed body of the hapless cabbie Buller being pulled from the river – was some truly breath-taking photography and set design. London never looked as misty and Victorian as this, and I was particularly pleased when I discovered that my walking route to work each day took me along Clink Street, the location used for Mr Sin’s attack on Buller. I must also mention the faultless Chinese make-up for Chang (if you didn’t know, you’d swear John Bennett was Chinese), Dudley Simpson’s bravura incidental music … the list goes on.
There is absolutely nothing I can find to fault with this adventure. Even twenty years on, it is still absorbing, gripping and, above all, entertaining. A true classic among classics.
The Caves of Androzani
Again written by Robert Holmes, this time directed by Graeme Harper, 'Caves' was a rollicking good eighties Doctor Who adventure, complete with a disfigured madman in a mask (shades of Weng-Chiang), a totally evil and scheming company man (brilliantly portrayed with icy calm and deadly resolve by John Normington) and a bunch of memorable army-guys and gun runners to spice things up a little.
'Caves' contained possibly the best ever cliff-hanger ending in the history of Doctor Who, when, at the end of part three, with the Doctor at the controls of a space shuttle hurtling towards a planet a breakneck speed, he blurted out a lengthy soliloquy ending with the immortal words ‘Nothing in the world can stop me now …!’ as we crashed into the closing credits, breathless from sheer exhilaration.
It was a great story, and a great end to a very underrated Doctor. It’s a shame it took so long for Peter Davison to deliver the goods, but I’m pleased they were delivered so stylishly.
The Tomb of the Cybermen
'The Tomb of the Cybermen' is one of the earliest Doctor Who stories that I can remember watching on television at the time. It terrified me then, and I can still see, in my minds eye, the child watching as Toberman rips the chest unit off a Cyberman, which then dies, spraying foam everywhere.
This was one of the Doctor Whos junked by the BBC, however and so all I had to go on were my memories, Gerry Davis’ novelisation and the audio soundtrack, and I felt, along with a fair few other people, that this was a lost classic.
Then a complete print of the story was found in Hong Kong in 1992 and the story released, with much excitement, on video. Thankfully, the passage of years did not mar its impact. It contained some great moments of terror, as the silver giants emerged from their tombs; as the Cybermats attacked; and as the Cybermen planned to convert the unfortunate archaeologists into emotionless creatures like themselves.
There were some tremendous performances from George Pastell as the ruthless logician Klieg, and also from Patrick Troughton as the Doctor, who quietly assessed from the background before taking any action. As he said to Klieg at one point, his approach was ‘to keep my eyes open and my mouth shut’.
A wonderful example of why, for me at least, the Troughton era was the best.
Terror of the Zygons
My final all-time classic is 'Terror of the Zygons'. There has always been something about this story that set it apart. At the time it was first transmitted, I remember writing a prediction on the cover of one of my school books – totally incorrect as it turned out – that the Zygons would return. I couldn’t believe that the BBC would create such a convincing, alien-looking monster and then not use them again.
Douglas Camfield’s direction was superb, the acting very easy on the eye, and the use of locations inspired. It was to this story that I turned when given the opportunity to direct one of Reeltime Pictures’ Myth Makers series of interview videos, and we took Ian Marter (who played Harry Sullivan in the story) down to Climping Beach near Littlehampton and the village of Charlton in Sussex in order to make use of the same locations as 'Terror of the Zygons'. I even asked for the incidental music to be an homage to that created by Geoffrey Burgon for the show, and arranged for a selection of bagpipe music to be recorded, as well as an ‘alien’ Zygon-inspired arm to be made for the tape’s dramatic linking sequences.
There was one aspect of this story that let it down, however, and this is why the story falls last in my list. This was the Skarasen, the Zygon’s cyborg plesiosaur-like creature. It was realised on screen through the magic of stop motion photography and CSO, and really didn’t work. Camfield noticed this shortcoming, however, and the shots of it are wisely kept to a minimum.
Pyramids of Mars
I knew when I first saw the first episode of this story that it was something special. The marvellous lead-up to the end of episode one was what convinced me … Namin played the organ, and, as the music swelled, the time-tunnel contained within the Egyptian mummy case came to life, delivering a sinister black-clad figure into the room. This figure then walked down a short flight of steps – smoke puffing from under his feet as he went – before stopping in front of the kneeling figure of a terrified Namin.
What made this story work was the sparkling dialogue and interplay between the main characters: the Doctor and Sutekh, the confused Laurence Scarman and his undead brother Marcus. The concept of something still being alive inside one of the ancient Egyptian pyramids was an intriguing thought, and the combined talents of everyone involved made this into another unmissable adventure for the good Doctor.
Although the original outline had been written by Lewis Griefer, it was Robert Holmes who scripted the final story. Holmes seemed to have that magic touch where Doctor Who was concerned and there is no real surprise, therefore, that many of my favourites come either from his pen, or from the time he spent script-editing the show.
Death to the Daleks
People often look at me strangely when I cite 'Death to the Daleks' as one of my favourites, and probably quite rightly as it does have a number of faults. However I’ve always enjoyed it, and particularly like the way that the Daleks are forced to become personalities rather than mere killing machines. This is as a result of a mysterious energy-sapping beacon which drains their exterminator weapons of power – although, despite the Doctor waffling on about them being powered by psycho-kinesis, it is not really explained how the Daleks can operate at all in an environment where all electrical power is absent.
Basically, the story was a classic Pertwee romp, with the Doctor doing his best to look stylish in a very effectively photographed alien gravel pit, while Sarah Jane Smith, his assistant, managed to get herself chased, kidnapped, drugged and locked up in very little time with practised ease.
The story was atmospheric and exciting, and created a spooky feeling of unease all the way through. It was good fun, and, for me, was certainly one of the better Dalek stories.
Sequels are usually never as good as the original, but in Doctor Who, as often as not, a sequel turns out to be better. 'Snakedance' was a good case in point. The first story, 'Kinda', was one of the best Doctor Who adventures to that point, featuring bags of imagination and some inspired imagery and casting. With 'Snakedance', rather than just try and do the same again, a different approach was taken, and the menace posed by the snake-like Mara, a demon from the mind, was more insidious. It still had the same aim – to be reborn – but this time it intended to do it in style.
What made any Doctor Who story work was when all the disparate elements came together on screen in a seamless whole. 'Snakedance' managed this, with some memorable characters and some interesting casting: Martin Clunes was excellent as Lon, for example.
As with 'Kinda', where 'Snakedance' really shone was in allowing Janet Fielding, who played the Doctor’s companion Tegan, full reign to show her talents when the character became possessed by the Mara. Her evil stare and cackling laugh were chilling, and the constant snake imagery that pervaded the show simply underlined the horror content.
The Curse of Fenric
Coming right at the very end of Doctor Who’s regular run on BBC television, 'The Curse of Fenric' gave us all hope for the future. Alongside the masterful, but confusing, 'Ghost Light', 'Fenric' was a throwback to the great Doctor Whos of the past, with hideous monsters rising to attack a seemingly defenceless group of humans.
Ian Briggs’ script was inspired by Viking stories and the idea of an ultimate evil controlling peoples actions throughout all time and made for gripping television. The advances in prosthetic make-up and cable-operated effects resulted in the blood-sucking Haemovores and their leader, the so called Ancient One, looking far more horrific than the standard ‘man in mask’ monsters, and the locations lent a totally realistic air to the story.
It was a cracking good adventure story and I’m glad that Doctor Who managed to deliver some classic moments in its final years.
Yes, it’s the 1996 television movie. This really has to be high on my list of classic Doctor Who as, quite simply, it was everything I had hoped the Doctor’s triumphant return to be.
I was lucky enough to first see it at a preview screening in London, and, as the opening titles started to roll, and the familiar shape of the TARDIS scooted down the time vortex, shivers went up my spine. I was totally thrilled by what I saw. I loved the TARDIS, I loved the effects, I loved Grace (the companion) and I most especially loved Paul McGann’s Doctor.
Here, finally, was a Doctor that seemed to embody facets of real humanity and weakness, alongside the Time Lord’s almost supernatural knowledge and abilities. Here was a Doctor you could be friends with, who would not manipulate and use you, who was not devious, and who showed genuine emotion when things didn’t go well.
I’ve seen 'Doctor Who', as its title was clearly seen on screen to be, several times, and each time I notice something new, and enjoy it a little more. Whether it was what others hoped for, I don’t know, but for me it was certainly something of a classic.
In compiling the above list of stories, there were some others that I placed in a ‘bubbling under’ position. Stories that I have a great affection for, some for specific reasons, others for more general observations, and to end, I thought I’d mention some of them.
'The Invasion', the Patrick Troughton Cyberman tale, holds a special place simply because I love the music. Don Harper’s only work for Doctor Who consisted of several repeated themes, but all of them were so evocative that they never failed to thrill. In fact, I have probably listened to the soundtrack of this story more often than I have sat down to watch it.
I normally loathe historical stories in all science fiction series, and I don’t like the majority of Doctor Who’s historical romps either, but 'The Aztecs' is one that I do enjoy. This is probably because John Ringham’s Tlotoxl, the Aztec High Priest of Sacrifice was such a fine villain. He scuttled about, hissing and predicting doom, whilst scheming and plotting to get his own way. The rest of the story was pretty good as well, and although the history lesson tended get a little tedious after a time, the majority of the story worked well.
So there you have it. A brace of classics, a handful of almost-classics and some bubblings. I’m sure that others will have their own views on the stories I’ve mentioned, and some will violently disagree with my choices, but that’s fine. Doctor Who was all about diversity and change. Over nearly thirty years we saw a vast variety of different stories set in different times and places. Everyone will have their own favourites, which is why Doctor Who lasted for so long in the first place.
David J Howe