It’s so volcanic!

It amazes me sometimes how much I miss things that I really should have noticed. Sure, I’ve seen a lot of Doctor Who episodes multiple times, and I love them, and then one day, it just hits me what it is about a particular episode that I love so much. Today’s revelation talking point is “The Fires of Pompeii”. I know that when I first viewed it, I enjoyed it, but it didn’t stand out to me in any particular way. I enjoyed all of Series 4 (there wasn’t a single bad episode in the entire bunch), but certainly “The Fires of Pompeii” didn’t hold a candle to the incredible episodes “Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead”, “Midnight”, and “Turn Left”. It had a fun adventure, with the Doctor battling lava monsters that had lost their planet and were trying to make Earth their home by taking over the indigenous sentient species, while he was also trying to figure out why Pompeii wasn’t going to explode like it should.


Don’t think she’s just going to back down, Doctor!

Then, months later, I rewatched it, along with all of the other Series 4 episodes. They were all better on second viewing, but “The Fires of Pompeii” was surprisingly very good. This time, with the advantage of hindsight, I saw how this episode established Donna’s character as the Doctor’s conscience and the only one who can and will push back against him. “Donna, human, NO!” is the iconic scene which shows that she’s willing to stand against him when she feels she’s right, something few companions ever have the nerve to do. Then, in the end, in the stone capsule, she sees that yes, he has good reasons for what he does and that he makes those difficult decisions no matter how much suffers for them, and she continues to support him. This episode contributed a huge amount to the overarching story of Series 4, in which the Doctor is bound by coincidences (or destiny) to the one companion that travels with him as an equal rather than a subordinate.

It’s only been recently that I realized that “The Fires of Pompeii” is even deeper than that. There’s a third story hidden behind all of this: that of Caecilius’ family. The characters are drawn beautifully from the start, as we meet them when Caecilius has bought the TARDIS as a “modern art” piece, in order to demonstrate that he’s cultured and savvy. From the first moments of their appearance, we know that he and his wife Metella are social climbers, doting on their daughter Evelina and pushing her into the Sybilline Sisterhood because that will increase their prestige in the city, while dismissing the damage it’s causing her.  They also ignore their son Quintus, who they think is a wastrel, trying to hide him whenever anyone of importance appears. It’s very telling that when the first earthquake hits, they run to save the vases and statuary rather than make sure their children are safe. Quintus is the only one in the family who actually cares about Evelina and is appalled as he watches his sister degrade.


Misplaced concern: Metella’s only worried that Evelina’s going to insult someone of status.

As events unfold, the parents watch as Quintus steps up to defend his sister and the family, and when Pompeii finally erupts, they learn that the material aspects of life are transient and that the things they’ve been blind to, their children, are the real treasures they should have been protecting. The Doctor saves them, and when they rebuild their lives in Rome, while they’re still trying to climb the social ladder, they do so while also caring for their family.

This whole storyline is carried out behind the bigger sweeping story of the Pyroviles and the Doctor and Donna’s developing relationship and is nearly invisible, and yet it glues together the episode. It adds a layer of complexity to an otherwise straightforward story, providing a cast of secondary characters that you immediately understand and relate to, and grow during the course of the events, getting you invested in their lives without detracting from the main conflict. It’s even more amazing to consider that this was done with very little focus on the family, as most of the scenes and dialogue were focused on the Doctor (of course) and the Pyroviles’ scheme.

It’s this complex plotting and attention to the secondary characters, building them into a story of their own, that really appeals to me about Doctor Who. Yes, I love the Doctor and his companions, but it’s the rest of the universe that’s so interesting, even down to one single family and how their encounter with the Doctor changes their lives.

The journey never ends

I have this perverse attitude that I don’t want to do something long, but then do two or more short things that take up more time than the long thing would have. In specific, I almost never sit down to watch two-part episodes of the modern Doctor Who. I don’t have this problem with the classic series, maybe because they’re four- to six-part serials of 25 minutes per part, so I don’t mind watching a couple and then, if I feel like it, go do something else and watch the rest the next day. But for some reason, modern stories with two 45-minute parts are daunting to me. I don’t have a problem watching “Human Nature” / “Family of Blood” any time it’s suggested to me, probably because I love that episode to bits, but any other two-parter elicits a groan from me, and instead, I sit down to watch a single episode. Then another. And often another. And then kick myself that I didn’t just sit down and watch the two-parter.

Three episodes, but worth every minute of it!

Three episodes, but worth every minute of it!

Because of this, I actually haven’t seen most of the two-part episodes more than three or four times (and I know I’ve only seen the three-part “Utopia” / “The Sound of Drums” / “The Last of the Time Lords” twice, even though I love it to death). I didn’t really realize this until I sat down to watch “The Stolen Earth” / “Journey’s End” this week. As we got to the scene were the Doctor suppresses Donna’s memories, I realized that the fanfic I had written that referred to that scene was written in February, and I hadn’t seen the episode since. That means it’s been at least nine months since I’ve seen one of my favorite episodes, and it’s all because for some reason, I won’t start two-part episodes. That’s just crazy.

Be that as it may, I thoroughly enjoyed watching TSE/JE for the first time in a very long time, and it amazed me how much subtext was written into it. Maybe it’s because I’m writing my own stories, but for some reason, I’m starting to see a lot more subtlety in the RTD-era episodes than I have before. (I have no idea how much subtlety the Moffat-era episodes have. I like to think that Moffat is not a subtle writer, but I’m perfectly willing to admit that I know and understand his seasons a lot less well than I know the RTD seasons.) Everything that happens in TSE/JE was written to highlight Davros’ reveal of the “Doctor’s soul.”

Rose, not at her most flattering

Rose, not at her most flattering

All of the Tenth Doctor’s companions return in this episode. Jack, of course, is part of Torchwood. Martha is part of UNIT, and she goes to prepare the Osterhagen Key. Sarah Jane goes to the Crucible armed with a Warp Star. Most tellingly, Rose comes to find the Doctor armed with the biggest gun in the show, and Mickey and Jackie, who follow her, are also armed similarly. She even pauses in her search to threaten some petty looters with it. Remember that the three came from Pete’s World, where the stars were going out, and they had no idea what was causing it, and though the Doctor always tried to teach them non-violence, they came armed with weapons mighty enough to kill Daleks in one shot. Jack, Martha, and Sarah Jane knew what they were up against, so they at least have a reason to feel that violence was warranted; Rose had no such excuse. She’s the prime example of the character who the Doctor molded into a soldier, and this might very much be why the Doctor chose to place her back in Pete’s World.

(This is a common argument. Not only was Rose very much a soldier when she returned, but she had already been building the dimension cannon to break down the walls between the universes when they started seeing the stars going out. She knew that the cannon would start breaking down the universes, but still chose to do so just to return to the Doctor. Discounting the at least two years he had to move on from her, this character development, towards violence and irresponsibility, could have soured him against her.)

Interestingly, the one person who didn’t follow the Doctor, and the one person who he has condemned for violence, Harriet Jones, is the only true pacifist here. I’ve written before what a magnificent character she is, and this is one of her shining moments. In “The Christmas Invasion,” the Tenth Doctor’s very first full episode, she disagreed with the Doctor about what was right for the defense of planet Earth. Both of them were right: the Doctor sees things from a different view and wanted to protect the Sycorax as much as Earth, and did not like that they were shot in the back, while PM Jones knew that the Earth couldn’t let itself rely on the Doctor to be there every time danger lurked. In TSE/JE, she stood by what she believed, but works for it not by raising an army or developing weapons, but by building a communications network to contact the Doctor when he was needed.

Davros and Dalek Caan

Davros and Dalek Caan

The soldier companions converge on the crucible, with Rose and the Doctor imprisoned, make their threats, and reveal the Doctor’s soul, as described by Davros. This is what breaks him, and what makes him vow never to have another companion, which, of course, leads to his downfall in “The Waters of Mars.” The problem, of course, is that the Doctor is far too willing to blame himself for everything, and even though the judgment passed on him is given by an enemy filled with hatred for him, who he knows is completely amoral, the Doctor still completely agrees with him. Interestingly, though, the most objective judgment comes from Harriet Jones, the one person in the entire story who can be called neutral: she neither follows the Doctor nor hates him. She tells Jack, “And you tell him from me, he chose his companions well.” She sees that they are all brave and trying to do what’s right, and that sometimes what’s right requires violence, but they aren’t needlessly violent. Sadly, Jack never passes on her message, something the Doctor needed to hear.

The only other non-violent character in the story is Donna. She gets infused by the metacrisis and is able to stop the Daleks, but that’s the thing: she stops the Reality Bomb, confuses the Daleks’ circuits, and defuses the energy generator by sending the planets home, but she never attacks anyone. She even tries to stop the Metacrisis Doctor from destroying the Daleks. And for her efforts, she’s rewarded with a mind-wipe. Only the Doctor’s soldiers survive this conflict. It’s all very well-woven.

Probably a half an hour before the Doctor is alone once more.

Probably a half an hour before the Doctor is alone once more.

The conclusion of the story continues to reinforce the Doctor’s problems. Sarah Jane tells him, “You know, you act like such a lonely man. But look at you. You’ve got the biggest family on Earth,” and immediately runs off to her own family. Jack, Mickey, and Martha similarly leave, and of course, Rose, Jackie, and the Metacrisis Doctor stay in Pete’s World. They all unconsciously reinforce to him that he’s just a friend that they once knew but have moved on from, almost more like a co-worker from a job they left long ago. “Hey, it was great seeing you again. We did some great things together. Let’s go out for drinks sometime.” Of course, the Doctor contributes to his own problems by making decisions for everyone else like he always does – he forces Rose back to Pete’s World, insists that the Metacrisis Doctor stay with her, and removes Donna’s memories against her wishes – but in the end, everyone contributes to his eventual loneliness, feelings of inadequacy, and self-hatred.

Much of this is readily not apparent until you watch the episode two or three times, but it really is beautiful. There are a few quibbles with the narrative that are certainly justified, especially the rather deus-ex-machina-y ending with Donna suddenly beating Davros, but the deeper story is where it really is all at. Oh, and I have to mention that Dalek Caan is one of my favorites ever, with his manipulation of the events as he decreed, “No more!” His soothsayings were also very clever: the Dark Lord (oo, the Doctor as the Dark Lord, that’s chilling), the Threefold Man, “The Doctor will be here as witness, at the end of everything,” meaning, of course, the end of everything Dalek. In my opinion, while this episode isn’t the best at straightforward plot, it really shines with theme and character development.

Leading to the drums

s3_e12Lazy and messy are character traits you do not want to combine, but sadly they are prominent in both me and my husband, resulting in stacks and stacks of videos and games in no order, as well as some loose discs, sitting on any flat surface we can find. However, unlike my husband, I have a tolerance limit for this kind of thing, and I hit it on Saturday, and resolved to reorganize the entire mess. I now have all of the TV series videos together and in order, and all the Marvel cinematic universe videos together, and all the anime videos together and in order (not very many, true, but they’re at least ordered now). All of the video games are together, and at least grouped by system. And then all of the other stuff is at least piled nicely on shelves. No, I’m not going to alphabetize them. Only one disc didn’t have a case. (Note: This does not count the Doctor Who videos, which I keep in pristine condition, prominently displayed in order on their own shelves. When we watch one, as soon as it’s done, it goes back in its case, and the case goes back in the right place on the shelves. I know what’s important in my life.)

I knew that the task was going to take a couple of hours, and what better background noise for it than a two-part episode? I rarely watch two-parters (except for “Human Nature”/”The Family of Blood,” which I just have to watch every so often), because for some reason, when I sit down to watch the modern show, I always feel like I don’t want to devote enough time to watch two episodes. Of course, after I watch the first 45-minute episode I choose, I have to watch another, so why don’t I just choose a two-parter in the first place? It’s one of the mysteries of my life.

So, this Saturday, I selected “The Sound of Drums”/”Last of the Time Lords,” a set I haven’t seen in probably six months. It’s one of my favorite two-parters, except for the gnome Doctor at the end (I know I’ve said this before, but why couldn’t they just have relied on makeup and Mr. Tennant’s acting ability to make the Doctor older and older?), but I can overlook that because of the great story and the relationship between the Doctor and the Master. I’m a bit sad that they didn’t get the chance to have more stories with John Simm’s Master and Tennant’s Doctor, because they were fantastic together.

One thing that amazed me about the episode, though, was how much they used the season to prepare the audience for it, without actually letting you know they were doing it. Of course, the theme throughout the season was the repeated mentions of Harold Saxon, starting with his shooting down the webstar in “The Runaway Bride”; the RTD era is known for the theme that runs through each season that you only find out about at the end (“Bad Wolf” in series 1, “Torchwood” in series 2). Saxon is referred to both episodes that takes place in the modern time, but as a throwaway line, until his minions start to work on Francine in “The Lazarus Experiment.” Only at that point do you realize that something’s up with him, but his real identity is not even hinted at until these episodes.

But more than that, so many of the concepts and events in “The Sound of Drums”/”Last of the Time Lords” – and in “Utopia,” the lead-in episode – were explained long before, in other episodes, so that they didn’t have to be explained during the episodes.

  • The chameleon arch was introduced in “Human Nature”/”The Family of Blood,” allowing Martha to recognize the watch that Professor Yana carried, to create tension as she and the audience wonder which Time Lord he could possibly be.
  • The perception filter was first introduced in Torchwood, and then in “Human Nature”/”The Family of Blood.”
  • Saxon sponsored Lazarus’ de-aging research partially to attract the Doctor’s attention, but also because he wanted to reverse it to debilitate the Doctor.

It’s very obvious that the previous episodes were designed to support the season finale, and I’ve always loved how the RTD seasons were planned so that they didn’t seem like they were interconnected but then turn out that they were, with a story that you can only see in hindsight. I think part of it is that I prefer the concept of the Doctor as a traveler who gets into these odd situations and is  just trying to do his best, rather than a mythical figure that everything revolves around. In this particular season, the antagonist was targeting the Doctor, but on a personal level, and only as a small part of his grand evil plan; in the previous two series, the Doctor wasn’t the target at all – he just happened to be the person there to stop the bad guys’ nefarious schemes.

So, next weekend, I need a new task to do while watching another two-parter. Don’t worry, there’s plenty to clean up in our house. Sigh.



Story arcs

the_tenth_doctor_by_dv8r71-d4osjwxIf you read this blog, it’s really no secret that I prefer Russell T. Davies’ showrunning over Steven Moffat’s. As I’ve said before, Moffat writes fantastic single episodes, but his arcs – both single-season and the Eleventh Doctor’s full run – seem to be overly complicated and confused, with a healthy dose of “let’s tie this thread up with this point, even though it contradicts a whole bunch of other points.”  RTD’s arcs were shorter – there never seemed to be a story arc that spanned the entire Tenth Doctor’s run – and his stories developed very subtly over the season, in opposition to Moffat’s preference of introducing the main conflict in the first episode of the season, then running a number of unrelated episodes with injections of “oh, no, a crack” / “Kovarian’s eyes again” / “I really need to figure out what’s up with Clara” just to remind the viewer that yes, there’s something else going on, so that we didn’t get bored waiting for the season finale.

I was reading an article on a website yesterday about Billie Piper, at some convention, answering “yes” to a fan question that asked if she’d return to do a spinoff based on Rose and the Metacrisis Tenth Doctor (No, it’s not a thing anyone is seriously considering. It was a fan question. Thank the powers that be. Bleah.) and I saw the following in the comments.

“Personally, the progression of their [Rose and the Doctor’s] relationship intrigues me, because I see it as a tragedy, but for different reasons than most. The way I interpret it, their relationship is supposed to hurt Ten to the point of him finding security in his colder Time Lord persona so that he doesn’t have to deal with the pain that his particularly human personality is susceptible to, and it’s supposed to show how Rose’s obsession with the Doctor warps her outlook and crushes any hope for positive growth that she could have had. I’m not saying that to just blindly insult the story or anything; that’s legitimately how I see it play out, and I think it’s actually quite interesting. But the point was made in “Journey’s End”, and I have no desire to it stretched out any further.”

I hadn’t honestly thought of it this way. I’ve always considered series 2 to be the weakest of the Ninth and Tenth Doctor’s run, as the relationship between Rose and the Doctor was poorly handled, portrayed as the two traipsing through the universe, happy-go-lucky. There was no development, just random depictions of something deeper that might exist between them whenever the writer needed an emotional moment or an excuse for the Doctor to get really angry (by having the villain threaten or hurt Rose), and then suddenly, when Rose was sucked into Pete’s World, we’re shown that yes, he was in love with her.

If, instead, you look at it like the commenter does, it all makes a lot more sense. It’s a story of how the companion, if the Doctor isn’t very careful, becomes weaker and less independent. This story is repeated in series 3: Martha, because of her unrequited love for the Doctor and the Doctor’s inability to recognize it, also devolves, though she has the personal strength to recognize it, overcome it in the series finale, and leave at the end. Donna goes in the opposite direction because this time the Doctor is paying attention; of course, she loses it all due to circumstances beyond her and the Doctor’s control, but the Doctor blames himself for it. Looking at it this way, Davros’ words, about the Doctor taking his companions and transforming them into worse people, has even more weight.

The Doctor, on the other hand, has this “particularly human personality” and each companion hits him right where it hurts. Rose’s departure is particularly painful because of his love for her. Then Martha demonstrates that he’s hurting her even when he doesn’t mean to, simply because he’s still hurting from Rose, and also because while he has a tender human side, he’s still a Time Lord and can’t relate to her like she wants him to. And then there’s Donna, the shining example, to him, of a person whose life he’s ruined. His experience with all three companions drive him towards that “colder Time Lord persona,” into believing that he should be alone: he can’t afford to fall in love, he’s hurting his companions even when he thinks everything is okay, and he ruins the lives of those he touches. In other words, it was all pushing him towards “The Waters of Mars,” towards the Time Lord Victorious, and then his redemption in The End of Time.

Now, I really don’t know if RTD designed the Tenth Doctor’s run to have this epic storyline, but it certainly looks like he at least knew where he wanted the Doctor to start and to end up. And that’s really why I prefer RTD. His stories were about the characters, not the circumstances or the complex time mechanics. Maybe I prefer more of the classic show feel, in which you got to watch the Doctor grow and change through his close friendship with Jamie or Sarah Jane or Ace, his attempts to educate Leela, and the conflict with and death of Adric. And that’s why I like Paul Cornell so much as an episode writer. I’m not saying Moffat is bad in any way. I just prefer RTD.

Difference of opinion

Two great Doctors.

Two great Doctors.

It’s a bit ironic that today on my WordPress newsfeed, I was presented with two different articles, one saying how much writer prefers the RTD and the Tenth Doctor, and the other saying how much the writer prefers Moffat and the Eleventh Doctor. The two posts didn’t really say anything that I haven’t heard before about these two Doctors, but reading them side-by-side, I see that there seems to be a clear break between preferences of the audience.

  • If you care about the Doctor’s characterization and his relationship with the people around him and don’t care so much about the show’s story, you prefer RTD and the Tenth Doctor.
  • If you care about the show’s story and don’t care so much about the Doctor’s characterization and his relationship with the people around him, you prefer Moffat and the Eleventh Doctor.

Yes, it’s a lot more complicated that than, but that seems to be the gist of the arguments that I’ve seen. Tenth Doctor enthusiasts cite his relationship with Rose, his retreat into his shell during his travels with Martha, his friendship with Donna, his love/hate relationship with the Master, and his descent into darkness and the fact that he had to condemn the Time Lords yet again at the end of his life, and individual episodes in which the Doctor suffers a tragedy or personal triumph. Eleventh Doctor fans point at the puzzles of Amy and the Impossible Girl, his story arcs of the Pandorica and the Silence and the Great Intelligence, and individual episodes in which the Doctor engineers a great victory. The Ninth Doctor tends to get shafted in this discussion: I’ve seen lots of debate about whether the Ninth or Tenth Doctor is better, but people who like the Eleventh Doctor tend to not even consider the Ninth Doctor at all.

I’m sure you know which camp I’m in (Tenth Doctor all the way!), but that doesn’t really matter to me. I like the Eleventh Doctor. He’s not my favorite, certainly, but he’s fun to watch and his episodes are good (well, some of them; like every Doctor, he’s got some real stinkers). But I like all the Doctors. The great part of the whole thing is the fact that there are millions of people out there who are all enjoying the show and are so invested in this brilliant fictional universe that they’re sitting there, in their free time, thinking about what it is about the Doctor that they like or dislike. It just amazes me that this TV show captivates so many people like this. I’m sure that it’s like this in other fandoms, but this is the first time I’ve seen it happen first-hand. I’ve been a fan of other things before (Star Trek and the Marvel superheroes come to mind), but I’ve never seen this kind of in-depth discussion happen between my fan friends for those other fandoms. With Doctor Who, the discussions I’ve watched and participated in can last for hours. The only thing I’ve seen come even close is Firefly.

So, bring it on, DW fandom! More discussion. More Moffat-hate or RTD-hate or whatever. More love for the Doctor. I want to see it all!

Hard data

Graph of IMDB ratings of Doctor Who episodes

Graph of IMDB ratings of Doctor Who episodes

I found this on my Facebook feed yesterday: Graph TV. It’s a website that reads the IMDB ratings of TV show episodes and graphs them, with the linear regression showing the ratings trend over each season. If you thought the last season of Dexter was disappointing, you should check out what it looks like on this site. Of course, the first thing I did was type in Doctor Who, and the graph is very interesting. I’ve included a screenshot of it here but I recommend going to the site and looking at the real display, because you can mouse over the dots to see which episodes they are and their individual ratings.

The biggest problem with graphs like this (and statistics) is that if you don’t really understand the mathematics behind them, it’s really easy to misinterpret data and use them to support whatever theory you already believe. Now, I’m not a statistics expert, so I can’t draw a lot of conclusions from the graph, but it’s fun to try.

First, it’s important to understand how this data was collected. Each dot represents an episode’s rating, which is an average of IMDB user ratings. You can view the list of episodes, number of votes, and ratings by clicking on the IMDB link below the graph (or just click here), and you can see that each episode has somewhere between 1,000 and 3,000 ratings. The graph does not take into account any episodes that don’t have an episode number, so the David Tennant specials (“The Next Doctor,” “Planet of the Dead,” “The Waters of Mars,” and “The End of the Time) and the final Matt Smith episodes (“The Day of the Doctor” and “The Time of the Doctor”) are not included in the graph.

It’s also important to note the averages of the ratings, because they are hard to read off the graphs. I’ve calculated them, and here they are, with a few tweaks as noted:

  • All 7 series: 8.13
  • Series 1: 8.09
  • Series 2: 8.02
  • Series 3: 8.12
  • Series 4: 8.29
  • David Tennant specials: 8.14
  • Series 5: 8.18
  • Series 6: 8.21
  • Series 7: 7.97
  • Series 7.1: 8.05
  • Series 7.2: 7.92
  • Series 7 with “The Day of the Doctor” and “The Time of the Doctor”: 8.07

The first thing you probably notice when you see the graph is the marked difference between the Russell T. Davies (RTD) era (series 1-4) and the Steven Moffat era: except for series 2, the RTD series’ regression lines have a strong positive slope, while the Moffat series’ regression lines are much flatter, and series 7 has a negative slope. What does this mean? RTD’s episodes get a lot better at the end of the season, while Moffat’s episodes keep a consistent amount of quality. What happened to series 2? Well, the bottom three episodes, “The Idiot’s Lantern,” “Love and Monsters,” and “Fear Her” are clear outliers: only six episodes in the entire run of the show are rated 7.0 or below, and three of them are these three episodes. While you can’t really just drop them out of the graph, if you ignore them for a moment, you see that the rest of series 2 has the same trend as series 1, 3, and 4 and its ratings average pops up to 8.42, which is better than any other season.

What do these trends tell us about RTD’s episodes? RTD’s style was to present us with a number of adventure episodes with hints about the theme tying the season together (you know, “Bad Wolf,” Torchwood, Harold Saxon), then use the last few episodes to tell the overarching story. So, we see that the quality of the episodes improve as they start to tell this story. The actual non-conforming series in this run is series 3, Martha’s season. Its finale, “Utopia”/”The Sound of Drums”/”The Last of the Time Lords”, is rated much worse (though not badly) than the series 1, 2, and 4 finales, but its overall high positive slope is maintained by the fantastic ratings of “Human Nature”/”The Family of Blood” and “Blink.” Without those stories, unrelated to the overall arc, series 3’s regression line’s slope would be closer to series 5’s slope.

What about the Moffat’s episodes? For his first two seasons Moffat set up story arches that were introduced in the first episode of each season (the crack in the wall and the impossible astronaut), teased us with the story in a couple of episodes during the season but otherwise presented adventure episodes, then tied up the story in the last couple of episodes. Looking at the graphs, we can see that the story arc episodes in general rate very high, but the rest of the episodes have poor ratings. This results in a flat regression line, as both series start high, dip low, and end high. We can see this happen again in series 7, in a bit more complicated way: the impossible girl is introduced in “Asylum of the Daleks,” restarted again in “The Snowmen,” and wrapped up in “The Name of the Doctor,” and apart from those three episodes and “The Angels Take Manhattan” (the departure of Amy and Rory, another story arc episode), the adventure episodes in series 7 are seem to be below average for the entire 7-series run of the show.

Another interesting thing to look at are the best episodes. Take a look at all the episodes that are rated 8.8 or above. They all have at least one of these three qualities: they are part of the season arc, they are written by a very highly-regarded writer (Moffat or Neil Gaiman), or they have something important to say (“The Impossible Planet”/”Satan Pit”, “Human Nature”/”Family of Blood”, “Midnight”, “Turn Left”, “Vincent and the Doctor”). Doctor Who is at its best when it tackles interesting themes.

A few more points:

  •  It looks like RTD was just hitting his stride when he left. Series averages were going up, more high-rated episodes, less low-rated episodes. I wonder what his series 5 would have been like?
  • Series 7 was really kind of terrible. Out of fifteen episodes, only four of them rated higher than the average ratings of all of the other series.
  • I’ve been referring mostly to the showrunner of the series, but I wonder how much the different Doctor affects these ratings? How many people who, say, don’t like the Tenth Doctor will automatically rate a Tenth Doctor episode low? Will a Tenth Doctor fan rate the episode higher? Does this cancel out?

One last thing I noticed on this graph was that it supports something I like to tell my friends when they start watching Doctor Who: some episodes are good and some episodes are bad, like any TV show, but Donna had the best season and never had a stinker episode. Take a look at her graph, series 4: not a single episode under 7.6, and four episodes at 9 or above! Her average is 8.29! No other series comes close to that record. Maybe her first episodes weren’t earth-shattering, but they were fun and enjoyable. I’d love to say it’s because she’s the best companion ever (because she is!), but honestly, I just simply think that series was just well done.


Fates worse than death

One of the current favorite memes is how Steven Moffat loves to kill his characters. Now, I’m not talking about Sherlock here, because though I’ve watched all of it except the current season, I am not conversant enough with the show to discuss it. I’m just looking at Doctor Who. According to this article, Rory and Amy have each died eleven times (this number is arguable). Then there are other major character deaths:

  • Jenny in “The Name of the Doctor”
  • Strax in “A Good Man Goes to War” and “The Snowmen”
  • River in “Silence in the Library” and “The Name of the Doctor”
  • Clara in “The Snowmen” and “The Name of the Doctor”

I got this list from the web, and removed the Doctor from it because we always know when the Doctor will actually die, so he isn’t relevant to what I’m talking about here. So, yes, it looks like Moffat kills off the major characters quite often. And the meme goes on to compare Moffat with George R. R. Martin, who is known for killing off characters in Game of Thrones. There’s a big difference between the two, though: characters in Game of Thrones stay dead. (At least as far as I know. So far none of the characters I’ve seen die have come back.)

Moffat’s characters don’t stay dead, and thus, I don’t feel that the meme is really deserved for him. So far, we haven’t seen a major character actually die; you could argue for Amy and Rory in “The Angels Take Manhattan,” but their exit removed them permanently from the show specifically without killing them: they were pulled back in time where the Doctor could not ever encounter them (due to paradox) and lived the rest of their lives together. In all of the other cases, the deaths were erased in some way or the death was an alternate version of the character.

There are a lot reasons why you might want to kill off a character: shock value, to deal with themes of grief and love, to deal with themes of loss, for example. In many cases, the deaths in these past series were very emotional, but in others, they were cheapened by the frequency and the meta knowledge that it’s just going to be erased anyway. “Oh, no, Rory’s dead again” is a very popular meme, to the point of not taking the character seriously any more. I think the phrase is “toying with the heartstrings” – kind of a cheap way to evoke emotions. The ultimate in cheapened deaths was Clara’s in “The Name of the Doctor,” in which she made the ultimate sacrifice to save the Doctor, only to have him jump into his own timestream (major paradox?) to pull her out. What would have been a beautiful and heroic death became, well, boring.

The best Moffat death.

The best Moffat death.

I’m going to add one more death to Moffat’s total here, because he wrote the episode: River’s death in “Forest of the Dead.” After a wonderful episode in which we’re tantalized with hints about the Doctor’s relationship with River and an ending in which River sacrifices herself to save the Doctor, the Doctor finds a way to resurrect her within CAL. In this particular case, the resurrection adds to the beauty of the episode and River’s storyline: the Doctor, moving in the opposite time direction as River, realizes that he, in the future, gives her (and therefore him) the means to effect the resurrection, and thus he saves her. River only gets this one death, ever, and it’s fantastic.

Russell T. Davies’ time at the helm didn’t have many character deaths. There’s Captain Jack’s first death, from which he was resurrected by the Bad Wolf and made immortal – this was more of a plot point than anything else, as it set up his character for future appearances and for Torchwood. None of the other main companions die, and of minor companions, there’s Astrid Peth, who dies sacrificing herself for the Doctor, and Adelaide Brooke, who kills herself to teach the Doctor that the Time Lord Victorious is wrong. One other notable death was Jenny, who was resurrected by the Source: another beautiful death that was cheapened by a pointless resurrection.

The thing that Mr. Davies did in his era was establish tragic storylines without deaths. Let’s look at how his companions depart (other than Astrid and Adelaide, mentioned above).

  • Captain Jack is left behind because the Doctor can’t bear to be with him, due to him being an anomaly.
  • Sarah Jane Smith realizes that she has to move on with her life.
  • Mickey realizes that Rose will never love him and that he could really make a difference by staying in Pete’s World.
  • Rose is torn from the Doctor into Pete’s World. When they reunite, the Doctor gives her up because he knows he can’t keep her forever, and she departs with the Meta-Crisis Doctor. (Tragic for him, maybe not so much for her.)
  • Martha realizes her love for the Doctor will never be requited and leaves him.
  • Donna’s memories of the Doctor are torn from her by the Doctor so that she doesn’t die.
  • Jackson Lake parts amicably with the Doctor, but he’s just lost his wife.
  • Lady Christina is rejected by the Doctor because he doesn’t want to ruin another companion’s life.
  • The Doctor sacrifices himself for Wilf.

So many different kinds partings, tragic on one side or the other. Death isn’t the only tragedy: there are fates that are in some ways worse than death. I’m not saying that the deaths in the Eleventh Doctor’s run are banal. I’m saying that there are other ways to tell a story, to make your point, and that having characters die over and over again makes less of an impact each time it happens.