Hey gang! It’s Andy Larson back with another installment of my ongoing “Best Doctor Who stories” series of monthly articles. And it’s rather sad because really this is going to be the second to the last of this series for me. Why, you ask? Aren’t we only up to the 5th Doctor and there were 14 thus far in total (including the War Doctor)?
Yes, that’s true, but you know me and what a massive fan of Classic Who I am. Not to say that the New Who is bad. There are tons of really great stories during the last 15 odd years since the programs relaunch. But, when I started this little monthly project, I was really trying to shine a spotlight on those classic stories that first got me interested as a teenager and galvanized my fan furor.
Given the 6th, 7th, and 8th Doctor eras at least on TV are fairly short affairs, today’s article represents the last of the really long multi year, multi story runs of Doctor Who in its first 26 years on screen.
So with that said, let’s dive deep on a Doctor that I’ve always had very mixed feelings about: Peter Davidson.
Similar to my feelings about David Tennant, Peter Davidson was always a Doctor that I simultaneously loved and hated almost in the same breath. They could be charming, youthful, and dashingly adventurous yet at the same time, shallow and overly melancholy to the point of annoyingly Emo.
They also both had the terrible luck to follow insanely solid Doctor performances by my favorite Tom Baker and insanely solid Christopher Eccleston. As a result, they always were always playing “catch up” in my mind, and although they were putting on great performances, they could never compete with the Doctor that came before. I agree that bias is very unfair, but who ever said the mind of a fan was fair.
I thought the companions of the 5th Doctor/10th Doctor eras were weak comparatively, especially in their interactions/chemistry with the Doctor. In fact, probably the best 5th Doctor companions actually came in at the tail end of his run with Peri, being by far the best, and the conflicted Turlough being somewhat of a treat during the Black Guardian Trilogy.
Finally, like David Tennant’s era, I feel the Peter Davidson run was filled with hits and misses in terms of story telling, giving it a wholly uneven feel. That was again not the fault of either the 5th or 10th Doctor, but it did influence what I thought about each of their respective eras.
In fact, in coming up with a list of the top five 5th Doctor stories, it was actually surprising that the absolute best story ever wasn’t even from the TV show proper. It was actually a part of the Big Finish Audio Drama series which reunited classic Doctors with their companions for a series of insanely well done “expanded universe” adventures. In fact, I could probably go on and on about how great these Audio Dramas are and how they in someways are some of the best Doctor Who has to offer, but I think that’s better for an entire article of its own.
Regardless, the best 5th Doctor story is “Spare Parts” by Marc Platt.
Sort of a “Genesis of the Daleks” type story for Doctor Who’s second biggest bad guy race, the Cybermen, it chronicles how the Doctor and Nyssa visited the crumbling civilization of a nearly identical human like race on the Earth’s twin planet of Mondas. There they found such a profound desperation that these people were willing to sacrifice their humanity in becoming patched together cybernetic Frankensteins just to survive.
It’s everything great science fiction should in that it tells a very real cautionary tale about giving into fear and control for a measure of security, and how easily we as a society could travel down that path. It was such a good story that it was used for the basis of the 10th Doctor two parter “Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel”, although they set it in a parallel universe and that Earth was in no where near as bad of shape.
In fact, in face of the recent COVID outbreak, I would highly recommend everyone that is a Doctor Who should take an opportunity to listen to or re-listen to this particular story. It is sincerely a sobering reminder about how in the face of an awful crisis, people need to turn to the angels in their nature, not the demons, and that technology is often an harsh mistress.
Anyways, with that being said, here’s a list of my top 5 favorite Doctor Who stories from the Peter Davidson era! Hopefully it’s worth that piece of celery on your lapel!
The second part of an extremely thought provoking set of stories dealing with the villainous entity known as the Mara, Snakedance takes the very Buddha-esque and Jungian concepts raised in its preceding story, Kinda, and attempts to flesh out the world that would give rise to such a fascinating threat.
Like the next story on my list, Snakedance draws its greatness from turning the companion notion on its head and making the person the Doctor normally trusts the most the enemy instead. Tegan, the Australian flight attendant, who at times seemed like she didn’t even want to be a part of the Tardis crew plays the part of the villain in this, possessed by the power of the snake like entity, Mara, who is attempting to return to its home planet of Manussa to recreate itself. As a result, it’s one of the few stories in my opinion in which she really serves a purpose other than just standing around and complaining (and you wonder why I disliked the companions of this era).
In an interesting piece of sci-fi story telling, it turns out the Mara was the manifestation of all the evil the Manussan people were attempting to expel from their beings. Once given form, it took over their civilization creating an oppressive empire. I always thought that was a super neat idea for some reason.
Plus, The whole story has a very Eastern vibe to it with a meditating Doctor, a focus on crystals, and overall themes of balance and mysticism. It’s in someways the closest Doctor Who has ever came to exploring Force like concepts you find in Star Wars, what with the mental battle between the light and dark.
And that Snake Cave is just cool looking. It’s like something out of Masters of the Universe and that’s always going to be a thumbs up in my book!
If there was ever a story that deserved a bigger budget than the one that Doctor Who allowed for, Enlightenment would be it.
Epic in it’s overall scope, this story marks the final chapter in three loosely connected serials during season 20 where the superb cosmic bad guy of the Doctor Who universe, the Black Guardian, plants a companion in the Doctor’s party in hopes of killing the time traveling goodie two shoes. This is of course in revenge for the fact that the Doctor previously stopped the Black Guardian from gaining the all powerful “Key to Time” during the season long series of adventures had during the 4th Doctor era.
The companion ends up being Visor Turlough, who does make a decent anti hero as he attempts to appease his master, the Black Guardian, with false schemes to kill the Doctor while at the same time actually wanting to travel with the Doctor and share in his adventures.
Of course, this all comes to a head as the Doctor and his gang get caught up in an interstellar boat race among equally the cosmically powered Eternals who plucked human crews from throughout history to help them sail their vessels through the seas of outer space. With the prize being the aforementioned “enlightenment” to be granted on the winner by the White and Black Guardians, it’s logical that the Doctor and Turlough would be eventually crowned the winners. But the drama in whether Turlough will ultimately use his new found power to kill the Doctor or turn from his wicked ways forever is really a treat for those viewers invested in this story line.
Plus, it’s just beautiful seeing those giant sailing ships among the stardust and planets, silently racing on the outer edges of the universe. It’s got such a poetic and romantic feel to it that it’s truly one of the most visually interesting of all the episodes. If you want to watch it, spring for the special edition version put out in the last couple of years with the updated special effects of the ship race. Absolutely Sublime.
Spoiler Alert! This is the one where Adric dies.
Yeah, universally infamous as probably the most annoying companion in history, the star wearing math nerd known Adric, is actually more well known by Doctor Who fans not so much for the way he lived but the way he died. As in, he’s one of the only companions in Doctor Who history to perish while on the Doctor’s watch, and it’s an event that would haunt the Doctor for years to come.
In that way, his death is more symbolic of the Doctor’s failure than an actual tragic loss of a beloved character. I mean, let’s face it Adric was annoying as hell and similar to Nyssa should have never been a companion to begin with, as he was interesting for the first story he was introduced in, but really failed to be developed any further from there. So nobody really “missed” Adric once he was gone, but the fact that the Doctor was incapable of saving his life, that’s what sticks with us.
Furthermore, unlike later situations with New Who in which the death of character was “walked back” out of some sort of fan sentimentality, like with Captain Jack or Clara, Adric stayed dead. It was a permanent stain on the Doctor’s perfect record, and necessary one too as the only way characters real grow is through failure. In fact as we’ll get to in a moment, it’s the real reason the Fifth Doctor’s final story works so well, as it’s his dramatic opportunity to make up for this horrible mistake.
Plus, the story has the Cybermen in it in for the first time in nearly 10 years, and with those sleek updated looks, it really helped re-cement them as some of the premiere baddies in the Doctor Who rogues gallery.
2.) The Caves of Androzani
Okay, it’s time to bite Fruit Stripes Gum…again.
Meaning, I’m sure most Doctor Who fans were expecting me to include this story on a top 5 list for sure, given it’s been widely received as one of the best of the series. And although the thrilling race against time and his own morality as a poisoned Doctor tries desperately to save his companion in the midst of war between an unscrupulous corporate kingpin and a demented android inventor over a life-prolonging drug is great, it’s also extremely bittersweet for me.
The reason being this is the type of Doctor Who story we should have received throughout the Fifth Doctor’s era, not just in the final story of his run. This story sees one of Peter Davidson’s best performances as both incredibly heroic and vulnerable railing against the dying of the light as it were in a “lose/lose” situation where the best he can hope for is just the survival of his companion and himself. And following the events in Earthshock in which the Fifth Doctor already lost a companion, the need to redeem himself and save Peri’s life makes for a terrifically gripping portrayal.
Speaking of Peri, another bittersweet thing about this story is that it’s the only televised adventure with the Fifth Doctor and Peri being one on one companions, and that’s a near criminal shame given they have such good chemistry together. Much more than the Sixth Doctor and her ever had, so one can only wish that there had been more of a chance for these two actors to have had more adventures together in hopes of salvaging the uneven quality of the Fifth Doctor’s era. Maybe Peri could have been another “Sarah Jane Smith” if she had an opportunity to play off Peter Davidson more and establish more rapport with the audience.
As it stands, as wonderfully tense and atmospheric this adventure is in Peter Davidson’s final televised adventure as the Doctor, it’s also a sad reminder of what could have been. Even Peter himself said that if he had received more scripts like this one, he probably would have stayed for another season…
1.) The Five Doctors
What could be better than The Caves of Androzani? How about bringing together nearly all the previous Doctors, many of the companions, villains, monsters etc. and giving you a really well executed 20th anniversary show which is still the gold standard for “multi Doctor” adventures?
Written by the masterful Terrance Dicks who had been both a writer and story editor at times for the program for nearly the entire length of its run to that point, you can tell that this story is a love letter to the fans. A continuity heavy, Easter egg laden tour de force which could have been the greatest Doctor Who story of all time if Tom Baker had agreed to actually participate, instead of having to use previously unaired footage from the lost story, Shada.
Still though, even without Tom’s presence, this story is still a wonderful celebration of everything that made Doctor Who great. There are Daleks, squads of Cybermen facing off against the bad ass Rassilon Robot, and a Master portrayal from Anthony Ainley which is actually more in line with the classic representation of a “frenemy”, simultaneously helping and hurting the Doctor in a charmingly devious manner.
And then there’s the Second Doctor’s temporary reunion with Jamie and Zoe, which was incredibly bittersweet after the War Games, although it did cause a big continuity problem as to how the Second Doctor would know their memories had been wiped if he immediately regenerated at the end of that story. Yeah, that’s a rabbit hole for a different article.
Plus, it’s still a Fifth Doctor story at its heart. He is still the focal point protagonist figuring out the mystery of which Time Lord kidnapped his former selves and friends and forced them to fight for the secret of immortality located in the Dark Tower.
And despite it all of the past references, this is actually one of the easier stories for new fans to watch. It’s like a sampler platter of classic Doctor Who giving new fans an opportunity to check out samples of each of the eras.
Yeah, it’s not only the best of the Fifth Doctor stories, it’s one of the best Doctor Who stories of all time! A Definite Watch!