The Best and Worst of Doctor Who: Series 1

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For previous installments:

The Best:

Dalek

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I remember the first time watched this episode. It was fantastic to finally see the Daleks back on Doctor Who again. According to The A.V. Club review:

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It’s impossible to imagine Doctor Who without the Daleks. This is almost literally true, as the Daleks go right back to the very beginnings of the series. Look at the show’s early days: There’s the iconic introductory episode with the schoolteachers and the junkyard, followed by three episodes of the Doctor seriously considering throwing rocks at cavemen, and then the Daleks show up in the very next story, meaning that the introduction of the show’s most iconic monsters postdates that of their Time Lord adversary by only the slimmest of margins. Indeed, it was really the Daleks who were Doctor Who’s original breakout stars, as opposed to any occupant of the TARDIS; after all, the show’s initial wave of popularity was called “Dalekmania,” not “Doctormania.” But four decades of such familiarity can breed, if not exactly contempt, then a certain lack of respect.

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Their entirely inhuman appearance, so effectively chilling in their original adventures, became faintly risible when stripped of that narrative context. The fearsome, genocidal conquerors of the universe were transformed in the public imagination into plunger-wielding pepperpots who could be defeated by climbing the stairs—all of which are jokes that “Dalek” acknowledges and subverts with lethal force. The Daleks were also done in by their own popularity, appearing in six serials comprising a whopping 45 episodes in the show’s first four years, and they were only given a multi-year respite when the Doctor Who production team and Dalek creator Terry Nation agreed to retire the Daleks so that the latter could pursue a Dalek spin-off show. After the Daleks eventually returned in the ‘70s, the next major innovation was to introduce their creator Davros, whom the Doctor describes here as “a genius… a man who was king of his own little world.” The presence of this brilliant psychopath powered one of the all-time great Doctor Who stories, “Genesis Of The Daleks,” but his obligatory reappearances in subsequent Dalek stories tended to undermine his creations’ status as ruthless, terrifying strategists in their own right.

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As such, leaving aside the briefest of cameos in “The Five Doctors” and the 1996 TV movie, “Dalek” is the first time since 1974 that the show’s most iconic monsters appear without Davros alongside. I use the plural “monsters,” but there’s actually only one representative of the Daleks on hand here. As Rob Shearman’s script indelibly demonstrates, one Dalek is more than enough. The basic structure of this episode is remarkably simple, and it seems only fitting that the most iconic monster in Doctor Who history would return by chasing humans down what is essentially a very long corridor. The Americans in this story—particularly Henry van Statten’s elite paramilitary guard—function in much the same way as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s commando team in Predator; van Statten’s private army is the best money can buy and not shy about killing things, which makes the Dalek’s slaughter of them all the more impressive. That massacre isn’t defined by brute force either, as even though the Dalek appears indestructible enough that it could win a battle of attrition, it instead devises a brutally efficient way to exterminate the entire contingent.

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Joe Ahearne’s direction is so vital to the success of “Dalek.” He wrings every last ounce of tension and suspense from the chase and fight sequences, but it’s in the depiction of the Dalek that he really makes his mark. Daleks are so famous for their screams—and voice actor Nicholas Briggs gets plenty to shout about here—but Ahearne makes the Dalek most terrifying when it is silent. When it refuses to speak to van Statten, it becomes inert, betraying not the slightest hint of life. This stillness emphasizes not only the inhuman qualities of the Daleks but also its strategic mind; this Dalek, for all its murderous, xenophobic rage, is capable of waiting, which makes it eventual movement all the more terrifying. Shearman, Ahearne, Briggs, and Christopher Eccleston all commit to the idea that a single Dalek could easily kill the entire population of Salt Lake City if it is allowed to escape, and there’s little doubt of that by the end of the episode.

But it isn’t just that this Dalek is an unstoppable killing machine; it isn’t even that the creature is a cunning tactician, deviously playing upon the human weaknesses of Rose and van Statten to get what it wants. Any half-decent monster is capable of such things on a good day. No, what’s really key to the success of “Dalek” is how the Doctor responds. This isn’t my absolute favorite of Christopher Eccleston’s performances as the Doctor—we’ll get to that in a couple of weeks—but this is probably his best work in the role, and “Dalek” is the episode that most depends on his ability to sell this Doctor’s battle-scarred trauma. Eccleston conveys every aspect of the Doctor’s survivor’s guilt, including the flicker of remorse he feels for committing genocide against the Daleks, for all their evil. His performance leaves no doubt of the long history that the Doctor shares with the Daleks, even if that might be new information to those watching the show for the first time. The Doctor’s response to the Dalek traces a clear arc; the moment the Doctor realizes he is locked in a room with a Dalek, he is utterly terrified, begging to be let out. Once the Dalek restores itself, the Doctor never underestimates what it is capable of, unlike the foolish humans—Rose included, albeit for different reasons than the rest. His knowledge of the Daleks of old forces him to consider extreme measures that would have seemed unthinkable just last week.

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Indeed, let’s compare “Dalek” with “World War Three.” In the earlier episode, the Doctor explicitly hesitates to blow up 10 Downing Street in order to stop the Slitheen’s plan to reduce Earth to radioactive rubble.  The reason he gives is that he is unwilling to sacrifice Rose; while some of that uncertainty is the result of Jackie’s pointed questions about her daughter’s safety, it’s apparent that the Doctor personally can’t bear the thought of losing his newfound companion, and it’s only a direct order from Harriet Jones that resolves the situation. In today’s episode, that moral dilemma is distilled to a few terrible seconds, as van Statten tells the Doctor that he must seal the bulkhead doors, stranding Rose with the Dalek. It’s a decision that instantly haunts the Doctor, and he lashes out at van Statten and Adam to assuage his own guilt. Still, in the moment, he doesn’t waver, even though this likely represents a mere delaying tactic against a foe such as this. The same Time Lord who wasn’t sure whether he could sacrifice Rose to save the planet from the Slitheen is now prepared to leave her to die just to buy some extra time against the Dalek. There’s no hypocrisy or contradiction here; this is simply the clearest proof that the Doctor is now operating under a very different set of rules, a code he hoped he had abandoned at the end of the Time War.

It doesn’t help that he’s traded dependable allies like Jabe, Charles Dickens, and Harriet Jones for the likes of Henry van Statten. The character’s status as the owner of the internet is so specifically 2005 in its goofiness, but his larger-than-life persona proves a good fit for the Doctor and the Dalek. All that really matters about van Statten is that he’s the most powerful person the planet, able to replace presidents and wipe people’s memories at will, and even he cannot command so much as an insolent murmur from the Dalek. He, and by extension all humanity, is beneath the conflict unfolding between the Time Lord and the Dalek. Corey Johnson is very good in the role, finding just the right nuances in his interactions with the Doctor. The scene where they take turns playing the alien instrument is some of Shearman’s sharpest writing: van Statten is entirely capable of appreciating, even mastering such otherworldly beauty, but he just doesn’t care. He’s chasing profit, yes, but he’s really trying to stave off the boredom that comes with absolute power. He’s just unwilling to go on any adventure that requires him to surrender control, which makes him a rather pathetic reflection of both the Doctor and the Dalek.

PRETTY

Longtime Doctor Who writer, script editor, and general elder statesman Terrance Dicks once laid down a defining description of just who the Doctor is, one that “The Day Of The Doctor” recently canonized: “Never cruel or cowardly.” Even if that maxim is only implicit in this episode, it’s still shocking to see the Doctor violate those fundamental precepts of his character. Cowardice is easier to excuse; indeed, only a lunatic wouldn’t be afraid if he found himself locked in a room with a Dalek. But the Doctor’s cruelty is more unsettling and more difficult to ignore. In their first scene together, the Doctor taunts the Dalek with the destruction of its entire species, defiantly takes credit for said genocide, mocks the Dalek’s distress call, and then actually tries to electrocute the Dalek while yelling “Exterminate!” The Doctor’s adoption of the iconic Dalek battle cry foreshadows the Dalek’s later point that the Doctor would make a good Dalek.

And that monster makes a valid point about the Doctor, albeit only with respect to the Daleks. Consider how the Doctor describes the Daleks to van Statten: “If the Dalek gets out, it’ll murder every living creature… because it honestly believes they should die.” And there’s the earlier observation about the creation of the Daleks: “Every single emotion was removed except hate.” Now, I’m willfully stripping out context here, but those lines do resonate with the Doctor’s actions. The Doctor’s experiences—both those that longtime fans witnessed in the classic series and those unseen exploits in the Time War—have taught him that Daleks are the one race in the universe that is entirely beyond redemption, so he has no emotion left for them save hatred. These are creatures of such complete, unreasoning evil that the Doctor’s only sane response is to kill any that he might encounter. The same man who tried to offer clemency to the Nestene Consciousness and the Gelth does honestly believe that all Daleks should die, so much so that he’s willing to murder in cold blood a broken, captive Dalek; even more remarkably, the notoriously gun-averse Time Lord is gung-ho enough about the prospect of blasting the Dalek towards the end of the episode that he actually says “Lock and load!”

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One challenge for “Dalek” lies in the potential for radically divergent interpretations of the central conflict between new and longtime fans. Shearman’s script does not rely on past history in establishing what the Doctor and the Dalek mean to each other. This story would work just as well with an entirely new monster—as in fact almost happened, during a brief period in which the Terry Nation estate refused to give the show permission to use the Daleks—without changing a word of the script beyond “Dalek” and probably “Exterminate!” The possible discrepancy has to do with whether the Doctor is correct in his assessment of the Dalek.  Anyone familiar with classic Doctor Who’s Dalek stories is unlikely to question the Doctor’s sudden absolutism. But those operating without such knowledge might agree with Rose, who refuses to give up on the Dalek’s capacity to renounce its ways. Her conduct here can seem gallingly foolish to anyone who has watched “The Dalek Invasion Of Earth” or “Remembrance Of The Daleks,” but Rose definitely hasn’t seen those stories, and, more to the point, neither had a sizable chunk of those watching in 2005.

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After all, Rose is simply putting into action the principles of inter-species interaction that the Doctor has taught her over the course of the preceding adventures. For those who have only ever shared these first five stories with the Doctor, it’s entirely conceivable that the Doctor is wrong about the Daleks, that he is allowing his own prejudice to get in the way of his normal ideals. As Rose pointedly observes during the climactic confrontation, only one individual is pointing a gun at her, and it isn’t the Dalek. This is a more audacious example of the same deconstruction seen in the TARDIS translation conversation back in “The End Of The World.” Shearman and Russell T. Davies set out to restore the Daleks’ reputation as Doctor Who’s scariest monsters while also asking the audience to at least consider whether Rose is onto something. This new Doctor Who isn’t merely about restoring the show’s former glory; it’s about pushing ahead with even the most deeply entrenched aspects of the mythos.

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Ultimately, “Dalek” rather niftily splits the difference between all these possible interpretations. Rose is right that this Dalek is capable of mercy and emotions that extend beyond hate. She’s just wrong in thinking that that’s a good thing. The Dalek’s absorption of Rose’s time traveler DNA takes what might have been a bit of goofy technobabble and uses it to drive towards the big climax, as a sympathetic, even apologetic Doctor tells the Dalek that it is mutating into something new. The Dalek is still Dalek enough to hate itself for such a violation of its sainted purity, and it would rather exterminate itself than face this strange, horrible new reality. It is a psychotic killer to the bitter end, if only because it would willingly self-destruct instead of facing the possibility that it is no longer a psychotic killer. It admits it is scared of the prospect of suicide, but that very fear is what makes its death unavoidable. The Daleks are still just as innately insane and evil as they have ever been, but “Dalek” demonstrates that not through some new brutality but rather through one Dalek’s utter revulsion at its own emerging goodness. Understanding the Dalek mindset remains as impossible as ever—thankfully—but this episode comes closer than any story before or since.

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On Diana Goddard: In a rather nice twist, she takes Henry van Statten’s place in the company, as this is a very rare occasion that not only does a woman take over because of the events that transpired, but rather we are shown her using those abilities as such, instead of just hearing about it, as it is usually done in other media.

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The Worst:

Bad Wolf

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I am not a particular fan of reality television. Sure, I watched The Real World, Road Rules, Boy Meets Boy, and America’s Next Top Model, but I wasn’t really impressed by any of it. I’m not entirely impressed by this either. The ending is, in my opinion, the best part of the episode. According to the A.V. Club review:

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Since we’re talking about the non-narrative motivations behind these scripts, it’s also worth pointing out that “Bad Wolf” exists in its present form because Russell T. Davies—or, more precisely, the Russell T. Davies of 2003 to 2005—loves reality shows. The use of Big Brother, The Weakest Link, and What Not To Wear is an illustration of the author’s fascination, if not outright affection, for this particular genre. As a reviewer, that places me in a tricky position, because, at the risk of being blunt, I hate reality television; worse, I find these sorts of shows deathly tedious. That antipathy is doubtless at the heart of my logical objections to this premise, namely that any of these shows would endure in the human (or, for that matter, Dalek) consciousness for almost 200,000 years. On a really basic level, I find that silly, even though a considerably more extreme version of this joke was already made with the “Toxic” gag in “The End Of The World.” Still, that was only a throwaway gag, while here the reality shows form the central mystery of the first half of the 9th Doctor’s final adventure. Nine years on, that still feels wrong, somehow, although I’m willing to accept that “Bad Wolf” may simply be irreconcilable with my preferred vision of what Doctor Who should be. That can happen with a premise as infinitely expansive as Doctor Who; any good showrunner has to narrow it down to a vision he or she finds most compelling, and that process is always going to leave some portion of fans behind.

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Right, that’s enough bloviating self-indulgence. (I’m sorry it dragged on that long, honestly.) The fairest way I can see to approach “Bad Wolf” is to ignore the specifics of the reality shows, at least temporarily, and consider instead their function in the story. All of these, essentially, are gladiatorial games, a hybridized form of randomized punishment and sick entertainment that keeps the human population equal parts terrified and pacified. They are designed to turn a once mighty species, the would-be architects of the Fourth Great and Bountiful Human Empire, into livestock, and even that might be giving humanity too much credit. This isn’t a million miles away from the ideas explored in the 6th Doctor story “Vengeance On Varos,” which is one of Colin Baker’s best outings (and yes, I do think that’s saying something), so it’s possibly just the presence of specific copyrighted logos that I object to, which does seem a bit silly on my part. Indeed, even if Davies’ fondness for reality TV led “Bad Wolf” to incorporate actual shows and cast their real-life hosts in voiceover cameos, the episode still stands as something of a rebuke to the genre and television in general. Reality television has helped enslave and stupefy the human race. That’s hardly a ringing endorsement.

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There’s also an element here of writing toward the biggest episode-opening shock. The Doctor can travel anywhere in space and time, which means there are vanishingly few places where even he would be surprised to find himself. Throwing the Doctor—particularly one as serious and haunted as Christopher Eccleston’s incarnation—into the middle of the Big Brother house is a willfully insane scenario, and Eccleston himself almost makes the whole gag work with his dumbfounded, “You have got to be kidding me.” The trouble is that “Bad Wolf” then has to explain that joke, and a scenario so purposefully ludicrous that it would work best as a throwaway gag has to be the foundation of the entire rest of the episode.

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The Doctor finding himself on a deadly reality show could serve as the setup for some incisive, witty social commentary—a 21st century “Vengeance On Varos,” basically—but it’s a less obvious lead-in to this Doctor’s ultimate showdown with the Daleks. In fairness, the reality show setup does offer an apparently harmless starting point from which the situation can spin hopelessly out of control, as the Doctor begins “Bad Wolf” a mix of puzzled and annoyed before everything goes to hell about ten times over. The Doctor has let his guard down, and he pays dearly for his inability to recognize the seriousness of what’s going on around him. That point is most obviously made when he realizes that his refusal to stick around after “The Long Game” is what helped create this current mess, but the Doctor spends the entire story being maneuvered  and manipulated by those who know more than he does: first the Game Controller, then the Daleks, and always, always the Bad Wolf.

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One of the more curious aspects of this story is the introduction of Lynda with a “y.” The character herself isn’t particularly interesting; she’s basically what one would build out of a companion-by-numbers kit. But that’s exactly the point: In the absence of Rose, the Doctor strikes up a new friendship with another human, going so far as to invite her along on his travels in the TARDIS. After an entire season built around Rose and her importance to the Doctor—a theme that reaches its absolute crescendo in the next installment—it’s strange, though hardly objectionable, to see the Doctor so readily recruit a new companion. His interaction with Lynda is an intriguing counterpoint to his conduct in “Rose,” as he is ready and willing to befriend whichever stupid ape shows a little compassion and intelligence. More than that, he now believes that standing next to him is the safest place a person can be; the time he has spent with Rose has restored his belief in the essential rightness of his actions. In his own mind, he is once more the heroic savior instead of the grim avenger, and he’s now ready to bring a nice person like Lynda into his world. Part of the tragedy of the next episode is just how wrong that belief turns out to be.

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But before that, the Doctor and Jack must deal with Rose’s apparent disintegration. Director Joe Ahearne—who also helmed “Dalek,” “Father’s Day,” “Boom Town,” and “The Parting Of The Ways”—is in the conversation for the title of Doctor Who’s best ever director, and “Bad Wolf” is at its most striking when the Doctor and Jack briefly appear defeated. It may be a coincidence—or just a byproduct of Billie Piper’s distinctive gait—but Rose’s dash from the Weakest Link set to the Doctor seems to recall Rose’s run towards the TARDIS at the end of the premiere, which neatly emphasizes just how deadly this once magical adventure has suddenly become. Crushed by the death of Rose, the Doctor simply ignores his latest incarceration. Doctor Who has a long tradition of locking the Doctor in a jail cell as a way to pad out a story’s running length, but the Doctor has never seemed so uninterested in the whole affair. In particular, the quick shots in which a broken Doctor has his mug shot taken don’t feel like elements that quite belong in Doctor Who, and I mean that as a positive. Usually, the acting, the dialogue, or even the music would somehow indicate that the Doctor is above the piffling affairs of mortals, but here he is allowed no such detachment. For those fleeting moments, the situation feels hopeless in a way so few Doctor Who threats ever do.

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It’s hard to imagine that little sequence playing out in quite the same way in the David Tennant or Matt Smith eras, let alone in the classic series, because those are the kinds of scenes that are made when those making the show don’t quite know what the hell they are doing. Indeed, that’s the more positive manifestation of the same anarchic, irreverent impulse that birthed the deadly reality shows. For better and worse, “Bad Wolf”—one half of the final collaboration between Russell T. Davies, Christopher Eccleston, and Joe Ahearne—represents Doctor Who at its most unpredictable, at its most dangerous. In its way, that might honestly be the most impressive achievement of the show’s revival, even if I don’t always like the results.

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Next is the best and worst of Series 9.

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6 thoughts on “The Best and Worst of Doctor Who: Series 1

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