Before Steven Moffat introduced us to “The Girl Who Waited” and “The Raggedy Man,” Russell T. Davies resurrected Doctor Who and introduced us to an unvarnished Time Lord and then an abundantly fun but flawed individual who experienced a lot of loss, vacillated between merciful and not, and in the end, lived so long that the lines between could and should began to blur.
Incredibly, it’s been five years since Davies left Doctor Who in Moffat’s hands and the show has grown to new heights in that time. Despite those successes, though, there are many who still hold the Davies era well above the Moffat era, and while I’m not here to weigh in on that, I would like to to celebrate Davies’ 52nd birthday by breaking down five (six if you’re counting a two-parter as separates) of the best episodes of his era.
Fear, pride, and guilt become intertwined in the above scene as the Doctor faces off against a foe that he thought he had destroyed in the great time war. Originally Davies wasn’t going to have access to the Daleks for any of his Doctor Who stories due to a copyright scuffle between the BBC and the estate of Terry Nation, the former Doctor Who writer who created the Daleks. Thankfully, things were resolved and fans got to see how menacing even one Dalek can be, as well as the effect that a Dalek could have on the Doctor so soon (relatively speaking) after the events of the then-unseen Time-War.
In the episode, Christopher Eccleston literally froths at the mouth before the Dalek tells him that he would make a good Dalek. The Doctor also tortures and nearly murders the Dalek, only to be stopped by the knowledge that something is different within that metal casing and that Rose’s touch has transformed the Dalek into something else — something more human and capable of feeling. Which is, of course, both a fate worse than death for a Dalek and a common theme with the Doctor’s villains. Too common? Maybe, but it’s perfectly applied in this episode.
“The Girl In The Fireplace”
The Doctor can’t grow old with anyone. His choices are to watch them grow old or runaway. In “The Reunion,” we got to see Sarah Jane (from the original series) introduce us to what it feels like to be left behind. And in the next episode, “The Girl In The Fireplace,” we got to see a little bit of what it’s like when the true cruelty of time and humanity makes its presence known to the Doctor when he misses his chance to show the stars to Madame de Pompadour, a woman who — at different moments in her life — was saved and dazzled by the David Tennant version of the Doctor.
I suppose what’s most startling about this episode is the fact that the ending is so somber. In “The Reunion,” Sarah Jane gets her closure and she gets a spiffy new version of K-9. In “Voyage of the Damned,” the Doctor once again misses out on a chance to show a new friend to the wonders of the universe, but this time he’s able to save her spirit and release it into the stars. With Madame de Pompadour, there’s just the memory of that funeral carriage riding away, the Doctor putting a private letter in his pocket, and then absorbing that pain. He’s alright, he’s always alright.
“Human Nature”/”Family of Blood”
Another heartbreaking tale that doesn’t bother with a happy ending, this Paul Cornell written two-parter allowed David Tennant to flex his acting muscles as John Smith, a normal human man who is actually a memory wiped version of the Doctor on the run from The Family of Blood. Once they pickup the Doctor’s scent, though, the plan goes to pot as they invade John Smith’s sedate British village and attack the school where he works. Something that Smith is not equipped to deal with.
John Smith is no hero and his fright and the rationale that he will, essentially, die when the Doctor’s consciousness returns is made all the more poignant by the love story between him and Jessice Hynes’ proper English teacher. Davies deserves praise for embedding a tragic love story within a sci-fi tale about alien invaders. He also shows off, once again, the Doctor’s taste for wrath. Don’t tell me there wasn’t a part of The Doctor that gained some joy out of the particularly cruel punishment he metted out to the Family of Blood after they robbed him of his chance at a life more ordinary, free from the burdens of being the last of the Time Lords and the knowledge that he was evading those burdens.
This episode is less representative of the emotional plight that comes with being the Doctor and more about a betrayal of the abundant faith that the Doctor has in mankind — an experience that seems to very subtly effect the Doctor up until the end of this regeneration.
Davies gets awfully cynical here while commenting on the sheephood of frightened humans who, in this case, instantly start turning on each other while locked in a tight cabin during a tour of a diamond encrusted planet.
The whole thing feels like a classic episode of The Twilight Zone mixed with a bit of contemporary social commentary It’s also a great stand-alone hour of television. So if you know someone who has been dancing around jumping into Doctor Who, “Midnight” is a pretty effective gateway drug.
“The Waters of Mars”
The prelude to Tennant and Davies’ two-part exit from Doctor Who painted a picture of a Doctor who had become dissatisfied and seemed as though he was starting to confuse himself for a God. He was tired of being forced to watch people suffer because he, the Time Lord Victorious, couldn’t save them and tired of listening to the rules of time. So the Doctor broke those rules and saved Adelaide Brooke (and two members of her crew) from a water-borne Martian paradise for a brief moment before she went into her house and shot herself to restore balance to the timeline and gutpunch the Doctor.
What followed was an unfortunately un-seen dash away from his fate and his responsibilities in favor of fun, but soon the Doctor made his way to death’s door, kicking and screaming, and pleading all the way there. An undignified end for a version of the character that had positively soared when writer and performer were in sync, but a fitting end for a version of the character that so clearly loved sauntering around in those trainers, running, and getting into trouble.
Honorable Metion: “Blink”