I loves me some superhero shows, I loves me some DC heroes, and the CW delivers me both of those things through a series of shows that, while flawed, I find overall much more entertaining than annoying.
So I wanna talk about ’em. And I have a blog, so I’m gonna, in a series chronicling the highs and lows, successes and failures, twists, turns, and tragedies of what shouldbe called the DCW-verse, or if you prefer whimsy, the Greg Berlanti Mask-Based Action Fun Factory, but remains called the Arrowverse because the internet makes bad choices.
So let’s dig into it.
Year two remains a simple one… just one show, Arrow season two. But it began to set the stage for something bigger, grander, and glorious.
The journey from Arrowverse to Beebo-Verse begins in year two.
Arrow: Season Two
Season two is thought of as one of, if not the very best season of Arrow. It’s based on the five-year-old rivalry of friends-turned-nemeses Oliver Queen and Slade Wilson, although they spend the first nine episodes on Oliver vs Brother Blood so we won’t know what’s coming. It’s an operatic battle of revenge that forms Oliver’s first real crucible as a hero, and there’s only one season of Arrow that can compete with it.
Season seven is… ongoing at time of writing.
In the flashbacks, Oliver, Shado, and Slade are living on Lian Yu, but find themselves being targeted by a group of mercenaries working for a mad scientist named Anthony Ivo who have arrived via a freighter called the Amazo. Ivo’s seeking a Japanese super soldier serum called mirakuru, which I thought was going to be a reference to Miraclo, the drug that gave golden age hero Hourman his powers, but ultimately wasn’t. Just a similar bastardization of the word “miracle.” Mirakuru gives a person enhanced strength, speed, and resiliency, but also drives them a little crazy, and when they inject Slade with it to save his life, he soon turns on Oliver. Thanks mostly to the death of Shado, which Oliver indirectly causes by choosing to protect Sara Lance.
Oh, yeah, hey, Sara Lance isn’t dead. Not in the flashbacks and not in the modern day. They hide this from us for a couple of episodes by recasting her with Caity Lotz, who later takes the character to heights they didn’t even think possible back in year two. We’ll cover that below.
In the present, Oliver graduates from being the Hood to the Arrow, and in Tommy Merlyn’s memory, attempts to give up killing. It’s… a rocky road, as he does arrow-murder the heck out of the Count a few episodes in, but he’s mostly determined to stick to it.
Diggle begins to reunite with his ex-wife. Felicity becomes a full member of the cast, with a clear crush on Oliver that he’s trying to duck around. (They play it fairly subtly at this stage… when Oliver has a questionable hook-up, she asks “Why her?” and only subtext in her delivery makes it clear that there’s a second part to her question of “And not me?”) Comics-Roy Harper classically had issues with heroin, and as a possible reference to that, TV-Roy Harper gets injected with mirakuru, which makes him predictably unbalanced. There is no similar comics equivalent for Laurel, who becomes an Assistant District Attorney but loses the job when she gets hooked on pills. Thea has taken over Oliver’s nightclub, despite not being old enough to drink there, but when she finds out her biological father was actually Malcolm Merlyn (who, surprise, isn’t dead), begins to unravel back into whiny season one Thea. And Detective Lance, a rock we didn’t fully appreciate in season one, has faced a career setback for working with the vigilante, and is now Officer Detective Quentin Lance.
The Rough Spots
I call it “Felicity interruptus.” Every time, every single time that Oliver needs to attend a meeting to protect his company or have a quick conversation to save his personal life, Felicity or sometimes Digg will call/show up with news about whoever needs Arrow-justice that week, and he’ll have to run off. Without fail. Every time. I gave Spider-Man: Homecoming crap for the same thing… if he chooses hero stuff over personal stuff every single time an important personal matter turns up, it gets old and loses impact.
In one case Felicity actively asks him not to go, and to instead sort out his family business so that he, his mother, and his sister wouldn’t lose their home, their nightclub, and their trust funds (who gave the board of Queen Consolidated control of Oliver and Thea’s trust funds? That is eight brands of dumb). Something that could have been accomplished by saying “Call me back when you have a minute” when Oliver said “I can’t talk right now.”
That’s the one that broke me. That’s the worst one they ever did. It might also be the last one they ever did. In season three I believe he runs out of friends and loved ones who don’t know his identity. But it was still a bad, bad trope.
Also, when Thea’s being written better, Laurel develops a pill addiction that is not a flattering colour on her. As soon as Laurel gets clean, Thea starts endlessly whining about being lied to all the time. Which… she isn’t wrong, but there’s being right and there’s being… not insufferable.
Why is the worst written character always a woman? Well… except on Supergirl, but we’re still two years out from that.
The soap opera romance is better this year, though… the only major occurence being some awkwardness between Oliver and Laurel when Laurel’s sister Sara Lance turns out not to be dead and she and Oliver start banging again.
Let’s see… Felicity interruptus, Laurel’s on pills, Thea bitching about being lied to… I think that’s it.
Oliver’s quest towards being a hero begins with his attempt to stop killing people, which, yes, kind of an important step, especially when you consider how many of his season one victims were just hired security as opposed to actual villainous millionaires. So the transition to hero continues, expressed by changing his vigilante name from “the Hood” to “the Arrow,” but I really want to talk about one of the most important Arrowverse leads, who makes their first appearance this year.
Aside from Barry Allen, I mean.
So. Sara Lance. In the flashbacks, Sara’s on the Amazo working for Ivo… in the present day, she’s the Canary, who spent five years with the League of Assassins before returning to Starling City to prey on men who get violent with women. Soon she and the Arrow are crossing paths, and she joins Team Arrow.
Sara continues the trend of “the costume predates the character,” as she is called “the Canary,” but isn’t A-list comics hero Black Canary. That’s still to come. Still, Sara was such a compelling addition to the show that fans couldn’t help but fall for her. Like Oliver, she’s doing her best to put killing behind her. Like Oliver, her past isn’t exactly willing to let her go that easily. Like Oliver, she’s an impressive badass. Unlike Oliver, she manages not to get lost in brooding and self-pity all the goddamn time.
There’s nothing about Sara Lance, proto-Canary, that screams “make her the captain of a time-travelling spaceship,” not yet anyway, but she was a breath of fresh air and the franchise was and is lucky to have her.
This is the first example of an Arrowverse trend… a warm-up villain who sets the stage for the Big Bad to come. It’s also one of the few times that said warm-up villain sticks around for the whole season. It’s Sebastian Blood, played by Kevin Alejandro, formerly of the James Woods legal drama Shark (not the only Shark veteran to sign on this season), and soon to be of my beloved celestial drama/crime procedural Lucifer. Despite the fact that he’s named “Sebastian Blood,” I somehow didn’t figure out that he’d be the Arrowverse twist on Teen Titans nemesis Brother Blood until someone called him that, probably because Brother Blood has never been a Green Arrow villain per se, but there really aren’t so many iconic Green Arrow villains that they can limit themselves to that. He basically works. Kevin Alejandro is a solid performer, and the growing mystery behind Sebastian Blood is well-played.
But the primary villain of Arrow season two is, perhaps, the very best villain the Arrowverse has ever, ever done… Deathstroke.
The season two flashbacks show how Oliver and Slade Wilson (Manu Bennett) began to turn from friends to enemies. At the end of the fall finale, it’s revealed that he’s alive, well, and has been in Starling City for some time, plotting some truly operatic revenge against Oliver. Called “Deathstroke” by ARGUS, the Arrowverse’s clandestine government agency of choice, Slade is a physical menace that Team Arrow combined can barely hold up against, and a tactical threat Oliver can hardly keep up with. And it’s all rooted in a compelling performance by Manu Bennett. The complex relationship between Oliver and Slade, past and present, gives the season bite and depth. Plus, flank him with Brother Blood and an ice-cold Summer Glau as Isobel Rochev, and we’ve got a highly effective cabal of villains. I like a good cabal.
Fan service in the Arrowverse comes in three varieties: the good (characters from the comics and geek-friendly guest stars), the bad (characters grossly misinterpreted), and the weird (characters named after comics characters but not even vaguely similar to them).
Two, count ’em, two Firefly vets this season. Sean Maher makes a couple of appearances as the Arrowverse version of Shrapnel (minus the meta powers and exploding body), but far more significant is Summer Glau’s season-long turn as Isobel Rochev, who on the show and in the comics makes a play to steal Oliver’s company.
Bronze Tiger isn’t traditionally a villain. Yes, I certainly know him best as a member of the Suicide Squad, but one of the “good characters who guides the squad” rather than one of the villains pressed into service. And while the episode Suicide Squad gives him a moment of redemption, it will take five years for Tiger, as the show calls him, to begin to move from villain to complicated potential hero. But he’s played by Black Dynamite himself, Michael Jai White, and that’s great.
Early in season two, Oliver and the Canary take on a serial killer named the Dollmaker. This might be the one time Arrow and Gotham both use a villain and Arrow does it better.
Robert Knepper, formerly of Prison Break and Carnivale, soon to be of iZombie, menaces Oliver as the precision-timed villain Clock King.
Can’t ask for a bigger fan service episode than the assembly of the Suicide Squad, on a mission to DC Comics’ fictional European nation of Markovia.
Nicholas Lea of The X-Files helps Moira Queen run for mayor.
The Huntress is back, and still evil. They call her episode “Birds of Prey,” because it involves the Huntress meeting the Canary, but they do not bond or become friends. Failed WB series Birds of Prey did this pairing better, and that’s nothing to be proud of.
Amanda Waller comes to the Arrowverse, with the Suicide Squad in tow… but maybe because this is the CW, they went with a young, skinny Amanda Waller. The New 52 reboot of DC tried the same thing, and it just doesn’t suit the character. Cynthia Addai-Robinson does well enough with the role, but it’s just not… well, she’s no Viola Davis.
The flashbacks… and one present-day episode set in Russia… introduce Anatoly Knyazev, known to Batman readers as the KGBeast. He isn’t called KGBeast for another five years, and he bears little resemblance to his comics counterpart (being more of a tactician than a physical menace), but I do love him.
Speaking of season two fan service that would be corrected five years later… Professor Ivo’s boat is named in honour of comics-Ivo’s most notable creation, the android Amazo, who can copy the powers of the entire Justice League and is not, canonically, a boat. In year two, it’s an Easter egg for comics fans. In year seven, they introduce Ivo Labs, and a proper Amazo android, who in deference to season two is infused with mirakuru. It was a bit of a wait, but worth it.
Slade’s first mirakuru-enhanced minion is named Cyrus Gold, a clear reference to classic comic villain Solomon Grundy, something backed up by Gold’s fascination with the Solomon Grundy poem. Once again… Gotham did this one better. I hate saying that. They keep making me say that.
Diggle’s ex-and-future-wife, Lyla Morgan, has the codename “Harbinger” in the episode “Suicide Squad.” Making her a reference to the comics character Harbinger (real name Lyla), a key player in the mack-daddy of all comics crossovers, Crisis on Infinite Earths. At the time, we had no reason to believe that they might be working towards a TV version of Crisis. Things… things have changed.
Jean Loring, the Queen family defence attorney, and Starling City DA Kate Spencer both have one thing in common with their comics counterparts, in that they have similar professions. But Kate never fights crime as the Manhunter, and Jean seems unlikely to marry Ray Palmer or… do any of the dark-ass things Jean got up to starting with Identity Crisis. A story DC is probably trying to queitly walk back.
There still isn’t a real crossover in season two, because there’s still only one show… but we have a crossover of sorts in “The Scientist” and “Three Ghosts.” After filling the first third of the season with TV reports on the impending and controversial opening of a particle accelerator at Central City’s STAR Labs, future Flash Barry Allen makes his way to Starling City in the eighth episode… which for the next few years is exactly when the crossovers happen. Barry assists Team Arrow in stopping Brother Blood’s first successful mirakuru minion, gets closer to Felicity than Oliver liked, and returns home to Central City just in time to get struck by lightning after the STAR Labs particle accelerator goes kablooey.
This is more of a proto-crossover than last year’s introduction of the Huntress, because they very much intended for Barry to spun off into his own series. He was supposed to come back for episode 19 as a backdoor pilot for a Flash series, but reaction to his first appearances was positive enough that they decided to make a proper pilot instead. Episode 19 does, however, introduce two of Barry’s future best friends: Cisco Ramon and Caitlin Snow. And name drops Harrison Wells and Iris West.
There’s always deaths in the Arrowverse, and it’s usually someone you didn’t want to go.
Needless to say, here there be spoilers.
Farewell to Oliver’s mother, Moira Queen. She was complex, rarely entirely trustworthy, but as soon as they revealed that she knew Oliver was the Arrow we had to know her time was limited. Moira Queen is a casualty in Slade’s war against Oliver.
Moira’s final episode also involves flashbacks to a fling of Oliver’s who ended up pregnant. This… this is going to be important down the line.
Isobel Rochev was on Robert Queen’s list.
Arrow season two introduces us to Nyssa Al Ghul, the lesser known daughter of Batman villain Ra’s Al Ghul. Lesser known to the point where even I’d never heard of her. Later Nyssa would be given her own DLC in the Batman: Arkham Knight game, which I have to believe Arrow is responsible for. Nyssa is a very popular character with Arrowverse fans, but sadly actress Katrina Law got busy, so we don’t see much of her lately.
Nyssa’s debut is also the first occurrence of something the Arrowverse is really good at. The Arrowverse has a strong track record with LGBT characters, and they’re great at one specific thing… normalization. People don’t strongly react to a character being gay on an Arroverse show, even one who’s just come out. Being gay or bi isn’t a scandal or a shock or a Condition, references to same-sex relationships aren’t treated differently. Which is how it should be. In “Heir to the Demon,” Nyssa’s first appearance, the entire gang learns that Sara and Nyssa were romantically involved during Sara’s five years with the League of Assassins. Everyone, from her sister to her parents to her past and future lover Oliver, responds with at most a simple “….Oh.” And then they’re fine. Hell, Quentin’s just happy that Sara had someone special for the last five years, he could not care less what gender they were.
I talked to Manu Bennett shortly after Moira’s death aired. I told him that in the moment, I almost felt bad for Slade, because it seemed like he wished he didn’t have to do this. His head popped up, a smile on his face, because this was exactly what he was going for, and he was glad to know it landed. Cool guy, Manu Bennett. Shook my hand twice.
Next time in this series, The Flash becomes the makeshift Superman to Arrow’s pseudo-Batman… something they dig even further into… and a certain British con-artist magician garners attention.
Next time on the blog in general… who knows. I have other projects demanding my time. We’ll see.
…So how about that Thirteenth Doctor, huh? She’s fun. Looking forward to seeing where that’s going. So guess I need to adjust my opening…
A new Doctor has arrived. The first female Doctor. This has some people wondering if it’s time to try out this show I love so much.
Well, that’s what I’m here for. Because when you love a show as much as I love Doctor Who, you have opinions.
These are mine.
No, no it’s not. That was The Time of The Doctor. Nine months later, it’s time for Peter Capaldi to get to work.
Series Eight: Twelve Arrives
I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a post-regeneration episode so… meta as Deep Breath, the debut episode for Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor. While The Doctor, Clara, and a returning (for the last time, unless Chris Chibnall chooses to bring them back) Paternoster Gang track sinister robots murdering people (and one dinosaur a freshly regenerated and confused Doctor accidentally brought to Victorian London) to harvest their body parts. But Clara’s distracted from all of that, because she’s not having the easiest time adjusting to The Doctor’s regeneration. She’s hoping there’s a way to change him back into young, dashing, Eleven.
It’s as though, for the most part, Clara is meant to represent all the new-Who fans (previously embodied by UNIT’s Doctor-fangirl scientist Osgood, introduced in the 50th anniversary and back in this series) who reacted poorly to an older actor playing The Doctor back when Capaldi was announced. Which was a little mean, Capaldi had been a Doctor Who fan his whole life and maybe we could have just been happy for him getting to actually be The Doctor.
And so a series of characters drill into Clara that this new face is The Doctor now and she needs to accept that. Madame Vastra rakes her over the coals for thinking he was young in the first place, Twelve pleads with her to just… see him, and we even had an unexpected return appearance by Matt Smith as Eleven, phoning Clara from Trenzalore, right before his regeneration. Told you the Tardis phone was off the hook for a reason.
It all adds up to the most work this show has done to sell the audience on The Doctor regenerating since Patrick Troughton took over. You know, the first time it happened. Deep Breath puts more work into selling the audience on a regeneration than the time they first had to explain what regeneration was.
In her defense, Clara pushes back hard against the notion that she was just doing all this because she had a crush on Eleven. In fact, one exchange between Twelve and Clara clarifies their previous relationship, and sets the stage for their new dynamic…
“I’m The Doctor. I’ve lived for over two thousand years, and not all of them were good. I’ve made many mistakes, and it’s about time that I did something about that. Clara, I’m not your boyfriend.”
“I never thought you were.” “I never said it was your mistake.”
Yes… Eleven was falling in love with Clara. Yes, he thought it may have been mutual. Which explains why his response was so gung ho when she called him on Christmas saying “You’re my boyfriend,” and a touch disappointed when she explained she just wanted him to pretend to be her boyfriend for family dinner. I didn’t mention that bit last time because I felt this moment, when he sees what they are and were with new eyes, was the defining moment for The Doctor and Clara. He’s not her boyfriend and never was… but she remains important to him. Incredibly so, as I’ll explain in our next segment hey here it comes–
“Look at the eyebrows! These are attack eyebrows. You could take bottle tops off with these!”
I can’t speak for certain that the circumstances of a regeneration are meant to leave a mark on the new Doctor, but my English professors all taught me to ignore and disdain author intent so I look for it anyway. And Eleven regenerated after centuries of war against his worst enemies. My take is that it left a shell, but not nearly so much as being forced to watch generations of friends be born, age, and die. For the first three centuries on Trenzalore he bonded with everyone in the town of Christmas. By the end, as old age set in, he was mistaking people for a child who had no doubt died over 500 years ago. Maybe this got too hard. Eleven hated endings, and being stuck on Trenzalore exposed him to so, so many. Is it any wonder that Twelve is slower to embrace new people?
After two consecutive bright, cheerful, everyone’s-friend Doctors, Moffat felt it was time to try another direction (that was still white and male). Twelve has the hard, angry edge of Nine without the facade of friendly humour. While he fiercely defends humanity, he doesn’t adore them the way Ten did or form quick attachments like Eleven. In fact the phrase “pudding brain” gets thrown around a lot. If you impress him, he’ll warm up to you (witness the engineer in Mummy on the Orient Express, who turns down an invitation to stay on the Tardis). Otherwise, he tends to forget which one you were as soon as you’re out of his sight.
And one more thing about the new Doctor I attribute to his former self…
“I’m Scottish. I am… Scottish. I can complain about things, I can really complain about things now!”
I sometimes wonder if David Tennant is annoyed that he’s the only contemporary Doctor that didn’t get to use his natural accent. Eccleston got to be northern, Whittaker isn’t being asked to turn down the Yorkshire, Smith is naturally as close to Standard British as they get, and Capaldi’s Scottish. I neither know nor care about the behind-the-scenes reason for this. I choose to think of it as The Doctor’s final tribute to Amy Pond.
But don’t let the crusty shell make you think he’s without compassion. He might not have romantic intentions for Clara, but she still means the world to him. He might not think she’s pretty (which is funny because blind people can tell Jenna Coleman’s beautiful), and is confused by her every effort to look moreso, but there’s almost nothing he wouldn’t do for her. Almost. There are only certain ways he’s willing to tear the universe in half for Clara.
How much does he need Clara? Look at the smile on his face when she decides to keep travelling with him at the end of Mummy on the Orient Express. I think that’s the most he’d smiled since regenerating. Part of this is his love for her, which like himself has only changed form, not diminished (she’s the first face this face saw, after all, that may still be a factor), and part of it is that The Doctor is no longer certain he’s a good man. Having a Dalek he names Rusty see beauty in his hatred of Daleks doesn’t help with this. But if Clara can believe in him, maybe he can too.
I get that.
As to Clara…
Clara, more than any companion since… ever?… does her best to balance a regular Earth life with Tardis adventures. In series seven, she’d get dropped off after every adventure. In series eight…
Okay I’ll admit it. Maybe “Clara gets a boyfriend” isn’t, like, the most progressive way to express the “Normal life/Tardis life” struggle. It did put a human face on the struggle in a way that “Will Amy be around for bridesmaid duties” and “Should Rory take a full-time nursing job” never did. (Or could, since they only had one episode to make their cases.) And I maintain, love and romance are a key part of human existence… or so I recall… so why should we get all horked off every time Green Arrow or Supergirl wants to find someone special? Why shouldn’t The Doctor’s companion be allowed to find some companionship?
Thankfully the words “Danny says we can’t travel together” never come close to forming in her mouth, because she’s starting to grow as a character and that would have killed it dead. But while juggling Tardis adventures with trying to court an ex-soldier and fellow teacher named Danny Pink has its challenges, the real issue is The Doctor’s colder attitude. When he knows he can’t save someone, he is… unsettlingly practical about it. We see this in both Into the Dalek and Mummy on the Orient Express, where he views an unstoppable death as a way to gain an advantage or learn something that maybe, maybe, can save the next one, and he is really blunt about it. The days of frequent claims of “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry” are over, replaced with “You’re going to die, make it count.”
And she doesn’t love that.
She loves the travel. She sees wonders, as she puts it, and they save people. But she’s not sure she can deal with this new, callous attitude… until she sees him throw himself on a sort of mummy-shaped grenade for someone she’d thought he’d let die. To his credit, The Doctor doesn’t let himself off the hook easily, saying that he thought there was a chance he could save her, but not a guarantee. That sometimes there’s nothing but hard choices.
She also succeeds at playing The Doctor during Flatline. Something The Doctor doesn’t find comforting, which he lets slip when she claims she was The Doctor and she was good.
“You were an exceptional Doctor, Clara. Goodness had nothing to do with it.”
Maybe Clara needs her normal, Earth life as much as The Doctor needs Clara…
The Promised Land
“You know the key strategic weakness of the human race? The dead outnumber the living.”
The robots of Deep Breath and the robots of Robot of Sherwood are looking for the Promised Land. A weird thing for two sets of robots to both be doing. What’s even stranger, though, is one of them finds it. In a way.
Throughout the year, when people die (as they tend to on this show) they find themselves in a facility, claiming to be the Afterlife, run by a woman named Missy and her assitant Seb. When Missy first arrives, she refers to The Doctor as her boyfriend, even claiming to have adopted his accent out of love.
Missy is collecting the dead.
That’s probably not a good thing.
It’s a bit more “Bad Wolfy” than other recent season arcs (Impossible Girl notwithstanding, which only pretended to make progress before the finale), but at least when we get our regular reminders of what’s happening, it’s through a delightfully twisted performance by Michelle Gomez, which we’ll discuss below.
The Supporting Cast
Danny Pink. Oh, he was a divisive character. But he works for me because of the conflict between him and The Doctor. The Doctor dislikes him immediately, because he’s a soldier. Twelve does not care for soldiers. Maybe something to do with those centuries of war Eleven just lived through. He refuses to accept that Danny teaches math (no, the British, I will not call it “maths”), calling him PE on the assumption that soldiers can only teach phys ed.
Danny dislikes The Doctor for two reasons. First, he represents an entire side to his girlfriend’s life that he never knew about, and it turns out he’s a little touchy about dishonesty. Second, he sees through The Doctor’s bluster about soldiers. He immediately identifies The Doctor as not just a soldier, but an officer. The man issuing the orders that get soldiers killed.
Which is… not an unfair assessment. As Davros pointed out to Ten back in Journey’s End, a lot of good people have died helping him vanquish foes. We don’t know much about what he did during the Time War, save for hints from that speech from Rings of Akhaten (I really should have spent more time on that), only that both the Daleks and Time Lords were scared of him. But he was likely a general on Trenzalore, leading the Silence into battle for centuries upon centuries. So it’s fair to say that Danny’s assessment, and his habit of treating The Doctor like an officer out of scorn, gets under The Doctor’s skin for a reason.
He’s also haunted by the one bad day that drove him out of the British army. But that would be telling.
One thing that separates Danny Pink from Mickey Smith or Rory Williams is that he has no interest in Tardis life. He doesn’t want to see the universe. He wants to be the best teacher he can be, focus on what’s right in front of him. But in In the Forest of the Night, he puts a charming spin on it, so as not to be an anchor like Jackie Tyler.
Oh, there’s also Courtney Woods, one of Clara’s trickier students, a “disruptive influence” at Coalhill, who ends up getting involved in a couple of Tardis adventures. She’s… well, she’s a bit of an improvement on Angie from last year, but she disappears after Kill the Moon and you’ll never miss her.
The Big Bad: Missy. Michelle Gomez (previously of Green Wing, soon to be of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina) is sensational as Missy, playful and cheerful on the surface, but the cruelty behind the smile is pretty clear from her earliest appearances. She smiles like a shark, sizing up prey, even when she’s being nice. She’s fun to watch in action even when she’s doing awful things we wish like Hell she wasn’t. And a lot of the fandom figured out the hidden clue in her name, guessed who Missy really was.
“You know who I am,” she cooed to The Doctor. “I’m Missy.” “Who’s Missy?” he responded. “Please, try to keep up,” she sighed. “Short for Mistress. Well… couldn’t very well keep calling myself ‘The Master,’ now could I?” Nearly five years and two Doctors later, The Master’s back. And she’s got plans for her old frienemy.
Missy’s not out to rule the world. She’s out to prove to The Doctor… okay this is sounding a little bit Gotham but don’t hold that against them… she’s out to prove to The Doctor that they aren’t really that different. Because once he accepts that… they can be friends again. That’s all she really wants. Her friend back.
Sometimes big schemes with simple motivations are the best villain plots.
Also, she presents the answer to a question that’s been around since The Bells of St. John. Who gave Clara the number for the Tardis? Who made sure The Doctor and Clara met back up in Deep Breath? Missy did. She wants these two together. Might… might not be the best sign.
This Year in Daleks: They wasted no time giving lifelong Who fan Capaldi a go-round with the Daleks. In Into the Dalek, he attempts to see if a Dalek (that he names Rusty, I’m probably telling you that for a reason) can become good by shrinking down, entering its shell, and playing with its mind. The results are… not what he hoped, and a little disturbing for him personally.
Classic Monsters Revived: We’ve run low on classic monsters worth reviving, so we’re down to revived post-reboot monsters for the moment. Specifically, the clockwork body-harvesting robots from The Girl in the Fireplace. The Doctor is constantly commenting on how familiar they are just to drive that home. In fairness, for him, that was 1000 years and two faces ago.
The Good: I do quite like the Boneless from Flatline. They work.
In the tradition of werewolves, vampires, and witches that all turned out to be aliens, The Doctor takes on a mummy that’s… basically an alien, let’s just say alien.
I’ll talk about Listen below.
Keeley Hawes does well as the villain of Time Heist.
Also expect another classic villain or two towards the end. Which? …Spoilers.
The Bad: Look, if you’re going to say that the Sheriff of Nottingham is in league with some larger threat, maybe try harder than another big clunking robot? Or maybe it’s silly to try to out-villain the Sheriff of Nottingham, I don’t know.
The Ugly: The Skovox Blitzer from The Caretaker might not be their best work.
Listen is quite the ride. The Doctor, after maybe spending a little too long knocking around on his own, theorizes that if there are perfect predators, and perfect defense from predators, then maybe there’s something out there that’s perfect at hiding. Maybe nobody’s ever really alone. And maybe everyone who’s ever had a dream about something under the bed wasn’t dreaming. Determined to find this thing he’s convinced is out there, he tries to take Clara into her past… but accidentally ends up in the childhood of her new gentleman friend Danny Pink, and also gets a glimpse at what might be their future.
And ultimately, they end up in a familiar shed, in a time and place Clara never thought she’d see.
Clara and The Doctor each get a good speech about fear, we watch the flirtations and calamities of her first date with Danny, The Doctor learns that not every book with pictures has Waldo (Wally to the British) hiding in it… and the most interesting part?
We never know if The Doctor’s right or not.
They certainly seem to bump into… something, or somethings, along the way, but… we don’t know for sure that it was ever what The Doctor thinks.Maybe they narrowly cheated death twice. Maybe it was all in his head. We never know.
An uncertain ending is good now and then. As The Doctor sometimes shows us, there’s novelty and even excitement in not knowing something.
The point of Kill the Moon is to bring Twelve and Clara to a point where she’s ready to cut ties with him. It doesn’t last, since in Mummy on the Orient Express they go for one last hurrah that leaves Clara deciding she can’t give up Tardis life after all, but they clearly wanted Clara’s feelings about Twelve’s colder attitude to reach a breaking point, where she’s ready to leave the Tardis, not because Danny wants her to, but because she can’t handle Twelve’s seeming indifference anymore. Which, credit where due, was the better choice… having it be Clara’s decision independent of Danny’s preferences was important.
The problem is, the way they got there was pretty dumb.
The premise, in which the moon is an egg, and it hatching might be a disaster, is right out of one of the weirder Bob the Angry Flower strips, one I would link to except apparently creator Steven Notley is embarrassed enough of that particular strip that he pulled it from his archive.
To review, the premise of Kill the Moon was ultimately too silly for weekly gag strip Bob the Angry Flower. Although in this case the monster in the moon egg doesn’t run a private detective firm but I’m not convinced that makes it better.
And Clara’s breaking point comes when The Doctor says “That’s a humdinger of a dilemma for humanity, welp, good luck” and straight up leaves until Clara, Courtney, and the woman who came to blow up the moon make a choice about what to do, protect humanity from unknown consequence or allow an innocent creature to be born.
Wow it is also really uncomfortably anti-choice, when you get down to it.
The Doctor could have had a mental break, having found himself in another Pompeii/Waters of Mars situation, with a twist of Beast Below. Where he either risks humanity or kills a space whale and can’t bear to have his own hand on the switch again, but instead it’s this whole “Humanity’s choice, I’m not human, so my name’s Paul and that’s ‘tween y’all” thing that Clara is understandably livid about.
It’s a whole lot of just sloppy dumb. They did a big moment badly. Fortunately, Mummy on the Orient Express walks it back easily enough.
Several people I knew fell off the Doctor Who bus during series eight. I always encourage them that series eight was Capaldi’s rough patch, and his later years were much better. This is true, yet still a disservice, because there’s a lot to love in series eight.
Into the Dalek is a great way for The Doctor and a Dalek to get into each other’s heads.
Say what you will about Robot of Sherwood but I still think The Doctor and Robin Hood’s banter is fun.
I do enjoy heist movies. So of course I’m a little fond of Time Heist. Clara’s fun date-night suit certainly doesn’t hurt.
The Caretaker, in which The Doctor infiltrates Coalhill, is worth it for the awkward meeting of The Doctor and Danny Pink, and also Clara confronting The Doctor as to his subterfuge…
“You recognized me, then.”
“You changed your coat.”
“And you saw right through that.”
And yet for all of that, Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline are the double-header (but not two-parter) where the show really finds its footing. And Flatline has the first really great Doctor speech from Capaldi.
Dark Water/Death in Heaven is the first proper two-part episode since Rebel Flesh/Almost People, and it is a barn burner. Missy’s gambit is revealed as she takes centre stage, and man it’s worth the wait.
I don’t think there’s anything on par with Aliens of London/World War III or Fear Her in here, but there are some notable weak spots.
In the Forest of the Night is a slightly important moment for Clara and Danny, but otherwise it’s an entirely disposable outing. Sadly Kill the Moon is more important, because its a turning point for Clara, but you know, Mummy on the Orient Express can catch you up.
And if Robot of Sherwood isn’t doing it for you, skip to Listen. That’s the handy thing about series eight… the weakest episodes are always followed by the strongest.
Notable Guest Stars:
Missy’s assistant Seb is played by Peter Capaldi’s old The Thick of It and In the Loop costar Chris Addison, who was also Headmaster David Blood on Skins. Shame they don’t have a scene together.
Michael Smiley, who I know as Tires from Spaced but you may know from the White Bear episode of Black Mirror turns up in Into the Dalek.
People who watched Da Vinci’s Demons might recognize the guy playing Robin Hood. Not me, though.
Huh. I am… I am running out. Faster than normal. Well… Rigsy from Flatline is going to be Cyborg on Doom Patrol, that’s a thing. And the dick running his community service was the Broker in Guardians of the Galaxy.
Siwan Morris, who plays a mother in In the Forest of the Night, was also on Skins as Angie the psych teacher. That one’s obscure even for me but it was a thin year for guest stars.
A key way to judge the quality of Twelfth Doctor episodes… the longer Capaldi’s hair gets, the better the show is. It’s pretty short at the top of the year, but it’s growing out by the end. Not the lavish mane he’ll have by series ten but he’s working on it.
This will also be the first of two times The Doctor’s regeneration is referred to as a “new haircut.” And both times are followed by a suggestion that he get his roots done.
The Doctor describes his new outfit (a simple suit, no tie, red-lined jacket) thusly: “I was going for minimalist but I think I landed on ‘magician.'”
Twelve’s Tardis is basically the same as Eleven’s post-Pond Tardis, save for two things… 1) they’ve accentuated the depth of it, either adding or calling further attention to the multiple levels. It certainly feels more cavernous. 2) He’s added some bookshelves and many, many chalkboards. Twelve does like scribbling equations on a chalkboard.
While trying to con The Doctor, Clara claims never to have seen lava. The Doctor looks very serious before saying “It’s rubbish.” Probably it’s because he’s figured out what she’s doing, but I’d like to think all that business at Pompeii, that we’ll learn helped inspire this face, played a role.
In Death in Heaven, Clara bluffs the [REDACTED], claiming to be The Doctor. The opening credits back her play, putting Jenna Coleman’s name first and replacing Capaldi’s eyes with hers. Neat touch.
Stay through the credits of the finale. The Doctor’s in a low spot, but he’s about to get help from an improbable visitor.
Doctor Quote of the Year: There’s a lot of “I’ll do a clever thing,” or “A thing will happen,” since Twelve doesn’t always know how to solve things but is well aware of his slightly random process. But I’m giving it to a one-off quote that made me love the new Doctor/Clara relationship…
“Do you think that I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?”
Historical Guest Star of the Year: The closest we get is Robin Hood, whose status as “historical figure” is so questionable that even The Doctor doesn’t buy he exists. And so we bid farewell to this feature.
Saddest Moment: Depending on who you’re fondest of, it’s either…
“I’m already dead. At least you’re here this time.”
“I’m proud of you, sister. But did I mention… bananas! Pop.”
Next time… the Year of Multi-parters, starting with the best two-parter since Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon.
I’m beginning to worry I won’t finish this blog series by the series 11 premiere. With three series left to cover and about 33 episodes left to rewatch before… let’s see… tomorrow, it might be on the tight side.
Well, on with it just the same.
There’s a new Doctor on the horizon. The first female Doctor. This has some people wondering if it’s time to try out this show I love so much.
Well, that’s what I’m here for. Because when you love a show as much as I love Doctor Who, you have opinions.
These are mine.
Fall of the 11th
For all that I enjoyed about series seven, and I did enjoy a lot, there’s a certain bittersweet quality to it. Every joy arrives under the shadow of coming sorrow. The madcap fun of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship and the hope-filled conclusion of The Power of Three will lead, unstoppably, to the heartbreak of The Angels Take Manhattan. Between The Snowmen, The Bells of St. John, and The Rings of Akhaten, Clara’s time as companion starts strong, Impossible Girl issues notwithstanding, but there’s no avoiding the truth that she’s Matt Smith’s final companion.
The Matt Smith years have been and, barring a spectacular debut from Jodie Whittaker (not impossible), continue to be my favourite period of Doctor Who in its storied history… and this is where it ends.
And nothing sums up the mixture of joy and impending sadness like these last two episodes. Day of The Doctor, the 50th anniversary special which is my single favourite episode ever released, and Time of The Doctor, Matt Smith’s epic swan song.
On some level, I’d love to speculate that Karen Gillan leaving played a role. That she and Matt became so close that doing the show just wasn’t any fun without her… but frankly, he’d done three series. That’s how many Tennant did, that’s how many Capaldi did, ever since Peter Davison, “three years and get out” seems to be the norm. So the best guess is that it was just time.
So… how to describe these two without just falling into dull point-by-point synopsis?
Day of The Doctor
There is so much I love in this episode. Stephen Moffat has a gift for witty, rapid-fire dialogue and he puts every inch of it to work in this special. But I can’t just sit here writing down the best exchanges, I’d be at it all day.
Like the previous big anniversary episodes, it’s a multi-Doctor team-up. And also like the previous big anniversary episodes, there is once again a holdout. The Three Doctors (tenth anniversary) only had brief appearances by First Doctor William Hartnell, as he was too ill to be on set. Fourth Doctor Tom Baker gave the The Five Doctors (20th anniversary) a miss, making the title a lie, and the First Doctor had to be recast with Richard Hurndall (not the last actor to take over that role) as William Hartnell had come down with an unfortunate case of having been dead for eight years. And this time out, Ninth Doctor Christopher Eccleston opted not to return to the role, meaning our Doctor team-up was limited to Matt Smith and David Tennant (who came back to play, I tell you what), plus a new Doctor revealed in the closing minutes of the series seven finale… sci-fi legend John Hurt as the newly revealed regeneration known to fans as the War Doctor, the regeneration who abandoned the name Doctor (or tried to) to fight in the Time War.
(A tie-in short called Night of The Doctor brings back Paul McGann for his second ever televised appearance as Eight, and he quickly shows us that we should really be checking out his Big Finish audio dramas.)
The Doctor and Clara are summoned by UNIT… nope. That’s gonna take too long. Short version… expanding on a line from End of Time Part 2, on the final day of the Time War, the War Doctor has stolen the Moment, the only forbidden weapon that the Time Lords hadn’t yet deployed against the Daleks… because it’s sentient, has a conscience, and doesn’t want to burn whole galaxies. To convince the War Doctor to change his mind, the Moment projects an image of Rose Tyler (“She’s from your past! Or possibly your future, I always get those mixed up…”), and opens a door into his future… uniting War, Ten, and Eleven (and Clara) in an effort to stop a long-game invasion of Earth by the shape-shifting aliens the Zygons.
And if they’re not careful, they just might learn something.
Every scene with Smith and Tennant bouncing off each other is amazing. Their banter in incredible, the way they sync up mannerisms never fails to amuse (throwing on their “smarty specs” in unison, pulling up a chair and kicking their feet up in perfect sync), they’re a delightful double act and the only downside to their partnership is that we won’t get more of it. By the 75th anniversary they’ll be too old to come back. We’ll have to settle for a team-up of Doctors 18 through 20 or something.
As I’ve explained to anyone who asked, or didn’t walk away from me fast enough, the War Doctor suits this story in a way Nine never could, much as I’d have liked to see him back. For one thing, Nine fighting in the Time War doesn’t make much sense, given that Rose highly implied he’d just regenerated. What’s better, War Doc speaks for the Old School Doctors, the pre-reboot crowd. He was able to respond to the new-Who quirks of Ten and Eleven the way Pertwee or Baker or McCoy would have. Examples…
When they brandish their sonic screwdrivers at him…
“Why are you pointing your screwdrivers like that? They’re scientific instruments, not water pistols!”
When Queen Elizabeth I plants a passionate kiss on Ten…
War: “Is there a lot of this in the future?”
11: “…It does start to happen, yeah.”
Or maybe the best, as Eleven brings back a turn of phrase from Blink,,,
11: “It’s a… timey-wimey thing.”
War: “Timey what? Timey-wimey?” 10: “I… I have no idea where he picks this stuff up.”
This all leads to Moffat doing something daring, something New-Who fans kind of objected to… The Moment fails to convince War to spare Gallifrey. The Time War still needs to end, and he gains too much respect for his future selves, and what they’re willing to do to never be in that position again. And after too many years (maybe centuries, who knows) of fighting the war, he no longer sees himself on their level. “Great men are forged in fire… it is the privilege of lesser men to light the flame.” So the Moment pulls one last trick and allows Ten and Eleven to bring their Tardises to the shack in a Gallifreyan desert War had dragged the Moment to. They offer their former self the same gift that Donna Noble offered Ten underneath Vesuvius… to press the button with him, so at least he’s not carrying this burden alone.
Clara Oswald, however, is not having it.
She knew that The Doctor did this, but she can’t simply watch as her Doctor becomes part of it. Clara gives Eleven the push the Moment was trying to give War… “Do what you always do. Be a Doctor.”
It works. The Doctor decides to save Gallifrey instead of burning it… but it’s going to take all of him to do it.
It’s an epic climax that undoes something Russell T. Davies made a key part of the character in 2005… he is no longer the last of the Time Lords. Some new-school (I assume) fans complained about this, but I saw it as restoring a major part of the classic continuity, “Last of the Time Lords,” after all, had only been around for 16% of Doctor Who history, whereas the existence of Gallifrey had been part of the lore since 1969, when the name “Time Lords” was first uttered. To kick off the second fifty years, Moffat gave The Doctor a quest… find Gallifrey. Restore his people.
A quest this Doctor would not be able to see through. He has a date on Trenzelore.
(Also past Doctors can’t remember adventures with their future selves, so The Doctor still thinks he destroyed Gallifrey for, oh, four hundred years and change. Nothing’s broken.)
But in the meantime, wow… wow this is a fun episode. And Clara’s plea to Eleven gets me every time.
The episode opens with the original 1963 title sequence, which fades into a recreation of the very first shot of the very first episode.
Clara has left the nanny life behind (not a moment too soon, Angie was the worst and Artie started too many sentences with “Actually…”) for a job as an English teacher at Coalhill school… the very school where, 50 years earlier, two teachers named Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright decided to follow their unusually bright student Susan home, only to end up bouncing around time and space with her grandfather The Doctor.
The head of the board of governors at Coalhill is “I. Chesterton.” Maybe The Doctor called in a favour with an old friend to get Clara the job?
A subtle reference to The Three Doctors… when Doctors One through Nine (and even Twelve, in an extreme close-up cameo) show up to help save Gallifrey, the Gallifreyan general comments “I didn’t know when I was well-off.” Which is what the Brigadier said when faced with multiple Doctors at once back when.
When trying to scare off English soldiers, The Doctor refers to Clara as “the Witch of the Well,” a reference to Hide from series seven.
Upon realizing that multiple Doctors have just met up, Kate Lethbridge-Stewart states “There’s a precedent for that,” and requests one of her fathers old files. “70s or 80s, depending on the dating protocol.” This is a reference to the fact that the second appearance of the Brigadier and the first appearance of UNIT, The Invasion, supposedly mentioned being set in 1979, leaving some to question which actual decade the Third Doctor subsequently went to work for UNIT…. the 70s or the 80s.
They also paved over incongruities between the old and new school as to The Doctor’s age with a single line from Eleven on the subject… “1200 and something unless I’m lying. I’ve forgotten if I’m lying about my age, that’s how old I am.”
The episode ends with an all-too-brief scene between Matt Smith and Tom Baker, oldest living and most iconic of the classic Doctors. That was fun to see.
This is the episode where Jenna-Louise Coleman dropped the “Louise.”
Time of the Doctor
It was never going to be as sad as the last ten minutes of End of Time Part 2. Russell T. Davies wanted the saddest regeneration ever, and he got it, and while Moffat regenerations aren’t exactly happy occasions, he’s not trying to break that record. Also, future showrunners, can we just let Davies keep it? Please?
There’s no farewell tour of companions and supporting players, no last visit with Rory or Craig or Canton Everett Delaware (UNIT and the Paternosters come back before long), no appearance by River Song. After all, Moffat wasn’t going to be able to top Eleven’s goodbye to her in The Name of The Doctor, and nobody ever wants to say we’ve reached the final final River Song appearance. Eleven’s goodbye is simply to Clara, with a brief farewell appearance from Karen Gillan as Amy Pond.
Anyway. Time of The Doctor wraps up the overarching story of the Eleventh Doctor, the one that began in 11th Hour, while also being, in a way, the life and times of each Doctor and all Doctors.
While Clara attempts to have family dinner with her dad, stepmother, and grandmother, The Doctor whisks her away to investigate a mysterious signal, coming from a planet being orbited by an armada of The Doctor’s enemies. Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans, even the Weeping Angels turn up for (as of this writing) a final appearance. But also some friends… the Papal Mainframe, who he worked with in Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone, but who were also part of the Silence in A Good Man Goes to War. The signal is coming from a town called Christmas, which, yeah, I get it, Christmas special and all that, but it was a bit on the nose, you know?
The signal is coming from Gallifrey, through a crack in the skin of the universe. The same crack from Amy’s bedroom that followed them all through series five, the same crack that we learn was The Doctor’s nightmare in The God Complex. It’s a question. The first question. The question that must never be answered. “Doctor Who?”
If The Doctor speaks his name, Gallifrey will come through the crack… but all of their enemies are waiting, and the Time War would begin again. The Papal Mainframe cannot allow this, and becomes the Silence, devoted to ensuring the question is never answered.
(A splinter faction leaves what becomes the multi-century siege of Trenzelore in an attempt to kill The Doctor before he reaches the town called Christmas, but only succeed in creating the cracks… by blowing up the Tardis in The Pandorica Opens… and creating the perfect psychopath in River Song, which did them no favours.)
The Time of The Doctor covers between eight and nine centuries of The Doctor’s life, as he grows old protecting both Trenzelore and Gallifrey, and about 20 minutes of Clara’s, as The Doctor keeps sending her home only for her to turn back up a few centuries later as she keeps refusing to be sent away.
It’s also a single hour that describes who The Doctor is. He faces off against monsters while embracing humanity, he makes friends and loses friends (Moffat managed to break our hearts with the death of a reprogrammed Cyberman head named Handles), saves as many lives as he can and even if it can’t last forever, each life saved is a triumph. And eventually his time ends. The siege of and ensuing war for Trenzelore represents, in 900-year microcosm, the life and, as the title suggests, times of The Doctor.
It also fixed a coming issue by revisiting some math. In classic continuity, Time Lords can only regenerate 12 times. Matt Smith is the Eleventh Doctor, sure, but only because his ninth incarnation (War Doctor to us, “Captain Grumpy” to Eleven) didn’t go by The Doctor. Throw in that whole metacrisis business from Journey’s End, when Ten burned a regeneration but didn’t change, and it means that The Doctor’s out of lives.
(What about all those times The Doctor claimed to be able to regenerate, you ask? It was a lie. The Doctor lies. As catch-all excuses go, it’s right up there with “Speed force, I don’t have to explain anything” from The Flash.)
Anyway, as the incoming Twelve would come to say, a thing happens, thanks to Clara,and then The Doctor can regenerate again. Which of course he can, we saw his next incarnation in Day of The Doctor, but it’s an important thing to happen just the same, because it means the next showrunner wouldn’t have to worry about this either. As side effects, the crack to Gallifrey closes, and the last invaders of Trenzelore (of course it was the Daleks, who else would be last monster standing) are defeated.
Matt Smith was always great at the big speeches, from “Is this world a threat to the Atraxi?” in 11th Hour, to his bombastic (but slightly futile) address to his enemies in The Pandorica Opens, to his impassioned rant to the parasite sun in Rings of Akhaten. Moffat gives him a good one to close on, one that’s both Eleven’s final words and Matt Smith’s farewell to the audience. And then, as his seconds run out, he has a vision… one last vision of Amy Pond, here to soften his end.
It’s a beautiful enough moment that it’s barely even affected once you know that Matt Smith and Karen Gillan were both wearing wigs to film it.
I don’t have to talk about his actual end speech or any of the other highs and lows in the town called Christmas. What I do want to talk about is a detail that maybe one other person I know might have picked up on.
Musically, I found Eleven’s final moments odd. There’s no final refrain of Eleven’s two main themes, I Am The Doctor or it’s bigger, brasher follow-up The Majestic Tale (Of a Madman In a Box). In fact I’m not sure I can name a moment in the episode that uses either of those themes, which were all over Day of The Doctor. Instead, as his final speech wraps, and Ghost Amy makes her entrance, it’s set to the Queen of Years’ song from Rings of Akhaten. And as he says his final farewell the only way that makes sense…
The grey aliens we first knew as the Silence were created as confessional priests. You confess your sins, then forget about it, and just feel relieved after.
We likely won’t be seeing them again. The Silence and The Doctor eventually team up to protect Trenzalore once the siege becomes all-out war, and so their story ends.
When Clara tracks a mid-regeneration Eleven back to the Tardis, where he’s changed into his old outfit for a last snack of fish fingers and custard before the new face arrives, the phone is off the hook. Turns out it’s for a reason.
Old age makeup really accentuates how freakishly wide Matt Smith can make his mouth when he yells.
Anyway… as Clara reads from a Christmas cracker poem…
“The time has come for one last bow, like all your former selves.
Eleven’s hour is ending now… the clock is striking Twelves.”
Next time, a new type Doctor for the back half of the Moffat era.
Doctor Quote of the Year: 11: “GERONIMO!”
War: “Oh, for God’s sake…”
Historical Guest Star of the Year: Queen Elizabeth the First plays a key role in facing down the Zygons. And I guess we figured out why she was so mad at Ten during The Shakespeare Code, huh.
When I started this rewatch and blog series a… good lord… a year ago, the plan was to be through all ten series by the time Jodie Whittaker made her proper debut in series 11.
Which is the first week of October. It is, at time of writing, late September. This is what happens when you take a small, slight… multi-month hiatus from blogging to write three different plays. Well, almost three.
Gonna… gonna be a bit tight making that deadline. Well, as the Tenth Doctor would say… allons-y.
There’s a new Doctor on the horizon. The first female Doctor. This has some people wondering if it’s time to try out this show I love so much.
Well, that’s what I’m here for. Because when you love a show as much as I love Doctor Who, you have opinions.
These are mine.
The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe doesn’t live up to A Christmas Carol, but it tries its best.
When last we left The Doctor and friends (Eight months ago? My last entry on this series was eight months ago? Goddamn, me, get your life right…), The Doctor had faked his death at Lake Silencio, a fact River Song had let slip to Amy and Rory. We join The Doctor some time later, as he’s travelling alone and thwarting an alien invasion in the 1930s. Crashing to Earth, his helmet on backwards, he is aided in finding the Tardis by a British housewife named Madge Arwell. He promises her a favour in return, and a few years later she ends up needing it. Her husband’s plane is lost over the English Channel in late December, and she’s trying not to let Chrismas be the day her children learn their father has died. Arriving at a family estate in the country to avoid the German bombing, she is greeted by a strange man claiming to be the caretaker.
She doesn’t know it, but her mysterious spaceman (or possible angel) has arrived to repay a favour.
Unfortunately he does it in typical Doctor fashion, and a planned expedition to a planet in the future with naturally occurring Christmas trees goes off the rails because a) young Cyril Arwell sneaks through the portal early, and b) The Doctor has once again failed to check an almanac or something to see if, say, the entire apparently intelligent forest is about to be liquefied with acid. Rory warned you about this sort of thing last year during The Girl Who Waited, Doctor, and now here we are again.
It seems pretty dire for a minute there but it becomes the best Christmas present the family could have asked for. And in the end, Madge helps The Doctor realize something… no one should be alone on Christmas. Especially the people who love him. Which brings him back to Amy and Rory’s doorstep, two years after that whole mess in The Wedding of River Song.
The Doctor, Amy, and Rory, back together again.
Don’t get comfy.
Series Seven: Goodbye, Ponds
The first five episodes of series seven are all about The Doctor and the Ponds (much as Rory might protest, they’ve never been the Williamses). The Doctor knows, on some level, he should let them go. He tried last year in The God Complex. But he can’t. The gaps between his visits are getting longer, leading Amy to worry he’s trying to wean them off of him. Also, as long as Amy and Rory are out there, The Doctor can’t move forward. Amy is his companion, and he refuses to pick a new one. Which means other than the occasional, never seen River Song hook-up, he’s travelling alone. Which is making him cold and mean, and far too willing to kill those who oppose him. Amy lets this slide in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, when this dark side first emerges, mostly because she doesn’t witness it. But when The Doctor tries to throw an alien scientist (and repentant war criminal) to his death to save the titular settlement of A Town Called Mercy, Amy draws a line in the sand.
“And what then?” she asks. “Are you going to hunt down everyone who’s made a gun, or a bullet, or a bomb?”
“But they keep coming back, don’t you see?” he retorts. “Every time I negotiate, I try to understand. Well, not today. No. Today, I honor the victims first. His, the Master’s, the Daleks’, all the people who died because of MY mercy!”
Amy stares him down. “See, this is what happens when you travel alone for too long. Well, listen to me, Doctor, we can’t be like him. We have to be better than him.”
It’s an incredibly powerful moment that underlines how badly this quirky, funny, seemingly carefree Doctor needs his friends.
Meanwhile, ever since The God Complex, Amy and Rory have been building a life. A real, human life. She’s been a model and a travel writer and other things… she’s having trouble committing to a job because any time now the Tardis could be back to whisk her off to new adventures. But as the time between Doctor visits grows longer, and their desire to be taken home comes sooner, they actually start making long-term plans that don’t involve time travel at all. She doesn’t want to give up either life, but they’re beginning to clash.
And The Doctor knows this. It’s why he’s been trying to pull back. But he can’t ever let go of Amy, not completely.
“Because you were the first,” he explains. “The first face this face saw. And you were seared onto my hearts, Amelia Pond. Always will be. I’m running to you and Rory before you fade from me.”
You know that explains the whole Rose Tyler thing. She was the first face two faces saw. Might explain why he never got over her until he regenerated into Eleven.
He needs Amy in his life enough that in The Power of Three he makes the penultimate sacrifice… he just hangs out for a few months. Lives the Pond life, stable and stationary and everything that drives him crazy… just because he misses Amy too much to leave.
Asylum of the Daleks and Dinosaurs on a Spaceship touch on this, but The Power of Three, which covers an entire year of Pond life, provides the breaking point. Which life will they choose? Earth life or Tardis life?
Sadly for all involved, The Angels Take Manhattan reminds us that it’s not always their choice to make. At some point down the road, when Amy’s aged from a 19-year-old kissagram to needing reading glasses, a run-in with the Weeping Angels in New York brings Amy and The Doctor’s time to an end. And in the wake of it, the show went on hiatus until the following spring. Well, of course, save for the annual oh balls–
It’s Christmas! (Again)
The Snowmen makes up for the heartbreak of The Angels Take Manhattan by being an absolute joy, right up until the moment it isn’t. Why you gotta keep hurting people on Christmas, Doctor Who?
Okay. Let me back up a little to the first episode of series seven, Asylum of the Daleks.
Tasked by the Daleks to help with the planet where they send their most damaged, The Doctor and the Ponds receive help from a computer whiz/souffle enthusiast named Ozwin Oswald. The Doctor knows something is wrong with this picture the second he hears about the souffles (“Where do you get the milk?” comes up a few times). To some, she simply seemed… oddly significant, in her swiftly iconic red dress, trainers, and baking-based utility belt, with her personal theme song, giving us a knowing look to the camera after her parting line of “Run, you clever boy… and remember.” To those of us who can’t stay away from entertainment news, we knew exactly who she was… only she wasn’t her. We knew the next companion would be named Clara and would be played by an actress named Jenna Coleman (then going by Jenna-Louise Coleman, you’d have to ask her why she dropped the “Louise”)… so imagine our surprise when she turned up without warning in Asylum of the Daleks, playing someone named Ozwin. Who… spoilers… doesn’t make it out of the Dalek Asylum.
Anyway, they let us sit on that for three months.
In The Snowmen, The Doctor has once again retreated to Victorian London, but not just for a visit. For an unspecified amount of time (not long enough for a human friend in that era to age much, long enough that the scuffing of the Tardis that started after all the fuss in New York has gotten significantly worse), he’s been living above the city, his contact with the world limited to three familiar faces from A Good Man Goes to War… Madame Vastra, Jenny, and their new butler, a no-longer-dead Strax the Sontaran, now collectively known as the Paternoster Gang. They don’t approve of The Doctor’s solitude, but are unable to stop it. (“A thousand years of saving the universe, Strax. And do you know what I learned? The universe doesn’t care.”) Seems nothing can. Until a chance encounter with a barmaid (who leads a secret double life as an upper-class governess) named Clara, and some living snowmen, begins to pull him back into the world.
He doesn’t know that she looks and sounds exactly like Ozwin Oswald… but we do. Jenna Coleman’s back, and this new Clara is refusing to let The Doctor just wallow in misery any longer. There are living snowmen and an ice governess menacing the children in her care and by God this Doctor fellow is going to do something about it. The Doctor realizes he’s coming back to his old self when he whips off a scarf, looks in a mirror and sees, for the first time in the episode, his bow tie is back.
The Snowmen is a grand adventure against a menacing villain that turns out to be the origin story of a deep-dive classic monster, filled with laughter and thrills…
And then she dies.
But not before saying that one line again: “Run, you clever boy… and remember.”
Seeing her full name on the tombstone… Clara Oswin Oswald… clicks everything into place. It’s the same woman. Same voice, same love of souffles, same catchphrase. He’s met her twice, in two time periods, and she’s died each time. There’s a mystery to be solved, the mystery of The Impossible Girl, and he’s off to solve it.
Series Seven Part 2: The Impossible Girl and the Road to 50
We pick back up a few months later with the excellent The Bells of St. John, in which The Doctor, losing hope he’ll ever find Clara again, holes up in a 13th century monastery… only for 21st century Clara (the one, true Clara, a description that makes sense later) to call the Tardis asking for tech support with the internet. Which naturally throws him for a bit of a loop. (“I’m not actually… this isn’t… you have clicked on the WiFi button, haven’t ya?”)
The eight episodes that remained in series seven were all one-off adventures with Clara throughout time and space, while The Doctor attempted to figure out what, exactly, she was, and Contemporary Clara attempted the same of this dashing, weirdly old-acting time-traveller that thrust himself into her life all of a sudden. This culminates in the series finale, The Name Of The Doctor, the first of three consecutive episodes to end in “Of The Doctor.” I’ll talk more about the Impossible Girl arc below, but here’s the more interesting thing about series seven.
Part two aired in spring of 2013. The 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, November 23rd, 2013, was fast approaching. In ways subtle and broad, Steven Moffat began gearing the show to celebrate the coming landmark anniversary. The first and most obvious, which began in the final moments of series six with the revelation of the First Question, is that Moffat became fonder than ever of writing “Doctor who” into dialogue. The end of Asylum of the Daleks makes this abundantly clear, and The Snowmen and The Bells of St. John drive it home. Of course, that means that by Hide he’s able to have some fun with it…
“I’m The Doctor.”
“If you like.”
The new opening title sequence adds an old tradition that had been absent since the 80s… it slipped in Matt Smith’s face. This had been a feature from Troughton to McCoy, and Moffat brought it back for the tail end of Smith’s run and into Capaldi’s. Will it remain for Jodie Whittaker? We’ll know soon enough.
Also important, a new character appears in The Power of Three: the new head of UNIT (you remember UNIT, right?) Kate Stewart, who The Doctor soon figures out is more properly called Kate Lethbridge-Stewart, daughter of Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, UNIT’s first leader and The Doctor’s oldest (now passed) human friend. Played by Jemma Redgrave (of those Redgraves), we’ll be seeing much more of her. And it was important she be in place in time for the 50th anniversary.
Throw in references to past companions (Clara hearing The Doctor mention his granddaughter gives her a moment of pause, I tell you what), not one but two vintage monsters making a comeback, and a brief visit to Gallifrey in The Name of the Doctor, and it’s clear that the show is wearing its fifty-year legacy on its sleeve for all to see.
“I’m The Doctor. I’m an alien from outer space. I’m 1000 years old, I’ve got two hearts, and I can’t fly a plane, can you?” -The Doctor, mid-plane crash.
There are those who say that Stephen Moffat doesn’t understand grief, given how often major deaths are undone (Rory alone has come back from the dead no fewer than five times). To them, I say pay attention to The Snowmen. Having lost Amy, for good and all, he retreats from the world, presumably for years. He completely changes the Tardis interior because he can’t be in a room that Amy was in. He never wears his signature brown tweed jacket, or any of its variations, ever again, switching to a more sombre purple, because he can’t wear the clothes he wore when travelling with Amy. He keeps her reading glasses as long as he has this face. Amy leaves a hole in his hearts that Clara only begins to help heal.
But don’t think that every trauma is forgotten. In one all-time-great speech in The Rings of Akhaten, Clara learns (or appears to learn) exactly how much pain The Doctor’s been carrying around the past three or four centuries as he attempts to pour all of it into a parasitic sun that feeds on people’s feelings and stories, yes you read that right. I’d post an excerpt but without Matt Smith’s heart-wrenching delivery it just isn’t the same. So here’s a video.
But there’s one secret pain he’s kept hidden these last seven series and three faces. A secret we come face to face with in the closing moments of The Name Of The Doctor.
I’ve done a lot of defending Steven Moffat from his various accusers. But sometimes loving something means acknowledging its flaws.
So let’s get into the problems with Early Clara, shall we?
First, as of The Snowmen, they drift alarmingly close to Ten/Rose territory, as Victorian Clara makes some pretty strong advances on The Doctor, making things a wee bit awkward when he finally finds the One True Clara in 2013 England. Are things getting romantic between the two? One of them thinks so, but we’ll address that later.
The real problem is that the Impossible Girl storyline is about Clara but doesn’t involve Clara. The Doctor is trying to get to the bottom of how Clara can be a regular, normal young woman and also the late Oswin Oswald of the starliner Alaska and the equally late Clara Oswin Oswald of Victorian London. But since she might be a trap laid by one of his enemies (not an unreasonable assumption, given everything the Silence just pulled with River), he never lets her know that’s what’s going on.
Giving Clara no agency in her own storyline.
It’s the same problem as Chloe Decker from my beloved Lucifer, and nothing says “I’ve neglected this blog series longer than I meant to” like the fact that I’m using Chloe to explain what’s wrong with Clara and not the other way around. All the celestial beings talk about Chloe, but she never knows that it’s happening, let alone why it’s happening. It reduces her as a character. Likewise, by making the plot about Clara without including Clara, you’re basically making her a prop in The Doctor’s story, and your female lead should never just be a prop.
And there aren’t even any clues. It’s just “What’s the deal with Clara?” and everyone saying “Dude, she’s normal” until the last moments of the last episode.
This is the one complaint about Steven Moffat that’s spot-on. He has a terrible habit of introducing companions as puzzles for The Doctor to solve. It wasn’t so bad with Amy, because we made it all the way to The Big Bang before he raised the question of “Does it ever bother you that your life doesn’t make any sense?” Although that was swiftly followed by six episodes of “Is she or isn’t she pregnant,” which… yeah. Then River was a riddle wrapped in an enigma from her first appearance right up until Let’s Kill Hitler, and in series seven Clara is weighed down by all of this Impossible Girl malarky. He gets better about this down the road, right before he left the show, but as of series seven it’s just Rory who’s all surface.
That all said, there are some things about Clara that work. She’s exceptionally quick-witted, letting her play high-energy dialogue every bit as well as Matt Smith (which is outstanding). She’s great at comedy, and she plays something few other companions had to this point… she’s often terrified of what’s happening, but resolved to see it through. It begins in Cold War, when the rubber hits the road and she sees her first deaths on an adventure. The best example might be Hide, where she asks The Doctor exactly why she should help him look for ghosts, and he responds that she wants to. “I dispute that assertion,” she responds, fear sneaking through her witty facade.
Also, she doesn’t take any crap from The Doctor. When he first turns up on her doorstep in The Bells of St. John, he’s approaching her with the familiarity her alternate self showed in The Snowmen, and she is not shy in telling him to bring it down a notch. There are moments throughout late series seven were she shows her resourcefulness, but they tend to be overshadowed by the whole Impossible Girl thing.
Also her mother is dead. Because she’s a Moffat companion. All their mothers are dead. Well, except Amy’s, who stopped being dead in The Big Bang but was instantly forgotten.
But as series seven progressed, and we learned who would and wouldn’t be around for series eight, I forgave the weaknesses of Clara’s arc this year. I suspected that while she may have gotten her start with Eleven, she’d end up a more iconic companion to Twelve. Much as a whole pile of classic series companions started with one Doctor but were better known for their time with his replacement. (Basically every regeneration-time companion from Sarah Jane onwards… well, except maybe Mel. Mel wasn’t anyone’s most iconic companion. Poor girl. Just wanted The Doctor to drink his carrot juice.)
And like her or not, get comfortable. She’s the longest-running contemporary companion.
The Supporting Cast
River Song is back for two key episodes: she’s there for her parents’ farewell in The Angels Take Manhattan, and is basically present for The Name Of The Doctor, which provides her final farewell with Matt Smith. But not her final final farewell.
Also of note is Harry Potter’s Arthur Weasley, Mark Williams, as Rory’s dad Brian Williams. Brian gets swept up with Amy and Rory when The Doctor unexpectedly materializes the Tardis on them in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, showing him what exactly his son and daughter-in-law get up to when they’re “travelling.” He’s only in two episodes (and an unfilmed deleted scene, written by future showrunner Chris Chibnall, which makes a sad episode sadder), but you instantly wish you could spend more time with him.
Less effective are those horrible children Clara is nannying for. The younger son, Artie, isn’t so bad, but Angie the older daughter seems annoyingly determined to challenge Clara at every turn. To borrow a phrase from Winston Churchill in series five, if Clara warned of Hell, Angie would give favourable reference to the Devil. It wears thin fast enough that I’m glad they were never seen or mentioned again following The Name Of The Doctor. Their mother is dead too, by the way. Look, I know the whole “All Davies companions have terrible mothers” thing was weird and overplayed but there’s such a thing as over-correcting.
The Big Bad: Returning for the first time since its two go-rounds with Patrick Troughton, it’s the Great Intelligence, everyone. Having previously menaced the world via robotic abominable snowmen, an early version of the Intelligence is revealed to be behind the icy menaces of The Snowmen. And The Doctor might have accidentally given it the idea that the London underground is a strategic weak point, perfect for invading with (abominable) snowmen. Which is the plot of Web of Fear, the Great Intelligence’s second arc (and the first appearance of Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, not yet a Brigadier General). Following The Snowmen, the Intelligence continues to stalk The Doctor, now using the face of its Victorian assistant, Dr. Gideon… played by English actor of note Richard E. Grant, who non-canonically played The Doctor on twooccasions prior to the reboot.
This Year in Daleks: Moffat finds the fear in Daleks again through a planet full of broken, insane Daleks that The Doctor, Amy, and Rory find themselves stuck on. Also, they have a new trick… through an infection of nano-tech, they can hollow a person out and turn them into a human-shaped Dalek. Because that’s safe. Daleks with stealth and infiltration capability. Anyway, this becomes a problem for at least one of the people in Asylum of the Daleks.
Classic Monsters Revived: The Great Intelligence isn’t the only Troughton-era deep dive this year. Cold War brings back the Ice Warriors of Mars… or at least one of them, which has been found frozen in ice by a Cold War-era Russian sub The Doctor and Clara pop onto while trying to reach Las Vegas. Reptilian figures in hulking suits of armour, they’re a menace for any human military, especially if they think there’s nothing to lose. The modern era lets the show do something the Troughton era never could: show an Ice Warrior out of his armour.
The Good: There are a lot of layers to what’s happening in Hide (Ghosts? Monsters? Nothing?) but it’s quite the ride. The Cybermen also get a scariness upgrade thanks to Neil Gaiman in Nightmare in Silver. The people-snatching forces lurking in the WiFi in The Bells of St. John are highly effective and really satisfying to see taken down a peg. The gunfighter and his target in A Town Called Mercy provide some strong philosophical dilemmas on revenge and redemption.
The Bad: The Tardis puts people through a lot of grief in Journey to the Centre of the Tardis, but it’s not the Tardis’ fault. The burnt zombie things aren’t even truly bad. No, the villain that week boils down to “some asshole.” And he learns almost nothing. Not their best work.
The Ugly: Could they have spent a little bit more on that puppet worm from Crimson Horror? Maybe. Maybe. Not that it matters considering who it’s attached to (see below).
The Snowmen and The Bells of St. John are both great, but if I have to pick one (and I do, because I have thus far), I would have to say The Rings of Akhaten. It’s a knockout of an episode, and the Queen of Years stepping up to support The Doctor the only way she knows how, through song, brings a tear to the eye even before The Doctor’s epic speech begins. Sure the budget constraints show a little in the sets and green screen work but it’s a fun and surprisingly powerful outing for The Doctor and his new companion.
Series seven went from strength to strength for the most part, but one could argue that Journey to the Centre of the Tardis isn’t holding its end up, despite getting to glimpse all the rooms we never normally get to see.
All five of the final Pond episodes, from the Daleks to the Weeping Angels, are excellent. Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill (Whose name I’ve been spelling wrong on this blog for a long, long time… my b, Captain Hunter) could not possibly have asked for a better swan song. Those five episodes alone made me think that New Who had gotten better each and every year it was on the air. A trend that would soon end, but all good things do. And that quality continued through The Snowmen and The Bells of St. John.
Cold War is a classic “under siege” episode, with a great guest cast.
If you enjoy the Paternoster Gang… and I feel that you should… The Crimson Horror is a good showcase episode for them.
Technically nothing of import happens between Rings of Akhaten and The Name Of The Doctor. That’s the problem with Impossible Girl, it has no stages. No levels. It’s basically Bad Wolf all over again.
I guess you could skip over Journey to the Centre of the Tardis. Every piece of progress there gets undone.
Notable Guest Stars
Plenty in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship alone. In addition to Mark Williams, David Bradley (Harry Potter, Broadchurch, Game of Thrones) makes his first of two guest appearances, as the thoroughly unpleasant trader/slaver Solomon. His next character will be nicer. Solomon’s quarrelling security bots are hilariously voiced by comedy duo David Mitchell and Robert Webb, who I’d handily just discovered. Sherlock’s Inspector Lestrade, Rupert Graves, plays The Doctor’s new pal, big game hunter Riddell.
Isaac, Mercy’s town marshal, is played by Farscape’s Ben Browder. A rare American guest character played by an American, but they did venture out to America for filming purposes more often.
Although he’s soon followed by Michael McShane (the original Who’s Line is it Anyway and Friar Tuck from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) in The Angels Take Manhattan.
B-movie sci-fi almost-legend David Warner (lots of stuff) is an episode highlight as an 80s-pop-music-loving Russian scientist on a submarine in Cold War.
Mission: Impossible II’s Dougray Scott, he who was nearly Wolverine, plays Bernard Quartermass Alec Palmer in Hide. His assistant is played by Jessica Raine, who around that time also played Doctor Who creator Verity Lambert in the biopic An Adventure in Space and Time, which also featured David Bradley (see above) as William Hartnell.
The voice of the Great Intelligence in The Snowmen is none other than Sir Ian McKellan.
A carnival worker with a secret in Nightmare in Silver is played by Warwick Davis. And a soldier in the same episode is Alo from the third generation of Skins, if that means anything to anyone else.
Game of Thrones Guest Stars: That Russian sub I mentioned is captained by The Onion Knight (Liam Cunningham) with his overly hostile first mate being Edmure Tully (Tobias Menzies, yes I know he’s also from Outlander, my blog my rules). Dame Diana Rigg, formerly Mrs. Peele of the British spy show The Avengers, and at the time throwing epic shade at the Lannisters as Olenna Tyrell, is menacing Victorian England in The Crimson Horror.
Clara is only able to phone the Tardis because she got the number from a “woman in the shop.” There was a lot of speculation as to who that woman might have been. River Song was a popular guess. Some eternal optimists thought Sally Sparrow fit the bill. And old-school die-hards held out hope for Romana or Susan or someone. We were all way off, but there was a new player we were over a year away from meeting.
Based on the book one of Clara’s charges is reading in The Bells of St. John, Amy managed a successful literary career in her post-Doctor life. Despite the fact that the Melody Malone novel from The Angels Take Manhattan must have seemed really weird to most audiences.
The Angels Take Manhattan actually filmed in New York. I found the rock in Central Park where they have their picnic, because I’m that level of obsessed. And the cast found out just how popular the show was when hundreds of Whovians showed up to watch filming. Which may have been awkward, as the episode was as hard to film as it was to watch. According to legend (aka the IMDB trivia page), when they filmed The Doctor reading Amy’s last message, Karen Gillan sat next to Matt, reading her voiceover lines to him. Once they got the shot, Matt broke into tears. Can’t exactly blame him.
Rory’s middle name is “Arthur,” no doubt named after Arthur Darvill. (Look, it’s not my fault that it just looks like it should have an “e” at the end…)
The Doctor mentions the effort he put into taking “a gobby Australian to Heathrow airport.” This would be Fifth (and very, very briefly Fourth) Doctor companion Tegan Jovanka, who the Fifth Doctor would encourage with the phrase “Brave heart, Tegan.” Shortly after mentioning her, the catchphrase gets reused. “Brave heart, Clara.”
The scientist/ex-spy in Hide was meant to be Dr. Bernard Quartermass, of Doctor Who’s BBC sci-fi predecessor The Quartermass Experiment, but rights issues blocked it at the last minute. Pity. It would have been like Sherlock Holmes teaming up with Auguste Dupin. (Oh, Google it yourself if you need to.)
Clara Oswald was the first character Jenna Coleman ever played in her natural Blackpool accent, or so she’s said. Which was weirdly an extra challenge. Accent work had been like a mask, a way to build the character.
Future… well, “current” at this point, really… showrunner Chris Chibnall wrote Dinosaurs on a Spaceship and The Power of Three. Promising. Very promising. Those episodes are fun.
Steven Moffat surely believes that “I don’t know where I am” is an intrinsically terrifying phrase because it certainly gets used a lot.
Doctor Quote of the Year: “Run.”
(I mean the real quote of the year is “Run you clever boy, and remember,” but I don’t have a section for companion quotes.)
Historical Guest Star of the Year: Queen Nefertiti of Egypt is our last true historical guest star. That kind of fell off in the Capaldi years.
Saddest Moment: “Raggedy man… goodbye!” (oh god just typing it…)
Next time… Matt Smith’s final two episodes are the greatest episode ever and our next big farewell as the “Of The Doctor” trilogy brings us to the end of an era.
Not everyone agrees with me on today’s topic, but I can’t help it. I loves me some superhero shows, I loves me some DC heroes, and the CW delivers me both of those things through a series of shows that, while flawed, I find overall muchmore entertaining than annoying. And while they have their own sets of recurring flaws, they lack Marvel Netflix’s habitual pacing problems, failure to understand episodic narrative, disastrous third act twists (goddamn Diamondback), and all things Iron Fist, and their annual crossovers have managed to improve year by year, setting a high bar for what superhero TV can be that The Defenders(and a certain movie) just did not manage to reach. The franchise has grown from one show trying to escape the shadow of the teen-drama-with-occasional-superheroes that preceded it to a five-show empire slightly too big for its network.
So I wanna talk about ’em. And I have a blog, so I’m gonna, in a five-part series chronicling the first half-decade, the highs and lows, successes and failures, twists, turns, and tragedies of what should be called the DCW-verse, or if you prefer whimsy, the Greg Berlanti Mask-Based Action Fun Factory, but remains called the Arrowverse because the internet makes bad choices.
(Don’t worry, still gonna alternate TV and non-TV blogs, I haven’t forgotten that.)
Arrow: Year One
Hard to believe it started so simply. One show, trying to bring Batman Begins to television via a different DC character that the parent company was less protective of. Yes, let’s cover that right away… Arrow is very much a Batman show, with Green Arrow (or rather a crime-fighter who grows into being the Green Arrow) replacing Batman. The switch isn’t a difficult one to make… Oliver Queen and Bruce Wayne are both billionaires who use their seemingly endless fortunes to wage war on crime, sometimes with a lair and a young sidekick. There are a few key differences, though. Oliver Queen, unlike Bruce Wayne, has a tendency to go broke from time to time to change up the character. And most significant to Year One… you can have Green Arrow kill people without all of the controversies that happen when Batman does it. I mean, seriously now, Oliver… or “The Hood,” as he’s known throughout season one… racks up more of a body count in a handful of episodes than Ben Affleck did throughout Batman V Superman, even by the most liberal of estimates.
Why the body count? Well, and this is just for starters, he does use a bow and arrow. Not the easiest weapon for non-lethal combat. Not impossible, but not natural. And second, if you’ll permit some wild speculation on my part, I feel like Arrow had a large priority in its first season: don’t be Smallville. Now I could be wrong about this: Smallville was a big enough hit for the CW and its predecessor, the WB, that it ran for a decade. And it’s doubtful that anyone would have greenlit a TV show about Green Arrow of all people if Justin Hartley hadn’t made him a highlight of Smallville’s back half*. That said… if they wanted more of that, it was probably an option. They could have just spun Smallville’s Green Arrow (and probably Chloe) off instead of starting over from the beginning with Stephen Amell in a world with no Superman.
So they kept the things that made Smallville work: a blend of season arcs and villains-of-the-week, and plenty of fan service, in the form of nerd-friendly guest stars and appearances by other comic characters, which we’ll be looking at below. They abandoned almost everything else, especially Smallville’s mission statement of “No flights, no tights.” Well– he doesn’t fly. Green Arrow can’t fly. That’s not a thing he does. But instead of spending four years in high school foiling random monsters while refusing to wear a costume, Oliver’s in a green hood seeking arrow-justice against his city’s worst millionaires in episode one.
Sure it takes him three more years to start using the name “Green Arrow.” I’m not saying Arrow isn’t an origin story, it’s just a different kind of origin story. A five-year flashback story recounts Oliver’s journey from a spoiled, arrogant trust-fund kid marooned on a hostile island to the hood-wearing, justice-seeking, archery-based-vigilante we meet in the pilot, and in the first four(ish?) seasons he grows from a killer fixated on a list of names his father left behind to the true hero of Star City.
*Because Smallville wasn’t allowed to use Bruce Wayne. When Batman’s unavailable, Green Arrow is close enough.™
The Rough Spots
Now, Arrow didn’t shake off all of Smallville’s flaws, and in them, we see the biggest flaws of the Arrowverse. First off, and I feel this is a network mandate of some sort because this flaw just screams “CW,” there is a definite over-reliance on pretty people having teen-soap-style romantic drama. Now I’m not against romance in my superhero shows. I prefer the characters in my entertainments to be decent facsimiles of three-dimensional people, with hopes and objectives, rather than simply bundles of personality quirks and sunglass manoeuvres that solve murders with science. Which means that yes, sometimes they’re going to hook up and fall in love. So that’s not the issue. The issue is that the romance arcs tend to be overwrought and kinda cheesy.
In season one, that’s the triangle between Oliver, his ex-girlfriend Laurel, and his best friend and fellow trust-fund billionaire Tommy. Irresponsible Tommy and lawyer-for-the-common-folk Laurel were having an affair before Oliver came back from the dead, and former womanizer Tommy is hoping to make that a more official, ongoing thing, but he worries how his resurrected best pal will react. Oliver is still very much in love with Laurel, but there are a couple of problems. First, she is still pretty angry about Oliver a) cheating on her with her sister Sara; b) bringing Sara along with him on his doomed yacht trip to China; and thanks to that c) getting her killed* when his yacht sunk, marooning him on the mercenary-infested island of Lian Yu. Second, he is launching a plan of arrow-infested justice-vengeance, and doesn’t think he can do that and make things right with his high school sweetheart. Who, again, he betrayed pretty epically before his five years away from home**. He tries to push her away, but Oliver’s about as good at staying away from Laurel as I am at staying away from extra cheese on a pizza, so he keeps popping up in her life. It’s very Dawson’s Creek.
I assume. I have seen precisely zero episodes of Dawson’s Creek but I’m led to believe overwrought romantic drama was a thing they did, yes?
The second major flaw… there is almost always one character per series who gets savagely underwritten, and what stories they do get are cringe-worthy. This year, it’s Oliver’s sister, Thea Queen, who for the first half of the season just complains about how closed-off Oliver is, does ecstasy and the new designer drug Vertigo, and is generally a brat. She begins to improve a little as the season progresses, but overall she keeps soaking my Green Arrow show in Gossip Girl nonsense.
I also have never seen Gossip Girl but that feels apt.
*The presumed-late Sara Lance comes up a lot in season one, including a mini-arc where Laurel’s mother thinks she might be alive. Given that Mother Lance’s lead turned out to be false, I don’t think they’d decided that Sara wasn’t actually dead yet, let alone that she was coming back as a badass assassin. They definitely didn’t know she’d end up the leader of a time-ship filled with misfit superheroes. But that’s later.
**They must have known he didn’t stay on Lian Yu the whole five years. They established he was somehow a captain in the Russian mafia within three episodes, and they can’t have thought that would happen on a remote island in the North China Sea.
The Name Quirk
Not technically a flaw of the series, unless you’re a longtime fan easily disturbed by small differences. Like me. I mean, change the races, genders, or sexualities of whoever you want, but tell me Metropolis is in Kansas, like Smallville did, and I will freak out. In the Arrowverse, the little details that keep annoying me are changes to the names. Character names get changed for reasons I have never understood. Dinah Lance is the classic alter ego of the Black Canary, but on Arrow she went by her newly invented middle name, Laurel. (“Dinah Laurel Lance,” Tommy says, in a promise to fans, “Always trying to save the world.”) Star City is Starling City… although that’s a shorter leap than in the Rebirth era, where the recently renamed Star City was formerly known by the even stranger name of “Seattle.” At least when Arrow finally fixed the city name, they didn’t have to blow up a famous landmark to do it.
In three more years, they’ll introduce Curtis Holt, clearly modelled after the comics character Michael Holt. I don’t understand. There might be multiple Dinahs (her mother is also named Dinah) but no Michaels, and even if there were, there are two Rays and two Rorys… Why do they do this. I don’t get it, I don’t get it at all.
Oliver Queen is not good at heroing when we begin. Sure, he wins some victories early on. He successfully steals from the rich and gives to the poor, stops assassins, foils some bank robbers, does some minor hero stuff pretty well. Known by the press and police as “The Hood” (a name even Oliver thinks is awful, though around Christmas he rejects “Green Arrow”), he’s got a list of names of corrupt millionaires his father left him, a quiver full of arrows, and a thirst for justice, but doesn’t know the first thing about how to protect a city. He merely takes vengeance on those who betray it, never asking where the List came from and what it might mean. And by Christmas, this gets his ass kicked, as his first encounter with the Dark Archer goes brutally bad, and he learns that the List isn’t what he thought. It’s concealing a darker purpose than he ever imagined.
All of this means that the best thing Arrow did in its early days was introduce John Diggle. First he’s Oliver’s would-be bodyguard, an annoyance to be ditched at the earliest opportunity, but by episode four he’s being asked to join Oliver’s crusade. This accomplished two things: it let them drop that godawful voiceover they had Stephen Amell do in the first few episodes because they didn’t trust us to follow what was happening, and it gave Oliver a conscience. Diggle pushed Oliver to be a better hero and a better man. He is the first and still greatest of Oliver’s allies, although year one introduces a few of the others: Felicity Smoak is gradually worked into the cast, a genius computer hacker from Queen Consolidated’s IT department who fans either love or hate*. Laurel’s father Detective Quentin Lance is there from the start, who wants to put the Hood behind bars, but gradually gets drawn into helping him out. He and Oliver will have a complicated relationship for the next few years, hood or no hood. And last but not lea… actually, since he’s the only one not still on the show, I guess he technically is least… late in the season Thea meets a surprisingly nimble street thug with a heart of tarnished gold named Roy Harper, who comics fans know as Green Arrow’s original sidekick.
The boldest part of Oliver’s journey in season one, and the final example of how The Hood isn’t enough of a hero for his city? Oliver loses. He got in a fight he didn’t understand, underestimated his adversary,let rage and vengeance take the wheel, and it costs him and the city in the end. Your five year journey from castaway to vigilante may have ended when you came home, but you still gots some learning to do, son.
(Meanwhile, Flashback Oliver is just trying to stay alive and deal with the mercenary army led by Edward Fyers, with the help of an Australian soldier named Slade Wilson, a mentor named Yao Fei who betrays him constantly, but not for no reason, and Fei’s daughter Shado.)
*The so-called “fans” who hate Felicity are the second most odious and obnoxious faction of Arrowverse fandom, so side with them if you like, but know that I’m judging you for it.
The Arrowverse tends to do surprise twists with its villains, and thus far most of them have been far more successful than when Marvel Netflix tries a third-act villain-swap (the replacement villains have never been improvement, Netflix). As such, this section will be reliably packed with spoilers. Y’all been told. Anyway.
Does it get better than John Barrowman? Maybe. But not often.
Doctor Who veteran and living treasure John Barrowman plays the List’s architect, Malcolm Merlyn, yes he does have the same last name as Oliver’s best friend Tommy, no that isn’t a coincidence. They roll Malcolm out pretty gradually… first he’s just the sinister figure who created the List, and is aggravated that the newly arrived vigilante is targeting his cabal’s members. Only after establishing this did they reveal that he was, indeed, Tommy’s father and a long-time friend to the Queen family. And once we knew that… in the fall finale (last episode before the Christmas hiatus) he’s revealed to secretly be the cabal’s enforcer, the Dark Archer, the man who earlier that episode beat Oliver like a pinata.
Malcolm Merlyn is one of the better villains the Arrowverse has come up with, based on comics villain Merlyn, an archer assassin. (They leave out his ridiculous mustache, not only because covering any part of John Barrowman’s face is a crime.) His season one motivation is simple, understandable, if twisted. This is a trademark of the better Arrowverse villains. Plus menace and great performances. John Barrowman brings the performance, his mask-wearing stuntman brings the menace when the Dark Archer goes to work, and motive-wise, he’s fittingly Oliver’s polar opposite. Oliver fights a crusade against corrupt one-percenters for failing his city; Merlyn recruits corrupt one-percenters in a crusade against the city for failing him. His wife was murdered in the Glades, the poorest and most crime-riddled neighbourhood of Starling City. His solution? Reduce the Glades and everyone in them to rubble.
A monstrous overreaction, sure, no question, but in season three we do learn that his wife’s killer was a total dick. An atrocity born from grief is much easier to relate to than an atrocity born from “I just love killing.”
Merlyn’s backstory is also part of a long game the producers were playing, slipping in less and less subtle references to DC A-lister Ra’s Al Ghul, to see if they’d get in trouble. They did not. Whether it was worth it… well, that’s a year three thing. Merlyn is an ex-member of the League of Assassins, which is why he’s so good at fighting and uses arrows instead of, like, guns or something.
Fan service in the Arrowverse comes in three varieties: the good (characters from the comics and geek-friendly guest stars), the bad (characters grossly misinterpreted), and the weird (characters named after comics characters but not even vaguely similar to them). Examples? You got it, ’cause we have all three this year.
Slade Wilson, known to comics fans as Deathstroke the Terminator, is one of Arrow’s best comic imports.
Deadshot makes his debut three episodes in, and Arrow Deadshot is probably, no, definitely a better take on the character than Will Smith in Suicide Squad. Hm. Flash, Superman, Deadshot… is the only character the DC movies do better than the Arrowverse Captain goddamn Boomerang? Maybe Amanda Waller.
The bank robbers Diggle uses to teach Oliver that heroism extends beyond the List are the Royal Flush Gang, DC’s go-to expendable robber villains. In the comics, the Royal Flush Gang have been taken down by so many heroes in so many cities, they eventually revealed the name had been franchised.
Farscape’s Ben Browder plays Diggle’s ex-CO, who may or may not be someone the Hood needs to cross off the List.
Seth Gabel, best known at the time for Fringe, makes a couple of appearances as The Count, designer of the drug Vertigo. This is a clear reference to DC villain Count Vertigo, and based (probably) on this, Count Vertigo was brought into Green Arrow’s comic. So it goes. The Count is almost certainly the most ridiculously over-the-top campy villain this series… no, this franchise has ever had. And I say this knowing that the Flash has fought both a giant, hyperintelligent, telepathic gorilla and a similarly giant man-shark. Really, only Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff is giving him a run for his money, and that’s five years later.
Our first Batman villain to be borrowed by Arrow is Firefly, here a fireman out for revenge against the old boss who left him to die. I almost never say this, but… Gotham did this one better. Ugh. That did not feel good.
Dinah Lance the Elder is played by Dr. River Song herself, Alex Kingston.
Battlestar Galactica’s James Callis and Tahmoh Penikett make appearances, because BSG actors tend to hang around Vancouver (where all Arrowverse shows, if not the entire CW network, film) and are easy to cast in nerd-friendly projects.
And one of my favourite TV villain actors, David Anders (who I became a fan of in Alias and now peddles brains on iZombie) drops by as well, as the would-be kingpin of Starling City.
Helena Bertinelli, The Huntress, was almost in “The Good.” Based on her first episode and a half, she seems to be a decent take on the post-Crisis Huntress (please don’t make me explain “post-Crisis” right now). Then in the end of her two-part debut, she turns on Oliver, and eventually goes full villain. Same thing with the Blackhawks: heroes of World War II in the books, a corrupt security firm on Arrow. They keep doing this, taking lower-tier heroes and using them as villains. I don’t get it. Expect everyone in “the Bad” to match this description.
In her third appearance, Huntress gets a comics-accurate costume… but only when she’s pretending to be a stripper. Says a lot about female superhero costumes in the 90s, doesn’t it. Yeah. Not… not great.
Edward Fyers and Shado are both key characters in a classic (if controversial) Green Arrow story called The Longbow Hunters, which was apparently influential enough that John Diggle gets his last name from the story’s author, Andy Diggle (John’s brother gets the full name, which turns out notto be the best tribute). They both became long-term recurring characters in Green Arrow lore, and other than Fyers’ mercenary background and Shado’s fondness for archery, neither of them are what you’d call similar to their comics counterparts. Fyers was ultimately his friend, for Zod’s sake, whereas he and Shado (lovers on the show) do not get along at all.
One-off villains Dodger and Drakon are also pretty dissimilar from their pre-Flashpoint (Google it if you’re so damn curious) comic incarnations.
Also worth noting here that there was, back in the 80s, a comics character named Felicity Smoak. She was a nemesis and later stepmother of Ronnie Raymond, one half of the hero Firestorm. It’s pretty obvious they just borrowed the name and nothing else. But in their defense, they didn’t know they were creating one of the series’ central characters. It just kind of went that way.
There isn’t really a crossover this year. I mean, how can there be, there’s only one show. Now, the episode when the crossovers typically happen, episode eight, is the episode where Helena Bertinelli puts on a mask and costume for the first time. But it’s also the episode where she and Oliver have their falling out and she begins her fall to full-on villainy, soooo…. wouldn’t really call it a crossover, per se.
There’s always deaths in the Arrowverse, and it’s usually someone you didn’t want to go. I’ll be putting this section in spoiler text for best practice.
Year one casualties
Oh, Tommy Merlyn. In actor Colin Donnell’s hands you had wit, charm, and were the second best friend Oliver could have had (after Diggle). The show tried to pull you to the dark side over the season, giving you more and more reasons to lash out at Oliver and side with your maniacal, poor-person-murdering father, but you never went bad. It’s a shame your storyline just got grimmer as the year went on, ’cause Donnell has a way with a one-liner that was delightful in the early episodes. See, for instance, “Have you noticed how hot your sister’s gotten? [very brief glare from Oliver] Because I haven’t.” On rewatching, Oliver being forced to watch his best friend die in the rubble of an attack Oliver failed to stop is pretty crushing. Donnell acted the hell out of his last moments.
Two of the names on Oliver’s list are Isabel Rochev and Hannibal Bates. Shoulda… shoulda tried to cross them off sooner, Oliver. Could have saved yourself and the good people of Central City some grief down the line.
Season one sets a trend that lasts into season two: the costume tends to appear before the iconic character. Yao Fei was first to wear Oliver’s green hood (from which he gets his first nickname), Slade Wilson’s mask first appears on a thug we learn is his old partner Wintergreen (another departure, he’s basically Slade’s Alfred in the comics), and down the road Dinah Laurel Lance will not be the first person to use the codename “Canary.”
Another trend: names of key writers and artists from the comics are everywhere in this franchise. John Ostrander, Dan Didio, Gail Simone, that’s just off the top of my head. Suffice to say, if an address has names instead of numbers, they’re the names of comic creators.
Next time… Arrow opens the door to a larger, stranger world, multiple presumed-dead characters prove hard to kill, and no fewer than three cast members of The Flash make their debuts in what many considered to be Arrow’s best season.
There’s a new Doctor on the horizon. The first female Doctor. This has some people wondering if it’s time to try out this show I love so much.
Well, that’s what I’m here for. Because when you love a show as much as I love Doctor Who, you have opinions.
These are mine.
“On every world wherever people are, in the deepest part of the winter, at the exact midpoint, everybody stops and turns and hugs. As if to say, ‘Well done! Well done, everyone! We’re halfway out of the dark.'”
“Hey,” said Steven Moffat, as his first Christmas special approached. “What if, right, what if the Christmas special was actually about Christmas, instead of coincidentally taking place on Christmas?”
(I mean really, Donna Noble, getting married on Christmas Day? Dick move, if’n you ask me.)
And so came A Christmas Carol, which may well still be my absolute favourite of the Who Christmas specials. (Last Christmas, which we haven’t reached, is competitive.) On Christmas Eve Amy and Rory, mid-honeymoon, are stuck on a spaceship about to crash due to unstable clouds covering the planet. The one man who can stop it, Kazran Sardick (Dumbledore his own self, Michael Gambon), refuses to do so. The Doctor has one night to turn a mean, rich, old man nice.
Fortunately his old pal Charles Dickens had a recipe for just that.
Over a series of Christmases*, The Doctor tries to find a way to make Kazran a good person… but he might do more harm than he expected. And along the way there are flying fish, visits to the Rat Pack, fezzes, and a for old school fans, a brief appearance by a familiar giant scarf.
It’s love and loss, hilarious and heartbreaking, and it features a tour de force performance from an extra energetic Matt Smith. Moffat explained it thusly: in The 11th Hour, Smith was an unproven quantity. He was replacing the beloved David Tennant, no easy feat, and he knew he had a crowd to win. In A Christmas Carol, he’d won them over. Some might still prefer Ten to Eleven (not I, though it’s super close), but Eleven was still a hit. Which means Smith got to strut. The second The Doctor arrives via chimney (it’s Christmas, he got excited), he is captivating.
*Moffat also said “What if this show about a time traveller used time travel a bit more?”
Series Six: River Song and War With The Silence
Moffat believed that DoctorWho should always be event television. It‘s arrival should be an event, which meant not being predictable like American network television shows. This meant rarely premiering at the same time any given year, and in the case of series six, it meant taking just under three months off around the halfway point.
He had another new idea for series six as well. This was the year he said “Let’s open with the finale.” The two-part premiere, The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon, is every bit as epic, sweeping, dramatic, and eventful as most finales tended to be, with the exception that the stakes are less universal and more planetary. It’s a knockout opener that sets the stage for the year to come… the Silence, hinted at in series five, make their terrifying debut, there’s a mysterious girl who might be a Time Lord, a woman with an eye patch only Amy can see, River Song’s back, Amy has a secret, and The Doctor dies in the opening minutes. Although a Doctor 200 years older than last time Amy and Rory saw him… and the next, as it swiftly turned out.
Of course, once you’ve opened that big, you have to keep the the momentum going. So just saying “Bad Wolf” once a week is off the table. They needed equally big moments at the mid-point and the finale, and A Good Man Goes to War, the last episode before the three month hiatus, didn’t disappoint. It’s a huge showstopper of an episode, filled with twists and action and unforgettable characters (plus a couple of returns), and it sent us off to break with an instantly intriguing promise: “The Doctor Will Return in… Let’s Kill Hitler.”
And if the title of the finale, The Wedding of River Song, doesn’t have your attention, what show have you been watching?
Things get big in series six. The show embraces The Doctor as a galactic hero, only to have him realize he’s taken it all too far.
Although there’s a whole other reason the Silence is gunning for him… there’s a question The Doctor is destined to be asked. The first question, the oldest question in the universe, hidden in plain sight… a question they feel must never be answered. The Doctor must die. Silence must fall.
There’s a lot of prophesying in the back half. And worry not, it’s going somewhere.
Moffat realizes that The Doctor has been fighting off the worst that time and space have to offer for a long time now. Long enough that he’s become a figure of legend, heroic or horrifying depending on who’s telling the legend. Maybe this is one of the issues anti-Moffat people have… they preferred the anonymous wanderer to the man who stares down entire armies with a glib speech. But in fairness, this has been building for a while, since back in the Davies era. If not Dalek and The Parting of the Ways, then certainly when Ten stared down the Vashta Nerada in Forest of… the… Dead…
That’s a Moffat episode. Son of a bitch, that’s a Moffat episode.
In the back half, The Doctor himself realizes he’s become too big. He never meant to inspire the kind of fear that raises armies against him. So it’s time to step back. And, well, he is scheduled to die in two centuries, unless he can figure out a way around it.
(The continued existence of the show, and the two subsequent incarnations of The Doctor, might indicate he has a decent chance of figuring out a way around it.)
We also see a trait that has become a key part of the 11th Doctor: the old soul with a young face. Despite being the youngest actor to ever play the Doctor, Smith excelled at showing the weight of the Doctor’s 908 (1100 and change by the last couple of episodes) years of life. When his scheduled end draws near, he can’t pretend he hasn’t gotten tired.
That said, this might have something to do with having spent two centuries travelling more or less on his own. Sure, there’s some escapades with River Song along the way, but for those two centuries we don’t see, he’s mostly alone after parting ways with two returning friends.
Amy Pond is the first returning full-time companion since Rose Tyler. And she remains as Amy as ever.
Rory’s back as well, and now he’s a full companion instead of just popping in and out. He expands on his role from last year as the man willing to call out The Doctor when necessary. He loves the travel, and he loves doing it with Amy, and sure he likes to help people, but while he likes The Doctor fine, he’s never been under The Doctor’s spell. When a line’s being crossed, when Amy’s life is being risked, when there’s hypocrisy to be called out, Rory is on it. Also he dies a lot. But if you’ve made it this far that’s not news. He died twice last year alone.
Series Five Spoiler
Oh, and he can remember those 2000 years he spent guarding the Pandorica while made of plastic. Sometimes he can, anyway.
Series six also dips its toes into a whole new concept where companions are concerned: the idea that they can be dropped off at home for a spell. Classically, when a companion leaves the Tardis, that’s it. They’re done. An odd few might pop back for a visit (Rose, Martha, Sarah Jane), but in general, good-bye was good-bye, not “see you in a bit.” But The Doctor wanted to give them a chance at normal married life. Maybe a kid or two, which… well… you’ll see.
When we rejoin the Ponds in Impossible Astronaut, they’ve been on their own since the honeymoon. A month, maybe two, not more than three. But then after watching the older Doctor die, they’re back on the Tardis with younger Doctor for ooo, six or seven months before getting dropped back off after A Good Man Goes to War. No, yeah, that’s accurate, I have reason to know that time frame is about accurate. And after a realization hits late in the series, The Doctor sends them home again, to a new home he’s purchased for them (somehow), this time for good. Well, he thinks. The thing about The 11th Doctor is that he can never turn away from Amy forever. And even when he does, he can’t replace her. For two centuries, she leaves a void he can’t bring himself to fill.
(Some anti-Moffat people decry series six for two scenes in which The Doctor asks Rory for permission to hug Amy, rather than asking Amy, claiming that The Doctor is acknowledging Rory’s ownership of his wife’s body. To that I say… be serious. The Doctor and Amy hug all the time, he knows Amy is okay with hugging him, this is well and truly established and has been since The Beast Below. Rory, on the other hand, can be sensitive about his place in Amy’s life compared to The Doctor, and there are moments when The Doctor wants to make sure he’s not setting that off. He asks Rory for permission to hug Amy because Rory is the only person who would mind. Come on, people, surely there are better ways to fight rape culture than attacking platonic, consensual, mutually appreciated hugs. Because when you blow things like this out of proportion, you make it harder to talk about the real stuff.)
(Yes, hugs do require consent, so if Amy were uncomfortable about hugging him, this would be an entirely different conversation, but she’s not and it isn’t.)
The Life and Times of River Song
Sure our main story is the Silence’s latest effort to kill The Doctor, and the reason why they’re trying so hard to do so, but along the way we answer a key question… who is River Song? Who was she, and who will she be to The Doctor? Is she The Doctor’s wife (do not expect this question to be answered in The Doctor’s Wife)? Is she a murderer? She is good with that gun.
Look… I shouldn’t talk about it here. But suffice to say, it’s a satisfying story, every bit as twisted and timey-wimey as it deserves to be.
The Supporting Cast
Hmm… Amy, Rory, River… that’s about it, really. There are some spectacular one-offs along the way, some of whom even survive meeting The Doctor, but none I’d call a “supporting cast.”
Oh, except this. Remember when I said that Silurian Neve McIntosh (The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood) and Sontaran Dan Starkey (The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky) would be back as more notable characters? Well, it’s happening. A Good Man Goes to War introduces us to their more popular selves. McIntosh plays Madam Vastra, a Silurian who started solving murders in Victorian London (including catching– and eating– Jack the Ripper) with her maid/wife Jenny following a run-in with the Doctor. Starkey is Strax, a Sontaran The Doctor punished by making him serve as a combat nurse. Vastra, Jenny, and Strax are some of The Doctor’s first stops assembling his task force to hit Demon’s Run. We’ll be seeing more of them, even the one who seems to be dead.
The Big Bad: Chief among the Silence, and the species known by that name, are aliens who look a little like the classic grey aliens, with a suitably spooky twist. The trick of the Silence is that the second you stop looking at them, you forget they exist. They could be in the room with you and you wouldn’t know, because unless you’re looking at them you forget anything was there. They also work alongside some of the Catholic marines we met back in Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone.
(Some anti-Moffat people used The Doctor’s method of dealing with the Silence in Day of the Moon as a way of decrying Moffat and Eleven. To this I say… they had enslaved the Earth, they killed innocents on a whim, The Doctor gave humanity the only way of driving them out he could… and you’re taking their side? Who hurt you? And why didn’t it stick? Also, the scene where he springs his trap is amaze-balls, so nuts to you.)
This Year in Daleks: They mostly get the year off. One unfortunate Dalek gets a cameo appearance in the finale, but other than that, Moffat decided that maybe the most dangerous yet also most defeated race in the universe could use a year off to recharge. The Cybermen drop by a couple of times, though.
Classic Monsters Revived: None this year, but they double up with some deep-dives in series seven.
The Good: The Flesh are a good sympathetic creature, providing another two-parter where it isn’t clear whose side The Doctor should even be on. Actually there’s a lot of “monsters” who aren’t as bad as they seem this series. A siren preying on the sick and injured who’s less sinister than she appears; a minotaur feeding on faith that’s as eager as anyone for The Doctor to stop him; killer robot nurses who just want to help, it’s not their fault their medicine is lethal to humans; a shapeshifting person-shaped time machine with a minaturized human crew that actually wants to do some good for the universe, even if their idea of good is a little… Black Mirror. The giant wooden doll zombies with children’s voices, however, they’re just jerks.
You heard. Giant wooden doll zombies with children’s voices singing an ominous nursery rhyme. One friend snapped at that point, screaming “Fuck everything about this episode!” Also the nursery rhyme contains the theme for the rest of the year… “Tick tock goes the clock, he cradled and he rocked her… tick tock goes the clock… even for The Doctor.”
The Bad: They all work for me, really.
The Ugly: They don’t avoid having a lot of closeups of the minotaur just because that episode has some weird directing choices.
Back in the Davies era, Moffat would come in, write one story, and it would be the best one of the year. In series six, Neil Gaiman arrived to do the same thing to Moffat with The Doctor’s Wife. Although… when someone on Twitter attempted to get Gaiman to talk smack about Moffat, he not only heaped praise on Moffat as a writer and person, but also gave him credit for “all the best lines in The Doctor’s Wife.” And there are some great lines in that episode. Gaiman’s initial goal was to explore the larger Tardis interior, and to make it a hostile environment, but along the way he tripped over something wonderful.
The Doctor gets a distress call from a Time Lord named the Corsair, leading him to take the Tardis outside of space as we understand it to a meteor calling itself House. Soon the Tardis goes dead, because the soul of the Tardis has been planted into a woman named Idris. Finally, for the first time in seven centuries, The Doctor and the Tardis meet face-to-newly-acquired-face, and it’s amazing. Or, as The Doctor and Amy put it…
“She’s a woman and she’s the Tardis.”
“Did you wish really hard?”
The Doctor is hoping that he’ll find living Time Lords here. He thinks that if he does, maybe he can explain why he did what he did in the Time War, wiping his own people out.
“You want to be forgiven,” says Amy. The Doctor freezes, half turns back, and with just a hint of a crack in his voice, asks “Don’t we all?” Amazing moment, subtle and profound, utterly relatable and just a touch crushing.
Curse of the Black Spot is pretty forgettable, and it’s sandwiched in between the far superior Day of the Moon and The Doctor’s Wife. But frankly that is as bad as series six gets: fun, interesting, but somewhat disposable. It’s a pretty solid year, all told.
The primary arc episodes–Impossible Astronaut, Day of the Moon, A Good Man Goes to War, Let’s Kill Hitler, and The Wedding of River Song– all range from really damn good to utterly spectacular. God Complex may have some really spotty directorial choices, but is notable for its sweetly tragic end, and the introduction of Tivoli, the most invaded planet in the galaxy (“Our anthem is ‘Glory to Insert Name Here.'”) Closing Time brings back an old friend, and it’s a perfect reunion.
Curse of the Black Spot and Night Terrors are adequate episodes that don’t add a lot to the overall year. I doubt you’d hate them, you’d probably enjoy them, but if you didn’t watch them you wouldn’t really miss much.
Actually, I kind of see Night Terrors as what Fear Her should have been. At the centre… spoilers… is a child who is actually an alien, but instead of trapping people inside of drawings out of selfishness, this alien child traps people inside of a doll house out of terror. Replacing an extended tantrum with a child’s nighttime panic attack makes all the difference in terms of sympathy. At least I felt so.
Notable Guest Stars
Professional Awesome Guest Star Mark A. Sheppard, best known as Crowley on Supernatural but also a veteran of Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Chuck, White Collar, Leverage, and that’s just off the top of my head, brings his usual growly charms as ex-FBI agent Canton Everett Delaware III in the two-part premiere, one of those temporary companions that you wish could stick around. And his older self is played by his father, William Morgan Sheppard.
Craig’s back! James Corden returns in Closing Time, as Craig pitches in for what The Doctor thinks will be his last ride. Every series could have involved a Doctor/Craig adventure and I’d have never minded.
Supermodel Lily Cole is the siren-like figure haunting the pirates of Curse of the Black Spot. A phantom-like figure who lures men to their doom but doesn’t talk much is right up her alley, I feel.
Perpetually underrated but always excellent British actor Michael Sheen, Frost in Frost/Nixon, Tony Blair in The Crown, and many other things, plays the voice of sentient meteor House in The Doctor’s Wife.
Imelda Staunton also lends a voice as the Interface in The Girl Who Waited.
Apparently Raquel Cassidy was on Downton Abbey. Not sure as who. Look, if you want Downton Abbey cast spotted, you’re mostly on your own.
Between the end of The God Complex and the start of The Wedding of River Song, The Doctor is happy to keep running, pretending he doesn’t have an unmissable appointment at Lake Silencio. The thing that changes that? The moment when he decides it’s time to head back to Utah (albeit after pulling one little trick)? He tries to call up his oldest human friend, Brigadier General Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, friend to Doctors Two through Seven, for a night on the town. But the nurse on the other end of the phone informs him that the Brigadier has passed on. This isn’t just a sad moment for The Doctor. It’s the show acknowledging the recent passing of Nicholas Courtney, who played the Brigadier across three decades of the original series and two episodes of more recent spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures. The Brigadier may have never made it to new Who, but his legacy, and his importance to the show’s history, aren’t forgotten.
Closing Time opens with a nice parallel to the opening of The Lodger, as Craig once again swings open the door expecting to see Sophie but instead is greeted by The Doctor. And on the subject of Craig, turns out that spaceship that was parked over his flat in The Lodger was an abandoned Silence craft.
One night in 2011, after a few nightmares, it was clear I wasn’t getting any more sleep, so I got up a few hours early and decided to catch up on Doctor Who. What did I get? God Complex. A hotel full of nightmares. Thanks.
Speaking of God Complex… every room in the hotel The Doctor and the Ponds find themselves in has someone’s nightmare in it. Including The Doctor’s. He finds his room, but we aren’t shown what’s in it. If you think that’s a cop-out, well, I used to think so too… but be patient.
Six years, six years I have been convinced that in one episode, The Doctor called Rory “Mickey,” confusing him with former companion-boyfriend Mickey Smith. I finally found the moment. It’s in The God Complex… but he didn’t say “Mickey.” He called Rory “Beaky.” Needless to say, I’m crushed.
The Doctor’s Wife is also the first episode I can think of to establish that Time Lords can and do shift gender during regeneration, beginning to pave the way for Jodie Whittaker. Sure it took six years to get there but, hey, it was a start.
Shoulda paid closer attention to that diner in Impossible Astronaut, Doctor. It’s gonna turn out to be significant in a while.
Impossible Astronaut changes the saddest moment of series four, as it shines a new light on when River and Ten crossed paths.
If you didn’t notice, a lot of complaints about Moffat and Eleven were aimed at series six. And these were the complaints that made it hard, if not impossible, for me to take the anti-Moffat crowd seriously. Two of the ones I flagged? Nonsense. Shenanigans. Although next series there’s… well… we hit a problem.
Doctor Quote of the Year: “Those were the days.” Nobody infuses that line with sadness like Matt Smith.
Historical Guest Star of the Year: The most notable comes in the first two episodes. Moffat and the writers thought “We keep having The Doctor meet all these really great characters from history, so this time why not have him meet someone who was a little bit rubbish?” And so did The Doctor team up with President Nixon in Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon.
In addition, Winston Churchill is back when time breaks in The Wedding of River Song. Charles Dickens also has a cameo in that episode, as a news team asks how he plans to top A Christmas Carol. Seemed a little meta, since the next episode would be the Christmas special, and people must have been wondering how Moffat would top his own A Christmas Carol. (Spoilers… he didn’t, but he tried.) And Hitler does predictably make an appearance in Let’s Kill Hitler.
Saddest Moment: “I just wanted to say… hello. Hello, Doctor. It’s so very, very nice to meet you.”
Been a while since the last one of these, huh? Well, I was working on a script, had a tight deadline facing me, and was about to hit a six-episode stretch of pure Doctor greatness, and thought it would be too distracting. And so the 2017 Doctor Who Rewatch hit a pause for a spell. But we’re back. So, where was I?
There’s a new Doctor on the horizon. The first female Doctor. This has some people wondering if it’s time to try out this show I love so much.
Well, that’s what I’m here for. Because when you love a show as much as I love Doctor Who, you have opinions.
These are mine.
…No it isn’t. Tennant’s farewell tour took up the last two Christmas specials, so the Moffat era begins in the regular series. Moving on.
Series Five: “The Pandorica will open. Silence will fall.”
When Nine regenerated into Ten, the show didn’t change much. Sure, The Doctor changed. Became more cheerful, more open to people, ever so slightly less haunted by the Time War. That… that never goes away completely. Not yet, anyway. But other than that, things stayed the same. Same companion, same supporting cast, same Tardis, same Doctor’s Theme, same will-they-won’t-they relationship between The Doctor and Rose, only amplified.
Not so this time.
In series five, everything is new. Steven Moffat took the reigns from Russell T. Davies, he had a new Doctor to break in, so he cleared house. New Tardis interior (after the cliffhanger-resolving cold open, the first cold open in a season premiere since the revival began), new sonic screwdriver, new opening credits, new opening credit theme, new theme for The Doctor (I Am The Doctor, one of my favourites), new supporting cast, new everything.
This included a new approach to the arc for the year, but we’ll talk about that below.
Also returning for a few episodes is River Song. Who she is and the nature of her relationship with The Doctor is still a mystery, but the truth is coming. In the meantime, she’s around for two key adventures… and does her best to curtail The Doctor’s newfound love of fezzes.
Matt Smith was… still is, by four months and 25 days… the youngest actor to ever play The Doctor. I would say that this meant he brought a new, youthful energy to the role, but he followed David Tennant, and his Doctor was energetic enough to power London. No, being young enough to be unfamiliar with The Doctor meant that in the year (about) between being cast and staring filming, he had to do his research. And as Moffat tells it, one night Matt Smith called him saying “I just watched Tomb of the Cybermen. I’ve got it.”
Matt Smith took his inspiration from the Second Doctor, Patrick Troughton. And what Troughton brought to the role was a surface-level clownishness that hid how dangerous he truly was from his enemies, and an alienness that comes from never being 100% sure how to interact with humans, resulting in awkward shenanigans.
Also a bow tie. The bow tie is key. Bow ties are cool, or so he assures us.
Eleven combined The Doctor’s brilliance with a general cluelessness about social cues or normal behaviour that was reliably good for a laugh. Witness his attempts at dancing in The Big Bang, his efforts to blend in with the lads in The Lodger, and, of course, the bow tie.
But it’s not just humour Smith can nail, either. Witness the subtle tragedy when Amy asks him if there are other Time Lords: “…No. There were, but there aren’t… just me now.” And then his anger. Ten’s rage burned hot like a volcano, Eleven’s is cold as ice. It’s all there in his six word warning to the Atraxi in his first episode: “Hello. I’m The Doctor. Basically… run.”
There’s something about Eleven that spoke to me. That I connected to more than any Doctor before or since (fine, at the time of writing, “since” is two guys). The way he loved the people around him, but never fully knew how to connect with them. And that while Amy was the most important person in his life (something they dig further into down the road), he was not the most important person in hers… and that was okay. He didn’t need to be. Not as long as she was happy. Seeing Amy happy made his own loneliness easier to bear.
I get that.
Also I’m obviously going to connect to an awkward Doctor more than a confident, handsome god who won hearts wherever he went.
Amy Pond. The Girl Who Waited.
Being a Scottish redhead in a miniskirt could have been enough to make Amy my favourite companion, but she’s so much more than that. Amy is what saved The Doctor. After an unknown amount of time on his own, after having his hearts broken losing Rose and Donna in one day, after crossing the line on Mars, after being the least ready to face regeneration/death since Six banged his head on the Tardis control panel and became Seven, encountering young Amelia brought him back to himself. He took on a companion again, albeit partly because he saw that she may have needed more help than she knew thanks to the pesky crack in her wall.
Amy is strong, resourceful, and clever. She saw solutions The Doctor was missing on her first day in the Tardis, and she acted as his conscience, his drive to be better, even after she ultimately left. The Doctor becomes the hero he was meant to be because Amy won’t accept anything less. And because there’s no crisis, no enemy, no army he won’t stare down in her name. Although I guess that’s true of all Doctor/Companion relationships since the revival, isn’t it? With the possible exception of Nardole. Who’s Nardole? Spoilers. We’ll get there.
Also, while Amy does develop a crush on The Doctor, she’s nowhere near as passive about it as Rose or Martha. She makes her move early, allowing The Doctor (Not quite so pro-kissing as Ten sometimes was) to try and pump her brakes a little.
No, I heard it as soon as I said it. As Eleven would say… “Oh… shut up, not like that…”
The Universe is Cracked
Moffat’s “everything new” approach included a new way of tackling the season arc.
Russell T. Davies was happy just to say “Bad Wolf” or “Torchwood” once an episode, then finally pay it off in the two-part finale. Well, more “explain why he kept doing that” than “pay it off.” Moffat, on the other hand, likes to dribble out details of the main plot over the course of the year, while often keeping a mystery or two close to his chest while he does it. In the case of series five, the universe is cracked. The Doctor runs into this fact minutes after regenerating, in fact while still finishing his regeneration cycle, clad in the raggedy remains of Ten’s signature suit. A young girl named Amelia Pond asks him to examine a crack in her wall, which turns out to be a crack in time and space, which allows a toothy worm named Prisoner Zero to escape into Amelia’s house, which results in a high-octane real-time adventure that ends in Prisoner Zero having a laugh at The Doctor’s expense. See, he thought Prisoner Zero made the crack. That he doesn’t know where the cracks came from amuses it.
“The Doctor in the Tardis doesn’t know,” it laughs, before delivering a warning: “The Pandorica will open. Silence will fall.”
The cracks follow The Doctor and Amy through time and space, but unlike his previous selves and the Bad Wolves, Eleven isn’t willing to just ignore this until it comes back to bite him. When he and Amy spot the cracks, he does his best to look into why one specific crack is following them wherever they go. And the results point him towards a secret Amy’s been keeping about her plans before she left with him.
Basically, every multi-part episode reveals another piece of the puzzle. But in the end, the Pandorica opens. Silence?
Well, you’ll have to wait and see.
The Supporting Cast
Ladies and gentlemen, Arthur Darville as Rory Williams. Rory is introduced as Amy’s boyfriend (a label she is reluctant to fully grant him, possibly because she was having slightly squelchy thoughts about The Doctor at the moment). Later, he’s her fiance (a lot happens to Amy in her first episode). But he’s not the new Mickey, even if I’m occasionally sure there’s an episode where Eleven calls him that by mistake.
Rory is at first terrified of everything Doctor-related, from the aliens of death (his words) to the time travel, and most of all what being around all of this does to people. Girl-people, more specifically. Amy, most specifically. That said… he does grow to love it. He has his worries that Amy’s going to get herself killed trying to impress The Doctor, but one trip to Venice, fish aliens pretending to be vampires notwithstanding, and he’s hooked.
Also Arthur Darville has his skills at comedy and drama. He’s one of my favourite Legends of Tomorrow for a reason.
The Big Bad: It’s a crack in a wall. Or rather a crack in the universe. Anything else I could tell you, you should really learn yourself.
This year in Daleks: In Victory of the Daleks, The Doctor discovers Daleks (or Ironsides, as they’re being called) being used as Britain’s secret weapon during the Blitz. Which he is correct in assuming isn’t a great sign. And… spoilers… it’s not called Victory of the Daleks for no reason. Steven Moffat decided to get off of the “Oh no the Daleks survived somehow! There, killed all the Daleks. Oh no the Daleks survived somehow!” rollercoaster once and for all. Sorry, universe, the Daleks are back to stay. That said, it is a pretty great episode. I mean, some fighters get modified weirdly fast, but other than that, great episode.
Classic Monsters Revived: The Silurians, lizard people from the age of the dinosaurs, who put themselves into suspended animation deep underground… and don’t care for being woken up to find that monkeys have taken over the world and driven it off a cliff. The Silurians are great for moral dilemma episodes, because it’s always hard to claim that they’re in the wrong. This was, after all, their planet first. The main antagonist Silurian(s) is/are played by Neve McIntosh. Like Dan Starkey in The Sontaran Stratagem, she’ll be back… but not as the same Silurian(s).
The Good: The Weeping Angels are back for a two-parter that’s basically a Jack Harkness appearance short of being titled “Steven Moffat’s greatest hits.” There are those who claim that they don’t fully live up to Blink this time, but they’re still effective.
The villains in The Beast Below might not seem like much, until you realise that the real villain is humanity yet again.
Pay attention to that spaceship in The Lodger. You’ll be seeing a similar one soon.
The Doctor gets jumped by an all-star rogues gallery towards the end.
The Bad: I actually didn’t love the Silurians. Just as well they don’t tend to get used as villains after this.
The Ugly: The CGI on Prisoner Zero must have set someone back $12.
I cannot, will not, shall not downplay my love for The 11th Hour, what may well be the greatest introductory episode for any Doctor ever, even Rose. Remember how good I said The Christmas Invasion became once Ten finally woke up in the last ten minutes? The 11th Hour is a whole episode of that, and it never gets tired. An amazing showcase for Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor, and the perfect antidote to the End Of Time blues.
You know what I don’t love The Hungry Earth. Cold Blood is decent, but Hungry Earth is just a lot of set-up for part two.
Gonna have to set a higher bar for this, because series five is great. If I don’t get picky I’ll be naming most of the series. Okay, speed round, and then two of particular note… The Beast Below is solid throughout and the moment Amy first shines as a companion. Time of Angels and Flesh and Stone unite two of Steven Moffat’s three best inventions during the Davies era, as River Song recruits The Doctor and Amy to help with the Weeping Angels. Vampires of Venice brings Rory into the fold. The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang was, at the time, my favourite two-part finale. Did it make a ton of sense? Maybe not, but next to The Journey’s End or Last of the Time Lords or Parting of the Ways it’s downright straightforward.
Okay. So. Vincent and the Doctor and The Lodger. Two episodes that would have been the high point of any season that didn’t contain The 11th Hour.
In Vincent and The Doctor, The Doctor sees something alien and nasty-looking in one of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings. Having done so, he whisks Amy off to meet the sad, tortured, brilliant artist, despised by the local villagers, but the only man who can save them from the invisible beast stalking their village. It’s one of the greatest examples I can name of how sadness can be beautiful. Well, after all, Moffat creation Sally Sparrow put it best… sad is happy for deep people. And if you don’t tear up a little when Vincent sees the museum, you, sir or madam, are dead inside.
In The Lodger, a man named Craig is trying to figure out how to tell his best friend Sophie that he’s in love with her. This is complicated by the fact that his new flatmate is The Doctor, a strange bloke in a bowtie who begins to outshine Craig in every aspect of his life. Also there’s a sinister being upstairs killing passers-by and leaking an incredibly toxic rot into Craig’s flat but honestly that is not his biggest concern right now. Third biggest at best. This episode is just a delight through and through (despite minimal Amy Pond), and the ending gets to me every time. It’s not only one of my favourite episodes, it became one of my favourite Chameleon Circuit songs.
Once again, my least favourite is indispensable to the main arc, so… not really, no.
Notable Guest Stars:
It’s almost weird to talk about notable guest stars when the leads of this season are some of the best known and most visible Who veterans of the past ten series. Matt Smith is now Prince Phillip on The Crown (let’s all just try to forget Terminator: Genysis); Karen Gillan is a full-blown movie star now, most notably a Guardian of the Galaxy; in addition to Broadchurch, Arthur Darville founded the Legends of Tomorrow as DC’s time travelling Rip Hunter; and Alex Kingston’s been a notable name since ER. And yet there are more.
Watch enough British television and you’re bound to come across Olivia Colman. Peep Show, That Mitchell and Webb Look, The Night Manager, Broadchurch, she keeps busy. She was even a favourite to become the first female Doctor, but her Broadchurch co-star David Tennant said that he knew her schedule, and there was no way she had time. Anyway, she’s the most vocal of Prisoner Zero’s disguises in The 11th Hour.
Actor, late night host, and Carpool Karaoke innovator James Corden plays Craig in The Lodger. Or from my perspective, Craig from The Lodger is currently hosting The Late Show.
Toby Jones, particularly notable as Arnim Zola from the Captain America movies, torments The Doctor and the Ponds in Amy’s Choice.
Bill Nighy is a tour guide who shares The Doctor’s taste in ties in Vincent and The Doctor.
Mark Gatiss lends his voice to the pilot Danny Boy in Victory of the Daleks.
Game of Thrones Guest Stars: Iain Glen, who plays Daenerys’ stalwart and Snow-icide Squad member Jorah Mormont, is Octavian, head of the Catholic marines in Flesh and Stone/Time of Angels. And Robert Pugh, known briefly as Caster, the worst person north of the wall (possibly including the ice zombies), is a geologist in The Hungry Earth and In Cold Blood.
In The Beast Below, the people of the UK are fleeing Earth due to deadly solar flares making it uninhabitable. This is a time in human history that The Doctor pops by from a lot of angles. A neat coincidence: the second Matt Smith story and the second Tom Baker story (The Ark in Space) both involve ships of humans fleeing the solar flares.
The Daleks discover that The Doctor does not, in fact, have a self-destruct button for the Tardis: “Okay, it’s a jammie dodger, but I was promised tea!” This will be Eleven’s favourite biscuit for the duration.
“It’s a fez. I wear a fez now. Fezzes are cool.” They get that particular fez off of his head, but he’ll never give them up entirely.
Doctor Quote of the Year: “Bowties are cool” and “Come along, Pond” are real contenders, but in this, Eleven’s first series, it can only be “GERONIMO!”
Historical Guest Star of the Year: Prime Minister and friend to The Doctor Sir Winston Churchill commands the totally-not-Daleks-don’t-worry-about-it Ironsides, and we already mentioned Vincent Van Gogh. Both turn up a second time as part of a historical chain that gets The Doctor to the Pandorica.
Saddest Moment: “I don’t understand. We were on the hill, I can’t die here.”
There’s a new Doctor on the horizon. The first female Doctor. This has some people wondering if it’s time to try out this show I love so much.
Well, that’s what I’m here for. Because when you love a show as much as I love Doctor Who, you have opinions.
These are mine.
The Specials: “This song is ending.”
In 2005, Russell T. Davies finally, after years of fan hopes and prayers, reintroduced DoctorWho to television. Later that year, as the first series drew to a close, David Tennant took over the title role, bringing the show to new levels of popularity and fan love.
And in 2008, both men announced they were leaving.
While series four was their last full series on the show, they both took 2009 to do a sort of farewell tour. While incoming showrunner Steven Moffat got everything in place to take over in 2010 (Moffat series take a while to write), Davies and Tennant came back for five hour-long specials airing between Christmas Day 2008 and New Year’s Day 2010. The Specials represent the terminus of Ten’s journey, ending with his regeneration into Eleven.
Something Davies specifically, maliciously set out to make the most brutally heartbreaking regeneration of all time.
So we’ll have to break format a little to cover these.
The Next Doctor finds Ten trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to shake off the remorseless string of increasingly sad farewells that marked the end of series four by visiting Christmas in Victorian London (this will not be the last time a hearts-broken Doctor comes to this time and place to wallow). He’s only barely landed when suddenly he’s running into returning enemies the Cybermen… and an oddly-dressed gentleman calling himself The Doctor (David Morrissey), claiming to have a sonic screwdriver and a Tardis. Has The Doctor found his future self?
Well, no. By the time they even announced this episode we knew that the next Doctor would be some kid named Matt Smith, so the bluff wasn’t strong, but the mystery behind why this guy thinks he’s The Doctor was well-told. And provided the first clear, undeniable proof that Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor is in fact canonical.
The pain of The Doctor’s losses is partially buried beneath his curiosity in this false Doctor, but it’s there. He has no companion and isn’t seeking one. And when Miss Haritgan, who has taken control of the Cybermen, rebuffs his offer for a peaceful solution, it’s clear that he resents being made into a killer.
“What do you make of me, sir?” she asks, refusing to leave Earth in peace.
“The question is, what do you make of me?” he replies. Then his tone goes ice cold as he says “You make me into this.” And he fires.
It’s a pretty standard Christmas special, all told. A charming self-contained adventure in which they casually mention that it’s Christmas. But it also makes it clear that some part of Ten died during The Journey’s End, and despite the best efforts of his would-be replacement, it doesn’t look to be coming back.
Planet of the Dead was meant to be The Tenth Doctor’s last good time, one more simple, fun adventure before things start to get dark. Well, simple for The Doctor. There’s still a far-off planet and alien fly-people and an incoming swarm of fangy death. So, sure, pretty casual.
A woman we will come to know as Lady Christina de Souza steals a valuable golden chalice from a museum. Fleeing the approaching police, she trades diamond earrings for a ride on a London bus, only to have The Doctor hop into the seat next to her, munching on a chocolate egg.
He doesn’t care about the chalice, though. Doesn’t even know about it yet. He’s more concerned with the wormhole he’s trying to track, which has grown large enough that the whole bus drives through it and ends up on some foreign desert world.
Problem is, it wasn’t a desert world last year, and the things that stripped it down to sand are heading their way. The Doctor and Christina have to get everyone home and ensure that the incoming death swarm doesn’t reach Earth.
Like Astrid in Voyage of the Damned, The Doctor and Lady Christina were the a perfect-companion-meeting that was never meant to be. They hit it off quickly, she’s clever and resourceful almost beyond The Doctor himself, and they share a thirst for travel and adventure (even if her desire for travel is slightly escape-the-law based). And she’s eager, so eager to hop in the Tardis and see the stars. But it’s not happening.
Where Astrid and The Doctor were torn apart by Kylie Minogue being expensivecircumstance… and for all we know, a little temporal manipulation from Dalek Caan to keep Astrid from delaying The Doctor’s reunion with Donna… it’s The Doctor himself keeping Christina out of the Tardis. After having to say goodbye to Rose for a second time and then immediately losing Donna, he can’t bring himself to let anyone else into his travels. So Lady Christina serves two key roles here.
First, she delivers that “last good time” Davies was trying to deliver, and second, she’s important to showing how damaged The Doctor has been since that mess with Davros. She is almost precisely the sort of person he’d normally take off into time and space. The whole “cat burgler” thing isn’t fully a value-add, but Jack was a con artist when they met and look at him now, all defending the Earth. So to sell The Doctor’s deep spiritual damage, they hand him a perfect companion desperate to go with him… and have him say a firm no.
But that’s just where his problems begin.
One of the passengers on the bus is psychic, and after an hour of seeing their impending doom hurtling towards them, she has a final warning for The Doctor, after repeating the warning he received from the Ood last year, “your song is ending.”
“It is returning, it is returning through the dark. And then, Doctor… Oh but then, he will knock four times.”
The end is nigh, and The Doctor’s not walking into it willingly. He likes who he is, he’s liked being Ten more than he’s liked himself since the Time War turned ugly, and he is not looking to change. Why else would he have dumped a regeneration into his severed hand so that he could heal without changing?
It’s… Fall, I guess?
“State your name, rank, and intention.”
“The Doctor… Doctor… fun?”
The Doctor arrives on Mars, in the mid-21st century, where he comes across the planet’s first human settlement. Problem is… the first human settlement was destroyed. Which may have inspired its leader’s granddaughter to later captain Earth’s first faster-than-light ship, and explore the galaxy. The destruction of this base is a fixed point in time, like Vesuvius. And it’s happening today. Any minute now. Because there’s something in the underground glacier they started using for water, and it’s infecting the crew one by one, turning them into water-spewing crag-faced zombies.
The Doctor is eager to get away, because it’s a fixed point, so not only is there nothing he can do… after Pompeii, he’s afraid that if he stays, he’ll be the one who makes it all happen. But the crew aren’t eager to let this inexplicable stranger leave, the water zombies draw his curiosity… and he likes these people. He especially likes their noble commander Adelaide Brooke (Lindsay Duncan, filling the companion role this time around), whose grandchild starts a dynasty of space explorers, and when he finally begins to leave as everything goes wrong… he can’t. Or at least, he won’t.
“There are laws of time,” he shouts to Adelaide as he seeks a way to stop the water zombies. “Once upon a time there were people in charge of those laws but they died. They all died. Do you know who that leaves? Me! It’s taken me all these years to realise that the laws of time are mine and they will obey me!”
If you think The Doctor asserting dominion over time itself is a good thing, you are way off. Adelaide sees it. He’s been alone too long. He’s gone too far. He’s becoming something terrible, someone willing to rewrite history to his own preferences. It’s not a power she thinks he or anyone should have, and is willing to sacrifice to take it from him.
And The Doctor collapses, emotionally. He knows he’s gone too far. He’s become lost, the exact sort of monster he once fought. And as this is sinking in, an Ood appears in the snow, signalling that his end is drawing near. So he does the only thing that makes sense to any Doctor in this position…
Waters of Mars is when The Doctor, already damaged from Journey’s End, finally breaks. And it sets the stage for the End.
Brace yourselves. It’s gonna get teary up in here.
It’s Christmas Again! And Also New Year’s!
The Ood have seen a terrible omen. A sinister cabal seeks to resurrect The Master. An industrialist named Joshua Naismith has his own plans for The Master, and is trying to build an alien healing device called The Immortality Gate. Two of Naismith’s staff have their own agenda. The people of Earth are plagued by nightmares, but only Wilfred Mott (Donna’s granddad, remember?) recalls them and knows what they mean. A mysterious woman is reaching out to Wilfred, telling him he must take up arms. The drumbeats in The Master’s head are getting louder. And behind it all, something horrible… the End of Time itself.
It’s all a trap, a way for the Time Lords to survive the Time War… at the expense of everything.
And The Doctor gallivanted through time and space too long (marrying Queen Elizabeth along the way… improbably, we’ll get back to that), and is late to the party. Or so say the Ood, anyway.
We could spend a lot of time talking about everything that happens in this final two-parter for Davies and Tennant. What The Master does, what the Lord President of Gallifrey is willing to do, Donna’s return, the mournful Chameleon Circuit rock epic summarizing it all… one last triumphant “ALLONS-Y!” But while End of Time is an appropriately epic tale for Ten to end his run with, what we should really focus on is this…
While The End of Time Part 2 isn’t without humour, don’t get used to it. Russell T. Davies set out to write the Saddest Regeneration of All Time. And good lord but he nailed it. He nailed it hard.
First, he took away the security blanket of regeneration not being the end. Ten, facing his prophesied death, laments that even if he does regenerate, it’s still like dying. “Everything I am dies. Some new man saunters away… and I’m dead.”
When the prophesied “he” knocks four times, and The Doctor sees his death approaching, it takes him a moment to meet it gracefully. “I could do so much more. So much more!” (Also of note, Wilfred isn’t making it easier, as throughout the second half he begs The Doctor not to let himself die, and Bernard Cribbins makes it heart-rending.) But the cost of living on, small though it was, is still too high. And so The Tenth Doctor must end… following a farewell tour.
Every companion, friend, loved one… everyone who meant anything to Ten gets a final, often silent farewell. And after one last visit to 2005 Rose Tyler, the Ood return to sing him to his rest. He staggers back to the Tardis, utters the saddest final line a Doctor has ever had*, The Doctor’s Theme plays one last time in epic fashion…
And Matt Smith arrives. It’s a rough ten minute ride to get here, but it’s going to be okay. I promise you it’s going to be okay from here.
Except when it’s incredibly sad. That doesn’t end. But it’s not all the time.
(*I would argue that the second saddest final Doctor line ever is Colin Baker’s “Carrot juice, carrot juice, carrot juice!” because nobody knew that would be his final line. The head of the BBC fired Baker between series, in the first of several moves that seemed to be engineered to kill the show.)
The Big Bad: Rassilon isn’t just a Time Lord, he’s the Time Lord. As covered in Chameleon Circuit’sGallifreyan History 101, “he was strong, he was mighty, he was the founder of Time Lord society,” one of the two men who mastered time travel and elevated Gallifrey. The other having been Omega, who was unfortunately erased in the process, something he took umbrage to in 1973’s The Three Doctors. There were also some hints during the Sylvester McCoy years that The Doctor himself may have also been involved, a story thread that was dropped when the BBC clamped down on attempts to explore The Doctor’s past.
Anyway, since the end of the original series, books and radio dramas have dug further into the legends of Rassilon. Was he the wise and benevolent ruler of a good and just Gallifrey, or was he a cruel despot who intentionally killed Omega? Whatever he was before, being resurrected to fight the Time War has made a monster of him now. But that’s what the Time War did.
This Year in Daleks: They got 2009 off. Still wiped out from The Journey’s End.
The Good: The Master is back to, albeit indirectly, kill his second Doctor. The Master has been involved in the incidents that caused the regenerations of Four, Ten, and Twelve. Man, that’s two of the all-time favourites.
Miss Hartigan made a good human ally/overlord for the Cybermen in The Next Doctor.
The Bad: …Eh. They’re all fine.
The Ugly: I have some qualms about the design choices for the water zombies in Waters of Mars. Not fun to look at, and the head water zombie kind of annoyed me any time she was on screen, I’m glad they’re all dead.
Notable guest stars:
Timothy Dalton, James goddamn Bond, is the Lord High President of the Time Lords, revealed in the end to be Rassilon.
Brian Cox is the voice the head of the Ood in Out of Time.
Joshua Naismith is played by Supergirl’s Martian Manhunter, David Harewood.
Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya is one of the passengers in Planet of the Dead.
I want to include Michelle Ryan as Lady Christina, but other than Steven Moffat’s surprisingly good Jekyll and 2007’s failed Bionic Woman remake, she hasn’t really done much. Shame. I liked her.
End of Time is the first and only time that a villain, in this case John Simm as The Master, is included in the opening credits. Though he turns out not to be the villain.
The bus in Planet of the Dead sustains damage going through the wormhole because they filmed the desert planet scenes in Dubai, and the bus did suffer significant damage in the process of shipping it there. Which caused some production headaches.
The woman contacting Wilfred in End of Time is a Time Lord, one of two who opposed the plan, credited only as “The Woman.” The Doctor seems to know her somehow. How, exactly, is the one last unanswered mystery of the Davies era. Is she Romana? Susan? The Rani? The wife we never knew, a child they’ve only alluded to, some other family member? Just a like mind from the days of the Time War? We don’t know. We may never know. “I was lost, long ago,” she tells Wilf. In the words of The Doctor, that is textbook enigmatic.
She comments on Wilfred’s military service, that he missed the war and never killed a man. “No I didn’t,” Wilfred says. “No I did not. No. But don’t say that like it’s shameful.” This mirrors actor Bernard Cribbins’ military service. He served in World War II, never killed anybody, and is incredibly proud of that. One more reason Wilfred, the Final Companion, is the best.
Planet of the Dead uses a cute lampshade-hang on the question of how similar to humans The Doctor is, one Moffat will steal in the year to come:
“You look human.”
“You look Time Lord.”
“I don’t know what I’d be without that noise,” says The Master.
“I wonder what I’d be… without you,” replies The Doctor.There can be some interestingly sweet moments between these two eternal foes.
On a personal note, The Last Doctor was the only episode I managed to watch between Last of the Time Lords and May of 2010, when I started binging my way through series four. The rest of the specials ended up waiting until that summer, after series five was up and running. So I had a slight advantage over most other viewers at the time: heart-crushing as Tennant’s final scenes were, I’d already fallen for his replacement, and knew that fresh good times were on the other side.
“Legs! I’ve still got legs!” The newly minted 11th Doctor begins with an inventory, and a disappointment: “And still not ginger!”
Historical Guest Star of the Year: A speech from Barack Obama plays a role in End of Time Part 1, but I wouldn’t count it.
There’s a new Doctor on the horizon. The first female Doctor. This has some people wondering if it’s time to try out this show I love so much.
Well, that’s what I’m here for. Because when you love a show as much as I love Doctor Who, you have opinions.
These are mine.
Voyage of the Damned was the first “apropos of nothing” Christmas special, not setting up or paying off stories from the main series or centered around a recent/impending regeneration. It’s got all of the hallmarks: a one-off story (not unique, most Doctor Who stories are one-offs), a one-time companion, and a weird amount of heartbreak for freaking Christmas. The only exception here is that they do technically introduce a character of interest, even though they didn’t necessarily know that at the time. But maybe they did? Could be, he is back on the show in the first episode of series four.
Anyway. Moments after dropping off Martha Jones at the end of Last of the Time Lords… or depending on how canonical you consider it, moments after the really sweet Moffat-written Children in Need short Time Crash in which the Tenth Doctor meets the Fifth (who both Tennant and Moffat grew up watching)… sorry, where was I.
Moments after dropping off Martha Jones… sorry, but it just is really endearing watching David Tennant give a tribute to the man who helped shape his childhood love of the character, both lightly mocking things like the stalk of celery he wore on his lapel and paying homage by listing all the Fifth Doctor quirks that Tennant incorporated into his own take. Right, back to it.
Moments after dropping off Martha Jones— and the moment where he looks at Davison and says “You were my Doctor,” that is just–
Right. Got it. For real this time. Moments after dropping off Martha Jones at the end of Last of the Time Lords, The Tardis collided with a luxury liner called The Titanic, for the second consecutive finale cliffhanger in which Tennant was reduced to just “What!? What!? What?” Turns out to have been the Starship Titantic, bringing alien guests on a stellar cruise to Christmas-time Earth.
“Why is called Titanic?” the Doctor asks one of the slightly creepy robot angels called Hosts that just seem to cry out “These go on a killing spree in the second act” the second you see them.
“Information: the Titanic is the most famous ship in Earth history,” the benign assistant about to go full murder-bot says.
“Yeah, cheers, any mention of why it’s famous?”
So it’s pretty clear where this is going. The Doctor meets a waitress named Astrid (played by Kylie freaking Minogue), a poor couple who won first class seats named Morvin and Foon, a tour guide with faulty Earth information named Mr. Copper, an upper class bag of putrid dicks named Rickston Slade, and a fun-sized spiky alien named Bannakaffalatta.
And just as everyone’s bonding and having a great time, the sudden yet inevitable disaster strikes, and it’s up to The Doctor to save who he can. Which… well, the disaster movie template requires that it not be too many people, and it’s not who you’d expect or hope.
Don’t get attached to Astrid, is what I’m saying, fully aware that you will anyway.
It’s a fun and touching episode with an instantly likable supporting cast (save for that asshat Rickston) and moments almost guaranteed to bring out the tears. First being the most unlikely yet brutally effective tug at the heartstrings…
And then, of course, The Doctor’s desperate wail, pain masked by rage, determination giving way to failure… “I can do anything!”
And along the way, there’s an alien-suspecting newspaper salesman played by Bernard Cribbins that you’ll want to keep an eye on.
Series Four: Companionpalooza!
It took me a year and a half to get around to this. My PVR didn’t record series four in fall of 2008, and somehow it took me until spring of 2010 to catch up. Nineteen months of thinking “I need to get on that.” Never again.
Series four was Russell T. Davies’ last full series as showrunner, and he intended to go out big. Donna Noble’s return becomes the capstone to an arc that began with the Cult of Skaro’s appearance in Army of Ghosts, although I have no proof that Davies actually meant for Army of Ghosts, The Runaway Bride, and Evolution of the Daleks to all be pieces of one larger story.
Martha Jones (who has joined UNIT, as we learned in series two of Torchwood) is back for three episodes in the middle, Rose Tyler is trying to reach The Doctor, and those are just opening salvos. For the big two-part finale, everyone’s back, and I mean everyone. Everyone.
Rose, Martha, Jack, Mickey, Sarah Jane, K-9 (briefly), all three of the horrible companion mothers, even Former Prime Minister Harriet Jones. Jack brings Gwen and Ianto from Torchwood (allowing The Doctor and Rose to note her similarity to when the same actress was in The Unquiet Dead, waaaaaaay back in series one), Sarah Jane brings her son and supercomputer from The Sarah Jane Adventures. The only non-evil, still alive characters of note from the last four series missing are Nine (of course) and Pete Tyler.
And in the end, they all join together for one sweet, perfect, heartwarming moment where they all fly the Tardis the way it’s meant to be flown… as a team.
Enjoy it while it lasts, because the sadness is coming and coming fast. As an Ood warns earlier on… every song must end. And this song’s ending soon.
(Oh, and one more time for the kids in the bleachers… anyone who thinks the Moffat era relies too much on deus ex machina, rewatch this finale and explain yourself. It’s better, or at least more narratively satisfying than Last of the Time Lords, but it remains basically gibberish.)
Series four shaves a few layers of grief off of Ten this year. The loss of Rose is less fresh, so he’s less hung up on it (just in time for an unexpected reunion), and with the final villain not a fellow Time Lord, they don’t have to punch the grief over losing his homeworld and species in order to sell his determination to keep his old foe The Master alive.
This, then, is David Tennant as his apex as The Doctor. He’s always incredible to watch, because he is that astounding an actor basically always (look, people, I saw him live in London, and you just… you have no idea), but this year he cut loose and had the most sheer fun in the role.
Not that his white-hot rage and flares of grief are absent, because those are parts of the character. But by now it’s all a well-fitting suit. Two years of practice, and Tennant can really strut his way through time and space.
Much as I somehow didn’t enjoy her first appearance in The Runaway Bride for reasons that I can no longer recall or comprehend, Donna Noble is the greatest of Tennant’s companions, fight me.
First of all, Donna doesn’t fall in love with The Doctor. And after two years of will-they-won’t-they with Rose and one year of quiet pining from Martha, that was refreshing.
Second, she has the best arc of possibly any companion ever. A simple temp from Chiswick, she doesn’t seem like most important person in all of time and space, and cannot believe that she might be, but she grows into that role over these 13 episodes. Plus, she is amazingly capable, often spotting clues The Doctor misses, and saving his soul along the way.
Catherine Tate and David Tennant have amazing comic chemistry together. It takes a few short minutes for them to become a screwball comedy double act again in Partners in Crime, and it remains delightful all the way through.
Road to the Medusa Cascade
A lot of big, epic stuff happens in the finale, requiring every recurring character of note from the first four years, but basically all of it happens in the last two episodes. Leading up to that, we have a few Bad Wolfs; recurring phrases, shots, or ideas that pop up throughout the year to hint towards what’s going to happen in the finale.
First, and most flashy, a series of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos by Rose Tyler, leading up to her full return right before the finale in Turn Left.
Second, the bees are disappearing. A real-world environmental catastrophe that provides a key clue to The Doctor in The Stolen Earth.
Third, as the title The Stolen Earth suggests, planets are going missing. Whole planets, missing. Probably should have looked into that a little faster, Doctor, it was important.
And they sure do like to remind us that The Doctor keeps his old hand in a jar in the Tardis. You know, the one that was cut off and regrown right after his regeneration in The Christmas Invasion? That Jack had in his office throughout the first series of Torchwood? And that The Doctor took back from The Master in Last of the Time Lords? That one.
The Supporting Cast
Donna’s mother is kind of the laziest Russell T. Davies companion mother of the trio. Sylvia Noble is overly harsh with Donna, and at one point is quick to pin the Earth’s problems on The Doctor, the very person trying to stop them. She doesn’t have Jackie Tyler’s “Cautionary tale of mundane existence” or Mrs. Jones’ instant, irrational, sell-out-humanity commitment to distrusting The Doctor. In place, she has… not much. Not even grief for her husband, who we saw in The Runaway Bride but apparently passed on since then. She’s just mean to Donna. Like I said, kind of lazy.
There is, however, Wilf.
Wilfred Mott, played by Bernard Cribbins, made his first appearance in Voyage of the Damned, then in Partners in Crime was re-introduced and established as Donna’s grandad. (In The Sontaran Stratagem they underline that it’s the same guy.) And he is delightful. A believer in aliens, he also believes in Donna, and swiftly puts his faith in her new friend, despite having seem him vanish the previous Christmas.
Wilfred Mott is Ten’s final companion, but that’s still to come.
Also of importance this season… in Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, the annual Steven Moffat story, The Doctor meets an archaeologist by the name of River Song (Alex Kingston), who swings into the adventure with a knowing “Hello, Sweetie.” She claims to already know him, but he’s never seen her before. An awkward situation for them on your first watch, heartbreaking once you’ve reached series six. River’s going to be vitally important down the line, but for now enjoy her intro/exit.
(Is River’s dismissal of Ten as not “the real Doctor,” not the Doctor she needs right now, a statement by writer Steven Moffat about how he intends to write a better Doctor once he takes over? No. No, it couldn’t be, could it? No… no. Maybe–no. No, Tennant hadn’t even committed to leaving yet, although… Let’s not worry about it.)
The Big Bad: Welcome back to the stage Davros, mad genius of Skaro, creator of the Daleks. This is a dude in serious need of some chill, and is out to unmake reality. Shame that there’s practically no trace of him for eleven episodes. Honestly, the whole “just drop a few buzzwords and then have them be important in the finale” Davies model can be just a touch unsatisfying.
Davros works almost better as a dark mirror to The Doctor than The Master. All of The Doctor’s genius with none of his compassion. Where The Doctor devotes his incredible mind to kindness, Davros is fixated on destruction. But he is able to cut into The Doctor’s very being, showing that they both create weapons of death: Davros created the Daleks, The Doctor makes weapons of his friends, and has left a trail of (mostly) good people dying in his name in his wake. There’s even a montage of people who died to help him, starting with Jabe the Tree from End of the World and going all the way to the unnamed hostess from Midnight. Davros might lose, but that revelation about The Doctor cuts deep and won’t heal in a hurry.
This year in Daleks: Dalek Caan, last survivor of the Cult of Skaro, managed to break through the unbreakable seal and pull Davros out of the Time War, so that he could build a new Dalek Empire. In the process, Caan went more than a little crazy. Anyway, brace for another trip on the old “The Daleks are back, the Daleks have been wiped out, the Daleks are back” rollercoaster. But a decent one.
Classic Monsters Revived: Say hello to the Sontarans, a cloned race of short, potato-looking warriors out to either conquer all or die in battle. Makes them hard to threaten, when death in combat is almost as good as dying. The lead Sontaran is General Staal, but keep your eye on his second-in-command, Commander Skorr. He’s played by Dan Starkey, who has a bright future playing Sontarans on this show.
The Good: The Adipose, little blobs of sentient fat, are utterly adorable, even if their Nanny is a little aggressive with the humans they’re born from.
People died, sure, but you can’t stay mad at the little guys.
The Vashta Nerada, microscopic swarms living in shadows (“Not every shadow… but any shadow”) once again prove Moffat’s ability to wring scares out of very simple monsters. A kid in a gas mask, a mime made up like a stone angel, and now darkness and shuffling space suits.
People probably wouldn’t keep insisting that Midnight is the best episode of the year if the villain weren’t so effective.
And humanity itself manages to be the monster no fewer than four times, either by being the real villain (Planet of the Ood) or by being swift to sell their fellow humans out to the villain (The Sontaran Stratagem, andto a lesser extent Midnight, where humans’ ability to be nasty plays into the monster’s agenda).
The Bad: I guess the villain of Voyage of the Damned isn’t their best work.
The Ugly: The big damn CGI wasp from The Unicorn and the Wasp is a little cheesy-looking. And the Pyrovile sure shout their name more dramatically than they needed to…
Several people I know would say Midnight, in which The Doctor is trapped in a broken transport with a group of increasingly agitated passengers while an unknown monster lurks outside in an impossibly hostile environment. I disagree. I’m not saying it’s bad, I’m just saying it’s not even in my top three.
No, for my money, the single best episode of series four is Fires of Pompeii. The Doctor and Donna find themselves in Pompeii on, as Captain Jack Harkness once called it, Volcano Day. Donna confronts the dark side of time travel, The Doctor has to make a horrible choice, the cast is solid, the central story strong, the tragedy is profound, and the ending is simply beautiful, if still sad. Catherine Tate proves that she brings a lot more to the table than screwball comedy, and it features two guest stars who will go on to be major players of future series.
Midnight is highly effective. Fires of Pompeii is Doctor Who firing on all cylinders.
Turn Left, in which a sinister alien uses a beetle thing to alter history, making Donna change one decision, ensuring she never met The Doctor. And without her, he doesn’t survive the events of Runaway Bride.
Want to know what would have happened if The Doctor hadn’t been around for any of the crises of the last two years? Think watching the world slide into ruin from the lack of Time Lord intervention might be fun? Well it isn’t.
Turn Left and Midnight came about for the same reason as Love and Monsters and Blink: need to compress the shooting schedule. The previous two years, they just gave The Doctor and his companion a much reduced role so that David Tennant and Billie Piper/Freema Agyeman could start filming the next episode at the same time. In this case, David Tennant could film the bottle episode of Midnight while Catherine Tate was doing Turn Left. Catherine Tate was certainly capable of shouldering an episode without Tennant’s help, but after a year filled with screwball comedy and high-octane adventure, Turn Left is just a major downer, and by the time Britain is building concentration camps I just really wanted it to be done.
Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead is a great two-parter from impending showrunner Steven Moffat, and as I’ll elaborate later, never, ever miss a River Song episode.
Partners in Crime is delightful screwball comedy that brings Donna back to the Tardis.
Unicorn and the Wasp continues a tradition of high quality Historical Guest Star episodes.
The Doctor’s Daughter is pretty incredible, as The Doctor, Donna, and Martha find themselves in the middle of a war between humans and fish-aliens called Hath fought through soldiers grown in instants from tissue samples of other people. Not clones, separate beings grown by reassembling the donor’s DNA. And when a sample is taken from The Doctor, resulting in Jenny, he must grapple with the notion that there’s a possible new Time Lord that is, in a way, his offspring. It’s one of the few episodes to acknowledge, and possibly the only one to drill into, the fact that once upon a time The Doctor had a wife and children. And at least one grandchild, whose name was Susan. And they’re all gone.
And Planet of the Ood is basically the best Ood episode, and they’re about to be important.
…Nope, can’t think of one. I don’t love Midnight, but I can’t advise skipping it. I mean for what it is, which is an incredibly tense bottle episode, it’s really well done. And The Sontaran Stratagem is a lot of build-up to the more engaging The Poison Sky, but is a “Previously on” segment really enough?
And Turn Left is the return of Rose and features Wilf. You probably shouldn’t skip that.
Notable Guest Stars:
Most important is Fires of Pompeii, which features both a future Doctor and a future companion. Peter Capaldi, at the time of writing about to end his reign as Twelve, appears as a marble merchant whose family becomes key to The Doctor and Donna’s investigations. Karen Gillan, future Guardian of the Galaxy and Jumanji victim, back then less than two years away from getting her own Tardis key, has a less significant role as a local prophet/priestess. There’s no callback to this for Gillan, probably because the makeup and accent disguise her more than, say, Freema Agyeman playing Martha Jones’ weirdly identical cousin the year before Martha was introduced, but the Twelfth Doctor looking exactly like some guy an earlier self met in Pompeii eventually gets an explanation.
Academy Award Nominee and Rogue One platoon leader Felicity Jones turns up as a guest at the party in The Unicorn and the Wasp.
In addition to Kylie Minogue, the crew of the Starship Titanic includes Being Human’s and apparently Quantico’s Russell Tovey and British actor of note Geoffrey Palmer.
I mostly just know Colin Salmon as Oliver Queen’s stepdad from the first season of Arrow, but apparently he’s a big enough deal to have played himself in Master of None. Anyway, he’s in Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead. As is Westworld hostess Talulah Riley.
Midnight features David Troughton, son of Patrick Troughton, the Second Doctor. He’s not famous, but that’s neat.
Game of Thrones Guest Stars: Joe Dempsie, who GoT fans know as Baratheon bastard Gendry, turns up in The Doctor’s Daughter. And Tim McInnerny, who has been popping up lately in Winterfell as one of the crankier northern lords, but who I still remember as Percy/Captain Darling on Blackadder, is the would-be owner of the Ood in Planet of the Ood. If you claim to own a species, try not to meet The Doctor. It won’t go great.
Jenny in The Doctor’s Daughter is played by Georgia Moffett, the daughter of Fifth Doctor Peter Davison. And apparently she and Tennant hit it off on set, because they got married and had a daughter (possibly inthat order). So The Doctor’s Daughter is played by The Doctor’s daughter, who married The Doctor and gave birth to The Doctor’s daughter. Only on this show.
Martha’s engaged to that doctor she met in the third series finale’s alternate timeline. Guess she looked him up after all. Won’t last, though. Their careers don’t match and he’s Lucifer.
After enduring Jackie Tyler’s pestering and Wossname Jones’ bitter paranoia, The Doctor lands a solid burn against Sylvia Noble’s constant belittling of Donna towards the end.
UNIT is back in a big way, though they suffer heavy losses against the Sontarans and the Daleks, and lose their flagship The Valiant. No more CG helicarriers for you, UNIT. Also, they reference The Doctor’s old pal and UNIT’s commander, Brigadier General Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart. Sadly he never made an appearance on the reboot.
Doctor Quote of the Year: Ten finally gets to say “Alons-y, Alonso!” but also mixes it up with the odd “Molto bene!” And everybody seems to take a turn saying “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Historical Guest Star of the Year: Agatha Christie solving a parlour mystery.
Saddest Moment: First time through, it’s got to be What Happens to Donna. But if you rewatch, if you know where things are going, if new characters have become old friends… then it’s in the Library. “All the time we’ve been together, you knew I was coming here.”
Next time… Russell T. Davies and David Tennant take a goodbye tour as the show mostly takes 2009 off.
There’s a new Doctor on the horizon. The first female Doctor. This has some people wondering if it’s time to try out this show I love so much.
Well, that’s what I’m here for. Because when you love a show as much as I love Doctor Who, you have opinions.
These are mine.
I didn’t overly care for The Runaway Bride first I saw it. Not sure why, because it is delightful.
At the end of Doomsday, in the closing seconds after the tear-stained farewell between Rose and Ten, The Doctor turns to see a bride (the wonderful Catherine Tate) has appeared in the Tardis and is angrily demanding to know where she is and how she got there, to which he can only stammer “What?” over and over. It’s pretty funny.
The Christmas Invasion was a key part of series two, introducing plot threads (Torchwood) and the new Doctor. Hope you didn’t count on that being a regular thing, though, because it won’t happen again for a while. Okay, sure, The Runaway Bride introduces a companion, Donna Noble, but not this year’s companion.
The Runaway Bride is a break from the tragedy of Doomsday, some simple screwball comedy (and world-threatening menace) that showcases delightful comic chemistry between Catherine Tate and David Tennant (his reaction to repeatedly being called “Martian” is simple yet hilarious).
And in the end, while Donna chooses not to run off with The Doctor today, she does remind him of something important… Rose or no Rose, he needs someone. He shouldn’t be alone.
Series Three: “Time Lord… You are not alone.”
At the beginning of series three, The Doctor has never felt more alone. When the trauma of burning Gallifrey was still fresh, he had Rose. In series three, she’s gone, stranded somewhere he can never go, and the happy-go-lucky best pal Doctor of series two is hollowed out as a result.
So when the Face of Boe tells him he might not be alone in the universe after all, it’s a beacon of hope he can’t quite bring himself to face.
Series three is all about reminding us that The Doctor is a big, mythic character. That for all of his attempts to seem down-to-Earth-or-equivalent, he’s so much more. “He’s ice and fire and rage. He’s like the night and the storm in the heart of the sun. He’s ancient and forever. He burns at the centre of time and can see the turn of the universe. And… he’s wonderful.”
By the time the resolution of the finale hinges on everyone on Earth thinking about The Doctor until it gives him godlike powers, it’s like “Okay, we get it, he’s cool. He’s so very cool. We’re on board, already, we watch the show.”
Yeah, on that… I’m going to need everyone who thinks Steven Moffat is bad about deus ex machina to rewatch Last of the Time Lords and then explain yourselves. I’m not saying Moffat doesn’t occasionally make up some freaky time travel things to resolve a plot, but the deus ex machina finale nonsense Davies pulled makes Moffat era finales look like Law and Order.
Really sensible and logical. Was that not clear? I feel that was clear.
Weird to take such a positive, energetic take on The Doctor and then suck all of that out of him for a whole year. Okay, that was unfair, it’s all still there in most episodes (but definitely not all), but The Doctor is defined by grief this year. His heartbreak over losing Rose haunts everything he does, from his reluctance to take on a new companion to one of the reasons why his new companion Martha voluntarily takes her leave from the Tardis, something that almost never happens, and certainly hasn’t happened to a companion since.
Well, mostly not.
How alienated is The Doctor? When he turns himself into a human (something I’ll be discussing later, and not in a flattering way), he gives Martha a series of instructions on what to do if things go wrong. He does not even think to include “What to do in case I fall in love with someone,” a fact that fake-human-Doctor John Smith finds horrifying.
The Doctor needs a kick in the ass, is what he needs, but he won’t really get one until next year. And he won’t get one that takes for three.
Martha Jones, would-be doctor, would-be Doctor’s girlfriend, and the first ever Companion of Colour.
Poor, poor Martha Jones.
A med student prepping for her final exams, Martha gets swept up with The Doctor when her hospital (St. Thomas’, a pretty swank hospital to be across the Thames from Parliament, frankly, so she must be fairly damn clever). She doesn’t even get to be a full, proper companion until the halfway point of the series. Until then, it’s The Doctor offering her one adventure into the past, then okay we may as well do one into the future, alright that was a rough one, one more into New York…”
The first seven episodes all happen in a row, over a few days, with minimal time jumps (like, cut from night to the next morning is probably the biggest), and that’s all the time it takes for Martha to fall for The Doctor. In fact it’s happened well before the first “Some amount of time and adventures later” cut. She’s completely smitten by the time she asks, no, demands that this stop being a temporary arrangement at the end of The Lazarus Experiment. However… it’s already begun to be clear that he doesn’t really see her, because he’s still hung up on Rose.
And that never gets better, and that’s agonizing for Martha. Eventually it’s part of what makes her choose staying with her family rather than travelling on with The Doctor. He’ll never see her the way she sees him, and while she’s confident they’ll meet again (rightly so, after a guest stint on Torchwood series two she pops back for a couple of visits next year), she needs to get away from him to figure out a life for herself.
There are a lot of implied Doctor/Martha adventures between 42, the last “We pick up where we left off” adventure, and Utopia, the beginning of the three-part finale arc, and good for her. I hope there were a lot of adventures that happened between episodes, because otherwise her time in the Tardis would be a downer. Two trips to the past, two to the future, two adventures at home, nearly dying in five of those, and then stuck in one place for months. Twice.Human Nature/Family of Blood sees the pair spend months in 1913, an incredibly sucky time/place for a black woman at the best of times, where future doctor Martha Jones has to work as a scullery maid. That would be a rough gig even if she didn’t need to watch The Doctor fall in love with someone else. And then right after that is Blink, where The Doctor and Martha get stuck in 1969 (which again is not the friendliest time towards black women, like all of recorded Earth history up to and at least somewhat beyond the present day) and she has to take a job in a shop so that she and The Doctor can afford food and shelter.
You are an indescribable genius with natural charm, Doctor. Get. A. Job.
But she does mention having watched the moon landing four times. Which means she’s had some good times with The Doctor that might not even have been life-threatening. It also means she’s probably killed a few Silents by now.
We’ll get to that. Later.
Beginning in Smith and Jones, our premiere, the name “Harry Saxon” begins flying around. But it’s slightly more than “Bad Wolf” and “Torchwood,” because that Harry Saxton is up to something. He’s an MP on the rise, riding anti-alien-weirdness sentiment and an odd, indefinable charisma into the void left at Downing Street when The Doctor arranged for the fall of Harriet Jones.
Now… it would be easy to say “Hey Doctor, I know you were mad at how the Sycorax thing played out, but maybe you shouldn’t ought to have done that to Harriet, because look what happened” given what her replacement will do. But that’s unfair. If she’d still been in office when Saxon began his play, she’d have just been one more obstacle to be removed. And if the goddamn Slitheen didn’t let an existing Prime Minister stop them from seizing control of British government, then Harriet Jones couldn’t have slowed down Harry Saxon.
As to who Harry Saxon is, why he’s so interested in The Doctor as to weaponize Martha’s family against him… the answers to this 21st century mystery are, improbably, waiting at the very end of the universe, with a well-meaning old man named Professor Yana.
Who seems to find the words “Tardis,” “regeneration,” and “time vortex” reeeeeeaaaaally familiar somehow.
The Supporting Cast
Martha has more than just a mother, she has a whole family, all of which seem to count on her to be the voice of reason in familial disputes. But while her brother, sister, and father are simply tethers to Earth, her mother… well, she’s a Russell T. Davies era companion mother, and also the worst Russell T. Davies companion mother. She’s bitter, hostile, and paranoid. She decides, within minutes of meeting him, that she doesn’t care for this Doctor guy her daughter’s taken an interest in, and her ugly, angry, overprotective nature makes her all too willing to sell out The Doctor to Harry Saxton.
The one and only thing I like about Martha’s mother is that she gets a nice, long time to know that that was the single worst decision she could have made, and given Martha’s life choices from here, her opinion about what Martha should do with her life clearly carries no weight from then on.
“I don’t like this new job of yours, Martha–”
“Hey, remember when you tried to sell out the planet, the whole planet, because you had a ‘bad feeling’ about a guy I brought to a party?”
“I don’t know about this man you’re seeing–”
“You know who you did like? Harry Saxon. You liked him plenty.”
No, no, don’t talk to me about hypnotic signals affecting all of the UK, I know about those, but they didn’t work on Martha’s father, so I’m not letting that harsh old woman off the hook.
But hey, Captain Jack’s back for the last three episodes! Yay! And they explain A) what happened when Rose resurrected him at the end of series one and why he got left behind (for Who fans), and B) why he can no longer die (for Torchwood fans).
The Big Bad: What if you were the last of your kind? Alone in the universe, no matter how many other people you find and befriend. But what if there were just one more? One more person like you?
And what if that one person were the worst possible choice?
Ladies and gentlemen, readers of all ages, the first and greatest of The Doctor’s Time Lord nemeses, The Master.
Introduced as a foil for Third Doctor John Pertwee, the would-be-conqueror Time Lord has battled Doctors across the decades, and made his first reboot appearance in series three. All of The Doctor’s cleverness with none of his conscience, The Master is never an opponent to take lightly. Even back in the 90s when he was briefly Eric Roberts.
The Master takes on new meaning in the Davies era, because The Doctor’s nemesis is now also the only other living Time Lord. An old friend that is The Doctor’s only living link to his people and his past, but who is determined to destroy him. Whether he beats The Master or not, The Doctor still loses.
This Year in Daleks: The Cult of Skaro, those four Daleks designed to explore new ideas, take over the construction of the Empire State Building to further their most radical and un-Daleky experiment yet. It… doesn’t go great for them.
The Good: The Carrionites, aliens who look like witches and speak in iambic pentameter. Series one had ghosts who were actually aliens, series two had a werewolf that was actually an alien, now these ladies. And if you were wondering, eventually there’ll be vampires that are aliens and a mummy that’s… I forget the mummy’s deal. We’ll get to him.
The Weeping Angels, now a classic, make their first appearance this year.
As do the Judoon, rhino-faced freelance police officers with a somewhat forceful approach.
The Bad: I don’t love The Family of Blood.
The Ugly: They did not have the technology to animate a scorpion monster with a human face in The Lazarus Experiment. That was some Mummy Returns-bad CGI.
I know what you think I’m going to say and I’ll get to it, but first…
The Shakespeare Code is clever beyond measure, and it involves William Shakespeare repelling an alien invasion by freestyling iambic pentameter, which ends in a Harry Potter spell.
I don’t know what else I need to say.
Human Nature and The Family of Blood have a couple of points of merit, I guess, but… to escape the body-stealing hunters The Family of Blood, The Doctor transforms himself into an average human: an instructor at a private school in 1913. His memories replaced, lost in the illusion of being teacher John Smith, he and Martha are essentially trapped in immediately-pre-WWI England, which again is just a bummer of a time for Martha to be stuck in (man but it sucks to be Martha).
This “Time Lord hiding out as a human” thing is vitally important to the Harry Saxon arc, but… I dislike these episodes for the same reason I dislike episodes of The Flash where Barry doesn’t have his speed: watching the hero notbe the hero isn’t any fun. It might be a little interesting to watch The Doctor being human for a bit but he’s lacking as a protagonist.
And it doesn’t help that the hyper-obnoxious Family of Blood cried out for a swift and brutal defeat like nobody since the goddamn Slitheen (they aren’t Slitheen bad, nobody is). Realizing that this story was going to continue for another week was one of the most crushing moments I’ve had watching this show. Why did Russell T. Davies give the worst villains two parters.
That said when they do get theirs, it’s pretty satisfying.
Any fans reading are mystified that I didn’t name Blink as the highlight of the year. Like Love & Monsters, it’s a Doctor-light episode, with The Doctor and Martha barely appearing and a new character driving the action. Unlike Love & Monsters, it’s brilliant. It introduces a new and swiftly iconic villain in the Weeping Angels, is the first appearance of the phrase “wibbly wobbly, timey wimey,” it sells a completely new and utterly one-time protagonist in Sally Sparrow, it juggles horror, humour, and heartache, and has a really neat conceit, as Sally must unravel messages from The Doctor from almost forty years in the past to defeat the Angels. It’s just… it’s weird to call an episode that barely features the title character the best of the year. Shakespeare Code did a lot of that and also The Doctor is, you know, in it.
Other highlights… Daleks in Manhattan and Evolution of the Daleks is a solid double feature. The Lazarus Experiment is worth it just for why and how The Doctor sticks around after saying his good-byes to Martha.
Nope, sorry, much as I dislike the villains and the lack of Doctor, Human Nature and Family of Blood are absolutely indispensable to the year’s arc, and really let David Tennant act his heart out in the second half.
Notable Guest Stars:
John Simm might be a big deal in the UK but I only know him from this and the British version of Life on Mars. Maybe he’s more familiar to you, I don’t know. Anyway.
Two Academy Award nominees this year. Star of The Social Network and history’s worst Spider-Man movies Andrew Garfield tests out the southern drawl that got him an Oscar nomination for Hacksaw Ridge in Daleks in Manhattan and Evolution of the Daleks.
Meanwhile, Carey Mulligan takes centre stage as Sally Sparrow in Blink.
Mark Gatiss, occasional Who writer, co-creator of Sherlock, where he also plays Mycroft Holmes, makes his first of two appearances– well, three including an uncredited voice-over– in The Lazarus Experiment.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who I know from… things, and will be in Wrinkle in Time soon, is Martha’s sister.
Pip Torrens, currently playing Herr Starr on Preacher, is John Smith’s headmaster in Human Nature/Family of Blood.
In Last of the Time Lords, Martha Jones teams up with a resistance soldier (a doctor, in fact) played by Lucifer’s Tom Ellis.
And Jessica Hynes, co-creator and co-star of Spaced with Simon Pegg, is the 1913 school nurse who tempts John Smith with a simple and good human life.
Game of Thrones Guest Stars: There’s enough overlap over the years to require a second category. Human Nature/Family of Blood features two: Harry Lloyd (Viserys Targaryen) is the most notable member of the Family of Blood, Son of Mine, and Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Jojen Reed) is a slightly psychic student who’s key to resolving (albeit prolonging) the whole mess.
Wow. Lots of neat guest stars this year. Probably a record.
Christopher Eccleston got the first stab at telling the audience (via Rose) that Gallifrey and the Time Lords were gone. But, for all of his strengths as an actor, based partly on what he was given he couldn’t sell that profound loss like David Tennant did in Gridlock, finally telling Martha what happened to his world, and allowing the grief over its loss to trickle out.
This season got a new theme for The Doctor, which next series became the theme for Martha: The Doctor Forever. Does that not say everything about Martha Jones. Doesn’t even get her own theme, just has to ride shotgun on The Doctor’s.
Future showrunner Chris Chibnall writes his first episode: the real-time disaster adventure 42. I mean the story revolves around a disaster, not that the episode is a disaster. Actually it’s pretty decent.
Doctor Quote of the Year: It made its debut last season, but it’s back to stay: “Allons-y!” Although “I’m sorry” is still a frequent flier.
Historical Guest Star of the Year: William freaking Shakespeare. Maybe I named Madame de Pompadour as the best one too soon. Yep, yep, I surely did.
Saddest moment: “I have until the rain stops.”
(Honourable mentions: David Tennant can make you sad when a monster dies, and he does in the finale. Also, in Family of Blood, The Doctor’s human identity John Smith must die so that The Doctor can return, and he doesn’t love that idea. But I was so ready for that to happen by then that it didn’t bother me much.)
Next time… Russell T. Davies ends his last full series as showrunner with a bang, I tell you what.