The new series of Doctor Who is 15 years old at this point, with over 130 episodes screened around the world. That’s more than enough of a sample size to determine the Top 5 moments in the New Series!
1. Tom Baker appears as the Caretaker in Day of the Doctor
The Day of the Doctor was a global phenomenon. Screened around the world on television screens and in cinemas, it capped a massive effort by the BBC to celebrate one of the most famous television shows in the world.
The year leading up to the 50th anniversary celebrations of Doctor Who was filled with much anticipation. Small announcements, like the discovery of a formerly lost television interview with William Hartnell after he left the role in 1966, whetted the appetite. There was an amazing trailer for the special, running through 50 years of the series. The announcement of the discovery of nine missing Patrick Troughton episodes in October 2013, for some, was also one of the highlights of the year.
However, aside from interviews, trailers, and a midnight embargoed missing episode announcement, the big event of the year was the release of The Day of the Doctor, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the series. I attended with my family and some friends the cinema screening on the anniversary itself, watching it all unfold on the big screen. In the vein of 1972s ‘The Three Doctors’, this anniversary effort also featured three Doctors: David Tennant, incumbent Matt Smith, and in a casting coup, actor John Hurt as the ‘War Doctor’, the incarnation who was deliberately forgotten by his successors due to his extreme actions during the Time War.
Hurt was cast at extremely short notice when Christopher Eccleston declined to appear. There were many in fandom scratching their heads why showrunner and writer Stephen Moffat decided not to cast Paul McGann in the role, as it was felt by many that the Eighth Doctor was a better fit in terms of storytelling. Whatever the merits of the choice, it is safe to say Hurt gave a delightful and nuanced performance that certainly dragged attention and eyeballs to the production.
Of course, for an old school fan like me, raised on countless repeats during the late 70s and early 80s, Tomb Baker WAS the Doctor. While others in fandom had been spoiled prior to the launch screening that Baker would make an appearance, I went in completely oblivious. So, sitting in a darkened cinema full of fellow fans, the atmosphere grew electric when Baker’s inimitable tones were heard before we saw him appear on screen. The years have taken their toll on Baker, but he remains indomitable as ever. Whatever you think of Steven Moffat’s writing, he knows how to squeeze every drop of emotion from a scene.
To see Baker on screen during the 50th anniversary story, interacting with Matt Smith, tapping his nose, with that wonderful glint in his eye, was an emotionally melting moment for me. Baker famously declined to feature in ‘The Five Doctors’, the 20th anniversary special, so to appear at long last in the show he helped elevate to new heights of popularity, was immensely important to me. Being a fan is a funny thing. It can be frustrating, demoralizing, exciting and just plain weird, but to see a childhood hero appear on screen so long after he left the role, was one of the greatest moments of my love for this mad, mad show.
2. Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor confronts a Dalek in ‘Dalek’
During the late 80s and well into the 90s Doctor Who, at least in the eyes of the UK tabloid press, was regarded as a joke. Cheesy special effects, cardboard sets, often cardboard acting and a general disinterest in a decades old show conspired to make Doctor Who something of a laughing stock. The casting of Sylvester McCoy in 1987 didn’t help matters. An actor who had made his name on the stage, in part by stuffing ferrets down his pants, he became for many a target for what was wrong with the series. Granted, after an iffy first season, where a lack of script editor and the abrupt sacking of Colin Baker conspired largely to derail proceedings, McCoy’s subsequent two seasons were striking in the mature storytelling throughout. However, the die had been cast.
During the 1990s, as various production teams attempted to get Doctor Who onto television and cinema screens, the tabloids threw up all sorts of actors to play the role, all of them inappropriate. Monty Pythons’ Eric Idle, Baywatch’s David Hasselhoff and funny man Dudley Moore were some of the many names floated during a period when the show’s reputation was at its lowest ebb.
With Doctor Who coming back to television, the hunt was on for the 21st century version of a funny actor to play the role. At least, that was the tabloids take on proceedings. Showrunner Russell T Davies had other ideas. He knew that the success of the show would depend on the credibility of the actor he cast to play the Doctor, the ability to bring gravitas and believability. Funny white guys with a reputation for playing kooky characters wouldn’t cut it. When Christopher Eccelston was announced, the news landed like a bombshell.
Eccleston was and is a serious actor known for taking meaty roles. An activist in ‘Our Friends in the North’, playing the returned Messiah in ‘The Second Coming’, the doomed DCI David Bilborough in ‘Cracker’, and numerous appearances on stage in Shakespearian plays, all demonstrated Eccleston’s acting chops and dedication to his craft. So, for Eccleston to agree to play the role was a definite pointer that this revived series of Doctor Who wasn’t going to be played for cheap laughs.
The first few episodes of the revived series were fine – ‘Rose’ set the scene, while ‘The Unquiet Dead’ demonstrated the power of mixing the historical with an alien invasion. ‘The Aliens of London’ two parter was something of a mis-step. And then came the most anticipated episode of the new series – ‘Dalek’.
The sheer, visceral reaction the Ninth Doctor displays at seeing the captured Dalek speaks to the loathing and horror he has for the creatures. Eccelston’s spittle flying rage is a tour de force in unleashed hatred. At that moment many classic series fans’ reservations about the relaunch evaporated, in no small part to Eccelston’s performance in that scene. Whatever came later, this scenet was the key moment in Series 1, for many fans, a statement on screen that the lead actor was 100% invested in the role.
3. Reveal of the Master in ‘Utopia’
Given the continuity extravaganza that the most recent series of Doctor Who became, it’s almost impossible to remember a time when the new series eschewed any mention of what came before. It was sufficient for Russell T Davies, at least initially, to have a Time Lord with a TARDIS, and call that Doctor Who. Forty odd years of continuity was put to one side while Davies and Eccelston worked to re-establish the show’s credibility as a drama with fantastical elements first. Only later did Davies relax his self-imposed edict, and that’s where ‘Utopia’ comes into play.
‘Utopia’ is a fun little runaround; set against the struggles of the last vestiges of humanity at the end of the universe. Base under siege meets ‘Mad Max’ where the barbarians outside the gates are trying to get in and the humans inside are readying a rocket to blast off to freedom.
Derek Jacobi plays Professor Yana, a delightful old codger doing his best with his insectoid companion, Chantho, to help with the evacuation. Plagued by memory loss, Yana knows little about himself other than he was discovered as a boy on the shore of the Silver Devastation. He hears a rhythmic drumming in his ears, a four beat that never leaves him. He owns a pocket watch he has never been able to open. Jacobi’s wistful performance is in perfect contrast to what comes at the end of the episode, as his transformation from kindly professor, to maniacal Time Lord, electrifies.
All praise to Russell T Davies for how well he crafted the closing moments of the script. Yana’s realisation of his true nature is expertly seeded throughout the story, with his pocket watch a deliberate nod to the Chameleon Arch from Human Nature/ Family of Blood two part story earlier in the season that provided the Tenth Doctor with a human body.
Watching the revelation scene again, one is struck by the pacing of it. Martha’s shocked realisation of the Gallifreyan script on the back of Yana’s pocket watch, her panicked search to find the Doctor and tell him, and Yana giving in to the voices demanding he open the watch, are all expertly handled. Further, Murray Gold’s score complements Yana’s awakening, and we see how Jacobi uses his physicality to signal his transformation from a humble Professor to an arrogant psychopath ready to reclaim his mantle. His line delivery of ‘I am the Master’ before electrocuting Chantho, still chills the blood.
This cliffhanger scene remains one of the most stunning of the new series, up there with the revelation of the Daleks in The Army of Ghosts, and for me, remains a firm favorite.
4. Bill Nighy’s curator monologue at the end of ‘Vincent and the Doctor.’
It’s strange to think now, but recruiting the writer of ‘Love, Actually’, Richard Curtis, to craft a Doctor Who episode, proved to be a masterstroke. While the science fiction element of ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ is pro-forma at best, it is the human interactions (a Curtis hallmark) between the characters that set this story up amongst the very best of Matt Smith’s era.
It’s true to say that your writer is a bit of an emotional wreck when it comes to films and television that depict human sorrow and failings. I tend to choke up when characters talk about their fathers, or where there are reunions between long lost loves. Even moments of punch the air excitement usually leave me brimming with tears and a pounding heart. Life’s funny, no?
Matt Smith, Karen Gillan and Tony Curran as Vincent van Gogh rise to the quality of the script in this emotional examination of what it is to live with a mental illness and be beholden to the creation of art. Curran really shines here, bringing a raw and aching humanity to one of the most gifted painters in history, living with an invisible enemy clawing at his mind.
While the invisible creature which presents the monster in ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ is an all too obvious metaphor for van Gogh’s mental illness, it is left to the final scene to demonstrate the humanity of van Gogh, and his place within the affection of not just the artistic elite, but to the general public as well. Bill Nighy’s appearance as the unnamed curator is delightful – the self-effacing fan eager to explain why van Gogh artistry connects with the humanity of not only the man himself, but those who view his work. The camera swirls around Smith and Nighy as children and adults swarm the room, admiring the artwork. The camera cuts to Gillan’s reaction shots of watching Curran, who himself is transfixed to hear the words that justify not only his art, but his existence as a person. It is still a scene, that even as I type these words, chokes me up.
5. The return of missing episodes of Doctor Who!
This one is, admittedly, a bit of a cheat, but since it happened during the new series era, and it’s a topic I’m keenly interested in, I’m happy to defend it.
2013 was an odd year. I started a new job, and alongside the stress of that, came the stress of following the increasingly fantastical rumours about the return of a massive haul of missing episodes. Your writer famously described on the podcast he co-hosts that the saga of the missing episodes is a scar upon the psyche of Doctor Who fandom. When an initial audit was conducted in the late 1970s of what remained of the original 253 black and white episodes transmitted during the 60s, 136 were missing. Over the years, that number dropped to 106, with the return of episodes from diverse places such as Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Nigeria, not to mention a Mormon Church and car boot sale in England. Not to mention in the Sydney offices of the BBC, when, in 1997, your writer unearthed several clips from the completely lost Patrick Troughton debut story, ‘The Power of the Daleks’.
But enough about my success. Rumors had roiled fandom for many months prior to mid-2013 (I had seen a list of reputed finds back in 2011), but when a pop culture website dropped a rumor bombshell that upwards of 90 lost episodes from the 60s had been uncovered, fandom blew its top. Pandemonium reigned on several of the main Doctor Who forums. Certain people, swiftly dubbed The Source Kings, were welcomed and reviled for each fascinating tidbit of rumor they shared. Was it 90 episodes? Or 19? Were they in quarantine somewhere, or being restored somewhere in Europe? Had they been found in Ghana, Ethiopia, or somewhere even more obscure and exotic? And how had found them?
It wouldn’t be until the 9th October 2013 that the rumours would finally break cover, with the BBC holding a press conference to announce that 9 wholly missing episodes, from two consecutive stories, ‘The Enemy of the World’ and ‘The Web of Fear’, had been returned from Nigeria, by fan and missing episode hunter, Philip Morris.
Cheekily, showrunner Stephen Moffat inserted a nod and a wink to the fans in the 2012 Christmas special, signalling his understanding of the rumours when he had the Doctor hold up a lunch box with a diagram of London’s Underground train stations in full view, a clear reference to ‘The Web of Fear’. With the rumours swirling, it isn’t a surprise they would make their way into the story, in the form of this Easter Egg!
Your writer was up until four in the morning chasing information before the midnight embargo lapsed, and watched as fandom around the world lit up in excitement. Patrick Troughton’s time as the Doctor was badly damaged by the wiping of his stories, so to see two stories from what is regarded as his best season returned (with the exception of episode 3 of ‘The Web of Fear’, which on the DVD release is represented by the soundtrack and a number of photographs from the production) was thrilling. For the excitement of those mad months, and the sheer joy and delight in watching Patrick Troughton at the height of his powers, the return of these episodes makes my top 5 moments from the new series.
You’ve read enough of what I think. What do you think are the most memorable, indeed the greatest, moments in the new series?