Saturday, October 27, 2012

Where To Start

Watching Doctor Who sounds daunting.  789 episodes tell 229 individual stories across 33 seasons over 50 years, encompassing all of time and space.  It holds the record for most episodes of a science fiction television show, ever.  More than all six series of Star Trek put together.  And for some reason right in the middle there's a tall guy with curly hair and a twelve-foot scarf offering you a Jelly Baby, which is a problem if you’re American because we don’t know what a jelly baby is.

If you’re new to the show (or have only watched New Who), choosing where to start seems difficult.  If you’re particularly ambitious, you can start at the beginning and keep skipping around to a relative minimum to get the maximum effect of revelations and story arcs.  And then go back and fill in the gaps until you've watched every one. That's what I did.

But there are easier, less time-consuming ways of enjoying the show.  Many of you have lives, which I hear are a thing.  This is a guide for people interested in watching this show but not sure where to begin.

If you're familiar with the new show and ready to dive into the Classic series, or just want to start there, here's my guide to Classic Who.

Here's what you need to know:

The Short Musical Version, courtesy Craig Ferguson

Doctor Who follows the adventures of an alien known only as The Doctor.  His ship, the TARDIS, travels anywhere in time and space.  On the outside, it looks like 1960s police box...

... but it's bigger on the inside.

He travels with Companions, usually human women for reasons best left to subtext, and together, they travel everywhere and everywhen, fighting monsters and turning worlds upside-down before falling out of that world and into the next.

It's the greatest premise a TV show could possibly have - it can go anywhere, be anything.  Its stories range from whimsical comedy to powerful drama to horror to anything else, and often all of them at once.  Its realm is all of imagination and storytelling.

The Doctor sometimes changes his form in a "regeneration", which you might be best to discover yourself.  Consequently, the Doctor has been played by 11 different actors.

"Classic Who" refers to the original program (1963 - 1989, covering the first 7 Doctors); it was followed by a 1996 TV movie with the 8th Doctor, and "New Who" starting in 2005, covering Doctors 9 through 11.

Sample Episodes

Not sure if the show is for you?  Just want to sample a few episodes?  Try one of these:

Blink (Series 3)
The Eleventh Hour (Series 5)
The Impossible Astronaut (Series 6)

They're all available on Netflix Instant, and that friend who's always trying to rope you into the show definitely has at least one of those on hand.

So, where do you begin?

Although it's a continuous show, it's a show that constantly reinvents itself, so there are many good starting places.  Personally, I began with the original episodes from 1963 and moved on more or less in order, skipping to episodes that sounded interesting based on their Wikipedia description.  However, as the old series was incredibly low budget and had more old-fashioned pacing, it may not be the best place to begin for most people.

Starting With New Who

Generally, the best place to start is with the first season or series of New Who, generally referred to as Series One.

The first five episodes are a bit rough, but stick through them - it pays off in a big way.  Despite the uneven start, the season is an absolutely brilliant introduction to Doctor Who.

Once you're into Season 2 and you're getting comfortable with things, it's probably worth checking out a few classic episodes; at least some of them will definitely be worth your while.  My Classic Who guide gives some suggestions.

If you're in a hurry to catch up to the episodes currently airing, the current Doctor started at the beginning of Series 5.

His first episode, The Eleventh Hour, is a brilliant introduction.  That said, there are several episodes that will work much better dramatically (and will make more sense) if you're already familiar with a few concepts and characters.  So even if you do start with The Eleventh Hour, after watching the second episode of the series, The Beast Below, it's worth going back and watching these episodes of New Who to catch up on a few important points:

The Empty Child
The Doctor Dances
Bad Wolf
The Parting of the Ways

The Christmas Invasion


Silence In the Library
Forest of the Dead

Sit back and have fun!

And finally, here's a link to my guide to watching Classic Who.

Guide to Watching Classic Who

Okay.  If you're reading this, you're really diving into the deep end.  Don't worry; it's totally worth it.  This truly is an amazing show, and the deeper you go, the more wonders you'll discover.

Classic Who stories all are serials; the episodes are about 25 minutes, and the complete stories are usually 4 episodes.  A single story is generally found on DVD in a collection of all the episodes to that story.  Because they're both older and serialized, the longer ones can feel really slow if you watch all the episodes at once since they're paced as individual episodes, not a 100 minute movie. It can bet helpful to take a break between episodes.

The first six seasons, from 1963-69, are in black-and-white.  Out of the 253 episodes produced in the 1960s, 106 episodes from 27 different serials are missing, destroyed in the '70s to free up storage space before someone realized people might actually want to watch these things again (and home video made it profitable to do so).  The audio from all the missing episodes is intact, meaning these episodes can still be experienced through "reconstructions", which take the surviving audio recordings and set them to on-set photos, telesnaps, and any surviving clips.  However, it's probably worth saving the missing stories until you're really comfortable with all the regulars appearing in them.

If you've been watching the New Series and want to sample the old series, here's a list of 12 essential stories - one story from each Doctor, representing one of their best, as well as an additional few stories that are must-see serials regardless.  There are also a few other suggestion for each Doctor.

William Hartnell - The First Doctor

The First Doctor's early stories play him as a mysterious and often sinister figure; over the course of his first season, he gradually becomes the more heroic figure we know.  Hartnell gave the Doctor an extraordinary gentleness and an almost childish sense of humor and wonder underneath the grouchy old man exterior.  But this little old man could also be terrifying to his enemies when he wanted to be.

The Aztecs

The first season, naturally, struggles to find its feet, but its highlights are fantastic, and The Atzecs represents great Doctor Who early on.  Rich characterizations and dialogue in a tightly plotted and paced adventure as the Doctor's companion, Barbara, tries to save the Aztec culture from destruction by turning them away from human sacrifices.  But the Doctor insists that they cannot change it, and the High Priest will do anything to keep his power from being taken away.

OTHER STORIES TO WATCH: The Dalek Invasion of Earth, The Rescue, The Time Meddler

Patrick Troughton - The Second Doctor

Troughton's Doctor was funnier and much sillier than Hartnell's, but he used his clownish mood to hide a staggering intelligence and a brilliantly manipulative nature.

The Mind Robber

The Second Doctor and his companions accidentally stumble into Land of Fiction, where all the characters ever created in Fiction are real, but can only say the words their writers gave them.  The TARDIS explodes, leaving them no escape as the Master of the Land of Fiction tries to turn the companions into fiction... and the Doctor into something else entirely.  It's even more insane than it sounds.

The Invasion

The Doctor protects near-future Earth from an alliance between a power-mad owner of a technology company and a familiar alien menace revealed halfway in.  Fast-paced, thrilling story with a fantastic human villain, great supporting characters, and plenty of action.  Two of the eight episodes are missing, but the DVD covers these with surprisingly effective animation.

OTHER STORIES TO WATCH: Tomb of the Cybermen, The War Games

Jon Pertwee - The Third Doctor

Pertwee played the Doctor as a swashbuckling action hero, despite the appearance of a glam, aging dandy.  His early stories found him stranded on Earth by the Time Lords after the events of The War Games.  On Earth, he worked somewhat reluctantly with a military organization, UNIT, to fight off alien invasions.  In his second season, rival Time Lord The Master, was introduced as his arch nemesis.  After The Three Doctors, his ability to travel in time and space was restored, and he resumed his travels.

Carnival of Monsters

The TARDIS lands on what at first appears to be an early 20th century ship, but when they're attacked by a Plesiosaur, and then begin to relive everything in a loop, it's obvious something insane is afoot.  A witty, wildly imaginative yarn driven by colorful characters and highlighted by the Drashigs, one of the greatest classic monsters.

OTHER STORIES TO WATCH: Spearhead From Space, The Ambassadors of Death, Terror of the Autons, The Curse of Peladon, The Three Doctors, The Time Warrior

Tom Baker - The Fourth Doctor

The bohemian, scarf-wearing, Jelly Baby-consuming Fourth Doctor has long been the most popular and beloved of the Classic Doctors.  Numerous American fans began watching his stories on PBS in the 70s and 80s.  He played the Doctor for seven seasons, from 1974 - 1981.  His early stories tend more toward horror, his later ones toward comedy, and his final season toward intellectual sci-fi.

Genesis of the Daleks

One of the great unquestioned classics of Who, a dark, terrifying, and powerful epic that belies its low-budget TV origins to deliver a staggering punch even today.

Pyramids of Mars

The Doctor faces Sutekh, an alien who was once worshipped as an Egyptian god... and who, if released, will unleash his godlike power to destroy all life.  A witty script complements an intelligent, complex horror yarn.  It also serves as a great showcase for Sarah Jane Smith, rightly the most beloved of the companions.

City of Death

What better way to wash down two dark horror epics than one of the funniest episodes of the show, written by Douglas Adams (of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy fame) and including a cameo by John Cleese?  A delightful comedy built on a genuinely intriguing story you'd best discover yourself.

OTHER STORIES TO WATCH: The Brain of Morbius, The Seeds of Doom, The Deadly Assassin, The Ribos Operation, The Pirate Planet, Full Circle

Peter Davison - The Fifth Doctor

Peter Davison played a thoughtful, patient Doctor, but he was still capable of fighting all manner of monsters and villains.  Davison always gave the role everything he had, despite scripts that ranged from sublime to hideous.  Despite his efforts, his era is a bit uneven, but it's still a very good show more often than not, and occasionally brilliant.

Kinda or The Visitation

Choosing a single episode to perfectly explain the Fifth Doctor's era is difficult, not least because about half of his stories are straightforward and normal, and the other half are crazy and experimental. So which one to start with depends on which kind you like more.

If you prefer Doctor Who at it's maddest, Kinda is a philosophically and thematically rich adventure set in a strange, dreamlike world. It's roughly what you'd expect a David Lynch version of the show to look like.

If, on the other hand, you just want the Doctor fighting off monsters from destroying Earth, The Visitation has the Doctor and his companions facing down aliens in 1666 London. It's not an interesting story, exactly, but it's nicely-paced, witty, and exciting.

The Caves of Androzani 

The Fifth Doctor's last and greatest story - a riveting action yarn that, thanks to tight scripting by Robert Holmes and stunning direction by Graeme Harper, looks and feels like a sci-fi film rather than a little old TV show.  The plotting is deliciously complex, the characterizations and dialogue brilliant, and the ending deeply powerful.  Peter Davison always gave the role his all, but he was never better.

OTHER STORIES TO WATCH: Earthshock, Snakedance, Mawdren Undead, Enlightenment

Colin Baker - The Sixth Doctor

Colin Baker's bombastic, unstable, but oddly funny Sixth Doctor at first embraced violence to fight the horrors of the universe.  Even when he softened, he was always a darker figure than the Doctor had been since the earliest days.  Baker's approach to the Doctor is compelling, but he had an unfortunate scarcity of good stories, and an even more unfortunate costume.  In the midst of his first full season, the series was put on hiatus.  When it returned, it was with a season half the length of earlier seasons.  This season, Trial of a Time Lord, started as the best Baker's Who had been, then nose-dived halfway in to the worst of his era.  The ratings crashed, hard, and Baker had only 11 stories (if you count Trial as four distinct stories), of which fewer than half are good.  It's a difficult era to love, but there are still good stories and great bits in it.

Vengeance On Varos

Baker shines in Varos, one of his best stories.  It's a flawed and nasty but intelligent and compelling satire of television violence, set on an intriguing world.

OTHER STORIES TO WATCH: Revelation of the Daleks, Trial of a Time Lord

Sylvester McCoy - The Seventh Doctor

After a rough but steadily improving first season crawling out of the hole Trial of a Timelord had dug, McCoy's Who rose to the greatest heights the show had ever reached.  The stories were brilliant, his companion, Ace, was the coolest he'd ever had, and at the center, McCoy's Doctor was absolutely fascinating - a master manipulator inside a whimsical clown, pushing the underlying concept of Troughton's Doctor to its limits.  Despite the show's resurgent genius, however, the rating never recovered, and the show was quietly cancelled in 1989.  But McCoy's short second and third seasons stand as some of the finest storytelling in all of Who.

Remembrance of the Daleks

As the Daleks converge on 1963 London for some nefarious purpose, the Doctor decides to take the sort of drastic action he usually avoids, to spectacular results.  Exciting, fast-paced yarn with wonderful characters and an awesome showing for Ace, the Doctor's final classic companion... and one of the most complex portraits of the Doctor himself at the center of it.

OTHER STORIES TO WATCH: The Greatest Show In the Galaxy, The Curse of Fenric, Survival

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Angels Take Manhattan

"Together, or not at all."

The departure of a companion hurts.  Even a relatively happy one is a painful goodbye.  The final story for Amy and Rory is bittersweet, and rightly so.  Not so tragic as to suck out all the fun, not as happy as we'd like.  It's both sad and happy, and while The Angels Take Manhattan isn't perfect, it's emotionally charged enough to move the heart of a statue.

Stephen Moffat puts tremendous thought and passion into Amy's departure.  It truly is a beautiful story, and while the execution is imperfect, the idea is wonderful.  The girl who met the Doctor as a child and grew to become his companion.  It's implied that several years passed since Power of Three, meaning she traveled with him for over a decade.  But when she leaves, it's because she is forced to choose between a life with the Doctor and with Rory, and she chooses the love of her life.  She chose him in Amy's Choice, of course, but as the reason for her final farewell, it's a beautiful idea.  And then learning she went on to live a full and happy life with Rory makes it the best kind of bittersweet.  She gets two farewell scenes with the Doctor, both of which Karen Gillan and Matt Smith act to the rafters, both deeply affecting.

But somewhere along the way, Moffat forgets to give Rory a good farewell.  This entire season has been a disappointing send-off for such fantastic companions, but at least Amy had a few good emotional moments.  Rory has barely had a moment of heroism or cool.  And Rory is such a great character.  Even in The Eleventh Hour, he was the only person on-the-ball enough to notice the coma patients, and that level of observation never faltered - he's about the only human to be unimpressed by the TARDIS because he was actually expecting that.

And beneath his quiet exterior, he's too cool for words.  The Lone Centurian, guarding his love for 2000 years; a man who makes demands of an army of Cybermen; the guy who stuffed Hitler in a closet.  When was the last time his cool was actually unleashed?  His centerpiece moment in Wedding of River Song was essentially stolen by Amy.  Was it The God Complex that last gave him his due?  He's been wasted this entire season, even in The Power of Three, which is actually about why Amy and Rory stay with the Doctor, and Angels doesn't rectify it.  Outside of one scene, all he does here is get taken by the Angels three times, which is a bit much for one episode.

The one scene he does get is a brilliant one.  He figures out how to defeat the Angels - by making his death itself a paradox, meaning he caused all those times he died and came back. (Awesome!) His conversation with Amy on the roof is one of the most intensely powerful scenes in the history of the show.  Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill have been fantastic from the very beginning, but they absolutely surpass themselves here.

But he doesn't get to say goodbye.  The Doctor doesn't even seem to acknowledge him.  He's been forgotten for so long that he just slips away.

Which makes it a little harder to forgive the uneven execution of Amy's departure.  The reasons the Doctor never gets to see her again are convoluted, arbitrary, and contradicted by a wealth of previous stories.  Which it might have gotten away with if it had been well-presented, but Moffat is so rushed for time that he basically has the Doctor spend most of his last scene with Amy garbling an explanation of what's happening.  I mean, compare that to Rose's departure in Doomsday.  By the time the climactic moment comes, we're briefed well enough on all the rules that we don't need a single word explaining what's happening to Rose, what saves her, and why she can never see the Doctor again.  Here, the Doctor spends seemingly all his screentime clumsily explaining what and why and still hasn't satisfactorily finished even when it all actually happens.

And while that scene on the roof is tremendous, the follow-up in the graveyard feels a bit clumsy and artificial.  The second farewell scene doesn't give Rory a better goodbye (or even a good word) and just repeats the same dilemma Amy had on the rooftop, and since we know her decision, it would be incredibly difficult to build the tension up a second time.  It's probably doable (RTD and Graeme Harper probably could have pulled it off), but Moffat and Nick Hurran don't smooth it over.

Stepping away from the goodbyes a moment, River is as wasted as her father.  Despite their familial connection, there's no sense of a family, even an awkward one, between them.  She barely gets a word across to either of them, and does nothing when Rory is thrown to the Cherubs.  Kingston is terrific, as always, and her underplayed emotions in the last scene are painful, but River seems to have been tacked on at the last minute.  It's not clear whether or not she knows anything about what's happening or why she's there in the first place.  In yet another badly overstuffed episode, her presence unfortunately takes time away from the important parts.

The complex, highly emotional, untrustworthy conception of the Doctor by Moffat and Smith is in full swing here, and there's real dramatic power, but from a plot standpoint, the Doctor is fairly useless.  He cries and dumps exposition, both things Smith does brilliantly, but there's no time for him to actually do anything clever.  Still, watching the characters get all teary usually has a way of lessening the dramatic impact of a scene, especially when done often, but Smith has that same unbelievable gift Sarah Michelle Geller showed on Buffy of being able to be sad a thousand different ways and make it hurt every time.

Compressing a ninety-minute story into forty-five was a minor problem in the RTD era, but for the most part, he chose his two-parters well and understood their value.  Doctor Who is a mad show where every story takes place in a different time and place, and you need time to build all that properly along with a plot and new characters... and if you're writing a highly emotional story - and Moffat's stories are all emotions and ideas - you need time to set it all up properly.  Moffat doesn't do that, and hasn't all season.  Except for A Town Called Mercy, every story this season should have been a two-parter.  And there should have been an episode between Power of Three and Angels to get across how much time has passed between stories.  A couple vague lines here about Amy's crow's feet has a lot less impact than actually showing us some or at least one of those adventures.

But enough of this.  Ultimately, aside from the usual problem of too much crammed into a single episode when a two-parter is clearly the way to go, it's a good episode in and of itself.  Director Nick Hurran creates an enjoyable Noirish atmosphere right from the delightfully tense opening, and keeps the tension up throughout.  Moffat's dialogue remains as peppered as ever with his endless wit.

The Angels are scary.  The Angels are always scary, of course, and Moffat comes up with plenty of new creepy things.  The giggling Cherubs are wonderfully creepy, and the Statue of Liberty Angel is awesome, even if nothing really comes of it and it just sits there.  As convoluted as the explanation is, the Angels' actual plan to gain power is pretty cool.

And that's largely what carries Angels.  Its ambitions and underlying ideas carry it though a lot more rough patches that it would seem an episode could whether.  It's the kind of memorable and sometimes brilliant yarn that digs in your mind and sticks with you.  It's the sort of uniquely imaginative yarn only Doctor Who could spin, and worth celebrating for its wonder and power.  And any work of art with a moment as breathtaking as the conversation between Amy and Rory on the rooftop can't be unworthy of our passion.  I just hope the cracks tearing through Moffat's era don't absorb its ability to ascend to that brightest heaven of invention it can and sometimes has soared to.

Even if their farewell isn't perfect, the fact that it's so frustrating is just another reminder of what magnificent companions Amy and Rory were, and how badly I'll miss them.

If you'll excuse me, I have to go rewatch Season 5 again and pretend everything ends like The Big Bang and is wonderful forever.


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