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Doctor Who for Newbies: The Tenth Doctor

In 2005, Doctor Who was back on television and a bona fide sensation. Fans new and old alike tuned-in in droves to watch the Doctor fight new creatures like the Slitheen and Gelth as well as returning villains like the Autons and the Daleks. But even before the first series had aired, its brand new lead actor, Christopher Eccleston, wanted out, and the brand new production team had to find a brand newer lead actor. Luckily, showrunner Russell T. Davies didn’t have to look too far for the Tenth Doctor.

David Tennant (cue fan girl squeals….NOW) had been a lifelong Doctor Who fan who’d done voice work for the Big Finish audio play range as well as the Flash animated “Scream of the Shalka.” The Scottish-born actor was also a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and appeared in various BBC productions, including the mini-series “Casanova,” written by none other than… KEVIN BACON. No, that’s not right.  I mean RUSSELL T. DAVIES. Tennant had the chops both as an actor and as a Who fan, and so was able to slip into the role on relatively short notice.

This was a rather interesting situation in the history of the show. Generally, in the past, when the lead actor has changed, many if not all of the cast and crew also changed, but this was still RTD’s show and Billie Piper was staying on as companion Rose Tyler. This meant the story could more or less continue with little to no interruption, but there was still the matter of figuring out what kind of Doctor Tennant would be. Luckily, there would be the chance to introduce him before the next full series began.

In Christmas 2005, Doctor Who offered up the first of what is now the obligatory Christmas special, “The Christmas Invasion.” In it, the Doctor is incapacitated due to his regeneration for most of the story and Rose is left having to try to save the world from an alien invasion while being totally unsure who this strange man who used to be her friend is. Eventually, though, the Doctor is up and at ‘em and we got a good glimpse of the kind of man he’d become. He even has a sword fight.

Starting out as the complete diametric opposite of his direct predecessor, the Tenth Doctor dropped most of the dour brooding (at least initially) and had a definite sense of fun. He approached every new adventure with a childlike amount of excitement and glee. He was the most outwardly “human” of all the incarnations, in that he had no problem relating to them and this resulted in much more human relationships with his companions. 10 was the first time the Doctor was, more or less, a romantic lead, freely locking lips with a number of attractive young ladies. While being incredibly whimsical, the Tenth Doctor nevertheless had zero tolerance for those who put innocent lives in danger. His style was often described as “Geek Chic,” consisting of tailored striped suits, Chuck T’s and a large brown raincoat.

I like the Tenth Doctor. For me, he was at his best when he was being the lighthearted, funny adventurer, which he did exceedingly well. What I wasn’t too fond of is when he had to be the authority figure, as I generally don’t think yelling the loudest is an analogue for being in control. The romance between the Doctor and Rose was a big factor in the show becoming popular, but I never entirely bought that after all the dozens of companions he’d had in his life, he’d fall for a shopgirl from London. But what do I know? He also teared up a great deal and even full on cried more than once, which I can’t recall any of the other Doctors doing. He was hailed as the most human of all the Doctors, but how human should a 900+ year old alien time traveler actually be? These nitpicks do not make me enjoy the episodes or performances any less, but when viewing the entire history of the show, it makes 10 stand out as the oddball.

I feel like most people reading this have already seen the David Tennant years and if they haven’t, have easy access to all of his output as, just like Eccleston’s season, all of the Tenth Doctor episodes are on Netflix Instant. And, truth be told, I like way too many episodes to try to write about in any short space so I’ve decided to just discuss my very favorite few. Just as a point of clarification, deciding which ones to leave out was pretty difficult so if I don’t happen to mention your personal favorite, it doesn’t mean I don’t like it. Know it was probably a finalist.

How many tin dogs do you spot in this picture?

Story 170 – School Reunion
Written by Toby Whithouse
The Doctor goes undercover as teacher John Smith to get to the bottom of strange occurrences happening at Deffry Vale School. The new headmaster there, Mr. Finch, has been implementing some interesting changes, starting with the inclusion of free school lunches and odd green chips. Rose, undercover as a lunch lady, has discovered that the chip oil reacts badly with the other lunch ladies, but it has made the students unnaturally intelligent. The changes at the school have drawn the attention of the media, in particular investigative journalist Sarah Jane Smith. At first, the Doctor keeps up the rouse in front of her, but when she discovers the TARDIS, he is forced to reveal his identity. Sarah Jane is introduced to Rose and Mickey and the two women immediate start bickering that they know the Doctor better. A night patrol of the school uncovers a number of bat-like creatures in Finch’s office. Luckily, Sarah Jane has brought K-9 with her and after the Doctor fixes him up, the tin dog is able to determine that the chip oil is actually Krillitane oil. Krillitanes are an accumulative race that is cobbled together from the best attributes of the species they conquer and using the children’s heightened intelligence, they are attempting to solve “Skasis Paradigm,” which would give them unlimited control of time and space. It’s up to the Doctor and companions old and new to defeat the threat.

The actual plot of this episode is just okay, but the very fact that Sarah Jane Smith is in it makes it one of my favorites. Not only is it excellent that she’s returned to the show, but this was the episode that gave RTD the idea for her own spinoff show, “The Sarah Jane Adventures.” K-9’s in it too, which is pretty cool, I guess.

What else is interesting is that it finally addresses the rather obvious problems that would arise from leaving a companion behind. Sarah Jane was one of the few companions who didn’t really leave of her own accord, though she had been mentioning departing. The Doctor had been summoned to Gallifrey and had to leave her on Earth at the end of The Hand of Fear and then never came back for her. When Rose questions the Doctor about this, he (rather sappily) tells her she can spend the rest of her life with him, but he can’t spend the rest of his life with her and thus has to move on. While cheesy and played for sentimentality, this does bring up an important facet of the Doctor. He’s a nigh-immortal being who chooses to spend his time with the most mortal beings in the universe; if he didn’t leave them behind and never look back he’d be perpetually heartbroken.

Ol' Scratch

Story 174 – The Impossible Planet/ The Satan Pit
Written by Matt Jones
Arriving at a Sanctuary Base, the Doctor and Rose encounter the horrifying yet seemingly docile race called the Ood, which turn out to be the servants for the base’s crew. The planet, “Krop Tor,” is an anomaly: A planet that orbits a black hole without being sucked into it. A gravity well exists around the planet that allows people to safely enter or leave the planet and such a phenomenon requires huge amounts of power that seems to be emanating from ten miles under the surface. The crew is drilling into the planet to discover this power. While the Doctor and Rose explore the base, the planet experiences a massive earthquake and the portion of the base containing the TARDIS falls into the open cavern.

With no other way of leaving, the travelers decide to assist the crew. As the drilling continues, a malevolent presence makes itself known. The Ood’s translation spheres begin proclaiming that “the Beast will awaken,” and soon Toby, the crew’s archaeologist, becomes possessed by it and kills a fellow crew member. Once drilling is complete, the Doctor and Ida, the science officer, spacesuit-up and head into the giant shaft (hehehe) the drill has made.

Traveling miles under the ground, they find a large disk inscribed with undecipherable markings which the Doctor believes to be a doorway of some kind. Suddenly, it begins to open and back in the base the Beast repossesses Toby and the Ood. Toby, in the Beast’s voice, proclaims that the planet is now falling into the black hole and now the pit is open and he is free. The Ood begin closing in on the crew members and their only chance is to move through the air ducts, shutting off the oxygen supply bit by bit until the Ood suffocate. Underground, the Doctor and Ida are cut off from the surface with only a small amount of air left. The Doctor decides to find out what’s inside the pit and travels down. What he finds is the prison of some ancient, terrible creature, and possibly the key to saving them all.

Doctor Who is no stranger to religious iconography, nor to ideas of Satan being in some fashion true (see: “The Daemons”) but this is the first time that the Doctor’s faith, or lack thereof, is explored in any substantial way. He is a man of science, first and foremost, and almost laughs off any religious connotations people make regarding the events of the story. What I also like is that it doesn’t take sides in the debate. What’s going on may be perfectly scientific, or it may be profoundly spiritual, or it may, as the episode suggests, be an amalgam of both. This episode also introduces the Ood, who work here very well as threats, but would later become nearly-religious figures themselves as the Tenth Doctor’s time drew to a close. This story is a nice throwback to both the Troughton and Pertwee eras and has some excellent suspense and a truly original story, easily my favorite of series 2.

Paul McGann counts? That IS impossible!

Story 185 – Human Nature/The Family of Blood
Written by Paul Cornell
The Doctor and Martha Jones are being pursued by unseen villains who chase them into the TARDIS. When the ship takes off, the Doctor sees that they are being followed and comes upon a plan. He hands Martha a fob watch and tells her it is his life, to keep it safe, and whatever happens… The Doctor wakes up in a bed wearing flannel pajamas in a large study. There is a knock at the door and Martha enters dressed as a maid. She addresses him as Mr. Smith and he tells her of these extraordinary dreams where he is an outer space adventurer called the Doctor who travels in time. Martha tells him it’s nothing but fantasy and hands him a paper with today’s date: November 10, 1913.

Mr. John Smith is a teacher at Farringham School for boys and Martha is his maid. Mr. Smith is nearly the exact opposite of the Doctor, being very timid and quiet, but flashes of this other persona show up in the form of text and drawings in his “Journal of Impossible Things.” John is infatuated with the school nurse, Joan Redfern, and the two engage in very chaste flirtation, John even showing her his journal. Martha, however, knows the truth: that the Doctor has placed his Time Lordiness in the fob watch so the beings chasing them, the Family, cannot find them. A student at the school, Latimer, who has ESP, finds the watch and steals it. The Family, meanwhile, has tracked the Doctor to Earth and possess various members of the small community while they narrow down their search. Latimer briefly opens the watch and experiences moments of the Doctor’s memory, enough for the Family to know he is near. When Martha discovers they’ve been caught, she goes for the watch only to discover it’s gone. Now she must attempt to awaken the dormant personality within the meek human and John Smith must deal with wanting to remain human while knowing he must become something else.

It’s really rare that we get a character study in Doctor Who, and even rarer that it’s a character who doesn’t actually exist. I’m sure at some point or other we’ve all thought about what it would be like to become a hero and usually in our fantasies we think it’s a great thing. If someone told me, “Guess what, dork, you’re actually the Doctor,” I’d probably say something resembling, “Yes! Finally!” Or, you know, something like that. This story goes t’other way with it. John Smith absolutely, categorically does not want to be a hero, least of all this hero that is so very non-human. Not only that, but if he goes forward with it, he will cease to be the man he is and leave behind everything he knows and everyone (or THE one) he loves. It’s truly a heartbreaking prospect and Tennant delivers one of his best performances.

Oh, just don't look at me.

Story 186 – Blink
Written by Steven Moffat
In 2007, Sally Sparrow enters an old, crumbling house called Wester Drumlins to look for things to photograph. Instead she finds strange angel statues, a key in the hand of one of them, and messages written behind peeling wallpaper addressed to her from someone called “The Doctor.” The messages warn Sally of “the Weeping Angels.” Sally returns to the house the next day with her friend Kathy Nightingale to explore. Kathy suddenly vanishes at the exact same moment a man appears at the house looking for Sally. He has a letter addressed to her written by his grandmother, Kathy Nightingale. The letter explains to Sally that, just moments ago from Sally’s perspective, Kathy suddenly found herself in Hull in 1920 and she met a man, fell in love, had kids, and lived to a ripe old age. She requests that Sally inform her nearest relative, her brother Larry, of the disappearance.

I’m not going to describe the story anymore for two reasons: 1) Because there are really no parts to glaze over like I normally do without jumbling up the narrative, and 2) it’d cheapen the viewing experience for anyone who’s never seen the episode. And if you haven’t seen the episode, stop reading this, go to Netflix, and watch it right this second. Then come back and we can keep going. Back? Good? Okay.

“Blink” is pretty roundly considered the best new series episode and it’s certainly the best writing Moffat has done for the non-Moffat era. The Doctor shows up only in snippets to deliver exposition, making him the Obi-Wan Kenobi of the piece, but even the exposition is done incredibly cleverly. Moffat introduces us to the truly terrifying Weeping Angels and the concept of “Timey-Wimey,” which is a good way to describe most of Moffat’s output. For a show about time travelers, it’s pretty rare that it explores the actual concept of time traveling and how it can appear from an outsider’s perspective. The central character here is Sally Sparrow, portrayed by future Oscar-nominee Carey Mulligan and it’s because she does such a good job that the episode’s odd themes play so well. One almost wonders what a Sally Sparrow spinoff show would be like. At least I do.

Pyrovile letting them stand next to his fire.

Story 190 – The Fires of Pompeii
Written by James Moran
The Doctor takes Donna Noble to what he believes to be Rome in the first century AD, but after an earthquake and witnessing a mountain begin to smolder, he realizes that they are, in fact, in Pompeii close to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. They try to depart and find that the TARDIS has been sold to a local marble sculptor. The sculptor’s daughter is clairvoyant and destined to become part of the Sybilline Sisterhood, a coven of weird ladies. The Doctor is upset by the accuracy of the Sisterhood’s reading on he and Donna, as well as by the local auger’s new marble circuitboard.

The Sisterhood and the Auger are under the control of the Pyrovile, a nasty race of giant molten rock people, and they are using Vesuvius to turn the entire population of Earth into Pyroviles as well. The energy converter they are using stays the volcano from erupting. The Doctor explains to Donna that some moments in time are fixed, but that this one is in flux, meaning that just because, to her, Vesuvius did erupt doesn’t mean that it will now. The Doctor can turn off the machine to stave off the alien takeover.  The question is: Is it worth killing thousands to save billions?

There are three reasons I like this episode: 1) It’s a pseudo-historical, meaning it takes place in Earth’s history but has some kind of crazy sci-fi element to it. This type of story is arguably my favorite in the DW oeuvre and this story marked the earliest in Earth history New Who had gone. 2) It addresses the Doctor’s morality in time traveling. He could if he wanted save every single person in Pompeii, but where would the line be drawn? What’s to stop him from changing all of history whenever he wants? Is it braver to save everyone or allow everyone to die? It’s things like this that make the show so great. And finally, 3) Donna. Donna appeared in the 2006 Christmas special where I found her kind of annoying and then she became the permanent companion in series 4’s first episode “Partners In Crime” where I still found her fairly annoying. This episode did an amazing job in not only making me begin to like Donna Noble as a character but also cemented her relationship to the Doctor. Since, thank Christ, she wasn’t fawning over or pining for him, she was free to call him on his bullshit. This is the episode where I bought them as a team.

The scariest monster of all... a commuter bus.

Story 196 – Midnight
Written by Russell T. Davies
While visiting the crystalline resort planet of Midnight, the Doctor wants to go on a long bus trip to see the Sapphire Waterfall but Donna does not. He decides to go by himself and leave Donna by the pool. The Doctor is like a kid on Christmas in the shuttle bus as the other vacationers get to their seats. Initially, the passengers want little to do with each other, but when the Doctor uses the sonic screwdriver to blow the TVs, they are forced to talk to each other, which the Doctor relishes.

While en route, the shuttle suddenly stops; the pilot thinks it’s an engine problem and issues a distress signal. The Doctor requests that they take the radiation shield up momentarily to get a better look at the view and the technician claims he sees something moving out there, despite the unlivable levels of radiation on the planet. Soon a rhythmic pounding begins on the hull of the ship which eventually begins to mimic the passenger’s various tapping. The pounding moves around the ship toward where Sky, a female passenger, is cowering. She is sure the whatever-it-is is out to get her and soon the shuttle rocks and the lights go out. When they come up again, the cockpit has been torn away and the pilot and technician are killed and it appears Sky has been possessed by…something. The Doctor begins to talk to her and finds that she is only able to repeat things he and the other passengers say, causing a rising level of paranoia amongst everyone. Soon, Sky is saying what the Doctor says right along with him. The next step after that is…

This is a truly original episode in my opinion. Since its return in 2005, the show has been all about enormity, in both story scope and scenery. Hardly an episode went by without the Doctor running through massive buildings or down empty streets. They had the money, and dammit they were going to show it to us. This story on the other hand, nearing the end of both Tennant and RTD’s times on the show, is as intimate as can be. Almost the entire episode takes place in the main cabin of the shuttle and the tension comes from the growing sense of panic amongst the passengers even more so than whatever’s trying to get them. It shows how mob mentality works, even on such a small scale. Tennant again gives a great performance, as does Lesley Sharp as Sky/Thing. Watching these characters overreact to an obscene level and then have to deal with their choices once the crisis is over is one of the best moments of humanity the show’s produced.

This is the 50th episode of New Who, and truly a brilliant one at that. Interesting cast note, the actor who portrays Professor Hobbes (telling philosopher reference) is none other than David Troughton, son of Second Doctor Patrick Troughton, who also played King Peladon in the Jon Pertwee classic “The Curse of Peladon.”

In May of 2008, in the middle of Series 4’s airing schedule, Russell T. Davies announced he would be stepping down from his role as executive producer and showrunner of Doctor Who and that Steven Moffat would be taking the reigns. Davies’ swansong would consist of four Bank Holiday specials in 2009 to allow ample time Moffat to ready himself. In October 2008, David Tennant announced he would be stepping down from the role of the Doctor, though he would appear in all of the 2009 specials to leave when Davies left.

At the end of Series 4, the Doctor was without a companion, believing himself to be better off on his own, and making it easier for guest stars to take a more central role in the Specials. The Specials were mildly entertaining, though almost categorically poor stories, with the exception of the Thanksgiving special…

Anti-hero shot?

Story 201 – The Waters of Mars
Written by Russell T. Davies and Phil Ford
Traveling alone, the Doctor wanders the Martian landscape in his spacesuit, but is soon apprehended by the humans of Bowie Base One, Earth’s first Mars colony, under the leadership of Captain Adelaide Brooke. While he is interrogated, he learns that the date is November 21, 2059. According to future history, that is the exact date the base is to be destroyed in an explosion that kills Brooke and her entire crew. This is a fixed moment in time and the tragedy is the catalyst that inspires mankind, including Brooke’s own descendants, to explore outer space and make peaceful contact with extraterrestrials.

The Doctor wants no part of the events here and decides he must leave Mars. Unfortunately, bad stuff has already started to happen; two colonists have been infected by a strange life form which causes their body to gush copious amounts of water. The virus soon spreads to a third colonist and a quarantine must be issued. Adelaide and the Doctor determine the virus came from water taken unfiltered from the underground glacier used for the biodome portion of the base and the Doctor conjectures the virus was imprisoned there centuries ago by the Ice Warriors. The crew decides they must evacuate and before he leaves himself, the Doctor informs Adelaide that she is supposed to die today, on Mars, if history is to unfold properly. As he walks the long way back to the TARDIS, things begin to go pear-shaped for the crew and the infected colonists infiltrate the rest of the base and water begins pouring in. During the ordeal, the colony’s security officer, infected but not overcome, initiates the escape shuttle’s self-destruct, keeping the virus on Mars, but leaving the surviving crew with no means of escape. Overcome by anger and defiance, the Doctor turns back to save them even if it means changing a fixed point in time, because he is the Last of the Time Lords; no higher authority than he.

This is easily the best of the 2009 specials and foretold a much darker ending to the Tenth Doctor than what we actually were given in “The End of Time.” For some reason, it took the Doctor all that time to realize he wasn’t just a SURVIVOR of the Time War, he won the damn thing and to the victor go the spoils, including the ability to bend time to his will. However, he soon sees the horrible consequences such blatant disregard for the “rules.” For the first time, the Tenth Doctor shows us the real darkness inside of him, what might happen if a being like the Master were the last of his kind.

The Christmas/New Year’s special of 2009/2010 was the two part “The End of Time,” in which Davies literally threw a planet’s worth of incomprehensible plot elements together for the Tenth Doctor’s final hurrah. The story featured, among other things, the return of the Master, the Ood, the Time Lords, Gallifrey, Donna Noble, Wilfred Mott, some woman who may or may not be the Doctor’s mother, every other companion the Tenth Doctor’s ever had, spiny green alien people, a Star Wars-inspired dogfight, Barack Obama, and the Doctor crying more than he’s ever cried before. “The End of Time” is a mess and it was sad for me to see such a great Doctor go out on such a sour note. Tennant did a whole hell of a lot for the longevity of the show and for that he deserved a better departure point and if his regeneration could have somehow been fitted into “Waters of Mars,” it would have been brilliant. But the RTD era was all about character, and no ending of his would be complete without every single person ever to be a supporting character showing up. But that’s neither here nor there.

At the tail end of “The End of Time,” the Tenth Doctor weeps his last and regenerates in a massive, fiery KaBoom sending the TARDIS ablaze and hurling through space. The Eleventh Doctor appears and shows us but a small glimpse of the off-the-wall adventures that were to come.

Only one Doctor left, folks. Can you believe we’ve made it this far? Stay tuned for the next installment, in which I discuss Matt Smith, Steven Moffat, and the future of the series.

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