Synopsis: A Time Lord, the Doctor, travels through time and space, answering calls for help and saving humanity. He’s almost always joined by a companion–currently, a teacher named Clara–who keeps him company, and often keeps him from doing anything too terrible.
Series: 8 seasons since the show’s revival, a lot more before that, but most episodes can stand on their own.
I’ve Watched: Up to season 8 of the revival, none of the original series.
Verdict: The best episodes are amazing pieces of television, while the worst are cringe-worthy. Overall, worth it.
Doctor Who is a staple of sci-fi television, and often a breath of fresh air. The show is invested in having its protagonist resolve his problems with intelligence or even sometimes compassion (which isn’t always his best point, but he tries). And invested in never having him use violence. That’s pretty rare, and it opens the door to a lot of creative solutions.
The show’s main downside is that, due to its longevity, some episodes will inevitably retread old topics that have already been done better–this is less of a downside for those less familiar with the show, obviously.
Since I’ve finally gotten around to season 8, I figured I’d talk a bit about my favorite episodes. Because man were they good. So, in chronological order:
Time Heist: The Doctor, Clara, and two strangers are manipulated into robbing a secure futuristic bank by a mysterious figure, for some unknown reason.
Any premise where the characters are suddenly missing a huge chunk of their memories and forced to go on a near impossible mission has promise. It was fun to watch our protagonists forced into this position, knowing they’d agreed to it but not knowing why, trying to figure out who was manipulating them. And while I often complain when characters don’t have enough time to develop, that’s doesn’t apply when the show knows how to cut right to the heart of characterization without making it feel forced.
Our two supporting characters for the episode get moments where the pressure believably has them lash out at a misunderstanding or confide as to what might drive them to something so desperate. Psi especially got a really awesome moment that served as the culmination of everything he believed in–and it worked even though he’d only had maybe 15 minutes of screen time to build him up. This episode is a good example of how to develop strong characters efficiently. In addition to being just plain entertaining.
Mummy on the Orient Express: The Doctor and Clara’s relationship is strained, and they choose a space train with the theme of the Orient Express for their last trip together. But something dangerous is happening on this train–and it might not be a coincidence.
An atmospheric setting, a series of mysterious deaths, a set of passengers trapped on a train. And even better–a complete change in the dynamic of the episode once the biggest secret is revealed. It was entertaining from start to finish, employed its twists to great effect, and even managed to throw in some emotional development.
Flatline: Modern-day Bristol is under attack by creatures that come from a two-dimensional world.
The suspense of figuring out what is happening, how it’s happening, and the motivations behind it drives the episode. The Doctor is separated from Clara, trapped somewhere he can advise her, but not participate in the action. This leads to a few nice moments where his advice is filtered through how she thinks that advice is best taken, and creates a different dynamic than is usual for the show. Clara is pushed further than she’s been before, and how she reacts to it creates some great moments.
There’s also some nice dialogue dealing with lying, hope, and the belief that problems can be resolved with communication. All of which adds up to an interesting episode.
Dark Water/Death in Heaven: A tragic event pushes the Doctor and Clara towards a new threat. (Yes, vague description, but this two-parter is so twisty that everything about it is a spoiler.)
The two-parter turned out to be extraordinary–and I wasn’t necessarily expecting that from how it started. The beginning is deceptive, in a way. We’re lead to think something is happening, when the reality is entirely different. And every new revelation that this set of episodes throws our way makes the story better and better.
The emotional dilemmas posed to the Doctor and Clara are powerful. The decisions they need to make are hard. And then there’s Missy, a character introduced in this episode. Watching Missy work is something else. Her mannerisms, the way she’ll deliberately choose not to do the smart thing if she doesn’t feel like it. Her motivations and what they mean for the Doctor. She really throws our characters for a loop, and watching her pull that off is almost as entertaining as the conflict this draws out in the Doctor’s character.
The beginning did trick me into thinking that the episodes would deal with a cool but oversimplified concept, one that didn’t hold up so well if you thought about it too hard. But as we see more and more of what’s actually going on, instead of what the characters are initially told, it all comes together to form a different picture. And becomes some really good storytelling.
For me, those were the high points of the season. As for a quick rundown of the other episodes, Listen wasn’t my favorite, but it did point a spotlight at the Doctor’s obsessiveness and vulnerabilities far more directly than I’ve seen done yet. Kill the Moon was mostly forgettable–the series has handled this same topic before, and done it better. I did like repercussions it set up towards the end, but that was it. (Furthermore: that was not a unicellular organism, Doctor.) And I try to forget that Robot of Sherwood ever happened.
“Life would be so much simpler if you liked the right people. The people you’re supposed to like.”
“I really like that hairband…And every time I look at it, I’ll always remember the hero who died to save it.”
“I need you to know we’re not so different. I need my friend back.”
“Don’t you trust yourself?”