The Best of Doctor Who: No. 1, “Blink” (03.11, 2007)

Written by Steven Moffat

Directed by Hettie MacDonald

Yeah, I know. This is easy to predict. But it’s easy to predict for a reason. If I did a list of the ten greatest television episodes I’ve ever seen, I think it would have about five episodes of Breaking Bad, a couple of episodes of The Sopranos, a couple of episodes of Frasier, the finale of Twin Peaks, and “Blink.” (If I ever make this list, do not hold me to the current description. This description is just for discussion purposes.)

“What’s good about being sad?”
“It’s happy for deep people.”

Sally Sparrow, a character who only appears in this one episode, is one of the more memorable characters in the Whovian universe. She’s better-defined from her one episode than some companions are after seasons of work. She’s arrogant, confident, obsessive, caring, funny and distrustful. She has depth and dimension that almost no other single-episode character has.

And Carey Mulligan helps with that. She’s so good in the role that every time I see her in something, I call her Sally Sparrow. I seriously have had to edit reviews because I called her that throughout the review as though it was actually her name. Doctor Who doesn’t bring in a ton of well-known guest stars, but Mulligan’s strength in the role is necessary to the episode. We need to care about Sally Sparrow, which is easier to do when the actor is so strong and charismatic. She also needs to be good looking enough that we can believe Billy Shipton is willing to clock out and take her to see the TARDIS and everything else in that storeroom just from seeing her, and it’s tough to get much better looking than Carey Mulligan.

Karen Gillan played a character not at all dissimilar from Sally Sparrow in Oculus (Mike Flanagan, USA 2013), and it’s a tribute to Carey Mulligan that even I didn’t like Kaylie Russell half as much as I like Sally Sparrow, and I think we all know how much I love Karen Gillan.

“Don’t blink. Don’t even blink. Blink and you’re dead.”

The Weeping Angels, in their original form, are a great villain. You can’t kill them because they’re stone when you’re looking at them. We never see them move, so we have no idea what type of movement they’re capable of, and we can always get horror movie-style jump scares out of their presence. And then the way they cause death is so heartbreaking and so very Doctor Who that they fit even better than they already would have.

In horror, the monster is usually the point. And “Blink” is as purely horror as Doctor Who ever gets, since it is built around slowly defining the evil of the Weeping Angels. We see them creeping around and get little hints about them from the Doctor, slowly adding up to a complete picture of the terror just in time for the final battle between good and evil.

“You’ve only got 17 DVDs?!”

Moffat has always had a great sense of humor, and it is on full display even in this nearly pure horror episode. Larry Nightingale is a silly but hilarious comic relief character. Martha’s bitching about being trapped in 1969 with the Doctor is great. The Doctor’s discussion of the wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey nature of time is one of the more memorable bits of Doctor time traveling silliness.

“The angels have the phone box.”

The Doctor’s final resolution is also one of his more clever moments, especially how he sets up his own ability to save Sally by confusedly picking up the folder of information from her, saying, “I’ve got a bit of a complicated life. Things don’t always happen to me in the right order.”

The eighth season of Doctor Who debuted the other night, so I got to see it yesterday and I will put up a review hopefully tonight. Hopefully, some people enjoyed taking a little trip through the show’s first seven seasons in preparation.

The Best of Doctor Who: “The Girl in the Fireplace” (02.04, 2006)

Written by Steven Moffat

Directed by Euros Lyn

I tried. I really tried to make it un-obvious what the top of the list would be. I tried putting this one at the top. I tried putting “The Eleventh Hour” at the top. I couldn’t do it. You all know what’s going to be first, but you all know it for a reason–it is the best.

This episode was the episode that made it clear that Steven Moffat was the best asset the series had–a talent capable of writing a deep and complex Doctor who had all of the lightness he needed for comedy but all of the darkness he needed to have deep moments and all of the emotional complexity he needed to be explorable and capable of both exploring the storytelling possibilities of the show’s premise and making jokes with a knowing wink about its silliness.

Even in Moffat’s run in the show, during which he has shown a stronger recognition of the Doctor being a storytelling device more than he is a star, we have rarely seen the effects of his transience on the passersby with whom he only makes brief contact. But that is the entire premise of “The Girl in the Fireplace.” The episode is not about the Doctor, Rose, or even the clockwork robot monsters they find. It’s about Madame de Pompadour, an independent rich woman in 18th century France who is being haunted by those clockwork androids throughout her life, protected intermittently by the arrival of the Doctor as her savior.

An unpredictable repeated savior like the Doctor has to cause issues, and he does. For all of her independence, intelligence, and power, Madame de Pompadour responds to catastrophe by shouting into her fireplace for the Doctor, not knowing that he cannot hear her because a few times he actually arrives and saves her, a dashing hero answering her call.

And of course, not only does she see the Doctor as a savior from the monsters, but as a savior from the impossible bores who surround her–the eventual adventure that will take her away from a drudging life and the handsome, dashing hero who will take her away from her dully-socially-acceptable husband. She spends her life expecting to get away from it all because of her discovery of the Doctor but never knowing how to do so. She may not know how or when she will get away, but she thinks she can, so she can survive anything but because it’s all short term.

“The Girl in the Fireplace” is great because it’s not just more emotionally thoughtful than the typical Doctor Who episode. It’s by far the most emotionally deep episode in the series’ history. Add in a good monster, some great humor, and some of David Tennant’s best performance, and it makes for one hell of a ride.

And keeping Rose off screen more didn’t hurt, either.

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.