Regenesis (Season 1, Episode 11): The Promise

There’s something foreboding about The Promise as things spiral out of control on every front. From an intense military drill, to the reappearance of an enhanced Miranda virus, to the threat of an even worse bio-weapon, to a priorty-1 alert of a SARS-like outbreak in Denver — it’s clear that the pen-penultimate episode is setting us up for a mighty slam. And loads of misery besides.

Regenesis never pretended to be optimistic, as how can it be when it deals in viruses, disease, and high body counts? Nature is uncaring as science itself; the best we can hope for is to put off the inevitable day when microscopic lifeforms wipe us out. One way of doing that is anticipating the worst, and practicing accordingly. Thus the opening scene of The Promise.

War Games

Those first five minutes are a brilliant piece of misdirection. The NorBAC scientists are chasing tails around the lab, yelling and tripping over each other, frantically making phone calls, punching keyboards, trying to gather data on a smallpox outbreak. David goes from room to room barking orders, demanding this and that, throwing people out of their chairs. He wants to know why the Windsor Detroit tunnel isn’t sealed; he gets a report that national guardsmen are sick, even though they were inoculated; a flight to China is being diverted to Guam for fear of smallpox carriers; the Canada-U.S. border has been closed. The lab is crawling with military personnel — like martial law. All of this is filmed in a long tracking shot that captures an ordered chaos. When Jill finally gets David’s attention with a report confirming “hemorragics”, David gets a poleaxed “oh shit” look on his face; then he knows why the smallpox is so deadly. He tells Caroline… and the game is over.

For that’s what it was all along: a drill run by U.S. Joint Forces Command, to test NorBAC’s response time to a bio-catastrophe. The team did very well, solving the problem in 2 days with only 22,000 people dead. (A lab in Atlanta took 5 days and paid for it with 600,000 deaths; and a lab in Mexico took 4 days with close to a million dead.) David, gloatingly, explains to an audience of scientists and military how he figured it out: In the game the military rushed in to fight what seemed to be a clear-cut smallpox outbreak, but there was something else inside the smallpox. The very inoculation that warded against the smallpox triggered a release of green monkey disease — AKA Marburg fever — that was hidden inside the pox.

But if this is a game, it sounds distressingly familiar: pox and hemorragics, synthesized to make a supervirus. That’s what happened in the first two episodes, where a terrorist engineered camel pox and ebola, and put it in a baby to spread through the Toronto area. The terrorist remained at large, and now, six months later, what? — the military is suddenly having labs in Canada, the U.S., and Mexico play war games involving another pox-hemorragic chimera?

Ties to the Miranda Virus

David is no dummy, and neither is Caroline, and they both suspect that the North American governments are worried that whoever manufactured the Miranda Virus may possess another, and even more lethal, biological weapon, that’s ready to be let loose. Caroline’s intelligence sources reveal developments confirming this.

For one, the terrorist William Zanzinger (who engineered the baby Miranda) is in fact no longer at large; he recently committed suicide in Cape Town, but intelligence officials don’t think it was suicide. Zanzinger was a mercenary, and he must have had help from someone smarter in creating the Miranda Virus; he was probably killed as a loose end by that someone. Cape Town rings a bell with David; he remembers a state-of-the-art DNA sequencer in a lab there, and asks Mayko to research it. She finds a Bethke Labs in Cape Town, but it was destroyed in a fire only a month ago — supposedly an industrial accident — and the facility has been sealed. That’s enough for David, who asks Caroline to have her British spy buddy to obtain all the bio-hazard samples he can from Bethke Labs.

When the bio-hazard samples arrive, Carlos and Bob run tests on them and PCRs, and to their horror the Miranda Virus is among the samples. And something worse than Miranda too — a Marburg virus, sure enough, that, as Jill says, “if you put on a plane from L.A. to New York, everyone would be digested from the inside out over roughly Trapdoor, Missouri”.

So on the one hand, Bethke Labs turns up Miranda and Marburg together, and on the other, a bunch of generals have the NorBAC team running around playing war games based on the Miranda scenario but using a Marburg chimera instead. The conclusion presses: whoever created the Miranda (ebola-camelpox) virus is getting ready to throw an even-worse chimera (marburg-?) virus at the world, and intelligence agencies are acutely aware of it.

Russian Hero: Vassili Borov

David goes to see a friend of his, Vassili Borov, who used to be a Soviet agent and worked on Marburg back in the mid-’80s. Vassili had defected and came west after the Berlin Wall fell, and assisted the Canadian and American governments in stopping various terrorist plots. Now he paints all day in his room, attended by nude models. He has quite the life.

At David’s request, Vassili examines the DNA images from the Marburg samples found in Cape Town, and tells David that it’s been weaponized: from the sequencing it looks to Vassili like whoever made it increased the incubation period. So someone could be walking around for weeks and not realize they had it — “a 10 megaton bomb in a hand grenade”. In the time between ’85 and the collapse of the Soviet Empire in ’91, there wasn’t time for the Soviets to weaponize the Marburg, so whoever did this, says Vassili, probably wasn’t Soviet.

Back at the lab, Caroline tells David that the chief scientist of Bethke Labs is an Ivan Havlac, but he disappeared about six months ago (which would be shortly before the time the Miranda Virus was let loose). No one can find Havlac, or his resume for that matter, and neither British nor South African intelligence can figure out who he is. It’s a safe bet that this Havlac is the creator of the Miranda Virus, and the one who killed William Zanzinger, and now has plans to unleash an enhanced weaponized Marburg virus.

From his sequencing work, Carlos believes the Marburg samples must be American, which would mean they were taken from Fort Egan. An appalled Caroline makes a trip to Fort Egan, and learns from one of her contacts that indeed Fort Egan had been experimenting with Marburg decades ago, and was committed to destroying all their samples in the early ’70s — but not all of those samples were in fact destroyed.

David goes back to see Vassili again, who confirms that Marburg was stolen from Fort Egan sometime in the ’80s. The Marburg ended up in the hands of his boss, Ivan Chiernegin — the head of germ warfare for the Soviets. David believes that the elusive scientist of Cape Town who can’t be found, “Ivan Havlac”, is probably Vassili’s old boss Ivan Chiernegin. Chiernegin has likely continued to work on germ warfare as a terrorist in hiding, long after the fall of the Soviet Union in ’91. The terrorist appears to be Soviet after all, with a serious grudge.

Last-second bomb shell

As Caroline plans to get Chiernegan’s name on the radar of every intelligence agency, she and David are intercepted by Wes, who drops a bombshell: NorBAC has received a Priority 1 Alert for a SARS-like case that has broken out in Denver, Colorado. The local doctors and public health officials can’t identify the virus, but it’s nasty, and quarantines are already in place. David looks at Caroline and says, “I don’t want to sound paranoid, but let’s hope to God this isn’t coming from the same guy who gave us Miranda.”

David has a shitload more to be worried about than Miranda and Marburg, horrible as those threats are. The SARS-like virus in Colorado — as the final two episodes will reveal mercilessly — is nothing less than the Spanish Flu, resurrected unwittingly by David Sandstrom himself.

The Promise is a first-rate episode that simmers with shady plots and imminent terrors, and damned if it doesn’t make me fear the finale.

Original air date: January 9, 2005

Rating: 5 stars out of 5

 

Regenesis (Season 1, Episodes 9 & 10): The Secret War & The Source

Besides the loss of David’s daughter Lilith, it feels like others are absent all of a sudden in Regenesis. The virologist Jill Langston is having panic attacks and needs time off. Her published work (on Hepatitis-C infection of macrophages) is being trashed by other researches who claim she made errors, and she wants three weeks to redo her experiment. David and Caroline are pissed about this but try to accommodate her.

As for biochemist Bob Melnikov, he’s quitting NorBAC altogether — to work for a perfume company. That’s right. Perfumes have been his life-long passion; biochemistry at its purest. Naturally Bob returns to the fold almost as soon as he quits; the NorBAC geeks are his family. But in the meantime, throughout The Secret War and The Source, the lab is short-staffed.

Which leaves David, Mayko, and Carlos to do most of the work on two new cases, and they get little support from boss-lady Caroline. She flat out rejects taking on the first case, until David and Mayko can convince her that it falls within NorBAC’s mandate.

Case #1: Cleanup Crews in the Gulf War

At first blush, it seems to be a case of garden variety post-war traumas. A group of American civilians were privately contracted by the Pentagon to do cleanup work at a military base in Kirkuk during the Iraq War. The civilians were sent to do hazardous waste removal at bombed out sites, and they returned home to the U.S. showing a wide range of illnesses — joint pain, asthma, hair loss, organ failure, depression. Two sets of doctors concluded that their conditions were unrelated to one another and to their duties in Iraq, but they offered no explanation as to what made the civilians sick. Caroline is inclined to lump it all in with “Gulf War Syndrome” — complaints over which are still being stalled in the courts — and says that issues like this aren’t NorBAC’s mandate. With illnesses that diverse, it hardly seems likely that there’s a common culprit in any case.

David and Mayko aren’t so sure, and work closely with one of the victims, Louisa, who is now wheelchair-bound. They analyze the protective suits that Louisa and the other workers wore on duty, which includes a Reimer, a purification system designed to keep out nasty particles and bacteria. The integrity of the suits seem top-notch. The filtration system would keep out all bacteria, except maybe ten in a million, which the human body could easy fend off. The Reimer even recycles the wearer’s own sweat and urine to make clean drinking water (similar to what astronauts use), which David illustrates to Caroline — amusingly pouring a flask of his own piss into the Reimer and then drinking the pure water that comes out.

So why did so many cleanup workers get sick, and in different ways? In the tenth episode, Bob (now working in the perfume industry, but temporarily helping his old NorBAC team) suggests an answer: phages.

Phages: Viruses that infect bacteria

I’d never heard of these before. Phages — or bacteriophages — are viruses that infect bacteria. Bob thinks they might be the culprit, believing that DNA was somehow transferred to produce the variety of illnesses in the Iraq workers (some phages carry DNA). David is instantly on board with the hypothesis, and they explain it to Louisa:

David: “Let’s say you know you’ve got some nasty bacteria in the salt marshes in Iraq. So you’re going to want to run this through a filtration system like the Reimer, right?”

Louisa: “Yeah, they did that. But wouldn’t the filtration system keep the bacteria from getting through?”

Mayko: “All but ten in a million, as we’ve discovered.”

David: “Right, and that’s nothing for your body’s natural immune system to take care of. That’s why people have been calling you [Louisa] a paranoid hypochondriac. But if those ten little bacteria got infected with bacteria phages, that’s all it would take. Isn’t it, Bob?”

Bob: “That’s my theory.”

Louisa: “What theory?”

David: [Moving to the chalkboard] “It’s not the bacteria, it’s the bacteria phages infecting the bacteria that’s the problem. Check it out.” [Draws diagram] “Let’s say this is one of the nasty bacteria that miraculously managed to get through the Reimer filtration system unscathed, okay? All by itself, it’s not a problem. Except it’s been infected with a bacteria phage, which is a virus. So it multiples, and pretty soon, one becomes a million, and eventually they bust out. Now here’s the thing. Some bacteria phages can carry DNA. So when they all explode out of the cell — and remember, there’s millions of them now — they could be carrying toxic genes that they’ve picked up from the nasty bacteria.”

Bob: “Toxic genes attack internal organs. They can develop cancer cells, they can do anything.”

David: “Bob, you’re a genius.”

Bob: “Only if we can prove that that’s what happened to Louisa and her friends.”

David: “No, Bob. You’re a genius.”

More tests are run, and Bob’s hypothesis is confirmed. DNA-carrying phages account for the variety of illnesses in the Iraq workers. Phages infected the bacteria with new genetic material, causing the bacteria to mutate and secrete toxins that spread to every corner of the workers’ bodies — resulting in everything from cancer to organ failure to fibromyalgia.

It also explains why not all of the Iraq workers got sick. In some cases, the immune systems of the healthy ones were able to conquer the mutated bacteria, and in other cases, they just became asymptomatic carriers — shades of Covid-19 — spreading it without even realizing it.

Case #2: Rampant Hemophilia in Mexico

The second case is brought up by Carlos. He wants the team to investigate multiple cases of hemophilia in the Mexican state of Campeche. The incidence pattern is bewildering, because hemophilia isn’t contagious, and yet the disease is ranging over a wide area. Carlos and Jill fly down to Campeche and find that a large multi-national laboratory is working on strange GMOs, in particular, a hybrid plant designed to detect land mines by turning a certain color. But that theory is a dead end; none of the GMOs are causing the problem, and the local air and water supplies are fine too.

Jill flies back to Toronto to work on proving Bob’s phage theory, and David flies down to take her place. He and Carlos guess that mosquitoes might be the culprit (David thinks of this as he’s out collecting soil samples and getting bitten by a shitload of them), since mosquitoes use an anticoagulant to keep blood from clotting when they steal it. Maybe, somehow, there are mutant “super mosquitoes” whose anticoagulant is strong enough to cause hemophilia.

They collect and run tests on zillions of mosquitoes and finally find an anomaly in one: evidence of genetic engineering. But no one in Mexico is doing any genome work with mosquitoes. In Toronto, Mayko’s off-the-grid research turns up that there is a Belgian biotech, Jacques Rafause, doing mosquito research over the border in Guatemala — apparently working in that country because the government excuses him from environmental laws.

David and Carlos pay Dr. Rafause a visit, and learn that he is breeding mosquitoes as part of a bold project to eliminate malaria. His genetic engineering has produced side effects, however: the mosquitoes’ anticoagulation proteins are being hugely overproduced, thus blocking coagulation in human victims for extended periods of time. The anti-clotting period is about 24 hours, after which time the human body recovers. But during those 24 hours, if you cut or scrape yourself, you bleed to death. Theoretically, Rafause’s mosquitoes are confined to the farm… but it doesn’t take long for David and Carlos to show him how more than a few are escaping out of the cages and into the wilderness, and right over the border into Campeche.

The Secret War and The Source aren’t the most inspired episodes of season 1 — they feel a bit by the numbers — but they are enjoyable enough, and educational like all the scenarios in Regenesis.

Original air dates: December 19, 2004 & January 2, 2005

Rating: 3 ½ stars out of 5

Regenesis (Season 1, Episode 8): Blackout

Blackout teaches that the most boring explanation is often the right one. It’s probably the season’s most esoteric episode. It’s also the most emotional one.

There’s a power blackout on the Eastern Seaboard, and everyone thinks it’s terrorism. From northern Ontario all the way down to Virginia. Underground wires have spontaneously combusted, and no explosive residue can be found on the wires. That doesn’t stop everyone from thinking the worst, and it doesn’t help that Caroline Morrison’s CIA contacts have intercepts of a plan to create a blackout and use the chaos to move terrorists from Canada down to the U.S. Nor that a tape has aired on Al-Jazeera, with Al-Gamahad taking credit for the blackout and threatening more across the continent. But as David says, amusingly, “Taking credit and deserving it are two different things. You work in enough offices, you find that out.” Ouch.

The NorBAC team determines that bacteria are crawling in all the wires, and wonder if it’s a bacteria that eats explosives. Then they think the bacteria may be eating pollution, rather than explosives, and produce methane which gets blown up. Then, after a second explosion in Chicago, David and Jill take a field trip there, and find that the bacteria have eaten away at the insulation on the underground cables — which is astonishing, since there is no known bacteria that eats plastic.

New species: metal-eating bacterium

Back at the lab, the team sequences the bacterium, and finds that it’s a new species: a plastic eating bacterium indeed, that perhaps someone introduced into the soil to blow things up and cause blackouts. Through sequencing Mayko also learns that the bacterium seems to have evolved to breathe off metals, meaning that it needs metals to live.

So the question is how the wire metals got into the soil if they’re surrounded by insulation and plastic? David hypothesizes that as the metal in the wire is loaded with current, it heats up, which allows it to somehow leech through a stress point or a crack in the insulation, into the soil, where the bacteria sucks it in. The bacterium breathes in the metal and changes it genetically, so that the new species can eat the plastic. The team finds that the composition of the wires that exploded includes tellurium — a metal that the power companies were using for a while until it became too expensive.

The NorBAC team buys a supply of tellurium and run lab tests, and the pieces fall into place. Somehow the tellurium leaked from the wires into the soil — a crack in the insulation, a bad splice, whatever — and was exposed to one of 100,000 kinds of bacteria living in the soil. In one of those microscopic bugs the tellurium started a mutation process, and then became the plastic eating goo that took out the entire northeast of the continent. The blackout was thus a natural occurrence. Obviously no terrorists could conspire to have tellurium added to underground wires, let alone have any idea that someday the metal would leech into the soil and create a new species of bacterium.

David and Lilith

If the blackout theme is academic, David’s personal life has all the heart. In the aftermath of Mick’s death, Lilith is obviously not doing well. In a particularly upsetting scene, David comes home during the blackout to find her on the couch dozing — and next to her an empty jar of sleeping pills, which he knew was at least half full. He slaps her awake and shakes her, demanding to know how many pills she took, which turns out to be only two; she spilled the rest on the floor, which David couldn’t see at first in the poorly candlelit room. She has a complete meltdown in his arms, saying she keeps seeing Mick’s face and him dying all over again. David, at wits end — and knowing he’s a shitty parent — calls his ex-wife, asking her to fly from Salt Spring to Toronto so that she can help Lilith cope with her loss.

The irony is that David isn’t such a bad father at all. Lilith’s mother, on the other hand, is positively awful, dishing out cheap platitudes when she arrives, on top of the I-told-you-so’s (“she always knew” that Lilith would regret coming out to live with her father). It is David who rises above himself and reaches Lilith. In a moving scene, he tells her that she did more for Mick than anyone, by making him feel like he belonged, and by being with him so that he didn’t die alone.

It’s a sad farewell to Lilith, as David goes on to say that she needs to turn all of this into a good memory, but that’s not possible here in Toronto. She needs to be back in Salt Spring, with people that she knows, and with her mom (“even if she is fucking nuts”). It’s a good swan song for Ellen Page. Lilith Sandstrom is one of her best roles, if not her very best, and while I think her exit in Blackout is appropriate, another part of me wishes that she had stayed on for the rest of the series.

Original release date: December 12, 2004

Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5

Regenesis (Season 1, Episodes 6 & 7): The Trials & Faint Hope

Clinical trials are about odds and risk ratios. Testing to see if new treatments are safe, and making sound judgments without obsessing the what-if’s. In these episodes the NorBAC team is asked to mediate a dispute in a clinical trial. How this plays out is impressively unpredictable.

The dispute is between two researchers in a trial for a gene therapy that cures leukemia. Dr. Julius Booker is the one running the trial, and one of his lead researchers, Dr. Lauren Foley, is claiming that the treatment may not be safe. But then the whole point of a trial is to find out if it’s safe.

Three kids with leukemia have been given the experimental treatment. Two are in remission doing very well, and one is dead. The dead boy, 11-year Maxwell Peterson, died from a stroke four hours after receiving the treatment. Foley thinks that the boy’s immune system over-responded to the treatment — maybe the dosage was wrong, or the timing — and she’s furious that Booker wants to write off the stroke as a normal occurrence in an AML patient. David is skeptical and doesn’t think Booker was necessarily wrong to do that. Kids with leukemia do die, after all, and if two other kids were saved by the treatment, then the Peterson boy could just be a one-off. Foley also thinks it’s about money: her university wants to keep money flowing into research, and Julius Booker is a money magnet. But that’s just capitalism; it doesn’t mean that Booker is making the wrong professional call. But what exactly does the gene therapy do?

Virus Injections

Booker’s gene-therapy treatment appears to be cutting edge science. The procedure involves injecting a healthy virus into the patient — a virus that’s had all its nasty bits removed, and replaced with health instead of harm — that goes to the cancer cells and “infects the patient with health”, killing the bad cells. So what happened to the Peterson boy? This is what three members of the NorBAC team debate in pouring over the bio-data of the three kids:

Carlos Serrano: “This shows the cancer cells of the Peterson boy one hour after treatment. [Click.] Two hours, most of the cancer cells are infected with the virus. [Click.] Four hours, the majority of the cancer cells are dead or dying.”

Mayko Tran: “Everything is going great, and then the kid gets a stroke and dies.”

David Sandstrom: “So what went wrong?”

Mayko: “What if the Peterson kid had a hyper-response to the virus? He could have had an allergic reaction, that caused the swelling that led to his stroke. He had high cytokine levels that could have caused vessel damage.”

David: [Looking at Carlos] “You got a problem with that?”

Carlos: “Yeah, look. [Click.] All three kids had high cytokine levels. One is dead, the other two are in remission.”

David: “Jesus. So is it the treatment or the disease that killed the kid?”

Carlos: “Maybe Peterson’s brain was set to go, you know, it’s not uncommon in AML [leukemia] patients. He might have suffered a stroke with or without the treatment.”

Mayko: “Are you willing to bet lives on that, Carlos?”

David: “Listen, the question we’re dealing with here is, if 3000 kids get this treatment, will 1 of them die or 1000?”

That’s what it’s about: odds and risk ratios. After extensive research, David can’t find any reason not to proceed with the trials, and he gives the green light to continue. The trials resume… and there’s a repeat tragedy. Five more kids are given the treatment, and four of them go into remission. But the fifth, a boy named Justin Ricci, goes into blast crisis and is left in a coma. Foley, enraged, confronts David at his home, and David mockingly patronizes her until she tells him that Justin Ricci is in a coma, thanks to him. David beats himself up at first, but did he really make the wrong call?

David has Mayko review the bio-scans of the eight kids. They all show the same abnormality: an 8-11 translocation, which is the kind of chromosomal mess-up you’d expect in a leukemia patient, but nothing other than that. There’s no evidence that Justin Ricci’s blast crisis (a phase in leukemia when more than 30% of the cells in the blood or bone marrow become dangerous “blast” cells) or his subsequent stroke were triggered by the treatment. David stands by his judgment, telling Caroline he made the right call at the time, despite what happened to the Ricci boy. There was no good reason to stop the trial.

A Tale of Two Assholes

The assholes being Doctors Julius Booker and David Sandstrom. We’re used to David, as he’s the show’s lead and endearing in his own way. Booker is easily pegged as the callous villain. Against these two, Lauren Foley comes off as a lone voice of caution and compassion. It doesn’t help that David brushes off her concerns with a fair degree of contempt and hardly takes her seriously — except for his attempts to get her in the sack with him. In the Me Too age, David is a politically incorrect protagonist to say the least.

But assholes aren’t necessarily wrong, and the NorBAC team can’t find anything unsafe about Booker’s treatment.

David: [Exploding] “Look, we’ve got six kids in remission, two are negatively affected, but without this treatment, eight kids would be dying. If I’m wrong, somebody convince me.”

Caroline: “So Justin Ricci was just unlucky?”

David: “Yeah, maybe!”

Caroline: “Can we be clear about anything here?”

Bob: “I think Justin was unlucky. To have a blast crisis and a stroke, all within four hours. That’s like having two car accidents on the same trip home.”

David: [Leaning forward] “What did you say?”

Bob: “I said –“

David: [Waving him to silence] “Justin Ricci couldn’t have been that unlucky.”

Mayko: “Yeah, it does seem kind of quick.”

David: “Why are we fighting this? If it couldn’t happen in four hours, it couldn’t happen in four hours.”

Bob: “He must have been already in blast crisis when he was given the treatment.”

Mayko: “He wouldn’t have been accepted in the trial in that condition.”

David: “He shouldn’t have been accepted into the trial.”

Mayko: “David, we have his records. Justin wasn’t in blast crisis when he was approved for trial.”

David: [Long pause] “What records?”

David’s hunch is right. Dr. Booker faked the paperwork and admitted Justin Ricci into the trial when he was already in blast crisis. But not out of gross malpractice. He did that only because the kid’s parents begged him to. Justin was dying anyway; the chances of him coming out of blast crisis were zero. His parents thought he had nothing to lose. So Booker gave him the treatment. David — ready to shoot Booker when he realized the paperwork was faked — admits in the end that there’s nothing the treatment could have done at that point to make Justin’s situation any worse.

As David tells Caroline in the end, “We weren’t asked to judge Booker. We were asked to judge his trials.” Once again he advises that the trials should continue. They could end up saving many kids’ lives, and so far there’s no evidence that the treatments caused the death and coma in the two boys. David can be arrogant but he knows his science, and he mediated this dispute by the book.

The Spanish Lady

Which isn’t to say that David Sandstrom does everything by the book. When it comes to his pet obsession, he completely disregards proper channels, and even breaks the law. In the midst of the leukemia trials, he flies up to Nunavut to retrieve a sample of what he believes to be the Spanish Flu from a corpse that’s been frozen since 1918. This corpse is off the radar of all the known digs, and only an Indian knows of it. David digs up the corpse in secret — without governmental permission — takes a brain sample, and pays the Indian for his help and silence. When he returns to the lab, he puts his new virologist Jill Langston on the sequencing and PCR tasks at once. To their utter astonishment, the RNA is completely intact — all 8 viral RNA segments of the Spanish Flu.

Jill is a bit deflated however, when David refuses to share his results with the World Health Organization. He wants NorBAC to make the vaccine, and gives her strict orders that no data leaves the lab. Jill tells David that their protected patent protects them from being ripped off, and that WHO has the manpower and equipment to crank out a vaccine in less than a year’s time. But David won’t budge; he wants to go all the way with his precious discovery.

As far as Jill, Caroline, and the rest of the NorBAC team are concerned, David got the Spanish Flu sample from a proper channel. They know nothing about the corpse in Nunavut or the Indian contact. David’s ego and illegal behavior will spell dire consequences by the season’s end. For now he hosts a party at home in celebration. It’s perhaps fitting that right as he’s dancing and boozing it up, Lauren Foley comes crashing in with the news that Justin Ricci is in a coma (see above), and that he is to blame for it. He’s not, as we’ve seen, but an asshole like David Sandstrom surely deserves to have his unpleasant moments of self-doubt.

Tearful End

These two episodes pick up Mick’s story from episodes 1-3, and terminate it dramatically. In the final scene of Faint Hope, he dies in Lilith’s arms — a heartbreaking end on a beach in Quebec.

The subplot of Lilith and Mick’s journey to Quebec complements the main plot of the leukemia trials, as both deal with kids about to die. Mick wants to see a whale before he dies, and so Lilith (much like her father who takes off to Nunavut without accounting for himself) leaves with Mick for Quebec. She has her father’s credit card, and so she and Mick can pay for the bus rides, eat, and stop at a motel along the way.

The motel scene is one of the most touching of the series, where Lilith, breaking down crying, asks Mick if he wants to have sex before he dies. And here is the final moment, Mick’s death on the beach. The scenes speak for themselves.

The Trials and Faint Hope are a great pair of episodes, second only to the double-bill premiere.

Original air dates: November 21 and 28, 2004

Rating: 5 stars out of 5

Regenesis (Season 1, Episodes 4 & 5): Prions & The Oldest Virus

I’d never heard of prion disease before watching these episodes, so for those who are ignorant as I was, here’s a 101 course in a paragraph: Prions are dangerous proteins usually transmitted by diseased or infected meat products. They trigger normal proteins in the human brain to waste away, but it takes seven to eight years before noticeable symptoms occur — dementia, hallucinations, muscle stiffness, fatigue, and difficulty speaking — after which point it takes about 6-12 months to die. There’s no cure for prion disease, and no vaccine; the best some medications can do is delay the brain-wasting process by a few months.

It’s nasty in other words, but typically rare. Only one or two people for every million die each year from prions. But in the fourth and fifth episodes Regenesis, the NorBAC team is called to investigate four sudden cases of prion disease in the U.S. Each victim died within a single week (not months) of showing symptoms; three elderly victims (one in Texas, two in California), but the fourth was a five-year old girl from Florida — which should be impossible since prions take at least seven years to tear down the brain. The question becomes how these unrelated people living far away from each other got what appears to be an extremely virulent form of prions.

But first things first. There are other crises in the NorBAC lab, not least the episode 3 tragedy hanging over everyone like a pall: Hira Khan’s death.

Down a team member

In the aftermath of the random shooting, Team NorBAC isn’t taking it well, especially David and Mayko, who have different ways of handling grief. David blames himself mercilessly (since Hira took the bullet that was aimed at him), but is outwardly stone cold, showing no compassion to his colleagues, especially Mayko who is visibly upset and unable to focus on her job. The tension between them festers until David tells her that she fucked up a report on the prion case, at which point she explodes, telling him to fuck off.

Mayko finally reaches a peace with herself, and is able to make the first dent in the prion case using her bioinformatics skills. By isolating the DNA of the four dead victims and looking for common genetic patterns, she finds that they all shared a rare transporter gene found in one in ten million people. This transporter shuttles proteins fast and doesn’t prevent certain toxic chemicals from entering the brain. It’s what fired the prions into the victims’ brains at an incredible rate, killing them in a week instead of years. While this says nothing about where the prions are coming from, or how many normal people have been infected, it’s the first illumination on a strange case.

Synthetic growth hormones

There is also the side plot of Danny Dexter, an old school friend of David who turns up. He’s a minor league hockey player, and has undergone gene therapy with an unusual synthetic growth hormone. The hormone has killed two other hockey players — their hearts suddenly stopped — but Danny is for the most part unfazed, despite David’s warnings.

David puts his team onto research in this area, and Mayko finds that a muscle hormone has been developed to help those with cocaxia and AIDS, with trials done by an Atlanta biotech company called Bioxene. The stuff that Danny took, however, is not the Bioxene growth hormone. What’s in Danny’s blood, rather, is a mutated version of skeletal muscle growth hormone; his cells are producing this skeletal muscle growth hormone instead of his own natural skeletal muscle growth hormone. So technically he’s not cheating at hockey; his body is cheating. Instead of continually injecting something into him that shouldn’t be there, he gets his body to make it, from a single injection of the DNA. Even though he has high levels of growth factor, no one can say with certainty that those levels are the result of gene doping.

But whose gene therapy is it, if not Bioxene’s? The NorBAC team finds that it was made by an Italian company, basing their work on the American Bioxene one, but in order to duck a patent infringement, they altered it just a bit — and it’s that change that inadvertently caused the hormone to act on the heart muscle, causing it to explode in the other two hockey players. (The Italian compound was never put into human trials, and so they didn’t detect the side effect.) David thinks he can reverse the gene therapy in Danny — whose muscle mass in increasing every day, 24/7; his heart is on borrowed time — but Danny refuses. Hockey is his life; he’ll take his chances. But hockey isn’t his life anymore when he’s cut from the team; he kills himself by swallowing a jar of pills.

The New Virologist: Jill Langston

In the fifth episode, Sarah Strange joins the cast as Hira’s replacement. David meets her at a Chicago convention, at Caroline’s request, none too happy about it. His resentment and contempt for Jill turns to lust when he realizes that she shares his obsession for the Spanish Flu and has actually published research on it. (Hence the fifth episode’s title, The Oldest Virus.)

Here begins a chain of events that will play out until the season’s end, with catastrophic consequences. In Jill’s conference speech, she explains how she acquired a fragmented sample of the Spanish Flu. Her crew found it in a victim from 1918 buried north of the permafrost line in Norway; but it wasn’t a sample with intact viral RNA. Nevertheless she was able to sequence the fourth of the eight segments’ polymerase. David is shocked to hear this and after her presentation asks her how she sequenced polymerase, to which she evasively replies the answer will be in her upcoming published paper. David guesses that she got the sample from a brain and not a lung, which she admits to, and he tells her that’s exactly how he did it, when he sequenced Spanish-Flu polymerase two years ago. She calls bullshit on him, since he didn’t publish (and doesn’t believe he could have acquired a sample of Spanish Flu), but David had no desire to go public without the entire genome.

He then tells Jill that he has a lead on a perfect specimen of the Spanish Flu (we will see where it is in episode 6), which leads to a lot of dithering on her part, as to whether or not she wants to come work at NorBAC — especially for an asshole like David, who already interviewed her in his hotel room that morning without any clothes on, and shat all over her accomplishments. That was before he knew she was a Spanish Flu guru. At the end of the day, she accepts the offer to join NorBAC, and after glasses of champagne takes a tumble in bed with her new boss. That’s how David and Jill go from mutually hating each other to joining forces in the space of twelve hours.

Shades of Covid-19: Business must go on

Back to the prions. Carlos finally discovers that ALV (avian leukemia virus) was in all the victims, a virus that causes cancer in chickens. The team realizes there must be a huge supply of infected chickens out there somewhere, and thus thousands more victims, maybe more, though of course these victims won’t show symptoms and die for another seven to nine years.

Through more detective work, the team learns that the four dead victims ate either chicken or eggs from local fast food restaurants, and that the wholesaler for each restaurant is a company called Shasco Foods. Shasco advises the team to investigate their biggest supplier, Wide Valley Farms, which leads Caroline to a meeting with their legal representative. She requests that Wide Valley Farms shut down their shipments until NorBAC tests their birds and eggs, to which the legal representative indignantly replies: “You’re asking us to put 500,000 people out of work? On a hunch?”

Caroline retorts that it’s more than a goddamn hunch, and the lawyer, wanting to avoid a public PR nightmare, compromises by allowing NorBAC to test samples of their birds and eggs, while refusing to shut down operations until actual proof is provided that their chicken is contaminated. That proof follows in short order, and Wide Valley agrees to depopulate three of their chicken farms, which will cost them 24 million dollars. And yet that sacrifice isn’t enough, because as David points out, there were probably roosters who spread the prions onto specimens that went to some of the other farms. He urges that those farms be shut down too, to which a congresswoman’s reply is: “Let’s not destroy the entire poultry industry that employees 500,000 Americans, Dr. Sandstrom.” And when Caroline suggests that the FDA should issue a public warning about Wide Valley Farms, they are stonewalled for the PR nightmare it would cause.

There’s no happy resolution. Wide Valley Farms, despite its noble shutdown of three chicken farms, is still shipping product that could be carrying a death sentence to tens of thousands of people. No one will know for sure for another seven to eight years, when symptoms start showing, unless the prions happen to claim more victims who have the rare transporter gene. What resonates during today’s Covid-19 pandemic is the prioritizing of jobs and economy over lives. To be sure, the economy is an imperative concern, and I have no patience with those who dismiss it lightly. Recessions are deadly, especially to poor people. When people are out of jobs and lose their homes, that cuts into their life spans; suicides increase; domestic violence skyrockets. But none of this means that governments shouldn’t respond responsibly to pandemic threats. The NorBAC team tries to get the government to do that in Prions and The Oldest Virus, and they are half successful.

Original air dates: November 7 and 14, 2004.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5.

Regenesis (Season 1, Episode 3): The Face of God

As the Miranda Virus plot recedes and a religious crackpot is introduced, Regenesis takes its first swing at resurrection. (The second will come in the penultimate episode.) The Reverend Stephen Walsh wants to resurrect Jesus the modern way; the scientific way. He believes one of the nails that crucified Christ has been discovered, and that his savior can be genetically called back to life from DNA preserved on the nail. Thus the episode’s title, The Face of God, which truth told, is the lamest plot of the season. Thankfully there’s other good stuff in this episode to atone for it.

Like the opening scene. It picks up where Spare Parts left off — with David’s mad dash into a quarantine bay to stop Daisy from killing her baby. His exposure to Miranda means that he stands a good chance of dying in less than 24 hours, so he’s put under quarantine as well. Lilith pays him a visit, and it’s a well-played scene between the two of them, with David telling her to go back to Salt Spring Island (on the west coast, where his ex-wife lives), and Lilith furious that he might be dying and is trying to shoo her away. The next day David is pronounced clean of the virus, and he pays Daisy a visit before leaving Hazmat City — and gets a tray of food thrown back in his face for his kindness.

You can’t blame Daisy; she won’t ever see her baby again. But we’ll see Daisy again before the season’s end. Her fiance who weaponized the ebola/camel pox virus is still at large, and the Miranda plot will continue to unfold around new crises that emerge.

Is Mick a clone or not?

Not, as it turns out. Shelby Sloane isn’t that good a scientist. But he did pull off a pretty amazing stunt.

There’s something to Mick’s claim that he’s a clone, because the DNA tests run by Bob a the NorBAC lab confirm that Mick and Cal’s DNA are identical, and yet they were born two years apart. So they apparently can’t be twins. But David doesn’t buy it, thinking there’s no way in hell that Sloane cloned a human being fifteen years ago (in 1990). He tells Carlos and Bob to run full sequences of the boys’ DNA, and specifically to run PCR tests on gene CF-268 — the gene that causes bone marrow cancer, which is what Cal died of. There at last is found a difference in the two boys: Mick’s bone marrow is healthy, while Cal’s was not.

David guesses the truth and confronts Sloane about it: Mick is Cal’s identical twin, but they were both conceived in vitro. Cal’s single embryo was implanted in Sloane’s wife, while Mick’s twin embryo was stuck in a freezer. When it was discovered that Cal had bone cancer, Sloane began manipulating Mick’s DNA to remove the defective gene that caused the bone marrow cancer, so that he could save Cal with Mick’s bone marrow. In the process he made other unintended changes which led to Mick’s illness. Mick isn’t dying because he’s a clone; he’s dying because his father thought he knew what he was doing in playing God.

After David tears Sloane a new one in his own home, Sloane later comes to David’s home, where he finds Mick hanging out with Lilith. He admits to his son that he never stopped to consider the consequences of his actions, in a well acted scene. Mick’s story redeems The Face of God and showcases the fine young talents of Mark Rendall and Ellen Page, back when no one knew or cared who they were.

Hira’s link to jihadism

The weakest thread of the episode — even weaker than that of the Reverend Walsh — is Hira Khan’s. She’s been barred from the lab as a possible terrorist link, and rightly so, based on what we’re presented with. Her brother is part of a terrorist cell in Pakistan, and has sent Hira emails which Caroline has uncovered. The emails contain requests for dangerous biochemical substances, and while Hira insists that she refused her brother’s request, anyone running a lab like NorBAC’s can’t take the slightest risk that she’s lying. And anyone with a shred of common sense — certainly a scientist like David Sandstrom — would have to agree that Caroline Morrison’s hard-nosed security approach is the right one, even if David is willing, on a personal level, to give Hira the benefit of the doubt. David’s opposition to Caroline is implausible. He’s smarter than that.

The issue becomes swiftly moot, however, in the final scene where Hira is shot. As the Reverend Walsh leads a rally outside the NorBAC lab, David denounces him as a crackpot, and a deranged fanatic in the crowd pulls out a gun to shoot David. The bullet hits Hira instead and kills her. Regenesis certainly isn’t averse to bumping off its cast, even by something so random as a lone crazy gunman.

Original air date: October 31, 2004

Rating: 3 ½ stars out of 5

Regenesis (Season 1, Episodes 1 & 2): Baby Bomb & Spare Parts

David Sandstrom: “Poxes look like bricks, hemorrhagics look like worms. Do these bricks look like worms to you?”

Carlos Serrano: “No, but they’re acting like worms.”

Hira Khan: “But ebola and camel pox together?”

Carlos: “Maybe… a genetic hybrid.”

David: “No, camel pox is made of DNA, ebola is made of RNA. The two split and went their separate ways over two billion years ago.”

Carlos: “Well maybe they’ve kissed and made up.”

It’s hard to imagine a worse viral combo. Ebola, one of the deadliest viruses on Earth, but doesn’t spread easily. Camel pox, spreads easily, but can be fought with a drug. What if the two connected, and the ebola got a free ride on the camel pox? You’d get a supervirus that spreads fast and kills faster, with no vaccine or drug to fall back on.

That’s the nightmare facing the NorBAC team in the double-bill premiere of Regenesis. People in the Toronto region are suddenly dropping like flies, bleeding inside their skin, and dead within hours. It looks like ebola, but it’s spreading and killing too rapidly. The NorBAC team scrambles to locate patient zero and contain the outbreak as best they can, while working to identify the virus that strangely resists identification.

The problem is that they can’t find a single trace of ebola in the virus. What they find is camel pox, which human beings normally don’t get sick from; DNA-wise, there’s no genetic information indicating the ebola gene is anywhere in this camel pox genome. The reason for this, they finally realize, is because the virus is a chemically synthesized gene — man-made, apparently for purposes of bio-terrorism.

That it’s man-made explains the mystery. The DNA recipe for ebola isn’t in the supervirus, because the same amino acids that make up ebola have been coded by an engineer with different DNA. As David Sandstrom illustrates to his boss in layman’s terms (I made a youtube clip of this little bit here):

“Whoever made this knew that we’d be looking for this:

‘Great oral sex’

So they wrote it like this:

‘Grate aural sects’

Now we know what we’re looking for.”

Of course, that puts an uglier spin on an already disastrous situation. Imagine if Covid-19 was an act of bioterrorism. To be clear, it isn’t. That conspiracy theory was easily debunked. But the coronavirus has made us realize how woefully unprepared the U.S. would be for a biological attack. As we approach the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the scenarios presented in Regenesis don’t seem like science fiction.

Baby Bomb

Patient zero turns out to be a baby (Miranda) who has been on a road travel with her mother (Daisy). They are both quarantined with a bus load of passengers when the woman sitting next to Daisy starts bleeding from her mouth. Miranda has what appears to be a sore throat, but nothing beyond that, and Daisy is perfectly fine. When tests are run on Miranda, the results are startling. The baby’s throat cultures are filled with RNA, causing the NorBAC scientists to wonder what it’s doing in the middle of her DNA.

David figures out the RNA in the baby’s throat is siRNA — “small interfering RNA” — which is RNA that kills viruses in plants, though it’s in people too. Somehow the siRNA has been engineered in Miranda’s throat to make her immune to the supervirus that she’s been given. In other words, she has the virus but can’t get the disease. Her mother Daisy is also immune, because of a procedure she was given while Miranda was still in her womb, which exposed her to the virus.

Daisy is wholly ignorant of this, having no idea that Miranda was engineered to be a bio-weapon, and she certainly can’t believe that her finance (now in England) is anything other than he claims to be. When Caroline and David present the truth to her, it’s a bit hard to watch. Regenesis isn’t a show of happy endings. Miranda has to be quarantined for the rest of her life, and Daisy will never see her baby again. And the quarantine will go on for quite a long time in Hazmat City.

Kid Clone

Around the terrifying plot of the Miranda Virus is the sidebar of Mick Sloane, a 15-year old kid who is dying and thinks he’s a clone. Played wonderfully by a young Mark Rendall, Mick has read David Sandstrom’s science articles and worships him as a hero, and begs him to save him from dying. David (in his usual asshole way) shits all over Mick, dismisses the kid as a mental case, and tells him that clones are impossible.

Having no luck with his hero, Mick starts stalking his daughter, played by a young Ellen Page. At first she tells Mick to get lost (and like her father, to get psychiatric help), but eventually the two become friends. She starts to believe there may be something to his claim about being a clone, because he has the birth certificates to prove that he and his brother Cal were born two years apart (and thus, he says, they can’t be identical twins), and that his mother died before he was born (and thus that he must be a clone who was born in a lab).

And if there’s anyone who could have created a clone in the year 1990, it would have been Mick’s father — the brilliant scientist Shelby Sloane, who has butt heads with David Sandstrom in the past. Dr. Sloane apparently created Mick in order to save Cal, who was dying of bone cancer. Cal ended up dying anyway, and Mick (whose bone marrow was given to Cal) ended up with all sorts of medical complications (on top of being a clone, if that is true) that makes his own death imminent. He doesn’t have long to live, and that conclusion will play out long before the final episodes of season 1.

Verdict

When I first saw Baby Bomb and Spare Parts, I thought they were a thrilling premiere to a cerebral TV series. They still are, but they’re more than that in the time of Covid-19. They’re quite educational — about viruses, genetics, biochemistry — and frightening. Regenesis was billed as a scientifically realistic series, and that realism gains added resonance as we quarantine at home and wear masks when we go outside.

Original air date: October 24, 2004 (for both episodes)

Rating: 5 stars out of 5

Regenesis (2004-2008): The Canadian Bio-Tech Thriller No One Talks About

regenThe name NorBAC probably means nothing unless you were a fan of the TV series Regenesis. It was a pandemic thriller out of Canada that came and went with little recognition, though it deserved plenty, and if it were running today during the Covid-19 threat, you can bet it would be a runway success. Look at what’s happened with Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion.

Unlike most sci-fic thrillers dealing with related issues (CSI, Orphan Black) Regenesis is realistic, thanks largely to the scientific advisor who insisted on it. It’s less about saving the day than learning to live with irreversible damage. Like reality. The main cast comprises NorBAC — the North American Biotechnology Advisory Committee — based in Toronto, represented by scientists from Canada, the U.S., and Mexico. Sarah Strange plays the virologist, Dmitry Chepovetsky the biochemist with Asperger’s Syndrome, Mayko Nguyen the bioinformatics guru (she analyzes and interprets biomolecular data with computers), and Conrad Pla the MD specializing in genetic diseases. They labor with few breaks and no vacations under the molecular biologist played by Peter Outerbridge; he’s not the boss you’d want to have by a long shot, but he does know how to light fires and get results. Across the North American continent, the team investigates scenarios like the present Covid-19 threat: pandemics, superviruses, bacterial outbreaks, environmental dangers, and sometimes even bioterrorism.

Regenesis is a bit hard to come by. Of the four seasons, only the first two have been released on DVD (and only in a few countries), but you can stream it on Amazon Prime. The first season is the best, and features a young Ellen Page playing the daughter of Outerbridge’s character. Her story-arc practically steals the show, as she befriends a dying boy who thinks he’s a clone. She has great chemistry with Outerbridge, for example, in her ice cream scene (as her father explains the ebola virus) and her grief scene (when Mick dies).

If you are able to watch it, be prepared for a binge-fest. It’s compulsive drama and hits the ground running, with people in Toronto dying as they bleed inside their skin. The virus seems to be a hybrid of ebola and camel pox — the worst of both worlds, since ebola is super deadly, while camel pox has a fast infection rate. There’s more tech talk than in most sci-fic shows, but it’s never overwhelming, and it’s part of the show’s refreshing realism. And whenever the NorBAC team find solutions, those answers usually send them back to the drawing board. Vaccines aren’t created overnight. In the year 2020, Regenesis looks almost prophetic.

The 50 Best Doctor Who Stories

This is an updated ranking that covers the twelve seasons of Doctor Who that ran from 2005-2020. I ranked the best of the classic stories here. These are from the new series; the best 50 stories out of 141. I’ll say upfront: there are none from season eleven. My ranking of the seasons on whole explains why.

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 just right. The weeping angels are 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 entire series. Moffat is at his best playing with time paradoxes in Blink, the highlight 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. It’s a no-holds-barred epic that comes in the middle of the season, 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 of this double bill, I remember thinking, “Okay, it’s official: we’re in a new golden age of Doctor Who.”

2. Dalek. 5 jelly babies. This is the story that convinced me of the potentials of the new series. When I’m crying over a Dalek, something unprecedented is going on, and what’s 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 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 easily 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. A Christmas Carol. 5 jelly babies. 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 a stunning masterpiece. 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.

5. Heaven Sent. 5 jelly babies. Far and away the best story of the Capaldi era. 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 Clara 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. Some of the Veil scenes still give me a heart attack on later viewings. In the otherwise lackluster ninth season, Heaven Sent redeems it, and it’s also a beautiful postmortem character piece, showing how deeply the Doctor has internalized Clara, to the extent that she “speaks from the grave” to him, which allows him to keep him going instead of giving up like anyone else would in an awful situation like this.

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.

7. 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.

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 vastly underrated. It’s 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.

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.

lastchristmas14. Last Christmas. 5 jelly babies. The other top-notch holiday special, after A Christmas Carol. It’s a terrifying story, though you’d never predict it from the first fifteen minutes. Santa Claus in Doctor Who seems like 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.

Dark_Water_story_image15. Dark Water. 5 jelly babies. There are two two double-bill finales whose first halves are excellent, and must be considered apart from the second. The first is Heaven Sent (#5). The second is Dark Water, a 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. 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. 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.

17. 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.

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. 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.

22. The Haunting of Villa Diodati. 4 ½ jelly babies. The best story of the Whitaker era (to date) is a brilliant twist on Frankenstein, and does for Cybermen what Dalek did for Daleks, making them feel like a real threat in a way we haven’t seen since season two. (Season eight showed promise with Dark Water until Death in Heaven dropped the ball). The Doctor and her companions are trapped inside the house of Lord Byron in 1816, which has become a labyrinth that won’t let them leave. Skeletal hands crawl out of paintings, ghostly figures appear throughout the house, and a Lone Cyberman is at the root of it all. One of the best scenes — not only of this episode but of the entire new series — is when Mary Shelley (whose Frankenstein will be published two years later) appeals to Lone Cyberman’s humanity, calling him a “modern Prometheus”. She almost reaches him, but he attacks her in rage, boasting with savage relish that he killed his own children and slit their throats. This cruelly intelligent Cyberman exudes more threat an army of them. For the first time ever, the Thirteenth Doctor loses at the end of a story: she saves Percy Shelley from death, but must relinquish the Cyberium to the Cyberman when he threatens to destroy the Earth.

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 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. Extremis. 4 ½ jelly babies. For each of Peter Capaldi’s seasons Steven Moffat wrote a risky story that paid dividends. In season eight it was Listen (about the Doctor’s mental breakdown). In season nine it was Haeven Sent (about the Doctor’s billion-year solitude in a clockwork prison). In season ten he took the biggest risk of all with Extremis, which is about the Doctor who doesn’t even exist, as he’s outsmarting alien invaders. As in Heaven Sent, the story is built around a whopping twist: we’ve been watching an iteration of the Doctor, rather than the definitive version of the Doctor himself, and what “the Doctor” does when he’s confronted with a nearly unsolvable problem. An alien menace has been running simulations of Earth in order to simulate their invasion, and the Doctor (who we learn in the end is a virtual-reality Doctor) is only helping the enemy while trying to thwart him. Inside the matrix, a document hidden in the Vatican is supposed to reveal the secret to defeat this alien menace; all it does is make smart and intelligent people kill themselves. The reason is because their deaths aren’t suicides, but “escapes”, as they delete themselves from the matrix so they cannot provide the enemy with any more useful intelligence. As the Doctor says in his moment of revelation: “It’s like Super Mario figuring out what’s going on and deleting himself from the game.” I love Extremis to pieces, and there is something seriously subversive in the idea of the Vatican discovering that evil forces have complete control over the world, and that this revelation drives intelligent men of faith to commit suicide.

26. 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.

27. 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.

28. Army of Ghosts/Doomsday. 4 ½ jelly babies. The season-two finale is as good as 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.

29. The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang. 4 ½ jelly babies. The season-five finale is another piece of excellence, 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.

30. The Ascension of the Cybermen/The Timeless Children. 4 ½ jelly babies. And then this: the season-twelve finale that trampled over Moffat and went back to classic Who and the Cartmel Masterplan. Before it went off the air in the ’80s, scriptwriter Andrew Cartmel had begun developing the idea that the Doctor was more than a renegade Time Lord, part of a triumvirate (along with Rassilon the engineer and Omega the stellar engineer and Rassilon the the first president. Cartmel proposed a third figure, the Other (the Doctor), who was the most powerful and mysterious of the triumvirate, as well as the designer of the first TARDIS. This Other was born on a world apart from Gallifrey and gave the Gallifreyans his advanced knowledge. The Timeless Children reveals some of this to be the case. As the Master hands over Gallifrey to the Cybermen, he tells the Doctor the truth — that she wasn’t originally from Gallifrey, and she gave birth to the civilization of the Time Lords by splicing her DNA with its indigenous people — and she realizes how clueless she is about her own past. I should also say that Sacha Dawan’s Master is the best incarnation since Derek Jacobi’s (who was flawless). John Simm and Michelle Gomez were so bad in the roles it was painful to watch them.

the-girl-who-waited-pics-3131. 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.

into the dalek32. Into the Dalek. 4 ½ 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.

33. Tooth and Claw. 4 ½ jelly babies. I would have never guessed Russell Davies was capable of writing a gothic historical, let alone one of the best gothic historicals. And I’d always wanted to see a werewolf story in Doctor Who. You can’t do better for setting than the Scottish highlands. Queen Victoria is as colorful as 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.

DWMummy34. Mummy on the Orient Express. 4 ½ jelly babies. Set on a plush space-train that recreates the Orient Express, one of the most gorgeous set pieces ever in Doctor Who, 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 story fossilizes the vastly improved chemistry between Clara and the Doctor, which is so unlike her previous hollow relationship with Matt Smith. The mummy is a magnified terror out of the Hinchcliffe era.

35. The God Complex. 4 ½ jelly babies. This swan song for Amy — or the pseudo-swan song — 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. I give it a slight edge over the next one.

36. The Angels Take Manhattan. 4 ½ jelly babies. Amy’s actual departure 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.

37. The Unquiet Dead. 4 ½ jelly babies. This was the first gothic historical of the new series, and it channeled 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.

38. The Shakespeare Code. 4 ½ jelly babies. Some of the overused campy humor keeps this story from reaching the heights of historicals like The Unquiet Dead and Tooth and Claw, but it’s still a great story. 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. 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. Oxygen. 4 jelly babies. The story that proved season ten had something to offer. The Doctor and Billy answer a distress call, and find that most people on board the space station are undead zombies lumbering around in spacesuits. The space suits have killed them on behalf of a faceless corporation that exploits workers by charging them for the air they breathe — and then cutting off their supply when they can no longer pay. It calls to mind the anti-capitalist government classics The Sun Makers and The Happiness Patrol. It’s by far the most tense episode in the otherwise stale season ten (aside from Extremis), and when Bill’s space suit malfunctions, the Doctor makes a moving sacrifice, giving her his helmet and ending blind from exposure to vacuum.

40. Fugitive of the Judoon. 4 jelly babies. After a horrible season eleven, and with season twelve off to a weak start, Fugitive of the Judoon initiated a string of stories that literally saved the Jodie Whitaker era. The Judoon were always a great tribe of monsters but never used well until this point. This is a well-crafted thriller that keeps throwing us off the scent, giving us no time to speculate about (let alone figure out) what the hell is going on. When we find out it’s a whopper: Ruth is actually one of the Doctor’s previous incarnations, and the Thirteenth Doctor doesn’t remember being her. There is also the return of Jack Harkness, which is a treat, and he too presages where the season-twelve end game is going.

love and mon41. 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 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.

42. The Caretaker. 4 jelly babies. The Caretaker may be a filler story like The Lodger, but if you have a nasty sense of humor like me, you’ll probably get loads of mileage from it. The alien threat is a throw-away, because it’s not the point of the episode, only an excuse to get the Doctor meddling in the affairs of Clara’s school. More than an alien hunter, he’s a stalker in this episode, meaning that he stalks Clara out of overprotective paternal feelings (that he hardly understands) and acts like a shit all the way through. This is the episode where the Doctor and Clara’s relationship begins to feel real, as he acts all assholery, and she lashes right back. What can I say, this is my kind of Doctor.

43. Journey to the Center of the TARDIS. 4 jelly babies. Season seven is awful, especially the second half, but this story is a delight if you take it at face value and enjoy the eye candy. I always wanted to see a story that explored the TARDIS’s interior, and of course the Tom Baker story The Invasion of Time botched that effort as badly as an effort can be botched. Here the TARDIS’s rooms are done justice, and the story succeeds on that strength alone. Granted the plot is by-the-numbers, and it ends on a reset (a new day rewrites the disastrous day experienced at the start), but none of that matters. This is the rare episode that doesn’t need to be scrutinized. The rewarding set pieces are what matter.

44. 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.

45. Listen. 4 jelly babies. Only Steven Moffat would take this question seriously: why does every kid dream at night of something hiding under the bed? Because something is really there. He has come up with some of the best monsters in the new series. When you look at the Weeping Angels, they freeze into statues; when you stop looking at the Silence, you forget they exist. Listen offers a new menace with camouflage — creatures evolved to be perfectly hidden, so that sentient beings are never truly alone. But we don’t find out if these creatures really exist. My take is that they don’t, and that this story is really about the Doctor’s mental breakdown. But it’s incredibly atmospheric and scary, with scenes evoking Utopia (the end of the universe), and Midnight (creatures unseen). Some call Listen a masterpiece, but I think the fact that the monsters aren’t real reduces its stature somewhat, which is why it’s outside my top 40.

46. 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 the Tom Baker classics Sun Makers (taxation) and E-Space trilogy (servitude and slavery). 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.

47. 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.

kill the moon48. Kill the Moon. 4 jelly babies. Yes, it 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.

49. Can You Hear Me? 4 jelly babies. This one is good but too ambitious for a single-episode story. An immortal named Zellin thrives on peoples’ nightmares for personal entertainment and becomes stronger by them. His process for this is to disengage the fingers on his hand and shoot them like missiles into the ears of his victims. This taps into their primal fears and drives them mentally ill. Zellin zeroes in on the Doctor and her companions, and the TARDIS team (Yaz, Graham, and Ryan) plunge into surreal depressive nightmares that depend on elements of their personal backstories. They discover a woman suspended in a cage between two planets, who is apparently being tortured by the nightmares that Zellin harvests from his victims, until his gloating revelation when the Doctor makes her freedom possible: “I wasn’t torturing her with nightmares, Doctor. I was feeding her what she needed to stay sane: the pain of others.” The woman (Rakaya) is another immortal sadist, and Zellin was manipulating the Doctor to free her.

The_Waters_of_Mars50. Waters of Mars. 4 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 a very suspenseful story.

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.

Doctor Who: The Twelve Series Ranked

Here’s looking back on all the seasons of New Doctor Who to date.

Series two, five, and eight are the masterpiece seasons. Series one, three, and four are also very good, though brought down by some stinker episodes in each. Those six seasons — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 8 — are in the top half of the ranking, and comprise the Golden Age (1-5) plus a single-season Gilded Age (8) of the new series.

Series six is the dip out of the Golden Age, with a lot good and a lot of meh. Most recently, series twelve pulled the show out of a long rut. Series nine explored new ideas over new formats, but those ideas were mostly bad until the very end. Series ten got worse, and eleven even worse than that. Like series seven, it was nearly a complete failure.

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#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.

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#2. Series Eight. The impossible comeback. I didn’t dare hope for anything this good after the manure swamp of series seven. 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. The Moffat story Listen, which was Moffat to the super-nth. 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. It’s a shame his other two seasons were so weak.

Great episodes: Into the Dalek. Listen. Kill the Moon. Mummy on the Orient Express. Flatline. Dark Water. Last Christmas.

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#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.

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#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.

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#5. Series Four. A hard series to pin down. The highs were very high and the lows abysmally low. 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 the treasure was so good that the season needs to be ranked as high as I can.

Great episodes: The Fires of Pompeii. Planet of the Ood. Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead. Midnight. Turn Left.

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#6. 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.

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#7. Series Six. The dip out of the Golden Age began here. The season had its gems, no question, but the main story arc was a problem, beginning with promise, breaking down horribly mid-season, and ending 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.

#8. Series Twelve. After a horrible debut season, the Thirteenth Doctor showed a surprising return to form with a lot less PC-preaching. The first four episodes were weak: an homage to James Bond bringing back the Master (almost always a mistake), followed by the awful Orphan 55 and a period piece involving Nikola Tesla that fell flat. With Fugitive of the Judoon things kicked into high gear; Praxeus did everything Orphan 55 tried but smartly; and the two horror pieces after those were just grand. The penultimate Cybermen segued into a provocative finale that explored the real story of the Doctor and seriously retconned the series. We learned the Doctor was not originally from Gallifrey, and gave birth to the civilization of the Time Lords by splicing her DNA with its indigenous people. Fans are pissed because this retcon renders the Matt Smith finale, The Time of the Doctor, meaningless; in that story the Time Lords needed the Doctor’s Gallifreyan name to break out of their pocket universe. But frankly I don’t care about that since Time of the Doctor was rubbish anyway (like nearly all of Matt Smith’s series-seven stories). In fact, I love that Chibnall is more interested in developing continuities with the classic series than with the new series of which he is a part. For what he does here aligns with the many faces of the Doctor we saw back in Tom Baker’s Brain of Morbius.

Great episodes: Fugitive of the Judoon. Can You Hear Me? The Haunting of Villa Diodati. The Ascension of the Cybermen/The Timeless Children.

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#9. Series Nine. A season full of mediocrity, capped off by an unexpected masterpiece. Despite the commendable effort to explore new ideas over longer formats, the ideas were used poorly. The Davros story could have been good 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) wasn’t 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 had its problems but could have been far worse.

Great episode: Heaven Sent.

#10. Series Ten. I slept through most of these episodes and have a hard time recalling their details (other than that they were sleep-inducing). Oxygen was admittedly grand, with the capitalism-in-outer-space theme (people being charged for the air they breathe), the Doctor “going through hell” as a test of his friendship with Bill, and then losing his sight at the end. Extremis was another cracker with awesome premise: deep in the Vatican there is a book called the Veritas that tells a forbidden truth, and anyone who reads it kills himself afterwards. Seriously, what could be so disturbing a revelation as to cause mass suicide? It’s the first of a three-episode arc, like Utopia in series 3 and just as atmospheric. The Doctor’s blindness even carries over from Oxygen, used very effectively to trap him in the dark, making him weak and vulnerable. But unfortunately, as in series 3, the story arc is mucked in the two episodes that follow. For that matter, virtually the entire season mucks everything up, especially the season finale — a lame Cybermen story involving Missy and John Simm’s Master, both of whom who had long worn out their welcome.

Great episodes: Oxygen. Extremis.

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#11. 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.

#12. Series Eleven. I was really looking forward to the new female Doctor, and hopefully a return to form after the dreadful tenth season. What I got instead were cheesy upbeat stories completely lacking in dramatic tension. Like all the fans, I cursed Chris Chibnall, demanding cold opens and cliffhangers, at least some classic monsters, a darker side to the Doctor, and background for the companions. All of those elements would be provided in series twelve — as Chibnall took the ferocious criticisms to heart — but he’ll never live down his first dismal year at the helm of Doctor Who. The only fairly good episodes were Kerblam! and It Takes You Away. The rest was empty. Rosa wasn’t the clever examination of racism it wanted to be; a baddie from the future tried to change history, and the Doctor and her companions went along for the ride. Demons of Punjab was another silly PC homily, unbelievable on every level, and the demons weren’t even threatening. Doctor Who has always enjoyed a conservative fanbase as much as a liberal one, even though its philosophy has had a liberal trajectory. That’s because the show was never about politics, even when progressive messages were present. With this season, the show devolved into brainless leftist talking points. For even worse reasons, it was as bad as series seven.

Great episodes: [None.]