It’s hard to believe I’ve watched these episodes for only the second time ever. In the old days I’d watch Doctor Who over and over on VHS, but these days one or two times through is usually enough for me for quite a while.
Anyway, I don’t have the time or inclination to post full-length commentary on each of these stories at the moment, but I’d like to note my second-viewing reactions in brief and maybe return for more considered remarks later on.
The Christmas Invasion
Probably the fourth weakest Doctor introduction story, after “The Twin Dilemma” (dire), “Time and the Rani” (embarrassing), and of course the TV movie with Paul McGann (possibly the worst Who story ever, which after the previous two I named is really saying something). Okay, maybe “Robot” is worse too, which puts this in the middle of the road. The return of Harriet Jones and a rather legitimately unsettling thaumaturgical threat are overshadowed by the Santas and the over-the-top posturing of the new Doctor, which reaches its nadir in his contrived and unfair treatment of PM Jones when she does what she ought to do. All his worst faults in one tidy package.
Cassandra remains a lot of fun, though the rapid-fire body-switch comedy maybe should have come later in the season (and been trimmed down a bit). The “all known diseases” stuff is bollocks but if you squint and pretend it’s ersatz Douglas Adams exaggeration sci-fi, it’s forgivable. The ending is rather sweet. Not the stuff of classics, but its reach doesn’t exceed its grasp.
Tooth and Claw
The debut of the nauseating “we’re too flippant” thread for the Tenth Doctor and Rose. I’ve already written about this one.
Fine, fine stuff. I’m not sure I believe the Doctor was romantically involved with Sarah Jane, but I don’t have to in order to appreciate what this story does in exploring the bond between Doctor and companion. The Krillitane plot isn’t bad either, though it’s the B-story and it knows it. Very happy to have Mickey back, just for a little while. The worst misstep is David Tennant failing to play the Doctor meeting his old friend after hundreds of years; instead, like his performance in “Time Crash” (where it was forgivable), he plays himself meeting Lis Sladen for the first time.
The Girl in the Fireplace
I remembered this as overrated, but on second viewing I have to admit it’s pretty excellent. I’m not completely sold by Sophia Myles’s performance, but she’s adequate to the task, and this is Tennant’s best performance of the season so far. Like a lot of Moffat’s timey-wimey plots, this makes more emotional sense than sci-fi sense, but in this case it’s a decent trade. What’s good is so good that it seems churlish to pick it apart…at least not until the third viewing.
Rise of the Cybermen / The Age of Steel
A sad missed opportunity. This should have been the Cybermen’s “Dalek,” where we went back to the roots of the concept, unearthed what should have made it scary all along, and recharged the menace, but instead it’s aiming for “Genesis of the Cybermen” and falling short. Some good ideas here, and the key idea that these were people who’ve replaced all the important things about themselves is there, but a lot of the subtlety is lost in Lumic’s one-note portrayal and the almost cutesy robotic redesign of the Cybermen. To really drive it home they needed to look more like the Borg, but for many obvious reasons that wouldn’t have flown. Plus I hated losing Mickey, though there were worse ways to go.
The Idiot’s Lantern
Another that seemed better the second time around, but then I hated it the first time. The blustering father is still a heavy-handed character, and the confrontations with him feel more like delayed wish fulfillment than drama. It’s deeply uncomfortable to watch the Doctor and Rose bully the bully as though that puts them on the moral high ground; it’s worse when Rose sends the boy after his father at the end in what is at best a premature reconciliation. The Wire plot is standard stuff, except that it seems even more like magic than usual, and the climactic tower climb sounds and is structured like a boss fight in a video game. On the other hand, it’s nice to see the Doctor defeating an enemy by building something as opposed to just waving his screwdriver at them or insisting “you’ve lost, give up.”
The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit
This story lost tons of points with me the first time through because of what I now believe I misread as an insistence that no, this isn’t like Azal or Sutekh, this is the real, actual Devil! I also disliked and continue to dislike the Ood (it’s one thing to introduce a slave race to Doctor Who, and another to at every opportunity have them either turn into mindless savages or else dispense mystical wisdom). But this time around the scale of the story really got to me, and I greatly appreciated a guest cast who mostly seemed to have some reason to be there, and in whose fates we could at least feel some small investment. It’s tremendously ambitious, and now I really appreciate its cinematic achievement.
Love and Monsters
Obviously this is a story about Doctor Who fans, and I suspect that whether you love it or hate it depends heavily on whether you feel it’s affectionate or disparaging, and whether you think it’s about you or about “them.” It’s probably a little of column A, a little of column B, and frankly I think it’s terrific. It’s reasonable to hate the kid-conceived Abzorbaloff, but it’s the perfect monster for this story in every respect. This isn’t a story you put on when you’re in the mood for a Doctor Who episode, but that’s part of the point. I don’t mind admitting that the cheap sucker-punch revelation about Elton’s mom got me right in the eye and nearly made some water come out.
I don’t hate this as much as I’m supposed to. I don’t love it, and can’t think of many New Who stories I’d rate below it (maybe season 3’s Dalek two-parter?), but I don’t think it’s THAT much worse than any of the other weak stories. It’s about something, even if it doesn’t treat the subject too gracefully, and if the whole setup is a little Twilight Zoney, there are worse sources to crib from. I’d put it on par with most of Mark Gatiss’s scripts, I’m afraid, except maybe for the cheesy Olympics moments.
Army of Ghosts/Doomsday
It’s the fanwankiest idea ever: Daleks vs. Cybermen! Who wins in a fight? And the big shock is: it really works. Premise and resolution are tenuous technobabble, but what’s in between is gold. Daleks and Cybermen trading insults before letting each other have it, Jackie unwillingly posing as her daughter, the return of Mickey and Pete (and, briefly, Jake), and the red herring about people imagining the ghosts of their loved ones returning, which is paid off so subtly in the truly heartbreaking climax and denouement. At various times this season I had misgivings about the relationship between the Doctor and Rose, and the effect each had about the other, but Tennant and Piper sell this so beautifully and authentically that I had no complaints here. I found myself rooting for the Daleks (vs. the shite new series Cybermen) for perhaps the first time ever in Doctor Who, though I wasn’t sorry to see them leave in the second of many deus ex machina reset button endings. A fine capper to the season, and perhaps a difficult one to bounce back from companionwise: though I eventually came to appreciate Donna, it just seemed wrong to see her here and now and get the annoying “what? what? what?” catchphrase after that ending with Rose.