5 Gems from Classic Doctor Who

Jack Wright

Jack Wright is a poet and journalist. Born in Somerset, he left in 2006 to study at Leeds. Now an expat in Shanghai via Vietnam, he will soon move back to the UK. Peering under the shimmer of modern life, he finds refuge in David Bowie and Doctor Who.

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Jelly babies, pepperpot aliens armed with plungers and a strange man inviting you into his box? Yes, it’s the original run of Doctor Who, started in 1963 and cruelly cut in 1989. The sets and props are of course entertainingly flimsy. The Doctor and his companions spend an inordinate amount of time running down an unending supply of futuristic looking corridor. But in some ways the original trumps the new.

Many episodes experiment with satire, extreme weirdness and an oddball humour that is usually missing from the sometimes-triumphantly bland reboot. The early music and sound effects made at the legendary BBC Radiophonic Workshop are also much more experimental, creating an electronic alien soundscape that out does any of Murray Gold’s orchestral mush. In the end classic Who triumphs with its anarchy, mad patchwork of ideas and swish of extra long scarf, far cooler than a bow tie any day.

So here, for your viewing pleasure, I present five of my personal favourite story lines, mostly alternative picks, all flavoured by the weird, the comic or the uncanny.

1. Tomb of the Cybermen

A band of Cybermen have been holed up on Telos in some kind of kinky latex, but no one realises till it’s too late, and it’s up to the second Doctor to send them back to their tombs. The Cyber Controller’s raspy, whispering voice is very effective. The music is great too: eerie, grinding and avant-garde. The Doctor also takes time out to comfort companion Victoria who misses her father, explaining how he copes with the loss of his family; “I have to really want to, to bring them back in front of my eyes. The rest of the time they… sleep in my mind and I forget. And so will you.” Touching stuff.

2. The Curse of Peladon

A diplomatic delegation hitches up on a planet seemingly stuck in the Middle Ages, held in the superstitious grip of a mythical monster in the basement. The delegation certainly wins points for diversity, featuring as it does a penis shaped one-eyed hermaphrodite from Alpha Centuri. The Ice Warriors are also represented. The previously whispering baddies from Mars with tin openers for hands are redeemed and turn out to be an alright bunch after all. A satire on whether Britain should join the European Economic Community, with a doomsaying religious leader pitted against political reformers.

3. The Brain of Morbius

The forth Doctor encounters the brain of an evil Time Lord trying to get back into a living body. Things really don’t go well for poor Morbius, left inanely lurching about with a gigantic lobster arm for a hand and goldfish bowl for a skull. Talk about the dangers of preserving one’s youth. The high point is a contest of Time Lord chess, fought through sheer mind power.  To an adversary I’ve always wished to utter the immortal lines: “I challenge you to a mind bending contest!” Sadly the opportunity has never arisen.

4. The Face of Evil

A computer with a split personality wreaks havoc on a primitive society. The fourth Doctor arrives and is soon assisted by the plucky Leela who gets to work pricking people with her deadly Janis thorns. The Doctor’s face is everywhere, and is found carved into a cliff Mount Rushmore style. It’s hallucinogenic, full of knowing references to schizophrenia and when the poor natives get attached by giant visions of Tom Baker, pretty alarming. All of this plus a test involving a pit of two foot long worms that can strip a man’s flesh.The working title was, ‘The Day God Went Mad’.

5. The Happiness Patrol

A planet where happiness is enforced. A robot executioner made entirely of Bassetts Allsorts. Death by fondant surprise. Often seen as a satire on Thatcher’s government (and the food industry?), the seventh Doctor and his very 80s streetwise companion Ace visit a human colony on Terra Alpha ruled over by Margaret, sorry, Helen Q. There’s a gay subtext, one victim of the fondant surprise wears a pink triangle and Helen Q’s husband runs off with another man. The Doctor brings about a revolution in a day, and he doesn’t even have Twitter.

For avid Doctor Who fans, revisiting the classic series is thrilling. Sure it looks a little old fashioned, but it’s fascinating to chart how the show responds to cultural and political change and see how the look and sound evolves with technology. It’s well worth getting stuck in, and with the 50th Anniversary looming large on the horizon it’s the perfect time to rediscover some real gems.