Remember that 30 Day Doctor Who Challenge we started at the beginning of February? Yeah, I know it’s been a while. Believe it or not, we remember it too. There’s no real excuse for not sticking to it the way we intended, other than to acknowledge that sometimes life throws you curve balls.And we’ve both had some major ones thrown at us this year. It happens. And we’re sorry!
And it doesn’t mean we’ve forgotten you, our faithful readers. Nor does it mean we’ve forgotten the Doctor (gasp) because…well, that’s never going to happen, is it? So, in the spirit of getting things done, I’m going to finish what we started, damn it!
Before we finish up the rest of the challenge–and particularly in preparation for the next topic–I want to take a minute (or twelve) to talk about the tricky distinction between BEST and FAVORITE. There is a difference. And it’s an important one.
Some of you may remember that infamous i09 article from a while back. Yes? Right. Now let’s be honest here. We know what this fandom can be like sometimes, don’t we? I say that with a tremendous amount of affection because it’s actually one of the things I love most about us. We’re an opinionated bunch and we just love to
argue debate. And because of that, it’s actually a pretty ballsy move to put yourself out there by posting a ranked list of stories based on merit.
Full marks to Charlie Jane for that.
And while I don’t necessarily agree with her rankings (pretty much at all), her efforts should be applauded. For one thing, it takes A LOT of work to put together a list like that, even when you exclude the missing and/or incomplete stories. And it should also be noted that Charlie Jane did actually say that the whole exercise is really meant to be a conversation starter. And oh, did it do just that!
The thing is, it’s hard to be completely objective, isn’t it? I think so, anyway. We’re all going to have at least somewhat differing opinions on what is quality. No matter how hard you try to remain impartial, at some point favoritism will more than likely cloud your judgement to some degree. Because even if we don’t want to admit it, we all have at least one story that we love that maybe doesn’t stand up as well as another.
Take The Moonbase for instance. Usually when this one’s discussed, it tends to end up as a long conversation about everything that’s wrong with it–including but not limited to the Cyberman hiding (in plain sight) in the med bay and Polly being sent to make coffee (again). And maybe if I’m being truly honest and objective about it I can concede some of those points. But I adore it. It is by far and away my favorite Cybermen story.¹
Anyway, the other side of that same coin is that it is of course possible to dislike² a story despite knowing logically that it’s actually quality television (or whatever other medium you’re delving into). For example, I know LOGICALLY that The Ribos Operation stands up as high-caliber Doctor Who. But even with that knowledge I still don’t actually like it. It’s a pity, really, because I do love Romana (both of them) and her outfit is fabulous. I can’t even claim to have a good reason for not liking it. I want to love it, but I don’t. Not even the splendid hats were enough to save it for me.³
Okay, so have we clarified the distinction? Fantastic. Let’s move on. It’s time to talk about how this applies to stories that may or may not be seen as “underrated”.
I believe that a lot of Classic era Doctor Who stories are underrated. And this could be for several reasons. Not least of which I suspect is just simply the sheer volume of content there is to choose from. Some stories just get forgotten, whether they still exist in their entirety or not. Not necessarily because of their quality, but because they are sort of in the middle of a string of good stories. They end up overshadowed by whatever happens to bookend them. It’s unfortunate but it makes a sort of sense.
But there are other reasons too.
Some are underrated–or even overrated—because of circumstance, and that’s just as true of modern Doctor Who. Army of Ghosts/Doomsday is hailed as a New Who classic because of the ending. The final scene on the beach between the Doctor and Rose gave (the majority of) the audience “all the feels”, and even ten years later (yes, it HAS been that long!) people are still banging on (and/or ugly crying) about it. But if you put Rose’s departure to one side for a moment, how well does it really stand up as a story? I grant you that Daleks vs. Cybermen might sound like an interesting idea, but it falls pretty flat in practice. It’s just not a strong story because it only really functions as one long set up for Rose’s goodbye. Without her, it just doesn’t work.
And the less said about that version of Torchwood the better, I think.
Yeah, all right Yvonne. Oh, and speaking of Cybermen (again), that brings me to my next point.
How about when they found Tomb of the Cybermen ? It was proclaimed to be the holy grail of the Troughton era. It’s a perfect example of how time and memory can affect the reputation of a story. I get the feeling that its long absence made people remember it as being much better than it actually is. Would it get the same recognition if it hadn’t disappeared for such a long time? I’m guessing not, because once we’d all watched it again, the general reaction was pretty…meh. That’s not to say it’s a bad story–because it definitely isn’t⁴–but I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say it’s the ultimate Second Doctor story. No matter what BBC America claimed back in 2013.
So our opinions of entire stories are swayed not only by game-changing endings (that truthfully don’t necessarily make the actual story better), but also by absence making the heart–or memory–grow fonder.
The other issue with Best v. Favorite / Underrated v. Overrated is that lists like these are prone to change. Just as time/absence changes our perception of a story, the addition of additional stories will do just the same in terms of ranking. Doctor Who has a long history of fan service, where we can receive a callback to or even new information about an old story within the context of a new one. But how that new information changes the opinion of the older material is entirely based on the viewer. Did watching The Snowmen (2012) change how we see The Abominable Snowmen (1967)⁵ or The Web of Fear (1968)?⁶ Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t. And certainly there are other examples of that throughout the Doctor Who universe.
There’s also the ‘honeymoon phase’ we can often experience with a new story. For instance, this past weekend I watched The Ice Warriors for the very first time. I’d gotten by in the Doctor Who universe on fairly vague knowledge of this story. Enough to appreciate them in the subsequent Ice Warrior stories, anyway.⁷ But upon finally getting to watch it, I really enjoyed. I don’t know where I would “rank” it (by quality or by favoritism) per se, but I have a feeling right now it would be reasonably high on the list. But, again, that is my opinion right now. It could change.
Sometimes re-watching a story can change your opinion of it. The first time I sat down to watch Pyramids of Mars a few years ago, I struggled to get through it because it felt quite slow to me. It was also, however, one of the very first Classic stories I ever watched⁸, and I watched it all in one go just as I was coming off a binge watch of (New Who) Series 7. I wasn’t used to the different pacing again yet, and I’m sure that’s why I struggled. When I watch it now, I absolutely love it. So not only has it moved up in my ‘favorites’ category, I can also now see it for the quality piece of storytelling it actually is.
Perspective makes all the difference.
And that is something to keep in mind when you come across lists and rankings and the like. No two lists will be alike and that’s okay. They shouldn’t be. That’s part of what makes this fandom great. Think how boring we would be if we weren’t bickering over basically everything. I don’t think it would be nearly as fun. What the hell would we talk about if we weren’t arguing?
So just remember, when you see a list, take it with a grain of salt. Don’t attack the author outright unless they fire the first shot by being a jerk–and even then, try to contain your rage and do it intelligently. Think of the fun you can have constructing your own CORRECT list instead!⁹
Go on, you know you want to. And if you do, please link to it in our comments so we can
tell you how wrong you are check it out!
Unless of course Voyage of the Damned isn’t at the very bottom of your list, in which case we can’t be friends.
² Or hate, I suppose, but I still stand by the idea that even your least favorite Doctor Who story is still better than NO Doctor Who at all.
³ I swear I can hear you lot gathering your torches and pitchforks. Fine. My opinion on this one is just wrong and I’ll own that. But even so, it will never be my first choice of what to watch.
⁴ I go on about this one quite a bit too. In case you’re new here, I really love the early Cybermen and talk about them
too much a lot.
⁵ If you’ve seen what remains of it, or read the novelization, or listened to the BBC radio play version with linking narration by Frazer Hines. If you haven’t, you should!
⁶ You know, when it (and Enemy of the world) miraculously resurfaced in time for Doctor Who’s 50th Anniversary ?
⁷ Due to said honeymoon phase, you can probably expect a post about this story pretty soon. Also, I somehow managed to watch all the Ice Warrior stories nearly in complete reverse order. I think it was something like The Curse of Peladon, Cold War, The Monster of Peladon, Seeds of Death, and The Ice Warriors. I’m not sure how I managed that, but there you go.
⁸ My first brush with Classic Who was when I was a child, and then I didn’t see anything of Doctor Who again until I was at university and accidentally caught the last few minutes of a rerun of Doomsday on PBS. I caught up on New Who series 1-4 quickly after that and then started watching it as it was broadcast in the “year of specials” ending with The End of Time and David Tennant’s regeneration. After that I very slowly delved back into the Classic era properly towards the end of Matt Smith’s run. I started back with Pertwee, but also randomly watched a few Tom Baker stories as well based on recommendation.
⁹ I highly recommend this one by LM Myles. She explains the Best v. Favorite distinction much more concisely as well. And I wouldn’t dare argue with her rankings either. Partially because I suspect her knowledge of Doctor Who puts mine to shame, but mostly because she’s almost certainly right.