Fri
Nov 1 2013 8:00am

Classic Doctor Who: The Seventh Doctor’s Essential Episodes

Seven Doctor, Ace, Sylvester McCoy, Doctor Who

The Seventh Doctor is unjustly held accountable for the cancellation of this beloved series, but the fact is that there are a few stories and concepts here both exciting and new during his tenure—it is just that they are very effectively hidden amid a morass of bleuch. His first three serials are particularly lame—kicked off by quite the most ridiculous reason for regeneration in the history of the series—and so it is hardly surprising that by the time this incarnation found his feet and things actually started getting good again, few people still cared. (It’s like how Season 5 of Fringe was really awesome, but by then no one was paying much attention anymore, after Season 4 gave us a bunch of episodes with no Joshua Jackson in them AT ALL.)

There are many conspiracy theories relating to the demise of the series, ranging from hatred of all things Who from the BBC higher ups to a dissatisfaction with his role on the part of series exec, John Nathan-Turner. Whatever the reason, there can be no denying that this is the most uneven of all the Doctors’ terms, which is doubtless what makes it the most controversial.

For myself, I am hardly the Seventh Doctor’s biggest fan, but neither do I despise him and all his works—upon rewatch, many of these stories are, indeed, essential to an understanding of Classic Who, and quite enjoyable in their own right. Oh, nothing here is necessarily First Doctor essential, nor Second, Third, Fourth or even Fifth—though he probably does have the edge on Sixth. Still, for all that the bloom is not only off the rose here, it has been drawn, quartered and run over by a truck, there are some shining moments of greatness to be found amongst the grey twilight; some diamonds in this very, very rough.

To wit:

 

Seven Doctor, Brigadier, Sylvester McCoy, Doctor Who

THE SEVENTH DOCTOR

Played by: Sylvester McCoy
First Appearance: “Part One” (Time and the Rani, September 7, 1987)
Last Appearance: “Part Three” (Survival, December 6, 1989)—but with a later guest appearance.
Episodes: 42
Serials: 12
Seasons: 3
Style: Dr. Huxtable at a Garden Party
Catchphrase: “Not this time…”

Characteristics: As he is first portrayed, perhaps the most peculiar thing about the Seventh Doctor is how tactile he is. No Doctor before the Seventh was quite as casually demonstrative, and this, added to his low-rent Rowan Atkinson demeanor and affable inarticulateness, gave the initial impression of a bumbling father figure type, kind of an Uncle Joey in space. But as his seasons progressed we were given to understand that this Doctor was, at hearts, the most diabolical (but in a good way—can you be diabolical in a good way?) of his many selves, manipulating galactic events rather than merely reacting to them, all for the greater good. Bringing the phrases “best laid plans,” “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” and that thing about absolute power forcibly to mind.

A note on That Outfit. While the question mark motif was introduced in the era of the Fourth Doctor, with subtle-if-stupid pins on his collars, and was a continuing theme thereafter, the punctuation-festooned woollen sweater vest affected by this Doctor is simply inexcusable. Points for the awesome hat, though.

Companions: The shrill and generally pointless (but not entirely unlikeable) Melanie “Mel” (Bonnie Langford) hangs around for a while after the regeneration from Sixth to Seventh, but it is 1980s punk-lite teen Dorothy “Ace” Gale/McShane (Sophie Aldred) who sees out the series at the Doctor’s side, for good or for ill.

 

THE ESSENTIALS:

Seven Doctor, Ace, Mel, Sylvester McCoy, Doctor Who, Dragonfire

1. DRAGONFIRE, Season 24, Episodes 12-15
Written by: Ian Briggs
Directed by: Chris Clough
Setting: Iceworld, a mall on the planet Svartos
3 Episodes: “Part One” (November 23, 1987), “Part Two” (November 30, 1987), “Part Three” (December 7, 1987)

Unusually, I am sparing you the first outing of this Doctor’s incarnation here, because it was Time and the Rani, and no one deserves that. (Especially as I was similarly kind in withholding the Sixth Doctor’s The Mark of the Rani… basically anything Rani-related can, and should, be avoided.) I’m also bypassing the next two serials, lackluster and pantomime-esque as they are, and thus we come to Dragonfire, the last serial of this Doctor’s first season, most notable for the departure of the tiresome Mel—who actually doesn’t fare too badly in this one, however—and the advent of Ace, everyone’s favorite 16-year old felon. I have to confess that I never really warmed to Ace too much (though I understand her appeal: she’s a cute girl who blows up stuff!), but there is no doubt that she has a big impact on what is to come, and moreover becomes probably the most fully-fleshed out companion of the Classic era. Elsewhere in here, and totally worth your while: a fun treasure hunt, a cool and menacing ancient villain, an obvious Wizard of Oz homage and the return of swaggering mercenary Glitz (Tony Selby), late of The Mysterious Planet. And please, please, please check out and relish the cliffhanger ending of “Part One.” Way to get literal, show.

EXPLAINED! The Doctor’s tolerance for nicknames.

 

Seven Doctor, Sylvester McCoy, Doctor Who, Remembrance of the Daleks

2. REMEMBERANCE OF THE DALEKS, Season 25, Episodes 1-4
Written by: Ben Aaronovitch
Directed by: Andrew Morgan
Setting: 1960s Earth
4 Episodes: “Part One” (October 5, 1988), “Part Two” (October 12, 1988), “Part Three” (October 19, 1988), “Part Four” (October 26, 1988)

Um. Ben Aaronovitch wrote this episode? Ben Aaronovitch, as in the author of the Rivers of London series, which I love and adore? Well, blow me down with a sonic screwdriver—I had no Earthly, or even Skaroly, idea! And it explains a lot of the tone shift evident here, in this first outing of the twenty-fifth season—otherwise known as the beginning of the (albeit bumpy) upswing. It’s a Dalek episode, of course, and a good one, with the metal menaces once again invading 1960s Earth (they really love that time period, don’t they? Maybe they were really into psychedelia?) but also engaged in a factional war against each other. It’s all a very racism-is-bad metaphor, and that is good, but more important are the callbacks to “The Unearthly Child,” the First Doctor’s first episode, as the Daleks are on the hunt for a magical talisman known as the Hand of Omega, hidden by the Doctor way back then. But even more important than all of this is the revelation that the Doctor designed this whole scenario as a trap for his old enemies, playing directly into how the rest of the series sets him up as a conniving, almost omniscient time-travelling version of The Mentalist. (Though we never really get to see the whole thing pay off, of which more anon).

EXPLAINED! That Daleks can get up stairs! (Revelation of the Daleks implied as such, but here we have concrete proof.)

 

Ace, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, Doctor Who

3. THE GREATEST SHOW IN THE GALAXY, Season 22, Episodes 7-9
Written by: Stephen Wyatt
Directed by: Alan Wareing
Setting: The Psychic Circus on the planet Segonax
4 Episodes: “Part One” (December 14, 1988), “Part Two” (December 21, 1988), “Part Three” (December 28, 1985), “Part Four” (January 4, 1989)

“So you've always been interested in the psychic circus, have you?” the well-travelled, if tedious, Captain Cook (T P McKenna) asks of young enthusiast, Whizzkid (Gian Sammarco). “Well yes, of course,” he earnestly replies. “I've never been able to visit it before now, but I've got all sorts of souvenirs. Copies of all the advertising satellites that have ever been sent out. All the posters. I had a long correspondence with one of the founder members too, soon after it started. Although I never got to see the early days, I know it's not as good as it used to be but I'm still terribly interested.”

If you don’t read in that some none-too-gentle ribbing of passionate Whovians, then I utterly despair of you. It’s like an early version of Galaxy Quest, or perhaps more like one of those Supernatural episodes where Dean and Sam encounter LARPers portraying them, or that girl who writes Wincest fanfic. And that is what makes this serial so great, and so entirely unmissable. For a show with such a storied history and such a dedicated following to let loose with the fourth wall breaking “Get a life”-esque critique of its fanbase is risky enough to warrant it inclusion here, but ultimately this story succeeds because it is just a wildly entertaining hodgepodge of clever ideas, creepy villains (CLOWNS!), and crazy direction that makes it seem almost as surreal and dreamlike as the nightmares that will inevitably plague you after you watch it. Because: CLOWNS!

EXPLAINED! The era of the “superfan.”

 

Doctor Who, the Brigadier, Battlefield

4. BATTLEFIELD, Season 26, Episodes 1-4
Written by: Ben Aaronovitch
Directed by: Michael Kerrigan
Setting: England 4 Episodes: “Part One” (September 6, 1989), “Part Two” (September 13, 1989), “Part Three” (September 20, 1989), “Part Four” (September 27, 1989)

UNIT meets Arthurian legend, featuring the final appearance of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney). Meanwhile, Ben Aaronovitch wrote this one as well(!). Really, that is all you need to know.

EXPLAINED! More UNIT stuff, which will later have at least some bearing on Torchwood.

 

Seven Doctor, Sylvester McCoy, Doctor Who, the Master, Anthony Ainley, Survival

5. SURIVIVAL, Season 26, Episodes 13-14
Written by: Rosa Munro
Directed by: Alan Wareing
Setting: Contemporary England and the Cheetah Planet
3 Episodes: “Part One” (November 22, 1989), “Part Two” (November 29, 1989), “Part Three” (October 6, 1989)

It’s dumb. The plot actually involves a race called “the Cheetah People,” and they look ridiculous. But it is the final episode of the Classic series and so is absolutely, unquestionably compulsory viewing, especially as it brings Ace back home to Perivale, sees the Master’s (Anthony Ainley) steady decline into redundancy fully realized, and gives us a rather poignant monologue from the Doctor which, if nothing else, pretty neatly encapsulates his reign:

There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, and the sea's asleep, and the rivers dream; people made of smoke and cities made of song. Somewhere there's danger, somewhere there's injustice, and somewhere else the tea's getting cold. Come on, Ace. We've got work to do.

Also, gotta love the irony of the title.

EXPLAINED! Why the show went on hiatus for nigh on a decade afterwards.

 

I know, I know. I left out The Curse of Fenric, the second to last serial, and I’ll tell you why. Yes, it “explains” Ace’s sudden transportation to Iceworld, and sure, it further illustrates this Doctor’s penchant for universe-wide, fifteen-steps-ahead meddling. It’s actually quite good, as well. But since the threads that it sows and the mytharc that it develops never really go anywhere, given the series’ cancellation, it is really only “essential” in the context of the New Adventures novels that continue the series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 style. If you plan to read those adventures, then The Greatest Show in the Galaxy can be replaced by Fenric—or, for preference, added to it. Wow, who’d have thought there were six necessary Seventh Doctor episodes?

Now… let’s have it!

NEXT TIME: The Specials!


Rachel Hyland is Editor in Chief of Geek Speak Magazine.

24 comments
Walker White
1. Walker
Curse of Fenric is essential because it sets up the Time War Doctor. You finally see the temperament that is necessary for his ultimate choice ( and for which he has been seeking forgiveness ).
Sam
2. SJ
Curse of Fenricis essential because it is an absolutely standout episode. I never really cared about Doctor Who, but my partner is a fan. This the episode that convinced me that it was worth being interested in. This episode – more than any shouting by David Tennant – shows that the Doctor is an intriguing and enigmatic character.

I also really disagree with the idea that storylines need resolution/to be picked up later to be essential. Sometimes a hanging thread that nags at you (as in Fenric) is powerful.
beerofthedark
3. beerofthedark
Agree with point 1, - how can you leave off Curse of Fenric?! Also, Ghost Light was an excellently scary, and intersting story, well told played with some interesting ideas. Battlefield is only in this list as it's the Brig's last hurrah,but I do have a soft spot for it. As I've said before the Seventh is MY doctor, tricksy, machiavellian, funny, devious and awesome. More than any other of the original series he sets up the battle-scarred and weary new Whos, plus as you point out Ace is one of the few original companions to get characterisation and an arc of her own. There's undoubtedly stinkers in his reign, but that's true of every Doctor and his highlights (especially Remembrance and Curse) are among those I would recommend to anyone intersted in exploring the classic era.
Brian MacDonald
4. bmacdonald
Although I've always really liked the Seventh Doctor (yes, even the first season...I was 15 at the time, OK?), and especially Ace, I agree in general with your assessment of that era as very up-and-down. I think I would consider "Curse of Fenric" to be essential though, in that it establishes the Doctor's persona for the Wilderness period. You'd be justified in referring to the novels and audios as "Buffy Season 8" if the show had never returned. But it did, and tons of the creative staff come from the novels and audios, as well as a number of story ideas being lifted wholesale. I'm not saying that makes the Wilderness stuff "canon" (if such a term means anything in Doctor Who), but I think it does lend it more weight than the expanded universe stuff in Star Wars or Star Trek.

Trivia note for Battlefield: Morgaine is played by Jean Marsh, who played blink-and-you'll-miss-her companion Sara Kingdom in "The Dalek' Master Plan," back in 1965. That story was also the first appearance of Nicholas Courtney, who played Space Agent Bret Vyon, Sara Kingdom's brother. Sara kills Bret Vyon in that story, and Morgain certainly does her best to kill the Brigadier in "Battlefield."
beerofthedark
5. Fenric25
While this is a somewhat decent list, I do feel that it's still giving a bit of short shrift to my second-favorite era of the classic series. "Remembrance of the Daleks" and "Greatest Show in the Galaxy" definitely deserve to be on this list, and I've always been fond of "Battlefield" and "Survival" (certain aspects of both are a bit silly-the Cheetah People were not described as literal cheetah humanoids in the script, for one, and the late 80's styles are very cringe-worthy- but there's much to like in both of them and "Survival" is also essential in establishing much of the modern series contemporary urban settings). "Dragonfire" is definitely the best of Season 24 but is in no way essential except for the introduction of Ace, one of my favorite companions of the classic era (tied with Sarah Jane, Romana and Leela for first place). "The Curse of Fenric" is one of the best Doctor Who episodes of all time (coming in at #30 in the top 200 poll in Doctor Who Magazine, IIRC, second highest of this era after Remembrance, which came in at #14.) and definitely is essential to understanding this Doctor (and the more manipulative, darker side that would be reinforced by the Time War) as well as understanding Ace and much of where the new series came from in terms of connecting with the classic-plus it's got vampires-I mean, Haemovores. "Ghost Light", confusing though it may be, has been in my top ten Doctor Who stories list for many years and I can never see why some people outright hate it or forget it-it may be short on action, true, but its got lovely acting, sets, direction, dialogue, concepts, references to Victorian literature and society, good effects for the time, etc., an all-around classic (and is likewise essential in understanding Ace's character). "The Happiness Patrol" is pretty fun though not essential and "Silver Nemesis" belonged with Season 24 in terms of blergh (though admittedly "Paradise Towers" and "Delta and the Bannerman" do have their cheesy charms and the new series production teams clearly were fond of the latter, considering Bannerman Road in The Sarah Jane Adventures). Oh well, this list is not as bad as I thought it'd be but still a little disappointing. Roll on the 8th Doctor movie and the classic series!
jeff hendrix
6. templarsteel
I'm pretty sure this is the wrong date December 28, 1985 for Part Three of THE GREATEST SHOW IN THE GALAXY
David Levinson
7. DemetriosX
Add me to the Curse of Fenric supporters. On top of what's already been said, I think it best brings out the darker aspects of this Doctor. His willingness to just use Ace like that is disturbing.

While Three is my first and Four is probably MY Doctor, there are ways in which Seven is my favorite. I wish they had been given the opportunity to really explore some of the darker and more mysterious things that were hinted about the Doctor's past. And sartorially, while the vest was too much, I loved the umbrella handle.
Emmet O'Brien
8. EmmetAOBrien
The lack of love for Silver Nemesis has never made sense to me, fwiw. Maybe I should leave my teenage memories intact and not seek it out for rewatch.
Christopher Bennett
9. ChristopherLBennett
I've been surprised to discover lately that "The Greatest Show in the Galaxy" is well-regarded. I always loathed it. I didn't care for the story, and the production values were very ugly. I never really liked "The Curse of Fenric" that much either. It has some pretty strong writing, but I guess I found it too dark and unpleasant.

On the other hand, I like some of the stories that are generally reviled. I think "Paradise Towers" is great fun; I love stories about societies with their own distinctive jargon. And I think "The Happiness Patrol" is marvelously surreal and has something meaningful to say (and I gather it was a rather biting satire of Margaret Thatcher, though that went over my head). And "Ghost Light" is really good. I love anything that sticks it to the Creationists. I even find "Delta and the Bannermen" entertaining.

The irony is that "Silver Nemesis" was the official 25th ("silver") anniversary episode (with part 1 airing on November 23), even though "Remembrance of the Daleks" was a much better story and a much better anniversary tribute.
beerofthedark
11. w00master
Agreed with many on here, Curse of Fenric should absolutely be an "essential 7th Doctor" story. So many of the themes as well as concept of that story imho, really influenced the "new era" of Who. This is really the first time when Doctor Who truly did character exploration (namely Ace). It is a remarkable story.

7th is one of my favorite Doctors, but he is hugely devisive. It's sort of like asking the question: "Are you a Beatles fan or a Rolling Stones fan?"

What I adore about the 7th Doctor's era, is that they took a whole lot of risks, explored new territory. Sometimes it was an utter disaster (Silver Nemesis), other times absolute genuis (Remembrance, Curse of Fenric). 7th Doctor, more than any other Doctor for me, had so much potential that was unrealized. Loved the mystery he brought back to the Character (despite all of its faults), and I'd argue pushed Doctor Who forward to the "new era."
Ursula L
12. Ursula
Never having really had a chance to watch the classics, except for the stories shown as part of BBCA's "Revisited" series, I've really been enjoying your articles on essential episodes. Gives me an idea where to start, if I want to try to track down stuff.

I'm curious if you're going to revisit the Second Doctor, given the newly rediscovered episodes. Do they change your list at all?
beerofthedark
13. Russell H
Re "Remembrance of the Daleks," there's that wonderful bit of throwaway dialogue:

"I wish Bernard were here."
"British Rocket Group have their own problems."

"Bernard," no doubt, being Bernard Quatermass, considered by many to be a prototype of the Doctor, and, apparently, a part of the same universe.
alastair chadwin
14. a-j
Like ChristopherLBennett I also reckon 'The Happiness Patrol' highly. An audacious attempt to try something different and off the wall it was a brave experiment that, in my opinion, worked. And, oh yes, it was an obvious dig at Margaret Thatcher with Sheila Hancock, who played the villain, using the PM's speech mannerisms and patterns as she laid down the law. The Candyman was amazing too.
Overall, I found McCoy's time to be much stronger than Colin Baker's, and more adventurous than Peter Davison's.
Would swap 'Dragonfire' for 'Curse of Fenric'.

It is impossible to underestimate the loathing many in the BBC had towards Dr Who. They found it embarrassing and appaling that this cheap and tawdry children's programme should be one of their biggest successes. The surprise is that it survived so long. And furthermore, in a TV interview, RTD revealed that the come-back was treated with immense suspicion and an open wish that it should fail.
beerofthedark
15. Fenric25
For anyone who wishes to see an excellent tribute video to this era of Doctor Who (and other eras as well), here is a link to the McCoy Years tribute video from Babelcolour: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OjVyvI3SmWg. The only Doctor Who era tribute not on his page is for the 4th Doctor which is held by some other user named tombakerforever (I believe there had been a deletion of old videos and those people saved this one, it's also worth a watch at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8aFza7xS7tU.) I have watched Babelcolour's videos many times, they are excellent, especially for someone who has not seen the classic era and wants a feel for how each Doctor's time on the show was like. He also has a few humorous ones as well (his Misinformation Guide was an excellent April Fool's Day video) and is generally the best Doctor Who fan-tribute video maker I've come across.
beerofthedark
16. DRickard
@ChristopherLBennett: Ice hot!
Brian MacDonald
17. bmacdonald
A story from the extras for "Greatest Show in the Galaxy" that's too good not to share: The crew did all the location shooting first, and while they were out, asbestos was discovered in the studio where they were to film the interiors. There was literally no way to shoot inside for several weeks, and it seemed like the only option was to cancel the story, even though it was half-finished. It would become another "Shada."
But John Nathan-Turner didn't want to give up on it, and followed this logic: It's a story about a circus. They already built the outside of a circus tent for the exteriors. Couldn't they just put up the tent somewhere else and shoot inside it? This is, of course, insane, and the production crew told him that...and then did it anyway. They erected the tent in a parking lot and shot all the interiors inside it. That's why the main ring of the circus is so small. That's also the reason that the corridors (for the obligatory chasing around) are made of billowy silk with wooden floors. Apparently the tent was quite hot, and there was no way to control the surrounding noise, so they needed a lot more takes than they usually would, but everyone involved seems proud that they went to extreme measures to finish the story.
I just love the way that it worked out -- if it had been set almost anywhere else, they couldn't have finished it, but it's a story set in a circus, so...put up a tent and finish it!
(Also, Ian Reddington is amazingly creepy as the Chief Clown in that story. Apparently the strange hand gestures are something he came up with on his own, because he had so few lines. That one decision just makes the character.)
Tom Smith
18. phuzz
As far as I can tell, REMEMBERANCE OF THE DALEKS, would be the first Who I ever saw, aged 7 or so, when it was first shown.
JoeNotCharles
19. JoeNotCharles
Ursula @12: I haven't watched the newly recovered episodes yet, but I've seen the slide-show + audio versions of all the Troughton stories. Web of Fear absolutely deserves to be in the "essentials" list - it's the first appearance of the Brigadier (although he's a regular Army Colonel here - next time he appears he's been promoted and set up his own task force to deal with aliens and other strangeness, which is why The Invasion is the first appearance of UNIT itself) and one of two appearances of the Great Intelligence, who was revived for the most recent Matt Smith series. Also, it's really good... Not sure if they have plans to animate the remaining missing episode, though.

Not sure if it should replace The Ice Warriors, on the grounds that Web of Fear is a better episode and the Great Intelligence is a more important villain, or The Invasion on the grounds that we really don't need two Cyberman stories and two Brigadier stories in the list.

The Enemy of the World is also an excellent story (or so it seemed to me from the reconstruction) and has the bonus of being complete, but I think the two complete episodes already in the list, The Mind Robber and Tomb of the Cybermen, both have more historical importance so I wouldn't add it to the "essentials" list. Just the "recommended" list.
Lee Anderson
20. DSNiner
If the Seventh Doctor's era has an "edge" on the Sixth Doctor's -- and I'm not arguing the point, despite the fact that Colin Baker is my Doctor -- it owes entirely to their respective script editors.

Andrew Cartmel had a plan (some might say ahem a masterplan) to restore a degree of mystery and danger to the Doctor's character, whereas Eric Saward had a strong dislike of Colin Baker's hiring (and quite likely the man himself) and did his level best to undermine the character at every turn. It made all the difference.
beerofthedark
21. JohnElliott
EmmetAOBrien @8: Best to leave your teenage memories intact. I recently rewatched Silver Nemesis, and compared to the rest of that season it's aged poorly.
beerofthedark
22. RobinM
Ace is one of my all time favorite companions but that's probably because we're really close in age and like to blow stuff up. I'd never blow up stuff ; I'm to chicken and that's what idiot brother's are for after all. Battlefield is my favorite episode of this era even if it is cheesy in spots. It has the Brigadier and Athurian legends in it. Yay! I would have added Ghost light it's spooky fun and not as creepy as clowns. Curse of the Fenric is important for Ace and her mom but I have mixed emotions about the episode because it gave me weird vibes the first time I saw it strangley not so much when I saw a few years ago.
beerofthedark
23. Lellah
Hey, I really appreciate these blog posts, a great way to catch up without having to spend hours on hours. :)
I'm just wondering, how come there's no post on the the eighth doctor's essential episodes? Are they all essential, or none, or something?
beerofthedark
24. Lellah
Edit: Just looked at the specials post and realised that the eighth doctor is covered there. Never mind, my bad!
beerofthedark
25. Gabriel Chase
I agree with all those saying that The Curse of Fenric is essential viewing.

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