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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Midnight

Midnight

“Because I’m clever!!!”

            Midnight is an extreme episode. Especially by Russell T. Davies standards; this and a couple other hours show that he can do a depressing deconstruction of the show’s whimsical universe as well as Moffat. The locked-room mystery here is fascinating, but it’s mostly an excuse for an hour-long character breakdown examining how Ten’s bravado and parental impulses can have a significant downside. The Doctor rushes into every situation with the utmost confidence that he can persevere, and sometimes his considerable power goes to his head. This poisonous savior complex leads to a dark turn for him in Midnight, when he loses sight of his benevolent goals trying to deal with an unknown threat in a claustrophobic space. It’s a rare example of the Time Lord not getting along with humans, and it’s riveting. Though she’s sidelined for the purposes of the story, new viewers can also spot Donna (Catherine Tate), the new series’ most exasperated and unflappable companion.

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Blink

Blink

“Don’t turn your back. Don’t look away. And don’t…”

            This is it. Blink is the alpha and omega for most modern TV fans and Doctor Who lovers alike. It contains most of the things the show is best known for: a unique sci-fi monster, a heartwarming sympathy for the human condition, and a whip-smart script. The one thing it (intentionally) doesn’t have much of is the Doctor and his companion. Due to budget and filming constraints, Steven Moffat was tasked with crafting an episode in the season that featured his stars as little as possible, and had some genius workarounds for such a problem. It doesn’t get enough credit for how incredibly unusual that is, and how entertaining the story remains without having them in every scene. Because of this, Blink is another high-water mark for one-shot characters, focusing on the iconic, spunky Sally Sparrow and a few memorable acquaintances around her. Yet again, the time-travel wrinkle is milked for maximum pathos and creativity (this hour is the source of the “timey-wimey ball” meme).

            Meanwhile, the monster threat here has become famous for being legitimately unsettling, a very rare feat for this show. The Weeping Angels were the first hints of a particular fascination for Moffat – what I call ‘perception monsters’. He likes to make his extraterrestrial villains more fearsome by having them prey on some sort of sense, whether it be hearing or sight or touch or what have you. They follow obtuse rules of behavior to impose on the heroes and increase tension, and they’re usually highlights of his stories. It’s quite Doctor-esque for a show to scale such storytelling heights with so few resources, and Blink is breathlessly tense as a result.

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Human Nature/The Family Of Blood

Human Nature Family of Blood

“I sometimes think how magical life would be if stories like this were true”
“Why can’t I be John Smith? Isn’t he a good man?”

           Single-episode characters in Doctor Who are, for the most part, useless cannon fodder. They can be amusing or relatable, but they generally function as benign narrative devices with sappy ‘wave-goodbye’ endings, or sketched-out victims for the threat of the week to murder or harm. Human Nature and The Family Of Blood defy that rule.

            This two-part script stands as one of DW’s best stories. Good though they may be, the show struggles to keep its plot beats going steadily for more than an hour, so two-parters are usually a tad watered-down or have one half that’s much better than the other. This typically manifests as the first half building up to a cliffhanger, whereas all the fireworks and thematic statements occur in the better second half. But this duo is an elegantly-paced arc set in Elizabethan times, complete with an unusually elaborate and moving antiwar statement.

            Like a later entry in this series, Human Nature and The Family Of Blood get their engine from juxtaposing the Doctor’s eccentric nomad ways with the patterns and needs of everyday human life. Humankind is vitally important to the Doctor, as is preserving life in general. The power of pacifism and decency over violence and animosity is the foundation of this show’s identity. With his tremendous knowledge and strict moral fortitude, the Doctor is like a British Superman, only smart instead of strong.

            There are certainly some uncomfortable racial and gender issues going on here with Martha’s side plot, but the show leans into them matter-of-factly, showing a robust and sympathetic black character being dropped into perhaps the most oppressive circumstances possible for her and rebelling against it to the extent that she can. The script wisely doesn’t belabor or explore the morality of this B-plot more than it needs to, since the star of the show is Mr. Smith.

            Due to mysterious circumstances, the Doctor becomes mortal for this adventure, and has to reckon with what that means. He finds love that matters to him in the long term, recognizes the flaws and belligerence of mankind, and has to make a devastating choice about whether he even wants his existence as a Time Lord. Behind the Doctor’s bluster hides a damaged and haunted individual. Ten handled this side of the performance better than most, and reconciling those human and extraordinary impulses here may make for his finest work.

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Smith And Jones

Smith and Jones

“Real proper aliens”

        On the flip side, season openers of Doctor Who can sometimes gain a sense of auspiciousness, especially when they introduce a new Doctor, companion or showrunner. Though it only faces one of those obstacles, Smith And Jones sets things off right with a captivating story hook that retains the show’s friendliness and campy, imaginative qualities. DW season premieres are often flashy, ambitious affairs. In this case, young and ambitious doctor Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) teams up with the Doctor very organically against a threat that’s just big and serious enough to have some weight. (This is a great initiation for Martha, a practical and decisive heroine who isn’t merely reduced to “action girl” stereotypes.)

            The quick pace of the episode is due to a common DW trope of the invasion story mold, wherein our travelers are impeded or trapped by a threat and have to figure out their circumstances and strategy on the fly. Since the Doctor doesn’t necessarily go looking for trouble, the show goes to this well quite a bit. Much like in a crime procedural, he has to deduce clues and make peace during these sieges, while trying to reduce civilian casualties as the situation begins to resolve. Compared to other premieres that struggle under all the character exposition or setting up of long plot arcs, Smith and Jones is elegant, entertaining and refreshingly standalone.

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Doomsday

Doomsday

“This is the last story I’ll ever tell”

            Doctor Who is influential because it was both a genre show and an anthology show, before that combination was popular. With such a long lifespan and endless canvas for experimentation, it can ditch, retcon or reference any earlier canon that it wants, and it has utilized this freedom many times. After the advent of TV’s recent golden age and DW’s move away from multi-episode self-contained arcs, it adopted the popular format of seasonal arcs. These yearlong background stories are inconsistent, but follow a familiar pattern. Usually there are fitful threads through each mostly unrelated episode, until the endgame where the threat comes to the forefront. Davies’ season enders are unwieldy and sappy, but some have very affecting endings. Moffat’s are ambitious and superficially exciting, but sometimes implode from their own impersonal complications.

            Much of the season two finale, Doomsday, is your average hyper-campy world invasion story, which happens every so often on DW given its scope. It’s typical fanciful Davies stuff. The situation is stock enough that the first part of this two-parter is fine but not necessary (an online episode recap would suffice). Despite boundless freedom for shenanigans, the core villains tend to survive and repeat, and this is a good example, as Daleks once again threaten earth.

            Before I get ahead of myself, I should address the new actor. Here’s the thing: the early days of the show back in the 60s found an in-universe way to continue a creatively successful property even when lead actors left. That strategy is called regeneration. When a Time Lord is mortally wounded (or in other ambiguous circumstances) they respawn, so to speak, as a different-looking individual with some semblance of the same memories and personality. It would follow that the prolonged Doctor would find new humans to pal around with beyond the initial group, so new companions come and go periodically. Such traditions allow for flexibility with the character and his aesthetic without totally breaking continuity, while providing supporting players to bounce off him. These people bond in their own way with the aloof alien, facilitate important sci-fi exposition, and give an outsider perspective on events. Furthermore, such changings of the guard have built-in stakes and resonance, as change and loss are constant on a show with so many emotional attachments. The Doctor has thus far had twelve incarnations (excluding a false alarm mulligan and an interstitial one-off; don’t ask), typically referred to by their number.

            Anyway, back to the episode. I figured that this show would move in a certain way, and in Doomsday, it didn’t, making for one of the new series’ best finales. The ending is a beautiful climactic payoff, especially given how dashing and friendly Ten is most of the time. In fact, for most of the episode he’s his usual charming self, which the writers had already nailed down. More than anything, this hour cuts to the quick with the show’s emotional potency.

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