November 23rd, 2013

Sixth Doctor

Doctor Who 50th: 20 top moments in Who history

Saturday, November 23, 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who. Fittingly, there have been celebrations, specials, personal appearances, and a Loch Ness Monster-sized number of specials across the BBC's space-time continuum -- all culminating in the anniversary episode itself, "The Day of the Doctor," which is being broadcast worldwide -- simultaneously. (That's Saturday 2:50 p.m. for we U.S. East Coasters.)

Across five decades and 11 Doctors (or maybe 12 or 13, actually -- damn you, Steven Moffat!), there have been many great moments: some sad, some frightening, and nearly all surprising. And what's surprising to me is how many Dalek moments made the cut! Though not my favorite Who enemies, they unquestioningly have proven their value to the series.

Here, in chronological order, are 20 classic Who moments:

  1. Barbara steps into the TARDIS (An Unearthly Child, November 1963). In that first episode of that first story, schoolteachers Barbara and Ian investigate the mystery of their student Susan. After an argument with Susan's mysterious grandfather in a junkyard, Barbara pushes her way into the tiny British police call ball and ... discovers that it's bigger on the inside. MUCH bigger. We're jaded now, but for the early '60s audience, this was wild stuff.


  2. The Doctor and Barbara argue over the fate of the Aztecs (The Aztecs, May 1964). I miss the series' purely occasional forays into the purely historical dramas, because of moments like this. After the TARDIS lands in ancient Aztec times, Barbara is mistaken for the avatar of the sun god. She decides to use that leverage to turn the Aztecs away from their bloody religious rituals and make them a strong, enduring, progressive force in history. The Doctor is horrified. "You CAN'T!" he angrily pleads. He tries to make her understand that history cannot be altered like this without devastating consequences. Wonderful acting by both William Hartnell and Jacqueline Hill.


  3. The Dalek emerges from the Thames (The Dalek Invasion of Earth, November 1964). The first time we saw the Daleks a year earlier, they were on a far-off world, oppressing their historical foes, the Thaals. Here, the TARDIS lands in 22nd century London to find it devastated and policed by ruthless, cybernetic "Robomen." At the end of the first episode, they see a Dalek rolling imperiously out of the Thames River. The Daleks are on Earth, and they've already won.


  4. The first regeneration (The Tenth Planet, October 1966). After three years as the Doctor, William Hartnell wanted to exit. His health was on the decline, as is clearly visible in these episodes. The BBC wanted the series to continue. But Hartnell was the star! The solution: Have this mysterious alien change his form upon his "death," metamorphosing into an altogether different person. (It wouldn't be called regeneration for another few years.) This resolution was simple, innovative, and largely responsible for the series' existence today.


  5. The Cybermen rise from their tomb (Tomb of the Cybermen, September 1967). A creepy moment from a classic tale. Doctor Who loved to borrow concepts from old horror movies, and this is straight out of Universal's Mummy films. The slow-motion movements of the waking Cybermen combine with the eerieness of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop to create magic. (Here's a fan-made trailer for the story.)


  6. Killer mannequins on the loose (Spearhead from Space, January 1970). In the Third Doctor's first story, filmed in color for the first time -- and on film, no less -- the evil, plastic-inhabiting Autons put their master plan into effect: Mannequins with blaster hands went on the warpath. Hmmm, OK, as invasion plans go, the Autons' idea had some holes in it, but the story succeeded in taking an everyday image and making it scary.


  7. The departure of Jo Grant (The Green Death, June 1973). When Jo Grant became the Third Doctor's companion, she was, well, pretty useless. By the time she left, she was a competent foil for the Doctor and a loyal friend. Producer/Director Barry Letts gave her a worthy sendoff, massaging the moment for plenty of emotion, and closing with a splendid shot of the saddened Doctor driving across the sunset.


  8. “Have I the right?” (Genesis of the Daleks, April 1975). Doctor Who usually hasn't shied away from exploring the grayer areas of morality. In this classic tale, most of the characters aren't heroes and villains as much as they are people arguing over principles. The Doctor, at the birth of his archenemies, has a golden opportunity to destroy a Dalek nursery and ensure that the Daleks never threaten the galaxy. But he can't bring himself to connect those two wires and commit genocide. It's Tom Baker at his best.


  9. “Then what’s it FOR?!!” (The Pirate Planet, October 1978). Douglas Adams' time as series script editor certainly had its ups and down, but he struck gold a year earlier with his tale of a planet-sized ship that teleported itself around other planets, which it then crushed to steal their resources... and, of course, killing billions in the process. When the Doctor confronts the madman controlling the ravaging ship -- the arrogant, delusional Captain -- the Time Lord drops his eccentric demeanor and completely loses his shit, displaying rage in a way never seen to that point.


  10. The death of Adric (Earthshock, March 1982). The Doctor's companion dies while trying to stop a ship from crashing into Earth. The Doctor and his other companions, having just regained control of the TARDIS from the Cybermen, can only watch in horror. The credits rolled in silence.


  11. Crashing into Androzani Minor (The Caves of Androzani, March 1984). Both Doctor Who Magazine and io9.com call this story -- Peter Davison' finale -- the greatest in the show's history. No argument here. The Doctor is dying from the opening minutes, and each episode packs on more twists, more tension, and several great cliffhangers, including this moment at the end of the penultimate Episode 3. The Doctor, somewhat delirious and guilt-ridden, seizes control of the mercenaries' starship and steers it back to Androzani Minor in order to find and save his companion Peri, who is also dying. With automatic weapons about to fire at him, the Doctor refuses to yield.


  12. The Daleks can go up stairs! (Remembrance of the Daleks, October 1988). The Daleks hadn't fared so well in their previous couple of appearances in the series, but they make a better showing here against Sylvester McCoy's Machiavellian Doctor. As the Doctor and Ace flee up the stairs, the episode ends with the pursuing Dalek levitating after them.


  13. “Nice to meet you, Rose -- run for your life!” (Rose, March 2005). After a decade's absence from the TV screens, the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) had returned. An engrossing start to the series' revival.


  14. “I watched it happen! I MADE it happen!!” (Dalek, April 2005). Christopher Eccleston's Doctor says he's the last of the Time Lords. Once he discovers to his horror that there's still a Dalek alive after the Time War, we learn that the Doctor did what he couldn't do way back in Genesis of the Daleks: Kill all the Daleks. Finding a lone Dalek releases all of the Doctor's pent-up rage and self-loathing. Through his one season as the Doctor, Eccleston projected the image of a man suffering from post-traumatic stress, which leads us to...


  15. “Everybody lives!” (The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances, May 2005). In a creepy two-part story set in 1940s Britain, the Doctor is determined to end the death that constantly follows in his wake. He's a man who's desperate to find a happy ending ... and he does. "Just this once, Rose... everybody lives!!" (Thinking about these scenes again makes me newly sad that Eccleston called it quits after just one year.)


  16. Daleks vs. Cybermen (Doomsday, July 2006). At long last, two of the Doctor's iconic villains meet face-to-eyestalk. The results -- and the smackdown dialogue -- do not disappoint. "Daleks, be warned - you have declared war upon the Cybermen." "This-Is-Not-WAR. This-Is-PEST-CONTROL!!"


  17. The Doctor is shot by a Dalek and starts to regenerate! (cliffhanger for The Stolen Earth, June 2008). Exactly that! Rose Tyler returns from another universe and is finally about to be reunited with David Tennant's Tenth Doctor when -- ZAP! -- a Dalek gets him spot-on with its death ray. And here comes the tell-tale regeneration glow! But... but... Tennant isn't leaving the series -- how can this be resolved? The answer in the next episode was Russell T. Davies at his looniest. Yet it worked.


  18. The Doctor breaks the rules (Waters of Mars, November 2009). Just as Dalek flipped the moral argument of Genesis of the Daleks, Waters of Mars echoes back to The Aztecs. The Doctor finds that he cannot just walk away from the doomed members of the first human base on Mars, despite what history says. With righteous fury, he decides to make his own decisions about who lives and who dies, history and the Weave of Time be damned. For a few minutes, the Doctor becomes more frightening than any of his enemies. And that doesn't matter to him one bit.


  19. Oswin Oswald (Asylum of the Daleks, September 2012). Doctor Who fans had known for some time that Jenna-Louise Coleman would become the new companion for Matt Smith's Doctor in the Christmas special that year, once Amy and Rory were gone. So, Whovians around the globe were shocked to watch the start of the new series' seventh season and see... Jenna-Louise Coleman?! Acting all companion-like?! But how...? She's not starting for months! How did showrunner Steven Moffat keep this a secret, and how... what, now she's DEAD?! But how... MOFFAT!! Overall, just a brilliant bit of misdirection by Moffatt, and even though he dropped the ball on resolving the mystery of Clara Oswin Oswald several times during the season, there's no doubt that he stuck the landing in the season finale, The Name of the Doctor.


  20. "I'm a Doctor... but probably not the one you expected." (The Night of the Doctor, November 2013). This prequel to the 50th anniversary episode appeared only a week ago, yet it very much deserves a spot on this list. In another surprise that's stunning for its secrecy, Paul McGann appears onscreen as the Eighth Doctor for the first time since the 1996 TV movie -- and he is magnificent. In less than 7 minutes, McGann leaves a legion of old and new viewers wondering about what could have been. And Moffat's script gives fans everything we needed, including a few items we didn't even realize we needed.