It’s apt that these articles return after a slight hiatus, since the Seventh Doctor came about a year after the show itself took an extended break. The end of Doctor Who’s classic run is such an interesting three years since it’s so varied in quality and reception. That first year is probably known as one of the silliest in the show’s entire history but, barring the usual suspect, it’s been reappraised in recent years. The middle season has always been well-liked, whilst the final season is one of the most loved in the entire show; the great tragedy being its nature as the last of the original run, the show finding its feet again right as it gets locked away.
The Seventh incarnation himself is both a Doctor of many facets and also very simple, depending on which lens you wish to view him through. Easily the darkest and most manipulative incarnation to date, he’d later have some of the most twisted and questionable stories in the franchise through the Virgin New Adventures after the show was taken off the air. Indeed, this particular Doctor is one of the most loved thanks to the long gap between ‘Survival’ and ‘The TV Movie (a.k.a. The Enemy Within)’ and, as such, features in some super experimental offerings.
The companions of this era are also worth noting. Mel Bush (Bonnie Langford) was never well served on TV, usually relegated to screaming in Season 24, but you can’t argue she doesn’t leave an impact and she’s now returning to the show in Series 14 this Spring (with whispers she may also be in the 60th anniversary). Talking of returns, Ace had her triumphant return in last year’s ‘The Power of the Doctor’, Ace is one of the most fascinating and complex characters the show had produced up to this point, perhaps ever, even becoming the template for the companions of the revival. Developing on screen much more than prior companions, her life beyond the show is, much like the Seventh Doctor’s, wide and varied. By this point Ace has so many alternate endings that Sophie Aldred herself offered an explanation in her novel At Childhood’s End.
As with the previous Doctor (and the Ninth), the small number of stories makes this list more a ranking of McCoy’s era, so sit back and probably be very disappointed with me by the time you conclude reading this list!
12) ‘Time and the Rani’ (1987)
It’s great when you can love a story that’s been written off by a fandom at large, but sometimes that’s not possible. However, ‘Rani’ is not as bad as some would have you believe.
Sylvester McCoy gets off to a perhaps questionable start as the Doctor, especially in the first episode, but you can’t deny it’s a whole heap of fun. The bonkers Bubble Traps, Kate O’Mara hamming it up, and Bonnie Langford trying to keep everything together, leading to a genuinely great first episode cliff-hanger.
The opening is infamous for the way it had to rush the regeneration of the Sixth Doctor, something fixed in retrospect thanks to Big Finish‘s The Last Adventure. A cool behind the scenes fact: Benedict Cumberbatch’s mum stars in the story and, as such, a young Cumberbatch visited the set.
11) ‘Silver Nemesis’ (1988)
It was the show’s Silver Anniversary, but how many of us actually regard it as such?
Instead, it’s an alright story with very shiny Cybermen, and McCoy and Aldred having lots of fun. Notable amongst all the averageness, this story holds great foreshadowing of the Cartmel Masterplan with hints at more mysterious origins for the Doctor – which likely helped to inspire Chris Chibnall’s Timeless Child plotline – that play into the overall strengths of the Seventh Doctor’s Machiavellian prowess, sprouting here.
The story itself, meanwhile, is perfectly serviceable. You get to have McCoy vs Cybermen, some Neo-Nazis (beginning a weird trend for Seven and Ace), and Lady Peinforte being an entertaining villain to be around. It’s three episodes of decent Doctor Who.
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10) ‘Survival’ (1989)
Beloved by most, I’m not sure I ever gelled with ‘Survival.’
It’s a decent story, with some lovely character moments (specifically for Ace), and a Doctor/Master confrontation. There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just never grabbed me.
It’s a mite underwhelming for the final story of the classic series, but there’s a lot to love here and I know I’m in the minority. In retrospect, ‘Survival’ arguably acts as an unintentional template for how the Russell T Davies era would play out: a domestic setting, alien invasions, and a companion who feels like a well rounded character acting almost as a second lead to the Doctor.
9) ‘Battlefield’ (1989)
Of every story in Season 26, this is the least well regarded, diving into alternative genres (Arthurian fantasy) with a sci-fi twist. Morgaine (a returning Jean Marsh) is a brilliant villain, Ace continues her character development here, and the greyer elements of this Doctor are showing much more overtly through the darker jacket and temperament throughout. The Doctor being Merlin is admittedly silly, yet is the kind of silliness which allows Who‘s more fun nature to really come out.
It would be remiss not to mention the inclusion of UNIT, with the feisty Bambera – a great addition to the story who sadly remains a one-off character – and the last hurrah (in the main show) for The Brigadier, getting to play hero once more and meet McCoy’s Doctor.
It’s probably a good thing he never died in the story as originally planned, but it would have been a fitting end to the character proving his worth once again. Add in the return of Bessie, and what’s not to love? Well, perhaps The Destroyer, but that’s only because it barely features.
8) ‘Dragonfire’ (1987)
The conclusion to Season 24, there’s a lot in this story that’s notable.
From the introduction of Ace and the departure of Mel, to the most infamous (and literal) cliff-hanger of the show, this story has it all.
There’s also some striking imagery here, such as the conclusion where Kane’s face melts off. It’s a surprise that was allowed to go out at Saturday teatime. The Dragon being a kind soul is a unique little angle, even if it barely looks like a Dragon; Glitz’s inclusion is always a treat; and then there’s the introduction of Ace, immediately proving herself as a very capable character and assistant to the Doctor.
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7) ‘Ghost Light’ (1989)
This holds the reputation of being the most confusing story in Doctor Who. One not unwarranted since it takes a few watches to understand what the hell is even happening.
But when things finally click into place, ‘Ghost Light’ becomes a very strong Who outing with interesting thematic ideas and rewarding development for Ace by delving into her childhood trauma. The Doctor is at his most Machiavellian and manipulative here, adding an air of uncertainty to the character this late into the show which works wonders. The story plays host to a range of wild guest characters and all comes together in a lovely way. It’s also notable both for being Marc Platt’s only TV story (he would go on to be a regular writer for Big Finish) and the very last story recorded in the classic run. What a way to go out.
6) ‘Paradise Towers’ (1987)
Probably the Season 24 story that’s gone through the biggest reappraisal.
For some viewers, it could come off as try-hard and nonsensical. But I find the cannibalistic old ladies, killer robot crab, and Richard Briers in Part 4 all a joyous riot. Bonnie Langford gets a chance to shine, Pex is a compelling character, the Kang Wars are super interesting, and McCoy excels. Even here, on his second story, the seeds of his later nuances are showing, predominantly through his manipulation of the rulebook. It’s a story I implore you to revisit if you haven’t seen in a while. There’s a lot to love here and the setting is brilliant.
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5) ‘The Curse of Fenric’ (1989)
To many, the magnum opus of not just the Seventh Doctor but the latter years of classic Who as a whole.
Fenric is genuinely unsettling, and his possession of Judson creates some of the best scenes of the season. The Haemovores are horrifying, and all the elements of the era come into play in such a satisfying conclusion. Once again, McCoy is brilliant as the Doctor, being that pure manipulator like in ‘Ghost Light.’ But the star here is undeniably Aldred. The culmination of everything Ace has been building to, a tense and amazing scene in the fourth episode tests a companion further than ever before up to this point (and some may argue even since). WWII is something of a second home for this pairing and it provides the perfect location for this story to take place.
4) ‘The Happiness Patrol’ (1988)
Ask someone about this story and they’ll immediately launch into the Thatcher parallels, pink TARDIS or the Kandyman; all absolutely the best stuff here.
The sinister undertones running throughout create a 1984-esque society which likely rang true for those living in Thatcherite Britain, the kind of real world political blurring Doctor Who can excel at. To have this mix with the Doctor vs Bertie Bassett may seem like an awful idea, yet it provides the story with some sorely needed light relief. Kandyman is a maligned villain – one sadly banned from appearing again, at least in this state – but unfairly. A robot made of sweets whose weakness is lemonade and stays in a kitchen? On paper, a rubbish idea. In practice, he represents the mixture of silliness and genuine sinister menace which are part and parcel of this franchise’s longstanding appeal.
3) ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ (1988)
The one we all actually like to think of as the 25th anniversary.
What new can be said about this classic story? Everything is practically perfect. The Dalek Civil War, the Doctor and Ace’s relationship, the Counter-Measures, Coal Hill, Davros, unlimited rice pudding…
For an era that is generally regarded as awful by a lot of casual fans, it sure has a lot of greats in it, and perhaps none hit the heights that this one does. Four parts of quintessential Doctor Who that any fan, casual or not, should watch. Brilliant.
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2) ‘Delta and the Bannermen’ (1987)
Not the most conventional of silver medal picks, especially placed above greats like ‘Remembrance’ and ‘Fenric,’ but this is perhaps one of the most fun Doctor Who stories ever put out.
The unbridled joy throughout is simply infectious. Holiday camps, green alien babies, beekeepers, singing, motorbikes… It’s an easy target for detractors of the McCoy era, but those who do vibe with his blend are treated to many standout sequences, top of all being Ray, who was potentially set up to be the new companion. Everyone seems to be having a great time on-set, and even the cliff-hangers are genuinely good! Give it a watch when you’re feeling down or ill, like I was upon first viewing. You’ll feel so much better.
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1) ‘The Greatest Show in the Galaxy’ (1988)
Everything here just works. The Chief Clown is properly unsettling, Ace gets a lot to do with her phobia of clowns, the Psychic Circus is one of the best settings of the 80s, the side characters are a delight, and McCoy is at his best.
The Gods of Ragnarok continue to hold a lot of potential as villains and could be really intriguing if brought back someday; the sequence where the Doctor performs for them gives McCoy a chance to highlight his roots as a comedy actor. It’s a heady combination of elements from clowns and robots to gods and werewolves that functions as one of the peaks of 80s Doctor Who, and a prime example of why it’s such a shame the show was cancelled at decade’s end.
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As previously alluded to, the Seventh Doctor continues to have an abundance of expanded media content. With Ace all over the place and the introduction of fan favourite Bernice Summerfield, the Virgin New Adventures era must have been an interesting time to be a fan, with the more adult elements seeping in.
There are many notable novels in the range, the most infamous being Genesys (where the subseries would set out its stall that Doctor Who wasn’t just for kids anymore), Human Nature (later adapted for David Tennant’s TV run in 2007) and Lungbarrow – the finale of all classic Who – feeding lore and canonicity through a shredder, taping it together again then setting it on fire, and perhaps also helping to inspire the controversial Timeless Child. However, there was also Doctor Who Magazine, and Big Finish which took Seven into new territories. With so much for supplemental Seventh Doctor out there, it’s perhaps impossible to experience it all. So, here are some of the best.
Best Book: Matrix
Matrix sees Seven and Ace go up against the Valeyard in a brilliant story featuring some alternate pasts, old companions, and Jack the Ripper.
It’s an entry that gets slept on quite a bit, being tucked away inside the Past Doctor Adventures range, but is well worth getting.
In fact, do so without knowing too much about the story ahead of time; you’ll want to experience this ride as fresh as possible.
Best Comic: Ground Zero
Just before Paul McGann’s Doctor arrived, Doctor Who Magazine decided that they wanted to tie up Seven and Ace in some way, and so launched an arc with old Doctors and companions which intersected into this finale.
Featuring Peri, Susan and Sarah Jane, plus the first appearance of the Threshold, it’s a loaded story which packs a bunch leading to perhaps the most infamous conclusion to Ace that’s out there.
Recently released as a graphic novel of the same name with the rest of the arc, it’s well worth reading.
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Best Audio: A Death in the Family
The Hex arc on Big Finish is perhaps the most convoluted and complicated arc Doctor Who has ever done.
It requires countless Audio stories, some not involving Hex or even the Seventh Doctor, but it’s also one of the best arcs in the entire franchise. Showcasing the Seventh Doctor at his most dark, manipulative and bastardy, it’s an absolute rollercoaster and ultimately lands you at this story. It’s not one to go in knowing much about, but with the return of Evelyn – she’s on the cover art, hard not know that – and a unique, well-loved villain from previously in the arc, the result is one of the most beautiful and satisfying stories of the franchise. Completely worth all the prior context needed. The pinnacle of the Seventh Doctor, easily.