The New Who Top Ten: #1

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Number One: ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ (2010)

In many ways, this is a hard one to write. This is partly because I wrote about it comparatively recently, and there’s the challenge of keeping it fresh. But it’s also because there is so much in here to unpack; it’s like moving house and being surrounded by boxes, and not knowing where to start – so that, in the end, you do not. Where indeed do you start with what is quite possibly the most perfectly-constructed, moving and profound episode of Doctor Who since the show’s revival?

Last week we discussed ‘Midnight‘, a dialogue-heavy episode that dealt with an unseen adversary. And just yesterday I wrote about ‘The God Complex‘, in which the monster was purposely distorted until the final reveal at the story’s climax. ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ employs a similar conceit, the murderous creature only becoming visible in the briefest of moments. If you’re working with CG, it’s a decent cost-saving initiative, provided you have a story to go in its place. The episode in this instance relies heavily on social commentary – but once it is clear that the social commentary is the key to the narrative, rather than merely a component, things start to make sense. In other words, the horror elements of the story serve as part of its emotional core, and thus ‘Vincent’ avoids the mistakes made by ‘Kill the Moon’, which was a halfhearted abortion debate dressed up as an Aliens clone – both things at once, and neither successful.

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What’s striking (if unsurprising) about ‘Vincent’ is how, given the comparative absence of the monster, the gaps are plugged elsewhere. Visual motifs of Van Gogh’s paintings are abundant, constructed carefully but by no means symmetrically, giving the impressionist eye room to work. The light from the reconstructed pavement cafe spills out into the evening, even before Vincent follows it. Shadows linger across the floor of the bedroom where the artist will eventually rest in torment. Crows take flight over a wheatfield. And, in one of the most striking moments, Amy sits outside the cottage in Arles, smiling from ear to ear even as her inner, repressed sadness gnaws away, surrounded by sunflowers, which Vincent himself describes as “always somewhere between living and dying”.

But ultimately this is a character piece, and Curtis sensibly keeps the characters to a minimum. The scholarly Dr. Black (an uncredited Bill Nighy, on fine form) is the twenty-first century enlightened human, while Van Gogh’s peers are reduced somewhat to sneering stereotypes – but this is necessary, in a way, in order to portray the pain of the artist. And even this has its subtext. The dialogue is comparatively colloquial, and Vincent’s exeunt from the cafe instantly recognisable: what future Van Goghs, Curtis appears to suggest, have we chosen to ridicule and demean in 2010?

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Discourses on art aside, this is an episode about bipolar disorder, perhaps the only time the series has ever tackled such an area, and certainly the most direct. It would have been comparatively simple to take the sensationalist route, and Curtis deserves nothing but praise for managing to handle it without lapsing into the cliches that haunt some of his other work. This is one of the most sensitively observed depictions of clinical depression I’ve ever seen in a family show, and – despite the finale – one of the most satisfying. It’s interesting that Van Gogh’s mid-episode breakdown, in which he confines himself to bed and demands that the Doctor leave, is triggered not by a traumatic incident but by a single careless line of dialogue. It’s a testament to the power of words to inflict wounds, and a cutting reminder that even the best of us make mistakes. Had the words come from Capaldi, we would have put it down to his brusqueness. But the Eleventh Doctor, while remote, is still good with people even when they do not understand him (cf. ‘The Lodger’), and this knowledge somehow cuts a little deeper – even more so when he tries to comfort the artist, only to simply make things worse.

The battle with the Krayafis is the story’s McGuffin, but Curtis gets it out of the way comparatively early in the third act, allowing time for a series of emotional denouements. Perhaps the most beautiful of these takes place as the Doctor, Amy and Vincent lie on their backs looking up at the night sky, which seamlessly transitions into The Starry Night. It is clear that Van Gogh’s ability to see the world the way he does – whatever the repercussions – is unique, but it is his ability to describe what he sees with words as well as with paintings that really comes across here. “It’s colour,” he admits, earlier in the episode. “Colour that holds the key. I can hear the colours. Listen to them. Every time I step outside, I feel nature is shouting at me.”

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But the Krayafis – orphaned and blind and fearful – itself becomes a metaphor, a testament both to the power of depression and those who do not understand it. As the three companions gather in silent homage over the creature’s unseen corpse, Van Gogh remarks “He was frightened, and he lashed out…like humans who lash out when they’re frightened”. Curtis fashions a monster that is both victim and antagonist, and as much a part of Vincent, in many ways, as his talent with a brush. It would have been comparatively simple to explain away the monster and, by turns, the artist’s mental state, with pseudoscience, but the writer does neither. There is a rational scientific explanation for the presence of the Krayafis – just as the rational scientific explanation for depression is a chemical imbalance – but this does not detract from its power to torment, or the fact that Vincent is the sole character who is fully aware of it.

Most tellingly of all, the Doctor is not able to ‘cure’ Vincent – nor, it seems, does he particularly want to. His decision to give the artist such a concrete vision of his future seems, at first, more than a little out of character, until the final scene in the gallery where it is revealed that the revelation has made only cosmetic details to Vincent’s life, with his suicide (and eventual legacy) untouched. Amy (and, by turns, the audience) is forced to learn the hardest of lessons: that the differences we make do not always amount to more than the sum of their parts. Crucially, it is Van Gogh himself who foreshadows this, when he admits that “On my own, I fear I may not do as well”.

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Perhaps one of the nicest things about the episode is the reverence with which Amy and the Doctor greet Van Gogh, without ever lapsing into sycophancy. Even in the final, rather overstated gallery sequence, they’re content to allow Bill Nighy to do the talking. There is none of the giggling of Rose’s encounter with Queen Victoria, or the name-dropping in Donna’s meeting with Agatha Christie. Indeed, for a Curtis script it’s comparatively light on humour, which is perhaps sensible. Smith blunders in and out of the situation with customary Doctorishness (is that a word? It should be a word), making all the usual mistakes that people make when they don’t know how to talk to people with depression. Gillan is sensitive and radiant, although it’s Amy’s inner, unspoken turmoil in this first post-Rory episode – an unspoken sense of grief, without knowing why – that enables her to handle Vincent as well as she does.

I’m sure I’ve said it before, but the fact that ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ manages to tackle such heavy subject matter and escape with its dignity intact is a credit to absolutely everyone concerned. It’s a credit to the designers and production team, who visualised nineteenth century France so vividly. It’s a credit to Richard Curtis – and Steven Moffat, who knew how to fashion and evolve his ideas into a script that delivers. Perhaps most of all, it’s a credit to the series regulars, and also Tony Curran, whose portrayal of Vincent is breathtaking. It’s an episode that paints the stark sadness of loneliness and juxtaposes it with the brilliance of inspired creativity – as Dr. Black says, “Pain is easy to portray, but to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstasy and joy and magnificence of our world…no one had ever done it before. Perhaps no one ever will again.” ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ is a reminder that the world is more wondrous than we could possibly hope to imagine – but most of all, it’s a reminder of exactly what it means to be human.

It’s my favourite episode since 2005, and I love it.

Cameron’s Episode: ‘Rose

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The New Who Top Ten: #2

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Number Two: ‘The God Complex’ (2011)

Doctor Who has always been about corridors. If you have a TV programme in which the chase is a recurring motif, then enclosed spaces are the way to go, particularly when you can then use the same constructed length of space again, shot from a different angle, and pretend it’s another part of the building. A chair here, a wall sign there, and the illusion is more or less intact. And if it isn’t, who cares?

Corridors are a big part of this episode, although they don’t exist in a vacuum. They’re the conduit to dealing with your fears. This isn’t like any hotel, where the other rooms – and their occupants – are tantalisingly sealed. In this place, you’re actively encouraged to open up the doors until you find the one that happens to contain that childhood book with the horrible pictures, or the playground bully who abused you, or (if you’re a Time Lord) a large crack in the wall.

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The first time we get wind of this, it’s because of a gorilla. Yesterday I mentioned bananas, so it only seems fit to stretch the imagery a little further. The gorilla is enough to terrify a poor policewoman out of her wits and, in the process, unleash a fearsome (but unseen) adversary. She dies with a curious smile on her lips, and the psychological extent of this creature on the human mind is at least partially revealed, even if the creature itself is not. The gorilla vanishes.

It’s an electrifying moment, and rather than being one of those wonderful scenes in an average episode (see ‘Listen‘) it sets the tone. There are many things to admire in ‘The God Complex’, but its biggest joy, as it turns out, is the direction. Nick Hurran has long since been a safe pair of hands, his ability to tease out a shot managing to enliven even ‘Asylum of the Daleks’, but his work here is frankly exemplary. The monster reveal shots in the hotel rooms are a jarring mixture of fast and slow. Jump cuts are abundant. The minotaur stalks the hotel accompanied by lurid lighting and grotesque, Hammond-driven muzak. Crucially, the first time we even come close to seeing it properly, it is through a glass darkly. It is a trick that would have dramatically improved ‘Mummy on the Orient Express‘.

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None of this would matter if the narrative didn’t go anywhere – even the best directors can’t polish a turd – but Toby Whithouse delivers. Whithouse has never been the most consistent of Who writers, but ‘The God Complex’ is packed with ominous dread, cranking up the tension as the characters gradually succumb to the Minotaur. The story is a cross between Alien and the last three chapters of 1984, taking its stylistic cues from The Shining, and there are only so many ways you can make that interesting, but Whithouse does this by introducing a smorgasbord of characters who all react in different ways – from David Walliam’s devious Gibbis (the physical resemblance to a rat cannot be a coincidence) to Amara Karan’s Rita, a strong contender for the greatest Doctor Who companion who never was. Rita is calm and logical without being soulless and it’s a shame, in a way, that her death sentence is sealed before it actually happens, when she agrees to go with the Doctor after the story is concluded – which, unless you’ve already been in all the publicity shoots, is the metaphorical equivalent of sleeping with Jack Bauer.

Curiously, ‘The God Complex’ becomes – in its last ten minutes – something else entirely, by using one of the central relationship dynamics as a means to entrap the monster. There are no elephants within any of the hotel’s rooms, but there is one in the TARDIS – and the Doctor ultimately deals with it by forcibly breaking Amy’s faith in him so that she can concentrate on her marriage. It’s a gamble that doesn’t quite work, as ‘Asylum of the Daleks’ proved, and it’s a shame that this later story leaves such a nasty taste in the mouth when ‘The God Complex’ states so explicitly that Amy is relying too much upon the Doctor, and even more of a shame that in the end she can only make the choice when – at the end of ‘The Angels Take Manhattan’ – her hand is forced.

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Still, that’s all to come. Back in the hotel, the Doctor solves the riddle, confronts the Minotaur and gives it the release it so desperately desires. It’s an unexpectedly touching scene – the dissolution of the hotel’s walls, revealing the holodeck behind it, is a metaphor for the Doctor’s psychological digging, with the Minotaur’s request for death a direct parallel with the series arc. I’d normally find this painful, but in an episode in which deaths necessarily occur off camera, it’s something of a catharsis, irrespective of the wider ramifications. If the finale feels tacked on – a scene Whithouse was asked to insert in light of sequencing – then he gets away with it by keeping it relatively understated, at least by New Who standards.

So there you have it: an episode that’s almost as close to perfect as it’s possible to get. I used to do a lot of recruiting, and the most painful part of the job was delivering bad news to an unsuccessful job candidate, particularly when it was someone you liked. Constructive feedback was the order of the day, but sometimes you struggled to find a valid reason why you’d had to turn someone down, because on any other day you’d hire them in an instant. It’s just that there happened to be someone better. And I suppose there’s no really good reason why ‘The God Complex’ shouldn’t be at the top of my list, because I can’t find a single reason to dislike it. It’s just that there happens to be one better.

But we’ll deal with that tomorrow…

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Cameron’s Episode: Midnight

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The New Who Top Ten: #3

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Number Three: ‘The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances’ (2005)

You’re doing it now, aren’t you? You’re tilting your head slightly and softly murmuring “Muuummmyyyy….” in that child’s sing-song voice, dropping the second syllable by a major third so that it sounds a bit like a door chime. You’re thinking about that bit with the telephone. You’re thinking about the gas mask growing out of Richard Wilson’s face. And somewhere, in the back of your head, there’s a memory of the Doctor doing something that looks mildly like interpretive dance.

In story terms, that first series of the revived Doctor Who really is a bit hit and miss. There are stories that are good (‘Dalek’). There are stories that are basically sound, but flawed (the Dalek finale; ‘The Unquiet Dead’). There are stories that are probably not as good as we remember them (‘Rose’). There are stories that are downright awful (anything with the Slitheen). And there’s one absolute masterpiece. There have been fewer tales in the new series that have been so frightening, or so ultimately satisfying.

It helps to look at things in context, and in that context, ‘Dalek’ is the Ninth Doctor’s Emperor’s Throne Room moment. It is the point in the story in which the protagonist comes dangerously close to losing the plot. The Doctor is not only brandishing that gun at the evolving Dalek; he’s dangerously close to firing it. After the story concludes, his anger seems to evaporate somewhat, and what we see in the second half of the series is a lighter, cheerier Doctor more at ease with his place in the universe. In terms of tone, this two-part tale is the zenith of that ascent, and almost inexplicably it’s all down to the bananas.

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This is Moffat’s first stab at a New Who narrative and it’s arguably his best, which is unusual seeing that its structure is so uneven. Oh, I don’t mean that it doesn’t hang together; it does. But tonally, the Gas Mask Zombies story (as we shall probably not refer to it) is very much a game of two halves. Linking them is a suave intergalactic omnisexual conman who would swiftly become a gay icon and a Saturday evening staple, at least on the BBC. In years to come, Jack would spend an awful lot of time hanging around on rooftops (is this where 51st century swingers go cruising?) and deal with the ramifications of immortality, and it’s strange to see him looking so young and fresh and carefree. ‘The Empty Child’ is the one story where Jack’s morality is up for grabs, and that’s what makes his eventual development of a conscience so ultimately satisfying, even if his passion for gunplay never really diminishes.

But if ‘The Eleventh Hour’ (as discussed yesterday) disappoints in terms of its monster, this story serves up a creation so devilishly creepy it’s almost iconic. The mask-fused child is the stuff of nightmares, staring out through soulless eyes, forever repeating the same dialogue in that melancholy deadpan. It’s like watching Orlando Bloom. Most of the horror occurs within ‘The Empty Child’, with ringing phones and open doors. When Dr. Constantine gives his clinical assessment, the story kicks up a notch and delivers a moment that will, in twenty years’ time, be showcased on a documentary called ‘Was early 21st century Doctor Who too frightening?’.

Dr. Constantine is to ‘The Empty Child’ as Severus Snape is to The Deathly Hallows: his role is brief but significant, narrative focus lingering on him, at least to an extent, even after his conversion. This is largely down to Richard Wilson’s screen presence, lending Constantine the world-weary gravitas he needs without being bereft of humour. Moffat generously gives him the episode’s punch line when, following the denouement, an elderly patient informs him that her missing leg has grown back. “Well, there is a war on,” Constantine remarks. “Is it possible you miscounted?”

But if Constantine gets the belly laugh, there are plenty of giggles along the way. For such a sinister story, ‘The Doctor Dances’ has comedy in abundance. It starts with the Doctor’s relief that his ‘go to your room’ gambit has worked on the zombies (“Those would have been terrible last words”) and from then on the gags fly thick and fast: when the Doctor and Jack aren’t bickering over the relative merits of sonic technology (“Who looks at a screwdriver and thinks ‘Ooh, this could be a little more sonic’?”), they’re playing cowboys with bananas. The Doctor is a man who does all his best work under pressure, which is probably why the jokes don’t feel out of place.

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There are moments that don’t work. The Glenn Miller dance that closes the story feels forced, and the ‘magic hands’ in the closing scenes are utterly contrived – it’s hard, in a way, to accept the fact that the Doctor is literally saving the world by waving his arms. The offence is, nonetheless, instantly forgiveable, occurring as it does within a moment of pure euphoric joy. Irrespective of cliche and dated analogies about emailed upgrades, it’s impossible not to feel a lump in your throat when Eccleston punches the air in triumph, crying out “Just this once, everybody lives!”. As feelgood endings go, it’s up there with Dawn of the Dead, in which hardly anybody lives, but characters we felt sure were doomed manage, at least, to survive long enough to fight another day.

It’s typically overstated, of course, but ‘The Doctor Dances’ is that rare beast: a Doctor Who story with a body count of precisely zero – or minus one, if you want. We could throw up all sorts of theories as to whether Jamie’s revival was predetermined or whether it screws around with causality (as epitomised by the previous episode, in which we’re introduced to a monster that supposedly feasts on paradoxes but which we conveniently never see again, presumably because the CG budget prevented it). But that’s missing the point: this is a story about surviving: the darkest days of the war, and ever-decreasing odds. In the end the battle is won not by physical prowess but by simple acceptance of what we are, and our capacity to do good in spite of the mistakes we have made, and it is this that allows Nancy to reconcile with her son, and which ultimately calms the Doctor, paving the way towards Jack’s eventual redemption. Moffat’s written better-constructed stories, but few come close to capturing the spirit and sense of imagination and wonder that he managed here.

Cameron’s Episode: The Girl in the Fireplace

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The New Who Top Ten: #4

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Number Four: ‘The Eleventh Hour’ (2010)

God, he looks young. I mean, the Eleventh Doctor always did. That was the main hook; this youthful, spritely thing, this man who simultaneously carried buckets of energy and centuries of experience. Women wanted to shag him. He would careen about the TARDIS like one of the stars of Swan Lake. He was an extremely physical Doctor, for all the verbal diarrhoea – certainly more physical than either of his immediate predecessors, and perhaps on a par with Pertwee. The karate was gone, but the dancing was a welcome substitute.

I know a number of Cambridge graduates, and it strikes me that there’s always been something quite Eleventh Doctor about most of them. They are brilliant and clever and (mostly) fun to be with, but at the same time you get the feeling that they are on a different level to the rest of us, one we’ll never quite reach. There is something almost unassailable about them. Oh, they don’t talk down to you. I never felt as if I was being patronised or ridiculed. But I always got the feeling I was in the presence of extremely clever people. They didn’t bask in their cleverness, but neither did they hide it under a bushel.

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I got that vibe about the Eleventh Doctor from the moment we saw him. There’s an immediate sense of detachment that you never felt with Tennant, who was always giving whatever was happening his full concentration. The moment in ‘The Hungry Earth’ where Elliott wanders off, neglected by a distracted Doctor, would never have happened on Tennant’s watch. He always seemed so focused. Smith’s Doctor, on the other hand, always seemed to have other things on his mind, as if constantly trying to consolidate Fermat’s last theorem, or remember where he left his passport.

This was Moffat’s first episode in charge, and it shows. Stylistically it is bold and innovative, from the Blade Runner-esque fast rewind through the Doctor’s memory as he struggles to remember what he saw on the green, through the fast cutting that would become a staple of this series, up to the moment he penetrates the fourth wall on the hospital roof. Adam Smith directs with flair, and Murray Gold introduces a whole string of new motifs. Moffat cleverly introduces the village of Leadworth (Ambridge to the Powell Estate’s Albert Square) and a whole host of supporting characters, most of whom we don’t see again, simply because this is all about the Doctor and Amy.

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The episode spawned a host of catchphrases, and is arguably most notorious for the fish custard scene – an amusing joke that, like the Weeping Angels, should only ever have been employed once, and suffered with every repeat appearance. But in this scene, in which the Doctor is basically playing Tigger, it’s quite wonderful. Post-regeneration fallout hasn’t been this ridiculous since 1974, and while Smith stops short of the clown outfit, he is still just as manic, at least until he examines the crack in the bedroom wall. It took us nearly four years to get to the bottom of that crack, and it would be lovely to say that it was worth the effort – but this was one of the few times when its appearance didn’t grate, and for that would should be grateful pleased.

If the shapeshifting monster is slightly second-rate, and the Atraxi not much better, the cast more than make up for it. Darvill infuses Rory with a genial, bumbling personality that would harden later on under the Doctor’s influence, while Gillan is a vulnerable, damaged Amy, all suspicious eyes and panic – her sense of bewildered trust / mistrust is a recurring theme throughout, and the moment in the closing scenes in which she becomes overwhelmed inside the TARDIS is genuinely brilliant acting. Supporting turns from the likes of Olivia “I’m in everything!” Coleman and Annette Crosbie add flavour, but never get in the way of Smith, who is never less than compelling in every single one of his scenes.

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I don’t want to be too hyperbolic about ‘The Eleventh Hour’, because that would imply that it was a plateau. And as great as it was, things got even better – as we’ll see over the next few days – before they slumped. But this was that rare beast, a post-regeneration story that was not only good (and they’re few and far between, if you actually look at the list) but really good. From the Doctor’s first, gasping crawl over the edge of the wrecked TARDIS, desperately seeking fruit, to the moment when he informs Amy that yes, he is definitely a madman with a box, this is an episode that amuses, delights and dazzles in all the best ways. It’s not the best episode ever, or even the best Smith episode ever. But it’s a hell of an opener.

Cameron’s Episode: Vincent and the Doctor

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The New Who Top Ten: #5

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Number Five: ‘Blink’ (2007)

Should this be higher?

A few years ago, it would have been an indisputable top slot. Even now I maintain it’s (mostly) impeccably structured, beautifully acted and immaculately presented. Few stories were as universally praised, or as talked about in weeks to come. Next to this, even the return of the Master seemed a relatively muted affair.

There are two problems with ‘Blink’. In the first instance, it launched a creature that swiftly became a Doctor Who sensation. Like many of Moffat’s creations, it is largely silent. Deaths, such as they are, occur offscreen. They even had their own catchphrase. But the Angels’ appeal lies in their instant familiarity, the everyday made sinister, epitomised in a final montage that’s there purely to scare the kids. If any statue can be an Angel – indeed, if any picture of a statue can be an Angel – then nowhere is safe, and I can’t help thinking that the prospect of being touched by an Angel was enough to keep many a primary school child wide awake for a night or two back in 2007.

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The big problem, of course, is that once you’ve done that, there’s nowhere for you to go. So Moffat branched in a new direction by having the next batch of Angels move, speak and even snap necks. It’s the sort of departure that has the Ninja Turtle fans up in arms, and the fact that comparatively few people seem to have complained about ‘Flesh and Stone’ is down to the fact that at time of broadcast, they were relatively new. The Tenth Doctor introduces them as “the only psychopaths in the universe to kill you nicely”, but once you’ve done that initial time travel story – and have them try and nick the TARDIS into the bargain – what do you do with them? The fact is that the Angels were one-story monsters, in the same way that the Silence were one-story monsters, the Spoonheads should have been no-story monsters and the Whispermen will probably be the subject of an out-of-court settlement with Joss Whedon.

I expanded on all the reasons the Weeping Angels are basically rubbish in a post called, appropriately, ‘Why the Weeping Angels are Rubbish‘ – written before ‘The Angels Take Manhattan’, a story that did nothing to enhance my opinion of them. But it seems churlish to pick on ‘Blink’ because of a less-than-impressive legacy. Better, instead, if we could point out that it’s actually a lot of razzle-dazzle, the problems hiding (for a change) not behind a sea of special effects but instead a whirling dervish of storytelling tricks, pretentiousness dressed up as paradox.

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The difficulty with many of Moffat’s episodes is that you’re encouraged to think, but not too much. He’s great with throwing in the clues and the mysteries and the wibbly-wobbly resolutions, but once you’re actively concentrating, as we are supposed to, the holes are as transparent as bullet-riddled tracing paper. With ‘Blink’, there are noticably fewer holes, principally because Moffat is trying to stretch an idea across a single episode, rather than an entire series. Hence ‘Blink’ hangs together with a greater coherence than, say, ‘The Wedding of River Song’. (Actually, my son’s first year art project hangs together with a greater coherence than ‘The Wedding of River Song’, so it’s perhaps not the best example.)

Nonetheless, there are traces of the misogyny for which we would know him later. Sally Sparrow is perhaps the strongest and most likeable female guest character in the last ten years. There have been petitions and campaigns to get her instilled as a regular character, one that the producers have denied on the grounds that she’s arguably too strong, and that the Doctor wouldn’t work well with such a resourceful, intelligent character. To which I say yes, of course, and ‘City of Death’ was a walking disaster. Nevertheless, the type of show they seem determined to make nowadays – where characters begin weak and feeble before developing an inner strength under the careful tutelage of the Doctor – doesn’t seem to work well with Sally’s mindset. (Somewhere in the creative ether there’s a story arc waiting to be written about a companion who travels with the Doctor and only leaves him once they’ve been well and truly messed up.)

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And yet the episode only concludes when Sally is able to deal with her obsession with the Doctor and gain narrative closure – a development that enables her, in turn, to gain romantic happiness with Larry. The Doctor is that most metaphorical of ex-boyfriends, or at the very least an internet romance – and while Sally saves the day, her brief narrative arc is ultimately defined by love. Curiously, in 2007 this didn’t bother me. Years later, having Clara flirt with the Eleventh Doctor and then get embroiled in a tedious love story, it does.

If I’m being a little harsh today, it’s largely because I’m tired of people talking about the bloody Angels as paragons of brilliance and ‘Blink’ as the ultimate example of clever storytelling. ‘Colony in Space’ is clever storytelling. So is ‘The Face of Evil’. And ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’, come to that. Clever doesn’t mean you tie your audience up in knots. It means you tell a story effectively and with sufficient emotional resonance, and you do not sacrifice narrative trickery for character development. Beware the man who says he can offer you both. More often than not, you’ll end up with neither.

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At the same time – and I think this might be the reason I continue to hold ‘Blink’ in high regard (despite having spent six paragraphs basically slagging it off) is because in 2007 – after eight episodes of Martha’s fawning and so much kitchen sink at the hands of Rose and the wretched Tylers – it was a bit of a novelty. It is loaded with amusing, memorable dialogue: witness, for example, the incredulous reaction of Larry when he learns about Sally’s miniscule DVD collection, or Sally’s realisation that Kathy lied about her age. Moffat’s never been one for naturalism, and even when his characters are in a locked room with a ticking bomb they still sound like they’re in an Oscar Wilde play, but it’s hard not to be amused, for example, at Larry’s first impression of Wester Drumlins (“You live in Scooby Doo’s house”) or Sally’s ruminations on feeling sad (“It’s happy for deep people”). Larry is, indeed, an early prototype for Rory, right down to the slightly gormless expression, but that’s not a bad thing.

Moffat also manages to tug at the heartstrings during the hospital scene, which remains almost the finest thing he ever wrote (with the exception of Miss Evangelista’s ghosting, in an episode that didn’t make the top ten). If you can live with the ludicrous final line, it’s both moving and comparatively understated, thanks in no small part to some fine performances, particularly Michael Obiora as the elderly Billy. Indeed, one of the best things about the story is the absence of its key players: we do not suffer for the general lack of Doctor, and the fact that Martha turns up only briefly is frankly a welcome bonus.

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Plus, at its heart, ‘Blink’ is simply terrifying. The moment when the Angels eventually swoop on Sally and Larry, stalking them through the seemingly deserted house, is a fine example of how to do an effective set piece, with appropriate jump cuts and some great use of lighting. It’s hard not to feel unnerved when the Angels rock the TARDIS back and forth in their attempts to get in, and the moment when it then fades away, leaving them eternally quantum-locked (at least until someone buys up Wester Drumlins and decides to clear out the cellar), is one of initial horror followed by tremendous relief. It works. It works beautifully. It’s about the only time it ever really did, and while that’s not the only reason to single out ‘Blink’ as a miniature masterpiece, it’s certainly a good start.

Cameron’s Episode: ‘Blink (curiously enough)

Categories: New Who, Top 10 | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The New Who Top Ten: #6

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Number Six: ‘The Day of the Doctor’ (2013)

I have a problem today.

In the first instance, I don’t know that there’s a lot more I can say about this episode that I didn’t cover in the review I did back in 2013. I wrote reams. I wonder if we might have exhausted the list of available topics. But I can’t leave this blank, so we’ll try. And if we fail, we’ll fail at doing the wrong thing, as opposed to – oh, you can see what I’m doing there.

I once read a musicology volume in which the author decried the concept of summer novelty records, likening them to holiday romances. It was one thing, he surmised, dancing to the strains of ‘Agadoo’ or the bloody Macarena in an open air Spanish nightclub ten yards from the beach, the floor a pulsing melee of sweat and energy and the Margaritas flowing like a river. But when you hear the same record on a wet November afternoon in a nail salon in the middle of Slough, it’s the metaphorical equivalent of seeing that bikini-clad beauty you pulled in the Seychelles slouching round a supermarket in jogging trousers and a filthy t-shirt accompanied by a screaming child. It kind of takes a lot of the romance out of the situation.

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There was always a chance that we were too forgiving with this episode. It was the peak of a year of celebration – retrospectives, revisitations and reinvention. Old Doctors were given new contexts, new Doctors reconciled their pasts, and one Doctor we didn’t even know existed appeared from nowhere (or at least one of Steven Moffat’s production meetings). And it didn’t stop with the characters. If ‘The Name of the Doctor’ was a game-changer, the anniversary story consolidated things by taking everything we thought we knew about eight years of history and rewriting the ending. Simultaneously, the Ninth Doctor is off the hook, because he doesn’t remember any of it. The darkness of the Eccleston series is thus intact, but it becomes more about the memory of events, rather than the events themselves. Or, as the War Doctor puts it, “How many worlds has that regret saved?”.

At other times, the rewriting would be annoying. When it happened in ‘The Name of the Doctor’ it was annoying. When it happened in ‘Listen’ it was downright insulting. But somehow, in ‘Day of the Doctor’, it works. Perhaps it’s because the twist, while smacking of the clever-cleverness that is endemic throughout much of Moffat’s revisionism, is one that at least concentrates on the last decade of the show, rather than trying to change everything that happened before. Somehow that’s more agreeable. There are two stories here that are basically about one story, the Zygons’ gambit seemingly incongruous when compared to the War Doctor’s inner struggle, until the nuclear stalemate becomes a metaphor for the Time War, and the alien technology that allows for the Zygon invasion in the first place becomes its unlikely solution.

But it’s not all about structure. There is a whole lot to love in ‘Day of the Doctor’. Production values are slick (the opening sequence has Smith dangling from the edge of the TARDIS as it is airlifted into Central London) but not at the expense of story. Tellingly, Moffat knows when to rein it in, keeping the action primarily Earth-bound – at least for the first hour or so – and only really branching out in the climactic final act. What follows is a consistency and unity that gives the narrative room to breathe without having to over-reach itself in order to cram in another set piece. Crucially, this is a story that doesn’t try to do much – in many ways, dare we say it, a story that actually doesn’t do very much at all. There are plenty of lengthy conversations between the three Doctors, which is precisely the sort of interplay that’s lacking in, say, ‘The Two Doctors’. Supporting characters get breathing space, if not an awful lot of development. It’s not exactly vintage Pertwee, but next to the breakneck pace to which we’ve become accustomed, it’s a refreshing change.

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Then there’s Hurt himself, trailblazing across the screen with all the charisma and personality we’d expect from such an established veteran. Hurt’s gone on record as saying he didn’t have a clue what he was actually doing, but somehow that doesn’t matter at all. He conjures a side to the Doctor that is both new and instantly recognisable, the grumpiness of an embittered old soldier fused with the upstanding morality of a righteous man. Somewhere there is a universe full of stories about the War Doctor, except that most of them will be set on Gallifrey, and most of them will be thoroughly miserable. Perhaps you should be careful what you wish for.

Earlier in this piece I mentioned novelty records. You can’t polish a turd, but you can give a mediocre gift some temporary sheen by putting it in a nice box. That was the risk. But I watched ‘Day of the Doctor’ again a while back – free of the trappings of the fifty year celebrations, free of the fanfares and the parties and the general sense of wonder. I watched it when I was feeling particularly jaded, and it’s still good. When the Doctor walks through the TARDIS in slow motion at the end of the story, admitting that yes, of course he dreams, we are tempted to dream with him. The cardboard cutouts are still laughable, but what ‘Day of the Doctor’ achieves in fifty years is a loving testament to an established TV legend, that touches on its roots while avoiding the suffocating fog of unnecessary nostalgia. And it has Tom Baker. Really, what more could you want in seventy-five minutes?

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Cameron’s Episode: ‘Army of Ghosts’ / ‘Doomsday

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The New Who Top Ten: #7

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Number Seven: ‘Human Nature’ / ‘The Family of Blood’ (2007)

Welcome to screenwriting 101. Today’s tip: don’t be afraid to screw with your protagonist once in a while. They’re supposed to be dependable and consistent (up to a point, anyway) but history shows that if you want to spice up a dull TV show, an easy way to do it is to give your lead character a beard and have him kill people. It gets the fanzines / office conversation / internet buzzing. Anyone can do a parallel universe story; that’s easy. But stories where protagonists are playing against type are award magnets, for writers and actors alike.

‘Human Nature’ takes its cue from the Paul Cornell novel of the same name, in which the Seventh Doctor becomes human in order to forge an emotional connection with a grieving Bernice Summerfield. He takes up residence in a boys’ school shortly before the Great War. Fagging and flogging are abundant. A group of shapeshifting aliens (possessed humans in the TV adaptation) arrive in order to wreak havoc, but complicating things is the fact that the humanised Doctor has fallen in love.

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Crucially, the TV version sees the Doctor actively retreating from the Family of Blood in its opening moments, establishing a symbiotic relationship between the two parties that plays out rather like a surreal witness protection programme. The central tenet of the Doctor’s amnesia and parallel life echoes both Total Recall and, indeed, a storyline in a later series of Miami Vice in which Sonny Crockett genuinely believed himself to be his drug-dealing alter ego; similarly here, John Smith is registered as a separate entity who experiences death when he opens the fob watch. His past is murky (when Joan asks him if Gallifrey is in Ireland, he says “Yes, it must be”) but his consciousness makes him real, and makes his ultimate sacrifice all the more poignant.

This story is basically an opportunity for Tennant to do a Mr. Chips, except Smith doesn’t live long enough to collapse on his classroom floor. Indeed, we’re given hints that the marriage would have ended after many long and happy years, in the form of a fleeting set of images that show Smith and Joan tying the knot and raising a family. It borders on mawkish, but the fact that this is a facet of the Doctor himself lends the moment a degree of pathos it would otherwise be denied. Indeed, Tennant is astonishing throughout the entire two-parter, adopting an entirely new body language when under the guise of Smith, and managing a genuine chemistry with the equally compelling Jessica Hynes.

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But while it’s Smith’s story, it’s the Doctor who pronounces judgement, in a closing montage – wordless, save Harry Lloyd’s voiceover – in which the fury of the Time Lord is finally unleashed. Some people hate it. I don’t. There is something awful about the sight of a Doctor pushed beyond the limits of his patience; something grand and terrible and infinitely more believable, in the final analysis, than what we would see two years later in ‘Waters of Mars’. The idea that you should be careful what you wish for is borne out in a series of dreadful, fate-worse-than-death punishments, plus a nice little aside from Cornell about mirrors – “If ever you look at your reflection and see something move behind you, just for a second, that’s her. That’s always her”. For an episode that has had a real world grounding for over eighty minutes of its runtime, it’s a startling contrast, but it works.

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Elsewhere: the period detail is decently realised, Murray Gold’s score is (for a change) warm and moving, and the supporting cast – particularly Lloyd – are uniformly excellent. Basically, this is a story that gets more or less everything right – that it isn’t placed higher probably isn’t fair, but I’m constructing this list partly on a whim, and I suspect that in a different week the order might have been quite different (put another way, the closer you get to the top, the smaller the gaps between episodes become). It’s a story that exposes the futility of war without ever really pronouncing judgement upon it: when Martha assures Timothy Latimer that “you don’t have to fight”, his response is simply “I think we do”. At the same time it is a bittersweet love story that works precisely because of its anachronisms. About the only off thing in it is the ever-irritating Martha, but you can’t have everything.

I wonder if, looking back, Davies ever wished he’d resequenced stories when the pacing was clearly off. It seems to matter far less in Classic Who, when we’d get twenty-four weeks of four-part stories that had (with certain rare exceptions) little or no connection between them. For better or worse it gathers new significance when you’re dealing with story arcs, and I’ve always found it interesting that three of the worst episodes in the New Who canon (the Dalek Manhatten two-parter, and ‘The Lazarus Experiment’) are immediately followed by three of the very best – these two, and a certain other one. But we’ll deal with that another day…

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Cameron’s Episode: ‘The Eleventh Hour

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The New Who Top Ten: #8

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Number Eight: ‘Midnight’ (2008)

This morning: there’s a waterfall made of sapphires, but you’ll never get to see it. There’s a marooned shuttle in the middle of nowhere, in the thick of a lethal radiated atmosphere. And then the knocking begins…

My children are ambivalent towards ‘Midnight’, largely because they like to know what the Doctor’s fighting against. An invisible entity that paralyses spacecraft, possesses at will, evolves swiftly and kills without thought? Fine, but where are the tentacles? The absence of anything tangible is, of course, the best thing about it: a creature that is unnamed, unseen and about which we still know precisely nothing – save its apparent malevolence – when the credits have rolled. When no information is provided, the mind will fill in the blanks, and all too often, what we visualise is dark and monstrous. (Myself, I’m still thinking about giant invisible chickens.)

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Despite my enthusiasm for Donna, I’m glad she’s not here for this one. It is a story that purposely isolates the Doctor, and the absence of a companion works in its favour. The episode is mostly a one-set affair: a small, self-contained shuttle that the cast are not allowed to leave, because the outside will kill them, which is all well and good until something finds its way in. There is a strong sense of claustrophobia that echoes Night of the Living Dead, although thematically there are nods to Alien and, in particular, a Next Generation episode called ‘Darmok’, in which a simple language barrier almost start a war. It’s the sort of story that could only would have worked with Picard; I suspect Kirk would have just blasted the crap out of them and put his shirt back on.

The whole point of the Living Dead films, of course – particularly the first and third – was that there would inevitably come a point where the terrifying horrors banging on the door would play second fiddle to the monsters inside. In other words, the occupants of the house / underground base / whatever swiftly became their own worst enemy, with infighting and betrayal a far worse prospect, in many ways, than having your flesh ripped. It’s a common scenario. Watching a crisis worsen when people start fighting among themselves holds a kind of universal appeal, and it is perhaps easier to relate to this than it is to a zombie infestation. There’s a scene near the end of Aliens where a sweating, barely alive Sigourney Weaver confronts the treacherous Burke, who has just tried to have her impregnated with a xenomorphic embryo. “I don’t know which species is worse,” she says. “You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.”

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The fact that ‘Midnight’ echoes these themes is in itself unremarkable, but that this results in such a catastrophic loss of control for the central character is the episode’s key strength. Classic Who had a certain sense of formula about it, in that stories would routinely see the Doctor and his companion(s) land somewhere just as a body turns up, become falsely accused of murder / subterfuge / industrial espionage and then imprisoned. If Davies introduced the psychic paper as a counterpoint, we had surely, by this stage, gone too far the other way, and the ability of Tennant in particular to swan into any situation and command the attention of the entire room was becoming irritating. ‘Midnight’ strips this away to its core by having a group of passengers who ask all the questions we’ve been secretly hoping would be asked all these years and refuse to accept the answers they’re given, not only mistrusting the Doctor but actively planning his assassination just a couple of minutes from the end. It’s theorised that the alien’s influence extends beyond its possession of Mrs Silvestry, and that it is somehow able to affect mood and plant suggestions. Personally, I choose to believe that’s not really the case.

Because ultimately, as a concept, ‘Midnight’ speaks to all of us – and that’s what makes its placement within a Whovian context so striking. The simple setting, strong sense of character development and dialogue-heavy script (more on that in a moment, but suffice to say that this episode may contain more talking than any other episode of Doctor Who in the show’s history) mean that it would be ideally suited for a stage adaptation: indeed, I’m told that they’ve actually done this, removing all references to the Doctor and allowing it to stand alone as a tale of intrigue, suspicion and paranoia. Nonetheless, portraying it as a Tenth Doctor story – particularly a relatively late one, when Tennant is well into his stride – is a clever stunt. The following year, the Doctor would crash-land on a desert planet with a bunch of Londoners, and spend the rest of the episode inexplicably trying to get back home to meet Lee Evans. ‘Planet of the Dead’, whatever Russell T Davies tells you about it being “the last time the Doctor gets to have any fun”, is not exactly Tennant’s finest hour. But watch it back to back with this one, if you can bear it. You’ll see what I mean.

There is a lot of chatter. But there’s more to it than that: dialogue ceases to be a way of communicating information and becomes a writer’s plaything, a tool to be exploited. It’s standard practice in literary circles, but it’s a rare joy when it happens in the likes of Who. The whole episode is about the creature learning language, and Davies does this by having characters repeat lines and then say them in absolute synchronicity, in a series of exchanges that annoyed many but which I found quite dazzling.

There is strong support from the likes of Colin Morgan, as the sulky but intelligent Jethro (his look of despair as the Doctor is about to be thrown out is quite wonderful), as well as David Troughton as Professor Hobbes and Lindsey Coulson as the thoroughly unlikeable Val. Special mention also goes to Lesley Sharp, who is frankly a revelation – fragile and damaged for reasons unknown, and then utterly consumed by evil, with the facial tics and head movements perhaps the only thing even more breathtaking than her capacity for dialogue. But it’s Tennant’s story – and the exhausted, quite ‘different’ Doctor who emerges at the end of the episode, greeting Donna with a silent embrace, is unexpectedly moving. The humility doesn’t last, of course. But while it does, it’s wonderful.

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Cameron’s Episode: ‘Human Nature

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The New Who Top Ten: #9

Apologies if you got an emailed notification this morning only to find a non-existent post. I was so good. I set up all the templates, assigned tags and everything and was all ready to write later, before accidentally hitting ‘publish’ instead of ‘save’. That’ll teach me not to do this stuff before coffee.

Anyway, our list continues with…

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Number Nine: ‘A Good Man Goes To War’ (2011)

I dithered about this one. I’ve said before that I don’t believe in the concept of guilty pleasures – there’s good TV and there’s bad TV, and yes, you can sometimes be objective. There’s such a thing as standards. As far as my own are concerned, ‘A Good Man’ embodies many of the things I’ve come to despise about New Who. There’s the ridiculous poetry – something Moffat seems to be particularly fond of, throwing out tawdry balladry on the backs of beer mats and napkins and then passing it off as Gallifreyan ‘standards’, the sort of thing that Time Lord nursemaids whisper to sleeping children, presumably to give them nightmares. These poems are then transcribed and turned into desktop wallpapers that saturate the internet, which is a royal pain in the arse when you’re looking for appropriate images for a blog post.

What else? Well, there’s the Eastenders-style cliffhanger about River’s parentage, the lamest of endings. There’s also River herself, who turns up early in the episode to poke fun at Stevie Wonder before disappearing until the final scenes – in order to deliver a mawkish, cloying judgement upon the Doctor’s actions, with an earnestness that becomes grating before she’s finished her first sentence. There’s the birth of the comedy Sontaran thing (and although Strax is comparatively dignified in this episode, the rot sets in early with the breastfeeding gag). There’s the ‘angry Doctor’ scene, which probably has its own tumblr page but which would have worked better had the Doctor not actually stopped mid-rant and said “Oh, I’m angry. That’s new”, which  – however well-intentioned – is the metaphorical equivalent of ending a drama group sketch by turning to the rest of the class and saying “That’s it”.

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And yet here it is, sitting in my hall of fame. What’s going on?

Moffat’s investment in Amy makes for a good start. This is Mrs Williams before she became tiresome and annoying – instead she’s frightened and scared, having just given birth to a baby she didn’t even know she was carrying (the stuff of women’s magazine articles and soap story lines for decades). Said baby is then promptly taken away by a sinister one-eyed despot, presumably to be trained as a killer. But fate has a far worse twist in store, with Moffat arranging a happy reunion before snatching out the rug from under us just a few minutes from the end. I still maintain that the dissolving baby would have been even more effective if it had occurred with no warning at all, but there would have been thousands of screaming children and an OFTEL investigation.

So perhaps it’s fatherhood. Perhaps that’s the reason I’m prepared to give ‘Closing Time’ far more slack than it is arguably due, given that the climax involves James Corden destroying the Cybermen with love. Perhaps for all its current failings Doctor Who does tap into the fears and joys of parenting, much as Eraserhead did many years ago. I know nothing but this: when Amy’s child is snatched, I cared about it. But it’s still a secret pregnancy, and those who complain about the speed at which Amy and Rory seemingly accept their loss, as chronicled in later episodes in which Melody is not mentioned (largely because they were resequenced) have missed the point: it almost destroys their marriage. (Said complainers would also do well to watch ‘Logopolis’, and marvel over the speed at which Tegan deals with the death of her aunt.)

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What happens in ‘A Good Man Goes To War’ is this: a confusing, jumbled legion of characters new and old is dumped into a battle station and pitted against a set of dark Jedi in cassocks. The pirates from three episodes back turn up for no obvious reason. If you don’t concentrate you won’t have a clue who anyone is or what’s actually going on. It ends with melodramatic silliness. It shouldn’t work. That it does is down to Moffat’s sheer audacity – within the space of two or three minutes we’re getting in-jokes about the writing process and things have got thoroughly silly, but we don’t care because want the Doctor to rescue Amy, and this strange bunch of misfits and blue-skinned merchants is oddly compelling. Put simply – and at the risk of saturating this entry with back-handed compliments – the episode succeeds precisely because it is so utterly outrageous. It’s a gamble that wouldn’t pay off later in the series, when ‘The Wedding of River Song’ tried something similar and never made it off the ground.

But of all the characters who stroll across the screen during the battle of Demon’s Run, it’s perhaps Rory who provides the unexpected high point. Forced back into a two-thousand-year-old outfit by the Doctor (we can only pray it’s been through the laundry) he stomps into a Cyber war ship, stern and impassive even as the starry sky behind him is filled with a multitude of explosions. It’s one of the few occasions Doctor Who has been genuinely exciting. I still maintain, four years later, that it would have worked better as the finale to the previous episode, but ruminations about structure probably won’t get us anywhere. For this scene alone, I’m willing to forgive ‘Good Man’ just about everything that follows. Even the breastfeeding gags.

Cameron’s Episode: ‘Dalek

Categories: New Who, Top 10 | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The New Who Top Ten: #10

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It seems funny to think that it’s been ten years since I was a young upstart working in academic publishing, making the most of the office broadband connection in order to read BBC articles about the upcoming revival of Doctor Who. It was early spring 2005, and everyone was fairly excited. We’d seen trailers showing animated shop dummies, ghosts and a spaceship crashing into Big Ben (well, the clock tower that contains it, although I’m sure they hit the bell on their way down). Farting aliens, irritating love stories and the arm-folding shouts of ‘Fantastic’ that would define at least the first series of Russell T. Davies’ reign were still a world away, and in the meantime the imminent ‘series one’ was little more than an intoxicating world of wonders waiting to be discovered.

A decade later, with four more children than I had the first time Eccleston put on the leather jacket, I’ll admit that I’m very jaded about this revived Doctor Who. Those of you who read this regularly will know that I spend a lot of time whinging about story arcs, companion-centric universes and ontological inanity – to the extent that the list that begins today will feature, you will note, absolutely nothing from the last series. It’s nothing personal. I’m a big fan of this new Doctor. Capaldi’s fiery and glacial and wonderful, embodying Hartnell and Pertwee and even bits of Colin Baker. He just doesn’t have the stories he deserves, although I live in hope that this will change.

But enough of that for now. It would be nice to spend a couple of weeks accentuating the positive. Over at Metro, where I write occasionally, the very talented Cameron McEwan is doing a top ten countdown of New Who episodes, one story a day – so it makes perfect sense to do our own here, in parallel. Well, sort of parallel. He’s writing “episodes you have to see”, which is a little different to the somewhat more subjective “best episodes”. But it may be interesting to see how our lists compare, so I will link to Cameron’s posts as we go (not that he needs the traffic). And we start with…

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Number 10: ‘Fires of Pompeii’ (2008)

Let’s get one thing straight: I bloody love Donna Noble. If New Who were a recruitment consultancy staffed by giggly hormonal teenage girls (and many recruitment consultancies are), she would be the branch manager, older and wiser and more grounded. She crash-lands in the TARDIS as the most irritating sidekick since Mel – with hair to match – and then is completely transformed. She is that rare breed: a New Who companion who undergoes a character arc that doesn’t leave me fired up with loathing and irritation.

Oh, for sure it all goes to pot in those final episodes. The Doctor-Donna thing is mind-numbingly tedious, and the Dalek-crushing, super-intelligent Donna in ‘Journey’s End’ is borderline offensive (what, she couldn’t save the universe on her own; she needed the Doctor’s brains?). But her transformation prior to that convergence is wonderful, and most refreshingly of all it’s done with comparative restraint, at least for this period in the show’s history: it’s nice to have a companion in the TARDIS who genuinely doesn’t want to shag the Doctor, and while the “No, we’re not a couple” gags quickly become tiresome, just for a change, the lady doth not protest too much.

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“WOTAN!”

‘Pompeii’ is early Donna. It’s her baptism of fire, in an almost literal sense. She is a willing traveller and the Doctor the most reluctant of hosts (the look on Tennant’s face at the end of ‘Partners in Crime’ as Tate loads her suitcases into the TARDIS is absolutely priceless). She reacts to the site of ancient Rome (or what she and the Doctor believe to be Rome) by addressing one of the street vendors in Latin, just to see what will happen. She takes the sight of fiery volcanic monsters in her stride, crying “You fought her off with a water pistol; I bloody love you!”. And she implores the Doctor to intervene in a raging, tear-stained exchange as Pompeii burns – although her high point arguably comes a few scenes earlier, when she clasps a hand over the Doctor’s inside the escape pod, as the two of them silently make history together. (It’s a scene Moffat would visit – however unconsciously – years later, at a pivotal moment in ‘Day of the Doctor’.)

But good as she is, Tate isn’t even the best thing about this episode. That honour goes to Phil Davis, in a performance described as “scowling” by Digital Spy: Lucius is a wrathful soothsayer who starts out intense and builds to fire and brimstone of Biblical proportions. It’s possibly the most angry performance in New Who and Davis hams it up like the villains of old. Not for him the balanced, morally ambiguous Machiavellian of ‘Timelash’ or the complex morality of ‘Genesis of the Daleks’. This is Omega territory. We could be back in 1973. In a way, we very nearly are. The entire episode has an almost overblown feel to it, as if James Moran wanted to write a contemporary story in the style of the Doctor Who he knew years ago.

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‘Fires of Pompeii’ is infamous, of course, for featuring an early appearance from a red-swathed Karen Gillan as well as a supporting role from a future Doctor. It gave Moffat the excuse for yet another over-arching mystery in a tedious scene in ‘Deep Breath’ (one to which I’m sure we’ll return at some point) but the episode really deserves a stronger legacy than this. ‘Fires of Pompeii’ is gratuitously ham-fisted, and is as invested in silliness as it is in the moral debate that forms the narrative thrust of the third act. But there’s a satisfying consistency that runs right through to the ending, and the Doctor’s decision to save Caecilius and his family – however inconsequential in the grand scheme of things – feels as much in character as does his initial decision to abandon them. When Tennant opens the door of his TARDIS, bathed in light, peeking through the fourth wall and beckoning both the helpless Romans and the entire audience to “come with me”, you can’t help but cheer. And that’s my general reaction to the entire episode. It’s crowd-pleasing, but sometimes that’s not a bad thing. Even with Doctor Who.

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Cameron’s Episode: ‘Turn Left’

Categories: New Who, Top 10 | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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