But GallifreyBase finished off its Troughton stories and it’s a day off. Last War in Albion is back Thursday. For those just tuning in, TARDIS Eruditorum is not a review blog and what it says about a story is at times only obliquely related to its quality. It’s telling a story, and sometimes good stories have to have their flaws emphasized or bad ones have to be polished up a bit in order to make the story flow right. Which is to say that I’m often taking one of several critically defensible positions, and it may or may not be my favorite.
If I were to review Doctor Who stories, I’d say things like this:
Power of the Daleks: A story that is actually perfect. You could film this now and it would be gripping, which is probably why Rob Shearman did with Dalek. Everything – the writing, the characterization, the sheer unnervingness of the new Doctor – is absolutely on target and brilliant here. If you call this the greatest Doctor Who story ever then nobody is really in any place to argue with you. Track down a reconstruction – it’s good enough not to need images. But my God, how lovely would it be if we had this. 10/10.
The Highlanders: A strange little story that doesn’t work, but that pushes itself so far that this observation only barely matters. A demonstration that history and Troughton don’t quite mesh, or, at least, that history and the over the top Troughton they started with don’t quite mesh. And yet so much fun that it’s hard to complain. 5/10
The Underwater Menace: My God, fandom was in a u-turn once they had another part of this. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a story rise in reputation quite like this. And rightly so – what we had always assumed was a terribly naff runaround turns out to be the last gasp of Doctor Who as a portal to strangeness. The attention on Professor Zaroff has always distracted from how utterly weird the world of Atlantis is, and the end harkens back to the darkness of The Gunfighters or The Myth Makers, only more fittingly for this post-Power of the Daleks Doctor. Meanwhile, Troughton finds his legs when he learns to act Zaroff off the screen by underplaying the part instead of trying to ham it up opposite him, and in doing so finally cements the Doctor we all know. Not a masterpiece, but so much more than people thought. (Me, I always loved it for exactly what the second episode showed.) 7/10.
The Moonbase: It’s not that bases under siege are bad so much as that this is an attempt to redo The Tenth Planet, only in getting rid of that story’s obvious flaws it also gets rid of its manic genius and leaves something dreadfully banal. The Doctor’s speech about corners of the universe is great for clip shows, but paints a moral simplicity that’s contrary to everything that worked about the character in the past three stories. Does it deserve credit for getting in before bases under siege became tedious cliches? Sure, but the fact of the matter is that out of eight or nine Troughton stories almost identical to this, this one just isn’t one of the good ones. 3/10
The Macra Terror: Wrongly slotted as a monster story, this one is Doctor Who doing The Prisoner, and is far more interesting for it. Requires a cultural primer on holiday camps to properly enjoy, but since nobody seems to care that the historicals require some knowledge, why should we care about that? Brilliant, psychological, and contains the greatest lost bit of physical comedy in the Troughton era. One of the good ones, this. 9/10
The Faceless Ones: Another story that’s more than what it looks like because the base isn’t a base and the monsters aren’t monsters. Hulke shows much of what will make him great, and while the plotting is slack, the structure is bang-on. The crass treatment of Ben and Polly rankles just as Dodo’s write-out in The War Machines did, but this is a story that will readily reward sitting down and watching it with a bunch of scenes and ideas you don’t expect. 7/10.
Evil of the Daleks: The persistent belief that this and not Power is the masterpiece of Whitaker’s Dalek stories is misplaced. This is an episode too long in the middle, and that episode causes its high concept premise to become just a little too visible. Victorian alchemical Daleks are absolutely genius, but they’re the sort of genius that needs the high octane pace of the new series to actually pull off, and the dirty little secret of Evil of the Daleks is that it doesn’t quite. But thankfully the slack is in the middle where it can be forgotten – the story screams out of the gate, and its conclusion is jaw-droppingly good. By the end you forget the ennui that set in around Part Five. This is one of three stories in the classic series to get the Daleks as an epic force completely and utterly right. 9/10
Tomb of the Cybermen: The plot is contrived and delay-ridden, the supporting cast is racist, and the iconic scene of the Cybermen bursting from their tombs is followed by them crawling back in. Worthwhile because it’s the mid-Troughton base under siege we can watch all of, not because it’s one of the good ones. 4/10
The Abominable Snowmen: A brilliant premise marred by its similarity to the brilliant premises on either side of it and the fact that it’s a six-parter, this is the very definition of “average Patrick Troughton story.” Bung a rock at it. 5/10
The Ice Warriors: For all that the base under siege format is overdone, when it works it works well. The Ice Warriors is taut, full of good characters, visually striking, and earns its length. There’s a reason they came back, and the fact that they’re green men from Mars isn’t it, whereas the fact that their first story is actually very, very good is. (Well, and the fact that the costumes were too expensive not to reuse.) 8/10
The Enemy of the World: So many good ideas, and a story that confirms just how good Troughton is and how many previous stories are salvaged to watchability only because he’s watchable in anything. Here he has a top rate script that demands a lot of him, and he rises to the challenge. He’s good enough as Salamander that you momentarily confuse Doctor Lite episodes with being Troughton Lite until you remember what’s going on. Beautifully paced, with attention paid in all the right places, and a gorgeous bonkers twist. Oh for the rumors that this is back to be true. 10/10.
The Web of Fear: What to do with the most overrated story in all of Doctor Who? It is, after all, merely overrated, not bad. Loved because it introduces Nicholas Courtney in a prototype of the role he’s famous for, has a classic monster, and has some scary bits, it’s actually not better than The Ice Warriors, nor even necessarily than The Abominable Snowmen. Tempting to be performative and controversial and slag it, but slagging is too big a deal for a story that deserves to be remembered like The Highlanders – historically important and not bad. 5/10
Fury From the Deep: The most blatant of the formula following stories in many senses, this also goes steps further by trying to be a character piece about Victoria. Exhausting after so many similar stories, but still one of the better executions of this particular cliche. 6/10
The Wheel in Space: Quite mad, but by David Whitaker, so you have to assume it’s meant to be. This is Whitaker’s Robert Holmes script – a “oh, fine, I’ll give you what you asked for, you bastards” number that mocks the conventions of its genre by insisting on pretending it’s a Season Two story despite blatantly being another sodding base under siege. Too weird to be a classic, but too rewarding to treat harshly, a 7/10 with a caveat that it’s one of those things that makes completism worthwhile, not a casual choice.
The Dominators: The story so bad it killed Patrick Troughton. Is its biggest problem that it’s offensive, that it’s mindless, or that it’s badly made? The fact that you get to pick speaks volumes. 1/10.
The Mind Robbers: Everybody knows this story is brilliant. Everybody is right. Where The Dominators broke with the base under siege only to find it had no other ideas, The Mind Robber is full of ideas and actually gives Troughton’s Doctor material he’s suited to instead of the paranoid thrillers he was usually stuck with. So many good bits here, and so easily loved. 10/10
The Invasion: It’s odd, “let’s do the same story we did before only make it longer” is so rarely a successful idea. And yet The Invasion works wonders. The trick is that it’s not The Web of Fear but The Enemy of the World, with Kevin Stoney stepping in as Salamander and monsters put in to make it all a bit slicker. Contemporary technothriller is not an inherently better idea than base under siege, and will eventually get just as old, but you can see why they tried, which is actually more than you can say for the early bases under siege. 8/10
The Krotons: Rather marvelous, and a return to the more interesting approach that the Troughton era offered to take in its first few stories after a horde of formulaic bases under formulaic sieges. It’s not Holmes’s best script, but he’s still a tremendous breath of fresh air. 8/10
The Seeds of Death: A willfully generic base under siege, but reasonably well made and with a genuinely movingly sense of mourning. An elegaic base under siege is just interesting enough to justify the nostalgia, but at the end of the day the major virtue this story has compared to other bases under siege is its existence. 7/10
The Space Pirates: Firefly in 1969. A cheeky space western. Robert Holmes’s first “fuck you” script as he decides to take “realistic space adventure” at aggressively face value. And a profoundly visual story without even any telesnaps, making it next to impossible to judge. The one story whose absence makes it impossible to give a rating to. So let’s go with Eggs out of Milo Clancy.
The War Games: It has at least two episodes too many, but what other story deserves eight? Marvelous building of tension, a gorgeous inversion of the base under siege, and some of the best twists in Doctor Who. Marvelous. Simply marvelous. 9/10