Doctor Who: “Extremis”

I was going to put a spoiler warning at the top of this, even though I usually don’t, because it seemed like an episode where much of the appeal would be undermined by knowing all the surprises from the outset. As it turns out, the opposite is true: it’s better the second time. Nevertheless, maybe don’t read this until you’ve seen the episode.

I’ll stall a little bit by noting some of the things that aren’t surprises. For instance, the sonic sunglasses finally have a purpose. The Doctor can use them as sonar, and for augmented reality features like identifying vital signs and characteristics of people around him. This explains how the Doctor can walk around without bumping into things, but he still needs Nardole to cover for him by describing things he ought to be able to see, with the side effect of making Nardole’s habit of stating the obvious into a tactical asset. What else? Well, we see more of Bill’s love life, which I’ve noticed seems to bother some people with how “in your face” it is, and I have to wonder if they had the same complaints about how “in your face” Clara and Danny’s love life was, or Amy’s and Rory’s. I think it’s exactly as in your face as it ought to be, and while the bit where Bill’s foster mum still doesn’t realize Bill’s gay probably strikes some people as being played for laughs, in fact as you know if you’ve ever been in that situation, it’s mainly just a depressing and difficult fact of life. I have no complaints about how Moffat’s handling this aspect of Bill, even if the shtick with the Pope in her kitchen is a bit of a reach.

Ah yes: the Pope. This is Doctor Who doing Dan Brown: ancient secrets in the Vatican, a heresy tied to mysterious deaths, a particle physics research center wired to explode, a sinister order of horribly scarred monks. On the first viewing it looks like gratuitous absurdity, wacky genre crossbreeding for the sake of appearing fresh, taken a step further with a “consulting the Doctor” scene straight out of Sherlock. The “Veritas” pitch, that of a secret untranslated truth that drove all who read it to commit suicide, seems impossible to pay off, and Monty Python fans may find themselves thinking of the sketch about the “funniest joke in the world,” a joke so hilarious that anyone who heard it died laughing (eventually translated one word at a time into German to be used as a weapon in World War Two). And yet the truth, when revealed, really does seem like it would have the advertised effect. And here we can avoid spoilers no longer: the revelation that proves beyond doubt that one is merely a tool aiding an alien invasion would indeed lead most brave souls to end their own complicity in the most final way possible. The wild, improbable, ridiculous plot actually kind of works.

It mostly works on paper, though, because in practice it leads to quite a lot of “ooh, that looks like a portal, doesn’t it?” and “these strange alien devices are simulating Earth” and so on — basically a metric ton of exposition, punctuated by perfunctory interjections like “it can’t be! this table feels real” and “you can do nothing to stop us!” and that sort of thing to break up the speeches. In a lesser season this wouldn’t show as much, but since the rest of Series 10 is so strong with dialogue and performance, this story’s seams show where it gets too excited about its cool Da Vinci Code / Angels and Demons setup to be dramatically convincing. I thought the aliens themselves looked reasonably creepy, but my girlfriend happened to be watching with me and found them ludicrous, so that might be another seam showing. Perhaps the pyramid from next week will be related to why the aliens look mummified.

And of course now we know who’s in the vault, and as everyone has been assuming, it’s Missy, or at least it’s supposed to be Missy. The fakeout at the beginning works rather well, where we think she’s going to be executing the Doctor, and he ends up executing her. She gets a few witticisms in there, but she’s not her usual sparkling self, clearly at the end of her rope, or wanting us to think she is. We also learn that Nardole was sent by River Song to follow the Doctor, and he has her diary, the significance of which I’m leaving as an exercise to a reader with a better memory for her convoluted timeline than I have.

Is all this runaround any good? I still can’t quite decide. The question almost seems irrelevant, given that the story’s primary role is to answer some important questions (what was the Doctor’s vow, what’s with the vault) and to set up the antagonists in the next episode; it’s glue, binding the season together and moving the arc along. In this it’s a lot like “A Good Man Goes to War,” which is similarly difficult to talk about as a standalone story. The central concept, artificial people trapped in a villain’s computer simulation, is of course reminiscent of The Matrix, right down to the allusions to gnosticism, but it’s also been done in Doctor Who, at least as far back as 1982’s “Castrovalva,” but also as recently as “Dark Water”/”Death in Heaven.” The alternate universe serving as a warning for what could happen in ours harks back to 1970’s “Inferno.” These are impressive relatives, next to which this story seems like a bit of a hyperactive nephew. So far it seems like the weakest story of the season, but we won’t know for sure until we see the payoff.

Incidentally, one of the first clues that we’re not dealing with “our” universe is the reference to Pope Benedict IX, about whom many surprising things were alleged (according to Wikipedia, repeating rumors that may or may not have been politically motivated slanders), but as far as my cursory research has so far determined, one of those things was not “he was a woman who had a way with castanets.” This might also be a clue that the aliens’ simulations are not a perfect match for actual Earth events, which might result in them being the first Doctor Who monsters defeated by subpar grades in history. Unless you count the Terileptils.

Doctor Who: “Oxygen”

I’ve never been that great at figuring stories out ahead of time. I’m pretty sure I had no idea whose father Darth Vader would turn out to be before that moment in The Empire Strikes Back. I had a vague suspicion something was up in The Crying Game and The Sixth Sense, but I didn’t guess what before the big reveal. Perhaps they were more innocent times, before we all learned to look for a twist or an ironic revelation at the climax of every story, or perhaps I’m just not the look-ahead-and-guess type. I bring this up because I had “Oxygen” figured out at 12 minutes and 23 seconds in, and if it was that quick for me, the rest of you clever kids must have guessed the whole plot sometime during the cold open.

Does it matter? Maybe not. Maybe it’s a testament to how fairly Jamie Mathieson plays that the clues we need to the mystery of the space zombies are so obvious, out there in plain sight. Once we know that oxygen costs money, once we see an empty spacesuit doing manual labor all by itself, it’s not hard to figure out that somewhere along the line a think-outside-the-box MBA back at corporate HQ must have realized it might be cheaper to run the station using the suits. After the episode is over you might find yourself asking the usual hey-what-about questions, like why the 36 zombies stalking the station by the time the Doctor arrives don’t appear to be getting any work done (maybe 30 of them are and only 6 are on homicide duty?), or what exactly is going to happen when that relief crew arrives (there’s no motivation to work more efficiently like finding out your predecessors have been not just fired but literally terminated). But while it’s on, the episode generally hangs together and keeps the tension up.

This is accomplished in part by keeping the body count high. No reset buttons this week: unlike magical wood lice, spacesuits kill you dead. Except in the one case when they don’t, obviously, and we never quite get a satisfying explanation of why not. Whatever the suit does to Bill with its not-enough-power-to-kill, it’s enough to make her essentially catatonic for a good long time, which along with passing out from exposure to vacuum seems like it should have left her a good deal worse for wear. Still, Pearl Mackie sells Bill’s terror pretty convincingly, and even though we know she’s not dead it’s still wrenching to hear her cry out for her mum. And then there are the consequences for the Doctor, rendered blind by his helmetless spacewalk. It’s an unusual choice for the show to make, one whose rationale will presumably become clear in “Extremis,” Moffat’s next episode. I’d speculate that there’s some thematic resonance, something about the Doctor being blinded by his compassion for his companions, but it’s probably just a way of making a plot point work next week.

Capaldi is again in fine form, making moves we haven’t seen him make yet. Some of the speeches Mathieson gives him (“you’ll wonder who I was for the rest of your life” or whatever it was) are well over-the-top, and Capaldi underplays them as best he can, while others, particularly the climax where he persuades two humans plus Nardole (see below) to die in what amounts to a suicide bombing, work perfectly. Bill is a bit more generic than usual, mostly circling the standard companion emotions of apprehension, explain-it-to-me-Doctor, and panic. (The less said about the “blue alien” banter the better.) We can hardly blame her under the circumstances, though: it’s the first adventure of the season where things are grim from start to finish, the latest industrial base-under-siege in a show that had made them into a dreary obsessive art by 1969. If she hadn’t realized before that traveling with the Doctor isn’t all fun and games, she has now. Perhaps she’ll be the first modern companion who decides to leave the TARDIS because she discovers the fabulous space vacations are the exception, not the rule.

Matt Lucas is great to watch as well, still saddled with playing Jiminy Cricket to the Doctor but given a bit of decent comic relief to do and a minimum of “oh dear oh dear” mugging. Even after a second viewing I couldn’t quite piece together what we’ve learned about him, but it sounds as if the mouth speaking Nardole’s words is actually Nardole’s dead body, and the intelligence choosing them is something else, perhaps an artificial intelligence of some kind. But he evidently had a different face at one point in his life. Is it someone we already know? (River, downloaded from the Library? No chance she’d act like this.) No obvious candidates spring to mind, but why be this coy about it unless there’s a surprising reveal?

This is the third political episode this season examining the relationship between management and workers, and the least subtle yet, which is saying a lot after “Thin Ice.” The Doctor claims his endgame gambit as a victory against capitalism, though it seems applicable to pretty much any of the societies in human history where the powerful few have been able to exploit the ordinary many — feudalism, communism, slavery, united by a regard for the worker’s life as expendable. Unless this story takes place much farther in the future than it seems to, the Doctor’s recollection of history is also contradicted by many, many classic series episodes (and probably at least a few new series episodes) which suggest that the long-lasting Earth Empire remains a capitalist economy (with example after example of untrustworthy Companies) for millennia to come. But if you can’t appreciate and relate at least a little bit to a story where the people you work for seem to view your most basic human needs as an unwelcome expense…you just might be one of the suits.

Doctor Who: “Knock Knock”

Doctor Who is usually considered to be science fiction, largely due to the framing device of time-and-spaceships from another planet, but even though most stories try valiantly to bash out a sciencey-sounding explanation for everything that happens, there’s usually a point where this attempt ends up being fruitless. 1968’s “The Mind Robber” is one of the earlier examples, an adventure which takes place in “The Land of Fiction” and includes threats that disappear if you are determined enough not to believe in them, which is pretty much the opposite of how one would normally define reality. Then there’s 1982’s “Kinda,” one of my favorite Doctor Who stories of all time, in which the antagonist is an intelligent serpent demon from another dimension who possesses people through their dreams and can be (temporarily) defeated by imprisoning it in a circle of mirrors. And of course there’s 2006’s “The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit,” featuring a creature which makes a pretty good claim to being, if not Satan himself, a reasonable facsimile thereof. This might lead us to think of Doctor Who as being more in the vein of science fantasy, in the same family as Star Wars. But it might also make sense to regard it as a show where every episode might be a different genre unto itself.

Doctor Who has always done horror extremely well, for instance, but “Knock Knock” is perhaps its most modern stab at the genre. We’ve seen haunted mansions before (“Image of the Fendahl” and “Ghost Light,” not to mention “Hide”) and we’ve seen gruesome body horror (“The Crimson Horror”), and we’ve even seen alien woodlice (“Frontios”), but this is the first time we’ve seen that most important of horror tropes: six young adults falling victim one by one to a sinister family secret.

Well, it’s definitely important to this horror story, because it provides a ton of personality and humor to the first half hour of the story, when the Doctor shows up to help Bill move in with her new friends, and stays to follow up on his unerring instinct for extraterrestrial danger. Capaldi is magnificent throughout this story, in what is for my money his best performance to date as the Doctor, seamlessly switching from “see, I’m good at making friends” moments where he tries to ingratiate himself to Bill’s friends with her Spotify playlist and bluff his way through pretending he knows her music (inadvertently revealing her guilty pleasures) to deadly serious Doctor face where we can see he’s investigating something. He manages to play this same grimly ominous tone for laughs (one bit where he swoops owlishly out of shot like a comedy vampire, and another where he stops all conversation by asking with alarm and then delight, “what’s that smell?…is that Chinese food?”) and chills (reading off the names of the Landlord’s previous victims, then grinning icily and asking “where are they?”). Intoning what might have been the original, classic-era-esque title for this episode (“Infestation of the Dryads”) he pulls off a flawless Tom Baker impression, and has one of the episode’s best moments just by crunching a potato chip.

The banter between the students rides the thin line between lively (Paul flirting with Bill, who lets him down gently but firmly) and a little mean (the gang teasing Felicity about what seem to be an inconvenient multitude of phobias), which is perfect for a good horror story. All this not only lightens what would be a pretty heavy episode (with some of the most disturbing special effects we’ve seen in a while) with some Scooby-Doo laughs, it makes the whole thing hugely entertaining even before anything really starts to happen.

Tasked with playing against this goofiness is David Suchet, who as the Landlord exudes not only an impenetrable solemnity but also a complex blend of false paternalism, impartial malevolence, and stunted innocence. The role could in fact have been your basic Scooby-Doo villain in someone else’s hands, but Suchet, an RSC luminary with a resumé a mile long in every medium, approaches it with the utmost care, giving us every nuance of the Landlord’s injured psyche. It’s an astonishing (if, of course, deeply creepy) performance, making it all the more impressive that Capaldi is able to match its gravitas.

The story sings for most of its length, rather bravely (only four episodes in) splitting up the Doctor and his companion and pairing them up with others (Bill with her friend Shireen, the Doctor with their wide-eyed housemate Harry). It only drags a bit toward the end, when the truths of the house are revealed and the family secret the Landlord has been protecting and feeding decides not to be protected and fed anymore. It’s a resolution that must be earned, but also seems inevitable, and therefore several minutes too long. It also raises some perplexing questions: where did the so-called Dryads come from? Do they really only need to eat once every 20 years, and how in the world did the Landlord work that out? Why do they preserve one person and eat all the rest? How can a person who’s been eaten return to life, especially after it looks as though they’ve already given their energy to the family secret? Why is a process initiated by the sounds of a classical record interrupted by those sounds continuing indefinitely when the record skips? Some of these questions are genuine puzzlers, but others can perhaps be put down to the conventions of genre. Things in “Knock Knock” are a little bit magic because it’s a horror film packed into a Doctor Who episode, and almost every horror film is at least a little bit magic.

Postscript: the Vault. We learn that it’s probably a who in there rather than a what, since they like Mexican food and play the piano. We learn that whoever it is likes the parts of stories where people get killed. And we learn that they know “Für Elise” and “Pop Goes the Weasel.” My mind instantly went to another story where the Doctor made regular visits to someone in a elaborate prison, namely the Master in “The Sea Devils.” Certain that the song “Pop Goes the Weasel” had made an appearance in that story as well, I did some Googling, and found that I was actually remembering a moment from “Planet of the Spiders” where the Great One (empress of the Eight-Legs) mimicked Sarah Jane Smith singing the song. So there you go: clearly the Vault’s occupant is a bloodthirsty taco-eating piano-playing giant spider. Don’t tell Felicity.

Doctor Who: “Thin Ice”

The TARDIS lands in what looks like England’s so-called “imperial century,” and are surprised to find the waters beneath them not as safe and ordinary as they expect. An ambitious man with a great deal of power is engaged in an enterprise whose goal is a massive, unearthly profit, and he doesn’t care even a little bit how many human lives he must sacrifice to achieve it. The Doctor and his companion must recruit the assistance of an equally enterprising female and her ragtag band of rogues in order to get to the prize first and set it free.

I swear I’ll stop it with this gag sooner or later, but this could be 1983’s “Enlightenment,” or it could be 2017’s “Thin Ice.” The two stories also share the distinctions of being among the very few Doctor Who stories written by women (Barbara Clegg in the former case, Sarah Dollard in the latter) and being top-notch, practically flawless works. “Enlightenment” is a top five story for me as far as the classic series is concerned; “Thin Ice” may well rank up there as far as the new one goes.

Further, both stories are concerned with class. “Enlightenment” gives us an immortal “ruling class” of nearly omnipotent beings, the Eternals, whose spacefaring vessels are manned by mortal Earthlings who are often killed in the course of trying to win an interplanetary race for their masters. “Thin Ice” gives us an ordinary Earth aristocrat who feeds London’s working class and underclass to a giant chained creature that looks like a fish and sounds like a whale so that it can excrete them as a highly efficient fuel source. Both grant the final moral choice to the Doctor’s companion rather than to the Doctor himself. And both are concerned with the ethical dimensions of the choices made in the stories, rather than shrugging them off thoughtlessly as the consequence of adventure.

“Thin Ice” handles this last bit more convincingly and articulately and also gracefully than we’ve seen in a long time. This is the first time Bill has seen a person die in front of her, and, deeply affected, she confronts the Doctor about his apparent willingness to shrug it off. He does care, he tells her, but not enough to count the number of times it’s happened (surely some fan out there has made such a count; I certainly haven’t), and in the end he simply…moves on. She presses him: has he ever killed anyone? He hesitates, but eventually admits he has (season 22 of the classic series alone contains at least three unambiguous and often remarked-upon examples, and the most recent one that comes to mind is the Gallifreyan General he shoots in “Hell Bent”). He claims that after living for 2000 years he cannot afford the luxury of outrage. And though this claim is thrown into question later on in the episode when he seizes the opportunity to punch a racist in the face, I’d argue that it’s still accurate. Outrage is what one performs when one is unable, at that moment or perhaps ever, to act. If one can act, as the Doctor does at that moment and every other, there is no reason to dwell in outrage.

Though some will no doubt find the politics of “Thin Ice” heavy-handed, I found them beyond reproach. Conversations about the whitewashing of history, the value of life, the blindness of privilege, and the measure of civilization are handled with impeccable grace, even if Bill is perhaps slightly too impressed with the Doctor’s fairly matter-of-fact speech about the latter three issues. On two occasions the Doctor defers to female authority in situations where this is entirely justified (resolving a dilemma reminiscent of the one in “Kill the Moon” in a much saner fashion). The eventual passing of privilege to London’s less fortunate is exactly what we’d want to see happen. It’s the Doctor and his companion righting wrongs in a worthwhile, thorough, and satisfying way. One can imagine the churl who’d object to any of this, but one cannot agree with him, nor quite respect him.

The characterization of Lord Sutcliffe himself might be the most cartoonish element of the story, being entirely self-aware of his complete lack of compassion, but he’s no more cartoonish than your typical Dalek. The child actors are competent and never outstay their welcome. And both Capaldi and Mackie are in top form, already leaps and bounds more compelling to watch than in “The Pilot.” Blink and you’ll miss the scene where the Doctor tries to congratulate himself on his ability to entertain the street urchins with a storybook, and Bill objects (quite rightly) to his attempts at 21st century slang, but it works so much better than similar lines in the series opener. In some ways, the actor playing every new companion has it harder than the previous one did, having to sell the same reactions to the inevitable realities of traveling with the Doctor in a fresh new way, but Mackie is more than up to the challenge. When we finally see her toward the end, realizing that she’s run out of time and she won’t be able to save everyone still on the frozen Thames before the explosives go off and ice cracks, finally grasping the difficult choices the Doctor makes in every adventure and just urging the kids to run and save themselves, it’s the most natural transition in the world. For this episode, at least, this is a tremendous TARDIS team, and I can finally say I’m sad this will be the only season with the two of them.

In the postscript to one of the very best stories of the past ten years, we get more of Nardole back in that subdued mode that worked so well in “Smile,” providing both an explanation for his post-“Husbands of River Song” survival (the Doctor has “reassembled” him — what more do we need to know?) and a hefty bit of foreshadowing about what’s in the vault (more like “who,” and whoever it is they’re dangerous…so probably not the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan, then). Terrific stuff, this. More, please.

Doctor Who: “Smile”

On a planet far out in space, a human colony has been established on which to be unhappy is punishable by death. The basis of that colony’s power is a lifeform with face-changing servitors, whose sentience everyone has overlooked or ignored until now, and which can be peacefully coexisted with if only everyone would treat it with respect. And as the hibernating human colonists wake up, they are about to discover this threat they’ve unknowingly brought with them to their new home.

The story is “The Happiness Patrol” from 1988. No wait: “The Beast Below,” from 2010. Or maybe either “The Ark” from 1966 or “The Ark In Space” from 1975?

OK, so that joke doesn’t quite work two stories in a row. “Smile” vividly recalls quite a few stories in Doctor Who history, probably unintentionally since it’s Frank Cottrell-Boyce and not Moffat writing this installment, but who knows? It hangs together a bit better than “In the Forest of the Night,” and in fact exemplifies an approach to Doctor Who that doesn’t happen much lately: the Doctor and his companion wander into a mysterious situation on a distant planet and, with no one around to explain, have to work out what’s going on before things get out of control. For all that I’m not a big fan of 60s Who in general and the First Doctor in particular, this structure was a hallmark of that era of the show and I’m glad to see it happening here.

Capaldi and Mackie carry the majority of the episode all by themselves, and they do it beautifully. Bill is still taking to this companion stuff like a fish to water, shifting from enthusiastic tourist to clever partner-in-crime, full of bravery and compassion, never bland or boring or frivolous or foolish. Their initial five minutes in the TARDIS — talking about how the Doctor stole his ship, and how it chooses a destination that’s somewhere between “where you want to go and where you need to be” — are as entertaining as the entire rest of the episode. Nardole’s a bit less ridiculous this time out, and a bit grumpier about his apparent responsibility to hold the Doctor to that mysterious promise to stay on Earth and guard the vault. And Capaldi himself is much more interesting this week than last, breathing life into bits about future Earth culture and amorous algae emperors, full of counterintuitive glee about “a grief tsunami.”

The gleaming white building in the middle of a wheatfield populated by adorable squat robots is one of the best-looking alien worlds we’ve seen since “The Girl Who Waited,” another story that seems to have contributed some DNA to this one. The emoji faces and mood discs are an idea that could have been terribly cheesy yet somehow seem perfectly appropriate a few scenes in. And though the few supporting characters do seem to suffer largely because they’ve been scripted to withhold or ignore useful information until the last possible second, generally they’re plausible and sympathetic.

If there’s anything wrong with “Smile,” it’s with the central sci-fi conceit. It’s a little tough to swallow a team of service robots that can understand verbal commands but can reply only with emojis (even the phone you might be reading this on can speak to you if you want it to) and is too dim to comprehend that if its job is to keep humans happy, killing them just for being unable to maintain a positive attitude is the opposite of doing its job. It’s even tougher to swallow the idea that these knuckleheads have evolved into a sentient silicon-based lifeform given their obvious limited intelligence. Why do they need the mood discs if they can read moods from human faces? (Is it so they can still check the mood of a human whose back is turned?) Who programmed them to independently learn the complex problem of human happiness, but couldn’t prepare them to go out into the wheatfields alone to get the pollination done? This is a farcically stupid machine race, such a clear and present danger to the organic life around it that it’s hard to blame the humans when they get trigger-happy. This is not even a slave revolt: it’s just the honest mistakes of a machine acting with the best intentions and lacking even the basic safeguards imagined by Isaac Asimov in the mid-20th century.

But perhaps the Three Laws of Robotics are the wrong thing to expect from a story that was likely influenced less by Asimov than by Samuel Butler, author of the 1872 satirical novel with which the colony ship Erewhon shares its name. I haven’t read the novel myself, but Cottrell-Boyce clearly has, or at least the parts that (according to Wikipedia) deal with “the possibility that machines might develop consciousness by Darwinian Selection.” Erewhon, Butler’s fictional country, is remarkable for “the absence of machines […] due to the widely shared perception by the Erewhonians that they are potentially dangerous.” Frank Herbert has obviously read Erewhon as well, having named the anti-AI crusade in Dune after Butler. “Smile” doesn’t necessarily regard intelligent machines as incompatible with humans, but to call it a cautionary tale seems like an understatement.

This is of course the second episode in a row concerned with technology that is both incredibly powerful and colossally dumb, causing enormous harm through a misguided and clueless desire to help. This premise ought to be threadbare by now since its emergence in “The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances,” but still seems to have a bit of life in it and continues to be slightly more interesting than antagonists who are evil and murderous “just because.” We get enough of the latter in real life.

Doctor Who: “The Pilot”

In a dusty hallway of an English university is a room, and inside the room is a professor. The professor is a man who’s had a colorful, exciting, long life and is now having a quiet one, giving lectures and puttering about with his hobbies and his books. He’s a man from another world, on the run from his own people, a hero or a criminal depending on who you ask and when, with two hearts, a long life expectancy, and some remarkable psychic abilities. But it’s his room that contains perhaps his most remarkable ability: the power to travel anywhere in space and time, and perhaps even out of both entirely. One of his students, who has no idea about any of this, is about to step into that room and into a more exciting life than anyone would believe was possible.

The man’s name is Professor Chronotis, the student is one Chris Parsons. This is Douglas Adams’ lost Doctor Who story, “Shada.”

Okay, sorry, it’s not. But you can see how “The Pilot” might have the tiniest flavor of that never-completed story from 38 years ago, and it’s a lovely way to begin series 10. It’s also mysterious: why HAS the Doctor been teaching university for the past 50 years? To whom did he promise to stop adventuring, and is the promise related to the high-tech sealed vault in an abandoned basement on campus? How has his Penfoldesque companion Nardole kept his creamy complexion over 50 years, and is Nardole’s longevity related to the whirring sound it makes and the bolt that drops when he lifts his arm in a quiet room? If these mysteries are the series arc this time out, I applaud their subtlety.

This is, in fact, one of the most dignified series openers and companion introductions we’ve seen in recent memory. The comparison that comes to mind is “The Bells of St. John,” which this superficially resembles, except that this replaces the monastery with a university, and a motorcycle ride up the side of a skyscraper with a thankfully restrained pair of guitar riffs. The show continues to look better and better visually, and the direction is largely excellent; even the incidental music this time out is worthy of praise, setting an agreeably playful tone for the new season.

The story itself is well-conceived and mostly works, with a couple of caveats. Moffat seems to have mined elements from many of the better stories over the years, not just “Shada” from the classic series but also “Midnight,” “The Waters of Mars,” “The Lodger,” and his own stories “The Doctor Dances,” “The Pandorica Opens,” and “The Eleventh Hour.” It never feels too derivative, though it also doesn’t quite cohere. For a thing that’s not evil, just hungry, the main threat seems awfully sinister and dysfunctional. And since the emotional weight of the story turns on the new companion’s relationship with the scary puddle’s first victim, it would probably have helped to give the two of them some chemistry.

A friend said that this felt like a two-parter squeezed down to one, and if so, the short shrift given to this relationship is the worst casualty. We never see Bill and Heather have a conversation that feels authentic and warm; after their eyes-meet-in-a-club moment, Heather always seems troubled and haunted, giving the impression that she’s already in the puddle’s thrall and is reluctantly seeking victims for it. She doesn’t appear to like anything very much, even Bill, and I had to watch a second time to see that her first vanishing act wasn’t an attempt to sacrifice Bill to the puddle. Bill’s crush seems superficial and unreciprocated as a result, though perhaps this is intentional; starting her time with the Doctor by losing the love of her life would have been a pretty heavy debut. It’s probably better for the bond to be easy come, easy go, even if this makes it less moving and more confusing.

We know Bill’s prone to crushes (as, charmingly, is Nardole) because of the story she tells the Doctor at the beginning of the episode about “perving” on the girl she serves chips to in the canteen. The story is bothersome for three reasons. First, perhaps most importantly, it adds to the confusion about her relationship with Heather. We get only the briefest of glimpses of the chip girl, and it’s not entirely clear they haven’t ended up being a thing, so when Bill starts to notice Heather, it’s easy to wonder: is this the same girl? have they broken up? The second reason is that Bill’s answer to why she comes to the Doctor’s lectures would probably have been more interesting than the story she actually tells, which feels like an outtake from Coupling. And the third reason is that Bill doesn’t seem to get that you can have beauty AND chips, and that you don’t have to stop liking a pretty girl just because she’s gained weight.

Luckily, Bill is so effortlessly appealing that she’s perhaps the only modern companion who could say something like that and get away with it. She’s wonderful from the get-go, making Bill entirely real, lots of fun, optimistic despite what looks like an uninspiring upbringing, and a breath of fresh air. After Me, the Impossible Girl, and the tangled web of Amy, Rory, and River’s intertwined timelines, it’s lovely to have a Possible Girl on board the TARDIS again. Pearl Mackie is great, turning on a dime from a minor freak-out over instantaneous international travel to pointing out that the Doctor’s granddaughter named the TARDIS in English, not Gallifreyan.

This season’s second companion, Nardole, is obviously the comic relief, and he’s so broadly drawn that he’s a bit less successful at it than he ought to be. It’s a tall order for any actor to juggle three thankless tasks: running around in fear whimpering “oo ‘eck!” at anything scary, laughtracking other people’s comedy (“banter! It’s good, this”), or — worst of all — underscoring obvious character moments of the Doctor’s (“quite silly,” “never notices the tears”). He’ll get a great line like “Human alert. Would you like me to repel her?” and have to follow it up with tired potty humor (“I’d give it a minute if I were you”). Matt Lucas is as appealing as anyone could be under these circumstances, but hopefully other writers will give him some better material.

Finally there’s Capaldi himself, whose performance as the Doctor continues to frustrate me. For every line he nails, there are three that seem like missed opportunities. It could be the script; for example, “I can see I’m going to have to raise my game” isn’t the wittiest line Moffat’s ever written, and yet I can’t help feeling Matt Smith would have made it into something perfect. I respect Capaldi’s credentials as an actor and he’s brought real magic and gravity to the role over the last few years, but he’s a much drier Doctor than either of his predecessors and it doesn’t always serve him well. I get the sense that behind the scenes he’s probably brought a steadying influence to a show that had started to get a bit over-the-top, but I’m ready to swing the balance back to a lead who can deliver a line about the sky being made of lemon drops without needing Nardole to rimshot it.

On balance, though, a small cast works well together to tell a simple monster story, reintroduce us to the TARDIS, provide a good jumping-on point for any new viewers out there, and give the longtime fans some Easter eggs right before the holiday. Everyone knows River Song, of course, but it’ll take a classic fan to recognize Susan, the Doctor’s granddaughter, in the other photo. And it’ll take a real classic fan to recognize the Daleks’ longtime enemies the Movellans (from “Destiny of the Daleks” in 1979) being cut to pieces by “the deadliest fire in the universe.” There’s something here for all of us, and it’s been worth the wait.

My missing episodes

I know you think I’m a Doctor Who fanatic but in fact there are 23 televised Doctor Who stories out of about 264* I’ve never seen. This is partly because lots of the first six years of the show has been destroyed due to BBC archival practices in the 60s.

Of that number, barring some miraculous discovery or more work by the animation team, I will never be able to see 8 of them. Marco Polo, The Myth Makers, The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve, The Savages, The Smugglers, The Highlanders, The Macra Terror, and Fury From the Deep are entirely missing and no episodes from those stories are known to exist. I can read some of them as novels, or listen to the audio tracks, or suffer through fan reconstructions using still photographs, but that’s it. I think the only one I’m really bummed about is The Macra Terror. Marco Polo is supposed to be fantastic, but it sounds pretty dull.

I own DVD versions of 5 stories (maybe 6, I have to check) I haven’t watched in their entirety, some a mix of live-action video and animated reconstructions. I need to finish The Ice Warriors, and then I can watch The Romans, The Gunfighters, The War Machines, The Underwater Menace, and The Dominators.

That leaves 10, most of which I’ve either seen in part (the episodes that remain), or heard as audios, or read as novelisations, or all of the above. They are The Crusade, Galaxy Four, The Daleks’ Master Plan, The Celestial Toymaker, The Faceless Ones, The Evil of the Daleks, The Abominable Snowmen, Fury From the Deep, The Wheel in Space, and The Space Pirates.

And you thought I didn’t have a life!

*I’m not counting the original spin-off novels, the cartoons (including Scream of the Shalka), or the endless parade of Big Finish audio plays. Or the comic books. There are only so many hours in the day and a nerd has to draw the line somewhere.

Classic Who Speedthrough: The 80s

80s Doctor Who started without a bang. In fact, it started with a long, slow, almost comically uneventful pan across Brighton Beach, finally landing on a Time Lady, a tin dog, and a Doctor with question marks on his collar. The 80s belong to Doctor Who’s longest-serving producer to date, John Nathan-Turner, and a whole host of question(mark)able choices he brought to the show.

This is not the time to catalog them all, but just be aware that this is where the unusually consistent quality of the 70s (all the more remarkable given the oft-changing creative teams) gives way to a wildly uneven track record. For every “Kinda” there’s a “Time-Flight,” for every “Enlightenment” a “King’s Demons,” for every “Caves of Androzani” a “Twin Dilemma.” If there’s any era you should cherry-pick, this is it.

And yet the net effect isn’t all bad. Less consistency means more variety, and while some production values declined, others heightened. By and large, the casting of Doctors was still on point, though disastrous mistakes were made in designing a character arc for the Sixth Doctor (strangling one’s own companion is so hard to bounce back from, audience-sympathy-wise). And at least four, maybe five of my very favorite stories hail from this era, so it can’t be all bad.

Once more, the key to the icons:

Continuity Continuity You’ll definitely be confused about what’s going on in the larger story if you skip these.

Fan Favorite Fan Favorites There’s a general consensus among fans that these are among the best the series has to offer.

My Favorites My Favorites Stories I personally love the most. Sometimes I agree with the fans, and sometimes I go my own way.

If a story has two or three of these icons, you should definitely watch it.

Continuity only: also definitely watch it. It might not be the greatest story ever but you’ll be lost without it.

Fan Favorite only: probably worth your time. You COULD skip it and maybe come back to it, but it’ll be better if you watch it in order.

My Favorites only: there’s a good chance you’ll think I’m nuts for liking this. But if you really get into the show, it might appeal to you the way it appealed to me. Watch if you have time, skip if you don’t.

Season 18

The Leisure Hive My Favorites

Full Circle Continuity Fan Favorite My Favorites

State of Decay My Favorites

Warriors’ Gate Continuity Fan Favorite My Favorites

The Keeper of Traken Continuity My Favorites

Logopolis Continuity Fan Favorite My Favorites

Season 19

Castrovalva Continuity My Favorites

Four to Doomsday My Favorites

Kinda Fan Favorite My Favorites
“City of Death” is my favorite Doctor Who episode by tradition. But honestly? This one is at least a match for it.

Earthshock Continuity Fan Favorite

Season 20

Snakedance Fan Favorite My Favorites
The sequel to “Kinda.” You should probably watch that first, but I watched Aliens before I watched Alien, so whatever’s clever. Another top-fiver.

Mawdryn Undead Continuity Fan Favorite

Enlightenment Continuity Fan Favorite My Favorites
One of the only classic Who episodes written by a woman. And it’s a top fiver for me.

The King’s Demons Continuity
I’m sorry to inflict this on you. Fortunately it’s short.

The Five Doctors Fan Favorite
You kinda have to watch this. But keep your expectations low.

Season 21

Frontios Fan Favorite

Resurrection of the Daleks Continuity
Possibly the most batshit crazy Dalek episode since the 60s and until the 2000s. I haven’t watched it since the 80s.

Planet of Fire Continuity
This nothing story is the reason you had to watch “The King’s Demons.” Unfortunately it’s a full four episodes.

The Caves of Androzani Continuity Fan Favorite My Favorites
A certain kind of fan thinks this is the best Doctor Who story ever. I’m not that kind of fan, so I am only willing to say it’s really, really, really, really excellent.

The Twin Dilemma Continuity
Considered by many to be the worst Doctor Who story ever. It seems boring to agree — surely there’s a case to be made for “The Celestial Toymaker” or something — but I’m at a loss to remember any redeeming qualities. You probably could skip over this right to the next story, and I wouldn’t fault you if you did.

Season 22

Vengeance on Varos Fan Favorite

The Mark of the Rani Continuity

The Two Doctors My Favorites
I adore this story. A lot of people disagree, but Robert Shearman, the author of the new Who episode “Dalek” (among many other wonderful things) isn’t one of them, and that makes me feel vindicated.

Revelation of the Daleks Fan Favorite

Season 23

The Mysterious Planet Continuity
This is the beginning of a season-long four-story miniseries called “The Trial of a Time Lord.” Unfortunately you need to watch part of it for continuity reasons, and if you do that you need to watch all of it. It’s worth it…once.

Mindwarp Continuity Fan Favorite

Terror of the Vervoids Continuity

The Ultimate Foe Continuity

Season 24

Time and the Rani Continuity
Another contender for worst Who episode ever. You can’t skip this one though.

Paradise Towers My Favorites
Look…Who in the 80s started to veer off in some weird directions. The last few seasons were unusually dark and macabre, and with this season they turned up all the studio lights and did some stuff that could reasonably be described as “goofy.” Once you accept that mode, though, this is the first example of the kind of social/cultural satire that — my opinion — made the McCoy era worth watching. When you get down to it, this isn’t really any sillier than “New Earth.”

Dragonfire Continuity

Season 25

Remembrance of the Daleks Fan Favorite My Favorites
Overrated, but still pretty great.

The Happiness Patrol My Favorites
Underrated; probably my favorite story of the McCoy era. Brace yourself for the weird.

The Greatest Show in the Galaxy My Favorites

Season 26

Ghost Light Fan Favorite
You might have to watch this a few times to figure out what the heck is going on, or why you should care. But I get the hype.

The Curse of Fenric Fan Favorite
Also overrated, also still pretty great. With “Remembrance,” one of the two least offbeat and most traditionally-minded stories of the McCoy era.

Survival Continuity Fan Favorite My Favorites
The only real continuity element here is that this was the end of the classic era. As you’ll see, it doesn’t really end.

Special (1996)

Doctor Who (the TV Movie) Continuity
Not part of the 80s, but it must be addressed. Bridging the classic era and the new era (at least as far as televised stories are concerned), this has to be seen to be believed. Revisiting it now, I can see elements that worked and were adopted into the new series, but I may never need to watch it again.

Classic Who Speedthrough: The 70s

Sorry kids: I know you love your 3D glasses and your fezzes and your timey-wimeys and whatnot, but 70s Who is where it’s at.

Of course, I might be slightly biased by being old af. 70s Who was of course the heyday of the wobbly set, the bad greenscreen, the godawful rubber monster. It was an era of modest budgets and setting lots of stories on Earth to save money. It was a time before anyone had ever thought, “hey, what if the Doctor were young and cute?”

And yet: it was a time of strong female companions, with only one exception capable and strong and sometimes smarter than the Doctor himself (and even that exception had her moments). It was a time of a lovable ensemble cast, of a suave Master and brave soldiers standing against him. It was a time for new villains: the Autons, the Silurians, the Sontarans, Davros, and the Zygons were all 70s kids like me. An anniversary story with three Doctors fighting side by side. A tin dog. Some seriously sketchy Time Lords. Story arcs that lasted all season long.

In short, while classic Who was born in the 60s, new Who was really born in the 70s.

Every single story in the 70s is worth watching. Yes, even THAT one. Unlike the 60s, all of them still exist, and most are still available on DVD (with certain mystifying exceptions). There’s one called “Shada” that might give you some trouble; it’s one penned by Douglas Adams (yes, that Douglas Adams) that was never finished. Parts of it exist and there’s a DVD and it was going to be pretty great. You don’t have to watch it — most people couldn’t — but even half of it is worth seeing. So the best way to enjoy 70s Who is to watch straight through. But if you insist on skipping around, here’s what you can’t miss.

Key to the icons:

Continuity Continuity You’ll definitely be confused about what’s going on in the larger story if you skip these.

Fan Favorite Fan Favorites There’s a general consensus among fans that these are among the best the series has to offer.

My Favorites My Favorites Stories I personally love the most. Sometimes I agree with the fans, and sometimes I go my own way.

If a story has two or three of these icons, you should definitely watch it.

Continuity only: also definitely watch it. It might not be the greatest story ever but you’ll be lost without it.

Fan Favorite only: probably worth your time. You COULD skip it and maybe come back to it, but it’ll be better if you watch it in order.

My Favorites only: there’s a good chance you’ll think I’m nuts for liking this. But if you really get into the show, it might appeal to you the way it appealed to me. Watch if you have time, skip if you don’t.

Season 7

Spearhead from Space Continuity Fan Favorite My Favorites
This story practically reboots the series. The Doctor shows up in his TARDIS with no companion, a spaceman falling to Earth six years before Bowie did it, and collapses like Tennant in “The Christmas Invasion.” Apart from one Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, he doesn’t know a single soul around him and, robbed of his knowledge of time travel, he putters around as UNIT’s Scientific Adviser until he can get the TARDIS working again. It’s as solid an introduction as “An Unearthly Child” (if somewhat less strange and ambiguous) and a fine place for a new viewer to start. It also happens to be a damn good story. This sort of clean reboot has only happened twice more since that time: “Rose,” which of course started up the new series entirely, and “The Eleventh Hour,” which started up the Moffat era.

Doctor Who and the Silurians My Favorites

The Ambassadors of Death My Favorites

Inferno Fan Favorite My Favorites
That’s right. All of season 7. Every one a winner.

Season 8

Terror of the Autons Continuity My Favorites
Introducing the Master.

The Mind of Evil My Favorites

The Claws of Axos My Favorites
If I could bring one more monster back from classic Who, it would be these guys.

The Daemons Continuity Fan Favorite My Favorites

Season 9

Day of the Daleks My Favorites
We got your timey-wimey right here, pal.

The Curse of Peladon My Favorites
Rubber monster heaven.

The Sea Devils Continuity

The Mutants My Favorites
A seriously underrated story, and I’ve never quite understood why. Yes, there are one or two weak performances, but the story itself is fascinating.

Season 10

The Three Doctors Continuity Fan Favorite

Carnival of Monsters Fan Favorite

The Green Death Continuity Fan Favorite My Favorites
If you ever hear a classic Who fan talking about “giant maggots,” this is the story they mean. Don’t let that put you off.

Season 11

The Time Warrior Continuity Fan Favorite My Favorites

Planet of the Spiders Continuity My Favorites
Another weak performance by a secondary character here, and some extended chase scenes that are there mainly for the fun of extended chase scenes, but made up for by several excellent, complex villains and a suitably dramatic climax. A top ten episode for me.

Season 12

Robot Continuity

The Ark In Space Fan Favorite My Favorites
Not quite as perfect as its reputation (especially among contemporary showrunners), but very very good indeed.

Genesis of the Daleks Continuity Fan Favorite My Favorites
First Davros, best Davros.

Season 13

Terror of the Zygons Continuity Fan Favorite

Pyramids of Mars Fan Favorite My Favorites

The Brain of Morbius Fan Favorite My Favorites
If you’d like to know more about the Sisterhood of Karn, watch this. If implied contradictions about things like the number of times a Time Lord can regenerate really bother you, maybe don’t watch this.

The Seeds of Doom Fan Favorite My Favorites

Season 14

The Hand of Fear Continuity My Favorites

The Deadly Assassin Continuity Fan Favorite My Favorites
The only story in classic Who in which the Doctor didn’t have a companion.

The Face of Evil Continuity My Favorites

The Robots of Death Fan Favorite My Favorites
Another top ten. Fantastic stuff.

The Talons of Weng-Chiang Fan Favorite My Favorites
This is not the only classic Who story that casts an Anglo actor as an Asian character, but it might be the worst offender in that area. It’s a shame, because underneath some very dubious optics beats the heart of one of the very best stories of the classic era.

Season 15

Horror of Fang Rock Fan Favorite

The Invisible Enemy Continuity
Of the stories I must recommend solely for continuity reasons, this is probably the worst. It’s still pretty fun the first time through.

Image of the Fendahl My Favorites
I have no idea why people are so negative about this story. I adore it. If it’s not a top ten for me, it’s very close.

The Sun Makers Fan Favorite
An acquired taste. If you enjoy social satire and revolutionary themes, by all means stick this on and ignore how cheap it looks (arguably the cheapness adds to the atmosphere). If that sounds kind of tedious, skip this and come back to it when you’re a Who addict.

The Invasion of Time Continuity
Budget? What budget?

Season 16

The Ribos Operation Continuity Fan Favorite My Favorites

The Pirate Planet Fan Favorite
I find this unbearably tedious and heavy-handed, which is ironic given that Douglas Adams wrote it. Could be just the direction and the acting. But lots of people love it, so here you go.

The Stones of Blood My Favorites
Another top tenner for me.

The Armageddon Factor Continuity

Season 17

Destiny of the Daleks Continuity

City of Death Fan Favorite My Favorites
There are two types of Doctor Who fans. One of them, the best type, rates this story as their very favorite. THIS is what a Douglas Adams episode of Doctor Who should be like.

Classic Who Speedthrough: The 60s

At a friend’s request, I wrote up a speedthrough guide to 21st century Doctor Who. Premise: if you don’t have time or patience to watch every story in order, which ones do you NEED to watch in order to know what’s going on? And which ones are the gems in between that you should make sure not to miss?

Another friend suggested, perhaps in jest, that I do the same thing for classic Who. At first I wasn’t going to, considering how long the first one took, but then I decided to take a crack at it and found out I could do it even more quickly. Partly that’s because classic Who stories function much more independently than new Who stories do, but also I just know it better.

Except the 60s. I’m not the best person to recommend stories from this era. First of all, I just don’t like it. It’s all in black and white, and I’m one of the philistines who rejects the conventional wisdom that black and white is superior to color. The First Doctor is my least favorite. The stories tended to be longer and slower.

But there’s a bigger problem, which is that scads of episodes are missing. The BBC destroyed a lot of them to make room. In many cases entire stories were destroyed, or represented by a single intact episode. There are numerous stories in here that I would have included if enough of them remained watchable; “The Daleks’ Master Plan,” for example, is a massive 12-part story that’s definitely a Fan Favorite, but unless you are determined to seek out an audio version or one of the fan reconstructions of the story (which even I can’t sit through), you simply can’t watch it and it’s pointless to recommend.

If you’re a new Who fan looking to crack the classic era…I recommend starting with 1970’s “Spearhead from Space” and continuing from there. But if you’re determined to go all the way back to the very beginning, and you’re prepared to jump around a bit and accept that companions will come and go with no warning, this guide will hopefully see you through.

I haven’t seen all of these myself (I know!) so it’s possible that something like “The Romans” or “The War Machines” is going to be a sleeper favorite of yours. If you fall in love with the 60s, by all means dig into what’s left of them. If not, you’d be forgiven for skipping ahead.

Key to the icons:

Continuity Continuity You’ll definitely be confused about what’s going on in the larger story if you skip these.

Fan Favorite Fan Favorites There’s a general consensus among fans that these are among the best the series has to offer.

My Favorites My Favorites Stories I personally love the most. Sometimes I agree with the fans, and sometimes I go my own way.

If a story has two or three of these icons, you should definitely watch it.

Continuity only: also definitely watch it. It might not be the greatest story ever but you’ll be lost without it.

Fan Favorite only: probably worth your time. You COULD skip it and maybe come back to it, but it’ll be better if you watch it in order.

My Favorites only: there’s a good chance you’ll think I’m nuts for liking this. But if you really get into the show, it might appeal to you the way it appealed to me. Watch if you have time, skip if you don’t.

Season 1

An Unearthly Child Continuity Fan Favorite
The praise for this story is almost entirely about the first episode. The rest of it is…watchable.

The Daleks Continuity

The Edge of Destruction My Favorites
Short and trippy. Anyone who’s fascinated by the TARDIS itself should check this out. I dig it, but it’s hardly essential.

The Aztecs Fan Favorite
Doctor Who used to do purely historical episodes, with no aliens (apart from the Doctor). Fan consensus is that this is one of the best.

Season 2

The Dalek Invasion of Earth Continuity

The Rescue Continuity Fan Favorite

The Web Planet
There’s no reason to watch this. I mention it only because it’s one of the absolute weirdest Who episodes ever made, and while that doesn’t mean it’s one of the best…you just kinda have to see it.

The Space Museum My Favorites

The Chase Continuity
Dreadful. But also the end of an era.

The Time Meddler Continuity Fan Favorite
The point at which the “pure historical” gave way to what fans call the “pseudohistorical,” which means history with aliens.

Season 3

The Ark My Favorites
We had to skip over a story where one companion left, and another story where a new companion joined. It wasn’t really an improvement. I dig this story though.

Season 4

The Tenth Planet Continuity Fan Favorite My Favorites
Not the best episode ever, really, but remarkable enough that you’d have to see it even if not for continuity reasons.

The Power of the Daleks Continuity Fan Favorite
The truth is I don’t much like Dalek stories. Even the best of them tend to be dreary. This is supposed to be one of the best but I have a really hard time understanding why. They’ve animated this so you can watch it now, and I don’t want to disparage anybody’s hard work, but…”animated” probably should have quotation marks around it. Have fun.

The Moonbase Continuity

The Tomb of the Cybermen Continuity Fan Favorite

The Ice Warriors Continuity

The Enemy of the World Fan Favorite My Favorites
An unexpected gem of the era.

The Web of Fear Continuity Fan Favorite My Favorites
The monster has appeared before, in an episode you can’t watch. Sigh.

The Mind Robber Fan Favorite

The Invasion Continuity Fan Favorite My Favorites
Sets the stage for the 70s.

The War Games Continuity Fan Favorite My Favorites
It’s a little long, but it’s worth it. Hang in there.