A while ago I wrote up a list of 50 things I’d like to see during Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary – a few have come to pass while most have not (but the year isn’t over yet). But for today, the actual 50th anniversary, I’m going to quickly ponder on 50 things – episodes, moments, characters, concepts – that I love about the show. (Actually, I think the phrase “timey-wimey” is overused and silly, but there you go, I went there.)
(Incidentally, this is the 300th post on this blog.)
1. The breadth of imagination that was built in right on the ground floor
It’s right there in the first episode – the time machine is bigger on the inside. And it looks like a police box (which today is meaningless to us, but at the time was like saying they were in a phone booth or a garden shed). I mean, that’s just crazy. For years, that was part of the awkwardness of committed fans trying to explain the series to anyone. We all sounded like idiots but we knew it was awesome.
2. Stories could take place anywhere, anywhen
Need a story about imperial Rome? Done! A moonbase? Easy! A distant colony during earth’s great expansion? Child’s play. The “Land of Fiction” where Rapunzel and Gulliver are just hanging out? Why not? A space luxury liner? No sweat! A ship gathering rich aliens come to watch the death of the earth? Just ask.
This goes hand in hand with point 1 – the power of this show rests largely in the limitlessness of the imagination of the writers. Other franchises such as Star Wars and Babylon 5 had to create cohesive tapestries out of their alien races, technology, future-culture, etc (and we enjoy that too, of course), but Doctor Who had the freedom to just do whatever the heck it felt like at the time. And this could include taking us to really wacky places, without even having to resort to holodecks or artificial environments created by semi-omnipotent aliens curious to understand human nature.
3. Ian and Barbara
The science teacher and the history teacher – part of the original cast of the series, played by William Russell and Jacqueline Hill. They weren’t “companions” back then – they were just co-stars. More than that, they were us, discovering the Doctor, the Tardis and all the rest as the series unfolded. An in spite of their initial incredulity, they were intelligent and resourceful. They were often right when the Doctor was wrong. Long before the series became self-aware about this concept, they defined the idea that the Doctor needed people around him to keep him in check, and they were pretty much the only companions to do this during the original series. Plus, they were tough. Barbara drove a truck through a bunch of Daleks, and Ian defeated an Aztec warrior with his thumb. That’s cool, man.
And of course, everyone knew that there was a romance subplot going on between the scenes. They definitely got married after their time with the Doctor ended – all sorts of “expanded universe” stories have confirmed it.
4. Patrick Troughton
Troughton had arguably the hardest job of any of the actors who played the Doctor, not only having to sell a leading character to the audience, but also having to sell to the audience the idea that the leading actor could change. And in doing so, he created a performance that set a standard for everyone who followed, and still feels modern and undated. While William Hartnell gave the Doctor his mischievous side, it was Troughton who added the whole “cosmic idiot” aspect to the character that has been a key part of the portrayals of Matt Smith, David Tennant, and others.
5. The Daleks invade the earth!
And not only do they invade earth, but they cross Westminster Bridge. And not only that, but the Yeti hang out in the London underground. And Autons break out of shop windows in the middle of the city. And the Cybermen march down the stairs outside St. Paul’s Cathedral.
You might think these sort of “real world” connections would serve to make Doctor Who more authentic and believable, but they don’t. In fact, the last thing we want is for Doctor Who to be “authentic and believable”. Instead, it just increases the zaniness and fun. Because sure, the Nestene Consciousness needing a large transmitter to control the Autons is fun, but making that transmitter into the London Eye is more fun.
6. Frazer Hines as Jamie McCrimmon
Or was that Fraiser Hines? Or Frazier Hines? I feel like I remember seeing it spelled it various ways in the assorted Doctor Who related material I’ve seen over the years.
Jamie isn’t necessarily my favorite Doctor Who companion, but even I have to admit that really, he’s more or less the best one the show ever had. Jamie was an 18th century Scottish highlander who didn’t understand “modern” science and thus often needed things explained to him, convenient for the companion role. But more than that, he seemed natural traveling with the Doctor, like he actually enjoyed it. He was adaptable, with the strange and the fantastic things he would encounter never seeming to throw him off. His physical strength and combat ability, combined with his adaptability and likeability made him a perfect complement to the Second Doctor and whichever female companion was with them at the time.
7. Hamish Wilson as Jamie McCrimmon
For one and a bit episodes in the surreal and loopy Mind Robber story from 1969, Frazer Hines was ill with chicken pox and was replaced as Jamie by actor Hamish Wilson. And that’s awesome. Because on Doctor Who, if you need to replace one of your lead actors at the last minute, you can do so without even breaking a sweat, and make it make sense in-story. Find the story and watch it yourself if you want to know how they do it.
8. The UNIT Family
I am not the biggest fan of Jon Pertwee’s Doctor from the early 70’s, but I enjoyed the way the series shook up the format by bringing the Doctor “permanently” to earth and giving him a more established base of operations with UNIT – the United Nations International Taskforce (later renamed simply UNified International Taskforce, because apparently the United Nations really minded). Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, Captain Mike Yates, and Sgt. Benton all became familiar and welcome faces who helped to create a familiar context for the adventures. You didn’t want it to go on forever, but it made for n new and functional part of the series mythos.
9. Katy Manning as Jo Grant
Cute, plucky, sort of inept, yet determined to do good…she was a key part of that UNIT family mentioned above, and kind of everything that the semi-know-it-all Third Doctor needed.
10. The Ice Warriors
There are lots of alien races in Doctor Who, many of them menaces determined to do earth and the rest of the free galaxy great harm. One of them introduced in the 1960’s were the Ice Warriors – military martians in big green armor. But what made them stand out for me was their appearances in the 70’s story The Curse of Peladon. Written by their creators, Brian Hayles, the Ice Warriors are assumed by the Doctor to be villains of the situation, but are revealed eventually to be innocent, having developed as a culture. It turned the Ice Warriors from monsters to characters, which was a compelling development.
11. Tender Farewells
After a 50 years, we have seen lots of characters come and go from the Doctor’s life. And in an action-adventure drama like Doctor Who, there has often not been all the time in the world to explore the nuances of all the relationships. Still, from the day the Doctor locked his granddaughter out of the Tardis so that she’d be willing to leave him, to when he said goodbye to Jo Grant as she decided to marry her hippie-scientist, to when he was forced to take the memory of his existence from Donna Noble, the series has managed to deliver many successful, emotional, and even heart-wrenching farewells to beloved companions and friends.
Of course, there have been clunkers as well. Leela comes to mind, with her abrupt engagement to a particularly boring Gallifreyan guard.
12. The Scarf
After the Tardis itself, and probably the Daleks, the 4th Doctor’s scarf, as worn by Tom Baker, is probably the most widely-recognized bit of visual shorthand for Doctor Who, even 32 years after it was last seen in regular use. It’s absurdly long, and there are various myths about it’s creation, both internal and external to the program. It was a piece of clothing, and it was a functional tool in the 4th Doctor’s arsenal.
13. Producer Philip Hinchcliffe
Philip Hinchcliffe took over as producer of Doctor Who in Tom Baker’s second serial, and was responsible for some of the series’ best stories, and he did so by riffing off of a lot of classic horror and science fiction tales. So you want to see the Doctor Who version of The Thing from Another World? Sure thing – it’s called The Seeds of Doom. What about Forbidden Planet? Check out The Planet of Evil. Or how about The Manchurian Candidate? Watch The Deadly Assassin. Frankenstein? Just see a little gem called The Brain of Morbius. An Agatha Christie tale? Have a gander at The Robots of Death (and not, as you may hear from time to time, either Black Orchid or The Unicorn and the Wasp).
And Hinchcliffe didn’t only follow the trends. When you watch The Ark in Space, it’s impossible not to be reminded of the classic film Alien in a lot of ways – except that The Ark in Space came out about four years earlier.
But even today, his era remains one of the strongest for the series, with lots of good stories, and is well worth revisiting.
14. Writer Robert Holmes
Holmes was the writer who was most closely associated with Philip Hinchcliffe’s tenure as a producer, but his writing credits on the series extended as far back as 1968, and continued all the way up to 1986, and he contributed more scripts than any other writer in the show’s original run. He helped to create the Autons, the Master, and basically everything we know about Gallifrey. His writing was often full of good plots, witty dialog, and fun characterization, even if it could get a little repetitive. Kind of like the Steven Moffat of his day.
15. And speaking of Steven Moffat…
I know not everyone is the biggest fan of the way Steven Moffat runs the show but I think he’s one of the best things to happen to the series since that policeman first shone his lantern into that junkyard. In the Russell T. Davies era, he contributed what were consistently the best scripts of the show – Blink, The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances, Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead, and The Girl in the Fireplace. Then he took over the program, cast Matt Smith as the Doctor, and led us into some of the wackiest and most complex adventures the Doctor has ever been part of. Moffat has played with the mechanics of time travel more than any other writer before him, and has crafted some of the most frightening monsters out of the simplest concepts – a lost little child, statues, shadows, and that something you catch out of the corner of your eye. Not every story has been stellar, and not every ending has been entirely satisfying, but the adventure has always been surprising and well worth it.
Most impressive of all is the way that before he was the producer, he was able to plant a vision of what the Doctor and his world would be like in the future, which he was eventually able to pay off in his years as the series’ showrunner. If you don’t believe it, go re-watch The Silence in the Library – it’s amazing that it was written without Series 6 & 7 already planned out.
16. River Song
I guess it’s not so much River Song but more the idea of her that I really enjoy – a character whose interaction with the Doctor takes place out of order with the Time Lord. And not just as a one off, but as significant ongoing element in the series.
17. The Silence
Or is that the Silents? Anyway, everyone remembers the Weeping Angels, and they are as creepy as all get out, but I enjoy even more the concept of the Silence – beings that you instantly forget the moment you are not looking at them. You don’t want to go back to that well too often, but they were used to brilliant effect in their few appearances in Season Six of the revival series.
18. Louise Jameson as Leela
I know, I know, it probably sounds terrible that I’m admitting that I’m a fan of the leather-clad jungle girl, but I am – really, it sounds worse than it really was. Louise Jameson was terrific and the Leela had the right mixture of sweet innocence and formidable danger to keep things interesting and create a new dynamic aboard the Tardis.
We’ve had fifty years of close ups of the Doctor’s shocked face while the ending theme’s sting screams out at us…well, something like that. In any case, it’s been a key part of the fun of the series, and something that was missed when stories were occasionally re-edited into long movies, as was done on one of the PBS stations I used to first enjoy the show on (they were showing the often overlong Pertwee stories, which only heightened the issue). Some of my favorite ones are among my favorite moments of the show, mentioned below.
20. The Theme Music
Of course, how could I forget what has to be one of the most iconic opening themes in TV history? Written by Ron Grainer, and arranged over the years by Delia Derbyshire, Peter Howell, Murray Gold, and more. There have been lots of variations, but they’re all cool.
Check out this one, being performed by Manta – a trio who play the guitar, the cello, and the didgeridoo!
21. The Doctor’s Face
I’m referring specifically to the use of the Doctor’s face in the opening titles of the show, starting from the middle of the Patrick Troughton years all the way to the end of the original series. It was a simple element that was sorely missed in the revival, but my little inner-fanboy heart cheered when Matt Smith gazed back at us through the cosmos in the opening titles of The Snowmen.
22. The Great One-Off Villains
There have been tons of recurring enemies, but there have even been more that only showed up once (on TV, anyway). And as much as I looked forward to another appearance by the Sontarans or the Weeping Angels as much as the next guy, I also loved it when the series pulled out the imagination stops to create a new great and compelling menace. Because as much as I enjoy the “classic” enemies, I’d much rather see something new than go back to the same wells over and over again. How else would we have gotten the likes of Sutekh the Destroyer, the Krynoids, or the Midnight Entitiy?
23. City of Death
It’s set and shot in Paris. It stars Tom Baker and Lalla Ward at their frolicsome best. Julian Glover is the main guest star. It’s written by Douglas Adams. For about three minutes in the last episode, John Cleese shows up as a pretentious art critic attempting to interpret the Tardis. What’s not to love?
For most of the series, Rassilon was just a name, first mentioned in The Deadly Assassin by the great Robert Holmes. He was a figure of legend in Time Lord history who had just about every major cultural icon of the world named after him – the Rod of Rassilon, the Key of Rassilon, the Seal of Rassilon. One figures that half of his success is just that his name tripped so easily off of the tongue (seriously, you can’t imagine all these Time Lords talking about the Great Key of Guthbert or the Black Scrolls of Stickelbrain. Rassilon made a forgettable appearance in The Five Doctors, but then was played more memorably by Timothy Dalton, of all people, in the End of Time two parter.
25. The Sontarans & Strax
The Sontarans were one of the best new creations in Doctor Who back in 1973. And then in 2008, they became one of the best re-imagined elements in the new series. A big part of the credit for that goes to Christopher Ryan’s performance as General Staal. I wasn’t as much a fan of Dan Starkey’s Commander Skorr, but since then that actor has made recurring appearances as Strax, the Sontaran commander forced to become a nurse. I haven’t been the biggest of fan of other recurring characters, like Captain Jack or Madame Vastra & Jenny, with all their built in social commentary – but that guy Strax, who can’t tell the difference between human boys and girls, is hilarious.
26. Sophie Aldred as Ace
Long before Rose Tyler, Ace was the first companion whose emotional journey was as important to the series as the particular plot of the week. In that way, she was more developed as a character than pretty much any other companion up to that point. And once, she smashed a Dalek to smithereens with super-charged baseball bat.
27. The Caves of Androzani, Part Three – the final moments
Caves is easily the best story produced by John-Nathan Turner, one of the most popular and best of the entire original series. But the ending of Episode Three is one of my all-time favorite moments. The Doctor has been taken captive by criminals and is in a ship leaving Androzani Minor. He’s desperate to return to the planet, where his friend and companion Peri is sick and dying, with the Doctor, who is also dying of the same disease, her only hope for a cure. He manages to lock his captors out of the control room and intentionally crashes the ship back down. The villains, led by the mercenary Stotz, try to stop him, threatening to kill him if he doesn’t surrender. As the planet looms larger and larger in the viewscreen, the Doctor cries out, “Not a very persuasive argument actually, Stotz, because I’m going to die soon anyway….Unless, of course, I can find the antidote. I owe it to my friend to try because I got her into this. So you see, I’m not going to let you stop me now!” Cue the musical sting and the end credits. It’s an amazing moment in an outstanding story – great writing by Robert Holmes, fantastic direction by Graeme Harper, and phenomenal performance by Peter Davison.
28. The Daleks
Oh, ok, I guess I have to mention the Daleks – a race of creatures who threaten to be the most defeated in the universe. But there is something interesting to me about the Daleks. It’s not that their particularly scary (sometimes they are) or the fact that they are so threatening. It’s the fact that there motivation, when it’s done best, isn’t just that they are eeeeevil, or that they want to conquer things for the sake of power – it’s that they are supremely paranoid, even fearful, of anything that isn’t like them. This leads one to very apt parallels with Nazism, and makes them effective villains because they remind of us the worst in ourselves.
29. Remembrance of the Daleks
Speaking of the Daleks, one of their best stories is the Season 25 opener, Remembrance of the Daleks. It’s a tight bit of plotting featuring some fun and memorable guest performances, and marking a welcome new direction for Sylvester McCoy’s too brief tenure in the role. It’s probably the best story in the series since the aforementioned Caves of Androzani. Much later, it will be revealed that the Daleks refer to the Doctor as “The Oncoming Storm” (which is an awesome thing in itself) – well, this certainly is the story where that nickname is justified, when the Doctor deliberately allows the Daleks to unknowingly destroy their own homeworld. Only a random token appearance by the overused Davros mars the story.
30. Catherine Tate as Donna Noble
If this list was written for the 44th anniversary of the series, Donna Noble would be on my list of 10 worst things in the show. That’s because at that point she’d only appeared in the Christmas special The Runaway Bride, and was extremely irritating. Later, she became the regular companion on the fourth series of the revival series, and became one of the best companions the show had ever had. She was not the character who invented the idea that the Doctor needed someone to keep him in check (really, that was Ian and Barbara, at least implicitly), but she is the one who really proved it true. This really was possible because she was not in love with the Doctor (in the way both Rose and Martha were), and thus was almost the only character in the revival who saw the Doctor for exactly who he was.
And then after making her so likeable for the entire series, the production team brought her to a bit of a semi-tragic conclusion, with circumstances forcing her to regress and lose all her memories of her time with the Doctor. It brought just enough of a heartbreak for us all to feel it with the Doctor, but not so much to be depressing.
31. Nowadays, the actors on the show are getting work in other things
It means that it’s fun and easy to find them in other stuff. Back on the original series, it was almost impossible to find any of those guys in anything – at least the companions. You can find William Russell in Superman, the Movie – if you don’t blink at the wrong moment in the Krypton scene. Carole Ann Ford plays a doomed blind girl in Day of the Triffids. Ian Marter popped up for a minute as a police officer in a Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes episode. Richard Franklin gets killed after five minutes in an episode of Blake’s Seven. Nicola Bryant laughs annoyingly in a Blackadder special. And Steed has a fist fight with Roger Delgado in an episode of The Avengers.
But now, the show is mainstream! So if you want to find your favorites in other stuff, it’s pretty easy. Billie Piper stars in Mansfield Park, Freema Agyeman co-stars in Law & Order: UK, Catherine Tate is a major player in The Office, and even Noel Clarke shows up briefly in Star Trek Into Darkness. Christopher Eccleston is all over the place (including that Thor sequel that just came out). Most excitingly of all for me, we’ll soon see Karen Gillan playing a major villain in Guardians of the Galaxy – a bit of casting that almost feels like a personal birthday present.
32. Earthshock, Episode Four – the ending credits
Adric was an annoying character – one of the least popular companions ever. And yet, when he written out by dying, it was an emotionally packed moment that sort of redeemed the character in our memories (kind of like when Vibe died in that 1980’s Justice League comic.) The commemorate the moment, the ending credits of the episode were rolled silently, over an image of Adric’s broken badge.
33. The Doctor’s speech at the end of Time of the Angels
Frankly, this entire two-parter (with Flesh and Stone) is a highlight of the whole 50 years of the show for me, but the Doctor’s speech the taunting Weeping Angel (“Angel Bob”) was so great that it was used as the major bit of audio for the trailer for that season. It’s great: “Didn’t anyone ever tell you, there’s one thing you never put in a trap, if you’re smart, if you value you’re continued existence, if you have any plans about seeing tomorrow, there’s one thing you never ever put in a trap…Me.”
34. Barbara argues with Ian and the Doctor about changing history in The Azteks
One of my favorite stories from the William Hartnell years of the show was The Azteks – the earliest and best of the historical dramas that still exist. In it, Barbara Wright sees what she thinks is an opportunity to change history and prevent the Azteks from being wiped out. First the Doctor and then Ian try to convince her of the foolishness of the act. Most people remember the Doctor’s pleading, “But you can’t rewrite history! Not one line!” but it’s really Ian’s argument that is more compelling. “You keep on insisting that Tlotoxl’s the odd man out, but he isn’t….If only you could stand away from this thing, you’d see it clearly. Autloc’s the extraordinary man here. He’s the reasonable one, the civilised one, the one that’s prepared to listen to advice. But he’s one man, Barbara. One man….You can’t fight a whole way of life, Barbara.”
35. But usually, the Doctor is all about changing things, for the better
In spite of how much I enjoyed the above moment, one of my favorite things about Doctor Who is the fact that the Doctor is about making things better for people – by fighting monsters, ending tyranny, or whatever is needed. Readers of this blog would know that I have been rewatching Star Trek: The Next Generation, and after nearly four seasons of Captain Picard insisting that they can do nothing to alter the course of threatened or exploited alien civilizations, I enjoy a hero who sees evil for what it is, and refuses to let it continue. Even if this isn’t always done the way that I’d have written it, generally it’s an ethos I feel happier to cheer for.
There have been a bunch of these over the course of the revival series. They aren’t all stellar, but many have been fun or have provided nice ways of sharing little story moments we haven’t gotten to see in the regular series. Examples include Time Crash featuring David Tennant and Peter Davison meeting, Space & Time which gave us another example of Steven Moffat’s loopy time travel mechanics, the unofficially titled Born Again which featured the first conversation between David Tennant’s Doctor and Rose Tyler, the recent Night of the Doctor which returned Paul McGann to the title role, and the series of mini-episode collectively entitled Night and the Doctor, which filled in little narrative gaps like how Amy deals with her dual memories of her childhood, and the Doctor and River’s last date.
I love ’em. If they keep this up, it might collectively give us as much air time as a full bonus episode of the series.
37. Easter Eggs and Flashbacks
This of course won’t be as much of a treat for people who aren’t fans of the entire 50 years of the show, but I’ve always enjoyed the occasional times when the show would refer or even flash back to its own history, especially since the revival. Moments like the glimpses of the sketches in Human Nature, or the flashes from the infostamp in The Next Doctor, the mental “bump” images in The Lodger, or even the appearance of Macra in Gridlock or the revelation of the Great Intelligence in The Snowmen, all bring extra excitement to the longterm fan without derailing the story. But the greatest of these moments is surely in The Eleventh Hour, as the Atraxi communication probes show us images of first many of the monsters defeated by the Doctor, followed by his ten prior incarnations, before Matt Smith is revealed in his “official” costume.
Speaking of which…
38. The Eleventh Hour
The debut of the 11th Doctor, Amy Pond, Rory Williams and Steven Moffat as a producer. New Tardis interior. New opening theme and title sequence. New sonic screwdriver. New season-long plotline. One of the best episodes of the series, and my favorite “New Doctor” story. The episode has a straightforward but surprisingly complex plot, which manages to juggle all of its elements flawlessly, all the way to the very last image. I liked David Tennant, but this story very quickly turned him into a fond memory for me. One of the strongest aspects of the story is the way it handles introducing Amy Pond, first as a young girl, then as a grown woman. Best moment: the Doctor realizes who the policewoman in front of him is. “Why did you say six months?” / “Why did you say five minutes?!”
39. Amy Pond & Rory Williams
Amy is the companion whose life we ultimately see the most extensively over the course of the series. Her childhood, marriage, becoming a mother, seeing her daughter grow up, career as a model, personal life at home, adventures in the Tardis, and even in a way her death, are all key parts of her on-screen story.
Rory started off looking like he was going to be a boring retread of Mickey Smith (a character I was never bonkers about in the first place) but he soon surpassed that by 1. joining the Tardis crew, 2. Winning Amy’s heart, 3. Dying, 4. Coming back to life as a monster, 5. Killing Amy (almost), and 6. Marrying Amy. It sounds absurd when you say it, but the idea of this humble, nervous nurse becoming the Lone Centurion was a great one. Surely his greatest moment came in A Good Man Goes to War when he delivered his “message” to the Cybermen.
In the end, I was ready for Amy and Rory to leave the series, the stories of their last season having weaned us off of them. But they remain two of the series most indelible companions, especially Amy – as so much of her time on the show was really her story. “This is the story of Amelia Pond. And this is how it ends.”
40. Multi-Doctor Stories
The nature of the brilliant “regeneration” conceit in Doctor Who makes it inevitable that fans want to see multiple Doctors together. And thankfully, the show has given us this on occasion. Not too much, because that would keep the show from moving forward, and because the idea actually works against making great stories. But we’ve seen it enough to give us a taste of it, usually at the show’s anniversaries. First The Three Doctors, followed by The Five Doctors, and then the brilliantly named The Two Doctors. More recently we had the brief Time Crash and of course the out-by-the-time-you-read-this Day of the Doctor. There was also the 30th anniversary charity mini-story Dimensions in Time, which was abysmal of course, but since there was zero chance of producing such an installment and making it any good, we should all just be grateful it managed to stuff so many characters into it.
But if that’s not enough for you, there’s plenty of “Expanded Universe” stuff to enjoy as well. The first original novel to feature the 8th Doctor was appropriately called The Eight Doctors. I just listened to the Big Finish 50th Anniversary audio story The Light at the End, which also teamed up Doctors the first 8 Doctors (and featured the original actors for Doctors 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8). There’s also a funny one-off comic story called Happy Deathday which featured the first eight Doctors dealing with an attack by an insecure Beige Guardian. Other novels, short stories, comics and audios feature other combinations.
And then there is all the fan-produced material out there! It’s too much to mention (and there’d be piles of it I have never seen or heard) but I will highlight one in particular: The Ten Doctors, a comic written and drawn by Rich Morris on his website that is nearly 250 pages long! It’s a bit overwhelming, and features tons and tons of characters, monsters, aliens, and concepts beyond the first ten Doctors themselves, but is an enjoyable read and helped to bridge the lonely months while we were waiting for the next special to come out in 2009. You can have a look at it and other works by the same creator here.
41. The Name of the Doctor
At the time of this writing, this is the last episode to have been aired. It was not the 50th anniversary episode, but you could be forgiven for thinking it was, as it featured glimpses of all the previous Doctors and what basically amounted to a new scene featuring William Hartnell’s first Doctor. It also featured a “game changing” conclusion as it was revealed that there is another, previously unknown, incarnation of the Doctor (a “Dark Doctor”), played by John Hurt, who will figure heavily in the actual 50th anniversary story. Furthermore, the story ended with a brilliant dialog exchange which made brilliant use of the episode’s title.
DARK DOCTOR: What I did, I did without choice.
DOCTOR: I know.
DARK DOCTOR: In the name of peace and sanity.
DOCTOR: But not in the name of the Doctor!
42. The “Entropy” Cycle
By this I refer to three related stories that saw the transition from Tom Baker to Peter Davison as the Doctor – Keeper of Traken, Logopolis, and Castrovalva. Largely written by Christopher H. Bidmead, who was the outgoing Script Editor for the first two stories, and the actual writer of the last two, the sequence of serials established a new status quo for the series, introducing a new Doctor, bringing two new companions onto the scene (Nyssa and Tegan), and reintroducing the Master into the Doctor Who universe. Keeper of Traken was especially shocking, as you saw a truly vicious Master wreak havoc and destruction upon a world, and ultimately kill the show’s leading guest star in a shock twist to gain a new body for himself. Logopolis featured the series’ best regeneration to date, with effective direction and incidental music combining with some well edited flashbacks to the 4th Doctor’s companions and enemies to create a memorable farewell for Tom Baker. And Castrovalva introduced Peter Davison in the midst of some heady scientific and metaphysical concepts, and gave us one of the show’s best quotes: “You made us, man of evil, but we are free!”
Always such a bittersweet experience, saying goodbye to one favorite actor in the show, welcoming someone new. Sometimes it’s been done well, sometimes it’s been pretty poor (I’m looking at you, Jon Pertwee to Tom Baker). Amongst the best were Tom Baker exiting into Peter Davison in Logopolis, as mentioned above. Even better was Peter Davison turning into Colin Baker in The Caves of Androzani, with all of the 5th Doctor’s companions and the Master turning up, not in flashbacks, but in hallucinations, either to damn him or spur him on to live. And giving Colin Baker a few lines at the end of the story was a stroke of genius that has been repeated at every opportunity since.
Then of course there is the dynamic transition from Christopher Eccleston to David Tennant, with the Doctor standing up as massive amounts of energy are discharged. Sadly, the actual regenerations since then have not been as fun since, partly because there’s been a lot of scientific gobbledy-gook pretending the explain what had always been an almost mystical experience beforehand, and because the same effect has been used each time (which makes sense, but was never the case in the old series) and because we’ve seen it so many times (five, I think, with only one of those resulting in a new Doctor).
44. The Doctor’s Family
Susan is the Doctor’s granddaughter. Jenny is the Doctor’s daughter, after a fashion. And River Song is sort of his wife. But there have been other hints as well, that have given the normally hard-to-read hero a bit more depth. For example, the Second Doctor had a conversation with new companion Victoria Waterfield in Tomb of the Cybermen, when she asked if he could remember his family: “Oh yes, I can when I want to. And that’s the point, really. I have to really want to, to bring them back in front of my eyes. The rest of the time they sleep in my mind, and I forget. And so will you. Oh yes, you will. You’ll find there’s so much else to think about. So remember, our lives are different to anybody else’s. That’s the exciting thing. There’s nobody in the universe can do what we’re doing.” And the Tenth Doctor once said to Donna, in the face of the suddenly created Jenny, “When I look at her, I can see them. The hole they left, all the pain that filled it. I just don’t know if I can face that every day….When they died, that part of me died with them. They’ll never come back. Not now.” I like the mystery and the sadness that lies behind it all.
45. The Evolving Myth of the Tardis
It’s just a ship? Or is it alive? Back in the original series, the Tardis came with very little explanation – we got more and more as the show went on. It was bigger on the inside than the outside. It travels through time and space. It was supposed to change appearance but didn’t. Sometimes it was full of furniture, other times it was very spartan. It had a swimming pool and a library and an arboretum and a cloak room. Eventually, it was a bit like a person, and was somewhat telepathic. It made language translation for the companions possible. It’s got a Hostile Action Displacement System, it can turn invisible, and parts of it could be jettisoned in case of an emergency. It’s blown up at least three times, but always seems to come out on top.
When the Fox TV movie came on in 1996, we thought that the redesign of the Tardis console room was a bit of a “rebooted” aspect of the show, but later we realized that this is just something that the Tardis does. The 5th Doctor called it “changing the desktop theme” in Time Crash, and the 11th Doctor obviously fully expected the Tardis to do it itself.
Then we got The Doctor’s Wife in Season Six, and we discovered that on some level, the Tardis is alive, sentient, and possesses self-will. One of the best moments in the episode came when we found out that though the Doctor considered himself to have stolen the Tardis, the Tardis considered herself to have stolen the Doctor.
46. The Doctor’s speech in The Trial of a Time Lord, part 13
Colin Baker wasn’t my favorite Doctor, and there aren’t really any of his stories that I’d consider to be one of the series best, but he has an angry speech in Episode 13 of The Trial of a Time-Lord that is one of the show’s greatest moments. “In all my travelings throughout the universe I have battled against evil, against power-mad conspirators. I should have stayed here. The oldest civilisation, decadent, degenerate and rotten to the core. Ha! Power-mad conspirators, Daleks, Sontarans, Cybermen, they’re still in the nursery compared to us. Ten million years of absolute power, that’s what it takes to be really corrupt!”
Of course, it was written by Robert Holmes.
47. John Smith and A Journal of Impossible Things
Probably my favorite David Tennant story that wasn’t written by Steven Moffat was the two parter Human Nature & Family of Blood (there are other contenders, but not too many). This outstanding drama was written by Paul Cornell and featured the 10th Doctor temporarily taking on the mind and identity of a human being, getting a job, keeping a journal of his mysterious dreams, and falling in love. The major strength of the story is that the man he becomes – John Smith – is overall so much more likeable than the Doctor, so it’s actually quite a tragedy when he gives up his “life” in order to again become the Time Lord once again. David Tennant’s performance as both characters is outstanding, and is the centerpiece of a rich and full narrative.
48. Timey-Wimey Madness
Most of the time in the show’s history, time travel has been purely functional – a mechanism to get the heroes to the setting of the adventure. There were exceptions, where stories would touch the implications of time travel itself: The Space Museum, The Time Meddler, Day of the Daleks, The Pyramids of Mars, Mawdryn Undead, and others. But it’s really Steven Moffat that took this to another level, and not just in the revival series. It’s already apparent in his unofficial comic Doctor Who special, Curse of the Fatal Death starring Rowan Atkinson of all people, amongst others. But have a gander at Blink, or The Big Bang, or The Wedding of River Song, and you see just how outrageous all this time traveling can be.
49. An Unearthly Child & the Mystery
The first episode. Dated and “primitive” by many standards, but atmospheric and intelligent and brilliant. The Doctor debuts exactly as we would never imagine – an ambiguous, unpleasant figure who we wouldn’t guess 50 years later would be a hero beloved by children everywhere. Three soon-to-be companions follow William Hartnell and create a legend. More than that, the episode establishes the sense of mystery which will characterize the series. Who is this Doctor? Where is he from? What is he doing there? Even the title of the show captures it – Doctor Who.
And with all the revelations and disclosures that have come since then, the series has always been able to keep that mystery intact. Whether it’s questions about the Doctor’s homeworld, about his relationship with the Master or River Song, about his true identity, about his actions in the Last Great Time War, about his name, or about his impossible companion, there’s always been something unknown about the Doctor to keep in that state of wonder.
50. The Series’ Capacity to Constantly Reinvent Itself While Respecting Its History
New Doctors. New companions. New monsters. New Tardis interiors. New opening theme arrangements. But the same madman in a box.
The Doctor is a old man, exploring and trying to never interfere. The Doctor is a time traveling hobo, inevitably interfering. The Doctor is a brilliant scientist, saving earth from alien invasions. The Doctor is a reluctant agent of the Time Lords, or of powerful cosmic entities. The Doctor is the president of Gallifrey. The Doctor is a cosmic manipulator, arranging events according to his own good purposes. Everyone knows the Doctor – he moves armies with the snap of his fingers. Nobody knows the Doctor – he is nothing more than a myth.
Throughout a half century of stories, Doctor Who has never allowed itself to become static. It’s adjusted its status quo, it’s adjusted its format, and it’s continually grown its own mythology, keeping things fresh for the viewers, yet without ever making a hard break (“Reboot”) from its heritage. The Revival series did this especially strongly, by suddenly making the Doctor the last of his race and introducing the mystery of the Last Great Time War. But there are countless smaller examples. It’s something I love about the show, because it means I can tune in at basically any place in the 50 year history of the show and get some small chapter of its huge, fascinating narrative.
51. And the Rest…
Verity Lambert. Raymond Cusick. Jon Pertwee. Tom Baker. Paul McGann. Christopher Eccleston. David Tennant. Matt Smith. Roger Delgado. Deborah Watling. Elisabeth Sladen. Ian Marter. Mary Tamm. John Leeson. Sarah Sutton. Janet Fielding. Mark Strickson. Barry Letts. Cybermen. Peladon. Giant Maggots. The Land of Fiction. The Fast Return Switch. The Key to Time. The War Games. The Terileptils. Omega. Bessie. The Sonic Screwdriver. Psychic Paper. Jackson Lake. Professor Yana. Sally Sparrow. “Are you my mummy?” Harriet Jones. Davros. Jenny. The Impossible Girl. And everything else I haven’t highlighted.
50 years and counting.