Faced with the prospect of the long, cold winter ahead, I asked friends for recommendations of great TV shows to catch up on. This resulted in one of the most engaged and commented-upon Facebook posts I’ve ever made, clocking in over 40 comments and resulting in more fabulous suggestions than I actually have time for. I picked a few winners (namely, the ones that were immediately the easiest to get hold of) and have been pleased so far with my choices.
In particular, I am very glad to have let a few friends persuade me to embark on the 2005 revival of the classic British sci-fi series Doctor Who, otherwise known as “NuWho.” I’ve been aware of the show since its return to the BBC, but had always been intimated by its vast history and complex mythology. I had feared to start it for the same reason I have never read a Discworld novel: There is entirely too much and I, as an uninitiated newb, hadn’t the faintest idea where to start. As it turns out, this was a needless fear and I’ve wasted many good years that I could have been watching this exciting program live. The 2005 series, while not discounting the 45 previous years of continuity, is clearly tooled for a new generation of viewers and doesn’t presuppose any particular knowledge of or attachment to the earlier series, although it certainly rewards it. As a stand-alone series of its own, it functions to the new viewer in much the way that Tolkien used The Silmarillion to add depth and background to The Lord of the Rings. That is: The lore looms as a vast mountainous region which can be glimpsed from a distance but not seen in detail. This is more than just a gimmick: The classic Who series exists and can be explored on its own terms, just as Tolkien had spent years writing his mythology and not merely outlining the legends to add profundity to his more popular works.
All this is to say that I’ve been enjoying it immensely. At its best the show reaches for thematic heights and depths, telling complex stories about death, choice, and what it means to be human. Having completed the Ninth and Tenth Doctors’ terrific runs, I thought this would be a good point to take stock of the best of NuWho so far. Here, in chronological order, are my top ten episodes of the Russell T. Davies era.
(Warning: Here, there be spoilers).
1. The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances (series 1)
Four of my top ten episodes (six if you count two-parters as separate episodes) are credited to writer Steven Moffat, now the current show-runner. This is no coincidence, and the easy brilliance of his writing shows why former head writer Russell T. Davies tapped him for next-in-line to the throne. Though the first series contains many fine moments and hints of greatness to come, only in Moffat’s lovely double-episode does the show feel like it’s starting to reach its full potential. The eerie gas-masked lost child is genuinely unsettling, and Moffat excels at both offering the potential for death and bleakness while also satisfying that innate longing for eucatastrophe, deliverance, and a happy ending in which “everybody lives.” Though the acting of Ninth Doctor Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper as Rose left little room for complaint up to this point, the introduction of roguish third-wheel Captain Jack pushes the characters to a new place as they start to realize what they might mean to each other.
2. The Girl in the Fireplace (series 2)
Another gem from Moffat, this episode is almost the inverse of The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances in that despite its melancholy and mysterious ending much of the episode feels light and joyful, Doctor Who at its most effervescent. The show’s trademark mix of dichotomies (light and dark, past and future, hope and despair) is beautifully visualized in the juxtaposition between the run-down futuristic spaceship flush against the pristine delicacy of eighteenth century France. These are early days for the Tenth Doctor, and David Tennant plays him with all the youth and charm he can muster, slipping effortlessly between both worlds. Considering how early this comes in the Tenth Doctor’s career, it’s amazing that this episode feels so perfect for him: As nicely fitted as one of his trademark suits, and serves as a testament to Moffat’s writing and Tennant’s acting that the episode is as seamless as it is. It also features one of the show’s most effective scares in the scene of the clockwork robot lurking under the bed. When the Doctor, deadly serious, instructs Reinette to stay in the middle of the bed, you can sense the pleasure Moffat gets from exploiting his audience’s fears, and our pleasure in having them exploited.
3. The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit (series 2)
This spooky two-parter is interestingly both a critique and a celebration of the human impulse to explore, to expand, to go further than ever before. The Doctor and Rose find themselves on a planet that shouldn’t exist, hovering over a gaping black hole, and it’s a race against the clock to escape. Why do we have this propensity to explore what we know to be dangerous? In a fascinating exchange, scientist Ida speculates that the urge to jump from a high ledge derives from humanity’s genetic memory of having once been primates. “No, that’s not it,” the Doctor muses. That’s too kind. It’s not the urge to jump, it’s deeper than that. It’s the urge to fall.” In other words, the urge to fall (and in an episode titled The Satan Pit, we should be thinking of the Fall, of course) is a fact of human nature rather than biology. This episode explores the strange fact of reality: That humanity’s search for truth and adventure are linked to its own propensity for blundering in, going too far, stretching beyond proper boundaries. It is virtue and vice at the same time. Fittingly, in a story which deals with people going beyond acceptable boundaries and facing the unknown we are given a monster which, for once, the Doctor cannot explain away with technobabble. Like the urge to jump, the devil in the pit may be supernatural rather than physical. I love the fact that the episode ends without satisfactory explanation, with the Doctor recognizing that while he may not like not having all the answers, the simple existence of the unexplainable keeps him searching, in his words “to be proved wrong.”
4. Army of Ghosts/Doomsday (series 2)
Christopher Eccleston was a solid Doctor: Grounded, normal-looking, dependable. The audience needed that Doctor before being introduced to the manic (yet more iconic) number Ten. The real person that I have to thank for catching and holding my interest through the first series of New Who, however, was Billie Piper as Rose. If the companion is always meant to serve as some sort of proxy for the audience, Rose was that par excellance. I knew she would leave eventually (and really, how brave is this show for changing out its regular cast on an almost yearly basis?) and was knocked out by her performance when she did. Just watch this scene: The perverse joy she takes in facing danger with her beloved Doctor, the fear when she realizes what’s coming, and the devastation when they’re finally separated. This was a sad and fitting end for the character and is in many ways the most effective finale of the Russell T. Davies era.
5. The Runaway Bride (series 3)
I’m keenly aware of the dearth of Donna on this list, which belies how much I love her character and Catherine Tate’s incredible performance. Though this episode features a much harsher version of the character, I enjoy it for its exuberance following upon the heels of the emotionally charged series 2 finale. The story is just what the Doctor (and the audience) need at this particular moment – a nice crisis to serve as a distraction, a problem to solve and a new friend to make. Though Donna does not become a regular companion until a year later, this episode forecasts the moment midway through series 4 when the Doctor thanks Donna sincerely for all the ways she helped him. Though she eventually falls in love with the travelling lifestyle as hard as ever Rose or Martha did, Donna’s earthiness grounds the show, giving the story a welcome change and bringing wonderful chemistry between Tate and Tennant. My one complaint about this episode is the completely over the top villain, but much can be forgiven in the light of scenes such as the high-speed TARDIS/Taxi chase and the bittersweet farewell in the snow.
6. Human Nature/Family of Blood (series 3)
If you weren’t convinced of Tennant’s acting chops before now, this should do it. Completely transformed, he drops the Doctor’s scenery-chewing, motor-mouthed enthusiasm and plays the human John Smith completely straight, putting in a performance that would be as appropriate in an episode of Downton Abbey (if Downton Abbey included scarecrow-monsters and body-possessing aliens). This is Doctor Who at its most wistful, a peek into what might have been, or could be, or cannot be. Writer Paul Cornell draws parallels between the Doctor and one of his most important literary antecedents: Peter Pan. The quote from the end of Peter Pan in which Peter watches the Darling family in their nursery, and the narrator tells us that “he had ecstasies innumerable that other children can never know; but he was looking through the window at the one joy from which he must be for ever barred,” could serve as the perfect epithet to this beautifully executed double episode, and indeed the whole show itself. In fact, these episodes are beautifully titled as well, announcing its themes to the viewer upfront: Human Nature and Family. As the titles imply, this story questions just what is human nature, and is the Doctor capable of having it? And what does it say that the Doctor must forsake the potential for family in order to defeat a group of villains who are themselves called “The Family.” It’s an extra kick in the face that even they can experience connectedness, however perverse, while he is forced to be alone. The tension with every new companion is the lure of the Doctor’s lifestyle, in which they are allowed to reach their heroic and ideological potential, and its war against what might be called “human nature”: The basic human drive towards normality and family, a grounded and decent life. Fascinatingly, in this episode we see the Doctor struggle with that choice, which is all the more compelling for the fact that he may not be capable of embracing human nature at all. Though the Tenth Doctor’s final episode (The End of Time) did not quite make my list, it is all the more poignant when examined along side Human Nature/Family of Blood as the latter serves as perfect foreshadowing of the Doctor’s eventual choice: To cling to the dream, however out of reach, of a normal life, or to choose to sacrifice himself and that dream in service of others.
7. Blink (series 3)
If I was to put one episode of New Who into a Time Capsule to preserve it forever (and wouldn’t that be ironic?!) I think I would have to go with Blink. Yet another piece of brilliant writing by Steven Moffat, who must have nerves of steel as he volunteered for the task of writing the dreaded “doctor-lite” episode and turned it into a work of genius. It features all the hallmarks of Moffat’s writing, each of them at their best: Witty dialogue (“Sad is happy for deep people;” “This is my timey-wimey detector. It goes ding when there’s stuff”); The terrifying yet almost entirely conceptual villains the Weeping Angels; A spring-tight plot which confuses and tantalizes, and then comes together in a gloriously satisfying conclusion. Led by the superb Carey Mulligan, Moffat turns the episode’s potential weakness (the missing Doctor) into a strength by giving us a glimpse of the Doctor’s life from an outsider’s point of view (just what were he and Martha off to do with their bows and arrows?) and thereby elevating him to mythic status. Though the Doctor talks and acts as he normally does, seeing it through the eyes of Sally Sparrow to whom the story is happening out of order adds a rich new layer. Tennant doesn’t waste of a second of his limited screentime, investing the pivotal “easter egg” scene with humor and urgency. The concept of time being “a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff” was a stroke of genius, both poking fun at the show’s rather blase attitude towards the complexities of time travel, and serving as a catch-all explanation for any and all logical inconsistencies. Even that metatextuality doesn’t take away from the satisfying conclusion. I don’t know why we as human beings derive such pleasure from closed-loop time travel stories, but the fact is that we do. The neatness and form, the knowledge that this has all been carefully constructed, is deeply fulfilling, perhaps pointing to our own desire for the world to be structured and ordered (or sense that it already is).
8. Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead (series 4)
Yet another from Mr. Moffat, this intricate and haunting double episode started to introduce to the audience hints of what’s to come for the Doctor. Following Planet of the Ood in which the Tenth Doctor is first told that his “song must end soon,” the uncertainty of the future and his inevitable end is very much on his (and the audience’s) mind. Knowing that Ten will soon regenerate into Eleven, and that he would be taking over the creative direction of the show, Moffat introduces River Song, a person (companion? confidant? wife?) from the Doctor’s future. She has called him in to help, and though, as she says, he always comes, the message arrives too early. Heartbreakingly for River, their relationship ends (for her) at its beginning (for him) and she is forced to say goodbye to a man who doesn’t recognize her. Moffat subtly reminds the audience that the Doctor is different things to different people, preparing us for Ten’s regeneration, as River bemoans the fact that this Doctor is not “her Doctor,” that he is not complete yet. It’s a bold move, as audiences always have trouble with change and the loss of beloved characters and actors, and you can see Moffat working with those expectations. All of this, however, is just one dimension to these rich episodes. They also feature another classic childhood fear exploited by Moffat (Children – you should be afraid of the dark!), some truly unsettling A.I., one of the best musical cues by composer Murray Gold, and a surprisingly rousing final act.
9. Midnight (series 4)
Though I think the most perfect episode award still goes to Blink, Midnight is the scariest. Doctor Who is not at its core a pessimistic show, but as in all good science fiction does it does not shy away from the harsh realities of the world and of people. Though the Doctor’s human companions offer examples of our potential for heroism, loyalty and self-sacrifice, in Midnight the Doctor finds himself trapped with a bunch of less-than-selfless people. The show’s version of Lord of the Flies, this episode examines the depths to which human beings can plunge when cornered and terrified. Although, as the Doctor points out frustratedly, the monster trapped with them cannot actually do anything to them if they leave it alone, its mere presence and childish tenacity drives them to hysteria and the Doctor finds himself, for once, powerless to help them or himself. This is gothic horror at its best and bleakest, and is a simply brilliant script by showrunner Russell T. Davies. Though good old best-mate Donna awaits the Doctor at the end of this particular nightmare, it also serves as a precurser to the dangers that await the Doctor without a companion, a theme which comes to its head in the last episode on my list.
10. The Waters of Mars (series 4 specials)
While Midnight depicted humanity at its worst, the Doctor was pretty much on form: Calm under pressure, determined to rescue the alien-possessed Sky, holding out faith in the ability of his fellow passengers to listen to reason. There is, however, the hint that his own arrogance does contribute to his eventual predicament, not to mention to dangers of travelling without a companion. In The Waters of Mars, the Tenth Doctor’s penultimate adventure, the tables have turned: Humanity is brave and self-sacrificial, the Doctor selfish and hubristic. Even as I type those words, I’m aware of how they don’t to do justice to the complexity of this episode. This story is really an exploration of the consequences of the Doctor’s loss of companions. As Donna accurately predicted, he needs someone to stop him from going too far. The Doctor has (or has the potential for) absolute power, and given free reign it will corrupt him absolutely. You can see the good and justifiable motivations behind his actions, however. Not only is he missing his companions, he has been worn down by the process of having lost them. In the previous episode, he denies Lady Christina a place on the TARDIS, saying, “Never again.” He may have originally meant that he would “never again” take on a companion for fear of losing her once more. In The Waters of Mars, however, the line takes on a new shade: “Never again” would he allow a loved one to be lost. He sincerely tries to leave once he realizes where he is, knowing that he will be faced with an impossible choice, and to be perfectly blunt Adelaide bears some of the responsibility for not letting him go in the first place and chiding him for not immediately jumping to their rescue. Eventually, the Doctor snaps. As he said in The Girl in the Fireplace, he’s the Lord of Time. What is the point of being the master of time and space if you don’t use it to save good people? After all, it’s why he rejected the Time Lords in the first place, isn’t it? The Doctor abandons his no-interference policy and puts himself in charge of who lives and who dies. It was brave of Russell T. Davies to take the character to such a dark place right before his departure, but it is necessary for the final act. The Ninth Doctor’s journey was one of redemption: He regenerates a happy man, in love with and having been loved by Rose, knowing she’s waiting for him on the other side. He leaves peacefully. As every Doctor seems to be in some sense the antithesis of the one before him, it only makes sense that the Tenth would experience a much more painful exit. His journey is the logical reversal, a decline from a happiness and wholeness surrounded by his adoptive family (exemplified by the Christmas dinner in his first episode) into a life plagued by loneliness and despair. In The Waters of Mars, this desperation drives him to extremes, and the result is pretty disturbing. The Waters of Mars is a necessary wake-up call for the character to prepare him for the most difficult choice. He realizes his own potential for darkness, the sense that he’s “lived too long” and must die to himself in order to be born again. The Tenth Doctor had a good run, but as Sarah-Jane said all the way back in the beginning of his life, “everything has its time.” In the moment of Adelaide’s death, when (as he feared all along) he becomes responsible for the very thing he tries desperately to prevent, he asks the Ood if this is his death as though he expects to be stricken there on the spot. Of course, redemption is never that easy. For his death to mean something it must be a choice and not a punishment. This is a beautiful set-up for the final episodes in which the high drama with the Master and the Time Lords is really all an elaborate red herring to distract the Doctor (and us) from the real decision. In a final moment of grace and irony he is allowed to save Wilf, to save just one good person, as he tried to do for Adelaide. This time, however, he must do so not by rewriting history but by putting himself in Wilf’s place. The Waters of Mars was a hard lesson, but one that had to be learned. Kudos to Davies and Tennant for not, in their final days as the front-men of the show, shying away from asking difficult questions about the Doctor’s character. They could have (as the Doctor expects upon his arrival on Mars) let him go out with a self-congratulatory romp: What they did was challenge him and the audience, and that challenge paid off, making the Tenth Doctor’s last few episodes powerful and memorable. Oh, and did I mention that the monsters in this episode have some of the best and creepiest make-up in the show’s history? Well, there’s that, too.
Honorable mentions: Dalek (season 1); Father’s Day (series 1); School Reunion (series 2); Smith and Jones (series 3); 42 (series 3); Gridlock (series 3); Utopia/The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords (series 3); The Sontaran Strategem/The Poison Sky (series 4); Turn Left (series 4); The End of Time (series 4 specials)
I’ve just started watching series five, featuring a new (new, new) Doctor, new companion, new head writer, and new production team. The transition feels strange, as it did between the Ninth and Tenth, but that is part of what makes the show so exciting. This is a show about a lot of things, but at its core it’s about time and change. And for a story to be about change, it must change. There seems to be a moment in the every new Doctor’s first episode where that Doctorish quirk reveals itself, always essentially the same but made particular by each actor. It may be different for each viewer, but I loved Nine when he snappishly answered Rose’s impolite question about his northern accent with, “Lots of planets have a north.” And how could you not adore Ten when he asks, as though it’s a matter of life or death, if he is ginger. In the intro to the lovely Matt Smith I thoroughly enjoyed his raid of Amy’s kitchen to find out what kind of food he likes (finally settling on fish fingers dipped in custard), but in particular his response to Amy’s suggestion of carrots with, “Carrots? Are you insane?!” In each of these scenes there is a combination of batty humor and earnestness which carries through to each new incarnation, and it’s a wonderful character to watch no matter who plays him. Russell T. Davies succeeded in creating complete, rich and satisfying journeys for the Ninth and Tenth Doctors and their companions, and I expect Moffat and Smith to do the same for the Eleventh.
As it turns out, this year is the fiftieth anniversary of the program, which first appeared in Britain in 1963. I have seen some really great tributes online already, like this epic 50th Anniversary Trailer incorporating all eleven Doctors. I feel lucky to have found my way in just in time for all the fun, and look forward to the celebration of Who throughout the year. Now, I’m off to series 5. Allons-y! (or should I say “Geronimo”?)