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Doctor Who: The Specials (Review/Retrospective)

In theory, the specials were a great idea. The BBC is in the middle of converting to high-definition broadcast. One of their best-loved and most respected dramas isn’t quite ready to make that leap, and will require extensive re-working in order to be sustainable for high-definition broadcast, which seems to be the future of home entertainment. It’ll be a year before the show can get back to churning out thirteen episodes and a Christmas Special.

However, the show runner who brought the show back from the dead and turned it into a highlight of your broadcast schedule, and the beloved lead actor who has become deeply associated with the lead role are willing to do a series of five specials that you can broadcast to fill the gap year. Producing a series of Doctor Who specials to tide over the viewing public and keep the show fresh in the public’s mind was a great idea. After all, you don’t want fans to forget about the show.

doctorwho-theendoftimepart2o

The plan has the added benefit of allowing Russell T. Davies and David Tennant a bit more freedom to stretch their wings. Davies can work on Torchwood in a way that he was never able to find time before, producing the superb Children of Earth. Tennant can work with Royal Shakespearean Company, playing the lead in Hamlet. All this, and fans get their prescription dose of Doctor Who and the BBC has the time to upgrade the show so it can broadcast in high definition. Everybody wins! Everybody stays happy!

Unfortunately, there’s a bit of a catch. It turns out that these five episodes have to do more than merely “tide” fans over. These five specials are also the last episodes that will be written by Davies and that will star Tennant. So these five specials become more than just a way to stop the public forgetting about Doctor Who. They also have to close out what has been a phenomenal era for the show, and wrap up everything in a nice big bow. And this is where the specials don’t really work.

doctorwho-thewatersofmars19

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Doctor Who: Journey’s End (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.

Journey’s End originally aired in 2008.

Stand witness, humans. Your strategies have failed, your weapons are useless, and… oh, the end of the universe has come.

– Davros, master of understatement

Journey’s End covers a lot of ground incredibly quickly. Even running one-and-a-half times the length of a regular episode, Journey’s End feels like it’s ready to burst at any given moment. Those who don’t like Davies’ finalés will find a lot to complain about here. The stakes are raised so high as to become almost abstract. The plot is written into a corner where it takes nothing short of a convenient deus ex machina to resolve it all. The Tenth Doctor and Rose are as annoying together as they have ever been, despite both being quite awesome apart.

However, if you’re looking at The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End as a story, you’re missing the point. The real news is that this was a crowning accomplishment for the series. Not only did The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End both pull a record high Appreciation Index of 91, Journey’s End edged out East Enders and Coronation Street to become the most-watched show on British television that week. This was the first time that Doctor Who had accomplished this since it came back.

The Daleks' master plan...

The Daleks’ master plan…

The only comparable accomplishment in the history of the show is City of Death scoring the show’s highest ever ratings. And that only happened because an ITV strike made it quite difficult for anybody to watch anything else at the time. So, no matter how you cut it, Journey’s End is a phenomenal piece of event television, one that really solidifies the importance of the resurrected Doctor Who in British popular consciousness.

In a very real way, the title feels somewhat apt. The long journey of Doctor Who from a failed science-fiction show in the wilderness to a crown jewel in British television was finally over.

It's been a hell of a ride...

It’s been a hell of a ride…

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Doctor Who: Forest of the Dead (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.

Forest of the Dead originally aired in 2008.

Everybody knows that everybody dies. But not every day. Not today. Some days are special. Some days are so, so blessed. Some days, nobody dies at all. Now and then, every once in a very long while, every day in a million days, when the wind stands fair, and the Doctor comes to call, everybody lives.

– River brings Moffat’s contributions to the Davies era a full circle

There’s actually quite a lot to like about Forest of the Dead. Like Silence in the Library, it doesn’t really push Moffat’s work on Doctor Who that much further. A lot of its big ideas can be found in Moffat’s earlier Doctor Who work. Still, it is quite clever and quite well-written, and a pretty well-constructed episode. This is, after all, the last episode of the Davies era that is not credited to Davies himself. Given it’s written by the showrunner elect, that celebratory feel is justified.

At the same time, however, there are some very uncomfortable gender roles at work in Forest of the Dead for female characters like Donna or River. Moffat would come under a lot of fire during his tenure producing Doctor Who for the way that he wrote female characters, but I’d actually argue that the problems with Forest of the Dead are more in keeping with wider Davies-era trends towards the way that female characters are written.

It just clicked...

It just clicked…

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Doctor Who: Doomsday (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.

Doomsday originally aired in 2006.

Daleks, be warned. You have declared war upon the Cybermen.

This is not war. This is pest control.

We have five million Cybermen. How many are you?

Four.

You would destroy the Cybermen with four Daleks?

We would destroy the Cybermen with one Dalek. You are superior in only one respect.

What is that?

You are better at dying.

– the Cyberleader and Dalek Sec compete for the title of “bitchiest Doctor Who villain”

Part of my frustration with Doomsday is the same problem that I have with the rest of the second season’s weaker episodes. Like Fear Her or Rise of the Cybermen, the second season finalé lacks ambition. It feels complacent, it feels comfortable. It feels like putting the Daleks and the Cybermen together in one episode is enough to merit attention, without anything more than exchanging pithy one-liners. It feels like the separation of the Doctor and his companion is the biggest and most important thing in the universe, without really convincing us that this isn’t the best possible outcome. It feels like the easiest way to make these threats palpable is to set them in modern London, without any real sense of consequence or scale.

The tears of a Time Lord...

The tears of a Time Lord…

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Doctor Who: Army of Ghosts (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.

Army of Ghosts originally aired in 2006.

How long are you going to stay with me?

Forever.

– the Doctor and Rose tempt fate

It’s only logical that anybody diving head-first into a fifty-year-old television show is going to have an opinion that radically diverges from the fandom consensus on a couple of stories. So, for example, I’ll concede that I like The Talons of Weng-Chiang, but less than most. However, the biggest divide – and the point on which I feel furthest from consensus – comes with Army of Ghosts and Doomsday, Russell T. Davies’ massive farewell to Rose Tyler, the companion he introduced all the way back in Rose. It’s generally acknowledged as one of the high points of Davies’ tenure and one of the truly great Tenth Doctor stories.

I am far from convinced.

The cracks are starting to show...

The cracks are starting to show…

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Doctor Who: Cold War (Review)

Hair. Shoulderpads. Nukes. It’s the eighties. Everything’s bigger!

– the Doctor

The theory that this fiftieth anniversary half-season is intended as an homage to Doctor Who‘s rich and varied past holds up with Cold War. If The Bells of St. John was a Pertwee-era invasion tale, and The Rings of Akhaten was a shout-out to classic Hartnell world-building, then Cold War wears its influences even more brazenly. It’s the archetypal “base under siege” story popularised in the Troughton era, to the point where it even brings back one of the era’s most iconic monsters.

Indeed, the “Troughton base under siege by classic monsters” story is the only classic Doctor Who formulation that this half-season visits twice. While Cold War is easily weaker (and less ambitious) than Nightmare in Silver, it still fills that niche remarkably well. After all, if any Doctor Who writer can channel nostalgia, it’s Mark Gatiss.

Going green...

Going green…

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Doctor Who: The End of the World (Review)

You’ve seen how dangerous it is. Do you want to go home?

I don’t know. I want… Oh, can you smell chips?

Yeah… Yeah.

I want chips.

Me too.

Right then, before you get me back in that box, chips it is, and you can pay.

No money.

What sort of date are you? Come on then, tightwad, chips are on me. We’ve only got five billion years till the shops close.

-the Doctor and Rose contemplate the mysteries of the universe

If Rose proved that Doctor Who was back for a new generation, The End of the World demonstrates that it’s still the same show that it was all those years ago. The show has always struggled to do “future” on the budget afforded by the BBC, but this second episode of the show offers a glimpse of what the series was capable of. It’s not quite perfect, but has all the ambition that a revived Doctor Who needs in its first season, laying a great deal of thematic groundwork and character development on top of a visual feast. If Rose promised an update to everyone’s favourite Time Lord for the twenty-first century, The End of the World existed to assure viewers that some things never quite change.

... and I feel fine...

… and I feel fine…

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