As the first part of a relaunch of a beloved series that had lain fallow for nearly a decade, this season had its work cut out for it. It succeeded by knowing its universe, using the canon and its rules to good advantage, showing a genuine appreciation for the material, and above all by just being really good television. Hopefully the Star Trek: Discovery people have taken notes.
Christopher Eccleston plays a very mercurial Doctor, and I think that’s appropriate. It gives him unpredictability without having to mystify the plot or technology or anything else central to understanding the show. And there should be a level of unpredictability here, to keep new viewers tuned in long enough to fall in love with the show. He’s also a menacing Doctor, physically intimidating, one who is not afraid to throw his full presence or intelligence around when there is need. He gives a strong performance in every single episode, and any worries he might have had about hurting his career never seem to cause him to hold back. I’m glad we got John Hurt for the anniversary special, but I can understand that fans would be anxious for Eccleston to have another turn in the role.
Before this rewatch started, I didn’t get the love for Rose. I figured she was just the first companion, forever to be missed, who apparently had some romantic subtext to get the ‘shipping types excited. After watching the whole season, Billie Piper has won me over. I’m looking forward to her dealing with this new strange person the Doctor has become.
Mickey, as I mentioned in an earlier review, was also just sort of a bit character who popped up in a few episodes I’d seen. Noel Clarke plays him well: not the brightest or most ambitious, so a suitable character to stay behind. But he’s a sound chap (as the British totally still say), and devoted to Rose, so that her rejection of him is painful to watch for his sake. And yet, as we see by the last episode, one can’t entirely blame Rose for leaving him, as she’s far outgrown him.
Jackie started as a bit of an annoyance (intentionally so) and likewise rounded out into a proper character by the end of the season, when her daughter’s life and happiness are on the line and there are no annoying facades to be raised. Full points to Camille Coduri for taking a relatively small role and putting so much life into it.
Jack Harkness . . . I’m still not sold on. He’s likable enough, he just doesn’t feel like he fits as fully in this universe. John Barrowman plays him a little more broadly than the other main and secondary characters, and that might be part of the issue. The other part is that I am simply not the intended audience for The Romantic Antics of Omnisexual Han Solo. And that’s okay. I don’t want him to go away, and he works well enough in his plot threads, I just don’t perk up and lean forward when I see him onscreen.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this season, for me, aside from the characters, is how detailed every episode feels compared to some of the much later series. There are a lot of what I call “wrinkles”: bits of set dressing, throwaway facial expressions, background activity, minor plot curveballs, et cetera that either aren’t necessary to the plot or contort the plot in little ways to make it feel more of a real story, a real world, to draw one in. The music, likewise, shows a lot more effort than in the Matt Smith years. I think Matt Smith’s first season is great (spoilers!), but I can understand people, shall we say, not feeling satisfied with how the program was progressing by that point without regard to whether they liked Smith’s take or not.
What about the “Bad Wolf” story arc? Well, it wasn’t really a story arc at all. The structure itself is pretty weak. However, Bad Wolf is a fairly unsettling phrase to have following one around through space and time, and it wasn’t pushed as more than some bit of weird trivia until the last few episodes, so it was executed about as well as could be hoped . . . aside from Rose’s silly sweeping gesture in “The Parting of the Ways”.
It falls to the last episode to properly wrap the season up by itself, then, and it does so in two ways. One is by completing Rose’s character arc, as she takes it upon herself to save the Doctor regardless of cost to sanity and life. The other is by drawing in details from many of the earlier episodes without regard to the “Bad Wolf” meme — “The Empty Child”, “Father’s Day”, “Boom Town”, and naturally “Bad Wolf” off the top of my head. These are alluded to in minor but significant ways, and it’s enough to feel like the season is all coming together properly. Enough to feel like it was worthwhile having the story arc in the first place.
Overall the season was consistently good, except when the Slitheen got involved. As I said in the “World War Three” review, that’s frustrating, because the Slitheen are mostly competent opponents and their visual design is, well, fantastic. And these episodes have good ideas and good bits in them, too. They just have too much stupid bogging them down.
4: (3) The Empty Child, The Doctor Dances, The Parting of the Ways
3.5: (1) Father’s Day (adjusted up)
3: (3) Rose, The End of the World, Dalek
2.5: (1) The Unquiet Dead
2: (2) The Long Game, Bad Wolf
1.5: (2) World War Three (adjusted down), Boom Town
1: (1) Aliens of London
Average rating: 2.69 out of 4
Number of “watch it again” (3-plus) episodes: 8/13
Number of “never again” (sub-2) episodes: 3/13
Number of episodes set in the UK: 8/13
Least favorite episode: Yeah, still “Aliens of London”.
Favorite episode: I will give “The Empty Child” the edge over “The Doctor Dances” if I must choose a single episode. The first one feels like it has a lot more going on and is super-spooky, whereas the second has the beautiful ending.
Worst episode: After rereading my summaries, I will stick with “Aliens of London” being worse than “World War Three”. I could make a list of points about each episode and see which sticks out the worse, but they’re such a bewildering mix of good and idiotic that I will spare myself the headache. If you need a reason: “World War Three” develops Jackie a little and has less obnoxious foley. There, I even used a fancy word, now it’s over and I never have to talk about the Slitheen mess again.
Best episode: Basically the same list as for favorite episode. The Child Dances two-parter stands above everything else. “Parting” is up there, and gets difficulty points for tying the season together, but doesn’t have the plot to match.
Disappointing episode: “The Unquiet Dead” just didn’t deliver all the fun I wanted. It’s partly on me, because sometimes I want ghosts to be ghosts and monsters to be monsters. Let me soak in the supernatural creepiness a while longer before you whip off the mask to show that it was Old Man Alienface the whole time. This show simply is not interested in following that route (see “Vampires of Venice” preview and Capaldi’s haunted house episode). But this episode could also have been a little stronger in the plot.
Surprise episode: “The End of the World”. I don’t like blowing significant bits of the planet up (one reason of many I’ve never liked ID4), but this episode worked hard to win me over. It might get a 3.5 score if I were less chary with half-points.
Things Doctor Who has made scary forever:
- Children wearing gas masks