At a friend’s request, I wrote up a speedthrough guide to 21st century Doctor Who. Premise: if you don’t have time or patience to watch every story in order, which ones do you NEED to watch in order to know what’s going on? And which ones are the gems in between that you should make sure not to miss?
Another friend suggested, perhaps in jest, that I do the same thing for classic Who. At first I wasn’t going to, considering how long the first one took, but then I decided to take a crack at it and found out I could do it even more quickly. Partly that’s because classic Who stories function much more independently than new Who stories do, but also I just know it better.
Except the 60s. I’m not the best person to recommend stories from this era. First of all, I just don’t like it. It’s all in black and white, and I’m one of the philistines who rejects the conventional wisdom that black and white is superior to color. The First Doctor is my least favorite. The stories tended to be longer and slower.
But there’s a bigger problem, which is that scads of episodes are missing. The BBC destroyed a lot of them to make room. In many cases entire stories were destroyed, or represented by a single intact episode. There are numerous stories in here that I would have included if enough of them remained watchable; “The Daleks’ Master Plan,” for example, is a massive 12-part story that’s definitely a Fan Favorite, but unless you are determined to seek out an audio version or one of the fan reconstructions of the story (which even I can’t sit through), you simply can’t watch it and it’s pointless to recommend.
If you’re a new Who fan looking to crack the classic era…I recommend starting with 1970’s “Spearhead from Space” and continuing from there. But if you’re determined to go all the way back to the very beginning, and you’re prepared to jump around a bit and accept that companions will come and go with no warning, this guide will hopefully see you through.
I haven’t seen all of these myself (I know!) so it’s possible that something like “The Romans” or “The War Machines” is going to be a sleeper favorite of yours. If you fall in love with the 60s, by all means dig into what’s left of them. If not, you’d be forgiven for skipping ahead.
Key to the icons:
Continuity 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.
An Unearthly Child
The praise for this story is almost entirely about the first episode. The rest of it is…watchable.
The Edge of Destruction
Short and trippy. Anyone who’s fascinated by the TARDIS itself should check this out. I dig it, but it’s hardly essential.
Doctor Who used to do purely historical episodes, with no aliens (apart from the Doctor). Fan consensus is that this is one of the best.
The Dalek Invasion of Earth
The Web Planet
There’s no reason to watch this. I mention it only because it’s one of the absolute weirdest Who episodes ever made, and while that doesn’t mean it’s one of the best…you just kinda have to see it.
The Space Museum
Dreadful. But also the end of an era.
The Time Meddler
The point at which the “pure historical” gave way to what fans call the “pseudohistorical,” which means history with aliens.
We had to skip over a story where one companion left, and another story where a new companion joined. It wasn’t really an improvement. I dig this story though.
The Tenth Planet
Not the best episode ever, really, but remarkable enough that you’d have to see it even if not for continuity reasons.
The Power of the Daleks
The truth is I don’t much like Dalek stories. Even the best of them tend to be dreary. This is supposed to be one of the best but I have a really hard time understanding why. They’ve animated this so you can watch it now, and I don’t want to disparage anybody’s hard work, but…”animated” probably should have quotation marks around it. Have fun.
The Tomb of the Cybermen
The Ice Warriors
The Enemy of the World
An unexpected gem of the era.
The Web of Fear
The monster has appeared before, in an episode you can’t watch. Sigh.
The Mind Robber
Sets the stage for the 70s.
The War Games
It’s a little long, but it’s worth it. Hang in there.
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.
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.
It’s a little surprising that after just two stories, 1964’s Doctor Who had already turned inward for the two-parter “The Edge of Destruction”/”The Brink of Disaster”. But after going to prehistoric Earth and then the planet of the Daleks in Earth’s far future, maybe it seemed like a logical next step to explore the ship taking them there. It makes even more sense when you consider what a delicate point audiences were at with the characters: after eleven episodes, we knew them well enough to care what happened to them, but not well enough to know quite what they might be capable of if pushed to extremes. The paranoia this episode traffics in really had to happen at this point to be truly convincing.
When you know the ending, it’s hard for this episode to hold your attention by plot alone, but it’s still worth watching for the atmosphere and the acting. Ian seems more stoned than anything else, but Susan and Barbara both freak out in convincing and unexpected ways. The tension between them feels a bit like some existentialist French play, especially the scene where Susan threatens Ian with the medical scissors, holding them like a dagger and then stabbing them repeatedly and viciously into her mattress.
The story is set entirely on the TARDIS, and though we don’t see much more of it, what we do see is austere and beautiful. The console room seems huge if you’re used to the later episodes of the classic series (but not the new series, where it’s the size of a house again), and the smooth surfaces and open spaces suggest classical architecture as much as futuristic technology. There’s also some cool modernist furniture like the curvy fold-out Murphy beds. Occasionally the visuals let the episode down, such as the bits with the clock faces where it’s hard to even make out what’s happening (though it could have been the video quality), but for the most part they support the feeling of the story much better than expensive CGI showing the ship disintegrating would have.
The puzzle itself works pretty well. They don’t overplay the question of whether something (“an intelligence”) has penetrated the ship, but the crew’s odd behavior (which never seemed quite adequately explained) does keep us guessing. When there’s a series of pictures playing on the scanner, intended as clues, and the Doctor talks about his TARDIS as being able to “think as a machine” with a “bank of computers,” it calls to mind “The Doctor’s Wife” and what that episode retroactively implies about how the TARDIS really does think. For being old and (by his own admission) growing senile, the Doctor here seems young and a little naive; it takes him a while to figure things out, he seems impulsive and foolish in his reading of events and other people, and he obviously doesn’t know his own ship that well yet. One of the fun contradictions of this show is that it starts with an old Doctor with an old spirit but an immature mind, and is now showing us a young Doctor with a young spirit and a mature mind.
The Doctor tells Barbara (though he might be trying to placate her) that her “instinct and intuition” beat his “logic” in figuring out the problem, though it’s worth noting that the problem itself is as purely scientific as this show gets. (Again, contrast the “bank of computers” with “Idris.”) Barbara does have the best and most ominous (if perplexing) line of the episode: “We had time taken away from us…and now it’s being given back because it’s running out.” Beats the pants off the Doctor’s over-the-top monologue about solar systems.
Next time: back to new Who with “Let’s Kill Hitler!”
You can tell when you’re talking to a real Doctor Who nerd if he* rolls his eyes when you mention the second-ever Doctor Who adventure, The Daleks. It’s not the content, but the title: back in the Sixties, as with the modern two-parters, every episode had its own name. If this story had an overarching title, it would have been “The Mutants,” but for several obscure and largely uninteresting reasons (the easiest of which to explain is that by the time this story needed a name, there had already been a story in the Seventies called The Mutants) that title wasn’t an option. But only a REAL real nerd would attempt to argue that calling it The Daleks isn’t perfectly apt.
I roll my eyes at this one, but it’s because of the content. This thing is seven episodes long, which is around three hours, and it feels at least twice that.
Like the previous story, it starts off really well. The first episode, evocatively if simply called “The Dead Planet,” is wonderfully eerie and well-designed for the budget and the time it was made. The tattered petrified jungle is beautiful and strange, and the Dalek city is gorgeously minimal and weirdly angled. It’s all very expressionistic and evocative. Unlike the modern series, which is slathered with annoying incidental music like a Paula Deen recipe is slathered with butter, this has a perfect minimal soundtrack. The planet itself is dead silent, and when they arrive at the Dalek city, there’s just a faint electronic hum that becomes that familiar, awesome electronic heartbeat sound when Daleks are in the room. The first episode ends with Barbara screaming at a sucker arm, and up to this point it’s just fantastic.
Then you actually see the Daleks themselves. Clearly they were something really special at the time and people loved them, and if we’re honest that’s no more than 25% Terry Nation (who came up with the idea) and 75% Raymond Cusick (who came up with the design), or maybe 55% Raymond Cusick and 20% the team that created their voices. Their bizarre shape and mode of speaking are as iconic as Tom Baker’s scarf and the TARDIS, maybe more so. But as monsters, as villains, they’re maybe too iconic to take seriously these days, at least for me. It’s so hard to forget everything they’ve done since that time and put myself in the shoes of the people watching back then, when not only had there never been an episode featuring these eggbeater-armed salt shakers, but there’d never been any episode of Doctor Who featuring aliens of any kind and this whole “rise up and defeat your tyrants” plot was brand new to this show. How scary, or at least dangerous, must they have seemed back when no one knew what to expect from them, when the pace of their dialogue was so unexpected and terrifically menacing?
Still, this is the only story when the Doctor can encounter these things without being sure how ruthless they are, and it’s definitely a little harrowing to watch our crew being vulnerable, especially after Ian’s legs are temporarily paralyzed. This isn’t so bad for four episodes.
Unfortunately, they have to go out and meet the Eloi-esque Thals and spend simply ages trying to convince them to rise up against the Daleks in the face of some plot to irradiate the planet that I couldn’t sustain any interest in. There’s endless speechifying and arguing, not unlike the caveman politics of the previous story, but it’s riveting entertainment compared to two episodes (that seem like twenty) of skulking about in caves trying to sneak into the Dalek city. I remembered that part of the story losing me when I was a kid, but I thought I’d find it more interesting as an adult — that’s what happened for me with The Two Towers, after all. But no such luck.
Unfortunately I’ve always found Dalek stories boring sooner or later, even the ones that are among the best of the season they’re in (like Revelation of the Daleks and Remembrance of the Daleks). No matter their quality as drama (variable and debatable), there’s something monotonous about them for me. This isn’t the worst, but it’s far from the best, and I was relieved to see the back of it.
My girlfriend didn’t officially watch this one with me, but I know she was peeking from the other room while playing video games on her computer, partly because she loves Daleks. As in finds them hilarious and adorable. In episode 7, when various Daleks start to melt down for various reasons, she was sadder for them than any of the ill-fated Thals. Meanwhile, when the Doctor lied about the fluid link in order to explore the Dalek city, she said, “What a douchebag!” She still has little time for this Doctor, and while I think he was perfect for the time, I’m inclined to feel the same way.
* You might be surprised how many Doctor Who fans were female even before 2005, but the pedantic ones still tend to be male.
In the space between the halves of season “6” of Doctor Who, I’m planning to watch Doctor Who, the classic series. I’m not watching in order or anything crazy like that; my collection’s nowhere near that complete. But I’m starting with the first three stories, since my girlfriend gave them to me for Christmas, and since I haven’t seen them in something like 15 years, maybe more.
Inspired by the brilliant, irreverent Adventures With the Wife in Space, which has conclusively proven to me that reading non-fan reactions to this show is far more fun than reading fan reactions to it, I invited my girlfriend to watch An Unearthly Child with me. I told her what she needed to know: it aired the day after the Kennedy assassination, it’s the very first Doctor Who ever, and it might be a little hard to get through. She sweetly agreed to give it a shot over lasagna with sweet red wine and fruit for dessert.
If you haven’t seen any of these early stories, you really ought to check this one out. I love the first episode, where schoolteachers Ian and Barbara compare notes on their problem student Susan: she knows history as if she lived it, and science as if she invented it, but doesn’t know how many shillings are in a pound, and has no idea how to get along with her classmates (it probably doesn’t help that she gets hysterical at the drop of a hat). The obvious explanation would be that she’s “not from ’round here,” but because Ian and Barbara are reasonable, down-to-earth types they don’t have any far-fetched theories like “she’s a Communist spy” or “she’s an alien from a race of time-travellers.” They just figure maybe there’s a problem at home and decide to follow her and see what’s up with her. They discover she lives in a junkyard with her grandfather, who is pretty much of an asshole, and what’s more, they live together in a police box, which was a pretty normal sight in the 60s, just out on the street and not in the midst of piles of junk.
Of course, her grandfather is the Doctor. I let my girlfriend point out what an asshole he is, and then explained that back in the beginning, the Doctor was not required to be a young, attractive, impeccably appealing character with zero moral failings. Instead, Ian and Barbara were our identification characters, and the Doctor was almost an antihero, at least for a while — an unpredictable, infirm alien with an alien’s moral compass. It’s frequently pointed out that there’s a moment in this first story where the Doctor appears ready to murder an incapacitated caveman in cold blood just because he’s slowing them down. Try to imagine Eccleston, Tennant or Smith getting away with that. The only other Doctor who’d even contemplate this kind of thing would be Six (Colin Baker), and even he caught a lot of shit for the morally questionable stunts he pulled. Compared to Hartnell, he’s a pussycat.
Unfortunately, our identification characters are sometimes trying as well. Ian’s a rock, of course, after he gets past his “bigger on the inside” disorientation, but Barbara isn’t taking well to being kidnapped by the Doctor (that’s right — they don’t sit on their suitcases all night waiting to become part of the TARDIS crew; can you imagine?) and she does a lot of tripping and wailing and freaking out, giving Susan a run for her money as the most hysterical female in sight. It’s not like they’re even dealing with crazy rubber monsters in this one, just cavemen with some really tiresome political struggles over who can make fire and thus lead the tribe and get the only eligible bachelorette in evidence. But there’s quite a lot of blood and violence, and being introduced to one’s ancestors has to be a bit of a shock.
As you’re gathering, the last three episodes here are a bit of a drag, but they’re not the worst Hartnell has to offer, and if you’re going to introduce a series about time travel and about using brains and compassion to solve problems, you could do worse than caveman days. Every viewer understands the circumstances as soon as they see slightly unkempt actors with worse-than-usual teeth in animal skins with clubs, so you can put the focus on how our main characters react to adversity, and how they behave when forced to work together to escape. It’s not quite a changing-history thing; we know that the main caveman’s father knew how to make fire but neglected to teach his son (maybe he got mauled by a sabertooth before he had the chance), so they’ve discovered it before, and though Ian makes fire later on, he doesn’t teach anyone. The biggest change in history, then, is that this small tribe has a fire that they might not have had (so maybe they survive when they wouldn’t have), and that there’s a book of matches somewhere on prehistoric Earth that the Doctor dropped when he was captured.
What did my girlfriend think? Well, she tolerated it. We enjoyed heckling it, and here are my favorite things she said.
On the Doctor’s appearance:
“He’s like Colonel Sanders!”
On quieting a hysterical woman:
“Shut the fuck up, Barbara!”
When the lead caveman, Za, is mauled by a sabertooth:
“He is now…pieces of ‘za.”
On the title sequence:
When the Doctor incites a stoning (yes, really):
And my very favorite, as our title character appears for the first time:
“He looks like a fuckin’ old man sailor. Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum in time and space!”