The Doctor Who Challenge: Days 1-3

Apparently, there’s a tumblr going around for a 30 day Doctor Who challenge, a bit of summer fun to bridge the way-too-long gap between Series 6 and 7. There seems to have been no starting date. Everyone is proceeding at various paces as the meme goes viral.

You know me: I can’t resist a list and especially not a list on my favorite subject. So I’ll bite. I’ll concatenate a few just so the blog doesn’t get swamped with Doctor Who posts. This post will be longer than most because I had already written and shelved a long pointless post on my favorite Doctors.

Day 1 is your Favorite Doctor. Most of the people writing about this are focusing on the new series but I’ll draw from the entire history of Doctor Who. This is a really difficult choice because I don’t think there has been a bad one in the bunch. I’ll ranking them worst to best, but keep in mind: all of them were good.

  • Paul McGann, we hardly knew ye. McGann has done more audio dramas but I’ve only seen the rather poorly done TV movie. McGann had potential but I did not see (or hear) it realized. (Update: After I wrote this, the BBC made Night of the Doctor. McGann was wonderful in it, doing more in seven minutes than I thought was possible.)
  • Colin Baker really got a raw deal. I remember when he first came to the role: he overflowed with enthusiasm and some thought he would challenge Baker I’s tenure. But his debut episode was one of the worst in the entire run of the series, he was given a dreadful costume, his first season was undercut by the writers deciding that he should spend the first quarter of each serial bickering with Peri and then he was fired for no obvious reason. But if you look closely, you can see some great moments, particularly in Trial of a Timelord, where his compassionate side emerges. His relationship with Perry is much more gentle, his humor much more barbed. And his rant against the Time Lords in the finale is one of the highlights of the series. Baker has gone on to do audio dramas and become more popular since his firing. He’s one of my least favorites but that’s praising with faint damnation. He was damned good. And he’s fun in DVD commentaries.
  • William Hartnell is generally underappreciated and overlooked because he played the Doctor so long ago and some of his best episodes are missing. And, unlike Troughton, his health and eventual death prevented long-term involvement with Who. But he was delightful, starting the Doctor out as anti-hero and gradually producing the irritable absent-minded Doctor we came to love. Hartnell could also be slyly humorous, as can be seen in the Romans. Without Hartnell’s portrayal, the series would have died very quickly.
  • Patrick Troughton was a delight as Doctor Who, especially the chemistry he had with Frasier Hines and the other companions. It’s a pity so much of his run was destroyed. What little exists is an exercise in how a good actor can carry terrible scripts.
  • Oh, God, I don’t to put Peter Davison down here. Again, see my note about the overall quality. Davison, to quote David Tennant, was my Doctor. He was the first one I really watched and it was during his run that I fell in love with the show. His portrayal was very different from the others, being much sweeter. But he could still bring it when the occasion required. His reading of the last line of Warriors of the Deep is heart-breaking; his swan-song in Caves of Androzani outstanding. I really wish he’d stayed on.
  • Sylvester McCoy was my favorite for a long time and I still love the mysterious and dark side he brought to the character. He really didn’t come into his own until his second season. But the Seventh Doctor and Ace were a winning combination. There’s a moment in Wolves of Fenric when he bluffs his way past the base guards that is simply awesome. This was a Doctor who didn’t need psychic paper or a sonic screwdriver.
  • Placing David Tennant here is going to raise some eyebrows. I realize that he’s wildly popular and I’m not going to disagree with his overall excellence. Look at the fine portrayals I’ve ranked below him! But Tennant could get a bit manic for my tastes (see the ending of The Doctor’s Daughter). His best moments were the quieter moments — Donna’s heartbreaking finale, the ending of Fires of Pompeii, the casual way he stops Torchwood from opening the rift in Army of Ghosts. Anytime I open an old episode and see Tennant’s face, I just grin.
  • Christopher Eccleston has only one season but what a season it was. Eccleston is probably one of the most critical figures in the history of Who. Had he not been instantly believable, instantly likable, instantly alien in that way that only the Doctor can be, the show would never had made it back. Check out the uneven writing of Series 1 and tell me that Eccleston and Piper didn’t make the show.
  • The next three you could rank in any order. On different days of the week, I might change the order.

  • Jon Pertwee was my mother’s favorite Doctor and has rapidly become one of mine. He could do everything — dry humor, thrilling action, thundering rage and deep compassion. He was the second Doctor I really became familiar with after Davison (our local PBS looped through the serials from earliest to latest). I met Pertwee once and he was as charming and funny as he seemed on the screen.
  • I’ll admit, I was skeptical of Matt Smith because he was so young. But the manic goofy nerdiness he brings to the roll is splendid. He’s the youngest actor but you can feel the weight of the centuries in the way he talks and acts. I’ve probably ranked him too high due to my enthusiasm. And I don’t know how much of his excellence is writing. But one of the first scenes he filmed was putting Amelia to bed while the time rift closes. And Smith simply nailed it.
  • Really who else could be the favorite but Tom Baker, the man who is practically the embodiment of Doctor Who? He was born for the role — defining the alien bohemian as no one had before. Almost everyone who followed has had something of Baker in their portrayal.
  • Update 2018: I would probably rank Capaldi in the top six, maybe just below Tennant. He was good, but the scripts often let him down.

    Day 2: Favorite Companion

    There are too many to rank, but I’ll focus on five:

  • I’ll admit that ranking Jo Grant this high is personal. I was hitting puberty about the time the Pertwee series came on PBS and Katy Manning’s skirts advanced that experience by about a year. But she set the tone for the great companions to come. She had a brain, she could take the initiative, she could contribute positively to the episode and she didn’t back down. While Manning did her share of screaming, especially early on, Jo developed into a very strong character. Her face-off with the Master in Frontier in Space, in which he tries to hypnotize her and fails, was a wonderful counterpoint to her easy fall in her very first episode. Few characters show that kind of arc.
  • Ace was simply a great companion. She never screamed, she figured things out quickly and she beat the shit out of a Dalek with a baseball bat. I want to repeat that for those of you who never saw it: Ace beat the shit out of a Dalek with a baseball bat. This moment practically defines the TV trope “Crowning Moment of Awesome”. What more could you ask for?
  • I’ll rank Amy and Rory together since much of the appeal is the way the actors play off each other. Again, I have probably ranked them too high because of my enthusiasm. I really should exclude current companions from this.
  • Donna was probably my favorite companion of the new series although I again caution about how I rank recent parts of the series. I loved that Donna was not pining for the Doctor. She liked him, maybe even loved him as a friend. But their relationship was strictly platonic, a relief from the previous three series of doe eyes. She would always find a way to be useful, always find a way that her particular skills and abilities could help. And her ability to verbally spar with and dress down the Doctor was perfect. Her insistence on saving one family in Fires of Pompeii was when I knew she would be great. And, as mentioned, her departure was one of the most heart-breaking moments in the show. I always thought they should have ended it with the Doctor going forward in time to her death bed and releasing her memory right as she died.
  • Sarah Jane Smith was the Mary Poppins of companions: practically perfect in every way. She was pretty and smart but with a core of steel. She could do things the Doctor wouldn’t — like shooting Sutekh’s spaceship in Pyramids of Mars. And though she was often reduced to lines of, “So what’s that mean, Doctor?” she didn’t sound dumb when she said it. She sounded like a smart woman trying to figure out a completely alien experience. I and about a million other young males was in love with Sarah Jane. I was so happy when she was brought back for the new series and so saddened when Liz Sladen was taken from us.
  • Honorable Mention: Jamie, River, the Brigadier

    Day 3: Least Favorite Companion

    I’ll get through this quickly, since I don’t like being negative.

  • Grace Holloway from the TV movie never worked for me. A badly written character whose interactions with the Doctor seemed forced and awkward. She coulda been somebody, though.
  • Susan Foreman could have been a good character but was written as so helpless and screaming, she was a drag on the show. The same could be said of several of Hartnell’s female companions — Vicky, Dodo, Katarina; the writers never seemed to know what to do with them. Only Barbara really worked.
  • Adric was just plain annoying. He started well and had a great sendoff. But in the middle, he was an irritating know-it-all who was given terrible dialogue and usually shoved to the side so the other actors could do something.
  • It’s kind of cheating to throw Adam Mitchell in here since (a) he was supposed to be annoying; and (b) he was only in two episodes. But I never thought that (a) was a good idea and (b) was two too many. If you’re going to twist my arm like that, however, I would say that my least favorite companion was probably Rose, simply because things got a little to maudlin. But again, that’s my praising with faint damnation: we haven’t had a bad long-term companion in the new series. I loved Rose; but I liked the others more.
  • Melanie Bush had to be the worst companion in the history of Doctor Who. This was in the bad days of JNT’s reign when he was far too eager to give the companions and the Doctor a “hook” straight from marketing. Mel’s hook was that she was an exercise fanatic and had an eidetic memory, traits which the writers dumped as fast they could. She also screamed her lungs out and … really, I can’t think of anything positive she contributed to a single episode. She would get captured, she would get threatened, she would scream. Ray, from Delta and the Bannerman was so much more likable and so much better suited to the Doctor. And she carried motorcycle tools on her. Maybe she couldn’t have beaten the crap out of a Dalek with a baseball bat, but she probably could have taken one apart.
  • Update 2018: I’ll now put Clara as my least favorite companion of NuWho. They were so wrapped up in making her a mystery that they forgot to create a reasonable character. Her arc seemed forced and pointless. Bill was a massive improvement.

    Anyway, that’s nearly 2000 words. I’ll give it some time before I burn this space up with more on this subject.