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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Amy’s Choice

Amy's Choice

“Why do dreams have to fade so quickly?”

            Back in the Billie Piper era, I said that companions are the masterstroke of Doctor Who’s formula, and that bears repeating. More so than the villains or weekly story premises, they offer a distinct tone and conflicts, and keep the show refreshed along with the Doctor’s various regenerations. As with anything that upsets the status quo, each one has their supporters and detractors among fans.

            Anything can happen on Doctor Who, yet the fantasy only matters when it has fully-fleshed characters to happen to. The Doctor is essentially beyond real damage or threat, but the ordinary people under his care provide the stakes, the heart, and an audience for him to monologue exposition at. Sometimes, the show will ground its adventures when their lives or happiness are threatened. This fantastic trippy episode delves into the subtext of all three characters’ perceptions of one another, and gives insight to the Ponds’ relationship. Amy’s Choice is also a great showcase for the mild-mannered heroics of Rory Pond, who did some deceptively cool stuff in his time on the show.

            Moffat had a few troubling pet themes and issues which would wear down his work over time, such as complex reality puzzles, women as plot points rather than free agents, and the Doctor increasingly detaching from humanity. But here such inadequacies are presented with an ounce of caution and taken for what they are. This tastefulness also leads to an examination of what passes for normalcy and happiness among the companions of a time traveler. Do they ever get a happy ending? What is their reward? Is a mere human life good enough after you’ve seen the stars?

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The Eleventh Hour

The Eleventh Hour

“Amy Pond, there’s something you better understand about me… I am definitely a madman with a box”

            Honestly, the other entries in this feature don’t need to exist. Beyond mythology, continuity, character development and personal preference, there is only one place to start watching modern Doctor Who if you want to get into it. The Eleventh Hour is the first episode I saw (which kept me marathoning for a while), the premiere of the show’s best season, and a wonderful beginner’s guide on its own.

            Eleven (Matt Smith) gets some of the most charming, memorable establishing character moments I’ve ever seen in this episode. His exhilarating introduction signals this Doctor’s desire to develop a thick skin and forget about all the terrible things he’s done, eventually developing into a persona of reckless callousness and outsized wackiness, which some fans dislike.

            This story also introduces two of the most beloved companions in the show’s run, Amy and Rory Pond (Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill). Having romantically involved regulars beside our favorite Time Lord expanded the narrative and emotional possibilities of Doctor Who, along with adding a subtextual pseudo-love triangle at times.

            In defiance of the show’s issues with seasonal arcs, The Eleventh Hour kicks off its most successful overarching story. The balance between serialization and episodic stories is something Moffat and Davies both struggled with, but season five nails that ratio. Each episode works on its own, but has something to contribute to the larger tale.

            As I mentioned, this hour almost functions as a reboot in and of itself, with lots of backstory being referenced, a post-regeneration clean slate with new companions, and a bunch of behind-the-scenes technical upgrades. Season five adopts a sort of fairy tale tone, which works really well. Lastly, it’s the first episode with Steven Moffat as showrunner, a position he will finally vacate in 2018.

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