Doctor Who is gearing up for its tenth series since returning to television in 2005. A remarkable achievement after a sixteen year absence and considering the short shelf life so many modern dramas endure. To try and pin down its undefinable magic would be an impossible task so instead come with us now faithful reader as we pick (in broadcast order) ten of the best stories from the last ten years of the nations favourite Saturday evening series.
SERIES 1 EPISODE 6
BROADCAST: 30th April 2005
Doctor Who and the Daleks go together like bacon and eggs, they are a ubiquitous pairing and will battle each other again and again. Once it was announced the series was returning to television a legal wrangle almost prevented the return of his most well known adversary but thankfully this was resolved before production began. The BBC asked show runner Russell T. Davies to use them in the opening episode but he decided to save their reintroduction until the middle of the series, creating a ratings boost (as most dramas tend to suffer a mid series dip in ratings). And reminding people in the space of 45 minutes why they were the most famous monsters on television.
The Doctor has had moments of brooding since meeting new companion Rose, revealing to her that he is the last of his people. He’s been living under the delusion that along with his own race he had also wiped the Daleks from existence. Slowly she has been bringing him back from the darkness and in their travels he has started to see the wonders the universe has to offer again and through her regained some of his old joie de vivre. Homing in on a mysterious signal they land in an underground base in America in the year 2012 and the Doctor’s world is shattered by his discovery of a surviving Dalek.
The scene where the Doctor first discovers the Dalek, caged, weapon less and tortured is incredibly intense. Christopher Eccleston displaying a huge range of emotions from initial fear to spraying vitriol and finally almost gleeful insanity as he tries to destroy the alien. The Dalek has been reduced to ignominy and is a pathetic sight, its a brilliant misdirection as you start to feel sorry for this most evil of creatures but you just know it has a plan up its sleeve. Feeding off Rose’s DNA the Dalek self repairs and escapes its cage going on a killing spree in the underground base. At one point Rose seems to be lost and the Doctor is racked with guilt but its a nice twist when her survival and effect on the Dalek are what save the day, the power of emotion being stronger than any weapon (a theme the series touches on often since its return).
The perfect return for the most formidable of monsters and a huge success with audiences meant this would not be the last we saw of the metal meanies (with blobby alien inside) as they would return time and again.
SERIES 3 EPISODE 3
BROADCAST: 14th April 2007
To sum this story up as the Doctor and Martha getting stuck in a traffic jam doesn’t sound like the most exciting piece of television you will ever see. But this episode is amazing on so many different levels, from the special effects which are superb, the use of music (more on that later) and the powerfully emotional scenes between the Doctor and his companion.
Landing in a futuristic New York City on a replacement Earth (visited previously in Series 2 opener New Earth) after the Doctor dodges taking Martha to his home world (he has been waxing lyrical about its beauty) they are separated as she is kidnapped at gun point and spirited away to a motorway. The Doctor being the Doctor isn’t going to stand for this so he does what any bonkers alien would do, he starts vaulting from one flying car to another encountering the drivers and discovering that this traffic jam has been going on for over a decade.
The occupants of the vehicles the Doctor encounters are an eclectic bunch, a cat man and his human wife, a pair of married old ladies, a stiff looking civil servant and even some nudists! Each has a nice emotional touch though and give you a real impression of the monotony of their day to day existence but how they do their best to make the most of it, the indomitable will of the human spirit. It’s not hard to see why the Doctor loves our species. They have built a community and in an episode filled with touching moments they join together to sing the hymn The Old Rugged Cross and if you aren’t affected by this then you must be a Cyberman as you clearly lack emotions! A perfect use of music and the acting from the leads to the supporting cast is flawless.
Keeping people stuck on a motorway for years and years would make the audience think of a cruel alien torture but when its revealed they were sealed on the motorway to be saved its a moment of dramatic revelation that satisfies on every level. The Doctor and Martha meet an old friend The Face of Boe (literally a giant face) who sealed the people into the motorway when a devastating plague wiped out everyone else. The danger from the plague has now passed so the Doctor can free all the motorists but the Face of Boe has drained his life energy and in another incredibly emotional scene he dies in front of the Doctor and Martha but not before telling our hero “you are not alone”
After such spectacle (the effects work in this episode deserves a second mention as it is breathtaking) the Doctor and Martha head back to the TARDIS but before they can depart for their next adventure she wants some answers, why is the Doctor alone? The Doctor admits he has been lying to her, that his home is gone and he is alone in the universe. David Tennant and Freema Ageyman play this last scene so beautifully in the fading light the Doctor keeps his voice low as he tells her the truth and we exit on a bitter sweet memory.
HUMAN NATURE & THE FAMILY OF BLOOD
SERIES 3 EPISODES 8 & 9
BROADCAST: 26th May 2007 & 2nd June 2007
The first multi part story to grace our list (multi part stories will be counted as one) and another from series 3. This story really shakes up the status quo with the Doctor on the run from a group of aliens who are hunting him he takes the dramatic step of tuning himself into a human. This change isn’t purely genetic though as his entire personality changes. His real self locked away inside a watch (well he is a Time Lord after all) for Martha to take care of until the alien threat has passed (they only have a limited time to find him before they decay). The Doctor now calling himself John Smith takes a teaching job at a posh boys school not long before World War One.
The plan may seem flawless but the aliens are a determined bunch, the Family take over the bodies of some local residents imbuing them with their sinister personalities and seek about finding the Doctor. One of the young students finds himself caught up in events due to a strong psychic connection with the watch holding the Doctor’s mind. Poor old Martha is reduced to a servants role having to scrub the school floors and deal with racism from the posh twots that make up the student body. Many dramas especially those aimed at families would have chosen to ignore such an ugly aspect of the early 20th century but it is to the series credit that this is not hidden and in these more multi cultural times hopefully the kids watching will ask questions as to why she is being treated so badly just because of the colour of her skin.
The story takes a further twist when the Doctor, well his John Smith personality finds himself romantically entangled with school nurse Joan. Actress Jessica Hynes gives a performance that is nothing short of amazing. She and John begin to fall in love and you know there will be a gut wrenching moment when the truth about him is revealed. The hints are there all along as she asks him about his childhood but John only has the most vague facts as his memories are all just a construct of technology. When Joan learns the truth and realises the world needs the Doctor she is selfless and gives up her dreams of finding love again after being widowed at a young age. She knows she will never love the Doctor the way she loves John Smith and the Doctor pleads with her to come with him once he is himself again but he’s not the man she fell for and turns him down.
All this talk might make you think this story is light on monsters and that’s not the case at all. The Family take possession of scarecrows and send them marching on the school in an attempt to flush out the Doctor. The school provides military training for the young boys and as they mount a defence from the straw men the direction focuses on the boys reaction at being forced to kill with many reduced to tears as they mow down the scarecrows in a hail of gun fire. Tellingly John Smith isn’t able to fire a single round, the Doctor’s dislike of guns still present even in this constructed personality.
Once the Doctor is restored he defeats the aliens and metes out a gruesome punishment which will allow them to live forever but leave them imprisoned. It’s the most dramatic display yet of his the dark side of his personality. The story ends though on a touching note as he and Martha attend a remembrance service for the war dead and the young boy (who was attuned to the Doctor’s watch) now a wheelchair bound old man share a glance across the church yard. Powerful and moving it’s a beautiful end to a remarkable story.
UTOPIA & THE SOUND OF DRUMS & LAST OF THE TIME LORDS
SERIES 3 EPISODES 11, 12, 13
BROADCAST: 16th June 2007, 23rd June 2007 & 30th June 2007
The most ambitious series finale yet, this three parter was huge in scope telling a story that spanned from the end of the universe to present day London via an alternate time line that would see one tenth of the Earth’s population (temporarily) wiped out. It also reintroduces the Doctor’s arch enemy The Master and brings back fan favourite character Captain Jack Harkness. Now you can see why they needed three episodes!
Captain Jack had first appeared in the second half of series one and was murdered by the Daleks, after being resurrected by Rose (who had absorbed God like powers for a few minutes) the Doctor fled in the TARDIS before Jack could climb aboard. In the meantime the character was spun off into his own series, Torchwood and this three parter takes place after the first series of that. You might be expecting this to be a happy reunion but after a brilliant opening where Jack clings to the edge of the TARDIS as it hurtles through the time vortex the Doctor is less than thrilled to see him. Martha is very taken with Jack (but then so is 99% of the universe) but the Doctor is stand offish and won’t reveal why he left him behind.
Our intrepid heroes meet the last humans who are desperately trying to complete a rocket so that might follow a mysterious calling to a place called Utopia before the universe comes to an end. The rocket is being readied for take off by Professor Yana, played with real warmth by the legendary actor Derek Jacobi. He dresses like the first Doctor and bumbles around his laboratory though is distracted by a drumming in his head. A drumming that only gets worse at the sight of the TARDIS and the mention of Daleks and regeneration. Then Martha stumbles upon the Professors watch and all hell breaks loose.
Series 3 has done the best job so far of a plot arc building in the background during each story and paying off here. Remember back to Gridlock when the Doctor was told “You are not alone”, now look at the Professors name, remember the watch where the Doctor hid his real personality. Well Yana has the same one and in an absolutely spellbinding sequence the kindly old man finally opens the watch and is returned to his former self, The Master is back! Derek Jacobi proves why he is one of the worlds foremost dramatic actors as he shifts from kindly old man to evil genius with a look to camera that will inspire fear in viewers no matter how old they are!
Jacobi’s time in the role would be brief however as The Master is shot by his former lab assistant and he stumbles into the TARDIS locking our heroes out while the planets natives are closing in. You might think this would be dramatic enough but the excitement is turned up another level as we all know what a Time Lord does when fatally wounded. The Master regenerates inside the TARDIS, a deathly howl of anger and glee making this the first instance of how his new incarnation will be a perverse mirror to the Doctor. Its a shame we didn’t get to see Derek Jacobi in the role for longer but he burned brighter than most in one episode and John Simm is all manic energy as he realises his new body is young and strong enough to take on this modern Doctor. A huge amount of credit should go to director Graeme Harper who gets perfect performances from the whole cast and directs at a breathless pace but one that does not sacrifice emotion in favour of action. And that’s just part one!
Earlier on the scope of this story was mentioned and part two takes the viewer back from the end of the universe to present day (well 2007) London. The Master has the TARDIS and our heroes need to find him and in a brilliant pre credits sequence it is revealed that this most evil of Time Lords is now the Prime Minister of Great Britain! Not only that but he has taken a wife too! Another subtle perversion of the Doctor and companion role. Once the Master learns the Doctor is back he dispatches security forces to track him down and their pursuit of the Doctor, Martha and Jack makes this more urban thriller than science fiction. Again credit to writer, director and all the other crew for making this shift seem so effortless. You never feel it is to much or that you are suddenly watching something different as it all flows so perfectly.
So the Doctor, Martha and Jack are now public enemies and are in hiding. While the Doctor has given hints in the past about what his life was like on his home world we get a gloriously shot flashback sequence showing the Time Lords at the height of their powers. Modern special effects finally showing us Gallifrey in all its lush splendour and the camera moves into the domed citadel with perfectly synced music the hairs will be up on the back of your neck.
Events are taken up another notch (yes its true, events keep getting bigger) as the Master tells the world he has made contact with an alien species and will introduce them to the rest of the planet. Naturally the American’s are furious and the President arrives in Air Force One to take charge. The meeting with the aliens will take place on board the aircraft carrier Valiant but this is no sea bound vessel its a flying behemoth. Perhaps the production team had been watching some episodes of Captain Scarlet as it has some nice echoes of Cloudbase from that series.
To call the finale of part two a whirlwind is a disservice to how exciting it is. The Master reveals the aliens to the world and his real identity, the President of the United States is killed, the Doctor and friends (who have sneaked on board the Valiant) are captured and the aliens are ordered to destroy one tenth of the Earth’s population after appearing through a giant rip in the sky. Oh and the Doctor is turned into an old man, Jack is incapacitated and Martha must abandon her captured family to escape. By the time this episode is done your adrenalin levels will be through the roof! And there is still the finale to go.
As part three begins the word scope is again entirely relevant, opening one year later the world has been turned into a huge weapons factory, the population are living as starving huddled masses in run down homes and the Doctor is still imprisoned. Dystopian futures are fairly common in science fiction but to see one on a Saturday evening in a world we can all recognise makes for unsettling viewing. Martha is travelling the world in an effort to compile a weapon to destroy the Master and she is the real hero here as we follow her from beach front via the slums to returning to the Valiant. Huge credit to Freema Ageyman as her performance imbues Martha with empathy and pathos as people are drawn to the myth that has been created around her. She is telling a story to everyone she meets but its not about her but about the Doctor, showing how selfless she is.
The last part does make one huge goof though and unfortunately the special effects which had been near faultless go a step to far. The Master decides to punish the Doctor by making him age even further and he reduces him to a tiny little wrinkled figure somewhere between a sub par Yoda and Gollum. This little wizened old creature is impossible to relate to unlike the pensioner figure our hero had been reduced to before. Its an unfortunate blemish and one wonders how it made it through the tone meeting, pre production and endless edits to make it to our screens.
Still it doesn’t last long and as Martha returns to the Valiant and the Master thinks he has won by destroying the weapon parts she was compiling she reveals it was all a ruse and that the real reason for her journey was to inspire the surviving population to believe in the Doctor. Using the psychic connection that the Master had abused via a satellite network and mobile phones to dominate the thoughts of the populous (thus getting him elected) the people of Earth channel their belief and the Doctor is restored.
There has been a tendency to paint the Doctor as a messianic saviour since the series returned but your level of faith will determine if this is offensive, inspiring or just a bit cheesy. The Doctor manages to restore time till just before the aliens wiped out a tenth of the population and the ‘reset” button an oft used plot point in science fiction can sometimes feel like it is cheapening events by undoing them but here it is used correctly as leaving events in place would have been just to bleak.
The Master’s plans are in tatters and his human wife (who has suffered abuse at his hands, evident in a bruised face) takes revenge by gunning him down. While the Doctor inspires the best in many of his companions making them grow as people the Master has done the reverse and proves that his perversion of the Doctor’s ideals are not the way to interact with humans. Of course he could just regenerate but he would have to live as the Doctor’s prisoner so instead he chooses death and once again credit to the actors especially David Tennant whose howl of fury at the Master’s death is incredible.
So the world has been put right, Jack has gone to rejoin Torchwood and Martha has bid an emotional farewell but at least the Master has been defeated for good…
PARTNERS IN CRIME
SERIES 4 EPISODE 1
BROADCAST: 5th April 2008
After the emotional devastation of last years finale series 4 opens on a much lighter note as Donna, played by Catherine Tate who met the Doctor a year before but turned down the chance to be his companion realises the error of her ways and starts on a mission to seek him out. The Doctor is back on Earth investigating a miracle new weight loss program. Donna is investigating too and a number of scenes depict them just missing each other. With playful direction, perfect performances and a fun score this is the most confident series opener yet seen.
Donna goes on to be the most impressive of the modern companions and we see the start of her evolution here, the bolshy bride has evolved into a woman in search of wonder and adventure. But she won’t bow to the Doctor’s (or anyone else’s) whim and more than any previous companion is unafraid to stand up to him and voice an opinion. You may think their relationship will be nothing but bickering but they display a real affection for each other which never threatens to spill into a forced romance.
The plot is almost secondary but still offers up some wonderful visuals and in the Adipose the cutest monster seen for a long time. This is definitely a character piece though and we also see the return of Donna’s mother Sylvia and are introduced to her grandfather Wilfred played by the ever wonderful Bernard Cribbins. All three help to make Donna feel like a very grounded character whose life has never quite gone to plan and now middle aged seems ready to give up. The Doctor relights the fire in her life and she knows she made a mistake turning him down so to see them reunited is both touching and hilarious. Hilarious because they are stuck on opposite sides of the room, one behind a window and the other behind a door. They have to mouth their conversation to each other and Tate’s gift for comedy comes to the fore. Her role as Donna would prove that she could create the perfect balance between comedy, drama and tragedy but more on that later.
As mentioned series 3 had done a superb job of weaving a plot arc into its individual stories and near the end of this episode the viewer gets the first glimpse of what is to come in a scene that was deleted from all previews so that it would retain maximum impact upon transmission. As Donna makes her way to the TARDIS she encounters a young blonde woman, when she is gone the woman turns to camera. It’s Rose! Supposedly lost in a parallel universe her appearance here is jaw dropping and haunting at the same time (the latter due in large part to the superb music Doomsday from her last appearance). She fades away into the ether as Donna finally boards the TARDIS properly. She has no time for the Doctor’s pomp about how its bigger on the inside and insists he take her just a couple of miles. The episode ends with Wilfred staring into the night sky through his telescope and catching sight of the famous blue box and Donna and the Doctor waving at him. He dances for joy as they blast off into space and you want to punch the air in triumph.
So that’s the first five, come back soon as we visit France, Leadworth, Mars and many other places in our final five stories.