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?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Dishonest Scrap Meme

Doug Chaplin has tagged me in a meme apparently started by James McGrath. The rules?
"You post five things about yourself. Four are untrue. One is true. All are so outlandish, implausible or ridiculous that no one would be inclined to believe that any of them are true. And despite the pleas from your readers, you never divulge which is true and which are fabrications. You then tag five other people (four seriously and one person you are pretty sure would never participate)."
Here goes:

(1) I'm a scaly creature who needs to bask in sunlight in order to pass as a human being, but too much sunlight poisons me.
(2) I had lunch with Anthony Hopkins and ordered liver with fava beans to celebrate.
(3) I know who NT Wrong is and sent him a Valentine six months ago.
(4) I've engaged in threesomes, rape role-playing, and fisting.
(5) I decided to invert the meme and tell four things true and one thing false.

And sorry, but I can't bring myself to tag anyone for this beastie. But knock yourself out if you wish!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Ineffectual Ninth Doctor

I'm watching the four seasons of New Doctor Who (for what must be collectively my third time), and find myself appreciating the Ninth Doctor more than before. Frankly I'd never been wild about Eccleston's performance. His gurning still makes me want to rip his face off, and his acting often comes across forced and stilted. His minimalist wardrobe mirrors a hollow soul, at least until we probe more deeply. He never really seemed like a fair representation of our Time Lord hero (even if he gets plenty of good stories), though now I'm seeing that a lot of awkwardness behind the character is much to the point, and in a good way.

Eccleston's Doctor is of course the most damaged of all the incarnations, an immediate product of the Time War. He's prone to depression and fits of rage, juxtaposed with manic goofiness. He's astonishingly judgmental (like anyone who has serious faults), as we see in his treatment of TARDIS companions like Rose and Adam. Only the Sixth Doctor (played by Colin Baker) surpasses the Ninth in terms of arrogance and violent tendencies. But most noteworthy is his ineffectuality, which I'm finding increasingly compelling... and vastly amusing. The Ninth Doctor saves the day only 30% of the time (in contrast to the 90-99% of all other incarnations), almost wearing his incompetence like a badge of honor. This is the Last of the Time Lords as we might well expect, isolated and alone in the universe, unsure how to fit in, paralyzed by indecision, weighed down by the colossal failure of his people -- and himself -- unable or afraid to rise to the occasion.

It's worth going through the seven stories where he has to rely on someone else to put things to right. In Rose he bumbles around with the Nestene Consciousness until Rose pulls off an acrobatic rescue. In The Unquiet Dead he stands by hopelessly expecting to die, as Charles Dickens figures out how to liberate the possessed corpses (contrast with season three's Shakespeare Code, where Shakespeare saves the day only by doing as the Doctor instructs), and then as Gwyneth sacrifices herself to destroy the gaseous creatures. In Dalek, it's ironically the Dalek itself which is the hero, ordering Rose to command it to exterminate itself, as an enraged Doctor looks on, barely able to stifle his murderous impulses. In The Long Game, Cathica saves the day as the Doctor and Rose are interrogated as captives. In Father's Day, Pete Tyler saves the world by sacrificing himself after the Doctor is obliterated by a Reaper. In Boom Town the TARDIS saves everyone, by surprise and completely without the Doctor's engineering. Finally, in Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways, Rose rescues the Earth from Dalek-extermination, when the Doctor admits he doesn't have the balls to follow through with his own plan. Only in the other three stories -- The End of the World, Aliens of London/World War III, and The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances -- do we get a proactive Ninth Doctor who saves people, either directly or by proxy.

Now again, this isn't a complaint. As I'm warming to more and more, the ineffectuality of the Ninth Doctor is precisely what makes him such an interesting character. Because he's a suffering loner, he loses not only his moral compass (witness especially Dalek), but his ability to act heroically. And that's precisely the rut which the Tenth Doctor climbs out of in seasons 2-4. Tennant's Doctor becomes the most domesticated of the incarnations, bonding with humanity more than ever before, and back on track with his usual heroics. With hindsight and repeated viewings, I see that the single-season Eccleston sets the stage wonderfully for a triple-season Tennant.

For reference purposes, here are the stories from the four seasons showing who "saves the day" in each. Eccleston's Doctor has a 30% success story (3 out of 10), while Tennant's has 90% (29 out of 32). Naturally, the stories in which the Doctor is the ultimate hero can involve the proactive help of others too. (Martha in Family of Blood and Last of the Time Lords are big examples of this.)

The Ninth Doctor (30%)

Rose -- Rose
The End of the World -- The Doctor
The Unquiet Dead -- Charles Dickens & Gwyneth
Aliens of London/World War III -- The Doctor (through Mickey)
Dalek -- Rose & The Dalek
The Long Game -- Cathica
Father's Day -- Pete Tyler
The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances -- The Doctor
Boom Town -- The TARDIS
Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways -- Rose

The Tenth Doctor (90%)

The Christmas Invasion - The Doctor
New Earth -- The Doctor
Tooth and Claw -- The Doctor
School Reunion -- The Doctor
The Girl in the Fireplace -- The Doctor
The Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel -- The Doctor (through Mickey)
The Idiot's Lantern -- The Doctor
The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit -- The Doctor
Love and Monsters -- The Doctor
Fear Her -- Rose
Army of Ghosts/Doomsday -- The Doctor

The Runaway Bride -- The Doctor
Smith and Jones -- The Doctor
The Shakespeare Code -- The Doctor (through Shakespeare)
Gridlock -- The Doctor
Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks -- The Doctor
The Lazarus Experiment -- The Doctor
42 -- The Doctor (through Martha)
Human Nature/Family of Blood -- The Doctor
Blink -- The Doctor
Utopia/The Sound Drums/Last of the Time Lords -- The Doctor

The Voyage of the Damned -- The Doctor
Partners in Crime -- The Doctor
The Fires of Pompeii -- The Doctor
Planet of the Ood -- The Doctor
The Sontaran Stratagem/Poison Sky -- The Doctor
The Doctor's Daughter -- The Doctor
The Unicorn and the Wasp -- The Doctor
Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead -- The Doctor
Midnight -- Hostess (unnamed)
Turn Left -- Donna
The Stolen Earth/Journey's End -- The Doctor

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Biblical Studies Carnival XLIV

The forty-fourth Biblical Studies Carnival is up on Jim West's blog.