You think you know the meaning of the word daunting? I assure you, you don’t—unless you, too, once pondered the Herculean task of whittling down the many, many worthy serials on the Fourth Doctor’s tenure to a mere five “essentials,” which would then go on to be judged (and doubtless found wanting) by a jury of your Whovian peers.
The First Doctor—easy enough, he didn’t have too many serials remaining to him from which to choose. Likewise The Second, and even the Third Doctor while harder, was doable. But this one was an assignment I feared might be my undoing… until I really looked at it objectively, and realised that it actually wasn’t that hard at all.
Oh, sure, there are so many excellent stories that I had to exclude here, including personal favorites like Pyramids of Mars (I still think those face-like rock formations on Mars are man-made), The Ark in Space (Harry Sullivan’s finest hour) and The Horns of Nimon (“Weakling scum!”). Plus, who doesn’t love Sherlock Holmes-ian The Talons of Weng-Chiang, the Agatha Christie-an The Robots of Death and the “Hey, consequences!” rumination that is The Face of Evil? This period has rightly been considered the golden age of Classic Who for a reason, after all, even if it is marked by several changes in tone, as Gothic Horror leads to Fantasy Humor leads to Hard Science Fiction and a depressing we’re-all-domed vibe. But when it comes to the completely necessary, cannot-miss, absolutely indispensible outings, it turned out that there really were only five that cried out to be so honored, of all the Fourth Doctor’s seven seasons and 41 adventures.
You will note a significant absence of serials from the Season 16 arc The Key to Time here, by the way, and I’ll tell you why. The season is all very well as a whole, but once you start breaking it down into individual stories, each becomes increasingly difficult to recommend. I mean, it’s basically a six-serial intergalactic scavenger hunt, with the Doctor having to put together a puzzle that might destroy the universe, and what with the White Guardian vs. the Black Guardian and someone actually called Princess Astra, never has Doctor Who been so… children’s television as it was in that season. (The final episode is pretty compelling, though. I’ll give it that.)
By the way? I think this landscape would have changed had the unfinished Season 17 serial, Shada—written by Douglas Adams, and released in excellent book form in 2012—been completed. Fortunately for me, his other serial, The Pirate Planet, while fun, doesn’t quite make the grade, because it would have been tough to leave any of these out, given the grandeur that is…
THE FOURTH DOCTOR
Played by: Tom Baker
First Appearance: Newly regenerated in “Part Six” (Planet of the Spiders, June 8, 1974), but really in “Part One” (Robot, December 28, 1974)
Last Appearance: “Part Four” (Logopolis, March 21, 1981)—but with later guest appearances.
Style: Harpo Marx chic
Catchphrase: “Would you care for a jelly baby?”
Characteristics: At first, it seems very much as if the clothes maketh the man here, as the most recognizable and memorable facet of this particular incarnation is his egregiously long knitted scarf. The mop of curls, tall lanky frame and mischievous twinkle in his eye register later, and it is only as one really gets to know this Doctor that the abiding sadness within reveals itself. (His seeming bi-polar nature accounted for by several changes in leadership behind the scenes.) For all that Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor is purportedly most closely based on the Second Doctor, there can be no denying that there is at least a dash of the Fourth in him as well. His fellow Time Lord, Romana—a truly excellent companion, in both her regenerations—once called him “capricious, arrogant, self-opinionated, irrational,” all of which is undoubtedly true. But added to these traits are a winning enthusiasm and a genial wit that go a long way towards mitigating against his occasional callousness and far more frequent bouts of righteous indignation. Also: dude really likes jelly babies. (Which: who doesn’t?)
Companions: The Fourth Doctor’s cup ranneth over with companions, for besides the stalwart and delightful Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen), carried over from the Third Doctor, he was also joined in his travels by UNIT surgeon Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter), alien warrior woman Leela (Louise Jameson), aforementioned Time Lady Romana (Mary Tamm/Lalla Ward) and the much-despised proto-Wesley Crusher, Adric (Matthew Waterhouse), as well as very briefly by alien gentlewoman Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) and Australian flight attendant Tegan Jovanka (Janet Fielding). Also, there was robotic dog K-9, though I’ve always felt he was more a pet and servant than a proper companion, especially as he is so easily replaced and upgraded.
1. GENESIS OF THE DALEKS, Season 12, Episodes 11-16
Written by: Terry Nation
Directed by: David Moloney
Setting: The planet Skaro
6 Episodes: “Part One” (March 8, 1975), “Part Two” (March 15, 1975), “Part Three” (March 22, 1975), “Part Four” (March 29, 1975), “Part Five” (April 5, 1975), “Part Six” (April 12, 1975)
There are Dalek stories, and then there is Genesis of the Daleks, THE Dalek story to end all Dalek stories. Not that it did, of course—what are they, crazy? But given there are only two outings of this rolling menace throughout the Fourth Doctor’s reign, we can only be grateful that this is one of them. Here, the Doctor, Harry and Sarah are diverted to the planet Skaro by the suddenly genocidal Time Lords, in order to nip the whole Dalek race in the bud. Their creator, the mad genius Davros (Michael Wisher), believes them to be the ultimate superhuman melding of man (or in this case, Kaled—nice wordplay, show!) and machine, all the better to destroy the enemy Thals and finally end the thousand-year war of attrition besetting his planet. Banish from your thoughts the question of just how two city states so close to each other can possibly have been conducting a thousand-year war! Forget that it is all a rather heavy-handed Mengele metaphor! Just sit back and enjoy the Doctor’s struggle with Big Themes while also taking pleasure in what is without a doubt the best Who villain origin story ever, the only thing missing some kind of justification for the Daleks’ early trouble with stairs.
EXPLAINED! The, er, genesis of the Daleks (and exactly how the enchanting Oswin Osgood could have been turned into one of them).
2. THE BRAIN OF MORBIUS , Season 13, Episodes 21-26
Written by: “Robin Bland” (Terrance Dicks/Robert Holmes)
Directed by: Christopher Barry
Setting: The planet Karn
4 Episodes: “Part One” (January 3, 1976), “Part Two” (January 10, 1976), “Part Three” (January 17, 1976), “Part Four” (January 24, 1976)
In a season full of notable awesome, The Brain of Morbius stands out as, woah. Awesome. The Doctor and Sarah find themselves on the planet Karn in the distant future, on which exist two separate yet equally troubling entities: one, the Sisterhood of the Flame, which produces a mystical, if dwindling, “Elixir of Life” and two, a Dr. Solon (Philip Madoc), bona fide Frankenstein-level mad scientist who is assembling a new body to house the consciousness of an evil Time Lord, the titular Morbius. At once a clever adaptation, a meditation on the nature of obsession and an admonishment on the importance of basic home maintenance (come on, ladies: the chimney!), this is an atmospheric, chilling and yet ultimately life-affirming outing, sporting unforgettable an evocative lines like “The impossible dream of a thousand alchemists, dripping like tea from an urn,” pronounced in Tom Baker’s most dulcet tones.
EXPLAINED! What the First Doctor looked like as a young man. (Unless there is another explanation for all of the past faces that flash by during his mind-battle with Morbius? I’d love to hear it!)
3. THE DEADLY ASSASSIN, Season 14, Episodes 9-12
Written by: Robert Holmes
Directed by: David Moloney
Setting: The planet Gallifrey
4 Episodes: “Part One” (October 30, 1976), “Part Two” (November 6, 1976), “Part Three” (November 13, 1976), “Part Four” (November 20, 1976)
Ah, Gallifrey! A planet so shrouded in mystery that we didn’t even know its name for the first two incarnations of its most famous son. Here, the Doctor pays a visit home (sans companion—the only Classic Who serial in which this happens) and finds himself Manchurian Candidated by his aging nemesis, the Master (Peter Pratt). One thing this episode does—aside from entertain, with its taught sci-fi thriller-style narrative—is thoroughly demystify the Time Lords, making of them just as petty and as, well, human as any race encountered anywhere in the show. But while this can be a bad thing in some cases (cf. what Voyager did to the Borg), here it goes a long way to explaining so much about the Doctor, about his attitudes, and even about ourselves: power corrupts and reality is an illusion and perhaps we are all living inside the Matrix. Sorry, Wachowskis! Doctor Who got there first.
Note: The previous serial, The Hand of Fear saw the departure of Sarah Jane Smith as the Fourth Doctor’s regular companion. It featured a heart-felt goodbye that surely gives the lie to any notion that the two were “just friends,” and is not included here because it is otherwise not very good, and also because… well, it’s the departure of Sarah Jane Smith (though she will return in the time of future Doctors), and that is just sad.
EXPLAINED! Why everyone believes Peter Capaldi’s forthcoming Twelfth Doctor will be our last. (Except we don’t really believe that, do we?)
4. CITY OF DEATH, Season 17, Episodes 5-8
Written by: “David Agnew” (David Fisher/Graham Williams/Douglas Adams)
Directed by: Michael Hayes
Setting: Contemporary Paris, Rennaissance Italy
4 Episodes: “Part One” (September 29, 1979), “Part Two” (October 6, 1979), “Part Three” (October 13, 1978), “Part Four” (October 20, 1979)
Romana! Whether you prefer her in her first or second incarnation (personally, I’m Team Romana II, but that is probably the minority opinion), this Time Lady companion is one of my absolute favorites, right up there with Sarah and Zoe (and the much later Jack and Amy). In this outing, she and the Doctor are in Paris where they discover a temporal distortion in the Louvre (I always knew there was something hinky going on with time in that place!) and the Doctor ends up visiting with Leonardo Da Vinci and uncovering the origins of life on Earth—it was the explosion of an alien spacecraft, which its adrift-in-time pilot is eager to go back in time to stop. Aside from some pointed hypocrisy (“You can’t change history”—oh, really, Doctor?), the serial is pretty much flawless, and is as enjoyable—and unutterably amusing—on its tenth viewing as it is on its first. And even after you think you have surely seen all the glory and wonder that City of Death has to offer, suddenly: John Cleese!
EXPLAINED! Uh… the origins of life on Earth. Thanks, Skaroth!
5. LOGOPOLIS, Season 18, Episodes 25-28 Written by: Christopher H Bidmead Directed by: Peter Grimwade Setting: Contemporary London, the planet Logopolis 4 Episodes: “Part One” (February 28, 1981), “Part Two” (March 7, 1981), “Part Three” (March 14), “Part Four” (March 21, 1981)
Is this serial among the best of the Fourth Doctor’s tenure? By no means. Season 18 was a…. let’s just call it a troubled season, full of Hard SF and an increasingly weary Tom Baker, his broad, cat-ate-the-canary smile all but absent in favor of somber meditation on the universe’s inevitable death and decay. But is it an important, nay, essential serial? Yes, and for more than just the Doctor’s regeneration at the end. More crucial is the fact that magic—real, honest-to-goodness magic, since what else can you call incantations of words that must be said just so in order to somehow save the universe?—is couched as science, as mathematics, and is taken completely for granted here, as the Doctor and the Master (Anthony Ainley) team up to help the Logopolitans drain existence of its entropy and thus save it from oblivion. (Also present: Adric, Nyssa and new accidental companion Tegan, of whom more in the Fifth Doctor’s installment.) In all, Logopolis is certainly nowhere near as entertaining as many of its precursors, but as a representative sample of what the show had at this point become, I believe it to bee compulsory viewing.
EXPLAINED! How we’re all still standing, apparently.
Okay, I know it’s coming. Let the filleting begin!
Rachel Hyland is Editor in Chief of Geek Speak Magazine.