Weekly Geeky Question #47: What do I think about Doctor Who?

Well, it’s Weekly Geeky Question time, and unfortunately the trials of Real Life, Work and So On have resulted in my friend Rod not being able to share a do-able question with me this week.  So to fill in, I’ll put forward my own, relatively simple one…but which will still result in a long-winded answer.

What do I think about Doctor Who?

Doctor Who Series 7B

This comes to mind because recently it was November 23rd, which is the “birthday” of Doctor Who.  Specifically, it’s the 55th birthday, as the series debuted on November 23, 1963.  As I am a Grown Up, I didn’t actually celebrate this birthday in any particular way.  However, my younger two daughters and their friend decided that the thing to do was to paint a nearly life-sized TARDIS, make a Doctor Who-themed cake, get dad to buy some Jelly Babies, and watch the Human Nature / Family of Blood two parter from Season 3.

Anyway, since it’s the 55th birthday of Doctor Who, (or it was just days ago) and I like lists, and I am often long-winded, then let’s quickly see if I can share 55 thoughts about my favorite show.  And for the sake of math and organization, we’re going to break those thoughts down into five categories, eleven thoughts each.

Category One:  General

Doctor Who 9th Doctor Christopher Eccleston

So again…What do I think about Doctor Who?

1. Well, I like it, obviously

I caught on to the show in the midst of the American mini-craze back in the mid 1980’s, and used to watch on a static-filled PBS station that I was tuning into via UHF.  Indeed, it was partially because of this that my parents were inspired to get Cable TV for my household.  Also, I found out recently that I helped inspire an interest in science fiction in a guy I was friends with as a child, and that that partially came about because he thought if I was so interested in the show that I’d watch it with such bad reception, it must have something going for it.

2. The Scope

The 11th Doctor once said, “All of time and space, anything that ever happened or ever will–where do you want to start?”  That’s a good summary of the show in general.  It can take the audience literally anywhere, and if it should.  When it’s on its game, the show grabs me and drops me into the middle of some wild adventure, practically daring me to keep up.  So not just silly for the sake of silly, not just exotic for the sake of exotic, but daring and surprising.  The last episode took place in the offices of a space-Amazon online retailer and subverted the expectations of where the true evil lay.  So that was fun.

3. Regeneration

Maybe, after Time Travel, the most significant concept to the longevity of the series, is the idea that the Doctor can periodically rewrite his (or her) entire biology and personality, while still maintaining his (or her) core ethos and values.  Many people have their favorite and least favorite Doctors, still more have Doctors that they generally like better or worse…but only the most narrow-minded would actually wish that their favorite Doctor was the only Doctor.

4. Regeneration Scenes

When the actual main Doctor regenerates, it’s a big deal on the show because not only are we watching something so “special” in the internal continuity of the story, but we’re also saying goodbye to a potentially beloved lead presence in the show’s current episodes.  (There are Regenerations on the show that haven’t signified the farewell of the current lead actor playing the Doctor, but right now we’re not talking about them.)  We have had thirteen lead performers play the Doctor in canon Doctor Who, which means theoretically there are twelve Regeneration scenes amongst them (since the latest Doctor is still the current Doctor).  But that’s not quite true.  While the clip of 1st Doctor William Hartnell regenerating into the 2nd Doctor still exists, the scenes around it don’t, so it’s a bit hard to be a judge of it.  2nd Doctor Patrick Troughton was farewelled without his successor being cast, so we never quite saw him regenerate.  7th Doctor Sylvester McCoy debuted without his predecessor being available, so the efforts to gloss that over are pantomime-ish at best.  And the 7th Doctor regenerated into 8th Doctor Paul McGann a good six years after his last episode aired, so it didn’t have that feeling of “transition” that the best regenerations do.  And similarly, the 8th Doctor regenerated into his successor in a very cool sequence, but which also was produced 17 years after he’d was no longer the “incumbent” Doctor.

So that leaves 7 actual regeneration scenes that are, in my opinion, as they should be…featuring both the departing and incoming Doctor, and happening in the course of current, ongoing narrative.  Of these, the best are the departure of the 5th Doctor, and the departure of the 9th.

5. The Best Regeneration Scene

Fifth Doctor Peter Davison finishes up with not only his best story, but the story of the series for many years, Caves of Androzani, in what is the best directed and acted such scene we’d ever had.  It’s also the first regeneration to give dialogue to the incoming Doctor, so that you have both a strong farewell to the departing Doctor and a cool tease for the new guy.  The only thing that mars it is the Doctor’s companion, Peri, is filmed in a purposely provocative way which needless distracts from the drama of what is happening.

6. The Other Best Regeneration Scene

With the 9th Doctor, you’ve got the first time that the “new series” showed a regeneration, which it did to spectacular effect with the Doctor standing up while an inferno of energy erupts from with him.  (This effect has since been repeated a lot, to the point where its actually a bit tired.)  David Tennant then shows up for a couple of lines and immediately impresses with his charming personality.  The only weakness to this scene is that the episode itself (The Parting of the Ways) isn’t all that good.

7. Patrick Troughton

All credit to William Hartnell for getting the series going by creating his Doctor, a quirky and semi-subversive grandfather-figure…but a lot of what became enduring about the Doctor as a character was invented by Second Doctor Patrick Troughton.  This is where we began to see the Doctor as a “Madman with a Box”, playing the fool while defeating a world-conquering army or toppling a dictator.  Plus, he had to convince all those confused audience members in the 1960’s to keep watching.

8. Sonic Screwdriver

In the 1980’s producer John Nathan-Turner apparently decided that the sonic screwdriver, the Doctor’s multipurpose tool, was turning into too much of an “easy out” for his writers, and he had it destroyed in the middle of a story.  When the show was revived in 2005, producer Russell T. Davies apparently decided that an “easy out” was exactly what the show needed, and he gave the screwdriver back to the Doctor and seemingly encouraged his writers to use it at every opportunity if that’s what it took to keep the story moving.  While I can sympathize with Nathan-Turner’s perspective, I think I have to ultimately agree with Davies’ decision, especially given the tighter pace of his episodes.  If the Doctor needs to get through a locked door to advance the story, let’s not spend 20 minutes and a cliffhanger doing it…instead just whip out that Magic Wand and short circuit his way into the next set piece.

Plus, the merchandise sales must be pretty good.

9. Sarah Jane Smith

I have nothing against this companion of the Doctor’s, who was a regular for several years in the 1970’s before returning for the revived series and eventually getting her own spin-off.  But while she often gets cited as the best companion the series ever had, I never found her all that special.  Amongst others, I prefer Ian and Barbara, Jamie, Jo Grant, Leela, Amy Pond and Clara Oswald over Sarah Jane.  And again no disrespect, but I didn’t really find Elisabeth Sladen a very compelling lead actress in The Sarah Jane Adventures, even for a children’s series.

10. Death of the Doctor

But having said that, I thought the two part episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures entitled Death of the Doctor, guest starring Matt Smith as the 11th Doctor and Katy Manning as Jo Grant, was really really good. I’m not the biggest fan of Russell T. Davies’ writing, but he did a great job with the 11th Doctor’s voice and constructed a touching look at the idea of the Companions who are left behind, far better than School Reunion, which was a similar-themed episode of the regular series that re-introduced Sarah Jane (albeit written by someone else).

11. Paul Cornell

I mentioned I just watched Human Nature and Family of Blood on Netflix yesterday–a two part story that I’d consider easily one of the series’ best.  It’s written by Paul Cornell, who also write the intriguing (though less satisfying) first season story Father’s Day.  There are basically zero stories from the show’s first seven years (at least) that I’d say were anywhere in the same league as Human Nature and its follow up that were not written by either by Steven Moffat or Russell T. Davies.  I always wondered why Paul Cornell wasn’t asked to write more episodes (or if he was, why he didn’t), since that’s the last we saw of him on the TV series.  He has written Doctor Who audio plays and other material since, though.

Category Two:  The Current Season

Doctor Who Jodie Whittaker 1

12. Overview

I haven’t been blogging about this one but overall I’ve found it fine, and generally enjoyable.  I think Jodie Whittaker is a good actress and I enjoy her take on the Doctor as just a good-hearted, working class traveler who likes to help.  But though I haven’t found any of the episodes to be terribly stupid, I haven’t found any of them to be out-of-this-world fantastic either.  It all feels a bit safe, kind of like watching the Doctor Who version of Solo.

13. Female Doctor

For some people this was controversial, but while I didn’t exactly look forward to this idea, I don’t think it’s a big deal either.  The Doctor really one of the few characters where it really doesn’t matter whether they are male or female, or what race they are shown to be.  I think it’s weird when people try to apply the same logic to other established characters, where I think people’s gender, race and human culture actually do matter.  Maybe the weirdest thing I’ve heard about this is the idea that it’d be all modern and appropriate if James Bond was female…a thought which came from one of that franchises’ producers, although I believe they later walked that statement back.

14. Three Companions

I like them all, but I think there are too many of them.  The show’s had three current companions before, but back then stories were a lot longer.  One often feels like the current show is scrambling at times to find something for everyone to do, and even where that’s been handled well, it’s meant we simply haven’t had as much time as I’d have liked getting to know each character, including the Doctor herself.  If I had to choose, I guess I’d keep Ryan and Yaz–I like Graham, but the I think the other two are more useful to the show’s format.

15. New Threats

I think the Daleks, Cybermen and the Master are easily overused, so I wholeheartedly approve the idea of keeping away from them for a little while…even if I haven’t found any of the new creepies to be particularly memorable.

16. Semi-Historical Episodes

The episodes that have visited periods in earth’s history have been some of the stronger ones this season.  Since the revival series began, these sorts of stories have usually been used to celebrate the virtues of the British (with the Doctor fawning over Shakespeare or Dickens or Agatha Christie and such), but this time around we’ve traveled further afield, with the American Civil Rights movement and the partitioning of India.  Although Rosa went a bit too soap-boxy for my tastes, this approach overall is one of the noticeable improvements in the current series compared to previous efforts.

17. Demons of Punjab

The cinematography in Demons of Punjab was really beautiful.  Apparently, it was filmed in Spain, standing in for India and Pakistan.

18. The Quality of Mercy

In real life, if you have an animal that is actively suffering and fearful with no hope of finding relief or improved quality of life, it’s actually merciful to kill it.  Therefore the Doctor sermonizing about how wrong it is to kill a giant spider that is in exactly that condition just seems ridiculous.  They should have shown her actively seeking to put it down, even if she didn’t want to use a gun to do so.  Naturally, the character who does represent that position is portrayed as such a boorish oaf that no such sympathy is possible.

19. Chris Noth

All the way through Arachnids in the UK, I was thinking, “This Jack Robertson guy is the sort of dude who is definitely going to get killed,” like those idiot-hunters in every Jurassic Park movie.  So it was a nice surprise that he lived.  It would have been better if had had a positive side to his personality, though.  However, either way, Chris Noth (who I’m familiar with as part of the original Law & Order cast) did a good job.

20. Subverting Expectations

I like that the robots in Kerblam! turned not to be the villains (even if they did basically murder an innocent girl to make a point), and that the giant spiders in Arachnids of the UK turned out to just be ordinary animals that got out of control (even if they did eat a bunch of people), and that the “demons” in Demons of Punjab turned out not to be the villains…but you can go to that well too often.  Let’s hope that the next evil-looking monster actually turns out to be an evil monster.

21. Pting

This was a neat little idea, this small, somewhat cute creature that just wants to eat machinery.  It’s a different sort of threat, which is fun.

22. Stenza

Even though I generally like the idea of disconnected standalone episodes this time around, I think I wouldn’t mind if the season finale brought back the Stenza (like the tooth-headed guy from the first episode) but in greater mass.  They seem like the sort of race you could develop a bit.

Category Three:  Top Eleven Stories

Doctor Who 10th Doctor David Tennant

Not, let me be clear, the Top “Eleventh” Stories.  Rather, what are the best episodes of the revival series of Doctor Who?  I limit myself to the revival series for the sake of my memory. Let’s consider, in order of release…

23. The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances

Creepy concept, some horrific images, and a great character-driven story make Steven Moffat’s debut scripts for the series into some of my favorites.  The climax where we realize that the whole thing really is about the child’s question (“Are you my Mummy?”) and we see that the Doctor does indeed dance, is one of the show’s most satisfying.

24. Human Nature / The Family of Blood

I’ve always felt that David Tennant’s 10th Doctor was the one most in need of a good telling off, and the one he receives from Joan Redfern at the end of this two-parter is almost itself worth the price of admission.  But more than that, we have a deeply touching and emotional tale that is also about war and killer scarecrows.  It is perhaps my favorite performance by Tennant for the show.

25. Blink

Steven Moffat introduces the most memorable enemy of the revived Doctor Who in this story which packs an amazing amount of plot into its regular length runtime.  It is perhaps the most incredibly constructed story that Doctor Who has ever had, feeling like a completely compelling adventure that is at the heart of the series, even though the Doctor and Martha barely appear.

26. Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead

The idea of the Vashta Narada–flesh eating spores that fly around in swarms of darkness–wears thin on repeated viewings, particularly because of their strange choice to confine themselves to spacesuits and to hobble around ineffectively, but the rest of this episode, including Donna Noble’s virtual prison, the enigma of River Song, and the general mystery of what is going on are all marvelous.

27. Midnight

As I mentioned, this is Russell T. Davies’ best Doctor Who script, where the Doctor is confined and trapped and finds that all of his strengths–his intelligence, his persuasive abilities–are turned against him.  Creepy proof that the greatest horror is implied rather than seen.

28. The Eleventh Hour

A simplish plot but a fantastic introduction to a new Doctor and a new companion.  The show is constructed in a way that allows us to meet the Doctor through young Amelia’s eyes, and then to meet grown up Amelia (Amy) through the Doctor’s eyes.  Matt Smith is immediately charming and delightful and the story a masterpiece of energy and fun.

29. The Time of Angels / Flesh and Stone

It doesn’t completely hold up under logical scrutiny, but this two-parter grips from the get-go, delivering loads of amazing moments for both the Doctor and Amy.  It’s the first story where Steven Moffat is able to start bringing River Song where he really wants to take her, and its the last time the Weeping Angels were awesome.

30. The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang

The conclusion of Steven Moffat’s first and best season-long arc takes place in this inventive and emotionally-charged two-parter.  The first part gives us one of the show’s best ever cliffhangers, and the second one of the most satisfying conclusions.

31. The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon

The Silence, introduced here, are my favorite Doctor Who monster of the modern age.  The story about the Doctor becoming aware of a threat that nobody can remember has an epic quality rare for one that takes place mostly in earth’s past, and its full of all sorts of cool moments.  The only real downside is that Steven Moffat failed to follow-up on many of the concepts introduced here in an effective way.

32. The Day of the Doctor

Not the best Doctor Who story ever, but one of the most enjoyable, and certainly the best celebration of the series that was ever produced.  It’d be strange for someone to call this their favorite story, I think, but it’s a solid entry at #9 or #10 of a Top 10 list.

33. Heaven Sent

An absolute tour-de-force of writing, acting, directing, production design…even cameo-ing.  Heaven Sent is a nearly one-man show that compels and engages at every turn.  Peter Capaldi is amazing as the Doctor.  However, I might not be able to include it here if I couldn’t consider it a stand-alone episode, and separate it from the less satisfying follow-up, Hell Bent.

Category Four:  Steven Moffat

Doctor Who 11th Doctor Matt Smith

Looking at my Top 11, we’ll see quickly that 9 of the stories were written by Steven Moffat.  He is definitely my favorite Doctor Who writer, and favorite producer. However, I’m not unable to admit that he’s also made some bad mistakes.  Here are 11 of them.

34. Weird Omission

In The Beast Below, the Doctor–rightly–is furious at humanity  for caging and torturing a huge intelligent life form to ensure its own survival.  But he also forgets that he earlier discovered that the world they are in is a police state where the government filters out its weakest citizens and feeds them to that same animal to keep it going.  Where’s the righteous anger at all the underperforming school children who were murdered by their own government?

35. Melody River Pond Song

The revelation of River Song’s identity should not have been a pre-destination paradox.  Having no dramatic reason why the Doctor discovers the truth except that it was some sort of fated “time” severely steals away the drama of the moment.

36. Amy & Rory’s Marriage Problems

Having Amy and Rory have marriage problems is all right.  Having them get solved in one conversation in one episode where they realize that they’ve misunderstood each other about having children is really dumb writing.  Either let this development linger over several episodes, or drop it all together.

37. Silence on the Silence

Holding off on a full explanation of the Silence’s activities at the end of Season Six only to squish it into few lines of hasty dialogue in Matt Smith’s concluding Christmas special is a mistake–some really bad pacing there.

38. Priests?

Similarly, the attempt to “explain” the Silence as a bunch of rogue priests whose powers were genetically developed so they could hear confessions (and then make you forget you confessed?) is stupid.  They were one of my favorite villains / monsters, and they got chucked under a bus.

39. Paternoster Gang

The idea of the Paternoster Gang–Madame Vastra, Jenny and Strax–is a fun one, but when they were turned into a poster for a socially progressive view of sexuality and marriage (around the time of Deep Breath), it really robbed any potential interest in them as characters.

40. Stupid, Stupid Androids

Speaking of Deep Breath, the idea that the androids couldn’t tell that people weren’t alive just because they were holding their breath is really, really stupid.

41. Bill’s Conclusion, Part I

Moffat two-parter that concluded Season 10–World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls–was excellent, except for the dumb way it concluded Bill’s story.  She’d been killed and turned into a Cybermen–so far, so good–but then suddenly the alien goo from the first episode of the season…and Bill just gallivants off without saying goodbye to the Doctor because it looks like a cute girl she spoke to once.  Very shallow.  If Bill was heterosexual and the goo looked like a cute guy, nobody would have even considered this.

42. Bill’s Conclusion, Part II

And top of that, Moffat’s previous companion, Clara, was written out of the show in almost exactly the same way.  She also died, was brought back to life, and then went off on her own open-ended time-space adventures with a bizarre recurring female guest star.  It’s a strangely specific well to be going back to, I think.

43. The First Doctor

Moffat’s last story, Twice Upon A Time, has got some good moments in it, but one of its weaknesses is the way it makes the First Doctor–who as originally portrayed is a subversive grandfather figure–into some sort of old-fashioned fuddy-duddy who keeps making comments about getting girls to dust the TARDIS, or even gives a bit of a “boys will be boys” boast about his prowess with women.  Really bad characterization in exchange for a cheap joke.

44. Ho-Hum Regeneration

I mentioned regenerations earlier, but the 12th Doctor’s farewell moments are the most disappointing of all the modern Doctor’s equivalent scenes, just because it doesn’t really bring anything new to the table.  The Doctor gives one of his less inspiring speeches, and then he just regenerates.  Again the TARDIS blows up a bit, again the Doctor is left in danger…again again again.

Category Five:  Not the Top-Eleven

Doctor Who 12th Doctor Peter Capaldi

In addition to the episodes I’ve mentioned, there are lots of other good ones, okay ones, and bad ones.  Amongst them, there are a bunch that show up on other people’s “best of” lists”, which I find surprising, confusing, or even baffling.

45. Rose

Sure, it was exciting to see Doctor Who back on TV in this first ever episode of the revival series.  But it’s not a very good episode in and of itself.  Rose and the Doctor are both charming but they don’t actually do very muche.  And there’s a whole lot of silliness with plastic Mickey Smith and a deadly wheelie-bin.

46. Dalek

The episode was okay, making very clear the trauma of the Doctor’s ongoing battles with the Daleks.  However, the story itself is a bit one-note until the end, with the Dalek basically just making its way through a gauntlet of ineffective humans, killing one after another.

47. Boom Town

This is an odd little story, highlighting one of the revived series’ favorite shticks, which is humanizing its enemies.  Here, Margaret, the surviving Slitheen, reveals that there’s more to her than a bad CGI farty killer baby-monster.  The highlight of the story is her dinner conversation with the Doctor, where he–rightly–points out that her pleas for mercy are not justified.  However, the rest of the episode is pretty terrible–including a lame story about a power plant, Rose being pretty terrible to Mickey (and vice versa), and the presence of the Slitheen in general.

48. School Reunion

I feel pretty confident in saying that if this episode had not brought back Sarah Jane Smith, and instead had just featured some other previously-unseen old friend of the Doctors, then it wouldn’t be such a favorite.  That may seem obvious, but it highlights the fact that it’s not the plot, not the dialogue, and not the monster, etc, that makes anyone remember it.  Aside from the nostalgia factor, it’s all a bit ho-hum, which makes this kind of the Unification II of Doctor Who.

49. Love and Monsters

This is really one of someone’s favorite episodes?  I guess every cup of tea is somebody‘s cup of tea.  Actually, this episode had potential, showing an interesting little slice of life in the Whoniverse.  But then it becomes about a big fat alien absorbing people, and a love story between a nerdy guy and a cinderblock.  The terrible, terrible second half completely throws away any charm it had in the beginning.  It’s the Threshold of Doctor Who.

50. Runaway Bride

This is the Christmas special that introduced Donna Noble to the audience, and showed her in such a manner that we never would have guessed that she’d turn out to be one of the series’ best companions.  It also features an annoying villain, a sort of giant, ranting spider-lady.  It’s an even bet between her and Donna which is the more annoying shrill character.

51. Partners in Crime

And this is the story that re-introduced Donna.  It goes a long way to making her a more enjoyable character, and there are a few really funny moments.  But it also includes a plot that is far, far too silly to take seriously, with an alien nanny turning people’s fat into little alien babies.  Gross.

52. Turn Left

This episode has a great concept, giving an overview of the series’ overall storyline if the Doctor had died a few years earlier.  But it never quite makes sense.  Rose Tyler shows up saying a bunch of gobbledy-gook that doesn’t really explain anything, and then the episode ends with a bizarre call-back to “Bad Wolf” that isn’t explained either.  A cool idea that falls flat.

53. The Waters of Mars

This episode is actually pretty good, though standard, horror story.  But the whole conclusion rides on the idea of the Doctor deciding that he’s through with playing by the Time Lord rules, and it’s time to start imposing his will on the universe.  That’s a pretty cool idea–but it falls apart at the end when he is undone after someone he shouldn’t have saved takes her own life to set things right.  But it doesn’t make sense–she was supposed to die with the rest of her people on Mars, a victim of an unknown terror.  Instead, she kills herself in her own home on earth.  How does that set anything right?  If the episode had just ended with the Doctor realizing that his actions had had a whole bunch of negative consequences about humanity not making their way into space when they should have, it would have been more effective.

54. End of Time

This finale to the 10th Doctor’s era, and to Russell T. Davies’ era, suffers from the exceedingly ridiculous idea of having the Master have a plan to turn everyone on earth into himself.  Sure, it’d be bad if it really happened, but it makes for silly television.

55. Vincent and the Doctor

The strength of this episode is entirely in the performance by Tony Curran as Vincent van Gogh, and how the episode highlights the mental troubles of the artist.  It’s decently told as far as it goes, and certainly brings the feels, but it’s not a very engaging plot.  I always think of this one as a fine episode that gets a strange amount of extreme love.

Doctor Who Jon Pertwee

So there we go, 55 thoughts about (mostly New) Doctor Who, including the new series.  Be back next week!







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