Season 8 of Doctor Who premiers on August 23. Cinema screening here will be August 25. So I’m going to do a series of short articles about the best episodes of the series leading up to the latter date. To introduce it, here is a list of the episodes that just missed my top ten list with a little discussion and a short essay about my Doctor Who fandom.
Note that this entire series is only talking about the Doctor Who series from the Ninth Doctor on. I consider that all to be one series, no matter what the BBC says, but I also consider it disconnected from the many previous years.
Introduction/Why I Love Doctor Who
Friend of the blog Chase Stuart and I had a short discussion in the comments recently about the show Jekyll. Chase commented that I seemed less “critical” about that series than I usually am and said, “Maybe this genre is your Expendables.” My response was, “More like Steven Moffat is my Sylvester Stallone.” I love the way Moffat writes, whether it’s on Doctor Who, Jekyll, or Sherlock. The way he plays out melodrama and then either comically pulls the rug out from under the drama at the last second or lets it hit the expected crescendo keeps things from being overly predictable but also keeps them consistent and consistently dramatically correct. His humor, when he’s not showing off his obsession with the idea that it’s hilarious for people to think heterosexual men are gay, consistently makes me laugh. And, Moffat understands something about Doctor Who that relatively few people seem to understand: this is not a science fiction show or a fantasy show. This is a horror series. As he has said, “This is a series meant to frighten children.”
Fundamentally, this show is about monsters trying to destroy earth. The Doctor is really just a device for showing us the monsters. That’s horror.
Doctor Who, on its face, embraces a lot of things that normally bother me: it’s relentlessly “family-friendly,” its plots are so full of holes that Chris Johnson could run through them, the characters are usually either two-dimensional or nonsensical, it invokes magical nonsense to explain things, it’s visually dull, and much of the acting is not good. Hell, the very premise gives the show the ability to do absolutely anything it wants. However, I think a lot of what makes it work is that it embraces so much of its own kitsch. As the Dream Lord said to the Doctor, “If you had any more tawdry quirks, you could open a tawdry quirk shop.” It knows its own flaws, but it also is perfectly willing to accept them. In fact, it not only accepts them but embraces them. It references them in its dialogue. It makes little jokes about them. It doesn’t pretend they’re not there.
This may be a bit of over-intellectualizing about a show for frightening children, but Doctor Who also holds a special place for all atheists and skeptics. It’s our show. Not only is it in a science fiction/fantasy setting, but the Doctor is in some ways a fundamentally atheistic hero.
We have a lead character who travels the breadth of the universe throughout time and never finds anything like divinity. In fact, he never finds anything approaching the supernatural–just stuff that the locals don’t understand. My favorite comedian, Tim Minchin, once said, “If you’re going to watch tele, you should watch Scooby-Doo./That show was cool/Because every time there’s a church with a ghoul/Or a ghost in a school/They looked beneath the mask and what was inside?/The fucking janitor or the dude who runs the waterslide!” In the same way, The Doctor always finds real explanations, even if his “real” is often far outside the scientific reality we currently understand.
The Doctor is also a hero whose power is in his intelligence. It’s not his bravery. It’s not his muscles. It’s not his faith. It’s not his caring. It’s pure brain power that makes him the most powerful, most dangerous man in the universe. So many heroic characters are heroic for their unwavering devotion to something “greater than themselves” or idiotic bravery, but the Doctor is heroic primarily for his intelligence. I would argue that only skeptics, who value logic and critical thinking as the ultimate in problem-solving, would build such a hero as their ultimate hero.
Doctor Who isn’t Breaking Bad. It’s not that type of brilliance. Instead, it’s a fun, relatively slight series that has a lot of personal relevance for me. That’s what makes it special.
The Honorable Mentions (In No Particular Order)
“The Day of the Doctor” (50th Anniversary Special, 2013)
Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by John Hayes
Why it’s great: The Doctor has to choose to do something awful in order to save the most people possible from death in a terrible and bloody war that seems to have no end. Essentially, he is faced with a scaled up version of an old ethical dilemma: a train is heading for a busload of people and you can change the track so that it hits one person. Do you switch the track? Most people say no, because they feel like that’s actively killing the one person where letting it hit the bus is only passive, but the Doctor is a hero, not most people. He chooses to change the tracks. Plus, John Hurt’s Doctor is great, the interplay among the three Doctors is hilarious, and Tom Baker’s cameo is just so perfect.
Why it’s not great enough: It took away the darkest piece of the Doctor. As much as he’s goofy and fun, there has always been a serious side to the Doctor. This episode’s ending took away a significant portion of that part of him.
“The Impossible Astronaut”/”Day of the Moon” (06.01/06.02, 2011)
Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Toby Haynes
Why it’s great: The Silence is a really cool monster, and this is perhaps the strongest group of supporting characters the Doctor has ever had in an episode, with Amy, Rory, River, and the surprisingly memorable Canton Delaware III. River + Doctor is nearly always fantastic fun.
Why it’s not great enough: It’s a bit drawn out. Karen Gillan has some weak moments. I had to draw the line somewhere, and a few of these are really so close that I could put them on the top 10.
“Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead” (04.09/04.10, 2008)
Written by Steven Moffat (Tired of reading this yet? You’re going to see it a lot.)
Directed by Euros Lyn
Why it’s great: River song’s introduction, and frankly her most interesting appearance. The interplay between River and the Doctor who doesn’t yet know her is fantastic, and David Tennant plays it just perfectly. The idea of a planet-sized library is also just great fun.
Why it’s not great enough: There’s something just cheesy about the “inside the little girl’s head” routine. The Vashta Nerada are a nonsensical villain in a lot of ways. It uses too many special effects.
“A Town Called Mercy” (07.03, 2012)
Written by Toby Whithouse
Directed by Saul Metzstein
Why it’s great: Truthfully, it probably looks better just because season seven is so weak around it, but it brings out that conflict that the Doctor faced back at Gallifrey and how he approaches something like that. The Old West is a new setting for the show, so that was interesting.
Why it’s not great enough: The narration is just silly and unnecessary. Some of the accents are laughable. The Doctor seems a little too easily on edge. I would blame the writing rather than Matt Smith, but it’s just difficult to accept that it’s the same Doctor we’ve been watching otherwise.
“Utopia”/”The Sound of Drums”/”Last of the Time Lords” (03.11/03.12/03.13, 2007)
Written by Russell T. Davies
“Utopia” directed by Graeme Harper, “The Sound of Drums” and “Last of the Time Lords” directed by Colin Teague
Why it’s great: This triptych runs about 144 minutes total, and for about 135 minutes, it’s fantastic. It’s got enough surprises and fun to overlook how troped it is. It lets the most talented actor of the companions spread her wings. Derek Jacobi is absolutely amazing even in a pretty small role. The Master is both fun and terrifying. Honestly, there is nothing to complain about for so much of this episode–to that point, it really is competitive with the best episodes in the series’ history. Plus: http://youtu.be/ptRxrH1rVK8
Why it’s not great enough: To quote the Master, “Prayer?!” Yeah, the Doctor explains it away all science-y, but it’s still just a terrible deus-ex-machina and frankly that has to be among the worst endings Davies could possibly have written.
“The Empty Child”/”The Doctor Dances” (01.09/01.10, 2005)
Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by James Hawes
Why it’s great: Moffat for the first time! The anger and darkness that define the Ninth Doctor are on full display, as is the more joyous, fun Doctor underneath. Christopher Eccleston is my favorite Doctor because he is just such an incredible actor, and there is no better example than this episode, which gives us a Doctor who is a far deeper and more conflicted character than we normally see.
Why it’s not great enough: “Are you my mummy?” It was more annoying than scary or funny. Plus, I just had to draw the line somewhere.
- Four of the top ten were written by Steven Moffat.
- Three were written by Russell T. Davies.
- Season seven is the only season not represented.
- Don’t blink.