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.

TRANSCRIPTS are thanks to chakoteya.net. One of the best Doctor Who resources on the web.
The IMAGE was found at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/doctorwho/entries/adff0629-5ce5-4a0e-b81a-69693d489745

The Name of the Doctor

Spoilers within. Don’t read until you’ve seen the episode…not that it would make much sense if you hadn’t.

I could tell this was going to be a good one, because I got through about thirty seconds and then had to rewind to the beginning and watch those thirty seconds again. And then I rewound it again, and watched those thirty seconds a third time. And then I got as far as the title sequence before I rewound it and watched that span again.

I never thought of myself as the kind of fan who’d get butterflies in my stomach seeing the subtitle “Gallifrey: a very long time ago” on the screen, or watching an actor rather unconvincingly deliver the line “What kind of idiot. Would want to steal a faulty TARDIS?”, but when you follow that up with a man and a girl who look reasonably like William Hartnell and Carole Ann Ford sneaking up to the TARDIS in question, a pure, unformed cylinder with a door just waiting to find out it’s going to spend its life (all of it, with very occasional exceptions) looking like a police box, guys, you’ve got me. Apparently there are some people who never wanted to see that moment. Those people are nuts.

There are bigger things afoot. This episode ripples back through the entire history of Doctor Who. The rumor was that this season finale would forever change the way we saw the show, and, whether you like it or not, it does. The impact is, if you follow it to its logical conclusion, at least as powerful and far-reaching as that of “The Doctor’s Wife.”

There’s some really excellent stuff along the way. Some of it concerns the so-called Paternoster Gang. Each of them gets at least one top-flight moment: Strax in his Victorian Fight Club. Jenny’s heartbreaking fear and shame as she’s murdered by Whispermen while in a trance. (It’s my position that she did lock the door, but they got in anyway.) Madame Vastra and her tea service, her derringer disintegrator pistol, but especially that magnificent rejoinder to Strax’s comment about the heart being relatively simple: “I have not found it to be so.” Beautiful. River and just about everything she does, including the word “disgracefully.” Can you imagine if she’d been a full-time companion? She would have wiped the floor with every enemy they encountered, so it would never have worked dramatically, but somewhere in Lucien’s library are shelves and shelves of Doctor/River stories I’d love to read.

And then there’s Richard E. Grant, finally given something to do with his Dr. Simeon character, as the conveniently suicidal-but-taking-you-down-with-me Great Intelligence. He’s quite convincing and quite chilling, and though there seemed something awfully elaborate and out of proportion about this plan, I didn’t feel obligated to poke it for plot holes. That can be left to others who have the knack and the taste for it.

And if Matt Smith shines any more brightly he’s going to go supernova. Here’s the thing: I loved him last week, hamming it up as the Cyberplanner, but in this he was probably relieved to be able to tone it down and play it real. You’ll hear from everyone about the “yes, an ex” scene where you can’t tell just how hard it’s hitting him to hear about River (and I think it’s her, not the secret or the danger, that’s making him cry) until Clara brings the tea over. The one where he kisses River’s apparition is equally terrific. Even a simple “oops” is just perfectly pitched. Magnificent.

Ultimately, of course, we make our way through all these moments in a fairly straightforward plot, a journey to the dark tower of the TARDIS (whose proportions are due to a “size leak,” which is fantastic technobabble because that’s exactly what a technician would call it), and a confrontation with what the Doctor apparently has instead of a corpse: a scintillating dendritic lattice representing and providing access to all the times and places he’s touched, the “scar tissue” from all the surgeries he’s performed on the body of our universe. It’s a remarkable idea, not entirely original (I couldn’t help being reminded of Lawrence Miles’s classic Eighth Doctor novel Alien Bodies, and if Miles’s cheeky Saturday blog post is any indication, neither could he), but with a different spin. If you’ve read this far, you should know what happens: the Great Intelligence enters this wound of splintered time, and cracks into shards where he can attack the Doctor throughout his life, and Clara follows, giving up her own life to save all of the Doctor’s lives and mend everything the Great Intelligence tries to break.

Here is where I must admit Doctor Who has put me on the verge of tears two weeks in a row, and both times it was the second viewing that got me. It’s true we’ve never gotten to know Clara quite as well as I would have liked, but Jenna-Louise Coleman didn’t have to change a thing about her performance to jab me right in the heart at that moment. And I can’t believe I’m saying this, but credit to Murray Gold as well, because I think Clara’s theme might be the best thing he’s ever done.

Earlier this week I raised the topic of mysteries being well- or poorly solved. Clara’s mystery was well-solved, I thought. I don’t feel badly that I got at best three and a half predictions correct about the finale; some of them were clearly going out on a limb, and there’s really no way I could have predicted the origin of the other Claras without the elements introduced here. And I frankly find it more satisfying than my answer (though I don’t discount the possibility that the “spoilers” River mentioned will include learning that the little girl who became CAL was one of the multiple Claras, rather than their origin point). I mentioned “The Doctor’s Wife,” in which we were led to assume that the TARDIS had been taking care of the Doctor as much as he’d been taking care of her; now we learn he’s had a second guardian angel in Clara for all of his lives, someone part of the background who didn’t even know she was doing it, but who was helping him in small ways he sometimes didn’t even notice.

So then there’s the name.

“My name, my real name,” says the Doctor, “that is not the point.” He’s right, of course. What we learn, even though we always knew it, is that the name that counts is the one he chose, “the Doctor.” The title of this episode doesn’t refer to the name of the Doctor. It refers to the name of “The Doctor.” And what we learn is far stranger: that there’s someone with John Hurt’s face with the same birth name as the Doctor, someone just as much the same person as the one with Matt Smith’s face and the one with William Hartnell’s face and one of the people with Colin Baker’s face, and it’s someone the Eleventh Doctor knows about but hasn’t mentioned to anyone. It’s not a lost incarnation, but a disowned one, or perhaps someone who was a renegade from the Doctor just as the Doctor was a renegade from Gallifrey. The setup seemed appalling to me when I heard rumors of it, but in proper context here it’s bold, and fascinating, and utterly maddening because we’re not going to find out exactly what it means until November.

So I’m satisfied, and yet unsatisfied, because now the 50th anniversary episode cannot come soon enough.

A successful finale, then. Dream conference call champagne all round.

Time-Flight & The Runaway Bride

I was thinking that I’d maybe been too generous to the TV Movie. That maybe I’d been right the first time I saw it in assessing it as the worst Doctor Who story of all time.

Then I rewatched “Time-Flight” for the first time in at least 18 years and could barely summon the will to finish it.

“Time-Flight” is, according to The Mighty 200, the fifth worst Doctor Who story made up to that time, slightly better than “Underworld” and slightly worse than “The Space Pirates.”

It has its virtues, to be fair. For instance, the Concorde’s flight crew are charming can-do types who actually pitch in instead of spending the whole time standing around being bewildered, taking the initiative to sabotage the Master’s efforts and helping to get the TARDIS where it needs to be, not to mention rather improbably repairing their plane after it’s been damaged by, er, making an emergency landing on prehistoric Earth.

They’re far more appealing than the TARDIS crew, whom I liked when I was closer to their age but find a little insufferable now. Though Janet Fielding often did a pretty good job of playing her, Tegan the character is obnoxious by (misguided) design. Nyssa’s impressive technical expertise often gets lost in snowstorms of technobabble or set aside so she can be a damsel in distress. And Peter Davison…I always thought he got a bad rap as the bland, vulnerable, ineffectual one, but for the space of this story he briefly became my least favorite Doctor. Watching him wring his hands and stand around and plod through this story with the energy and emotional heft of a sheet of moist cardboard was agonizing.

The revisionist line on this story is that it’s full of exciting elements — “planes hijacked to prehistoric Earth by an exotic sorcerer seeking to unlock the magic of a race of angels locked in a civil war” does sound a bit more exciting on paper than, oh, “Cybermen try to take over a space freighter.” But the problem is that there’s really nothing to it beyond the summary. We don’t have any idea why the angels are quarreling, unless it’s that some of them apparently think being used by a sorcerer might be fun, and the quarrel never amounts to or results in anything. The sorcerer is of course the Master and his diabolical plan is just to fix his ride; why he bothers to dress up and who he intends to fool is one of the great unsolved mysteries of this story. And there is literally no reason for them to be on prehistoric Earth; it could have been the middle of the desert in the present day for all the impact it has on the story. The special effects are atrocious, the makeup pathetic, the direction somnambulistic. It’s not actively offensive, unless you count the “exotic” accent, but it’s pointless and almost thoroughly joyless.

Which brings us to “The Runaway Bride.” Not a story I remembered liking, but one I really enjoyed tonight. I’ve been hard on the new series, and it finally dawned on me tonight that I was looking for the wrong things. I was leaning hard on the stories themselves, the ideas, the exciting elements, looking for something that captured my imagination the way my favorite stories from the classic series did — the Pertwee Quatermass quotes, the Hinchcliffe horror retellings, and those excellent conceptual pieces from the Davison years, “Kinda,” “Snakedance,” and “Enlightenment.” I was looking for textures and moods that were long past, and I was looking for ideas and images. But the new series, as any idiot knows, is about characters and emotions, particularly during the Davies years, and connecting the cosmic with everyday life. I was looking for individual stories I could fetishize, because that’s how you have to watch the classic series; outside the remarkably consistent 70s Golden Age (and often even then), you’re looking at islands of quality amid a sea of workmanlike that’ll-do. But the new series has each story build on the previous, a cumulative effect that transcends the variable quality of the individual stories, and it’s the characters who are our islands where they used to be just our boats.

So while “Time-Flight” is about the best the classic series ever got at carrying over emotion from the previous story and feeding events into the next, it’s still regularly and rightly slammed for the awkward way it handles the death of a main character in the previous story, and the abrupt and opaque way it deals with another being left behind at the end. By contrast, and sheer accident (since it just happened to be the next in my rewatch of the new series and I hadn’t planned to watch it tonight), “The Runaway Bride” also deals heavily with the Doctor’s loss of a companion in the immediately previous story and his failure to take a newer one with him at the end of this story. But it’s 23 years and 5 incarnations down the road from “Time-Flight,” and this newer show allows its older Doctor to show plausible emotions, to be active and vulnerable, to be hurting but generous and engaged with the world. He can care about Rose, rather than making plans to take in a cricket match instead of mourning (or indeed making the slightest attempt to save) Adric; he can take time to listen to the thoroughly obnoxious mouth on legs he’s been collaborating with all episode when she talks about what she wants, instead of zipping off in the TARDIS without saying goodbye (though, to be fair, he does try).

Maybe it’s a little unfair to compare #196 on the Mighty 200 with #115, particularly since this is a production with the money and technology to show us a woman flying unharmed through a ceiling, floating bomb-laden Christmas ornaments, the TARDIS chasing a taxi down a motorway, a giant spider with a centaur-like torso that walks and talks, and oh by the way, pre-prehistoric Earth being formed out of space dust, an almost insanely moving moment that’s just a brief side trip for this story. All this in maybe an hour, mind you, as opposed to the 100 minutes “Time-Flight” takes to show us soap bubbles, airplane cockpits, leotards, and two men in tailed jackets exchanging circuit boards.

I get it, New Who. I admit it: you’re more awesome than anyone really has a right to expect. And I can’t wait till you start up again this weekend.

New Who Season 2

It’s hard to believe I’ve watched these episodes for only the second time ever. In the old days I’d watch Doctor Who over and over on VHS, but these days one or two times through is usually enough for me for quite a while.

Anyway, I don’t have the time or inclination to post full-length commentary on each of these stories at the moment, but I’d like to note my second-viewing reactions in brief and maybe return for more considered remarks later on.

The Christmas Invasion

Probably the fourth weakest Doctor introduction story, after “The Twin Dilemma” (dire), “Time and the Rani” (embarrassing), and of course the TV movie with Paul McGann (possibly the worst Who story ever, which after the previous two I named is really saying something). Okay, maybe “Robot” is worse too, which puts this in the middle of the road. The return of Harriet Jones and a rather legitimately unsettling thaumaturgical threat are overshadowed by the Santas and the over-the-top posturing of the new Doctor, which reaches its nadir in his contrived and unfair treatment of PM Jones when she does what she ought to do. All his worst faults in one tidy package.

New Earth

Cassandra remains a lot of fun, though the rapid-fire body-switch comedy maybe should have come later in the season (and been trimmed down a bit). The “all known diseases” stuff is bollocks but if you squint and pretend it’s ersatz Douglas Adams exaggeration sci-fi, it’s forgivable. The ending is rather sweet. Not the stuff of classics, but its reach doesn’t exceed its grasp.

Tooth and Claw

The debut of the nauseating “we’re too flippant” thread for the Tenth Doctor and Rose. I’ve already written about this one.

School Reunion

Fine, fine stuff. I’m not sure I believe the Doctor was romantically involved with Sarah Jane, but I don’t have to in order to appreciate what this story does in exploring the bond between Doctor and companion. The Krillitane plot isn’t bad either, though it’s the B-story and it knows it. Very happy to have Mickey back, just for a little while. The worst misstep is David Tennant failing to play the Doctor meeting his old friend after hundreds of years; instead, like his performance in “Time Crash” (where it was forgivable), he plays himself meeting Lis Sladen for the first time.

The Girl in the Fireplace

I remembered this as overrated, but on second viewing I have to admit it’s pretty excellent. I’m not completely sold by Sophia Myles’s performance, but she’s adequate to the task, and this is Tennant’s best performance of the season so far. Like a lot of Moffat’s timey-wimey plots, this makes more emotional sense than sci-fi sense, but in this case it’s a decent trade. What’s good is so good that it seems churlish to pick it apart…at least not until the third viewing.

Rise of the Cybermen / The Age of Steel

A sad missed opportunity. This should have been the Cybermen’s “Dalek,” where we went back to the roots of the concept, unearthed what should have made it scary all along, and recharged the menace, but instead it’s aiming for “Genesis of the Cybermen” and falling short. Some good ideas here, and the key idea that these were people who’ve replaced all the important things about themselves is there, but a lot of the subtlety is lost in Lumic’s one-note portrayal and the almost cutesy robotic redesign of the Cybermen. To really drive it home they needed to look more like the Borg, but for many obvious reasons that wouldn’t have flown. Plus I hated losing Mickey, though there were worse ways to go.

The Idiot’s Lantern

Another that seemed better the second time around, but then I hated it the first time. The blustering father is still a heavy-handed character, and the confrontations with him feel more like delayed wish fulfillment than drama. It’s deeply uncomfortable to watch the Doctor and Rose bully the bully as though that puts them on the moral high ground; it’s worse when Rose sends the boy after his father at the end in what is at best a premature reconciliation. The Wire plot is standard stuff, except that it seems even more like magic than usual, and the climactic tower climb sounds and is structured like a boss fight in a video game. On the other hand, it’s nice to see the Doctor defeating an enemy by building something as opposed to just waving his screwdriver at them or insisting “you’ve lost, give up.”

The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit

This story lost tons of points with me the first time through because of what I now believe I misread as an insistence that no, this isn’t like Azal or Sutekh, this is the real, actual Devil! I also disliked and continue to dislike the Ood (it’s one thing to introduce a slave race to Doctor Who, and another to at every opportunity have them either turn into mindless savages or else dispense mystical wisdom). But this time around the scale of the story really got to me, and I greatly appreciated a guest cast who mostly seemed to have some reason to be there, and in whose fates we could at least feel some small investment. It’s tremendously ambitious, and now I really appreciate its cinematic achievement.

Love and Monsters

Obviously this is a story about Doctor Who fans, and I suspect that whether you love it or hate it depends heavily on whether you feel it’s affectionate or disparaging, and whether you think it’s about you or about “them.” It’s probably a little of column A, a little of column B, and frankly I think it’s terrific. It’s reasonable to hate the kid-conceived Abzorbaloff, but it’s the perfect monster for this story in every respect. This isn’t a story you put on when you’re in the mood for a Doctor Who episode, but that’s part of the point. I don’t mind admitting that the cheap sucker-punch revelation about Elton’s mom got me right in the eye and nearly made some water come out.

Fear Her

I don’t hate this as much as I’m supposed to. I don’t love it, and can’t think of many New Who stories I’d rate below it (maybe season 3’s Dalek two-parter?), but I don’t think it’s THAT much worse than any of the other weak stories. It’s about something, even if it doesn’t treat the subject too gracefully, and if the whole setup is a little Twilight Zoney, there are worse sources to crib from. I’d put it on par with most of Mark Gatiss’s scripts, I’m afraid, except maybe for the cheesy Olympics moments.

Army of Ghosts/Doomsday

It’s the fanwankiest idea ever: Daleks vs. Cybermen! Who wins in a fight? And the big shock is: it really works. Premise and resolution are tenuous technobabble, but what’s in between is gold. Daleks and Cybermen trading insults before letting each other have it, Jackie unwillingly posing as her daughter, the return of Mickey and Pete (and, briefly, Jake), and the red herring about people imagining the ghosts of their loved ones returning, which is paid off so subtly in the truly heartbreaking climax and denouement. At various times this season I had misgivings about the relationship between the Doctor and Rose, and the effect each had about the other, but Tennant and Piper sell this so beautifully and authentically that I had no complaints here. I found myself rooting for the Daleks (vs. the shite new series Cybermen) for perhaps the first time ever in Doctor Who, though I wasn’t sorry to see them leave in the second of many deus ex machina reset button endings. A fine capper to the season, and perhaps a difficult one to bounce back from companionwise: though I eventually came to appreciate Donna, it just seemed wrong to see her here and now and get the annoying “what? what? what?” catchphrase after that ending with Rose.

Tooth and Claw

I’d remembered this as being a bit of a dud the first time I saw it, but on second viewing it’s actually not terrible at all. There’s not a lot to it, is all, but there are worse crimes.

As has been well documented, we’re repeating the pattern set out by the first season and due to be repeated with slight variations in the next three seasons after this: crisis on present-day Earth (“Rose,” “The Christmas Invasion,” “Smith and Jones,” “Partners in Crime,” “The Eleventh Hour“), Earth’s future (“The End of the World,” “New Earth,” “Gridlock,” “Planet of the Ood,” “The Beast Below“), and then celebrity pseudohistorical in Earth’s past (“The Unquiet Dead”, “Tooth and Claw,” “The Shakespeare Code,” “The Fires of Pompeii,” and “Victory of the Daleks“). Queen Victoria seems slightly more convincing to me than Charles Dickens did, and as I recall she also beats Shakespeare and Winston Churchill, but since I’ve never met any of those people I’m hardly qualified to judge.

The pre-credits Matrixing with the slo-mo kung fu monks was probably what turned me against this one the first time round: it’s less effective than it would have been at normal speed, and really I don’t think you can do this kind of thing anymore unless you’re Timur Bekmambetov, and even then you’re pushing your luck. It immediately makes you aware of the camera and that there’s someone behind it who really wants you to notice the acrobatics rather than be caught up in the swift brutality of the action. Then again, we’ve never really seen this kind of thing in Doctor Who before, and it’s easy enough to forgive since it doesn’t recur.

I’d remembered the alleged horsing around on the part of the Doctor and Rose as being unlikely — a result of RTD writing the characters with the emotions he felt (excitement at their adventures) rather than what they were likely to feel (terror at their life-threatening situation). Why, I thought, would the Doctor suddenly become jaded to danger now, after so many years of taking it seriously time after time? It turns out to make more sense after seeing the rest of his arc with Rose, and the Tenth Doctor’s arc overall. He’s come away from the Time War with a new seriousness, and instead of picking up and putting down friends with little attachment, he perhaps unconsciously realized it’s time to get serious about someone. We see the signs of it at least as far back as “Father’s Day,” and it’s happening even more rapidly now that he’s been through hell with her and is refreshed with a new face, closer to her age at least in appearance. He’s falling in love, and nothing around him is feeling as real as the bond between the two of them. He sees what’s happening through her eyes as much as his own now. He’s still pretty damn sober about the important things, and it’s not as if we’ve never seen him delight in danger before…but it’s different now, and unfortunately it doesn’t go unremarked.

the new who review

I’ll probably end up posting more commentary on encyclops.com soon, but okay, okay, I finally have warmed to the new Dr. Who.

I still think the plotting has a tendency toward great setups with incredibly stupid endings, but I’ve really begun to enjoy it. I’ve gotten through the first two seasons now and am a few episodes into the third, all of which I liked so much (except for some seriously uncalled-for scenery-chewing by the Racnoss Empress) that I’ve ordered the third season from Amazon rather than watching borrowed copies. I’ll probably get the other two eventually.

I miss Rose, and I miss the characters associated with her, Jackie, Mickey, and even her alternate-universe dad. I thought the romance angle was questionable at first but it got to the point where I didn’t mind at all and kind of liked it. I wasn’t sure how I’d warm to Martha, but so far she’s just fine, if a little nondescript. She carries on the fine-booty tradition from Rose, too, which was never part of the appeal of the show for me before (well, almost never).

I can see why people liked Chris Eccleston. He was entertaining, and he didn’t look like an explosion in a fabric store, which must have helped to broaden the show’s appeal along with the slightly improved effects budget. And when he said he was gonna fuck somebody up, you believed he meant it. This was really a new thing for the Doctor, who in the past usually seemed to get through everything by the skin of his teeth. He carried off that “alien” quality well, and the edge we’d never associated with the character before.

I guess what bothered me about him was that he just didn’t quite seem like the same guy, even taking into account his post-traumatic stress. His leather-jacket-and-jeans outfit seemed more like the production team’s choice than the Doctor’s. His catchphrase “Fantastic!” really wasn’t. Something about him just didn’t fit. He could have been the Doctor’s little brother, maybe, but not quite the Doctor I grew up watching. It wasn’t too jarring; any sufficiently nerdy fan (me, for instance) could easily justify all of the choices made. But it distanced me a bit from the show — that and some of the lamer stories.

Some of the second season stories seemed even lamer, which killed my interest in the show for a while despite the fact that the new Doctor, David Tennant, was in my opinion perfect casting. In place of the catchphrase, we now had a motormouth comedian, which at first seemed corny but quickly became endearing, and his look and manner seemed a lot more the Doctor to me. But the great setup / weak ending thing was driving me nuts.

The finale to the second season was probably what hooked me again, though. It’s hard to believe any Doctor Who writing team could have pulled off a story with Daleks and Cybermen, but they did, and even though there’s a lot of disbelief to suspend in the resolution (and along the way: you mean to tell me that there were Cybermen and Daleks all over the world and we didn’t see them shoot anyone outside the Torchwood building?), it’s entertaining enough that I just didn’t care.

And it didn’t hurt that over the course of the season, Tennant just kept shining. I’m not ready to say I like him even better than Tom Baker. But I’m getting there.

So here’s hoping the strong (if perennially implausible) stories that started off this season continued; otherwise I’m going to be very disappointed in my reinvestment in one of my biggest, geekiest childhood obsessions.