Doctor Who, the longest-running sci-fi show in history, has long since become a British cultural phenomenon. The show, which was first shown on the BBC in 1963, follows the adventures of an alien who calls himself the Doctor, a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, who owns a machine called the TARDIS (an acronym for Time And Relative Dimensions In Space) that can be used to travel in time and space, and can also blend into its environment by changing its shape. However, due to a malfunction, the TARDIS is permanently stuck in the form of a blue 1960s London police box, the image of which has become one of the most recognizable icons of both the show and British popular culture, along with the most famous of the Doctor’s foes: the Daleks, a race of mutated aliens that speak with inhuman synthetic voices, are hidden inside vaguely pepperpot-shaped metallic machines, and consider other species inferior, their mission, in their own words being to “exterminate!” them all. Due to his TARDIS being able to travel in both time and space, the Doctor’s adventures are always versatile in their environments, ranging from Earth, both in the past and the future, to faraway worlds and even other universes. Although one thing about his travels is usually constant: there is almost always a companion with him, usually human and from Earth with some exceptions, to give the audience a surrogate through which they can understand the strange things they encounter better than through the enigmatic Doctor. The Doctor, being a Time Lord, also has the power to “regenerate” in the event of his death, completely changing his appearance – in real life terms, this was done to facilitate the changing of the actor playing the character; to date, eleven different actors have portrayed the character.
The show originally ran from 1963 to 1989, and after a failed revival attempt through a TV movie in 1996, it was brought back in earnest in 2005, with Russell T Davies of Queer as Folk fame as its head writer, to both immediate popularity and critical acclaim – in only its first series, the show won a prestigious sci-fi Hugo Award, and has proceeded to win five more in the years since. For the first series of the revived show Christopher Eccleston portrayed the Doctor, with fan favorite David Tennant replacing him for the second one and continuing in the role until 2010, when he was replaced by current Doctor Matt Smith. Steven Moffat, who had previously written the sitcom Coupling and several acclaimed Doctor Who episodes in the previous series of the show, also replaced Russell T Davies as head writer. This article takes a look at the the first part of series 7 – the most recent series – which has been cut into two parts both because of production concerns and the upcoming 50th anniversary of Doctor Who in 2013. In this issue I’ll rate three of them and next month the next three.
Asylum of the Daleks
Writer: Steven Moffat
Synopsis: The Doctor’s arch enemies are forced to summon him to investigate a mysterious signal coming from the planet that is their asylum.
Somehow, after two full seasons of being the head writer for Doctor Who, Steven Moffat has never written a Dalek episode before. Because he has written many of what are considered to be the best episode of the revived show’s run, as well as been generally a much better showrunner than Russell T Davies, Who fans were really looking forward to the first Dalek episode since they were put on a hiatus after the disappointing series 5 episode Victory of the Daleks. The other reason why this was a highly anticipated episode (besides, of course, being the first new one since the previous year’s Christmas special) was that it introduced the actress who would be playing the Doctor’s new companion, Jenna-Louise Coleman – for once, even the Internet was largely unaware that she would be appearing until the episode had almost premiered. Coleman does seem to acquit herself well even in this first appearance, but unfortunately her character is the exact same “Chipper Lady with Sarcastic Quips” trope Moffat had previously used for her other female companions Amy Pond and River Song: the constant repetition of the same character archetype seems to suggest some kind of fixation on Moffat’s part. Still, the twist and her ultimate fate at the end was surprisingly effective, and one I personally didn’t see coming. Of course, there was yet another thing, maybe overshadowed by the companion reveal, that made the episode worth waiting for: the reintroduction of the classic Dalek design, most likely done because the new, more colorful redesign in Victory of the Daleks did not go over well with fans, prompting disparaging comparisons to everything from Power Rangers to Fisher-Price. In Asylum, their absence is very conspicuous considering they were supposed to be the “new Dalek paradigm”, with only a couple of the new taller and more colorful Daleks appearing at the beginning of the episode. Before the episode’s premiere, Asylum was also advertized as having every Dalek that had ever appeared on the show in it, which may or may not be true – I’m sure more obsessive fans have noticed if that’s in fact the case (apparently the oldest Dalek models were in very bad shape). Avid Who fans will notice and appreciate the tiny cameo by the infamous Special Weapons Dalek from the classic serial Remembrance of the Daleks, as well as the mentions of a few planets that appeared in other classic serials (including the Dalek homeworld Skaro, which may or may not be destroyed at this point in time).
Considering the episode is written by someone who is known for making interesting and sometimes unconventional Doctor Who episodes, it’s odd that the whole thing is really a rather conventional story, which even the episode itself seems to reference when the Doctor complains about “being fired at a planet and being expected to fix it”, which Rory correctly points out as being the Doctor’s M.O. Although in Doctor Who’s case, conventional stories usually seem to work pretty well, and this one is no exception: it proceeds at a good pace and provides a lot of action as well as a satisfying climax. Unfortunately, Moffat also makes the episode something of a missed opportunity because of several interesting story elements he incorporates and only uses superficially: the idea of a Dalek Parliament, Daleks having a concept of beauty (but apparently not elegance?) and the idea of a Dalek Asylum where “insane” Daleks are held are all concepts that could’ve been explored further, considering that even after 30+ seasons, practically all we know about the Daleks is that their home planet is Skaro, they were created by Davros and they consider other species inferior. Especially the Parliament of the Daleks seems to have only been created to look cool as a teaser image: look at the Doctor being surrounded by all these Daleks! Don’t you want to know what happens next (the answer: nothing, really)? Even despite these oversights, Asylum is a good, if a little too conventional Doctor Who episode.
Dinosaurs on a Spaceship
Writer: Chris Chibnall
Synopsis: The Doctor, Amy and Rory, Queen Nefertiti and John Riddell have to save a Silurian ark falling into Earth’s atmosphere from being destroyed.
Chris Chibnall’s track record with Doctor Who-related things isn’t exactly good: as well as the sub-par episode 42 and series 5’s only truly bad episodes, the Silurian-themed two-parter The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood, he’s mostly been writing the awful spin-off show Torchwood. With this in mind, it was hard to expect good things from Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, especially with a title that’s both desperately oh-so-wacky and referencing Snakes on a Plane in 2012. And in this case you could’ve easily judged a book by its cover or an episode by its title: it’s an incoherent mess that you’ll most likely forget the details of immediately after watching.
The main reason for the episode being a mess is that there are simply too many things crammed into it – it’s practically impossible to have Queen Nefertiti, John Riddell, dinosaurs, Silurians and robots inexplicably voiced by British comedy duo Mitchell & Webb in a single episode and expect it to make sense – in fact, there’s no real reason for Nefertiti or Riddell to be in this episode; their appearance is explained by the Doctor quipping that he’s never had a gang before and that he might need one (I guess he doesn’t count the various aliens and people he had with him in series 6’s A Good Man Goes to War as a gang). Even the titular Dinosaurs on the Spaceship have very limited screen time and really do not amount to much. The first 20 minutes are spent going from plot point to another almost without rhyme or reason, until the action finally slows down and the episode finds at least some time for character-building with a rather good (mostly due to the amazing Matt Smith) confrontation between the Doctor and the episode’s villain Solomon, an evil guy who owns a pair of bumbling robots and wants to sell the dinosaurs on a universal black market. Although he is an effective villain, my favorite character introduced in this episode has to be Rory’s dad Brian, who manages to be endearing even despite the circumstances, and has what is most likely the episode’s best scene with him sitting out on the TARDIS door, looking at the Earth from space and drinking tea.
After the confrontation between the Doctor and Solomon, the episode starts to approach its climax in a way that calls to mind many of the most formulaic episodes from the Russell T Davies era: everyone is in trouble until with only a few minutes of running time left the Doctor finds a contrived way to save everyone involving some technobabble, the sonic screwdriver is waved a little and everything is OK! By the way, this is the part where Nefertiti actually has some relevance to the plot: Solomon’s universal market devices recognize her as being invaluable, after which Solomon kidnaps her, suggesting that everyone would’ve been better off if the Doctor hadn’t brought her. John Riddell, on the other hand, does nothing at all except shoot a few dinosaurs with a tranquilizer gun.
The episode ends in a very weird way, with the Doctor making some missiles aimed at the spaceship target Solomon’s ship instead, after which he releases the ship and Solomon to be destroyed with a little quip about “enjoying his bounty”. This seems very out of character for the Doctor: although, despite what some of the revived show’s writer seem to think (the Doctor’s little speech about being The Man Who Never Would Shoot Anyone in the episode The Doctor’s Daughter being the stupidest – and most hypocritical, as anyone who’s ever seen classic Who serials knows – example) the Doctor has never been a total pacifist, a portrayal of him as someone who’d gleefully send a person to his death is just not right. Just compare that to the fact that in Journey’s End he tried to save Davros, possibly the most evil person in the Doctor Who universe, and it seems even weirder that a guy who dumped a few Silurians out of an airlock apparently deserves a worse fate. Yet somehow, such a bad ending kind of suits an episode that brings to mind the worst of the Russell T Davies era, something that everyone hoped the show had largely moved past under Steven Moffat’s reign.
A Town Called Mercy
Writer: Toby Whithouse
Synopsis: A mysterious cyborg gunslinger threatens the Old West town of Mercy, and the Doctor has to find out the connection between it and the alien doctor who calls the town his home.
Surprisingly for a show based on time travel, the Wild West is a time period used very rarely in Doctor Who – perhaps a British show does not feel the need to connect to such a uniquely American mythos (which would be supported by how rarely the Doctor has visited America in general in the show’s long history), and perhaps, by the time the revived show started up, the Western setting was long considered tired and worn out (supported by the amount of Western movies released in the past decade or so) – in any case, before A Town Called Mercy, the last time the show tackled this subject was the First Doctor serial The Gunfighters, all the way back in 1966.
Of course, the subject matter means a lot of beautiful shots that evoke images of Western prairies, although the episode was shot in Spain, much like many spaghetti westerns, and visually the episode is very good, from the aforementioned shots to the nicely threatening-looking costume of the gunslinger. But the real surprise in this episode is the merciful lack of Western clichés, considering we already have Firefly: except for one visit to the saloon and the almost mandatory showdown at high noon, instead of rehashing the same tired tropes the episode uses the Western setting as a backdrop for its own story, which is a very good choice, considering it effectively subverts the audience’s expectations for a Western-themed episode; even the teaser at the end of the previous episode seems to be designed for this purpose, since it only shows a mysterious gunslinger shooting at stuff.
The story, then, is surprisingly complex, dealing with war and the things that sometimes feel like necessary actions during it, and the twists (the “doctor” mentioned in the cold opening and by the townspeople is not the Doctor, the gunslinger is not an outright villain) are effective, but the real driving force for this episode is the “villain”: alien doctor Kahler-Jex, who once created an army of cyborgs through horrific experimentation in order to win a bloody war for their home planet. It’s hard to truly call him a villain, since while he had performed horrible acts during the war, he seems to genuinely regret them; unlike many Doctor Who villains, when he says he wants to repent by helping the people of Mercy, he seems to be completely honest and not just trying to trick the Doctor into letting him go. The episode does such a good job of portraying Kahler-Jex sympathetically that the discovery of his sordid past halfway through is an almost genuine surprise, even though most people probably would figure something was up when the gunslinger (Kahler-Mas to his friends) wouldn’t risk shooting an innocent early on. Kahler-Jex’s statement to the Doctor about how much simpler it would be if he was just one thing – a mad scientist or a benevolent physician instead of both of those things – is almost certainly a knowing nod towards the central dilemma of this episode as well as the usually black-and-white morality of most Doctor Who episodes.
My main dislike with this episode is how rashly the Doctor wants to send Kahler-Jex out of town for Kahler-Mas to kill (although it shows how surprisingly well Matt Smith can play angry). Just like the previous episode, it’s out of character for him to advocate outright killing the bad guy, something that Amy points out as well. The weirdest thing is that after two episodes where he kills one villain and is briefly in favor of killing another, you’d think this was some kind of pattern of the Doctor growing that’d run throughout the rest of the season, but at least for the rest of this half-season, nothing is ever made of it. Even though this moment is jarring, it doesn’t detract too much from what is otherwise a very good episode with an interesting plot.