Monday, November 18, 2013

50 Things for the 50th Anniversary, Plus 1

I love Doctor Who, that's no secret. I thought that in honor of the 50th anniversary I'd put together some "top" lists related to Doctor Who covering many of my favorites from across all of the time and space that the Doctor has covered. As a disclaimer, I have not yet finished watching all of the Fourth or Fifth Doctors yet.

Top 5 Companions:
1. Rose
2. Ace
3. Donna
4. Barbara
5. Jamie

I hope I'm not offending too many people immediately by omitting Sarah Jane Smith. For whatever reason I've never felt attached to Sarah Jane like I have to the five on my list (or another tough omission, Rory).

Top 5 Secondary Characters:
1. Wilfred Mott
2. Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart
3. Captain Jack Harkness
4. Craig Owens
5. Sabalom Glitz

This list could be split into a top 3 and a next 2 and you could order them in any order and it would be ok with me. Captain Jack brought fun to the show, both the Brigadier and Wilfred bring, in their own way, a reliability that otherwise was missing from the Doctor's world. Glitz may be the surprise entrant but I really enjoyed how utterly bendable his will was as long as he thought he was seeking his own best interests.

Top 5 Repeating Villains:
1. The Daleks
2. The Master
3. The Silence
4. The Cybermen
5. The Ice Warriors

This list could be split into a top 2 and a bottom 3. The Daleks and the Master are transcendent villains, especially the Roger Delgado incarnation of the Master. The Daleks get the edge for me probably in part because of their central role in the Davies era and the subtlety of their storyline. The Silurians just missed the cut. The Weeping Angels didn't.

Top 5 Single Episode Villains:
1. Vashta Nerada
2. Count Scarlioni
3. Mr. Finch
4. The Family of Blood
5. Sharaz Jek

I find the Vashta Nerada to be the scariest monster in all of Doctor Who.

5 Episodes that are Brutally Bad:
1. The Web Planet
2. The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe
3. The Happiness Patrol
4. More than half of the episodes written by Mark Gatiss, my least favorite being Night Terrors
5. The Mark of the Rani

I really, really, really don't like the writing of Mark Gatiss. I wish he would stick to acting. I appreciate the political statement of the happiness patrol, but the episode itself is awful (and the Kandyman had great promise!).

Top 5 Partially Extant Episodes that I Wish Were Complete:
1. The Tenth Planet
2. The Faceless Ones
3. The Reign of Terror
4. The Daleks' Master Plan
5. The Invasion

The Enemy of the World was on the original version of this list. Hopefully there's still a remote chance of further discoveries.

Top 10 Classic Episodes for the Modern Series:
1. The Robots of Death
2. The Leisure Hive
3. Remembrance of the Daleks
4. Revelation of the Daleks
5. The Talons of Weng-Chiang
6. The Pirate Planet
7. The Doctor Who Movie
8. The Dalek Invasion of Earth
9. The Spearhead from Space
10. The Silurians

I love seeing how the writers reused ideas from the classic series. Davies grabbed ideas left and right. Moffat is more measured, but his influences shouldn't be overlooked.

A Ranking of the Doctors (plus my favorite episode for each Doctor)
1. David Tennant (The Stolen Earth/Journey's End)
2. Tom Baker (The City of Death)
3. Patrick Troughton (The War Games)
4. John Pertwee (Frontier in Space)
5. Christopher Eccleston (Bad Wolf/The Parting of Ways)
6. Peter Davison (Earthshock)
7. Matt Smith (The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon)
8. William Hartnell (The Chase)
9. Colin Baker (Terror of the Vervoids)
10. Sylvester McCoy (Remembrance of the Daleks)
11. Paul McGann (The Night of the Doctor)

I feel bad placing any Doctor at the bottom of this list, they're all good, but hey, someone has to lose. I do not feel bad picking a favorite. David Tennant brought the justice, intensity, curiosity, and intelligence that we expect from the Doctor, while still having that dark side lurking that we all fear.

It has been a wonderful 50 years of Dcotor Who. Here is to 50 more wonderful years!

Monday, November 11, 2013

Why I Love Doctor Who

I had never really gotten into a TV show before. One Sunday in the March of 2012 I was sick and stayed home from church. I had seen James McGrath talk extensively about Doctor Who on his blog, so I decided to give it a try, starting from the first season of the Davies era. The first episode was ok, so I gave it a second. I loved the End of the World and by the end of the episode, I loved Rose. I was hooked. A year and a half later and I'm on my third tour through the modern series (though this time I will be skipping substantial portions of the disaster otherwise known as season 6), and, except for the recent finds, have watched all of the extant episodes for Doctors 1-3 and 6-8, as well as large chunks of 4 and 5. I'm trying to get in as much as I can prior to the 50th anniversary episode. Why am I so dedicated to the show? There are five major reasons:  the history of the show, the writing, the acting, the characters, and the ethical exploration.

As everyone knows, Doctor Who has a long history, but much like the Doctor himself, it's not just about the lifespan. A commenter named Ian made a keen observation on a post of James McGrath's. "I wonder if Doctor Who appeals to folks with a historian's soul. It is quite a unique body of work, with lost bits, early non-canonical re-imaginings, mystery and diversity of interpretation. Pretty unusual for popular media." There is the show itself and its history. Its history is fascinating in its own right. With what other tv show are people in rapt attention because episodes lost decades ago have been recovered in a remote portion of Africa? With how many tv shows are there debates over canon (hear Mark Goodacre's thoughts on the matter here - his argument on the Peter Cushing films is interesting)? Then there is also the way the show reuses and improves upon earlier concepts and episodes. It has been so enjoyable to go back and see all of the concepts that Davies, in particular, has meshed together from the classic series (one notable example is the Ood, a combination of the Sensorites and the Robots of Death). (As an aside, I encourage anyone interested in the history of the show to pick up a copy of The Vault). Doctor Who is historic, and it is historic because of the quality of the writing and acting.

This is probably controversial with some, but I feel the writing of the show has been excellent. Certainly there has been some variability. Some of the early Hartnell episodes, as well as most of the Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy era are shaky. The Doctor Who movie was a disaster (why is it considered canon?). However, those are exceptions, and even during the run of the sixth and seventh Doctors there are moments where the writing rises to earlier levels (to pick an episode from the maligned 26th season, I think the Curse of Fenric is very underrated and on par with the best of classic Doctor Who). Sci-fi needs to give its viewer a feeling of grandeur, and Doctor Who provided that through exotic villains and a vast universe. Many of the plots were very interesting and there was a good amount of diversity of story lines and plot features. We saw how the Doctor was responsible for the burning of Rome and we saw him return twenty seven planets that were stolen from space and time. We saw him help two empires avoid war while stifling the Master and the Daleks and save the earth in countless ways. The high point of the show is the first four seasons of the modern series under Davies, which were exquisite. I don't have the space to fully defend this, but I believe Davies is the best writer the show has ever had. His character development, use of foreshadowing, and multi-layered plots make repeated viewings a must. Great writing would fall apart without great actors, and the show has not lacked the latter.

The Doctors have all been, in my opinion, top notch actors. Each has brought their unique talents and put their own spin on the role. Even when I haven't cared for a particular portrayal, I still respect their consistency and depth. Hartnell exemplified the grandfather, both good and bad. Troughton was the eccentric genius you always had to keep an eye on. Pertwee was the dominant Doctor, with a suprisingly gentle side. No one captured the free spiritedness of the Doctor like Tom Baker. Peter Davison brought the consuming intensity one would expect of a Doctor in the prime of his life. Colin Baker showed us that justice mattered and that there was a sensitive heart underneath his calloused skin. We all thought we knew the Doctor, and then we met Sylvester McCoy, who reminded us that everyone has a dark side. Paul McGann brought revived passion and even a little romance. Christopher Eccleston showed us the impact of the Doctor's lonely life. Through David Tennant we see that you're never too old to be amazed, while Matt Smith was still a child at heart. Eleven sides, eleven portraits, one splendid Doctor. The anti-super hero. The greatest super hero.

And then there are a few Doctors who have been transcendent actors. I'm thinking of Patrick Troughton, Tom Baker, and David Tennant. They were among the best actors of their era and put everything they had into the role. The primary and secondary companions (e.g., UNIT members, Rose's family) have been, for the most part, quite good as well. Yes, a few of the early companions seem a little weak to me (e.g., I don't think much of Peter Purves as Steven Taylor), but it's hard to say there if it's acting or writing. The quality of the villains and other characters who appear once or twice has ebbed and flowed over the years. In the classic series the Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker eras were the strongest, but are nothing like the high the show is at now. Both Davies' and Moffatt's teams have done a splendid job casting; identifying top rate actors for episode after episode (though I will mention here that it was weird to see James Corden, after appearing twice as Craig, show up in the Nightmare in Silver in a different role). On the day I wrote this I watched School Reunion for probably the fourth time, and I was amazed by how bat-like Anthony Head acts throughout the whole episode. Brilliant.

From the beginning Doctor Who has been exploring political, religious, and ethical issues. This is most notable in the classic series in the way some of the villains are portrayed (e.g., the Daleks and Sontarins) or in one liners by the Doctor. In the modern series, especially under the writing of Davies the discussion of both religion and ethics became much more complex. Davies tenure was, at its core, a statement on the appropriate use of violence in combat of evil. Along the way he also treated human sexuality, racism, speciesism, consumerism, and of course several elements of Christian theology. In all of these, even when I didn't agree with his perspective (I am, after all, a Christian), I found him to be creative and often very subtle. The Messianic overtones, especially in the finale of season 3, were very thought provoking. It makes the show rewarding for those of us who love the show for more than the scary monsters.

Finally we come to the characters. As I mentioned above, I was hooked because of Rose Tyler. She is simply the best. Then came along Captain Jack. Then Mickey and even Jackie turned things around. Next season we got Martha, and then Donna... Davies had a knack for writing excellent, deep characters. They felt like real people. You became attached to them. I cried at the end of season 2 when Rose got stuck in the parallel world. I cried again when she stayed behind at the end of season 4. I felt terrible for Donna's loss of her memory. Moffat hit his home run with Rory. It's not just the main characters who have been great. Who could forget Wilfred, Craig, or Brian?

The classic series has had its fair share too. Of the non-primary companions, the Brigadier towers above them all. He had such a good heart and provided his fair share of comedy. You always knew that you could count on him. I grew attached to several of the companions too, in different ways. Ace showed how a companion could carry the show, paving the way for Rose. Her shortcomings made you love her. The way the Doctor treated her made you want to protect her. On the other end of the scale was the sweetness of someone like Jo Grant. She was the perfect sidekick for the Third Doctor. While a bit weak, over time she won your heart. The companions are so effective because they are, for the most part, so normal. They give us a gateway into the action allowing us to feel as if we are a part of things. Particularly in the case of the Davies era, I feel like that was the point, to inspire us through them to live a good life and make a difference.

So this is why I love Doctor Who. To me it has everything a show needs to be a top-notch show. I like Doctor Who because it matters. And because I believe it makes the world a better and more entertaining place.