In general, I prefer the revived Doctor Who over most classic episodes, but it’s really just a matter of having grown up with that style of pacing and storytelling. You cut your teeth on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, of course you’re going to feel more at home with a 45-minute action-packed episode than you do with the more languid speed of the serial era.
That said, I have watched a ton of classic Who, especially as much as I can get of Patrick Troughton and William Hartnell. In doing so, I’ve noticed five specific aspects of classic episodes that are sorely missing in the series today.
Companions Could Just Leave Without It Being Horrific
Rose Tyler; trapped heartbroken in an alternate dimension. Donna Noble; all memory of her time with The Doctor erased as she sobs uncontrollably. Amy Pond and Rory Williams; trapped in the past, likely living a life full of uncontrollable diarrhea and cut off from all their friends and family. Literally the only main companion in the revived series who has left on her own and not in some terrible way is Martha Jones, and even she did so only after living through The Master's almost destroying her family and most of the world.
But once upon a time, a companion could simply stop traveling with The Doctor. Ben Jackson and Polly Wright literally just waved good-bye and sauntered off with about as much emotion as I expressed with some folks at my high school graduation. Tegan Jovanka left in tears after a Dalek massacre, but still went on to a normal life. Even Sarah Jane Smith simply walked out the doors one day after the Fourth Doctor said she couldn’t come with him to Gallifrey.
Don’t get me wrong. It was sad when Ben and Tegan and others left the show as well, but not every single exit has to involve some grand tragedy. It’s gotten to the point where I sort of pity modern companions because you just know they are going to have something terrible happen to them.
Purely Historical Stories
There hasn’t been a story set in Earth’s history without supernatural elements since the Fifth Doctor adventure “Black Orchid,” and before that we hadn’t seen one since Season 4’s “The Highlanders.” But starting out with Hartnell, The Doctor rarely traveled to then-modern-day England, and when he went to the past, it was to see (and cause trouble in) the past.
There are plenty of excellent modern historical episodes with superhuman baddies. “The Shakespeare Code” is great and “Tooth and Claw” is a winner, and even though I may be the only one, I liked “Robots of Sherwood.” Even I would admit that the latter was a bit over the top, and really, you could have had a much better time exploring the man behind the myth of Robin Hood without adding in an alien. Or take “The Unicorn and the Wasp” as a better example. It was a perfectly decent murder mystery that was going great until a very silly bug monster showed up. The Doctor used to explore the past, but now he just seems to bring the future to it and litter all over it. Speaking of the future…
Even though we get the “all of time, all of space” speech constantly in the revived series, The Doctor rarely ever actually visits alien planets these days. Hell, the Ninth Doctor never left Earth’s orbit in his entire television run (he visits a few other planets in other media). There are a few standout seasons. The Tenth Doctor and Donna visited the Ood-Sphere, Messaline, The Library, Midnight and Shan-Shen together, and Series 7 saw the Doctor hit five planets and a spaceship. These are aberrations, though. Last season, the Twelfth Doctor barely left Earth except for short hops, landing on only one alien planet for the full duration of the episode, though he did visit two spaceships (one of which was really just a fancy version of an Earth train, so it barely counts).
In the classic series, The Doctor hit other planets equally as often as he did Earth. That was the formula for years; one Earth adventure in time, one science fiction adventure in space. During the Key to Time quest of the Fourth Doctor, he had only a single adventure on Earth, and the next season featured only two, counting the unaired “Shada.”
Episodes like “Kill the Moon” and “In the Forest of the Night” are the sort of outings that would once upon a time be set on a made-up world. Now we’re constantly being inundated with vast apocalypses that take place within months of each other on our planet. It’s time for The Doctor to see more of the universe.
No Sonic Screwdriver
The Sonic Screwdriver became a staple during the Tom Baker and Jon Pertwee runs as a handy tool for The Doctor. However, writers grew too dependent on the device to get them out of plot holes, and eventually the producers had it broken on screen to get them to shape up.
Credit where credit is due — during Peter Capaldi’s tenure, overuse of the sonic has declined considerably. He gets by much better without it, but it’s still rare for an episode to be free of its use completely. It would be nice to see stories like “Remembrance of the Daleks” and “The Curse of Fenric” where The Doctor is forced to use only his own wit and what aid he can claim from his friends.
To put it another way…Harry Potter works with a magic wand because everyone has a magic wand. When only The Doctor has a magic wand, it kind of lessens his abilities because he has a gadget no one else has.
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I’m one of those people who were always very “no no, let’s not go to Gallifrey. 'Tis a silly place.” I don’t find Time Lords outside The Doctor and The Master terribly interesting, and watching The Doctor play politics with the ultimate bureaucrats sounds like 13 kinds of boring.
But things are different now. The universe has had to learn what it’s like to exist without people maintaining the web of time. More than that, it’s been shown that the return of the Time Lords will bring war no matter what happens.
It’s finally time to take The Doctor home where he can see if once and for all, he can save his own people from themselves. At the very least, we might finally see something like Lungbarrow canonized on the screen.