Doctor Who (5th season, 2010)

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5th season

For this fifth season of Doctor Who, showrunner Russell T Davies retired, and one of the show's best scriptwriters, Steven Moffat, took command. The Doctor is now played by Matt Smith, a string bean actor I'd never seen before, who first struck me as too young, but quickly won me over. Pretty redhead Karen Gillan plays the fiery new companion, Amy Pond.

You know Doctor Who, or you should — the wacky time-traveling space alien who looks human and goes wherever, whenever he's needed, butting into other planets' and species' business and being a nuisance for peace, justice, and the Gallifreyan way. 

It's my favorite TV show, though you could build a plausible argument that it's rubbish. It's science fiction that usually doesn't make sense, but it's not really trying to. It's a good time, that's all, with a hero and his sidekick defeating monsters, while ordinary people help out, and sometimes become monsters themselves.

The crazy mood of it all is one of the show's fundamentals: Things will be bonkers, but also, things will be fun, and for this fifth season of the show, the mix is exactly right.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

S05E01: "The Eleventh Hour"

I don't care for the mildly comical cold opening, with the TARDIS out of control and The Doctor dangling from the door amidst circus music. If Mr Moffat had rung me up, I would've suggested skipping it, and simply starting with the opening credits. 

Other than that, every moment of this episode is so good it makes me squeeeee! Ten minutes of sweetness and giggles, then 50 minutes of very nearly non-stop action, all cockeyed and kooky but riveting. 

The TARDIS has crash-landed in the back yard of a house in a small English village, where a newly-regenerated, raggedy Doctor crawls out and quickly befriends a young girl who came running because of the ruckus. She's worried about an odd crack in her bedroom wall, which The Doctor soon finds is a peculiar crack indeed. 

"If you knocked this wall down, the crack would stay put, because the crack isn't in the wall. It's everywhere, and everything — it's a split in the skin of the world."

The girl grows up to be Amy, The Doctor's new companion, and the story sets up the whole season, where the crack in the universe will prove a problem that can't be caulked or patched with tape.

I try not to evangelize too much for Doctor Who, but for anyone new or intrigued about the concept, or anyone who thinks I'm full of crap, "The Eleventh Hour" is a good starting point. Watch for future Oscar-winner Olivia Coleman rocking an early role.

S05E02: "The Beast Below"

"This isn't going to be big on dignity."

Some time in our future and this episode's past, the earth has been completely ruined, and the United Kingdom was relocated onto Starship UK, an enormous vessel trudging along through space.

On board, there's a great big secret that remains a secret, because "Once every five years, everyone chooses to forget what they've learned. Democracy in action." 

In addition to the very good story (more fairy tale than science fiction) this is the episode where The Doctor and Amy become a real team, with his revelation that he's the last survivor from his planet, and her taking control of the storyline and saving the day.

S05E03: "Victory of the Daleks"

Winston Churchill calls, so The Doctor and Amy hurry to Churchill's WWII operations center, where Daleks — pepperpot monsters from the future — are unveiled as the allies' secret weapon against the Nazis. The Daleks say they only want to help, but Daleks being Daleks, we know better.

That's the bare bones of the plot, but what sparkles are the human moments, and one human who wants to help isn't a human at all; he's the robot built by the Daleks to infiltrate the British war effort, and disguised as "Dr Bracewell."

"What you are, sir, is either on our side, or theirs. Now, I don't give a damn if you're a machine, Bracewell. Are you a man?"

There's a scene where The Doctor is in a standoff with the Daleks, bluffing that he'll blow up all of them, along with himself. In his hand he holds the detonation device, a big red button. When the Daleks rightly doubt this pretended doomsday scenario, The Doctor eats the button, which is actually a Jammy Dodger.

That's a popular Irish shortbread cookie with a dab of raspberry jam in the middle, and it kinda looks like a big red button.

It's not a paid product placement — BBC is publicly funded, and any form of advertising would be illegal. But it got me curious enough that I've ordered a box… several times. They're frickin' delicious, and I'll order some again, when I can afford it. Jammy Dodgers ship from Ireland, though, so they ain't cheap.

S05E04: "The Time of Angels"
    and E05: "Flesh and Stone"

"Blimey, your teeth. Have you got space teeth?"

Professor River Song is back, working with a military man named 'Father Octavian'. The Weeping Angels from "Blink" are back, too, in this raucous two-parter. Written by showrunner Steven Moffat, it's a fine example of his style, a whirlwind of a dozen different plot elements.

The Weeping Angels, you might recall, are harmless statues when seen by any sentient life form, but become deadly when you turn your back, or even blink.

But why is the top-ranking military officer called 'Father Octavian'? The Doctor explains: "He's their bishop, they're his clerics, it's the 51st century, the church has moved on."

Beware of hallucinogenic lipstick, and a labyrinth with dead people buried in the walls, gravity getting reversed, and a crack in the universe that we thought had been mended in the season's first episode, but keeps re-cracking. 

All this with movie-quality visuals, one of the best-looking episodes of Doctor Who ever. It's a crackerjack story, too.

"Didn't anyone ever tell you there's one thing you never put in a trap? If you're smart, if you value your continued existence, if you have any plans about seeing tomorrow, there's one thing you never, ever put in a trap…. Me."

S05E06: "The Vampires of Venice"

The Doctor invites Rory, Amy's fiancé, to join them in the TARDIS gallivanting through space and time, and their first stop is in 16th-century Venice. There they find space vampires running a school for girls, while the alien boys are swimming in the waters.

This might be the slightest episode of the season, but it's still quite good. 

Adding Rory to the regular crew is a plus. He's sarcastic and slightly cowardly, a fun and funny character, and Arthur Darvill's performance is always endearing. 

Amy has grown as a character, becoming heroic on her own. She now comes running when someone screams, whether or not The Doctor is around.

S05E07: "Amy's Choice"

"We have to grow up eventually."

"Says who?"

The Doctor, Amy, and Rory are trapped in dreams, all having the same dreams, and quickly switching between dreams and reality.

As the switches happen in this ingeniously crafted episode, the three of them are taunted by sharp, stinging insults from a Mister Mxyzptlk-like character, whose wisecracks challenge everything we know about them.

I could watch this episode once weekly for the rest of my life and never grow weary of it. Absolutely one of my favorites. But I wouldn't recommend it unless you're already watching the show — the episode's power and its enormously satisfying conclusion come from familiarity with the setting and characters.

S05E08: "The Hungry Earth"
    and E09: "Cold Blood"

The Doctor thinks he's piloted the ship to Rio, but instead we've landed in South Wales, where there's a major drilling project, mining deep under the surface. But the farther down the drillers drill, the stranger things keep happening. 

This two-part episode is a remake of a 1970 episode, "Doctor Who and the Silurians," and some fanatical Who fans have claimed that the original is better. I haven't seen it, but from what little I've seen of early Doctor Who, I'm skeptical. 

Doesn't matter, though. "The Hungry Earth" and "Cold Blood" tell a story worth being told, with intelligence, world-building, and even a message. There are several one-time characters you'll come to care about, smart and human (even the ones who aren't human). And there's some especially beautiful and evocative music, and near-nightmare visuals as people — including Amy — get sucked under the dirt.

And the harrowing, heartbreaking finish splendidly sets up the rest of the season. 

S05E10: "Vincent and the Doctor"

Pretentious critics have said that to create his paintings, Vincent van Gogh must've seen more, and seen more clearly than other people. This episode is a play on that — there's a monster that only van Gogh can see.

But the story is much more about van Gogh than about the monster, and it's written by Richard Curtis (About Time, Four Weddings and a Funeral), so beware of schmaltz. I love it, though.

My late and lovely wife teased me for watching Doctor Who, which led to a bet on one particularly bad day in her life. Surgery to amputate her left leg was scheduled for 9:30 AM, but there'd been hours of pre-op delays, and in the early afternoon she said, "I'll bet you anything the surgery won't even happen until tomorrow."

I took that bet, and the terms were, I'd take her to dinner at her favorite Italian restaurant if the surgery was delayed overnight, and if it wasn't, she'd sit through an episode of Doctor Who.

She lost the bet and her leg that afternoon, but there were complications, so the debt wasn't settled for months. When she'd recovered, I took her to an Italian dinner, and afterwards showed her this episode. She sat through it without saying much, but at the end she cried, and then suggested we start watching Doctor Who together.

So this will always be one of my favorite episodes. It's both light and heavy, with a warm and respectful portrayal of van Gogh (Tony Curran), and the story doesn't shy away from his mental illness. 

Don't lose a leg over it, but you might cry at the end, too.

S05E11: "The Lodger"

"Has anyone ever told you that you're a bit weird?"

"They never really stop."

Before he came to America to host a talk show, James Corden was a comic and actor in England, and the guest star in this episode. If you can wipe away everything about his time in America, he's quite good as a schlubby guy who needs a flatmate, just as The Doctor finds himself stranded with no place to stay.

And just coincidentally, the house where The Doctor moves in is also home to something scary from outer space, in the upstairs bedroom that isn't there.

The story seems very original, and it's very funny, with Daisy Haggard as the schlub's girlfriend, and a bang-up finish that's thrilling, romantic, and utterly ludicrous. 

There's also, midway through, a magnificent moment where The Doctor uses his seldom-seen psychic powers. They work much the same as Spock's mind-melds on Star Trek, but when Spock does it there's no head-butt.

S05E12: "The Pandorica Opens"
    and E13: "The Big Bang"

This is the two-part season finale, a story too twisty to summarize. It's about the looming end of the universe, but the most memorable element is the Pandorica — an impregnable cube-shaped box that locks with layers and layers of security protocols, impossible to escape from.

Thought to be mere legend, even The Doctor is surprised to find that the Pandorica is real, when all of The Doctor's enemies work together to imprison him in it. 

Everything's writ huge, sometimes literally, and it's a bit bloated in spots, wildly impossible and built around technobabble, but the story somehow stays true to itself, and anyway, everything happens too quickly to be questioned. 

Part One is an action movie in outer space, which ends in a ridiculously overwrought cliffhanger and epic tragedy, and then…

Part Two has a much lighter, almost frivolous tone, as it unwinds every ticking time bomb from Part One with a hundred laughs.

Never seen such a stylistic switcheroo — and I've enjoyed it enormously each of the two dozen or so times I've rewatched this.

"We're all stories in the end. Just make it a good one, eh?"

♦ ♦ ♦  

13 episodes, of which 9 or 10 are terrific, 3-4 are very good, none are average, and none are stinkers. Has there ever been a season of any TV show with a better batting average?

Playing a critic here, there's only one downside to the fifth season: Doctor Who would never be so good again.


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  1. Doctor Who turns an amputation into a happy memory!


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