Once Tom Baker had departed the role of the Doctor, it was always going to be a tricky act to follow. The production team’s idea? Get the most famous actor at the time into the role! Peter Davison was enjoying a budding career when he took on the part of the Doctor, which could conflict with filming for other shows – for instance, causing Season 20 to have to air from 3rd January 1983 rather than the usual timeslot – and the show experimented with a new format. Each Monday and Tuesday an episode would air, leading to a two-part story being broadcast over two days.
The era of the Fifth Doctor overall is often regarded as quite middling, not often decreed as one of the very best. But, equally, it’s rare to see it called the worst of all-time. Across the three years of Davison’s run, there were a multitude of companions, iconic and recurring villains, and some of the best stories of the 80s, plus the show’s 20th anniversary. Tegan Jovanka is noteworthy for being Davison’s longest running companion, appearing in all but two stories, while most other companions were around for good chunks. The TARDIS team dynamics of this era often ended up in snarky bickering from all involved and betrays the sense of a lovely young gentleman from this particular incarnation. Indeed, grumpy was often a default setting around his friends, yet often feels very wet and feeble when facing up to villains.
The Fifth Doctor is by no means a favourite of mine and there are a few reasons for that. Davison gives the performance his all and excels in his work for Big Finish in the role, but it’s not an era I used to find myself gravitating towards revisiting. Regardless, there are some brilliant stories within the 20 offerings from this Doctor, whilst companions like Turlough, Tegan and Nyssa are always a great presence (sorry Adric). So, let’s get into the list.
5) ‘Frontios’ (1984)
‘Frontios’ is not a fun story, but it’s a damn good one.
By his last season, Davison really seemed to know what he was doing with the part and this serial provides a fantastic showcase for the Fifth Doctor as he tries to solve the mystery, while Turlough also gets some meat of the story investigating the caves and coming across the Tractators.
There are some genuine shocks, such as part one’s cliffhanger, and some other moments that are gruesome enough that you’d be surprised they got away with it – indeed, part three’s cliffhanger had to be edited because it was just too disturbing. The Tractators themselves are a decent villain even if their design is typical 1980s Doctor Who. Overall, a fabulous entry into the Whoniverse but not one for the faint of heart.
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4) ‘Enlightenment’ (1983)
Noteworthy for being the first Doctor Who story written by a woman, ‘Enlightenment’ is a triumph.
There’s a whole lot to adore here, from the genuinely impressive production quality and visuals (especially in the spacesuit scenes) to the sinister concept of the Eternals. The ending to the Black Guardian trilogy, Turlough gets a whole lot to do here and really adds to his character, leading to a shocking moment at the end of part two that centres him for the conclusion of the story whilst the Doctor and Tegan stand by.
Wrack is delightfully camp and you really feel for Tegan in this story; stalked by one of the Eternals, having just said goodbye to her best friend, and saddled with someone she really does not trust. It’s also a lovely showcase for the Doctor as he uncovers the truth of what’s going on, allowing all of the TARDIS team to throw themselves into the story with joy. From the Vacuum Shield to Wrack’s continuous gurning at the camera, this is one not to miss.
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3) ‘The Caves of Androzani’ (1984)
It would be remiss of me not to have ‘Caves’ on this list, absolutely loved for good reasons.
In many ways a departure from the usual Fifth Doctor story, it has the return of the brilliant Robert Holmes, a brand-new companion in Peri, and tons of commentary running throughout proceedings. Davison himself has stated this to be his best story and it’s easy to see why. He really gets to play front and centre whilst the ticking clock of the Spectrox poisoning takes hold. It’s a unique idea to have the Doctor’s desire to get involved be the cause of his death rather than a final battle against old foes, and there’s a sense of tragedy woven throughout.
Sharaz Jek and Morgus are brilliant antagonists, leading to a superb final confrontation between the two while the gunrunners provide an effective side threat. The magma beast is a silly design but what’s a Doctor Who story without an awful monster? The final scenes of episode four are truly some of the best of the 80s and Davison shines in his performance. The desperation and approaching disaster resonates with the audience as he carries Peri to the TARDIS amongst all the mud explosions, leading to one of the best regeneration scenes the show has had to date. It’s a horrific death, slowly fading throughout the story before a noble sacrifice for a friend he hasn’t known all that long, but a truly brilliant watch right up through those final moments with the vortex of friends and enemies sending him off.
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2) ‘Earthshock’ (1982)
A fan-favourite which deserves the reputation. One part isolated horror story in caves, three parts sci-fi epic.
The return of the Cybermen is used brilliantly (much better than their last big return in ‘Revenge of the Cybermen’ in 1975), and it never lets up. The stars are undeniably Davison and Matthew Waterhouse, as the Doctor and Adric finally start to get along (although only after a rather heated argument in the first episode), culminating in that iconic tragedy of Adric’s death. Tegan and Nyssa are sidelined but the story would likely have been a bit bloated if they had huge roles.
Beryl Reid as Briggs is a great character and the Cyberman occupation of the ship leads to some of the most iconic moments of the era, such as the ‘Well Prepared Meal’ exchange; the horror beautifully portrayed from Davison, Janet Fielding and Sarah Sutton in the closing moments has a huge effect. That final gut-punch of the silent credits ends the story on a deserved downer. Sadly, the actual aftermath is barely addressed on screen, though Big Finish have a great miniseries with Five, Tegan, Nyssa and a new companion called Marc which delves into mindsets of the characters after this event that is well worth picking up. Overall, ‘Earthshock’ is heavy but brilliant.
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1) ‘The Visitation’ (1982)
After the previous three entries, what could have possibly taken the top spot? The answer is perhaps unexpected.
There’s a whole lot to love in ‘The Visitation,’ from the wonderful Richard Mace to the Tereleptils. A rare historical entry for the Fifth Doctor, this story is an utter delight, giving all members of the team a chance to shine while providing some iconic imagery.
The Grim Reaper robot is silly but charming, while the possessed villagers provide a viable side threat, and the monsters themselves deserve a return (ignoring their distinct rubber suits). All leading to a lovely conclusion which allows Doctor Who to once again provide its take on a historical event. The Doctor and Adric are especially snarky in this one, while Tegan gets to prove herself, and Mace is the comedic relief the story sometimes needs (and a character who perhaps should have returned). The first script from Eric Saward, ‘The Visitation’ was the sign of things to come that drove the show right up until the end of the Sixth Doctor’s era.
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5) ‘Resurrection of the Daleks’ (1984)
What was once my favourite Fifth Doctor story, over time I’ve fallen out of love with this serial.
There are some nice ideas layered in here but the overall tone of the piece is not that of an enjoyable time, and it hurts the story. The regulars are on fine form in this one, Davison especially gets a strong showcase against Terry Molloy’s Davros. But for the final story for Tegan – well, until 2022’s ‘The Power of the Doctor’ – she really gets side-lined for a good chunk of proceedings.
It has Who’s highest on-screen body count ever, and is just a grim watch. A lot of the story feels like it’s lifted from another type of sci-fi show, such as the space freighter and the dingy London warehouses, though they at least fit with the rest of the story.
The cloning of the Doctor and friends is a completely irrelevant subplot, more like a Time War scheme, that only seems to exist to provide some fan nostalgia and an excuse for the Doctor to not be exterminated immediately upon arrival. Lytton is a decent character but a little one-note here, he’d be much more rounded the next year in ‘Attack of the Cybermen’. Tegan’s reason for departure does have an effect but also feels a little sudden, something for which expanded media has had to provide retroactive foreshadowing, and ends the story on yet another grim note. Add in a few noticeable plot holes and it’s just overall an unpleasant time, not helped by being broadcast in 45 minute chunks for the first time. I’m not sure a story’s ever fallen out of favour with me as much as this.
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4) ‘Arc of Infinity’ (1983)
This will surprise no-one as it’s often the most maligned story of this era, along with its immediate predecessor ‘Time-Flight’ (which narrowly avoided making the list).
It’s not hard to see why but also a shame as there’s some great stuff in here. The return of famed Time Lord Omega after his first appearance in ‘The Three Doctors’ (1972-3), the being of legend gets relegated to sitting in a chair and becoming a giant head in a dreamscape for a bit before running around Amsterdam aimlessly. Its assistant, The Ergon, is ridiculous to the point where it detracts from the story (even if I have a small soft spot for the giant chicken).
The Time Lord plotline could have been done so much more justice but, as is, it’s probably the best part of the story, allowing for Nyssa to have a bigger impact on proceedings by trying to save the Doctor (and give us that iconic shot of her and the staser). Sixth-Doctor-to-be Colin Baker provides a wonderful performance as Maxil. Tegan has a decent performance here although she doesn’t actually do a whole lot, while the subplot of her missing cousin just takes away from the runtime.
The final episode feels like a wasted opportunity as the climax just comes to Peter Davison in green makeup running around before falling off a pier after being shot, becoming the TARDIS team workout video for a little while. It’s lovely to see Davison get to play a dual role, something all of his predecessors bar Jon Pertwee were also able to do, but there’s not much to Omega. Still, it’s fun to see the slight of look of terror and exasperation on the Doctor’s face as Tegan re-joins the team.
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3) ‘Planet of Fire’ (1984)
This one just isn’t very good. It gives outgoing companion Turlough some much needed character growth just at his end, but feels overall a bit samey.
The Master’s involvement feels like an inclusion solely to give Kamelion a reason to be written out, having been discarded after his first appearance (which Big Finish manage to give an actual reason for) as the prop couldn’t be operated after the operator tragically died and gained a reputation for being cursed.
Still, Anthony Ainley puts in a good performance and his interactions with Peri Brown are a highlight. Nicola Bryant has a decent debut as Peri, even if her introductory scenes are certainly… remembered, and she has instant chemistry with Davison’s Doctor. Mark Strickson gets the meat of the story, as Turlough delves into his past, but it’s just not very interesting and, as with the Master, stinks of being there just to write him out after realising that they’d not done much with the character after ‘Enlightenment’. There’s some nice location work but the repetitive mass of Rocky Mountains and the citadel gets boring after a while. There is some fun to be had with tiny Master and the purple flame, but mostly it just drags itself out and isn’t very entertaining overall.
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2) ‘The King’s Demons’ (1983)
For a long while this took the bottom spot in my ranking of Davison’s stories, but a recent rewatch has elevated it slightly. Still not to say it’s any good though.
It’s an impressive feat when a two-part story can still drag immensely, yet ‘Demons’ achieves just that. Other than a few nice set pieces and the fun swordfight at Part 1’s cliffhanger, there’s nothing to the story at all.
It’s bizarre that the Master, of all people, would decide to ruin Magna Carta, something more akin to the Meddling Monk, as there’s barely a benefit to him in doing so. The mystery of the fake King loses its effect after the fifth scene or so and Kamelion’s usage is hugely minimal. He just sits there, changing form a couple of times, and that’s about it until he reappears in ‘Planet of Fire’; a waste of an interesting idea. The Master’s disguise is laughable and the writing team clearly didn’t know what to do with Turlough now the Black Guardian trilogy was complete so he’s barely in the story. A very dull time with barely a saving grace to be found.
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1) ‘Terminus’ (1983)
It’s a common theme on this worst list for the weakest Fifth Doctor stories to just be dull, something which I perceive as a bigger crime than being bad, and ‘Terminus’ is the dullest of the lot.
One of the most science stories of the show, it still stretches credibility a fair bit with the idea of the Big Bang being caused by an oil leak, and has no entertainment to be seen.
Like ‘Resurrection’, it’s a grim tale full of plague and death, yet also contains a giant dog in the Garm. Tegan and Turlough barely appear, relegated to being stuck in ventilation sniping at each other, while Nyssa gets the plague, is cured and then decides to leave the TARDIS.
There’s not a whole lot to say about this considering how forgettably self-serious it is, but to then have the camp space pirates in their ridiculous helmets feels silly against the direction of the story. It may as well have not been part of the Black Guardian trilogy as it holds no impact over the story whatsoever. When this era wins, it wins, but when it fails, it fails.
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Having been with Big Finish since they first started Doctor Who stories in 1999, Peter Davison has a whole wealth of audio stories to choose from. The Fifth Doctor has enjoyed a fairly substantial era in the novel range, whilst Doctor Who Magazine‘s comics were longer stories but with the tradeoff of a reduced quantity compared to others.
Best Comic: The Tides of Time
As mentioned before, the Fifth Doctor barely enjoys a comic era, but that’s not to say the quality is awful.
His debut, ‘The Tides of Time’ is a bizarre, high-stakes ride of an adventure and across the seven episodes we get to see the biggest scale story this Doctor received in the 1980s.
With a new companion in Sir Justin, the debut of the mysterious Shayde, appearances from the Time Lords and the collapse of time itself, it never lets up!
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Best Audio: Time in Office
The Fifth Doctor has a wide variety of audio stories which are mixed in quality. But for my money, ‘Time in Office’ is by far the best.
The closest thing we’ll likely get to a Doctor Who sitcom, we’re treated to four fun stories within the wider narrative of the Doctor finally being Lord President of Gallifrey, leading to whole heaps of fun.
We get to hear Peter Davison and Louise Jameson interact, Janet Fielding plays Tegan’s whole side adventure in Part 3 and saves the day in Part 2. An absolute blast of fun!
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Best Book: The Sands of Time
It’s a common trait in the books for Nyssa to be turned into a monster or removed for large portions of the novel. Doing so allows us to see what a team of just the Fifth Doctor and Tegan could have been like, something that’s a core part of ‘The Sands of Time.’
A sequel to ‘Pyramids of Mars’ (1975), ‘Sands’ is a joy from start to finish, full of Egyptian tomb excavation, abductions and gods. This Doctor seems to fit in rather well with the Victorian age, while Tegan gets a lot to do and shines. It’s a very Timey-Wimey story with a lot of back and forth, but everything ties together in a hugely satisfying way. It’s also surprisingly a sequel to another story, but to say more would be a spoiler.
This one’s likely hard to find in original print but has since been reprinted as part of The Monster Collection, so I highly recommend tracking down a copy. Not just my favourite Fifth Doctor book, but my favourite Fifth Doctor story, period.