Recently I came across a ranking of "The Top 10 Moments in Doctor Who History", by The Big Blue Box. They are judged to be as follows:(1)
The Doctor agonizing over whether or not to wipe out the Daleks in Genesis of the Daleks
the fourth regeneration in Logopolis
the departure of Susan in The Dalek Invasion of Earth
the departure of Sarah Jane Smith in The Hand of Fear
the revelation of Professor Yana as the Master in Utopia
the Doctor's exile to Earth in The War Games
the TARDIS towing planet Earth back to orbit in Journey's End
Sutekh in Pyramids of Mars
the first inside view of the TARDIS in The Unearthly Child
, and (10)
the departure of Rose Tyler in Doomsday
The author of the Big Blue Box used a threefold criteria. The scenes or sequences (1) must be well done, well directed, and well acted; (2) must be well remembered and loved by fans, standing the test of time; (3) tend to set a precedent, meaning that they have strong bearing on the series going forward. The inclusion of #7 is preposterous, since it fails all three. (Everything about Journey's End
is memorable, to be sure, but in a bad way.) The others are good choices, but a third of them are companion departure scenes, which really isn't representative of famous moments across a 30-year period (26 classical seasons and 4 new ones). In other words, a top-10 list is just too short to do justice to "Doctor Who History", and it's also probably a mistake to mix classic scenes with new ones since they're hard to compare.
To remedy the Big Blue Box's shortcomings, I'm doing two lists: the top 20 moments of the classic series (below), and the top 10 of the new series (next post). All of the Big Blue Box's choices find a home somewhere on my lists except #3 and #7, and my top two choices for the classics are the same as his. I use the same threefold criteria. Note that half of the classic moments are from Tom Baker stories, which isn't surprising since that was the golden age. The 20 Most Memorable Moments in Classic Doctor Who (1963-1989)
1. "Do I Have the Right?" Genesis of the Daleks.
1975. This question has taken on mythical status among Who fans. The Doctor's refusal to commit genocide on the Daleks is his most compelling character moment of all time, and the fact that most of us disagree with his logic doesn't diminish it at all. He compares going back in time to wipe out the Daleks to murdering innocent children who become evil adults, and then points out that many future enemies will become allies on account of the Dalek menace. That's never persuaded me. As critics have pointed out, Daleks are homicidal xenophobes completely devoid of compassion and thus more like a virus than innocent children, and so the Doctor's argument is basically the same as one who refuses to prevent an outbreak of the Spanish Flu on grounds that people will bond more closely as a result. But then we're human, aren't we? A Time Lord sees things differently, especially when history would be changed so dramatically. Of course, the Doctor would gradually lose his pacifist stance toward the Daleks; by his seventh incarnation (see #4) he's turned 180 degrees.
2. The fourth regeneration. Logopolis.
1981. All regenerations are landmark moments, but the fourth encapsulates a golden age and just floors me every time I watch it. Tom Baker accommodated more change in the show's vision than any other Doctor, under Philip Hinchcliffe (three seasons of gothic horror), Graham Williams (three more of light comedy), and then John Nathan-Turner (the last and most talked about season, which reined in the comedy and grounded the stories more firmly in science). Baker's regeneration was seen by millions when it first aired, and I'll never forget the way his final whisper brought tears to my eyes: "It's the end, but the moment has been prepared for". It may not have been as flashy as later regenerations, but definitely the most moving.
3. Sutekh. Pyramids of Mars.
1975. The ultimate Doctor Who villain. Devoted not to conquering others but eradicating all life everywhere. Two scenes famously convey this. One is the confrontation with Sutekh, where the Doctor is excruciatingly tortured as the god explains that what is evil to most people -- complete nihilism -- is in fact pure and good. Gabriel Woolf's voice (the same playing the voice of Satan in the new series) is immeasurably frightening, venomous, and much the way one would expect evil incarnate to sound. The second scene is the TARDIS trip to a devastated 1980, the world as Sutekh would leave it, a lifeless planet circling a dead sun. A poleaxed Sarah listens to the Doctor explain time fluxes and how the future can be shaped (over her protest that she's from 1980) until she's finally convinced they must go back and stop Sutekh in the past which has sort of become their present (since, in the new-series lingo, they've become "part of events"). Davros may be the most famous villain in the show's history, but Sutekh goes down as the most dangerous -- and damn near invincible.
4. Destroying Skaro. Remembrance of the Daleks.
1988. The Seventh Doctor comes a long way from his fourth self. Far from being squeamish about wiping out a race of xenophobic killers (see #1), he now decides that the destruction of an entire solar system is worth an attempt to cripple the Daleks. He engineers this by goading a completely insane and gibbering Davros to use the Hand of Omega. The result is the obliteration of Skaro, which not only kills many Daleks but an entire ecosystem -- and whoever else is living on the planet at the time! Two decades after this first aired, the raging debates continue. For myself, I don't have as much problem with the Doctor's moral compass here as I did in Genesis
, where he was clearly hiding behind a hyper-pacifism to avoid accepting responsibility for necessary actions. At the same time, indiscriminately obliterating a solar system is a bit extreme. I'm not surprised the Ninth Doctor didn't have the balls to go through with a similar threat in The Parting of the Ways
; the Seventh couldn't have slept too well after a stunt like this. But it says something about how legendary a scene is that (like #1) it continues to be a source of such endearing controversy.
5. Exiled to Earth. The War Games.
1969. Some people forget that Time Lords were unheard of until the Second Doctor's last story. When his race was finally revealed, fans supposed that his home planet was ripe for exploring, but that wasn't to be for a long time. Instead the Doctor got exiled to Earth (the Third Doctor's inheritance) for breaking laws of time, while companions Jaime and Zoe were rewarded with a memory wipe so that all their adventures with the Doctor in effect never happened. It's a tragic ending to a Herculean 10-episode story involving soldiers abducted from different historical periods and forced to fight in simulated environments. The Doctor's sentencing set a landmark precedent for the stormy relationship with his people, and there's no question it belongs in the top five.
6. Inside the Matrix. The Deadly Assassion.
1976. The end of episode two and almost all of three are ultra-famous for being set in a virtual reality (long before Keanu Reeves, thank you) in which the Doctor and Chancellor Goth engage in a drawn out battle across surreal wastelands and lethal jungles. There's almost no dialogue, just a brutally intense half hour as the Doctor struggles to survive. The cliffhanger of the Doctor's head being held under water by Goth called forth the expected outrage from Mary Whitehouse (but then what didn't in the Hinchcliffe era?). This story was critically panned back in the '70s for daring to break with so much formula, but of course it's long since become a cherished classic. The matrix scenes in particular are among the most intense memories of Doctor Who that have stayed with me since childhood, and I'd take them over the Matrix
films any day.
7. Parallel UNIT. Inferno.
1970. There's not much memorable about the Pertwee era (mostly just invasion of earth stories), but the parallel earth story is a major exception, showing the Doctor trapped in a fascist version of Britain, held captive and tormented by sinister versions of his friends at UNIT. The Brigadier -- or Brigade Leader, in this alternate reality -- steals the show as a sadistic bully, and Liz Shaw's counterpart is pretty grim too. Most importantly, the parallel setting allows us to see what happens when the Doctor isn't able to save the day and the entire world burns under lava. The doom of alternate Earth offers perhaps the most relentless and dramatic sequences in the history of the show, as everyone knows they're about to die and no one can do anything about it, and the Brigade Leader tries cowardly to escape away to the Doctor's version of earth. I'm still in awe of these moments after so many years.
8. The departure of Sarah Jane Smith. The Hand of Fear.
1976. Like regenerations, departures of companions are always memorable, but Sarah's is quite special. Not only is she the favorite companion of many viewers, she seems to have been the Doctor's favorite too. As critic Paul Clarke once put it: "There's a real feel in this scene that these are two best friends who aren't going to see each other again, or at least not for a long time, and that they both find it enormously painful to part company. Tom Baker gets a remarkable amount of emotion into the Doctor's line 'Oh, Sarah... don't you forget me.'" Although Rose's departure in the new series is obviously the most emotional, Sarah's remains the most poignant, and perfectly played by Baker and Sladen. Who would have dreamed that Sarah would return decades later and reunite with the Doctor in his tenth incarnation?
9. The "Great Healer". Revelation of the Daleks.
1985. Here's Davros at his most cunning and sadistic, presiding over a mortuary planet as "The Great Healer", hailed as a savior for providing starving planets with a synthetic protein, which in actuality is human leftovers from the breeding of his new Imperial Dalek army. His confrontation with the Doctor is priceless, as he justifies two things as if they were purely practical solutions, but with an undercurrent of sadistic glee: (1) making Daleks out of the planet's citizens, since as people of power and ambition they would realize they are better off as the master race than left to rot, and (2) feeding other planets on the protein from their own dead -- keeping the masses ignorant of what they're really eating, of course, for fear of "consumer resistance". But even before this is more general sadistic behavior, as he watches over the mortuary via dozens of cameras, yelling orders, manipulating people, setting them against each other, having them exterminated, bellowing insane laughter... "The Great Healer" is Davros at his most morbid, and his greatest character moment since Genesis
10. The "homo sapiens" speech. The Ark in Space.
1975. This famous speech comes in Tom Baker's first impressive story, as he surveys a cryogenic chamber filled with frozen survivors of a society thousands of years in the future. "Homo sapiens! What an inventive, invincible species. It's only been a few million years since they crawled up out of the mud and learned to walk. Puny, defenseless bipeds. They've survived flood, famine and plague. They've survived cosmic wars and holocausts. And now, here they are, out among the stars, waiting to begin a new life. Ready to outsit eternity. They're indomitable... indomitable." The monologue is fascinating in light of what follows, as we learn that these people are fascist elites, questioning Sarah's value, ready to kill the Doctor and Harry as outside inferiors. Yet the Doctor sides with them anyway against the insect Wirrn, who have clearly been wronged by humanity in the past. As the Doctor later says, "It may be irrational of me, but human beings are quite my favorite species". Another one of those compelling character moments that makes the Time Lord hard to pin down.
11. Trying to kill Peri. The Twin Dilemma.
1984. One of the worst Doctor Who stories of all time contains one of the most thrilling scenes, as a newly regenerated Sixth Doctor tries to strangle his own TARDIS companion. This caused a mighty uproar when first seen, but Colin Baker has been way too unfairly maligned. He got only two good stories (Vengeance on Varos
and Revelation of the Daleks
), was saddled with the worst companion ever (Peri Brown), and the BBC changed the show's time slot so that ratings suffered. But Baker's acting was just fine, and I love what he brought to his Doctor: an anti-hero full of bombastic arrogance, violence, and dark impulses; the complete opposite of Peter Davison's youthful innocent figure. Every Doctor coped with regeneration differently. The third lay in a coma, the fourth became hypomanic, the fifth suffered split personality... and the sixth, best of all, went homicidal.
12. Doctor Sherlock, Professor Lightfoot, & Henry Gordon Jago. The Talons of Weng-Chiang
. 1977. From the best Doctor Who story of all time come the most memorable guest characters, and indeed the Doctor himself who assumes the role and appearance of a Sherlock Holmes figure in Victorian London. Think of scenes like the Doctor up in the theater box, telling a squatting terrified Jago (played brilliantly by Christopher Benjamin) that he really doesn't have the place surrounded with "his police" because he knows he can rely on Jago alone to help him. Or when Leela shows Lightfoot how to "properly" eat a turkey sans
silverware. Or when the Doctor strides into the police station, making rude demands and assuming control of Chang's interrogation. Or when Jago and Lightfoot take it on themselves to rescue the Doctor, only to fall immediately into the clutches of Magnus Greel. Character moments have never been so priceless as in Talons
13. The fifth regeneration
. The Caves of Androzani.
1984. Many believe that Peter Davison got the best regeneration of all time, but while I agree it's the most dramatic it doesn't have the soul or dignity of Tom Baker's (#2). Davison had the luxury of going out as strong as possible, in what is universally hailed as the best story from his period, and his regeneration is the culmination of all that suspense and adrenaline rush. Best of all is the fact that the new (Sixth) Doctor gets in some beautiful lines at the end, when Peri asks, "What's going on?" The cold reply: "Change, my dear. And it would seem not a moment too soon." Poor Peri would get quite a change indeed when this arrogant incarnation went berserk and tried to kill her (#11).
14. The other side of the mirror. Warriors' Gate.
1981. "Do nothing. It is done." That's Biroc's wisdom for you, but few understand it. The Tharils exist in alternate timelines and are thus able to make choices which essentially take care of themselves, and this makes the Doctor amusingly unnecessary. Unable to solve any crisis or liberate the Tharils from slavery (Biroc does that himself), he spends most of the story just chasing after Biroc, until he ends up on other side of the mirror-gateway -- in the same banquet hall he just left, but in the past when the Tharils were kings and contemptuously enslaved humans. Just as we think this
is where the Doctor will put something to right -- telling Biroc that the way forward is not to restore his race to a time when they practiced the very evil they're now trying to escape -- we eventually learn that Biroc is already repentant but undeterred from the path he's chosen. Which is exactly the point. The Doctor does absolutely "nothing" to make a difference in this story, for he can't. Interrupting the table-talk comes the smashing cliffhanger everyone loves: the Gundan robots suddenly burst into the hall with axes raised, and the Tharils scatter while the Doctor remains seated; an axe thuds into the table right in front of him, time shifts with an immense rushing sound, and he finds himself in the present surrounded by Rorvick's hostile crew: "Well Doctor, this is
a surprise!" It all adds up to what I consider the most transcendent moment of the classic era.
15. First inside view of the TARDIS. An Unearthly Child.
1963. In terms of precedent, this scene from the very first Doctor Who story trumps everything else: the reaction of new companions to the TARDIS. Ian and Barbara marvel, as will all future companions, how the box can be bigger on the inside, and I always get a chortle out of the Doctor's rude retort that they don't deserve an explanation. (I wish David Tennant had done that more in the new series.) I should note that I was sorely tempted to supplant this scene with the one from Robots of Death
, where the Doctor holds a small box in front of Leela and tells her that it looks bigger than a larger box that's further away. "If you could keep the larger box that distance away and have it here at the same time, it would fit inside the smaller one." Leela: "That's silly." The Doctor: "That's transdimensional engineering." But Tom Baker is getting enough play on this list.
16. The Krynoid. The Seeds of Doom.
1976. Professor Keeler's transformation into a galactic weed is so disturbing that parents complained about it, let alone Mary Whitehouse. To me the Krynoid remains the most horrific Doctor Who creature in terms of appearance, especially in the interim period as the host is being taken over. Even as a veteran horror fan I find the moment of captivity hideous -- Keeler strapped in bed, gangrenous and disgusting, pitifully begging for help, going ravenously hungry at the sight of meat, until he finally bursts his restraints and goes on a killing rampage across the Chase estate, now a tentacled mass growing to the size of a mansion. Harrison Chase himself can't go unmentioned here, the millionaire and botanist who wants plants to take over the world. His zealous fascination with Keeler/the Krynoid quickly becomes worship as he declares war on the entire animal kingdom. Yes, the Krynoid can give one nightmares, and not just children.
17. Adric's sacrifice. Earthshock.
1982. Killing off a TARDIS companion took balls (Russell Davies should have taken a lesson from this in Journey's End
), and Adric's suicide mission is very effective: breaking the Cybermen's control of the space freighter, causing it to spiral back in time, saving the earth and ensuring humanity's future. While one might cynically argue that Adric was killed off precisely because he annoyed so many fans, I feel differently, and find it fascinating that the new series did something similar with the irritating character of Mickey Smith -- and again in a Cybermen story. Up until The Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel
I hated Mickey far more than I ever did Adric, but Mickey's decision to depart and remain behind in the parallel world was so moving that it justified his existence. Adric's sacrifice is also moving, and the silent end credits to Earthshock
are a respectful homage to this youth who may not have been played by the greatest actor, but had his moments just the same.
18. Chess with Fenric. The Curse of Fenric.
1989. From a story so loved it was made into a feature-length film, comes a showdown between the Doctor and a Norse god in, of all things, a game of chess. Seventeen centuries before Fenric had failed the Doctor's challenge and now demands another try, with the end game set up exactly as before. The Doctor had assured him that with a single move he could win, but it turns out the winning move is preposterously illegal: the white and black pawns join forces. The literal chess game, of course, mirrors the metaphorical one going on in the story, as Fenric has been manipulating British and Soviet pawns to break his chains so he can bring about the Norse apocalypse. But this time he figures out the solution to the Doctor's riddle, which prompts the last-ditch psychic duel in which the Doctor has to put Ace through emotional hell. I love this manipulative Seventh Doctor, who is not only destructive (see #4) but cheats and abuses his friends to defeat enemies.
19. The third regeneration. Planet of the Spiders.
1974. As much I hate the Pertwee period for recycling the same earthbound story over and over again, there's no denying Jon Pertwee was a wonderful Doctor -- in my view the fourth best after Tom Baker, David Tennant, and Sylvester McCoy. He was a rather traditional hero and James Bondish, so I'm surprised I warm to him at all, but he sure had charisma. All the stories in his last season were lousy, but he went out movingly with Sarah by his side. After five seasons, he would be missed... though not for long with Tom Baker taking over.
20. The Key to Time. The Armageddon Factor.
1979. The Key to Time epic spanned an entire season, arguably the first major attempt to involve story arcs in Doctor Who. They weren't the strongest stories, but two scenes in the final one deserve a spot here. The first is when the Doctor uses the key to stop time in a localized field, thus preventing a battleship from destroying an enemy planet. But only temporarily, because the sixth segment of the key is a make-shift piece fabricated by the Doctor, which ups the tension dramatically as the search for the real sixth piece continues. The second is the confrontation with the Black Guardian through the TARDIS window, as the Doctor decides the Key is too much power for anyone, and so scatters the key fragments across the universe -- after having gone through so much trouble (a season's worth of stories) to obtain them -- which sends the Black Guardian into a towering fury. This set the precedent for the Doctor's use of the Randomizer when traveling so as to avoid being hounded by the Black Guardian (who would nonetheless come back to haunt in the Davison period). The Key to Time ended up being a waste of time, but it sure was fun getting there.
In the next post
, I'll list my 10 choices for the new series.