In 1989, Doctor Who screened its last adventure with Survival. The story continued in a series of novels taking up the mantle of Andrew Cartmell’s master plan. In 1996 a new Doctor was introduced in a TV movie with less than favorable results. Even though Paul McGann was a fantastic modernization of the character, the film was poorly put together and ultimately failed at achieving a new lease on life for the program. Again, a series of books continued the 8th Doctor’s journey and audio adventures followed as well. When Doctor Who returned to TV screens in 2005 it was with Russell T Davies at the helm. A writer recognized for his success with the drama Queer as Folk and contributer to the Doctor Who novel canon, it seemed a dream come true for Whovians the world over.
A very public figure, Davies was often his worst enemy in the press. At first he declared himself to be a fan of Doctor Who and applauding the efforts of the classic series creators, Virgin Publishing and Big Finish for keeping the torch burning. When he came under fire from fans (mainly on online message boards) during his first two years he changed his tune saying that the detractors by calling them ‘moaning old minnies’ and claiming that they were not in touch with their emotions at all. This created an unnecessary divide between fans of the old and the new, often making the two groups bitter enemies. It’s important to note that while online forums are a new thing, the kickback from fandom is not. Back in the day viewers wrote in either supporting or denouncing the direction of Doctor Who in very florid epithets. My favorite is the TV program which interviewed members of a Doctor Who Appreciation Society after the airing of the new series opener. Fans denouncing a new Doctor as terrible or a story as poorly conceived is nothing new.
To add to the confusion, Davies reneged on his stance of fans by including references that only fans would understand and bringing back no less than four monsters/enemies (Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans, the Master, Davros) during his five years as producer/head writer. He also took liberties by writing his own spin-off into Doctor Who lore and attempted to pull the viewers’ collective leg one time too many with a regeneration that wasn’t a regeneration at all. By the time he left and Moffat took over, the formerly supportive group of Davies fans was showing signs of frustration. It was time for a change.
The modern era of Doctor Who is full of problems but it is also immensely successful and still in production, making it a living creation rather than a legacy of programs that can be reviewed and investigated in a TV-style archeological manner. I make no effort to hide the fact that I prefer the classic to the new Doctor Who which is part of the reason why I am reviewing the classics in separate clusters to give each period what I hope is a fair shake. Doctor Who is constantly changing and mutating into something else which may not be one’s cup of tea, but it is never boring. It is its own creature and it is charting a history for a new generation of viewers.
The Modern Era Part One: Christopher Eccleston
The new updated version of Doctor Who would be built around human interactions rather than monsters, an emphasis on quirky humor and romance between the Doctor and his new companion Rose Tyler played by former pop idol Billie Piper. The first series was actually two series filmed back to back at breakneck pace, causing friction with the lead actor Christopher Eccleston. Eccleston had no real love for Doctor Who, but openly spoke of great respect for Davies as a gifted creator. In early interviews he made it plain that he planned to play the role as a more street level character rather than an upper class personality as he had seen in the classic series. He viewed the program as essential to children and had bold ambitions at crafting quality programming. In the end, he and Davies had disagreements in how they approached the material and Eccleston decided to leave. Eccleston was perhaps too fine an actor for the part in retrospect and lacked an ability to convey the oddball humor that Davies had infused into the character. However, Eccleston excelled at drama and portrayed one of the more brooding and intense incarnations on the screen.
The first series of the BBC Wales Doctor Who has very few references to the classic program and in many ways functions better as its own thing. This would change in its second year but for the opening series the Doctor was a distraught traveler trying to come to grips with a great catastrophe called the Time War. Dressed entirely in dark colors, the latest incarnation was a neurotic personality who seemed to charge headlong into danger as a means to escape his past. He also encouraged others to chart their own path rather than take an active part in their worlds. It was a very different approach which only changed in the final adventure when he took an active role against a vast army of Daleks, an unforgettable moment that cemented his place in Doctor Who history as one of the finest incarnations.
The first time viewers got to see a Dalek on screen since 1988 (unless you count the Curse of Fatal Death), Dalek is a bit too post-modern for its own good, but it is also amazing. Depicting the sole surviving Dalek from the Time War as a pitiful creature chained in a top security facility was a brilliant move. When it comes to life after absorbing Rose’s time-traveling DNA (whatever that is), it charges onto action just as we had always wanted them to in the classic program. The new ‘golden’ design is brilliant and Nicholas Briggs brings great manic energy to the monsters with his distinctive voice work. The only script to date from Robert Shearman, it does have some flaws such as the deliberate humanizing of the Dalek in the concluding scene where it opens up and feels sunlight on its face. Up until that moment, it seemed that the entire affair was a ruse to escape, but in fact we are meant to pity the Dalek and feel sympathy for it… which felt forced in the end. Or maybe I’m just a cranky fan. In any case, I am very appreciative of this episode as it is the best of the new Dalek stories.
The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances
Steven Moffat’s first script for Doctor Who is the perfect example of how the series can be done well. The characters are rich, their interactions move the plot and the action as well as the horror perfectly quantified. The script is also very witty and full of brilliant inspirations. There are some weird moments such as the modern Doctor Who’s obsession with the Doctor’s sex life, but it’s easily forgiven as this is a great action story tempered with the creepiest visuals and stunning special effects. To round it all off, it’s a periods piece which I have a soft spot for. This story introduced the character of Captain Jack Harkness who has appeared as drastically different characters throughout this series and Torchwood. Here he is a lovable rogue whereas later he appears as a tough heroic type and later still a campy caricature. In his first appearance I loved him, but when he returned in Torchwood it felt very forced.
Honorable mentions: The Unquiet Dead, Father’s Day
The opening 13 stories has a mix of victories and failures with a few middling tales as well. The insistence of an over-arching story was a poor ideas in the end as it made absolutely no sense. The Unquiet Dead has been called far too formulaic but I love it. A Victorian historical adventure with supernatural and alien themes intertwined is wonderful. Father’s Day is another example of the program hitting the right notes with its emphasis on characters and their interactions rather than monsters. However, the monsters are very silly and make very little sense. That said, it’s a well written and emotional tale that uses Rose’s family well… unfortunately this is the only time the concept was used well but we had many more brushes with the Tylers.
I’d like to include the series finale that produced an impressive visual of a Dalek battle fleet, but the two-parter is riddled with horrible ideas such as Daleks using reality TV to take over humanity and Bad Wolf. The regeneration sequence was very odd as the Doctor died on his feet blazing magical energy through his head and arms. The 9th Doctor, still very new to us, was gone but his tale had been told. I do miss this incarnation but feel that his story was complete. As Eccleston refuses to even talk about his time on Doctor Who, I doubt we’ll ever see him return.
The Modern Era Part Two: David Tennant
The 10th Doctor proved to be the most popular since Tom Baker… or even moreso depending on who you talk to. Tennant had a love for humor and slapstick and a very strong appeal to fans as a sex symbol. Dressed in pinstripes and trainers, this Doctor was quick-footed and a fast talker as well. The Doctor/Companion romance angle again took center stage as Rose and the Doctor were presented as the most perfect couple ever and then separated in an overly emotional sequence. I remember thinking that after Rose had gone we would be rid of the Doctor-in-love idea but Davies was like a dog with a bone, refusing to let go (in fact he had planned to introduce the Doctor’s TRUE love in series 4 before the idea was vetoed and Catherine Tate returned as spinster Donna Noble). The Doctor pined after Rose and nearly every woman he met became smitten with him. It was absurd and dragged the program down.
More classic monsters and companions returned and the connection between the new and classic Who was cemented a few times. The 10th Doctor had some superb adventures, but they were often booby trapped by Davies insistence that there be a human angle, usually involving supporting characters in love or a companion’s family that rarely had any impact on the main story. If these elements had been reduced or removed entirely, this era would have been truly great. In the end, over four years’ worth of programming I can only cite a few classics.
The Girl in the Fireplace
Another Steven Moffat story, Girl in the Fireplace utilized fantasy elements such as magic mirrors, imaginary friends from childhood and monsters hiding in a dark bedroom (there are seeds that would later bear fruit when Matt Smith took over with Moffat as head writer). Tennant plays the dashing hero, buffoon and tragic loner all at once in this one which is a bit much for only 45 minutes but Tennant pulls it off. I remember when I first saw this story I was over the moon at a more active and dynamic Doctor who actively took part in the adventures. Rose and ‘new’ companion Mickey are lots of fun here and roam around the spooky space craft arguing about the Doctor’s intentions. It’s a wonderful episode, features an impressive new monster (of sorts) in the Clockwork Men and even operates on an emotional level.
The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit
Russell T Davies was quoted as saying that he despised alien planets in TV science fiction and was determined to avoid them. Much of his era is set on contemporary London and involved alien invasions of one kind or another along with numerous TV reports conveying the events. His first foray into an alien planet was this two-parter which proved to be a real standout adventure. Arriving on a base perched precariously on the rim of a black hole, the Doctor and Rose appear to have a case of the giggles. After losing the TARDIS to the planetoid’s unstable nature, they become more somber, however, and become linked to the crew of the base who are determined to solve the mystery of the impossible planet. The slave race known as the Ood are seen for the first time here and they are beautifully crafted by the special effects team. When the Ood become taken over by the evil entity inside the planet (voiced by Pyramids of Mars’ Gabriel Woolf), they become the standard lumbering Doctor Who monster chasing kiddies under their beds.
It’s all great stuff that sadly comes apart in the second portion when it becomes clear the story has nowhere to go. Even Davies admitted that he had no idea what would be at the bottom of the pit and the monster that we do see only exists thanks to some CG animators who agreed to do the work out of love for Doctor Who. Even so, this is a memorable story that had amazingly impressive sequences, an astounding guest cast, some real scary material and a diversity of action that kept it fresh.
Human Nature/Family of Blood
Initially a vehicle for the 7th Doctor as part of the New Adventures line of novels, Human Nature had very different origins than what we ended up with. In the book, the Doctor has just lost the trust of his companion Ace who had grown sick of his head games. Disgusted with himself and questioning his himself, he decides to take human form to better understand the race. As a human, the Doctor teaches young boys at a school, confronts the horrors of war, falls in love and feels all of the things humans are heir to. Meanwhile his companion Bernice Summerfield is watching over him, but neither she nor the Doctor planned on the Family of Blood who arrive desperate for the Doctor’s blood in order to spawn a race of blood-thirsty warriors.
Paul Cornell does a fine job of adapting his novel to TV creating one of the more memorable and enjoyable of the Tennant era adventures (in fact it was voted #1 overall by fans recently) but taken out of context the impetus is lost entirely. In the TV version the Family is hot on the Doctor’s heels and he decides to masquerade as a human being as a way of the perfect hiding spot. Additionally, when he regains his Time Lord persona, he insists that he is the same man which misses the point of the story entirely. Nevertheless, the story is very creepy, has some wonderful characters and excellent action sequences. The second part is surprisingly slim on plot and mainly consists of people running around… but nothing’s perfect.
Honorable mentions: Army of Ghosts/Doomsday, 42, Blink, Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, Midnight
There are many also-rans of the Tennant era that are undermined by the same problems again and again. Army of Ghosts/Doomsday should be one of the best Doctor Who stories ever as it features Cybermen versus Daleks, but that part of the story plays second fiddle to Torchwood, Rose’s parents and the Doctor/Rose romance. Much like Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel this is so close to being a classic but it falls flat in the end. That said, the Daleks are magnificent in this one and their arrival is one of the high points of the second series. 42 has some awesome ideas and offers up some juicy opportunities for Tennant acting wise as he struggles to maintain his sanity as the intelligent star matter tears away at him. It also has Martha Jones who is a great companion sadly forgotten and underused. It’s rather strange to me to note Blink as a Tennant classic as it featured so little of the Doctor. A cleverly written plot playing with not only narrative styles but also time travel concepts that Moffat would later explore in series 5. Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead is a stunner and has lots of cool ideas and a knock-out monster as well as super plot ideas but there are poor ideas a-plenty as well such as the cliffhanger resolution and Tennant seems out of control acting-wise. Midnight is a clever idea and very atmospheric, but full of ridiculously boring characters and a vague alien threat that just disappears at the end. I want to like this one, really, but it just has too many flaws for me.
David Tennant had brought Doctor Who to new heights of popularity. A CGi animated feature, TARDISODES that could be downloaded to cellular phones and more were introduced in his time. Many fans of the series grew devoted to him and were angered that anyone could take his place, but in the end Tennant left the program and young Matt Smith arrived.
The Modern Era Part Three: Matt Smith
Matt Smith and Steven Moffat arrived in 2010 to take Doctor Who into its new era. With Tennant gone, many feared for the future of the program that had become a major ratings star and cash earner for the BBC. Doctor Who became a fairy tale under Moffat’s guidance and the Doctor a Peter Pan-like character of magical ability and impish charm. When I had heard of Moffat’s intentions, my heart sank. I had my hopes of Patterson Joseph being cast as a kind of Pertwee-like gentleman Doctor. Instead, the frenzied and dizzy-headed 11th Doctor won me over and I became assured that Doctor Who was in good hands.
The program has only had a single series and a holiday special to date and while I have enjoyed the material, there’s not much that stands out so far as a candidate classic. The new Daleks were introduced (and the golden Daleks destroyed), the Silurians were given another face-lift and a new race of aquatic vampires made their debut. The overarching story of a crack in time, the pandorica and the new companion Amy Pond was a major success and the several ideas converged into the best finale Doctor Who has had since it has returned in 2005.
The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone
Smith’s first two-parter adventure is remarkable for using the multi-part format well for the first time in ages. Whereas the previous two-parters were often uneven in material or filled with superfluous scenes, but in this case the story perfectly fits the format. The return of the Weeping Angels from Blink and River Song from Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead makes this one a bit continuity heavy but Moffat uses the concepts to build both up and enhance the plot thread of the Pandorica/Crack in Time. The dynamic between the Doctor and Amy is deepened and additional layers are added as they work together to solve the mystery of the Weeping Angels. The special effects budget was cut down significantly in 2010, causing the crew to come up with new imaginative ways to convey ideas and monsters which is is interesting. I have to admit that I am cheating a bit by including this one as it is not entirely a classic, but it is the closes that I think Smith’s era has come to date.
Honorable mentions: The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood, Amy’s Choice, The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang
The new series has a tradition of bringing back a classic monster or villain each year. In 2010, the returning monster was the Silurians who look very impressive but character-wise are a far cry from their former selves. In an effort to give the monsters more complexity, the Silurians come off as more of a Star Trek villain. The special effects and scenery are both breathtaking and the plot unusual, but the execution is lacking. Amy’s Choice is a fun tale that has the characters placed into a fantasy reality, something that is entirely absurd considering the ‘reality’ that the Doctor and his companions exist in. The series finale is quite divisive as it is very silly and contains a vast amount pf plot coincidences and contrivances. Faced with an impossible situation, the Doctor finds an incredibly unlikely solution that borders on the ridiculous. The saving grace of the adventure is that Moffat cuts down the power and near-indestructibility that the Doctor’s ability to flit back and forth in time quite well. Too often the year-long story lines are tired ideas that barely hold together but in the 5th series, it really worked well and came together in the final two-parter.
Thanks to readers to sticking with me on this long exploration of Doctor Who. It has been enlightening to me as the writer and I hope that it has been fun and interesting to read. Please remember to chime in below on your own opinions!