80s Doctor Who started without a bang. In fact, it started with a long, slow, almost comically uneventful pan across Brighton Beach, finally landing on a Time Lady, a tin dog, and a Doctor with question marks on his collar. The 80s belong to Doctor Who’s longest-serving producer to date, John Nathan-Turner, and a whole host of question(mark)able choices he brought to the show.
This is not the time to catalog them all, but just be aware that this is where the unusually consistent quality of the 70s (all the more remarkable given the oft-changing creative teams) gives way to a wildly uneven track record. For every “Kinda” there’s a “Time-Flight,” for every “Enlightenment” a “King’s Demons,” for every “Caves of Androzani” a “Twin Dilemma.” If there’s any era you should cherry-pick, this is it.
And yet the net effect isn’t all bad. Less consistency means more variety, and while some production values declined, others heightened. By and large, the casting of Doctors was still on point, though disastrous mistakes were made in designing a character arc for the Sixth Doctor (strangling one’s own companion is so hard to bounce back from, audience-sympathy-wise). And at least four, maybe five of my very favorite stories hail from this era, so it can’t be all bad.
Once more, the key to the icons:
Continuity You’ll definitely be confused about what’s going on in the larger story if you skip these.
Fan Favorites There’s a general consensus among fans that these are among the best the series has to offer.
My Favorites Stories I personally love the most. Sometimes I agree with the fans, and sometimes I go my own way.
If a story has two or three of these icons, you should definitely watch it.
only: also definitely watch it. It might not be the greatest story ever but you’ll be lost without it.
only: probably worth your time. You COULD skip it and maybe come back to it, but it’ll be better if you watch it in order.
only: there’s a good chance you’ll think I’m nuts for liking this. But if you really get into the show, it might appeal to you the way it appealed to me. Watch if you have time, skip if you don’t.
The Leisure Hive
State of Decay
The Keeper of Traken
Four to Doomsday
“City of Death” is my favorite Doctor Who episode by tradition. But honestly? This one is at least a match for it.
The sequel to “Kinda.” You should probably watch that first, but I watched Aliens before I watched Alien, so whatever’s clever. Another top-fiver.
One of the only classic Who episodes written by a woman. And it’s a top fiver for me.
The King’s Demons
I’m sorry to inflict this on you. Fortunately it’s short.
The Five Doctors
You kinda have to watch this. But keep your expectations low.
Resurrection of the Daleks
Possibly the most batshit crazy Dalek episode since the 60s and until the 2000s. I haven’t watched it since the 80s.
Planet of Fire
This nothing story is the reason you had to watch “The King’s Demons.” Unfortunately it’s a full four episodes.
The Caves of Androzani
A certain kind of fan thinks this is the best Doctor Who story ever. I’m not that kind of fan, so I am only willing to say it’s really, really, really, really excellent.
The Twin Dilemma
Considered by many to be the worst Doctor Who story ever. It seems boring to agree — surely there’s a case to be made for “The Celestial Toymaker” or something — but I’m at a loss to remember any redeeming qualities. You probably could skip over this right to the next story, and I wouldn’t fault you if you did.
Vengeance on Varos
The Mark of the Rani
The Two Doctors
I adore this story. A lot of people disagree, but Robert Shearman, the author of the new Who episode “Dalek” (among many other wonderful things) isn’t one of them, and that makes me feel vindicated.
Revelation of the Daleks
The Mysterious Planet
This is the beginning of a season-long four-story miniseries called “The Trial of a Time Lord.” Unfortunately you need to watch part of it for continuity reasons, and if you do that you need to watch all of it. It’s worth it…once.
Terror of the Vervoids
The Ultimate Foe
Time and the Rani
Another contender for worst Who episode ever. You can’t skip this one though.
Look…Who in the 80s started to veer off in some weird directions. The last few seasons were unusually dark and macabre, and with this season they turned up all the studio lights and did some stuff that could reasonably be described as “goofy.” Once you accept that mode, though, this is the first example of the kind of social/cultural satire that — my opinion — made the McCoy era worth watching. When you get down to it, this isn’t really any sillier than “New Earth.”
Remembrance of the Daleks
Overrated, but still pretty great.
The Happiness Patrol
Underrated; probably my favorite story of the McCoy era. Brace yourself for the weird.
The Greatest Show in the Galaxy
You might have to watch this a few times to figure out what the heck is going on, or why you should care. But I get the hype.
The Curse of Fenric
Also overrated, also still pretty great. With “Remembrance,” one of the two least offbeat and most traditionally-minded stories of the McCoy era.
The only real continuity element here is that this was the end of the classic era. As you’ll see, it doesn’t really end.
Doctor Who (the TV Movie)
Not part of the 80s, but it must be addressed. Bridging the classic era and the new era (at least as far as televised stories are concerned), this has to be seen to be believed. Revisiting it now, I can see elements that worked and were adopted into the new series, but I may never need to watch it again.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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….
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
The only way this could possibly be more perfect were if it had come at the end of five more seasons’ worth of Paul McGann as the Doctor. More proof, if anyone needed it, that we were robbed when the TV Movie was all we ever had of the Eighth Doctor onscreen.
When I heard there was a mini-episode prequel to the 50th Anniversary special, this was pretty much exactly what I was expecting (as were lots of other fans). So we now know how the Eighth Doctor regenerates, and where John Hurt fits into the sequence, and we can pretty much guess what the awful thing he did that precluded him from being “the Doctor” was. It’s the obvious, and I have no problem with that. Some people would say the Time War is a story that shouldn’t ever be told. I don’t think there are any stories that shouldn’t be told…I just think they should be told well, and this gives me great hope that we can expect this one to be told very well indeed. I can’t wait.
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.
You guys! I just watched the 1996 Doctor Who TV Movie for the first time since 1996. And it didn’t completely suck.
No, really. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I hated this thing back then as much as anybody did. I had already been losing the faith during the McCoy era, and becoming less and less enchanted with each New Adventure novel, and then this! The Eye of Harmony inside the TARDIS? The protoplasmic Master? Kissing? Half-human? Are you kidding me?
But you know, I’ve had (gulp) 17 years to come to terms with (i.e. ignore) all that, and tonight I really enjoyed watching this mediocre mess. I really, really did.
The biggest crime turns out to be the way the whole thing soaks in then-contemporary American TV tropes. The theme music and the grandiose ending are staples of American sci-fi (particularly Star Trek), and even today we’re still drowning in medical dramas, gunfights, and car chases. As the start to a possible new series, it didn’t seem like the right direction, but as a one-off Doctor Who story, it’s more forgivable. I mean, if you can crash other genres into Doctor Who — Agatha Christie, Hammer horror, westerns, pirates — why not ER?
Well, one reason why not is that it’s dull as dishwater. Okay, clearly there are a lot of people who prefer watching actors pretend to perform surgery rather than watching actors pretend to foment revolution on alien worlds; I just don’t happen to be one of them. And frankly, watching Dr. Grace Holloway inadvertently kill the Seventh Doctor by performing human medical procedures on his alien body is easily the most disturbing scene I’ve ever seen in this show before or since. That’s exciting, yes, but in all the wrong ways.
What matters the most here is whether the Doctor works. And he does, like crazy. Paul McGann is absolutely perfect in the role. At the time I was a little cynical about him — he seemed like a sort of mathematical average of all the Doctors before him, so quintessentially Doctorish that he almost seemed too safe a choice to be interesting. But now he seems just right, and perfectly in line with what we’ve now come to expect from the modern Doctor. It doesn’t hurt that I’ve been listening to him on Big Finish audios and reading his adventures in the BBC books, and both are, at their best, as good as the new series, sometimes better.
The Master…well, I would never in a million years have made the same choices. But even those don’t seem as bad as they used to. Eric Roberts isn’t much hammier than Ainley was half the time. Sure, it doesn’t make much sense to us old-school fans that he’s become a gelatinous snake (not unlike Prisoner Zero) and can spew corrosive ectoplasm that can possess people or freeze them solid. You’ve seen The End of Time, right? What about being an electric skeleton guy and shooting energy from his hands in order to fly seems less weird to you?
All these continuity issues — the Eye, “half human,” a trial on Skaro, foreknowledge of people’s lives, and so on — all these dopey elements are still irritating, but if you squint your eyes until they water, you can see how they really don’t matter to anyone who isn’t more than a little familiar with the series, and wouldn’t make much difference to any of the stories the show would have told. They matter to us as fans, and I think we’re right to be glad that the new series swept them gracefully under the carpet, but they don’t make or break the TV Movie.
Even the ending, that horrible ending, everything after possessed Grace clubs the Doctor into unconsciousness, doesn’t ruin everything. Weren’t we able to enjoy “The Sound of Drums” and then cope with the fact that the ending of “Last of the Time Lords” was total and complete bollocks? That, too, featured humans performing a wildly implausible technical feat (wishing really hard over the Archangel network vs. Grace somehow knowing how to rewire a TARDIS), a cringeworthy scene where the Doctor tries to spare the life of a psychopath (“come on, regenerate!” vs. “grab my hand” — the same psychopath, obviously), and turning back time Superman-style to save the entire world.
In fact, while you can (and other critics before me did) definitely point to “Rose” as doing everything right to revive the show that the TV Movie does wrong (such as jumping into a monster story that’s more like what we’re going to see from here on out as opposed to starting with a regeneration), what struck me most this time out was how much of the new series starts right here with these 86 minutes. Here’s a partial list.
1. The Doctor is young and handsome.
2. He gets to kiss his companion.
3. We have a primary female companion and a secondary male companion. (By the way, note that Lee is still the only Asian companion we’ve ever seen on TV. Grace is pretty bland and uninspiring, but she’s better than Peri or Mel. Oh, and she’s a doctor herself, just like Martha, and she does no doctoring after she’s introduced in the hospital, just like Martha.)
4. The colors of the show are dark — lots of blues and oranges.
5. The theme music is orchestral; prior to this it’s always been synthesizers or concrete sound effects.
6. The TARDIS is dark inside too (not bright white) and it looks more organic and architectural than mechanical.
7. The console is steampunkish, full of retro gadgets.
8. The first time we meet the Master, his old body dies and he gets a new one right away.
9. Smoke, wisps of orange light, or both are associated with life and regeneration. That thing where a puff of smoke from someone’s mouth shows they’ve regenerated starts here.
10. There’s a powerful source of energy right on board the TARDIS. Here it’s the Eye of Harmony, in the new series it’s “the heart of the TARDIS,” but either way it’s got great destructive potential if not properly harnessed.
11. It’s really funny. Even the Master is funny. Instead of even-keeled drama all the way through, we get alternating humor and melodrama.
12. The Doctor knows more about the people of Earth than we do. Here it’s knowledge of their futures, and in the new series it’s lines like “he’s gay and she’s an alien.”
13. Newscasters. Lots of newscasters.
14. The TV Movie ends with the words, “Oh, no. Not again!” What? What? What?
I’ll bet you could pound out another fourteen if you tried. I’ll grant you, this baby has a face only a mother could love, but in just nine short years it’s going to grow up to be the adorable BBC Wales series. And once you know that, it’s a lot easier to look back and see where it came from, and be just a little bit grateful. It’s like the Eighth Doctor’s shoes: they’re borrowed from an American cad, and they take some breaking in, but once they’re worn a little bit, they fit perfectly.