Doctor Who: The Complete First, Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth Seasons
Mark Goodacre and I have been gushing enthusiasm over the new Doctor Who series, and I think it's time I completely reviewed the four seasons. This is probably the longest post I've put up on this blog, an exercise in self-indulgence, and for fans of the classic series who are wondering if the new-Who lives up to all the hype. It does.
We'll start with Christopher Eccleston. He plays the manic and goofy ninth Doctor in season one (2005), taking us on exciting tours: historical adventures in the past, far-off trips to the future, alien invasions in the present. More lonely than his previous selves, he becomes attached to his human companion, Rose Tyler, who brings considerable emotion to the show and comes close to outshining even my all-time favorite, Sarah Jane Smith. Eccleston is fine in the role, though certainly not as impressive as other incarnations -- notably Jon Pertwee (#3), Tom Baker (#4), Sylvester McCoy (#7), David Tennant (#10), and the current Matt Smith (#11). We would have begun tiring of him after one season, so it's good that he went out strong when he was ahead.
Regenerating out of Eccleston's ash is David Tennant, the erratic and garrulous tenth Doctor. He's in seasons two, three, and four (2006-2008), and did three special episodes (in 2009) before going out with a literally explosive bang. This guy stepped into the role so effortlessly and did the unthinkable -- ousting Tom Baker as the most popular incarnation (I still say Baker reigns supreme, of course, but never mind). He took the show to unexpected heights, pushing the romantic chemistry with Rose to a deeper level (in season two), and even making the sacrifice of becoming human (in season three). Not since Tom Baker have we seen a Doctor who can rattle off dialogue a mile a minute so naturally. It's fun just listening to him.
Filling Tennant's shoes beyond anyone's expectations is Matt Smith, the eclectic eleventh Doctor who likes to wear bow-ties, gesticulate expressively, and shout "Geronimo!" He's most reminiscent of the Second and Fifth incarnations, but really his own animal, and definitely my favorite of the new series. There is literally not a false moment he ever has in portraying the Time Lord, and I hope he sticks around for at least another two seasons. With him we get a revamped TARDIS that almost looks magical -- most fitting for the fairy-tale theme of season five.
So Tennant and Smith are excellent, Eccleston okay, but their stories are equally strong, involving plenty of comedy, action, and -- best of all -- gothic horror. But there's also tragedy like we've never seen before, something I never thought would have a place in Doctor Who. Thanks largely to Billie Piper (who plays Rose in seasons one and two), the show is able to offer what I think good TV/film should offer, an emotional experience that uplifts us through pain and loss. As Sally Sparrow says in season three's Blink, "Sad is happy for deep people." A lot of these stories made me cry.
But if we're in a new Golden Age of Doctor Who, there are still plenty of things to criticize. Thus the following episode guide: my ratings and reviews of each story from seasons one to four. For ratings, I use 5=fantastic, 4=very good, 3=good, 2=mediocre, 1=poor. Note that out of 58 stories, 26 get a 4 or 5 from me. That's almost half. Beware of spoilers in the reviews, and enjoy. (Some of the stories are two-parters; these are 90 minutes long instead of 45. And there's even a three-parter in season three.)
Note: all references to season four (above and below) were added on 7/6/08, and all references to season five (above and below) were added on 7/2/10.
Rose - 2
The End of the World - 3
The Unquiet Dead - 4 ½
Aliens of London/World War Three - 2
Dalek - 5
The Long Game - 2
Father's Day - 5
The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances - 4
Boom Town - 1
Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways - 4
The Christmas Invasion - 3 ½
New Earth - 3
Tooth and Claw - 4 ½
School Reunion - 4
The Girl in the Fireplace - 5
The Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel - 5
The Idiot's Lantern - 2
The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit - 5
Love and Monsters - 2 ½
Fear Her - 1
Army of Ghosts/Doomsday - 4
The Runaway Bride - 1
Smith and Jones - 2
The Shakespeare Code - 4
Gridlock - 3
Daleks in Manhattan/The Evolution of the Daleks - 1
The Lazarus Experiment - 3
42 - 4
Human Nature/The Family of Blood - 5
Blink - 5+
Utopia/The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords - 4/3/2
Voyage of the Damned - 1
Partners in Crime - 2
Fires of Pompeii - 5
Planet of the Ood - 4
The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky - 2
The Doctor's Daughter - 2
The Unicorn and the Wasp - 2
Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead - 5
Midnight - 4 ½
Turn Left - 3 ½
The Stolen Earth/Journey's End - 0
The Eleventh Hour - 3 ½
The Beast Below - 3
Victory of the Daleks - 3
The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone - 5
Vampires of Venice - 3
Amy's Choice - 5
The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood - 4
Vincent and the Doctor - 4 ½
The Lodger - 1
The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang - 4
Rose. 2 stars. Buckle up and get ready to ride. We meet the ninth Doctor through the eyes of companion-to-be, Rose Tyler, as London is being taken over by an army of mannequins. We haven't seen the Autons since the Pertwee era and, if truth be told, for good reason: they're lame. It's hard to be intimidated by an army of plastic. But the Nestene Consciousness (the animated vat of living plastic controlling the rest in London) is admittedly impressive these days with CGI. We get a lot of Rose's irritating mother and boyfriend, which unfortunately foreshadows things to come in future stories. Far from a strong entry, it basically introduces the character of Rose, who will last for two seasons and prove to be the best TARDIS companion ever.
The End of the World. 3 stars. Welcome to the apocalypse. The Doctor takes Rose to the year 5 billion, as the sun expands and the earth is about to explode. Rich aliens have gathered to watch the event on an observation platform, and they're a colorful bunch: humanoid trees, a blue pixie, hooded figures, a glass-encased head (the Face of Boe), and a mutilated flat mass of skin (the last surviving human being). But someone in the group wants to take out everyone else for greedy reasons, so the drama becomes an action mystery in which the death of our world is sidelined. A good story, though nothing spectacular, providing a segue into revelation: at the end the Doctor tells a sobered Rose that his own world has been destroyed and that he is the last of the Time Lords. No more Gallifrey.
The Unquiet Dead. 4 ½ stars. A superb gothic story harking back to the Hinchcliffe era. The Doctor takes Rose back to Cardiff in 1869, where they hook up with Charles Dickens and do battle with undead corpses stalking the city. Turns out the corpses have been animated by gaseous aliens from another dimension (connected to earth by a tenuous rift centered in the city) who want to reclaim every corpse on earth for bodily existence. The Doctor actually helps them accomplish this out of pity, which underscores his fallibility. Frankly he comes off as incompetent in this story, and I love it -- just as I love the séance he makes everyone participate in, including a furious Charles Dickens. Fantastic stuff.
Aliens of London/World War Three. 2 stars. Hold your nose, here come the farting aliens -- and I mean nonstop flatulence. The invasion of present-day London (2005) is reminiscent of the Pertwee era, so that's one strike against it. Add to this the presence of Rose's mother Jackie (whose mouth I'd love to kick every time she opens it) and boyfriend Mickey, and that's at least another strike. I don't mind getting some of Rose's backstory, but Jackie and Mickey become too involved in stories like this one for the sake of kitchen sink soap-opera. I do like the farting aliens, however -- Doctor Who meets South Park's "Terrence and Philip".
Dalek. 5 stars. An instant classic. The Doctor and Rose find themselves in an underground museum in Utah (2012), where the last surviving Dalek in the universe is being held captive and tortured. That draws not an ounce of sympathy from the Doctor, who rages in fury against it. We learn that the Daleks destroyed Gallifrey, though they were killed in turn, making it and the Doctor the last of their kinds. Things get even more interesting when Rose touches the Dalek and it uses her DNA to revivify itself and escape, exterminating hundreds of museum personnel -- but unable to destroy her when given the chance. Killer instincts dampened by her genes, it forms a strange bond with her. It's a weird "E.T." moment, quite emotional, and the climax is brilliant: Rose has to stop the Doctor hell-bent on blasting the Dalek to atoms, the opposite of Sarah who urged genocide back in Genesis of the Daleks. The Doctor has suffered the consequences of his pacifism and moved on. That's a compelling evolution of character. Without question my favorite story of season one.
The Long Game. 2 stars. Here's a hideous alien, lording himself over a brainwashed humanity, killing those who show the slightest inclination toward self-will, and then reanimating them as slaves. The setting is an orbital broadcasting platform in the year 200,000, where people are dominated by the media network. The really scary (and frankly unbelievable) thing is that human society doesn't seem to have changed much in 198,000 years. An incredibly lazy vision mars this story, with supporting characters we couldn't care a whit about. In the end the Doctor isn't impressed with Adam (picked up as a TARDIS companion in Dalek) and dumps him back on earth with a harsh "I only take the very best" -- meaning Rose. But wait for the next story, where Rose may not be best after all.
Father's Day. 5 stars. Tear-jerkers in Doctor Who? This story really made me rethink the potentials of the new series. Rose persuades the Doctor to take her back to 1987 when her father was killed by a motorist. Warned against altering the past, she intervenes and saves him anyway -- creating a wound in time and ushering in Armageddon. Everywhere on earth people are suddenly assaulted by Reapers (winged creatures resembling Tolkien's Nazgul-steeds), parasites that act like antibodies, destroying everything in wounded time until the paradox is gone. The Doctor nearly disowns and abandons Rose -- a "stupid ape" after all -- forgiving her only after a heavy guilt-trip and forced apology. But Rose's father saves the earth through a heartbreaking sacrifice, and in the end the Doctor and Rose are closer than before despite (no: because of) their falling out. Pure tragedy which takes the show to new heights, and my second favorite of the season.
The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances. 4 stars. Now this feels like classic Who: a horror story set during the London Blitz, where microscopic robots are turning people into zombies made over in the image of gas-masked victims of the war. Bonus points are awarded for sheer mood. Everything is gloomy and surreal, from war-torn London, dark alleyways, a smoky nightclub, a creepy hospital, to an old house where starving kids gather for repast. It's incredible cinema. The Doctor is effectual in saving the day (something rare for the ninth incarnation), but actually saves too many people ("everyone lives"). The story unfortunately introduces the flamboyant character of Captain Jack Harkness, a rogue time agent from the far future, who ends up joining as a TARDIS companion. He clashes with an otherwise superbly dark, chilling story.
Boom Town. 1 star. A sequel to Aliens of London/World War Three, and a complete waste of time. Turns out one of the aliens survived the London battle, and the Doctor decides to do humanity a favor and bring it home. But the death penalty awaits for its crimes on the home planet, so the story turns into an uneventful melodrama that serves no purpose other than to push an anti-capital punishment agenda. Oh, and we get plenty of melodrama between Rose and Mickey too. I suspect this filler was placed right before the season finale to make the latter seem all the more impressive; things can only go uphill from here.
Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways. 4 stars. Bring on the adrenaline rush. Christopher Eccleston goes out strong in the season finale and sequel to Dalek (in theme) and The Long Game (in setting). On Satellite Five in 200,100, people are trapped in reality television where everything is a game and losers get vaporized. The Doctor, Rose, and Captain Jack play for their lives and discover the outfit is a front for an impending Dalek invasion of earth. This is what Who-fans have been waiting for: the sight of zillions of Daleks (who can levitate and fly now, thanks to CGI) balling "EXTERMINATE!" and other horrible mantras, more fearsome than ever for having found religion. We knew they weren't really gone forever, and can thank their existence to (wait for it) the Dalek God -- a survivor of the Time War who has been breeding the new army for centuries. The climax is both fantastic and awful (hence my four-star rating), the latter for involving, yes damn it, Jackie and Mickey who appear at the last possible moment to help save the day. The great part is Eccleston's regeneration into David Tennant, who will prove to be the most gifted actor to play the Doctor after Tom Baker. Bring on season two!
The Christmas Invasion. 3 ½ stars. Merry Christmas and a happy new Doctor. The tenth incarnation is as erratic and garrulous as the fourth, and this story actually reminds of Tom Baker's own first entry, Robot, involving a threat in present-day London which calls forth a military response. The dramatic tension builds well in the first half due to the Doctor being out of commission as he recovers from regenerating. When he finally emerges from those TARDIS doors, we almost want to clap like little kids. He gets in a good sword fight with the alien-king before banishing his race from earth. A fine way to introduce the character of David Tennant during the holiday season.
New Earth. 3 stars. A sequel to season one's The End of the World. The Doctor and Rose return to the far future (year 5 billion 23) and visit New Earth, a planet affectionately made over in the image of old home. A group of feline nuns have managed to discover cures for every known disease by creating a human farm -- thousands of human clones stuffed into cells like lab rats, and subjected to hideous experiments. Not nice kitties, these. David Tennant is in fine form here, settling into his role, considerably less manic than in the previous story. Like The End of the World, it comes off as somewhat comedic and pedestrian, but it's a good enough story. I like the humanoid cats.
Tooth and Claw. 4 ½ stars. I'd always wanted to see a werewolf story in Doctor Who. We have the ideal setting of the Scottish highlands in 1879, where the TARDIS materializes right in front of Queen Victoria and her passing entourage. The Doctor and Rose join the party and night over in a manor run secretly by a group of ninja-monks who worship a werewolf caged in the lower levels. The monks' agenda is to get the Queen bitten so they can rule the British empire through her. Great horror material here. The wolf is a fearsome bit of CGI, though I agree with the Doctor, it's also "beautiful" (exclaimed even as he's about to get torn apart). Queen Victoria has to be the best supporting actor of the season, and I love how she rewards the Doctor with a knighthood -- and then promptly banishes him, "not amused" by his heathen nature.
School Reunion. 4 stars. A special episode featuring the return of Sarah Jane Smith. She's as spirited and feisty as ever -- and rather pissed that the Doctor never came back for her, prompting an amusingly jealous bitch-fight with Rose. K-9 is back too, though he's rusty these days. Around the fun nostalgia revolves a plot involving batlike aliens who have taken over a school. They're turning children into geniuses to help them solve the Scasis Paradigm, an equation that unlocks complete control of time and space. A powerful concept like this really deserved more attention than serving as a backdrop to the return of old friends, but never mind. The Doctor does have a compelling moment when he considers using the Paradigm to save Gallifrey and the Time Lords, and Sarah reminds him that pain and loss are essential in the course of evolution. Their final farewell choked me up as much as back in 1976 when Tom Baker sent her away. For fans of the classic years.
The Girl in the Fireplace. 5 stars. A girl/woman from the 18th-century is being stalked by robots from the 51st. If that sounds boring, be assured it's anything but. This is a creep-show, fairy-tale, and tragedy all in one, considered by many to be the best story of the season (it's my second favorite). The Doctor, Rose, and Mickey walk onto a spaceship powered by human body parts -- eyes in the camera sensors, a beating heart in the hot interior giving off the smell of cooking meat -- nice stuff. Then there are the curious time windows: gateways to a bedroom in Paris where a girl named Reinette (the future Madame de Pompadour) is being watched over by the ship's repair droids. The demented robots believe her body parts are needed to help power the ship because it's named after her, and the Doctor becomes her romantic guardian, going so far as to strand himself in France to save her. This is a Who-fan's fairy tale -- capturing the innocence of The Chronicles of Narnia and horror of Pan's Labyrinth -- a rare treat.
The Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel. 5 stars. Pretend you never saw the Cybermen before, because let's face it, they were never that good in classic Who (I'll never understand why they were so popular). They get a new genesis here, created on a parallel earth by a Davros-type genius who wants to "upgrade" the human race with robotic immortality. The setting of a parallel world allows the writers to start from scratch without contradicting the past, and opens avenues for other dramatic opportunities. As in the Pertwee favorite Inferno, we see the counterparts of familiar faces: Rose's father still alive and a rich success; Jackie annoying as ever -- did I cheer over her "death by upgrade". But this is Mickey's hour, where he comes into his own, and as much as I've loathed him up to now, I have to admit this story justifies his existence. His farewell to Rose had me in tears. The best Cybermen story in the history of Doctor Who, and my third favorite of the season.
The Idiot's Lantern. 2 stars. I never liked the concept of possessed TV sets (hated Poltergeist and The Ring), so this one didn't have much of a chance with me. It's about an alien who has escaped execution on the home planet by transforming itself into pure energy, and has come to earth to reconstitute itself. To do this it needs massive amounts of human energy, which it gets from the people of London via their televisions. The setting of 1953 is almost pointless -- though the crowning of Queen Elizabeth provides the excuse for everyone turning on their TV's at once -- there's no feeling of period at all, and it could have easily taken place in the present. A mediocre story leaving much to be desired.
The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit. 5 stars. Drum roll: Doctor Who goes against Satan in a gritty action-drama taking place in the deepest space where truly no one can hear you scream. My favorite story of the season steals from classics like Alien, The Abyss, and Robots of Death, and yet it never feels like a rip-off. The Doctor and Rose appear in the 42nd century and get cut off from the TARDIS, stuck with a demoralized space-crew docked on a barren planet that's perched impossibly over a black hole. A gravity field emanating from the planet core somehow keeps them from getting sucked in and pulverized, but they can't escape the hole either. Turns out Satan is chained down in the core, itching to break free of ancient bonds, and the crew become his pawns. He projects his mind into one of them (probably the most frightening possession ever dramatized on PBS) and also dominates the Ood, squid-faced humanoid servants who remind of the servant-robots from the Tom Baker classic. The dread and tension and claustrophobia never let up, with Rose and crew battling the Ood on the sanctuary base above, and the Doctor blindly freefalling into Satan's Pit below. We haven't seen the Time Lord show down a godlike adversary since he went against Sutekh in Pyramids of Mars and the ancient evil in The Curse of Fenric. This masterpiece ranks right alongside them.
Love and Monsters. 2 ½ stars. This seems to be a story either loved or despised, and I can't quite come to terms with it. I want to like it a lot. It tries something cool by sidelining the Doctor so we can see him from the perspective of an innocent bystander who only briefly gets involved with him. The Doctor thus appears different from the hero we're used to following with our God's-eye view, someone who leaves chaos and pain in his wake. That's a terrific idea to explore, and to some extent it works but mostly falls flat for being poorly executed with way too much slapstick comedy. Maybe this one will grow on me with subsequent viewings, but in the end it really doesn't live up to its potential.
Fear Her. 1 star. The great thing about Doctor Who is that it's a children's program without ever feeling like one -- until you watch an abysmal story like this. On a London suburb (in 2012) children are literally vanishing out of thin air, because a girl possessed by an alien intelligence is capturing them on paper by drawing them in her bedroom. The intelligence doesn't mean any harm, just wants a lot of company. It's a creepy enough premise -- one scene with the Doctor interrogating the girl on her back in bed is reminiscent of The Exorcist -- but for the most part it's just silly. Half the time I felt like I was watching Sesame Street. Like Boom Town from the previous season, it's the throw-away story before the finale; the calm before the storm.
Army of Ghosts/Doomsday. 4 stars. A sequel to The Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel, with Daleks thrown in for good measure, and Rose's swan song. This is a Who-fan's wet dream: the two most popular villains invading earth, and then fighting each other to see who's best. The appearance of the Daleks caught me way off-guard; the cliffhanger to the first episode is classic genius. And I love this Cult of Skaro: four elite Daleks with names, designed to think as the enemy thinks, and whose authority supersedes even the Dalek God who died in the last season finale. A great moment is when the Cyberleader proposes an alliance with the Cult, is refused, and demands: "You would destroy 5 million Cybermen with four Daleks?" Reply: "We would destroy 5 million Cybermen with one Dalek. You are superior in only one respect: you are better at dying. This is not a war, this is pest control." As apocalyptic as the last finale, and just as good. But you'll need plenty of kleenex for the end: Rose goes out emotionally, knowing she'll never be able to see the Doctor again. I missed her sorely in season three.
The Runaway Bride. 1 star. A travesty and insult to Who-fans, especially for being a Christmas special. A bride named Donna Noble appears in the TARDIS and begins ranting at the Doctor for abducting her. He doesn't know what's going on, but after a while learns that she's been infected with a strange energy (that whisked her to the TARDIS) as part of an alien plan to take over earth. The aliens are the Racnoss, an ancient spider-race hiding down in the earth's core, and Donna is their unwitting tool. The story fails on so many levels and is completely silly, unlike the previous year's Christmas Invasion. But the really bad news is that Donna will return in season four as a regular TARDIS companion. Merry goddamn Christmas.
Smith and Jones. 2 stars. A trip to the moon is a modest way of introducing the new TARDIS companion, but this is a modest story. Meet Martha Jones, a medical student who refuses to call our Time Lord "the Doctor" until she's convinced he's earned the title. Martha may not be a Rose Tyler, but she's fine as companions go and has a lot of smarts. (Rose was up there with Sarah Jane Smith, Leela, and Romana II. Martha holds her own with the likes of Ace, Harry Sullivan, and Liz Shaw. Donna looks like she'll be on the lowest plane with Peri Brown). The plot involves rhino-headed aliens invading a hospital in order to ferret out a stowaway alien for execution. To do this they teleport the hospital to the moon to prevent interference from earthly powers. It's mediocre stuff which basically serves to introduce the character of Martha.
The Shakespeare Code. 4 stars. Scholars attend: the mystery of Shakespeare's lost play is finally solved. The Doctor takes Martha back to 1599, where William is being harassed by a trio of alien witches who use the power of words to unlock space-time boundaries. They need a wordsmith to open a gate for more of their kind to invade earth, and Love's Labour's Won becomes the medium for that goal. As always, there's science behind the superstition: voodoo dolls are DNA replicators; spells are incanted the same way mathematical computations are intoned in the Tom Baker classic Logopolis. There's plenty of humor here, with the Doctor citing quotes that Shakespeare hasn't come up with yet ("I'll have to use that one," muses William). But the climax is hilarious as Shakespeare defeats the witches by using their own weapon against them -- pure verse, which burns them like holy water and closes the gate forever. Fantastic.
Gridlock. 3 stars. You've never been in traffic like this, where it takes six years to travel ten miles, the air pollution suffocates you, and snapping Macras wait to tear apart your car if you're lucky enough to get promoted to the fast-lane. The Doctor returns to New-New York with Martha more than twenty years after his last visit with Rose. Since then the population has been confined to the undercity, with the delusion that they can see the sun again if they're willing to sit through years of gridlock. It's up to the Doctor to liberate the underworld, which he does with flair, leaping from car to car like a neo-James Bond, and eventually finding the means to open the surface of the city. Like the previous installments in this trilogy (The End of the World and New Earth), it's light action-drama, and a fun ride.
Daleks in Manhattan/The Evolution of the Daleks. 1 star. A terrible story set in New York during the Great Depression. The Cult of Skaro -- four elite Daleks introduced at the end of season two, designed to think like the enemy -- had incredible potential, but the idea of them trying to evolve into humanoid form was doomed from the start. Dalek Sec looks (and sounds) ridiculous. When Daleks evolve into something less fearsome instead of more, it kills them. I was applauding when the compassionate Sec finally got exterminated by his mutinous colleagues; he was enough to turn me into a trigger-happy Dalek myself. Let's hope that Dalek Caan (the lone survivor at the end) cooks up something more nasty for us in season four. And let's also hope that we never again see such atrocious overacting from the guest stars. They're the worst performances of the new series.
The Lazarus Experiment. 3 stars. Gospel of John 11:1-12:11 meets Cronenberg's The Fly. A scientist has found immortality, but at the price of uncontrollably shapeshifting into a monstrous giant insect. Not worth it, if you ask me, but I enjoy the fact that Lazarus can burn the Doctor philosophically: when lectured on what it means to be human (as if the Doctor knows), Lazarus retorts that clinging to life at whatever cost is as human as you can get. Quite true. A good romp, nothing amazing. For the rest of the season, it's mostly 4s and 5s.
42. 4 stars. A rip-off of last season's The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit, but I'm a sucker for spaceship-in-distress stories where sweating crew members fight hopeless odds, race against time, and get picked off one by one. The Doctor and Martha appear on a ship which is going to crash into a sun in 42 minutes. Like last time, they get cut off from the TARDIS almost as soon as they step out of it (thus preventing a convenient rescue and escape), and just as before, we get possessed crew members (this time by an angry sun), suffocating claustrophobia, and the Doctor going EVA in the middle of it all. Because the drama unfolds in real time (Doctor Who episodes are 45 minutes long), and punctuated by a nerve-racking countdown, it keeps your blood racing.
Human Nature/The Family of Blood. 5 stars. A pure classic. On the run from aliens who want to harness his Time Lord powers, the Doctor empties himself of them to become human. He makes this incredible sacrifice out of kindness -- preferring evasion over the grim sentence he's forced to execute in the end -- but which ends up bringing horror and death to an innocent village. As public schoolmaster John Smith in 1913, he's a completely new character, with no memory of who he ever was, emotionally vulnerable, and falls in love with a widow. Martha (who is supposed to "reawaken" him only in direst need) assumes the difficult role of his servant in racist times. When the aliens finally hone in on them, the jig is up, but "John Smith" refuses to accept that he's anyone other than the man by that name. This is Tennant's hour, as he delivers a performance so painful, angry and tearful -- so human -- that we almost don't want the Doctor back anymore than he does; we want him to go on teaching, marry Joan, and enjoy a normal life. Considered by some to be the best story of the new series, it shows what it really means to be a Time Lord, and ups the ante with a vengeance. How to top this one? Just wait and see...
Blink. 5+ stars. Don't turn away, and don't blink. Being touched by an angel isn't all it's cracked up to be. The Doctor and Martha have been stranded in 1969 and are desperately trying to forward messages to a woman in 2007 so she can send the TARDIS back to them. He warns her (via DVD easter eggs) about nasties lurking around an abandoned house: the weeping angels, quantum beings who feed off potential energy by throwing people back in time to die by the natural process of aging. "They kill their victims nicely," explains the Doctor. But there's one defense: look at them. They're quantum locked and so freeze into stone when observed. Look away, blink, and the snarling gargoyles are right on top of you -- just one touch and you're gone, forced to eke out a living back in a time that isn't aware of your existence. The most disturbing and talked about story of the new series, and my #1 favorite.
Utopia/The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords. 4/3/2 stars. Drum roll for the return of the Doctor's arch-nemesis, the Master. The Doctor and Martha (and a returning Captain Jack from season one) run into him at the farthest end of space and time (in the year 100 trillion), and then return to present-day London to find him elected as the new prime minister, "Harold Saxon". Turns out the Master beat them back to earth 18 months before the Doctor had left, so he could engineer his takeover of England (and the world) and be on top of things when the Doctor returned. (Thus all the clever allusions to Harold Saxon running for office in the previous stories.) Unlike other two-parters which are double-length single stories, this three-parter is a trilogy of separate stories. Utopia is very good (4 stars) and The Sound of Drums decent (3 stars), but Last of the Time Lords is disappointing (2 stars) for its comic silliness and heavy-handed Christian allegory. The Master deserved to go out better than this, though the final moment between him and the Doctor -- who begs him to regenerate and "not leave him alone" -- is moving, and encapsulates an entire history of these adversaries being addicted to each other even in despite.
Voyage of the Damned. 1 star. Damned in every sense, this Christmas special offends like last season's Runaway Bride but twice as garishly. The Doctor finds himself on a floating spaceship, caught between corporate greed, sabotage, and robotic angels armed with killer halos. It sounds impressive but be sure it's not. There's comedy in every line, but nothing funny; noise and action in every other sequence, but no excitement. It's a sign of how bad a story is when the body count is so commendably high (as in classic Who) but you just don't care about who dies. I'm glad Russell Davies is retiring, and I pray these Christmas specials soon go with him. The Christmas Invasion is already a classic, to be sure, but it can't be relived.
Partners in Crime. 2 stars. Fatsos look out: a company in present-day Britain is selling diet pills which make body fat come alive, break off in chunks, and kill the host. The adipose aliens are silly -- marshmellow cubes straight out of Pokemon -- but the kind of fluff we've come to expect from season openers introducing a new companion (Rose, Smith and Jones). I do get a tickle out of the way Russell Davies milks so much fun out of obesity, but let's face it, this is dumbing down to an all-time low. On the bright side, Donna Noble turns out to be more than a fishwife (when we last saw her in The Runaway Bride) and a worthy companion -- better than Martha, in fact, though certainly not Rose -- more subdued and genuinely funny. Wait for her emotional performances in some of the heavier stories.
Fires of Pompeii. 5 stars. "We're in Pompeii, and it's volcano day!" says the Doctor before the sting, having no idea that he'll be the one to blow up Mount Vesuvius and kill thousands. The season's most ambitious story tackles the dilemma of whether or not history should be altered to save lives. Tennant's struggle to pull the lever and doom Pompeii recalls Tom Baker's agony over committing genocide on the Daleks. Dark stuff. The Sibylline Sisterhood is another throw-back to the Hinchcliffe era (The Brain of Morbius), and half of the season's special effects budget seems to have gone into creating the Pyrovile (stone-magma creatures resembling Balrogs) which the priestesses are hideously transforming into. Easily the best historical piece of the four seasons with a bit of everything -- drama, comedy, horror, tragedy -- and not a minute of screen-time wasted. You'll be weeping with Donna at the end unless you're made of stone yourself.
Planet of the Ood. 4 stars. It's not often Doctor Who gets political and crushes oppression, but it happens from time to time, especially on alien planets in the future. Revisiting the Ood in the year 4126, this time on their icy home base, he takes on and topples the conglomerate which has kept them in slavery for centuries. The best "revolution" story after Tom Baker's Sun Makers (taxation), Warriors' Gate (slavery), and Sylvester McCoy's Happiness Patrol (fascism). It's great seeing the Doctor bring management to its knees when provoked, and in this case he clearly feels guilty for having let so many Ood die in his battle against Satan two seasons ago. But savor the musical climax above all, so haunting it defines the story in a way never seen on the show.
The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky. 2 stars. Don't get excited over the Sontarans: they're not as menacing as in the classic years, and they even chant hakas like football jocks. Don't cheer for UNIT, because the military outfit isn't the same without the Brigadier we knew and loved. And don't applaud Martha, who for crying out loud just left at the end of season three. Groan and exasperate over a substandard invasion-of-earth story in which Sontarans are using human agents to release poison gas into the atmosphere. Like last season's Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks (though not quite as abysmal), this story laughs at our expectations and gives us the finger. I did like the Doctor's passing remark about working for UNIT "back in the 70s...or was it the 80's?", a nod to the unresolved contradictions in the classic chronology. But boobytrapped automobiles don't do it for me.
The Doctor's Daughter. 2 stars. Susan's mother unveiled at last? Not hardly. "Jenny", spawned from the Doctor's tissue sample in mere seconds, is more Little Miss Rambo than Time Lord, born to kick ass in a war against the alien Hath. On an underground planet in the distant future, people have been fighting the Hath for "generations" -- meaning for a single week, since twenty generations are born daily from their progenation machines. Under the delusion they need to combat aliens who usurped power from them in decades past, they imprison the Doctor and Donna as pacifist invaders, while the Hath abduct Martha. The story's center of gravity is the relationship between Jenny and the Doctor, but it isn't impressive, and the emotional climax of her dying in his arms is robbed by a last minute return to life and zipping off like a comic hero. Disappointing overall.
The Unicorn and the Wasp. 2 stars. The Doctor and Donna invite themselves to a posh dinner party in 1926, and when a Professor Peach is killed in the library with a lead pipe they team up with Agatha Christie to find the murderer. Turns out the culprit is a huge alien wasp (the image of which would later appear on the cover of Death in the Clouds) that assumes human form at will. The wasp, for demented reasons, thinks Agatha's mysteries are the way the world really works, and so kills people in caricature of them (i.e. wielding a ridiculous lead pipe instead of just stinging the poor sap to death). It's an unusual story for Doctor Who because there's no threat to humanity, just a bizarre murder mystery -- a surreally comedic Clue game involving an alien. And it makes no sense whatsoever, delivering a non-sequitur climax.
Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead. 5 stars. I dream of planet-sized libraries but wouldn't visit this one. Here shadows kill on contact and eat flesh to the bone, hard to distinguish from the garden variety, and as hard to evade as the weeping angels from last season's Blink. Not a nice place for the Doctor to run into his future wife, but there you have it. Professor River Song, leading a team of archaeologists, has come to investigate this 51st-century library, and with the Doctor learns that 4000 people have been "saved" from the shadows -- to the planet's hard-drive, while their consciousnesses live on in a warped alternate reality. The first half of the story is a horror piece ending on the cliffhanger of "Donna Noble being saved", while the second takes us inside the disturbing Matrix where Donna is married and has kids and no memory of anything else. A creepy, creative story; and the season's best, even if the epilogue waxes schmaltzy.
Midnight. 4 ½ stars. The season's filler episode scores big-time. On a leisure planet the Doctor boards a shuttle bus and gets possessed by an invisible alien, leaving him at the mercy of an hysterical mob. With the claustrophobic intensity of United 93, possession-horror of The Exorcist, and dialogue-drama of Twelve Angry Men, the story succeeds unexpectedly by undercutting the Doctor's hero qualities. Now it's precisely his arrogant superiority that renders him powerless by an alien force and turns people against him (opposite Voyage of the Damned, where his melodramatic speech about a being a Time Lord makes the ship's passengers obey him without question). The tension and yelling reach a horrifying crescendo, as the passengers try to kill him and he's unable to save the day -- something unique in the Tennant years. You'll remember this one for a long time.
Turn Left. 3 ½ stars. "Turn right, and never meet that man," hisses the fortune teller. "Turn right, and change the world!" That's what Donna does, and her life replays without ever meeting the Doctor, who dies as a result. This would have been 4-stars easy if not for gaping plot holes, most notably that if the Doctor died at the start of season three, the world would have retroactively ended in 79 CE, since he doesn't go back to Pompeii and stop the Pyrovile. We also have to revisit Davies' lemons (The Runaway Bride, Smith and Jones, Voyage of the Damned, Partners in Crime) though he makes lemonade out of them with a new outcome of loss and tragedy. There's a lot of good drama here: the Italian family being taken off to a "labor camp" is heartbreaking, as is Donna's life as a refugee. The return of Rose is handled surprisingly well, and Catherine Tate puts in a hell of a performance as she sacrifices herself to turn left and get the world back on track.
The Stolen Earth/Journey's End. 0 stars. A complete shower of piss. Davros is back but gets saddled with the worst story of the entire new series. Think The Five Doctors -- this time The Five Companions: Rose, Sarah-Jane, Martha, Captain Jack, and Donna -- all fanwank, no plot, and five times as hollow. The Daleks have whisked away 27 planets, including Earth, to a hidden part of space for their new empire. If that sounds promising, be sure it's not. In the first half everyone is just trying to telephone the Doctor, ending in the mother of all cop-out cliffhangers: the Doctor starts regenerating but doesn't. The second part gets exponentially worse, with more cop-outs, mockeries of Rose's closure in season two, mockeries of Donna's character and fate, a romantic duplicate of the Doctor. To cap it all off, we're treated to the ridiculous spectacle of the TARDIS towing the Earth back home. Every TV program has its lemons, but when a season finale is this bad, it's a sign that something new is needed. Good-bye, Russell Davies. Time to move on.
The Eleventh Hour. 3 ½ stars. Feeling like a leftover of the Davies era, this season opener fares significantly better than previous ones which introduced a new companion, even Smith and Jones whose plot it copies: an illegal alien disguised as a human, pursued to Earth by other alien authorities, around a hospital setting. There is enough Moffat influence to offset the Davies feel, such as the Doctor returning to a much older Amy (shades of The Girl in the Fireplace), and Prisoner Zero being a more fearsome creature than the Autons, Plasmavore, and Adipose combined. It remains what it is -- an invasion-of-earth story in which the Doctor saves the entire planet in the space of twenty minutes -- yet an incredibly fun ride demanding repeated viewings.
The Beast Below. 3 stars. Here are smiles that would give your grandmother a heart attack, the entire British kingdom crammed on a starship searching for a new home, and a beast lurking beneath to eat protesting citizens. This story works on two levels, one as a political fable about society kept in ignorance, albeit democratically by their own choice, and two as a metaphorical commentary on the Doctor's nature. The "Last of the Starwhales" allows Amy to understand the Doctor better, and more polysemously, than previous companions. And she gets to save the day, as the Doctor is caught up in helpless fury as he works to destroy the whale on humanity's behalf. We haven't seen Time Lord fallibility like this since Eccleston, and it's refreshing.
Victory of the Daleks. 3 stars. A rushed episode that needed another to breathe, but a fun World War II story that sees Britain training an army of Daleks to be thrown against the Third Reich. Churchill gets a nasty surprise when they show their true colors, and quite literally: the new and improved Daleks have an intricate caste system (red = drones, blue = strategists, orange = scientists, yellow = eternals, and white = supremes), which will surely be fleshed out later in the season. The space battle between Britain's Spitfires and the Dalek ship is ludicrous but thrilling, and the Doctor's fury as he assaults a Dalek with a spanner surpasses even the Ninth Doctor's rage in Dalek. Not a stellar achievement, by any means, but a fun ride.
The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone. 5 stars. This two-parter is to Blink as Aliens is to Alien: bigger, longer, more. The weeping angels are back in droves, faced off by an army of priestly soldiers who aren't nearly as equipped as they think. Like Ripley, the Doctor understands the menace better than anyone, though not always quite enough, and the angels have some alarming new tricks, like breaking peoples' heads open in order to reanimate their consciousness. In terms of suspense, I haven't been kept on the edge of my seat so much since the Ood closed in on the space crew back in The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit -- and as in that story the body count is high. Amy is in deep trouble, and when on death's door she cries out in a pitifully broken voice, "I'm scared, Doctor," our Time Lord hero callously retorts, "Of course you're scared, you're dying, shut up." Amusingly, when all is said and done, she wants to jump in the sack with the Doctor and fuck his brains out. Not quite as good as Blink, but as close as can be expected, and a crown jewel of the new series.
Vampires of Venice. 3 stars. Vampires return to Doctor Who in a gothic period piece, and the result, while hardly groundbreaking, is fun. The plot is distinctly linear, from the opening as the school of Calvieri welcomes innocent ladies into its monstrous breeding (feeding) program, to the climax which involves an apocalyptic storm of tidal waves, concluding rather lazily with the Doctor saving the day by climbing a tower and pushing a few buttons. Amy's fiance Rory joins as a TARDIS companion, and the love triangle between the three characters reminds of how effectively Sarah was used in School Reunion by putting Rose's relationship to the Doctor into perspective, and calling into the question the way the Time Lord eventually discards his companions.
Amy's Choice. 5 stars. Feeling like Doctor-lite, this story struts with determination to ignore the rules and throw something bizarre at us, only this time with the Doctor getting his usual screen time. By far the weirdest story of the new series, and in a good way, as if David Lynch had penned it. It finds the Doctor, Amy, and Rory flicking back and forth between two scenarios, one of which they are told is a dream they are sharing, the other reality. To die in the dream will cause them to wake up in reality for good, and to die in reality will cause them to really die; so they must choose wisely. The choice, however -- Amy's choice -- ultimately boils down to a choice between the Doctor and Rory, and it comes together splendidly. A work of art.
The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood. 4 stars. Feeling like classic Who more than anything seen before in the new series, this story taps into how everyone remembers the Pertwee era to be, but with shades of Colin Baker too -- protracted torture scenes and luminescent underground sets. It takes a tired cliché and turns it on its head. The alien (Silurian) invaders aren't really aliens but "Earthlians" who have as much claim to the planet as humanity. "From their point of view, you're the invaders," the Doctor lectures his human friends, and actually manages to get the two races to begin negotiating for terms of coexistence before foul play kills hope for a shared planet. The death of Rory is a shocker, and Amy's memory wipe tragic, the most emotionally powerful scene of the season up to this point.
Vincent and the Doctor. 4 ½ stars. A character piece about a tormented genius who has visual acuity beyond the norm. It represents the final year of Van Gogh's life quite well, recreating various sites painted by the artist, the paintings themselves in arresting color, and his disturbing fits of manic depression. The theme of vision permeates every frame, as we learn that Van Gogh can see things others are blind to. On the literal level this plays out in the attack of the Krafayis, an invisible giant bird-reptile that Vincent fends off entertainingly with long wooden poles and armchairs, while the Doctor gets slammed against walls by its tail. On the deeper level, Van Gogh sees things in nature's midst and people's souls. The scoring at the end is a bit rubbish, but aside from that this is a powerfully affective story.
The Lodger. 1 star. Worse than pedestrian, playing like a garden variety sitcom, about a monster luring innocent victims up the stairs of a flat complex. The Doctor moves in to investigate and becomes far more involved with the personal affairs of his flatmate than the alien threat above, and it's never clear why he can't go up the stairs right away to deal with the problem other than to satisfy the demands of an empty script. The direction is barely adequate, the design uninspiring; the cast struggle bravely to deliver what is essentially a trivial love story. The set up of the staircase is promisingly sinister, but it delivers manure. The best thing about the story is the sight of Matt Smith naked from the waist up.
The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang. 4 stars. Like The Eleventh Hour, a guilty pleasure which effectively gives Moffat's predecessor the finger whilst feigning homage. The subtext essentially is, if you're going to raise the stakes to extreme heights, Mr. Davies, this is how you do it. The crack in Amy's bedroom wall proves to be the most successful seasonal story arc in the new series, and while there are certainly resets to be found here, they're not cheap, they come at a fair price, and there's solid emotional payoff. The Doctor's farewell to Amy as he prepares to sacrifice himself -- "You don't need your imaginary friend anymore" -- got me a bit choked up. Well done, Mr. Moffat; bring on season six.
UPDATE: See Mark Goodacre's reaction.
UPDATE (II): See all stories ranked from best to worst.