The Essentials:Earthshock (Season 19, Episode 6) Aptly titled, Earthshock is one of classic Doctor Whos darkest and most jarring stories. The penultimate serial of Peter Davisons first season, it seems impossible that, more than thirty years on from its initial broadcast, even a casual fan would be unaware of its most significant and striking reversals. Even so, they are executed with enough force and weight to retain a great deal of their impact, and they are pivotal to the development of the Fifth Doctor. Davison had, by this time, settled comfortably into the role, and his Doctors vulnerable warmth serves to make Earthshocks jolts that much more affecting. Calloused critics have complained in retrospect about the perforated, paper-thin plot, and while they have a point, the productions stylish intensity and vigorous pacing carry you along without leaving much time for dwelling on any narrative flaws until after the ride is long over. Regardless of any shortcomings, Earthshock is a landmark episode that makes for startling, enthralling viewing. Its unprecedented, traumatic final moments remain iconic in the series, and would haunt the Fifth Doctor for the remainder of his tenure. Caves of Androzani (Season 21, Episode 6) Considered by many to be the finest episode of the classic series ever made, Caves of Androzani, if not quite so superlative, is certainly a powerful, gritty, intense story, and the perfect swan song for Peter Davisons Fifth Doctor. A harsh, ultra-modern tale that drops The Doctor and his shiny, new companion, Peri (Nicola Bryant), into a minefield of amoral conflicts relating to gun-running, the drug trade, and political corruption in a distant planetary system, it manages to compellingly follow the individual narrative threads of multiple characters on multiple worlds, without losing an ounce of urgency or focus, as it races towards its breathless, tragic finale. The near-saintly nobility of Davisons Fifth Doctor stands in vivid contrast to his harsh, morally grey surroundings, and is given its fullest expression in his final act, a self-sacrificing gesture that provides an uneasy atonement for his failures in Earthshock. In an unusual turn, the serials last few seconds memorably introduce us to the newly minted Sixth Doctor, inciting both curiosity and some trepidation about whats to come. And if all thats not enough, Caves of Androzani is the serial that finally explains why the Fifth Doctor spent three years with a celery stalk affixed to his lapel
The ExceptionalMawdryn Undead (Season 20, Episode 3) A brilliantly inventive and absorbing story, Mawdryn Undead also has quite a lot going on. As a part of Doctor Whos commemorative 20th Anniversary season, it not only brings back some familiar friends and foes from episodes past, but also introduces an intriguing new companion, AND serves as the beginning of a trilogy that would form a mini-arc at the seasons heart. Not that any of that has any significant bearing on the storys main events, in which the Doctor is reunited with an amnesiac Brigadier in contemporary England, but separated from his companions who are literally in the right place at the wrong time, while an alien scientist attempts to hijack the TARDIS and learn the secrets of regeneration. Its not as convoluted as it sounds. Or maybe it is. But its also a smart, satisfying serial that capably exploits the narrative possibilities of time travel while exploring the existential perils of attempting to artificially extend life. While some may question the wisdom of recommending a story that references past episodes (many of which are not included in this guide), most will say its outright madness to recommend the first part of a trilogy, while ignoring the latter two (though, the truth is, theyre kind of a letdown). But Mawdryn Undead is intelligent, involving entertainment that, in and of itself, has a great deal to offer to both longtime fans and newcomers, alike. The Five Doctors (Between Seasons 20 and 21) A special episode produced in honor of Doctor Whos 20th Anniversary, you can find a lot of fault with The Five Doctors. For starters, its really more like The Four Doctors, since Tom Baker declined to participate, and thus appears only through the creative use of footage from the never-completed Season 17 story, Shada. And really, its more like The Three Doctors, since William Hartnell had died in 1975, leaving the First Doctor to be played by Richard Hurndall, who does a perfectly adequate job, but still Its also rife with the sort of continuity problems inherent to multi-Doctor stories and, upon close examination, its flimsy plot is really just an excuse for a series of vignettes that pay homage to the history of Doctor Who. So, yes, you could find a lot to criticize. The question is, why would you? Because for all its flaws, The Five Doctors is fun, funny and exciting from end to end. More a celebration than a story, it shows off the differing personas of all five (or four or three) Doctors, allowing them, as well as their companions and numerous adversaries, ample screen time before bringing them together for a climax that, if not overly significant to the series mythos, is at least in keeping with the twentieth seasons themes of life, death and immortality, and manages to be surprisingly effective and affecting. A vast improvement on the 10th Anniversarys The Three Doctors, its a massively entertaining adventure and a fitting tribute to the show and its history. Just dont think about it too hard
The ExpositoryArc Of Infinity (Season 20, Episode 1) As exposition goes, Arc of Infinity is not really necessary viewing, at least when it comes to gaining a basic understanding of Doctor Whos overarching mythos. Sadly, it is not especially rewarding viewing, either. However, being a Gallifrey-set story that features the return of Omega, and the ascendance of the Doctors former teacher, Borusa, to the Presidency, it functions both as a sequel to the 10th Anniversary episode, The Three Doctors (to say nothing of Season 15s Invasion of Time), and as a prologue to The Five Doctors. Once again, the Gallifreyan veil of aristocratic dignity is lifted, revealing the morass of bureaucracy and corruption at the hearts of Time Lord culture. References to past companions and adventures abound. There are even some unintentional nods to the future (theres something strangely familiar about that witheringly arch Commander of the Guards). As the endlessly put-upon Doctor, Davison gives a sympathetically patient performance, and in the serials fourth and final episode, hes even given the chance to remind us just how versatile and affecting he can be. But mostly, Arc of Infinity is a lot of squandered potential, offering context without content and functioning best as a bit of connective tissue.
Davisons three seasons boast some truly exceptional episodes, but there are also quite a few missteps and some outright stumbles (e.g. the latter two parts of the aforementioned trilogy begun by Mawdryn Undead: the interminable Terminus and the lackluster Enlightenment). The worst offenders are the disastrous Time-Flight, the floundering Warriors of the Deep, and the searingly silly Planet of Fire.
A Few Extras:
Frontios is a first-rate episode that almost made the Exceptional list. And The Visitation is routinely named by fans as one of Davisons best.