Wow, so this review took a lot longer than I expected. It also ended up being a lot longer than I expected! But it’s worth it. I’ve already started watching Series 2, with David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor, but don’t hold your horses for that review. It’ll take me a little while to finish watching it, and probably as long to write as this one.
Series Title: Doctor Who
Season: Series 1
Original Air Date: March 26, 2005 – June 18, 2005
Length: 13 episodes, 45 minutes each
Writers: See individual episodes
Lead Actors: Christopher Eccleston (The Ninth Doctor), Billie Piper (Rose Tyler), John Barrowman (Jack Harkness), Noel Clarke (Mickey)
Content Advisory: Between PG and PG-13 level violence, very little blood, but some very weird or horrific stuff implied (lots of deaths by gruesome creatures, aliens in human skins, etc.). Also, one bisexual character (Captain Jack) who sometimes flirts with other men.
Spoiler-free Synopsis: The Doctor, an alien Time Lord with the most advanced time-traveling spaceship in the universe (the TARDIS, which looks on the outside like a 1950’s-era London Police Call Box), recruits 19 year-old Rose Tyler as his companion to travel time and space fighting aliens, saving the world, and meeting Charles Dickens (among other adventures).
Reason for Watching: It’s a staple of sci-fi geek culture. I’ve lots of friends who love it and finally decided to see what all the fuss was about.
Reason for Finishing Season: BEST. SHOW. THIS. SIDE. OF. FIREFLY. (and more satisfying because after 6 seasons it’s still going)
Episode Re-watchability: Every single episode I could rewatch again many times and have lots of fun with.
Recommendation: Yes, for basically anyone who likes sci-fi or funny adventure TV shows. This is one of the few shows I think I actually want to own.
The Doctor: Do you wanna come with me? ‘Cause if you do then I should warn you, you’re gonna see all sorts of things. Ghosts from the past. Aliens from the future. The day the Earth died in a ball of flame. It won’t be quiet, it won’t be safe, and it won’t be calm. But I’ll tell you what it will be: The trip of a lifetime!
Okay, so who out there doesn’t know the basics of Doctor Who? It’s to British pop culture what Star Trek is to American pop culture. The original series, which ran from 1963 to 1989, was renown for goofy, energetic stories told with dodgy production values but lots of wit and heart. Then, in 2005, they premiered Series 1 of the “new” Doctor Who, with much better special effects and a more modern energy level. A good thing about the new show’s premise is that it is not a “reboot.” It’s a direct continuation of the original series, within the same continuity, and (presumably) the same canon material. The brilliant thing about the Doctor is that every so often he “sheds” his skin for a new physical appearance, allowing the character to be recast with a new actor whenever the show needs it. It’s part of his alien DNA. So unlike James Bond, who keeps changing actors and ages with no in-world explanation, the Doctor can rationally explain why every so often he looks completely different. He’s the same person, but the change of physical appearance also tends to bring about a change in certain personality quirks. It’s absolutely brilliant! This means that Christopher Eccleston, the Ninth Doctor, is still canonically playing the same person as William Hartnell, who played the First Doctor in 1963. And it makes sense! Sort of. Enough. I think it’s brilliant.
It should also be noted that Doctor Who may have the most perfect storytelling device ever. The fast-and-loose way it plays with the notion of time-and-space travel means that it can literally tell any kind of story it wants to, set anywhere, at any time. Want to watch The End of the Earth? Zip ahead 5 billion years in the future! Want alien ghosts threatening to invade Victorian-era Wales? The Doctor will save us! Want to fight gas-mask wearing zombies in 1940’s London as the Luftwaffe bombs the city? Why not, somebody has to! The show filled me with giddy childlike delight from the opening adventure to the last words of the finale.
The Doctor: Fantastic!
Clive: Just ‘the Doctor,’ always ‘the Doctor.’ The Doctor is a legend woven throughout history. When disaster comes, he’s there. He brings a storm in his wake and he has one constant companion: death.
While the 14 episodes of Series 1 do have a loose underlying “myth arc,” what really holds them together are not a plot, but Christopher Eccleston’s performance. I’ve heard it said that “your first Doctor will always be your favorite.” Though I have seen a few Tennant episodes as of this writing (and love his take on the character), the adage has held true. Eccleston is amazing. He’s just as funny and quirky as I expected the Doctor to be, but brings his own twists to the basic personality template. His lanky silhouette, with close-cropped hair and a long black coat, is appropriate for a man who is rumored to be “a legend woven throughout history.”
He is also, in many ways, a warrior, and a manly one at that. He has witnessed genocides of entire alien species, including his own, and has lived through many other horrible events. As the last of the Time Lords, he carries this huge weight with him wherever and whenever he goes. He laughs while in mortal danger, quips with bad puns and has a gleefully wacky grin, but never forgets his moral responsibility to save lives and ensure justice wherever he can. Eccleston nails this part of the Doctor. He’s tough, he’s seen and caused death, and yet he resolutely avoids angst. He’s the moral center of the show, always looking at the big picture and rarely letting his emotions overtake his reason.
Sometimes his weakness is appearing too cold, to the irritation of his human companions, but the moments where his true feelings do boil over are made glorious by Eccleston. His rage at the evil Daleks is terrifying, his protectiveness of Rose is genuinely touching, and his rare moments of pure, unbridled joy are absolutely electrifying. In my thoughts on each episode below, I will try to spotlight such moments.
Special mention should also go to the TARDIS itself, which is certainly a vital character. The most advanced space-timeship in existence, it has a mysterious beating heart that even the Doctor doesn’t fully understand. Its engines radiate with gold energy, making it seem like a living thing. Just standing near it allows it to psychically invade your head, translating all languages for you, and possibly doing other things as well. Make no mistake — it’s not some kind of robot or computer, like HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s much more mysterious, and possibly alive, than that.
Rose (played by Billie Piper) is the primary companion for the Doctor in Series 1, although they are joined on a few of their journeys by some other folks. She’s the only primary companion I’m familiar with thus far, so I can’t compare her to the others. But I like her. Despite being very often in danger and needing to get rescued, she avoids the “damsel in distress” cliché. I mean, everyone who travels with the Doctor will need frequent saving by him, it just comes with the territory! But it was neat to see her grow braver and more resourceful, even on occasion saving the Doctor’s own life. By Episode 7, she’s comfortable enough to act independently of the Doctor, not needing to be hand-held all the time.
She’s also very much portrayed as a “regular” person. When the Doctor makes a joke funny enough for the audience to laugh at, she’ll laugh too, and it always seems genuine, not forced. If he makes a bad pun on purpose, she’ll groan. And while some have complained that the show spends too much time looking at how her long absences affect her family back home, I actually like that subplot. It keeps her human and relatable, and allows the series to explore the consequences of the Doctor’s actions. Rose is not always the most sensitive girl, but she’s lively, compassionate, and somewhat reasonable. She also has good chemistry with Eccleston.
Her main faults are insensitivity and an exaggerated weakness for cute guys who flirt with her. She swoons over all sorts of transparently shallow men, and treats horribly the one man (other than the Doctor) who deeply loves her to the point of commitment, her semi-ex-boyfriend Mickey. This is probably the main reason a lot of fans hate her so much; she is pretty darn selfish, when you get down to it. She’ll sacrifice to save the Doctor, but generally gets more consideration and love from the people in her life than she gives back.
The other companion who stays around for a bit is Captain Jack Harkness, introduced in Episode 1.8 “The Empty Child.” I’ll discuss him more when I discuss that episode below.
[MINOR SPOILERS; that is, I won’t reveal any major twists or how the major problems are solved. But you will learn who some of the secret villains are, and such.]
EPISODE 1: “Rose”
Written By: Russell T. Davies
Synopsis: “Rose Tyler is just an ordinary shop worker living an ordinary life in 21st century Britain. But that life is turned upside down when a strange man calling himself The Doctor drags her into an alien invasion attempt!”
This was a good representative first episode, especially for someone like me who was unfamiliar with the way the show operates. The plot is a fun combination of serious and goofy, with aliens trying to invade earth by literally bringing all things plastic to life. It begins by establishing the simple routine of Rose’s life as she works at a clothing department store, and then mysteriously traps her inside the store after closing. Suddenly the mannequins are coming to life and chasing her with murderous intent, while she’s both bewildered and terrified, until suddenly the Doctor grabs her hand (a brilliant way to introduce him to us), tells her to run with him, and then…they’re off! There is genuine drama as the mannequin-zombies break out into the streets and begin killing people, while being nearly indestructible themselves, but in case you make the mistake of taking the show too seriously…they’re mannequin-zombies, for crying out loud! Plus, since the aliens are manipulating everything plastic, you even get such goofiness as a streetside trash can/bin “eating” Rose’s whining boyfriend (don’t worry, he gets better. In a number of ways.). We get to see how focused the Doctor gets when he’s saving the world, how cavalier and off-the-cuff he is, and it’s loads of fun to watch.
In the end, when they’ve ended the alien threat together, he finally acknowledges Rose’s usefulness and asks her if she wants to adventure through time with him. She pauses for a moment, as her clingy puppy-dog boyfriend looks on in dismay, and then runs off into the TARDIS with the Doctor. They get inside, and the time machine is making all sorts of neat sci-fi-ish noises as it starts to lift off, and the Doctor asks her where she wants to go. She doesn’t know. They can go anywhere, anywhen, at all! And thus the premise and tone of the show is very nicely explained.
Also, the Doctor’s sonic-screwdriver is introduced here. It’s possibly the single most useful gadget in existence, and completely non-violent (though in a later episode they wish it was a weapon!).
Rose: Hold on, if you’re an alien, why do you sound like you’re from the north?
The Doctor: Lots of planets have a north!
E.G. Wolverson @ The History of the Doctor
EPISODE 2: “The End of the World”
Written By: Russell T. Davies
Synopsis: “The Doctor takes Rose on her first trip through time to the year five billion, where they join a group of alien delegates preparing to watch the Earth being consumed by the sun. But there’s a traitor on board who’s plotting to kill them all.”
This second episode wastes no time in establishing the basic formula of a Doctor Who episode. They land on Platform One, a huge layered space station orbiting Earth, which reappears in many later episodes. Originally there merely to observe the event and give Rose her first contact with other alien lifeforms, they soon notice something fishy going on (one wonders how they can tell, with all the bizarre stuff already going on!) and must save the day, with much death-defying and the occasional noble sacrifice by a guest character.
I liked seeing the many kinds of goofy and inventive aliens. It’s all weird, quite illogical, and mostly very fun. The evil conspiracy here doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but is sufficient and entertaining. It’s been almost two months since I’ve seen it, so I’m not sure how it holds up to the others, but I remember it as fairly solid.
The Doctor: [opening Rose’s phone to modify it] Tell you what. With a bit of jiggery pokery—
Rose: Is that a technical term, “jiggery pokery”?
The Doctor: Yeah, I got a first in jiggery pokery, what about you?
Rose: [playing along] Nah, I failed hullabaloo.
E.G. Wolverson @ The History of the Doctor
EPISODE 3: “The Unquiet Dead”
Written By: Mark Gatiss
Synopsis: “The Doctor has great expectations for his latest adventure when he and Rose join forces with Charles Dickens to investigate a mysterious plague of zombies.”
This episode contains one of my favorite quotes, when the great Charles Dickens, observing supernatural/alien phenomena in the middle of a snowy Cardiff on Christmas Eve, exclaims, “What the Shakespeare is going on?” Priceless.
However, this episode has noticeably less humor than the others. There are plenty of good lines, still, but the overall tone is a bit more somber, and the pace slower. When during a séance the Doctor quips that he “always likes a happy medium!”, the pun is a welcome bit of fun in a scene that is otherwise fairly serious (and a bit scary for younger viewers). The plot is fairly standard zombies-with-aliens, but it also includes a nice, un-melodramatic emotional moment between Rose and the Doctor when they think they are going to die. Also, it’s fun to discover that the Doctor is a major fan of Dickens, totally geeking out when he realizes who he’s talking to.
Also, it’s one of the best-looking episodes, due to the wintry Victorian setting. Great costumes, and all takes place at night, with glowing lanterns and a light cover of snow.
The Doctor: I saw the Fall of Troy! World War Five! I was pushing boxes at the Boston Tea Party! Now I’m gonna die in a dungeon…. [disgustedly] in Cardiff!
EPISODE 4 & 5: “Aliens of London” and “World War Three”
Written By: Russell T. Davies
Synopsis: “The Doctor returns Rose to her own time – well, sort of – but her family reunion is ruined when a spaceship crashes in the middle of London. What is the origin of the spaceship, and why has the Prime Minister disappeared in this time of crisis?…[For Ep. 5] And how can The Doctor save the planet when he’s trapped inside a locked room?”
Farting aliens in 10 Downing Street. That’s where you have to start when discussing this two-parter. These two definitely are some of the goofiest, and weakest, episodes, but I still felt that it made tired clichés fun. Plot holes gape larger here, even by the show’s standards, and your liking of the episodes may depend on whether or not that matters for you. The Doctor and Rose keep admirably straight faces throughout, except when they’re cracking in-jokes about British pop culture that went over my head.
Another thing I liked was how they began to show the effect Rose’s absence has on her loved ones. Intending to return to London a mere twelve hours after she left, they accidentally come back twelve months later, and her mum and semi-ex-boyfriend Mickey have been worried and distraught for her the whole time. Mickey was kind of pathetic in Episode 1, but here he is actually given some genuine pathos, really seeming to care for Rose and wanting her back. He didn’t give up hope, but continued to search for her. When Rose’s mum is in great danger while alone at home, he goes to save her in spite of his own fear. And later, in the climax, he exercises impressive tech skills while hacking the Royal Navy’s missile-control system (seemingly no harder to do than play a casual video game).
A few things did annoy me a bit. There’s an awful lot of standing and gaping as the aliens threaten people. Shouldn’t the onlookers (the Doctor included) be screaming, attacking, or going for help? This is one cliché I really do get tired of, especially when it leads to people getting attacked or killed because they just stood still and stared for two whole minutes as the alien walks slowly towards them. It’s just pointless, really. Other episodes also do this, but not quite as bad.
There are also a number of good scenes that address Rose and the Doctor’s growing relationship. The opening one shows them relaxing together outside, discussing the life they lead. A later one during the climax hints at just how much the Doctor has come to care for her.
The Doctor: [at end of episode] Well, you can stay there if you want! But right now there’s this plasma storm brewing in the Horsehead Nebula. Fires are burning ten million miles wide! I could fly the TARDIS right into the heart of it and ride the shockwave all the way out. Hurtle right across the sky and end up anywhere! Your choice.
EPISODE 6: “Dalek”
Written By: Robert Shearman
Synopsis: “Traveling to 2012, the Doctor becomes the main exhibit at a mysterious underground alien museum in Utah and meets The Man Who Owns The Internet. But there’s something else in there with them – the last member of the most vicious, evil species in the galaxy, and the ancient enemy of the Time Lords, a Dalek! If The Doctor can’t stop it, the whole world may be destroyed!”
This episode contains some of Eccleston’s most intense scenes, as he comes face-to-face with a Dalek. The Doctor thought them extinct, and that the universe was better off for it, so this revelation really shakes him up. His first reaction, when he thinks he is suddenly trapped with it, is to scramble away, bang on the door, and scream to be let out. That’s right – the Doctor cries for help. This is what made me sit up and take notice.
See, if he hadn’t reacted that way, the Daleks would never have been scary. Look at their design and be honest with yourself – they look silly. Just plain ridiculous, goofy, and cheesy; it’s a slow-moving tin bin on treads with one slow-firing laser and one sucker (which it uses, predictably, to suck). And it can levitate (veeeeery slooooowly) up stairs. (O the agility! Whatever shall we do now?) The Daleks were squid-like aliens who built these robots as personal tanks for themselves, but honestly, they probably picked the least convenient or effective vehicle design ever. Artistically they look neat and retro, but also very low-tech compared to what you’d expect from an advanced alien race that destroyed the Time Lords and constantly cheats annihilation. The show has to try extra hard to make them intimidating. Most of the time when I see them, I chuckle, even roll my eyes. But I must admit, this time, their first appearance in the new series, I believed the legends of terror surrounding them, just a little. All due to Eccleston’s performance.
But even that scene is trumped by Eccleston’s first truly amazing scene: the conversation with the Dalek by live video later in the episode. We’ve never seen the Ninth Doctor so mad – I mean really mad! Practically foaming at the mouth with rage, telling the Dalek it needs to die, that the only good thing it is capable of is suicide. He screams at the TV screen, taunting it, reviling its sense of duty to its dead race, and spittle actually comes out of his mouth. His eyes burn with hatred. And yet, somehow, he doesn’t go over-the-top. He remains utterly sincere and true to himself. In these kinds of scenes you never catch him winking at the camera as if to say “See? I’m acting angry!” Instead, you shrink back into your seat a little bit. He’s scary, even while we root for him. We’ve caught glimpses of this kind of burning darkness in the Ninth Doctor before, so it’s not inconsistent for it to come out in full force here.
(A good clip of this scene is found here, beginning @ 7:30. Also, that fellow’s review is pretty spot-on. [fair warning: video includes some bleeped-out language])
The American magnate Van Statten, who owns the Internet, is only slightly less flat than the standard ruthless-reactionary-capitalist-dictator stereotype, in the sense that he’s not actually evil. He has a difficult time comprehending the sheer cold-bloodedness of the Dalek, even as the Doctor tries to explain that a Dalek’s only goal in life is to kill everything not of its species. His mistakes lead to most of the episode’s problems (well, Rose’s mistakes too), but he’s never truly a villain. He ends up working with the Doctor for sheer practicality, because the Dalek is destroying everyone it finds and only the Doctor knows anything about how to fight it.
Also, this episode introduces the character of Adam, who ends up joining the Doctor as a second companion for one episode. I’m glad it was no longer than that, because he’s a very unlikable character. In this episode he is merely a bland, boring side-character, an employee of Van Statten who helps them fight for their lives, and with whom Rose shamelessly flirts. He’s kind of a goody two-shoes, and seems to pay too much attention to Rose’s body, considering the danger they’re all in. I wasn’t happy when they brought him into the TARDIS at the end, but…well, I’ll talk more about him below.
The episode also questions the Doctor’s authority to demand the death of the Dalek, and here it does fall into a fairly ridiculous pacifistic trap. By the end Rose is trying to get the Doctor to show mercy, claiming that if he kills it he will be just as bad. Which is rubbish, of course, since the Dalek has been established as an irrational killing machine which will always lie and manipulate in order to get its way; and its way is always the destruction of everything non-Dalek. It has slaughtered dozens of humans already, and almost killed Rose numerous times, only sparing her life to use her as hostage to keep the Doctor back. Additionally, it can’t be peacefully apprehended. It has the capability to destroy millions of people if allowed to live. If there is one creature the Doctor is allowed to kill, it’s this one.
So the episode’s values are a little off, but the ending is quite satisfying. Overall, it’s one of the best episodes.
The Doctor: What’s the nearest town?
Van Statten: Salt Lake City.
The Doctor: Population?
Van Statten: One million.
The Doctor: All dead. If the Dalek gets out, it’ll murder every living creature; that’s all it wants!
Van Statten: [almost hysterical] But why would it do that!?
The Doctor: Because it honestly believes they should die. Human beings are different, and anything different is wrong. It’s the ultimate in racial cleansing, and you, Van Statten, you’ve let it loose!
Simmons: What’re you going to do? Sucker me to death? [Dalek extends its suction arm and suckers him to death]
EPISODE 7 “The Long Game”
Written By: Russell T. Davies
Synopsis: “The Doctor and Rose arrive in the year 200,000 to see The Fourth Great and Bountiful Human Empire. But something has gone wrong – someone is holding back the development of mankind. Who could have done this? And why?”
I’m glad that Adam is shown to be a stupid opportunistic jerk, because he really annoyed me. Now, to be fair, on a basic level his actions in this episode are understandable. It’s his first trip in the TARDIS, he’s totally new to this whole time-travel thing, and has just been shown this incredible vision of the future. He knows he’s a genius, and he wants to bring something back from it. He tries to find some info about future tech to bring back, that might make him rich in “2012” Earth. And the Doctor did give him loose instructions to explore Satellite Five. (The Doctor always seems to give vague instructions) But still, he makes a lot of stupid decisions.
The main attraction in this episode is Simon Pegg’s guest-starring role as The Editor of Satellite Five. That’s right, we’re back on Satellite Five, only this time something different is going wrong. [EDIT: I have been informed that this is the first appearance of Satellite Five, and that “The End of the World” takes place on Platform One, a different location–although they look extremely similar! Mea culpa.] And what that is, I’m not going to tell you. The plot is high concept, and even very hard sci-fi in nature, despite Doctor Who normally being very soft sci-fi. However, it has a few too many holes. Why, in the year 200,000 AD, do people pay with these credit stick-things that are bigger and less convenient to carry than modern credit cards?
This episode also calls more attention to some of the paradoxes of the main character. Is the Doctor omniscient? He says that “history has gone wrong” because the Fourth Great and Bountiful Human Empire isn’t going the way it’s supposed to; therefore, he has to fix it and put humanity back on the right track. Which is kind of strange to think about, because how does the Doctor decide what direction history is “supposed” to go? Sure he has seen the future before, but doesn’t that make it fate, and unchangeable? If it isn’t fate, if certain events could (hypothetically) create alternate timelines, why isn’t this “stunted” Human Empire just one of those? If it’s an alternate timeline, than the Doctor’s intent to “fix” it is rubbish; he can change it further, but there’s nothing to say what that history should be like. And speaking of all this, how could history be changed without intervention from time-travelers? (since the Holy Jagofress-whatever seemingly changed human history without time-travel) Ultimately the show hand waves all this. We’re just supposed to accept that the Doctor is always right, and…well, fine, perhaps it would be too difficult to address those questions in a semi-kid’s show. It’d be nicer if they’d managed to, but I won’t hold it against them. The show has had other characters challenge the Doctor and accuse him of trying to be godlike, so maybe it will later explore this element in greater depth. That would be nice. But for now, I accept this paradox, for the sake of fun.
The Doctor: The thing is, Adam, time travel is like visiting Paris. You can’t just read the guidebook, you’ve got to throw yourself in! Eat the food, use the wrong verbs, get charged double and end up kissing complete strangers! [beat] Or is that just me?
EPISODE 8: “Father’s Day”
Written By: Paul Cornell
Synopsis: “The Doctor takes Rose back to the day her father died, but when she tries to save him she creates a paradox that damages time and space. As the universe starts to come apart, the monstrous Reapers – creatures that feed on time distortions – begin to consume the Earth. And this time The Doctor might not be able to save the day!”
This is the episode where emotion begins to more directly involve Rose and the Doctor, a trend that probably reaches its apex in the next two-parter. Here we finally find out what happened to Rose’s dad, and why her mum has had to raise her all these years. It’s natural that Rose would want to at least meet him, even though the Doctor warns her that it might not be the wisest thing. It’s not forbidden, he says, but “be careful what you wish for.” The paradox of Rose saving her father when her father was supposed to die creates a “wound in time,” and these huge gargoyle-like creatures appear to destroy everything, to “cleanse the wound.” They’re invincible. Doctor says that there used to be “rules” to prevent this sort of thing, that his people, the Time Lords, would have stopped it. So you get the sense that, because the Time Lords are gone, there is a certain amount of anarchy growing in the space-time continuum. At the very least, it’s easier for things to go wrong now. It’s an intriguing look at the show’s backstory.
The show isn’t super logical in the way it treats how a person can effect the past, but uses just enough logic to get by. Plot holes are minimized because the right emotional or adventurous notes are usually hit. I actually kind of like how it’s willing to allow the past to be changed in small ways. Not everything has to be (or can be) returned exactly to the way it was before they tamper with things. So even though Rose’s dad does eventually have to die by getting hit by the car, he doesn’t have to die alone like he did originally. The show doesn’t answer whether or not Rose changed her own actual past or created an alternate timeline. It seems to be the latter, because her memories are always her original ones – they don’t seem to change based on how the past changes.
It’s a touching, well-written episode. I like Rose’s dad. He has his faults, most definitely, but he’s no idiot and he does love his family deeply. More than any character we’ve met so far, he feels like a real person. His dialogue is written to suit his character rather than to provide quotable one-liners. When he does become a hero at the end, it’s the series’ most poignant and satisfying moment…until Episode 10. Also the idea that one “unimportant” person’s life is actually so important that its derailment creates the whole wound in time thingy. That’s fun too.
The Doctor: The past is another country. 1987’s just the Isle of Wight.
EPISODES 9 & 10: “The Empty Child” and “The Doctor Dances”
Written By: Steven Moffat
Synopsis: “The emergency signal from an out-of-control timeship lands the Doctor and Rose in the middle of London in World War II. As Rose grows close to a mysterious American named Jack, The Doctor pursues a ghostly, deformed child through the fog.”
These two are my favorite episodes in Series 1, especially “The Doctor Dances.” It all takes place in 1941’s London during a German air raid at night, and looks absolutely beautiful, both the special effects and the art direction. The stylish highpoint of the series, and, but for “The Parting of the Ways,” the most emotional.
There’s great buildup in “The Empty Child,” as it takes its time to establish the grim, tense setting. Air raid sirens are blaring about the city as spotlights try to mark out enemy planes for the anti-aircraft guns. Bombs drop, and most people huddle inside and try to carry on with their lives. The TARDIS appears in a backalley, following the distress signal from another timeship. As Rose and the Doctor disembark, they have a minor argument: the Doctor intends to walk around asking questions about a mysterious UFO crash-landing, while Rose thinks he should have some gadget to do a “scan for alien tech.” They split ways.
The Doctor stumbles upon the “ghostly, deformed child” of the synopsis and connects him to a teenage girl named Nancy who is taking care of homeless orphans by stealing food from middle-class dinner tables. I hesitate to reveal more of this plot, as it contains lots of eerie happenings and subtle, but vital, revelations. There is fence-hopping, and secret hideouts, and disconnected phones ringing, and haunting voices in the fog. And that strange, gas-mask-wearing child wandering through the streets, saying only “Are you my mummy?”, and causing terror for unknown reasons in the other street children. It’s wonderfully atmospheric and spooky – a good Halloween episode.
Rose also runs across the ghostly child, and climbs to a rooftop in an attempt to save him. The child disappears, though, and through a harrowing series of events Rose eventually finds herself hanging from a hot air balloon hundreds of feet above London, as the Luftwaffe drops bombs all around her. She gets rescued by a blue tractor beam from the timeship of an American, Captain Jack Harkness. He’s handsome, suave, cheeky, full of glamorous alien technology, and, most importantly, he’s a time-traveler! This is the first time the show has confirmed that other people than Time Lords can time-travel. Jack is from the 51st century, and when Rose tells him about the mysterious distress signal they followed to get there, he promptly does a scan for alien tech. “Finally, a real professional!” Rose gushes, being immediately smitten by Jack’s obvious flirting. Of course, dancing on top of a sleek alien warship that’s hovering next to Big Ben doesn’t hurt. I didn’t initially like Jack; both his flirtatiousness and sometimes-flaunted sexuality are irritating and immoral. But at least his apparent shallowness and flirtations don’t last too long, and he’s useful in a fight. When he meets the Doctor, he becomes more honest, and, through the course of this adventure, joins them on the rest of their travels until Episode 13 “The Parting of the Ways.”
The subplot about the girl Nancy and the orphans she takes care of is worthy of its own feature-length movie or novel, and even without the time-traveling drama would be quite emotional. Props to the children for being excellent little actors, and for the actress playing Nancy for projecting so much stoic maturity that just barely manages to mask deep hurt and love. No other guest characters have made me care so much.
How these two strands converge I cannot, must not, tell you; firstly, because it is brilliant, the best writing of the series, and secondly, because there is too much for me to sum up. “The Empty Child” expertly lays the eerie foundation for what proves to be a fascinating and very emotional climax in “The Doctor Dances.” And that climax…what a scene! It delivers one of the best, and most convincing, happy endings that I have seen in science fiction. Eccleston’s face when he realizes that he can save everyone, really save everyone who they already thought was lost, is a joy to behold. He’s ecstatic, mad with bliss and life-saving power. The moment sends shivers up your spine. It’s positively electric. This is the moment that all following Doctors will be judged by. He’s a warrior and a savior both at once; complete, focused, and wonderful.
The Doctor: Amazing.
Nancy: What is?
The Doctor: 1941. Right now, not very far from here, the German war machine is rolling up the map of Europe. Country after country, falling like dominoes. Nothing can stop it, nothing. Until one tiny, damp little island says “No. No, not here.” A mouse in front of a lion. You’re amazing, the lot of you. I don’t know what you did to Hitler, but you frighten the hell out of me, go on, do what you’ve got to do, save the world.
Rose: Look at you, beaming away like you’re Father Christmas!
The Doctor: Who says I’m not, red-bicycle-when-you-were-twelve?
Rose: [shocked] What?
The Doctor: And everybody lives, Rose! Everybody lives! I need more days like this! Go on, ask me anything; I’m on fire!
EPISODE 11: “Boom Town”
Written By: Russell T. Davies
Synopsis: “Stopping off in present-day Cardiff to recharge the TARDIS, The Doctor, Rose and Jack encounter an old foe in the midst of hatching a scheme that could tear apart the entire planet.”
Since this episode relies heavily on the events of some earlier episodes, I am unfortunately prevented from saying much about the plot. It is something of a breather from the WWII two-parter, much humbler and more personal in scale. It gets overshadowed in my memory by the astounding events of the previous two and following two episodes, but on reflection it really is a tightly-written story that addresses some deeper questions that were only tangentially raised before.
Mickey, Rose’s semi-ex-boyfriend, joins them in the TARDIS and finally gets to call her out for how terribly she’s treated him. The “Aliens of London” and “World War Three” two-parter gave Mickey some dignity and pathos, and this episode finally gives him some spine. She ran out on him with no notice, goes traveling across the universe, has no commitment to him, but won’t give him the closure of actually breaking up. She keeps expecting to pop back into his life, kiss him on the cheek and ask him for a favor. Does she have any idea what that does to him? He tells her he still loves her, but he can’t live his life waiting for her to randomly appear and never commit. It puts his own life on hold. Rose can’t deny her actions, but unfortunately she’s unwilling to confront her own problems. She’s sorry Mickey is hurt, but barely even legitimizes his concerns. She doesn’t acknowledge her culpability or try to find a way to solve the problem. All he wants, really, is closure. Ideally he would want her to give up the Doctor and stay with him, but failing that, he at least wants freedom to continue with his life without waiting up for her. He wants her heart completely, or he wants to get his own heart back. But Rose, tragically, is still too immature, and won’t give him either.
The other part of the plot, the main one, in fact, is more lighthearted but no less interesting. Once again, the Doctor’s authority to take lives is questioned, and quite fiercely. It is a little disturbing to think that he is essentially an alien übermensch who breaks human laws without a second thought. Our only consolation that the Doctor is truly a good guy is the rigidity of his ethics. I do not argue that the Doctor is perfect, far from it, but it’s clear that if he didn’t have an absolute set of ethical values that he knew were more important than himself, he would be the most evil of villains, and the universe of Doctor Who would descend into chaos.
The central set piece of this episode is not a battle or a chase, but rather a quiet candlelit dinner between the Doctor and his deadly enemy (no, not a Dalek). They discuss his authority, the nature of crime and justice, and the dialogue is intelligent, witty, and occasionally humorous. Eccleston and his co-star play the scene with expert timing and tone, dueling with words and the occasional secreted poison. It’s an excellent piece of writing, and rather daring for a colorful adventure show that needs to keep the limited attention spans of children and various sci-fi fans.
Also, for some reason, the Ninth Doctor keeps calling Mickey by the name Ricky, despite his protestation. The Doctor says that’s his “real” name, but whether he’s merely teasing Mickey (which is entirely possible) or it’s more significant goes unexplained. Unless the Series 2 two-parter “Rise of the Cybermen” and “The Age of Steel” are intended to comment on it…
Mickey: [after the Doctor explains why the TARDIS resembles a Police Public Call Box] But that’s what I meant. There’s no police boxes any more, so doesn’t it get noticed?
The Doctor: Ricky, let me tell you something about the human race. You put a mysterious blue box slap-bang in the middle of town, what do they do? Walk past it. Now stop your nagging. Let’s go and explore.
EPISODE 12: “Bad Wolf”
Written By: Russell T. Davies
1.12 Synopsis: “Jack, The Doctor and Rose have been kidnapped and forced to play terrible and deadly games. But what happens to the bodies of the murdered contestants? And what sinister plot do the games hide?”
“Bad Wolf” is a fine episode, as I remember, but, like its predecessor, gets overshadowed by the series finale. Much of it seems more tailored to British audiences, with its parodies of British reality TV, and while I got the gist of it (American TV shows aren’t much different), a number of references went over my head. All three of our heroes appear to have been plucked involuntarily from the TARDIS by some teleportation force of the far human future and placed in versions of reality shows that have predictably deadly twists.
Here’s a fascinating detail: this deadly future is actually the Fourth Great and Bountiful Human Empire, fifty years after the Doctor and Rose supposedly saved it in Episode 7 “The Long Game.” Not only that, but it’s gone all rotten again because of the Doctor’s actions! This was a twist I didn’t expect. See, in Episode 7, Earth society was dominated by one giant media station based on Satellite Five that controlled and filtered every bit of news before it reached the populace. It was controlled by a sinister force that sought the enslavement of humanity. The Doctor destroyed that force and the company, and then took off in the TARDIS for his next adventure. But in this episode, we learn that because he destroyed the world’s only source of news (however tainted), progress on Earth halted and society suffered. The deadly reality TV shows seem to have been a way to cope with that. Of course there is far more to the story than just that, but the idea that some of the Doctor’s rasher actions come back to bite him is interesting.
Dalek: [glances at Rose] We have your associate. You will obey or she will be exterminated!
The Doctor: No.
[Pause. The Daleks glance at each other in confusion.]
Dalek: Explain yourself.
The Doctor: I said no.
Dalek: What is the meaning of this negative?
The Doctor: It means no.
Dalek: But she will be destroyed!
The Doctor: No! ‘Cause this is what I’m going to do: I’m going to rescue her! I’m going to save Rose Tyler from the middle of the Dalek fleet! And then I’m going to save the Earth! And then, just to finish off, I’m going to wipe every last stinking Dalek out of the sky!
Dalek: But you have no weapons! No defenses! No plan!
The Doctor: Yeah! And doesn’t that scare you to death? Rose?
Rose: Yes, Doctor?
The Doctor: I’m coming to get you.
EPISODE 13: “The Parting of the Ways”
Written By: Russell T. Davies
1.13 Synopsis: “The Dalek fleet is poised to destroy the Earth and only The Doctor, Rose, and Jack can stop them. But will it mean the death of the Doctor?”
“The Parting of the Ways” is as much a masterpiece of sci-fi television as any I’ve seen, worthy of comparison with the best Firefly episodes. Necessarily melancholy, because we know that it’s Eccleston’s last appearance as the Doctor. Much as I love his successor, David Tennant, I miss Eccleston’s brilliantly intense performances. But what a send-off! It’s truly magnificent, the perfect way to end the arcs of Series 1.
Ah…the very nature of a series finale means that I can’t talk much about it without spoiling it. So I will make this brief. Heroes abound: Jack becomes quite useful, Rose gets to act more selflessly, Mickey proves his loyalty, and even Rose’s mum has a chance to shine. The TARDIS itself is a hero. The Daleks are scary again. And the Doctor’s last words are absolutely, utterly perfect. Amazing. I get chills thinking about it.
And…since I don’t want to spoil anything…that is all.
Oh! And David Tennant shows up for the final 15 seconds, as the Doctor regenerates into his Tenth body. There’s a hilarious line about new teeth feeling weird, a quirkily precise pronunciation of “Barcelona,” and then, BAM, cut to credits! Excellent transition to Series 2.
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