There (was) one of those ‘10 worst Doctor Who stories ever’ threads currently doing a brisk trade over at Gallibase at the moment and, yes, the fires of list fever and whingeaholism burn in my geek heart also, so here’s mine.
My criteria are nothing to do with bad acting, bad effects, shakey plots or anything like that. I can usually tolerate those with a grin on my face. I’m looking for stories that betray the central ethos of the show, that embody or exhibit cynicism, crass commercialism, cliché, group-think, xenophobia, anti-intellectualism and silence or ignorance about things that matter.
Here are my ten rotten eggs, in no particular order.
1. ‘Victory of the Daleks’ – or, to give it its proper alternative title – ‘Merchandising of the Daleks’. Of course, the Daleks have always been an intensively milked cash cow, but this squalid episode brings the cynicism involved to a new subterranean low. The production team have not only redesigned the Daleks, they parade the (ugly) redesign in a selection of vibrant, collectable primary colours. Gotta catch ‘em all, kids. This sort of thing has always gone on, but to see it done with such obvious and slick calculation by the people actually writing the scripts… well, it turns the stomach. Plus, this story presents mass-murdering terrorist, aristo class warrior and racist imperialist Winston Churchill as a twinkly old rogue with whom the Doctor can be an uncritical hug-buddy. What’s next, an episode in which the Doctor teams up with his old pal General Pinochet to fight an army of sentient novelty mobile phone covers? Utterly revolting. Not even the close-ups of Karen Gillan’s freckles can save this one from the lowest, hottest circle of Who Hell.
2. ‘The Shakespeare Code’ – sub-Blackadder clichés take the place of any real attempt to portray a fascinating man in a fascinating place at a fascinating time. Ignorant bardolatry takes the form of a depiction of Shakespeare as a hyper-intuitive Gallagher brother celeb/yobbo. Martha relapses into cypherhood for the course of this story. Dreary doggerel masquerades as lost Shakespeare material. Reality is saved by lines of J. K. Rowling while no real attempt is made to engage with Shakespearean material, to express why it is so valuable. The kids are simply told: Shakespeare was a GENIUS… which is a good way to keep them thinking that his work must be unapproachable. Even the title is stupid – it’s a riff on that excremental “novel” by Dan Brown… for absolutely no reason, unless it is covert self-mockery. Which I doubt.
3. ‘The Unquiet Dead’ – At the height of a reactionary media scare about immigrants, this episode (accidentally) presents us with an anti-asylum seeker parable in which Charles Dickens learns that the message of A Christmas Carol was deeply mistaken: charity to the downtrodden isn’t necessary for the full development of the human soul after all but is, rather, a foolish and dangerous extravagance on the part of the self-serving and guilt-ridden. Oh, and just to round things off, it is implied that the world is saved from the evil immigrants by the ghostly immortal soul of Gwyneth, thus rubbishing Dickens’ stubborn naturalism and siding with the supernatural.
4. ‘The Reign of Terror’ – In contrast to ‘The Aztecs’ which honestly tries to take a nuanced view of Aztec culture, or ‘The Crusade’ which depicts Muslims as a complex and rounded bunch, ‘The Reign of Terror’ takes a black and white view of the great French revolution. Taking their cue directly from Baroness Orczy and Blue Peter, the sans culottes are all shown to be vicious sadists, corrupt idiots and lecherous thugs. The foreign agents who rescue aristocrats are heroic and dashing while Robespierre is depicted as just a cold hearted tyrant. A few mealy words about the revolution not being all bad do not change the fact that, overall, the revolution is dishonestly sketched as a dangerous outbreak of irrational villainy.
5 – ‘The Mind of Evil’. Implies that people in prison are neurologically impregnated with original sin. If you’re in jug, you’re Bad – that’s a given. And it’s because you’ve got Evil in your brain. Nothing more to it than that. I don’t know if this is reductionist biological determinism, a religious notion, or both. But either way, I don’t like it.
6 – ‘The Two Doctors’. Proof that even geniuses can make terrible mistakes, this tale smuggles in a rather wonderful and satirical anti-meat subtext… while depicting the second Doctor as a reactionary genetic determinist who thinks in terms of inferior and superior races. “Really Doctor,” says Dastari, “I expected something more progressive from you.” So did I. In the end, the Doctor’s disapproval of tinkering with Androgum DNA is proved justified, with even Dastari realizing that the Androgums are just inherently inferior. And how are the Androgums depicted? As heavy-browed, warty, big-nosed, red-haired people incapable of controlling their lower urges… i.e. in terms of racist stereotypes used, at one time or another, against Jews, the Irish, you name it. Utterly unforgivable.
7. – ‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’. No attempt has been made to make this story make any kind of sense on any level, with the Doctor’s actions being so illogical and contradictory as to make him inexplicable. But I could live with that… were it not for the sexism and racism with which this story is larded.
8 – ‘The Family of Blood’. Pro-war liberal and “theist” Paul Cornell not only has Tim go to war (instead of being a conshy and red cross volunteer as in the book) but then has the Doctor wearing a bloody poppy – the symbol by which the establishment that organizes and conducts our imperialist slaughterfests both appropriates and controls our memory of them.
9 – ‘The Impossible Planet’/ ‘The Satan Pit’ has the Doctor giving headroom to the idea that the Christian devil might be a real entity, thus implying the possibility of the Christian god. Why is the Doctor prepared to countenance this idea? Because the Beast responds to his scientific positivism (which is itself clumsily expressed) with the usual fatuous rubbish about science itself being just another form of faith. Does the Doctor respond with the proper scoff of derision that such piffling drivel warrants? Does he say “Well, now I know you’re not the devil – the devil would have better arguments.”? No, he looks worried and then dodges subsequent questions about what the beast is. I’m sure the writer of this garbage imagined that he was being sophisticated, which only makes it more obnoxious.
10 – ‘The Dominators’. I try to squint at this and see a parable about youngsters (including one sceptical, daring rebel) proving more effective than fuddy-duddy oldsters in their brave resistance to reactionary imperialist invaders… but that reading isn’t really tenable. In fact, this is a sneering attack not only upon pure pacifism (I wouldn’t mind so much if that was all the writers took aim at) but also upon all notions that calm, reasonable, rational, non-violent debate might be the proper response to warmongering.
Dishonourable mentions must also go to ‘The Monster of Peladon’ for depicting radical strikers as unstable hotheads and inter-class unity as desirable, to ‘Resurrection of the Daleks’ for portraying the Doctor as prepared to commit murder as long as those he kills aren’t humanoid and to ‘Fear Her’ for equating the Olympics (which, in case we were in any doubt, is nothing but an orgy of pointless jockery, jingoism and commercialism) with human love and hope.
The original version of this little bit of spleenvent had ‘Warriors of the Deep’ at position 5… but, after a conversation with a friend and reader (he’s a sucker for punishment), I decided to release it from the Shabgraff Pandorica and substitute ‘The Mind of Evil’.