What Is Who?: Other Great Episodes

Doctor-Who-Ninth-Tenth-Eleventh-Twelfth

“Hello, sweetie.” 

If you liked Dalek, other notable villain episodes:

Rise Of the Cybermen

The Age Of Steel

            This two-parter reestablishes the Doctor’s second most iconic foe, also mechanical and bent on totalitarianism. Rose is initially dating a sheepish guy named Mickey, who soon becomes a companion on his own terms when he learns her secret. This story is a showcase for his meek heroism, while also demonstrating the lumpy pacing of DW two-parters. If I recall correctly, the second half is better.

If you liked The Girl In the Fireplace, other notable historical episodes:

The Vampires Of Venice

            A potentially campy filler hour that actually has a cracking good plot with tons of nice character moments, and an engrossing sense of place for this mid-budget show.

Vincent And the Doctor

            A beautiful and pointed exploration of loneliness and mental illness, where the serialization, metaphorical monster, and focal character all dovetail.

If you liked Doomsday, other notable season finales:

The Pandorica Opens

The Big Bang

            Like Doomsday, these episodes work much better with seasonal context and character empathy, but they’re roughly self-contained epic jaunts showing just how badass the Ponds and Eleven are, and how grandiose Moffat lets his twisty storylines get.

If you liked Smith And Jones, other notable season premieres:  

The Impossible Astronaut

Day Of the Moon

            A perfect example of an incredible jumpstart that Moffat mostly fumbled at the end. Enjoy these classics in the moment – they’re fun time travel stories on their own with a new villain that’s super cool (albeit cribbed in some ways from a classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode).

If you liked Human Nature and The Family Of Blood, other notable pacifist episodes:

Planet Of the Ood

            The Ood aren’t a classic adversary so much as a passive race that the Doctor keeps tabs on. Their subservient nature makes for a fascinating dynamic in this solid hour’s free will and/or racism allegory. Also, yeah, they look pretty creepy, but it is what it is.

The Zygon Inversion

            Another example of a superior second half, The Zygon Inversion hits a lot of familiar Doctor Who themes: talking through things, regret and suffering, the pointlessness of evil, showmanship and flamboyance, petulant rage, and an investigative spirit.

            The only preamble a new viewer needs is that an undiscovered alien culture on earth called the Silurians has begun to wage war and stake their claim to the planet. Their leader disguises itself as Clara and wants to wipe out all humans, in a chilling metaphor for immigration anxieties. The Doctor’s superiority over most life forms can sometimes manifest in a benevolent, doting Godlike way, as it does here.

            At one point they return to a room from Day Of the Doctor, where a universe-saving armistice plot twist was reached through the Time Lord’s shenanigans. It is there that perhaps the greatest scene and monologue from the revived series occurs, exemplifying all those above facets of the Doctor’s worldview in a brilliant performance from Capaldi.

If you liked Blink, other notable thriller episodes:

42

            This episode revels in its pulpy, high-tension premise – a then-timely ticking clock riff on 24 with plenty of action and cannon fodder.

Dinosaurs On A Spaceship

            Here, there’s a surprising amount of time for moral quandaries, side character beats and developing the companions despite the unabashedly childish concept. Its threat and structure are also very unusual and intriguing.

Time Heist

            Time Heist sets up the fiction of this world to pretty much do a straightforward heist caper with minimal sci-fi, and it’s a blast.

If you liked Midnight, other notable dark episodes:

A Good Man Goes To War

Let’s Kill Hitler

            More portentous and grim than psychologically disturbing, these twisty-turny mythology payoff episodes heavily utilize Moffat’s go-for-broke puzzle-box story methods. The final result sort of collapses under its own machinations, harming the internal logic of some of the characters, but it’s a thrilling ride the first time through. This continues a pattern I observed earlier in season six. If you don’t question it and keep an emotional distance, it’s pretty impressive.

The Waters Of Mars

            This is another unusually despairing Davies episode (a long-form special, at that) about gray morality, the Doctor overstepping his boundaries, and the best laid plans going awry.

If you liked The Eleventh Hour, other notable episodes from season five:

The Time Of Angels

Flesh And Stone

            A double-shot Weeping Angel redux by way of Aliens. The iconic foes hadn’t lost their novelty or menace yet, and a familiar face shows up for the adventure, depending on which of these episodes you’ve already seen.

If you liked Amy’s Choice, other notable companion-centric episodes:

Father’s Day

Kill the Moon

The Woman Who Lived

            Next, an unrelated triptych to demonstrate how the Doctor complicates and infiltrates human existence. First, by breaking and complicating familial relationships. Then by lording over this lesser species without proper regard for their sapience and dignity. Finally, his alien machinations and ramshackle solutions tending to cause more problems than they’re worth.

            There are some interesting moral quandaries presented among these three hours. Kill the Moon is a reproductive rights allegory wisely turned over to the women in the cast, and which just barely lands on the smarter side of the issue while offering shades of opinion. Next, The Woman Who Lived finds the Doctor accidentally creating a time-prolonged demigod equal out of an innocent young girl, and the unspeakable angst that created for her contrasts with the Time Lord’s seemingly altruistic methods. Then, Father’s Day sheds light on how the families of companions carry on after their child disappears (for all they know – it’s all very Peter Pan-esque) while giving Rose some character shading.

If you liked The Lodger, other notable comedic episodes:

Turn Left

            A “what if?” episode that’s a showcase for Donna, one companion who’s not in this list a whole lot. This does a good job depicting her charming life, silliness and all.

Flatline

            This is a terrific adventure episode with an incredibly imaginative threat and a great use of Clara as a heroine. But I’m also including it here because of the most inspired comedic set piece this show has ever done.

If you liked The Doctor’s Wife, other notable TARDIS-related episodes:

Journey To the Centre of the TARDIS

            More boundless TARDIS zaniness, with a couple eerie surprises.

If you liked The Snowmen, other notable Christmas episodes:

A Christmas Carol

            A perfect Christmas episode balance of a familiar holiday tale, tweaked to fit the Doctor’s sci-fi milieu.

If you liked The Day Of the Doctor, other notable mythology episodes:

The End of Time, Part 2

The Wedding Of River Song

The Time Of the Doctor

            These three episodes are all imperfect, but still have the signature of their creators and a lot of potential. The End Of Time has a typically lackluster first part, while the second half is a surprisingly slick, moving reunion tour of different companions as Davies bids farewell to his pet project. Among them is Wilfred, Donna’s grandfather and part-time spacefarer. He’s jovial, down-to-earth and childlike.

            The Wedding Of River Song is a breathless attempt to ground a supporting character, Doctor and seasonal arc that had all gone out of control through Moffat’s increasing story escalation. That it even succeeds mildly is impressive. It’s a bit perfunctory, confusing and cynical about its characters, but essentially the plot makes sense.

            The same goes for The Time Of the Doctor, the 50th anniversary companion piece to the Day Of the Doctor (and an ostensible Christmas special, technically). If there’s any occasion to forgive Moffat’s grandiosity, it’s this impressive story arc. It also marks another important facet of the show, the one regeneration episode on my list. For season seven, Smith’s “death” is appropriately off-format and belabored, but the basics are there, and it’s still resonant.

If you liked Mummy On the Orient Express, other notable mystery episodes:

Silence In the Library

Forest of the Dead

            This fan-beloved two-parter has some of Moffat’s best story ideas, and it moves quickly and eventfully, despite a couple odd moments. It’s also crucial for introducing a rare non-companion supporting player, and a rarer still romantic foil for the Doctor. The thing about River Song (Alex Kingston) is… well, you’ll see, but suffice it to say that I skipped over her spotlight episodes in the general primer for a pragmatic reason, and your acquaintance with her should start here.

If you liked Heaven Sent, other notable existential episodes:

The Satan Pit

            This unsettling second-part entry tackles the possibility of an unknown deity, and gets very cutting with its examination of faith and religion in a stifling setting similar to that of Midnight.

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Heaven Sent

Heaven Sent 2

“I can’t always do this. Why can’t I just lose?”

Who is the Doctor from Gallifrey?

            Heaven Sent has more answers to that than almost any Doctor Who story, revealed bit by bit as the Time Lord bares his soul and overcomes his darkest hour. He wants to know things, harboring a healthy fascination and respect for all peaceful races. He has a thirst for experience and hedonism, accompanied by a madcap sense of humor. He is aware that constant change is a permanent part of his life, and as much as he would sometimes like to stay put and get attached, he never allows himself to do so. He doesn’t want to be alone, even though his travels are fundamentally lonely. He lives with a host of personal demons and failings for a hyperextended lifespan. Because of this, he has to mask his guilt and pain in various ways. He has a ferocious will to persevere and win, using his incredible intellect to do so. He is loyal to his friends and his moral code. He is incredibly resilient, willing to withstand tremendous pain for his cause. He is arrogant, having repeatedly cheated death and disaster through unlikely means. Lastly, he is afraid: of himself, of all the terrible things in the universe, of failure.

            Heaven Sent is a modern TV classic, and arguably the show’s best episode. It’s the first Doctor Who story to my knowledge without any sort of companion. Twelve is helpless, defeated and left in a desolate labyrinth to reckon with all these variables – who he is.

            It’s effectively creepy and disorienting, with one of Moffat’s trademark conceptual story gambits. Yet this one is both grander and more elegant than the rest, while serving important thematic and character functions. The increasingly weary, apocalyptic last seasons of the showrunner’s tenure get pushed to their astounding breaking point here.

            One of the most noticeable traits of Heaven Sent is its marvelous original score, on a show which usually skimps on that front. There is a lot of silence and thinking in this episode, so it’s necessary to fill in the gaps. Likewise, the show’s cinematography is brought to the fore here, and it shines. A recent loss is wounding the Doctor at the hour’s beginning, so an emotional factor is implied. After getting to know Doctor Who over these posts, those few details should be enough for you to get your bearings, so I won’t spoil any more. Enjoy!

HEAVEN SENT (By Steven Moffat)

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Mummy On the Orient Express

Mummy On the Orient Express

“Shut up and give me some planets”

           We jump into season eight with a semi-serialized, but fabulously creative monster of the week episode. In and of itself, that tentative mix of continuity and standalone was refreshing for the show, which had gotten rote on one side of the equation and ridiculous on the other since the beginning of Moffat’s tenure. Tethering the two arguably improved both and gave some sort of throughline to Clara’s emotional struggles. As a result, the plotting of these seasons morphed a bit, with relationship drama bleeding through between episodes more than usual.

            This particular entry has a compelling angle for the sadly mishandled Clara, which is just to have a good time despite her reticence (hence the quote above). Her boyfriend Danny Pink is briefly shown, and as usual with companion SOs, after a charming romantic subplot, he gets sucked in to the whole shebang before too long. Mummy On the Orient Express is a continuation of earlier conflicts the Doctor, Clara and Danny have with one another, while also setting up story beats further down the line. And yet the main event makes for a fantastic standalone.

            Doctor Who isn’t above referencing or even adapting classic British literature and storytelling. In fact, some of the show’s best episodes revolve around classic ensemble mysteries for the Doctor and his companions to piece together. This is a thrilling example in that vein, with a perception monster that seems like a tangible, despairing threat, allowing the Doctor to confront the existential dread that deeply informs his crisis management skills. But unlike some gloomier scripts, this one has a triumphant payoff and shows the Time Lord at his best.

            Twelve (Peter Capaldi) is charmingly gruff, haunted and paternal, a contrast to Eleven’s adolescent antics. After the heightened nonsense of season seven (which sometimes worked, to be fair), Moffat’s last few years featured grounded characterization, a standoffish tone, and a true embrace of danger. This was reinforced when Twelve forgot a lot of the fireworks at the end of Smith’s reign, and had to be taken care of by Clara. Just goes to show how evergreen this show and its worldview are – no matter how long a fallow period lasts, a batch of great episodes could be right around the corner.

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The Day Of the Doctor

The Day of the Doctor

“A man who regrets, and the man who forgets”

           Being one of the longest-running TV shows in history, Doctor Who has an insane amount of continuity and mythology to build off of. Even with the new series being a semi-reboot, there are lots of old references and dynamics reprised. But for its 50th anniversary, it pulled out all the stops to craft a multidimensional, cross-generational resolution to the Gallifreyan War, which had gone mostly undocumented until then. Through the magic of plot devices, Ten and Eleven square off against one another and try to work together for lots of fun fan-service. Meanwhile, a nigh-omnipotent facsimile of Rose (esoteric plot stuff, don’t worry about it) meets Clara, both women slaves to the whims of time and the universe. Against this tableau, a lot of backstory is filled in, which gives a sense of the old series’ lore and mood. The War Doctor (John Hurt) isn’t counted among the official regenerations for story-centric reasons, but his sole appearance is appropriately studious and pained.

            Having existed across several decades and media, Doctor Who is no stranger to promotional events like this blowout. In fact, one of its seasons was truncated or expanded (depending on who you ask) to include several extra-long wrap-up specials. Similarly, season seven was divided up between a couple years, and had this extra-long feature as its climax.

            There are certainly some plot holes to be found in The Day Of the Doctor, but they’re nicely retconned at least. Foremost among them is an issue that has always plagued the series: when and how it decides to rewrite its own narrative. Depending on the needs of the story and its gravity, the Doctor can insist that important “fixed” events in time must not be changed, but sometimes he characteristically bends his own rules to provide a happier ending.

            Besides its auspicious space in the annals of DW history, this episode does a good job of emotionally bridging different eras of the show. Beyond just utilizing the mythos for callbacks, it gives a sense of the show’s scope and importance to entire generations of UK and US viewers. An esoteric cameo at the end reinforces that this old workhorse is one of the most important progenitors of modern cult TV.

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The Snowmen

DOCTOR WHO S7 CHRISTMAS SPECIAL

“He is not your salvation, nor your protector”

           In its kid-friendly, old-fashioned ways, Doctor Who has long had a tradition of producing holiday or Christmas-themed episodes to air every December 25th. I would be remiss to not include one of them, off-format and lackluster though they often are. This season seven entry is among the better ones. It leans heavily into a controversial tone that Moffat introduced – an Americanized gloominess and serialization that eventually got to be too much. But here it was warranted. After one of the showrunner’s clumsiest missteps, the capricious Eleven had just lost the series’ most beloved companions and become a self-loathing recluse for centuries while temporally stuck in Victorian London. This began a trend toward a moral gray area and muted visual style in contrast to DW’s typical optimism and bright flair.

            The Snowmen also takes some liberties with the show’s timey-wimey twistiness, which Moffat began abusing. Furthermore, it introduces an on-again, off-again ensemble of sci-fi kooks who bump into the Doctor for the next few seasons. More importantly, this is the confounding first appearance of Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman), one of the longer-running companions who takes on a variety of promising guises and who the writers never quite get the hang of. Underneath all the new flashiness, however, there is a serviceable story here of holiday cheer and redemption. The requisite youthful sappiness is very tolerable in this case, and the good vibes win out in the end, of course.

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The Doctor’s Wife

The Doctor's Wife

“I always took you where you needed to go”

            Other than the vague notion of his inner decency, the TARDIS (and the untamed adventure it hurtles him toward) is the only constant in the Doctor’s life and the one thing that soothes his angst. The hyperdimensional blue police box is a reliable stalwart of this show, along with the Time Lord’s nonlethal Sonic Screwdriver, and has gone through its fair share of redesigns and mythology building. In a way, it symbolizes the childlike creativity of Doctor Who’s universe, with infinite possibility and astounding power. It has also been a familiar marketing device once the show became trendy. It has a catchy name, but the acronym stands for Time And Relative Dimensions In Space, if you were curious.

            In The Doctor’s Wife, it gets its own spotlight, manifesting as a human woman. This development puts the Doctor’s fate and adventures into a more cosmic, spiritual context, since his lady is always looking out for him. This one-off was written by Neil Gaiman, of all people! I mostly include it for nailing the tone and likable character moments of a typical DW episode, which is what the series’ watchability relies on. Like the Doctor’s peculiar tools, it’s always quietly there, doing its job.

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The Lodger

Lodger

“Now, football’s the one with the sticks, isn’t it?”

            Moffat’s scheming and Davies’ heartbreaking aside, the tone of Doctor Who is very whimsical. Its sense of humor is naturally quite British, alternating between withering deadpan and overt wackiness. That’s frequently a good thing, as in this standout episode showcasing the Doctor’s compassionate bond with humankind, juxtaposed with his relative obliviousness toward it. Whether he’s interacting with Earthlings or aliens who act pretty much like us, he is simultaneously a baffled cultural outsider and a savvy behavioral expert. The Lodger foregrounds that important character detail, and is notably off-format because of it. Sure, there’s an invasive threat and his companions are around, but a large chunk of it is just Eleven grappling with the tediousness of modern civilization, something that this impulsive nomad never has to deal with. The silly jokes keep the Doctor’s ennui from being too gloomy, and there’s even a now-famous guest star in it – James Corden as his likable flatmate!

            In addition to its unusually earthbound plot concerns, this is an excellent example of the show abandoning seasonal plot or character arcs and focusing on a standalone story (in this case, the goofy monster of the week). The Lodger is also laudable for its even hand with a humorous story, since Doctor Who often whiffs with pure comedy, going too broad or soft (though the Doctor’s wit typically lands). Enjoy the levity while it lasts, because with each year, the stakes for this narrative-based show necessarily get higher. DW would be wise to deflate those pretensions with an entertaining lark like this every so often.

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