As another series of Doctor Who fast approaches (though not as fast as I would like), I started thinking about which stories from the show’s long history were most special to me; my “favorites,” as some would call them. And I’ve decided to share them with you! Don’t you feel like the luckiest? Now, because I like placing limits on myself, I’ve decided to split up classic series from new. I figure, they’re two completely different methods of delivering stories, so I’m giving myself 20 favorite classic stories and 15 favorite new stories (two-parters count as one story, with one exception).
I’ve done my best to rank each story according to a very scientific method called “Do I Like This One Better Than This Other One.” It’s also worth pointing out that these are simply my personal favorites. I’m not saying they’re necessarily better than other stories (though, come on, of course they are), merely that I like them a whole heap. Also, if your personal favorite isn’t on this list or isn’t as high on this list as you’d want, just know that it’s not that I don’t like it. Honestly, the list of Doctor Who stories I don’t like at all would be a much shorter and easier to rank list. So, to begin with, here are classic Who stories numbers 20-11.
20) THE TRIAL OF A TIME LORD (14 episodes) 1986
I had a really tough time even thinking of any Colin Baker story I could say I liked at all. While I like the Sixth Doctor a fair amount, none of his stories really do much for me. However, I decided to put the entirety of Season 23 on here for a few reasons. Firstly, though there are technically four stories that make up this season, they’re all presented under the banner title “The Trial of a Time Lord” and feature wraparound segments of the Doctor on trial. That’s much more of a concept arc than the show was really doing at the time. Sure, there was “The Key to Time” arc in Season 16, which I also love, but there wasn’t much in the way of a connecting thread save them just looking for all the segments to the Key. Second, this series came after an 18-month hiatus which might very well have continued forever. Due to lower ratings and the BBC brass just not liking the show anymore, Doctor Who was nearly shit-canned entirely. It was only due to the fans that it was given a reprieve. Upon its return, the writers scrapped what they had been planning in favor of this epic. If Doctor Who was to be on trial for its life, than the Doctor himself should be too. It’s much more meta than the show had been. There are definitely problems with the individual stories and the wraparound segments do get in the way a fair amount (not to mention the fact that every cliffhanger is a zoom-in on Colin Baker’s face), but for the sheer ballsiness it took to make this season, it deserves a spot on the list.
19) THE ROMANS (4 episodes) 1965
I admit I’m not the biggest First Doctor fan. The show just wasn’t sure of what it was in the beginning, the stories were almost categorically too long, and the Doctor just wasn’t the Doctor yet (though, it could be argued that Hartnell was the only one who WAS the Doctor). That all being said, there are a few I really, really like, and it’s interesting to note that most of them were written by the same writer, Dennis Spooner. I like “The Romans” a lot because it was the showing doing broad, slapstick comedy, and actually doing it quite well. It begins with the Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and brand new companion, Vicki, the TARDIS stuck at the bottom of a cliff, having spent the last month chilling out in Rome. Yup! It starts with them on vacation. But the relaxation doesn’t last long as soon there’s a murder, assumed/mistaken identity, corruption, Barbara gets sold into slavery, and the buffoonery of Emperor Nero. It becomes a real farce and it’s a genuine joy to watch. There’s nothing sci-fi-y about it, it’s just a funny story set in Rome, and to see the stern William Hartnell doing comedy, and doing it well, is truly a thing to behold.
18) DAY OF THE DALEKS (4 episodes) 1972
The Daleks had been out of commission for nearly five full years when producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks decided it was time they should make their triumphant return. It wasn’t SUPER triumphant, but it was in a very cool story. Writer Louis Marks had written the original story without Daleks in it at all and was made to put them in. People had forgotten how to sound like Daleks and so their voices and movements aren’t quite right. Still, the story is one of the first and only in the classic series to actually use time travel as a plot device and not merely as a location-changer. Mercenaries from a future Earth controlled by the Daleks use a primitive time-jumping technique to come back in time and kill the man whom they believe is responsible for the planet falling. The Doctor and UNIT are on hand when the mercs show up and the plan is momentarily foiled. Sound a bit like The Terminator to anyone else? This is the serial that introduces the fictional concept of the Blinovitch Limitation Effect, which prevents time travelers from interacting with themselves physically (unless it makes the story work, of course). There’s all kinds of action in this story too as UNIT squaddies shoot it out with the Daleks and their Neanderthal-like thugs, the Ogrons. Just a fun, well-written story. And did I mention the Third Doctor is my favorite? You haven’t seen the last of him on this list.
17) EARTHSHOCK (4 episodes) 1982
80s Doctor Who was definitely hit and miss, but when it hit, it hit hard. Eric Saward’s dark and violent (though light by his standards) story about the Cybermen attempting to wipe out Earth while several visiting dignitaries are there is one of their most dastardly. The Cybermen had been away for 7 years at this point and they sure came back with a bang. This story is also famous for having the first companion death since 1965, and kind of a doozy of a death at that. Some of the story and casting aren’t the best, but Peter Davison’s great, David Banks playing the Cyber Leader (his first of four appearances in the role) is great, and as Cybermen stories go, this is easily one of the best.
16) THE FIVE DOCTORS (90-minute Special) 1983
How do you encapsulate 20 years of sci-fi television majesty? With a big, messy adventure with tons of returning characters, tons of returning villains, a trip to Gallifrey, the Tomb of Rassilon, and a bunch of puzzles that make no sense. In truth, the title is a bit of a misnomer. Tom Baker did not want to be involved, and so was only seen briefly using clips from the unfinished “Shada,” William Hartnell had at this point passed away and was replaced by Richard Hurndall who did the best he could. We do, however, get Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, and Peter Davison all kicking ass (though a few more scenes of them all together would have been great), as well as Sarah Jane, the Brigadier, Susan, K9 for five seconds, the Master, the Cybermen, and even a Dalek. It’s cluttered and silly and utterly delightful. I can only hope the upcoming 50th anniversary will be in this vein.
15) GENESIS OF THE DALEKS (6 episodes) 1975
Now before everyone yells at me about this being too low on the list, I want to explain myself. I do really like this story. Yes, this is probably the very best Dalek story ever, and Michael Wisher’s performance as Davros is utterly magical and marvelous and his scenes with Tom Baker are inspired. It’s a story about the horrible, gritty chemical warfare between the Kaleds and the Thals that lead to the creation of the Daleks, and in these terms it pulls no punches. The direction is fantastic and even Terry Nation’s script is good. However, it’s about two episodes too long and while all the stuff with the Kaleds is fascinating, I could not give less of a shit about the Thals. The fact that both sides are using chemicals is great to establish the fact that they’re ruining their own planet, but that makes neither side in any way sympathetic. If Davros or Nyder are on screen, I dig it; if they aren’t, I don’t. Still one of the best, but might be a tinge overrated in my book. 15 out of 156 is still pretty damn good, guys.
14) THE INVASION (8 episodes) 1968
I adore Patrick Troughton. In every scene, he’s magical. This is one of his best performances and a super great story to boot. The Second Doctor and companions Jamie and Zoe arrive in contemporary London on the eve of a maniacal businessman’s plot to gain immortality through the help of an invading alien force. For half the story, we don’t know who will be doing the invading, but when we do, we know we’re in for it. The direction of this serial was done by favorite Douglas Camfield and is the most realistic story in the Troughton years. It also introduces UNIT, who would be a huge part of Doctor Who for the next five+ years, as well as reintroduces its leader, Brigadier (promoted from Colonel) Lethbridge-Stewart. This is black and white done extremely well and, though it is 8 episodes long, it doesn’t drag for me until episode 7. Eps 1 and 4 are missing, but they’ve been snazzily animated with the original off-air sound recording for the DVD release, which is easily one of the best releases in the range.
13) ENLIGHTENMENT (4 episodes) 1982
This is a pretty atypical Fifth Doctor story. It ends the Black Guardian Trilogy and allows companion Turlough to finally (mostly) decide if he wants to kill the Doctor or be on his side. It’s also the only time in the entirety of the classic or new series where a story has been written and directed by women. It’s a very cool story, about the Doctor and crew landing aboard an Edwardian sailing ship in the middle of a race. Only this boat isn’t in the water, it’s in space. The race is a dangerous cross-galaxy excursion, the winner of which being bestowed with “Enlightenment,” the most valuable object in the universe. The crews of these ships have been taken out of their own time, but the officers are all of a race called the Eternals, nearly omniscient, amoral wanderers who think nothing of the deaths of some “ephemerals.” Really great direction and moody lighting coupled with a strange and exciting script make this one of the best in of the early 80s.
12) REMEMBRANCE OF THE DALEKS (4 episodes) 1988
Much like the Sixth Doctor, I don’t like too many of the Seventh Doctor’s adventures either. They were all a bit silly if you ask me. However, standing head, shoulders, and most of the arms above the rest is this story which began Doctor Who’s 25th Season. The Doctor takes new companion Ace back to 1963 London, to the junkyard where it all started. It seems that he’s going there to pick up an ancient weapon he himself left there in his first incarnation. Why it took the Doctor 700 years to think to retrieve it is anyone’s guess. The trouble is that the Daleks also know it’s here and an all-out war erupts between two factions of Daleks, the military, and the Doctor himself. This story is clever and self-referential without being too silly or obvious. It also sees Ace beat the living snot out of a Dalek with a super-charged metal baseball bat, which is one of the coolest sights ever to behold.
11) THE DEADLY ASSASSIN (4 episodes) 1976
For one story, in between Sarah Jane Smith’s departure and Leela’s introduction, Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor got to go solo for an adventure back to his home world of Gallifrey where he sees a vision of himself assassinating the Time Lord President. But surely this must be a mistake. Someone else, far more nefarious must be behind this strange plot… perhaps the Moriarty to the Doctor’s Sherlock Holmes… It’s the Master, okay? Written by the show’s best and most prolific writer, Robert Holmes, this story employs bits of The Manchurian Candidate and whodunit mystery to make for a truly exciting adventure. At one point, the Doctor goes into a virtual computer world to find the assassin and this place is called “The Matrix.” That’s right, people; Robert Holmes invented the Matrix in 1976. Suck it, Wachowskis. This is also the story that arbitrarily set the Time Lords’ regeneration limit to 12. Oh, but we can forget that. There’s surrealism, horror, and suspense and it’s just a ton of fun. The only reason it’s not higher on the list is that the last episode is silly and doesn’t make sense. Still, one of the very finest stories there is.
So this has been part one of my countdown of favorite Classic Who stories. In just a few short days you’ll get to see my top ten. Will your favorite make it? If it’s “Timelash” or “The Web Planet,” then I’ve got some bad news for you.