If you love Doctor Who like I do, you naturally want to turn other people onto what is, without a doubt, the greatest science fiction television show ever. Of course, you do this by explaining the show and all of its basic points (alien… time machine… regeneration… fifty years… etc) and, if you succeed in hooking a possible new Whovian (or a “newvian,” if you will), the inevitable question will come up:
Fifty years, over 200 serials… where does one begin?
That’s a question I faced when I first started watching the show in 2005. True, since I was starting my Whovian experience with the Eccelston era, I felt no real need to go back to the first episode in the classic era and watch each episode in order. That would’ve been maddening! What if your local video store doesn’t have the one you want; do you just wait? What about episodes that haven’t been released yet or are lost? And it would take years just to get to Tom Baker. Sure that’s the way everybody experienced it in the 1960s and 1970s, but some of those people aren’t alive anymore! If you’re gonna become a real Whovian, you’ve got to experience all the Doctors in all the eras.
As you may have guessed, I skipped all over the classic series, getting whatever episode I fancied from whatever Doctor I wanted to fly with that week. Sure, it may run havoc with continuity, but I got most of the major plot points of the classic series from Wikipedia anyway (stuff like the Third Doctor’s exile, Adric’s death, etc) so I wasn’t too thrown off by that. What I liked was each individual story as it stands on its own, plus it was fun not being locked into a certain era (Tired of Jon Pertwee? Let’s see what Colin Baker’s up to these days). So I recommend picking and choosing different adventures from different eras. Of course, this leads us back to our original question: there are so many to choose from, which should a new Whovian try first and which might best be saved for when he or she is a bit more understanding of the show’s flaws?
Here’s one Whovian’s opinion.
THE FIRST DOCTOR – WILLIAM HARTNELL (1963-1966) – Hartnell’s era was the beginning of a brand new show and, like all long-running shows, was marked by the type of uncertainty that writers and producers have when they know that they’ve got something good but haven’t quite fine tuned it yet. In the first few episodes, the 1st Doctor is something of a blackguard: he kidnaps his granddaughter’s teachers, Ian and Barbara, to keep them from telling the world about the TARDIS (making this the only time the Doctor would be a conscious alien abductor). Some of the stories drone on, trying to find that sparkle that others found so effortlessly (the historicals tended to fare worse than the futuristic tales) and it struggled to find good replacements when the original cast members elected to jump ship. But as the first Doctor Who stories, there’s a sense of adventure, of discovering something new and shiny just by doing something simple like opening the TARDIS doors or turning on your TV set. Don’t be scared off by B&W footage; this era has a lot to offer.
Set the TARDIS for: THE KEYS OF MARINUS – Somebody had a good idea: instead of trying to stretch one story out through six episodes, split the story out into a series of mini-adventures that lead up to a climax. That’s just what happens to the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan when they are recruited (by Citizen Kane’s George Couloris, no less) to gather up keys to a super weapon to save a planet from invaders. The keys are spread out all over the planet and the TARDIS crew has to solve different puzzles in different settings in each adventure. The constant change of scenery guarantees that it never gets old. Highlights include brain-creatures with eye-stalks in jars, a house of traps, a clever who-done-it, and Susan’s hysterical reaction as she watches her shoes being dissolved in a pool of acid.
Honorable Mentions: The Daleks, The Azteks, The Chase, The War Machines
Avoid like a Dalek: THE WEB PLANET – You know how people talk about the bad special effects, flimsy sets and ridiculous monster costumes that Doctor Who is known for? This episode is where that reputation comes from. This is such an embarrassing disaster that I couldn’t make it through all of the episodes. The TARDIS crew finds themselves on a planet of some kind and there are good creatures and bad creatures: the good creatures are dressed like bees (years before Belushi did it on Saturday Night Live) and the baddies are literally giant ants with human legs (or just a man with a giant, hollow, plastic ant on his back). The story is the usual mess about our heroes being caught up in a civil war and will they be trusted by the good guys before they are captured and used by the bad guys. Standard stuff, but boring, clunky (notice an ant-creature nearly knock over the cameraman in one shot) and the costumes are so ridiculous that disbelief is not only never suspended, but sinks like a stone to the bottom of the sea.
Dishonorable Mentions: The Reign Of Terror, The Ark
THE SECOND DOCTOR – PATRICK TROUGHTON (1966-1969) – It’s a crying shame that so much of the Troughton era has been lost because the truth is, had Troughton not been a credible replacement for Hartnell, the series would’ve ended and there would be no T-shirts to buy in the 21st century. He was more than a credible replacement. Somewhat dithering and cowardly, the 2nd Doctor was highly endearing and funny, eventually hitting his stride with the acquisition of his friends Jamie and Zoe. The grumpiness and irascibility of the 1st Doctor had given way to the cosmic hobo, often silly but always on the side of right. Just wish there was more of his work to sample.
Set the TARDIS for: THE WAR GAMES – In this truly epic adventure (ten episodes long), the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe find themselves in the middle of a World War I battlefield and accused of spying. Nothing new there, but when they escape and go some distance from the British lines, they find themselves in the middle of another battle… during the American Civil War. Turns out there are lot of battles going on from different Earth eras. Where have our friends ended up and who is controlling it all? The final episode is a major favorite for fans because it finally answers many of the questions they have been asking since An Unearthly Child: who is the Doctor, where is he from, and why can he not return to his home planet? We finally meet the Timelords, learn a thing or two about the Doctor’s past and motivations, and then are forced to say goodbye to the entire cast! Yes, it will take you quite a while to watch it, but it’s well worth it.
Honorable Mentions: The Tomb Of The Cybermen, The Mind Robber, The Invasion
Avoid like a Dalek: THE DOMINATORS – The worst thing about bad Doctor Who is that the plots tend to be forgettable and one wonders how such a non-descript idea could be stretched out into multiple episodes. So is the case with The Dominators. The TARDIS crew land in a wasteland and gets in the middle of murderous Dominators and their dangerous robots, the Quarks, and the pacifist population who, after a nuclear war destroyed the bulk of their planet hundreds of years ago, are unable to find the will to defend themselves against the Dominators. It is a run-of-the-mill story with stupid costumes on both sides and silly robots that were an obvious attempt by the writers to create a new creature reminiscent of the Daleks.
Dishonorable Mention: The Seeds Of Death.
THE THIRD DOCTOR – JON PERTWEE (1970-1974) – Shot in color and with interiors shot on videotape, the third doctor’s era took things in a different direction. At the end of The War Games, the time lords exiled the Doctor to earth for the foreseeable future and forced him to regenerate. Now looking like Jon Pertwee, the Doctor is lucky enough to attach himself to UNIT, a military force that was tasked with dealing with the alien menace headed by Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. The Doctor could keep having adventures and use UNIT equipment to fix his TARDIS. While these are good changes, Pertwee’s era does feel stilted from time to time. The fact that the Doctor is stuck on Earth and that the danger must come to him means that Earth is constantly being invaded, which seems a bit ridiculous after a while (even if one of the constant invaders is the newly-invented character The Master). It didn’t take long for the writers to realize that the Doctor would have to be released from his exile and allowed to go exploring if the show was going to remain fresh. Plus Pertwee’s interpretation of the role abandoned Troughton’s light-hearted approach, often making the Doctor look humorless. But there was some humor and there was definitely action from the white-haired though still-virile leading man. Unfortunately, the untimely death of Roger Delgado scuttled Master stories for the time being and Pertwee jumped ship in 1974.
Set the TARDIS for: THE THREE DOCTORS – Now it may seem like I’m cheating with this one because part of this episode’s charm is tied-up with it being the first multi-doctor episode (and it is great to see Pertwee and Troughton clashing as past and present Doctors). But the enjoyment factor of this episode just cannot be denied. The story gives us even more information concerning the Doctor’s home planet of Gallifrey and the Time Lords. An anti-matter beam strikes Earth and the Doctor is pulled into a universe of complete anti-matter, there confronting Omega, the Time Lord who supposedly sacrificed himself to give his people the technology of time travel. Omega is a lunatic and wants to his escape his anti-matter world. Knowing the dangers of this, the Time Lords pull the second and first Doctors out of their own timelines for help (Hartnell, extremely ill at the time, has his Doctor trapped between time streams and can only advise the others). The story is funny and exciting, and has the Doctors ingeniously outwitting Omega. At when it ends, the Time Lords release the Doctor from exile, promising more off-world adventures to come.
Honorable Mentions: Ambassadors Of Death, Inferno, The Curse Of Peladon, The Green Death, The Time Warrior, Death To The Daleks
Avoid like a Dalek: INVASION OF THE DINOSAURS – This one hurts. They tried so hard to make this work and there is a lot going for it: The Doctor and Sarah Jane return to Earth from an extended trip and find that London is practically empty. What happened? And why is there a dinosaur suddenly appearing in front of them. The initial mystery is a good one and the evil plan, an attempt by zealots to preserve a small group of survivors before destroying the world and starting again fresh, has been done a million times (starting with the story of Noah and the Great Flood) but it still works. It even has a great betrayal scene by one of the regular cast members. What it doesn’t have is what the title promises: believable dinosaurs. Invasion Of The Dinosaurs is neck and neck with The Web Planet for most ridiculous monster. Here we get rubber dinosaurs wiggling about and attacking each other (in a laugh-out-loud moment, one hits another with his rubber tail). If they could’ve found a way to write the story without the dinosaurs, this could’ve been a winner. It would be nearly forty years before Doctor Who got believable dinosaurs (in the Eleventh Doctor episode Dinosaurs On A Spaceship) and any Whovians who were also looking for a little prehistoric fun would have to wait a long time.
Dishonorable Mentions: Spearhead From Space, The Claws of Axos.
THE FOURTH DOCTOR – TOM BAKER (1974-1981) – Much of what most fans enjoy about Doctor Who sprang up during the seven-year tenure of Tom Baker. He was immediately fun and endearing with his long coat, curly hair, bugged eyes and unforgettably long scarf. Although the fourth doctor would take part in a few UNIT stories, he was more interested in taking Sarah Jane to new worlds and he would eventually leave UNIT to their own devices almost completely. The length of Baker’s tenure meant that he had more opportunities than his predecessors to make good episodes, but likewise also gave him more opportunities to make bad ones as well. Thankfully, there were enough good episodes to give the overall impression that Baker’s era was mostly a winner, which is incredible considering the multiple changes in the creative staff during those seven years. Picking the best of the best (and the worst of the worst) isn’t easy.
Set the TARDIS for: HORROR OF FANG ROCK – My personal favorite Tom Baker adventures finds the Doctor and Leela dropping by a lighthouse that’s having a bit of trouble keeping the lamp lit. In no time at all, a ship runs aground and the passengers must take refuge in the lighthouse, which wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that the lighthouse seems to be the center of a Routan invasion. While I admit that the design of the Routan invader leaves a lot to be desired, it is not onscreen for very long and we instead have interesting characters, good dialog, a creepy setting and death seemingly around every corner (except lighthouses don’t have corners). Louise Jameson is terrific as Leela, threatening to cut out a man’s heart and gloating over a dying Routan. The total of innocent bystanders who fall to the creature is astonishing; the Doctor and Leela are lucky to escape with their lives. And then there’s that moment when the Doctor realizes that he hasn’t locked the creature out but has locked themselves in with it. Great stuff.
Honorable Mentions: Genesis Of The Daleks, The Brain Of Morbius, The Deadly Assassin, The Talons Of Weng-Chiang, The Image Of Fendahl, the Key To Time series, City Of Death, The Keeper Of Traken, Logopolis
Avoid like a Dalek: STATE OF DECAY – Never has an episode of Doctor Who been so aptly named. To be fair, the entire E-Space trilogy, of which State of Decay is the second adventure, is rubbish, but this is as bad as that series got. The TARDIS is stuck in a universe known as “E-Space” and the Doctor and Romana are trying to get back to their own world (not knowing they have a young stowaway, Adric, on board). They land on a planet with a feudal society where villagers are given up as sacrifice to the lords in the castle, who turn out to be alien/vampire creatures. Sure it sounds good, but it’s boring as Hell. The performances of the three villains are never engaging and so the whole thing just plods along until the resolution which, as usual, involves the TARDIS crew rousing the oppressed population to fight for their freedom. And all we’re left with is a new companion we’re not sure we wanted and the knowledge that we’ll have to sit through another adventure (Warrior’s Gate, which isn’t much better) before we can get out of E-Space.
Dishonorable Mentions: The Android Invasion, The Hand Of Fear, The Robots Of Death, The Invisible Enemy, Destiny Of The Daleks, The Leisure Hive, Full Circle, Warrior’s Gate.
THE FIFTH DOCTOR – PETER DAVISON (1981-1984) – Casting an actor as young and as suave as Davison as the 5th Doctor was a clear signal to the show’s fans that times were changing, whether they liked it or not. And there is much to like about Davison and the years he spent as the Doctor: he played the part with ease and good humor, ready with either a cricket ball or a sonic screwdriver to save the day. Whatever problems of his time as the Doctor can mostly be laid at the feet of the stories he was given and, rather unfortunately, the load of companions that he carted around the universe. Not since the first two years had there been so many people on board the TARDIS and the crew tended to challenge the writers’ abilities for finding them things to do. Oftentimes, at least one companion (usually the pretty though emotionless Nyssa) was sitting out the action simply because there wasn’t enough story to contain them. Still, there was diversity in both the TARDIS crew and the story-telling style of the Davison years and there are certainly a few of his adventures that no Whovian should miss.
Set the TARDIS for: THE CAVES OF ANDROZANI – The 5th Doctor saves the best for last. The Doctor and Peri find themselves on a seemingly barren planet, blunder into a toxic nest that gives them hours to live and are then mistaken as gun-runners by an army defending itself from a mad/genius rebel and sent to the firing squad. And that’s just episode one! The writing in this episode is spot-on perfect, with more intrigue and double-crosses than Casablanca and great characterizations all around, especially the scarred, revenge-seeking rebel who takes a shine to Peri. The Caves Of Androzani is a masterly-plotted adventure, with seemingly no way out for our heroes, yet the Doctor finds a way, as he always does. And the episode ends with the Doctor’s self-sacrifice for a friend (all the best regeneration contain an element of the Doctor giving his life to save another). Truly one of the great episodes not just of Davison’s era, but in Whostory.
Honorable Mentions: Castrovalva, Earthshock, Mawdryn Undead, Terminus, Enlightenment, The Five Doctors.
Avoid like a Dalek: THE VISITATION – Good golly, what a waste of good videotape! Bad tempered Tegan demands to be taken to Heathrow airport so she can start her first day as an air hostess and the Doctor does… 300 years early. They wander about, meet a charming highwayman (a good performance by Michael Robbins, wasted in this garbage), discover that aliens have landed and are trying to invade, blah, blah, blah. We’ve seen it all before. And this adventure is a perfect example of the writers being unable to sustain more main characters in the narrative: Nyssa is sent back to the TARDIS to ready a weapon, which thankfully puts her out of commission for a while without anyone asking too many questions. At the end of it all, the Doctor accidentally starts the Great Fire of London. So what? Time to move on.
Dishonorable Mentions: Time-Flight, Ark Of Infinity, The Awakening, Frontios
THE SIXTH DOCTOR – COLIN BAKER (1984-1986) – I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I like Colin Baker’s controversial era as the Doctor and much of the episodes that he performed in. Many of the general public did not fancy his egotistical image, his constant bickering with Peri, or his outlandish multi-colored costume. While the costume is not easy to look at, I prefer to see Baker’s Doctor as a new version of William Hartnell’s Doctor, who was also not the easiest man to love or get along with. Unfortunately, Baker interpretation (though not solely his fault as he was doing what the scripts told him to do), did not find a lot of sympathy with viewers and the show was nearly canceled. After a hiatus for more than a year, the show returned with an epic story The Trial Of A Time Lord, surpassing the scope of The War Games (fourteen episodes to War Games’ ten). Sadly, the prevailing impression of Baker’s Doctor could not be undone and, although the show was saved, Baker was dismissed. It’s a shame because there was much to like (and some to love) from those two tumultuous series.
Set the TARDIS for: THE TRIAL OF A TIME LORD – You want scope? We’ll give you scope. The Doctor finds himself back on Gallifrey with no understanding of how he got there or what happened to Peri. He instead finds himself on trial for breaking the first Time Lord law: interference with events (much like the 2nd Doctor faced in The War Games). But the stakes are higher here and the Doctor finds himself defending his life. The series encompasses three separate adventures of the Doctor’s: two provided by the prosecutor, the Valeyard (The Mysterious Planet and Mind warp), and one that the Doctor provides in his defense (Terror Of The Vervoids). It’s all wrapped up by a final two-episode adventure (The Ultimate Foe) that sees the Doctor battling his most dangerous foe: himself. Individually, the four adventures are all good, though some are better than others. The Mysterious Planet gives us some good, old fashioned Doctor Who story-telling (nothing to write home about) while Mind warp and Terror Of The Vervoids is high quality adventure (Mind warp may be a bit confusing, but it gives us a great performance by Brian Blessed and an incredible ending). Ultimately, these fourteen episodes saved the program, if not Colin Baker’s job, and for that alone they should be treasured.
Honorable Mentions: Attack Of The Cybermen, Vengeance On Vakros, The Mark Of The Rani, The Two Doctors.
Avoid like a Dalek: THE TWIN DILEMMA – Colin Baker’s tenure got off to a rocky start. Unstable after his regeneration, the Doctor attempts to throttle Peri and then decides that he must live as a hermit to keep the universe safe from himself (taking Peri along with him, strangely enough). Not long into his hermitting, he becomes embroiled in an adventure involving two genius twins who are being forced to work with an evil being. The story isn’t bad – kidnapped geniuses that need to be rescued before they are forced to do evil deeds – but we must sit through footage of the Doctor often being cowardly or turning on Peri before he finally comes to himself again. It isn’t a lot of fun to watch.
Dishonorable Mentions: Timelash, Revelation Of The Daleks.
THE SEVENTH DOCTOR – SYLVESTER MCCOY (1987-1989) – If Colin Baker’s doctor was (theoretically) a throw-back to the crusty and somewhat snide portrayal by William Hartnell, than Sylvester McCoy’s portrayal recalls the days of Patrick Troughton and the cosmic hobo. McCoy may seem silly sometimes, with his short-stature, rubbery face and question mark jumper, but he proved to be a formidable force against the powers of universal evil, especially in his last year. He can seem positively cold at times, whether he is facing off Davros or trying to teach Ace a hard lesson. McCoy has been unjustly blamed for the cancellation of the series in 1989 – he was the one caught holding the hot potato – but the truth was that the series had grown tired with age and the powers that be at the BBC just didn’t want it hanging around anymore. Maybe a good, long rest was just the thing that the series needed.
Set the TARDIS for: REMEMBRANCE OF THE DALEKS – After a very low quality first year (due to bad scripts), McCoy’s tenure took off with a bang in this, the last Dalek episode of the classic series. The Doctor and Ace return to Earth in 1963 to the Coal Hill School where the original series began. Apparently, Hartnell’s doctor was working on a little scheme that was interrupted by Ian and Barbara and it’s taken him all this time to resume it (this stretches credibility since the 1st Doctor presumably didn’t know anything about Daleks or Davros at the time, but it’s still quite a nifty idea). There, the Doctor discovers that he has to deal with two armies of Daleks pitted against each other and traitorous humans who unwisely aid the Daleks in hopes of reshaping society their way (a scenario we’ve seen before, but it’s always satisfying to see these fools get their comeuppance). In her first real adventure as a companion, Ace is fantastic and her character is endearing (she crashes through windows and beats up a Dalek with a baseball bat). Yes, the seams do show at times, but it’s great fun nevertheless.
Honorable Mentions: Silver Nemesis, The Greatest Show In The Galaxy, Battlefield, Ghost Light, Survival
Avoid like a Dalek: PARADISE TOWERS – Egad, that first year of McCoy’s didn’t go too well, did it? Many lay the blame at the feet of Bonnie Langford who, as Mel, had a scream that could shatter teeth. But Mel was perfectly fine backing up the 6th Doctor (albeit only during the second half of Trial Of A Time Lord). No, the real problem was the image that the producer, John Nathan-Turner, wanted McCoy to project and the tone of the scripts. All of the 7th Doctor/Mel adventures are silly and Paradise Towers is the absolute worst of the bunch. And that’s too bad because the basic concept is sound: the Doctor and Mel go to an apartment complex with a pool so Mel can do some swimming, only to find that the residents have devolved into a society of warring factions. Sounds interesting, right? Too bad that whole thing is just so goofy from the performances (especially a mugging Richard Briers in a gumby moustache) to the situations (Mel gets attacks by the machine that cleans the bottom of the pool, apparently). The whole thing plods along, getting sillier and sillier, making less and less sense, with hardly a laugh to be found and certainly no thrills.
Dishonorable Mentions: Time And The Rani, Delta And The Bannermen, The Happiness Patrol
THE EIGHTH DOCTOR – PAUL MCGANN (1996) – Meet the Doctor who just didn’t get a chance to shine. In 1996, American producers acquired partial rights to the series and, along with the BBC, produced a television film that was meant to be a pilot for a new series of episodes. The film did great in Britain, but America passed and so did the opportunities for Paul McGann as the new Doctor on TV. True, with McGann as the last Doctor standing from 1996 until the series’ return in 2005, he found a good and long career as the Doctor in audio adventures and was finally given a chance to reprise his character on television in the 50th anniversary mini-episode The Night Of The Doctor. But watching the film now brings a sense of loss; McGann would’ve been a great Doctor and could’ve easily performed the scripts given to Christopher Eccleston in 2005. As such, this entry is going to be relatively simple: you either like the film or you don’t, and so…
Set the TARDIS for: DOCTOR WHO: THE MOVIE – Yes, there is a lot in this film that can only be described as a mess: the doctor being half-human (a detail wisely forgotten later), Eric Roberts’ monstrous-one-moment-and-campy-the-next performance, and an ending that doesn’t particularly make much sense no matter how much you think about it. But any episode that features a new Doctor is really only about one thing: what’s the new guy like. McGann is terrific, even with his wig and Wild Bill Hickok costume. He’s inquisitive, funny, cheerful, passionate and fun to be with. Equally good is Daphne Ashbrook as Grace Holloway, the surgeon that would’ve made a great long-term companion. The plot isn’t bad: the Master’s essence damages the TARDIS and forces it to crash land on Earth just before New Years’ Eve 1999. The 7th Doctor is shot and then is accidentally killed on the operating table by Grace, only to regenerate in the morgue. While he endeavors to get his head straight, the Master tricks an Asian punk into helping him steal the rest of the Doctor’s remaining regenerations. There’s chases, jokes, thrills and plenty heart, not to mention a pre-Mad TV Will Sasso as a freaked out morgue orderly. It’s not perfect, but it’s definitely a worthy chapter in the long history that is Doctor Who.
Honorable Mentions: The Night Of The Doctor
THE NINTH DOCTOR – CHRISTOPHER ECCLESTON (2005) – With the series finally back on the air, the BBC went with a fresh new approach: new Doctor, new companion, but NOT a reboot. Eccleston’s Doctor is still traveling the universe, looking for thrills and fun, but with one important change: Gallifrey has been destroyed. It would take a full eight years to learn the full story about the fate of Gallifrey and the Doctor’s role in it, but this changed the character from a happy-go-lucky renegade to a man without a home. And a battle-scarred one, at that. Eccleston plays the part well, but never abandons the goofy fun that the Doctor has always been. Eccleston’s tenure would last only one series, thirteen episodes, but, like Patrick Troughton before him, his abilities in the role were crucial: had he failed, the new series would’ve died on the vine. The success of the 2005 series led to the David Tennant era and the cementing of the series as a viable, 21st century television staple.
Set the TARDIS for: THE EMPTY CHILD/THE DOCTOR DANCES – This two-part adventure is the pinnacle of the 2005 series and marks the rise of the show’s eventual producer, Stephen Moffat, who wrote the episodes. In a genuinely terrifying historical episode, the Doctor and Rose land in London during the Blitz, but German bombs are the least of their problems. Somewhere in the night is a child with a scar on his hand and wearing a gasmask, eternally asking, “Are you my Mummy?” His touch means death… of a sort. This creepy episode, set entirely at night, also introduces a new character to the Whoniverse, the dashing Captain Jack Harkness, who would go to star in his own spin-off series Torchwood. There isn’t a wasted moment in these two episodes: we have Rose clinging to a barrage balloon, a terrifying part one cliffhanger and crackerjack quips from the smarmy Captain Jack. This must not be missed.
Honorable Mentions: The End Of The World, Dalek, The Long Game, Father’s Day, Bad Wolf, The Parting Of The Ways
Avoid like a Dalek: BOOMTOWN – The only real dud in the 2005 series is this cheapo episode that continues the story of World War III for one more unnecessary episode. The Doctor, Rose and Captain Jack land in modern-day Cardiff to refuel and, after hooking up with Rose’s boyfriend Mickey, come across the last remaining Slitheen on Earth, Margaret Blaine. She’s easily captured and her evil plan easily foiled, but the bulk of the episode is about Margaret trying to talk the Doctor out of taking her back to her home planet (don’t ask me to spell it) where she will be put to death, while Rose and Mickey try and fail to hammer out the problems in their relationship. While the character work between Rose and Mickey is good (and will come back into play when Mickey becomes a companion), the main plot just doesn’t work. When Margaret asks the TARDIS crew “Just how are you better than me,” they all look down awkwardly rather than point out than none of them have tried to destroy a planet full of people twice (well… the Doctor fought in the time war, but we don’t know much about that yet). The episode could succeed if Margaret could make a good argument, but she can’t: the pregnant woman she spared would’ve been killed along with her unborn baby once Margaret’s plans went into motion. In the end, a TARDIS deux a machina allows the Doctor to sidestep his dilemma and the three time travelers take off for the series finale. Boomtown wasn’t meant to be much more than a cheap placeholder, but that doesn’t make it any easier to watch.
THE TENTH DOCTOR – DAVID TENNANT (2006-2010) – What happens when you hire a young actor who was a rabid fan of the show as a child to play the Doctor? You get a performance filled with more energy than has ever been seen before. Tennant’s Doctor was funny, energetic, tough, angry, guilt-ridden and almost beyond control and his four years in the role were almost entirely without peer. The era ran the gamut of emotions: funny (New Earth, Partners In Crime), scary (Midnight, Blink), exciting (Age Of Steel, Tooth And Claw) and touching (School Reunion, Doomsday). The writing, acting, production and character arcs were all superb, and sitting on top of it all was David Tennant, the Doctor who could fix the universe with a cup of tea and a Betamax. There was nothing this Doctor couldn’t do, including fail in the ratings.
Set the TARDIS for: THE IMPOSSIBLE PLANET/THE SATAN PIT –The ultimate Doctor and Rose episodes. Our heroes land on a planet that can’t possibly exist: it is in orbit around a black hole and a group of astronauts are trying to find the reason. The TARDIS is lost and, with no hope of escape, the Doctor and Rose have to work with the crew to discover the nature of the creature that is possessing the Ood workforce and sending them on a killing spree. This two-part episode is not only exciting but it gives us a group of new characters who are realistic people: they all have their problems and motivations and are all likable. It is truly upsetting when they start getting killed off and this leads to the suspense. The episode also allows Rose to grow as a character; once separated from the Doctor, she must be the Doctor in his place and motivate the rest of the crew to think and fight their way out of their predicament. And finally, we get that wonderful sequence at the bottom of the pit, when the Doctor confronts the beast (a breath-taking CGI creation in an episode filled with equally-good practical and makeup-created creatures). After all this turmoil, the moment when an explosion knocks the Doctor up against something that turns out to be the TARDIS is a cheer-out-loud moment. It is the best two episodes in a sea of great episodes.
Honorable Mentions: New Earth, School Reunion, The Girl In The Fireplace, Rise Of The Cybermen, The Age Of Steel, Army Of Ghosts, Doomsday, The Runaway Bride, Smith And Jones, The Shakespeare Code, Human Nature, The Family Of Blood, Blink, The Sound Of Drums, Last Of The Time Lords, Voyage Of The Damned, Partners In Crime, Planet Of The Ood, Silence In The Library, Forests Of The Dead, Midnight, The Stolen Earth, Journey’s End, Planet Of The Dead, The End Of Time
Avoid like a Dalek: DALEKS IN MANHATTAN/EVOLUTION OF THE DALEKS – Well, you can’t get it right all the time. Most fans tend to put either Love And Monsters or Fear Her as their pick for worst Tennant episode, but for me, this two-parter is the winner. The Doctor and Martha travel to depression-era New York and discover that the construction of the Empire State Building has been overseen by the last four Daleks in the universe, who want to use the building as an energy converter to convert hundreds of humans into Daleks. Not a bad idea, but not a great one either. The episode is hampered by some shaky performances, especially the newly evolved villain who must speak in Dalek speech patterns. Worse is the pig slaves, captured humans turned into bi-ped oinkers to do slave labor; it’s just plain stupid, as is the one good pig slave, Lazlo, who loves his showgirl from afar. The human/dalek hybrid isn’t anything to write home about (it’s silly looking) and the entire ridiculousness of plot keeps the viewer from getting involved. On top of that, it goes on for two episodes. Nice try, but forget it.
Dishonorable Mentions: Love And Monsters, Fear Her, The Next Doctor
THE ELEVENTH DOCTOR – MATT SMITH (2011-2014) – The changing of the guards in 2011 involved more than just the regeneration of the 10th Doctor into the 11th. The show was in the hands of writer Stephen Moffat and its tone and style changed (as it did so many times in the past). Less emphasis was placed on the companions’ backstories and more time was spent building the immediate relationships the Doctor had with his new friends. As for the Doctor himself, Matt Smith exuded a funny though strange ambiance in his energetic performance: of all the actors of had played the Doctor, this one was definitely from another planet. He talked fast, flapped his arms around, dressed oddly and didn’t care what people thought of him (forever insisting that bowties and fezzes were cool). But beneath all the strangeness, his vulnerabilities lay in his deep feelings for the four friends (Amy, Rory, River & Clara) that he would invite into his world, and that’s what made him human.
Set the TARDIS for: THE DOCTOR’S WIFE – Though misleadingly named, The Doctor’s Wife is another of those episodes that explore the backstory and basic concepts of Doctor Who, in this case, the Doctor’s relationship with the TARDIS. The Doctor, Amy and Rory are tricked into visiting a different universe when the Doctor believes that there might be another Time Lord there. Instead, he finds a few odd people, one of whom is a crazy woman called Idris who talks practical gibberish and calls the Doctor her “thief,” and an intelligent being whose deep voice resonates from the heart of the planet called “House.” Too late, the Doctor realizes what’s going on: House feeds on TARDIS energy, but in order to do so, he must delete it’s intelligence and stick it in a human – Idris is the TARDIS. When House locks Amy and Rory in the TARDIS and hijacks it, it’s up to the Doctor and Idris to find a way to reach them and defeat House. What this episode gives us, of course, is a voice to the TARDIS. The banter between the Doctor and Idris is hilarious (“Do you have a name?” “800 years of time travel and finally he asks.”) and touching (“You stole me… and I stole you!”). The concept that the TARDIS wanted to see the universe and chose the Doctor to take her because he was the only Time Lord mad enough to do it deepens the story of Doctor Who straight to its core level; it means the Doctor was never truly alone in his adventures. On top of that, for the first time in the series we get more footage of the interior of the TARDIS as Amy and Rory are chased through the corridors by House’s presence (we even get to see the 10th Doctor’s old control room). This is an exciting, funny, thought-provoking episode that, in its final scenes, will bring tears to the eyes. As written by fantasy writer Neil Gaiman, The Doctor’s Wife is perfect Who.
Honorable Mentions: The Eleventh Hour, The Lodger, The Pandorica Opens, The Big Bang, A Christmas Carol, The Impossible Astronaut, The Day Of The Moon, A Good Man Goes To War, The Girl Who Waited, Asylum Of The Daleks, The Bells Of St. John, The Rings Of Akhaten, The Crimson Horror, The Name of The Doctor, The Time of The Doctor.
Avoid like a Dalek: THE REBEL FLESH/THE ALMOST PEOPLE – Good Lord! If it wasn’t for the last five minutes of The Almost People, which contains a major plot device that leads into the next episode, the terrific A Good Man Goes To War, one could skip these two episodes entirely. A good idea about whether a man-made creation actually has sentience and emotions – and therefore a right to life – is so badly mishandled that one can hardly view these two episodes without squirming in discomfort. A solar storm deposits the Doctor, Amy and Rory on Earth in the not-too-distant future, where a crew of five are mining for acid (don’t ask, I have no idea what acid is doing underground) in a creepy old castle (again, don’t ask). The crew protect themselves by using synthetic flesh avatars to do the dangerous work; if the flesh is splashed with acid, it simply melts and the engineer is safe. However, a second solar storm imbues the flesh with independent thought and actions. Now there’s two of everyone and the copies (called “gangers”) are demanding their rights. Sounds good, huh? Too bad that nearly all of the supporting characters are phoning in their performances and the script doesn’t give them much to work with. A compelling idea can be sold only with compelling characters, and these ain’t them. You can see the difference when the Doctor himself is copied; the scenes of Matt Smith acting with himself are funny, fascinating and the one and only reason to watch The Almost People – none of the other double acts ever come close. The script also wimps out in the end; the whole problem started with both humans and gangers demanding rights to their previous lives (ie. which one gets to go back home to the family), but the script conveniently has at least one of each pair killed, thus ending the conflict. It would’ve been a more compelling ending for have at least one human accept the existence of their ganger and try to find a non-violent way of co-existing. Worst of all, this story feels like it could’ve been told in just one episode; this two-part adventure has a plethora of dark scenes, people running or sneaking down brick corridors and largely unmotivated plot points (why is one character sneezing all the time and why is another character’s brain tumor mentioned?). This two-part adventure is the true nadir of Smith’s era.
Dishonorable Mentions: Victory Of The Daleks, The Hungry Earth, Cold Blood, The Curse Of The Black Spot, The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe, The Angels Take Manhattan, Hide