The story so far… Noticing that each series of the post-revival Doctor Who tends to follow a similar formula, and include equivalent types of episode (eg. the celebrity historical, the returning monster) I’ve compared these similar stories in an attempt to find out which series and hence which Doctor is the best. After part 2 the Tenth doctor has a fairly decisive lead with 4 stories, the others trailing with one story each. But there are still four categories to go…
The Timey Wimey Episode
Father’s Day vs. The Girl in the Fireplace vs. Blink vs. Turn Left vs. Time of the Angels/Flesh and Stone
For a series about a time traveller, time travel itself has featured as a plot element of relatively few stories, and most of them in the last five years (the Moff in particular has a fondness for these, and the recent series has been the most timey wimey so far). First Rose persuaded the Doctor to take her back into her own past in Father’s Day and then causes a paradox leading the Earth nearly being destroyed. The Doctor’s anger with Rose (“just another stupid ape”), her desperate need to know her father, and his acceptance of his fate make this a particularly affecting episode, and one which highlights the Doctors disaffection with humans. The Girl in the Fireplace is a Moffat tour-de-force. Alternate timelines, an abandoned future spaceship and a historical set at Versailles and a horse called Arthur ensure there’s never a dull moment in this episode, which also manages to feature some of the just about scariest moments in the show ever, and a beautifully played relationship for the Doctor, and all in 45 minutes. Extraordinary. Moffat does it again in Blink, the Ten/Martha “Doctor-lite” episode which starred Carey Mulligan, presented a deterministic explanation for time travel and again featured some super scary (and very minimal) monsters. Turn Left does the “what if” alternate timeline to great effect. It’s a clever conceit and a creates a terrifying and upsetting post-apocalyptic Britain. Then there’s the return of the Angels in the recent series which is perhaps the least timey-wimey of the lot, despite monsters that supposedly whose threat is time displacement, and a breath-taking opening rescue sequence following a trans-temporal SOS found in a museum. It has been justly praised, but this is a particularly strong crop of stories without a dud among them.
And the winner is: The Girl in the Fireplace
The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances vs. The Idiot’s Lantern vs. Human Nature/The Family of Blood vs. The Fires of Pompeii vs. Vampires of Venice
In the ’60s, Doctor who traditionally would visit a historical period and weave a story that would illustrate the nature of the society and the way of life. Over time this gave way to “pseudo-historicals” in which the period setting served purely as a back-drop for the Doctor to take on a pesky alien. The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances was the episode that made me feel Doctor Who had really returned, and was capable of equalling and surpassing the “original” series. This is the pseudo-historical done right, featuring a dashing time traveller and a mysterious alien threat without in any way diminishing the awful daily misery and peril of life during wartime. The Idiot’s Lantern is a more run-of-the-mill. The BBC consume department clearly had a nice time… Human Nature/Family of Blood is another take on the pseudo-historical. The alien threat is almost incidental; an excuse or reason for the Doctor to take refuge in a boys school on the eve of the Great War (although they imagery conjured by the aliens and their scarecrows are vivid and memorable). The historical setting gives an important cultural context in terms of distancing the human version of the Doctor (making him “alien” to us). Excellent. In The Fires of Pompeii, though, the alien once again feels very much an add-on (I still can’t remember how all the soothsayer stuff actually fitted in) especially when compared to the “pure-historical” audio story The Fires of Vulcan which is set in the same place on the same day. And Vampires of Venice, while a strong (and very, very witty) romp, also suffers from having to cram in an alien (points for calling them space fish, though!)
And the winner is: The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances
The Domestic Episode
Boomtown vs. Love and Monsters vs. ?vs. Midnight vs. The Lodger
This is the calm before the storm. One or two episodes before the series finale, a low-key, often small cast or even domestic story no doubt to accentuate the epic nature of what soon follows; but these episodes are often more entertaining, thrilling or fun than the overblown spectacular they precede. Boomtown is clearly a budget-saver, using Cardiff (where the show is produced) as the episodes location, and recycling a monster from earlier in the series. The Slitheen are very far from being my favourite monster, but this is a much stronger episode than its predecessor and the Cardiff locations are used effectively (Rose chatting to Mickey about alien worlds as they walk around the bay, the Doctor and Margaret dining in the Bosphorous). Both Love and Monsters and Fear Her from the following season are low-key low-budget episodes, but the former far exceeds the latter in terms of quality of imagination, pacing and humour. But there two things that make this such a great episode are: the genuine affection with which RTD sends up the show’s fans, and the ELO songs. Brilliant. There is no equivalent in the category in the Ten/Martha season because of the three-part finale. I supposed I could substitute in the Christmas special: they always have quite a domestic feel even if they have a bigger budget, but The Runaway Bride can’t really hold its own in this company. Midnight is a classic small-cast single-set piece: you could so easily transfer this to the stage and the claustrophobic intimacy comes across well. It’s chilling, terrifying (and coupled with Turn Left a damning indictment of humans, a counterpoint to the Doctor’s frequent expressions of affection for us) and it’s brave in leaving the alien unnamed (it is, after all, the people who are the monsters). Finally The Lodger goes all the way with the domestic theme, placing the Doctor in a classic sitcom situation (a Mork and Mindy version of The Odd Couple). It’s another witty, affectionate, well-crafted episode.
And the winner is: Midnight
Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways vs. Army of Ghosts/Doomsday vs. Utopia/The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lordsvs. The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End vs. The Pandorica Opens/Big Bang
The grand series finale is another invention of the revived series. To greater or lesser effect, the preceding episodes are seeded with some elements that are intended to constitute an “arc” leading up to a climactic end of series resolution. Bad Wolf takes its title from the phrase strewn throughout previous episodes spotted early by the vigilant but with very little to explain why the significance of these particular words. RTD pays homage in this episode to the populist shows he wanted Doctor Who to emulate, and its surprisingly effective. It’s also a clever device which make the cliff-hanger more surprising. It also gives The Parting of the Ways the space to become even more epic; and the conclusion to this episode is even more surprising (and exciting) still. The first series of the revived series really did go out on a high. Army of Ghosts draws together the mentions of “Torchwood” in a way that seems contrived, silly, and fails even to satisfactorily set up the spin-off. Doomsday is better though, enlivened by daleks bitch-slapping cybermen and a emotional final sequence accompanied by an electifying cello-piece written by Murray Gold. The Ten/Martha series expanded the finale across three episodes; but it peaked early with Utopia. This is one of my favourite episodes, taken on its own, both reintroducing Jack and the Master (as played by Derek Jacobi) with the build up to the reveal unbearably tense and (despite all the foreshadowing) still surprising. Great cliff-hanger too. Alas, things went downhill with both the script and Simm’s performance making the threat seem unlikely, superficial and trivial (it’s a return to the government we saw in Aliens of London and a far cry from that we’d see in Children of Earth). Despite a rather silly premise, The Stolen Earth is a great slow-building setup episode, but once again in the conclusion (Journey’s End) the story fails to deliver. The Pandorica Opens had to conclude the most deeply embedded story arcs (the cracks, the silence, Rory, River Song and the unknown menace). It suffers, like previous finales, from monster overkill (the most ludicrous coalition since the Tories and the Lib Dems), smothering the promising Roman auton story that had been germinating. However, bucking a trend, the concluding episode dials the scope back down, pulling an epic back down into a small group being chased through a deserted museum. Moffat sensibly only attempts to answer half the questions of the season, leaving the others for later, and makes the climax Amy’s wedding, as first mentioned in The Eleventh Hour. Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.
And the winner is: Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways
So overall, the Ninth doctor has two point, the Tenth has six, and the Eleventh has one. A decisive win for the Tenth Doctor. Now I genuinely didn’t know who my “system” would favour when I started out (and you can quibble on the basis that this electoral system is about as fair as that which has saw David Cameron elected as leader of our coalition government) so I’ve still got to consider the question of whether I agree with this result!
In the meantime, when I joined the guys at the Fusion Patrol podcast and we looked at five of these categories we went into so much detail we got five episodes out of it! You can hear how my take compared to Ben and Eugene’s on The New Person, The Celebrity Historical, The Returning Enemy, and The Pseudo-Historical already and when the Finale is posted shortly you will be able to hear our surprising conclusion on the question of Who is the Best Doctor?