The reason Doctor Who is still in production today is because of a casting decision made almost fifteen years ago. With the unexpected departure of Christopher Eccelston from the role of the Doctor after just one series, the production team, led by Russell T Davies and Julie Gardiner had to find a replacement. Enter, David Tennant. With credits too numerous to mention, but spanning stage, television, movies and radio, Tennant, with his reasonably good looks, light, breezy interpretation of the Doctor, and paired up with Billie Piper, elevated the series to new heights of popularity.
Tennant clearly relished the role, and over three complete series, a handful of specials and a reappearance in the 50th anniversary storyl, created a character that charmed and delighted millions of people around the world. The stories listed below are what I believe are his five best – tell me what you think I should’ve included in the comments below.
Human Nature/The Family of Blood
Paul Cornell had a long career writing about and for Doctor Who well before he adapted his New Adventures novel, ‘Human Nature’, for the television show. Getting his start in Doctor Who fanzines in the late 80s, particularly with a sequence of stories in a zine titled Queen Bat, Cornell for a long time was the preeminent fan fiction writer. Never one to shy from controversy, Cornell wrote a particularly spiky article about the Third Doctor for the magazine DWB, which decried the character’s conservative roots. While predictably causing something of a firestorm, it did serve to underline Cornell’s talent and interest in re-examining elements of the series in a new light.
With the book, ‘Human Nature’, Cornell wrote for the Seventh Doctor. With input from producer Russell T Davies, Cornell adapted his novel for the Tenth Doctor, taking many of the same elements and refashioning them for this two part story.
And what a story! A lot of Doctor Who can be described as run of the mill – event after event after event, an alien villain to defeat and then onto the next adventure. Rarely does the show (almost never in the classic series) take time to examine the Doctor’s character – what makes him tick. Indeed, by having the Doctor remove his Time Lord essence and becoming a human, Cornell show’s us what the absence of the Time Lord persona reveals. John Smith, the human variant of the Time Lord, is a happy if diffident teacher at a boy’s school. He is plagued by strange dreams that he draws in his journal. He begins to fall in love with the school nurse Joan. Tennant’s performance here, casting off the eccentric trappings of the Time Lord, is a delight, mixing hope and poignancy and demonstrating who the Doctor is by not being the Doctor.
This is further reinforced in the second episode where John Smith is offered a tantalising glimpse of what his future might be should he abandon the Doctor entirely and marry Joan. The anguish and anger he feels at that loss only fuels the Doctor’s dire punishment for the Family of Blood. The kind, gentle John Smith disappears completely as the Doctor banishes the Family to what is effectively eternal damnation.
A fine adaptation of a very fine book, ‘Human Nature’/’The Family of Blood’ offers a different take on the Doctor, demonstrating that John Smith the man is a far more attractive figure than the vengeful Time Lord. For its unique take on the Doctor, plus the obvious metaphors for the horrors of World War One, this two parter tops the list.
Close behind, though, indeed, very close behind, is the macabre ‘Midnight’. While Doctor Who did horror exceptionally well in the 1970s, it rarely did so in the 21st century, prefer spectacle, drama and lashings of soap opera elements. When it did embrace the show’s darker DNA, Doctor Who could scare the pants off the viewers.
Effectively a bottle episode, ‘Midnight’ is also a quintessential example of the series’ old trope, the base under siege. Partly as a means to reduce production costs, but also to play to the series’ strengths of menace and drama, the base under siege stories came to the fore in the late 60s, and were a staple for many years afterwards. Classic stories like the ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’, ‘Fury from the Deep’, ‘The Ark in Space’ and ‘Horror of Fang Rock’ all demonstrate the strengths of this approach – well developed supporting characters, limited sets, and a sharply rising sense of doom through the running time.
‘Midnight’ pulls this off extremely well. With Donna offloaded for an afternoon, the Doctor ventures off on a trip with other tourists to see a waterfall made of sapphires. Safely ensconced in their vehicle, protected from the lethal radiation bombarding the exterior, the Doctor makes himself comfortable as the viewers are introduced to the character aboard. A malfunction causes the vehicle to come to a halt, leaving the tourists and crew waiting for a rescue shuttle. It is when one of the tourists claims to have seen something moving outside, that things begin to kick off.
It’s fascinating to watch as Tennant’s Doctor begins to unravel before our eyes. This incarnation is supremely confident, a being sure of his own knowledge and abilities. When he is confronted with something he cannot explain, a something that somehow infiltrates the cabin and begins to menace everyone despite his best efforts at protection, the Doctor begins to look less and less capable.
Whatever is menacing the inhabitants of the vehicle is never explained. Apart from a violent knocking and rocking of the vehicle, it never manifests itself physically. It has no voice of its own, no ability to touch or hurt anyone. But it still has a powerful effect on those around it. This is where actress Lesley Sharp comes into focus.
Memorable for co-leading with Christopher Eccelston in Russell T Davies ‘The Second Coming’, Sharp has starred in a number of films (‘The Full Monty’, ‘From Hell’) as well as a long list of television appearances. A skilful, driven performer, her performance in Midnight overshadows Tennant, who wisely steps back to allow Sharp as wide a canvas as possible.
Sharp’s character, Sky Silvestry, begins to behave oddly. When she starts to mimic the other passengers, it is a passing oddity in a situation that has begun to spiral out of control. When her mimicry becomes more obvious, the passengers begin to turn on each other. When she begins repeating what the Doctor says, the situation becomes more tense. When her copying of what the Doctor says becomes speaking at exactly the same time as he does, and then predicting what he says before he says it, then we know we are facing something deeply, deeply unsettling.
Tennant’s Doctor is left speechless by what he and the others are confronting. Sharp’s performance, the cold sterility of it, the sheer monstrousness of whatever it is that has possessed her character, is very, very powerful. When the passengers begin to turn on the Doctor, deciding he needs to be sacrificed to appease whatever it is that is hunting them, that we see the power of fear to override logic and commonsense.
The ending is for the readers to watch for the first time, or experience again. They should know, demonstrating the unusual nature of this story, that it isn’t the Doctor who saves the day here, but the sacrifice of one of the passengers. When the Doctor is shown as being hapless in the face of such an unusual, eerie creature, that is the moment that the full power of ‘Midnight’ descends on the audience like a thunderclap. And it won’t be the last time this series the Doctor isn’t able to save the day for those close to him…
The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit
By now you guys would’ve realised I really, really like spooky Doctor Who. I’m not here for the romance, deep examinations of pressing modern issues, or goofy high jinks with a sonic screwdriver. I want to be unsettled and a little freaked out. New Series stories like ‘Listen’ or ‘Blink’ fit the bill, but none do it better than this pair of stories.
Again, a base under siege tale, this time on a planet circling a black hole, in a base filled with nice, clean cut fodder…I mean characters. Sure, the only reason the planet hasn’t been torn apart and sucked into the black hole is a mysterious counterbalancing force ten miles beneath the planet’s surface. And sure, that mysterious force has a really resonant voice that speaks in the minds of certain characters. And sure, when the cliffhanger rolls around, that mysterious force is revealed to be the spitting image of everyone’s favorite Biblical character, Satan. It’s all good.
And indeed, it is all good. During this phase of the show, Russell T Davies and the other writers were setting the Tenth Doctor and Rose up for a fall. I remember being particularly annoyed at their antics – acting like they knew everything, thinking that what was happening around them was an easily solved joke. Of course, they’d get their comeuppance later in the series. They nearly got it here, in a story that oozes atmosphere, freaky visuals, and a pitch perfect performance by one Gabriel Woolf, as the Voice of the Beast.
Boring old timers like me are often given to waxing lyrical about the good old days, when producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes engaged in wholesale stripmining of just about every prominent horror movie since the 1930s to help develop the stories of their era. In particular, one such story, ‘The Pyramids of Mars’ features an ancient being known as Sutekh, the inspiration for all sorts of cosmic baddies, including our one and only, Satan. The fact that the actor voicing Sutekh as also Gabriel Woolf is one of those coincidences that keeps me up at night. Or perhaps Russell T Davies was simply a fan of that story, just like me.
Anyway, Woolf’s voice is pure menacing honey, dripping with soothing words that add up to a whole lot of temptation and chaos and death. While the Beast itself is mindless, it is Woolf’s performance as the coolly cynical id of the Beast that elevates the story to its place on this list. Crew members come and go, the Doctor and Rose battle to save what can be saved, and survive themselves, but it is Woolf through the sheer power of his vocal talents that carries the story to its stunning conclusion.
A Doctor-lite episode this time, and deliberately so, given why what happens in this story happens. ‘Turn Left’ is a rare beast in Doctor Who, a story that examines an alternative reality, one where the Doctor dies, and the devastating ramifications of that on Donna, her family, and the world at large.
It’s always the smallest things that can have the greatest effects. ‘Turn Left’ starts with Donna having her fortune read, before jumping to a scene predating her meeting the Doctor. Donna, tired of her mother’s hectoring about taking a permanent job, decides instead of turning right at an intersection, defies her mother and turns left. That decision creates an alternate reality, one where Donna never met the Doctor, and he dies during the events of ‘The Runaway Bride.’
A universe without the Doctor isn’t one worth thinking about, to paraphrase an old line from an older villain. In ‘Turn Left’, the Doctor’s absence has a far more personal effect on Donna and her family. Without the Doctor, Sarah Jane Smith and her young charges all die, Martha Jones suffocates and the members of Torchwood are killed. The spaceship Titanic crashes into Buckingham Palace, destroying greater London and forcing the remnants of the government to institute martial law. Internment camps spring up, and there is a dark fate in store for anyone foreign born on English soil…
Out of the shadow of Tennant, Catherine Tate absolutely shines. Despite all her bluster, Donna at heart is a kind person keen to do the right thing. She’s also more than capable of handling herself in a difficult situation. With the UK descending into chaos, and her mother next to useless, it is up to Donna to make sure her family survives. The most heartbreaking moment of the episode, one that exemplifies Donna’s basic decency, is her reaction to seeing a friend she has made, an older Italian man, hustled onto a truck for dispatch to an internment camp. Doctor Who, in stories like ‘Genesis of the Daleks’, has made reference to the Nazi’s in the past, but more as window dressing. Here, the deliberate reference to the Holocaust strikes home much, much harder as we witness the fear on the people in the truck, who have lost everything, and are ignored by their so called friends and neighbours. Donna’s bewilderment, his stiff upper lip in the face of disaster, brings home how fragile are the ties that bind society together. And when Donna realises what she has to do to fix the timelines from total collapse, her sacrifice once again underscores why she is a companion of the Doctor.
A story which launched the nightmares of a generation of children deserves an entry into this Top 5, even if, once again, David Tennant barely makes an appearance. (Hmm…)
Back in the mid-90s, a little known writer named Stephen Moffat had his very first Doctor Who piece of fiction published in a collection called Decalog 3. Called, ‘Continuity Errors’ it told the increasingly baroque and complicated tale of Seventh Doctor’s efforts to secure the release of a book from a library. Facing an obstinate librarian, the Doctor began venturing into her past, changing and improving her personality, in the hope she would relent in the future and allow him to borrow the book. Things get…complicated.
And complicated is a lovely word to describe ‘Blink.’ Also, terrifying is another excellent word to describe this highly regarded episode. Moffat has always been an incredibly prolific and inventive writer and the Weeping Angels – ancient creatures that manifest as motionless statues and ‘feed’ on the energy potential created by time paradoxes – is one of his greatest creations for the show.
While the Tenth Doctor, through his appearance scattered through a number of DVD easter eggs, anchors the story, it is Carey Mulligan, as Sally Sparrow, who is the real star of the story. Moffat has always excelled at creating strong, determined female characters, as far back as children’s newspaper editor Lynda Day in ‘Press Gang’. Here, Sparrow is resourceful and intrepid, an almost companion to a largely absent Doctor.
Of course, the real hero of the story is Moffat’s script, which even when you read a description, is headache inducing. Despite featuring a time machine, Doctor Who rarely addresses time travel and paradoxes. Well, Moffat makes up for this in spades, delivering a story that twists and turns on itself, seemingly without a real beginning or end, yet being delightful enough and spooky enough that by the end of it, the audience is left feeling content with what they’ve seen. ‘Blink’, through the agency of the Weeping Angels, does enough to scare the youngsters, while the story, with its time travel, feisty leading lady and a more than satisfying mystery, is enough to make the adults sit up and watch. Indeed, I think that’s what I’ll be doing tonight!