Sunday, April 24, 2011

An aperitif before I begin Doctor Who's new season...

So Season Six of the rebooted Doctor Who premiered tonight on BBC America. In advance of watching that later this evening, and before my forthcoming recap (posting tomorrow or Monday), I thought I'd do a quick post about my favorite episodes of the series since it's been back on the air. I don't want to go too crazy, so let's call it a top, ooh, ten? Yes, that'll work, provided I consider two-parters as single entries on the list.

Oh, and assuming you've never seen the show, SPOILER ALERT! I'm going to be discussing episodes from throughout the run and can't avoid giving away details.

#10 - Season 3, Episodes 8 & 9: "Human Nature/The Family of Blood"
So often, Doctor Who's formulaic nature causes the burden of an episode's quality to shift onto its villains. Aside from being dangerous enough to credibly threaten the Doctor, The Family of Blood aren't terribly noteworthy bad guys. This two parter, however, succeeds because of the way it forces us, Last Temptation of Christ-like, to ponder what it is the Doctor gives up by simply being the Doctor. His alternate life as John Smith may not be as exciting as the one he usually leads, but it gives him the opportunity to settle down, find love (in guest star Jessica Hynes), and still do good on a smaller scale as a teacher. While we're glad he comes back and saves the day, there's still a certain sadness in what he leaves behind.

#9 - Season 4, Episode 10: "Midnight"
In "Human Nature/The Family of Blood," we see the Doctor without his powers and memories, but he's not entirely helpless. In "Midnight," we get the chance to see exactly that. Here, a creature that can possess and mimic people—to the point of appearing to anticipate and repeat what they say even before they say it—thoroughly neutralizes the Doctor, leaving it up to his fellow vacation shuttle passengers to save the day. I like the chamber-play quality the small set provides, and enjoy the episode's emphasis on people stepping up and sacrificing themselves on the Doctor's behalf (a running theme through the season and, really, the whole show). Plus, the creature's ominous knocking, coupled with Lesley Sharpe's performance as the possessed, mimicking passenger, create a suitably creepy air in the shuttle's tight, constrained space.

#8 - Season 1, Episode 8: "Father's Day"
On a show about a guy who can travel through time and fix things, it's important to establish the limitations on his power, lest the audience get the tension-killing idea that he can get a "do-over" any time he needs one. The original series did this from time to time, and the revived series really gets to the crux of the issue in "Father's Day." Rose's attempt to prevent her father's untimely death causes an irregularity in the time line, bringing the Doctor face to face with creatures who will sterilize the wound and destroy everything—and everyone—in it. But just when things seem at their bleakest, Rose's dad fulfills his "destiny," correcting the timeline and adding a poignant justification to a death that had previously been seen as a waste. Even with that slightly positive slant, it's still a fatalistic episode for a show so often about making things right. Not everything CAN be made right. Some times you just have to settle for a little bit righter.

#7 - Season 5, Episode 11: "The Lodger"
This episode is a perfect fit for Matt Smith's Eleventh Doctor, an incarnation that, for all his tweedy clothes and professorial manner, is probably the most alien of the revived series's Doctors. Here, he tries to fit in as a human, but not by ditching his Time Lord characteristics as in "Human Nature/The Family of Blood." Rather, we get to see just how bizarre the Doctor really is, and just how poor of a grasp he has on SOME aspects of human life. All of that flitting back and forth in time and space certainly didn't teach him how to be a good roommate, for starters. Even if the solution to the episode's mysteries isn't fully satisfying, this one earns its spot on the list through Smith's charm and the delightful developing romance between guest stars James Corden and Daisy Haggard.

#6 - Season 4, Episode 11: "Turn Left"
I'm an unapologetic fan of Donna Noble as a companion. I like the chemistry Catherine Tate has with David Tennant, and I like their characters' relationship as written, since it's the first fully-platonic companionship the Doctor's had in this revival. They just seem to have FUN together, which feels like a breath of fresh air after all the drama of the Rose/Doctor/Martha thing. This episode, however, works as both an interesting thought experiment and a showcase for Tate's skills. In a season that is, as noted before, often about the people who suffer and die in the Doctor's name, it's nice to see the GOOD things that the Doctor brought to Donna's life. By seeing who she was and who she might have been, we can appreciate who she IS so much more. Which makes her fate at the season's conclusion that much more affecting.

#5 - Season 5, Episode 1: "The Eleventh Hour"
After David Tennant's long and extremely popular tenure as the Doctor, it was tough to imagine anybody filling his shoes. At best, fans assumed it'd take a few episodes to "get used to" Matt Smith in the role. But Steven Moffat's debut as showrunner makes us fall in love with the Eleventh Doctor almost immediately, while simultaneously introducing the season's major ongoing problem (the "cracks" in reality), our new companion(s), and a bit of tangled history involving Amy, Rory, the Doctor, and a wedding dress. By the time the Doctor finally triumphs over Prisoner Zero and his jailors, saving the world once again in the process, we're thoroughly fired up for the show's new era in Moffat's and Smith's hands.

Now, the astute reader will note that, beginning with #5 and continuing forward, all of the remaining episodes on this list were penned by Moffat. I know it's sort of the obvious thing to say that his episodes were always the high point of each of Russell T. Davies's seasons at the show's helm. But Moffat has always displayed skill at combining the best of all of Doctor Who's genre elements: the camp; the horror; the fairy tale/children's story; the sci-fi; the romance; the adventure; and the domestic, via the relationships between the Doctor and the people he meets. That's why Moffat's episodes stand apart, even on this list.

#4 - Season 4, Episodes 8 & 9: "Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead"
After this two-parter, I can never again hear the phrase "Hey, who turned out the lights?" without looking all around for a killer skeleton in a spacesuit. Important on a series level for introducing the enigmatic River Song—who sees the Doctor for the final time as he meets her for the very first—these episodes also give us some great mindfuck moments thanks to the Library's virtual world, and some of the revived series's scariest moments thanks to the shadow-dwelling "piranhas of the air," the Vashta Nerada. Creepy, intelligent, and once again showcasing the self-sacrificing nature of the Doctor's friends, these two episodes headline what may have been the strongest stretch of the Russell T. Davies era, beginning with the almost-included-on-this-list "The Unicorn and the Wasp" and running through "Midnight" and "Turn Left" (numbers 9 and 6, respectively).

#3 - Season 1, Episodes 9 & 10: "The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances"
These episodes, by far the best from Christopher Ecclestone's brief run as the Ninth Doctor, again highlight what Moffat does well, taking a child's fear and confusion and turning them into a waking nightmare for everyone. WWII-era London is terrorized by a gas mask–faced little boy who appears to transform everyone he touches into a duplicate of himself. Never have the words "Are you my mummy?" sounded so chilling. These episodes show the Doctor at his most triumphant, thrilled that "Just this once, everybody lives!" They also introduce John Barrowman's pansexual Captain Jack Harkness into the Whoniverse, a character so great that he got his own highly-successful spinoff, Torchwood.

#2 - Season 3, Episode 10: "Blink"
There isn't much more I can say about "Blink" that hasn't already been said. It's a great example of a time-travel story done right, and even though there's at least one big plot hole, I can't say I minded at all. Every other detail works itself out perfectly, and the episode can nearly stand alone as a short film about terrifying stone angels. With the Doctor stuck in the relative past, communicating only through furtive means, the weight of the episode falls onto the capable shoulders of Sally Sparrow, played by future Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan. Perhaps "Blink" is too clever by half, but it certainly makes the viewer feel at least as clever by its conclusion. It's a diverting, thought-provoking, and ultimately satisfying episode, and would be the very best of the series if not for ONE other episode that, I think, works just a little bit better...

#1 - Season 2, Episode 4: "The Girl in the Fireplace"
If I need to introduce a friend to the revived Who, I show them "Blink," because it feels so rewarding yet stands very well on its own merits with little background needed. But if someone were to ask me, point blank, which episode showcases the new series at its very best, I'd feel as though "Blink"'s stand-alone nature and relative paucity of screen time for the Doctor would work to its detriment in that regard. Instead, I'd have to go with "The Girl in the Fireplace," because it not only tells a beautiful, heart-breaking, Doctor-centered story, but does so in a way that has its fullest impact within the context of what has come before and what follows after.

Moffat's finest hour is full of the sort of romance and historical revisionism that characterize the show's sweeping potential. Sure, the episodes in space are fun, but we all love seeing the Doctor and friends to go back in time and meet famous people from our past. Here, he repeatedly encounters a young Madame de Pompadour, who is being stalked by the delightfully creepy Clockwork Droids. The Droids believe they need to steal her brain to repair their ship, and have opened "time windows" into her life in order to achieve this ambition. The Doctor visits her, watches her grow up, and comes to love the beautiful, intelligent woman (Sophia Myles) she becomes. He ultimately saves her from the Droids, but fails to return to the past in time to say goodbye. It's an episode that foreshadows the Doctor's inability to "save" the ones he loves, while also demonstrating the powerful hold he has on the people he meets.

When the Doctor encounters Louis XV after Madame de Pompadour's death, the King speaks as though her attentions were always elsewhere. It's the same problem that Mickey (who has just joined the Doctor and Rose for the first time) has been trying to deal with, and which will, in just a few episodes, be behind his decision to remain behind on the parallel Earth. Rose, meanwhile, comes closer to accepting her feelings for the Doctor when she sees how jealous she gets over his dalliance with Reinette. By uniting all of these thematic concerns while still telling a satisfying single-episode story, "The Girl in the Fireplace" earns a spot at the top of my list.

Anyway, writing this took a lot longer than I expected! It's time to fire up the DVR and start Season 6. I hope I can get my reviewcap for that episode up on the site by Monday morning, though this late start certainly doesn't augur well!

Edit: Just realized I was using production numbers rather than aired order to determine episode numbers, which led to confusion during Season 4. Have amended this now.

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