The Whoniverse 1970-1981. Watch episodes now on BBC iPlayer in the United Kingdom.
As the Whoniverse arrives on BBC iPlayer with over 800 episodes spanning sixty years of Doctor Who, it can be daunting to know where to begin. Like any show, Doctor Who has had high and low points, with some episodes and seasons stronger than others. Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker’s 1970s era is often classed as the golden age of Doctor Who, and it holds countless treasures. So join me as I explore ten classics from this golden age of Who in The Whoniverse 1970-1981.
Spearhead From Space (1970)
Patrick Troughton’s final epic story, The War Games, saw the Time Lords (in their first appearance) put him on trial for breaking their laws of non-interference; as a result, he was forced to regenerate and placed on 20th Century Earth, in exile, his TARDIS sabotaged. As his regeneration began on 21st June 1969, viewers were left hanging with an incomplete change into Jon Pertwee, making them wait until the 3rd January 1970 for the third Doctor’s arrival.
But Spearhead from Space wasn’t just the first outing for a new Doctor; it was the first significant reset of the show since its premiere in 1963. For the first time, Doctor Who would be filmed on 16mm colour film, with reworked opening titles and an Earth-bound timelord whose memory had been partially wiped. It was a gamble that paid off due to Jon Pertwee’s energetic performance, the genius writing of Robert Holmes, location filming and the assured direction of Derek Martinus.
Spearhead from Space could have been a disaster with strike action brewing at the BBC. But instead, it became the template for a new, exciting, action-packed Who that wasn’t afraid to scare the shit out of every kid watching as the Nestene Consciousness brought expressionless shop window dummies to life as the Autons arrived.
The final story of Jon Pertwee’s first season as the Doctor is a rather curious but brilliant affair as Doctor Who embraced a parallel universe for the first time. Inferno would take some of its inspiration from a classic Star Trek episode, Mirror, Mirror, broadcast in 1967, in its portrayal of alternate versions of our heroes. But away from the dystopian and fascist world the Doctor encounters, the environmental themes at play make this story groundbreaking in Who history.
Inferno is a drilling project aiming to penetrate the Earth’s core for energy as humans rush to exploit the planet in any way possible to keep the lights on. Inferno is the first Jon Pertwee story with environmental messages at its core – themes that would find further voice in The Green Death and Invasion of the Dinosaurs later in his run. With seven episodes, many have accused Inferno of being slow and long. But in my opinion, Inferno is an example of Doctor Who at its most creative on a tiny BBC budget with some incredible cliffhangers and an all-action Doctor unafraid to test his own endurance levels in saving the Earth from the humans that seek to exploit it.
The Whoniverse 1970 – 1981
Terror of the Autons (1971)
The William Hartnell story The Time Meddler may have opened the door to renegade Timelords appearing alongside the Doctor. But it was producer Barry Letts, Terrence Dicks and writer Robert Holmes who fully embraced the idea of creating the ultimate Timelord foe. Letts joined Doctor Who mid-way through Pertwee’s first season, but it wasn’t until Pertwee’s second that he truly got his feet under the table. Terror of the Autons is, in many ways, the start of Pertwee’s era, as Letts and Dicks remodelled and refreshed Doctor Who with an energy that played to Pertwee’s action-man persona while injecting comic book horror in truckloads.
Terror of the Autons would introduce the world to Jo Grant and The Master while introducing snappy dialogue, vivid colour, comedic riffs and special effects that gave every 70s kid nightmares. The return of the Autons may take centre stage, but make no mistake, Roger Delgado’s Master steals the show as The Doctor faces his Moriarty for the first time.
The Daemons (1971)
The Daemons is a perfect example of Barry Letts’ brilliance as a writer and producer as Doctor Who went full-on folk horror two years before The Wicker Man graced our cinema screens. In a quiet and sleepy chocolate box village called Devil’s End, an archaeologist named Professor Horner is about to excavate an ancient burial mound. But Horner is unaware that the village vicar is, in fact, the Master, and as the burial mound releases its power, a ritual beneath the church led by the evil Timelord is conjuring an ancient and deadly force.
Like Village of the Damned and Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out, the success and impact of The Daemons comes from its embrace of classic horror, as an unstoppable evil suddenly invades a safe and sleepy English village. But The Daemons successfully places this horror into a Saturday teatime world of kid-friendly TV, where younger viewers know that The Doctor will eventually save the day despite the odds. With some exquisite scenes between Pertwee and Delgado and a monster that terrifies and entertains in equal measure, The Daemons is one of Pertwee’s greatest Doctor Who adventures.
The Whoniverse 1970 – 1981
The Time Warrior (1973)
Change was in the air as Doctor Who returned to TV screens in the late Autumn of 1973 with new titles and a new logo. Jo Grant (Katie Manning) had left the show in June 1973 in the brilliant The Green Death after fifteen stories at Jon Pertwee’s side, and many wondered whether Pertwee was also coming to the end of his time as the all-action Doctor. But the third Doctor wasn’t to be left alone for long as The Time Warrior quickly introduced us to a spikey, bold, independent young journalist, Sarah Jane Smith (Elizabeth Sladen), who was happy to interrogate Pertwee’s Doctor at every opportunity, much to his outward irritation and inner delight.
In a rare journey into Earth’s past, Jon Pertwee’s Doctor and his stowaway find themselves in the Middle Ages, where the potato-like Linx kitted head to toe in armour has been stranded on Earth needing to repair his ship before re-joining the Fifth Sontaran Army Space Fleet. But to fix his vessel, Linx needs 20th-century scientists, whom he kidnaps through a time tunnel while providing state-of-the-art swords and other weaponry to the vicious Irongron, whose recently captured castle offers a home to his workshop.
The Time Warrior’s tongue-in-cheek screenplay gives us some truly memorable lines of dialogue as Linx attempts to rebuild his ship while changing history in a wickedly fun four-part story that sees Sarah and the Doctor unite with Hal the archer and Edward of Wessex in defeating Linx and Irongron. Plus, don’t miss June Brown’s delightful performance long before she became known as Dot Cotton in Eastenders. There is so much to love in the opening story of Jon Pertwee’s final season and the introduction of Sarah Jane and the Sontarans, who would become one of the most-loved Doctor Who villains of the classic and modern era.
The Whoniverse 1970 – 1981
Genesis of the Daleks (1975)
For many older Doctor Who fans, including me, Tom Baker will forever be the Doctor. However, his opening episode, Robot, following Jon Pertwee’s final outing, Planet of the Spiders, was a rather lacklustre affair. But fear not, because every other story in Tom Baker’s first season is pure TV gold. From The Ark in Space to Revenge of the Cybermen, which cleverly re-used the same sets due to budget constraints. But one story stands head and shoulders above them all: Genesis of the Daleks. In what is undoubtedly Terry Nation’s finest Dalek story, he took us back to the very origins of the fascist pepper pots from space with a tale of genocide, unrestrained power and war.
To say Genesis of the Daleks is one of the most politically and ethically complex Doctor Who stories is an understatement as the Doctor, Sarah, and Harry face the ultimate decision: if you could stop evil from being born, would you, and should you? The war between the Kaleds and the Thals and the parallels to Nazism are evident, from discussions on eugenics to the horrors of dictatorships and ethnic cleansing as Michael Wisher’s terrifying and chilling Davros implements his “Final Solution.”
Terror of the Zygons (1975)
Opening Tom Baker’s second season at the Doctor, Terror of the Zygons isn’t perfect, from the dodgy opening model effects to the endless Scottish stereotypes. But for all its faults, Robert Banks Stewart’s story, directed by Douglas Camfield, is an absolute blast as it introduces us to a new and ingenious villain, the shape-shifting Zygons.
Much of this story’s charm comes from the now-established relationship between Baker, Sladen and Marter, who joyously bounce off one another with effortless one-liners and knowing nods. But it’s the creatures that make this a classic of the Baker era, with their pot-bellies, slimy bodies, octopus-like suckers and whispering voices as they adopt the form of the townsfolk while storing their incapacitated bodies on their underwater vessel. Add a brilliant ensemble cast, the Brigadier in a Kilt, a dodgy Loch Ness Monster, a cracking score from Geoffrey Burgon, and Terror of the Zygons is a delightfully enjoyable slice of Saturday teatime science fiction.
The Whoniverse 1970 – 1981
The Brain of Morbius (1976)
In the spring of 1974, twenty-nine-year-old Philip Hinchcliffe took on the role of producer of Doctor Who, and it was his partnership with script editor Robert Holmes that would lead to some of the most memorable Doctor Who stories ever. But the journey toward more gothic-inspired horror took time, and while many of Tom Baker’s earlier episodes played with classic horror, it wasn’t until The Brain of Morbius that Doctor Who fully embraced a Hammeresqe world. Taking its inspiration from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, The Brain of Morbius is a deliciously dark treat that would usher in a whole raft of horror-inspired Doctor Who stories from the creepy The Hand of Fear to the fogbound terror of The Horror of Fang Rock.
With a brain bubbling in a tank and a mad doctor hell-bent on reanimation and decapitation, The Brain of Morbius was teatime horror that revelled in upsetting censors and delighted a whole generation of gore-hungry kids. As the TARDIS is dragged off course, it lands on the barren planet of Karn, home to a powerful Sisterhood and the final resting place of an executed Time Lord and war criminal called Morbius. But Morbius isn’t dead; his brain is very much alive!
Alive with vibrant colour, lavish studio sets and a great score by Dudley Simpson, The Brain of Morbius embraces its Hammer Horror-inspired world with glee yet remains distinctively Who as it sets the stage for a whole-scale re-imagining of the Time Lords and the Doctor himself. Who can forget the brave decision to show multiple images of Doctors we had never seen as Morbius pushed deep into the Doctor’s mind? Asking us a revolutionary question in the show’s history: “How far, Doctor? How long have you lived?”
The Whoniverse 1970 – 1981
The Robots of Death (1977)
When Louise Jameson joined Doctor Who as the new companion in The Face of Evil, her instinctive and firey Leela was a world away from Sarah Jane, and despite regular clashes with Tom Baker, she quickly got her feet under the table. Her second outing is not only intensely creative and atmospheric: it’s one of the best Doctor Who stories ever made. From the opening shots of a gargantuan sand miner crawling through a sand storm to the Agatha Christie-inspired murder mystery at play and the expressionless monotone robots serving a small crew in perpetual conflict, The Robots of Death is sublime.
Full of atmosphere, with a screenplay centring on themes of artificial intelligence, class conflict, capitalism run riot and greed, The Robots of Death is a love letter to Isaac Asimov and Agatha Christie as it weaves a story of murder, intrigue, suspicion, and revenge. Like many Doctor Who stories of the period, the ensemble cast is truly outstanding. But, it is the detailed sets, costumes, screenplay, and direction that make this story one of the best.
Michael E. Briant’s direction maintains a sense of claustrophobia and fear throughout, while Kenneth Sharp’s VOC Robots and set designs embrace an art-deco theme that pays homage to the golden age of Christie. But what stands out is the beautifully framed discussions on whether artificial intelligence is the biggest threat to humankind or humans themselves. Ultimately, The Robots of Death is about the human drive for wealth, position and power at any cost and our ability to manipulate the technology around us and then apportion blame to cover our greed and ruthless ambition.
The Talons of Weng-Chiang
The Talons of Weng-Chiang would continue the atmospheric tour-de-force of The Robots of Death as we were taken back to Victorian London, where a series of gruesome murders haunts the fogbound streets and alleyways surrounding the Palace Music Hall. Each female victim points toward a deadly serial killer who hides in the shadows while Chinese stage magician Li H’sen Chang and his ventriloquist dummy, Mr Sin, stun the crowds inside. As the TARDIS lands, the Doctor and Leela immediately smell a rat and befriend the theatre owner, Mr Jago and pathologist Professor Litefoot to solve the mystery of the serial killer who hides in plain sight.
From the outset, Robert Holmes’ screenplay is pure genius as he embraces the horror of Jack the Ripper, the grime and humour of Dickens and the opium haze of Oscar Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Gray. If this sounds rather adult, it is! At its heart, The Talons of Weng-Chiang was an adult-themed Doctor Who story that scared the shit out of each kid watching! But there was no better way to say a final farewell to Holmes and Hinchcliffe, who had completely transformed Doctor Who in their three seasons in charge. Every scene is exquisitely detailed, and every performance is outstanding in this devilishly brilliant slice of Victorian Gothic horror.
The Talons of Weng-Chiang demonstrated how powerful, artistic and brilliant Doctor Who could be, even on its tiny BBC budget. Yes, there are a few slip-ups, like the giant rat, but any story that opens with the lines “It’s a floater, all right, you’ve got it, guv!” as a pale-faced constable hooks a bobbing corpse from the Thames is a winner in my book.