King Harold: Two Novels of the Norman Conquest

golden warriorSeldom do competing historical novels cover the same ground in different ways with results just as pleasing. I can think of only one example pair: The Golden Warrior (1948) by Hope Muntz, and Lord of Sunset (1998) by Parke Godwin. Written exactly 50 years apart, they tell of the last Anglo-Saxon King of England, Harold Godwinson, in the two decades leading up to the Battle of Hastings. I honestly can’t say which is better.

The Golden Warrior is written in the old saga style, depicting two men, King Harold and Duke William of Normandy, who could have been friends if not for their opposing ambitions. The opposition isn’t grounded in the gritty politics we’re used to seeing in modern novels. This is a tight Beowulf-like narrative where context is abstract, and people like Harold and William are literary ciphers who transcend their setting and sweep you up in their personas. It’s a style of writing difficult to tame, but Muntz succeeds for the most part.

She starts in the year 1053 and quickly covers events up to 1064 in the first third of the novel. Admittedly I wasn’t engaged by most of this, because it’s not fleshed out; it read like snippets out of ancient historical journals. But once Harold is shipwrecked in France, the narrative slows down with more focus, and I was hooked. That remaining two thirds covers the final years of 1064-1066 — the friendship between Harold and William, Harold’s return to England, the eventual war between them, Harold’s death, and England’s fall. Muntz neither demonizes nor glorifies the two men. Each is flawed and sympathetic; each emerges noble; each pushes his countrymen to a war that neither really wants but feels fated to prosecute; the tragedy approaches the level of Hector and Achilles.

This makes The Golden Warrior a refreshing read in today’s politically-loaded climate which tends to favor sides. Marc Morris’ recent book on the Norman Conquest is the best available, and he states wisely:

“There is still a widespread assumption with the Norman Conquest that the Normans are ‘them’ and the English are ‘us’. The Normans are the villains, responsible for introducing into England bad things like feudalism and the class system. The period before 1066 was imagined as a golden age, when women and men rubbed shoulders in rough and ready equality, only to be ended by the coming of the nasty Normans. The reality is that women were no worse off under the Normans than they had been under the Anglo-Saxons. Englishmen were sore about being conquered [like any invaded people] but the notion that the Conquest ushered in new and enduring forms of oppression for Englishmen is the work of writers and propagandists…

“I have no particular fondness for William and his followers. Like all conquerors, they come across as arrogant, warlike, and inordinately pleased with themselves, as well as holier than thou. But I don’t care much for the English either, as they were in the eleventh century, with their binge drinking, slavery, and political murders. Whoever these people were, they are not ‘us’. It is high time we stopped taking sides.” (The Norman Conquest, 2012, pp 7-8)

lord of sunsetLord of Sunset, on the other hand, does take sides. Godwin’s novel is a prequel to his Robin Hood epics (Sherwood, Robin and the King), which are set right after the Norman Conquest (1070s-80s) instead of the usual time period of the 1190s. On the one hand, this revisionism has many strengths. The traditional dating of Robin Hood has never been reliable, beginning only with Scott’s Ivanhoe (written in the 19th century) and continued via Hollywood and television; Godwin rightly objects to this romantic idea on grounds that Richard the Lionheart spent no more than four months of his ten-year reign in England and Prince John, in his absence, wasn’t bad enough to call forth such a rebel; it’s easier to imagine a figure like Robin Hood in the wake of William the Conqueror. But as a result, Lord of Sunset, as a prequel to Robin Hood, anticipates and paves the way for “angry rebellion against injustices”, in which the reader is predisposed to siding strongly with the English underdogs.

That being said, Parke Godwin is no propagandist. He doesn’t fall into the trap of portraying pre-Conquest England as anything like a golden age, with liberated women in a society we would identify as democratic. In the afterword to Sherwood he explains his cautious view of the historical setting, giving each side its due:

“The Normans conquered and imposed feudalism on a people much more socially complex than themselves. Among the Saxons a man’s place in society was measured for legal purposes by the money value of his holdings. The title of thane designated a man who owned at least five hides of land. A hide consisted of between 100 and 120 acres… To call such people democratic would be inaccurate, but they were what democracy evolved from, an instinctively legalistic, contentious, profit-minded folk who already had a massive body of written law and civil custom where their Norman conquerors had none… The Normans transformed England, probably for the better. They had an energetic genius for organization and efficiency, the English for law and political progress. William, probably illiterate himself ultimately left the Saxon legal machinery intact.” (pp 525-526)

Also, Godwin goes out of his way to make the Norman characters sympathetic in the Robin Hood novels. (Frankly, I liked the Sheriff of Nottingham more than Robin.) This is less true in Lord of Sunset, but only because most of the chapters are written from the viewpoint of English characters — William of Normandy gets less than a handful. So while Parke Godwin tells “us-vs-them” stories, we’re never entirely comfortable in our allegiance to the English. We warm to the Normans at unexpected moments.

But I adore Harold’s family in Lord of Sunset. For all the sibling rivalry and dysfunction (his bungling elder brother Swegn and malicious younger brother Tostig are handled brilliantly), there’s a collective passion binding them as they struggle under the ineffectual rule of King Edward. The narrative is dominated by the events of 1049-1052 — the frictions between Edward and the Godwins, the building animosity between the English and Normans, the exile of the entire Godwin family, and their rebellious return a year later which Edward is forced to accept because the English people love them. (Muntz whisks over this period in a prologue, and starts her narrative in 1053.) The Godwin exile is the best part of Lord of Sunset and shapes what is to come in 1066. It’s the first moment where the Norman presence feels so threatening, and William’s ingratiating visit to Edward doesn’t help matters.

What of the “historically silent” period of 1056-1062? During this time, both Harold and William grew in power, but details are sparse in the surviving accounts. The Golden Warrior fills in the gap (Lord of Sunset all but ignores it) with papal power politics. It works wonderfully for Muntz’s saga-approach, and I especially like how she handles the figure of Hildebrand. Harold goes on pilgrimage to the Vatican 1057 (we don’t know when or even if he really did go to Rome), where he buts heads with the future pope, who attempts to bribe him with papal support, which Harold spurns.

Most intriguing is that in The Golden Warrior the Norman Invasion emerges as a proto-crusade. Long before the First Crusade (1096-1099) or a Muslim excuse, Hildebrand’s reformist agenda had included papal military campaigns against Christians who thwarted him for any number of reasons — threatening church lands, opposing papal reform, or being even remotely allied with his secular arch-enemy Henry IV. Scholars have speculated that the papacy was sending William to defend the church in England from simoniacs like Bishop Stigand of Canterbury — the Godwins’ greatest ally. Stigand’s simony and Harold’s oath-breaking (two cardinal sins for the 11th-century papal reformers) may have been enough to warrant a power play of papal intervention. Muntz does not directly suggest this, but what she portrays is certainly compatible with it, and it’s plausible.

As I said at the start, I’m hard pressed to say which story is better. Once I was hooked by The Golden Warrior, I felt like I was reading classic literature; in Lord of Sunset I was gripped by political fever and social unrest. Both treatments of the Battle of Stamford Bridge were particularly impressive, even more than the final stand at Hastings. If not for Tostig’s treachery and the northern Viking assault, Harold would have faced the French in the south with a fresh army — the Norman Conquest might have failed. Muntz portrays Tostig as a worse tyrant than William; Godwin depicts him as unscrupulously deceitful. He was Harold’s true enemy, and the novels convey that in equally compelling ways.

The difference between the two representations of Harold is best seen at the end, right before Hastings. The Golden Warrior is pained to judge William even now, seeing in his foe too much of himself:

I could not tell which struck more deep, that I should lose mine honor, or that by him I lost it. I count him one of the greatest. Can I judge William? I followed the same road, the same spur drove me. He goes a bitter journey. (Muntz, p 355)

The Lord of Sunset is sure of himself, placing the welfare of the English (like Aelred, father of the future Robin Hood) before his sovereign rights:

This earth is theirs, William, not mine. Before you draw your last breath, pray you grasp that. I may not surrender anything to you. Men like Aelred won’t let me. They just won’t have it. (Godwin, p 465)

Read the novels, and judge for yourself.

Inferno: Journey through Malebolge

Cover1Gamers will be thrilled by the release of Inferno: Journey through Malebolge, by Geoffrey Dale. It’s the long-awaited completion and revision of his classic module and a historic moment in RPGs. If I had any doubts about Dale’s Ivy League status, they’re gone now. In the designers hall of fame, he ranks with the best — Gary Gygax, Tom Moldvay, Jennell Jaquays, Roger Mooreas a rare genius of the old school, and punishing in the extreme. I don’t play much D&D these days, but rest assured that’s about to change. I have every intention of convening my last group of players and making their lives a literal living hell.

You sure get your money’s worth. Inferno is a three-book package, totaling 300 pages (346 if you include the “denizens” appendix). The first volume covers Circles 1-6 (more on these numbers in a bit), the second Circles 7-8, and the third Circle 9 plus the escape route from Hell and an overview of Purgatory. There are maps of the circles, and layouts of major sites (usually two or three per circle); political and geographical synopses, so that we know which devils rule each circle, where their fortresses are, who their earls and generals are; how many miles wide each circle is, the outer and inner circumferences; the atmosphere, lighting (if there is any), weather (usually foul, often deadly); how movement proceeds over terrain; and random encounter charts.

Revamping the Original

As great as the 1980 module is, it has limitations. It’s a half-module for starters, covering only Circles 1-4. Second, those “circles” aren’t even really that, because they presume movement along a single radius, with encounter areas hedged close to the bee-line. That doesn’t leave much room for exploring the actual circle. And third, strangely, none of the encounter areas play on the circle’s theme. The exception is the Noble Castle (one of the best D&D encounter areas ever designed), the country-club prison for virtuous atheists who either denied the gods or lived before they came into being. But there are no analogous bastions for the sins of lust, gluttony, and greed.

Circle 2All of these deficiencies have been rectified. Circles 5-9 are now unveiled. Each circle is really that, a toroid with encounter areas populating the surface area (see left). Supplementing even this are the separately released gazetteers, which detail every square mile of the Inferno and literally hundreds of encounter areas on hex-maps. Taken together, the gazetteers and module package leave little leg-work for the DM. PCs are no longer confined to march along an artificial radius. The entire world of Hell is there to explore — months worth of gaming if you can survive it all.

Most importantly, there are now sites like the Noble Castle which relate to the sin being punished: the Garden of Lust on Circle 2 (where sex devils invite you into their tent pavilions and suck the life out of you), Glutton’s Hall on Circle 3 (where you gorge on enchanted food and turn into a hell-pig), and the Temple of Greed on Circle 4 (which gods help you if you’re stupid to rob). These areas are brilliantly inspired and steal the show from the main features: Minos’ Villa, Cerberus’ Lair, and Plutus’ Hoard, which have been impressively worked over from the classic.

Cayyas (Soldier of Asmodeus)The result is that Inferno now exudes Dante in the way it should, and allows exploring as it should. The prefaces to Circles 1-4 are also hugely expanded upon. There is the wilderness entry to Inferno from the Prime Material Plane, which serves as an entire adventure itself. As for the Vestibule, it’s now an actual circle, Circle 0, technically not part of Hell since it’s for souls who couldn’t decide about their moral allegiance, but practically a part of it since it’s a punishing ground. The Tree of Good and Evil is a nice touch — a huge 130-foot tall pomegranate tree, with fruit that has healing properties, but also compels you to act contrary to your moral alignment.

Beyond the Original

Minor complaint: Dale’s partitioning of Circles 5-7 deviates from Dante’s. In the classic poem, Circle 5 is for wrath (the River Styx), Circle 6 for heresy (the City of Burning Tombs), and Circle 7 for three levels of violence — against neighbor (the River of Boiling Blood), self (the Wood of the Suicides), and the divine (the Desert of Fire). In the module, Circle 5 is Dante’s 5 & 6; Circle 6 is the first two parts of Dante’s 7, and Circle 7 is the third part. The classic grouping by theme is appropriate, so I don’t care for the re-designations. But it’s a trivial criticism on my part; DMs can number the circles however they wish. Throughout this review I stick with Dante’s numbers, so that those who know The Divine Comedy will know the regions I’m referring to.

StyxThe rivers of Hell bear mentioning; each is fleshed out in its own vile way. The Archeron (Circle 1) is filthy brown, reeking of spoiled fish, and swamped with bloated bodies. The Styx (Circle 5) is oily black, stinking of rotten eggs, with wrathful souls tearing at each other. The River of Boiling Blood (Circle 7) is just that — red human blood, with souls of the violent screaming in 180-degree agony. The rivers introduce the upper, middle, and lower circles respectively, and could potentially connect to other planes (though the module doesn’t suggest this) in order to benefit shorter campaigns that don’t involve every circle. What better way to enter Hell than on the waves of a foul deluge?

Circle 7 is truly outstanding. I mentioned the River of Boiling Blood, but the Wood of the Suicides and Desert of Blasphemers are the module’s most impressive parts after Circles 1 and 9. The wood is a horror show of diseased trees — the souls of suicide victims whose faces appear contorted in the trunks, and who warble like mindless birds as they are being torn apart by harpies. I love the Tree of Despondency, located in the southwestern region, that bears fruit causing either depression or suicide (depending on how your saving throw goes), though I suppose PCs might be driven to slit their throats anyway by the forest’s quavering lullabies.The Harpodrome The Harpodrome (see right) is the wood’s main feature, an open-air theater used for gladiatorial combat, obviously modeled on the Hippodrome of the Byzantine Empire. The harpies of the wood assemble here to revel in theatrical carnage, presided over by an ultra-sadistic Grand Matriarch. Underground prisons contain people and creatures who have been captured for the entertainment, perhaps including PCs.

The Desert of Fire gets heavy attention, which it deserves since it’s so iconic. Temperatures range from 110-125 degrees, and fire rains down from the sky, but also shoots up from the sand in vertical plumes. If that doesn’t kill you, dehydration might, while mirages cripple your morale. Mortals who die here probably go out copying the poor souls who lie on their backs cursing the gods. The sanctuaries are both a reprieve and death zone: ten oases, with temperatures down to the 80s, each ruled by a mummy king. One of them, the Oasis of Ezrabah, is fully detailed, and consists of a funerary temple, a ruined well (a wonderful homage to Raiders of the Lost Ark‘s Well of the Souls; hordes of snakes guard a passage to an “Ark of the Covenant” equivalent), the underground tomb of the mummy king, and a large multi-level Sphinx consisting of horrors and treasures warded by riddles. These dungeons are saturated with the old-school vibe, and Dale clearly put a lot of work into them.

Circle 8 is somewhat of a comedown after this, but to be fair my expectations were way too high. It’s always been my favorite part of Dante’s poem, especially pits two and nine, which depict the flatterers swimming in shit, and the sowers of discord getting their stomachs cut open — or in the case of one, decapitated then carrying around his head like a jack-o-lantern. In high school this imagery left a mark on me. Dale gets the atmosphere right, describing black clouds with tentacles snaking all the way down to the ground, and toxic vapors oozing out of the pits. The type 8 devils are abhorrently serpentine — perfect tormenters of the fraudulent. The dungeons, however, are a bit redundant. Each pit has a complex of about 10-12 rooms, hiding an artifact pertaining to the sin being punished. Don’t get me wrong, Circle 8 is still very good. My reservations about it are probably my own problem more than the module’s.

Type 9Circle 9 is a ripper. The Frozen Swamp of Cocytus encases the souls of traitors, gives off a nauseating stench everywhere, and completely saps the will. The atmosphere is a constant 15 degrees, with hurricane winds so loud that speech can’t be heard, and death by hypothermia a serious threat. The souls get a pretty raw deal on this level — up to their necks in the ice, while polar-bear devils strike their heads with mallets, flay their skin, and pour wine over the wounds. The cost of treachery.

Lucifer is at the center of this miasma, his lower half imprisoned like the souls, his upper half free to thrash about in fury. It’s worth citing the description:

“Lucifer is a 750-foot winged, multi-headed humanoid figure. The ice holds and confines him like a tightened belt from which he cannot escape. Huge ice worms, 30 HD, 12 feet in diameter by 40 feet long, burrow through the ice, frequently biting his entombed haunches and filling their wounds with poison. Lucifer continually shakes and twitches, and his muscles clench. Each head cries out with an inarticulate pain with every bite on his body and as his wing muscles strain to lift him out of the ice; the bellows are so full of hopelessness and despair that listeners are driven into dark depression and insanity by the sound (range 1 mile, 3d12 hours of torpor, checked every quarter hour).” (Book Three, pp 1-2)

Lucifer is a fascinating paradox in Dale’s module, because he’s both powerful and impotent. He reigns as supreme lord, but suffers torments as the worst sinner and traitor against the gods (unlike the devil princes who rule unambiguously from the comfort of their palaces). He’s imprisoned, but his presence radiates everywhere, pummeling mortals with despair. Is he to be worshiped or scorned? Does his authority supersede those of the devil princes, or is his supremacy a farce — even a heresy? Perhaps the cults of Inferno fight over these issues, and no one really knows the answers. It’s a wonderful enigma that DMs can exploit in all sorts of ways.

Lucifer's SanctumThose who dare (or who are even able) to come within a mile of Lucifer can explore his Sanctum, a domed building made entirely of translucent ice. There’s powerful stuff here, and plenty of artifacts (many cursed), but one outrage that bears mentioning is the room rigged in a tempting way that can trigger Lucifer’s freedom. PCs who are either stupid, thoroughly demented, or “faithless” (the room is designed as a test of faith), can unleash him on the cosmos which he will attempt to subjugate. The Sanctum is a brilliant last encounter before the escape from Inferno, which involves, yes, climbing down Lucifer’s obscene body.

And on that note, I’m delighted by the brief overview of Purgatory provided at the end. If Dale wants to make that his next project…

The Bottom Line

Here are my summary rankings of the module’s circles. They’re all terrific, but my top-half choices are inspired beyond words.

Circle 1. Still the best after 34 years. The Noble Castle haunts my imagination in a way that no other D&D encounter has ever matched. It shows how unpredictable and unfair Hell is, to the extent that good souls can be “kidnapped” upon death and confined in an afterlife where they don’t really belong.

Circle 9. Reeking of cold, moral ill, and Lucifer’s poison. His dual nature is what freaks me out most: Is he the supreme devil or the vilest sinner? Mighty or impotent? The paradox reinforces that Inferno is a mystery as much as a horror show. The greatest horror comes in the Sanctum, where Lucifer can be unleashed on the cosmos.

Circle 7. A river of burning blood (hideous screams), a forest of despair (discordant screams), and a desert of blasphemy (profane screams). But never mind the drama, Inferno’s best architectures are found here. The Harpodrome and the Oasis of Ezrabah are some of Geoff Dale’s most inspired work. He outdid himself here.

Circles 2 & 3. Lust and gluttony have equally amazing potential. If you have The Book of Unlawful Carnal Knowledge — which describes x-rated D&D spells like seduce, strip, lust, sex slave, nymph’s beauty, eternal ecstasy, and power word castrate — you can run wild with the Garden of Lust, and make it the true hell it deserves to be. And I’ve already come up with outrageous menus for Glutton’s Hall.

Circle 8. As I said, my expectations here were unreasonably high. The atmosphere is perfect, but the dungeons are somewhat redundant, though still very good. I’d play this circle for mood especially, as the punishments are so varied and ghastly.

Circle 4. What’s fascinating about greed is that it’s the very basis for D&D: PCs advance levels by acquiring treasure. Even a morally upright cleric is a tomb robber. 
It’s hard to make greed seem evil in this game… but the Temple of Greed succeeds remarkably.

Circle 5. It’s all the River Styx, though there are pocket islands like the Petrified Grove that for whatever reason reminds me of the hedge animals in Stephen King’s novel The Shining. The wrath that rubs off on you in this grove would put Jack Torrance to shame.

Circle 0. I like that the Vestibule is its own circle, and while it’s mostly just a huge stretch of barren darkness, somehow the fact that it’s larger than the other circles (except Circle 1) seems appropriate to Inferno’s top-heavy weirdness.

Circle 6. The City of Burning Tombs is rather standard fare compared to what the rest of Inferno offers — open grave pits, above-ground coffins, sepulchers, mausoleums, lots of undead — but it’s still a wonderful celebration of the macabre.

InfernoI can’t remember the last time I was so excited about a gaming product. Perhaps it was 19 years ago with Dol Guldur (which like Inferno was a revamping and expansion of an earlier module). All I know is that this product is awesome, and represents an unprecedented marriage between literature and RPGs. Plenty of modules have been inspired by works of fiction. The Lost City evokes the Conan pulps, Castle Amber the stories of Clark Ashton Smith, Ravenloft is basically Dracula, and Beyond the Crystal Cave plays on Romeo & Juliet. But Inferno is the Inferno, making no attempts to paper over Dantean elements that could be construed as awkward in D&D. The Christian theme is reworked into a pagan context, but that’s about it. I’m ready to play.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5.

Inferno PDFs: Book One, Book Two, and Book Three.
Recommended Supplements: Treasury, Beastiary, Codicil of Maladies.

The Best of Classic Doctor Who (1963-1989)

If you could save only 26 stories from classic Doctor Who (there are 157 of them), which would they be? There are 26 seasons, but I’m not necessarily asking for a favorite from each one. Just your 26 favorites wherever they come from, and see where the weight falls. For me, it’s a given that over half my choices are Tom Baker stories. His was the golden age. I have 3 Hartnell, 2 Troughton, 1 Pertwee, 14 T. Baker, 1 Davison, 2 C. Baker, and 3 McCoy. Here’s how they line up.

1. The Talons of Weng-Chiang. This was the second Doctor Who story I ever saw, and it spoiled me immensely. As a ten-year old I couldn’t believe it was television material; I’d never seen anything this dark on the network, let alone PBS. Talons is so gruesome, bizarre, and original despite the homages: Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, and Fu Manchu are in play, and the elements mesh in a Victorian setting where girls are being snatched off foggy streets to feed a ghoul. The Doctor assumes a Scotland-Yard persona and is attacked by one insanity after another — Chinese assassins, a giant sewer rat, a homicidal doll, a shifty stage magician, and then finally the ghoul at the end of the sewer. As far as I’m concerned, Magnus Greel is the vilest Doctor Who villain of all time. He operates on the basest level possible, is a megalomaniac like other classic villains (Davros, Sutekh, the Master) but also delusional (believing himself to be a Chinese god), and acquires artifacts like the Time Cabinet for the same reason he slaughters girls like cattle: to leech power for his dying body. This story is best at everything it works with: horror, mystery, drama, you name it; and no supporting cast has ever come close to matching the dual act of Professor Litefoot and Henry Gordon Jago.

2. Pyramids of Mars. Egyptian mythology is mined brilliantly in this story, and the character of Marcus Scarman gave me nightmares. He has a hard look to begin with, but when possessed by evil he is utterly terrifying. There is the sequence where a poacher shoots him through the house window, the bullet slams into his back, and he screams; he quickly recovers, and turns around slowly to glare at the poacher outside who can’t believe his eyes; he sends a pair of mummies after the poacher, who eventually catch him in the woods, despite their lumbering slowness (for they never tire), and kill the poor bastard by sandwiching him between their chests and crushing him. That sequence serves as a commentary on Pyramids of Mars as a whole: there is no way to beat, escape, or survive Sutekh. He’s the ultimate Doctor Who villain, a god of limitless power devoted not simply to killing or subjugating others, but to eradicating all life everywhere in the universe, down to the last bacteria. He is nihilism personified, and in the Doctor’s words, “the greatest peril” the world has ever faced. Every supporting character is killed off (only Horror of Fang Rock would repeat this), and the Doctor wins only by exploiting a two-minute time window to propel Sutekh into an infinite time loop.

3. The E-Space Trilogy. I’m cheating here with three stories, but they work together despite the different plots and settings, the common theme being enslavement. In Full Circle a colony of people work routinely without ever making progress, preparing for a day of departure that can never come; their three leaders (the Deciders) aren’t overtly oppressive, but keep them in ignorance to maintain the status quo. In State of Decay a different planet of colonists are trapped in a state of serfdom, and treated as livestock by a trio of vampires. In Warriors’ Gate a species of lion-humanoids is literally enslaved to navigate space vehicles for human mercenaries. The Doctor’s role in each story is different. In the first he serves as a catalyst for change, mostly by yelling and heaping insults on the Deciders for keeping their subjects in ignorance. In the second he’s proactive by instigating a peasant rebellion against the vampire overlords. And in the third he does literally nothing –- but “the right kind of nothing” — at the behest of a Tharil who knows how things are destined to play out. See my full review of this brilliant trilogy full of plot twists and loaded ideas. I can’t say enough about it.

4. Inferno. Whenever I watch Inferno, there’s no stopping for breaks — I’m glued through all seven episodes. I consider the Pertwee era the worst by far (though Pertwee himself was an excellent Doctor), plagued by redundant invasion-of-earth stories involving UNIT, but it did produce this one story of awesomeness, and it’s so good that it’s in my top five. Its success lies in the use of the parallel universe, which works on several levels. For starters, we get to see dark counterparts to the Liz Shaw and especially the Brigadier, who is the “Brigade Leader” in this fascist version of Britain, and completely steals the show. Unlike the Brigadier we love, this version with an eye-patch is an interrogating sadist who thrives on abusing the weak without any concern for truth, guilt or innocence. But best of all, the alternate universe allows high stakes to play out, and allow the Doctor to lose — the earth is destroyed in floods of lava. The dramatic intensity is as high as Doctor Who ever gets; the cliffhangers genius; and the alternate Britain with alternate characters creepy as hell. Stories like this come once a decade, if that.

5. Genesis of the Daleks. Possibly the most famous Doctor Who story, and definitely the most grim; it presents the bleakest image of war ever seen in the series. The Time Lords send the Doctor into the past on a mission to avert the Daleks’ creation. We know he must fail, for of course time can’t be rewritten (these weren’t the days of Steven Moffat), and this comes to a head in his last-minute moral dilemma, as he agonizes over whether or not to commit genocide. His argument is that killing an intelligent lifeform like the Daleks would make him no better than they, and that future worlds will become allies because of the Dalek menace. That many of us disagree with the Doctor (I disagree with his first point, though agree with the second in the wider context of changing history) only makes his alien way of thinking more fascinating. But he’s able to set the Daleks back a few centuries, and gets into thundering arguments with Davros, who steals the show in a way no villain has ever matched since. I’m always chilled by the final scene of the Doctor, Harry, and Sarah spinning through the blackness of outer-space, around the Doctor’s half-convincing assurance that out of the Daleks’ great evil must surely come something good.

6. The Seeds of Doom. If David Cronenberg ever wrote a Doctor Who story, it might look something like The Seeds of Doom. It contains the most disturbing images of body horror ever seen on the show (prompting the inevitable cries of indignation from Mary Whitehouse), not to mention thuggish violence, that as a kid I remember thinking it was the TV-equivalent of an R-rated movie. I loved horror from a very early age, but even so was shocked by Keeler’s disgusting transformation into a Krynoid over the course of episode four. Another thing that stands out is the exceptional use of the villains. The insane botanist Harrison Chase goes without saying, but his thug Scorby is brilliantly scripted and completely convincing. A true mercenary, he tries to murder the Doctor and Sarah in Antarctica, and also on Chase’s estate, but then allies with them against Chase and has no interest at all in revenge against them. Classic Who was always good with the enemies-to-allies thing, and Scorby is exhibit-A. For a long time as a kid, I considered this my favorite story. The idea of massive carnivorous weeds taking over the earth’s plantlife and wiping out all humans and animals is one of the show’s best, and it works epically across a six-episode length.

7. The Face of Evil. This was the last story I saw in the four-season Tom Baker package (12-15) released to PBS in 1978. Its successor, Robots of Death, was my first story, and so I had to wait for the replays to loop around and find out how the Doctor actually met Leela. And I had to wait through two cycles of replays, because somehow I missed it on the first rerun. So The Face of Evil had long since acquired a weird mythic status for me. I had friends who talked about the psychotic god-computer who resembled the Doctor, and it sounded scary. Parts of it ended up terrifying me, especially the episode-three cliffhanger of Xoanon’s face(s) getting larger, and his voice louder, until the Doctor is cringing on the floor with the computer bellowing rage over its confused identity. The story skewers religion and technology, which is remarkable in a show that usually revels in taking down the former. The tribal savages and the scientific community serve the Face in equally misguided ways, and with Xoanon’s healing they are able to return to unity. The story still has a mythic hold on me; it’s like something out of a paranoid dream state, or a feverish imagining of how the Doctor and Leela hooked up.

8. The Deadly Assassin. Few people know that the Matrix didn’t start with Keanu Reeves. It started with the Fourth Doctor. It’s even called the Matrix in this story, and it functions exactly like the model everyone knows — an electronic neural network that turns thought patterns into virtual reality. In any case, The Deadly Assassin is a classic that has undergone drastic reassessment with the passage of time. Panned during its release for breaking with so much formula and daring to not use alien creatures or monsters, it is now praised for precisely these reasons, for doing something entirely new, and for the first time involving a close-up look at Gallifrey and the Time Lords.  The Master has never been a favorite of mine, but here he’s used very well and in a manner fitting of the Hinchcliffe era — hideous, disfigured, and corpse-like, with a skull-like visage and black cloak evoking the Grim Reaper. He frames the Doctor in assassinating the president, and the Doctor has to chase down his identity through the wastelands of the Matrix. This story was #1 on Mary Whitehouse’s hate list, for scenes of prolonged violence, and there’s no question it remains one of the most adult-feeling stories of the series.

9. The Caves of Androzani. Some say it’s the best Doctor Who story of all time, and while I don’t think it’s that good I wouldn’t call it overrated. Its genius lies in its nihilism, though few stop to ponder how bleak the canvass really is. There are no good guys, no winners, everyone is venal and selfish, and there is certainly no universal threat. The Doctor and Peri stumble into a gun-running mess, and their mission is simply to save their own asses and escape the foul people on all sides of the conflict. The world is one of a capitalism gone mad; drug wars, labor camps, and corporate backbiting are the way of things. It’s also a revenge story. I wouldn’t exactly call Sharez Jek a sympathetic villain — he was ruthless even before being betrayed and disfigured — but in this stew of characters he’s about as sympathetic as they get. He’s a grotesque and lonely figure, and his romantic feelings for Peri are genuine if predatory. By the end, everyone is dead — shot, blown apart, or poisoned. That includes the Doctor, who saves Peri by allowing himself to die and regenerate into his sixth incarnation. His self-sacrifice is the single bright ray in a landscape of pure backbiting amorality. That turns out to be a perfect swan song for the Fifth Doctor, whom I could never otherwise warm to.

10. Robots of Death. My first Doctor Who story was a perfect introduction. It’s straightforward, fast-paced, and intelligent: a murder mystery involving killer robots set on a desert planet. The setting is a claustrophobic mining vehicle, and the tension never lets up as people are stalked and strangled one by one. Even though it was the second-to-last Hinchcliffe story, it was Leela’s second story — and her first inside the TARDIS, meaning that the story conveniently introduced me to the time box through her eyes. Her initiation is the best of the companions (Amy Pond’s in The Eleventh Hour a close second), and the Doctor’s explanation of trans-dimensional engineering so priceless for being ridiculous. He plays the “Which box is larger?” trick, claiming that since a large box looks smaller when its far away, “if you could keep it that distance away and have it here, it would fit inside the small one”. But trans-dimensional engineering has nothing to do with how the eye is fooled; he’s just bullshitting Leela to shut her up. This remains one of the most psychologically intense stories ever, and some scenes still get me on edge.

11. The Brain of Morbius. In some ways this is the quintessential Hinchcliffe story. It’s influenced by Frankenstein, and set on an alien planet that resembles an alternate Transylvania, with a gothic castle on a bleak mountain, a mad scientist, a hunchbacked servant, and a nearby coven of witches. It’s macabre at its essence, the plot being Solon (the mad scientist) wanting to cut off the Doctor’s head for Morbius’s brain. The Sisterhood of Karn (the witches) are used superbly, one of my favorite enemies-to-allies of all time. They end up on the same side with the Doctor fighting Morbius, but it takes them a long time to reach that point (at first they’re hell-bent on sacrificing him), and frankly they’re as bad as Solon. Solon is motivated by his servitude to Morbius to commit murder, but the Sisterhood are motivated by their jealous worship of the Elixir of Life to commit atrocities just as bad. Finally, I consider The Brain of Morbius to be Sarah Jane Smith’s strongest story. Every single cliffhanger involves her instead of the Doctor; she gets blinded and stays that way throughout two episodes, and is sexually fawned on by Solon’s creepy hunchback. She is bloody terrified throughout this story, and rises above it splendidly.

12. The Horror of Fang Rock. The first story of the Graham Williams era gives searing homage to its predecessor. Not only is it more creepy and gothic than some of the best Hinchcliffe stories, it ups the ante by killing off the entire supporting cast. Pyramids of Mars did this too, but Horror kills off even more people in closer quarters. The deaths, moreover, are not just for the “sake” of a high body count. Each murder is a slam in the gut that escalates the plot. The setting is a lighthouse in a stormy sea, and the murderer a shape-shifting alien who can assume the appearance of its slain victims. Of all Leela’s stories, this one draws most creatively on her tribal savage background. At one point she whips out her knife and yells at a self-important twit: “You will do as the Doctor instructs, or I will cut out your heart!” Later, when a murder victim is found, and a woman screams her bloody head off, Leela slaps her face in disgust. And in the end, she gloats over the dying body of the alien and scolds the Doctor for not wishing to “celebrate the death of an enemy”. This is a character story, bottle episode, and severe horror piece all in one.

13. The Power of the Daleks. This is one of the many lost stories from the Hartnell/Troughton periods. It survives in audio form with reconstructed stills, and while some insist that a story can’t be judged based on a recon, that’s not true for a dialogue-driven show like Doctor Who. The Loose Cannon team has done such a great job with the recons that I kicked myself for putting off watching them for so long. So let’s be clear: The Power of the Daleks and The Evil of the Daleks stand as masterpieces on recon value alone. For a long time I couldn’t conceive a Dalek story without Davros, because from Tom Baker onwards there was no such thing. In these two Troughton stories, the Daleks are at their scariest completely on their own, and in the case of Power, the plotting works over a slow build. Every single thing advances the plot and escalates tension. A Dalek ship has crash-landed on a planet and they rely on the assistance of a human scientist to reactivate them, while pretending to be servants of the human colony. The “I am your servant” refrain is milked for all its worth; three Daleks ooze more Machiavellian terror than armies of them do in other stories.

14. The Evil of the Daleks. If Power is the slow build, Evil is the epic blow-out. It starts as a mystery in the 19th century, with a wonderful Holmes-and-Watson act on the part of the Doctor and Jamie, and then moves into the far future on Skaro, where the dreaded Emperor Dalek is revealed. I find this thing just as imposing as Davros in the later stories. The plot is basically a chess game played between the Doctor and the Emperor, with Troughton’s Doctor extraordinarily devious and manipulative, in a way that anticipates McCoy’s seventh incarnation. The character of Maxtible is genius, and his ultimate motives come as a genuine shocker, namely that he sells out his friends and associates for unlimited wealth; the secret of turning metal to gold. There is some delightfully twisted humor on display, with some Daleks being injected with the Human Factor and playing childish games, and then prodded by the Doctor to question their orders, which ends in them getting blasted to smithereens. This was intended as the last Dalek story, and while thankfully that didn’t happen, the all-out war and explosive carnage at the end would have admittedly made a perfect send-off to the creatures.

15. Ghost Light. A Victorian piece with drenching atmosphere. A centuries-old spaceship lies underneath a gothic mansion, and its crew of three are at each others’ throats: the spiritual force called Light, who can move at the “speed of thought” and whose mission has been to catalog every known form of life on Earth; Josiah Smith, his survey agent, who has lived among human beings to evolve as one of them; and the beast-like female known as Control, who serves as a “control” for the evolving experiment. Woven through this plot are hilarious pot-shots against creationism, as when Reverend Matthews denounces Josiah for his Darwinian blasphemies and suddenly devolves into a hairy ape on the spot. Light’s murders of guests and house residents are horrifying, particularly in he way he blasts the police inspector into “primordial soup” which is then served at the supper table. The entire drama takes place inside the house where servants fear for their lives, and homicidal byproducts of hyper-evolution lurk beyond dark corridors and sliding doors. The cerebral challenges of Ghost Light have been matched only by Warriors’ Gate, and like the E-Space story is a work of art.

16. Logopolis. Tom Baker’s send-off. There’s some padding that bogs down the later episodes, and the completely ludicrous attempt of the Doctor to flood the Master out of the TARDIS, but I still consider Logopolis a masterpiece. Its gloomy funereal tone foreshadows the Fourth’s death in almost every frame. The idea of a colony of mathematicians who maintain the integrity of the universe by keeping the forces of entropy at bay with math codes is brilliant. It’s easy to overlook the holocaust of solar systems because we don’t see anyone dying, but it’s one of the highest body counts (in the millions) in the show’s history. There are unforgettable scenes here, notably the TARDIS trapped within itself over and over again, which the Doctor and Adric keep trying to exit. The best scenes, however, involve the bantering between the Doctor and Adric in episode one, which showcase how naturally Tom Baker breathed his own dialogue so fluidly into the script. Logopolis was a perfect exit.

17. The Ark in Space. This preceded Alien by four years, but the similarities are striking: a remote space-station environment and insect-like aliens who use human hosts to replicate. The far-future setting is one where earth has been decimated by solar flares, and the last survivors of humanity have been “asleep” aboard the Ark in a cryogenic fugue state. Now awakened, they show signs of a fascist society, where people are valued by their abilities alone, and the leader Noah is willing to destroy the Doctor and his friends for fear they will contaminate his people’s gene pool. Given this unpleasant lot of humans, who are even hostile, it’s all the more intriguing that the Doctor sides with them against the alien Wirrn. By Time Lord standards, the Wirrn have as much right to exist as a species as humans do, and their purpose to multiply and spread and devour humanity doesn’t seem too far away from the fascist mindset of Noah’s people. Noah’s metamorphosis into a Wirrn is just deserts, though I confess feel sorry for him all the same; it’s a ghastly transformation. The Ark in Space sets a solid tone for the new Hinchcliffe era of gothic horror, and for the new Doctor as well.

18. Revelation of the Daleks. Without question the most weird and morbid story in the Who canon. It’s entirely Davros’ story — even more so than in Genesis — showing him twice as insane, and five times as sadistic. He has taken control of a galactic funeral parlor, for the purpose of using corpses as building blocks for his new and improved Dalek army, though he seems far more interested in manipulating and killing off the parlor’s personnel for reasons that are completely pointless besides satisfying his sadistic urges. I said that Keeler’s transformation into a Krynoid in The Seeds of Doom is the most disturbing image in the show’s history, but Stengos’ mutated head is a close second — encased in a glass Dalek shell, his body gone, his head purple and grotesque, his voice alternating horribly between human and Dalek. As for the Doctor, he is little more than a bystander and moral commentator, doing nothing proactive to save the day. This isn’t a fault (I love Chris Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor precisely because he’s so ineffectual), but it’s striking in this period of the show; and it allows the mercenary Orcini to resolve things in a dramatically satisfying way, as his rigid honor code demands.

19. The Curse of Fenric. Norse mythology, vampires from the sea, and World War II. At this point in the series (the tail end), the Doctor hadn’t gone against a god since the days of Tom Baker in Pyramids of Mars and Image of the Fendahl. The latter is worth mentioning, because there is no reason the Doctor couldn’t have done to the Fenric flask what he did to the Fendahl skull: dump it in a black hole. Instead he hid the flask so that an elaborate game of chess can now play out, in which innocent people die and Ace is horribly abused. He defeats Fenric by emotionally crushing her: making her lose her faith in him. Faith is the striking theme of this story, uncharacteristic of the classic series (and much better handled than in new-series fiascoes like Last of the Time Lords), whether it be a belief in higher powers, trust in other people, or even ideas. So the Doctor is able to keep the sea-vampires at bay by muttering his companions’ names; Sorin can do so by intoning the Revolution; but the Vicar Wainwright is overpowered because of his crisis of faith in God. Last of the Time Lords could have learned from this faith-story that shows the Doctor at his darkest and most manipulative, instead of treating him as a mythic superhero.

20. Image of the Fendahl. If The Horror of Fang Rock gave homage to Hinchcliffe by going even darker, Image of the Fendahl does so by copying the plot of Pyramids of Mars to a tee. Here again is an ancient godlike evil, seeking release after millennia of dormancy, and set on an old priory with wooded grounds. The chief difference this time is that we don’t really get to see the Fendahl, as it never fully manifests through the woman it has taken over. This actually works for the better, because it leaves much to the terrified imagination, while the horror is explicitly carried on atmosphere — mist-shrouded woods, glowing skulls, decaying corpses, and scientists killing each other for purely venal reasons. The Fendahl overshadows of all this, and its reputation alone terrifies; even the Doctor shows uncharacteristic fright, warning that if the evil isn’t stopped no one on earth will be alive in another year. This entity is as nihilistic as Sutekh, minus the megalomania and sadism; it just does what it needs to do. This was effectively the last story of the golden age. After it, Graham Williams started putting a much lighter stamp on the show.

21. The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve. This one survives only as recon, and is the best of the Hartnell historicals. It’s a unique story in that the Doctor is off-stage most of the time, and his companion Steven takes the lead as a man stranded in time. And what a time: the Huguenot-Catholic wars of France, and the few days in 1572 leading up to the notorious bloodbath. For a stagey Doctor Who story, it taps remarkably into the politics of the time and how both Protestants and Catholics were likely feeling. There’s a suspenseful feeling of impending doom that never lets up. The Doctor’s double is interesting. On the one hand it allows Hartnell to showcase his acting talents as the menacing and humorless Abbot of Amboise. On the other, we share Steven’s point of view, not sure if he’s really the Doctor or not. In the last episode it’s revealed that he’s not, though apparently in the novelization he was indeed impersonating the abbot. The plot was deemed too complex to juggle in a 100-minute TV story, but if that’s the case, then it’s a mystery where the Doctor was all this time. The ending is heartbreaking, as a furious Steven rails against the Doctor’s indifference to human horrors and the impending slaughter of over 10,000 Huguenots in Paris.

22. The Crusade. I love the crusades, and the subject was perfect for a Hartnell historical. The Doctor and his companions find themselves caught between the looming personalities of the Third Crusade, Richard The Lionheart and Saladin. Neither is very sympathetic, but both are totally believable, and of course Julian Glover (Richard) is always a superb guest star in Doctor Who. Most striking about The Crusade is the adult content, with references to harems, incest, and especially the despicable character of El Akir. I consider him the most upsetting villain in the show’s history, because he’s extraordinarily realistic in the context of a family program. He’s a rapist who killed Haroun’s wife and son, and then took his daughter captive, adding her to his harem. He’s sadistic, and not in a cartoonish way, which makes him so chilling to watch, especially after he is shamed by Barbara. He’s driven by honor-revenge, pursuing her throughout the entire story, and with every intention of raping and torturing her in order to break her spirit. His line to her in episode three is unforgettable: “The only pleasure left for you is death, and death is very far away”. In any case, he is certainly the most despicable human villain to ever appear in Doctor Who. The plot to the story is the Doctor and his friends trying to escape with their lives, and that’s all the plot necessary in the time of the crusades.

23. The Aztecs. It’s fascinating to compare this one to The Fires of Pompeii. At first blush they seem to make the same point about rewriting history. The Tenth’s scolding of Donna for wanting to save Pompeii seems prefigured by the First’s tongue-lashing of Barbara for wanting to stop the Aztec practice of human sacrifice. Neither is possible, and yet each companion effects a small change (Donna persuades the Doctor to save a single family, and Barbara enlightens one high priest). Yet there’s a difference. The Aztecs is about the inability to change history despite trying, whereas The Fires of Pompeii is more about the immorality of making the attempt. The First declares, “You can’t rewrite history, not one line. What you are trying to do is utterly impossible.” In the new series such things are not at all impossible; they just result in something nastier. In any case, this is a wonderfully dramatic story that gets good use out of Barbara. My favorite part is when the Doctor blows up at her in a fit of hyper-tolerance that outdoes even today’s multiculturalists: “Human sacrifice is their religion! Their tradition! Don’t you realize that man wanted to be offered to the gods?” Wisdom coming from 1963.

24. City of Death. Everyone loves this one, and many would place it in their top five. It’s the only masterpiece from the Williams era that feels like a Williams story (Horror of Fang Rock and Image of the Fendahl seem like Hinchcliffe leftovers), involving more comedy and adventure in place of horror and violence. It wasn’t a strong era, but City of Death worked the new formula to perfection, and honestly, some of Tom Baker’s ad-libbing is the funniest in the series’ history. The scene where he socializes warmly with his captors, even pours drinks for them, flatters the Countess, and then chastises Duggan for mishandling an antique chair to resist imprisonment (politely requesting that the Count escort him, Romana, and Duggan to their cells), is an all-time classic. The plot is an ambitious one involving time paradoxes: an alien has splintered itself into twelve identical parts throughout history, and each self lives out its life trying to guide human development so that the next self might have access to time travel technology — the ultimate goal being to change the past and stop the human race from ever having evolved. Julian Glover plays the selves brilliantly, especially at the stunning reveal when the Doctor goes back in time to visit Leonardo da Vinci.

25. Vengeance on Varos. The Deadly Assassin held the record for “most adult” story until this one came along and offended everyone’s sensibilities. Also like The Deadly Assassin, this one doesn’t revolve around terrifying creatures but rather terrifying virtual or TV realities. Varos is a society on the fringes of space whose people are dependent on sadistic TV entertainment — torture, state executions, blindness, and (best of all) acid baths. This voyeurism is used to keep the population in its place by an exceedingly corrupt government. The scene that has taken on legendary status is the one in which the Doctor supposedly pushes two men into an acid bath. He doesn’t, actually, but he does mock them as they fall into the bath and start dissolving. It’s a case of audiences becoming so easily convinced of a character’s monstrosity beyond what actually happened, and the Sixth Doctor was controversial anyway, right from his debut-attempt to strangle Peri. Then there is Sil, for my money the most entertaining villain since Davros. He looks like a giant turd, and indeed with his gurgling laugh sounds like someone who might dwell in a filthy toilet. He’s a completely repulsive sadist, but entertaining in the extreme, making Vengeance on Varos a Tarantino-like commentary on the way its viewers participate in what the story is attacking.

26. Remembrance of the Daleks. I said that The Curse of Fenric shows the Doctor at his darkest and most manipulative. But some argue that his morality is so bankrupt in this story to be beyond repair. They have a case. He engineers a Dalek civil war on earth, and tricks Davros into annihilating his home planet of Skaro. Far from being squeamish about wiping out a race of xenophobic killers (the Fourth Doctor in Genesis), the Seventh has come to believe that the destruction of an entire solar system is worth an attempt to cripple the Daleks in any way. It’s unclear, however, as to what other forms of life existed in the Skaro solar system, if any; with the Imperial Daleks (created in Revelation) at the height of their powers, probably none. But there’s no denying the Doctor’s ruthlessness. The Seventh Doctor acts with foreknowledge and an ugly plan up his sleeve, unlike the other six incarnations who for the most part walked blindly into random situations. It was a refreshing change, and a shame that Doctor Who was cancelled abruptly during McCoy’s tenure. The show had just begun to reattain greatness, starting with this story.

The Daleks: Looking Back

Into the Dalek was the best Doctor Who story we’ve seen in a long time, and certainly the best Dalek outing since the season-2 finale. This post ranks the entire Dalek canon: 14 stories from the classic era, and 8 from the new series. I pleased to say that Into makes my top half; after the abysmal season 7, I was sure the series was on its way out.

1. Genesis of the Daleks, Tom Baker. Setting: Skaro, 5700 BC. 5 jelly babies. This is the bleakest image of war ever seen in the history of Doctor Who. It introduces the Naziesque character of Davros, and develops him brilliantly across six episodes. It has one of the most famous and compelling character moments for the Doctor, as he agonizes over whether or not to commit genocide on the Daleks — his argument being that killing an intelligent lifeform would make him no better than they, and future worlds will become allies because of the Dalek menace. That many of us disagree with the Doctor only makes his alien way of thinking more fascinating. The conclusion is superb, as the Doctor fails in his mission: he’s unable to either destroy the Daleks or alter their genetic engineering, but he knows, as he assures Sarah, that “out of their evil must come something good”. No Dalek story will ever beat this one.

2. Dalek, Chris Eccleston. Setting: Utah, 2012. 5 jelly babies. The first Dalek story of the new series is a character piece above all, with a lone Dalek survivor of the Time War summoning opposite reactions from The Doctor and Rose. Unlike Sarah who in Genesis urged him to obliterate the whole race, Rose has to stop him from blasting the last Dalek to bits, as it acquires feelings of compassion from her DNA. It says something about the script that a single Dalek is able to terrify and reduce you to tears at the same time. Rightly hailed as the best Dalek story of the new series. In the space of only 45 minutes we are made to feel what it really means to be a Dalek, and that kind of transcendence is rare in Doctor Who.

power13. The Power of the Daleks, Patrick Troughton. Setting: Vulcan, 2220. 5 jelly babies. The next two Troughton stories survive in audio form with reconstructed stills, and the Loose Cannon team did a fantastic job with them. The Daleks are at their scariest, and in the case of Power, it’s the best example of a slow build in any Doctor Who story (let alone a Dalek one), where every single thing advances the story and escalates tension. A Dalek ship has crash-landed on a planet and they rely on the assistance of a human scientist to reactivate them, while pretending to be servants of the human colony. The “I am your servant” refrain is milked for all its worth; three Daleks ooze more Machiavellian terror than armies of them do in other stories.

Evil54. The Evil of the Daleks, Patrick Troughton. Setting: London/Skaro, 1966/1866/2120/4100. 5 jelly babies. If Power is the slow build, Evil is the epic blow-out. It starts as a mystery in the 19th century, with a wonderful Holmes-and-Watson act on the part of the Doctor and Jamie, and then moves into the far future on Skaro, where the dreaded Emperor Dalek is revealed — who is just as terrifying as Davros if not more. There is some twisted humor here, with some Daleks being injected with the Human Factor and playing childish games, and then manipulated by the Doctor to question their orders, which ends in the most explosive Dalek shootout in the series to date. I can’t choose between this one and Power; they’re both masterpieces.

5. Revelation of the Daleks, Colin Baker. Setting: Necros, 4610. 4 ½ jelly babies. Morbid and obscene by even classic Who standards. Like Genesis it’s more a Davros than Dalek story, and we get to see him in full control for the first time since he created the Daleks, now cultivating a new breed of Imperial Daleks from preserved cadavers on a mortuary planet. All that remains of him now (or so it seems anyway) is his head, preserved in a life-support vessel from which he gleefully watches over everyone in the comfort of his laboratory, orchestrating events with three times the amount of cunning and sadism we saw back in Genesis. I adore this story, and the only thing preventing a 5-rating is the incredibly annoying character of the DJ.

p00y0c9x6. Remembrance of the Daleks, Sylvester McCoy. Setting: London/Skaro, 1963/4660. 4 ½ jelly babies. Dalek civil war comes to Earth, and at the engineering of the Doctor, who is at his most manipulative. The pacing is flawless, and Davros is commendably held in reserve until the final episode. If Genesis contains the Doctor’s most compelling character moment, Remembrance features his most jaw-dropping, as he decides to annihilate Skaro. Far from being squeamish about wiping out a race of xenophobic killers, he has come to believe that the destruction of an entire solar system is worth an attempt to cripple the Daleks. There is the flawed bit about Daleks dependent on a battle computer for logic (they were never creatures of logic until Destiny of the Daleks, on which see #16 below), and the brief reintroduction of this trait prevents the story from getting a 5-rating. Otherwise it’s near flawless.

Parting_of_the_Ways7. Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways, Chris Eccleston. Setting: Satellite Five, 200100. 4 jelly babies. This apocalypse revolves perversely around reality TV, where on a satellite orbit people are forced to play games and losers get vaporized. There are awesome sights here — zillions of levitating and flying Daleks, chanting horrible mantras in defense of the Dalek God, “Worship him!”, “Do not interrupt!” — but held at a 4-rating due to the whacking plot holes. Most obvious being when the Daleks invade the station, which they no longer need, to stop the Doctor. Since they are melting entire continents on Earth, they could do the same to the station. But that wouldn’t allow the Doctor to face the moral dilemma demanded by RTD’s script: use the delta wave and kill the Daleks, but also every form of life on Earth; or let the Daleks live so that they can kill every form of life on Earth, which is exactly what they’re already in the process of doing by melting continents. Aside from blunders like this, the story is fantastic.

8. Army of Ghosts/Doomsday, David Tennant. Setting: London, 2007. 4 jelly babies. This is a rare case of fanwank that works: the two most popular villains, Daleks and Cybermen, invading Earth, and then fighting each other to see who’s best. The first time I saw this, the appearance of the Daleks caught me way off-guard; the cliffhanger to the first episode is classic genius. And I love the Cult of Skaro: four elite Daleks with names, designed to think as the enemy thinks. A great moment is when the Cyberleader proposes an alliance with the Cult, is refused, and demands: “You would destroy 5 million Cybermen with four Daleks?” Reply: “We would destroy 5 million Cybermen with one Dalek. You are superior in only one respect: you are better at dying. This is not a war, this is pest control.” As apocalyptic as Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways, and just as good, though similarly weighed down by certain RTD’isms.

p025byzd9. Into the Dalek, Peter Capaldi. Setting: Space Station Aristotle, future. 4 jelly babies. Between seasons three and seven in the new series, the Daleks were about as scary as Wall-E. (See the bottom three entries on this list.) This story took them seriously again, and actually delivered a body count. There are heavy shades of Eccleston’s Dalek, involving another loner captured by humans and showing strange signs of compassion. The Doctor and others shrink themselves microscopically, and inject themselves inside the Dalek for an anatomical road journey that harks back to The Invisible Enemy. It’s terrific stuff, as they get attacked by the Dalek’s antibodies and mired in organic soup. Meanwhile the space station is invaded by a Dalek army — the rogue Dalek ends up blasting then to atoms one by one, and then calls the Doctor on his own evil.

davros10. The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar, Peter Capuldi. Setting: Skaro, 2015. 4 jelly babies. This is the Davros episode fans had been waiting for in the new series. It’s complicated by the paradox of the Doctor having gone back in time a few weeks prior to this episode, and saving the child Davros from being killed in a minefield on Skaro. In the original timeline, Davros must have managed to get out of the minefield without any interaction with the Doctor, but now that the Doctor has interfered, Davros’ memory of the event is updated. Their dialogue sequences are the longest in the history of the show and drive strong ideas. It’s a bleak episode with nasty supplements (like the snake hive of Colony Sarth). We finally learn why Daleks cry “Exterminate!” repeatedly: the phrase reloads their guns. The chant of “I am a Dalek!” is an inarticulate howl from the creature inside the Dalek shell, a creature unable to express free thought, as Clara finds out when Missy traps her inside one and baits the Doctor to kill it.

The Daleks' Master Plan 111. The Daleks’ Master Plan, William Hartnell. Setting: Kembel/Earth/Mira, 4000. 4 jelly babies. The Lord of the Rings of Doctor Who. It mixes space opera, political intrigue, and betrayal in a 12-episode length that has never been repeated. Here the Daleks are trying to subjugate the solar system, and chasing the Doctor and his friends across volcanoes, jungles, deserts and futuristic cities. But unlike in The Chase, the pursuit carries purpose this time — to retrieve the core of the time destructor — and the Daleks are back to being smart and deadly. The story is also a landmark for the deaths of not one, but two companions (Katarina and Sara). Sara is actually killed by the Doctor, who mis-activates the time destructor, and Steven saves the day completely by accident. Which is another Tolkien-comparison: the Doctor is a failure like Frodo, and the Daleks (like Sauron) are stopped by a fluke.

p00y1gq912. Day of the Daleks, Jon Pertwee. Setting: London, 1973/2173. 4 jelly babies. It’s astonishing that a show about time travel went through eight whole seasons before using its subject matter as more than a device to establish setting. Nowadays we take stories like Father’s Day and Blink for granted, but Day of the Daleks was the first involving a time paradox. The Daleks aren’t really antagonists here, because they’ve already won in the far future. An assassin is sent from the 22nd century to avert this future, where humanity is enslaved, but the Doctor insists that murder even to prevent a horrible future isn’t justified. He frustrates us with his inhuman moral compass that’s nonetheless compelling. This one is very underrated.

first-dw_dalek-invasion-of-earth13. The Dalek Invasion of Earth, William Hartnell. Setting: London, 2167. 3 ½ jelly babies. The premise is a bit bonkers, but then so is lava unleashed by a drilling project to burn up the entire earth, and that doesn’t stop everyone from calling Inferno one of the best Doctor Who stories of all time. In this case, the Daleks intend to mine their way down to the earth’s core, destroy it and replace it with an engine that will allow them to pilot it anywhere in the cosmos. The imagery remains haunting: Daleks gliding around the landmarks of London, in a desolated earth, presiding over labor camps. And it’s Susan’s swan song, which is a moving send-off. It’s marred by some cheesy dialogue and awful design (the saucer-model work), but on whole it remains a cherished classic for good reason. It was the second Dalek story, and what really started the craze.

14. Resurrection of the Daleks, Peter Davison. Setting: London/Space Station, 1984/4590. 3 ½ jelly babies. Notorious for having the highest body count in the history of the show, this is an adrenaline ride that unfortunately involves messy plotting. The Daleks resurrect Davros to cure a virus that is crippling them, which is fine and well, but for all their insistence that “Without Davros, we have no future,” they suddenly reverse themselves and try to have him killed when he starts taking control — before he even finishes a cure. Their plan to immediately invade Gallifrey is another whopper, since they are at their weakest, and seems introduced only to provide a reason for their wanting to capture the Doctor alive. But with enough suspension of disbelief this action-packed story is a lot of fun, and shows Davros becoming increasingly volatile since the days of Genesis.

the-daleks-63-300x21015. The Daleks, William Hartnell. Setting: Skaro, 2164. 3 jelly babies. I’m conflicted over this one. As the first Dalek story, it’s aged both well and terribly. Well in terms of the characters: the Doctor’s relationship with Susan, Barbara, and Ian remain wonderful to watch (these were the days when the Doctor was fully capable of abandoning a companion by leaving her stranded in a hostile world; also when multiple companions played wonderfully off each other). Terribly for the Daleks themselves: all of the mythos established here got later changed, and rightfully so. Their dependence on static electricity in floors to be able to move completely reduces them; and the superficial history of their evolution was later overhauled in Genesis. As for the Thals, they’re positively dull, and not half as well scripted as they would be in later stories.

Victory_of_the_Daleks16. Victory of the Daleks, Matt Smith. Setting: London, 1941. 3 jelly babies. A rushed story (it should have been twice as long) set during World War II, which sees Britain training an army of Daleks to be thrown against the Third Reich. Churchill gets a nasty surprise when they show their true colors, and quite literally: the resurrected race has a new rainbow caste system. The space battle between Britain’s Spitfires and the Dalek ship is delightful (if a bit ludicrous), but the climax involving the neutralization of the android-bomb is too melodramatic. Alone worth the price of admission is the Doctor’s fury as he assaults a Dalek with a spanner. This is probably the Dalek story I feel most neutrally about: neither very good nor bad, just an enjoyable romp.

17. Destiny of the Daleks, Tom Baker. Setting: Skaro, 4500. 2 ½ jelly babies. A rather weak story to begin with, it sags under the weight of an unacceptable distortion. In contradiction to everything maintained throughout the Hartnell, Troughton, Pertwee, and early Tom Baker eras, the Daleks are suddenly portrayed as logical robots. No longer the cunning xenophobic blobs motivated by paranoia and hate, they are reduced to the equivalent of rational Cybermen, locked in perpetual war against another race of robots as they continually outthink each other. The resurrected Davros should have been ashamed to find them in this state. This is worlds away from the Naziesque terror of Genesis. Thankfully, after Destiny the theme of logic was mostly dropped (though it briefly resurfaced in Remembrance).

Death to the Daleks (11)18. Death to the Daleks, Jon Pertwee. Setting: Exxilon, 2725. 2 jelly babies. Pertwee got the bad Dalek stories (aside from Day, see #11, which ironically isn’t “about” the Daleks). In this one, the Doctor and a handful of Daleks are stranded on a planet, along with an expedition from earth in search of a mineral which can cure a plague. The planet has a city that drains power from ship engines and weapons, and the gist is that humans and Daleks have to work together to mine the mineral and save themselves. It doesn’t work well, and doesn’t make the Daleks seem dangerous at all.

p01bqb6919. Planet of the Daleks, Jon Pertwee. Setting: Spiridon, 2540. 2 jelly babies. I can understand why Pertwee said he hated working on this story. First of all, there’s nothing in it that the Hartnell and Troughton Dalek stories didn’t do already, and far better. But there’s also the appalling script. Heavy-handed speeches go on forever, and you can tell Pertwee is having a terrible time acting through them. Basically the Doctor, Jo and a group of Thals have to make their way to the Dalek army and prevent it from wreaking havoc across the galaxy, and to get to that point overcome a boring set of challenges — Dalek guards, Spiridon slaves, tunnels of ice, etc.

chase_666420. The Chase, William Hartnell. Setting: Mechanus/Aridius, 2665/3900, 2 jelly babies. This was the third Dalek story, and very lame. In The Daleks and Dalek Invasion of Earth, the Daleks were terrifying sadists and showed cunning intelligence. In this one they’re blundering incompetents that, yes, cough and clear their throats (I kid you not) and hesitate to exterminate people. They’re ineffectual in the extreme, and the chase through time and space gets tiring. Fast. The Chase is essentially a comedy, a mistaken approach to any Dalek story, and as result ends up feeling like a parody. The departure of Ian and Barbara at the end is the story’s best part.

01221. Asylum of the Daleks, Matt Smith. Setting: Skaro, future. 2 jelly babies. This one gets a surprising amount of praise. Its premise is ridiculous, that the Daleks are (first) too terrified to deal with uncontrollable Daleks that they lock up, and (second) that they don’t even really want to on grounds that admire the purity of the their fanatical hatred. Daleks aren’t scared of anything, period; they have never had reservations about obliterating their own wayward kind. The other problem is the soap opera. Amy and Rory’s romantic problems have become tiring and unconvincing by this point in the series. The Doctor is equally non-compelling when he tries to exploit love-friction by implying he might allow Amy to succumb to the Dalek nanogens. Then there’s the horrible way Clara is introduced. It’s a melodramatic mess of a story with laughably reduced Daleks.

3x05-Evolution-of-the-Daleks-doctor-who-19275930-1600-90022. Daleks in Manhattan/The Evolution of the Daleks, David Tennant. Setting: New York, 1930. 1 jelly baby. This one is painful to watch in every frame, and that’s unfortunate, because the setting of New York during the Great Depression is very cinematic. The Cult of Skaro — four elite Daleks introduced at the end of Army of Ghosts/Doomsday, designed to think like the enemy — had incredible potential, but the idea of them trying to evolve into humanoid form was doomed from the start. Dalek Sec looks and sounds ridiculous. I was applauding when the compassionate Sec finally got exterminated by his mutinous colleagues; he was enough to turn me into a trigger-happy Dalek myself. Then there are the embarrassing pig-men. On top of all that, I’ve never seen so many terrible performances from guest stars. But just when you think things can’t get any worse…

Davros-sans-trabasack23. The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End, David Tennant. Setting: London, 2009. 0 jelly babies. This story isn’t just awful; it goes out of its way to be awful — tries with every atom of its being to be awful. In the first half everyone is just trying to telephone the Doctor, ending in the mother of all cop-out cliffhangers (the Doctor starts regenerating but doesn’t). The second part gets exponentially worse, with more cop-outs, mockeries of Rose’s closure in season two, mockeries of Donna’s character and fate, and (wait for it) a romantic duplicate of the Doctor who lives happily ever after with Rose. As for the return of Davros and the Daleks themselves, they’re in almost every frame, but not there. Meaning they never feel threatening, they don’t even kill anyone (save the indestructible Captain Jack), and are disposed of way too easily with a cloud of deus-ex-machina technobabble. Not just the worst Dalek story, but the worst of the entire classic and new series.