Being a Doctor Who fan now for 34 years, it is one of my consuming passions – for good or ill, or sometimes both. As a teenager, like many others, I made copious lists and notes about the stories, the Doctors, the monsters, the novelisations… you get the idea.
This year, with a new Doctor due to hit our TV screens later in August, I’ve taken it upon myself to watch – in transmission order – all episodes of 21st century Doctor Who and its spin-offs, Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures, and review them in retrospect. Already it’s provided a few surprises – some pleasant, some disappointing.
Don’t expect any long dissertations into the merits of the episodes; just pithy and (hopefully) pertinent remarks on each episode. I’ve set myself quite a task – 172 episodes before mid-August. I’ve already made a start, but I’ll be watching at the rate of 12 episodes a week.
So anyway, here we go. From the very beginning in 2005, when Christopher Eccleston was the Doctor and Billie Piper played his new companion, Rose.
The one where Rose is threatened by Autons, meets the Doctor and embarks on a new life of adventure.
Energetic, cheeky – and fast! Russell T Davies is having a ball reinventing Doctor Who for the 21st Century, Eccleston and Piper get it right immediately, although Rose’s swing on the chain looks clumsy. Not sure about the burping wheelie bin either, but still, a promising start.
The one where the Doctor takes Rose to witness the destruction of Earth, only to miss it, thanks to the bitchy trampoline Cassandra.
Davies brings on the aliens in another fun and audacious story showcasing how far aliens have come since 1989. Cassandra is camp, the cooling fan sequence is a bit dodgy, but Piper portrays Rose’s awe perfectly.
The one where the Doctor and Rose meet Charles Dickens and dead bodies are possessed by disembodied gas creatures.
Of course it makes sense: a trip to the future, a trip to the past – that was the format back in 1963 too. Victorian Cardiff works well, there’s a lovely dark, macabre tone here, and a good use of a pre-credit sequence cliffhanger.
The one where the Slitheen try to invade Earth by wearing the skins of dead humans with an easy exit forehead zipper.
The Doctor returns Rose to London and her family, and the template for most contemporary Earth-based stories over the next four years is established. Great use of TV news, a return for UNIT, Jackie and Mickey’s characters are developed and become more loveable, and daring new monsters – even if the difference between the CGI running Slitheen and the cumbersome prosthetic costumes is very marked. The spaceship slicing through Big Ben is memorable for so many reasons. Oh, and Harriet Jones is a wonderful creation. The farting jokes have not dated well though.
The one where the Doctor and Rose come face to face with a lone Dalek.
The Daleks are given a 21st century reworking, and regain their threat and menace – and that’s just with one, imprisoned Dalek! After the fun of the previous story, this is dark, gritty Doctor Who, and really cements this new series’ success.
The one where the TARDIS lands on Satellite Five and discovers the news is being tampered with.
Not a particularly memorable story, but one that begins setting up the season finale. Simon Pegg as the Editor is a little wasted, but Tamsin Greig explaining the info spike Adam (Bruno Langley) has fitted is beautifully deadpan. The Mighty Jagrafess is disappointing.
The one where Rose saves her dad’s life back in 1986.
Given the strong focus Rose’s family is given, it’s no surprise that a visit to the past so she can meet her dead father was going to happen. That doesn’t make it less powerful though. In fact, Father’s Day is understated and a little sombre, but not afraid to address the logistical and emotional complications. The whole cast are in top form. Except for the priest as he struggles with the CGI Reaper.
The one with the gas mask child terrorising wartime London – and Captain Jack, of course.
The cheeky and at times immature tone of the first half of the season gradually morphs into something more adult from Dalek onwards, and while there are still wonderfully silly and funny moments, things start getting more serious and sophisticated, and as a result, what used to be an effects-driven sci-fi series in the 20th century is now remarkably complex, emotional and daring. And it works. Take Nancy’s confrontation with Mr Lloyd, as she calls him on his affair with the butcher – a wonderful moment. Or her role as an unmarried mother in 1941 passing off her son as her younger brother. Or Captain Jack, of course; the flirtatious, fluid 51st century conman. It’s all so masterfully done, no one batted an eyelid. As they shouldn’t. The plaintive calls of ‘Are you my mummy?’ are just as chilling and unnerving as they were on first broadcast.
The one where Margaret Slitheen turns up as the Mayor of Cardiff.
Boom Town is often overlooked as an inconsequential story; a low-budget filler, but I think it’s a lovely, quiet gem of a story. Annette Badlands is fantastic and gives depth to an otherwise cartoonish villain. Her banter with Eccleston over dinner is lots of fun, but dark as well, as she calls the Doctor to account for the consequences of his actions. The whole TARDIS Team – including Mickey – are on top form together.
The one where the TARDIS crew find themselves playing reality TV games for their lives… or are they?
What a confident, brash and audacious finales to Davies’ first season this is. From futuristic send-ups of contemporary TV game shows (although The Weakest Link dates it a bit now) to John Barrowman’s nakedness, the awesome Emperor Dalek and thousands of insane Daleks – so much bigger in scale than anything Classic Doctor Who could ever do. And just as Bad Wolf is explained and various other elements peppered throughout the previous episodes finally pay off, the Doctor regenerates – explosively, like never before, and suddenly there’s David Tennant marvelling at his new teeth and Barcelona. What an emotional roller coaster – and a great end to a wonderful return to our screens.
The one where the Sycorax invade Earth on Christmas Eve while the Doctor recovers from his regeneration.
It could have been really twee; a Doctor Who Christmas Special. But this first of what would become an integral part of the show’s new life get it exactly right. The fusion of fun and fear is great to watch: deadly Santa robots, killer Christmas trees – and Harriet Jones , now Prime Minister. Yes, David Tennant’s first episode as the Doctor sees him out of action for the most part, but when he’s revived – by a thermos of tea, no less – we really see him at his best, all high-speed gabbling, action man without mercy, and a steely fury, most frightening as he takes down Harriet Jones with six words.