The Trusty Plinko Stick Guide to Classic Doctor Who Part 1

Ever since the current Doctor Who series began airing in the States and gaining in popularity, I've had people approach me saying they were interested in exploring the original series and ask where they should start.  Enough people that I started making lists.  Enough, in fact, that I ended up making one big list that I saved as Google Drive and Evernote docs so I could just send it out to any new people that asked rather than have to recreate the thing from scratch every single time.

After getting their assurances that, yes, they knew what they were in for and that their imaginations would have to fill in a lot of the things that are being taken care of by the special effects budget nowadays (I've heard people compare classic Who to filmed plays rather than "typical" TV programs, and I think this is often spot-on, particularly in the early days), I send them my recommendations for the stories I think they should watch.  I always include the caveats that these are my recommendations, that their tastes may differ, and that I include a few widely-accepted-to-be-bad stories in the mix because they may still be technically important to the show's history and/or I just happen to like them in spite of their shortcomings.

I've expanded the list a bit for bloggy purposes, but the same caveats apply.  These are my recommendations, yours may vary wildly, and there's a bit of bad in here because if you want the full classic series experience, you need to experience a few groaners, in much the same way everyone interested in Star Trek needs to see Spock's Brain or the one with Space-braham Lincoln.

I've also only included stories known to be complete (or mostly complete) and available commercially on DVD/VHS because it's just easier that way.  If someone wants to experience the (sadly many) lost stories through recreations or on CD, they can explore those avenues on their own.

Classic Series Starting Point: The Five Doctors.  No question at all.

Although it has its flaws (the original first Doctor had long since died and was replaced by another actor, Tom Baker opted out and is replaced with un-aired footage, Sarah Jane falls to her near-death down an ever-so-slight incline, certain story beats don't jibe well with series continuity, etc.), this 20th anniversary story is the best starting point because you get a feel for the then-current Doctor and each of his predecessors, various companions and monsters, and some costume-drama-esque palace intrigue besides.  It's a Whitman's Sampler for the entire series up to that point, and a great way to lead you off into other eras if you want to learn more about, say, this Pertwee fellow with the cloak and the yellow roadster.  I'm also partial because this was one of the earliest stories I ever saw, and it went a long way toward explaining to 8 or 9-year old me how this was a show about all these guys who were really just the one guy.

Moving on by Doctor (not necessarily the order I think everyone should go, by the way, but certainly the easiest way to list everything)...

 1st Doctor – William Hartnell
  • An Unearthly Child (also called 100,000 BC or The Tribe of Gum) – The very first story, and unarguably one of the most important.  It introduces us to the characters and the concepts (establishing the alien natures of the Doctor and his first companion, his granddaughter Susan, right out of the gate), and sets the entire series in motion.  Unfortunately, the three episodes of the serial that follow the first episode (from which the serial gets its now-accepted name) are pretty boring (the Doctor and company get trapped, escape, and get trapped again an awful lot), so don't feel bad if you skim those in fast forward or skip them completely, but that very first episode is a must.

  • The Daleks (also called The Mutants or The Dead Planet) – First appearance of the show's most famous villains (whose popularity rivals or may even top the Doctor himself), the titular Daleks.  At 7 episodes, I think it goes on too long (a frequent complaint about the black and white era), and a lot of the backstory established here gets contradicted later, but again, it's important to the show's mythos and there are a number of effectively chilling bits that help explain why so many Brits grew up watching this show while hiding behind their sofas.

  • The Edge of Destruction (also called Inside the Spaceship) - After cavemen and Daleks, the cast get a "bottle episode" story taking place entirely within the TARDIS.  Things get a little surreal, but it's a great chance to get inside everyone's heads.

  • The Aztecs – In the early going, the series would switch narrative focus between serials, alternating between a sci-fi story and a straight historical adventure (which often had few or no SF touches at all besides the whole time travel thing).  This story is one of the earliest of the historicals, and often cited as one of the best.  It's also the earliest example of the series's back-and-forth philosophy about whether or not you should directly attempt to change the course of history.

  • The Dalek Invasion of Earth – Once again, a few episodes too long, but this really establishes the Daleks as the series's one, true Big Bad (they don't just invade Earth, they have already conquered it by the time the story begins!).  It also features the first time we see a companion depart the series, leading to Hartnell's brief, wonderful monologue that kicks off The Five Doctors.

  • The Chase – The Daleks get their own time machine and chase the TARDIS all over creation.  Lots and lots of fluff here, just packed to the brim with tons of silly and episodic padding (and a blatant attempt to recreate the Daleks' success that just falls flat), but I think it's fun.

  • The Time Meddler – The first important story for the show's mythology (and what little we ever get on the Doctor's backstory) since the very first one because we finally meet another member of the Doctor's race, himself an on-the-run renegade.  We're still a ways from hearing the words Time Lord thrown around, but we get our first look at another TARDIS and get confirmation that the Doctor's is an older (and quirkier) model.  We also get more talk about just how involved a time traveler should be in the flow of history.

  • The Tenth Planet – Important for two reasons.  First, we're introduced to the Cybermen (my favorite Who monster), who may look like body-stocking wearing accordion-fetishists here but they end up being twice as creepy as a result (the early Cyber-voices add to the effect).  Second, and more importantly, it's Hartnell's final story.  He doesn't get a lot to do throughout the story (his health was failing in real life), and at its end we find out why, as his body gives out and we find ourselves saying goodbye to one Doctor and hello to another for the very first time.  The final episode is one of the many that are lost, but the regeneration scene still exists, and this is being released on DVD in the coming months with the complete final episode being replaced by an animated stand-in.

2nd Doctor – Patrick Troughton
(Frustratingly, most Troughton stories (and a sizable chunk of Hartnell's, for that matter) no longer exist in complete forms.  Stupid BBC and the short-sighted archiving policies of early television in general!  You can see sample episodes from some of those - the Lost in Time box set has a bunch of loose ends from both Hartnell and Troughton - but here’s what’s worth watching in more-or-less complete form.)
  • The Tomb of the Cybermen – The best Cybermen story ever.  A lot of early Who, Troughton's era in particular, consists of "base under siege" stories, but Tomb is unique in that rather than something trying to break in, the cast is trapped inside with the monsters.  It's a little bit sci-fi, a little bit Hammer horror.  Some nice Doctor/companion moments, too, particular with then-new crewmember Victoria.  You'll have to overlook some painful sexist dialogue and badly stereotyped Americans, though.

  • The Mind Robber – The Doctor and companions are taken to a land where fiction becomes reality, and a creepy place it is, too.  For once, the thriftiness of the production actually becomes a strength rather than a hindrance because it helps lend to the surreal qualities of the setting and the story. Also contains a very clever way to write out an ill castmember for an episode and Wendy Padbury in a spangly catsuit.

  • The Invasion – Another great Troughton-era Cybermen story, one that's officially incomplete but missing bits were filled in with narration on VHS release and full animation on DVD.  Fun for the character beats, scenery chewing human villain, bizarre fashions, and lots of great shots of Cybermen stomping through 60s London.  Important to the series because it contains the second appearance of recurring character Brigadier Allistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stuart and the very first appearance of UNIT, an organization of questionable secrecy that defends the Earth from various threats and becomes very important in the Pertwee era.

  • The Seeds of Death - Feels a bit padded, but I think the Ice Warriors are fun villains, the story has a nice message about the continued value of some technologies (and people) society declares obsolete, and Troughton really does his best to sell a giant pile of soap suds as a threat.

  • The War Games – At 10 episodes, I've always thought Troughton's final story was WAY too long, but the penultimate episode of the story features a problem too big for the Doctor to solve on his own so he has to call in the help of the Time Lords, and the series would never be the same.  We don't get a lot of backstory, but we get a little more about the Doctor's origins and a lot more about his motivations.  Even if you skip most of the rest of the story, watch the last two parts, especially for Troughton's memorably unusual exit.
As this post has long since passed the TL;DR mark, I think we'll end part 1 with Troughton.  In part 2, we'll get to frilly shirts, long scarves, fancy cars, robot dogs, and quarries.  Oh, so many quarries.

On Plinko, Cliff Hangers, and Childhood Trauma

A week or two back, NPR blogger and podcast host Linda Holmes wrote a post on Monkey See (NPR's pop culture blog) about why she thinks The Price is Right's pricing game Plinko is both flawed and boring, despite the fact that it is the show's most popular game - so much so that they recently taped an all-Plinko episode to be aired this fall (it was this news that inspired the post, 'natch).  Her anti-Plinko argument (which spilled over into an interesting discussion on her podcast, Pop Culture Happy Hour) was based on the idea that the game's success is based almost entirely on random chance and requires very little of the sort of home economics skill that would help you win most of the show's other pricing games.  Podcast co-host and NPR music writer/editor Stephen Thompson added that the game itself has a tendency to not work properly, as the chips frequently get stuck on the Plinko board's pegs, requiring the host (be it Bob Barker, Drew Carey, Tom Kennedy, or whomever) to knock them free with the... wait for it... trusty Plinko stick.

Now it's probably pretty obvious unless you missed the masthead up above, but I'm decidedly a Plinko fan.  And while a lot of the game does come down to dumb luck in dropping the chips, that's hardly any different than, say, Secret X, Punch-A-Bunch, or Shell Game.  I don't know that an entire show's worth of Plinko is anything I want to see (though a show devoid of those quickie "Which one of these three things is the most/least expensive" games would be welcome), but as a recurring feature, I'm all for it.  I'm pro-Plinko and I vote.  Holmes is a good and frequently funny writer, though, and a charming podcast host besides, so I'm willing to overlook the difference in opinion even if she is Ms. Wrongette Wrongerson from Wrongsburgh, Wrongsylvania.  I can even overlook the fact that she thinks The Golden Road is a better pricing game, despite the fact it goes on way too long and I don't think I've ever seen anyone win.  No, my problem is the fact that she champions Cliff Hangers!

Even if you don't know the name, you know the game.  The contestant guesses the price of an item, and a little dude in lederhosen climbs a step up a mountain for every dollar that they're off, all while yodeling music plays.  Like this:

Yes, I understand that this is a popular game, unarguably one of the all-time greats where this show is concerned.  But it scared the hell out of me when I was a little kid!  I couldn't even be in the same room when it came on.  Even though I knew it was just a little plastic guy who was in no real danger except for maybe chipping when it hit the floor.  And if I'm being honest, it still makes me a little uncomfortable to this day.  So does yodeling (Nordic or cowboy), for that matter, but I admit that might just be a taste thing.

We're not talking deep-seeded, lifelong trauma here (and certainly nothing approaching the real-life trauma it allegedly caused former Barker's Beauty Janice Pennington, whose husband perished in a presumed mountain climbing accident), but it always struck me as surprisingly grim for such an otherwise upbeat, gaudy bright show.  I'm also no fan of heights, nor of plummeting from them.

I can understand if Plinko isn't your bag, but if you're looking for a pricing game that offers big prizes and a certain amount of drama, pick 3 Strikes, Race Game, Clock Game, or jeez, even Ten Chances (in which the drama stems from wondering when the contestant will realize that zero is always the last number, dammit!).  Let the poor Yodelly Guy hang up his hosen and take a well-deserved rest.  It will be so much easier on the part of my soul that is, was, and always will still be 4 years old, please and thank you.

Tuesday Top 10: Favorite Lego Minifigures

Although I think some Lego fans bristled at first at the idea of their collectible Minifigures Line (the folks who are brick purists and kind of resent the entire idea of the minifigs in the first place, and from what little I've dabbled in the AFOL world in the past few years, I can assure you they're out there), there's no denying that the line has been a success from the start (it was at least Series 3 or 4 before I could ever count on seeing these in stores with any regularity... they'd sell out too quickly!). The tenth series was just released a few months ago and series 11 on the way.

These have been really fun to collect, both solo and with the kiddo.  For one thing, there's thrill of the blind-packaged hunt, and I don't care how silly I look standing in Target or wherever going through the display and trying to feel for specific pieces inside the little foil bag (much easier than trying to decipher the "bump codes").  And then there's the fact that although the various Lego product lines have had their fair share of astronauts, cops, and knights (not to mention Star Warriors, super heroes, and boy wizards since they started making licensed sets), there haven't been a whole lot of, say, Elizabethan-era playwrights, rock stars, or ape men.  The Minifigures line has been an adaptable, Danish godsend for people who wanted super-specific character types but used to have to either a.) hope and pray someone at Lego got a particularly oddball product line approved; or b.) make their own.  And since this is Lego, the creativity of the latter group hasn't been hampered, but instead increased by factors of ten thanks to all of these new pieces.  It's a great time to be a Lego fan, kid or adult.

All of this is to say that the line has put a lot of great new minifigs into the world, but if I had to pick a top 10 (with a little bit of cheating) based on what has come out so far, this would be mine:

10. (Tie) Baseball Fielder (Series 10) - There was another baseball player released earlier in the line, a batter, whom I also liked a lot, but I like the fielder just a bit more because a.) he's on a different team, so the batter actually has someone to play against; and b.) the glove is a specialty hand, not just an accessory. It's unique, and it makes the fielder easier to find by giving you something specific to feel around for in the sealed bag.

10. (Tie) Battle Mech (Series 9) - The look of this character is instantly evocative of Ultraman, the Shaw Brothers' Super Infra Man, the Power Rangers, or a number of other Asian-import monster fighters you can name, but it's unique enough to stand on its own and inspire kids' (or AFOLs') own adventures.  He/She/It also fits in well with the old Exo-Force or current Galaxy Squad themes.

10 (Tie) Musketeer (Series 4) - Simple design, but evocative of the many, many Three Musketeers adaptations and similar films I loved as a kid.  I also appreciate that they went the extra mile with the floppy hat and cavalier-style dueling sword (and if you wanted something a little more accurate, you could always supplement it with something from BrickForge).

9. Forestman (Series 1) - They've done several Robin Hood-styled sets and minifigures in the Castle line since the 80s, but those were all pretty bland and featured the basic "smiley face" head, or maybe the "smiley face with triangular mustache" head if you were lucky.  Those were generic forest robbers, but one look at the costume and face on this one, and there's no doubt this is your top-of-the-line Errol Flynn-model Robin Hood.  Been seeking out this one for a while and will finally be getting it in the next few days.  Thanks, eBay!

8. Bagpiper (Series 7) - I always describe my ancestry as "British Isles mutt" (Irish/Scottish/English), and Lego has done pretty well by all my peoples in this line (well, maybe not the leprechaun), but the Bagpiper is my favorite.  Not only does it capture a stereotype without being, well, ugly and stereotypical, but the three unique additions here (bagpipes, tam, and a kilt as a separate object rather than just being painted on the legs) make this one really stand out.

7. Crazy Scientist (Series 4) - The wild hair, the goggles, the mad grin, the spattered labcoat... yup, this guy's aptly named, and just really, really cool looking.  Like many of the classic movie monster trope figures this line has produced, Crazy here was later ported over (with a few cosmetic changes) to the Monster Fighters theme.  The MF crazy scientist has a bit more detailing to him, particularly in the form of a dual-expressioned head, but I think I like the simpler, original version just a bit more.

6. Medusa (Series 10) - They've dropped at least one monster into every wave so far, but the current wave's Medusa is the best, and certainly the scariest-looking.  Having access to the pieces (like the snake body) created for the likes of the Ninjago theme serves this line well.  I can't wait to see if/how they adapt Chima pieces in the future.  Also, although she looks great fighting my Wonder Woman minifigure right now, I hope we get a Perseus somewhere down the line to go with her.

5. Skater Girl (Series 6) - There have been a few skateboarders produced in this line, but Series 6's Skater Girl is by far my favorite.  Cool design (love the skull & hair bow logo on the torso and board), unique color scheme, the flair of the colored streak in the hairpiece, and the smirk.  So much of Skater Girl's awesomeness is right there in that smirk.

4. Lizard Man (Series 5) - As much as I've always wanted a Lego Godzilla, I think I appreciate having a Lego "guy in a Godzilla suit" that much more.  One of the great joys of watching any Kaiju movie is knowing that there's a guy in the monster suit sweating his ass off as he stomps model buildings to entertain me, and I appreciate that that's been captured here.  One of these days I'm going to build a micro-scale cityscape for him (and Series 3's Gorilla Suit Guy) to stomp around in.

3. Super Wrestler (Series 1) - This luchador is hands down the figure I wanted most from the first series - very basic design, no accessories other than the cape, but so easy to depict in Lego minifigure form that I don't know why no one thought of it (officially) sooner.  However, I missed out completely the first time around and was put off by his initial aftermarket eBay price.  So I was pretty excited when we discovered his individual pieces scattered among the selections at the Create-A-Minifigure bins at the Lego Store.  When my son found all of the individual bits, put them together, and said "Dad, you need to get this," I knew I was raising an awesome kid (well, I've had other indications, but you know what I mean).

2. Librarian (Series 10) - Yes, I have an admitted occupational bias here.  Yes, this plays into a stereotype.  Yes, she looks more like Amy Farrah Fowler from The Big Bang Theory than any actual librarian I've ever worked with or met.  Don't care, she's awesome, and like the Nancy Pearl "Shushing Librarian" action figure, she plays with the stereotype more than she embodies it.  And the book title is a fun poke at a familiar library school story... someone involved in the line either has an MLIS or is close with someone who does.  She's so "inside baseball," what's not to love?  Also, to date she is the only figure I've actively sought out doubles of - one for home and one for my desk at the library.

1. Detective (Series 5) - Alongside Superman, Sherlock Holmes is one of my favorite fictional characters of all; certainly my favorite prose character.  And although easy to portray (as evidenced by the fairly basic character/hat/accessory treatment seen below), Holmes (or the Detective, but, come on) was still no one I would have expected to see given the Lego treatment, even in a product line such as this, so this particular minifigure was really a dream come true.