#SRCZ Lists #1 // Ten Essential Episodes - Doctor Who (2005 Series)
September 19th 2015 sees Doctor Who return to our screens for it's ninth series. Doctor Who made what would have once been considered it's unlikely return to television a decade ago. Known to some as Nu Who, this return was unique in that it was a direct continuation of the series rather than a reboot or reimagining as so often happens on these occasions. This rather neatly leads us to an exploration of it's most notable episodes so far. Let's see what could change once the ninth series has wound up...
Rose // Back in the far off days of 2004 when the BBC announced that it was reviving Doctor Who following a 16-year hiatus, the news was greeted with enthusiasm tempered by a dollop of scepticism. The 1996 Doctor Who TV movie starring Paul McGann had failed to ignite enough interest to develop into a series and a race had been on to produce a fresh, new version of the show for a 21st century audience.
The man chosen to re-launch the show was Russell T Davies, writer of shows as diverse as Children’s Ward, Queer As Folk and The Second Coming (which starred a certain Christopher Eccleston) who RTD brought in as a new Doctor for a new generation. There was general support among fandom as well as for former pop star Billie Piper who had been cast as new companion, Rose Tyler.
The first episode Rose had much to do to ensure that older fans were pleased while a whole new raft of fans were won over to the show. RTD bridged the gap with the classic series by using the Doctor’s old enemies, the Autons and the Nestene Consciousness rather than invent a fancy new villain for the episode. Rose shows a newly-regenerated 9th incarnation of our favourite Time Lord, battle-scarred and weary from the mysterious Time War, which had ended both the Time Lord and the Dalek races, setting the scene for a show with a tone of its own, not weighted down by its own history.
So, in Rose we have a damaged hero who meets a bright and lively Earth girl who’s full of heart. It’s hard to tell who needs who more. The girl who’s wasting her life on the Powell Estate, working in a department store, or the Time Lord in need of companionship on his 900-year-long (to date) travels. Eccleston and Piper are superb here, as are Camille Coduri as Rose’s mother Jackie and Noel Clarke as boyfriend Mickey. Rose was a fantastic showcase for the newly revamped Doctor Who. With wit, humour, great lines, non-rubbish effects and even a smattering of internet conspiracy theories, Rose gets everything it needs to right. And the Doctor’s sublime “turn of the Earth” speech is screenwriting at its absolute best.
Dalek // The premise of Dalek has been repeated at intervals since it first aired, but has never been bettered. A solitary famous enemy of The Doctor being especially menacing, Dalek features the most iconic Doctor Who monster of all. Set in a then-future 2012 in the Utah desert, Rob Sherman’s superlative script gives us a broken Doctor and a broken Dalek in a dark and disturbing face off. Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor, still raw from the Time War, reacts with absolute horror and hatred in the face of his oldest enemy. It’s tough viewing, especially for what is essentially a family programme.
The solitary, but deadly Dalek, is reanimated by Rose’s (Billie Piper) touch and all hell ensues. Sherman’s script is a delight as he addresses the Dalek/stairs problem with a spine-chilling “ELEVATE”. Dalek does a wonderful job of showing us the nature of The Doctor and Rose at this juncture in their travels - him, dark and broken, her brave and compassionate. It’s telling that the pepperpot menace tells The Doctor, “You would make a good Dalek.”
The Empty Child // Much of the first series of the revived Doctor Who set up what would continue for many series after it. Written by the now current Executive Producer and Head Writer of the show Steven Moffatt this episode showcases the grittier, often more subtly unsettling side of the show. Lead to wartime London by a potential hazard detected floating towards Earth, the TARDIS is immediately in the middle of the action as an air raid falls on the Capital. Rose soon finds herself in trouble when she is carried off from the ground by a barrage balloon and rescued by none other Jack Harness, played in a still much debated love it or hate it style by the one and only John Barrowman. Soon we find out how scary the words ‘Are you my Mummy?’ actually are and the first two parter of the run is truly a great one.
Midnight // Midnight is a unique episode even in the world of Doctor Who. Set almost completely within an increasingly claustrophobic shuttle as it travels across the planet of Midnight, it brims with tension and makes The Doctor’s almost smug intelligence work against him. The creature that breaks into the shuttle and takes over the unutterably brilliant Lesley Sharp’s Sky Silvestry is never actually seen. The scenes between Sky and the Doctor as she literally takes the Doctor’s voice are so pitch perfect, you can only watch in awe.
The other passengers display the very worst in human nature as they become a braying mob eager to throw an ultimately helpless Doctor to his death and the final scenes are absolutely horrifying to watch. Sparsely filmed and brilliantly written by then showrunner Russell T Davies, Midnight is a master class in tense, tightly wound drama that would stand on its own two feet outside the world of Doctor Who.
Turn Left // When the Beeb announced that Catherine Tate would become Doctor Who’s latest companion no-one could have imagined the incredible journey her character would go on. Donna Noble starts off as a Heat-reading temp, oblivious to everything going on around her, to being the most important woman in the Universe. And Donna’s exit from the show was so utterly devastating that it felt as if a big, spiky hand had punched its way into your chest and ripped your heart from your chest.
In Turn Left, we see Donna take centre stage in another Doctor-lite episode that shows in a Sliding Doors way what would have happened to the world and the Universe if she had never met The Doctor. With The Doctor dead following the invasion of the Racnoss (The Runaway Bride), there is no-one to stop the Adipose; the Sontaran invasion goes unchallenged and a spaceship Titanic destroys London. Sarah Jane Smith, Martha Jones and Captain Jack’s Torchwood team are all killed and Donna and her family become refugees in their own increasingly fascist country.
Donna has to change this alternate reality to bring The Doctor back and put the world to rights and in doing this Catherine Tate brings her character full-circle as she sacrifices herself for the other world: The Doctor’s world. And in doing this Tate proves that she is truly one of the best companions the Doctor ever had.
Vincent and The Doctor // Writer Richard Curtis came to the world of Doctor Who best known for hugely famous films like Four Weddings And A Funeral or the sublime Blackadder series. In Vincent And The Doctor, Curtis gives us his own unique take on the Doctor-historical story as Matt Smith’s eleventh Doctor and companion Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) travel back in time to meet Vincent Van Gogh after seeing an unexpected monster in Van Gogh’s painting The Church at Auvers.
Filmed in Croatia, but set in Provence, with sets based on Van Gogh’s paintings, Vincent and The Doctor is visually gorgeous. Tony Curran plays the eponymous painter, whose genius was never recognised while he lived, with wit and a great deal of sensitivity. His relationship with Amy and The Doctor is particularly poignant as the time-travelling duo come to the painful realisation that not all demons can be defeated.
Curtis deals with Van Gogh’s very real mental health problems and depression with great (at times extremely raw) honesty. In two scenes, we see the excruciating pain and the extraordinary beauty of Van Gogh’s world. Firstly, following their defeat of the Krafayis, as Vincent lies in the grass under a night sky and describes how he sees it to The Doctor and Amy, the sky swirls into Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Then when The Doctor and Amy bring Vincent to a present-day exhibition at the Musee D’Orsay, Vincent is overwhelmed to hear himself and his work described by curator Dr Black (the wonderful and uncredited Bill Nighy). Leaving Vincent back in Provence, The Doctor and Amy believe they’ve made a difference to the painter’s life only to come to the devastating reality that Van Gogh still killed himself at 37, his work unrecognised in his time. Vincent and The Doctor is a thing of great beauty and rightly a modern Doctor Who classic.
The Doctor’s Wife // Asking Neil Garman to write for Who is something that would probably only have made sense under the current regime of Steven Moffatt. Indeed, it happened twice, but the first time around is the best in many ways. For one, it’s style is somewhat different from his regular nonlinear dream based narratives and it’s all rather surreal even for Doctor Who. Featuring cameos from a former control room archived in the bowels of the TARDIS (Later explored more in the periodically excellent Journey To The Centre of the TARDIS) and an Ood amongst others it’s a delightfully whimsical episode that revels in doing something different and gets away with it perfectly, as one would expect with any Neil Gaiman penned episode.
Highlights are many, from the official reveal that Time Lords can gender swap, the return of the SOS cubes last seen many years before, the delightfully bonkers portrayal of a human TARDIS in the form of Idris to the beautfully touching conclusion. We could say more but you've probably already basked in it's inventiveness already.
The Night of the Doctor // This prequel to The Day of the Doctor surprised many viewers when it revealed just which Doctor it was the night of. Bringing back Eighth Doctor Paul McGann by stealth for just this tantalising glimpse of what might have been could only have occurred in the 50th Anniversary year of the show and it impressed so many fans that there were instant calls for more from the actor. Will it happen? It’s hard to say but it sure would be good to see more McGann given his performance here. Add in the apparent canonisation of his audio adventures on Big Finish and some other references to classic Doctor Who and it really is a must see.
The Day Of The Doctor // Although it’s an obvious choice for this feature, The Day of the Doctor is a rather satisfying episode and, as the anniversary special sets in motion a few ideas that will continue into the future, continues to be relevant. From the classic opening titles from the very first episodes to the final heart-warming minutes of the episode with that cameo it’s one that keeps the action going right to the end. John Hurt is refreshingly grumpy as the War Doctor and there’s even a cameo from the then not yet seen Peter Capaldi’s eyebrows.
But even if it’s very apparent that Steven Moffatt couldn’t please everybody with this feature length anniversary episode it is apparent that as an anniversary celebration there really wasn’t any other way to go. Although it referenced very much the modern series by necessity it also didn’t deny the fans seeking references to the classic series. Looking at the episode in retrospect it probably doesn't live up to the hype that came before it but it certainly isn't a bad outing either, doing as it does in summing up and celebrating 5 decades of television.
There were many complaints after it's simultaneous world premiere finished but in the end it's a case of you can't please everybody if you try. View Day of the Doctor as a feature length multi Doctor episode with extra trimmings and it more than satisfies.
Flatline // It’s still too early in Peter Capaldi’s tenure to claim any majorly classic episodes yet but that’s not to say we can’t identify anything of value in the overall rather good series eight. One of its standout’s is the rather unique Flatline. Leaving the Doctor trapped in the TARDIS, (most of time also in Clara’s handbag too), after it shrinks rather rapidly after an energy drain the episode further expands Jenna Coleman’s role as she takes the ground action.
The villain of the week is certainly a worthy one too, a formless being that eerily takes life energy and disappears the body of its victims into some perfectly realised 2D forms on their wall. The final chase with the reanimated shells of victims pursuing Clara and co down an old subway tunnel is particularly effective. As is the scene where The Doctor moves the TARDIS Thing style from the train tracks is so silly it’s brilliant but also perfectly logical. What else could you do?!
As the series continues who knows how this list will change? We'll update this at a later date. In the meantime, keep reading!
(Andrea McGuire/Sebastian Gahan)