Top 10 Wen-sday – Top Ten Episodes of Modern Day Dr Who

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As I mentioned in my latest Sunday Rundown, I’ve been rewatching episodes from Series 4 of Dr Who. I came to the realisation that, whilst Donna is my all time favourite companion, it is probably series 3 that is the season that I love the most. That’s because it contains a large number of the best and most memorable episodes in the series. There are only a few dull moments and even those aren’t dull in the same way that most of the Steven Moffat era Who series have been. I mean even the fairly awful “Smith and Jones” opener is nowhere near as bad as the fucking pirate episode. And no matter how awful the series finale may be in comparison to the previous ones it is way more memorable than the first finale of Matt Smith’s Doctor. I mean who can even remember what happened in “The Pandorica Opens”/”The Big Bang”? Whatever you may think about Russell T’s writing style in comparison to Moffat’s (even I can’t pretend that Moffat doesn’t come out on top), the former clearly has more understanding of how a series should come together as a whole. Now amidst this soul-searching I couldn’t help but start mentally compiling my top 10 list of Modern Day Who episodes. Just in time for April’s post. Wasn’t that convenient?

    Ten: “The Girl in the Fireplace” (Series 2 Episode 4)

This episode, more than any of the previous Tennat episodes, showed us who he was as the Doctor. His romance with Rose was dull and got a little annoying but his short connection to Madame de Pompadour. It is sweet, poignant and heartbreaking at its conclusion. This episode shows us the Doctor’s need to be understood by someone else and how difficult that it. It shows us his connection to history and his flair for the dramatic. Both David Tennant and Sophia Myles are fantastic in the episode and the clockwork androids are a fabulous villain. This is an episode that really sums up the early days of modern Who and is a triumph of the Russell T. era. Plus, there’s a fucking horse on a spaceship. Who can ignore that?

     Nine: “Amy’s Choice” (Series 5 Episode 7)

If I’m being honest, there aren’t many episodes of series 5 that I would call good. It’s one of my least favourite and least remembered series. The first Matt Smith series and, more importantly in terms of quality, the first that Moffat was running the show. Still there are one or two glimmers of hope within the deluge of shit. It came down to “Vincent and the Doctor” or this one. It was a close call but I felt that “Vincent and the Doctor” worked so well as an appreciation of art and an exploration of depression. However, as a Dr Who episode, “Amy’s Choice” is just astonishing. Not necessarily in terms of direction or production but in terms of storyline. It is one of the most engaging stories of the series as Amy must finally decide who means the most to her: her fiancée or the Doctor. Add that to the superb performance by Tody Jones and you have a winner.

     Eight: “The Doctor’s Wife” (Series 6 Episode 4)

With a script written by Neil Gaiman there was no doubt that this was going to be one of the greater episodes of Dr Who. Gaiman wanted to set the episode that centred on the TARDIS itself which was, up to that point, something not done in the show’s history. After many rewrites, he came up with the idea of the TARDIS’ mind being implanted into the body of a woman and being replaced with the consciousness of an evil, sentient asteroid played by Michael Sheen. This means Rory and Amy have to find their way around a TARDIS that’s trying to kill them whilst the Doctor comes face-to-face with the only companion that has survived his every regeneration. It is a great episode that is both frightening and lovely. Matt Smith and Suranne Jones, playing the TARDIS, are both fantastic and the interaction between the Doctor and his ship is just wonderful. It’s certainly not a perfect episode but it is one you can’t help but love.

     Seven: “The Fires of Pompeii” (Series 4 Episode 2)

After the, frankly, kind of ridiculous opener for Tate’s first series as fully fledged companion, “The Fires of Pompeii” shows us what she will really be like during her time in the TARDIS. It is an emotional story and watching Donna have to accept that she can’t save the people of Pompeii from their inevitable fate. This episode really sets out the kind of relationship the pair will have. Donna is more than willing to argue with him about morality and, at the dramatic conclusion of this story, she stands by him as he makes the most difficult decision one could ever make. She is there for him but also reminds him that not everybody needs to die. She shows him that saving one person is sometimes enough. Yes, the writing is pretty shitty but this episode has me in tears every single time.

     Six: “Human Nature”/”The Family of Blood” (Series 3 Episodes 8 and 9)

This two-parter is one of the greatest things about series 3 and gives David Tennant another chance to show how great he is in the role. There are some great moments in the first episode and the scarecrow warriors are memorable. I also have to say that Harry Lloyd is magnificent as one of the Family of Blood. He’s amazing and terrifying in the role. Although, what makes this double episode so good is the final moments of John Smith’s life. When he starts to realise that he has to give up everything he has in order to save the world. When he has to face the fact that he isn’t an ordinary man and must sacrifice his happiness for a life of death and loneliness. It’s devastating and Tennant is just sublime. 

     Five: “The Empty Child”/”The Doctor Dances” (Series 1 Episodes 9 and 10)

“Are you my mummy?” Even more than 10 years on, this question can still strike fear into most fans of Dr Who. This was the first Steven Moffat episode and it made us all realise just how great he could be for the series. Up until this point there had been a lot of silliness in the new series of Who. It was being pushed towards families so was family friendly. There were fart jokes a plenty and the monsters weren’t that scary. Then there was the kid with a gas mask face. The central storyline was amazing and the end result was as satisfyingly emotionally fraught as it needed to be. Although, there was enough light-heartedness to ensure we still have fun along the way. And lest we forget, it is the episode that introduced us to the astounding Captain Jack Harkness. I’ll be forever grateful.

     Four: “The Stolen Earth”/”Journey’s End” (Series 4 Episodes 12 and 13)

How could I not include this double parter on the list? The finale of series 4 is the episode of Dr Who that has emotionally scarred me the most. Even reading the title can manage to bring tears to my eyes. As we should all be aware by now, Donna Noble is my number 1 companion and her departure from the series was the most devastating in the modern series’ history. It is for that reason that this episode is the greatest. Without giving us a moment to celebrate the culmination of Donna’s journey allowing her to successfully stop Davros and saving the universe the writers take all that development away. Add to that the fantastic acting from David Tennant and Bernard Cribbins and I’m in bits every time I think about it. This is still one of the most powerful episodes of modern Who in my opinion. Plus, there’s some shit with Doctor and Rose that kind of happens. Oh and Mickey and Jack come back. It’s quite fun up until the awful final moments. 

     Three: “The Day of the Doctor” (50th Anniversary Special)

I could bang on about how great this episode is but I already have once. We all know how great this is. It’s a celebration of everything we love and have always loved about Dr Who with an amazing cast and a great story.

     Two: “Blink” (Series 3 Episode 10)

“Blink” is one of those episodes that has become synonymous with the quality of Dr Who. It is an episode that is beloved by all fans and is appreciated by people who don’t always get the show. With the way I’ve been feeling about Steven Moffat lately it’s always good to revisit an episode like “Blink”; this is Moffat at his best. The writing is fantastic and the it is there is so much going on in a single episode. Even the fact that the Weeping Angels have been overused to the point that they don’t really register any more, this episode is genuinely terrifying. Carey Mulligan is amazing and there is so much emotion and fear on offer that you can’t help but love it. Just take the tiny but incredibly powerful failed romance of Sally Sparrow and Billy Shipton. Argh, so many feels. It so often appears on the top of all best episodes lists and, I have to admit, “Blink” was certainly my favourite episode of modern Who until exactly one series later…

     One: “Midnight” (Series 4 Episode 10)

“Midnight” is one of those overlooked episodes of Who because it is so self-contained and unremarkable. The entire run takes place in a small space and the villain remains unseen and unnamed. I can see why people forget about it but I think it’s an incredible episode of television. Whilst Catherine Tate was off filing “Turn Left” David Tennant was left to his own devices and given the chance to take a trip to the planet Midnight. Along the way the ship is boarded by an invisible foe who takes over the body of one of the passengers. The tension in the episode builds slowly but leads to an incredibly dramatic showdown.  This single episode of Dr Who is more exciting, frightening and tells us more about humanity than the majority of the following seasons combined. 

The Day of the Doctor (2013)

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To quote, River Song “Spoilers”.

I’ve made no real secret of the fact that I’m not the biggest fan of Steven Moffat’s time as head writer on Dr Who. I think the quality of the writing has decreased and the focus has become spectacle and viewing figures instead of good characters and well-executed narratives. Plus, his last 3 seasons have included far more complete duds than the Russell T era was ever guilty of and, in my opinion, the vast majority of great episodes come from the first 4.5 series of the rebooted show. However, I was just as excited as the vast majority of the world about last night’s 50th anniversary special and sat in front of my TV praying Moffat would pull it off.

The Day of the Doctoris to Dr Who what Skyfall was for James Bond: namely a completely geeky celebration of the classic science-fiction show. It starts from the get-go with subtle and slightly less subtle references to the episodes of the past. We have the classic Who opening titles, the opening scene, a returning enemy and more than a few familiar faces. It’s an action packed adventure that sets out to reinvent the show as we now know it.
Unfortunately, right off the bat, I find my first hint of disappointment thanks to the unnecessary, just writing it so we can use a lot of green-screen, scene which sees the Doctor hanging out of the Tardis as it lands in Trafalgar Square. Just because we have a bigger budget doesn’t mean we need to use every bit of it, guys. Less is, as they say, more. However, it was great to have UNIT back and the reappearance of Kate (Jemma Redgrave), who made an amazing first impression in the otherwise forgettable Power of Three. Also worthy of a mention is the bescarfed and asthma suffering Osgood (Ingrid Oliver) who I definitely hope to see her return at some point. She’s pretty much your typical fangirl (complete with Tom Baker inspired accessory) and, from the looks of it, has been a hit with Whovians the world over.  
UNIT need the Doctor and Clara to help them solve a mystery surrounding something new: Time Lord art. Our introduction to this new section of Time Lord society was wonderful and not only served as a large part of the following narrative but offered breathtaking visuals. Featuring traditional ‘bigger on the inside’ Time Lord technology, the painting on show contains a single moment in history. A very important moment in history as it turns out: The Moment. The last seven seasons of Dr Whohave been leading to this point where we finally come face-to-face with the exact point that this supposedly good man made the decision to destroy his people in order to save existence. Before he pushes the big red button he has to justify his actions so, thanks to a weapon of mass destruction that handily has a conscience, the War Doctor (John Hurt) gets the chance to meet his future self.
Thanks to another flashback we get a glimpse of Number 10 (David Tennant) enjoying some down-time with Elizabeth I (Joanna Page) in 1562 and trying to prevent an invasion by the Fourth Doctors old enemy the Zygons. Our current doctor (Matt Smith) is eventually transported to the same time and the stage is finally set for the moment we’ve all been waiting for. Matt Smith and David Tennant work really well together on screen. They both have a similar way of approaching the character and it is great to watch their dialogue. The two over-grown children are initially wary of each other but, ultimately, have a great deal of

respect for their different selves. The pair has a great back and forth and the little bitchy lines are a welcome break in moments of heavy plot development.

Smith plays his Doctor with the same relish and skill that we have come to expect since he took over for series 5. I think he’s done an admirable job and his over-excited child-like nature is infectious and easy to embrace. However, this episode was all about the return of Tennant who, despite a 3 year gap, fits back into the old suit perfectly. It’s always lovely to see an actor to return to a key role in their career and you can tell he had a lot of fun doing it.
That is something that The Day of the Doctor does well. Moffat is at his best when he is writing on a very personal and close level because he can play with language, drama and comedy. In terms of his writing, this episode has to be one of his finest Who episodes to date. Anyone who makes the brave decision to mock large aspects of your own work is alright by me. The Day of the Doctor is self-aware and tongue-in-cheek despite all of the dark themes on show. It is out together very cleverly and, despite all of the jumps through time, it is easy to keep up with the action. Unlike a lot of Moffat’s recent episodes, there is no sense that the drama just peters out towards the end. The action and the emotions are running high from the opening to ending credits. Most importantly of all, because he was preoccupied with something more important, he didn’t make the mistake of going too big. The moments when this episode really flies are in the quieter scenes starring our main three men.  
After a brief glimpse at the end of series 7, John Hurt finally gets the chance to show us what he is made of as the War Doctor works up the courage to make the ultimate choice. He is a weary and defeated man who can see no other way out. However, it is only after he comes face-to-face with his youthful future that the sparks really fly. Hurt gets some utterly amazing lines to throw about and fits wonderfully in the role of the disapproving parent. I’d describe Tennant and Smith’s approach to the Doctor as one full of eagerness and
glee. Hurt is calm, collected and totally badass. The younger men hold their screwdrivers aloft in the same manner that a Shakespearean actor would hold a sword whilst Hurt stands alongside and gets straight to the point. It’s an attention-grabbing and completely engrossing performance.

As is the supporting role played by Billie Piper. Thankfully, Moffat decided against attempting to bring back Rose Tyler once again but used her image, or more specifically Bad Wolf Rose, as the interface of The Moment. Piper has some great moments whilst guiding the War Doctor to his ultimate decision and she plays her role with a great deal of subtlety and skill. Considering part of me was dreading her arrival, I found myself rejoicing that she could make it back to mark the occasion.

Rose Tyler may have recently been voted the greatest Doctor Who companion ever by a BBC3 poll but there can be no denying that Clara is well on her way to proving herself. Having spent much of her first series just moving the story along, it was nice to see her make more of a mark here. Unlike Amy (who, as you may remember, I couldn’t stand), she is clever, independent and strong. Jenna Louise Colman is a fine actress and, provided she is given the correct material, she should continue to flourish under Peter Capaldi’s guidance. Just look back at that phenomenal moment where she stood up to all three Doctors and managed to change the course of history.
That is, after all, what Moffat wanted to do with this episode. The narrative of the Zygon invasion is just your run-of-the-mill Who story: shape-shifting aliens, confusion about who is real, confrontation and eventual resolution. Whilst it has some important and clever components to it, the plot is, ultimately, inconsequential and the story is never even fully resolved for the audience. This is about the Doctor and the  choice he made. A decision that has haunted him since well before 2005’s Rose. It never really seemed to fit that the Doctor, as we know him, would accept that there was no other way to stopping the war. He has faced a great many foes and has always failed to accept defeat. The Doctor deserved a second chance and that is exactly what Moffat gave him.
A second chance that led to one of the most extraordinary sequences in television history and the moment that Peter Capaldi’s eyebrows almost broke the internet: all of Doctors to date coming together to save their planet from destruction. I defy anyone to sit through it without feeling like a child again. Any viewer who didn’t watch as all of the familiar faces of the past (and one from the future) flooded our screens and didn’t jump for joy had no right watching the show at all. Similarly, if anyone watched that final scene, where all of the Doctors line up side-by-side, without shedding just a little tear has no heart.
Even the slightly shameful and cringey Tom Baker cameo was forgivable and the conversation between him and Matt Smith was a wonder. He was the man who defined the Doctor for such a long time and it wouldn’t have felt right without some sort of appearance. Plus, the idea that regenerations can backtrack in some way is an interesting one that will of course leave a lot of fangirls hoping David Tennant and his great hair will fall on hard times and find his way back.
There is simply too much to say in praise of this episode and far too many references and moments to discuss that I could write forever. Of course, there were flaws here but the positives more than outweigh them. Even the use of CGI and special effects worked in this setting. If I’m completely honest, the opening shots of the Time War felt a little bit like the flat and lifeless CGI of the Star Wars prequels but there were some scenes where it really worked. Can anything compete with the visual of three slow-mo Doctors facing off against a Dalek in the middle of the Time War before crashing through a painting into the tower of London? No? Didn’t think so.
Ultimately, this episode gave a great deal of closure to a terrible part of the Doctor’s past, it celebrated who he was, allowed him to come to terms with his actions and left him with a new direction. Whatever happens in Matt Smith’s final outing at Christmas, we all know where Peter Capaldi is heading: home.

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! (2012)

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When talking animation there is one studio that is often overlooked thanks to such superpowers as Pixar and Studio Ghibli. That studio is the vastly talented Aardman Animations. The studio is known for its work using stop-motion clay animation, in particular the series of films featuring the popular man and dog team, Wallace and Gromit. It easy to see why Aardman doesn’t quite have the presence of other studios as its number of feature films to date is only 5. They started off on a high with two critically acclaimed stop-motion films Chicken Run in 2000 and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbitin 2005. It was their third attempt and, incidentally the first film to move into CGI, Flushed Away, that broke their streak. This and the run-of-the-mill Arthur Christmas were perhaps telling Aardman that it was time to go back to their roots. Thankfully, their 2012 feature film The Pirates! In an adventure with Scientists! shows us what this company is really capable of and it sort of feels very much like the kind of film they’ve wanted to make for years. Now I admit that I’m an unashamedly massive fan of all things animated and I am particularly fond of the more traditional efforts. There is still something so magical about stop-motion animation (so wonderfully displayed in the likes of Wes Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox) and there is no doubt that there will always be a feeling associated with these works that completely computer-generated works will never be able to achieve. The films being produced by this quiet Bristol-based studio in particular have what can only be described as a definitive spirit that comes across from the opening credits onwards.

The film is based on the first book in the series of ‘The Pirates!’ books written by Gideon Defoe. The books share the great sense of Britishness and silliness that has underpinned all of Aardman’s most popular works. It follows the exploits of the hapless pirate captain named, quite helpfully, Pirate Captain as he vows to win the much coveted Pirate of the Year Award. Our well-meaning hero is voiced by Hugh Grant who shows off a great sense of comic timing, something that was lost in all of the twee romantic-comedies he bumbled his way through in the 90s. Whilst this Captain seems unlikely to achieve success in the pirating world he will certainly find a place in the hearts of the audience. He is the charming but frustrated would-be scourge of the high seas who finds himself distracted by sea-shanties, ham and maintaining his luxuriant beard. Jack Sparrow he is not. More like the kind of pirate that, if I’m brutally honest, I will turn out to be when I eventually leave the humdrum of everyday life and take to the waves. He is the biggest joke pirating world and finds himself constantly being belittled by the rest of the pirating community.

Mocked by his fellow captains, our hero is nevertheless beloved by his naive and fiercely loyal crew: consisting of the likes of Pirate with the Scarf (Martin Freeman); Pirate with Gout (Brendan Gleeson); the Suspiciously Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jenson) and the Albino Pirate (Russell Tovey). Martin Freeman does well as he finds himself in another of his traditional roles playing the frustrated second fiddle to a well-meaning but, ultimately, fairly useless leader. He is the Ernie Wise to the Pirate Captain’s Eric Morecambe and, whilst he may not be the greatest comic creation ever, his presence perfectly offsets the latter’s foolishness. Gleeson and Jenson both do admirably with their role but it is Tovey’s voice in particular that really lends itself to animation. So much so that even his small role proves to be utterly memorable. The crew encourages their captain to fight for his title and with a newfound eagerness set out to acquire their greatest haul of booty ever.

All does not go according to plan and instead of finding riches they come face to face with Charles Darwin, voiced by Dr Who himself David Tennant. This is not the Charles Darwin that we are used to. Gone is the brilliant scientific mind who gave us his Theory of Evolution and in its place we have the shy geek, often outwitted by his own monkey butler, whose major concern is finding a girlfriend. There are moments when Darwin falls flat but there is some much needed humour to be found in his primate sidekick who is thoughtful enough to provide his own subtitles.

Unable to offer the much needed booty, Darwin instead informs the Captain that his much loved parrot Polly is actually the last Dodo in existence. He is quickly promising the Pirate Captain fame and fortune if he gave permission to show her at the Scientist of the Year competition at the Royal Academy in London. Whilst Pirate with the Scarf is skeptical of Darwin’s motives, Pirate Captain is soon hightailing it back to London with the help of some beautiful 2d topographical animation. This journey turned out to be one of the most visually memorable scenes and goes to show that Aardman never miss a moment to pack in a treat for their audience.

Of course, Darwin’s motives are at loggerheads with the band of swashbucklers as he intends to use Polly to ingratiate himself with the villainous Queen Victoria, an infamous pirate hater. With the help of his trained monkey butler he embarks on his mission to steal Polly and present her himself. Queen Victoria is an inspired character voiced expertly by Imelda Staunton (who manages to recall her most despicable moments as Professor Umbridge whilst playing one of our greatest monarchs).  Pirates! offers us a Queen Victoria who could stand shoulder to shoulder with the greatest cinematic villains. With her secret trapdoors, steampunk airplane, ninja skills and murderous hatred for all things piratical, she would make an excellent Bond villain should 007 ever find himself back in an animated Victorian period. Historically accurate she is not but a terribly enjoyable scoundrel.

There is plenty to enjoy about Piratesas the makers fire gags at the audience like an excitable 12 year using a submachine gun during his first go at a FPS. The quick fire assault of humour includes some fantastic throwaway lines of dialogue and non-stop sight gags. It’s worth taking note of any newspaper headline, road sign or shop front so you don’t miss out on any of the humorous puns hidden away. The world created by Aardman is exquisite in the amount of detail it contains. The filmmakers play with the stereotypes associated with pirates as the audience would view them and with all aspects of Victorian culture. It is delightful to watch something so silly that is also so beautifully crafted. For there are some truly fantastic set pieces throughout the film and none more so than the dramatic runaway bath scene which harks back to the exciting toy train chase in The Wrong Trousers. A sure fire sign that they are getting closer to their past glory.

My major issue with Pirates is the plot itself. Or, at least, the speed with which the plot moves forward. The one problem with the ceaseless campaign of visual gags is that it tends to take centre stage and the action in the foreground is often dismissible. There is often too much for the audience to take in and the plot twists so much that it often seems preferable to immerse yourself in the background instead. The narrative suddenly lurches forward every time you think you’re on solid ground without giving you much time to breathe. The plot ends up being choppier than any of the waves the Pirate Captain and his crew encounter along their way. After getting the introductions sorted the plot steams forward at such a speed that we end up in London before we’re really aware of what’s happening. It speeds though the final act so quickly that it doesn’t really matter how we get there just as long as there is the dramatic showdown.

It’s not as if the film was at risk at running to a ridiculous length so I fail to see why the writers couldn’t have slowed the plot down so the audience was able to really engage with the story before them. Had the narrative been just a little more considered this film would have felt less chaotic and out of control. From my point of view it would have been a nice counterpoint to the hectic backdrop if the plot had been stronger and more self-assured so it could stand out. The characters can only keep one engaged with the action for so long and even the lovable Pirate Captain cannot completely keep our focus when he is constantly zipping from one island to another. And, whilst I’m at it, what of the actual pirating? For a ship that was constantly on the move the crew can hardly be accused of doing much plundering on their way. We have the science and the adventure but perhaps, next time, we deserve a little more of the piracy.

And I really do hope there will be a next time. What Aardman have managed here is to create the start of what is bound to be a great franchise of children’s animated films. It was a bit of bumpy start maybe but with the characters, cast and the exquisite animation on show it would be a shame if it’s the last we see of the Pirate Captain and Co. It is a film that you cannot watch and end up not feeling warm and thoroughly satisfied. It is delightfully British and fantastically silly. It is the sort of film that demands a second playing almost as soon as you’ve finished the first just so you can search for any hidden gags that you missed first time round. I for one cannot wait to sit down and enjoy it again.