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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.

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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.

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Doctor Who: The Waters of Mars (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 Waters of Mars originally aired in 2009.

Adelaide, I’ve done this sort of thing before. In small ways, saved some little people, but never someone as important as you. Oh, I’m good.

Little people? What, like Mia and Yuri? Who decides they’re so unimportant? You?

For a long time now, I thought I was just a survivor, but I’m not. I’m the winner. That’s who I am. The Time Lord Victorious.

– the Doctor does a pretty poor job of comforting Adelaide

The Waters of Mars is the strongest of the specials that ran from the end of the fourth season of Doctor Who through to David Tennant’s regeneration into Matt Smith on New Year’s Day 2010. Despite teasing the issue in The Next Doctor and Planet of the Dead, The Waters of Mars is the first time that the show really engages with the mortality of the Tenth Doctor – exploring the idea that it might be time for the Tenth Doctor to leave. As much as the Tenth Doctor might be reluctant to leave, The Waters of Mars suggests that the character’s flaws are gaining critical mass and that his ego runs the risk of collapsing in on itself.

It’s a very bold and daring piece of Doctor Who, which is quite striking given the audience-pleasing “comfort food” nature of the other specials. Reinforcing ideas that Davies has been hinting at since the very start of the relaunch, The Waters of Mars is about how the Doctor can sometimes be absolutely terrifying.

This is what happens when the Doctor goes wrong.

This is what happens when the Doctor goes wrong.

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Doctor Who: Planet 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.

Planet of the Dead originally aired in 2009.

Hello, I’m the Doctor. Happy Easter!

– the Doctor sets the mood

Planet of the Dead is light-weight Doctor Who. That wouldn’t normally be a problem. In fact, there’s a significant portion of each season devoted to light-weight run-around adventures. The problem is that it didn’t air as part of a season. It aired as the first piece of Doctor Who since Christmas and the next aired around Halloween. This was something of an attempt to tide fans over, to remind everybody that Doctor Who was still on the air while Steven Moffat and Matt Smith prepared to take over the TARDIS, the BBC got used to filming in HD and David Tennant pursued his career beyond the show.

As a result, the special feel a little funny. In a way, they seem like an attempt to truncate a standard season of Davies’ Doctor Who. The Next Doctor fits the mould of Christmas special quite well. It even snows! The Waters of Mars is the darker second two-parter of the season, dealing with bigger ideas and adult fears. The End of Time is very much a spiritual successor to Journey’s End. All of this is a way of pointing out that Planet of the Dead is clearly designed to serve as the bombastic family-friendly adventure two-parter that typically aired after the first two episodes of a given season.

As such, the logical point of comparison is Rise of the Cybermen, The Sontaran Stratagem or Daleks in Manhattan. Indeed, Planet of the Dead is conspicuous for its gratuitous location shooting; the last time the production team went abroad to film a story was Daleks of Manhattan, even if the cast stayed at home that time. The problem is that those light two-parters are tolerable in the context of a longer series. On its own, Planet of the Dead is far from satisfying.

Egging him on...

Egging him on…

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Doctor Who: The Fires of Pompeii (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 Fires of Pompeii originally aired in 2008.

Pompeii. We’re in Pompeii. And it’s Volcano Day.

– turns out the Doctor likes Steven Moffat scripts as well

What does it mean to be “just passing through” history? To watch events play out, knowing the expected outcome to every major event? To realise that the people you meet have all turned to ash before you were even born? If the Doctor travels through history fighting monsters and saving the world, how can he allow people to die needlessly? Surely it would be just as feasible for him to prevent the Challenger disaster as it is to foil the Nestene? Why can’t he warn people about impending natural disasters? Why do people killed by the Judoon matter more than people killed in car accidents or lightning storms or murdered by other human beings?

The answer is, of course, “because this is a television show”, but it puts the Doctor in a decidedly uncomfortable position. The show is fond of championing the Doctor as a romantic idealist out to make the universe a better place, and one who can’t abide oppression or suffering. And yet he only ever intervenes in cases involving aliens or futuristic technology. Rather than seeming like an agent of radical social change, this tends to make the Doctor feel a bit like an agent of the status quo.

It’s something the show has wrestled with quite a bit, particularly during the Jon Pertwee era. The Fires of Pompeii doesn’t necessarily provide satisfying answers to those questions within the narrative, but it does a lot to develop the role of the Doctor and his own relationship with history.

Come with me if you want to live...

Come with me if you want to live…

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Doctor Who: The Girl Who Waited (Review)

You always said that for Christmas dinner, you wish there were two of you.

– Rory tries to look on the bright side

The Girl Who Waited might just be the most Moffat-esque Doctor Who script that wasn’t written by the man himself. “Timey wimey” hijinks, killer robots, glitchy technology and cultural misunderstandings all tie together one of the best episodes of the show’s sixth season. Writer Tom MacRae even throws in a juicy character dilemma to add flavour. Offering a fairly explicit example of why travelling with the Doctor might not necessarily be a good thing, despite how much fun it might seem, The Girl Who Waited serves as a prelude to The God Complex, while continuing the season’s exploration of just how tough it is to be the companion.

The waiting room…

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Doctor Who: The Impossible Astronaut (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 Impossible Astronaut originally aired in 2011.

Rory, would you mind going with her?

Yeah, a bit.

Then I appreciate it all the more.

– The Doctor and Rory

While Steven Moffat’s first season as showrunner followed the same basic format as the seasons run by Russell T. Davies, his second up-ends that. Viewers had become so conditioned to that structure that The Impossible Astronaut proves quite a shock. Far from an accessible and enjoyable romp in the style of Rose or New Earth or Smith & Jones or Partners in Crime or The Eleventh Hour, The Impossible Astronaut jumps right into the middle of things.

Taking advantage of the fact that this is the first time since New Earth (and only the second time in the revival) that a season premiere hasn’t been burdened with the weight of introducing a new Doctor or companion, Moffat is able to really mess up the structure of the season. Indeed, you might go so far as to suggest that he’s reversed it. Moffat’s second season ends with a one-part adventure that introduces us to a new era and new mission statement, but opens with a bombastic two-part climax.

It’s certainly ambitious.

Cowboys and aliens…

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Doctor Who: The Waters of Mars

Of all the people to survive, he’s not the one you would have chosen, is it? But if you could choose, Doctor, if you could decide who lives and who dies… that would make you a monster.

– Mr. Cooper, Voyage of the Damned

The Waters of Mars is a lot more intense than I was expecting. It started out as a standard base under seige story with more than an echo of the era of the fourth Doctor about it, but then something happened. The Doctor made the decision that he’s made before – and which he explicitly compares in the episode to the decision to watch Pompeii burn in The Fires of Pompeii – the decision to walk away. And then the episode kicks it up a notch and becomes a fantastically appropriate penultimate story for this incarnation of The Doctor.

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A Mars attack...

Note: There are naturally spoilers for the episode under discussion below. If you want a recommendation, then here it is: this is the best episode of the new series since Midnight over a year ago. It has some pacing issues and a very standard opening half. But the finalé is a perfect dovetail of the core themes of Davies’ run on the show.

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