Sunday, August 30, 2009

The 10 Most Memorable Moments in New Doctor Who

Here are the 10 most memorable moments from the new Doctor Who series. In order to qualify as a top moment, the scenes or sequences (1) must be well done, well directed, and well acted; (2) must be well remembered, much talked about, and loved by fans; (3) tend to set a precedent, or build on other precedents, meaning they either have strong bearing on the series going forward, or interact dynamically with the past.

1. Rose & the Dalek. Dalek. 2005. The mirror image of the famous scene in Genesis of the Daleks, and as much an uncontested winner of the top slot. In place of a pacifist Doctor being urged to commit genocide by a frustrated Sarah, here a murderous Doctor has to be restrained by an empathetic Rose. It couldn't have been easy making this scene so convincing, but for the first (and undoubtedly last) time we are made to feel sympathy for a Dalek unable to cope with human emotions, yet without losing sight of its inherently lethal nature. Eccleston gets in his finest acting moment of the season, his helpless rage conveying how traumatized he is by the recent Time War. But it's Rose and the Dalek who own the moment, bonding strangely as the creature is affected by her DNA, yet ultimately driven to self-extermination. I went into this list thinking the top moment would surely be from Tennant's period, but no: this is it.

2. Human Doctor. The Family of Blood. 2007. The Doctor's decision to become human in order to hide from aliens was supposed to be an act of mercy, but ended up in horror falling on an English village, pain on people's souls. The moment of truth is of course towards the end, when "John Smith" can't bring himself to accept his Time Lord identity, not least because he's fallen in love with a woman. The scene is so believably heartbreaking: "I'm John Smith! That's all I want to be! With his life and his job!" Joan's turmoil is equally tragic, and she scores some emotional zingers when she finally loses "John" to the Doctor: "John Smith was braver than you. You chose to change. He chose to die." When at this point he desperately begs her to come time traveling with him, she replies in a steel tone: "Answer me this. If you hadn't decided to come to this time and place on a whim, would people have died here today?" His silence is deafening, and she dismisses him for good. Drama like this raised the bar in Doctor Who like never before.

3. Daleks vs. Cybermen. Doomsday. 2006. When I first saw the cliffhanger to Army of Ghosts I thought I was hallucinating. Daleks in a Cybermen story? But the fanwank works to astonishingly great effect without cheapening the plot. And let's face it, who in their heart of hearts hasn't wanted to see Daleks and Cybermen face off against each other? The fanatical xenophobes vs. the ruthlessly logical; and I confess I was cheering the Daleks all the way, them being the more badass of the two. As the Dalek retorts so arrogantly to the Cybermen, "This is not war, it is pest control! You are superior in one way only; you are better at dying!" Go Daleks! I doubt I'll ever again be cheering them on -- anymore than I'll be feeling sorry for one outside Dalek (see #1) -- but this apocalyptic spectacle goes down as the best Whogasm moment (as Mark Goodacre would put it) in the history of the show.

4. Blowing up Vesuvius. Fires of Pompeii. 2008. What a lousy hand to be dealt: to have to kill thousands of Pompeiians in order to save the world. The fact that the Doctor would be following history hardly makes it easier to be the one responsible, and his agony recalls the Fourth Doctor's dilemma with the wires on Skaro. But this time he accepts his responsibility -- it's a hugely powerful moment when he and Donna hold hands and pull the volcanic lever together, thinking they're destined to die like everyone else -- eradicating the threat of the Pyrovile while taking Pompeii as collateral. His rescue of the one family is key to the moment, of course, but I don't think it should be overstated; after all, Donna has to browbeat him into doing it. It's fascinating how much the Doctor's moral compass is subject to companion influence (as in #1), far more so than in the classic series. That's the the Last of the Time Lords for you: alone in the universe and less sure of himself.

5. The departure of Rose Tyler. Doomsday. 2006. I didn't want to use any episode more than once (see #3), but here it can't be avoided. Rose's farewell is so emotional it could make an Auton weep, and in my opinion she defines the first two seasons more than the Doctor himself. Story arcs involving the Tyler family were developed in deeply unexpected ways, especially in the parallel earth stories, and it's like losing a dynasty at the end. In this sense, Rose's departure is more momentous than Eccleston's regeneration (see #9). She's certainly the best companion of the new series, and I think the second best of all time after Sarah Jane Smith.

6. The Doctor's Easter Egg & the Weeping Angels. Blink. 2007. The highlight of everyone's favorite story is the DVD easter egg, as the Doctor uses a copy of the transcript Lawrence is writing to have a conversation across time with Sally Sparrow. It's brilliantly scripted, and segues into the frightening attack of the Weeping Angels. "Don't turn away, and don't blink," warns the Doctor, the only defense being to freeze the angels into stone by continually looking at them. By far the most original creatures of the new series, and endlessly discussed for the quantum background. "You die in the past," explains the Doctor, "and in the present they consume the energy of all the days you might have had, all your stolen moments. They're creatures of the abstract. They live off potential energy. Angels who kill you nicely."

7. Professor Yana's identity. Utopia. 2007. The revelation of Professor Yana as the Master is another one of those Whogasm moments (like #3), and it's a shame it had to go to waste with Derek Jacobi's regeneration into John Simm. Jacobi was a brilliant Master for those ten minutes, while Simm gave us a gurning comic book villain for two whole episodes. There's nothing wrong with different personas (that's what Time Lord regneration is all about), but Simm's just wasn't right for the Master. In any case, we can savor the moment of Yana's dawning realization of who he is, and his viscious murder of his assistant as he hisses, "I...AM...THE MASTER!" Jacobi's Master was up to the level of Roger Delgado's in the Pertwee era, and you can't do any better than that.

8. Satan. The Satan Pit. 2006. Since Tom Baker, every Doctor Who period has had at least one "ultimate" villain. Philip Hinchcliffe gave us Sutekh (by far the most memorable and close to invincible), Graham Williams got in the Fendahl before throwing the Black Guardian at us, and John Nathan-Turner started with the Great Vampire and ended with Fenric. Russell Davies settled for nothing less than Satan himself, and while the Beast doesn't eclipse Sutekh, it comes pretty damn close. The voice is the same (played after all these years by Gabriel Woolf), oozing venom. There are two parts to the dramatic terror: (1) Toby's possession sequences, which have to be the most frightening ever shown on the BBC; (2) the Doctor freefalling blindly into the black pit, and confronting the Beast at the bottom. We finally got the devil in Doctor Who, and it was worth the wait.

9. The ninth regeneration. The Parting of the Ways. 2005. Christopher Eccleston's departure after a single season worked out splendidly for a couple reasons. For one, he wasn't the best representation of the Doctor, a gurning manic-depressive, and remarkably ineffectual, though he's admittedly grown on me over time. He took his minimalist character about as far as it could go. But in leaving the series so quickly, he gave newcomers an opportunity to see some Gallifreyan lore in action. And what a regeneration -- more flashy than any from the classic period, if lacking some of the soul -- leaving us with David Tennant licking over his teeth in bemused wonder. I knew right there and then that he was going to be "the" Doctor of the new series.

10. The return of Sarah Jane Smith. School Reunion. 2006. No way can I omit Sarah from this list. Her reaction to the TARDIS and meeting the Doctor is so well scripted and acted, that I remember watching it the first time and thinking, "Wow, we really are in a new golden age of Doctor Who." Alongside this scene, in which she makes plain that she resents the Doctor for never coming back for her, I would include the jealous bitch-fight with Rose, as they hurl laundry lists at each other of the creatures they've fought against with the Doctor. Sarah is more than just a returning companion to please old fans; she's used very effectively to put Rose's relationship to the Doctor into perspective, and to call into the question the way the Time Lord eventually discards his companions.

Dishonorable mentions. I feel compelled to point out three of the most painfully memorable moments of the new series, all from Journey's End, scenes so horrible I wish I could exorcise memory of them. (1) The TARDIS towing the Earth back to orbit, (2) Donna the Time Lord, and (3) the clone of the Doctor who lives happily ever after with Rose. Excuse me, please, but what the fuck was Russell Davies thinking when he wrote the season four finale?


Anonymous Doug Chaplin said...

Hmm … strictly speaking some of these aren't "moments" – Satan? And you do tend towards the tragic. I rather like the comedy as well – including the German Daleks from your least favourite story. I would have promoted Midnight to the main list, and unlike you I found the whole Rose goodbye thing just too sentimental to score so highly.
But not a bad list.

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Hi Doug,

Yes, as with the classic list, "moments" are either individual scenes or sequences. For (8) I had to choose a few of them which add up to the "Satan moment", especially since the Beast's voice only manifested via possession. Down in the pit when the Doctor confronted him, he was mute.

It's harder to get a memorable moment out of comedy, at least by using my threefold criteria. Though comedy is obviously an essential ingredient to Doctor Who.

Blogger Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Loren. Good choices, and enjoyed the way you wrote them up. The term "Whogasm" was coined for this Youtube video, . Still can't see that often enough. Pleased to see it's one of your top moments too. Agree with you on several of these too; wouldn't go for your (4) and (8), I don't think, and I'd add the appearance of Rose at the beginning of series 4, perhaps also regeneration cliffhanger at the end of Stolen Earth. The moment I loved in School Reunion was actually at the end, in the park, with Sarah Jane followed by K9 -- superb, even though I've never liked the scrappy-doo of Doctor Who.

For comedy, it's difficult to beat the "Camptown Races" bit in Unicorn and the Wasp.


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