Some spoilers below, so if you’re not up to date: earmuffs!
Geronimo, indeed. The time has come, my friends, for us to doff our fezzes in salute to Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith as, with the drop of a bowtie and a really jarring regeneration, he has gone. For many longterm Doctor Who fans (or at least this one), Smith’s tenure has been the best of times and the worst of times for the show. On the one hand, this crazy television program that has historically been something of a niche in America is now as big as it’s ever been, and one can only hope that the popularity will carry over into the much-anticipated Capaldi era. On the other hand, though, these past few series have seen an awful lot of running around, ADD-addled plots, flip-flopping character motivation and a feeling that the show is turning into something that looks great and means absolutely nothing. I agree with fellow TR contributor Natalie Nichols in her cautious optimism for the show’s future, especially after the more or less successful “Time of the Doctor” (which is not on this list, only because I still think it’s too soon to properly digest it as an episode). Hopefully, this whole “quest for Gallifrey” business will be just the kick in the pants the show needs.
But when it comes to our dear departed Smith, what will his legacy be? If his Doctor were an airport novel, what would the blurbs on the back cover say? Coming after the Tenth, who now seems very much like the “midlife crisis” Doctor in retrospect, the Eleventh could be seen as an almost senile and erratic version who was a little more indifferent to humans, or at least absentminded around them. However, this made his moments of lucidity all the more meaningful, when Moffat or the other writers weren’t forcing him to act “quirky” for quirkiness’ sake or changing his status without justification. I think I liked him overall better than Tenant and wish he had been in better-fitting material. But in order to get a bead on what really made him unique, let’s revisit the high (and low) lights of Smith before they pass fully into yesteryear.
5) Amy’s Choice
Yeah, the whole attempt at Amy/Rory/Doctor tension is hard to watch now, knowing what we do. But the mind-bending plot of this Series 5 episode, which had our three heroes butting heads with the mysterious Dream Lord (the brilliantly bitchy Toby Jones) was a nice change of pace, even though the killer-old-people-aliens were kind of silly. And while I’m a little disappointed Jones didn’t turn out to be the Celestial Toymaker or something, his true identity gave us some hints to some of that juicy baggage the Eleventh Doctor was still toting around, back when he dressed like a 1930s math teacher instead of a Dickens Village figurine. If Jones wants to come back for another round of metaphysical sparring, I’d be down, although given what we’ve seen of Capaldi so far, I’m pretty sure the Twelfth Doctor would just bite his head off.
4) The Day of the Doctor
I’ll admit it, I had some problems with the 50th Anniversary Special. Clara remains a generic cypher, the Zygons didn’t really have anything to do with the plot, and the first quarter or so was padded, loud and silly. But I’m willing to forgive Moffat his missteps because in the end, he managed a feat more astounding than saving an entire planet: he got Tom Baker back onscreen, in all his baritone glory. Watching him flirt with Matt Smith trumped even my cynicism and left me feeling suitably mushy, so mission accomplished.
That and the surprise appearance of Peter Capaldi’s eyebrows (excellent furrowing, Pete!) make up for almost any other misgivings you could possibly have about the episode itself. If they had to undo the most important change of the entire New Series, at least they did it in a way that suggests a direction the show might take. The chemistry of the three star Doctors was fun, too, with a fantastic turn from John Hurt that pulled off an almost impossible role without being too ridiculous or heavy-handed. We may be arguing forever about whether The Curator is supposed to be the Fourth Doctor, the Forty-Fourth Doctor, or some lost alternate half-regeneration in that last scene, but I prefer to think that it’s just Baker playing himself on an average weekend. Which is kind of what he’s always done.
3) The Doctor’s Wife
Season/Series Five had kind of a “dark fairy tale” thing going on, so it’s no wonder that Neil “I Eat Dark Fairy Tales for Breakfast, Then Shit Them out and Eat Them Again” Gaiman would eventually throw his hat in. Truth be told, Gaiman was already preparing his first script way before Smith was even cast, but Series Six was primed for his writing debut and he made good use of the characters he was given to work with.
Yes, this is the one where the TARDIS gets physical form in the guise of a Helena Bonham Carter-esque woman played by Suranne Jones, but it’s not nearly as arbitrary a plot as that sounds, and in fact ends up being genuinely moving. The scenes in which Amy and Rory get trapped in the depths of the Doctor’s ride were also a hundred times better than those we ended up seeing in the lackluster “Journey to the Center of the TARDIS,” as well as genuinely creepy. And as a bonus, we all got to learn what “petrichor” means (whether it makes a good perfume is another matter…)
2) Vincent and the Doctor
The Doctor and Amy follow a clue in a painting by Vincent Van Gogh (whose name, as some American viewers may have learned for the first time, is apparently pronounced “van goth” on the other side of the pond) back to late 19th-century France to stop a single rampaging creature only Vincent can see. Today, Van Gogh might be known as a master, but when this story takes place he’s regarded as an insane loser and in need of help.
This might be the most historically accurate Who episode ever made by default (not that that’s a huge bar to clear), as it’s mostly focused on a specific time in the life of one guy, and features many real examples of his art. Another welcome element was the complex depiction of Van Gogh as a man struggling with poverty and depression; you may remember that the BBC reportedly even tagged on a disclaimer after this one aired directing kids to a help line (if only they’d had that during the Colin Baker years…).
Aside from a few references to Amy’s amnesia, it actually makes a pretty good standalone introduction to those who want to know a little bit about the Smith Era without having seen all of the previous episodes. And it also features a cute cameo from Bill Nighy, whose bowtied appearance led some of us Wholigans at the time to “joke” about his being a future version of the Doctor. Maybe his later regenerations have a thing about Curators…
1)The Girl Who Waited
Looking back, it seems some of my favorite Smith episodes have been those with a minimalist focus, which was more often the exception and not the rule. This one is almost entirely just Rory and the Doctor trying to rescue Amy from the parallel timelines of Two Streams, a seemingly abandoned “kindness facility” on a plague-ridden pleasure planet. But beyond the CG gardens and softshoeing robots, the story presents a thorny theoretical: do we owe responsibility to the alternate realities we create?
There’s even a hint that the whole incident was some sort of Walter White-level master plan the Doctor orchestrated deliberately to teach his companions a cosmic lesson. If so, perhaps we can change “The Doctor lies” to “The Doctor Can Be a Manipulative Dick.” This is the sort of stuff that’s fascinating and fun to chew on, and the existence of a story that was actually about something gives me hope for the kinds of issues the scary-looking Capaldi Doctor might get a chance to unpack, should the writers let him do so.
5) The Curse of the Black Spot
Not overly atrocious so much as just “meh”, like Stephen Thompson wrote “The Pirate Episode” on a piece of paper, fed it into the script-o-tron and called it a day. The Doctor, Rory and Amy land on a pirate ship. There’s a siren. Stuff happens. A pre-Downton Hugh Bonneville has a beard. This could have been more interesting had there been an attempt to place the action in more of a historical context, like the First Doctor story, “The Smugglers.” Instead, we just get Karen Gillan swinging around in a tri-corner hat, which is admittedly enough for some people. I don’t need Doctor Who to be a Ken Burns documentary or anything, but it would be nice if we could have a historic episode that didn’t feel so bland.
4) Night Terrors
Amy and Rory actually begin this clunker vocally disappointed that they aren’t doing “planets or history” instead, and I guess it’s comforting that I was on the same page. It’s yawn city from there, in a boring story that’s suspiciously similar to the much-hated “Fear Her” from season 2 (which was already suspiciously similar to the season 9 X-Files episode “Scary Monsters”). A giant eyeball, a bunch of stock creepy dolls and an unfunny scene where the Doctor channels Bugs Bunny and argues with himself don’t help much. I would have taken pretty much any planet or history story over this tedious junk. One thing I mightily hope the show outgrows is its reliance on supposedly “creepy” rhymes, which have been driven into the ground and back up again.
3) The Wedding of River Song
There were things to like, I guess, about this kooky cross-temporal romp, mainly the vision of a pterodactyl-infested London ruled by Caesar Churchill in a garbled timeline. But “eyepatch lady” Madame Kovarian was criminally undeveloped, and even though Moffat did at least try to tie things together, kind of, with “Time of the Doctor,” the whole Lake Silencio thing still feels frustrating and random to me. I think MaryAnn Johanson, a great media critic and one of the best Doctor Who bloggers out there, put it best (albeit about a different episode): “It’s not so much timey-whimey as it is bullshit-woolshit.” In some cases, I could let this slide if the ideas justified the bullshit, but here, it just made the entirety of Series 6 feel like a great big waste of time. We shouldn’t have to wait for two years for an episode to make (marginally more) sense.
2) The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe
Here’s a blasphemous thought: do we really need a Who Christmas special every year? I mean, when it’s centered around regeneration or a new companion or some other important plot point, that’s one thing. But I would have probably been OK with nothing as opposed to this total dud from 2012. Matt Smith opens this episode surviving a fall to Earth from outside of the planet’s orbit and what follows is essentially a sappy live-action cartoon, with The Doctor saying things like “humany wumany.” Ech. When the only thing that makes your episode even barely survivable is a passing mention of Androzani, that’s a sure sign the going is rough.
I had to Wiki this special to even recall that it ends with a shoehorned Amy and Rory scene from their Earth life that was the prelude to all the other inconsistencies that would plague these characters later on (the Ponds “always leave a place” for the Doctor? Is he the Space Christmas version of Elijah or something?). And if Moffat is sticking around, can he at least for the love of Rassilon let someone else come up with his episode titles?
1) The Crimson Horror
Although the clip above should be evidence enough, there are two words that sum up the true horror of this episode: Thomas Thomas. He is pain incarnate.
Maybe you watched his scene, in which Strax confronts the street urchin version of a GPS, and you groaned, or even (God help you) chuckled. But no review I’ve read really captures how awful the completely unnecessary character of “Thomas Thomas” and what he represents truly is.
Study this name and know it well, for it signals what must be one of the most shameful moments of the whole history of Doctor Who, a joke so anachronistic and deplorable and completely fucking asinine that it gets dragged out almost as a dare to you to keep watching the events on screen, mouth agape. It is a blight that makes the entire show worse for giving rise to it and us worse people for tolerating it. To paraphrase Gene Siskel, the rest of the episode could have been the missing footage from “The Ice Warriors” and it still would have sucked.
The first time I watched it, I was at a loss for words. Are the makers of Doctor Who proud of this shit? Did they all clink their glasses and do victory laps in celebration? How could anyone legitimately think this is entertaining or worthy of exposing to kids?
Maybe I’m overreacting. All I know is that the moment this little boy named himself, putting a shit-colored bow on what was already a pretty foul joke, I was practically kicking holes in my computer screen and emitting guttural screams. There were plenty of other things to hate in this botched attempt at a gothic Who story (the fainting man, the Doctor kissing Jenny for no reason, a gratuitous Zack Snyder-esque sexualized fight scene) but Thomas Thomas is the Satanic face of the soulless, heartless commercial entity that the once funky Doctor Who can be. Between this and the lame ending of the otherwise pretty good “Cold War,” someone might have to suspend Mark Gatiss’ comedy writing privileges, at least for this show. Let’s hope that even the worst episodes of Capaldi’s era don’t involve material this dire.
Previously by Andy Hughes: