Friday, April 22, 2011

Top 10 Doctor Who Episodes (Series 1-5)

Since 2005, the last of the Time Lords has done his best to protect humanity from the universe's many dangers. With the sixth season of Doctor Who premiering Saturday night, it's time to look back on the best of the first five seasons.  As an American, I did not grow up with the show, so I lack the cultural familiarity associated with this longstanding element of British entertainment.  Although the Doctor Who phenomenon doesn't even register as a blip in America, I do remember as a kid watching it a few times on public television and being impressed by the show's complex plots.  And while I would likely lose at 'Doctor' Trivial Pursuit, I've become a fan of the new series.  It's an odd, but highly original and entertaining mix of science fiction, science fantasy, mystery and thriller.  Here are the highlights:  

10. Dalek  (series 1)
Drawn off course by a distress signal, the Tardis lands in Utah, inside the underground bunker of wealthy American mogul Henry Van Statten in the year 2012.  The bunker turns out to be a museum made up of alien artifacts fallen from space and collected by Van Statten. The Doctor and Rose are taken to see the museum's only living specimen, the "Metaltron," which turns out to be a lone Dalek who survived the Time War.  When Rose inadvertently reactivates the Dalek, it escapes and begins exterminating.

What makes this story compelling is the new series' first real exploration of the Doctor's character and history, warts and all.  We see the Doctor's prejudices, his hatred of the Daleks, and the scars left over from the the mysterious "Time War," (something lacking in subsequent seasons).  We also gain some understanding of why the Doctor needs a companion to ground and "humanize" him.

9. Rise of the Cybermen/ The Age of Steel  (series 2)
The Tardis materializes in present day London of an alternate dimension where everyone has EarPods that directly download news and other information directly into their brain.  The maker of these Earpods, John Lumic, has plans to upgrade human beings into Cyborgs.  After secretly kidnapping homeless people and converting them against their will, Lumic creates an army of Cybermen to "upgrade" the human race. The appeal of the Cybermen as villains is the frightening way people are stripped of their identidies and enslaved to a single consciousness.  Nothing terribly original, but an excellent reintroduction to the Cybermen with solid action and story.

8. Army of Ghosts/ Doomsday  (series 2)
In this two-part season finale, the Doctor and Rose return to London to find the world populated with"ghosts" that appear everywhere in regular intervals.  The world has largely embraced the phenomenon, but the Doctor is suspicious.  He begins to investigate, but is soon taken prisoner by Torchwood, a secret government organization that is performing experiments on a mysterious sphere, causing a breach that the "ghosts" emanate from.  Things begin to go badly when the ghosts materialize and turn out to Cybermen who promptly begin conquering the Earth.  Shortly thereafter, the sphere opens up and Daleks emerge with their own designs for the planet and every Doctor Who fanboy's fantasy is fulfilled as the Doctor's two greatest enemies face each other for the first time.  The confrontation doesn't disappoint as the Cybermen try to establish an alliance, but the Daleks will have none if it, and the battle begins.  The Doctor finds a way to send both the Daleks and Cybermen back through the breach, but at a cost.  Rose is sent to an alternate universe with Mickey and her parents, forever separated from the Doctor.  This episode satisfies on nearly every level, plenty of action and drama with an emotional climax.  Just ask my wife.  She cried.

7. Human Nature/ Family of Blood  (series 3)
The Doctor is being hunted by aliens who need a Time Lord body to avoid death.  In order to escape, the Doctor transforms himself into a human and hides on Earth in the year 1913.  We find the Doctor is now John Smith, a teacher at a boys military school in England, with no memory of who he is.  Martha poses as a maid, watching over the Doctor until it's safe for him to regain his identity.  But the Family of Blood have followed the Doctor to Earth and begin looking for him, killing as they go.  When everyone in the school and surrounding village are threatened by the Family, John Smith must decide to "die," in order for the Doctor to return and save everyone.

An exceptionally well written episode, complete with creepy (but campy) villains and believable romance.  Not enough can be said for David Tennant's performance.  His ability to connect with the audience emotionally is what drives the story.  My one criticism is the anti-military, almost anti-British current running through this episode (Why do Brits seem so ashamed of their history?).  It's distracting and doesn't serve the story well.
6. Silence in the Library/ Forest of the Dead  (series 4)
Donna and the Doctor arrive on the library planet Biblios in the 51st century only to find that all inhabitants are gone. While trying to solve the mystery, they are joined by a team of explorers led River Song, an archeologist who is also trying to solve the mystery.  They soon discover that a race of flesh-eating microscopic creatures live in the shadows.  This is an intricately plotted thriller penned by Steven Moffat, the series best writer.  His most ingenious contribution here is the character River Song, a woman from the Doctor's future who has become a fixture in the series.

5. The Waters of Mars  (2009 special #2)
The Doctor drops in on a Mars colony in the year 2059.  Shortly after arriving, two of the colonists contract something from unfiltered glacier water that transforms them into weird, zombie-like creatures that gush water.    When more of the colonists are turned, the crew must stop the aliens from getting to Earth.  The Doctor quickly comes to the realization he has arrived on the day history when the Mars colony is destroyed. Because of the event's historical significance, the Doctor decides he cannot interfere to save them, and begins to leave.  When their shuttle is destroyed in an explosion, trapping them and the aliens on Mars, the Doctor turns back to save the rest of the colonists, and change history.  Without a human companion, we see the Doctor's arrogance spiral out of control, at the cost of history itself.  In a stunning climax, the Doctor is humbled by an act of human defiance.  This is writer/producer Russell T. Davies at his best - controlled and focused.

4. The Girl in the Fireplace  (series 2)
The Doctor along with Rose and Mickey find a spaceship adrift and without a crew, but operational.  Inside, they discover an old fireplace that turns out to be a time window into 17th century France.  There, the Doctor meets a little girl named Reinette.  When he passes through the fireplace into the girl's bedroom, he finds a clockwork android hiding there.  After bringing it back to the spaceship, the Doctor learns the clockwork androids have a specific, but unknown interest in the girl.  When he passes back through the window, the Doctor once again meets Reinette who is now a young woman and realizes she is in fact, Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of Louis XV. The Doctor and Reinette are instantly taken with one another and have palpable chemistry.  Minutes on the spaceship are years for Reinette, as the Doctor hurries to uncover the androids' plans for Reinette before time runs out.  This is another gem by Steven Moffat.  Fast paced, tightly written and engaging.

3. Time of the Angels/ Flesh and Stone  (series 5)
River Song leads Amy and the Doctor to the crash site of a ship carrying a Weeping Angel.  With the help of a squad of militarized clerics, they must re-capture the Angel, but in order reach the ship, they must travel through the statue-filled catacombs of an extinct race.  Before long, the Doctor figures out the statues are all Weeping Angels who are regaining their strength from the radiation of the crashed ship.  With an army of Angels pursuing them, the Doctor and friends must escape and find a way to neutralize the monsters.  The return of the Angels doesn't disappoint, as Moffat finds new ways to creep us out.
2. The Pandorica Opens/ The Big Bang (series 5)
Easily, the best 'Who' series finale to date, 'Pandorica' is epic in scale, ingeniously plotted and fun.  The Doctor and Amy are summoned by River Song to 2nd century Britain at the site of Stonehenge.  There they discover the Pandorica, a mythic prison designed to hold the universe's greatest warrior. Shortly after arriving, they are met by all the Doctor's enemies from across the universe who have formed an alliance to lure and capture him.  They believe him to be responsible for a time explosion that's erasing all of existence, so they try to prevent it by imprisoning the Doctor in the Pandorica. The Doctor must escape and race to restore the universe before it's too late.

1. Blink  (series 3)
Simply the finest episode of the series and one of the best hours of television I have ever experienced.  It's as good as any episode of Star Trek, the new Battlestar Galactica or the original Twilight Zone.  The story begins with Sally Sparrow, a young woman trying to solve a mystery involving several disappearances and strange messages from someone called the "Doctor."  Behind it all are the Weeping Angels, the most frightening of all the Doctor's foes.  Blink is writer Steven Moffat's masterpiece; fabulously clever, suspenseful and scary.

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