More neglected gems from Doctor Who, one per Doctor picking up with the seventh.
Delta and the Bannermen
To a certain type of fan, Doctor Who doesn’t get much worse (read: sillier) than this. A story that dares to feature Ken Dodd. A story where the villains get covered in honey and stung by bees. A story that dares to ask if we can have “space buns and tea.”
Actually, beneath a few surface gags, this is a fairly serious story that dares to kill off a likeable guest character (Murray) and a bus full of innocent alien tourists to make the villain look nasty. It’s a story about alien Fascists who want to wipe out another race – not exactly new territory for Doctor Who (*cough* Daleks *cough), but a sadly believable motivation for a three-part runaround. What hadn’t really been seen since the seventies is the tone of the piece, poised between drama and pastiche, with music that drifts into the Dick Barton theme in a lightly meta way without becoming an outright postmodern fourth-wall-breaker like Gangsters.
The main attraction of this tone is that it feels fun in a way that Doctor Who hadn’t for a while, perhaps not really since The Five Doctors. Paradise Towers was a step in this direction, but suffered from actors sending it up; here everyone is playing it straight, which is what makes it funny. At its heart, it’s a story about a bunch of oddball eccentrics fighting against Fascist conformity, and that’s a story that Doctor Who always tells well. There’s no denying that the next two seasons would see Sylvester McCoy star in much better stories than this, but somehow there aren’t many that are this much fun.
The Oblivion Arc
I don’t think the TV Movie is exactly a neglected gem, and The Night of the Doctor, while a gem,is hardly neglected, so I’m going to step outside the confines of the television for this one and look at the Oblivion arc from Doctor Who Magazine (collected in the graphic novel Oblivion). The DWM comic doesn’t seem to have the dedicated fan bases that the Virgin novels and Big Finish have and I’ve always felt that’s a terrible shame, as it has produced a lot of quality stories over the years, every bit as daring and moving its TV, prose and audio counterparts. (I’d like to write more about the comic here.)
This arc is a case in point. Ophidius is a slightly ho-hum story about aliens on a giant spaceship that suddenly gets kicked up a gear when the Doctor’s companion Izzy is “body swapped” with the alien Destrii, and her real body is destroyed before she can get swapped back. Izzy stays an alien for some time, with the character-based Beautiful Freak dealing with her trauma. Later stories would see her trying to adjust before she is abducted and the Doctor and 1930s secret agent/Time Lord agent Fey Truscott-Sade/Shayde search for her, eventually catching up with her on Oblivion. Along the way there’s a horrific historical with Freda Kahlo and Diego Rivera (The Way of All Flesh), a moving and thought-provoking story with the humanised Daleks from The Evil of the Daleks (Children of the Revolution), neo-conservative alien warmongers (Uroboros)plus a brutal Doctor-less World War Two vignette with Fey (Me and My Shadow).
This arc perhaps lacks the scale of the previous Glorious Dead epic, which had seen the Master threaten all the multiverses, but it is a strong character-based tale that confronts Izzy’s sense of alienation and loneliness as well as her homosexuality along with raising issues about trust, grief and revenge. Definitely worth checking out.
The Long Game
It was hard to find a neglected gem for the ninth Doctor as most of his stories were very good, (although I’ve never much liked Boom Town). The Long Game came bottom of the 2005 story poll, but I have always liked it.
It’s the story most like a classic Who story in the first year of the new series, unsurprising given that Russell T Davies first submitted it in the late eighties. It would have fitted with Andrew Cartmel’s vision for the show just as well as it fits with the unique feel of Christopher Eccleston’s sole year in the title role, a solid story built around a bit of science fictional world-building of the kind that was fairly thin on the ground during Davies’ time in the showrunner’s chair.
It’s been criticised for sidelining the Doctor and Rose (this was the equivalent of the Doctor-lite episode for that year), but this is really another instance of the Doctor as “catalyst hero,” encouraging others to ask questions and take control of their lives, a common theme that year. Along the way, we get failed companion Adam who wants to profit financially from his travels with the Doctor, a big no-no. Given the way that the companions would become the focus for much of the emotional side of the programme in coming years, it is good that we got to see that not all humans would be a Rose, Martha or Amy; some would need to be sent home with a flea in their ear (or hole in their head).