Doctor Who episodes are often very different from each other – but there are some which are more different than others! Here’s a rundown of some of the biggest mould-breakers in the show’s 60 year history…
Doctor Who and the Silurians
In Jon Pertwee’s first Doctor Who season, the BBC decided that – in order to save money – all of the shows had to be set on Earth. This presented the script editor Terrance Dicks with something of a problem. How could he devise stories which were just as entertaining but didn’t always fall into the category of Mad Scientist or Alien Invasion?
‘Doctor Who and the Silurians’ addressed this problem by having an alien invasion with a difference. The Silurians were already on the Earth, and indeed had been there longer than the humans, having been hibernating underground for many thousands of years. In ‘Doctor Who and the Silurians,’ the titular monsters awaken, and are determined to reclaim the planet as their own.
This might not sound like a massively mould-breaking premise today, but in 1970 these Doctor Who episodes were markedly different from anything that had come before. It was still relatively uncommon to have Doctor Who episodes which were set entirely on present day Earth, and the idea of having the humans as the potential invaders was an innovative one.
The Deadly Assassin
The Fourth Doctor Tom Baker had long campaigned to travel solo in the TARDIS, and in ‘The Deadly Assassin’ he finally got his wish. These are the first companionless Doctor Who episodes in the show’s history, with his long-time travelling partner Sarah Jane Smith having left at the end of the previous story ‘The Hand of Fear.’
Naturally, this means that Tom Baker spends the majority of these Doctor Who episodes talking to himself – something that had long been his wish – although he does team up with some fellow Time Lords later on, and in one of the episodes he says very little as he is engaged in a stealthy game of cat and mouse inside the Gallifreyan Matrix.
Companionless Doctor Who episodes had never really been attempted before ‘The Deadly Assassin,’ but it’s a story which remains popular to this day. It is also notable for subverting the portrayal of the Time Lords, who in this adventure are shown to be corrupt and (at times) completely inept – a far cry from the god-like beings who appeared in 1969’s ‘The War Games.’
Love & Monsters
This 2006 adventure is perhaps one of the most ‘Marmite’ Doctor Who episodes in the show’s history, in that it is either loved or hated by fandom. Unusually for Doctor Who, this story is more of a comedy than a science fiction adventure, and even stars the popular comedian Peter Kay as the fearsome Abzorbaloff – a gooey being from Clom with a broad Yorkshire accent.
But what is truly mould-breaking about this story is that it is one of the first ‘Doctor-lite’ Doctor Who episodes in the series’ history. That is to say, it’s an adventure in which the Doctor and his companion Rose hardly feature, and much of the action is dominated by guest characters. This was more of a production necessity than a creative decision; it enabled the crew to film the 13 part series more efficiently, and it was a technique which was used many times in the ensuing years.
Of course, ‘Love & Monsters’ wasn’t the first story to be truly Doctor-lite, or even Doctor-less; there were many Doctor Who episodes from the 1960s in which the Doctor didn’t appear, but this was to allow to lead actors to take a much-needed holiday. That said, ‘Love & Monsters’ certainly broke with tradition by centring its episodes around random characters, and indeed it created a new mould – one which would be used in many future Doctor Who adventures such as ‘Blink’ and ‘Turn Left.’ And interestingly, these tales are highly regarded among Doctor Who fans…
Sleep No More
Before ‘Sleep No More,’ the found footage genre was one that Doctor Who had yet to explore. In this 2015 adventure, the Doctor and Clara find themselves exploring a stricken spaceship which is under attack by a race of sleep monsters. And the story is all told through the ship’s camera system, with the footage having been retrospectively packaged together by the mysterious Rassmussen.
Moreover, in order to maintain this illusion, the bold decision was made to air the episode without its traditional title sequence or theme music, something which had never been done up until this point. Although, if you look closely, you might just make out the words “Doctor Who” amongst the computer data which races across the screen. Even the episode’s title is withheld until the story’s conclusion.
Where ‘Sleep No More’ is similar to other Doctor Who episodes, though, is in its somewhat complex construction. The chances of you fully grasping this adventure on first viewing are slim, and it joins ‘Ghost Light‘ as one of the more head-scratching Doctor Who stories. But there is plenty to enjoy and it is arguably one of the darker Doctor Who episodes overseen by showrunner Steven Moffat.
If ‘The Deadly Assassin’ broke the mould by having the Doctor travel without a companion, ‘Heaven Sent’ pulverised it by giving the Doctor virtually no one to talk to for a complete 50 minutes. This story is a true one-hander – just Peter Capaldi trying to navigate an ever-changing maze of corridors in a mysterious castle, desperate to find the people responsible for the death of his friend Clara.
It is worth pointing out, though, that he is joined by a skeleton cast. There is the ominous, hooded stalker known as The Veil (which doesn’t actually speak) and in the episode’s final scene the Doctor encounters a young boy on Gallifrey who, again, says nothing. Then there is his momentary encounter with Clara inside the TARDIS, but they don’t converse at length, and indeed this conversation all takes place inside his head.
As such, ‘Heaven Sent’ may be one of the boldest and bravest Doctor Who episodes in the series’ history, driven almost entirely by one actor for nearly an hour. But it is underpinned by a wonderfully ‘timey-wimey’ script and an epic soundtrack which was later resurrected for the Twelfth Doctor’s regeneration scene. Moreover, the episode went on to receive critical acclaim, with some even nominating ‘it ‘Heaven Sent’ as a contender for the greatest Doctor Who episode of all time.
Mould-breaking, therefore, has always been a risky business in the world of Who, but there is much to be said for daring to be different. Who knows what other great experiments will be carried out by future writers as we head into Doctor Who‘s 60th anniversary and beyond.
Which is your favourite of these mould-breaking Doctor Who episodes? And which ones would you add to this list? Let us know in the comments below.
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