Talk about unexpected surprises… last weekend I was fortunate enough to meet the Fourth Doctor himself, Mr. Tom Baker, for a spot of tea and jelly babies! Kudos to everyone at Tenth Planet Events for putting on a well organised and smooth running signing session, and even just for getting Tom as a special guest in the first place! To celebrate, I’m going to take a look back at the five classic Doctor Who serials that made me truly love the Fourth Doctor – it’s been tough ranking these in order, because as with many of Tom’s episodes, any one of them could not only be considered the greatest story of his era, but perhaps in all of Doctor Who history…
5. Terror of the Zygons
I still find it hard to believe that the Zygons have only appeared in three Doctor Who stories over the last 53 years – two of which have been in the last three years of the modern series! Terror of the Zygons, then, is the shape-shifters’ only classic appearance and, boy, is it memorable. Not only do we get to see The Fourth Doctor teaming up with U.N.I.T. and the Brigadier, but the aliens themselves more than prove their worth as part of the Doctor Who pantheon of pests. There’s an excellent story filled with body snatching and doppelgangers – at times, you won’t know who you can trust – and the presentation is up there with some of the finest that Doctor Who has ever produced. There’s an eerie Gothic feel to much of the narrative, coupled with a fantastically atmospheric soundtrack that really amps up the tension (you can even listen to the audio by itself on the DVD!). The art direction, too, is superb, particularly the Zygon costumes themselves and the design of their ship. Sure, the “Loch Ness Monster” is a little on the dubious side, but it’s a mere blight on an otherwise terrific and terrifying tale. It’s just a shame we didn’t get to see more of the Zygons until 2013.
4. The Talons of Weng-Chiang
Everyone these days is clamouring for a Doctor Who and Sherlock crossover, but we pretty much already got one in this amazing 1977 serial. Set in Victorian London, The Fourth Doctor goes full Sherlock – complete with deerstalker hat – to unravel the mystery surrounding a series of murders linked to the Palace Theatre and a gang of Chinese men. The sets are well designed, the atmosphere is just right, and the story is definitely gripping enough to keep you coming back throughout all six parts as the stakes continue to escalate. Perhaps trumping all else to steal the show though are the performances, particularly from the supporting cast – Li H’Sen Chang is a supremely sly antagonist, and the pairing of Jago and Litefoot led to an astonishingly good double act (so much so that they now have their own Big Finish audio spin-off series!). Victorian London is a setting that Doctor Who has visited on many occasions over the decades, but this is certainly one of the best visits to the era.
3. City of Death
Doctor Who can be many things. It can be dark, it can be epic, it can be extraordinary. But you know what it should be, above all? Fun! And that’s exactly what Douglas Adams’ City of Death is all about. On paper, this story sounds a little on the silly side – a green one-eyed alien from the dawn of time trying to undo all of history by stealing the Mona Lisa? Preposterous stuff. But in the hands of such an accomplished writer, and brought to life by the indisputable talent of Tom Baker and Lalla Ward, it turned out to be one of the finest (and funniest) Fourth Doctor serials ever. Again, the supporting cast is great – the Count, the Countess, Duggan, all turning in brilliant performances. There’s even a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from John Cleese in part four. What’s more, the on-location shooting in Paris lends an added depth of authenticity and film-like quality to the episodes, which are strung together nicely by a tantalising plot. In fact, you could argue that this story laid the groundwork for some of modern Who’s biggest twists – the Silence engineering human history and Clara being splintered in time? Scaroth beat them both to it, nearly a good 40 years earlier!
This could easily have stolen the number one spot, but it narrowly misses out simply because the next two have just a little bit more impact on the show’s mythology…
2. The Deadly Assassin
When Elisabeth Sladen left behind the role of Sarah Jane Smith (for a while, at least), the Fourth Doctor found himself without a companion for the first time. Rather than have him recruit a new TARDIS team in the very next episode, the show decided to take a different direction – the first ever Doctor-only story! Well, not quite Doctor-only in the same sense as we saw from Peter Capaldi in Heaven Sent, but there’s no companions around that’s for sure. Instead, The Doctor is summoned to Gallifrey – yes, our first full story set of Gallifrey! – where he has premonitions of the President being assassinated… and he’s the one holding the gun! Attempting to avert the disaster, he sneaks in only to find himself arrested and threatened with execution. What follows is some of the best use of imagery in the show’s history – the entirety of part three takes place within the Gallifreyan Matrix, as The Doctor attempts to hunt down the real culprit in an alternate reality full of nightmarish visions and danger. And of course, there’s The Master, the true villain pulling the strings behind the scenes – having exhausted all of his regenerations, he’s charred and skeletal and desperate to keep on living by any means necessary. Some of the close-up shots are really quite horrific, but in a good way (if such a thing is possible!).
Not everything clicks – the totally-not-a-TV-reporter Gallifreyan is a bit of a jarring addition, and The Master’s ultimate plan is a little on the convoluted side. But that doesn’t stop The Deadly Assassin from being one of the most unique, most memorable, and downright best Doctor Who stories to date.
1. Genesis of the Daleks
It was never, ever going to be anything else. The first Fourth Doctor serial I ever watched, and still my favourite to this day. 1974’s Genesis of the Daleks just does everything right. In this spectacular story, Terry Nation perfectly fleshes out the backstory of everyone’s favourite psychopathic pepperpots, all the while introducing arguably Doctor Who’s greatest nemesis of all – Davros. This power-hungry genius will stop at nothing to wipe out the Thals and claim victory over Skaro, even if that means a lot of double-crossing and bloodshed, and some of what he gets up to across the six episodes is truly sickening. Michael Wisher remains the definitive Davros for many people, and it’s not hard to see why, giving a subtle yet unhinged performance that encapsulates just how mad this monstrous man is. The setting for the story is spot on too, cleverly making allusions to the Second World War and the Nazis to reflect Davros’ schemes.
This serial also gifts us with many of Tom Baker’s finest moments – chief among them, the classic “do I have the right?” scene outside the Dalek incubation chamber. Is killing the Daleks the right thing to do, or does it make him just as bad as they are? It’s a dilemma that haunts The Doctor to this day, and his encounters with Davros are the direct inspiration for 2015’s Twelfth Doctor story, The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar. Tom manages to channel both dark and playful in the face of such grave peril, and it’s this serial that his time in the TARDIS will be most fondly remembered for.
You want me to find a nitpick? Umm… the clams? But everyone hates on the clams, and they’re really not all that big a deal in the grand scheme. Sometimes the story gets a little too deep and long-winded for its own good, but when it’s this engrossing and well-written, what does it matter? There’s a reason Doctor Who Magazine voted this as the #1 Doctor Who story, after all. If you’re a Who fan and you’ve never seen this before, go and watch it now, even if it’s the only classic story you ever see. I promise you won’t be disappointed.