The Doctor Who Column: Five reasons to forget 'Who' lists
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John Bensalhia returns from two years of Doctor Who reviews, regenerated as a weekly columnist...
It all started out so easily.
All I had to do was answer a perfectly reasonable question from Andy Griffiths, who was curious to know what my Top 20 Doctor Who stories were. So the favourites started bobbing around my head in an all-singing, all-dancing maelstrom. The Web Of Fear. City Of Death. Can't forget The Caves Of Androzani. Don't forget to include a string of Hinchcliffe-Holmes classics.
By the time I'd got to the end of my mental list though I'd realised that it wasn't that simple. What about The Mind Of Evil? Or Midnight? Or The Invasion Of Time, which I'll still freely admit to being pretty damn good. They were jostling for attention like ashen-faced stray cats wanting to come in through the back door. Suddenly, producing a Top 20 of John's Favourites seemed about as easy as building your own TARDIS from nothing but paper and duct tape.
Seems I'm not the only one mentally trying to piece together some 'greatest ever' list. It seems that whopping great chunks of people can't get enough of making Top 20 or Top 50 or Top 100 or Top Whatever Arbitrary Number Comes Into Their Heads lists. It's not just the preoccupation of Doctor Who though. We see these sorts of things (whether they're counting down films, music or people) in magazines, in books, on the web and on TV.
But then Doctor Who's a goldmine for 'Top Whatever' fans. The stories. The companions. The monsters. The Doctors themselves. Because of its long, rich tapestry, there's a whole lot of potential waiting to be eked out in countless magazines and websites. The more I think about it though, the more I wonder how much value these polls actually have. So let's take a look at why polls may not be as much worth as some people might think.
1: The outcome's a fair certainty
When it comes to Top 10 Doctor Who stories, it's a pretty safe bet that they will include at least one, if not all of the following: Genesis Of The Daleks. Pyramids Of Mars. The Talons Of Weng-Chiang. The Caves Of Androzani. Blink. A Top 10 without any of these is like a glitzy opening bash without Z-list celebrities desperate to get their bright orange faces in the papers the next day.
While there's no denying that these stories are some of the best that Doctor Who can offer, reading about how they nab the top spots in polls hardly makes for an earth-shattering revelation, does it? You could argue that a potential danger with this sort of constant polling is that it can put one or two people off because the old 'Familiarity Breeds Contempt' card gets played. A good analogy's that bit from the Only Fools And Horses episode 'Yuppy Love' when Del goes crashing through a gap in the bar. Funny the first time undeniably, but then I've seen that clip so many times on the endless 'Funniest Telly Moments' talking head shows that the moment's gone. These days I'm more likely to just shrug my shoulders rather than laugh like a drain.
So there's the danger that some of the classics may be regarded as 'Over-rated', perhaps because they're talked about and quoted to the point of annoyance. The Discontinuity Guide, for example, lists The Caves Of Androzani as “Brilliant, but over-rated”.
Aw, never mind. I still love it, though.
2: One Man's Genesis is Another Man's Fear Her
On the subject of the all-time greats, don't forget that these choices won't exactly win over the detractors. In my review of The Caves Of Androzani, a chap called Ben commented in the box that he regarded it as “average” with both a “boring” Doctor and “one of the worst companions”. Which is totally fair enough – and there lies the rub. These Top Whatever Polls will never fully satisfy because favourites are personal.
For example, your personal favourite or least favourite Doctor or companion may have some bearing on what story you rate the most. Tom Baker may still reign supreme for most, but others may not agree. Which means that his detractors may not see eye to eye with Genesis Of The Daleks coming top.
On the subject of Genesis, it's a given fact that it's not exactly a laugh a minute fun house. It's got one or two bits of black humour (“No tea, Harry”) but on the whole it's pretty dour stuff. So for those who like their Who with a bit of humour in the mix, Genesis won't exactly be at the top of the pile. But for those who like a bit of grit in Doctor Who, City Of Death may be too lightweight for some people's tastes. Some people want moral messages. Other people want escapist fantasy. Etc. Each and every person likes different things, not just with Doctor Who, but with food, clothes, places, people etc... So while a poll result feature may while away the hours on a long train journey home, be honest – do you really agree with every single result?
3: You could have a change of heart
And a lot of people have had changes of heart when it comes to assessing what's hot and not. Don't forget, back in the day, Bros, flares and curtain cuts used to dominate. Fads that were, at the time, bigger than a footballer's lifetime wage packet. Now they're pointed at and laughed at with barely concealed derision.
To an extent, the times and trends tend to have some bearing on Top Whatever polls, and the world of Doctor Who is no exception. It seems like yesterday that the Russell T Davies era could do no wrong. David Tennant was topping 'Best Doctor' polls, even eclipsing common favourite, Tom Baker. Not a bad word was spoken about any of the RTD stuff, not even follies such as Last Of The Time Lords or New Earth. In short, if you believed the countless polls, then the golden age of Doctor Who was well and truly here to stay.
Rush forward to now, and all of that Pro-RTD hype has curiously vanished into the ether. New boy Matt Smith has become the flavour of the month, while Steven Moffat's approach to Doctor Who seems to curry more favour than Davies' take used to do. Indeed, there has been more criticism of Davies' stories, some of which is maybe warranted, some of which is a bit unfair. But it just goes to prove that polls are, to an extent, reliant on what's happening right here – right now.
Even the stories have been affected by this. Tomb Of The Cybermen, for example, has had a bumpy old ride. First it started out as a mystical legend. Then it turned up. Then all the warts were there for all to see, including dodgy Yankee-Doodle-Don't accents, empty Cyberman suits and merciless displays of ham from Kaftan and deluded slaphead, Klieg. But then, curiously, it's started to get some glimmers of reappraisal, possibly boosted by another DVD re-release and also the thumbs-up from current Time Lord, Matt Smith. Even The Daemons had a similar sort of press, going from revered classic through to stagey laughing stock back through to “Well, it wasn't that bad, was it?”
Trends are a fickle thing – one minute you're the flavour of the month. The next, you're all washed up, abandoned and forgotten about. And polls can be just as fickle.
4: Mean To Me
"Colin Baker wasn't invited to this particular party...What next? The Top Six Wonders Of The World? The Most Relevant Nine Commandments? Vote for your favourite Six Dwarves!"
A big problem with polls and favourites is that – well, they're a bit mean, really aren't they? Don't get me wrong, I've waved the flag for grumpy old cynicism since I was in playgroup, but there's something about polls that kind of makes me feel sorry for the underdog. Poor old Twin Dilemma gets a bashing. So does Timelash. And yet, there's always at least one nugget of greatness in every Doctor Who story (more on this in a jot) – yes, even The Shakespeare Code.
Mind you, for the actors reading about Best Companion or Best Doctor polls, this can't exactly make for laugh-out-loud reading. Every time Adric or Mel languish near the doldrums of the 'Best Companion' polls, you can picture Matthew Waterhouse or Bonnie Langford either tearing the magazine into tiny strips or chucking their laptop across the room.
Perhaps the most bizarre example of this mean-spiritedness came with a recent newspaper list of the Top 10 Doctors. Yes, really. It's an odd piece that kind of reminded me of Peppermint Patty inviting all of the Peanuts characters to a party apart from Charlie Brown, while actually pointing this out personally to the hapless blighter's face. So basically, poor old Colin Baker wasn't invited to this particular party, a move that's either downright weird or just plain rude, depending on your point of view. What next? The Top Six Wonders Of The World? The Most Relevant Nine Commandments? Vote for your favourite Six Dwarves!
5: Every Cloud Has A Silver Lining
Yes, even The Shakespeare Code – well, the moment that The Doctor takes off again with an arrow jutting from the TARDIS any road.
But a lot of poorly regarded Doctor Who stories still have their fair share of great moments. So I'll just list a few off the top of my head: The Doctor and Jamie trying to convince the eponymous hunchbacks that they're a bit thick in The Dominators. The nasty Borad, his chair, his ageing ray and Robert Ashby's top performance in Timelash. The Doctor and Azmael chinwagging about the good old days of getting sloshed in The Twin Dilemma. The last seven minutes of The Chase. The “Daisiest Daisy” speech in The Time Monster. And so on.
On the flip side of the coin, even the great classics of Doctor Who still have their Achilles Heels, whether it's fake giant rats, silly Magma Monsters or squeaky moving clams.
So I guess at the end of this protracted ramble, and in response to Andy Griffiths' excellent question, all Doctor Who stories have merit. Some stories glimmer more brightly than others, but nevertheless, there's many gems to be found in the long history of a programme that constantly surprises and entertains. Top Whatever Polls always make for fun reading, but don't rely on them too much folks.
John Bensalhia is a freelance journalist who has extensively written for more than 10 years on subjects such as franchising, ports, Italy, DIY, tractors, sports and arboriculture. Not to mention reviews for Blake's 7 and Doctor Who, which he's been a fan of ever since he was a little kid.
When not writing, John likes drumming, guitar strumming, cycling, cartoon drawing, pre-1990s music and animals. He lives with his lovely wife Alison and many guinea pigs. Catch some of John's work or get in contact through his website at www.johnbensalhia.co.uk.
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