After nearly 60 years of travelling through time and space, are we now at the point where we can formulate the “perfect” Doctor Who episode?
It’s a recurring joke in Doctor Who fandom that people tend to complain that “the show is not as good as it used to be” and have been doing so since the unaired pilot! Of course, everyone has their favourites – even stories that have been historically down-voted like ‘The Twin Dilemma‘ have their hardcore devotees.
At the same time, there are some Doctor Who episodes that typically score highly in fan polls, such as ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ by Terry Nation and ‘Blink’ by Steven Moffat. And if we examined some of the “best” elements of these fan favourites, would it be possible to determine what makes the perfect Doctor Who episode? Let’s find out!
1) The Daleks
The Doctor’s deadliest enemies the Daleks helped to propel Doctor Who to worldwide fame in the early 60s, and even today they remain one of the series’ most popular villains. Moreover, they have starred in a number of Doctor Who episodes that have gone on to become fan favourites.
The aforementioned ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ is one such adventure, telling the story of the metal mutants’ origins at the hands of the demented Davros. Interestingly, this is a very atypical Doctor Who episode, being devoid of the TARDIS and being markedly bleak in tone; it’s all set against the backdrop of a prolonged and bloody war.
Then there is ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan‘ from the First Doctor era – a Doctor Who story that is often regarded as one of William Hartnell’s finest. Again, it’s one of his bleakest and most ‘adult’ adventures, and even features the death of his companion Katarina, who sacrifices herself to help the Time Lord and his friends escape.
So Daleks and a bleak, adult tone seem to be key ingredients for a popular Doctor Who story. But it’s also worth mentioning that ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’ is also partly missing, as is the next Dalek adventure ‘The Power of the Daleks.’ So are Doctor Who episodes more popular when the BBC destroys them?!
2) Going missing / getting wiped / getting burned
This may seem like a daft point to make, but there is a correlation between some of the most popular Doctor Who episodes and the fact that some of them are missing from the BBC archive. We’ve explained the reasons for this in this post, but there’s no denying that missing Doctor Who episodes often become shrouded in wonder and mystique, such as ‘Marco Polo‘ and ‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’ (the latter making its way back to the archive in 1992.) And then there are stories like ‘Shada‘ that never got completed and went unseen for decades; this also achieved something of a cult status.
And this may be a ridiculous proposal, but imagine a scenario in 2023 where Russell T Davies writes and produces a brand new Doctor Who episode that – for whatever reason – goes missing or gets destroyed, vanishing without a trace, and all that we have left are some notes, photographs and fragments of leaked TikTok footage. Imagine how exciting it would be to think that there was a lost David Tennant episode out there in the ether, or heck, even one starring the new Doctor Ncuti Gatwa. And then imagine how much money it would make if it found its way onto iTunes 15 years later. It would get more publicity than any ‘normal’ Doctor Who episode!
In short, going missing in the world of Doctor Who isn’t always a bad thing. But the big question is this: Is a Doctor Who episode popular because it is missing, or is it revered simply because it is good?
3) Breaking the mould
Some of the more popular Doctor Who episodes are the ones that have gone against the show’s own conventions. For example, the 2006 episode ‘Blink’ went on to become one of the most cherished adventures of New Who (if not of Doctor Who history) and, remarkably, the Doctor is hardly in it! Similarly, the 1966 story ‘The Massacre‘ is another virtually Doctor-less affair, and much-loved in fandom (and missing from the archive…)
Then there are episodes such as ‘Heaven Sent’ which go in completely the opposite direction and have an abundance of Doctor but no companions or other cast members (apart from the mysterious Veil.) The episode revolves solely around the Twelfth Doctor Peter Capaldi talking to himself for 50 minutes. It truly breaks the mould – and a very large diamond wall.
These different approaches have proved incredibly successful over the years, and it’s worth mentioning that ‘Blink’ and ‘Heaven Sent’ were both time-bending adventures that dealt with cause and effect (or timey-wimeyness, if you like) and they were both written by Steven Moffat. These may also be key ingredients for a successful Doctor Who episode.
But bear in mind that ‘breaking the mould’ is always a risky business. For example, ‘The Timeless Children‘ rewrote Doctor Who history and subsequently divided fandom, and the 2006 episode ‘Love & Monsters’ (another Doctorless tale) took an overtly comedic approach that, according to AI figures and fan polls, wasn’t universally loved.
So the safe bets are (presumably) to make Doctor Who episodes that are timey wimey, and written by Steven Moffat…
4) Strong companions
At first glance, there aren’t any glaring similarities between popular Doctor Who episodes like ‘Marco Polo,’ ‘The Daemons,’ ‘City of Death,’ ‘Earthshock’ and ‘Remembrance of the Daleks.’ They are a collection of historical / gritty / comedic / Earth-based / space-based adventures that are widely loved but are quite different from each other, save for the usual Doctor Who tropes like the TARDIS and the Doctor (although of course, the TARDIS doesn’t feature in ‘The Daemons’…)
However, one stand-out trend is the role that the companions play in these Doctor Who episodes. In each adventure, the companions take pro-active roles; they are headstrong, inventive, and drive the narrative forward.
This is certainly true for Ian in ‘Marco Polo,’ and indeed his character was created so that he could do more of the action-oriented sequences that an older Doctor could not. In ‘City of Death,’ Romana breaks into the Louvre museum to try and stop the villainous Count Scarlioni. In ‘Earthshock,’ Adric takes control of the freighter to try and prevent it from crashing into Earth. In ‘Remembrance of the Daleks,’ Ace sneaks into the Coal Hill School and attacks a Dalek with a baseball bat.
As such, the companions are not standing around telling each other how brave they are or, conversely, getting endlessly captured and finding themselves in dire need of rescue. They are integral to the story, and are fighting alongside the Doctor; they are as much a part of the adventure as he is.
5) Daleks + grittiness + going missing + breaking the mould + timey wimey + strong companions = the perfect Doctor Who episode?
So is this it? Is this the formula for the perfect Doctor Who episode? Is the ideal Doctor Who adventure a bleak, war-torn tale starring just the Doctor (or no Doctor!) in a timey wimey affair with Daleks and strong companions in a Doctor Who episode that is so compelling that the BBC burned it, meaning it can now only be enjoyed through telesnap reconstructions and audio tracks?
It’s an interesting idea. Certainly, there are popular stories like ‘Kinda’ and ‘The Curse of Peladon’ that come close to defying this formula, but they are both underpinned by strong companions. And you could also argue that they are somewhat mould-breaking Doctor Who stories…
What do you think makes the “perfect” Doctor Who episode? And which is your favourite adventure of all time? Let me know in the comments below.
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