Ten years of new Doctor Who

On the 26th of March 2005 “Rose,” the very first episode of the revival of Doctor Who, was broadcast on BBC One.  Viewers were introduced to the Ninth Doctor played by Christopher Eccleston and Rose Tyler played by Billie Piper in a script written by new series showrunner Russell T Davies.  That was exactly ten years ago today.  Let that sink in for a moment.  Ten years.

Ninth Doctor and Rose Tyler

Yes, I almost cannot believe that it has been exactly ten years since Doctor Who made its return to television screens after more than a decade and a half absence. TEN YEARS! If you had told me back in 2004 that just a year later Doctor Who would be returning, that the new series would run more than a decade, and that it would become a gigantic mega-hit not just in Britain but in America and numerous other countries, I would have laughed in your face. Yet here we are a decade later and that is exactly what has happened. As Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor was fond of saying, “Fantastic!”

I will readily admit that the first year of the revival was wildly uneven.  But even so, it contained a few genuine classics, namely “Dalek,” “Father’s Day” and “The Empty Child” / “The Doctor Dances.”  Certainly the portrayal of the Doctor by Eccleston was brilliant.

Since then we have had David Tennant, Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi all portraying the Doctor, each bringing something unique and wonderful to the role.  We’ve also seen the final fate of Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor, the revelation of the existence of the War Doctor portrayed by veteran thespian John Hurt, and even cameos by past Doctors Peter Davison and Tom Baker.  Oh, yes, and the return of Sarah Jane Smith, played by the much loved (and now much missed) Elisabeth Sladen.

Oh, yeah, and there’s been a whole bunch of “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff,” enough to keep fans endlessly guessing… and arguing.


Obviously not every episode has been a brilliant success.  There have inevitably been a few stinkers over the past decade.  However, on the whole I believe that both Davies and his successor Steven Moffat have done good work keeping the series going, bringing it into the 21st Century.

Maybe it is just the nature of Doctor Who fans to complain, to argue “It isn’t as good as it used to be!”  But, honestly, I really do think that some of the all time greatest installments of the series have been produced within the past decade.  And I am eager to see what comes next.

So here’s to the next ten years of Doctor Who!  Geronimo, allons-y, and all that!

Doctor Who reviews: The Day of the Doctor

Whew!!!  After six long months of waiting, “The Day of the Doctor,” the 50th Anniversary Special of Doctor Who, aired today, November 23rd.  It was so very cool that it was broadcast here in the States on BBC America at the exact time it was showing on the telly on the other side of the pond.

Ever since “The Name of the Doctor” back in May, there has been a ton of speculation about who, exactly, the mysterious previously-unseen incarnation of the Doctor, played by John Hurt, really was, and why he was the Doctor’s “secret.”  Indeed, “The Day of the Doctor” dealt with exactly that.

I’m really relieved that I managed to view the mini episode that the BBC debuted online a week ago.  Every time they had one of those in the past, I’ve somehow missed them, and didn’t catch them until months later.  Which was a shame, because those short segments had some nice character material, such as the development of the Eleventh Doctor and River Song’s relationship.  But as soon as I started seeing that a bunch of people were posting links to “The Night of the Doctor” on Facebook, I decided to check it out.  And, wow, was I genuinely surprised.

Night of the Doctor McGann

“I’m a Doctor. But probably not the one you were expecting.”  Oh my god, it’s Paul McGann!  Seventeen years after his sole television outing, the Eighth Doctor returned.  I’m glad the BBC managed to keep the lid on this, because it was such a shock.  I thought McGann was brilliant in the 1996 television movie, and he’s done great work continuing as the Doctor in the Big Finish audio plays.  I’m thrilled he was given the opportunity to bring closure to the Eighth Doctor, to show how that incarnation ended.

“The Night of the Doctor” is such a brilliant inversion by Steven Moffat on the typical Doctor Who formula.  You have a set-up where the Doctor arrives to rescue Cass from her crashing spaceship.  At first it seems very similar to many other times when the Doctor gained a new companion.  But the instant she finds out that the Doctor is a Time Lord, she pulls back in horror & anger.  She literally would rather die than be saved by one of them, because of the horrific carnage that has been wrecked all across the universe in the war between the Time Lords and the Daleks.  After the ship crashes on the planet Karn (first seen in “The Brain of Morbius”) the mysterious Sisterhood is able to revive the Doctor for four minutes, and offer him a chance to select the shape & personality of his next regeneration.  And the dying Doctor, who previously refused to fight in the Time War, now believes that his inaction has prolonged the conflict and led to Cass’ death, as well as countless others.  He chooses the path of a warrior, and regenerates into John Hurt’s “War Doctor.”

As we see via his reflection at the end of “The Night of the Doctor,” the War Doctor actually started out with a young body.  By the time “The Day of the Doctor” opens, on the final day of the Time War, he is now a haggard, weary old man.  The implication is that he has been fighting for decades, perhaps centuries.  Having witnessed carnage & destruction on an inconceivable scale, the War Doctor finally vows “No more.”  He seizes the sentient Time Lord doomsday device known as the Moment.  He intends to use it to totally destroy Gallifrey and the Daleks, finally ending the Time War before all of reality is consumed by it.

Day of the Doctor promo

Arriving in a barren desert with the Moment, the War Doctor reluctantly prepares to commit genocide.  However, the Moment peers into the Doctor’s future time stream and projects an Interface in the form of Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) to communicate with him.  The Interface asks the War Doctor if he is truly certain he wants to take such an apocalyptic action and wipe out billions of lives in an instant.

Elsewhere / when, in present day London, Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) is now a school teacher at Coal Hill School, a call back to the very first episode, “An Unearthly Child,” and the characters of Ian Chesterton & Barbara Wright (when “The Day of the Doctor” opened with the original 1963 series credits, I think I made a “squee” noise or something).  Receiving a message from the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith), she zooms off on her motorcycle to meet him.  Before the two can start off on their latest trip, UNIT snatches the TARDIS by helicopter grappling hook and whisks it away to the National Gallery.  Kate Lethbridge-Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) needs the Doctor to investigate a mystery involving strange artwork hidden in the museum’s basement, paintings dating back to the reign of Elizabeth I (Joanna Page), specifically events in 1562, when the Queen was romantically involved with none other than the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant).  There’s a complicated plot afoot involving the shape-shifting Zygons, who plan to use stolen Time Lord technology to conquer the Earth.

(Tennant once commented that his favorite Doctor Who monsters from when he watched the series as a child were the Zygons, and he would have liked for his Doctor to meet them.  I’m glad he finally had that opportunity.  Besides, they were just too cool not to eventually bring back to television.)

The Moment Interface generates time fissures, bringing together the War Doctor with his two later incarnations.  The Interface wishes to show the War Doctor what sort of man he will become if he chooses to destroy the Time Lords, a man who hundreds of years later is at first constantly haunted by the death toll, and who even later is furiously struggling to forget all that, to blot out who he once was, and the terrible action he took.

I absolutely loved the interaction between Matt Smith, David Tennant, and John Hurt.  Steven Moffat scripted some superb material for them, with each version of the Doctor alternating between trying to outdo his other selves and congratulating them on their (and therefore his) brilliance.  It led to a lot of genuinely funny moments, as well as some very heartfelt ones.  Smith was his usual great self, and Tennant slipped effortlessly back into the role.  As for Hurt, he was absolutely brilliant.  As the War Doctor, he had the quality of an eccentric, rather mischievous grandfather figure, shades of the Doctor of old.  At the same time he so effectively projected this sorrowful, almost physical burden weighing him down from the long years of fighting.

Day of the Doctor Smith Tennant Hurt

Even after seeing the man (men?) he will become, the War Doctor is still ready to activate the Moment, and with a heavy heart prepares to press down on the Big Red Button… yep, it literally is a Big Red Button.  Previously, when futilely attempting to figure out how the Moment worked, he had wished for one of those, and finally the Interface provided him with just that.  The Tenth and Eleventh Doctors, having come to accept the necessity of what he / they did, are ready to activate the Moment with him, and shoulder the burden & guilt.

Clara, however, begs them to find another way.  She reminds the Eleventh Doctor of what he told her in “The Name of the Doctor,” that when he chose his name he made a promise to himself.  Now she urges him to find some way to keep that promise.  The trio of Doctors realizes that, on their own, none of them would be able to figure out how to alter time and save Gallifrey while still defeating the Daleks and ending the Time War.  But pooling all of their knowledge together, and the power of their TARDISes, they can use the aforementioned technology pilfered by the Zygons to freeze the entire planet in an instant of time and transport that into another reality (or something) leaving the billions of Dalek spaceships to obliterate themselves in their own crossfire.

Next thing you know, you have a dozen TARDISes circling the besieged Gallifrey, as every one of the past incarnations of the Doctor end up working together to enact this plan.  Did I say a dozen?  Actually it’s thirteen, as Peter Capaldi appears in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it surprise cameo as the future Twelfth Doctor.

Later on, back in 2013 at the National Gallery, the War Doctor and the Tenth Doctor both say their farewells.  They each know that when they return to their own point in the time stream, they’ll forget what happened, that they chose to try to save Gallifrey rather than destroy it, at least until they reach this moment in time as the Eleventh Doctor.  Finally on his own, the Eleventh Doctor sits, looking at a painting of the final day of the Time War, a painting alternatively known by two names, “No More” and “Gallifrey Falls.”  He wonders if he really did succeed in saving his people.  And then the museum’s eccentric curator approaches him and, referring to the painting, states that it actually has one title: “Gallifrey Falls No More.”  The Eleventh Doctor realizes that the plan worked, that somewhere his home world once more exists.  Oh, yes, and the fellow playing that odd curator is a certain Tom Baker.

All in all, I think that “The Day of the Doctor” was an excellent anniversary story, especially given time & budgetary constraints, the availability of actors (Hartnell, Troughton and Pertwee have all passed on, Eccleston was very likely not interested in participating, and everyone else  who has played the Doctor looks much older than they did back in the day), and the simple fact that if Moffat had tossed in too many elements of the past, the story might have been incoherent and collapsed under its own weight.  If you want a really great 50th anniversary story with appearances by all eleven Doctors, numerous companions, and a whole bunch of monsters, pick up the twelve issue comic book series Prisoners of Time, which I’ve blogged about a couple of times.  And if you want an anniversary story starring all of the surviving actors who played the Doctor in the classic series (Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann) there is the audio adventure “The Light at the End” out now from Big Finish.  But as far as the television format goes, I think that “The Day of the Doctor” was probably almost as good as it gets.

Day of the Doctor Zygon

Really, my only major criticism is that the plotline of the Zygon invasion is sort of left unresolved.  The Doctors force Kate Lethbridge-Stewart and the Zygons to sit down and negotiate a peaceful settlement, but we never find out the outcome of that.  I really hope that at some point in a future episode that gets addressed.  It would be interesting to see the Zygons again as, despite their typically belligerent actions, they probably aren’t truly evil (or at least not as evil as, say, the Daleks or the Master) and the only reason why they want to invade Earth is because their own planet was destroyed.

So, was it worth the wait?  Yeah, it was.  “The Day of the Doctor” was great because it demonstrated just why the Doctor is such a great hero.  Despite his many flaws, he tries to use intelligence instead of violence to solve problems, and he genuinely wants to preserve life instead of destroying it.  He’s seen the worst that the universe has to offer, and he still does his best to remain true to his principals.  And, yes, unfortunately sometimes the Doctor fails.  Sometimes he ends up in a no-win situation where he either cannot save the day or he has to compromise his morals in order to save the most lives.  But afterwards he always resolves to try harder next time, to be a better person in the future.

Here’s to the next fifty years of Doctor Who.

Doctor Who reviews: Dalek

When Doctor Who was revived in 2005 after a lengthy cancellation, that first new series overseen by Russell T Davies was somewhat uneven, as he and his collaborators appeared to be finding their feet.  In particular, I was very underwhelmed by the two part story “Aliens of London” / “World War Three,” which felt padded out, and featured the ridiculous monsters known as the Slitheen.  However, the show immediately rebounded with the next episode, “Dalek,” written by Robert Shearman.

Arriving via the TARDIS in an underground complex, the Doctor and Rose Tyler, played by Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper, discover a museum of alien artifacts owned by Henry van Statten, a wealthy industrialist portrayed by Corey Johnson.  Among van Statten’s collection is one living organism, a creature he has named the “Metaltron.”  A horrified Doctor immediately recognizes this being for what it truly is, a member of his oldest, most bitter enemies, the Daleks.

Throughout the previous five episodes of Series One, the Doctor has dropped tantalizing hints concerning something called the Time War, a catastrophic conflict that decimated untold worlds across the universe, and left him the sole surviving member of his race, the Time Lords.  Now we finally find out who the Time War was fought against: the Daleks.  And the Doctor reveals that he was forced to destroy the entire Dalek race in order to bring the apocalyptic bloodshed to an end.

Eccleston is absolutely amazing as the Doctor in “Dalek.”  It is startling to watch the Doctor, normally so self-assured, instantly react with such primal fear upon seeing the Dalek in van Statten’s museum.  Once the Doctor realizes the Dalek is helpless, this terror is even more shockingly replaced by venomous anger, as the Doctor begins taunting the Dalek for its helplessness and lack of purpose.  And then the Doctor actually tries to kill the Dalek in cold blood.  As portrayed by Eccleston here, the Doctor is a traumatized, bitter survivor of a horrific conflict, full of rage and sorrow.  The Doctor’s anger is not reserved for the Dalek, as he later verbally decimates van Statten for all his hubris and greed.  Eccleston’s performance in “Dalek” is extremely powerful, one of the highlights of his year on Doctor Who.

Dalek and Doctor: survivors of the Time War

I was also impressed with Billie Piper as Rose.  This was the first episode where I really saw her as more than just a pretty blonde.  Having only recently met the Doctor, she knows nothing about the Daleks.  And so she approaches the creature imprisoned by van Statten with sympathy and pity.  Later on, even after the Dalek powers up again and becomes a dangerous foe, Rose still keeps an open mind, still believes she can reason with it.  And when Rose witnesses just how violent the Doctor is becoming, how he is ready to destroy the Dalek without hesitation, she is the one who talks him down from the moral precipice.

Shearman does an excellent job scripting the eponymous Dalek of the story.  He totally revitalizes the idea of the Daleks as unstoppable killing machines obsessed with racial purity and the survival of their species.  This was probably the best use of the Daleks in a television story since the 1975 serial “Genesis of the Daleks.”  At the same time, Shearman remembers that for their tendency to come crashing in, guns blazing, screaming “Exterminate,” the Daleks can also be incredibly crafty, deceitful, manipulative creatures.

The Dalek plays upon Rose’s sympathies, playing the helpless victim, getting her to touch its casing so it can use the DNA of a time traveler to revive itself.  It reactivates its weapons and goes on a killing spree, cutting through van Statten’s security force, allowing the Doctor to witness the bloodshed on camera, a form of psychological warfare.  When the Doctor coldly informs the Dalek that it is the last of its kind, it has no superiors to report to, and starts screaming that if it wants orders then it should go ahead and destroy itself, the Dalek coldly states “You would make a good Dalek.”  That leaves the Doctor speechless and horrified.  And then the Dalek  plays a trump card, getting the Doctor to release it from van Statten’s underground base by threatening to kill Rose.

In the end, the Dalek is destroyed not by the Doctor, but by its own programmed prejudices and intolerances.  When it absorbed Rose’s DNA, it began to change, to develop the capacity for emotions besides hatred.  It is unable to live with itself, and instead chooses destruction.  Shearman demonstrates that the Daleks, for all their power, are ultimately an evolutionary dead end.  They already believe themselves the superior life form in the universe, they refuse to accept the necessity of evolving, and they completely reject anything that is different, including among themselves.  This is a theme the revival of Doctor Who would continue to explore in subsequent stories, as the Daleks repeatedly thwarted any efforts to change, even if doing so meant their own destruction.

Nicholas Briggs does a superb job voicing the Dalek, imbuing it with a gamut of emotions.  Early on, when it is being deceitful, you really are left wondering just how much of what the Dalek is saying is truth, and how much manipulation.  At the end, when the Dalek realizes that it is changing, Briggs gives the creature a very palpable sense of confusion and sorrow.  His performance really drives home the tragedy of the Dalek’s demise, that this being on the cusp of becoming something greater, and better, instead chooses suicide.

I would not say that “Dalek” is a completely flawless production, though.  I had a very difficult time wrapping my head around the notion that Henry van Statten was so rich & powerful that he owned the entire Internet and had the ability to decide who would become the next President of the United States.  The character is just written as too flippant and silly most of the time.  It would have been better to simply characterize him as an extremely rich, ruthless businessman, and in the process tone down a bit of the comedy.

“Dalek” introduces the character of Adam Mitchell, played by Bruno Langley, who became a very short-lived traveling companion with the Doctor and Rose.  So short-lived, in fact, that he was dumped back on Earth at the end of the very next episode, ‘The Long Game.”  I felt that was a shame, as he was well-written here, and had the potential to become a good recurring character.  I guess that the chemistry I thought could develop between Rose and Adam would eventually occur several years later with the characters of Amelia Pond and Rory Williams when Steven Moffat took over as head writer on Doctor Who.

By the way, this is a minor complaint, but the story title “Dalek” is just rather, well, bland.  I thought a better one would have been “The Survivors,” which would be been a reference to both the Dalek and the Doctor.  And it would have been a clever nod both to the second episode of the original 1963 serial to feature the Daleks written by Terry Nation, as well as to his post-apocalyptic 1975 drama.

In any case, besides a few minor flaws, “Dalek” is one of the strongest episodes of Christopher Eccleston’s year on Doctor Who.  I rank it alongside “Father’s Day” and the two part “The Empty Child” / “The Doctor Dances” as the high points of Series One.