[Here is where you can imagine the famous TARDIS "VWOOORP... VWOOORP" sound effect as we go travel through time and space.]
THE CREATURE FROM THE PIT
(211/241, 5th worst Tom Baker story, 4th worst Graham Williams era story)
|[CARELESS WHISPER SAXOPHONE SOLO INTENSIFIES]|
Being from Season 17, which was both the tail end of the Graham Williams era as well as the season where Douglas Adams was script editor, The Creature From The Pit is funny. Like, lots of moments in this one just made me laugh out loud, but in a totally fun way. Tom Baker is not my favorite Doctor, but by God is he one of the most charismatic and charming ones. I wouldn't fault anyone who has Tom as their favorite, not by a long shot. He's got lots of good lines and gags in this one, and I'll talk about the two moments I like the best. In one scene he's clinging to the wall of the titular pit, and he fishes out a book about climbing Mount Everest only to find it's in Tibetan... at which point he pulls out another book called "Teach Yourself Tibetan". The other is when the titular Creature walls off part of the Pit with hard shell, trapping the Doctor on the other side. Everyone involved is trying to break the shell but finds they can't, at which point the Doctor just straight up Kool-Aid Man smashes his way through casually.
Talking about the villains a bit, I really do love the progression here. Lady Adrasta and her squad of guards and whatnot start out as a standard band of people in power who wave that shit around madly. I can't count the number of times Adrasta calls for the death of someone because she doesn't like what they said, but more often than not it's because they have no way to give her personal gain; it's the reason she keeps the Doctor and Romana alive for so long. The entire thing ends up being about her personal gain, as the Creature is actually an ambassador who came to her planet to trade metal for plants... but Adrasta tricked him into a pit because she had a monopoly of metal on the planet and wanted to keep being the richest most powerful person. Then she gets killed... but one of her advisors keeps on plotting to stop the Creature from getting away! Basically all of the bad guys in this one are greedy greedy folks who want to hoard the metal and keep it from becoming a common good, lest they lose all their wealth and status. Is this some kind of anti-capitalist screed? Even with the news that the planet will blow up if they don't behave, they refuse to co-operate... so the Doctor just has K9 destroy all of their hoarded metal and then asks them to behave. I love it.
So what doesn't work about this one? Well, for one, the bandit side characters. I guess they're supposed to be comedy buffoons who we find silly but threatening, but they just don't work and also have some unfortunate undertones to them. The story's trying to make them funny, but it falls flat for me in that aspect. Then we have the design of the Creature itself, Erato. Well, holy shit. That is a dick. You have a big green blob monster and you gave it a big rubber dingus that the Doctor even blows on. Oh my god. Then you have Part 4, which stretches things a bit. It begins with the whole reveal of Adrasta trapping Erato to keep herself rich, but then Adrasta gets killed and Erato set free and everything seems to be wrapping up... EXCEPT we get the subplots of those bandits and Adrasta's advisor trying to keep the metal monopoly so they can be rich. I like the resolution of that, but THEN we get this whole climax with the Doctor and Erato stopping a neutron star and it all feels tacked on and stretched out and ehhh. Still, it's hardly the 31st worst Doctor Who story ever made. Yeah, I know, I said the top 30 but I stretched a little to include this one because I really like it. It's quite charming and parts of Part 2 where the Doctor's stuck in the pit have that Gothic Horror tone I originally expected. It's definitely one of the better stories in Season 17, and worth a watch if you're down with Tom Baker... and who isn't?
THE TIME MONSTER
(222/241, worst Jon Pertwee story)
|CAW CAW MOTHERFUCKERS|
I think the reason I like this so much is because of how weird and wild it gets. The first four parts of this one are the best, and it keeps introducing strange and wild imagery. The Master's time device, TOMTIT (stop giggling that's really the name) is secretly powered by an ancient crystal from Atlantis and the Master wants to use it to call forth a time god called Kronos. You get to see just what the asshole can do in Part 2 when the other lab tech ages by 50 years. That's actually quite horrific and prescient of the Weeping Angels aging you to death. When Kronos himself shows up in part 3, he's... well, a big squawking birdman. It's very silly, yes, but I appreciate the utter lunacy of it all. A big squawking birdman from the time vortex who devours you out of time or some shit. It's effective! As doofy as the costume looks it's effective! Even doofier is the Doctor making some sort of time jammer out of a wine bottle, some forks, and a mug full of tea leaves. I'm not kidding. He cobbles this shit together and it works... for about 30 seconds. About Time takes this to task for padding but I think it fits how damn odd this one is. Things get weirder when the Master starts pulling other things forward in time to fuck with UNIT, like a knight on horseback or a fuckin' World War 2 bomber.
Shit gets even more high concept in Part 4. First we have a TARDIS redesign which doesn't stick, but then we get into the idea of nested TARDISes as the Doctor's lands inside the Master's but the Master's is also inside the Doctor's and what in the fuck. We have now just about hit all of the points I like about this story. This is a six-part story, and the six-parters tended to drag a little bit. To the credit of the writers, they do pull a trick here to help extend the shelf life of the plot. All throughout the story we've had appearances and talk about Atlantis, and the Master actually paired up with an Atlantean high priest from Part 2 onward. The latter two episodes of the story take place almost entirely in Atlantis, sticking a linked two-parter onto the four-part story about TOMTIT and Kronos. It... doesn't work. All of a sudden this weird gonzo story with time gods and pulling things from history becomes like one of the old historical stories. You have the queen plotting with the Master, all sorts of talk with the King and whatnot, and it does not work for me at all. Special attention must be given to the Minotaur. Yeah! We have a Minotaur in this story! It shows up in the final part and it's just a guy wearing a fake bull head. It's laugh-out-loud silly, but not bizarre enough to really work.
One of the few things that works near the end here is the Doctor's "daisiest daisy" speech about an old hermit on his home planet. Then the Master summons Kronos and Atlantis gets fuuuucked. If this were the new series we'd likely have chat about this being a fixed point, but as we'll soon see the concept of Atlantis is a bit fucked up when it comes to Doctor Who. We end with the Doctor's companion, Jo, sabotaging the Master's TARDIS and making it collide with the Doctor's which sends them all into a void and there's a giant lady's head and she's Kronos and holy shit it got weird again. That's about all for this one. I appreciate how strange it gets, but it's a bit too long for its own good. Cut out all that Atlantis stuff and you'd have something really strange and weird. You still have that, and I really love it for those qualities. I like it when Doctor Who tries to be weird; it's one of my favorite approaches. For that reason, I can't call this the worst Pertwee-era story. I could name other ones that I think are worse, but let's not go shaming. This one, weird as it is, reminds me a lot of the stranger moments of the Patrick Troughton era. HEY, SPEAKING OF...
THE UNDERWATER MENACE
(224/241, third worst Patrick Troughton story)
|DARLIN' ITS BETTER, DOWN WHERE IT'S WETTER|
I've come to a realization here, halfway into writing all of this. I adore Doctor Who at its finest when it's being weird as fuck. Traditional monster runarounds can be fine, but it's when I see something incomprehensible done on a shoestring budget that I end up becoming enamored with the show. Creature From The Pit had Erato, The Time Monster had Kronos... and The Underwater Menace has Atlantis and its entire damn culture. The previous Atlantis was this dry and dull historical thing, but this Atlantis is charged with the mercury that I associate with late 60's Doctor Who. Over 100 minutes we get a window into an ancient strange culture, with worship of goddesses and weird and wild costume design. All the priests wear these hats that look like a goddamn thing of McDonald's fries, and we see Atlantean guards with tridents and seashells on their clothes. All of this pales to the highlight of the bizarre, of course. The Fish People Of Atlantis. They're the slave labor of Atlantis and they gather up plankton for the people to eat. They also look absolutely alien and ridiculous, and they can only talk in gurgling bubbling and there's lengthy scenes of them "swimming" and holy shit this is ridiculous and I love it. It's at least a "so bad it's good" thing, but it's bringing the utterly weird to every telly in 1966 Britain during Saturday teatime... and beyond, since I'm watching the thing 50 years later and writing about it.
Then, of course, to get hammier we have a mad scientist. Professor Zaroff, brilliant mind, is determined to raise Atlantis by drilling a hole in the earth and draining the ocean around it. This apparently will have the side effect of cracking the crust of the planet and destroying it but Zaroff doesn't give two shits because the achievement of it is enough for him. All the while, the Doctor's in Zaroff's lab while his companions are being put to work (or in his friend Polly's case, being prepped to become a Fish Person) and just being the sassiest motherfucker, sabotaging shit and pretending to be a klutz before making his daring escape. Episode 3 is the one that existed for the longest time, and has most of the utterly strange shit in it. You have the Atlantean market with its weird costume and the Doctor's silly disguise, a silly runaround in said market, a half-assed scheme to kidnap Zaroff... and two of the side characters convincing the Fish People to go on strike. Yes. A subplot about the goddamned goofy googly-eyed Fish People fucking unionizing and refusing to be slaves. Of course, then you have that cliffhanger where Zaroff shoots the king of Atlantis and proclaims, to the hammiest, "NOTHING IN ZE WORLD CAN STOP ME NOW!". Oh my good god.
If things drag for me, it's in Episode 4... even though they shouldn't. The scenario is a tense thing where the Doctor causes the lower levels of Atlantis to flood so that Zaroff's lab will be flooded and he can't destroy ZE WORLD. This being early Patrick Troughton, there's shades of his weird anarchist nature that showed up in Power Of The Daleks, when he did the same gleeful fucking around to blow up all of the Daleks at the end of that one. Here, though, things just kind of slow down. You have all this stuff with Polly and Jamie climbing out of Atlantis while the Doctor and Ben fiddle with Zaroff's stuff, and it's too slow for my liking. I do like some of the imagery Loose Cannon adds, like the effect of the face of the Atlantean Goddess Amdo with water pouring from its mouth and eyes. Still, it's a bit of a weak ending... much like the other Atlantis story. Still, I really do love this one. It's something I came to ironically after seeing the Fish People for the first time, and there still is some of that "so bad it's good" silliness to be had here... but it's really not the most wretched 100 minutes of television. 15 of those minutes might drag (and 50 of them don't even exist anymore) but if you just roll with it and accept the utter oddness of Atlantis and its Fish People, a good time will be had.
(230/241, second worst Sylvester McCoy story)
|Actual DWM poll voter's reaction when told they have to|
watch Paradise Towers.
Right out of the gate, I love the setting and opening to this one. Dim, dank and dirty corridors as a girl in yellow is menaced by some monster and lets out one hell of a scream. Someone in charge scouting out the corridors and later finding her scarf, stained with blood. The titular Paradise Towers are a dilapidated shithole of a place, but one brimming with its own strange cast of characters that a fresh 7th Doctor and his pal Mel will encounter. Like the Kangs, who are a highlight for me. Color-coded gangs of teens roaming around the towers doing graffiti and running from the man. Oh, and they're all 80's girls. Oh, and they have all sorts of strange slang like "carrydoors" and "ice hot" and "unalive". I love 'em. There are the Caretakers of the Towers, who are basically bureaucratic fascists who live by an exceeding amount of rules and cite them at every opportunity. Quite why a bunch of caretakers of a tower block should have specific subsections for fucking executions is beyond me, besides of course the threat of death for the Doctor later on. You've got the Residents, and the first two we meet are secret fucking cannibals who still put on the appearances of your nice nan with cross stitches and cups of tea. Then there's Pex, a goddamn John Rambo type who runs around smashing doors and trying to save people but also has his own issues. There are a hell of a lot of clashing groups all locked together in this shithole of a tower block, and our new Doctor is just the drop of anarchy that's needed to get everything sorted.
The key moment for me is in Episode 2, when the Doctor's been kidnapped by the Caretakers and sentenced to death because they think he's the guy who built the place and they want him dead for... reasons. A lot of the appeal of the later McCoy era comes from him being a master plotter who outsmarts his enemies and is some sort of goddamned cosmic chessmaster. If I had to guess why all of Season 24 is down in the dumpsters here, it's because A) he's not like that yet, B) Mel's here and C) I dunno, recieved wisdom? Personal distaste? Anyway, the Doctor outsmarts the guards by asking to read the rulebook and then citing a made-up rule that allows him to steal the guards' keycards and escape while they're not looking. The Caretakers, being obsessed with law, believe that what the Doctor's saying is really in their rulebook and they just have to do as it says. This right here is the moment when the 7th Doctor truly arrives. Later in the episode he's working with the Red Kangs, rallying them up to find out what's rotten in Paradise Towers and to fix it. All the while, we've got fucking Little Shop Of Horrors up in here as the Chief Caretaker is secretly having cleaner robots grab people and drag their bodies into the basement where a big thing with filament lights screams HUNGRYYYYYY.
There's even more of McCoy getting into his Doctor in Episode 3, when the Chief Caretaker is grilling him about who he is and the Doctor turns the tables and starts interrogating him, eventually reversing their positions as he tries to work out the plot and figure out what to do about it. Oh yeah, Mel's off doing shit and discovering the world of Paradise Towers as well, first meeting up with the Residents and then Pex and then the Blue Kangs and then the Residents again who try to eat her. What's funny is that they have her tied down and are ready to eat her and get offended at the fact that she thinks they're joking. Something about it's absurd, even as the Cleaner Robots haul them both down the garbage disposal. Oh yeah, and Pex breaks down their door. Twice. Mel's entire reason for coming to this tower is to swim in their pool and she and Pex find it... but there's a CRAB ROBOT in there as well OH NO! I don't dislike Mel, and her perspectives do give you more insight into the world... but it really is more interesting to see what the Doctor is up to in this one. That may be my McCoy bias talking, but I guess that's a fault of the episode. If you want another one, Richard Briers as the Chief Caretaker in Episode 4. See, the thing in the basement is the disembodied mind of Paradise Tower's architect, Kroagnon, who was a big deal and a master architect but then didn't want anyone living in the towers because they'd ruin his masterpiece and make it dirty. There's some auteur critique in there to peck at if you wanna. Now he wants out and to clean up his towers and get REVENGE and it's all very Hinchcliffe-era Tom Baker for a moment... until he takes over the body of the Chief Caretaker in Episode 4. Richard Briers spends the rest of the story shambling around like a zombie in this very silly moaning voice and he's hamming it up. I guess that's a flaw too? I guess?
These have basically turned into mini-reviews of the story with plot synopses, but that's okay. Moving along quickly, the Doctor ends up rallying everyone together after the Chief gets zombified, and even the Deputy Caretaker joins up. They all help to fuck up the Cleaner Robots (who are well designed but obviously there 'cause it's Doctor Who and you have to have SOME monster running about corridors) while the Doctor tries to lure Kroagnon into a trap. Again he's being manipulative, taunting while dissing all of Kroagnon's previous works to wound his ego and piss him off into coming after him. Pex, who's spent the whole episode trying to be brave but mostly failing, ends up sacrificing himself to blow up Kroagnon and that's the show except there's graffiti which says PEX LIVES so I dunno. What I do know is that this story's a real treat. Even its soundtrack is the most kitschy 80's synth shit imaginable, but something about it actually works for me. Far from being one of the worst stories ever, this would be a McCoy adventure I'd gladly throw on to have a good time with. The same holds true for all of Season 24, really. Even Dragonfire and Time And The Rani. It's quite ludicrous to me that these would all be down at the bottom, but we haven't touched the bottom 10 yet officially. Let's do that. Let's go for a story that's been ranked as one of the worst of the worst. Let's do a bottom 10 story. I know just the one...
THE RINGS OF AKHATEN
(233/241, worst Matt Smith story, second worst New Series story, worst Moffat-era story)
|I AM THE GOD OF HELLFIRE, AND I BRING YOU|
It opens with the 11th Doctor peeking at Clara's life history to try and figure out who she is because of that whole Impossible Girl malarkey, yes, but more important is the leaf. A random little leaf that flies in a man's face and makes him step into the path of an oncoming car, only for a girl to pull him out of the way. They get together later and he gives her the leaf, giving a speech about how that leaf had to grow at on that tree in that way to blow off at that moment into his face so he'd meet her. A series of coincidences, all alike, led to this fateful encounter. These are Clara's parents, and through a montage we learn that Clara's mom died 8 years prior. This is a Clara story through and through, and Clara decides for her first official TARDIS trip that she wants to see "something awesome". 11 pulls no punches and takes her to the Rings Of Akhaten, and what a lovely and inventive place this is. First companion trips in the new series often have a lot of spectacle and wonder to them. Look at End Of The World for Rose, or The Beast Below for Amy. Same thing here, as the alien market has all sorts of weird and wild creatures. Exactly the sort of thing I like seeing on this show. We also get introduced to the currency of Akhaten, psychometry. Objects imbued with memory and sentimentality. THIS IS ACTUALLY THE KEY TO THE SHOW.
What follows is a lengthy bit where Clara encounters a little girl, Merry, and calms her own anxieties. Merry is the Queen of Years on Akhaten and knows all of its lore and ancient songs and poems and whatnot. A living memory of the place's history! Clara tells her a lovely story about how she got lost at Blackpool when she was a kid, and how her mom found her and told her that no matter where Clara went, she'd be there. It goes great and Mary has the confidence to go through with her big performance, a song to soothe the ancient god of Akhaten and keep him in slumber. It goes wrong and something transports her to the god's floating pyramid on a nearby asteroid, leading 11 to run off in search of a way to help but not before letting Clara know that "we don't walk away." So then they get on a space bike and fly after Merry. The Old God is waking up in the pyramid, and it turns out that he wants to absorb all of Merry's memories and that this is how Akhaten works or some such stuff. 11 gives Merry another rousing speech about how all the atoms in her body came from an exploding star at the start of the universe and how this makes her unique in the universe, and giving that up to the Old God would be a waste. Kind of like a cosmic version of Mr. Oswald's leaf, HMMMM. Because we need some more monsters, some creepy robot guys called the Vigil show up to make sure Merry gets absorbed by the Old God. The Doctor gets in a Harry Potter wand battle with them using his sonic screwdriver, but oops. The Old God wasn't actually the Old God, just a gatekeeper. The giant flaming sun with a face that's now showed up is actually the Old God, and it's like fuckin Kroagnon 'cause it's HUNGRYYYYY but for memories.
Merry has another song to try and calm the Old God, and the whole crowd of Akhaten joins in on it. As if that weren't lovely enough, we get another great Matt Smith speech as the Doctor offers his own memories to the Old God and talks about how he's lived an eternity and watched Gallifrey burn and all that jazz. It's great and it seems that all of the Doctor's experience is enough to satiate the Old God... but no. It wants more. Here then, aside from her talking to Merry, is where Clara Oswald comes into her own. She goes off on the space bike to help the Doctor, and offer her own psychometry to the Old God. The Doctor offered all the days he ever had. He offered history to the Old God. Clara pulls out an entirely new trick, being Doctorish and figuring out the clever alternate trick. How Are You Going To Win? With the Leaf. The leaf doesn't represent the impossible odds at which Clara's parents had to meet. To her, a woman who still misses her mom, this is the Leaf Of Potential. The potential of Ellie Oswald's life, cut short at 45. All the days that she should have lived, lost due to death. An infinity of life that could have been had. It's a lot like what the Weeping Angels feed on, but the Old God is not one of those. This is too much for it, and it fades away. Clara Oswald has saved Akhaten. The leaf is no impossible leaf, nor is Clara Oswald an Impossible Girl. That's what we all missed four years ago, but we can see it now. Now that Clara Oswald is out there, stuck in flux and on the run from the Time Lords in a space diner. All the days Clara Oswald should have lived are given back to her, for her to spend as she sees fit. I'm sure that wherever she goes, she'll know that her mother is always there with her in spirit. Wherever we go through this silly space show with a phone box, Clara Oswald will always be part of it and be there with us too. Ninth worst story ever, my ass.
And that's a curtain call, at long last! At least two of these episodes are favorites of their Doctors for me, and isn't it funny that they're the two worst ranked? Fan opinion is kind of full of shit, but this was a fun article to write. I enjoyed nailing down what it is I like about kitschy Doctor Who that general opinion seems to look down on, and it's given me perspective that I'll be using in JUST SIX DAYS WHEN WE GET MORE NEW DOCTOR WHO! I'm excited. I even got to give Clara one last elegiac farewell, before that nice Bill lady shows up. Will I like her? I dunno! Clara didn't really stand out for me until I started writing for Season 8, but even going back to 7 it's not hard to read what I love about her in those old episodes. It also helps that we're out of that season arc, but hey. Let's look on to the future. 14 more Peter Capaldi adventures, and then he bows out. I'll have written about his entire era. I'm ready, Doctor. Show me what you got.