My Favorite (and Least Favorite) Televised Fifth Doctor Stories

The Doctor, Tegan, Adric, and Nyssa

Until this year I had never really appreciated the Fifth Doctor. But I had never watched his era in sequence. I have a greater appreciation for this era of the show, even though I think it could have been so much better. In some of my earlier posts I posited that the Fifth Doctor era was a struggle between two visions of Doctor Who: a revisionist vision which attempted to distill Doctor Who to the core ethos of the show (represented by Christopher H. Bidmead) and a recreationist vision which attempted to duplicate the types of stories that Doctor Who had done in the past, this time with a better production values (represented by Eric Saward). I don’t believe this was a conscious struggle. (Although it could have been; I haven’t studied it in depth.) But this era was pulled back and forth between highs and lows.

The Doctor, Turlough, and TeganAt the same time, this era of Doctor Who attempted to inject a type of domesticity to the show, one which hadn’t been seen since the very first season with the Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Susan. This largely failed. Of the companions of this era, Turlough has the strongest and most compelling character arc. He was my favorite companion of the season, even though Nyssa, Tegan, and Adric each had histories and events which should have led to compelling drama.

So while the era itself is mixed, I come away from the era appreciative of what they were trying to do, and I appreciate Peter Davison’s Doctor more than ever before. I await my journey through his Big Finish catalogue.

Looking back over the era, here are my personal picks for favorite and least favorite stories.

Favorite Stories
  • Kinda/Snakedance. Christopher Bailey’s two Mara stories are brilliant pieces of religious symbolism. By and large the directors of each story were able to convey his concepts, and while these stories can be a bit confusing, they reward thought and analysis. I appreciate the religious aspect of these stories, and I love that Bailey created multiple civilizations that feel old and lived in rather than quickly conceptualized for the story.
  • The Black Guardian Trilogy (Mawdryn Undead/Terminus/Enlightenment). I didn’t feel I could take these individually because, while I enjoy each story, what I particularly enjoy is the character arc of Turlough. Mark Strickson’s character is introduced as an untrustworthy character and he journeys through temptation toward redemption. While he never completely becomes trustworthy, his journey of self-discovery is fascinating to watch and is extremely satisfying in the end.
  • Caves of Androzani. This multi-faceted story is gripping and thrilling. While I don’t feel that it is strictly a Fifth Doctor story (it is merely a story where the Fifth Doctor happens to appear), it is an emotionally wrenching destruction of the era that preceded it, and it sets the ground for what is to follow—for better or for worse.
Least Favorite
  • Time-Flight. A promising first episode quickly becomes baffling as the Master embarks on one of the dullest plots he has conceived yet. While the supporting cast is wonderful in this (Peter Grimwade is much better at writing character interactions than compelling plots), the story just drags from one incomprehensible scene to another. There are so many plot leaps it is exhausting.
  • The Kings Demons. Speaking of baffling Master plots, the prevention of Magna Carta may be the weirdest yet. Even the Meddling Monk made more sense than this.
  • Warriors of the Deep. I almost think this is the story where Saward won the struggle. The Silurian plot doesn’t go anywhere new. The ending is a massacre. I can’t see what was accomplished in this story. The Myrka is the least of this story’s problems.

Let me know what you think. What are your favorite stories from the Davison years?

The Doctor and Peri

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2 thoughts on “My Favorite (and Least Favorite) Televised Fifth Doctor Stories

  1. Once again, very insightful observations. Great point that the series was attempting to replicate the dynamic of the Doctor and his three companions from the first two seasons. The problem, of course, is that while the First Doctor and Ian & Barbara’s relationship began as quite antagonistic, with Susan caught in the middle, eventually they did all become friends, albeit with the occasional squabble. In the cast of the Fifth Doctor, all he ever seemed to do is argue with Tegan and Adric over petty nonsense. Tegan really was unlikable a lot of the time. But I honestly put that down to the writing, or maybe the script editing. Last year I listened to the Big Finish audio “The Children of Seth,” which was produced from an unused Christopher Bailey script. In it, Janet Fielding is great. Tegan is written as assertive and engaging, rather than aggressive, pushy, and whiny.

    1. I have been thinking for the past few weeks that once I get caught up to the current series in this blog, I will start looking at Big Finish material. I want to start with the Lost Stories since they seem a good bridge between the classic series and the Big Finish approach to Doctor Who. My concern, however, is to what degree the original characterizations were preserved. I thought Tegan had a lot of potential (like many of the Fifth Doctor companions) but wasn’t written well. If Big Finish has brought nuance to this with their Lost Stories (as I just assume they have with the monthly range releases), then I am relieved.

      And you are correct, Ian, Barbara, and the Doctor underwent a wonderful character arc. It is one of the things I love about those first two seasons, to see the Doctor very antagonistic toward the teachers, then genuinely heartbroken when they finally leave. Some of the best character moments in the classic series were done in those early stories.

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