It’s relatively easy to pick the best debut story for any new Doctor. ‘Power of the Daleks’ anyone? Or perhaps ‘The Eleventh Hour’ floats your boat? But it’s a much tougher task to rank the best debut season/series (the former for the classic era, the latter for the modern era) as there can be quite a lot of variability in quality. But I am here to attempt this formidable task, for all you wonderful Spoilerites!
Of course, with some debut series in the classic era being much shorter in terms of story count than the modern version, there will have to be some handicapping, otherwise the new series wouldn’t get a look in. I’d be thrilled to read your thoughts and suggestions in the comments section below, and as ever, these choices are only mine – there are definitely many other possibilities out there – well, twelve!
Season Seven (1970)
Coming out of the turbulence of Patrick Troughton’s final season (really, go check some of the accounts of that last year – stories falling by the wayside at the last moment and the ten episodes of the finale, ‘The War Games’ being co-written week by week) the changeover to Jon Pertwee promised a fresh start, given greater impact in that it was the first season transmitted in color. The fact there were only four stories, spread over 25 weeks, compared favorably with the trend during the 60s, where there were about 40 odd episodes per year. In theory, this allowed the production team, led initially by Peter Bryant, then for the remainder of the year by Barry Letts, to focus on ensuring Pertwee had a solid debut. And what a debut!
Industrial action ensured that the opening story, the four part ‘Spearhead from Space’ was filmed, unlike the usual videotaping that occurred before and after. This filmic look adds enormously to the visuals, making Robert Holmes’ script appear like an appealing B-movie alien invasion movie you might see down at the cinema one rainy Saturday. Combined with Petwee’s decision to play the role straight (he was cast in the hope his comedic skills would bring a lighter, more appealing touch to the role), the thrilling first appearance of the Autons (the awakening of the shop window mannequins still remains one of the most iconic moments in the series, and was deliberately referenced by Russell T Davies in the opening story of the modern take, ‘Rose’) and the re-introduction of UNIT led by Nicholas Courtney’s Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, ‘Spearhead from Space’ is a pacy, well structured story that launched the new season with a bang.
The remaining three stories of the season were all seven episodes in length. While by today’s standards that’s feels like marathon viewing, on the whole, it was an excellent creative decision (as well as practical, as a couple of stories – ‘Ambassadors of Death’ and ‘Inferno’ had script and production issues) that allowed the stories to breathe and let the team in front of the camera develop a deep camaraderie that would carry them through to the mid-70s.
‘Doctor Who and the Silurians’ is a fantastic story that offers well realised monsters (the entombed reptile race known as the Silurians) married to an exacting moral question – does humanity have the right to deny the Silurians space to live on the surface once again? Coupled with some fun appearances by dinosaurs, and an eerily topical story about a plague spreading across the country, ‘Doctor Who and the Silurians’ helps cement Pertwee in the role, and allows his depiction of the Doctor to be one broadly motivated by ethics.
‘Ambassadors of Death’ had a somewhat tortured route to broadcast, which occasionally shows on screen, but overall, is a masterpiece of tension and atmosphere. Aliens from Mars hold several astronauts hostage, and a rogue element in the military brings humanity to the verge of destruction. With nods to Nigel Kneale’s work on the Quatermass serials, particularly Quatermass II, ‘Ambassadors of Death’ is a slow burn thriller, quite unlike anything the series had ever achieved.
Finally, ‘Inferno’ is a flat out fantastic thriller, based in two realities – ‘ours’ and a fascistic parallel Britain where the Doctor’s best efforts only result in total destruction of the Earth. It has it all – men converted into monsters, a mad scientist at the helm of the Inferno Project, travel between realities, the bleak ending to episode 6 and a fine double performance by Nicholas Courtney, ‘Inferno’ stands out as the peak of the season.
Overall, an excellent overall performance from Jon Pertwee, fine scripts from experienced writers, and a production team intent on lifting the standards of the show, coalesced into an excellent debut season for one of the most popular eras of the show. It feels like a cohesive story told over 25 episodes and stands head and shoulders above the rest of Pertwee’s very popular era.
Series 1 (2005)
There was a huge amount riding on the return of Doctor in 2005. Though derided towards the end of its classic run in the late 80s, there was a huge reservoir of goodwill towards the show from the viewing public, built up over literally decades of broadcasts. But could Doctor Who make it in the 21st century? Did science fiction still have a place on British televisions? Would the audience welcome it back with open arms?
Did it ever!
With so much riding on it, in terms of the investment by the BBC, and the careers of the top people involved, Series One is a qualified triumph. There are some missteps (burping garbage bins and farting aliens are a bridge too far for your writer) but overall, as the series progressed, everyone involved, from leading man Christoper Eccleston, to showrunner Russell T Davies, grew in confidence.
In hindsight, stories like ‘Rose’ appear to be small beer to the grand extravagences of later years. But in its 45 minute running time, it had to establish the new Doctor, introduce his new companion (has there ever been a better casting choice than Billie Piper?) and provide a thrilling, spooky adventure to capture the attention of the kids and the interest of their parents. So successful was the production team, by the time Piper’s Rose starts her run at the end of the opening story towards the TARDIS and further adventures, most of the viewing audience want to be running along with her.
Series One really takes flight with ‘Dalek’, mostly on the strength and urgency of Eccelston’s stunning performance. Those moments in the vault, when he realises he is trapped with a Dalek, is where he fully comes into his own as the Doctor. The bile and hate he spews at the Dalek is testimony to Eccleston’s embrace of the role and the willingness of the series to examine themes more adult that was common with its forebear.
From ‘Dalek’ it is a straight shot to the amazing finale. Along the way, Steven Moffat’s debut as a Doctor Who writer with ‘The Empty Child/’The Doctor Dances’ (everybody lives!) and the quiet intensity of ‘Boom Town’ act as preludes to the stunning double episode finish to the series. In the end, with Eccelston departing the role and series after only one season, Series One is something of a standalone, a series ripe for revisiting, and a powerful debut for a wonderful actor in an iconic role.
Season Twenty-Two (1985)
It’s Baker, Colin Baker (Tom’s debut season is fine, especially with ‘Ark in Space’ and ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ but there is too much variability, especially with the lightweight ‘Robot’ and disappointing ‘Revenge of the Cybermen’ holding it down). Season Twenty-Two deserves its share of brickbats, and indeed, many point to it as the reason for the show’s original (and reversed) cancellation, but taken on its own merits, divorced from the sturm and drang of those times, it is a very fine debut for an underappreciated Doctor.
Let’s get it out of the way – that costume – it is appalling. No matter where the Doctor lands, he is immediately out of sync with his surroundings. While efforts were made during the series to tone it down (abandoning the jacket as a nod to the Spanish heat in ‘The Two Doctors’ and the adoption of a blue cloak in ‘Revelation of the Daleks’) the costume is a disaster.
But it is the most visual pointer to the new style of the series, after the softer, more polite Davison years. Producer Jon Nathan-Turner has his detractors, but his decision to take the polar opposite approach with the character of the new Doctor was the right one to make (if taken to extremes – see the strangling scene in ‘The Twin Dilemma’ for an egregious example).
Colin Baker embraced the spikier interpretation with gusto, suiting his stage roots. His is a Doctor who suffers no fools gladly at all. Enormously confidence and ego do mask a more sensitive side, as his lament for the gumblejack in ‘The Two Doctors’ testifies. While his relationship with Peri does make you wonder how either of them could stand to be in each other’s presence for more than five minutes, it makes a refreshing change (in small doses) for the ‘follow the leader’ approach taken by earlier production teams.
Like Tom Baker’s debut season, Season Twenty-Two features Daleks, Cybermen and Sontarans. Whereas ‘Revenge of the Cybermen’ is something of a snorefest, ‘Attack of the Cybermen’ offers an exciting thriller, grounded on Earth in the opening instalment, and an interesting take on an alien society in its concluding episode. The Sontarans in ‘The Two Doctors’ are definite targets of writer Robert Homes’ satire against the military mind, and if you can’t find joy in Patrick Troughton’s final performance as the Second Doctor, you must have a stone in place of your heart. And while ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ offers a thrilling and compelling new take on the origins of the universe’s most monstrous species, ‘Revelation of the Daleks’ is a darkly comic tale of obsession, graverobbing, and the relative tastiness of recycled corpses.
Season Twenty-Two is vibrant. It’s colorful. It’s controversial, with ‘Vengeance on Varos’ depicting the hypocrisy of the 80s tendency towards censorship of movies and television in Britain. It’s bold and brassy and when it takes aim, it rarely misses. While Colin Baker has been unjustly maligned as one of the reasons the show was rested for 18 months after this season aired (the real blame lies with management, who had the show in their sights for cancellation to free up funds and the time slot for new programming), in hindsight, he and his performance were a much needed breath of fresh air.
Series Five (2010)
I must admit, when Matt Smith was announced as the new Doctor during a special episode of the behind the scenes series, Doctor Who Confidential, I wasn’t hopeful. He’s so young I complained to myself (somewhat jealously I must say, since I at last reached the point where for the first time, the actor cast in the role was younger than me). I mean, really young. I shouldn’t have been worried. Along with a fine acting pedigree (check out ‘Party Animals’ for a really interesting early performance) Smith nailed the role from the opening minutes of ‘The Eleventh Hour’. Indeed, the new leadership of the series, in the form of (by then) veteran comedy and drama writer Steven Moffat, all managed to hit the ground running in a confident style that shook the series up after the popularity of the Tennant era.
Given the larger story count in the modern series, it’s inevitable there will be some…less well regarded episodes. Thankfully, Series Five gets most of them out of the way early enough that they don’t dampen the overall quality. True, ‘The Beast Below’ is less good than it could be and the less said the better about ‘Victory of the Daleks’ is wise, but these were early missteps not repeated by the production team. And even then, Smith’s performance helped anchor what were rocky early moments. As the series progressed, the production’s confidence grew, so much so that by the time of the finale, the sheer audacity of ‘The Big Bang’ spoke to a team that was fully in control.
After a confident start with ‘The Eleventh Hour’ the series really takes off with the first two parter of the era ‘The Time of Angels’ and ‘Flesh and Stone’. The Weeping Angels are back, and whereas they eventually wore out their welcome in later appearances, here they are a menacing counterpoint to all the other events swirling around the episodes, and indeed, the entire series. With Steven Moffat, you could expect intricate plotting, a fiendish interest in setting up surprises to explode later in the series, as well as his trademark crisp and punchy dialog. After this, the baroque splendor of ‘The Vampires of Venice’ sets up a remarkably good run of episodes in the latter half of the series. Special mention to ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ which left your writer a blubbering mess, and Simon Nye’s ‘Amy’s Choice’ which manages to be frightening and intriguing in a neat little package that features a standout performance by one of the best British actors in the business, Toby Young.
If the final two episodes are absolutely bonkers, it is done with such vision, craft and confidence, that the viewer is left applauding while scratching their head (a mean feat that only a Moffat written character could succeed at). Well before this, Matt Smith is more than comfortable in the role – his child-like performance punctuated by reminders the Doctor is a truly ancient being burdened by all the things he has done. Karen Gillan as Amy and particularly Arthur Darvill as Rory are perfect counterweights to the Doctor, bringing a real humanity and friendship that highlights the true alieness and monstrousness of the universe through which they travel. Series Five is as much a reset as it is a reorienting of what Doctor Who is all about. And for that, we all should applaud.
Season One (1963/64)
Only by a hairs’ breadth does Season One beat out Patrick Troughton’s debut season. While Troughton’s performance boosts some iffy stories, it is Hartnell’s performance and a better array of stories that beats out Season Four for the final slot.
If you spend a few seconds thinking about it, Season One has an enormous amount to do in setting up the series, and, astonishingly, it does so in the very first episode. In 25 minutes, part one of ‘An Unearthly Child’ sets up the mystery of the Doctor and his unearthly grand-daughter Susan, the shock of the TARDIS, and the drama of time travel. Everything after that is pure story, as the four travellers in time fight to survive a world where the maxim ‘red in tooth and claw’ is the only tenet of survival.
While it is ‘The Daleks’ that sent the new series into the ratings stratosphere, it is actually the historicals that pound for pound, provide some of the strongest storytelling of this opening season. While ‘Marco Polo’ no longer exists, the audio track does, as well as a number of color photos, which depict a sumptuous production. The epic storyline allows the crew to finally overcome any remaining suspicions about the Doctor’s intentions. Later in the season ‘The Aztecs’ sets up an intriguing premise, with the Doctor on one side attempting to maintain established history, while Barbara, using her mistaken godhood, tries to reform the Aztecs brutal and bloody ways. And at the end of the season, the team visit Paris during the Revolution, in ‘The Reign of Terror’ another strong entry.
Over the course of the first year, Hartnell’s Doctor transforms from a cold eyed almost murderer and definite kidnapper of London teachers, into a more rounded humanist, intent on exploring all of time and space. While Carole Ann Ford’s Susan becomes more and more an appendage, William Russell’s square jawed Ian Chesterton, and Jacqueline Hill’s empathetic Barbara Wright provide the perfect teaming. They gently cajole and challenge the Doctor during their adventures, providing a lot of humor and pathos as they traverse the universe. Season One may have its ups and downs (‘The Keys of Marinus’ is no one’s idea of fun) but it is a collection of very strong stories, breaking new ground in British television, and more importantly, captivating an entire generation of children along the way.