“It all just disappears, doesn’t it? Everything you are, gone in a moment, like breath on a mirror. Any minute now, he’s a-comin’.”
“You–you ARE the Doctor.”
“Yup. And I always will be. But times change, and so must I.”
On Christmas Day, two ongoing sci-fi stories I, perhaps foolishly, genuinely care about — two sets of characters and events and interesting things that exist only in our imaginations — were radically altered. Well, at least for the foreseeable future. One, which I’ve already talked about, is being shifted and changed around for a spell, a bit, an intriguing moment before, I hope, correcting its course and soaring for a new and interesting and transformative future. Not that I believe that’s really going to happen, but as I’ve often said, Hope Springs Eternal.
The other, however, which I’m going to talk about today, is forever changed once again. An era has ended, a hero has left the stage, and it seems unfortunately bow ties are no longer cool.
As you may recall — and if you don’t, you can go back and read it all here on the blog — I spent almost a whole season of Doctor Who doing a review series called “Eleven For Eleven,” where I’d rattle off eleven bullet points about each episode approximately as they aired. Alas, I couldn’t finish writing up that season. It was the second year of showrunner Steven Moffat and star Matt Smith’s run in the TARDIS, and while my enthusiasm for the way Smith carried himself as the Doctor never wavered, Moffat’s master plot about assassin-turned-archaeologist River Song’s Mysterious Past left me colder and colder as the season wore on. Likewise with the causality loops that were novel back when he used them in “Blink,” back in 2007, but now are old hat — literally so in the case of the fez that appears in the 50th anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor.” (I believe things were falling apart around me in my life around the same time, too, so it wasn’t just that — but really, that’s the worst time for one of your favorite shows to let you down, isn’t it?)
It’s now two years later, and Matt Smith’s incarnation of the Doctor has died (of old age, of all things) after another season of episodes, a fiftieth anniversary celebration, and a few hundred years of defending a town called Christmas. Rather than travel back in time and whip out a long list of bullet points about the finale of series six, “The Wedding of River Song,” as well as the seventeen episodes that followed it, I’ve decided the best way to draw a line under this series of posts would be to provide one more very specific list: a list of what I believe are the absolute best TV adventures starring Matt Smith as the Doctor. On top of that, I’m also going to cover the five worst stories, because the past four years haven’t always been sunshine and roses and it’s only fair to take a look at what didn’t work as well as what really and truly did.
11. Cold War (Series 7B – Writer: Mark Gatiss – Director: Douglas Mackinnon)
I think I like this one more for what it represents than for what it is. “Cold War” is a fairly straightforward slice of classic-style Doctor Who featuring the return of an alien race that hadn’t been seen on TV since the 1970s, the reptilian Martians colloquially known as the Ice Warriors. Much like Rob Shearman’s extraordinarily successful “Dalek” back in Christopher Eccleston’s season of the show, the story features a single member of the alien race storming through an enclosed space — in this case, a Russian nuclear submarine in the good ol’ electro-pop 1980s — towards a goal that could result in death for all mankind. While nowhere near as great a triumph as Shearman’s now-legendary episode, Mark Gatiss’s “Cold War” does deliver tense thrills, gives new companion Clara some exciting, dangerous work to do, and gave us a visual take on the Ice Warriors that’s subtly updated but instantly recognizable, one that can now show up in intergalactic gatherings and perhaps, if we’re lucky, future stories where the hissing cyborgs are front and center.
The one problem with the episode that jumps out at me is a slightly weak, anticlimactic deus ex machina ending, but to me that feels rather of a piece with the retro feel. It’s not like classic Doctor Who was above doing the same sort of thing when the writer had boxed him or herself into a corner.
Speaking of being retro, one of the funny things about Doctor Who being a show about traveling through time that’s now in its fiftieth year is that the show has now depicted the 1980s as being the future (specifically see season four’s “The Tenth Planet”), the present (any present day story when Peter Davison, Colin Baker, or Sylvester McCoy played the title role) and now the past. Given the show’s current level of success, I doubt this is going to be the last decade we’re going to be able to say this about.
10. The God Complex (Series 6B – Writer: Toby Whithouse – Director: Nick Hurran)
An altogether more successful riff on the story of the Minotaur and his Labyrinth than Doctor Who‘s last attempt in the 1970s, the camp classic “The Horns of Nimon.” “The God Complex” also features, at its climax, a far more honest and less coolly manipulative instance of the Doctor shattering a traveling companion’s faith in him than the Sylvester McCoy story “The Curse of Fenric.” The Doctor, Amy, and Rory, along with a dwindling cast of supporting players, are trapped in a never-ending hotel where all the rooms are inhabited by the unwilling residents’ fears. At first the Doctor figures the Minotaur is being fed by that fear. But there’s a neat trick to it that leads to a turning point where the Doctor assures Amy that they’re all going to die, that she never should have put her faith in him, and that he really is, as he once told her, just a madman with a box — an assurance that ultimately leads the Doctor to part ways with his dearest friends, at least for a while. Yeah, that’s undercut by the finale and the first several episodes of the next season, but I can’t fault this episode for that. It’s a good premise, well thought out, directed well with an eye to the surreal. Definitely my favorite of the second half of series six.
9. A Good Man Goes To War (Series 6A – Writer: Steven Moffat – Director: Peter Hoar)
A pregnant Amy Pond has been kidnapped by the masterminds behind the destruction of the Doctor’s TARDIS on the day of Amy’s wedding and his death at Lake Silencio, Utah at the hands of the Impossible Astronaut. With one crisis averted and the other still in his future, the Doctor is bound and determined to get his friend and her baby back. Raising an army from all across time and space, he plans a daring attack on the Silence’s base at Demon’s Run. But just when he thinks he’s got it all figured out, the Silence have one more trick up their sleeves …
There are certainly things to not like about this one. The wanton destruction of the fleet of Cybermen that serves as the Doctor’s calling card in the pre-credit sequence is a bit much — although to be fair it’s not like Cybermen have been good for much beyond getting blown up since at least “The Five Doctors” thirty years ago. The Doctor’s reaction to River Song’s true identity at the end is also a bit weird, although I suppose it kind of works in the context of what had just happened. And it’s very Empire Strikes Back in that the villains basically get a win and our heroes are forced to regroup.
But for these faults (and I wouldn’t even count the last point as a fault), it’s still an incredibly watchable hour of television. I love how we don’t see the Doctor until he reveals himself to the baddies. I love the way all the members of the posse he assembles to rescue Amy and baby Melody are introduced. I can also see why his new allies in this story were instant hits with the fans: a lady Silurian from Victorian times who, alongside her human maid/lover, is a samurai sword-wielding detective; and a Sontaran who loudly and amusingly still lives for the glory and honor of his ridiculous militaristic people even as he’s forced to act as a nurse, saving lives as opposed to crushing them. They make a strong impression, which is probably why they turn up three times in the next series. A bit much, if you ask me, but they’re still great here.
Most notably, this has two moments which still rank among my favorite of Matt Smith’s entire time at the helm of the TARDIS. First, his confrontation with the largely ineffective Colonel Manton where the Doctor demands that Manton order his men not to retreat but to specifically “run away.” The idea is that henceforth Manton will be known as “Colonel Run Away,” and this childish nickname will serve as a warning to everyone else who thinks hurting the Doctor through his loved ones might be a good idea. There’s a hint of relish and loads of barely restrained anger in the Doctor’s voice as he makes these demands, and Matt Smith plays it to perfection, like he always does.
The other moment is after the dust has settled and our heroes are tending to their casualties. There’s a young woman by the name of Lorna Bucket, a soldier for the Silence who signed up solely to meet the Doctor, not to fight him. She’d met him before, once, in the Gamma Forests as a little girl. The Doctor is called to Lorna’s side as she dies, and he assures her that he remembers running through the forests with her. But when she passes away, a distraught Doctor asks who she was. In this moment where the Doctor has already been outfoxed, it’s a smaller reminder that for all his mythic status at this at this point, he is still fallible.
This is very much a case of the sum of the parts being greater than the whole; “A Good Man Goes To War” is a brilliant collection of characters and scenes employed towards advancing a storyline I stopped caring about in the very next episode, but the characters and scenes are so well realized and executed that this “problem” doesn’t bother me at all.
8. The Lodger (Series 5 – Writer: Gareth Roberts – Director: Catherine Morshead)
The first, and for my money the better, of two episodes where the Doctor becomes a part of the life of London everyman Craig Owens and turns his life upside down. In this one, there’s a room upstairs from Craig’s flat that’s causing some sort of temporal anomaly. The Doctor wants to work out what that is because it appears that’s what’s preventing the TARDIS from landing, and Amy’s still stuck inside the fading, wheezing blue box. In order to study the anomaly he becomes Craig’s new roommate. The plot, though, is mostly an excuse for writer Gareth Roberts and actor Matt Smith to both cut loose with the Doctor’s alien eccentricity as he attempts, poorly, to pretend to be “just a normal bloke” until he can work out what exactly is going on upstairs. Matt Smith’s Doctor is ideal for this sort of thing; he’s friendly, cheerful, endearing to most people, and also mostly clueless as to what constitutes a normal human life. For instance, he keeps doing this weird cheek kissing thing as a form of greeting and, when invited to join Craig’s pub league, can’t quite remember which sport football is. “Is it the one with the sticks?” he asks.
The brilliant thing is, while the Doctor’s antics remain perfectly in character and entertaining, you can also see how this is all maddening to Craig, especially when he does the whole make-people-better thing with Sophie, a friend from Craig’s job at the call center who the poor fellow has a long-standing crush on. Craig invites her over for some wine, and she reveals that what she really wants out of life is to go to Africa and work with animals. The Doctor, who swore he’d stay out of Craig and Sophie’s hair for the evening, talks her into pursuing those dreams, which would naturally take her out of Craig’s life. This on the night he was planning on telling her how he felt about her. This winds up being merely the tip of the iceberg. No wonder he eventually tries to shoo the Doctor out.
“The Lodger” is Doctor Who crashing into the world of a man who absolutely, positively isn’t the type who’d join the Doctor to see the universe, and it’s also a brilliant show reel for exactly how charmingly mad Smith’s Doctor is when not in the grips of the story arc. As an avowed fan of Matt Smith’s Doctor I think the whole thing is brilliant, even if I do have to admit there is a bit of a problem with the body count the entity upstairs piles up. It’s the one flaw in an otherwise joyously silly episode that still works as proper Doctor Who.
7. The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone (Series 5 – Writer: Steven Moffat – Director: Adam Smith)
The first appearance of River Song alongside Matt Smith’s Doctor. The first story Matt Smith shot for the series. The first appearance of the Weeping Angels since “Blink.” And the very first time the Doctor has laid eyes on one of those mysterious cracks in the skin of the universe since he saw one in Amelia Pond’s bedroom. So many firsts here, and yet this is still some of the best, creepiest, firing-on-all-cylinders-est work of the Matt Smith years. River’s entrance in the pre-credit sequence, clad in shades and a black evening gown, is still a corker. The Weeping Angels are made scary in a completely different way, desperately breaking people’s necks if they take their eyes off of them instead of sending the victims back in time. I don’t mind the difference; it makes for a completely different kind of story from their debut, an action piece as opposed to the sort of horror puzzle that “Blink” was. I’ve seen it called the Aliens to “Blink’s” Alien, and I think that comparison pans out; both very good, in very different ways.
It’s another simple one: River lures the Doctor to a crashed space liner called the Byzantium to enlist his aid in wiping out an infestation of Weeping Angels. The Doctor, Amy, River, and a squad of combat clerics from the Church storm in, but soon find themselves in over their heads. Neck-snapping ensues. Atmosphere, tension, and a drip-drip of information on that mysterious crack from Amy’s bedroom wall made this a real turning point in the season after the undercooked “The Beast Below” and the turkey that was “Victory of the Daleks,” and even removed from the context of being such a relief it’s a sturdy, creepy action thriller that stands with the best of modern Doctor Who.
6. The Snowmen (2012 Christmas special – Writer: Steven Moffat – Director: Saul Metzstein)
I’m tempted to go back and watch this one again, because I’m not quite sure it merits its placement here. I spent several hours shifting this list around before writing all this, and I was honestly surprised to find this episode so high. However, I do remember when it went out on Christmas of 2012 it had such a glow about it, a sense of renewal. New opening titles! New TARDIS interior! The Doctor properly meeting his new companion! (Except that he doesn’t.) And oh, hey, Vastra, Jenny, and Strax from “A Good Man Goes To War” are all back! It was a feast of delights, topped off with killer snowmen and the chronological first appearance of a villain who hadn’t been seen since the 1960s who was now being played (in voiceover) by Ian “Magneto and also Gandalf” McKellen of all people. Feast of delights, I say.
The Doctor has been sulking, retired, in Victorian London for an unspecified amount of time. A chance encounter with an inquisitive barmaid named Clara leads him to investigate the drowning death of a mean old governess in a pond at the Latimer household, where Clara moonlights (daylights?) as the governess’s successor. When the mysterious Dr. Simeon expresses an interest in the pond and then, subsequently, the old governess returns in the form of a vicious ice sculpture, the Doctor officially breaks out his bow tie and sonic screwdriver and gets himself involved.
More than anything else, I remember this one being a moody, chilly feast for the eyes. Lots of lovely visuals, including the TARDIS sitting atop the clouds over London and then opening up into what is absolutely my favorite console room since the show returned in 2005. Of course, it’s also the proper debut of Jenna-Louise Coleman as a series regular, even if she’s playing a slightly different character to the one who will accompany Matt Smith’s Doctor through the end of his reign. Despite that, there’s still a sense of the new dynamic and rapport we’ll see in the TARDIS going forward; again, there’s that sense of out with the old, in with the new that pervades the whole episode and makes it feel special. Coleman’s Clara is clever, eager and joyful and it’s so obvious why she’s able to bring the Doctor out of the cold shell he’s wrapped his heart in.
The icing of so many returning characters, both recent and distant, and all the shiny new elements certainly sweetened it, but I’m fairly certain the cake itself is tasty enough to merit its inclusion on the list, if maybe not quite this high. I should definitely give this another watch. Who knows, maybe I’m right? Maybe it really is just that good.
5. The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang (Series 5 – Writer: Steven Moffat – Director: Toby Haynes)
And lo, after a string of finales that ranged from poor to bonkers to overwrought turgid nonsense, along comes Steven Moffat to show us all how it’s done. Certainly his quality dropped off after this one as well, but we still have this tour de force, featuring River Song posing as Cleopatra, mysterious chambers beneath Stonehenge, and a cliffhanger that still gets to me three years later, when not only do we find the Doctor locked away for the remainder of eternity, but poor Roman soldier Auton duplicate Rory kills the love of his (plastic) life. One of my favorite moments of all comes in the pre-credit sequence to the final episode, when the Pandorica prison box’s surprising resident says, “This is where it gets complicated.” Indeed it does, with a series of great sight gags, a smartly plotted smaller scale on which these massive events are drawn, and a single stone Dalek pursuing our heroes through the National Museum to remind us, briefly, how dangerous just one of Skaro’s finest can be. When all is said and done, it caps off the series with the wedding that had been teased in the opener, wrapping up the year with a lovely bow. There are things here that Moffat would do time and again later on, mostly in the following year, with diminishing returns, but they cannot diminish the memory of seeing them here, done well and with such a sense of style.
The story is built on two mysteries: a painting by Vincent Van Gogh showing the TARDIS exploding and a prison designed to hold the most feared thing in the universe. The former leads the TARDIS to Stonehenge in the second century A.D. where, underground, the latter lurks, stoking the Doctor’s curiosity. He becomes even more curious when a fleet of all his greatest foes arrives overhead. What do they want with the perfect prison, and what do the cracks in the skin of the universe have to do with both mysteries?
Again, it all wraps up with a reasonably tidy bow that makes the season feel nice and complete in a way the seasons both before and after rarely do. Certainly the best finale story since “Army of Ghosts”/”Doomsday” during Tennant’s first season, and I think a little bit better of a story than that one. Like most of the rest of Moffat’s own stuff from his first year as showrunner, something I can happily watch over and over again.
4. The Day of the Doctor (50th anniversary special – Writer: Steven Moffat – Director: Nick Hurran)
This past summer, I pinned a great deal of hope on the promise I saw in Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, his love letter to giant fighting robots doing battle with equally giant other-dimensional monsters. That film wound up being the most joyless experience I had in a theater all year; it marked the first time in my life that I ever considered just walking straight out of a theater without seeing the end of the movie. I’m not going to get into my problems with it in the middle of a Doctor Who list, but I bring it up because I knew I had equally great hopes for this story, and after Pacific Rim I found myself worrying and fretting that this, too, would be terrible — especially in the wake of a series of lackluster major plot episodes all written by showrunner Steven Moffat.
I shouldn’t have worried. Certainly Moffat knew that getting this right was important, and while he could have taken the crowd-pleasing “trip down memory lane with tons of guest stars” approach that Terrance Dicks had done thirty years ago with “The Five Doctors,” instead he took this opportunity to change the course of the show and its lead character and fix a problem he saw within the history it had built up since returning in 2005 — namely the fact that the Doctor was responsible for wiping out his own people as well as the Daleks to end the Last Great Time War. As he said in interviews after the thing aired, Moffat kept thinking to himself, “I don’t think he really did it. Not really.” And so, being the clever writer that he can be, Moffat found a way out for the Doctor and his people, a solution thoughtfully seeded into a story spanning two planets, three points in history, and starring at least three incarnations of the title character.
In the present, the Doctor has been brought in by his alien-investigating former employers at UNIT to discover how and why all the figures, all the people, in a secret, dangerous collection of paintings have broken out into the world. In the past, the Doctor suspects that Queen Elizabeth I has been replaced with a rubbery, sucker-covered shapeshifting Zygon in advance of a full-scale invasion. And further back in our hero’s personal timeline, the Doctor has seized a weapon that will end the Last Great Time War by annihilating his home planet, and with it the millions of Dalek saucers surrounding and bombarding the world. But that weapon has a conscience, and before he does anything rash it wants him to see the man — or rather, the men — that this decision will make him in the future.
What this winds up being is a very funny, very affecting mediation on how one decision can affect the whole rest of a person’s life. John Hurt plays the heretofore unseen “War Doctor,” a version of the Doctor who considers himself unworthy of that name especially as he stands ready to sacrifice billions of innocents to end a war that threatens to destroy all of creation, and when he finds himself face to face with his own future he is astonished, bewildered, and confused by these absurd, silly men who wave their sonic screwdrivers about like, to use his words, water pistols, and spout childish gibberish like Moffat’s old standby “timey-wimey.” And yet, when the crisis threatens to go nuclear, it is the decision he stands ready to make that they look back on to decide “never again,” and he sees that they are doing exactly what he used to do, but with a clarity of purpose defined by that moment of failure. Seeing this, in fact, leads him to believe his decision is maybe not justified, but will at least lead to some good in the future.
Much of the humor in the script comes from the interactions between the three incarnations of the Doctor: present day Doctor Matt Smith, his immediate predecessor David Tennant, and the aforementioned un-Doctor played by Hurt. Smith and Tennant’s initial meeting is delightfully catty, very much in the spirit of classic Doctors Troughton and Pertwee’s interplay of forty years ago. As always, the Doctor is irritated by the man he was and unimpressed by the man he will be; it’s nice to see certain trends remain the same. The earliest Doctor looking on the both of them and being even less impressed makes it all the funnier. The Doctor doesn’t get all the gags, though; Queen Elizabeth is mostly played for laughs, smothering Tennant’s Doctor with over-passionate kisses, though her absurd behavior and comical flourish doesn’t feel totally out of place since the entire sequence in medieval England is operating at a heightened level of silliness.
Clara actually gets a lot of the best bits in the script, including her crowning moment where she’s the one who twigs that Hurt’s Doctor hasn’t burned Gallifrey yet. He’s the oldest-looking of the three Doctors, but she tells him it’s “your eyes, they’re so much younger.” It’s her observation that leads the story, leads the entire show to its redefining climax. She also gets to rescue all three Doctors from a prison that wasn’t even locked. It’s a really good story for her, possibly her best up to this point since she’s no longer forced to be a mystery and a plot device. Stripped of all that, she gets to be the ordinary person calling out the Doctor on the lies he’s telling himself, guiding him back to his core values in the same way her predecessors have had to time and again.
While I’ve watched this whole thing six or seven times since the global simulcast, there’s one part I’ve watched at least twice as many, and it’s the one bit that elevates the entire story for me. The Doctors fighting with each other is great. The Zygons look brilliant and it’s so much fun to see them back. I like the Kate Stewart-led version of UNIT, and like I said Clara gets great stuff to do. The scenes of chaos on Gallifrey are marvelously done and look like they came out of a proper sci-fi feature film. And I haven’t even mentioned Billie Piper, the actress who played the revived show’s first companion Rose Tyler, and her sly performance as the conscience of the Gallifreyan superweapon. All marvelous stuff, all trumped by the moment when the Doctor looks back over his shoulder and sees a familiar face, older than it should be but unmistakable. It’s a scene thirty years in the making, a scene that brings a smile every time I watch it: the return of Tom Baker to Doctor Who. What’s so utterly brilliant about it is the dual reading of it: an incarnation of the Doctor from centuries ahead in his timeline nudging his past self in the right direction, but also the earliest living actor to have played the part delivering the narrative thread that begins the next stage of the program.
Yes, playing the Tom Baker card is like cheating, but the best part is it didn’t have to. It was merely the delicious cherry on top of a properly, fully loaded Doctor Who sundae.
And yet, there’s still three more episodes I think are better.
3. A Christmas Carol (2010 Christmas special – Writer: Steven Moffat – Director: Toby Haynes)
A trick you can only pull once: if you’re obligated to do a Doctor Who Christmas special every year, why not start with a full-on riff on Dickens’s A Christmas Carol? After all, the lead character has a time machine: he can actually do the whole Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Future thing without resorting to the supernatural. And hey, making people better is at the top of the list of Things the Doctor Does, and that’s the whole point of the story! So Moffat goes and does it, and it just totally, completely works. You have a cranky old miser refusing to allow a crashing star-liner to land on his planet. In order to change his mind, the Doctor decides to unravel whatever it is in his past that made him this way — to alter his past so he comes out of it a better man. On top of this simple but effective story, you get a lovely steampunk Victoriana look to the buildings and costuming, and you also get the bonkers visual of fish swimming through the skies, including a flying sleigh pulled by a shark. (I love the sleigh pulled by the flying shark, and I don’t understand the people who don’t. For my money it’s one of the most inspired bits of madness Moffat’s come up with during his time on the show.) The montage of brilliant Christmases the Doctor gives to miserly Kazran Sardick’s younger self is a lot of fun, the twist that almost dooms the Doctor’s plan is beautifully tragic, and the Doctor’s inverted riff on the whole Ghost of Christmas Future thing is clever, perfect, and ultimately an obvious final gambit. A perfect marriage of concept and execution, and probably the best Doctor Who Christmas special we’ll ever see.
2. The Doctor’s Wife (Series 6A – Writer: Neil Gaiman – Director: Richard Clark)
In a season that was a little too concerned with a woman who might or might not be married to the Doctor it was a delight to see an episode that established once and for all the true love of the Doctor’s life: that blue box that set him free from his stodgy life among the Time Lords and hurls him headlong into adventure. With its “soul” transferred into “mad, bitey lady” Idris, he and his trusty ship get to chat about just how exactly the Doctor made off with the ol’ Type 40 back in the beginning and why exactly the TARDIS lands where it does. Oh, and there’s also an adventure where a planetoid that’s been eating TARDISes for ages snags the ship, discovers that there will never be another TARDIS on its way, ever, and escapes in the de-souled TARDIS with Amy and Rory on-board. The Doctor’s poor human friends get to wander its corridors as it acts as a giant deathtrap, while the Doctor and Idris use the resources available to them on the dying planetoid to try and get the genie back into her proper bottle before her frail human form dies. Exciting and scary stuff, especially once the TARDIS’s new resident starts seriously screwing with Amy and Rory’s heads.
Gaiman’s dialog positively sparkles, and all the talk of Time Lords and business in the TARDIS corridors hearken back to my earliest memories of the show, a time when the Doctor could and would encounter other Time Lords as he’d get dragged back to Gallifrey for one dumb reason or the other. And indeed, for a moment, the episode presents the faintest hope that the Doctor isn’t really the last of his people. It hurts so much to see the look on his face when that hope is snatched away; it makes the whole business with Colonel Run Away back in “A Good Man Goes To War” look like he was in a good mood. Neil Gaiman’s script puts the Doctor front and center and drags him through the emotional ringer. It really does provide Matt Smith with nearly every emotion in the Doctor’s range to play, and he hits every note and beat square on the head. It also gives us some great bumbling comic “villains” (Adrian Schiller as Uncle is a deadpan delight) and some of my favorite lines to ever come from Amy’s mouth. (Rory assures her about the Doctor, “He’ll be fine. He’s a Time Lord!” She retorts, “It’s just what they’re called. It doesn’t mean he actually knows what he’s doing.)
Honestly, it’s an episode that ends with the Doctor dancing around the console room like he’s in love. Because he is. He’s in love with this magical, fantastic machine. Gaiman gets that THAT’S what it’s all about.
1. The Eleventh Hour (Series 5 – Writer: Steven Moffat – Director: Adam Smith)
It all goes back to fish fingers and custard. If the show had given me any reason to worry before the opening credits, I can tell you I was sure that everything was going to at least be fine back in the garden, as the strange new Doctor pulled himself out of his crashed TARDIS and asked a little Scottish girl for an apple. However, after a comic interlude where the Doctor rejected everything young Amelia Pond tried to feed him, the two bonded as he chowed down on an unlikely meal of fish fingers in custard and the episode began to sing. Steven Moffat uses this time to build a history for the two characters, Doctor and companion, so that when she steps into the TARDIS at the episode’s end she’ll have known him practically all her life. This will truly be the trip of a lifetime. And for the running time in-between he sets up a nasty bit of peril that the Doctor will have to solve without his usual resources: no TARDIS, no sonic screwdriver, just his wits and a few humans willing to play along for the fate of the planet. No sweat, right?
It’s the best introductory outing a Doctor’s gotten since at least “Spearhead From Space” (“Robot” and “Castrovalva” are fine, but they don’t sparkle like this; “Rose” hasn’t quite got the tone down right, and “The Christmas Invasion” keeps the Doctor out of the action entirely too long) and the most fully-formed a Doctor’s been in his first go-round since Colin Baker admired his features in the otherwise dire “The Twin Dilemma.” And while you might look on this list and think it’s a shame it’s all downhill from here, you should also bear in mind that this was the one that all involved had to get absolutely one hundred percent right. Miraculously, they did. They killed it. Just as the Doctor charmed and convinced a grown-up Amy Pond to believe in him with that still-fresh apple he pulled out of his pocket, that apple she’d handed him the day he crashed in her garden, so did the newly installed Doctor Who team convince everyone that the show would go on, strong and brilliant as ever with that new, youngest-ever Doctor as the new face of the series. “The Eleventh Hour” is something I go back to when I need a pick-me-up and I wind up smiling at it all the way through it every time. It’s as perfect an episode of Doctor Who as anyone’s ever made in fifty years, and it got Matt Smith’s era off on the right foot. I watch this, and I see so much promise laid before me, so many hypothetical brilliant tomorrows to come. It’s an hour of pure joy and optimism, and I love it dearly. It couldn’t not be at the top of this list.
And now, for my bottom five …
5. The Curse of the Black Spot (Series 6A – Writer: Steve Thompson – Director: Jeremy Webb)
A pirate story that ticks all the cliche boxes but forgets to be fun. Instead of high seas adventure, we’re given a Troughtoneque base under siege, only the base is a pirate ship. The pirates are either too nasty or, the case of Captain Avery, too noble to be entertaining characters. Moreover, I think this is a case where the remit that you have to have a bit of sci-fi even in your historical stories hurts, because the historical setting winds up feeling like window dressing for another case of high tech medical machinery gone awry (see Moffat’s own “The Empty Child”/”The Doctor Dances” from 2005 and the much better “The Girl Who Waited” from later this same year). Add to that an overly drab, gloomy atmosphere and you have a story that’s certainly the worst of the spring half of series six.
4. Victory of the Daleks (Series 5 – Writer: Mark Gatiss – Director: Andrew Gunn)
The sad thing about “Victory of the Daleks” is that there’s a lot to like in it. The Daleks are hiding in plain sight in wartime London, posing as the creations of one Professor Bracewell. The professor claims that these are the weapons that will turn the tide against the Nazis, and certainly weapons tests back up that claim. When the Doctor arrives at Winston Churchill’s request, he’s horrified to find his oldest foes wandering through the Cabinet War Rooms with impunity, claiming to be nothing more than the humans’ soldiers. Everything is going just fine up to this point. The military green-colored Daleks are nifty, the historical setting is lively and colorful, Ian McNeice’s Churchill is charming and fun, and the Doctor’s fury and frustration makes for interesting viewing as he keeps asking the same question we’re all wondering as well: what are the Daleks up to?
Well, it turns out they want the Doctor here to verify their identities to activate a device that will create a whole new generation of “pure” Daleks. All the crafty sneaking about ends here, and in its stead we get the debut of those brightly colored plastic Daleks with the weird humps on their backs, Spitfires that can be equipped for space combat in a matter of minutes, and poor Professor Bracewell revealed as an android and used as a bomb that’s defused by the power of love. The new Daleks don’t even do anything; their “victory” is that they get to escape to rebuild their legions. It’s an anticlimactic disappointment, compounded by poor direction and editing that hobbles some of the genuinely good moments, most notably the Doctor’s rage fit where he inadvertently gives the Daleks what they want. If the Doctor is attacking a Dalek with a melee weapon, like a metal pipe or a wrench, you don’t shoot it so that all you see is the Doctor’s back, especially if he’s also shouting the cursed lump of hate down at the same time. I suppose we should be thankful that it was only really this lousy episode that suffered from such incompetence rather than something that actually could have been harmed by it. As it is, it simply takes a poor episode and makes it poorer.
3. The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe (2011 Christmas special – Writer: Steven Moffat – Director: Farren Blackburn)
I think this may be the most dull episode of Doctor Who broadcast since the show returned in 2005. It’s another World War II story, where the Doctor attempts to repay a favor by treating a kind widow and her children to a joyous Christmas. Things go wrong when one of his presents turns out to be a passageway to a forest planet that, unbeknownst to the Doctor, is in the middle of being defoliated for fuel. After some potentially deadly misunderstandings, the trees explain to the Doctor that they need someone strong to help them evacuate their life force from the planet. The children and the Doctor aren’t right for the job. Who could be the trees savior? Gee, I wonder.
Let’s start with the fact that the Doctor almost gets a couple of children, the children of a widow who showed him some kindness once, killed by not getting his facts straight. That puts a bit of a sour taste in the mouth. The mood up to that point had already been plenty sour, with the titular widow getting angry at the delightful rooms and gifts he’d set up for the children, so encumbered by her grief that their joy made her cross. The planet where the peril all happens is all forest, nothing but psuedo-Christmas trees. It’s pretty for a bit, but it’s not terribly interesting. It could just be me, but I couldn’t care about the plight of the trees at all, and the ending is a bunch of lazily papered-over hokum, which is at least somewhat excusable given that it’s Christmas and Moffat presumably wanted the happiest ending he could make. I would probably completely excuse it if I actually liked these people and wanted to see them happy, but really, as far as this story’s concerned I just don’t care about anyone on the screen, even the Doctor. Yuck.
2. Nightmare in Silver (Series 7B – Writer: Neil Gaiman – Director: Stephen Woolfenden)
There are three good things about this story.
- Special guest star Warwick Davis. Nice to see him on Doctor Who. Shame it wasn’t in a good story.
- Matt Smith playing a very nasty strain of evil as the Cyber-Planner persona that threatens to take over the Doctor’s body. Shame it doesn’t actually fit in this story.
- Clara. There’s actually nothing wrong with Clara in this story. She’s brave, she’s smart, she gets to blast a Cyberman and she slaps the nasty version of the Doctor several times.
Otherwise, it’s pretty terrible. Let’s start with the kids, Artie and Angie, who blackmailed Clara into letting them come along in the previous episode. They’re smug, snotty, unimpressed brats, and it’s a mercy killing of sorts when they get taken over by Cyberman tech early on. Naturally it has to be undone by the end, can’t have the Doctor let ordinary folks from the early 21st century get turned into cyber-slaves in the far future, but thank goodness it takes them off the table as characters.
The new Cybermen themselves are a reasonably decent if unimaginative design, less clunky than the squared-off Cybus version they’ve been using since 2006. My big problem with it is that once you add the glowing blue light in the chest to the generic robotic body it just winds up looking like Marvel’s Iron Man in silver. They wind up coming off as even more derivative in the writing, gaining a hive mind called the Cyberiad that makes them even more like Star Trek‘s Borg. And then there’s the Doctor-Cyber-Planner, a cruel entity that just doesn’t seem to fit into the Cyberman ethos, emoting a whirlwind of nastiness. I could just about buy the notion that its cruelty is a construct to wrongfoot its enemies, but that’s the persona it gives off from the start, before interacting with the Doctor and his friends; no, it’s just a bad idea grafted onto the poor, broken Cybermen. The only good idea added to the Cybermen’s arsenal here is the Cybermite, a bug-like drone that can attach to a host and reconfigure itself to begin the Cyber-conversion process. I do like them.
“Nightmare in Silver” is a bog standard base under siege story with a cute setting, an amusement park, that isn’t quite realized well enough by the production and is laden with so many bad ideas and two key unappealing characters that it fails its remit. Neil Gaiman failed to make the Cybermen scary again. They don’t need all these fancy whiz-bang upgrades, they need the horror that was hinted at when they were first brought back in 2006. There was a moment of that in “Closing Time,” their last major appearance before this; when Craig was being turned into a Cyberman, that was genuinely a chilling moment. More like that, less like this, please.
And seriously, never bring those kids back again.
1. Let’s Kill Hitler (Series 6B – Writer: Steven Moffat – Director: Richard Senior)
This is the moment where I decided once and for all that I didn’t care about Steven Moffat’s damn story arc. The story starts with a best friend of Amy and Rory’s shoehorned into their history. That friend turns up, pulls a gun on the Doctor, and tells our heroes that they’re going to go back in time to do what any psychotic person with a gun and a time machine would do, kill Hitler. However, someone else — a crew of tiny people in a shapeshifting human-shaped ship — is trying to do just the same thing. In the chaos, the crazy friend is shot and regenerates into, hey, River Song. Not that she knows that’s what she’s called yet; at this point she’s still just Melody Pond, Amy and Rory’s daughter — and, to an extent, this is the story where she’s “saved.” The tiny people in the ship recognize her as the woman who kills the Doctor and go after her, her programming from her time being held by the Silence takes over and she tries to kill him, and Amy and Rory — well, they just want their daughter/best friend to be safe and not trying to kill their other best friend.
This thing is plotted like a bunch of meticulous, self-indulgent homework. Both of River’s names wind up being damned Moffat causality loops (daughter Melody is named after best friend Melody, who is actually daughter Melody; likewise, while there was a perfectly good origin for the name River Song in the previous episode, in this one she winds up using the name because that’s the name the Doctor, Amy, and Rory always knew her by), the attempt on the Doctor’s life nearly actually kills him, except that River sacrifices her own remaining regenerations to heal him, explaining why we never see her with another face. The robot ship thing crewed by the tiny people figures into the solution to the season-long arc and its crew are the latest drip-drip infodump, explaining a little more about who the Silence are and why they want to kill the Doctor. And anyone watching would be waiting for the other shoe to drop as regards the attempt on the Doctor’s life, because the show’s been banging on since the season premiere about how the Doctor’s death at Lake Silencio in Utah was a fixed point in time; obviously the Doctor doesn’t die here, so how does he get out of this? Worst of all, believing in that solution requires you to believe in gleeful killer River turning on a dime in the face of the Doctor’s overwhelming goodness. Alex Kingston does her damnedest to make it work, but it’s really not enough.
The thing that makes me so mad about this episode is that the story title, teased at the end of “A Good Man Goes To War,” promised an insane romp through time, and instead we get Moffat laying down sci-fi soap opera story pipe, making sure all his loops and intersections line up. It’s as enjoyable as reading a fat pile of flowcharts. No Doctor Who story I’ve seen has ever stood so very, very far away from the potential of what it’s called.
I’m finishing this up the same day we’ve seen our first images of Peter Capaldi starting work on series eight, still clad in Matt Smith’s deep purple jacket. It’s real now; probably my favorite Doctor to date is only ever coming back if they decide to do some sort of crazy multi-Doctor story outside of an anniversary year. I hope Capaldi is able to hit the ground running in the same way that Smith did, that the story being shot today is a classic in the making that makes us instantly forget anyone else stood at the TARDIS helm. I guess we’ll see in the fall.
So, what do YOU think? Agree? Disagree? What does YOUR list look like? Let me know in the comments.