This is a cool “mini-episode” leading in to the upcoming Doctor Who 50th anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor.” It marks the return of Paul McGann as the eighth Doctor, who’s only appeared on screen one other time–in a made-for-TV movie from the 90s that was meant to revive the franchise for an American audience. It failed, but McGann’s performance was generally well regarded. His version of the Doctor is considered “canonical,” and he’s gone on to play the role in a number of audio stories.
The episode also provides an origin for John Hurt’s “War Doctor,” a heretofore unknown incarnation of the character who plays a pivotal role in ending the “Time War” between the Time Lords and their ancient foes the Daleks (an event referred to a number of times in the current BBC revival of the show). Hurt’s character is going to appear alongside the tenth (David Tennant) and eleventh (Matt Smith) Doctors in the 50th anniversary special.
I haven’t seen the 1996 TV movie, but this is enough to make me wish McGann had been given more opportunities to appear onscreen.
I posted a while back that I had started dipping into the vast catalog of classic Doctor Who serials, and since then I’ve watched a few more. As befits the show, I’ve been jumping around in time, watching adventures of various Doctors. These are three I’ve watched and enjoyed since my last post (WARNING: contains spoilers!):
“The Aztecs” (1964)
The first Doctor (William Hartnell) and his companions–Susan the Doctor’s granddaughter and her former teachers Ian and Barbara–materialize inside the tomb of an Aztec temple in pre-Columbian Mexico. As they emerge from the tomb, Barbara is hailed by the Aztecs as the reincarnation of one of their gods. She then decides to use her new influence to steer the Aztecs away from the practice of human sacrifice. This raises the suspicions of the high priest of sacrifice–the conniving Tlotoxl–who then tries to reveal Barbara as a fraud. Meanwhile, the Doctor tries to figure out how to get back into the tomb, which is sealed behind them, so they can escape in the TARDIS; Ian goes into training to become an Aztec warrior and develops a rivalry with his competitor for the top warrior spot; and Susan enters a “seminary” to learn about the Aztecs’ religious ways and is faced with a possible forced marriage to an upcoming sacrificial victim.
This story is interesting in a number of ways, particularly from the perspective of later Who. First, apart from the obvious time-traveling, there’s no sci-fi element to this story. The setting is purely historical, unlike in the Doctor Who revival, where any trip to a historical period invariably includes an encounter with an alien or monster of some sort, Second, the Doctor seems to adhere to a time-traveler’s version of the prime directive–he urges Barbara not to try to change the Aztecs’ practice of human sacrifice because you can’t interfere with history. It’s not totally clear if he means that it’s impossible to change history or just a really bad idea, but ultimately Barbara fails. The crew of the TARDIS is lucky to escape with their lives, much less change history in any meaningful way.
The Doctor isn’t particularly heroic here–his overriding concern is to get himself and his companions out of the situation A.S.A.P. He’s certainly not interested in saving the victims of human sacrifice. There is also an amusing subplot wherein the Doctor becomes “engaged” to an Aztec lady in the process of trying to get information from her about how to access the temple. The episode comes down pretty strongly against trying to interfere with the Aztecs’ practices, and the Doctor seems a bit more cold-blooded and manipulative than in some of his other incarnations.
“City of Death” (1979)
The fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) and his companion and fellow time lord (“time lady,” I guess) Romana are on holiday in Paris in 1979 (the Doctor has an amusing line about how 1979 may not exactly be Paris at its peak). They inadvertently discover both that someone is trying to steal the Mona Lisa from the Louvre and that someone is messing with the space-time continuum. They meet up with a hard-boiled detective type who’s investigating crime in the art world, and the three of them are led to a certain Count Scarloni. But of course, the count is not what he seems–he’s an alien who arrived on Earth in prehistoric times and was subsequently splintered into multiple selves existing at different points in time when his space ship exploded. He is trying to build a machine that will allow him to travel back to that point and prevent the explosion of his ship (and in some way that was not quite clear to me, saving his entire race). This elaborate project is financed by the selling of priceless artifacts like Gutenberg Bibles that he is able to acquire via his selves existing in past eras. The completion of the time machine will be funded through the sale of multiple copies of the Mona Lisa (painted by Leonardo himself, who is being forced to make them by a past version of the Count). But of course, no one is going to buy a Mona Lisa when they know the real one is hanging in the Louvre, so the Count has to steal the original so he can sell his copies on the black market.
Once the Count realizes that the Doctor and Romana are able to travel in time, he forces Romana to help him complete his machine. But if he’s successful in his quest, it will actually prevent the existence of the human race because it turns out . . . the explosion of the ship actually provided the energy that caused the primeval ooze on Earth to begin generating life! So the Doctor, Romana, and Duggan the detective follow the Count (whose real name is Scaroth) back in time using the TARDIS and stop him from preventing his ship’s explosion (in what is frankly a rather anticlimactic scene).
This episode was written in part by Douglas Adams of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame, and it’s pretty much pure fun. There’s plenty of witty banter, and Baker is in fine form as the fourth Doctor. It was partly shot on location in Paris and includes some nice exterior shots of the city. Scarloni/Scaroth makes a great villain, and there is actually some pathos to his plight.
This has the fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) and his companions Tegan, Nyssa, and Adric showing up in a network of subterranean caves on Earth in the 26th century. A detachment of soldiers, led by a Lieutenant Scott, is investigating the mysterious deaths of a group of archeologists who were excavating the caves, and when they encounter the Doctor, Tegan, and Nyssa, they assume they’re responsible. But it turns out that the archeologists were killed by some creepy faceless androids who were down in the caves guarding a bomb. The Doctor disables the bomb but traces the signal controlling it back to a freighter in space headed for Earth. The Doctor, his companions, the soldiers, and the surviving archeologist follow the signal back to the freighter in the TARDIS. They eventually discover that the culprits behind the bomb are the Doctor’s old enemies the Cybermen, who are stowed away on the freighter and who are planning to attack an interplanetary summit taking place on Earth among leaders who are joining forces to fight the Cybermen.
Since the Doctor has disabled their bomb, the Cybermen have to resort to plan B, locking the freighter itself on a collision course with Earth. The Cybermen’s leader takes the Doctor and Tegan back to the TARDIS and forces them to leave Adric–who’s a boy-genius science whiz type–on the freighter along with the freighter’s captain and first officer as well as Lieutenant Scott. Meanwhile, Adric is trying to disable the controls the Cybermen have placed on the freighter’s navigation, and through some kind of hiccup involving the warp drive, the ship starts to travel backwards in time–65 million years to be precise. The Cyberman leader thinks this is even better than his original plan because now it looks like the collision will prevent human beings from ever existing at all. But the Doctor points out that what the freighter will actually do is cause the extinction of the dinosaurs! And this of course will actually pave the way for the emergence of humanity. The Doctor and his companions then overpower the Cyber-leader and his henchman on the TARDIS, but unfortunately Adric is still on the freighter as it collides with the Earth and is destroyed. He had stayed on board when the others evacuated on an escape pod for the noble (but ultimately unnecessary) purpose of disabling the Cybermen’s controls and steering the ship away from the Earth. The episode ends on quite a downer with the Doctor speechlessly staring at the TARDIS view screen, on which they just witnessed Adric’s demise.
I really enjoyed “Earthshock”–it was tense, fast-paced (at least by classic Who standards), and packed a pretty solid dramatic punch with the death of Adric. But the Doctor himself seems rather passive and even ineffectual throughout the serial. Not only does he not come up with some brilliant scheme to defeat the Cybermen, he isn’t even able to save his companion. In contrast with some of the other incarnations, the fifth Doctor (at least here) seems somewhat hapless. I gather from what I’ve read that this was something the people in charge of the show at the time did on purpose. They wanted to portray a more vulnerable Doctor to change things up after Tom Baker’s nigh-infallible Doctor who laughed in the face of danger (or at least offered it a jelly-baby). But the problem here is that it’s hard to see why we’re supposed to regard the Doctor as particularly heroic. He’s compassionate and noble, but he doesn’t really do much (except when he blasts the Cyberman leader at point-blank range with one the Cybermen’s own guns, which seems rather un-Doctor like). I’m curious whether this characterization carries through the other fifth Doctor adventures.
I’ve been watching the BBC reboot of Doctor Who that began in 2005 off and on for a few years (I’m currently catching up on the most recent season with Matt Smith as the Doctor). But apart from maybe catching some random episodes on PBS as a kid, until recently I had never watched any “classic” Doctor Who, the series that ran from 1963 to 1989 and featured seven different actors playing the Doctor.
Luckily for me, Amazon has a smattering of the old serials available on its streaming video service. So I’ve been hopping around, with the goal of hitting some of the high points from each of the Doctors (though I gather that some high points are considerably higher than others).
So far I’ve watched
“Tomb of the Cybermen” (with Patrick Troughton as the second Doctor)
“Spearhead from Space” (with John Pertwee as the third Doctor)
“Ark in Space” (with Tom Baker as the fourth–and longest running–Doctor)
“Pyramids of Mars” (with Tom Baker)
I’ve enjoyed all of these, though “Cybermen” the least due to some pretty slow pacing and spotty acting by some of the secondary players (not to mention some fairly egregious casual racism).
I probably liked “Spearhead from Space” and “Pyramids of Mars” the best. The former is the first appearance of the third Doctor and establishes his new status quo as an exile on Earth who is unable to operate the TARDIS (his space-and-time-traveling police box) and has to join forces with a paranormal investigative arm of the British army called UNIT. (This serial gives off some serious X-Files vibes, and you have to wonder if Chris Carter was a Who Fan.)
One of the fascinating things about Who (and which has been credited by lots of people for the show’s longevity) is that each new Doctor provides an occasion for a virtual reboot of the entire series. In the case of the third Doctor, there was a fairly obvious effort to incorporate elements from the spy/adventure franchises like James Bond and The Avengers that were popular at the time. As someone has aptly described him, the third Doctor was a bit like Bond and Q in one person.
“Pyramids” has the fourth Doctor firing on all cylinders. To Americans at least, Tom Baker is probably the most iconic of the “classic” Doctors (though I realized that before watching these, I had often conflated Tom Baker’s fourth Doctor and Colin Baker’s (no relation AFAIK) sixth Doctor because they both had big, curly hair and wore multi-colored clothes). The plot has the Doctor and his longtime companion Sarah Jane Smith trying to stop an ancient Egyptian “god” (who is of course really an alien) from escaping his imprisonment in a tomb to wreak havoc on Earth.
Baker’s Doctor is more like the Doctor we “nu”-Whovians have come to know and love–an eccentric cosmic bohemian who defeats his enemies through cunning and cleverness rather than brute force and has a special place for human beings in his heart(s). One of the fun things about watching different actors take on the Doctor is that while they each put their own spin on the character, he has certain constant traits that make him recognizably the same.
Next I’m planning to watch one of the fifth Doctor serials, then maybe skip to seven or back to one (I’ve heard terrible things about the Colin Baker years, so I’m putting those off).
There’s no shortage of online advice for deciding which serials to check out–I found these particularly helpful:
Primer: Doctor Who (at the AV Club)
Doctor Who: 11 Must See Classic Episodes (at WhatCulture!)
Any Whovians out there want to recommend some must-see classic adventures?
Okay, this is kind of nerdy, but I’ve been watching the Matt Smith seasons of Doctor Who, and I really like the 11th Doctor’s theme:
I’m still not entirely sure what I think about the controversial Lost finale (short version: my heart liked it, but my head is skeptical), but the best, or at least most enthusiastic, apology for it I’ve read has to be this exhaustive re-cap from Jeff “Doc” Jensen at Entertainment Weekly: part 1, part 2.