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

Doctor Who – Caves of Androzani

Doctor Who Story 135 – Caves of Androzani

Written by

Robert Holmes

What’s It About?

The Doctor and Peri materialize on Androzani minor, a planet with an intricate network of caves where the immensely valuable Spectrox is mined. But they soon get trapped in a power struggle between the rebel Sharaz Jek, gunrunners, military soldiers, and corporate interests.

Is This Death?

Sharaz Jek, The Doctor, and PeriWhat makes this story work so well?

Is it Robert Holmes? This is the first Robert Holmes script for Doctor Who since “The Power of Kroll,” an admittedly uninspired story. But some elements of “Kroll” reappear here, namely gunrunners. But “Caves of Androzani” is in a whole other league when compared to “Kroll.” This is a tragedy. Some of the Holmes tropes are there. Sharaz Jek is a play on Phantom of the Opera, referring back to the horror stories which inspired Hinchcliffe and Holmes when they ran Doctor Who. Many of Holmes’s scripts would target sectors of society that Holmes had little patience for: stuffy bureaucrats (The Deadly Assassin), tax codes and tax collectors (The Sun Makers). Here, the target is aimed at corporations who play two sides against one another for profit, immoral economics. And, of course, there is the lava monster. Holmes was from the era when Doctor Who had to have monsters. Excise this monster from the story, and you don’t lose much. But as I watched the story, I began to question how much of this was by Robert Holmes and how much was by Eric Saward. This is a tragic story. It is bleak. Once more, we have no survivors. More than any story so far, the Doctor is virtually useless here. He is in way over his head and the only thing he manages to accomplish is to save Peri’s life. Apart from this, he does not solve the problems in the story. He does not call people to a higher calling or morality. This is another story where everyone kills each other, and the Doctor and companion get away—only this time, the Doctor is killed as well.

But most striking is the lack of humor. Humor is a Robert Holmes staple, and there is none here. Now, it isn’t unheard of for writers to try different things or to occasionally break type, but the lack of humor stands out in this story. It is dark, ominous, and tragic. So I return to my question, what makes this story work so well? Is it Saward’s script editing?

Is it Graeme Harper? Hands down, this is one of the best-directed stories in classic Who, and most-certainly the best of the Davison era, which is quite a statement because Peter Grimwade and Fiona Cumming set the bar pretty high. That Harper was able to surpass them speaks volumes to his talent and to why he was invited to direct for new Who. This is a visceral story. It is an emotional story. The scene where Jek is first unmasked (and the viewer doesn’t see it) is probably the most emotionally and viscerally intense scene in Doctor Who since Vasor threatened to prey upon Barbara in The Keys of Marinus (the subtext in that story was rape but it was never actually stated). Even the power struggle between the gun runners is framed perfectly with the positioning of the actors conveying strength and authority. “Caves of Androzani” is a masterpiece of direction.

Is it Peter Davison? I had never warmed to Davison’s era before, but this time through (my first time through in sequence) I got it. He was always a great Doctor, but he was a different Doctor. He was more down-to-earth, more polite and sweet. He was a human Doctor. And because of that portrayal, this story kills him. This story breaks him. From the moment the Doctor gets involved, he is in a position of weakness and he never recovers. And yet he struggles on in an attempt to save Peri. Even Sharaz Jek helps him in the end, showing his humanity rather than playing the villain completely.

Honestly, no one person is responsible for the success of this story. Everything came together to send Peter Davison off. For me, this was the most emotional regeneration story since The Tenth Planet. I’m rather sad to see him go because for the next couple seasons I will be witnessing more Saward bleakness, but now with a Doctor who isn’t afraid to do the hard things to stay in control. I don’t have a problem with a Machiavellian Doctor, but I’m a little concerned about the darkness of Saward’s vision of the show.

My Rating

5/5

Doctor Who – Planet of Fire

Doctor Who Story 134 – Planet of Fire

Written by

Peter Grimwade

What’s It About?

A strange artifact discovered on Earth has ties to Turlough’s past.

Would You Show No Mercy to Your Own

The Master accuses the Doctor of being dangerous to the people of SarnOf the four companions to get a send-off during the Davison era, I think Turlough comes off the best. Peter Grimwade, more than Saward (who was responsible for writing two of these send-offs) is able to handle the character drama better than most. Even though we had been toyed with where Turlough’s past is concerned, Grimwade provides a moderately satisfying conclusion and a believable exit to the character. This makes me happy since Turlough was probably the best-realized companion of the era.

But there is a contrast here with Peri, who I’m tempted to see as a scathing portrayal as an American but in reality just see as a poorly developed character. This isn’t down to Nicola Bryant, per se. It is hard to judge her acting chops with this character because the character seems so ill-conceived. From episode one it seems clear that Peri’s main role is titillation. The blocking of certain shots make this painfully clear. Once more, I’m grateful for Big Finish’s redemption of certain characters in Doctor Who.

But impressive is Grimwade’s handling of a checklist of ideas. No, “Planet of Fire” isn’t a bona fide classic, but Grimwade does seem adept at taking the checklist and doing his best with it. Much like Terrance Dicks with “The Five Doctors,” although I think “Planet of Fire” has more satisfying character moments. Grimwade’s challenge here is to reveal Turlough’s past and subsequently write him out of the show, introduce the Peri, and resolve the Kamelion (non)arc. It isn’t a long list, but each item on its own would be enough emotional and plot drama for an entire story. That Grimwade is able to put all of these in while at the same time scripting a passable main plot is admirable. And that this script actually feels more like an end of an era is fascinating, especially as Davison has one more story left. “Planet of Fire” shakes off everything that had been a part of Doctor Who since “Castrovalva.” On some level, you can make a case that the Davison era ended here because “Caves of Androzani” (the final Fifth Doctor story) is a different beast entirely. This is the final story where the Fifth Doctor can be the Fifth Doctor. This is the final story where the Fifth Doctor faces the Master. This is the final story with a Fifth Doctor companion. And while Davison is still there in the end, you can tell that the Doctor is not quite sure where things are going to go from here. He almost seems to sense that the end is around the corner, and Peri is an indication that his time is over.

And given its tone, “Planet of Fire” is a wonderful break from the darkness that Saward has been spreading over his vision of Doctor Who.

My Rating

3/5

Doctor Who – Resurrection of the Daleks

Doctor Who Story 133 – Resurrection of the Daleks

Written by

Eric Saward

What’s It About?

An army from another time is gunned down by police on an abandoned industrial block in London. When the TARDIS crew arrives, they discover the British military has set up a camp in one of the buildings—a building where Daleks occasionally appear via time portal.

You Are Soft

The Doctor aims a gun at DavrosTo me, the most important development in “Resurrection of the Daleks” is not the establishment of Davros vs. Daleks factions but the toll this story takes on Tegan and, thus, on the Doctor. This story is a turning point in the Fifth Doctor’s development, one that sees him shifting to a darker personality. I’m stealing a bit from Ben Herman here, but I really like his theory, which (as I adopt it) goes like this:

During this past season, the Doctor has increasingly been exposed to a bleak and cruel universe. “Warriors of the Deep ended in a massacre. “Resurrection” sees the Doctor trying to decide if he should assassinate Davros. The moral choices he faces are becoming more difficult, and the Fifth Doctor, who started energetic and more domestic (he took part in an Edwardian costume party after all, something other Doctors would have found uninteresting) cannot handle these situations. He is the wrong Doctor for these stories, the wrong Doctor for a Saward universe. That’s not to say Davison is a bad Doctor or that the stories are all bad. But the Doctor increasingly realizes that he is taking emotional blow after emotional blow. He lacks the elitism or sense of superiority of earlier Doctors. He has been around humans for a long time and is become one of them in temperament. The Sixth Doctor, who is only two stories away now, is a darker, more brutally realist Doctor. He is the hard heartedness that the Fifth Doctor needs but can’t manifest. “Resurrection of the Daleks,” to my reading, is Fifth’s first realization that he cannot handle this universe. Tegan, the last remnant of a simpler time, has abandons him for a normal, quiet life. As she said, “It’s not fun anymore.” (Something Saward didn’t observe about his own conception of Doctor Who.) This comes as a blow to the Doctor, and this dynamic will play out over the next two stories as he tries to adopt a harsher attitude, fails, and is forced to regenerate into a Doctor who can handle the Saward universe. (This is quite similar, I think, to the recently released mini-episode Night of the Doctor.) So, essentially, thank you, Mr. Herman, for your fascinating perspective.

It is hard for me to not read the new series Time War into this story. There is a Doctor Who confidential episode in which Russell T. Davies marks “Genesis of the Daleks” as the origin of the Time War. To review, a member of the Celestial Intervention Agency (according to one fan retcon, a generic Time Lord otherwise) forces the Doctor to go to Skaro during the Davros’s creation of the Daleks. The Doctor is supposed to stop the Daleks from ever being created. He fails, but he does (depending on your perspective) alter Dalek history (maybe). But the key piece of information here is that the Time Lords chose to interfere in history by preventing a race from existing. Said race would, understandably, hold a grudge. (Not that the Daleks needed the excuse.) Along the way, the Daleks got involved in many other wars (specifically the Movellan War), but by the time of “Resurrection,” their focus was on the Time Lords. They had suffered great losses during the Movellan War, but that didn’t stop them from wanting to take on the Time Lords by creating a duplicate of the Doctor who could assassinate the Time Lord high council. By this point, formal declarations of war are only a matter of time.

“Resurrection of the Daleks,” then, fits into to broader narratives: one developing the Doctor into a darker personality and one which sees the escalation of Time Lord/Dalek conflict. This escalation can be seen in many early Big Finish audios. (Which, interestingly, were made prior to the new series, leading me to wonder if the Time Lord/ Dalek war was floating in the collective consciousness of Doctor Who fans, or was a strong theory at the time that Davies wove into the new series. I was not a part of fandom in those late 90s/early 00s years [arguably, I’m in my own corner of fandom right now, but not a part of larger fandom movements], so I’m not sure what ideas were floating in the ether. Also, I live in America, which is a slight insulator from larger DW movements.)

All this said, “Resurrection of the Daleks” is an interesting approach to the Daleks. It is a pivotal piece of Doctor Who’s on-going mythology. Despite all this, however, I am somewhat indifferent toward it.

My Rating

3/5

Doctor Who – Frontios

Doctor Who Story 132 – Frontios

Written by

Christopher H. Bidmead

What’s It About?

The TARDIS has travelled beyond the point where Time Lords are allowed to travel. Humanity is looking for a new home, and the Doctor must not get involved. Unfortunately, the TARDIS is forced to materialize on Frontios. A colony of humans is dying out due to mysterious vanishings. But the Doctor must not get involved. The colony is being bombarded by asteroids. But the Doctor must not get involved.

You Can Tell Them I Came And Went Like A Summer Cloud

The Doctor tempts Gravis with the TARDISHooray for Bidmead’s return to Doctor Who! And even though there are Sawardian fingerprints on “Frontios” (lots of military and the horror is elevated), Bidmead still turns in an interesting and satisfying story. This is particularly intriguing to me because I had trouble engaging with this story in the first two episodes, but was hooked in the final two. This was based in part on Bidmead’s name being in the credits, forcing me to pay attention because I knew it had to be good even if I wasn’t enjoying it, but also because Bidmead starts from the Saward view of the universe and moves beyond it. “Frontios” starts with a military group begin preyed upon. The imagery of people being sucked through the earth is horrifying. Humans are being used as batteries to fuel machinery. Turlough spends most of the story in horrific shock as he builds up the threat of the Tractators. But in the end, the Doctor wins over the soldiers (making them thoughtful and human rather than Machiavellian) and outwits the monsters. He lets them destroy themselves. Bidmead starts with Saward view, dismantles, and refutes it.

At the same time, Bidmead always plays with mythology in fascinating ways. The planet Frontios is a new beginning for humanity, an Eden in the sense of origin, but not in a garden sense. Asteroids regularly bombard the planet, heavenly bodies falling from the sky like angels cast out of Heaven. People are consumed by the earth; they are pulled into caverns and enslaved by Tractators, the bug-like demons of the earth. This is death and burial; this is descent into hell. Only by entering hell and defeating the demons can the colonists survive. But ultimately, only a god (or a Time Lord) can defeat the devil by tricking him using his own desires to escape from hell against him, a war between creatures from a higher sphere of existence than humans. “Frontios” is Paradise Lost; it is a story of the salvation of humanity from the enslavement to death. But it is also a refutation of the Saward approach to Doctor Who. And, sadly, it is Christopher H. Bidmead’s last contribution to classic Doctor Who.

My Rating

4/5

Doctor Who – The Awakening

Doctor Who Story 131 – The Awakening

Written by

Eric Pringle

What’s It About?

The TARDIS materializes in Little Hodcombe, a small English village where Tegan’s grandfather lives. The residents are reenacting the English Civil War, but as the Doctor, Tegan, and Turlough look for Tegan’s grandfather, they realize that the residents are taking the reenactment extremely seriously.

We’re Running Out of Places to Run

A psychic projection of a gargoyle appears in the TARDIS.I will admit up front that “The Awakening” didn’t resonate with me. That doesn’t, however, mean that “The Awakening” is bad.

I’ve been taking a class on Advanced Non-Fiction. Basically, it helps us develop our writing on a creative level within the creative non-fiction genre. (Creative non-fiction is a bit of a nebulous term and it covers a multitude of forms. For my anecdotal purposes, let’s just say it is non-academic non-fiction.) We are in the workshop phase of the semester, and each day we have about 3 – 4 pieces to read and critique. With a class of 24 or so people, it is understandable that not every essay will resonate with every reader. Whether the essay does or does not resonate is only one facet of the process; it gives an indication of audience. The primary purpose is to evaluate craft and effectiveness. In this way, we can read a work that may not interest us based on style or subject, but still appreciate and evaluate the craft.

And this is how I view “The Awakening.” It didn’t really resonate with me, but it was an effective piece. If anything, it reminded me of New Who. In fact, I think “The Awakening” may be one of the most forward-looking stories of the Davison era, not because it is forward-looking in a Bidmead way, but because it is forward-looking in a 2005-Russell-T-Davies way. It distills certain aspects of Doctor Who into a 50-minute format and does so successfully. I’m perfectly willing to admit that maybe my antipathy toward it rests in having seen RTD streamline the formula into a way that pretty much worked for his era of Doctor Who and “The Awakening” seems like something I’ve seen done better. I hope this isn’t the explanation because it is horrendously unfair to this story.

But the central conceit of the story—that celebrations of an historical event create psychic energy which awakens an ancient evil who then uses the created psychic energy to control the celebrants into not merely re-enacting but actually enacting the event which has now become an icon of a perceived golden age—is intriguing. This is, naturally, an endless struggle of humanity which often manifests politically. I think of my own country’s progressive/conservative divide, the extremes of which are based on overly reductive interpretations U.S. history and misreadings of the past. And so the idea of manifesting the ideal one wishes to see, regardless of whether or not that ideal actually ever existed, is fascinating.

In fact, I may re-watch this story sometime after I finish the main run-through Doctor Who. I think it is already in need of re-evaluation.

My Rating

Withheld for the time being.

Doctor Who – Warriors of the Deep

Doctor Who Story 130 – Warriors of the Deep

Written by

Johnny Byrne

What’s It About?

After nearly being shot down from Earth’s orbit, the Doctor, Tegan, and Turlough materialize in an underwater base which is engaged in a type of cold-war exercise. Little do they know, an old enemy is planning on gaining access to this base to enact a plan which will destroy all of humanity.

There Should Have Been Another Way
The Doctor talks to a Silurian
Don’t let the smile fool you.

On some level, “Warriors of the Deep” makes me happy.

It makes me happy because it supports my pet theory of the Davison era, that this era was pulled like a rag doll between looking to the past and looking to the future. Or, to put it another way, does the show redefine itself for a new era, attempting to craft its own unique style and storytelling form, or does it look at what worked in the past and replicate it in the 1980s. I’ve characterized this as the Bidmead/Saward divide, based on nothing more than the fact that these two men were script editors and seemed to take one of these two approaches to the show. Bidmead redefined Doctor Who for a new era. Saward looked at what Doctor Who had done in the past and tried to replicate it. I have no real knowledge if these two men consciously thought this way, but I do know that Saward was instrumental in bringing Robert Holmes back into the Doctor Who fold. As much as I love Holmes, I can’t think of a writer who defined a previous era more than him, so I count this as a look backward.

To me, “Warriors of the Deep” epitomizes this struggle. It’s closest analogy is “Earthshock,” which succeeded beyond any reason why it should. “Warriors of the Deep” fails in part due to shoddy production values (a fairly insignificant crime, in my opinion) and in part due to a banal story. Being the third time in the classic era where we see the Silurians, nothing much is added here. This story is a direct sequel to “The Silurians,” which was multi-layered and gripping. “Warriors of the Deep” only manages to rehash the same conflict that was old in “The Sea Devils.” (Although that story had The Master to create more conflict. Besides, the directing was quite effective there.) One thing I like about Moffatt’s run is that the Silurians have actually been taken in to new territory. Yes, “The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood” were rehashes of the same plot for the fourth time, but this was for a new generation of fans who may never bother to watch the Pertwee era. Rehashing the story is somewhat forgivable. But with the introduction of Lady Vastra, at least ONE Silurian has been taken into new territory.

But back to “Warriors of the Deep.” It really seems as if it is trying to re-do “Earthshock,” but without Peter Grimwade behind the camera. The ending in unnecessarily bleak. The moral complexity that was in “The Silurians” is absent here. And besides that, it is flat-out dull. It was a struggle to watch this story.

My Rating

1/5