Here’s looking back on all the seasons of new Doctor Who.
Series two, eight, and five are the masterpiece seasons. I felt I was in good hands all the way through them. Series three and one are also very good, but are brought down by a few stinker episodes. Series nine explored strong ideas over new formats, didn’t always use them well, but went out with a bang. Series four is rather hard to assess on whole, because the highs are so high and the lows abysmally low. Series six is sort of just there. As for series seven, the less said the better; it was almost a complete failure.
#1. Series Two. The new golden age. What’s not glorious about this run of episodes? It kicked off with a solid Christmas special (only A Christmas Carol and Last Christmas would surpass it) that introduced the tenth Doctor; we didn’t have to suffer through a lame season-opener like Rose, Smith and Jones, and Partners in Crime with dumbed-down villains; the werewolf story set in 19th-century Scotland was terrific, and segued into a special return of Sarah Jane Smith; then to the enchanting girl in the fireplace; then to a parallel-universe epic and the best Cybermen story of all time; then later to an even grander space epic involving black holes and possessed aliens and Satan. To top it off, a piece of fanwank that actually worked: Daleks and Cybermen bashing each other in modern-day London, and Rose “dying” in an incredible swan song. The Tyler family arc paid off wonderfully in the alternate earth setting; Rose’s departure hit an emotional level rarely seen on TV. The only dud was Fear Her. Even the controversial Love and Monsters was grounded in brilliant concepts (obsessive nerdy Doctor Who fans, humanity’s perception of the Doctor which is far less admirable than that of his companions). It was truly a great year, and for me the unquestioned high point of the new series.
Great episodes: The Christmas Invasion. Tooth and Claw. School Reunion. The Girl in the Fireplace. The Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel. The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit. Love and Monsters. Army of Ghosts/Doomsday.
#2. Series Eight. The impossible comeback. I didn’t dare hope for anything this good after the manure swamp of series seven. Let’s be clear: Peter Capaldi is the best Doctor of the new series, channeling both Tom and Colin Baker and a raw energy we haven’t seen since the classic years. Even the throw-away story, The Caretaker, was thoroughly enjoyable for the vitriol he heaped on Clara (which is pretty much how I wanted to see her abused in the previous season). These stories were intense. There were body counts. Doctor Who was taking itself seriously again. We got the first really good Dalek story since series 1 and 2. Nail-biting episodes like Kill the Moon, Mummy on the Orient Express, and Flatline. Even the “afterlife” finale, which was bungled in the second half, had a brilliant first part. (Missy was the letdown, along with the Brigadier-Cyberman, and Danny’s death not handled well at all.) And finally the Christmas special, which plays like the real finale, landed a stunning masterpiece, using dreams in a lethally terrifying way around brilliant concepts of the subconscious. It was a terrific year that restored my faith in the new series. Don’t get me wrong, David Tennant and Matt Smith were excellent Doctors. But Capaldi is the Doctor as I knew him from childhood.
Great episodes: Into the Dalek. Kill the Moon. Mummy on the Orient Express. Flatline. Dark Water. Last Christmas.
#3. Series Five. The year of undiluted magic. Moffat took command of the show in the best way he knew how. I say that without contradicting my esteem for series eight as even better, because I believe series eight was characterized more by what other writers brought to it than Moffat’s own vision. Series five was a dark fairy tale that could only have been orchestrated by the writer of The Girl in the Fireplace. We got a new TARDIS look (which blew me away as much as Amy); the last of the starwhales; rainbow-colored Daleks; a Dream Lord who traps people in alternate nightmares; the Silurian underworld; Vincent Van Gogh’s ephemeral visions; and of course the Pandorica. The scriptwriting was in top form, and while a couple of stories were just okay, The Lodger was the only actual dud (and even that one has a chorus of apologists). Blink will always be the best weeping angels story, but in some ways Time of the Angels/Flesh and Stone was their most important outing for the scars they left on Amy. The crack in her bedroom wall remains the best story arc of the new series. Resets were involved in The Big Bang, but they came at a price; there was emotional payoff. The treatment of Amelia/Amy Pond was precious, and her character fit the season’s tone perfectly.
Great episodes: The Eleventh Hour. Time of the Angels/Flesh and Stone. Amy’s Choice. Vincent and the Doctor. The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang.
#4. Series Three. Deep and dark. It had its lemons, but got them out of the way (a screeching bride, a grandma vampire, humanoid Daleks) before building to an amazing crescendo, and then falling on its face. That middle part was the ripper: The Lazarus Experiment a body-horror piece forcing strong philosophical questions (Gospel of John meets The Fly); 42 a race against time on a spaceship hurtling into a sentient sun; Human Nature/Family of Blood a genius portrayal of the Doctor becoming human and forgetting himself; then (as if that could be outdone) Blink, the weeping angels’ first outing and still the best story of the new series; and then Utopia, which surprise-revealed the Master at the end of the universe. Those stories remain the longest stretch of unbroken excellence in any series, and it’s only too bad the Master thread deteriorated into silliness, not least with the comical reincarnation of John Simm. Series three posed daring “What if?” questions to dramatic effect: what if people had to live their whole lives inside automobiles? what if we unlocked the key to immortality? what if a Time Lord became human and could no longer defend humanity against his enemies? But the finale was embarrassing, and showed Russell Davies on the way to more serious crimes he would perpetuate in series four.
Great episodes: The Shakespeare Code. The Lazarus Experiment. 42. Human Nature/Family of Blood. Blink. Utopia.
#5. Series One. The kick-off. To be honest, it took time for me to warm to the new series. Russell Davies wrote most of the first-season stories, some of which were bad, some just okay, and one very good. The other stories were superb, and they were the ones that kept me watching. The second problem I now consider a major strength: Christopher Eccleston. On first viewing he didn’t seem like a fair representation of the Doctor, and his constant gurning made me want to rip his face off. His acting came across forced and stilted. But on later re-watches, I saw his awkwardness being much the point. He’s the Doctor of the Time War aftermath, wounded and affected by his monstrous actions. He’s judgmental (like anyone who has serious faults), as evidenced in his harsh treatments of Rose. Even more compelling is his ineffectuality. He saves the day only 30% of the time (in three stories) and practically wears his incompetence like a badge. Eccleston is is the Last of the Time Lords as we would expect, isolated and alone in the universe, unsure how to fit in, paralyzed by indecision, weighed down by the colossal failure of his people — and himself — unable or afraid to rise to the occasion. In hindsight, I feel that he worked extremely well as a single-season Doctor.
Great episodes: The Unquiet Dead. Dalek. Father’s Day. Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways.
#6. Series Nine. A strong start and mind-blowing finish were filled in between by mediocrity. Despite the commendable effort to explore new ideas over longer formats, the ideas weren’t always used well. The Davros story could have actually been almost perfect if not for Missy; I despise her Master incarnation almost as much as John Simm’s. The underwater siege started strong but got snared by its own creativity: the Doctor traveled back in time to create the chain of future events that caused him to go back in time in the first place. So the fact that his ghost ended up really being a hologram used for passing messages between his two timelines, rather than a fate for him to avoid, felt like a missed opportunity. The story arc of Maisse Williams’ character (Mayor Me) was inspired but not terribly engaging. Worst of all was the Zygon two-parter, praised by many as Capaldi’s defining moment, in reality a lazy piece of script writing in which the Zygons display little menace. The final confrontation was a vapid monologue in which the Doctor expended gas and overheated passion talking down military commanders from doing what they know best, and over a pair of buttons that never even had destructive power. But things kicked into overdrive at the tail end. Sleep No More was gritty and gratifying; Heaven Sent the towering masterpiece; and Hell Bent the Gallifrey endgame that sent Clara off wonderfully.
Great episodes: Sleep No More. Heaven Sent. Hell Bent.
#7. Series Four. The hardest series to pin down. The highs were admittedly very high, but the lows so abysmally low that they torpedoed the season on whole. Russell Davies wrote the best story of his career (Midnight) but also his worst — which was in fact the worst Doctor Who story of all time (The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End). That finale wasn’t just horrible; it went out of its way to be horrible. Then there was Donna, who turned out to be a great companion and nothing like the fishwife of The Runaway Bride. It was a welcome change from the Rose/Martha infatuations, and in some episodes she blew me away (especially in Pompeii, the library, and “turning left”). But then came the finale, which ruined her. Fires of Pompeii remains the best historical of the new series, spinning gothic horror around a moral dilemma that evokes the Doctor’s anguish in Genesis of the Daleks. On the other hand, Partners in Crime goes down as the silliest season-opener (Pokemon meets Doctor Who), Unicorn and the Wasp the silliest period piece (Agatha Christie deserved better). Rose was brought back brilliantly in Turn Left. Her presence in the finale was unspeakable. It was a season of treasure and trash, but with clear signs of the latter taking over.
Great episodes: The Fires of Pompeii. Planet of the Ood. Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead. Midnight. Turn Left.
#8. Series Six. This season was sort of just there, though it had its gems. The main story arc was a problem. It began with promise, broke down horribly mid-season, and ended with a risible sleight-of-hand. The grand reveal was simple: Moffat never had a real plan with River Song. She didn’t evolve into the darker character foreshadowed repeatedly since her debut in the fourth series; the Doctor wasn’t subjected to the heartbreak of her turning into someone who despises him. In Let’s Kill Hitler she went from hating and trying to kill him at the moment they meet, to saving him in the blink of an eye, inexplicably deciding that she loves this man for no reason at all. As for the Doctor’s assassination, he cheats that by having River kill an entity disguised as him, leaving us with the absurdity of the Doctor getting around the fixed point of his death by using stage-magician trickery. Aside from this nonsense, most of the stories were decent, and a few even quite marvelous. A Christmas Carol was a masterpiece retelling of Dickens, and gorgeously shot. The Doctor’s Wife gave voice to the TARDIS as the machinery became murderously possessed. The Girl Who Waited and The God Complex were a special pair of episodes for Amy, exposing the Doctor’s destructive nature and demolishing her faith in him.
Great episodes: A Christmas Carol. The Doctor’s Wife. The Girl Who Waited. The God Complex.
#9. Series Seven. The year I almost gave up on Doctor Who. The season was a mess from start to finish. I didn’t care about the stories; everything was dumbed down to a record low. Amy and Rory (in the first half) were running on empty. Clara (in the second half) was the worst companion of all time. She was emotionally lifeless, a copycat of Moffat’s smug and overconfident women (River Song, Liz Ten, etc.), unable to display a vulnerable side. As the Impossible Girl she was the worst story arc of the new series, allowing Moffat to run wild with resurrections, resets, and easy-outs. Clara was impossible all right: impossible to care about. Someone who lives and dies umpteen times for the Doctor and in the end brushes it off like it’s nothing, is nothing. (I would have claimed it impossible that her character could improve so dramatically in the eighth series.) On the positive side: Amy Pond got a good send off in Manhattan, and the journey inside the TARDIS was admittedly a treat. Aside from those two stories, nothing impressed me at all. Amy should have left at the end of series six (The God Complex was essentially a swan song anyway), and for that matter, so should have the eleventh Doctor.
Great episodes: The Angels Take Manhattan. Journey to the Center of the TARDIS.