The Day of the Doctor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

City of Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Number 2 on my Doctor Who favorites list: Kinda.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Number 3 of my Doctor Who favorites: Enlightenment.

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

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

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

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

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


Number 4 of my favorite Doctor Who stories: Snakedance.

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

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

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

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

Planet of the Spiders

Number 5 of my all-time Doctor Who favorites is the Third Doctor’s regeneration story, “Planet of the Spiders.”

To be honest, my top 4 are the definite ones. They’re easy choices, stories that stand out as anomalies even within their historical contexts, stories so good and so satisfying for me that there’s no question they’ll be right at the top of any list I make. Now permanently suffused with the rosy glow of nostalgia, they’re probably unbeatable, at least until the new series goes off the air for ten or twenty years and finally gets revived a third time.

But this fifth spot is as wide as the day is long. In my earlier lists, I noted many of the stories that sometimes occupy it, depending on my mood: “The Robots of Death,” “The Stones of Blood,” “Castrovalva,” to name a few. But there are three Doctors I grew up with, not just Tom Baker and Peter Davison, and in the spirit of inclusiveness, particularly since it’s fashionable these days to disparage his era, I wanted to bring a Jon Pertwee story into the fold. Fortunately, there’s “Planet of the Spiders.”

You could probably get most classic Who fans to praise my top 4, but this is the choice they’d question. This six-parter is often considered self-indulgent, an excuse to send the Third Doctor on lots of pointless chases in the James Bond-inspired vehicles he was famous for, not just a random hovercraft but also his futuristic car/plane rather gaudily referred to (offscreen) as the Whomobile. There are some scenes on the titular planet whose infractions range from sparse, low-budget scenery and costumes to what is not unreasonably considered some of the worst acting of the series. I imagine some people have even found reason to criticize the portrayal of Tommy, a mentally challenged young man “cured” by the mind amplification effects of the Doctor’s blue crystal, or the casting of two Western actors to portray two apparently Tibetan characters (spoiler, though: both are Time Lords).

But every time I’ve watched this, the six parts have just flown by, because on balance this is epically fabulous. I love the Buddhist retreat in which a group of misguided meditators use a mandala to seek power rather than peace, and open the gates for the titular spiders to travel to our world and possess people by sitting, invisibly, on their backs. I love the grizzled ringleader, Lupton, with his mundane motivations and his uneasy, nuanced alliance with the Queen of the Eight-Legs. I love Sarah Jane’s kind relationship with Tommy, and the Third Doctor’s respectful relationship with his old mentor. I even love the scenes set on Metebelis 3, bad acting and all, and the idea of a planet of human colonists enslaved by mutated versions of the spiders they brought with them as stowaways on their ship. I absolutely love the Third Doctor’s final confrontation with the Great One (some of the finest voice acting in the series, alongside Padmasambhava in “The Abominable Snowmen” and Sutekh in “The Pyramids of Mars”), his humbling, and his courage in going there in the first place. I love the mythology this story adds to the process of regeneration, and the sense that this one means something in a way that the first two, resonant as they were, didn’t.

I have no trouble enjoying the Third Doctor’s era in general, but this story in particular stands out for me as fantastically entertaining in its own right as well as being a turning point in the show’s history.

New Who Favorites 2005-2013

We finally come to the new series, of which I’ve chosen 15 favorites (vs. 35 from the classic series) in observance of the fact that it’s only been on for 7 official seasons (and a few specials), while the classic series lasted 26 seasons. I think there might be more actual stories than this suggests, since classic stories were usually at least 75-100 minutes long, but the counting got too tedious so I just picked a round number. I chose to count multi-parters as single stories.

If you’re checking the math, I’ve spoiled my top 5 for you: yes, they’re all classic stories. I’ve come to really like the new series a lot, and I think as a whole it’s equalled and in many ways exceeded the quality of the classic series, but I do find myself less enchanted with individual stories and more with moments within them and the show as a whole. So there’s no single story here that would crack my top 5 or maybe even my top 10 overall, but the show is so different now that it’s apples and oranges.

I concur with what others have written about this story: it’s a dazzling sequence of one perfect decision after another about how to start the new series (and NOT do it as a reboot) and how to introduce new fans to the concept and old fans to the way things are going to work now. I love the domesticity, the down-to-earth characters, the situation of Doctor Who within the culture at a specific time and place in a way they’d never quite done before. I love Jackie and Mickey as much as I’d ever loved the Brigadier or Benton, and probably more. I love the brilliance of choosing not the Daleks, not the Cybermen, but the wonderful Autons as the monster to kick off a more Earth-centered series with, just as they did back in 1970. About the only thing I don’t love is the Davies-era “mysticobabble” (the “Shadow Proclamation,” just as lame when we eventually see them as when they were just nonsense words) and the burping dumpster, and in light of all the good surrounding them, I can forgive even those.

The End of the World
Somehow I didn’t expect the second episode of this new, hip-by-comparison show to go balls-out Hitchhiker’s zany, and I couldn’t be happier that it did. This story’s burping dumpster is pop music (Soft Cell and Britney), and again it’s all right because of pretty much everything else.

It’s a stretch to include this one, since I normally don’t rate Dalek stories highly. Ask me tomorrow and I might drop it for “Love and Monsters” or “Silence in the Library” / “Forest of the Dead,” but when I made my list I was remembering how astonished I was at Rob Shearman’s achievement in writing a Dalek story that not only established the threat for new fans but reinvigorated a tired monster for old ones AND made the Ninth Doctor a bit disturbing without making him unloveable.

I enjoy the new show’s takes on the far future of humanity almost every time, and that’s what this gem is for: glimpses of an awful future that’s not too late to redeem. Light on plot, but full of life and humor and people I can’t help but love. Plus: the Macra!

Human Nature / The Family of Blood
For my money New Who has yet to get better than this. It’s as good an adaptation of a Doctor Who novel as we’re likely to see. The pacing and mood are as much like a classic episode as the new series has ever been, and yet the themes and performances are fresh and unforgettable.

Here’s another one I nearly didn’t include — so many other choices. Overrated, but still pretty great.

Utopia / The Sound of Drums / (Last of the Time Lords)
The last installment of this three-part story is kind of a dog’s breakfast, but I’ve come to terms with the fact that living up to the promise of that first left-field shock reveal (“Utopia”) and the generally excellent setup of the Master’s best attempt yet at taking over the world (“The Sound of Drums”) was an almost impossible task.

You would have thought Steven Moffat would be the guy to make an invisible monster terrifying, but you would have been wrong. Not an episode you throw on when you just want some fun cozy Doctor Who, but holy cow is it good. Easily the best, most unsettling episode climax until “The Girl Who Waited.”

The Waters of Mars
Another scary, unpleasant, brilliant story. After the slight but moving “The Next Doctor” and the fluffy but generally pleasant “Planet of the Dead,” we get one of the heaviest stories ever. The very end is a little tough to swallow, but the episode earns it.

The Eleventh Hour
I’m surprised by all the praise this story gets, because I think it’s a little shaky, introducing characters (Mrs. Angelo and Jeff) and gimmicks (the Doctor reviewing his memory) that seem imported from some other show and are never seen again. Prisoner Zero isn’t the most inspiring of monsters and the “human residence” and “silence will fall” stuff are pretty corny. But it starts off with the brand new Doctor and little Amelia Pond so perfectly, and after that it really has nothing it needs to prove to me.

The Lodger
A strong contender for my very favorite New Who episode. It’s no big deal, really, not a heavy story dripping with significance or profundity or angst. Just the introduction of a companion with whom the Eleventh Doctor has more chemistry than he ever does with anyone else; a charming, only very slightly oversweet ending; and funny bit after funny bit jam-packed in between.

The Doctor’s Wife
The twist in our understanding of the Doctor’s relationship to his TARDIS and the entirely reasonable explanation of why he always ends up exactly where he’s needed would be enough to make this a favorite. But it also happens to take a pretty beautiful path getting there.

The God Complex
It’s hard to put my finger on why I love this one and only admire “The Girl Who Waited.” Maybe it’s the fact that “Girl Who Waited” is terrific science fiction with great sets and a killer ending that’s full of earned angst and thorny problems, and this is just a fun creepfest set in a weird hotel with an awesome minotaur. Or maybe it’s just that I arbitrarily limited myself to 15 New Who episodes, and consciously chose to focus on what I personally found to be fun to watch and not just what happened to be excellent TV. Look, they’re both awesome, all right?

Closing Time
Not as good as “The Lodger” by a long shot, but still tons of fun for all the same reasons. I have no opinion on James Corden as a human being but I adore Craig, and especially the Doctor and Craig, and if they could possibly be paired up again for just a moment in this year’s Christmas special I would be content.

Immediately after I watched it, I thought, “nope, THIS is my favorite New Who episode.” The infatuation has worn off but I still love it. A triumph on all sorts of levels, especially art direction, atmosphere, and cinematography. If the “ghost story”/”love story” thing is a little pat, I don’t really care; everything else is working on such a high level it’s hard to remember this is the same show that once featured a man being held prisoner in a “security hallway” and an alien in an opera cape being strangled by a rubber tentacle.

Classic Who Favorites, 1977-1989

We should probably think of this project as “50 OF my favorite stories,” and not “my 50 favorite stories.” As predicted, I’m already second-guessing the list; I’ve watched half of “The Mind of Evil” for the first time in at least 20 years and I’m enjoying the hell out of it. Jo Grant has one kick-ass moment in particular where she disarms a convict trying to take over a prison, and then there’s the Doctor charming the Chinese delegate by displaying his command of language and culture. It’s marvelous, and would probably have knocked something else out if I’d seen it last week. But that’s the way this goes, and I’ve omitted a bunch more terrific stories along the way. So these aren’t the only ones you should ever watch — just the ones that have stuck with me over the years for various reasons.

One warning for classic Who newbies: we are now getting into an era of the show where consensus over what’s good and bad starts to diverge a bit more than in the previous installment. To my mind, that’s part of the fun, but caveat emptor.

Image of the Fendahl
“Horror of Fang Rock” is great and all, but for some reason it feels like a chore even to think about watching. I’ve always preferred this mix of ancient Lovecraftian horror, Quatermassive techno-fear, and von Danikenesque alien influence. It also taught my younger self the vocabulary word “gestalt.”

The Stones of Blood
Another top 5 contender for me, depending on when you ask. A (rare) mostly-female cast, a pagan goddess story that turns into a courtroom drama, and yes, the monsters that scared me most as a child. The Ogri are basically polystyrene rocks that glide across the ground and suck your blood, but to a ten-year-old sleeping on his grandmother’s living room couch and watching this late at night, there’s no doubt these things could come crashing through the windows any second. My favorite Key to Time segment, and a treat every time.

The Nightmare of Eden
I hesitated to put this on here, but it’s marvelous fun. There’s a giant TV screen featuring slices of planets you can just walk into (though you shouldn’t), drugrunners loose on a pair of ships that have accidentally intersected one another in space, and one of the most outrageous mid-European accents in the entire series. All that AND a race of rampaging monsters even more huggable than the Adipose. Even people who hate this story want a stuffed Mandrel toy to cuddle when they’re feeling under the weather.

The Horns of Nimon
Probably my fourth WTF in a row from the conventional fan majority. “Nimon” drags a little toward the end, yes, an observation about classic Who stories that’s on par with “lakes tend to be wet toward the middle.” But we have Romana — hands down my favorite companion ever — out-Doctoring the Doctor, an incredible over-the-top performance by almost-Doctor Graham Crowden as Soldeed, a plot charmingly stolen from Greek mythology, and a minotaur design that’s both laughable and utterly amazing. I love it.

The Leisure Hive
The 80s arrive in style to Doctor Who. I love the mood set by the long tracking shots and space dock sequences, I love the bee-inspired Argolin costumes, I love the attempts at scientific relevance (tachyonics). A frequently underrated story.

Full Circle
This felt like “my” story in so many ways when I was a kid. It was written by a teenager with my first name, it introduced a new teenage male companion who vaguely resembled me (good in school but with an uneasy relationship to authority, plus a youthfully rounded face and dark mop of hair), and it dealt with evolutionary biology in a science-fictional but reasonably intelligent way. All this AND oversized spiders. The spiders look worse today than they did back then, but everything else just looks better and better with age.

The Keeper of Traken
Really, this whole season is fantastic; I could just as easily have included “State of Decay” or “Warrior’s Gate” here instead. At the time I loved the concept of the evil statue frozen in place by the benevolence of Traken society, yet still corrupting those around it with its sinister influence. This is also the beginning of one of my favorite three-part sequences in Doctor Who history, centered around the Fourth Doctor’s regeneration.

Despite some stiff competition, Tom Baker’s still my Doctor, and perhaps the only one I’d fully trust to get me out of any situation no matter how threatening. So you can imagine how this episode gripped me: the indomitable Fourth Doctor, one step behind the Master, one wrong foot away from falling, and knowing it the whole time, pursued by dread and a mysterious figure in white. The ominous atmosphere and regeneration sequence are only half the story; the rest is a perfect blend of science and magic centered on a race of mystics who recite numbers that make (or unmake) the universe. This and the next story make my top 10 for sure.

You think the danger’s over once the Doctor regenerates, but it’s still looming, and the Doctor’s barely able to hold it together in his brand new (young, desperately vulnerable) form. The first half is three young inexperienced companions in the TARDIS trying to save themselves and their suddenly helpless father figure, and the second is one of the most utterly gorgeous, weird, Escheresque planets in Doctor Who. And the music is probably my favorite of the whole 50 years.

Four to Doomsday
I’ll never understand why people hate this story so much. The plot holes? The physics? Adric’s disappointing gullibility? None of those ever bothered me in the slightest. Ranged against those far from unusual flaws we have a story filled with the most appealing ideas and imagery, including people stored on microchips who can be transplanted into any body (which can be 3D printed from line drawings if desired), and aborigines, Mayan princesses, Chinese dancers, and Greek philosophers traveling on spaceships together. I couldn’t defend it as a great story, but I love it.

Black Orchid
Most people hate this one too, and it’s harder for me to explain why I like it. Maybe it was the drawing-room mystery plot, or the incongruously grim secret of George Cranleigh and the murders that threaten to reveal it, or maybe it was Sarah Sutton getting to branch out a bit from Nyssa and play a more central role. For me it’s a nice little story that doesn’t outstay its welcome, and could work exceptionally well in the new series if you made a few changes, such as making a main character into a wasp and swapping out a cricket match for several too-on-the-nose scenes with Agatha Christie, just to toss out a few random ideas.

The Caves of Androzani
Everybody loves this, and it’s just as good as they say. It would rank higher on my list of favorites if it weren’t so monomaniacal about men and their guns; instead, I admire it more than I enjoy it. Season 21 felt like the beginning of the decline of the classic series for me, and this the last great story, all the more depressing for being the last. There’s some very good stuff later, but I could never shake the sense that it was too late. “Feels different this time,” indeed.

The Two Doctors
I like Colin Baker’s Doctor more and more as time goes on. I imagine if I were ever to play the Doctor (I’m not qualified, for the same reason Schwarzenegger isn’t qualified to be President) I’d probably be closest to the Sixth in temperament: arrogant, bombastic, belligerent, moody, yet fiercely protective of the innocent, of beauty and poetry. It’s a shame so many of his stories were so awful. There are a couple more I can watch with some small pleasure, but this is the only one I come close to loving. It’s not the presence of Troughton and Hines, though that adds to the fun. Instead it’s John Stratton and Jacqueline Pearce; the return of Sontarans who can be taken seriously (by me, anyway); and the beauty of Seville. A great location shoot hides a multitude of sins, though I think this story’s are overstated by fans.

The Happiness Patrol
There are other McCoy stories I like — “Remembrance” is overrated but still good, “Survival” is haunting and eerie — but when picking favorites I tend to go for the ones only he could pull off. This is one of them: bright pinks and neons plus the most absurd monster of the classic series candy-coating an up-to-the-minute story about a totalitarian regime in which not being happy is punishable by death. It suffers slightly from the Seventh Doctor’s habit of rushing about as a sort of narrator figure rather than being seen in any real danger (see also “Ghost Light”), and the “end my life” speech is maybe half as good as it’s cracked up to be, but Doctor Who would be the poorer without this type of story.

The Greatest Show in the Galaxy
Another one that really only works with McCoy. When I was a kid, this story wormed its way into my subconscious, and I dreamed a version of it that my mind so distorted that I had gotten halfway through writing my dream down as a short story before realizing where it had come from. I hate circuses, I’m creeped out by many of the characters (even some of the ones I’m supposed to like), and I don’t like it when shows bite the hands that feed them (ask me about Toy Story 2 sometime), and yet I still think this is brilliant.

So there you go: my classic stories, minus those that made my top 5. Next week: the new series!

Classic Who Favorites, 1963-1977

Here are the first 15 favorite stories I picked, in chronological order. They’re not numbered or ranked; it was hard enough just choosing them without also trying to weigh them against one another. It just so happens that the list ends at season 14.

The Enemy of the World
There almost certainly would be more Troughton on this list if more of it existed, and it’s probably just because this is so newly available to watch that it narrowly beat out “The Invasion.” Ask me again next week; this week I find this story pure unadulterated joy.

Spearhead from Space
Even those who disparage the Pertwee era (i.e. people who don’t like fun) typically concede that this is fabulous. First and best appearance of the Autons and the incomparable Liz Shaw.

The Silurians
The monsters haven’t invaded; they were here first. The Silurians would become steadily less interesting and effective over time (including and culminating in Lady Vastra, who is just an upright lizard with breasts), but here both they and the script were thoughtful and exciting.

The Ambassadors of Death
I thought this was deadly dull as a kid. I watched it recently as an adult and was enraptured. It’s Doctor Who doing Quatermass, and Nigel Kneale was right to be annoyed because even when it’s not more intelligent, it’s more entertaining.

Yes, all of season 7 is favorites. This is the scariest of the four, on every level: primordial, political, and eschatological. You can keep your “reality bombs”…I’ll take the Earth that’s ready to self-destruct rather than be repeatedly and unnaturally penetrated, thanks.

Terror of the Autons
The sequel to “Spearhead,” with more memorable characters and freshly frightening moments, though troubled by a few special effects even I can’t forgive. Oh, and it introduces Jo Grant AND the Master (played by the unbeatable Roger Delgado).

The Claws of Axos
Perhaps the first WTF moment for fans steeped in the conventional critical consensus. I’m sorry, I love “Axos.” So colorful, so weird, so full of gold bodysuits and red tentacles and dodgy science and American (?) accents. A psychedelic highlight of the era.

The Green Death
Probably a top 10 story for me. Concerns about corporate amorality, labor conditions, and environmental destruction that are still relevant today; terrifically gross and creepy monsters; awesome UNIT action; Pertwee in ridiculous drag! All this AND one of the most textured and convincing love stories the show has ever seen, and I’m counting the new series.

Invasion of the Dinosaurs
Second WTF moment. I have to confess: I haven’t watched this since I was a kid. I know the dinosaur effects are unforgivable. I know the plot is a bit far-fetched. But I had to give some love to one of the two stories whose novelisations got me into this show in the first place, and it sure wasn’t going to be “The Android Invasion.”

The Ark in Space
Doctor Who does Alien, years before the movie comes out. The “facehugger” is green bubble wrap (I am not exaggerating) and the adult xenomorph is basically a giant wasp head on a stick, but there’s a reason this is one of Steven Moffat’s favorite stories.

The Pyramids of Mars
The Hinchcliffe era is so full of quality that it’s hard to pick out highlights. I happen to agree that this is one of them. I love the Egyptian mythology element, and it’s hard to argue with that climactic scene where Sutekh forces the Doctor to his knees in agony. Not the only time such a thing has happened, but one of the most compelling.

The Seeds of Doom
Doctor Who does The Thing from Another World, years after the movie came out…but then brings it back home. Everyone, including the Doctor, is oddly violent, but look, you have people turning into plants, plants turning into huge plants, and an elderly woman who paints and goes on an undercover secret mission. And people say there are no strong women in the Hinchcliffe years!

The Hand of Fear
Probably not the spellbinding classic I remember, especially after the owner of the titular hand stops being a slinky deep-voiced rock-woman and starts being a chunky melodramatic rock-man, but as a kid I adored it. I still get a little thrill thinking about the first few episodes.

The Robots of Death
A top 5 story for me depending on the week you ask. I love murder mysteries, I love art deco robots, I love twist revelations about people and things that aren’t as they seem, and I love straightforward but surprising methods of defeating villains. Great characters, great visual style, superb haberdashery.

The Talons of Weng-Chiang
Depending on whether you’re prepared to forgive this story its alleged racism on the grounds that it’s a mashup not just of the Phantom of the Opera and Sherlock Holmes but also Fu Manchu, this is either the best Doctor Who episode ever, or the best Doctor Who episode ever that you might not want to show your Chinese friends. But everyone forgives The Aztecs, which also features English actors made up to look like members of another race and reduces an entire civilization to haughty debates about forced marriage and human sacrifice, so I don’t see why we shouldn’t forgive a story where a criminal gang who happen to be Chinese are duped by a time-traveller into doing his dirty work. Particularly because when we were ten we had to check the bathroom cupboard every time we went in there to make sure a pig-brained mannequin didn’t leap out and stab us in the femoral artery.

Next installment: Classic Who 1977-1989! See you in a week!

Favorite 50 Doctor Who story countdown

For the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, I’ve decided to attempt something that normally I find excruciatingly difficult: picking favorites.

I’ve chosen 35 stories from the classic series and 15 from the new series that I personally think most fondly of. They’re the stories I’ve been most eager to own on DVD, the ones I’d be most excited to rewatch, the ones that contain the elements that, to me, make for the most pleasurable Doctor Who.

They are not necessarily the best stories. This is not about objective critical judgment. I’ve included only televised stories I’ve personally seen, so that automatically rules out a number of audio-only 60s stories that might otherwise have made the cut. I’ve definitely omitted some stories most “serious” fans would hold up as shining examples of the potential of the show (such as “Carnival of Monsters,” “The Brain of Morbius,” and most of the late McCoy era) and included some that regularly come in for abuse. Many of my choices are colored by nostalgia, such as the story that scared me the most as a child, and the two Davison stories about which most people’s most polite remarks are usually “at least they’re not ‘Time-Flight.'” Many of them I’ll probably change my mind about in a month, after rewatching some other story that didn’t quite make the cut this time. That’s fine. There’s plenty of Who to go round.

I’ll post the first 15 stories, along with very short remarks about each, on Nov. 1. The second 15 will come on Nov. 8, and the third 15 on Nov. 15. Then I’ll post longer reviews (perhaps more like reminiscences) of each of my 5 top favorites each weekday leading up to the 50th anniversary special on Nov. 23.

I don’t want to spoil it too much, but the breakdown of stories by Doctor looks like this:

FIRST DOCTOR: 0 (sorry, Hartnell)
SECOND DOCTOR: 1 (stupid lost episodes)
EIGHTH DOCTOR: 0 (sorry, McGann)