Forget American Sniper: Watch These War Films Instead

I can’t see the fuss about American Sniper. It isn’t the “best American war movie” by a long shot, but neither does it glorify questionable military ethics. It’s just not a particularly good or bad film. I wasn’t engaged by the characters; what ground it covered, The Hurt Locker did so much better.

If you want really good war films, check these out. You won’t find Saving Private Ryan here, nor any of Oliver Stone’s self-righteous screeds against Vietnam (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, etc.). I used to like the Civil War film Glory, but that one hasn’t aged well. Most war films frankly don’t impress me, but the following are superior.

1. Shame. Unknown setting. In my survey of “best war films” lists online, I have found none which includes Shame. That’s beyond shame. It remains the definitive war film, in my opinion, and is unsparing in its examination of the soul. Ingmar Bergman shot it off the small island of Farö, but it’s not clear that the setting is intended as Swedish. Whatever this nation is, it’s either at war with an invading country or engaged in a civil war — left deliberately hazy to suggest a war that symbolizes all war without any political axe to grind. Its focus is on a simple married couple who are uprooted from home, falsely accused of bad allegiances, then freed on the condition that Eva performs sexual favors for a government official. Things escalate to the point of such humiliation that Jan, a pacifist by nature, snaps and becomes a moral monster. We share Eva and Jan’s intimacies and hopelessness on a level not matched in any other war film. Shame speaks deeply about the human psyche and the will to survive. The final scene of the exodus into a sea of corpses still haunts me.

2. Paths of Glory. France, 1915-16; World War I. Stanley Kubrick knew how to do an anti-war film: with uncompromising polemic but no sanctimony. Something Oliver Stone never grasped. Paths of Glory is about the suicidal attack on an impregnable fortress captured by the Germans, inspired by the six-month bloodbath during the Battle of Verdun for Fort Douamont. It holds up well after so many decades (much as Spielberg tried, he didn’t surpass this brutal intensity in the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, a film I intensely dislike), and the court marshal of the second part remains a convincing piece of courtroom drama. And then there’s the final scene: the poor ridiculed stage-singer who manages to shatter everyone’s soul, a moment’s epiphany in a cruel uncaring world. Against the terrible backdrop of the first world war, soldier grunts emerge as worthless pawns, to be thrown away for the sake of their superiors’ aggrandizement, and military tribunals stand as parodies of justice.

3. The Thin Red Line. Solomon Islands, 1942-43; World War II. This masterpiece was overshadowed by Saving Private Ryan (also released in 1998), when it should have been the other way around. Terrence Malick is a genius in all the ways Stephen Spielberg is Mr. Cheese. The Thin Red Line laments warfare through naturalist philosophy, and it’s both horrific and uplifting in a completely organic way. I believe that anti-war films have strong difficulty doing right by the viewer. They must get their message across loud and clear, but without resorting to college-campus screed, political innuendo, or hollow contrivances. What Bergman did at the level of personal intimacy (Shame) and Kubrick along the ladder of military hierarchy (Paths of Glory), Malick expands to the broadest level possible, examining life and death in cosmic terms. He finds beauty in each, yet an undeniable rage at the way the latter is reached. It’s a brilliant film, and the exotic setting of Melanesia somehow aligns perfectly with the tone of what Malick aims for.

4. Fury. Germany, 1945; World War II. Few war films capture soldier camaraderie with Fury’s plain authenticity that makes you alternate between hating and loving these guys by the minute. The story is set in the final days of WWII; an American tank crew of five plow across Germany, and while they know American victory is guaranteed by this point, they sure don’t feel it; the Nazis dig in to the end. The tank battles are nightmares; the Germans resist every step of the way. The best scene comes at the film’s midpoint, right after the tankers conquer a German town. Two of the tank crew barge into an apartment where two women are hiding; sex results, but it’s not rape, and the unexpected tenderness on display is entirely real. Then the other three members barge in drunk, and a thoroughly unpleasant (and surreal) dinner ensues. The tank battles are spectacular and thoroughly realistic. Fury is defined by them.

5. The Hurt Locker. Baghdad, 2004; Iraq War. Neither anti- nor pro-military, but respectful and a sobering lesson in what bomb deactivation squads go through. This is basically the film American Sniper tried to repeat: special-skilled soldiers, battle addiction, and the toll taken on wives back home. The title refers to shell shock, or the physical trauma of being continually close to the blast of an explosion: the horrible noise and prelude of compressed silence encasing you in a locker of pain. Kathryn Bigelow deserved to take best picture, and I’m still gratified by the fact that her ex-husband James Cameron lost against her (Avatar was ridiculous). The Hurt Locker is not only an incredible adrenaline rush, it’s a professional depiction of the Iraq War that refuses to plant a flag on either side of the conflict. It’s a thoughtful film about what it means to have skills that set a soldier above his peers, without glamorizing the role.

6. Flowers of War. Nanking, 1937; Sino-Japanese War. Set during the Rape of Nanking (the Chinese holocaust of WWII), this is one of the most original war narratives ever penned. It’s inspired loosely by the diary of an American missionary who worked to protect Chinese civilians in the Nanking Safety Zone, set in a Catholic cathedral. The convent is used as a hideaway for young schoolgirls, who are soon joined by a group of prostitutes also seeking safety. The key character is the American mortician, who eventually must use his skills to disguise the older prostitutes as the 12-yr olds when the Japanese demand the schoolgirls be handed over for rape. The acting on display is as good as acting gets, the drama intense, and it pulls no punches showing the horrors of the Sino-Japanese War. The ending is left ambiguous — the disguised prostitutes are taken away from the cathedral — but safe to infer: these flowers have chosen to martyr themselves for the students’ freedom.

7. Full Metal Jacket. Vietnam, late 1960s; Vietnam War. There are zillions of films about the Vietnam War, many of them by Oliver Stone, most of them not very good. Even Kubrick’s has its problems, but I’ve seen the boot-camp part so many times it’s ridiculous. Gunnery Sergeant Hartman is one of the most entertaining film characters of all time, and he completely owns Full Metal Jacket. As a nineteen-year old, I remember thinking he went over-the-top for sake of theater, but quickly learned that actor R. Lee Ermey had been a real-life drill instructor, and that Kubrick allowed him to edit his own dialogue and improvise as he saw fit. I also remember my father saying he experienced some of these degradations heaped on the privates (and he was only in the Air Force, not the Marines). The film’s middle part is its weakest (where it feels like Europe more than Vietnam), but the sniper sequence at the end pulls it back on its feet.

8. Come and See. Russia, 1943; World War II. Unheard of by many, this bleak Russian film (made in 1985) shows the Nazi massacre of a Belarusian village through the eyes of a young boy. It’s as anti-Hollywood as films get, though it does oddly remind of Apocalypse Now, in its hallucinatory visions involving blood and mud, and increasing madness. As I understand it, the 14-year old was a non-actor but his performances are visceral. The title “Come and see” apparently derives from Revelation 6 (verses 1,3,5,7), which is John’s invitation to look on the destruction caused by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. This part in particular supposedly inspired Kilmov: “And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see! And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death.” That’s certainly a perfect metaphor for Come and See, and though I haven’t had the stomach to watch it a second time, I should, because it deserves multiple viewings.

9. Black Hawk Down. Mogadishu, 1993; Somalian Intervention. Never has the chaos of battle been depicted so effectively as in Black Hawk Down. What should have been a simple seizing of Somalian lieutenants turned into a nightmare of 18 soldier deaths across an overnight standoff, with another soldier being captured as well. All things considered, it’s amazing the rangers and special forces were able to fight off an entire city as they did. I was actually in Africa the year of this event, and remember hearing of warlord Aidid. His weapon was hunger: capturing all the food coming into Mogadishu. The American intervention was long delayed and frustrating, and when finally put into effect was blown to smithereens by unforeseen blunders. Small mistakes and cruel acts of fate — these more than anything else are what left the soldiers stranded in the city teeming with Aidid’s thugs around every corner, well into the next day.

10. Lone Survivor. Afghanistan, 2005; Afghanistan War. If you want a true-story set in the Middle-East, see this one instead of American Sniper. (What’s fact and fiction is explained here.) It tells of four navy seals on a covert operation in the Hindu Kush mountain range, spying on a Taliban hideout. When they’re spotted by a random group of goat herders, the seals make the kind (but very stupid) decision to let them go instead of killing them on the spot. From that point they fend off an unrelenting assault, as Taliban soldiers chase them through the mountains, surround them, appear suddenly from behind trees, entirely at ease in native territory. This is probably the most emotionally draining military sequence I’ve seen, and shows how much damage the human body can absorb before giving up the ghost. The film honors the seals who died in this operation, but also the Afghan villagers who sheltered the lone survivor of the four, when it was basically suicide for them to oppose the Taliban in this way.

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My Special Cut of The Hobbit

Bilbo and GollumThe Hobbit trilogy was a mess but I proved to myself that it didn’t have to be. With computer software I re-cut the trilogy and removed all the grievous offenses, especially in the second and third films. The result isn’t a masterpiece like The Lord of the Rings, but it’s surprisingly decent.

There are great moments in these films: Bilbo out-riddling Gollum, the hobbit bearding Smaug in his hoard, the fight on the ice between Thorin and Azog, the Council of the White confronting Sauron at Dol Guldur, to name my favorites. The problem is that the good parts are hard to savor in a sea of surrounding sewage. Here’s what I came up with after that sewage is removed. I’m pleased to say that The Hobbit is now enjoyable to watch.

An Unexpected Adventure

Original cut: 3 hrs 2 min
My edit: 32 minutes removed (20% of the film)
New cut: 2 hrs 30 min

The Desolation of Smaug

Original cut: 3 hrs 6 min
My edit: 103 minutes removed (55% of the film)
New cut: 1 hr 23 min

The Battle of Five Armies

Original cut: 2 hrs 24 min
My edit: 56 minutes removed (40% of the film)
New cut: 1 hr 28 min

So my edited trilogy adds up to 5 hours 21 minutes (down from Jackson’s bloated 8 hours 32 minutes).

Bilbo and SmaugSpecifically, this is what I got rid of.

An Unexpected Adventure

Radagast. I actually love Radagast. He’s a half-baked lunatic who lets birds nest in his hair and shit down his beard; he drives a rabbit-pulled sleigh. This all gratifies me immensely. The problem is how he is used in the first film. His rescue of Gandalf, Bilbo and the dwarves from a warg attack is horribly contrived, and a massive geographic failure; Radagast stays in Mirkwood — he wouldn’t be zipping around west of the Misty Mountains, far less know where to find Gandalf on the road. So while I keep Radagast in films two and three (obviously, for the Dol Guldur crisis), I leave him out here.

The stone giants and rock avalanche. An unimpressive scene, and unnecessary, given the action to follow in Goblin-Town.

The escape from Goblin-Town. After Gandalf’s rescue, the next time we see him and the dwarves is through Bilbo’s eyes, exiting the mountain. I completely removed the underground sequence of the dwarves leaping over crumbling bridges like olympic athletes, and falling down chasms with hardly a scratch.

The Desolation of Smaug

Prologue. The flashback to Gandalf and Thorin’s first meeting each other is superfluous.

Legolas. Aside from his first appearance (leading the capture of the dwarves), he doesn’t appear in my cut. He’s completely gone. No ninja acrobatics. No miracle stunts. All gone.

Tauriel. Ditto. Not a single trace of her survives. The romance between her and Kili, her later appearance in Laketown — all gone.

The river barrel battle. Not only did Legolas and Tauriel dominate this sequence, but even the dwarves were pulling off insane acrobatics. All of it is gone. After Bilbo engineers the barrel escape, there is no battle.

Laketown. Gone. The Kili soap opera and other tedious side stories. Aside from a few brief wide shots of the town, Laketown doesn’t appear until the third film.

Unlocking the hidden door. I telescoped this incident so the door is unlocked right away. The whole business of being fooled by the setting sun instead of waiting for moonlight is tedious.

Smaug chasing the dwarves through Erebor. A horrible videogame sequence. After Bilbo beards Smaug in his den, I cut directly to the end, with Smaug flying toward Laketown.

Battle Of Five Armies_00002The Battle of Five Armies

Legolas and Tauriel. As above. All traces of them are gone. Their trip to Angmar, and their prolonged battle scenes at the end — none of this survives.

Alfred. I don’t know what Jackson was thinking by creating this comical buffoon, but he poisoned the film even more than Legolas and Tauriel. I eradicated every last frame of this weasel. Which means most of the Laketown drama is gone.

Portions of the Battle of Five Armies. A few chunks where it looks less a battle and more a videogame.

(See also: My Special Cut of The Lord of the Rings.)

The Illusion of Free Will

free-will

The idea of free will implies two things:

(1) That we were free to think and act differently than we did. We did something but could have done otherwise. I raised my right hand but could have raised my left; I went to see a movie, but could have visited a friend; I decided to join the Peace Corps, but could have gotten a job; I thought about cooking dinner, but could have considered ordering pizza.

(2) We are the conscious source of our thoughts and actions. Our consciousness is the author of our inner lives and subsequent behaviors — the thinker of our thoughts, and the intender of our intentions. I feel that I want to rise from a chair, and so I rise. I experience the desire to marry my girlfriend, so I propose to her.

Sam Harris says both of these assumptions are false.

(1) The first problem is that we live in a determinist universe (a world of cause and effect) and everything that could possibly constitute our will is the product of a chain of prior causes: genes, environment, social networks, patterns of electrochemical activity in the brain, atomic states at this or that precise moment. We’re not responsible for any of this, and to say “I could have done otherwise” is to say, essentially, that I could have been a different person or I could have been in a different universe.

We cannot have chosen differently in the same circumstances in which we had exactly the same values, exactly the same feelings and inclinations, exactly the same information at our disposal, and in which our brains were in exactly the same physical states, down to the last synaptic firing threshold. That’s what it means to live in a determinist world. A psychopath isn’t responsible for psychopathic behavior anymore than an altruist can take credit for noble deeds.

(Note: This isn’t to say that our decisions and behaviors are necessarily 100% deterministic. Random elements may interact with determinist ones, so that under any set of conditions someone is x% likely to make this decision, y% likely to make that decision, etc. But this has no bearing on the discussion. Random causes are those for which we’re not responsible and obviously can’t take credit — they don’t involve free will any more than determinist causes. As Harris says: “Determinism makes you a machine; randomness makes you a machine playing dice.”)

(2) The second problem is that the conscious desires and intentions which precede our actions are not their true origin. Everything we are consciously aware of at any moment is the result of stream of neuro-physiological events in the unconscious. We’re not aware of this stream and have no conscious control over it. This unconscious activity is what begets our thoughts and emotions, and determines our choices; we are mere witnesses to the choices we think we are consciously making.

This has been shown in lab experiments, where equipment monitoring mental activity detects what a person’s unconscious is deciding before he or she consciously make the choice. And Harris notes that if we pay close attention to our thoughts, we can glimpse the nature of this truth: thoughts simply appear in consciousness, and we really can’t account for why we choose, say, to raise one hand but not the other.

The Push-Back

The two points — that we live in a determinist universe and so could never have “done otherwise”; and that we are unaware and powerless over the unconscious activity that precedes our conscious choices — aren’t terribly controversial. Yet many scientists and philosophers insist on making room for free will in this prison. Their position is called “compatibilism”, and it basically asserts that we are the net sum of our experiences, conscious as much as unconscious. Free will exists since we experience it. But as Harris points out, that simply changes the subject and misses the point: that the experience is an illusion.

David Livingstone Smith is one of my favorite philosophers, but he falls into the compatibilist trap, and tries to save free will by distinguishing between causation and coercion.

“Those who deny the existence of freedom of the will, or who claim that freedom must defy determinism, fudge the distinction between causation and coercion. You are coerced only if you are forced to do something that you don’t want to do (you perform the act at gunpoint, as it were) or are prevented from doing something that you want to do (for example, you can’t stand up because you are duct-taped to the chair). It’s obvious that coercion is incompatible with freedom. It’s equally obvious that causation isn’t. The mere fact that one’s choice was caused by various prior events does not imply that one was coerced into making the choice. And there are no grounds for claiming that making the decision is not free.”

Again, this is just an artful way of changing the subject. It’s playing semantics. Whether we speak of our “choices being caused” or “ourselves being coerced” makes no difference if the end result could not have been otherwise. The only difference is on the level of conscious subjective experience, and again, the point is that our experience isn’t what we think it is. Yes, it’s an important part of the human condition, but it’s ultimately a mirage.

Compatibilism in the Abrahamic Religions

Of course, compatibilism is nothing new. Nearly every theologian who has advocated a form of predestination has made wiggle-room for free will. Augustine and Calvin, our forerunners of “hard-core” predestination, insisted on degrees of free will that somehow don’t conflict with God’s inescapable plan. This has been difficult to understand, of course, as the two concepts are at odds with each other.

But they were married from the start. The bible blesses their union. The exodus story speaks of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart (Exod 7:3; 9:12; 10:1,20,27; 11:10; 14:4,8) and Pharaoh hardening his own heart (8:15,32; 9:34). Perhaps God imposed his will on Pharaoh sometimes, while Pharaoh exercised his will on others. Or maybe God was in complete control all the time, and Pharaoh’s hardening himself was the simple result of God forcing him to harden his heart against his will. In the latter case, Pharaoh’s free will was an illusion.

Most theologians prefer it the other way — that God’s predestination is the illusion. Pharaoh, they say, exercised free choice at every point. God merely provided the circumstances and occasion for Pharaoh to be forced to make a decision. He sent Moses to place demands before Pharaoh, and Pharaoh chose to resist God’s demands. Had God not sent Moses and provided the backdrop for Pharaoh to exercise his stubborn attitude, Pharaoh would not have been faced with the dilemma of whether to release the Israelites. On this reading, God set a “preordained” path in motion, but he was not the author of Pharaoh’s defiance.

Throughout the bible, God’s will intervenes most forcefully at the critical junctures of salvation-history. Paul makes a predestination argument in Rom 9:6-29, saying that the Gentile acceptance and the Jewish rejection of Christ “does not depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s will”; that “God has mercy on whom he wants and hardens whom he wants” — and has thus called the Gentiles while rejecting his own people. But that almost seems countermanded by what Paul says next in Rom 9:30-10:21: that Gentiles cannot accept Christ unless missionaries reach out and explain the gospel to them. That’s what enables them to choose to “believe in their own hearts” and “call upon the name of the Lord to be saved”.

The usual line of Christian compatibilism is that people are free to an extent, as their nature allows, but their sinfulness prevents them from choosing God (1 Cor. 2:14; Rom. 3:10-12; Rom. 6:14-20). God must therefore be the active agent who elects and saves them. This, however, is problematic for the idea that “God wants all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:3-4): “As in Adam all die, so also in Christ all should be made alive” (I Cor 15:22; Rom 5:18). These passages have naturally provided a basis for rejecting predestination altogether. The reason why “all” humanity doesn’t get saved as God wants, can only be that people use their free will to accept or reject him.

This is all murky, but one thing is clear: There is no mainstream view in Judaism or Christianity that completely denies free will. Jews and Christians either deny predestination, or uphold it alongside a certain measure of free will. Islam is much the same, though sometimes more heavy on the predestination side, since Allah is bloodthirsty and wants people to roast in hell: “If we [Allah] had willed, we could have guided all men to the truth, but instead we will fill hell with jinns and men.” (Qur’an 32:13) Allah created people to torture them in hell; he could have guided everyone to the truth, but he wants most of them to go to hell, and that’s what happens. (The Judeo-Christian God wants everyone saved, but that’s not what happens.) Nonetheless, Islam still insists on a significant measure of free will.

Biting the Bullet

The theological gymnastics used to reconcile free will and predestination begin to look a lot like the acrobatics of our modern-day scientists who want to keep free will inside the span of determinism. As far as I can tell, they can do this only by evading the point. To say that we experience the ability to do what we want and thus have free will, is to duck from the unpleasant idea that our experience isn’t what it seems.

And look who ducks. Even someone like David Smith, who has made a career of preaching hard truths (about lying and war-mongering) and scolding those who reject them out of fear of moral abuse. Have we finally hit on the one subject that terrifies even our best specialists?

It would be a supreme (and amusing) irony if atheists like Smith and Dan Dennett are unable to bite the bullet and persist in a compatibilism as cloudy as that of the Judeo-Christian tradition they’re so at odds with.

Doctor Who: All Stories Ranked

I did the best of the classic stories, and the nine seasons of the new series. Now to rank the top-40 stories of the new series. To date, there are 107 of them.

blink1. Tie: Blink & The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit. 5+ jelly babies each. Blink may be a boring #1 choice (it’s everyone’s favorite), but it’s completely beyond criticism. I can’t even nitpick Murray Gold’s scoring, as he gets even that right for a change, hitting every beat perfectly. The weeping angels are brilliant creations, the best aliens of the new era and the most frightening. Most remarkable is the status this story has achieved despite, or perhaps because of, being Doctor-lite. It’s a home run when the Doctor can be sidelined for the better, and of course Sally Sparrow is a fantastic character, possibly the best guest performance of the nine seasons. Moffat is at his best playing with time paradoxes in Blink, the highlight of course being the DVD Easter Egg scene, as the Doctor uses a copy of the transcript Lawrence is writing to have a conversation across time, which in fact generates the script. And it takes pure genius to cap it all off with a final scene that has absolutely nothing to do with the story, yet everything, designed to make kids afraid of statues. Other days I consider The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit my #1 favorite. I’ll never forget when I first watched the second season DVD set, and this no-holds-barred epic came in the middle, trailing a fantastic werewolf story, a wonderful return of Sarah Jane Smith, a dark fairy-tale, and an amazing reboot of the Cybermen in a parallel Earth. The devil outdid them all in the deepest space and death trap, stealing shamelessly from Alien, The Abyss, and Robots of Death, yet never feeling like a cheat. The dread and claustrophobia never let up, with Rose and crew battling Ood on the sanctuary base above, and the Doctor freefalling blindly into Satan’s Pit below. We haven’t seen the Doctor show down a godlike adversary since he went against Sutekh in Pyramids of Mars and the ancient evil in The Curse of Fenric, and this masterpiece ranks right alongside them. When I finally caught my breath at the end, I remember thinking, “Okay, it’s official: we’re in a new golden age of Doctor Who.”

2. Dalek. 5 jelly babies. The story that convinced me of the potentials of the new series is a pure classic. When I’m crying over a Dalek, something unprecedented is going on, and what’s mind-numbingly brilliant is the way this episode inverts the legendary Genesis of the Daleks with just as much economy in the span of 45 minutes. The tortured Dalek draws not an ounce of sympathy from the Doctor, who has to be stopped by Rose from blasting it to atoms — the exact opposite of Sarah who once urged genocide against his pacifism — all climaxing in a weird “E.T.” moment as the creature forms a strange bond with her. If anyone had described the plot to me in advance, I would have dismissed it as a sentimental betrayal of what Doctor Who is about, but Dalek is absolutely transcendent, and the second best Dalek story (after Genesis) in the entire history of the show.

3. Human Nature/Family of Blood. 5 jelly babies. Some consider this the best story, even over Blink, and you can certainly make a case for it. Drama doesn’t go deeper than making a Time Lord human, taking away his TARDIS, and erasing all memories of his true identity. And it’s really a story that only Paul Cornell could pull off so that it plays like something adapted out of high-brow literature. The Doctor makes the sacrifice of becoming human out of kindness (preferring evasion over a grim sentence he’s forced to carry out on the aliens in the end), but ends up bringing horror and death to an innocent village. David Tennant gets to show off new acting skills, as he’s a completely new character, emotionally vulnerable, and devoid of the flippant sarcasm that defines his role as the Doctor. When the jig is finally up and he refuses to change back into a Time Lord, having fallen in love with a fellow schoolteacher, he delivers a performance so painful that we almost don’t want the Doctor back anymore than he does.

A-Christmas-Carol-doctor-who-17929570-1280-7204. Tie: A Christmas Carol & Last Christmas. 5 jelly babies each. I never wanted to see holiday specials after the stream of Davies-fiascoes, convinced that The Christmas Invasion was a one-off exception. Not only did Moffat prove me wrong, he produced two stunning masterpieces. A Christmas Carol is almost as good as the Dickens classic itself. The sets and lighting with purplish-black hues set a perfect tone, haunting yet mystical, and Michael Gambon as the tormented Scrooge character is one of the best guest performances of the new series. The Doctor’s unethically manipulations in trying to save his soul remind of the seventh Doctor: there’s no reason he couldn’t have gone back in time to prevent the Starliner from taking off in the first place instead of jumping through hoops to rewrite a man’s life on the slim hope that he’ll change his mind. He seems to derive fulfilment out of using people as pawns, rewriting their lives — as the Scrooge character rightly charges — “to suit himself”. The tragedy is foreordained: Abigail must die, and her final sky-ride marks a perfect closing.lastchristmas Last Christmas, meanwhile, is a terrifying story, though you’d never predict it from the first fifteen minutes: Santa Claus in Doctor Who? Talk about jumping the shark. So of course this had better be a dream, and the trope works, because as in Inception, the nightmares impact reality in deadly earnest. You can die in these dreams, age monstrously, or never wake up. The dream crabs are the scariest aliens seen since the weeping angels, and in this case you should look away from them and blink, and stop thinking about them altogether. They are the facehuggers of Alien, “Inceptionized” to weaponize dreams against people as the crabs feed on the host’s brain. When everyone’s subconscious fights back, it comes in the form of Santa Claus, and the juxtaposition of a fairy-tale figure with lethal horrors tumbles into a work of emotional artistry.

5. The Girl in the Fireplace. 5 jelly babies. This creep show and romantic tragedy captures the innocence of The Chronicles of Narnia and horror of Pan’s Labyrinth to produce something rather unique in Doctor Who, something I wish we’d see more often. Moffat must have had me in mind when writing the spaceship powered by human body parts — especially the beating heart in the interior smelling like cooking meat — and the demented robots who believe that a certain woman’s are needed just because the ship is named after her. Madame de Pompadour herself is brilliantly scripted, making it easy to accept that she could fall in love with The Doctor she has only known for fleeting moments throughout her life, since he arrives out of nowhere like a mythical protector in times of need. When he comes the final time to find her dead and gone, and her letter waiting, it hits me every time. This is pure magic, pure storytelling.

6. Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead. 5 jelly babies. As a librarian I adore this one; hell, I dream of planet-sized libraries. The menace is bloody chilling: shadows that kill on contact and strip flesh to the bone, hard to distinguish from the garden variety, and as hard to evade as the weeping angels from Blink. And of course this is where the Doctor first meets River Song, though for her it’s their last meeting, and she dies with appropriate tragedy. True, she awakens in the matrix to continue in some sort of metaphysical existence, but at least her demise is permanent on the physical side of things, which is more than can be said for the deaths in The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances. Even if the epilogue waxes schmaltzy, this is Moffat at his best — the best two-part story he has written, with the first half being a nail-biting horror piece, the second taking us inside the disturbing matrix where Donna is married and has kids and no memory of anything else.

heaven7. Heaven Sent/Hell Bent. 5 jelly babies. Technically these are separate stories and not an actual two-parter. But I’d put Hell Bent only a few slots below, so I’m leaving them together. Heaven Sent is an instant classic and one of most terrifying entries of the new series. Some of the Veil scenes still give me a heart attack on later viewings. But the concept alone is pulverizing. The Doctor finds himself alone in a torture castle which has apparently claimed many victims, but it turns out all the skulls are his own. He’s trapped in his own playground of torment, enduring agony literally a billion times over, each time reborn in the grief he last knew (his best friend dying). That’s as close a realization of eternal hell I’ve ever seen depicted on screen, especially since he always reaches a point where he can remember all the previous times he was killed at the Veil’s hands. Hell Bent is the season-nine finale, delivering something rather different from what Heaven Sent built up to, but that swerve turns out for the better. I’m astonished it isn’t more widely loved; it’s the best finale of the new series.HELL BENT (By Steven Moffat) The Doctor’s mission was never about the Hybrid. His home planet is a means to an end of saving Clara, which he can only sort of do. The Gallifrey set pieces are eye-candy, the cloister creepy, but all window dressing for the Doctor and Clara’s examination of each other — spelling out what they mean to each other before killing their relationship. Hell Bent reverses Clara’s death (for a time anyway), but without undoing the Doctor’s grief, and in fact amplifying his pain all the more. Oddly enough, I didn’t want to learn about the Hybrid beyond the few innuendos. It’s a concept that would have probably failed under too much scrutiny. The Time War has worked well as a vague mythic backdrop, and it was wise to keep things vague in favor of a strong character drama for Clara’s swan song.

8. Amy’s Choice. 5 jelly babies. By far the weirdest story of the new series, an actual nightmare that evokes David Lynch. It finds the Doctor, Amy, and Rory flicking back and forth between two scenarios, one of which they are told is a dream they are sharing, the other reality. To die in the dream will cause them to wake up in reality for good, and to die in reality will cause them to really die; so they must choose wisely. The choice, however, Amy’s choice, ultimately boils down to a choice between the Doctor and Rory, and I love the twist that the frozen TARDIS circling a cold star is as much a dream as the idyllic countryside where feeble grandmas are getting whacked by crowbars and thrown off the roofs of houses. The perversity is grand, but at heart the story is ingeniously introspective, a welcome rarity in Doctor Who, and a true work of art.

9. Father’s Day. 5 jelly babies. Paul Cornell proved at once that tear-jerkers can work outside the cloying sentimentality of Russell Davies. The plot is simple, the resolution predictable, but only in way the tragedy often is; the drama is brilliant, the acting Oscar-worthy. Rose persuades the Doctor to take her back in time to when her father was killed by a motorist, and despite being forbidden to alter the past, she saves him anyway, ushering in nothing less than Armageddon. Everywhere on earth people are suddenly assaulted by Reapers, winged parasites that act like antibodies, destroying everything in wounded time until the paradox is gone. The Doctor nearly disowns and abandons Rose, and it’s one of Eccleston’s harshest and finest moments. But in the end the Doctor and Rose are closer than before despite (no: because of) their falling out, after the painful lesson that triumph costs.

10. The Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel. 5 jelly babies. This one is about as strong as Father’s Day to which it serves as a sort of sequel. Not only is it the best Cybermen story of all time (though let’s face it, they were never used very well in the classic period), it’s before that a parallel-Earth story, like the Pertwee classic Inferno, in which all bets are off as we get to see familiar faces die (Jackie), others beat hasty retreats when confronted with “relatives” they never knew (Pete), and then a major character from our world choose exile when he finally realizes his girlfriend will always choose the Doctor over him (Mickey). Much as I loathed Mickey up to this point, I had to admit this story justified his existence, and his farewell to Rose was really moving. As for the Cybermen, the Davros-type genius who creates them is a ranting megalomaniac and alone worth the price of admission. This one is vastly underrated.

11. The Eleventh Hour. 5 jelly babies. Yes, it follows the tired invasion-of-earth format, but does it so goddamn well it turns out a classic. The high point is the tempus-fugit with seven-year old Amelia Pond, who is established as the “girl who waited”. As in The Girl in the Fireplace, the Doctor establishes a close connection with a young girl, leaves suddenly thinking he’ll be “right back”, but returns many years later to a grown woman who believes she had imagined him as a child. On the face of it, The Eleventh Hour is an invasion story in which the Doctor saves the entire planet in the space of twenty minutes, and by (of all things) using a laptop to spread a global virus. But it’s an incredibly fun ride with brilliantly established characters, and it gets better literally every time I watch it. The ending is pure magic, as we see the new TARDIS interior through the eyes of Amy Pond, and are left just as awed.

12. Midnight. 5 jelly babies. The best thing Russell Davies ever wrote is by his own admission a low-budget afterthought, asking what would happen if Voyage of the Damned were turned on its head. If the garishly bombastic Christmas special was about feel-good togetherness and people bringing out the best in each other when united against an outside threat, Midnight is about the beast inside everyone bringing out the worst. With the claustrophobic intensity of United 93 and rapid dialogue-fire of Twelve Angry Men, the story succeeds by undercutting the Doctor’s hero qualities as he’s left at the mercy of an hysterical mob. Opposite Voyage, where his is melodramatic speech about a being a Time Lord makes the ship’s passengers obey him without question, now it’s precisely his arrogant superiority that shoots him in the ass. The tension and yelling reach a crescendo as the passengers try to kill him and he’s unable to save the day. That’s something unique in the Tennant years.

13. The Doctor’s Wife. 5 jelly babies. Getting Neil Gaiman to write for Doctor Who was a coup, and true to expectations he delivered a whopper. This story takes the living essence of the TARDIS, pours it into a human being, gives it voice, and explores its (her) relationship with the Doctor. Idris is a spellbinding character, constantly speaking out of tense as she lives moments of the Doctor’s life in non-linear fashion, and insisting on an equal playing field by insisting that it was she in fact who stole him and not the other way around. In a perfectly geeky way, the TARDIS gives the Doctor what no other “woman” can (not even River Song), constant adventure, which he gives her back in turn. When Idris finally has to die and they both start breaking down, I was doing the same. And those aren’t even the best parts, which go to Amy and Rory trapped inside the darkened TARDIS robbed of its soul, and tormented by a voice out of hell.

14. The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone. 5 jelly babies. This two-parter is to Blink as Aliens is to Alien: bigger, longer, more. The weeping angels are back in droves, faced off by an army of priestly soldiers who aren’t nearly as equipped as they think. Like Ripley, the Doctor understands the menace better than anyone, though not always quite enough, and the angels have some alarming new tricks, like breaking peoples’ heads open in order to reanimate their consciousness. In terms of suspense, I hadn’t been kept on the edge of my seat so much since the Ood closed in on the space crew back in The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit; and as in that story the body count is high. Amy almost dies, and when she says, “I’m scared, Doctor,” our hero returns callously, “Of course you’re scared, you’re dying, shut up.” Amusingly, when all is said and done, she wants to jump in the sack and fuck his brains out in one of the best epilogues of the new series.

Dark_Water_story_image15. Dark Water. 5 jelly babies. This is the only double-bill that places on my list without its other half. Dark Water is an incredibly subdued horror piece filled with all sorts of upsetting ideas, like dead people feeling the pain of their corpses’ cremations, and the dead being coldly alone in a Sheol-like limbo. The alternate-reality sequence of Clara standing on the edge of a Mount Doom look-alike, threatening the Doctor, and finally throwing all of his TARDIS keys into the lava is their best dramatic scene in all of seasons eight and nine. But the story’s second half, Death in Heaven, takes too many problematic turns with the Cybermen. The Brigadier-Cyberman is rubbish, and Danny’s love overcoming his cyber-impulses is so awful it nearly ruins the story. If Death in Heaven had delivered even half decently, the entire double-bill would rank at this slot. But the first part is truly excellent.

16. Fires of Pompeii. 5 jelly babies. The most ambitious historical of the new series achieves greatness with everything — drama, horror, tragedy, time paradoxes, and not a minute of screen time wasted. It tackles the dilemma of whether or not history should be altered to save lives, and the Doctor’s struggle to pull the lever recalls Tom Baker’s agony over whether or not to change history by committing genocide on the Daleks. The Sibylline Sisterhood is another throw-back to the Hinchcliffe era (The Brain of Morbius), and half of the fourth-season’s special effects budget seems to have gone into creating the Pyrovile (stone-magma creatures resembling Balrogs) which the priestesses are hideously transforming into. That the Doctor is the one to blow up Vesuvius and murder thousands is genius, and if you aren’t weeping with Donna at the end you’re made of stone yourself.

DWMummy17. Mummy on the Orient Express. 5 jelly babies. The setting is a plush space-train that recreates the Orient Express, one of the most gorgeous set pieces, and fitting for a “farewell” episode: Clara can no longer deal with the Doctor after the way he treated her in Kill the Moon, and so this train-ride is supposed to be their last hurrah. Peter Capaldi channels both Tom and Colin Baker brilliantly, with brusque humor, jelly-baby offerings, and an astonishing callousness that demands innocent people die willingly while feeding him information in their last minute of life. Despite all this, Clara realizes she can’t let go of the Doctor after all. This is the best story of season eight, and fossilizes the vastly improved chemistry between Clara and the Doctor, which is so unlike her previous hollow relationship with Matt Smith. The mummy is straight out of Hinchcliffe — truly terrifying.

18. Vincent and the Doctor. 5 jelly babies. By portraying Van Gogh as a tormented genius who sees things others are blind to, this story is able to explore artistic insight on both literal and metaphysical levels. It represents the final year of Van Gogh’s life, recreating various sites painted by the artist, the paintings themselves in arresting color, and his disturbing fits of manic depression. The theme of vision permeates almost every frame, and on the literal level this plays out in the attack of the Krafayis, an invisible giant bird-reptile that Vincent fends off entertainingly with long wooden poles and armchairs, while the Doctor gets slammed against walls by its tail. On the deeper level, Van Gogh sees things in nature’s midst and people’s souls. And of course, the ending hits hard: the Doctor brings Vincent to a museum in the present, where the artist breaks down in front of his paintings that are now famous.

19. School Reunion. 4 ½ jelly babies. The return of Sarah Jane Smith is a precious episode. Three decades after The Hand of Fear, she’s furious that the Doctor never came back for her and becomes jealous over Rose. Sarah is more than just a returning companion to please old fans; she’s used very effectively to put Rose’s relationship to the Doctor into perspective, and to call into the question the way he eventually discards his companions. K-9 is back too. Around the fun nostalgia revolves a plot involving batlike aliens who have taken over a school and are turning children into geniuses to help them solve an equation that unlocks complete control of time and space. A powerful concept like this really deserved more attention than serving as a backdrop to the return of old friends, but this is still a terrific story. The Doctor gets in a particularly compelling moment when he considers using the paradigm to save Gallifrey, and Sarah reminds him that pain and loss are essential in the course of evolution.

8a4e2-d-barn420. The Day of the Doctor. 4 ½ jelly babies. I believe this anniversary special plays on C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle. It’s about an apocalypse initiated inside a barn, of all places, where weird visions and harsh moral judgments unfold. The difference is that contra Aslan’s decision to wipe out his creation of Narnia, what happens in the Doctors’ barn saves Gallifrey from destruction — or at least in this time stream. The reset works, and there is cost. When the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors persuade the earlier self to choose differently, it’s not as if everything is magically restored as it should be. We still don’t know where Gallifrey is. The three Doctors forget their group-effort reset as soon as they resume their timelines, thereby preserving history to the extent that in the past they will still believe they destroyed Gallifrey. The Doctor suffers just as before, in his mind having murdered his own race. Sarah’s lesson on pain and loss is upheld.

21. Tie: The Unquiet Dead & Tooth and Claw. 4 ½ jelly babies each. This pair of gothic historicals channel the Hinchcliffe era with brilliant sets, solid scares, and first-rate guest performances. Charles Dickens is played as a skeptic who becomes more open-minded about ghostly matters on account of his dealings with the Doctor. Though of course, the corpses stalking Cardiff aren’t really undead, but animated by gaseous aliens from another dimension, as they want to reclaim every corpse on earth for bodily existence. The best part is that the Doctor actually aids them in their morbid goal out of pity (after all, human corpses are just corpses), not realizing the aliens’ real goal goal to dominate planet earth once they acquire physical existence. The Doctor is astonishingly incompetent in this story, and it’s up to Dickens and a house maid to save the day. As for Tooth and Claw, it’s the second best thing Russell Davies ever wrote (after Midnight), showing none of his bad traits at all. I’d always wanted to see a werewolf story in Doctor Who, and you can’t do better for setting than the Scottish highlands. Queen Victoria is even more colorful than Charles Dickens, and the ninja monks are a big bonus. The monks’ agenda is to get the Queen bitten so they can rule the British empire through her, though it’s never quite clear whether they’re worshiping the werewolf or using it for their own ends. The ending is priceless, when the Queen rewards the Doctor with a knighthood, and then promptly banishes him, “not amused” by his heathen nature.

22. Turn Left. 4 ½ jelly babies. This one could have placed in my top-15 if not for being weighed down by the baggage of Davies’ previous lemons, especially The Runaway Bride and Partners in Crime, and also the gaping plot hole that if the Doctor died at the start of season three, the world would have retroactively ended in 79 AD since he doesn’t go back to Pompeii and stop the Pyrovile. For the most part Davies manages to pull off a compelling time-warp scenario in which Donna replays her life without ever meeting the Doctor, with catastrophic results for the world. There’s great drama here: the Italian family being taken off to a “labor camp”, and Donna’s life as a refugee. The return of Rose is handled surprisingly well (since she doesn’t meet the Doctor, thus remaining true to the series-two finale), and Catherine Tate puts in a hell of a performance as she sacrifices herself to turn left and get the world back on track.

FLatline-aliens23. Flatline. 4 ½ jelly babies. This is what Fear Her aspired to be. It rapes the TARDIS by shrinking its outer dimensions and leaving the Doctor trapped inside. This leaves Clara to assume the his role (which she does explicitly: Rose’s such role in Fear Her was implied) and save the day. The story serves as a brilliant meta-commentary on what it means to be the Doctor and make difficult decisions. As he says at the end, smothering the wind in Clara’s sails: “You were an excellent Doctor, Clara — and goodness had nothing to do with it.” The two-dimensional aliens are downright terrorizing, even when they manifest in jittering 3D, for being so outside our frame of reference. They kill people (and there are serious body counts here) by reducing them to obscene “pictures” on a wall — a diagram of a nervous system here, a network of skin cells there.

24. 42. 4 ½ jelly babies. Yes, this is a complete rip-off of The Impossible Planet/Satan Pit, but I’m a sucker for spaceship-in-distress stories where sweating crew members fight hopeless odds, race against time, and get picked off one by one. Here the Doctor and his companion appear on a ship which is going to crash into a sun in 42 minutes. Like last time, they get cut off from the TARDIS almost as soon as they step out of it (thus preventing a convenient rescue and escape), and just as before, we get possessed crew members (this time by an angry sun), suffocating claustrophobia, and the Doctor going EVA. Because the drama unfolds in real time (Doctor Who episodes are 45 minutes long), and punctuated by a nerve-racking countdown, it keeps your blood racing. 42 may be derivative but I’ve no complaints about it at all.

25. Utopia. 4 ½ jelly babies. For purposes of this list, I consider the season-three finale to be three separate stories, because they stand on their own and rate very differently. Utopia is a work of excellence. Sound of Drums is decent. Last of the Time Lords is garbage. They comprise a trilogy because the same villain is involved, but the setting and plots are radically different. Utopia is the gem — a dark and compelling look at a dying humanity trillions of years in the future, and its desperate quest to seek out a mythic utopian planet. The plot then turns into a race against time as the professor spearheading this mission turns out to be the Master, who shockingly — even for the Master — murders his assistant and hijacks the Doctor’s TARDIS. Derek Jacobi is the best Master incarnation (after the decaying creature of Tom Baker’s era), and it’s a shame he so quickly regenerated into the clown played by John Simm. Jacobi is positively terrifying in the role.

26. Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways. 4 ½ jelly babies. The season-one finale is a smasher. It involves people trapped in reality television where everything is a game and losers get vaporized. When the Doctor, Rose, and Captain Jack play for their lives they discover the outfit is a front for an impending Dalek invasion of earth. There are awesome sights here — zillions of levitating and flying Daleks, chanting horrible mantras in defense of the Dalek God, “Worship him!”, “Do not interrupt!” — but also some whacking plot holes. Most obvious being when the Daleks invade the station, which they no longer need, to stop the Doctor. Since they are melting entire continents on Earth, they could do the same to the station. But that wouldn’t allow the Doctor to face the moral dilemma demanded by Davies’ script: use the delta wave and kill the Daleks, but also every form of life on Earth; or let the Daleks live so that they can kill every form of life on Earth, which is exactly what they’re already in the process of doing by melting continents. Aside from blunders like this, the story is fantastic.

27. Army of Ghosts/Doomsday. 4 ½ jelly babies. The season-two finale is a close second to the above and the ultimate wet dream: the two most popular Who villains invading earth, and then fighting each other to see who’s best. It’s a rare example of fanwank that works (unlike The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End). The appearance of the Daleks caught me way off-guard, and it’s one of the best cliffhangers of the show’s history. And I love the Cult of Skaro: four elite Daleks with actual names, designed to think as the enemy thinks. A great moment is when the Cyberleader proposes an alliance with the Cult, is refused, and demands: “You would destroy five million Cybermen with four Daleks?” To which the response, of course, is that they would destroy five million Cybermen with but a single Dalek, for “this is not a war, this is pest control”. The only let-down is that the skills of these special Daleks are never put to use, and so the Cult is a somewhat wasted opportunity. As for Rose’s departure, it’s off-the-scales tear-jerking; I have never, but never, cried so hard watching anything except for The Grey Havens scene in Lord of the Rings.

28. The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang. 4 ½ jelly babies. The season-five finale is also excellent, and shows Moffat giving his predecessor the finger whilst feigning homage. The subtext essentially is, if you’re going to raise the stakes to the heights of The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End, Mr. Davies, this is how you do it. The crack in Amy’s bedroom wall proves to be the most successful seasonal story arc in the new series, and while resets are involved, they’re not cheap. They come at a fair price, and there’s emotional payoff. The Doctor’s farewell to Amy as he prepares to sacrifice himself — “You don’t need your imaginary friend anymore” — got me choked up. Also, the reset carries the unexpected surprise of giving back people we never knew existed, notably Amy’s parents, which accounts for the emptiness of Amy’s many-roomed house and why she never talked about a family. The Pandorica Opens is admittedly a stage-setter, but The Big Bang is a mighty payoff.

The_Waters_of_Mars29. Waters of Mars. 4 ½ jelly babies. The “special year” between seasons four and five was the year of stinkers Davies was rolling out before Moffat took charge. Except for Waters of Mars, which is a ripper that works on two levels, the first completely successfully, the second not as much. The straightforward level is a base-under-siege in the classic sense, as crew members on Mars are being infected by water that turns them into lethal zombies. The other level attempts to explore the Doctor’s dark side as he violates the laws of time. The problem is that his crime doesn’t seem particularly reprehensible, because there’s no convincing reason why the deaths of this particular crew on Mars are so unalterable as “fixed points” in time. If Adelaide’s death is supposed to inspire more outer-space missions, that inspiration could just as easily come from some result in a new timeline where she lives. In any case, this is an incredibly suspenseful story.

the-girl-who-waited-pics-3130. The Girl Who Waited. 4 ½ jelly babies. This story wields sentimentality like old-Amy does her sword, but the emotions on display ring true, and it’s impossible not to be moved during the scenes between her and Rory. It’s completely defined by its title: Amy’s tragedy from The Eleventh Hour is repeated, but with far worse results, the simple press of a wrong button costing her half her life. The beauty to this episode is that it does so much with so little; there are no guest characters, just the three regulars; the Two Streams Facility is minimalist as sets get in Doctor Who, but eye-candy just the same with its blinding whiteness and lush topiaries. At heart, the story exposes the Doctor’s destructive nature as Amy faithfully waits on him and evolves into a bitter isolated warrior, whom Rory must find the will to kill.

love and mon31. Love and Monsters. 4 jelly babies. It took many years for me to get closure on this story, and in hindsight I marvel at that. It’s the most divisive episode of the new series, for understandable reasons, but entirely rewarding when taken on its awkward merits. Around the slapstick comedy run strong themes – loneliness, despair, broken relationships, and fan worship. Indeed, it’s an incredibly bleak tale, ending in the nasty demise of the entire LINDA team at the hands of the Absorbaloff, not to mention the incredibly tragic story behind Elton’s visions of the Doctor. These are geeks who need the mystery and the magic of the Doctor to fulfill their lives, which dooms them to misery (and it turns out the worse fate of death). The cartoonish monster and silly tone complement this rather than clash with it (as I used to think), given the theme of Doctor Who fandom that Davies is so clearly poking fun at as he explores serious themes.

into the dalek32. Into the Dalek. 4 jelly babies. As in the season-one classic, a captive Dalek provides a mirror to the Doctor’s own hatred. But this is no lazy repeat. The conceit is something I’ve wanted to see done right since The Invisible Enemy blew it: the Doctor and his companion shrunk down to microscopic size and injected into a brain to root out infection. Here they must navigate inside a “good” Dalek that is hell-bent on exterminating the rest of its kind. As the Twelfth Doctor’s first “real” story (following the post-regeneration premiere), it announces the Sixth’s influence without apology. This Doctor makes no pretense of valuing human life when sacrificing it is necessary; he doesn’t even try to save Ross when the Dalek antibodies come for him — he even gives him a moment’s false hope. The action is intense and the Daleks are menacing in a way not seen since season two.

journey to center33. Journey to the Center of the TARDIS. 4 jelly babies. In the cesspool of season seven, this is the only decent story (aside from Amy’s send off in Manhattan). Characters were hollow this year, but in this story it doesn’t matter, because the TARDIS is the main character. An explosion cripples it, punching a hole in time that causes the past and future to bleed into the present; the Doctor must fix the disaster before it actually occurs; it ends with a reset — a new day on top of the explosive one they experienced but now can’t remember. Unlike most resets, this one works, because it’s much the point, and there was no particular dramatic payoff we were expecting to be robbed of. The inside of the TARDIS was explored in the classic years, but the results were usually eyesores. (The Invasion of Time was a particular embarrassment.) Now we get the inner works in a grand aesthetic.

kill the moon34. Kill the Moon. 4 jelly babies. Yes, this one has a preposterous premise (the moon is really an egg) and a laughable moral dilemma (no human being would hesitate to kill an unknown alien to save her own planet and species), but neither ends up mattering for three reasons. One is the insane level of suspense: the spider-creature attacks are the most terrifying sequences of the new series; these base-under-siege elements are the story’s selling point. Two is the clash between the Doctor and Clara, which is the ugliest companion spat ever. Not even the Ninth and Rose in Father’s Day, the Tenth and Donna in Fires of Pompeii; the Eleventh and Amy in The Beast Below, hold a candle to it. It takes Doctor’s asshole-imperiousness to a record high, and Clara’s rejection of him is staggering to watch. And three for genre: Kill the Moon works precisely as a moral parable with inflated drama in a mythic scenario.

35. The Christmas Invasion. 4 jelly babies. The first and only good Christmas special written by Russell Davies turns out to be a great introduction to the Tenth Doctor. The substandard invasion-of-earth baggage works for rather than against it, even the ludicrous killer-Christmas trees. The dramatic tension builds well in the first half due to the Doctor being out of commission as he recovers from regenerating, and when he finally emerges from those TARDIS doors, we want to clap like kids. He gets in a good sword fight with the alien-king before banishing his race from earth, and the best scene is his hand getting chopped off then immediately regenerating. And the “Song for Ten” at the end is perfect.

36. Planet of the Ood. 4 jelly babies. It’s not often the Doctor gets political and crushes oppression, but it happens from time to time, especially on alien planets in the future, and Planet of the Ood is in fact the best “revolution” story after Tom Baker’s Sun Makers (taxation), E-Space trilogy (servitude and slavery), and Sylvester McCoy’s Happiness Patrol (fascism). It’s great seeing the Doctor bring management to its knees when provoked, and in this case he clearly feels guilty for having let so many Ood die in his battle against Satan in season two. But what really sets this story above average is the musical climax, which is simply transcendent, and defines the story in a way never seen on the show. I get chills during the last five minutes of this episode, and not from the ice planet.

37. Tie: The God Complex & The Angels Take Manhattan. 4 jelly babies each. I’m torn between these two. They tie not only on the strength of their stories, but because each serves as a swan song for Amy. The God Complex is the pseudo-swan song that trails her most harrowing experience in The Girl Who Waited, and finally crushes her childlike faith in the Doctor. It does this in a tense story about a beast who feeds off corrupted belief in a haunted hotel, where each room contains the worst fears of one individual. Amy faces hers and is liberated, and her farewell at the end is as beautiful and simple like Sarah’s in The Hand of Fear. In its own way it’s as powerful as her real departure in The Angels Take Manhattan. Like Sarah’s in the ’70s, it delivers so much in simple gestures and looks that speak volumes. There’s a real feel in the closing scene that the Doctor and Amy have have become best friends and find it enormously painful to part company. Amy’s actual departure, on the other hand, in The Angels Take Manhattan, is a tragedy. It’s basically Blink 3, and like Alien 3 noirish to the core, with a prison environment and ghastly premise: the weeping angels are using Manhattan as a human farm, sending victims back in time over and over again to feed their existence. A lot of it frankly doesn’t make much sense. The Statue of Liberty incarnation scared the shit out of me at first, but it’s conceptually stupid. But the graveyard epilogue nails it just right, and is a tear-jerker like Doomsday: as Rose was stranded in another dimension against her will, Amy chooses to be stranded in the past against the Doctor’s. This is the alternate ending for Amy Pond, as I see it, to The God Complex, and it would have been the proper season-six finale, instead of the River Song thread which Moffat never had a real plan with.

38. The Shakespeare Code. 4 jelly babies. Some of the overused levity keeps this story from reaching the heights of other historicals, but it’s still a great story (unlike Robot of Sherwood which is ruined by the comedy). The mystery of Shakespeare’s lost play is finally solved, where William is being harassed by a trio of witches who use the power of words to unlock space-time boundaries. They need a wordsmith to open a gate for their kind to invade earth, and Love’s Labour’s Won becomes the medium for that goal. As always, there’s science behind the superstition: voodoo dolls are DNA replicators; spells are incanted the same way mathematical computations are intoned in the Tom Baker classic Logopolis. And the humor is genuinely funny: the Doctor cites quotes that Shakespeare hasn’t come up with yet; Shakespeare hits on Martha with racist “compliments”. The climax is both hilarious and genius as Shakespeare defeats the witches by using their own weapon against them — pure verse, which burns them like holy water and closes the gate forever.

39. The Lazarus Experiment. 4 jelly babies. An undervalued story that takes the theme of John 11:1-12:11 and fuses it with The Fly: a scientist finds immortality at the price of uncontrollable shapeshifting. I love that Lazarus can burn the Doctor philosophically; when lectured on what it means to be human (as if the Doctor knows), Lazarus retorts that clinging to life at whatever cost is as human as you can get. The creature that keeps overpowering his human DNA rather puts me in mind of the freaky metamorphosis Noah underwent in the classic Ark in Space. The Lazarus Experiment may not achieve the greatest heights, but it is a fun romp in the purest sense, a quintessential example, actually, that comes to my mind when I think about Doctor Who “romps”. It includes all the standard ingredients in a Who story — creepy monster, high body counts, sci-fi weirdness, and solid philosophical debates with no easy answers.

Sleep No More_240. Sleep No More. 4 jelly babies. An unconventional format, a nihilistic ’70s horror-film feel, and unhappy ending (the Doctor turns tail and runs)… what’s not to like? Perhaps a lot, judging from fan reactions, but I like this story that wrong-foots us at every turn. There’s not even a title sequence, which aligns with the sketchy found-footage format. It’s a format I usually don’t care for, but it works surprisingly well here, and allows Doctor Who to carry an oblique unnerving edge. The setting is a dystopian future, where competitive greed has produced a means to make sleep unnecessary so people can work around the clock. The byproduct of this process are hideous creatures, who in this story terrorize the Doctor, Clara, and a rescue crew on an isolated space station orbiting Neptune. For a while it seems that the footage is from the rescue team’s helmet cams — until a more disturbing truth settles in.

Now I need to address two particular stories that didn’t make my cut. Just about everyone loves them, and many critics would put them in the top-10 if not top-5.

The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances. Moffat’s supposed masterpiece is, to me, ridiculously overrated. There’s so much about it that irks me, first being the “everyone lives” trope. Yes, the happy ending was copied in Silence of the Library/Forest of the Dead, but at least that was only in the matrix, so River Song and her friends still really died. In this story it’s a cheat that trivializes the horror. Worse is Captain Jack, who is really a Russell Davies character through and through, even if Moffat wrote him, and whose interactions with the Doctor and Rose clash with the story’s dark tone. And finally are the horror-features themselves: kid-zombies crying “mummy” over and over again. They’re more irritating than scary. The only great thing that can be said for this story is the inspired setting of the London Blitz. I honestly don’t get the high esteem for it. I’d give it a middle-of-the-road 3 jelly babies.

The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion. Everyone praises it as Capaldi’s defining moment. It’s not. It’s a piece of lazy script writing in which the Zygons display little menace, the captive and unconscious Clara is able to incredibly exert her will against her Zygon-copier, and the final confrontation is an argument — no, a monologue — in which the Doctor expends ten full minutes of gas and passion talking down military commanders from doing what they know best. And over a pair of buttons that don’t have any destructive power to begin with. The Zygons were menacing in the Tom Baker classic; here they are defeated by an embarrassingly cliche pacifist screed. It’s balls. The duplicate Osgoods are silly. (Osgood should have stayed dead after the season-eight finale.) The UNIT leader is as unbelievable as the Zygon, allowing herself to be “pacifisted down”. The Brigadier from the classic era is rolling in his grave. This one I’d give 2 jelly babies.