He's an ageless savior. He's a style icon to millions. But sometimes, Doctor Who's nameless time traveler... stumbles. Sometimes, the Time Lord's timing is just off, and it's cringe-making to watch. Here are 12 moments when Doctor Who became downright embarrassing.
Note: We mostly steered clear of mocking terrible special effects, except for one or two horrendous examples, because life is too short.
In the mid-1960s, two big-screen Doctor Who films starred Peter Cushing as the Doctor. They were both based closely on the first two televised Dalek stories, and the second one was quite decent. But the first... holy Hand of Omega, what a mess. The Doctor's a human, Cushing seems kind of confused, and the TARDIS interior is just a shed with wires hanging around. But most of all, the Thals, survivors of a terrible nuclear war who are starving to death in a petrified forest, somehow all manage to have ginormous false eyelashes and Elvira makeup. Because false eyelashes are essential post-apocalyptic survival gear.
"The Underwater Menace" has the earliest surviving episodes of Patrick Troughton as the Doctor, and there are some lovely moments of Troughton being mercurial. But there's also a lot of badness, including some campy bits with the evil Professor Zaroff, like the cliffhanger where he intones, "Nuzzink on the Earth can stop me now!" And then there are the Fish People, who are the water-based slaves of the people of Atlantis, with big googly eyes and bathing caps. The Doctor and his friends convince the Fish People to go on strike, but not before we get to see this bizarre "underwater ballet" sequence. It's like jazz dancing on wires!
The Daleks can be genuinely terrifying and intense, when they're portrayed as ruthless killers and cyborg mutant Nazis. Just watch the 2005 episode "Dalek" or 1975's "Genesis of the Daleks." But the pressure of cranking out Dalek episode after Dalek episode has sometimes caused them to lose their mojo — and nowhere so badly as in "Death to the Daleks," where they get Ewoked by a group of skull-faced primitives with spears. The worst bit is when one Dalek, guarding some prisoners, discovers his charges have escaped — and gets so upset and pissed off, he literally has a tantrum ("I have failed! I have failed!") until he dies.
This one is mortifying to watch, for very different reasons than the others. It's not just excessively pantomimey or weird, it's actually kind of messed up. "Talons of Weng-Chiang" is a beloved Victorian adventure, from one of the show's strongest eras — but it has one crucial, unforgiveable flaw. It relies a lot on Sax Rohmer-esque stereotypes of Chinese people, who all start worshipping a melty-faced maniac from the future because they believe he's their god Weng-Chiang. Actor John Bennett is in "yellowface" as the sinister (but admittedly sympathetic) Li H'Sen-Chang. Even when the story was broadcast, it provoked protests, notably among Asian communities in Canada and Australia. I wouldn't watch this one with people you want to get hooked on classic Who.
And now back to the plain silliness. Tom Baker brought a marvelous intensity to the role of the Doctor in his first four or five years, but eventually he started poking fun at the show more and more. And meanwhile, the stories got zanier and zanier. "Creature from the Pit" has a lot of clever ideas, but then there's the giant green blob in the underground tunnels that can't communicate without its magic shield. And in a sequence probably improvised by Baker himself, the Doctor decides to try and communicate with the Creature by grabbing its long phallic tentacle and putting his mouth on it.
We said we wouldn't make fun of dodgy special effects, but here's an exception that deserves mentioning just because of how goofy it is, after 90 minutes of buildup about the dreadful power of the Mara, the monstrous snake god thingy. Above: a video that compares the original version with the CG effects that are available on the DVD. But "Kinda" also contains a line of dialogue that compares with "Nuzzink in the world can stop me now" — the climax to episode one, where Hindle announces, "I have the power of life and death over all of you!"
There's a reason why people always point out that "Timelash" is an anagram of "lame shit." There's pretty much nothing to recommend this story. Like most Colin Baker stories, it moves at a snail's pace, especially in the first half. Blake's 7's Paul Darrow is doing some kind of silly Richard III spoof as Tekker. The evil lizard overlord who wants to mate with the Doctor's companion is pretty hilarious. The "Timelash" special effect is made of tinsel and funny lights. H.G. Wells is totally wasted as a guest star. But there are two things that make "Timelash" stand out — the obvious hand puppet that keeps appearing on the viewscreens and warning that war is imminent. And the moment where the Doctor kills the lizard overlord while shouting "Nobody wants you! Nobody cares!"
We're skipping over Baker's swansong, the convoluted and bizarre "Trial of a Timelord" — but the story where he actually regenerates into Sylvester McCoy is legendarily awful. Baker refused to come back to the role just to be written out, so the production team put McCoy in a blond wig so he could impersonate his predecessor for a moment and have his face blurred out. Baker's Doctor regenerates by banging his head against the TARDIS console. But the awful wiggery doesn't end there — the evil Rani decides to impersonate the Doctor's companion Mel by putting a frizzy red wig on, and this goes on for ages and ages. This is truly a story driven by wigs.
Now, with the show celebrating its 50th anniversary with huge fanfare, it's hard to believe how badly the show was limping into its 30th anniversary. The BBC tried to get a big reunion TV movie together, but it fell through, and so instead we got a supremely crappy — and wildly nonsensical — special episode featuring the surviving Doctors, for the "Children in Need" charity event. The whole thing is embedded above, and it's truly excruciating. The bit where Jon Pertwee blurts at the Rani, "It's time for you to start losing" always breaks my heart.
While Doctor Who was off the air, Virgin Publishing started putting out a range of tie-in novels that were more mature and sophisticated than most of the television stories. And the New Adventures novels included some fantastic storytelling and introduced some great writers to Doctor Who — including Russell T. Davies, Paul Cornell, Mark Gatiss and Gareth Roberts. The more grown-up and introspective tone of some of these novels helped pave the way for the television show's revival. But. There were also some lapses, and the range launched with a novel by frequent tie-in author John Peel, who tried to push the "mature" thing in this Mesopotamian adventure by having the Doctor team up with Gilgamesh, who's depicted as a lovable rapist. (As Time's Champions notes, "It's quite hard to get around Gilgamesh the comedy rapist.") Also, most of the action takes place at a temple with bare-breasted sacred prostitutes. At one point, the Doctor decides the best way to sneak into the temple is by having the women accompanying him strip half-naked and disguise themselves as temple sex workers. One of the women, a princess, refuses to strip down, leading the Doctor to have an internal monologue: "Don't let the fact that it might save all our lives influence you." The whole thing is a bit, well, creepy. And not nearly as grown-up as it wants to be.
Tom Baker isn't the only one having creepy oral sex on this list. The David Tennant story "Love and Monsters" is actually a terrific story that gets panned purely on the basis of its last five minutes. First, the story's villain turns into a weird blobby creature designed by a kid for the children's variety show Blue Peter. Then, poor Ursula gets partway absorbed, and the Doctor can't save her. But he's able to preserve her face, still miraculously alive, in a paving stone. Which leads her boyfriend Elton to remark that they still have a decent sex life. The mental images this conjures are... let's just move on.
There are a few candidates for embarrassing moments in the Matt Smith era. But none stand out as much as the bit where the Doctor rescues Amy and Rory, plus Rory's dad, from a spaceship above the Earth. Which happens to be full of other innocent people, who are all apparently still alive. The Doctor causes the spaceship to self-destruct, and he and his friends jaunt back to Earth without so much as a backward glance at all the people they're condemning to death. Worse yet, the story ends with a lot of self-congratulation instead of a moment of sadness for the people they callously left to die. A simple mention that all the other people on the ship were dead would have fixed this problem, but as televised it comes across as worse than embarrassing.