Reading and Watching, April 2014

Ohhhh, it’s been a while. I’ve spent the last few months either onstage or writing sketch comedy instead of writing about Doctor Who. Which is healthy, I think. I do have a couple of Who-related posts I’m drafting, just for fun, as well as a music project I’m really excited about. Right now I’m thinking the music thing will not be hosted here, but I’ll post pointers to it from here at the very least. So to the two people who are still subscribed to this site in some way: I’m still alive, for now, and still writing, for now, and there’s stuff in the works.

To tide you over, and maybe push that costume down the page (it’s not growing on me — hopefully I just need to see it in action), here are some short notes on the stuff I’ve been consuming over the past few months.

Let’s start with comics, just because. I’m super excited about Saga, the latest acclaimed series from Bryan K. Vaughan (who wrote Ex Machina and Runaways, which I liked, and Y: The Last Man, which I generally didn’t) and Fiona Staples. The art is fantastic, and the story is wonderfully all over the place, centering on two soldiers on opposing sides of a war who fall in love and have a baby and are running for their lives. The “all over the place” part is that the fantasy world they’re in is the most freewheeling, imaginative one I’ve seen in a long time. Android noblemen with TVs for heads, amphibious tabloid reporters, feline lie detectors, just the right amount of magic, plus a ghost babysitter who’s minus a pelvis and legs. Done right, this kind of no-rules fantasy world is the most fun you can have in fiction, and so far this series has me hooked. Meanwhile I’m souring on superheroes. I picked up an issue of She-Hulk just because the art was cute, but I’m not sure it’s worth $3-$4 a month. And Brian Azzarello’s Wonder Woman…I’m trying, but let’s be honest, it’s really Brian Azzarello’s Greek Gods, Oh, and Some Amazon Without a Personality. I’m giving it till the end of the third volume to get better and then I’m cutting my golden lasso loose.

Bookwise, I’ve got about ten going at once, which is even easier to do with a Kindle than it was with real books. The last one I finished was Grasshopper Jungle by an Andrew Smith who didn’t write “Full Circle.” Instead he wrote the apocalypse as told by Kurt Vonnegut after an all-night William S. Burroughs bender, which is a terrible description, so forget it. It’s actually also one of a handful of books I’ve read that pretty much nails what it’s like to be a bisexual guy, not just the interior conflicts but also the effect it has on your relationships and the way you feel about yourself. It’s good shit. I liked it. I’m just starting Under the Skin, which I might or might not finish before I see the movie.

Speaking of movies, I finally gave Sucker Punch a chance and was pleasantly surprised. I don’t think it’s great art, but I agree with Philip Sandifer that it’s way better than the cheesecakey cover would make it appear. I’m not and hope never to be in the business of deciding whether something is feminist or not, but if you are, you might find it’s not a no-brainer.

Then I watched Scarface, certainly not a feminist movie. I don’t know if it’s great art — again, I think probably not — but it was fun to watch. Pacino’s quite good, though his Cuban accent seemed kinda cartoony most of the time; I kept trying to squint and imagine an actual Cuban in the role. It doesn’t help that he’s so famous, because every time a gangster crosses him you just want to reach out and slap them and go, “This is Al Pacino, doofus! If you’re not on his side by the end of the scene, you’re dead meat!” And poor Manny. I knew he was doomed, but at least he lasted longer than I expected.

TVwise I’m trying (so, so late) to get into Community. The first episode was okay. I’ve heard you have to get through the first season before it starts to get really great. Why do you hear that so often? It’s not like it’s impossible to be great out of the gate — Arrested Development did it, Dead Like Me did it, the new Battlestar Galactica, even the new Doctor Who. Which brings us to my Who viewing, which mainly has been the Fourth Doctor snoozefest Underworld, and the First Doctor’s regeneration story, The Tenth Planet. I’d never seen the latter before, though I’d read the novelisation. It’s way more Troughtonesque than Hartnellish. It’s pretty good for the time. The Cybermen are super weird in it, and while the ways in which they’re weird are often laughable, they could do worse than being that weird again.

Capaldi’s Costume


It’s not bad. My first reaction was that it was somehow both too fussy and too plain, and definitely too much like a costume. The purple jacket from season 8B was getting to be a little much already, and this is in the same self-conscious vein. But then I saw the images juxtaposing Capaldi and Jon Pertwee, and those make it very clear what they were going for. If Tennant was Davisonesque and Smith was the best mix of Baker and Troughton there could ever be, Capaldi can very easily be Pertwee.

Shoes: A+
Pants: C
Jacket: B-
Shirt: A
Cardigan: WTF?

It’s going to be an interesting season. I still haven’t decided if I want to write about it or not. I might just try enjoying it and reacting to it, rather than critiquing it. We’ll see.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

When I was a kid, I loved The Hobbit and read it over and over. The Lord of the Rings, apart from isolated moments (mostly Shelob and the destruction of the ring at Mount Doom), bored the pants off me — I dragged myself through it once (I used to say that I’d moved my eyes over every page) and that’s it. When the Peter Jackson films were announced, I decided I wanted to try rereading the novels before seeing them, and was surprised to find them quite entertaining. All the stuff with the humans that had made The Two Towers such a slog for me as a kid was suddenly the most interesting part. The films weren’t that bad, though I did find them a little too serious in mood. To my mind, the bits with the hobbits should have lightened things up a bit, but Jackson chose to play up the burden of the ring rather than present Sam and Frodo as I saw them: ordinary, life-sized characters against a backdrop of myth, people who liked the comforts of home and a good meal and feet up by the fire but who had been drawn into a story too large for them. On the whole, though, I enjoyed them well enough.

So I had high hopes for the three films that would somehow stretch the book I’d preferred as a child (and which I have not reread as an adult) into a similar epic. I didn’t love An Unexpected Journey, though; it wasn’t terrible, but some of the scenes felt wrong to me. The dwarves were too heroic, and Bilbo too stoic, to square with what I’d remembered. I’d been one of maybe three people in the world not to be thoroughly enchanted with Andy Serkis’s Gollum (a big part of the problem being that he sounds far too much like Gurgi and Glomer), but the riddle scene could have saved the first movie all by itself for me if Martin Freeman had sold it to me. Unfortunately either Jackson or Freeman has decided that Bilbo is only ever mildly discomfited, never actually afraid, and as agreeable and competent as I find Martin Freeman in other stuff, he barely makes an impression on me in this role.

All of which is a probably unnecessary preamble to my main point, which is that I found The Desolation of Smaug utterly stultifying, a complete waste of time. It wasn’t just the intromission of Legolas and Thauriel and their juvenile, poorly written plot thread. The whole thing was just unwatchable. Of the few parts I enjoyed even a little, only Ian McKellen, Sylvester McCoy, and a few moments in Mirkwood (the dwarves’ disorientation and the spider peril) come to mind. Benedict Cumberbatch is wasted as Smaug (who, like Khan, has been scripted and directed so generically that it hardly matters who’s playing him), and his CGI form somehow manages to be as dull and obvious as possible. Between Cumberbatch’s generic villain delivery and Freeman’s asking-for-a-promotion-on-The-Office minimal panic, the confrontation between dragon and hobbit is as snooze-inducing as the riddle game had been. And the less said about the dwarves’ daffy battle with the dragon, the better.

This is a film that features some dramatic technical achievement hitched to a shocking lack of imagination — the very best in cinematic talent used to bring a plodding, obvious vision to what can barely be called life. Where the film presents scenes that are actually in the book, it tries too hard to present what we expect to see based on decades of taking these books as a template for countless imitative high fantasy sagas, rather than putting an ounce of thought into coming up with something that would seem as fresh and exotic and thrilling to us now as those elements did back then. Where the film presents new or imported material, it flounders and resorts to cliché. Or it drafts Stephen Fry to play an embarrassingly superfluous role.

I know I’m going to sit through the last film. I’ve come this far, and even though we’re at the point in The Hobbit where I started to get bored even while reading it, I’m hopeful that there’s surely something that made Peter Jackson think it would be worth devoting another 2 or 3 hours to this part of the story. But this time I might have to wait until I can watch it in my living room.

If you’d like more reasons to dislike the Jackson Hobbit, meander over to “Peter Jackson’s Violent Betrayal of Tolkien”. I agree with pretty much every word.

The Time of the Doctor

This Christmas, the time of one of my favorite Doctors drew to a slightly disappointing close, with a potentially moving elegy buried beneath an avalanche of eh. But let’s have one more go at picking apart yet another overstuffed Moffat finale, five minutes at a time, and see if we can focus on the good bits.

0:00 – 5:00
Handles is, of course, one of the good bits. We’ve had a cuddly Sontaran and a cuddly Silurian, so naturally now we have to have a cuddly Cyberman (still waiting on the cuddly Dalek, unless you count Oswin). He talks and thinks like K9, which is quite welcome.

This opening was actually quite promising, full of the jokey stuff Moffat does best. “How those Cyber-evenings must fly.” “It’s a roller coaster, this phone call.” “Yeah, I [invented a boyfriend] once. And there’s no easy way to get rid of an android.” Brilliant.

Later we’ll discover that the message is from the Time Lords. So why can’t the Doctor translate it? Why, for that matter, can’t he recognize Dalek or Cyberman ships when he sees them?

And this is still my favorite title sequence of the new series. Maybe ever.

5:01 – 10:00
This bit about the Doctor being naked to go to church is almost funny, but not quite. You can just hear Moffat thinking, “I’m going to have a much harder time doing this joke with Capaldi naked, so I’d better pull the trigger on it now.” It feels a little desperate, but at least it leads to a reprise of the joke in “The End of Time” where elderly women fancy the Doctor.

Cooking a baby in the TARDIS led to a pseudo-Time Lady who was eventually turned into the Doctor’s assassin, so hey, why should cooking a turkey be any less safe, right?

Interesting that where RTD had space-cops (the Shadow Proclamation), Moffat has a space-church-army (the Papal Mainframe).

There’s a theory floating about that Tasha Lem is supposed to be River Song, but the scene just before the ten-minute mark suggests that either she’s never met this Doctor before (hence predating the Alex Kingston version) or her relationship with him is such that he believes she’s never met this Doctor before (hence…I have no idea). I’m calling: no relation.

10:01 – 15:00
Love the spitting-out-the-wine bit one more time.

Love this bit with the Silence, too. They haven’t been my favorite monsters, but this is a nice use of sound and editing to make this one super-creepy. The Angels…a little less super-creepy, but nice attempt.

15:01 – 20:00
It’s quite a good wig, isn’t it? Some more very good quips, well-written by Moffat, well-delivered by Smith. I love the idea of the town where no one can lie, and I love the people he meets who explain it to him.

Interesting that this crack has been haunting the Eleventh Doctor since his incarnation. I missed it the first time round, but this is apparently what was in his room in “The God Complex.” Is it the crack he was afraid of, or the people on the other side? Presumably the former, since at the time he thought those people destroyed, but it’s interesting to have some sort of answer to the question.

The Doctor “nicked [the Seal of the High Council of Gallifrey] off the Master, in the Death Zone” in “The Five Doctors,” all the way back in 1983. There’s your pub quiz sorted.

20:01 – 25:00
The repetition of “Doctor who?” never fails to sound embarrassing. I really hope this is the last time we have to hear it.

25:01 – 30:00
I quite like the idea of immobilizing Weeping Angels with mirrors. It’s surprising we haven’t seen it before now. Why is the wooden Cyberman infringing Dalek copyright on verbs ending in “-ate”?

And why is the Doctor aging? Is it something that happens to him only when he’s been away from the TARDIS, experiencing consecutive time for long periods? He got through 300 years leading up to “The Impossible Astronaut” with barely a laugh line, so there must be something different here.

“Cool is not cool!”

30:01 – 35:00
Here’s the heart of the episode: “a town that needs me to stick around.” This is something that this incarnation of the Doctor in particular has been averse to. In “Vincent and the Doctor” he’s appalled by time passing very slowly in the right order; in “The Power of Three” he can barely sit on a couch thirty seconds waiting for a cube to hatch. I never got the sense that he was waiting to be needed, or waiting to find somewhere to settle down. But maybe for some people that’s how it is; settling down is what happens when they’re thinking that any minute the TARDIS is going to come back. And after a while, they feel as though it’s where they were always meant to be.

And here’s the regeneration limit made official for the new series: it’s 13 lives and out, just like in the classic series, and yes, both John Hurt and Rose’s human Doctor count.

35:01 – 40:00
I don’t really understand why you’d want to forget that you’d confessed. Seems more likely you’d want your confessor to forget what you’d told them. But now we know who blew up the TARDIS, and why there are so many different takes on “silence will fall”: religious sectarianism. Same as it ever was.

And the Daleks know who the Doctor is again. Looks like we got about as much mileage out of the “forgetting the Doctor” setup as we did out of the candy-colored Daleks (i.e. none). How did they kill Tasha several times? Even if she were River Song (talking about herself — “they engineered a psychopath to kill you”), didn’t she shed all her regenerations in “Let’s Kill Hitler”? Is she another Time Lord, and if so, who is she and where did she come from?

40:01 – 45:00
And if she’s not River Song, what does the line “you’ve been fighting the psychopath inside you all your life” refer to? Does the Doctor just have a thing for psychopathic women? Clara seems to think so.

45:01 – 50:00
I like this moment, where Clara’s gran declines to tell the funny anecdote about the pigeon and tells the touching story instead, just after saying how she prefers the crackers with jokes to the ones with poems. It’s contradictory and quite beautiful.

Here’s Tasha flying the TARDIS. More evidence for the River Song hypothesis. I suppose you could also apply it to Romana, or even the Rani, but who wants to go there? I don’t. Can’t there be more than three women in the universe who can fly TARDISes?

I’ve seen some people complaining about the old age makeup. I think it’s pretty effective, myself.

“Talk very fast, hope something good happens, take the credit. That’s generally how it works.”

50:01 – 55:00
I’m not sure I like the idea of the Time Lords coming back at all — generally I like that Gallifrey is no longer in this universe, since lost is almost as good as destroyed for keeping them from causing trouble by returning and being underwhelming. And I’m really not sure I like Clara praying to them and asking them to help “if you love him.” But maybe they help because they know there’s only one person she would talk about this way, and because they know they’re going to need him, and he’s no use to them dead.

It’s a nicely understated way to reboot him: just a little orange snowball through the crack in the universe, and we’re away. However mixed my feelings about this story might be, I do appreciate its restraint in comparison to, say, “The End of Time.”

55:01 – 60:00
…well, restraint in most respects. Regeneration energy as a weapon of mass destruction is a bit of a stretch, and it was fairly silly back in “The End of Time” when it just acted to demolish the TARDIS interior. But this is a pretty momentous regeneration — the start of a whole new cycle — and the breaking of a few rules is gonna be par for the course.

But at least this Doctor faces death with dignity. Having lived for centuries probably helps you do that; we don’t know how long the Tenth Doctor was around for, but it was probably less than 600-plus years.

Lovely cameo by Amy. One of the nicest moments of the episode. I’m really going to miss him, and now I’m really going to miss her too.

60:01 – 61:06
And in a blink, he’s Peter Capaldi. I would love to say that this was a memorable entrance, but instead it’s a briefer reprise of Matt Smith’s first few moments: a comment about changed body parts (the rather forced “kidneys” bit) and then “we’re crashing.” I would have liked to see something a bit more interesting from a brand new Doctor with a rebooted regeneration cycle, something to make me look forward to the new season, but then I didn’t like Matt Smith until the first five minutes of “The Eleventh Hour” either, so there’s plenty of time.

I liked this episode better the second time around. I didn’t love it, and I wish it had been weighed down less by wrapping up leftover questions (and raising new ones in the form of Tasha Lem), but it did its job, and gave Matt Smith a quietly heroic exit. Perhaps no exit could have done justice to a Doctor this lovable. But everything changes, even if it’s always too soon.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

This was my first John le Carré novel, and I listened to it as an audiobook in the car. It was read by Michael Jayston (known to Doctor Who fans as the Valeyard), who was superb at conveying subtle shades of emotion among men trained not to show any, and at differentiating characters with slight accents who are recruited to be very much like one another. The material of the novel is often very dry, consisting of the mildest of interrogations in relatively relaxed circumstances concerning esoteric espionage situations. It is to James Bond what The Thin Man is to Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, and it’s to the considerable credit of le Carré and Jayston that the audiobook was remorselessly gripping.

I can imagine a better film adaptation, one that would perhaps have done a better job of helping less attentive viewers follow both the plot and the details, but I can’t imagine a classier one. This is savagely compressed, with some abrupt and slightly awkward cuts and a lot of key events left offscreen and implied. For example, we see almost nothing of Smiley’s conversation with Nan Perry (called Liz Gold in the book; the new name avoids identifying her too closely with Fiedler or with Liz Taylor, apparently), and if you blink you might miss that Leamas goes to prison. Fiedler’s debrief of Leamas is much shortened, perhaps mercifully, but so is the arrest, losing one of the book’s most viscerally exciting and cinematic scenes in which Leamas fakes out several German guards and incidentally kills one in self-defense. But the acting is top-notch, particularly Oskar Werner as poor Fiedler and Cyril Cusack as Control. Of course Richard Burton is terrific; at first I wasn’t sure I liked him as Leamas, whom I’d pictured a bit leaner in the face and a bit more capable of blending in — you can’t mistake Burton for someone who’d ever be tossed aside by an intelligence organization and left to defect. But he gives an undeniably convincing performance as a dissolute drunk.

I don’t remember hearing any incidental music at all — just theme music at the beginning and end. This left me free, perhaps obligated, to fill in my own sense of tension and climax, which I wholeheartedly appreciated.

The ending is devastating, and even though I knew exactly what it was, I still found myself mentally urging Leamas to step over the wall, go now, before it’s too late! It’s as sad as it is perfect. This may be the most adult film I’ve watched in this now-hopelessly-behind-schedule project of mine. In that I’m not sure it will be surpassed.

The Day of the Doctor

Doctor Who anniversary specials have a narrow line to walk. The line is operatic on one side, marking out some grand story about Time Lord past, present, or future, something with currents as deep as you want to go. “The Three Doctors” had the story of a solar engineer who harnessed the power source for all Time Lord technology, and for his sacrifice was banished to an antimatter dimension and robbed not only of his homeworld and -universe but also his physical form. “The Five Doctors” had a Time Lord scooping monsters and Doctors out of time and playing them against one another like a Roman emperor, in order for him to access the source of true immortality. Even “Silver Nemesis” (about which it’s best not to speak, and I’ll refrain from doing so outside this paragraph) tried to deepen the mystery around the Doctor himself and suggest some darker origin for him. And the line is antic on the other side, because this is a celebration, and the kiddies are watching, and we can’t plumb those currents too deeply. So we don’t explore that operatic side too far, and we make sure much of the time is spent on the various Doctors bickering with one another, silly monsters in exciting battles, celebrity guest stars, and whatever else we can get away with.

As a longtime fan (I think I remember seeing “The Five Doctors” in a movie theater, and it might be a false memory but that it’s even plausible tells you how long I’ve been into this show) I should know this. And still Moffat tricked me into thinking we’d be getting, oh, maybe 80% operatic. I felt sure this would be the story of the lost Doctor, the trials he endured, the moral dilemmas, the horrifying choices he made that caused him to reject himself, deny himself his own name. I was certain we’d see a different type of Time Lord, one who had clearly assumed a different sort of personality for a different time, one completely anathema to the Doctors we know. I figured this would be a story of coming to terms with oneself, accepting and forgiving oneself for the shame in one’s past. And then, you know, maybe 20% airlifting TARDISes, making out with Zygons, comparing sonic screwdrivers, and making fun of each other’s shoes.

Well, my percentages were off. But that’s okay.

I recently rewatched “Terror of the Zygons,” which I hadn’t seen in probably 20 years and about which I’ve read all sorts of gushing praise in the meantime, but it wasn’t that great. When you get past the shape-shifting, they’re weirdly bland aliens, mostly interested in hissing and issuing pedestrian world-conquering rants. The much-praised suckery wide-headed costume design seems tailor-made to inspire questions about how in the world they squeeze themselves down to human size (compare the Slitheen). I’d hoped they’d be a sideline rather than a major force in the story, just a way to get us into the plot cold-open style, but I guess you don’t spend all that money recreating a classic-series monster (and “enhancing” it with pointy teeth and drool) to throw it away after ten minutes. That said, the doubling is at least a little fun, particularly in Elizabethan times, and opens the door for some pleasantly naughty jokes.

Perhaps most importantly, “The Day of the Doctor” remembers what “The Five Doctors” largely forgot, which is that the fun of a multi-Doctor story is about seeing all the Doctors together, bantering and arguing and eventually, gloriously, cooperating with himselves. The sonic screwdriver moment is a reversal on the order of “it’s smaller on the outside!” Tennant and Smith are terrific together, close enough in temperament that they seem like brothers who get on like a house on fire but still tease and make fun of each other at every opportunity. Throwing a stranger into this mix is odd; we have a past Doctor we don’t know joining in this banter and it’s hard to see him as part of the family. He’s like a long-lost relative coming home for Thanksgiving after many prodigal years, talking like he’s been around for all of them. At times he seems to be standing in for all the classic Doctors, shaking his head at how irreverent (he chides them for pointing their sonics like weapons: “what are you going to do, assemble a cabinet at them?”) and young (“am I having a mid-life crisis?”) and fun (“is there a lot of this in the future?” he asks, meaning kissing) they are. At others he seems like the Eccleston who theoretically would have been in his shoes if the man weren’t so obdurate, particularly when he asks “what is it that makes you two so ashamed to be grown up?” You can see the answer — grownups are the ones who push the big red buttons — in their faces, and there’s some of your operatic: it’ll skate past the kids, but it’s there if you look. As written, it’s better without Eccleston’s Doctor; he would have wiped the floor with these two goofballs, it grates to admit.

Another thing I must sadly admit is that I don’t really care for Kate Stewart. Name-checking her father does not confer on her a tenth of his charisma, and she’s at her most fun when she’s being impersonated by a Zygon. Osgood is more appealing, presumably by design: she’s a pretty girl, “geeked” up in glasses, inhaler, and long multicolored scarf, slightly awkward but resourceful and clever and fun. I’m not sure whether she’s intended to appeal to male classic series fans who fancy a cross between Liz Shaw and Zoe Heriot (probably not) or whether she’s a nod to female new series fans who have trouble identifying with traditionally-hot companions like Rose, Martha, Amy, and Clara (no idea if that’s something anyone’s feeling), but I liked her. Ditto Joanna Page as Queen Elizabeth, though in her case I found myself even more confused than the characters about which was the Zygon copy and when. The comedy resulting from her relationship with the Doctor was terrific, though as I’ve said I didn’t expect it to comprise quite so much of what’s good about this special.

Which brings us back to the stuff I expected but didn’t get. For instance, I expected at least some explanation, however sketchy, of how the Doctor and Clara got out of the Doctor’s timeline and what resulted from their encounter with his forgotten self. I expected to see a markedly different personality in the War Doctor, something that made him seem not just old and weary but specifically battle-weary, a man who really had mown down more Daleks than anyone else in the Time War and had, in some version of history, been prepared to destroy every living thing on Gallifrey along with the Daleks in order to stop the War from taking the rest of the universe with it. I expected to see how the Time Lords had become the sort of monsters who could be said, even in an offhand remark, to be almost indistinguishable from Daleks. Apart from a brief, almost unbearably stupid scene where the War Doctor requests a gun from a Gallifreyan soldier so that he can shoot the English words “NO MORE” into a wall, none of this was what I saw.

I don’t know if the plans for this special really did date back to a time (perhaps as late as this year) when Moffat and company still had some hope of getting Eccleston on board. If so, then naturally enough there would have been no story about how and why this man was different from the others, because we would already have known him. The guilt and post-traumatic stress we remember from a Time Lord who would still have been the Ninth Doctor would have been illustrated and explained, the link with Bad Wolf (a pretty lovely way to include Billie Piper) would have made a lot of sense, and the redemption and rewriting of history at the end would feel like closure on the whole era instead of kind of an awkward rewriting of a character who was barely written in the first place. In other words, prior to the special, the War Doctor looked like a thrilling new development in the Doctor’s history, some piece of the puzzle of his character that would give us new insight and change our understanding of him forever. Afterward, the War Doctor just looks like wallpaper over an unsightly crack. Oh well.

After all the story is done, there’s the nostalgia, and yes, the technical wizardry that allows all thirteen (!!!) Doctors to make appearances in this episode is pretty special. At one point in my first viewing, I turned to my friend and said of Matt Smith, “I’m really gonna miss him,” and it’s still true. But I can’t deny that I got an unexpected thrill from seeing Capaldi’s furious, determined eyes onscreen, and suddenly I’m with everyone else in looking forward to whatever’s next. And then there’s the past Doctor cameo in the person of the Curator, which is so bonkers I still don’t know what to make of it. But I loved it.

And I can’t deny I nearly teared up — which I almost never do — at two moments. The first was the Interface describing how the “wheezing, groaning” sound of the TARDIS brings hope to anyone who needs it…”even you,” she says to the War Doctor. And even now I’m this close to losing it when I remember the way Tennant delivers the four words “Never cruel nor cowardly.” That description dates from the 70s, and we can debate whether it really still applies to the character in the 21st century, but there’s no debate that it still should.

City of Death

Number 1 on my Doctor Who favorites list is City of Death.

This is a solidly uncontroversial choice. There are some people who prefer the guns, germs, and steel of “The Caves of Androzani,” and some new-series devotees who reckon Doctor Who is best when the title character is absent and choose “Blink,” but I honestly can’t remember the last time I read a disparaging word about “City of Death.” Its worst fault is really its greatest virtue: despite the fact that its villain threatens to turn back time and undo the event that sparked life on planet Earth, a pretty respectable threat as Doctor Who plots go, this story is pure comedy through and through.

The name on the credits is “David Agnew,” a nom de plume standing in for the phrase “Douglas Adams, rewriting a script by David Fisher.” Adams is generally considered to be the story’s main author (and in fact replanted acres of the plot in the soil of his supposedly original novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency), but Fisher has a fine enough Who pedigree (“The Stones of Blood” being my favorite of his genre-colliding scripts) that I’m happy to assume that the seed idea he provided originally had a lot to do with why I like this so much better than the solo-Adams stories “The Pirate Planet” and even “Shada.” Whoever gets the credit, this is hilarious. If you’ve ever heard a level 10 Who nerd saying “You’re a beautiful woman…probably,” “My dear, nobody could be as stupid as he seems,” or even just “Exquisite…absolutely exquisite,” you’ve heard lines from this episode, and trust me, they’re even better with context.

Our TARDIS crew this time out are Tom Baker and Lalla Ward, the Fourth Doctor and Romana, my favorite Doctor and my favorite companion at the height of their powers, having a wonderful time and probably falling in love in Paris. There’s nothing like watching two Time Lords who can do anything they set their minds to exchanging witty banter in the midst of a vacation that consists equally of pastries and paradoxes. The paradoxes are caused by Julian Glover, playing an alien masquerading as a playboy…and an Italian nobleman…and numerous other incarnations of himself throughout time: he’s been splintered through Earth’s history by an accident with his ship, which is the aforementioned life-on-Earth-sparking event. Scaroth, the alien, along with his trophy wife, a nebbishy scientist, and a handful of thugs and art thieves, is working to reverse time and save himself, while dooming planet Earth.

I love art heists as much as I hate pirate yarns and westerns, so I’m already sold, but if you need a bit more on that, consider that the heist is all about funding this time-reversal scheme and involves six identical Mona Lisas, all painted by Leonardo da Vinci at the behest of one of Scaroth’s past splinter-selves. Oh, and I love hard-boiled detectives in trenchcoats as much as I love art heists, and once again this story delivers, in the form of Romana and the Doctor’s temporary companion: a private eye named Duggan they pal around with, who ends up delivering the most important punch in history.

Doctor Who has been more moving than this, and more chilling, and more meaningful, and more layered. Maybe, just maybe, now that the new series has embraced both the flexibility of the time travel premise and the feasibility of being dramatic and hilarious from one moment to the next, Doctor Who has been at least as timey-wimey, and at least as funny. But it has never been more itself, in the space of a single story, and it has never been more fun.

One could argue, though I’ve never heard anyone argue it, that the delightfulness and raw appeal of this story makes the plot seem trivial. There’s none of the horror of the Hinchcliffe era or the deadly seriousness of the Davison/Saward era. This is a brief oasis in which Doctor Who is just fun to watch, and this is its crown jewel.


Number 2 on my Doctor Who favorites list: Kinda.

My first exposure to this Fifth Doctor story was running across the novelisation in a bookstore. The title was written as “Doctor Who — Kinda” and I thought: so, it’s kinda Doctor Who and kinda not? What could this possibly be?

It could possibly be the best Doctor Who story ever made, in my book, at least. This is exactly what I want the show to be like, what I want it to be about. There’s a fairly classic science fiction premise (said to resemble that of The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula K. LeGuin, but in fact they’re not much alike); an alien culture with its own customs and differences (the men of the Kinda people don’t speak, and the women seem to reincarnate in a manner not unlike what happens in “Planet of the Spiders”); and a monster that’s half alien menace and half psychological horror from “the Dark Places of the Inside.” The story is populated by strong, fairly believable characters with their own motivations and, crucially, neuroses, and much of the drama comes from the way the forces at work on the Kinda world of Deva Loka influence and change the personalities and relationships of the characters. People like to make fun of the giant snake at the end of the story — the manifestation of the Mara we previously discussed in this story’s sequel, “Snakedance” — but really, if that even matters to you, I suggest you watch a different show. It’s no more a real snake than Cho-Je is a real Tibetan, and it’s far from the least convincing effect the show has ever had.

I love the weird dark “nowhere” place Tegan finds herself when “dreaming alone,” where she first encounters and is psychologically coerced into embracing the Mara. The effect the Mara has on possessed Tegan is to bring out her sensuality, and in some ways it’s the most potently sexual the classic series got, even though all that happens onscreen is that a woman drops apples on the head of a half-naked man, and seduces him into allowing her to put her snake inside him. Those scenes of the Mara tattoo coming to life and crawling from one person’s arm to another’s were and are absolutely thrilling to me, on par with spiders that leap onto the back for creepiness and coolness and richness of image.

I love the frightening shifts of power between the authoritarian Sanders, who is converted to childlike peacefulness by the secrets found in a teenage girl’s box (no, really: it’s an empty wooden box called the Box of Jhana and it heals the mind), and the brittle paranoid Hindle, once the underling and now the unhinged loose cannon. I love the female scientist who acts as a sort of guest companion to the Doctor, and the wise woman played by stage and screen legend Mary Morris who gives the Doctor (whom she calls “idiot”) a vision of the wheel of time turning before she passes her spirit on to the teenage girl. I love the double helix necklaces of the Kinda (rhymes with “Linda,” but I didn’t learn that until I saw this onscreen). I even love the way Adric’s frustrating tendency to collude with the villains is portrayed more as a devious attempt to gain the upper hand over them.

I truly, honestly don’t think Doctor Who has ever gotten better than this, new series, classic series, books, audios, whatever. It may have looked better, but that’s a budget thing; in terms of story, theme, character, vision, depth of thought, everything here to my mind is just perfect.

There is only one story that can hope to match it, and it’s such a completely different kind of thing with completely different merits that it’s very difficult to judge which one I prefer. But since this is a list about sentiment, the one I’ll post tomorrow wins the top spot. This year.


Number 3 of my Doctor Who favorites: Enlightenment.

It’s such an obvious idea it’s amazing Doctor Who hadn’t done it before: sailing ships in space, crewed by hypnotized humans, captained by aliens. But what makes it really sing is that the aliens are Eternals, immortal beings who exist outside of time, spiritually empty and unwilling to admit that they need the drives and passions and imagination of mortal minds to ignite their own pilot lights. Either idea is enough to fuel a story on its own; combined, they’re brilliant.

It’s also amazing that Doctor Who has had so few female writers in its history. This is the only story Barbara Clegg ever wrote for the show, and it’s a shame, because her approach feels so fresh and so complete. Every character seems independently alive and motivated, their reactions real and reasonable. Even the Eternals, who despite their formidable powers have adopted ships from Earth history and the practical rules restricting those ships’ abilities, seem to have thrown themselves into roles matching their choices: the officers on board the Edwardian ship are stiff and stoic, the pirate captain is larger-than-life and irrepressible.

This is another Tegan-centric episode; most of what we learn about Eternals, their needs and goals and behaviors, is shown through her interactions with Marriner, the first mate who becomes infatuated with her, and later through her interactions with Captain Wrack, the villainous pirate who tries to make her an instrument of destruction. Tegan’s usual stroppiness works when it’s motivated, and here it’s easy to see why so many of the Eternals find her brief candle to glow so brightly. Then there’s Turlough, who as usual is more highly strung than just about everyone else in the picture, but since this is the climax to his story as the Black Guardian’s hired assassin, it’s forgivable.

Truth is, the Black Guardian nonsense is about the only thing that grates about “Enlightenment,” since the story ends with two distinguished actors wearing birds on their heads exchanging bollocks about light and darkness. But it’s brief, and could conceivably have ended the story perfectly well even if it hadn’t formed part of a larger arc.

It’s difficult for some reason to convey why “Enlightenment” is such a rewarding story in the Doctor Who canon. It’s modest in its brilliance, I think is why; I’ve loved it since I was a kid, but until recently hadn’t realized that so many other fans regarded it as highly as I do. There are some great stories in my top 5, but if I had to pick one that I felt the new series would do well to choose as exemplar of the virtues it ought to be cultivating, this would be the one.


Number 4 of my favorite Doctor Who stories: Snakedance.

This is a sequel to the first appearance of the Mara, in “Kinda.” Many people consider this one superior, and it’s easy to see why. The Manussan Empire is an unusually well-written human society by Doctor Who standards. It’s complex, with a history as well as a present, and believable, taking pages from Britain’s own imperialist history and fleshing them out with interesting characters who are exceptionally well acted. The Doctor is down to two companions, Tegan and Nyssa, and when (as here) Tegan is at the center of the story, she works extremely well, as opposed to the stories in which she’s on the sidelines carping about everything. With Tegan in trouble, it’s up to the Doctor and Nyssa to solve the mysteries and save the day, proving Davison and Sutton’s contention that they work well as a team. And, as has been pointed out, there’s an unusual difficulty here in that the Doctor’s role is reversed from his usual. Here he’s faced with the task of convincing a society that the ancient superstitions they laugh off are real, when he’s usually doing the opposite. This doesn’t make as big a difference as it’s cracked up to — similar dynamics happen in other stories — but it’s interesting nonetheless.

The main attraction for me, though, is the Mara. Normally I’m not big on monsters with a psycho-mystical origin, as opposed to those that are straightforwardly physical and not just stupidly evil. But the Mara has two major edges here. First, it is both “real” — an entity that seems to act on its own, with the ability to lay dormant in a mind that isn’t thinking about it, and to pass from person to person whether they like it or not — and “psychic,” with qualities that relate to the mental states of those it possesses, rather than being a dull indiscriminate virus. And second, its avatar is a giant snake.

I fell in love with most of these episodes when I was around 10 or 11, and at that age I was still fascinated by snakes and spiders, and there you have the reason I was drawn to “Planet of the Spiders” and “Snakedance.” It’s not that I didn’t pick up on the richness of the themes (at least the levels I was old enough to understand) or appreciate the performances or any of the rest of these episodes’ virtues. It’s just that there were aesthetic elements that were pretty much guaranteed to elevate a Doctor Who episode from an enjoyable or admirable one to a beloved favorite, and these stories had them nailed.

The only real criticism I’d have for “Snakedance” is that the Mara’s victims are curiously passive. While in “Kinda” the Mara stirred those it possessed to elevated levels of sensuality or anger or agitation, in “Snakedance” it seems content to collect them in a room or make them only slightly cranky. Presumably its tactics change as it senses opportunities for physical manifestation, from petty mischief-making to the instigation of ancient rituals, but it makes for a slightly duller scenario by comparison.