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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: The Trial of a Time Lord – The Mysterious Planet (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 Trial of a Time Lord originally aired in 1986.

Well, this is a charade.

– the Doctor gets the idea quickly enough

The Doctor had been off screens for eighteen months following Revelation of the Daleks. Michael Grade was desperately trying to cancel the show, and it only limped back to screen with a significantly reduced budget and much shorter run of episodes. The show length was also reverted back to its default value. This season would only run for fourteen half-hour episodes – what would become the set length for Doctor Who in the years to come. (Indeed, counting the Christmas Special, the revived series also runs to that length, albeit in forty-five minute episodes.)

By all accounts, the production on the infamous Trial of a Time Lord was a disaster for reasons natural and otherwise. Veteran writer Robert Holmes was to provide the opening and closing scripts, but passed away before his work on the finalé could be finished. Script editor Eric Saward and producer John Nathan-Turner clashed over the climax of the trial, prompting Saward to resign and Nathan-Turner to temporarily become script editor himself. Colin Baker couldn’t make sense of Mindwarp. The last episode of the season was written by two writers wrapping up from Holmes’ first part, but unable to examine his notes on how he planned to conclude it.

Believe me when I state that every last ounce of this behind-the-scenes friction was visible on-screen by the end of the year. Luckily enough, the show does a decent enough job concealing these approaching problems in the first story of the arc. That’s not to say that The Mysterious Planet is an unsung classic, merely to point out that it is at least unburdened by the seemingly real time collapse of Doctor Who.

Ah, it's a fourteen-week adventure about watching Doctor Who!

Ah, it’s a fourteen-week adventure about watching Doctor Who!

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Doctor Who: The Reign of Terror (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 Reign of Terror originally aired in 1964.

Hush, child. Say your goodbyes and remember, we shall be leaving almost immediately

– the Doctor, about two minutes into the first part of a six parter

The Reign of Terror represents a fairly disappointing conclusion to a reasonably solid first season of Doctor Who. I won’t argue that the show’s first year can be ranked among the finest in the fifty-year history of the show, but I do think that the stories generally did quite a decent job of introducing the characters and concepts and setting them up so that they could support a lot more. It’s interesting to compare the title character introduced in An Unearthly Child to the version presented in The Sensorites.

While The Sensorites is still a story far too long and far too generic for its own good, it still feels like it solidifies a version of the character who – broadly speaking – resembles the Doctor we know and love. While I’d argue the Doctor was only absolutely solidified as a hero in The Dalek Invasion of Earth, there’s a very clear through-line from An Unearthly Child to The Sensorites which charts the evolution of the character. The Sensorites would make a decent (if unspectacular) place to end the first season.

Unfortunately, the first season continues on for one more episode. The Reign of Terror is just as over-long and just as padded out as The Sensorites, but it suffers because it feels like a massive step backwards in a season that has been very clearly moving forwards.

An animated sort...

An animated sort…

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Doctor Who: Vincent and the 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.

Vincent and the Doctor originally aired in 2010.

But you’re not armed.

I am.

What with?

Overconfidence, this, and a small screwdriver. I’m absolutely sorted.

– Vincent and the Doctor

One of the strengths of the revived series has been a willingness to engage with a variety of writers. While Andrew Cartmel may have tried in vain to convince Alan Moore to write for the final years of the classic show, Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat have managed to draw a wealth of diverse talent to write for the revived series. Sometimes this didn’t always work out (Life on Mars creator Matthew Graham wrote Fear Her), but it did mean that the series could boasts scripts from figures as diverse as Neil Gaiman and Richard Curtis.

There’s something to be said for the diversity the format of the show allows. Vincent and the Doctor is really unlike any other story the show has ever tried to tell, but it still manages to feel like Doctor Who. Which is something pretty spectacular, and worth celebrating. Doctor Who works best as a vehicle for any and all kinds of stories, where the audience isn’t always exactly sure what it is going to get.

An artist's eyes...

An artist’s eyes…

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Doctor Who: The Gunfighters (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 Gunfighters originally aired in 1966.

Everything excepting that rattlesnake friend of yours Holliday blew in this mornin’. Who’re your friends, Wyatt?

Well I, er–

Oh, quite, quite so. Allow me, sir, to introduce Miss Dodo Dupont, wizard of the ivory keys, and er Steven Regret, tenor. And lastly sir, your humble servant Doctor Caligari.

Doctor who?

Yes, quite right.

– Masterson, Wyatt Earp and the Doctor

I am hesitant to turn my trip into the history of Doctor Who into a series of articles about fan opinion or consensus. If I like a story, or dislike a story, I have my reasons that I will often try to explain away. However, sometimes it’s nice to have a bit of context. It is handy, for example, to know that I like The Talons of Weng-Chiang just a little bit less than most fans seem to. The Gunfighters is an oft-maligned serial. It is part of the show’s troubled third season, building – as it did – off the show’s generally quite solid second year. However, I actually enjoy The Gunfighters for what it is, which is a knack I seem to have for a lot of the stories from William Hartnell’s era.

People would try to convince you that it's like pulling teeth...

People would try to convince you that it’s like pulling teeth…

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Doctor Who: Smith & Jones (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.

Smith & Jones originally aired in 2007.

It’s only roentgen radiation. We used to play with roentgen bricks in the nursery. It’s safe for you to come out. I’ve absorbed it all. All I need to do is expel it. If I concentrate I can shake the radiation out of my body and into one spot. It’s in my left shoe. Here we go, here we go. Easy does it. Out, out, out, out, out. Out, out. Ah, ah, ah, ah! It is, it is, it is, it is, it is hot. Hold on.

Done.

You’re completely mad.

You’re right. I look daft with one shoe.

– the Doctor and Martha get off to a good start

I’d argue that Smith & Jones is Russell T. Davies’ most successful season-opener of Doctor Who. By its third year, Davies had firmly established the format of the show, to the point where he could successfully lose both of his leading actors. Christopher Eccleston had been replaced by David Tennant at the end of the first season, and Billy Piper had departed at the end of the second. Davies had demonstrated that the series could survive a cast rotation like that, and there’s a sense of looseness about Smith & Jones that suggests the show has really found its comfort zone.

The reason that Smith & Jones works so very well is not that it has an abundance of ambition. Its goal is relatively modest: to tell an enjoyable modern day adventure while introducing a new companion to the show. The beauty is in the execution. Smith & Jones races along, barely pausing to catch its breath, relying on Tennant’s abundant charisma, a constant flow of clever high concepts and a charming new companion to carry it through.

It works surprisingly well.

Standing in the Earthlight...

Standing in the Earthlight…

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Doctor Who: The Rescue (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 Rescue originally aired in 1965.

Oh, but Doctor, the trembling’s stopped.

Oh, my dear, I’m so glad you’re feeling better.

No, not me, the ship.

– Barbara and the Doctor

The Rescue is a surprisingly sturdy two-parter, following directly on from The Dalek Invasion of Earth. Despite the fact it’s noticeably brief, the adventure is fairly important in the grand scheme of Doctor Who, representing the first time that the show has a recruited a new companion since our bunch of time-travelers departed Earth. However, it’s also a well-told little story, and one which emphasises the relatively subtle shift in the Doctor’s character and role in the story.

While An Unearthly Child and The Daleks presented the character as a cantankerous and untrustworthy trickster, the show has gradually pushed the character into the role of the hero, culminating in the Doctor’s successful attempt to save the whole planet Earth in The Dalek Invasion of EarthThe Rescue continues this trend, presenting the Doctor as a genuinely sympathetic and compassionate old man, pretty far from the grump we first met.

The version of the Doctor we see in The Rescue feels a lot more like the character we’d come to love over the rest of the show’s fifty-year history.

Here' there be monsters...

Here’ there be monsters…

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