Fans are still absorbing the news that festive Doctor Who has lost its prized Christmas Day slot on BBC1 after 13 years, and that Jodie Whittaker and Team Tardis will now be materialising on New Year’s Day.
But this is not the first time the good Doctor has appeared on 1st January over the past 55 years, even if there have been remarkably few sightings.
Here’s my personal top five…
5. The Face of Evil: Part One
(1977) 10.7 million viewers
Coming in at No 5 is the start of a lacklustre Tom Baker four-parter. It came halfway through Doctor Who’s Season 14, Baker’s third series as the fourth Doctor, and, because of a six-week hiatus since the previous episode on BBC1, Radio Times misguidedly billed this as a “New Series”. But in 1977 it did feel very new indeed. The programme had categorically sloughed off its ties with the whole Unit/Brigadier set-up on 20th-century Earth that I adored and, in October ’76, long-running companion Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) had been left behind in a suburban cul-de-sac.
I wasn’t particularly enamoured with this phase of Doctor Who nor The Face of Evil by writer Chris Boucher. On a jungle planet, a sentient computer has developed a personality disorder and elevated one faction of humans to scientists and reduced the others to superstitious savages. Some intriguing concepts were stymied by over-lit sets and pedestrian direction by Pennant Roberts. His coup, however, was in the casting of the excellent Louise Jameson as Leela, an intelligent primitive and one of the deadliest, sexiest and funniest Doctor Who companions ever.
4. The Daleks’ Master Plan: Volcano
(1966) 9.6 million viewers
In fourth position, we must spool way back to the 1960s, for a strange episode somewhere in the mid-section of a colossal 12-part Dalek serial. William Hartnell was entering his final year as the Doctor. His companions were space pilot Steven Taylor (played by Peter Purves, a couple of years before joining Blue Peter) and space agent Sara Kingdom (Jean Marsh, long before Upstairs, Downstairs). So, in TV history, a long time ago.
At this stage in the sprawling narrative, the Daleks and their alien allies [pictured] are planning to activate their Time Destructor but the Doctor has swiped its powerful core. Cue: a chase through time and space.
Writer Dennis Spooner favoured a witty approach to storytelling, hence in this eighth episode he brought back his comedic baddie, the Meddling Monk (one of the Doctor’s own race), played with beguiling charm by Peter Butterworth. For further light relief, the police box landed briefly, interrupting play during a Test match and later in Trafalgar Square to suck up some New Year revelry. This episode has long been missing from the BBC Archive. The soundtrack survives, giving the impression of a ramshackle production, bolting together the silly and the sublime.
3. The End of Time: Part Two
(2010) 12.27 million viewers
Major event TV! David Tennant, the most popular Doctor of modern times, was finally giving up the Tardis. The End of Time Part One had aired on Christmas Day 2009 and this was the follow-up, Ten’s emotional, protracted swansong, drawn out to some 72 minutes, garnering a staggering 12.27m viewers and bagging the No 1 spot in that week’s ratings chart.
In a convoluted plot, the Master (John Simm at his most bonkers) has transformed everyone’s head on Earth into a copy of his own (“the Master race”, arf!), while the Time Lords have emerged from oblivion led by their malign president (former James Bond Timothy Dalton). Bernard Cribbins is a tear-inducing delight as Wilf, the Doctor’s oldest human companion – who turns out to be the mysterious “He will knock four times” of prophecy. The Doctor must sacrifice himself to save the old soldier. But before he regenerates – and memorably Ten’s last line is “I don’t want to go” – he manages a whistle-stop tour of all his old chums, including Sarah Jane and Rose Tyler.
It was a heavy-weather but momentous departure. Two giants of Doctor Who were passing on New Year’s Day 2010. Not just Tennant but also Russell T Davies, the showrunner who’d expertly re-energised the old franchise for a new millennium. Doctor Who would live on but rarely reach such dizzy heights again.
2. Day of the Daleks: Episode One
(1972) 9.8 million viewers
Gosh, how I remember the excitement! All over Christmas 1971, BBC1 had been showing trailers trumpeting the return of the Daleks after many years off screen – specially shot footage of them trundling beside the Thames shrieking “Exterminate!” And Radio Times promoted the Day of the Daleks with an eye-popping front-cover illustration by Frank Bellamy (above). A magnificent ploy to launch the ninth season of the original run.
We were in the heart of my favourite era of Doctor Who with the charismatic Jon Pertwee as the third Doctor and vivacious Katy Manning as his assistant Jo Grant. This four-parter begins pretty much as a haunted house mystery as the Doctor and Jo spend the night in a creepy mansion, whose owner (an important politician) has been spooked by apparitions in his own drawing room.
The Daleks barely appear in this opening instalment, but their brutish ape-like minions, the Ogrons, materialise from thin air to track down and kill freedom fighters from the future. A superb set-up episode that I remember being enthralled by to this day.
1. The Robots of Death: Part Two
(1978) 7.0 million viewers
OK, I hold my hands up, this is a bit of a cheat. It was a repeat. A compilation of Parts Three and Four of this four-part story. (A couple of David Tennant Christmas episodes were also quickly repeated on New Year’s Day; but let’s not muddy the waters further.) But it’s an undisputed classic, and 7.0m viewers on New Year’s Day are not to be sniffed at, especially given its 4:45pm slot on BBC1.
The Robots of Death had originally aired early in 1977, straight after The Face of Evil (No 5 above), was again written by Chris Boucher and furthered the adventures of the fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) and Leela (Louise Jameson). It has so much going for it. A cracking story: a whodunnit set aboard a Sandminer, a massive vessel scouring a desolate world for valuable ores, with a fractious crew being bumped off one by one. The robots have beautiful art deco faces and costumes, spray-painted Marigold gloves for hands, and eerily calm voices as they pad around – reprogrammed to throttle their human masters.
Great dialogue by Boucher. Masterly direction by Michael E Briant. Sumptuous design by Kenneth Sharp. A haunting score by Dudley Simpson. Impressive guest cast including Pamela Salem, David Collings and Russell Hunter. And Tom Baker and Louise Jameson magnetic as the oddball lead couple.
In Christmas 1977, I was a very happy lad, having received an audio-cassette recorder from my folks and I couldn’t wait for New Year to tape this rerun. I played it again and again until the dialogue and score became ingrained – and eventually the tape warped, twisted and snapped! The Robots of Death is also my colleague Mark Braxton’s all-time favourite Doctor Who. And you can’t get higher recommendation than that.
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