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.

New Who Speed Through

A friend made this request of me:

Now as for Dr. Who if you have any content that helps someone interested but not indoctrinated like myself get to a must-watch list of the most recent few seasons, that’d be super cool. I started watching occasionally with the Ninth Doctor.

Since my taste when it comes to this show can be idiosyncratic, a simple list of my personal favorites won’t do the trick. So I’ve picked out an almost-bare-minimum subset of episodes that fit at least one of three criteria:

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.

And it’s entirely possible a story that has no continuity impact and isn’t considered a major classic might still greatly enhance your enjoyment of the show. “Robot of Sherwood” isn’t on most people’s top-ten lists, but I saw someone cite it as their favorite Capaldi episode the other day, and if “The Doctor meets Robin Hood” sounds like fun for you or maybe something you’d like to watch with the kids, you won’t be disappointed.

Series 1

Rose Continuity Fan Favorite My Favorites

The End of the World Continuity My Favorites

The Unquiet Dead Fan Favorite
This is kind of a marginal choice, but there are people for whom it’s their favorite story of the first season.

Dalek Continuity Fan Favorite My Favorites

Father’s Day Continuity Fan Favorite

Empty Child / Doctor Dances Continuity Fan Favorite

Bad Wolf / Parting of the Ways Continuity Fan Favorite My Favorites

Series 2

Christmas Invasion Continuity Fan Favorite

School Reunion Continuity My Favorites

The Girl in the Fireplace Fan Favorite

Rise of the Cybermen / The Age of Steel Continuity
Not the show’s finest hour, but it introduces an important enemy and has a big impact on a character’s path.

Impossible Planet / Satan Pit Fan Favorite My Favorites

Army of Ghosts / Doomsday Continuity Fan Favorite My Favorites

Series 3

The Runaway Bride Continuity

Smith and Jones Continuity My Favorites

Gridlock My Favorites
A divider. I love it, but a lot of people would tell you to skip it.

Human Nature / Family of Blood Continuity Fan Favorite My Favorites
Probably my favorite story of the entire run of New Who. An adaptation of a novel about the Seventh Doctor, but it works brilliantly for the Tenth and kind of has everything. Do not skip.

Blink Continuity Fan Favorite
Many people, especially people who are not already huge Who nerds, count this as their favorite episode ever. It’s not mine, but I think it’s pretty good, and I see where they’re coming from.

Utopia / The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords Continuity Fan Favorite My Favorites
The general consensus is that the first two parts are REALLY good and the last one…maybe not so much. But you can’t very well stop on the cliffhanger. Just watch it all.

Series 4

Partners in Crime Continuity

Fires of Pompeii Fan Favorite
Some very mild continuity stuff here, in the area of character development and themes.

Planet of the Ood Continuity

Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead Continuity Fan Favorite My Favorites

Midnight Fan Favorite My Favorites
I don’t think anybody knew Doctor Who could pull off an episode like this until it happened. Chilling.

Turn Left Continuity Fan Favorite My Favorites
Even more disturbing in 2017 America.

Stolen Earth / Journey’s End Continuity


The Waters of Mars Continuity Fan Favorite My Favorites
Another of the very best.

The End of Time Continuity

Series 5

The Eleventh Hour Continuity Fan Favorite

The Time of Angels / Flesh and Stone Continuity Fan Favorite My Favorites

Amy’s Choice My Favorites
Another episode that pushes the envelope for the show and is a nice change of pace.

The Hungry Earth / Cold Blood Continuity
I hesitated to include this but again, it (re)introduces an important alien species. I left out a two-parter in Season 4 that does the same, but I couldn’t bring myself to recommend that even for continuity reasons. You can take or leave this one.

Vincent and the Doctor Fan Favorite
This is another divider. This time I’m on the wrong side of it, but everyone else loves it so much that I can’t tell you to skip it.

The Lodger My Favorites
Another of my favorites. Non-essential but really fun.

The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang Continuity Fan Favorite

Series 6

A Christmas Carol Fan Favorite

The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon Continuity

The Doctor’s Wife Fan Favorite My Favorites
By Neil Gaiman, author of The Sandman comic series, the novel American Gods, and a whole bunch of other great things.

The Rebel Flesh / The Almost People Continuity
This is REALLY dreadful. But it sets up the next story so you have to suffer through it.

A Good Man Goes to War Continuity

Let’s Kill Hitler Continuity

The Girl Who Waited Fan Favorite My Favorites
One of the best. Highly recommended for anyone really into the time travel aspect of the show.

The God Complex My Favorites
Another of my favorites of the season.

Closing Time My Favorites
If you watched and liked “The Lodger” you’ll probably like this too. If you skipped that, don’t bother with this.

The Wedding of River Song Continuity

Series 7

Asylum of the Daleks Continuity

The Angels Take Manhattan Continuity Fan Favorite

The Snowmen Continuity Fan Favorite

The Bells of Saint John Continuity

Hide My Favorites
Another on my short list of favorites. Maybe others agree with me more than I think? Another good one for time travel buffs.

The Crimson Horror Fan Favorite My Favorites

The Name of the Doctor Continuity Fan Favorite My Favorites
This had a big impact on us fans of the classic series, but also on pretty much everyone else.

The Day of the Doctor Continuity Fan Favorite My Favorites
Another of the very best. I’ve come to admire it more and more over time, not least for being perfectly tuned to please almost everyone without being any the worse for the effort.

The Time of the Doctor Continuity

Series 8

Deep Breath Continuity

Listen Fan Favorite
A “Blink”-level classic in some people’s books. It has its moments.

The Caretaker Continuity

Kill the Moon Fan Favorite
I hate this episode more and more the more I think about it. But some people think it’s amazing. It might depend on how important the “science” in “science fiction” is to you.

Mummy on the Orient Express Fan Favorite
If you watch “Kill the Moon” watching this becomes a continuity issue. If you skip it, you can skip this too, though it’s more enjoyable.

Flatline My Favorites

Dark Water / Death in Heaven Continuity Fan Favorite My Favorites
Crazy good. Essential viewing.

Series 9

Last Christmas Continuity Fan Favorite

The Magician’s Apprentice / The Witch’s Familiar Fan Favorite My Favorites

The Girl Who Died / The Woman Who Lived Continuity Fan Favorite My Favorites

The Zygon Invasion / The Zygon Inversion Continuity Fan Favorite My Favorites
May or may not be a continuity issue, depending on what happens next season, but definitely not to be missed.

Face the Raven / Heaven Sent / Hell Bent Continuity Fan Favorite My Favorites

The Husbands of River Song Continuity My Favorites

Wearing a Bit Thin

It’s been official since January that Peter Capaldi is leaving Doctor Who, and that his last episode will air at Christmas of this year. More recently it’s been announced that he would be facing the 1966 Cybermen this season — the strange headlamp-and-cloth-face-mask version we saw in their very first appearance, which happened also to be William Hartnell’s very last (consecutive) appearance as the First Doctor. This got me thinking: is it possible that the Twelfth Doctor would go out the way the First Doctor did? It’s the sort of thing a big fan of the show like Capaldi might request, and while he’ll definitely appear in the Christmas special, it could very well be a flashback.

I know, it sounds far-fetched to me too — anticlimactically repetitive, for a start, and convoluted even for Moffat. But it got me thinking about the different ways the Doctors have regenerated, and speculating about what we might expect this time. I thought it might be interesting to compare the enemies involved in regeneration stories, the catalysts that have helped the process along, and the causes of “death.”

As a bonus, I’ll offer a short take on the personality shifts between incarnations, according to my theory (I don’t remember if I came up with it, but I like it) that even within the story the Doctor is subconsciously “recasting” himself to correct any flaws he might perceive in his ending persona (whether we agree that they’re flaws or not) and become the new person he believes he might need to be.

First Doctor

Enemy: The Cybermen
Catalyst: The TARDIS
Cause: Exhaustion
Quote: “This old body of mine is wearing a bit thin.”

Though the early Cybermen were all about draining energy, there’s no explicit indication that they were draining it from the Doctor himself. To all appearances, he’s simply aged his first body as far as it can go, and it’s time to renew it. In the next story, his new self comments that this process is “part of the TARDIS,” suggesting that access to his ship is essential for regeneration to succeed. Indeed, there will be only three regenerations that don’t happen in or near the TARDIS, and all three of them have some other catalyst involved. This is never again explicitly stated, but we could assume that wherever I’ve noted the catalyst as “none,” the TARDIS is still playing that role.

This incarnation could be physically infirm and lacking in warmth; he becomes a younger, more charming man whose signature tactic is to run.

Second Doctor

Enemy: The War Lords
Catalyst: The Time Lords
Cause: Induction
Quote: “The time has come for you to change your appearance, Doctor, and begin your exile.”

So far the Second Doctor has been the only one to have regenerated while in perfect health. He is in a sense executed by the Time Lords for becoming too involved in the affairs of worlds outside Gallifrey. We might imagine this experience to be as traumatic as an execution, but little onscreen suggests it’s physically painful, as opposed to merely emotionally unpleasant. Still, though the enemy of this story is technically the War Lords (themselves an organization or species we might describe as degraded, inverted Time Lords), the Time Lords themselves are the cause of the actual regeneration, and might just as well be considered eleventh-hour antagonists.

Though demonstrably brilliant and capable, this incarnation sometimes found it difficult to command respect at first glance, and was not especially imposing physically. He becomes a more patrician, authoritative Doctor with a mastery of multiple martial arts.

Third Doctor

Enemy: The Giant Spiders of Metebelis III
Catalyst: Cho-Je
Cause: Radiation
Quote: “All the cells of his body have been devastated by the Metebelis crystals, but you forget, he is a Time Lord. I will give the process a little push and the cells will regenerate.”

The same alien radiation emitted by the blue crystals of Metebelis III that caused ordinary spiders from Earth to grow giant in size and intellectual capacity proved deadly in full doses, not just to their monarch the Great One, but also to the Doctor. Earlier in the same story, he takes a nearly-lethal spike of spidery lightning which knocks him almost comatose until Sarah Jane brings him medical equipment from the TARDIS, so he’s already poorly. Though he has his TARDIS nearby for the regeneration, he needs a little extra help from a fellow Time Lord.

While he was much more likely to rebuke authority figures than he’s given credit for, this incarnation developed a respect for human institutions and etiquette that probably constrained him a bit. His next would almost immediately display a detached, anarchic streak and a much healthier sense of humor about himself and the rest of the universe.

Fourth Doctor

Enemy: The Master
Catalyst: The Watcher
Cause: Trauma
Quote: “It’s the end. But the moment has been prepared for.”

One of the most violent regenerations to date, and the only one the Master can be said to be directly involved in. On the beam of a radio telescope, the Fourth Doctor fights the Master, who deliberately tilts the dish so that the Doctor slides off, dangles by a cable, loses his grip, and plunges to the ground. This is a family show, so he’s externally unscathed, but there’s no doubt he’s had it. The TARDIS is a good distance away, but a catalyst is at hand: a sort of plaster-of-Paris-covered mime who merges with him to become the Fifth Doctor. We might think of the Watcher as an autonomous projection of the Doctor, much as Cho-Je was an autonomous projection of the K’anpo Rimpoche, the Doctor’s former teacher. Maybe that’s where the Doctor got the idea to try a less polished version of the same trick. We don’t see clear evidence that summoning the Watcher was a conscious choice, but there’s plenty to suggest the Doctor might be expecting disaster. He’s uncharacteristically somber from the start, intoning gloomily about entropy — and why take a sudden urge to repair the chameleon circuit? Perhaps he knows something terrible is coming, even suspects that the Master may not have died on Traken, and creates the Watcher as a form of insurance? Which means we might also think of the Watcher as a horcrux. But this is 1981, so JK Rowling is only 16, and anyway it’s a little creepy to think of the Doctor as a lich with a phylactery, isn’t it? Still.

This incarnation of the Doctor was getting a little untouchable by the end, a little too sure of himself, a little arrogant perhaps, and maybe that was making him a little hard to be around. Next time, maybe he’d try to be a little more human, a little more approachable, a little more vulnerable. Given his hobbies, maybe not really the best move.

Fifth Doctor

Enemy: Sharaz Jek, Morgus, and all the other would-be profiteers and exploiters of Androzani Minor
Catalyst: none
Cause: Toxaemia
Quote: “Cramp is the second stage. First a rash, then spasms, finally slow paralysis of the thoracic spinal nerve and then TDP. Thermal death point. It’s called Spectrox toxaemia. I’ve seen dozens die from it.”

Toxaemia — blood poisoning brought on by an infection or a toxic substance — is probably the most gruesome regeneration cause we’ve seen so far. First of all, it’s a much more down-and-dirty biological sort of affliction than radiation or the trauma of falling from a great height. But eventually we learn that while the refined form of spectrox (the toxic substance in question) is a life-extending drug probably inspired by Dune‘s melange, its original form is literally bat guano. That is to say, the Doctor and Peri spend the entire story slowly dying because they fell into a pit of bat shit. Can you imagine the Tumblr anguish if they’d done that to David Tennant? Enemy-wise, it’s hard to blame any of the local warlords, venal bureaucrats, gunrunners, and other assorted criminals for this situation; our heroes step in poop before they meet anyone else on the planet and in fact would have died if they hadn’t gotten some crucial advice about the antitoxin. Well, Peri would have died; the Doctor would have survived, and that would have been awkward. Though less whiny.

This incarnation wasn’t a total wimp, but he was in a lot of situations where he could have benefited from being just a little tougher. Maybe after an adventure in which he was nearly shot to death by a firing squad and had to crash-land a ship and crawl into an airless cave to milk a queen bat, his dying self thought back to that dashing but ruthless Gallifreyan Commander Maxil and wished he’d been a little more like that….

Sixth Doctor

Enemy: The Rani
Catalyst: none
Cause: Trauma
Quote: “Yes, it exploded and threw you to the floor. Me, too. Knocked us both cold. When I came round you looked like this.”

It’s not entirely clear what causes the Sixth Doctor to regenerate. The relevant quote here is from the Rani, an amoral Time Lord disguised as the Doctor’s companion Mel. The “it” that “exploded” is an experiment that the Rani is making up as an explanation for an amnesiac Doctor. We know that in truth she’s brought down the TARDIS herself with some sort of energy bolts that knocked it out of the vortex, with the aim of getting the Doctor to help her complete her latest science project. So whatever the energy bolts are, they weren’t supposed to hurt him or cause him to regenerate, and after all they leave Mel unconscious but unconcussed. So we have to assume that either some part of the TARDIS does explode and injure him severely and Mel superficially, or — as goes the usual wisdom — he happened to hit his head hard enough to “kill” him. Perhaps the Rani’s energy bolts happened to catch him off-balance on his exercise bike.

This incarnation was abrasive, conceited, pretentious, and often downright nasty and abusive. This made it easy to overlook that — after his regeneration settled down — he was also protective, noble, outgoing, literate, and unafraid to get his hands dirty. There wasn’t a subtle bone in his body, and maybe that’s what drove him toward a regeneration that, like his first, brought him a personality with charm, a smooth tongue, and a deceptively unthreatening appearance.

Seventh Doctor

Enemy: The Master, a trigger-happy street gang, and San Francisco surgical procedures just before the year 2000
Catalyst: A thunderstorm?
Cause: Trauma
Quote: “And here we have an electro-physiology being performed by one of our senior cardiologists, Doctor Holloway, who will insert a micro-surgical probe into the patient’s artery, then search out the short-circuiting part causing the fibrillation, and just so that you know your money is being well spent, we’ll blast it with lasers.”

In which the famously ten-steps-ahead chess-playing master strategist Doctor dashes out of the TARDIS without checking a single scanner or instrument, right into a random San Francisco gangland shooting. Adding injury to insult, the bullets aren’t quite enough to kill him — instead, he is operated on by his companion-to-be, who skipped Alien Physiology in med school, and so has no idea how Time Lord physiology differs from the humans she’s used to. Rather than saving him, her procedure finishes him off. No wonder people are afraid of hospitals. Here the Master mainly just benefits from the situation rather than causing it. This is perhaps the first of the delayed regenerations, though rather than walking around and casually chatting with his former companions as has become customary since 2005, the Doctor is apparently dead for hours. The TARDIS isn’t nearby to help, and maybe this is partly why it takes so long. It’s not clear whether the coincidental thunderstorm plays any catalytic role, or if it’s just a clumsy Frankenstein allusion.

This incarnation, though perhaps resembling your most huggable uncle, was probably not going to have the chance to smooch too many mildly attractive incompetent surgeons. Maybe subconsciously he felt it was time to try being youthful and handsome and spontaneous again.

Eighth Doctor

Enemy: The Daleks
Catalyst: A magic potion!
Cause: Trauma
Quote: “Our elixir can trigger your regeneration, bring you back. Time Lord science is elevated here on Karn. The change doesn’t have to be random. Fat or thin, young or old, man or woman?”

Though the Daleks don’t make an appearance here, they’re the antagonist in the Time War, and even if the Time Lords are equally to blame, it’s clear what side the Doctor ends up taking. Like the Fourth Doctor, the Eighth has crashed to the ground hard and is all messed up inside. The TARDIS is somewhere in the wreckage, but we don’t know how far — maybe even farther away than it was in “Logopolis.” Fortunately the Sisterhood of Karn — a planet that might be the most crashed-on in the whole galaxy — have some potions ready to go, and they’ve been tight with the Time Lords for ages so they know what they’re doing.

No mystery at all what transition the Doctor mulls here. He gets to make a conscious choice to become a fighter, not a lover. Why that fighter is in the form of John Hurt and not, say, Tom Hardy or Daniel Craig or the Rock is a little mysterious; even Christopher Eccleston seems like more of a “fighter,” and of course we know it very nearly was him after all. But maybe there’s only so far the Doctor can go in the direction of badassedness, which is why he’s not the Warrior but the War Doctor.

War Doctor

Enemy: The Daleks
Catalyst: none
Cause: Exhaustion
Quote: “Oh yes, of course. I suppose it makes sense. Wearing a bit thin. I hope the ears are a bit less conspicuous this time.”

Here again, no Daleks are shooting at him, but what must have been centuries (as much as one can reckon time in the midst of a Time War) of fighting them must have been what wore him out. Still, he isn’t quite expecting to regenerate, but once it starts he acts as though it were an obvious next step. The line “wearing a bit thin” of course echoes his first regeneration, supporting the idea that the cause in both cases is the same: a “natural” death of “old age.” Part of what “makes sense” is that now the war is over and he no longer needs to be the War Doctor. Interestingly, if this had been Eccleston, there would have been no regeneration scene.

This incarnation had a heavy burden, and we have to assume he didn’t have a lot of time to explore the universe, flip through tabloids, visit past Earth history, or eat chips. He also had started to be a different kind of Doctor — younger, more dashing, less intellectual, more emotional, and maybe he wanted to get back on that track. Or maybe after so long looking like he didn’t belong in any particular time or place, he thought it might be good to be the kind of man who could blend in on the streets of 21st century London and just relax.

Ninth Doctor

Enemy: The Daleks
Catalyst: none
Cause: Radiation
Quote: “I absorbed all the energy of the Time Vortex, and no one’s meant to do that. Every cell in my body’s dying.”

Radiation hasn’t taken out a Doctor since 1974, so it’s due to come back into fashion. It’s a nice clean cause of death, invisible and almost magic. The idea that the Doctor can kiss it out of someone else like he’s sucking venom from a rattlesnake bite is a little far-fetched, but this is Doctor Who, so why not. The language he uses here is almost certainly a deliberate reference to that previous regeneration.

Again, the Ninth Doctor isn’t bad-looking, but right now he’s Rose’s fun uncle, and if he’s going to fall in love with her — which he does, come on, of course he does — he’ll need to be Casanova, but with better hair.


Enemy: The Daleks
Catalyst: Donna
Cause: Trauma
Quote: “I’m unique. Never been another like me. Because all that regeneration energy went into the hand. Look at my hand. I love that hand. But then you touched it. Wham! Shush. Instantaneous biological metacrisis. I grew out of you. Still, could be worse.”

I bring up Handy for two reasons only. One, he arguably counts as an actual regeneration, as irritating as that idea is. And two, if we are pursuing this theory that regenerations produce a new incarnation that “corrects” the flaws of the previous one, it’s possible that at this point in time the Tenth Doctor thinks he is flawless.

Okay, three reasons: the quote above is preceded by an even better one, to wit, Donna speculating, “Is that what Time Lords do? Lop a bit off, grow another one? You’re like worms.”

Tenth Doctor

Enemy: The Time Lords
Catalyst: none
Cause: Radiation
Quote: “All the excess radiation gets vented inside there. Vinvocci glass contains it. All five hundred thousand rads, about to flood that thing.”

Technically, the Time Lords are pulling all the strings, though probably some of the blame goes to the Naismiths. Though, really, if I were trying to pin down the root culprit of these regenerations rather than the antagonist du jour, I’d probably have to point to — not Wilf, but the Vinvocci and their completely unsafe, poorly designed radiation death trap technology. What’s wrong with those idiots and their “opening one cabinet locks the other” industrial design? Do they not realize that we just had a radiation regeneration last time (Handy notwithstanding)? While we’re on the subject of the absurd, how is it that the Tenth Doctor can survive a catastrophic fall but the Fourth and the Eighth can’t? He must have decided enough trauma was enough and did some intense body modification as the War Doctor, which might also explain his extraordinary resistance to electricity and extreme temperatures in “Evolution of the Daleks” and “42” respectively.

This incarnation was a bit too romantic — it compromised his judgment, broke his heart, hooked him up with a monarch, and cost him at least one companion who’d hoped for more from him than he could give. Maybe the next him could be slightly goofier, have sillier taste in clothes, and be a little less inclined to get involved with his female companions (historical celebrities would still be on the menu, though). In hindsight, though, he ought to have known this attempt would fail, considering he’d already met his wife.

Eleventh Doctor

Enemy: The Daleks, and any other enemies who haven’t gotten bored and left
Catalyst: The Time Lords
Cause: Exhaustion / induction
Quote: “Yes, I’m dying. You’ve been trying to kill me for centuries, and here I am, dying of old age. If you want something done, do it yourself.”

A bit of a special case, considering it was supposed to be the last one. Old age has, for only the third time in the Doctor’s lives, come to claim him when none of his massed enemies could close the deal, and so it’s what I’m calling exhaustion that kills him. But since the process would not be happening at all without a new regeneration cycle being sent through Amy’s Crack by the Time Lords, like some kind of extension on his cosmic taxes, the regeneration itself could be what I’m calling induced. As with the last few times, dying is now so comfortable for the Doctor that he can stroll around and chat with his companions for as long as he wants to, kind of taking a lot of the drama out of the whole affair and making it feel a bit like an awards show. It’s also the second instance of the “reset,” where any visible wounds or gray hairs or liver spots magically buff away, a bit like sprucing oneself up for that awards show.

This incarnation was still just a bit too dangerously attractive, only this time to slightly older women, self-described “psychopaths” with archaeology degrees or Dalek eyestalks coming out of their heads. Once and for all, maybe he would try to nip this thing in the bud and take it all back to where he began: a no-nonsense older man with a dangerous side, a lack of patience for silly humans, but underneath it all a current of warmth for his favorites of that species. He could come full circle and start it all over again, older and wiser. As long as he could avoid running into any old-school Mondasian Cybermen, maybe he could live forever….

And the awards go to…

Deadliest Enemy: The Daleks

It’s no surprise that the Doctor’s deadliest enemy, in terms of ushering in his regenerations, is his oldest (if you don’t count the primitive Earthlings of “100,000 B.C.”). Though they’ve rarely been the immediate cause of the regenerations (the only exception being Handy, who owes his existence to a would-be extermination bolt), they’ve been heavily involved in the conflicts that have led up to five of them. It’s interesting, however, that the runners-up are the Doctor’s own people: counting the Master and the Rani, Time Lords have taken four of the Doctor’s lives, more than they’ve helped to save.

Most Helpful Catalyst: The TARDIS

There should be an asterisk next to this one, since as mentioned above, the idea that regeneration is “part of the TARDIS” is never mentioned again after “Power of the Daleks.” So we can only assume that in the cases where no other catalyst is present, the TARDIS is taking care of the Time Lord it stole. But it’s a reasonable assumption for five regenerations and a stated fact for a sixth. The Time Lords themselves take a silver medal again, helping with four regenerations, if we count the Watcher (who, after all, “was the Doctor all the time” if Nyssa’s intuition is to be trusted).

Most Common Cause: Trauma

This is the biggest surprise of this exercise for me. I’d expected one of the more family-friendly causes of death to win out. If you group exhaustion, induction, and good old invisible radiation together, I suppose they still do, but individually they split the vote such that traumatic deaths — falling, being shot, and massive head injuries — squeak into first place with five (thanks once again to Handy). This suggests it’s entirely possible that the Twelfth Doctor might end up having something pretty scary and awful happen to him after all…though surely not at Christmas.

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Morrissey, “Ranked”

There are some bad people on the right. There are some bad people on the rise. They’re saving their own skins by ruining people’s lives. While Rome burns, let’s rank Morrissey.

This is of course the definitive, uptown Moz ranking. It includes only the albums you need and none of the ones you don’t. Of course, there will be stray rarities you need to acquire at all costs, e.g. the essential “Pregnant For the Last Time” and majestic B-side “I Can Have Both,” but does an extra track and a tacky badge rate a repackage a place on the ladder? It does not. A better case might be made for including the live albums, but since one of them is “Beethoven Was Deaf”, it’s kinder to note for the record that Live at Earls Court is wonderful and indispensable and concentrate on the densest collections of new-to-us songs. So we have ten albums and three collections to consider. Let’s go worst to best, like any good countdown should.

13. World Peace Is None of Your Business (2014)
I confess I have only made it through this album once. It was that appalling. It’s the only studio album by Morrissey I do not own. I’m not certain what happened but my guess is this: Morrissey, like Madonna (have those words ever been typed? they must have, surely), depends heavily on the right collaborators. None of them could write a Morrissey song without him, but the rub is that he can’t write a good one without them. Maybe there’s a good one on here, and if so please write in and tell me. But one is not enough.

12. Swords (2009)
Or, Things Less Mighty Than Pens. It’s the weakest of the compilations, and it has some truly embarrassing stuff, but there are plenty of impressive B-sides and rarities here. My favorites are the sly “Don’t Make Fun of Daddy’s Voice” and of course “Friday Mourning,” one of the loveliest songs he’s written this century. “Good Looking Man About Town” is fun, “Shame Is the Name” has a real drive to it, and though “Teenage Dad on His Estate” is dubious as social commentary, it’s lovely as melody. All are Alain Whyte collaborations, if that tells you anything.

11. Ringleader of the Tormentors (2006)
There’s a lot of gratifying stuff here, chiefly the continued lyrical hints that Moz has had something of a sexual reawakening around this time; claims that “I entered nothing, and nothing entered me” are tough to swallow even with his self-styled reputation, but in any case it’s nice to hear them in the past tense. Certainly there are plenty of strong melodies here, and the lyrics are assertive and bold, but it suffers by comparison with its predecessor. Lots of Tobias collaborations here, though they’re not all bad: “You Have Killed Me” is fun and “In the Future When All’s Well” cranks along just fine.

10. Years of Refusal (2009)
More uneven than Ringleader, but this means it has true highlights, namely the fantastic “Something is Squeezing My Skull,” the gorgeous “I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris,” and the sublime “When Last I Spoke to Carol.” The rest of the record will probably appeal to anyone in search of scathing breakup songs, but is otherwise safely skippable.

9. Maladjusted (1997)
Kind of a shock at the time. That awkward cover photo! The shapeless title track! The one about Mike Joyce suing him for royalties! It seemed even more apocalyptic with the long silence that followed. But when an album is the latest Morrissey for seven years, you spend a lot of time spinning it, and you discover that the rest of it is actually really excellent. Only those two tracks are subpar; every other song is a pleasure, if perhaps not among his most urgent statements. You might not find another Morrissey album more fun to sing in the car.

8. Viva Hate (1988)
I’ll lose some of you here, but see this album for what it is: Morrissey figuring out how to be a solo artist, and establishing some of his worst habits. In the former column, “Angel, Angel…” may have saved a few lives but may have endangered others, while “I Don’t Mind If You Forget Me” begs the obvious joke. In the latter, “Alsatian Cousin” is the first in an intermittent series of obnoxious album openers, while “Bengali in Platforms” kicks off a confusing ambivalence about the place of immigrants in British society, encapsulated in the wait-what? line “life is hard enough when you belong here.” There are no bad tracks, and plenty of wonderful ones, but since several of the best end up on later compilations, the harsh truth is that there’s less to come back for than nostalgia would suggest. It might be time for an update of that guillotine song, though.

7. Kill Uncle (1991)
So concise it’s almost a swindle, and not unfairly derided as a flimsy record compared to both earlier and later work. And yet there’s something almost absurdly confident about it. The tone is set poorly by “Our Frank” at the top of one side and “Found Found Found” on the other, but the remaining eight songs are as focused and vivid as anything he’s ever done. “Sing Your Life” and “There’s A Place in Hell For Me and My Friends” are, not to put too fine a point on it, not only perfect Morrissey songs but perfect songs, full stop.

6. Southpaw Grammar (1995)
I’ll never forget the Morrissey radio interview I heard when he was asked his favorite Smiths record and then his favorite solo record. His answers were “Rank” and this one. He might have been trolling, or self-promoting (this album had just come out), but actually he kind of has a point. “Rank” captures the energy of The Smiths in a way that the studio albums never could, and Southpaw might have come closest to doing the same for a backing band that — heresy time — might have, in whole though not in part, been their match. At the time I was enthused by the baroque opening track but a bit indifferent to the more conventional rock that followed it; now I feel the opposite. It’s easy to get lost in some of the highly unusual extended instrumental stretches, but it’s a fine place to be lost. Everyone is at the top of their game here. The scorching “Reader Meet Author,” “The Boy Racer,” “Dagenham Dave,” and “Best Friend on the Payroll” are top-notch, and I refer to “Do Your Best and Don’t Worry” at least every other week.

5. Your Arsenal (1992)
The muscle Morrissey sorely needed after Kill Uncle, and just in time. “You’re Gonna Need Someone on Your Side” is fine, but forgettable; “We’ll Let You Know,” a little limp; but the rest of the album is stone classic. “Successful” and “Fatty” are treasures, “Tomorrow” a triumph, “Glamorous Glue” perennial (“everyone lies, nobody minds, everyone lies: where is the man you respect?”). “The National Front Disco” might be awkward to sing along with, continuing that “Platforms” ambiguity with the pre-chorus “England for the English” which is probably condemnation but sounds a bit like celebration, but it’s all part of the fascinating Morrissey puzzle, of which this is a key piece.

4. My Early Burglary Years (1998)
If you know anything about Morrissey you know he saves most of his best tracks for B-sides. And here’s a stunning lineup: “Sunny,” “At Amber” (“it’s not lowlife, it’s just people having a good time”), “Nobody Loves Us,” “A Swallow On My Neck,” “Pashernate Love,” “Jack the Ripper,” “I’ve Changed My Plea to Guilty,” “Boxers,” and the indispensable “Sister I’m a Poet” and “Girl Least Likely To.” I’d quickly have traded away “Michael’s Bones” and the unnecessary “Cosmic Dancer” cover for “My Love Life” and “I Can Have Both,” but one has to sell singles somehow.

3. Vauxhall and I (1994)
This album came out at a time when I had cooled toward a lot of the music I’d been into and became obsessed with female singer-songwriters and neo-medievalists. I borrowed this, listened, gave it back: it had flown under my radar entirely. When I revisited it years later I couldn’t believe I’d missed out on one of Morrissey’s most perfect albums. The bravado of Your Arse settled down, the point proven, and now just a matter of gorgeous music sustaining some of Morrissey’s best lyrics. It’s highlight after highlight. If I’m back to not listening to it much, it’s because I’ve just about worn it out with repeats. I have to put something aside for old age.

2. You Are the Quarry (2004)
The idea that Maladjusted might have been Morrissey’s retirement record seems crazy now, but in the early 21st century it seemed the most likely scenario. When we heard this was coming out on some obscure defunct reggae record label as a vanity release, we hoped for the best but feared the worst. What we got was the best. It’s not as consistent as Vauxhall, what with meanders like “Come Back to Camden” and near-novelties like “I Like You.” But the sudden direct and forthright and sure-footed power of songs like “America Is Not the World,” “Irish Blood, English Heart,” “I’m Not Sorry,” “The World Is Full of Crashing Bores,” and “You Know I Couldn’t Last” seemed both unprecedented and quintessentially Morrissey. And after so many years of coyness about not only his sexuality but that of others, to hear him use the word “gay” in a song, or sing gorgeously about “All the Lazy Dykes,” or declare “the woman of my dreams…there never was one” seemed revelatory. Other albums might be easier listening, but none made stronger statements, and regarding a man known for his lyrics, that counts for a lot.

1. Bona Drag (1990)
I might be biased for two reasons: one, this is the first solo Morrissey album I ever owned and listened to, so it set the baseline; and two, this is objectively the best Morrissey album of all time. Of course it’s a collection, not technically an album, but with Moz, what difference does it make? This is a set where “Hairdresser on Fire,” “Everyday is Like Sunday,” and “Suedehead” aren’t even in the running for best tracks. “Piccadilly Palare,” “Interesting Drug,” “The Last of the Famous International Playboys,” and “Ouija Board, Ouija Board,” are all extraordinary in their own right and are early prototypes and perhaps best examples of Moz tropes he’d revisit again and again. Depending on your taste, you might find “November Spawned a Monster” or even “He Knows I’d Love To See Him” among the highest of highlights. For my money, it’s the back-to-back pair “Yes, I Am Blind” and “Lucky Lisp” that really brings this one home. There’s an alternate universe where this is a Smiths album and fans debate its merits vs. The Queen Is Dead. As much as I’d love to hear Johnny Marr’s guitar underpinning some of these songs, I’m fine with them just as they are.

The Return of Doctor Mysterio

My hot take was that it wasn’t my least favorite Christmas special, but I’m having trouble coming up with the one it beats. Maybe “The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe”? But even that inconsequential yarn included Matt Smith, whose effortless charm and spontaneity would have been more than welcome here. I like Capaldi, but the script includes very little of his Doctor. Indeed, he’s in full zany fish-fingers-and-custard mode, even dropping in on a child (see “The Eleventh Hour”) whilst working on a Rube Goldbergian contraption (see “The Lodger”). I’d suspect this had been drafted in the Smith era if not for the genre, which is just hitting its stride in 2016. Superhero tales accounted for 1 out of every 3 new movies or TV shows greenlit in America in the last 18 months*, so it’s no shock that Doctor Who has finally gotten around to running this overexposed genre through the old meat grinder. The problem, and it’s a fatal one, is that nothing got ground up. There’s a slab of superhero sitting next to a strip of Who and it’s been sold as a sausage.

Classic Who has a long tradition of absorbing and reinterpreting existing genres and even specific novels or films. That approach has given us such masterpieces as “The Brain of Morbius” (based on Frankenstein), “The Robots of Death” (And Then There Were None), “State of Decay” (Dracula and Carmilla), “Planet of Evil” (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), “Pyramids of Mars” (The Mummy), and “The Deadly Assassin” (The Manchurian Candidate), and that’s in the Tom Baker era alone. The Moffat era has done the same on several occasions, most notably “Last Christmas” (Alien meets Inception) and of course “A Christmas Carol” (Great Expectations, j/k).

But there’s nothing absorbed or reinterpreted in “Mysterio.” The Doctor appears to be heavily involved in the plot, serving as the event creating our ersatz Superman out of a somewhat dim ersatz Clark Kent, and handling a lot of the exposition about the diagonal head opener aliens who want to invade Earth by wearing important-people skins in a manner completely unlike the Slitheen. But Grant and Lucy are on their own fairly predictable track, with the Doctor commenting on but almost completely failing to impact their relationship. He’s really good at equivocating around the Grant-related parts of Lucy’s interrogation, to the point that I found myself wishing for him just to calmly blurt out the truth, exhibiting some of the Twelfth Doctor’s characteristic lack of social grace. If there were any way for Doctor Who to invade and revise the superhero genre, that blithe subversion of the secret identity trope might be it. Would that be enough to build a whole episode around? Probably not, which is why “Mysterio” can’t help but fall flat. At its best it’s a mildly entertaining, very slightly subversive (the “nanny” secret identity, the X-ray vision joke) piece of superhero fluff. At its worst it’s dead boring. “Wardrobe” at least made you wonder, on first viewing, if it might be headed somewhere. “Mysterio” is perhaps the least surprising Moffat episode ever aired.

* Source: I just made it up. Sounds about right, though, doesn’t it?

Carnival of Souls

I watched Carnival of Souls today in preparation for the Rifftrax performance coming out later this month. It was extraordinary.

Yes, the basic story — a woman survives a near-fatal car accident only to be haunted by a mysterious creepy stranger — is lifted intact from the Twilight Zone episode “The Hitchhiker.” But this version expands on that basic premise with so many ideas, motifs, and stylistic moves that I recognized in later works, including Night of the Living Dead (also a Halloween Rifftrax choice), Jacob’s Ladder, Silent Hill, Lost Highway (tons of David Lynch, really), and The Sixth Sense, in addition to odd and poignant lines and moments I can’t remember having seen anywhere else. Mary’s strange dissociative emotions felt oddly familiar and resonant to me, and after a while I realized that they felt, in addition to what they were meant to suggest, like a fantastical portrayal of a certain type of depression.

It’s true we’re not talking about a “good” movie in the usual sense. For a start, almost all the performances were forgettable at best (and unforgettable at worst), though the lead actor herself was actually fairly impressive, which contrast actually helped the atmosphere. This movie is sometimes considered “Lynch before Lynch,” and so much of his weird nightmare-like work is enhanced by eccentric, unnatural acting choices. The plot itself is fairly thin, but this too is perfect for the story being told, which is more about Mary’s emotions and her growing feelings of dread than what little is actually happening to her.

This is definitely a Rifftraxable film, and frankly the guys have their work cut out for them. But it’s surprisingly watchable on its own, and I’m glad I had the chance to see it this way first.

Stranger Things and The Problem of Barb

Like a lot of people, I devoured and adored Stranger Things, which if you’re living under a rock or maybe just an EMT or something and too busy saving people’s lives to obsess over a Netflix sci-fi/horror series inspired by and evocative of all the 1980s output of Spielberg, Carpenter, and (Stephen) King, is a Netflix sci-fi horror series inspired by and evocative of etc. If you love those influences, and you’re excited about the fact that this is by no means a slavish recreation of them but the sort of dream about them you could only have if you weren’t even alive at the time, this show is for you.

This show is for me. I love the early 80s — the music, the movies — and I’m sure a large part of that was due to the fact that I was 8 years old at the time Stranger Things is set. I was just a little younger than the kids at the heart of the show, and exactly the right age when we start falling in love with the culture around us. But I also love looking back on that culture, the tropes and the conventions, and reinterpreting it. I love the music now that’s reminiscent of that early synthpop (CHVRCHES, Dragonette, Cut Copy, M83’s Saturdays = Youth) and how it distills our memories of it while remaining thoroughly modern. And I love movies and TV that comment on or subvert some of the patterns that maybe aren’t worth preserving intact.

Which brings us to Barb.


I’m led to understand that the internet loves Barb. (If you don’t know who she is or what happens to her, now is maybe a good time to stop reading.) I’ve read a couple of the pieces praising her, but I admit I have not been super diligent about seeking out all the Tumblr posts and fan art and whatnot. I mean, I don’t really doubt that there’s a good case to be made for her. I get the appeal: the minute she appears in the enormous mom jeans and the plaid blouse and the giant glasses and the sculptural red hair, you really have to just embrace her if you don’t throw up your hands in despair at how dedicated a nerd she is. The young actor who plays her is good, and convincing, and she is certainly a sympathetic character. You feel for her as she tries to hang onto her best friend who is moving into a cooler circle, as she tries and fails to shotgun a beer, as she gets pulled into a terrifying nether dimension by a hellbeast with a face full of fangs that opens like a flower. People who think that what’s counterintuitive must be true seem to be all like: she’s cool for dressing how she wants! She’s cool for keeping her virginity and trying to help her friend resist pressure to lose hers! She’s cool for being a nerd and not apologizing for it!

Allow me to suggest delicately that this might be some bullshit. Or at least that there’s another way of looking at our Barb. I’ll explain.

We wore some bad denim back in the 80s, it’s true. We had some bad clothes. I do not look back on that time and think, wow, I sure miss those fashions. They were awful. Haircuts were bad. We looked terrible, for the most part. You look back on the 60s and 70s now and yeah, there was a lot of dire stuff, especially on people who rollerskated, but at least the best of it looked intentional, like you were either visiting an Elvish village or a space station near Alpha Centauri. Once the polyester train chugged out of sight, the 80s were left with popped-collar polos, rugby shirts, and poorly-fitting acid wash denim. And that was the cool kids. Nerds like Barb? Hell, nerds like me? We wore what our parents bought us from Sears or JC Penney’s and just went about our business. That was style, you guys. The point I’m making is that a kid like Barb is not “dressing how she wants.” She’s not a 21st century hipster who thinks ghastly fashion is ironically cool. She’s wearing what her mom bought her, the same mom who is nowhere near as freaked out as Winona Ryder to find out her daughter is missing. Or worse, she is terminally clueless about what would look good on her (as I was, as many of us were in this benighted time before style bloggers) and actually chose some of this stuff. I feel for her, I really do, but she is not a freethinking fashion icon. She is, in all likelihood, a regrettable casualty of a sartorial dark age.

Is she an unapologetic nerd, though? We really don’t know. We can imagine that she’s got a rich inner life, that she’s got some female equivalent to the younger boys’ D&D (maybe you knew girls in 1983 who were willing to be caught dead playing Dungeons and Dragons. I sure didn’t). Maybe she was into Austen novels before they were cool, or Agatha Christie, or, sure, maybe Tolkien or even Stephen King. Or maybe she had a TRS-80 at home and was learning Basic. Most likely she volunteered at the old folks’ home or read to blind people at the library. We don’t really know, though, because as far as I can remember, the show doesn’t tell us. If she was like a lot of us nerds at the time, especially in small towns, she was probably pretty lonely, less accepting of her fate than wondering daily what she could do to gain some modicum of peace from the pecking order. Think about it: apart from the fact that they both take their studies seriously and are probably in the same honors classes, why is she friends with a normal girl like Nancy? Do they bond over Blondie?

We know they don’t bond over Steve. Maybe at first they do; seems like boys are not an unusual topic of conversation for them. But he quickly becomes a bone of contention. And it’s here that I find myself most willing to part ways with the Barb admiration society. Because although we sympathize with Barb’s distrust of Steve, we don’t have to support her distrust of Nancy. Here’s what I mean.

Barb’s the virgin. True, no one’s offering to change that, but by the “rules” of 1980s horror, it’s the girl who gives it up who’s supposed to die, not the one who keeps her giant mom pants on. Barb’s concerned for her friend, she doesn’t want Steve to use her and throw her out like a Kleenex, but she’s not willing to believe that Nancy knows what she’s doing and can take care of herself. By the time of the pool party, we’ve already seen Nancy alone in her bedroom with Steve, and we’ve seen her rebuff him with confidence when the timing isn’t right. This is a straight A student and someone who knows her boyfriend’s a horndog; she has no illusions about what the pool party is for, and while it’s maybe not the perfect situation, she knows she shouldn’t go unless she’s prepared for it to take that turn. And when it does, she’s in control; she could leave with Barb easily, but doesn’t. Barb says to her: “This isn’t you.” Nancy replies: “Yes. It is.” Through the 1980s teen movie lens, Barb’s right; this is where the girl gets led astray, misjudges the guy, gets herself in over her head, gets hurt, maybe dies. Sex is bad. You’ll only get hurt if you give in, especially if you’re a girl.

But in Stranger Things, just as it often is in real life, it’s upside down. Nancy’s the one who’s right. Why isn’t it “her” to go upstairs with a guy she likes, who she’s clearly into (it’s extremely difficult to see what in him she’s attracted to, but undeniable that she’s attracted)? What’s so wrong with that? If the movies hadn’t taught us that only doomed sluts have sex, why would we reflexively side with Barb? Why couldn’t we accept that a normal girl with normal desires deserves to act on and satisfy them? Nancy says “Yes. It is.” not because she’s in denial about Steve’s character. She says it because she’s clear about her own.

And everything about these three characters, plus the fourth side of the love rectangle, Jonathan, proceeds over 8 episodes to defy cliché. Steve engages in plenty of douchey behavior, but comes around to be at least an asset in the climactic monster fight and loyal to Nancy in the end. Jonathan, the prickly but sensitive cute loner, doesn’t steal Nancy’s heart after all. (Yes, this does wrap up like Pretty in Pink, but I’ll bet you didn’t expect it to.) Nancy isn’t punished for being a sexual being; she beats back the monster and lives to the end. And poor Barb, poor doomed Barb, doesn’t get to be the final girl after all. She dies, as far as we know, a virgin.

Yes, it’s sad and seems unfair. When I saw some of the “Barb is the real hero of the show” headlines before I’d watched more than an episode or two, I was convinced this meant she’d burst out of the Upside Down somewhere around episode 7 or 8, an ailing Will in her arms, having persevered and dragged them both out of hell. But of course her death is exactly what it appears to be, at least from everything we can see in Season 1. And that’s real. It’s never too soon to learn how to dress yourself and get out of your shell and realize that virginity isn’t as valuable to its owner as it’s cracked up to be. Good things sometimes don’t come to those who wait. Sometimes if you wait, you die, and it’s too late. Sorry, Barb.

“We were all Barb,” say the internet writers. Were we? I was, sure. I was that nerd, up to a point. But I was also Jonathan, wrapped up in my music and other creative endeavors; Nancy, the top student who also wanted to have a life and had some hope of getting one; and I was even a little bit of Steve, a guy who fell in love with girls and wanted to sleep with them but was willing to wait until and unless they wanted me too. The world isn’t divided into nerds and jocks. The jocks aren’t always wrong and the nerds aren’t always right. We are large. We contain multitudes.

Barb’s okay. Her clothes are hopeless, but so were everyone else’s, and she doesn’t have to be cool to be good. She’s probably a solid friend to have, someone willing to lie for you and drive you to an unauthorized house party. She might have a secret crush on you, actually, which would explain quite a lot of her attitudes and behavior. But she (understandably) has a naïve high schooler’s limited idea of what’s best for you, and she needs to chill out and trust you to make your own decisions.

Does this means she deserves to die? Of course not. But it means she isn’t my hero. That’s all.

Ghostbusters (2016)

As I’ve written here in the past, the original Ghostbusters is a movie I can’t really perceive objectively. Along with a few other movies I watched as often as possible when I was young, such as The Breakfast Club, The Dark Crystal, Tron, Aliens, and of course the original Star Wars trilogy, sequences from it are burned into my memory as somehow fundamental to the way movies work. There was no way any attempt at remaking this movie could possibly supplant it in my mind.

Complicating matters is that, as we know, the movie has been plagued by premature judgment, with an unfortunately subpar trailer compounding fears that the style of humor would be inferior, and an all-female principal cast obliging viewers to praise or pan the movie on political grounds rather than aesthetic ones. One’s opinion of the film would therefore become not a thumbs up or down on whether it was enjoyable, but a referendum on whether women should be allowed to bust ghosts.

And then the film came out, and people actually started to see it after they’d decided if it would be any good or not, and I got very worried when I saw that every woman I followed on Facebook or Twitter loved the film fervently and unconditionally, and almost every man gave it a half-hearted and mixed review.

To my relief, it turned out to be a reasonably enjoyable film. Comparisons I’d heard to The Force Awakens turned out to be solid on a lot of levels. In both cases, the parallels and callbacks to the originals were present but hardly as oppressive as I’d heard. Though this one takes place in a continuity where the original never happened (or was somehow, improbably, successfully covered up 100% by a more competent government than we see here), it never gives the sense of trying to overwrite what came before so much as comfortably slot into the present day and peacefully coexist. The beginning and ending are probably the most predictable parts if you’re familiar with the original, and most of what happens in the middle is almost inevitably what a movie based on this premise has to do.

Though my male and female friends disagree over whether this is the best movie ever made or just okay, they seem mostly united on the worthiness of the cast. I agree: I thoroughly enjoyed all four members of the ghostbusting team and loved the subtlety of the parallels and differences with the original cast. I hate to fall in line with the boring majority on this issue, but yes, Kate McKinnon absolutely stole the show as Holtzmann, often with nothing more than a maniacal sideways glance. She stalks every scene like an almost-feral animal, looking like she wants to lick everything and everybody she sets eyes on, almost casually belting out a stream of scientific jargon, enthusing about the number of uses she could find for an unused cadaver “this week.” I’m having a hard time thinking of a time we’ve ever seen a cooler scientist on the big screen, male or female, and that’s such a welcome thing. The supporting cast is just as great, for the most part, led of course by Chris Hemsworth as the hilarious himbo receptionist, and of the many cameos (including, yes, many of the original leads), only Ozzy Osbourne’s is one you’d want to cut.

Of course, most of the supporting cast are men, and of them almost all are at best cowardly or oblivious, and at worst filled with apocalyptic delusions. I described the average male in this movie as “charming despite massive inadequacy” in a Facebook post, which might explain why some men who have grown sensitive to our portrayal in the 0.25% of films in which we are not overblown superheroes felt miffed. As one of my friends pointed out, “charming despite massive inadequacy” used to be the default for female characters, and the partial shift that’s happened in recent years to “sidelined despite massive superiority” (see Jaylah in Star Trek Beyond for just one recent example of the kick-ass girl who doesn’t really matter to the plot; see also Black Widow in Avengers, and so on) isn’t much of an improvement. The only one here that bugged me a bit was the villain, for three reasons.

The first reason is that I really found the impending demonic invasion in the original film exciting, an ominous counterpoint to the goofy comedy at play. It somehow made more sense to me than the idea of some weird little psycho creating his own ghost-unbusting equipment based on our heroes’ theories, somehow hiding all of it in his workplace (?) and unleashing it on the city to fulfill his delusions of grandeur. The second reason is that the weird little psycho was either the weakest actor in the entire film, totally bland and unconvincing, or he was directed to seem like it. Perhaps, in an age where villains continue to be more seductive than heroes (Loki, the Ledger and Leto Jokers, and even Angry White Vader Fanboy Kylo Ren continue this trend), they deliberately set out to make this villain as banal as possible, someone you’d never want to dress up as for Halloween (though someone is doubtlessly planning to already). I can respect that, even if it succeeded so well it took me out of the movie.

And the third reason is that I wince pretty much every time a TV show or movie, especially a genre one, trots out the nerdy virgin male villain as an almost literal whipping boy. I get where it comes from; we think the internet is reality, and even though all of us are on it, we still have this idea that the meanest people on it have less of a life than we do, as evidenced by the fact that — what? They use computers? It’s a bit outdated as stereotypes go. But even if it were true that behind every single horrible tweet is a downtrodden pasty geek in his mom’s basement, when we look at who generally gets out from behind the keyboard and causes real harm in the real world past high school age, we’re just as likely to be talking about so-called alpha males. They’re guys who love guns and abuse their wives, or maybe they’re husband and wife teams. Or maybe they’re just rich white charismatic sociopaths, which even describes some of the worst internet trolls. So for the villain of this movie to be so clearly at the bottom of the food chain almost lends credence to his persecution complex. Fortunately, Melissa McCarthy’s character gently but firmly skewers said complex by matter-of-factly responding to his only-I-know-my-suffering complaints with, “no, people dump on us all the time too.” Whatever the truth is about the villains of the world, it’s true that almost all of them are still men of one stripe or another, and that the systematic, institutionalized “bullying” women experience daily has made almost none of them into homicidal maniacs.

It’s hard for me to imagine this film achieving the same iconic, quotable status the original has, just as it’s hard for me to imagine The Force Awakens becoming as quotable as Star Wars. But quotability is, shockingly, not the highest virtue a film can attain. As much as I love Murray, Aykroyd, Ramis, and Hudson, most of their dialogue could probably have survived being spoken by other actors; it was a tight script with the potential to stand alone. Here, the comedy often came not from the lines themselves but the performances of the ensemble; the hemming and hawing and underplaying of the lines undercut their crisp quotability, but that delivery was also what made them funny (apart from “that’s gonna leave a mark,” which probably hasn’t been funny since Animaniacs was on). Most of Holtzmann’s genius, as I’ve mentioned, was physical and vocal; “I think they’re dead” is not funny on paper, but absolutely hilarious in context coming out of McKinnon’s mouth.

And then again, who knows? Maybe a generation of kids who are turning 10 this year will see this fun, funny, breezily confident, perfectly charming, and more than adequate new Ghostbusters movie and it’ll make the same impression on them the first one made on me. “Aquariums are submarines for fish” might be the new “I collect spores, molds, and fungus.” “Safety lights are for dudes!” might be their “Back off man. I’m a scientist.” And a new wave of girls AND boys might grow up thinking it’s perfectly normal for four women to save New York City when all the men around them are (like me, I dare to hope) charming despite massive inadequacy. There are far worse possible worlds I can imagine.