The Best of Doctor Who: No. 6, “The Pandorica Opens”/”The Big Bang” (05.12/05.13, 2010)

Written by Steven Moffat

Directed by Toby Haynes

“Come on! Look at me! No plan! No Backup! No weapons worth a damn! Oh, and something else I don’t have: anything to lose! So, if you’re sitting up there in your silly little space ships with all your silly little guns, and you’ve got any plans on taking the Pandorica tonight, just remember who’s standing in your way! Remember every black day I ever stopped you! And then, and then, do the smart thing!
Let someone else try first.”

Fundamentally, how Steven Moffat writes is to follow obvious melodrama and then about half the time, he pulls the rug out from under it at the end for comedy’s sake while in the other half, he lets it play out. When he lets it play out, we get epic speeches like that. Is it a little obvious and cheesy? Perhaps, but it’s also the dramatically correct thing to happen and, most importantly, the speech is just incredible. And that’s an example of what “The Pandorica Opens”/”The Big Bang” does so well in closing out Doctor Who‘s finest season: it goes where makes sense, rather lacking in surprise but also always just so dramatically appropriate that the lack of surprise hurts nothing.

The way the ending ties together all the disparate threads of season five is not surprising, but it’s wholly appropriate for the time-travel horror series. Rory refusing to leave Amy safe in the Pandorica is not a surprise, but it’s the apotheosis of who Rory Williams is and of his and Amy’s relationship. The idea that Rory suddenly is able to recover his lost humanity even though he is living plastic doesn’t really make sense, but it certainly isn’t too far afield from the show’s usual modus operandi for love to conquer plastic. And we know what to expect from River and the Doctor interacting at this point, but they still have a sparkling chemistry with dynamic dialogue that’s just so fun to listen to that it just doesn’t matter that we know what’s coming.

“The Big Bang” also includes some rare moments of depth from Matt Smith and Karen Gillan. Karen Gillan’s performance is often troublesome early on in the season and her improvement over the course of the series never gets her into “good” territory, but she plays the wedding scene, with her memory able to pull the Doctor back into existence, absolutely perfectly. Her look of a confused attempt to seem unemotional as she says, “No, I’m sad” and her triumph at the realization that the Doctor is missing convey everything Amy is feeling as she goes through the moment. And then Matt Smith has never looked so wistful and human as he does watching Amy and Rory dance at the wedding.

Steven Moffat clearly had a lot of great ideas lying around that he put into season five, because he’s never been close to this level again, but season five of Doctor Who is as good as non-Breaking Bad television gets, and this finale duo is a great example.

The Best of Doctor Who: No. 7, “Bad Wolf”/”The Parting of the Ways” (01.12/01.13, 2005)

Written by Russell T. Davies

Directed by Joe Ahearne

My favorite Doctor is Christopher Eccleston. I know it’s not a terribly popular position, with his having been followed by one of the two most beloved Doctors in history and all, but I think Eccleston is actually an extraordinary actor who provides a level of depth and complexity to the role that neither David Tennant nor Matt Smith can match (though their Doctors are, of course, intentionally different and do not have the level of guilt and darkness that Eccleston’s Doctor has, so this is a comment as much about the characters they play as about the performers’ talents). His exit is one of the more fun episodes of the show’s history, even if it still has some of the rough edges that characterize the first season, and it’s no small part due to his performance.

(I should point out, though, that easily my least favorite companion is Rose Tyler. I think she’s a horrible person and Billie Piper is every bit as weak an actor as Karen Gillan once was but never showed the improvement that Gillan did during her time on the series.)

The Doctor, Rose, and Captain Jack Harkness find themselves on a floating TV studio wherein reality shows are constantly being run. However, these aren’t the reality shows we know now–losing on these shows results in death and recruitment is done with no consent. Anyone can get grabbed and forced into a game, and they all face the threat of death for losing. It’s not any kind of unique concept, but the way that the Doctor and the then-mortal Captain Jack deal with the shows is both hilarious and a fun use of their characters as they exist to that point. Rose, meanwhile, provides the more serious component, making sure that we’re aware of the threat that’s present in these games.

And then Rose, for the first time, shows why the Doctor keeps her around: her loyalty is what allows and drives her to use the TARDIS time vortex to gain the powers that let her save the day. It leads to some very unfortunate special effects (Again, a season one problem.), but it’s a better-than-usual deus ex machina for this series that allows the Doctor and Rose’s relationship to grow deeper and more complex and makes Rose into a useful character–something that had otherwise only been true before because of her “gymnastic” skills in the pilot.

The episode also introduces regeneration and explains it for us, and it lets Eccleston leave as simply as he arrived, without the sort of overly elegiac swan song that the next Doctor would receive. He gets to say goodbye, but he doesn’t get to check up on all his favorite people and places, because he doesn’t have them. Eccleston’s Doctor is a tortured, anhedonic soul, and it’s his sacrifice to save Rose from her own sacrifice that lets the Doctor begin to move on from the death of Gallifrey.

The Best of Doctor Who: No. 8, “Midnight” (04.08, 2008)

Written by Russell T. Davies

Directed by Alice Troughton

If you’re still dubious about my assertion that Doctor Who is essentially a horror series, I direct you to this episode, which would not feel at all out of place in The Twilight Zone.

Like many episodes of The Twilight Zone, this episode gives us an unknown outside threat that forces a group of strangers into a trapped, claustrophobic situation in which they turn against one another. It’s a dim view of human nature and the then-current political climate that often pointed Rod Serling toward these types of situations, which makes it a surprising similarity for Doctor Who, but nonetheless, then-current show runner Russell T. Davies crafted an episode about a mysterious apparent life-form that is able to take control of the people on a disabled tour bus full of humans and one Time Lord.

The setting is interesting–a planet whose atmosphere of high pressure and no breathable air is conducive to the creation of diamonds but impossible for known forms of life to survive, leaving it a tourist location due to its absolutely beautiful scenery but inability to sustain life. And it’s the perfect setting for a form of life so alien that it has no visible form and seems to have no similarity to the humanoid life we’re used to on this show. The atmosphere means that the life-form would have to be very different from life as we know it, it helps create the claustrophobia for the humans, and it only adds to the mystery that the never-identified creature provides when no one can look outside for it, for signs of its existence, for its home, or even go out to study it after the episode ends.

However, it’s the creature itself that makes the episode so great. It’s never identified. It’s never named. It’s never even really described. It appears to possess one woman, then proceeds to repeat everything said in its presence with increasing rapidity until it finally apparently attains the ability to speak first, leaving the Doctor trapped under its spell, with the busload of people completely unaware of exactly how dangerous the Doctor under someone else’s control could be.

The Doctor is rarely in the dark (and David Tennant’s Doctor is a confident, dashing sort in general), but even he has no idea what to make of this life-form, which makes it even more terrifying than his fellow passengers could know. And Donna isn’t there to act all sure of herself the way she usually does, so we don’t have anything to give us confidence. It’s a terrifying experience, the essence of horror.