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Doctor Who: The Time of the Doctor (Review)

It’s okay, Barnable, don’t worry. I have got a plan. Off you pop.

[beat]

I haven’t got a plan, but people love it when I say that.

Doctor, what are you going to do?

I don’t know. Talk very fast. Hope something good happens. Take the credit. That’s generally how it works.

– the Doctor and Clara discuss standard operating procedure

An epic struggle for universal peace lasting centuries on a back water world; a conflict spanning generations; the potential to re-spark the Time War; the possibility of burning the turkey. The epic and intimate co-mingle in The Time of the Doctor.

In many respects, The Time of the Doctor serves as an effective counterpoint to The End of Time. Even the title seems to allude towards the Tenth Doctor’s final episode, as if to suggest that “time” is a thing that passes naturally rather than ending brutally. “I don’t want to go,” the Tenth Doctor pleaded in his final moments, a line that Moffat gently tried to re-write at the end of The Day of the Doctor. The Eleventh Doctor is more even-handed. “But you, you are the Doctor,” Clara assures him. “Yep, and I always will be,” he replies. “But times change, and so must I.”

This is when the magic happens...

This is when the magic happens…

(In fact, Moffat has a bit of gentle fun at the expense of The End of Time. Whereas the Tenth Doctor reluctantly sacrificed himself to save Wilf, the Eleventh Doctor quite selfless spends his entire life defending the town of Christmas on the planet of Trenzalore. Discussing the fake regeneration at the climax of The Stolen Earth, the Eleventh Doctor quips, I had vanity issues at the time.” He could easily be hinting at the hubris that built up towards the Tennant and Davies era’s swansong.)

In contrast, The Time of the Doctor was relatively low key. Well, as low key as an episode featuring all of the Doctor’s classic adversaries laying siege to one planet across hundreds of years as the threat of a reignited Time War looms large in the horizon. Still, as wonderful as that epic scale might be, The Time of the Doctor feels like a spiritual companion to Moffat’s other Christmas episodes – the story of the loneliest man in the universe saving Christmas (the town and the holiday), on an intimate scale that just happens to be epic; “the man who stayed for Christmas.”

What's cooking?

What’s cooking?

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Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

A Christmas Carol originally aired in 2010.

If you’re my babysitter, why are you climbing in the window?

Because if I was climbing out of the window, I’d be going in the wrong direction. Pay attention.

– Kazran and the Doctor get things straight

A Christmas Carol might just be the best Doctor Who Christmas Special ever produced, if only because it’s such a brilliantly obvious idea, executed with the show’s traditional wit and charm. Russell T. Davies tended to write the Christmas Special in the style of a gigantic blockbuster episode of Doctor Who, but Moffat adopts a slightly different approach to what has quickly become the annual tradition of the Doctor Who Christmas Special.

Davies traditionally had the Doctor collide with genres of Christmas television viewing. The Christmas Invasion was American blockbuster sci-fi, The Runaway Bride was fun odd-couple comedy action film, Voyage of the Damned was a disaster flick in space and The Next Doctor was a celebration of quaint Victoriana. In contrast, Moffat has Doctor Who collide with beloved children’s stories in his first two Christmas Specials. His second two are burdened with dealing with left-over plot threads.

A Christmas Carol is perhaps the most effective distillation of “Doctor Who as a story” that the show has ever managed, on top of being a wonderfully moving piece of Christmas television and hitting on the major themes of the Moffat era as a whole.

Turning back the clock...

Turning back the clock…

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Doctor Who: The Next Doctor (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Next Doctor originally aired in 2008.

Oh, goodness me. Well. But this is… but this is nonsense.

Well, that’s one word for it.

Complete and utter, wonderful nonsense. How very, very silly.

– Jackson Lake and the Doctor

The Next Doctor actually has a pretty audacious concept. It’s one gigantic tease that plays off the audience’s media savvy. Airing after David Tennant’s departure from the role had been announced, but before Matt Smith had been named as Tennant’s successor, The Next Doctor is one gigantic tease. Like the surprise “regeneration” at the climax of The Stolen Earth, it’s a shrewd attempt to turn the audience’s expectations against themselves.

After all, the gap between an announced departure of an existing lead and the point where he actually leaves is rife for experimentation – particularly in a show about time travel. Up until The Next Doctor actually aired, it was quite possible that David Morrissey was Tennant’s successor, and The Next Doctor was a rather clever twist on the classic “multi-Doctor” story by having the Doctor team up with his future self.

Of course, as with The Doctor’s Daughter, Davies was just teasing. It’s to Davies’ credit that The Next Doctor remains interesting even after the illusion begins to slip. The first half is actually a wonderfully solid mystery and character study, albeit one that descends into confusion and chaos in the second half of the episode.

The Next Doctor...?

The Next Doctor…?

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Doctor Who: Survival (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Survival originally aired in 1989.

Where to now, Ace?

Home.

Home?

The TARDIS.

Yes, the TARDIS. There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, where the sea’s asleep, and the rivers dream. People made of smoke, and cities made of song. Somewhere there’s danger, somewhere there’s injustice, and somewhere else the tea’s getting cold. Come on, Ace, we’ve got work to do!

– the Doctor and Ace turn off the lights on their way out

There was a long gap between Survival and Rose. It was filled with stuff. It was filled with lost of interesting and different Doctor Who stuff. There were books and audio plays and even a television movie to help fill the decade and a half when Doctor Who was not a regular feature of British television. A lot of that stuff was important, and a lot of it helped determine and shape what Doctor Who would become when it did return. It’s telling that the many members of the writing staff on the revived Doctor Who cut their teeth on novels and short stories and audio plays and specials in the wilderness years, while no writers returned from the classic show.

At the same time, however, the gap between Survival and Rose doesn’t feel as profound as it might. It’s misleading to suggest that Survival was a clear bridge towards the Russell T. Davies era, or even to hint that the revival could have emerged fully formed from this three-part closing serial. At the same time, Survival is really the closest that the classic series ever came to the spirit of the Davies era, hitting on quite a few familiar themes and ideas and settings, as if Cartmel’s vision of the future of Doctor Who was not too far from the version proposed by Davies.

Survival was the end of an era, but it also motioned towards the start of another.

Riding into the sunset...

Riding into the sunset…

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Doctor Who: The End of Time, Part II (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The End of Time, Part II originally aired in 2010.

I don’t want to go.

– the Doctor channels David Tennant and Russell T. Davies

The End of Time, Part II is an incredibly confident piece of science-fiction. It’s also fiendishly self-indulgent. “Where are you going?” Wilf asks the Doctor after the Doctor takes a fatal dose of radiation. “To get my reward,” the Doctor responds, as if he has earned enough credit and kudos that he can cash it in for one last victory lap around the cosmos. Cue an exceptionally sentimental sequence in which the Tenth Doctor visits most of his major companions (and a few minor ones) before he departs.

It’s a nice excuse to trot out the familiar characters from the Davies era one last time. Martha is there; Jack shows up; even Jackie Tyler gets a look-in. It’s not just the Tenth Doctor’s farewell tour of the universe, it’s a reminder of how skilfully Davies has built a world around his lead character. And this was really the last chance for the show to say goodbye to all of that. It makes a great deal of sense, and it’s well earned. Davies resurrected a television show that died a joke and turned it into a success story that was strong enough to anchor the Christmas and New Year schedules. He’s earned the right to be this self-indulgent.

Worlds apart...

Worlds apart…

The problem is that the show seems more than a little entitled, more than a little brash about what is owed to it. The universe owes the Tenth Doctor one last go around; the audience owes Tennant and Davies enough to put up with this sort of ham-fisted sentimentality. There’s a moment when the Doctor seems to honestly consider leaving Wilf to die from radiation poisoning, and rants against the cruelty of the universe. How dare the universe put him in a position where he has to make this sort of moral choice!

The problem is that the episode tries to present this a sympathetic moment. We’re supposed to emphasise with the Doctor as he considers walking away from a poor old man who has been nothing but helpful and trustworthy and friendly to him. The End of Time, Part II is clearly intended as a celebratory romp in the style of Journey’s End, a reminder of how Doctor Who conquered television. The problem is that The End of Time, Part II overplays its hand a bit, and over-estimates how much the audience loves the Tenth Doctor.

Not quite a blaze of glory...

Not quite a blaze of glory…

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Doctor Who: The Beast Below (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Beast Below originally aired in 2010.

What are you going to do?

What I always do. Stay out of trouble. Badly.

So is this how it works, Doctor? You never interfere in the affairs of other peoples or planets, unless there’s children crying?

Yes.

– Amy and the Doctor reiterate the way things work

Steven Moffat’s first season producing Doctor Who owes a conscious debt to the rigid structure of the seasons produced by Russell T. Davies. There’s an opening episode in contemporary Britain, followed by one episode visiting the past, one visiting the future. There are three two-parters – the season finalé, a “monster”-driven two-parter and a more atmospheric and moody piece. There’s even a brief spell in the middle of the season where Moffat spices up the TARDIS dynamic by adding in a temporary companion.

This approach worked quite well. It’s worth noting that Moffat’s first season was the only point following the departure of Russell T. Davies that Doctor Who was able to deliver thirteen episodes of the show on thirteen consecutive weeks. It struck something of a happy middle between Davies’ more episodic approach to the show that the more arc-driven storytelling favoured by Moffat. Still, there are moments when it seems like this approach isn’t quite the perfect fit, with Moffat’s voice struggling to fit into the structure established by Davies.

Essentially Steven Moffat’s impression of Russell T. Davies’ update of Andrew Cartmel’s social allegory stories, The Beast Below is an interesting – if slightly unsuccessful – experiment. Moffat’s second season would feature much more effective attempts to evoke the Cartmel era of the classic show, without the sense that Moffat was trying a little too hard to emulate his predecessor.

The space in-between...

The space in-between…

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Doctor Who: The Sun Makers (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Sun Makers originally aired in 1977.

Why did you come here, then?

Because my new little chum here seemed unhappy about something.

Mandrell discovers all he needs to know about the Doctor

The Sun Makers was reportedly written as a result of a disagreement between writer Robert Holmes and the British Revenue and Customs. That’s the oft-cited background to the story, so well known that it’s even included on the notes included in the DVD release. With that summary, you’d expect The Sun Makers to be a condemnation of the tax system, and a protest at the government’s funnelling off of money from the individual to pay like pesky things like roads or schools or hospitals.

Instead, Holmes has crafted The Sun Makers as something altogether more compelling and instructive. Rather pointedly, while The Sun Maker is a story about excessive taxation, the episode casts a large interstellar corporation as the villain of the piece. The episode’s primary antagonist isn’t a state official, it’s a single-minded number-crunching accountant who operates a large corporation that has managed to turn light itself into a financial commodity. This isn’t the story about individuals fighting for the right not to pay tax, it’s people fighting for decent working and living conditions.

Indeed, it’s quite easy to read The Sun Makers as a rather socialist piece of Doctor Who, ending with the massive organisation of the working class to resist their greedy capitalist overlords. That’s quite a radical shift from the story you’d expect given the background. In that respect, it seems almost like a call-forward to the pointed subversive social commentary of the Cartmel and even Davies eras.

I see the future...

I see the future…

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