Heya, folks, and welcome to my third blog on the modern incarnations of Doctor Who's, uh, Doctor. I wrote a great big fat blog about Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith, John Hurt, and the fiftieth anniversary special of Doctor Who (which looks to set the tone for the show's future). Truthfully, it was too long by half, and got way too deep into the specifics of a lot of unnecessary episodes. It was lost to the ethos when I posted it, but it probably deserved to have almost all of its fat trimmed down into a slim, succulent cut of meat as opposoed to the snorting, mud-covered pig it started off as.
I'm too frustrated to go into everything I'd like to, particularly when it comes to the histories of the actors themselves (all of which I brushed up on for the blog, except for John Hurt, whose work pre-Doctor Who I was familiar with). I'll hopefully delve a little bit into Peter Capaldi's history just a touch (as, like Tennant, he'd actually done work on the Doctor Who universe before starring as a Doctor), but I won't be going as much into the other actors' pasts. Besides, you have IMDB for that. I'm not going into as much depth about the still-questionable mystery around Eccleston leaving the show either, which took up a surprisingly large chunk of yesterday's blog. If you're interested in that story, I'm happy to share the links I dredged up and you can give them a brief once over. Nor will I be going as deep into the various plots of the best and worst episodes of each Doctor, but I'll still try to flesh out the important bits as much as I can.
Largely, this blog is going to seem kind of harsh about Eccleston's run as the Doctor. I don't want to give the wrong impression here - I think Christopher Eccleston is a terrific actor, and I'm genuinely curious about his stage work. He claims to focus his career on television, but I'd bet dollars to doughnuts he'd have a fantastic stage presence. And given the short time he had as the Doctor, I think he did a fine job. Unfortunately, his performance just doesn't hold up in comparison to David Tennant and Matt Smith.
Eccleston, along with Billie Piper (not to mention the show's writers and directors), was given a herculean task in revitalizing the Doctor for a modern audience. Doctor Who had been off the air for over nine years at that point - and the last time it had aired was for a one-off television movie. The new show had to spark a Doctor Who revival. In that regard, the decision to cast Eccleston and Piper was a complete success.
The first episode - and really, that first season - of the returning Doctor Who revolved mostly around Rose as a window for the audience into the crazy world of the Doctor and the TARDIS. At that point, the show perhaps was just a bit too cheesy in spots and aimed at a lower common denominator than later episodes, but given the show's history of being aimed at a younger crowd, it's completely understandable. This cheesiness mostly eminated from the season's villains, and in that first episode, we got the particularly eye-rolling Plastic Men. Imagine store-front dummies coming to life and threatening London. Yup. Dig into the big ol' bowl of cheese for a second and let it settle.
Billie Piper, as noted elsewhere, performed admirably well as her disbelief slowly gave way to fear and wonder at the amazing world the Doctor opened up for her. Eccleston, for his part, chews up and spits out the scenery pretty all right, but there was always this hint of hesitation in his performance, as though he didn't ever really want to fully commit himself to any of the particular absurdities. Of course, that's purely personal opinion, but compared to the way Tennant and Smith hurl themselves into the role, it's glaringly obvious that he never either had the time to settle into the role or just didn't want to.
Of course, that's not to say Eccleston is terrible in the role. He's not. But that first season, aside from the Rose Tyler/Bad Wolf story arc, is filled with some stinkers - in one episode, literally. In one of the series' worst episodes, the show relies on fart jokes from a gassy group of villains. The Slitheen were not among the show's finest villains, that's for damned sure. It would have been hard for any actor to suspend his disbelief and throw himself completely into the role. And given the material he was given, Eccleston did manage to have quite a few shining moments, particularly in the more quiet, introspective episodes "Dalek" and "Boom Town," definitely the two highest marks of his run.
I'm going to pre-empt "Dalek" by going into a bit of Doctor Who lore. Before Eccleston's incarnation of the Doctor, there was a Time War, a war so terrible it apparently necessitated the Doctor wiping out not just a race of war-mongering aliens called Daleks, but his own race of people as well, leaving him supposedly the sole survivor of the war on either side. Now, of course, it doesn't take long for the Doctor to find out there were surviving Daleks (and later, Time Lords), one of whom is confined to a bunker. When the Doctor learns of its existence, he goes berserk, wanting to take its life despite its imprisonment. After Rose comes in contact with the Dalek, it begins to change and grow feelings, but the Doctor still wants to kill it. Of course, the obvious question becomes which one was truly the monster, as the Doctor's fury was only held back by Rose. Ignoring for a moment the eye-rolling Dalek design, it's a great episode designed to give us an idea of this new Doctor's mentality as well some crucial bits of lore and setup for the future of the show.
This theme of the companion being responsible for keeping the Doctor in check is common to all the incarnations as well. It's seen in its most extreme during Tennant's run, but we'll get to that in a second. The season does a great job of setting up the Doctor's need to have companionship, not just to have a friend or a love interest, but to keep his ego and mind in check.
"Boom Town" features the return of one of those eye-rollingly awful Slitheen, but in a really fascinating way. She's the sole survivor of a family of aliens who disguise themselves by wearing the skin of humans. Sounds grotesque, but it's really a clever way to not have to feature the awful design of the Slitheen too often (they look like a cross between the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man and a Ninja Turtle), one we'll see with a lot of other alien races throughout Doctor Who's history (the Glue, Satan, the Plastic Men, and about a half dozen various abduction stories, among others). In any case, the Doctor catches her in the midst of a plot to blow up a town and decides the right thing to do would be to fly her to her own people to stand trial for her crimes. Since the TARDIS needs to recharge (apparently - it's a plot mechanism used fairly often whenever the show needs a convenient way to get the Doctor to stay put in one area), the Doctor takes the Slitheen out to lunch, a last meal for the prisoner, more or less. As they dine, the Doctor and the Slitheen talk about the morality of his "no violence" rule if she's to be executed anyways. It's a fantastic look at the Doctor's morality, a necessary character examination. The Doctor might be opposed to violence, but he's not above seeing the demise of an enemy if it's for the greater good. After all, he committed genocide - to two races.
Eccleston makes the most out of those two episodes, giving the Doctor a few quiet, somber moments in stark contrast to his bouncy enthusiasm. He does a terrific job of giving the Doctor a bit of rage as well, something we'd see off and on from other incarnations as well. All of these little bits of groundwork for the character are still there today, thanks to Ecclestone's great work.
But it wouldn't be until Tennant's run that a great deal of it would be believable. No greater example of this is to be had than with the Doctor's blossoming relationship with Rose Tyler. Again, most of the time, Ecclestone and Piper have great chemistry, but there just wasn't the great emotional wildfire of Tennant and Piper or Matt Smith and Alex Kingston. Of course, most of this can be attributed to the necessity of laying down the groundwork of the relationship - Rose is in a relationship with Mickey for most of the first season, and it's only out of necessity that Ecclestone's Doctor lays one on Rose at the end of their time together. I can't help but wonder if this would be a complaint if Ecclestone had one more season, but like a lot of my questions about his run, we'll never know.
Just as important as the introduction of any incarnation of the Doctor is his sendoff. Ecclestone's featured a memorable plot wherein Rose Tyler took in the energy of the TARDIS and became omnipotent, bringing to life the fallen Jack Harkness (and making him apparently immortal in the process), as well as eradicating a Dalek threat. But the energy threatens to consume her, so the Doctor kisses her and draws in the energy himself. The moment of the kiss itself is absurd as all getout ("You need a doctor." No shit. That's the line.), but it's kind of so stupid that it's delightful, as is often the case with Doctor Who. His regeneration lacks the emotional punch of Tennant or Smith's, but it's not terrible. And so we're introduced to a tall, gangly Scot who would take the show by storm...
...but not right away. In a clever move by the show's writers, Tennant doesn't actually do much save for sleep throughout the first half of his introductory Christmas episode, allowing for the focus instead to be placed on Rose's wariness about the new incarnation of the Doctor and her reluctance to trust him. When the Doctor wakes up, we get a glimpse at the boisterous swagger Tennant brought to the role. It was clear from that moment they'd picked the right man for the job, as Tennant was immediately likable, throwing out jokes rapid fire and hustling right along.
The plots and villains of Tennant's first few episodes were, by and large, mostly ignorable, but watching the new chemistry between the Doctor and Rose was a delight. They found a rhythm early on in their relatively brief run together and never quite let it go. With episodes like School Reunion, it seemed as though the show was headed for more of the generic, broad comedy of the early parts of the first season, which was made mostly okay by the marked improvement in the show's dialogue. Still, when it came time for the emotional episode The Girl in the Fireplace, it was a bit of fresh air to see Tennant (and the show) do dramatic moments well too.
The Girl in the Fireplace is a fascinating one-off episode. The Doctor and Rose wind up on an alien ship wherein robotic crew are trying to make repairs by assimilating human parts. The villains themselves are fairly laughable, but the plot isn't. The ship contains portals to various points in the life of Madam de Pompadour, the final target of the robots. The Doctor saves her life at various points, only interacting with her for moments at a time, but she grows infatuated with the Doctor, and he, in turn, a bit with her. But each time the Doctor returns to the ship, years pass on the Madam's side. For him, what seems to be just moments spent aboard the ship turns out to be great big chunks of time on hers. As their mutual attraction grows, the Doctor promises her a chance to become his companion, but he returns too late to save her from illness. It's a somber tale, the likes of which we really hadn't seen, and it allowed Tennant to show his terrific range.
The second season was full of hit and misses, but the highest points of the show as a whole came during this period. Episodes like The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit demonstrated that the show's writers could do elements of light horror. Love and Monsters hardly featured Tennant or Piper, instead featuring a character named Elton who became part of a Doctor social group. It was a conceptually great episode that showcased some of the collateral damage of the Doctor, by showing that even those who he touched just a little could face happiness and tragedy as a result.
The highlight of that second season though has to be the emotionally charged farewell between Tennant and Piper. Due to some alternate universe shenanigans, she was forced to live in an alternate universe apart from the Doctor. By this point, the tension between the two characters was so damned palpable you could about eat it like pudding. Piper's Rose breaks down and sobs to a holographic image of the Doctor that she loves him, and just as Tennant's about to return the words, their connection breaks and the two universes are sealed from each other.
It's a powerfully written and acted scene, made only possible by the huge amount of chemistry between Tennant and Piper. By this point, Tennant had won me over completely as the Doctor, so I was shocked that they'd seperate the two in such an emotionally brutal way. That wasn't the last we'd see of Billie Piper, but for the moment, it appeared things were over between the two and we would have to move on to a different companion.
It's weird, in retrospect, to examine Tennant as opposed to Freema Agyeman. While her character was fairly wasted throughout her run on the show, Tennant had some of his more brilliant, character defining moments in that third season. There's a remarkably long string of strong Tennant-centric episodes from Human Nature to the season's close in The Last of the Time Lords. Human Nature, as mentioned elsewhere, featured a pretty novel plot. The Doctor, on the run with Martha from a warmongering alien family, wipes his own mind and implants memories of being human. He hides out as a schoolteacher in a military institute for young men, and falls deeply in love with a human women there, never aware that he was a Time Lord or who he actually was. As the aliens threaten the Doctor's loved ones and the school, Martha tries to get him to come to his senses, but the Doctor clings to his human life, wanting nothing more than to settle down with his loved one and remain a teacher. But as the threat of the aliens proves too much, he finally lets go of his human life and becomes the Doctor once again - and enacts some shocking justice to the alien family, damning them to various eternities of imprisonment.
Human Nature and Family of Blood weren't necessarily the most entertaining of episodes (they involve a lot of setup and huge chunks of exposition, and the villains are mostly ho-hum), but Tennant brought a hell of a performance to bear. The episodes allowed him a huge range of emotions to play with, ranging from happiness to terror to a great weight of sorrow. The cold fury of the Doctor at the end is also a bit of a foreshadowing of the darker days of Tennant's run as the Doctor to come in the fourth season.
I've gone into some detail about the Donna Noble era. From Tennant's side of things, this was another remarkable season - it's just such a damn shame it had to be opposite the atrociously annoying Donna. Right up until the two-parter that reunited him and Billie Piper, Tennant's best moments of the season happened mostly when Catherine Tate was offscreen, as was the case with the classic episodes Silence in the Library and Forest of the Damned. Not only did these episodes introduce the awesome River Song, they allowed Tennant to focus more on interactions with a group of individuals apart from Catherine Tate. It doesn't hurt that these episodes were fantastically written, either.
One of the best one-off episodes I've failed to really get into so far was the superb Midnight. The episode featured the Doctor on a bit of a vacation cruise aboard an intergalactic tour bus while Donna was off on a spa day. The episode is remarkable for its everbuilding tension, as the bus-shuttle-thing is invaded by a Thing-like alien, hidden possibly in anyone, including the Doctor. There isn't anything flashy here - most of the set is what could be the interior of any small plane or a travel bus. The alien is never actually seen, only felt, so the entire episode is reliant upon the performances of Tennant and the handful of side characters trapped with the Doctor. It's fucking fantastic.
I've written a little bit about Tennant and Piper's emotional reunion, but I want to reiterate again how much payoff there was in the excellent "Journey's End." It wasn't the last of Tennant's run, but as the season finale, it was a great payoff to two years of plotlines. This was the last great big hurrah for most of the Tennant/Eccleston era side characters. Some would return for the conclusion to Tennant's arc, but most were given a few moments to shine throughout the episode and then largely written off the screen to make way for Tennant and Piper to reunite. It's a terrific moment for the show, both hugely rewarding and still a bit tragic.
But it's the following specials and conclusion to the Tennant era wherein the very, very best of Tennant's run as Doctor happened. The Waters of Mars could have been just any other special, a nice one-off TV movie-esque adventure for the Doctor, showcasing some neat makeup work and a neat, light horror plot. But by this point, the Doctor had been warned of his impending death by the Ood, a psychic race who seem linked to the Doctor in many ways (most of them violently - I'm starting to think the Ood are the redshirts of the Doctor Who universe). Left stricken by his impending end and his second parting from Rose, the Doctor is alone and facing down a fixed moment in time as he watches events in a doomed Mars colony unfold. The "fixed point in time" thing means that events needed to happen without the influence of the Doctor, or else universe shattering paradoxes would occur. The colony must fall so that the granddaughter of one of the colonists would lead the charge into deep space exploration. Facing despair over the futility of their situation, the grandmother is informed by the Doctor about her granddaughter and the great deeds she'll do because of the woman's death. But the Doctor, faced with the choice between saving the colonists and abandoning them, decides to risk it and save the colonists. The Doctor gloats to the grandmother that he understands he could do anything from that point forward, save anyone, do anything. Horrified, she retreats to her house, and as the Doctor prepares to leave, he hears the sound of a gunshot. Time had rewritten itself, but only instead of the woman dying on Mars, she'd taken her own life - her granddaughter would still reach out to the stars. The Doctor, horrified at what he's caused, flees.
Whew. It's a powerful scene, built upon in Tennant's two-part conclusion as he talks with Bernard Cribbins's Wilfred Mott about his need for a companion and his fear about his impending death. This two-parter, "The End of Time," is nothing short of extraordinary. To give Tennant's incarnation a sendoff, the showrunners brought in not just David Simm's The Master, but also Timothy Dalton as a power-hungry Time Lord. The conflict between the three could have been enough to make this a great episode, but oddly, it's neither Dalton or Simm who help Tennant truly shine. It's Cribbins, a powerhouse - if subtle - actor who helps Tennant knock his conclusion out of the park. Wilfred gets locked inside a radioactive chamber, which can only be vented if Tennant takes his place and floods his own containment chamber with that radiation. The Doctor realizes his fate and tries to hate Wilfred for being weak and dooming him, but he gives in to his own true nature and tells Wilfred it would be his honor to save him. It's a beautiful spot of redemption for the Doctor, and the whole scene is just fucking incredibly well acted.
I draw this section to a close withTennant's emotional, powerful moment of regeneration, when he tears up and cries out, "I don't want to go." We didn't want you to, but holy crap, what a way to go.
I liked Matt Smith's introduction as the Doctor quite a bit. After the seriousness of Tennant's conclusion, we needed a breath of fresh air, some levity to lighten things up a bit. The rapid fire gags of his first episode weren't all hits, but they were plentiful and usually charming, and things were set up nicely for the big overarching plot of the fifth season.
That said, the first half of that season had a few misfires, particularly when it came to the early love triangle nonsense between Rose, Mickey, and the... wait. I'm sorry, got confused there - I meant Amy, Rory, and the Doctor. It's an honest mistake, since the two first halves mirror each other. Even Smith's Doctor seems to take a bit too much inspiraton from Tennant's jovial early performance in season two, leaving me with an uneasy feeling of "been there, seen that."
Thankfully, though, the smart writing (under the direction of Steven Moffat, then the new showrunner), and the charm of Smith eventually won through, especially once it was firmly established that Rory and Amy were the couple, not Amy and the Doctor. I've covered a great deal of the best of what season five had to offer under Rory and Amy's section, but I wanted to point out again how great the episode "The Pandorica Opens" was. It's a good showcase for Smith's bravado.
Season six is probably one of my favorites of the entire series, as it's definitely one of the more evenly written. As Smith, Gillen, and Kingston settled into their roles, the show became like a familiar old friend again, spinning out a terrific plot circling around the relationship between Amy, Rory, and River. Smith really came into his own in this season, knocking out a bombastic performance highlighted by his chemistry with Alex Kingston. His Doctor's never quite too serious, never darkening the lines like Tennant's Doctor did. And you know, that's perfectly okay. Certainly, Smith got a lot of chances to show his own range (though not quite to the highs of Tennant's own shining moments), but the show really became a collaborative effort between all of its leads by this point.
I"m a bit hesitant to list out the best of Matt Smith's episodes for that very reason - most of his best moments are intrinsically linked with the performances of his costars - but when the show does occasionally focus in on Smith's Doctor, he manages to carry the load nicely, as with "The Big Bang" and "The Doctor's Wife." "The Doctor's Wife" in particular showcases Smith's bubbly Doctor, as he brushes off sadness with a sort of childlike abandon.
Smith also had a great deal of chemistry with his later costar Jenna Coleman, but their run together was brief. That seventh season is pretty spectacular, finally allowing for Smith to show a little gravity by its conclusion - and just in time, too. As Smith's Doctor rescues Clara from his own internal timeline, she witnesses the Doctor in all his forms, save one - a shadowy incarnation with his back to them. The Doctor explains that this is the incarnation that killed the Time Lords and the Daleks. And so, we're introduced to...
Wait. Don't we have to say goodbye to Matt Smith's run first? I suppose that would make sense, wouldn't it? Okay, okay. After the events of the fiftieth anniversary special, Clara and the Doctor find themselves on a world under siege by some of the Docto'r fiercest villains, including the Daleks and the Cybermen. It's a hudrum episode by and large - the Doctor keeps the planet's inhabitants safe, but faces seemingly endless besiegement on all sides, and so he grows old there. Due to some Doctor Who lore nonsense, he can apparently only regenerate a certain number of times, and it looks as though his final death is imminent. In a frustrating (but still kind of emotionally satisfying) moment, Clara, through a crack in the universe, manages to get word to the trapped Time Lords of Gallifrey to send the Doctor aid. They send their own regeneration energy to him, revitalizing the Doctor and allowing him to rid the skies once and for all of the alien threat.
His goodbye isn't nearly as tragic as Tennant's, but it's still a good moment for Smith. The show leans a bit heavy on the cheese at the end, bringing back Amy Pond for a brief vision by the Doctor as he begins to finally regenerate. It's my opinion that the show would have been better served by a vision of River Song instead, but eh, what the hell do I know?
Home stretch, boys and girls. With the fiftieth anniversary of the Doctor, we're introduced to a mysterious incarnation who would've existed shortly before Eccleston's in the great scheme of things. Facing the fall of Gallifrey and the horrors that the Time Lords want to unleash against the impending victory of the Daleks, John Hurt's Doctor must make the uneasy decision to pull the trigger on destroying Galifrey and the Daleks.
Since I don't want to go into any more spoilers than that, I'll say this - John Hurt's a terrific, well-established actor, and he brings his A-game to a role that, honestly, most actors with his long history wouldn't have bothered with. But he does a fantastic job with the few minutes he's given, and his interactions with certain cast members who shall remain nameless were absolutely riveting.
Whew. Okay. One last section, and then I'm calling it quits.
Since we know next to nothing about Capaldi's Doctor save for his memorable, "Do you know how to fly this thing?", I'm going to use this section to speculate briefly - very briefly - on where the show is going.
-From a plot perspective, the obvious choice for the writers would be to eventually see the Doctor return to Gallifrey. This could open up some fascinating plotlines, but I kind of think we've got too many familiar elements of the old series. I want to see more alien races become a prominent part of the universe, not just the old tried-and-true.
-Given Capaldi is a middle-aged man, I'm guessing the show will deal with him as a more mature, if slightly doddering, Doctor. This could be great fun.
-Similarly, I'm guessing that age difference will mean Clara is out as a romantic interest, which is fine by me. We could definitely go a season or two without a love interest for the Doctor.
-I'm also betting that at some point we see the Doctor develop a long-term friendship apart from his companions. This makes sense, particularly if the character is a fellow Time Lord who can regenerate (and thus not have to rely on the same actor). The Doctor needs a Felix to his James Bond.
OK. Whew. That's it. I'm done. It's not quite as long as I'd originally intended, and I've had to cut down tremendously on Matt Smith's run because I'm getting a fucking migraine, but there it is. The end of my Doctor Who bloganza. I hope you enjoyed reading, and if I convince one person to give just one episode a chance, I'll be happy. Take care, folks.