Goosebumps

Last night, Joshua and Thomas and I watched ‘Journey’s End’. I say ‘watched’. The reality is that Thomas got bored and spent half of it doing headstands on the armchair. Joshua was taken aback by the regeneration that wasn’t, and then stomped around in a huff when there was no ‘next time’ trailer, although I think he was probably just upset about poor Donna.

As for me, I sat there bemoaning the melodrama in the last fifteen minutes: there’s an earlier, very telling encounter between the Doctor and Davros in which the Time Lord’s pacifist sensibilities are challenged, even if it is hampered somewhat by Dalek Caan behaving like Johnny the depressed artist from The Fast Show. And there’s the crowd-pleasing moment when Sarah Jane, cornered by Daleks, is saved by none other than Mickey Smith, holding an enormous gun. And then there’s that stupid, stupid scene on the beach. And lots of hugging. And then Tennant redeems himself by a final, wordless scene in the TARDIS when he looks genuinely upset at the departure of the Most Faithful Companion, and you remember that given the space that New Who rarely provides, he can turn in a fine performance.

It’s a missed opportunity, but it did get me thinking again about something I’ve been tinkering with for a while – a collection of those moments which have genuinely lived up to their promise, the moments that single out Doctor Who as first-rate television, the ones that make the clip shows and the award ceremonies. The ones that make you cry, or – in the case of the examples I’m about to provide – the ones that make you want to shout with glee. This is not a definitive list (hint: your comments welcome), nor is it exhaustive (there are plenty in Classic Who, and one of these days I’ll get to them). But here, in no particular order, are my top seven Doctor Who moments that make you go “Yes!”.

1. The Tenth Doctor saves the day         (‘The Idiot’s Lantern’, series 2)

“Goodnight children…everywhere.”

Once upon a time, in the days before space-bound spitfires and silly dolls, Mark Gatiss wrote decent episodes of Doctor Who. This is the second (his first was ’The Unquiet Dead’, which I love), and the cracks are already beginning to show – there’s a lot of self-righteous cockney blustering and some absolutely excruciating dialogue between Rose and the Doctor at the beginning of the story. But in its favour, ‘The Idiot’s Lantern’ has Maureen Lipman, as well as sensitive support from Rory Jennings and Sam Cox, and one of the most exciting finales to any of the New Who stories. As the Wire gets on with sucking off the faces of the entire TV-watching population (the phrase ‘glued to the screen’ seldom seemed so apt), Tennant ascends the side of a transmitter in an attempt to wipe out the signal. There are obvious parallels with the ending of ‘Logopolis’ here, and that may have been the reason why, for the first time since 1987, I genuinely feared for the safety of the Doctor. You know it’ll all end well, and of course it does, but it’s a bumpy ride, and all the more satisfying when he inevitably triumphs – by capturing her on a Betamax cassette.

—-

2. The thing you never put in a trap        (‘The Time of Angels’, series 5)

“River, hug Amy. I’m busy.”

The Angels have everyone surrounded. There are tons of them. They’re vicious killers, which is new. They also appear on video. Basically things don’t look good. The creative decision to have them speak was controversial but, unlike the other change Moffat made in these episodes, it worked – it did, if nothing else, help us to understand their malevolence. But they’ve made a mistake by trapping the Doctor, because there’s one thing you never put in a trap, and that’s him. This is the first cliffhanger episode and as such it’s the first time we see Smith’s Doctor well and truly cornered, so it’s nice to see him respond in this way. So good, even a dancing Graham Norton can’t spoil it.

3. The Doctor saves Caecillius         (‘The Fires of Pompeii’, series 4)

“I can never go back. I can’t. I just can’t.”

Doctor Who’s always been a bit awkward about predestination. Hartnell bleated that “You can’t change history – not one line” and it’s long since been the show’s ethos: basically everything the Doctor does is pre-ordained. Hence things happen in history because he’s there to stop them, not because he pops in to change them, and it’s the wisdom of being able to tell the difference between pre-ordained action and meddling that makes him the tedious demi-God that has he thus become in recent years. (It’s a quality that his companions – being human – singularly lack, which is why the Doctor presumably calls them ‘stupid apes’.) But in this instance, Donna is right: Pompeii happened, and it’s clear from this that it was supposed to happen, but there’s nothing in the history books about a mysterious stranger saving a random family because no one would have believed it. This makes the Doctor’s rescue – bathed in white light, beckoning Caecillius and his wife and children into it as if lifting them from the depths of hell – all the more plausible, and the moment when he changes his mind and goes back for them is really very satisfying indeed. Seldom has the sound of the TARDIS’ materialisation been quite so welcome.

4. The Doctor defies the Daleks         (‘Bad Wolf’, series 1)

“Rose? I’m coming to get you.”

There are cliffhangers and there are cliffhangers. And then there’s this: a companion-in-peril moment that you expect to end in a look of abject horror, with a wide-eyed stare and a cry of “DOCTOR!”. Instead, Eccleston shows how, for all the arm-folding and grinning, he really was quite good at times: a Time Lord outmanned and outgunned and with no possible way he can win, but who is determined to go down fighting. The end result is goosebump-inducing. Accompanied by some of Murray Gold’s best music, the Doctor refuses to allow them the satisfaction of an easy surrender – and when he tells Rose’s captives the he’s going to rescue the girl, save the Earth and then, just for good measure, “wipe every last stinking Dalek out of the sky”, they believe him. And, crucially, so do we.

5. Rory grows a spine         (‘A Good Man Goes To War’, series 6)

“What happened to him? His voice finally break?”

A lot of people despise this episode. I think it’s a highlight of the sixth series, eclipsed in sheer brilliance only by ‘The God Complex’. The saga of the Doctor’s attempt to rescue Amy is muddled and confusing and refuses to explain why its supporting characters are there (only that they owe a debt to the Doctor, which Moffat’s no doubt going to come back to later), and there are ephemeral references to bow ties and the most ridiculously contrived (and thoroughly anticlimactic) ending you could imagine. But before any of that, there’s this: a stomping opening scene in which a captive Amy reassures her infant daughter that she’ll always be safe (Oh, Amy, if only you knew), because her father’s on his way. And Rory – wearing his gladiator costume for no really good reason, but let’s ignore that – stomps onto the bridge of a Cybermen warship, properly angry for perhaps the first time ever, and asks for the location of his wife. Never mind the ethics of the Doctor blowing up an entire fleet simply because he can – this is mind-numbingly good stuff.

6. “Everybody Lives”         (‘The Doctor Dances’, series 1)

“My leg’s grown back! When I come to the hospital, I had one leg!”
“Well, there is a war on. Is it possible you miscounted?”

The first Moffat Who story is a curious beast. It’s Jekyll / Hyde in nature, with a frightening, turbulent first half that features a strange, zombie-like child who can manipulate the telephone lines, and one of the most startling transformation scenes in the entire canon. And then, in part two, Moffat goes into zany screwball comedy mode. There’s an amusing denouement to the cliffhanger, when the Doctor frightens off the infected mob by telling them to go to their room, only to quip “I’m really glad that worked. Those would have been terrible last words”. Then there are jokes about ears, bananas and the Doctor’s weapon of choice (“Who looks at a screwdriver and says ‘Ooh, this could be a little more sonic’?”). There’s a kind of infectious joy about it, despite all the end-of-the-world palaver, and it all comes to a head in this closing scene, which sees the Doctor save the day by thrashing his arms around in a display of literal handwavium, but the zero body count for the story is rare and refreshing, and even if much of the dialogue is corny, the sentiment is heartfelt and appropriate. “Just this once, Rose,” cries the Doctor triumphantly, “Everybody lives!” – and it’s hard not to cheer along with him.

7. The Doctor and Amy go exploring         (‘The Eleventh Hour’)

“Amy Pond, the girl who waited. You’ve waited long enough.”

Yes, yes. I know everyone loves the fish custard scene, and that bit on the rooftop (“Hello. I’m the Doctor. Basically…run”). But my own air-punching moment came right at the end of this episode. It had been a dazzling tour-de-force from Smith, who spent an hour running around being manic and silly, in the days when Moffat’s scripts had him mostly doing that instead of acting sad and world-weary (which Smith also does very well, it’s just it’s less interesting to watch). So scrub to 2:44 and watch from there, because it’s the moment when you realise that even though he lets other things get in the way, Moffat still understands who he’s writing about and what the show represents. And when the Doctor announces, drily but with a wide-eyed gleam that he is, indeed, a madman with a box, I knew that Smith had nailed the part, and that I would love him. And I still do.

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7 thoughts on “Goosebumps

  1. I felt it WAS spoiled by a dancing Graham Norton! I was one of the many who felt compelled to complain to make sure something like this NEVER happened to anyone ever again.

    http://frivolousmonsters.wordpress.com/2012/05/29/robin-gibb-is-sleeping-with-the-fishes/

    • reverend61

      It was hyperbole, but I do take your point. I got lucky on this one, in that we recorded the Saturday night edition, and then read the Norton story before we got round to watching it, so I scrubbed it from the digibox and recorded the BBC3 repeat, which was clean. So I suppose I care about it less than the people who were actually affected by it. I can imagine it must have been extremely irritating!

      • There was much turning the air blue from Tribble Towers, I can assure you! We watched the next Graham Norton episode purely because we heard he was going to be exterminated!

  2. You’ve come up with some real corkers here, I must say. The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances is one of my all time favourites (not just because I loved Eccleston’s Doctor but also because Richard Wilson’s in it) – and I knew I love Matt the moment he yelled “LEGS!” (and, like you, I still do. He makes me think of the awesome Patrick Troughton). The wild laughter as the TARDIS crashes is perfect post-regeneration insanity.

    Why yes, I have eaten fish fingers with custard. Why do you ask? 🙂

    • reverend61

      Yeah, I just sifted through my memories and thought about the moments in New Who that stand out, or the ones I’ve most looked forward to seeing again when watching with Josh. We had to have two goes with The Empty Child; the first was just too much for him (and we hadn’t even got to Richard Wilson yet). I think it’s funny how the man basically has two scenes – and only one with any real dialogue, although the other has a corker of a punch line – and yet whenever I think of the gas mask zombies I always think of Wilson.

      I too love Matt Smith’s cry of “LEGS!”, but whenever I see that in context I’m always recovering from the trauma of Tennant’s excessively lengthy regeneration (it’s like the denouement of Return of the King, just boring boring boring). And yes, he is (I’m told, not having seen much Second Doctor) quite reminiscent of Troughton in the way he approaches the part, although the extent to which he succeeds is apparently a matter of debate. But I like your idea of post-regeneration insanity, which really does sum up the Doctor.

      • I’m with you on Tennant’s regeneration – we weren’t even halfway through it when I started shouting “JUST DIE ALREADY!” at the screen! The saddest part for me was that Tennant’s leaving means no more Wilf, and I LOVE Wilf!

        I’ve actually got the doctor Constantine action figure. As you said, only two scenes but he really stood out. I think it’s because his is the first transformation we see and it is TERRIFYING!

      • reverend61

        I had the same reaction during the last twenty minutes of Titanic, when Di Caprio was on that flippin’ iceberg. The woman behind me was going through an entire box of Kleenex. I was going through the pilot episode of Friends in my head.

        In the original cut of that transformation scene there was a skull-crack noise. They cut it for the BBC transmission, but if you listen carefully, it’s on the DVD. And yes, it is pretty horrible!

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