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Classic Doctor Who: The Fifth Doctor’s Essential Episodes

The Fifth Doctor’s era is widely considered the last gasp of Who glory, and while it gives us a very different Doctor and a same-same-but-different sensibility, there is much that is well-constructed, thought-provoking, entertaining and even occasionally amusing in this three-season run. Compared to the First, Second, Third, and Fourth Doctors, the Fifth Doctor is not overly-blessed with unmissable brilliance, but there are still a few favorites I had to leave off this list. Still, enjoyable they may be, but even their strongest proponents could not claim them to be “essential.” For example, I’m personally rather partial to Black Orchid , because I really like cricket; Frontios gives the Doctor some excellent lines (“Oh, marvellous. You’re going to kill me. What a finely tuned response to the situation.”) if not too much else; and Arc of Infinity just makes me happy, even if it really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense (why execute the Doctor?) and makes Gallifrey look a lot like the aftermath of a White Snake video.

Also, there are many who would doubtless have you believe that at least one of the Black Guardian Trilogy ( Mawdryn Undead/Terminus/Enlightenment ) is worthy of inclusion here, but no, I won’t have it! Not after what Terminus did to Nyssa—plus, too much Turlough is hardly a good thing, and there are two others of his outings that I simply must include here. (For one of which I guess I must apologize in advance. But I feel really strongly about it.)

So what does that leave us with? Well…

THE FIFTH DOCTOR

Played by: Peter Davison
First Appearance: Newly regenerated in “Part Four” (Logopolis , March 21, 1981), but really in “Part One” (Castrovalva , January 4, 1982)
Last Appearance: “Part Four” (The Caves of Androzani , March 16, 1984)—but with later guest appearances.
Episodes: 69
Serials: 20
Seasons: 3
Style: Edwardian Cricketer
Catchphrase: “Sorry, must dash.” (Though “Brave heart, Tegan” might also qualify.)

Characteristics: The Fifth Doctor is the softer, gentler, slightly more muddled Doctor–he’s basically Bertie Wooster blessed with the intellect of Jeeves and command of space and time. Indecisive (to the point of flipping coins to make tough calls) and lacking in initiative, but brave and appropriately gallant, he is also naïve yet intelligent, sensitive yet snippy, compassionate yet pragmatic, non-violent and yet martial–a study in contrasts in every way. He is the youngest of the Doctors as of this date, with a certain floppy-haired handsomeness, and his general earnestness is often belied by occasional flashes of wit–though this occurs far less frequently than with his predecessors. It is worth noting that despite the ludicrousness of his ensemble, the Doctor will yet suffer more outlandish and improbable get-ups, except perhaps for the stalk of celery that sat ever on this one’s lapel. (Yes, there’s an explanation. No, it’s not a good one.)

Companions: From his immediate predecessor, the Fifth Doctor inherited alien know-it-all Adric (Matthew Waterhouse), alien philanthropist Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) and Australian flight attendant Tegan Jovanka (Janet Fielding). Later, he also recruited troubled alien public school boy Turlough (Mark Strickson), shape-shifting android Kamelion, and Californian botany student Perpugilliam “Peri” Brown.

 

THE ESSENTIALS:

1. CASTROVALVA, Season 19, Episodes 1-4
Written by: Christopher H. Bidmead
Directed by: Fiona Cumming
Setting: The TARDIS and the planet Castrovalva (except, not really)
4 Episodes: “Part One” (January 4, 1982), “Part Two” (January 5, 1982), “Part Three” (January 11, 1982), “Part Four” (January 12, 1982)

The Fifth Doctor has just succeeded from the Fourth, and yet the transformation is proving problematic. Adric, Nyssa and Tegan can only look on as his personality veers wildly across all his incarnations, reversing the polarity of the neutron flow one minute and name-checking Jo, Jamie and K-9 the next. Sticking him in the healing “Zero Room” and taking command of the TARDIS, the girls attempt to pilot him to the planet Castrovalva for repair, only to fall into a trap set by the Doctor’s diabolical nemesis, the Master (Anthony Ainley). Not only is this episode a total fan service-y blast from the past as the Doctor finds his way to a new identity, but this is also an excellent use of the TARDIS as a character as well as a triumphant attempt at agency by the Doctor’s companions, where even the much-derided boy genius Adric acquits himself with honor, and the extremely capable Nyssa is not entirely under-used. At least, comparatively speaking. (I know Nyssa isn’t a universal favorite, but to me she has always felt like a kind of Zoe/Victoria hybrid, but far more at the Zoe end of the awesome spectrum.)

EXPLAINED! The relief of a successful regeneration.

 

2. EARTHSHOCK, Season 19, Episodes 19-22
Written by: Eric Saward
Directed by: Peter Grimwade
Setting: Earth, in the future and the past, as well as onboard an alien freighter
4 Episodes: “Part One” (March 8, 1982), “Part Two” (March 9, 1982), “Part Three” (March 15, 1982), “Part Four” (March 16, 1982)

Aside from any other merits this story might have—and it does!—this is a farewell to Adric, and while I am not numbered among those who despise him and his ilk (after all, I must confess to having been a Wesley Crusher fanteen), the manner of his departure is both dramatic and moving, especially given his whining for attention as this serial commences. This one also gives us the return of the Cybermen (oh, hi guys!), a somewhat dystopian, but hopeful, vision of humanity’s future and a truly confusing time paradox of the type I can never quite get my head around. Still: fun!

EXPLAINED! Um… what happened to all the dinosaurs.

 

3. THE KING’S DEMONS, Season 20, Episodes 21-22
Written by: Terrence Dudley
Directed by: Tony Virgo
Setting: 13th-Century England
2 Episodes: “Part One” (March 15, 1983), “Part Two” (March 16, 1983)

I am going to get in so much trouble here. But the fact is, I believe that The King’s Demons is absolutely must-see stuff for those new to Classic Who because, come on, not only do we have an old-fashioned historical given to us in a mere two episodes (which: when was the last time that happened?) but it also gives us a Master who is increasingly petty (a recurring theme of the era) and one of the most ill-advised companions of all time in android, er, chameleon, Kamelion. Sure, he/it doesn’t last much past this one—which is due to the difficulties faced by the production team operating it—but while he lasts, Kamelion is the height of Doctor Who lunacy, and I believe in a warts-and-all reveal of just what legacy new viewers have stumbled into. (Which will be even more evident when we get to the Sixth Doctor…) Also, the visit to the Court of King John is very entertaining, there is a kick-ass sword fight between the Doctor and the Master, companion Turlough’s here (but, whatever) and the fact that the Magna Carta is considered the basis of modern democracy (by no less source than the Doctor himself) is, frankly, hilarious.

EXPLAINED! That the Doctor doesn’t actually know everything.

 

4. RESURRECTION OF THE DALEKS, Season 21, Episodes 5-8
Written by: Eric Saward
Directed by: Matthew Robinson
Setting: Contemporary London, and a future orbiting space station
4 Episodes: “Part One” (February 8, 1984), “Part Two” (February 15, 1984)

Oh, you Daleks! What a cunning, if incomprehensibly elaborate, plan this was, to entrap the Doctor, to free your creator Davros (Terry Molloy) from future custody and to find a defense against a biological weapon set to wipe out your race. But, like all your plans, it was pretty much doomed to fail–except that this time, we all can’t help but feel a little sorry for you. Genocide is no joke. But for all that this serial is very much a collage of the Daleks’ Greatest Hits, it makes this list because it is really all about the companions, not only featuring a fun-filled flashback of all of the Doctor’s previous fellow-travelers (excepting Leela–eh, I didn’t have much truck with her, anyway) but also a tearful but determined departure by long-time stalwart Tegan, who, after all the death and danger and destruction she has faced at the Doctor’s side, is sad as hell and just can’t take it anymore. I think it’s delightful to see such a glaring example of the toll this companion’s life can take on the intrepid all-too-human souls who accompany the Doctor. (Turlough remains, though… whatever.) There’s also a rogue android here who is entirely likeable after having escaped the Daleks’ control—if only he had been the show’s experiment with a humanoid AI companion, things might have worked out very differently. Note: This 2-part serial is notable in this era for consisting of 45-minute episodes, which means it is actually a 4-parter broadcast as two. The remainder of the Fifth Doctor’s adventures were broadcast twice-weekly in 25-minute installments, though the following season (with the Sixth Doctor) would revert to this format.

EXPLAINED! The glaring differences between Doctors’ varying moralities, as evidenced by how the Fourth Doctor refused to effectively abort the Daleks, while this one barely hesitates to wipe them out with a deadly pathogen. It’s not a continuity error—it’s a regeneration!

 

5. THE CAVES OF ANDROZANI, Season 18, Episodes 25-28
Written by: Robert Holmes
Directed by: Graeme Harper
Setting: The planets Androzani, Major and Minor
4 Episodes: “Part One” (March 8, 1984), “Part Two” (March 9, 1984), “Part Three” (March 15, 1984), “Part Four” (March 16, 1984)

Two alien drug lords battle it out for supremacy in a bloody, creepy, utterly captivating tale of obsession, obfuscation, self-interest and self-sacrifice. With echoes of everything from The Hunchback of Notre Dame to Dune to many other tales besides, The Caves of Androzanni yet becomes its very own being, a singularly thrilling, maddening, saddening adventure and a fitting departure for the often wishy-washy Fifth Doctor. This serial is also imperative viewing for anyone new to the mythos, since it has long been accounted one of the best–if not the best–stories of the entire series. Not just of the Fifth Doctor’s tenure, but of the whole fricking shebang. Personally, I don’t think it’s the best, but it comes pretty damned close, and certainly in terms of casting, production design, direction and writing (with the great Who scribe Robert Holmes in the chair) it is absolutely first rate. Still, whether or not it deserves all the hype is irrelevant; the fact that it is so revered makes it necessary that any new Who fan make their own assessment. To have omitted it here would have been, as the Fifth Doctor might have said, just not cricket.

EXPLAINED! What the hell that celery thing was all about—though what took companion Peri, first introduced in the previous serial, so long to ask about it remains something of a mystery. Okay, so there you have it. Now, just how mad are you about the whole The King’s Demons thing? I’m on tenterhooks…

NEXT TIME: The Sixth Doctor—The Zany Narcissist


Rachel Hyland is Editor in Chief of Geek Speak Magazine.

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