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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

So...you want to get into Classic Doctor Who? Pt. 2

And we're back!

In last week's article we took a look at what I considered to be the essential serials of Doctor Who via Doctors 1 through 4. Now we take a look at the "best" of 5 through 8. I say "best", because obviously this is an objective list and my opinion only, though at least with the Fifth Doctor most seem to agree with me, but also because...frankly, there's very little good about these latter Doctors. You see, sometime around the tail end of the Fourth Doctor era, a man named John Nathan -Turner took over the show as its Producer. With Nathan-Turner's arrival on the program, the show which was quickly declining after the departure of Phillip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes, went into a full-on nosedive as Nathan-Turner aimed to turn Doctor Who into an even more marketable property than ever. Adding question marks to the Doctor's shirt collar, and putting the Fourth Doctor into a garish red outfit, this and the increasingly banal scripts he received marked the end of the line for Tom Baker and the longest era of Doctor Who came to a close.

Fifth Doctor
The Caves of Androzani

The Fifth Doctor era found a wonderful actor named Peter Davison in the lead. His Doctor was the exact opposite of Tom Baker's. Whereas Baker was altogether very alien and sometimes quite funny, Davison was emotional and very human. His Doctor was the youngest to had taken on the role at that time and his performance clearly displayed this. His companions were less his students to which he would teach the ways of the universe (or more specifically the exacts of the plot), and instead created a more familial atmosphere. His Doctor was a major influence on the performance of David Tennant and the Tenth Doctor.

Sadly, very little of this era beyond the actor is very good. Most of his serials are rather dull and uninspired, but there are a few nice points including the Cyberman serial "Earthshock" where a companion dies for the first time in the series history. It wasn't until the Fifth Doctor's final serial "The Caves of Androzani" that we finally got a chance to see this Doctor at his best. Robert Holmes returned to write what would be the final story of Davison's run and it was a doozy, with the Doctor and his companion Peri getting poisoned by exposure to a drug called Spectrox in the very first episode and not being aware of it during the course of their adventure until its far too late to save them both. The serial also has a wonderfully fun story about a society addicted to a refined version of the very thing that's poisoning them both, features a terrorist villain that was originally supposed to be played by David Bowie, and continues the Phantom of the Opera style antagonist that Robert Holmes enjoyed so well. It is as good as the Fifth Doctor ever got, it's also arguably the finest serial in the entire show's classic canon...for some it still is the best, regardless of classic or new Who. Check it out if you get a chance, it's still streaming on Netflix. The episode ends with the Doctor sacrificing his own life to save Peri's, and we get our first glimpse of....

Sixth Doctor
"The Holy Terror"

Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor. I'll go ahead and get down to the brass tax of it with you, dear readers: Both the Sixth and Seventh Doctor eras are pretty unwatchable, at least in my eyes. The Sixth Doctor era is everything that was wrong with the Fifth Doctor era taken to a new extreme, it's almost like you're watching Pantomime. The Seventh Doctor era is little better, despite the attempts to flesh out the Doctor's origins somewhat, it's all undone by incredibly dated looking filming techniques (it seriously looks like the show was shot with someone's home video camera at times), and one of the worst companions in the show's history. Though I know people that swear by it, so don't take my word as gospel, but I wouldn't waste my money on it if I hadn't already.

On the other hand, in the late 90's, a company called Big Finish put together audio dramas starring these long suffering Doctors and some very talented voice actors. Many of the scripts for these dramas that basically functioned just like the old radio plays of the 1930's and 40's, were authored by writers that would eventually find their way onto the new Doctor Who series like Paul Cornell, Robert Shearman, and Mark Gatiss.

The first real highlight of the series was a tale written by Robert Shearman called "The Holy Terror" wherein the Sixth Doctor and his companion Frobisher, a talking penguin (yep!) arrive on a feudal planet where Frobisher ends up being worshipped as an idol in the midst of a struggle for power between two sets of brothers who seek to occupy the same throne. It's a beautiful mix of Shakespearean tragedy and religious/customs study, as well as having a few humorous moments here and there. It's dark at times as well, very dark. This was the kind of writing that Doctor Who should have been striving for and stories like "The Holy Terror" almost justify the Sixth Doctor.

Seventh Doctor

Even in the Big Finish range of Audioplays, The Seventh Doctor never fared very well. While much of this can be attributed to poorer scripts and weaker companions for the earlier part of his run, Sylvester McCoy himself is also a major problem. His voice acting simply isn't as up to par as Colin Baker or Peter Davison (much less the excellent Paul McGann coming up), and there's a way his line readings almost irritate my ears at times. Luckily, he has had a few worthwhile entries lately and "Master" which was written by Joseph Lidster as a part of a "villain trilogy" for the show's 40th anniversary now ten years ago is probably the best and most accessible episode of his run so far.

The Master is a villain that I don't think has ever really lived up to his potential as the Moriarty to the Doctor's Sherlock Holmes. Frankly, I think Magnus Creel from "Talons of Weng Chiang", who was originally supposed to be The Master, ends up making a much better arch-villain that I wish would have appeared more often as The Master was far too moustache twirly (literally) for me, along with a stupid shrinking people into doll-size gimmick (I can't make this stuff up). But as with alot of things related to this show, The Master was improved a good deal by Big Finish. "Master" gives background to the character and tells a pretty tragic tale that isn't unlike the wonderful Paul Cornell episodes "Human Nature/Family of Blood" but this time it's the Master who is brainwashed and the script here really makes the Doctor look quite sinister at times. While this sort of twist was something that the showrunner at the end of McCoy's run was aiming for, they never really were able to achieve it in a way that I found very convincing, yet Lidster pulls it off remarkably here.

Eighth Doctor
The Chimes of Midnight

This one is easy, as the only television appearance you get of Paul McGann's turn as the Doctor is via the pretty rough Fox television pilot/movie that aired back in 1996. McGann himself was still great in the role, but the writing was dreadful and there's little that I can say that would be worth convincing you that it's at all worthwhile to try and watch. What's great is, the Eighth Doctor has instead had an entire run with Big Finish audio all his own, and they've been wonderful. His run with the series has been the most plot arc-heavy of all the Doctors and much of that has to do with the freedom associated with his character. He appeared only once and there's little canon that's out there, so he's had a wide-range of companions that could be created and nice little hints without outright references to what may be stirring in the background to necessitate his regeneration into the Ninth Doctor.

"The Chimes of Midnight" is another great script by Robert Shearman, who is probably the closest equivalent to Robert Holmes at Big Finish. The story centers around the Doctor and his companion Charley entering an Edwardian House in 1906 at Christmastime. Whenever the clock strikes midnight, someone is murdered. Time paradox upon time paradox and the sheer existence of his companion are all plot points in what I argue is probably the best of the entire Big Finish range. If you ever wanted to try out your hand at this format, this would be the ideal place to start. Paul McGann's smooth vocalizations make for perfect listening and Charley (as played by India Fisher) is probably the best companion Big Finish created. She's very much in the Sara Jane Smith mold, but for once the plot actually serves her character very well and she's at the center of it. Charley is a bit of a precursor for Amy Pond in a way, but much more active and not reliant on romance as an immediate plot entanglement, which is a relief as I found myself often exhausted of THAT particular area of the Doctor and his companions in the new series pre-Moffat, and slightly during his tenure at the beginning. In short, buy this one if you're gonna buy any.

So, there you have it, my recommendations for Doctors 5-8. We're currently living in a golden age of Doctor Who with the Moffat-era of the show, but throughout its history there are a few gems to be found. I hope this helps if you're looking to dip your toes into the stuff that captured the imagination of the team that revived Doctor Who for all our viewing pleasures.
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