The Best and Worst of Doctor Who: The Specials

As we are heading into Series 9, this will be the first of nine posts on, as the title suggest, the best and worst of Doctor Who. For the first post, we are tackling the Specials.

The Best:

The Waters of Mars

One of the creepiest episodes to air, The Waters of Mars is the scariest episode, making water itself the enemy, as well as the Doctor, for messing with history, as he does by saving others here, when they are suppose to die.

The introduction of this episodes companion, Captain Adelaide Brooke, shows us that this isn’t someone that we should trifle with. Once the Doctor arrived, she wants answers, and not taking no for an answer. We are also shown that in this episode, the Tenth Doctor is in an immature state when he states his intention as “fun.”

The Dalek scene in this story used to hark back to Jouney’s End reminds us the inspiring wonder to reach for the stars that the young Adelaide Brooke used to get to Bowie Base One. Deeply inspired, at a time of universal danger across the universe, when all of creation was at stake.

Usually, when the Doctor saves others, this is seen as a heroic act, but in this story, it’s shown to be callous and awful mistake. It’s a humanizing way to portray the Doctor, not a god of the universe, but a flawed person like so many of us.

By giving the crew of Bowie Base One hints to solve problems, as well as tell them that they are suppose to die, the Doctor’s messing around with history as seen in this episode has no bounds. His whole speech on “fixed points in time” to Brooke is no exception to that.

It is this scene that establishes Captain Adelaide Brooke who actually has the gall to stand up to the Tenth Doctor and the decision he made to save them. Few companions have done this, and certainly, when Rose did in Father’s Day, things went wrong (all to placate her status). The unfortunate part is that such a fantastic character quickly went to waste as she commits suicide (note: Huge undermining aspect). None-the-less, Lindsay Duncan did a superb job here.

The Worst:

The Time of the Doctor

The Time of the Doctor is a one of the worst episodes the series has ever produced. The clip above is considered one of the most sexually aggressive scenes in the history of the show, which is saying something for a character who apparently has no sexual interests. No character is spared the embarrassment this episode provides. According to the Whovian Feminism review of Clara in this episode:

Clara’s character served no real purpose in “The Time of the Doctor” and existed mostly as a distraction to the main plot. You literally could have removed her from the entire episode without affecting the overall result.  Imagine the episode without Clara: the Doctor would’ve discovered the signal from Trenzalore, made his way to the planet without distraction, and discovered the Time Lords with Handles’ help. Forced into a stalemate, he would’ve remained there for hundreds of years fighting off his enemies and defending the Time Lords. The only action Clara takes which affects the outcome is when she begs the deus ex machina Time Lords to help the Doctor and grant him another regeneration. Not only did that moment raise a number of frustrating questions (Why didn’t the Doctor just talk to the Time Lords and coordinate a way to have them appear at another crack in a safer location? Since his grave is no longer on Trenzalore, did all the events of Season 7 just not happen?) it literally could’ve been done by any random character. In fact, it might have been more meaningful coming from a citizen of Christmas itself.

It was also a remarkably passive way to affect the plot. Compare Clara’s actions in “The Time of the Doctor” to Rose’s actions in “The Parting of the Ways.” Both Rose and Clara are sent away by the Doctor “for their own safety.” But Rose absorbs the power of the Time Vortex to bring herself back to the Doctor. She actively wields the power of the Vortex to save the Doctor and the Earth, and her actions directly affect the outcome of the episode. In addition, the Doctor is punished by the narrative for denying Rose her agency. Rose only became the Bad Wolf because she was sent away by the Doctor, and when the Bad Wolf begins to kill her the Doctor sacrifices himself to save her life. His death is a direct result of sending Rose away without her consent.

Clara, meanwhile, is sent home without her consent twice. The first time she manages to come back by clinging to the TARDIS, but the second time she is sent back she sits at home and weeps for the Doctor’s impending death. She only returns to the Doctor when Tasha Lem fetches her for the express purpose of providing emotional comfort to the Doctor as he dies. Her one direct action that affects the plot- begging the Time Lords for help- is just begging for someone else to take action to save the Doctor, rather than taking any action herself. It seems as if the only real purpose for Clara being in “The Time of the Doctor” is so that she can cry for the Doctor.

Furthermore, we have a continuation of the same problems from Series 7: Clara lacks any meaningful characterization beyond “flirty girl who fancies the Doctor.” This Christmas episode was the perfect opportunity to build on Clara’s characterization and show her interacting with people other than the Doctor. Yet she received almost no meaningful interaction with her family. In fact, I’m not entirely certain how some of them were even related to her. It’s as if there are no plans for her character now that she’s no longer the “Impossible Girl,” and without that, she has no real defining characteristics.

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Much like many of Moffat’s sexy and feisty female characters, Tasha Lem is no exception. She is sexualized throughout much of this episode, as Whovian Feminism again says:

Nearly every interaction the Doctor has with Tasha is sexualized. Tasha invites the Doctor on board the papal mainframe with a crooked finger and a “come hither” smile. When Tasha, Clara, and the Doctor first meet, Tasha admires the Doctor’s body and asks him to twirl for her; the audience later learns that she is able to see through his holographic clothing at this point. She then brings the Doctor back into her private “chapel” and informs him about the situation on the planet below while attempting to seduce him over a bed-shaped altar, as if the Doctor is suddenly incapable of listening to what a woman in power is saying if she isn’t also seducing him.

At this point, the problem isn’t just that Moffat’s women are all some combination of sarcastic and flirtatious, the problem is that they all seem to exist to be sexual interests for the Doctor. Tasha Lem’s character had a great deal of potential: she’s a powerful woman leading what is apparently the predominant religious and military force in the galaxy, attempting to maintain a peace between some of the most violent and destructive races. But in the narrative she exists primarily as another woman who must flirt with the Doctor.

This type of benevolent sexism has become a pattern in Moffat’s treatment of women; he assures us that the Doctor isn’t bothered by women in positions of power because he finds powerful women sexy and attractive, but by doing so he reduces these women to sexual interests. A woman apparently can’t be in a position of power without also being a sexual interest for the Doctor. In Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who, women, even when they are in positions of power and strength, are primarily there for the enjoyment of men.

The sexualization of Tasha’s power and her attempts to assert her autonomy became extremely problematic during the scene when the Doctor kisses her without her consent. When the Doctor releases Tasha she orders him to only kiss her when asked, and the Doctor replies “Only if you ask nicely,” and they immediately give each other bedroom eyes. The Doctor receives no punishment for kissing her without her consent, and her protest at having been kissed without her consent is trivialized and sexualized. It’s not a big deal she was kissed without her consent, the show tells us, because she secretly liked it.

Even more disturbing is the fact that this is the second time in a year I’ve had to write about Doctor Who’s problematic treatment of sexual assault. Including the scene in “The Crimson Horror” where the Doctor laughs off Jenny’s protest that he forcibly kissed her was bad enough, but including a second scene in which the Doctor is portrayed laughing off a woman’s protest that he forcibly kissed her so soon after receiving a strong backlash to the first is particularly galling, and it’s hard to read it as anything other than a deliberate provocation.

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But even then, it actually gets much worse. Later, it is revealed that Tasha Lem has become a Dalek puppet. Thi But what happens in this scene becomes not just the feisty, sexy woman who wants the Doctor, but also becomes the Evil Demon Seductress (Feminist Frequency‘s Tropes vs. Women #4) for the Doctor, due to her being sexualized when she was originally introduced. This also makes her no different than the first echo of Clara introduced as a fully-converted Dalek in Asylum of the Daleks: A beautifully depicted women who turns out to be, or become, or already was, a monster.

As seen here, Tasha’s introduction:

Tasha: Hey, babes.
Doctor: Loving the frock.
Tasha: Is that a new body? Give us a twirl.
Doctor: Tash, this old thing? Please, I’ve been rocking it for centuries.
Tasha: Nice though. Tight.

.

Doctor: It was Tasha who shielded the planet. But you could sneak me down there, couldn’t you, Tash?
Tasha: I would have conditions. (to Clara) I have confidential matters to discuss with the Doctor. Would you excuse us?
Doctor: Anything you have to say to me, you can say in front of Clara. Well, quite a lot of it. Probably about half. Maybe a smidge under. Actually, Clara, would you mind waiting out here, please?
Clara: No worries. You two get yourselves a room.
Doctor: Yes, quite. No, stop it.
Clara: Boss of the psycho space nuns. So you.
(Tasha and the Doctor go into the private chapel.)
Doctor: Well.

.

Doctor: That altar looks like a bed.
Tasha: That bed looks like an altar.
Doctor: Yep.
(He sits on it. Tasha offers him a goblet of blue liquid. He doesn’t like it. She reaches across and touches a panel on the headrest, or is it footrest, and the three tone message plays. They get inside each others personal space.)
Tasha: That message is transmitting through all of space and time. What did it make you feel?
Doctor: Feel?
Tasha: Every sentient being in the universe who detected that signal felt something. Something overpowering.
Doctor: What?
Tasha: Fear. Pure, unadulterated dread.

This is the later scene revealing Tasha Lem as a Dalek puppet to the audiance:

Tasha: Why did you ever come to Trenzalore?
Doctor: Well, I did come to Trenzalore, and nothing can change that now. Didn’t stop you trying though, did it?
Tasha: Not me. The Kovarian Chapter broke away. They travelled back along your timeline and tried to prevent you ever reaching Trenzalore.
Doctor: So that’s who blew up my Tardis. I thought I’d left the bath running.
Tasha: They blew up your time capsule, created the very cracks in the universe through which the Time Lords are now calling.
Doctor: The destiny trap. You can’t change history if you’re part of it.
Tasha: They engineered a psychopath to kill you.
Doctor: Totally married her. I’d never have made it here alive without River Song.
Tasha: I’m not interested in changing history, Doctor. I want to change the future. The Daleks send for reinforcements daily. They are massing for war. Three days ago, they attacked the Mainframe itself.
Doctor: They attacked here?
Clara: How did you stop them?
Tasha: Stop them? It was slaughter.
Doctor: Why didn’t you call me? I could have helped.
Tasha: I tried. I died in this room, screaming your name.
Doctor: No.
Tasha: Oh. I died. It’s funny the things that slip your mind. Ah!
Doctor: No! No, no, no. Tasha, no, please, not Tasha. No. Fight it. Tash, fight it!
(A Dalek eyestalk comes out of her forehead, then real Daleks enters.)
Dalek: Step away from the Dalek unit, Doctor.
Doctor: You shouldn’t even know who I am.
Dalek: Information concerning the Doctor was harvested from the cadaver of Tasha Lem.
Doctor: Bet she never told you how to break through the Trenzalore forcefield, though. She’d have died first.
Dalek 2: Several times.
Doctor: Well, you’d better kill me, then. Go on. But before you do
(He sonicks the message into the room.)
Voice [OC]: Doctor who? Doctor who? Doctor who?
Doctor: I’m a tough old bird. I’ll be ages dying. Way enough time to answer a question. And, oh dear, what happens then, boys?
(Tasha grabs Clara’s neck from behind, and energy plays over her hands.)
Dalek: You will die in silence, Doctor, or your associate will die.
Doctor: Fine, go on, kill her. Kill her! See if I care. But tell me, what you are going to do next?
Dalek: See how the Time Lord betrays.
Clara: You’ll kill me anyway. What difference does it make? I’m not afraid. I’ll leave that to you.
Doctor: You see, Tasha, that’s what I’m talking about. That is a woman! I always knew you were a bit spineless, you and your pointless church. Why did I ever rely on you? Never trust a nun to do a Doctor’s work.
(Tasha turns on the Doctor, releasing Clara, and slaps him. Then she blasts the Daleks into flames.)
Doctor: And she’s back!
(The Doctor kisses Tasha. The eyestalk goes back into her forehead leaving a scar.)
Doctor: You never could resist a row.
Tasha: Kiss me when I ask.
Doctor: Well, you’d better ask nicely.
Tasha: In your dreams.
Doctor: Right, get us back to the Tardis. Can you do that?
Tasha: Yeah, but quickly, the Dalek inside me is waking.
Doctor: Fight it.
Tasha: I can’t.
Doctor: Listen to me. You have been fighting the psychopath inside you all your life. Shut up and win. That is an order, Tasha Lem.
(The Doctor and Clara get into the confessional teleport booths.)
Tasha: The forcefield will hold for a while, but it will decay, and there are breaches already.
Doctor: Then this isn’t a siege any more, it’s a war. It’s all up to you now. Fight the Daleks, inside and out. You can do it, I know you can.
Tasha: Oh, I see. You’ve got your Tardis back, haven’t you? Time to fly away.
Doctor: Tasha, please. Please. Thank you.
Tasha: None of this was for you, you fatuous egotist. It was for the peace. Fly away, Doctor!

It’s crucial to recognize that the Dalek states that Tasha Lem as a “Dalek unit” is now a cadaver, which they harvested information from, which also means that when the Doctor kisses her (an act of sexualizing), he is kissing a dead body (see Feminist Frequency‘s Women as Background Decoration: Part 2) while simultaneously bringing her to back to her senses in a disgusting, creepy Prince Charming sort of way. Gross, just gross.

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The nudity gag presented in this episode was by far the worst of Doctor Who, and the Eleventh Doctor’s sexual aggression is particularly real. As Whovian Feminism says:

The primary comedic conceit of the episode was the extended nudity gag, though it seemed less like a joke you would expect to find in a family television show and more like a contrived plot device you’d expect to find in an unapologetically smutty fanfiction: “The Doctor and Clara have to go to church, but this church has a surprise dress code- nudity! It may look like they’re wearing clothes, but every time they get close Clara is reminded that they most definitely are not. Rating: Adult.”

It was hard to tell what exactly the point of the gag was. If it was supposed to be fanservice, it wasn’t much. After all, most of the time they were supposedly “naked” they were actually clothed. It also seemed at times like the point of the gag could’ve been that it would be funny for a church to require nudity as opposed to conservative dress, but that’s pretty weak.

Most of the time, it seemed as if the punchline of the joke was that people were uncomfortable with nudity, and the Doctor was totally unaware of that. This was at best juvenile and awkward, and at worst creepy and disturbing. It’s extremely hard to believe that after a thousand years of travel through time and space, including a significant period of time on contemporary Earth, that the Doctor would be entirely unaware that it is considered inappropriate to walk around in the nude in contemporary Britain. The Doctor wouldn’t have dared try to pull this with Rose, Martha, or Donna’s families. At one point, the punchline of the nudity joke was that Clara was uncomfortable discovering that all members of the papal mainframe were trained to see through holographic clothes and that dozens of people had just viewed her completely naked. So after being uncomfortable with the idea of walking around nude, she was given assurances that she would appear to be clothed using holograms, only to find out that it actually didn’t do anything and that she’d just been viewed totally naked without her express knowledge or consent. This is not funny. It’s creepy, disturbing, and trivializes an extreme violation of Clara’s trust and ability to consent.

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There’s also something disturbingly aggressive about the Doctor’s actions in “The Time of the Doctor.” The Doctor seems downright gleeful to have shocked Clara with his nudity when she enters the TARDIS, without any concern that she might be uncomfortable. This can’t be hand-waved away by saying that the Doctor is a strange alien unaware that his actions are inappropriate because had he pulled that with Donna she would’ve smacked him so hard he would’ve regenerated into Peter Capaldi right there and then.

But wait, many of you are probably asking, didn’t Donna see the Doctor naked in “Journey’s End”? Yes she did, but when we compare the scenes we get to the crux of why this nudity gag was bothersome. In “Journey’s End” there was a real, legitimate reason for the Doctor to appear naked. His hand was growing into an entirely new body, and regeneration doesn’t grow new clothes for you! Donna points this out to the newborn Doctor, the Doctor immediately puts on some clothes so that Donna doesn’t feel uncomfortable. The audience laughs at the irony that Donna, who of all the New Who companions probably ties with Mickey for having the least interest in seeing the Doctor naked, is the companion present at that moment, but we aren’t being invited to laugh because the Doctor deliberately and knowingly put her in a situation where she’d feel uncomfortable.

But there is absolutely no reason for the Doctor to be naked in “The Time of the Doctor.” The “church” excuse was so blatantly contrived to put the Doctor and Clara in a situation that can be sexually construed, and the audience is being invited to laugh at the fact that the Doctor is continuing to put Clara in uncomfortable situations long after she’s made it clear to him that she feels uncomfortable.

The episode doesn’t get much better from here. When Clara introduces the Doctor to her family as her boyfriend he slaps her ass, because that’s apparently the only way he knows how to make it clear to her family that he is pretending to take a romantic and sexual interest in Clara.

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Next is the best and worst of Series 8.

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17 thoughts on “The Best and Worst of Doctor Who: The Specials

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