The “Best” and “Greatest” Seasons of Doctor Who

Was this the best season ever? Or the reverse? Well, we could crouch down and take a good look, but first let’s consider terms.

Bill and Twelve take a closer look

It’s a long way to Series Twelve, so I’m going to give you a big bacon sandwich (that does love you back), one full of easily digested bite-sized chunks.

Ever see an exchange like this go by?

That was really great.
Yeah, my favorite.

Or, of course, the opposite?

I really hated that.
Yeah, the worst.

It’s clear that with most people, “great” equals “I liked it.” That’s understandable: if something is great, then we ought to appreciate it, right? And if we don’t like it, then how can we call it great?

So, as with almost all constructive discussions, we have to define our terms. Instead of throwing words like “great” around, we need to look at factors that enhance or detract from the quality of a season. It’s understandable, of course, that not everyone does so. This kind of objective analysis can take up to several minutes if you do it as superficially as I will. (You’re welcome.)

So, let’s look at a number of aspects of quality, starting with:

Originality

I can make a pretty good case for AG Series Five being “great” because of how original it was. For a time-travel show, it makes sense for the Doctor to spend time with a companion at widely varying points in their life, but the first episode to take this original approach was The Eleventh Hour, with Amelia/Amy Pond.

On top of that, this is the season that starts to explore the notion of time travelers who meet but not in parallel, i.e., River Song. And it has the original idea of the Dream Lord in Amy’s Choice. A brilliant exploration of what time travel and Time Lords can’t help, in Vincent and the Doctor. A different view of the Doctor in The Lodger. And certainly the finale, The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang, wasn’t like anything that had gone before.

And yet. If originality is the only criterion, or the overwhelmingly important one, I would say hands down the best season was the very first, starting all the way back on 23 November 1963. The Doctor was new, the TARDIS ditto, plus the Daleks. I don’t see how any season can beat that.

Of course, originality isn’t the only possible criterion. There’s also:

Sense of Wonder

This isn’t the easiest term to define, but to keep from spending all the comments arguing about what this means (like I can stop you all, hahahaha), I’m going to describe this as when you’re left wondering if the episode’s “truth” could be reality.

Doctor Who does this a lot with monsters. Could those statues really be quantum-locked creatures that can send me back in time? Could there really be sentients from geologic eras ago, waiting to take their Earth back?

Could my sweetie in her real form be covered in suckers, with poison sacs under her tongue? Could be, she’s a great kisser…

But it doesn’t have to be monsters. Could the moon be an egg? Could the idea behind Satan predate the universe? Could the word “doctor” come from the Doctor?

Asking big questions is the best way to evoke sense of wonder. But to do so requires a degree of:

Audacity

Daring something really different is what it takes to get a Blink or a Heaven Sent. Also Love & Monsters or Sleep No More. You have to take serious risks to create a classic…or the reverse.

Since truly great episodes, and the opposite, tend to derail discussions by their sheer power, let’s just illustrate the point with something that dares nothing. Not a real episode, just an example to show what would happen if an episode tried to do nothing original, break no new ground, just shamelessly trade on what has gone before.

In two admittedly overlong sentences, in the tradition of—that is, trading with no shame at all upon The Day of the Doctor, The Night of the Doctor, and The Time of the Doctor, I give you…(drumroll)…The Lunch of the Doctor.

The Doctor attempts to dine while locking gazes with a Weeping Angel (an involuntary glance for the butter sends a perfectly good steak and kidney pie back to 1967). Meanwhile the Doctor keeps up a monologue with Clara’s back (leading her to write on a chalkboard “I blew in on a leaf for this?”).

Ta da! A triumph of repackaging.

So it’s likely that a great season has to show a little audacity. Perhaps as the writers are pushing themselves to do so they also need to provide episodes which are:

Challenging

I remember visiting a friend long ago, when I was between jobs and he wasn’t, and him getting home from work and plunking himself down in front of the TV and putting old sitcoms on. After a challenging day at work, he wanted to turn his brain off.

As you can tell from the way I blather on, I like to think about things, and to take some time to do it. So I like episodes that provoke thought, and I’m disappointed when they don’t.

But that’s me, and my personal taste. As my old friend illustrates, not everyone wants that all the time. Too much challenge seems to drive casual fans away; too little—well, let’s hope that’s never an issue.

So this is a divisive factor, I think, one that is a must for some and a mustn’t for others. One that is, however, more generally wanted is probably:

Emotional Power

Pete Tyler shaking off his shiftless shiftiness, and showing what a real Dad does in Father’s Day. Any of Twelve’s impassioned speeches. Rose melting down in Doomsday. Rosa Parks being arrested, and the looks on the TARDIS team’s faces. Donna’s journey ending. Vincent’s picture “for Amy.” Astrid Peth being sent to the stars. Grace’s death. “It’s bigger on the inside.” “I’m the Doctor.”

Most of us can’t call any story great if we can’t bring ourselves to care about it. Conversely, the more we care, the greater the story in at least that respect. I think every great season has moments of great emotion, and cannot be the best without them. Not for most of us.

Something that generally goes with that is:

Character Arc

Martha’s season isn’t generally considered a great one, and I’d say part of that is that, while her character arc isn’t terrible, it isn’t terribly satisfying either. After all she goes through, to walk away, romantically rejected by the Doctor, leaves me at least with a certain frustration.

Conversely, Donna’s is almost universally acclaimed, as the shouty temp from Chiswick goes on to be sung of as a planet-savior…and then we get to that ending. Even the heavens weep.

I don’t know if character arcs alone can make a great season. But clearly a strong character arc can help a season be considered great, right?

Well, maybe not. Consider Series Eight and Nine, where Twelve has quite an arc, going from self-questioning to the playful “I’m an idiot!” in Death in Heaven, to showing his passionate “duty of care” in particular in Hell Bent.

By contrast, Clara is the fixed point of moral certainty; whereas Nine would threaten to throw “stupid apes” out of the TARDIS, Clara is the one at the end of Kill the Moon to tell the Doctor, “You go away now.”

I’m fine with the role-reversal, but it’s certainly not to everyone’s taste. So a strong character arc helps with greatness, but it at least partly depends on what arc and whose.

Speaking of whose (Who’s), there’s always the Doctor’s character itself:

Doctor Depth

Do you like your Doctor tormented to the point of Byronic heroism? Or with hidden depths like maybe Loch Ness? Something dark beneath a bright exterior? A Doctor whose character, whose inner conflict, facilitates stories with a darker tinge?

If you do, some Doctors (Nine and Twelve in particular) and their seasons will appeal more than others, and will affect your perceptions of “great” and “best.”

If instead you’ve had enough of stories with an undertone of desolation, and want to emerge into the light already, then Thirteen might instead be your “greatest” Doctor.

Doctor Accessibility

Prefer a less alien Doctor, one you can relate to easily? One whose lack of quirks and “otherness” means less story time spent on mistrust and side-eye looks? Or at least less supporting characters being taken aback?

Or would you rather be reminded regularly that the Doctor isn’t human, isn’t native to any Earthly culture or tech?

Or maybe a mix? A Doctor like Thirteen who tastes dirt or licks things while otherwise seeming pretty “normal”? Or maybe that’s not the mix you want, and you want a nice young man like Eleven, except for all the times when you can’t miss that he’s centuries old?

Your preference here will absolutely affect your thoughts on what’s “best.”

Doctor Assertiveness

Do you like your Doctors to be like Ten and Eleven in particular, turning an entire confrontation around with a single speech? Would you rather they were more like Twelve, leaving a level of leadership to Clara? Or perhaps Thirteen, who appears less interested in asserting herself over others?

Is it possible that the opposition to Thirteen is because she is insufficiently internet-y, that she should be like everyone else on the net, asserting her views of what is “great” and “best” over everyone else? Or perhaps I should reverse course now, before you all start giving me the side-eye. (That would be a great—I mean “great”—idea.)

“Doctor Who Looks Like Me”

I personally can definitely relate to this, since as you can see from my picture here that I look exactly like Peter Capaldi does when seen by a sentient puddle. So wanting a Doctor who (Who) looks like you is completely understandable to me.

I know, I know, there’s a definite downside to identifying too closely with the Doctor. Not only can it lead to unfortunate lifestyle choices—metacrisis quasi-clones, resisting regeneration, etc.—but can end up with questionable behaviors such as obsessive polarity-reversing and spouting technobabble.

Nevertheless, viewers are perfectly reasonable to want a Doctor to look like them, and to consider such a Doctor “best.” I would just personally urge that they not give up when the Doctor regenerates into a less recognizable form, since that would be a case of hetero-facio-physiognomic phobic response.

Other Factors

And then there’s all the ones I didn’t even mention, like Cinematography, CGI Quality, Plotting, Pacing, Variety, Humor and Wit (among many others). And don’t let’s forget, ideas are great, but implementation is crucial. The same audacity can yield you a Heaven Sent, or a Love & Monsters. There’s many a slip ‘twixt the “Cut!” and the pitch.

So even if all the factors you look for are in place doesn’t mean a good episode follows. And that will certainly affect what is or is not “great.”

Conclusion?

If you’re expecting me to declare a greatest season, well, I’m not going to. Maybe in a comment later. I’d rather leave that up to all of you.

Of course, when you do so, there’s no guarantee that any of the people behind the show will ever be aware of anything said here or anywhere else. Nevertheless, if you’re hoping your words will influence Doctor Who’s direction, if you are unable to articulate what aspects of the show are the “best” or “worst,” then you can’t expect anything to change in the way that you want.

But that’s okay. It probably won’t change anyway. The most we can hope for is to influence the discussion’s direction, especially when evaluating a season.

So let’s hope we can find something to enjoy, whatever era of the show we’re in…and if we can’t, at least we can make our complaints sound like they come from intelligent people. (Especially in the comments here. Hint.)

Wouldn’t that be “great”?


5 comments

  1. Thanks for the interesting blogs @Kevinwho. In my opinion deciding on “the best and greatest” seasons is highly subjective (although I agree you can try to define them more objectively using the various criteria you suggest above). Mostly it will come down to your favourite Doctor. Personally I loved the Moffat years, as I love my brain being twisted, and the way he took the “bigger on the inside” concept in storytelling/universe building terms to wonderfully ridiculous extremes! Discussing these things is one of the reasons this forum exists 😀

  2. @scaryb – You’re very kind, and I appreciate it.  I’ll take just about any opportunity to write, but it’s always nice to get feedback, which makes this a good venue.  Maybe the “best.” 🙂

    I realized a bunch of arguments ago that when people are arguing over what’s “best,” not only (as the post says) are they really arguing about what they like, but they haven’t established what they mean by “best” anyhow.

    I’m with you in loving what Moffat did, and if “intricate” and “exploring all the possibilities” make for “good” Who, then he was the best.  But, of course, those might be “good” for you and me, but not everyone…

    So we get lots of discussion! 🙂

  3. You’re welcome @Kevinwho.

    I also love the higher production values in AG Who, but wobbly sets on very lo def TV didn’t stop me falling in love with the show on 23 Nov 1963. It was like absolutely nothing else at the time. It’s been amazing following its journey since then, and especially since the age of the internet realising how it’s appealed to many people who felt themselves to be on the outside and on the edges, and found a home in Dr Who.

  4. @scaryb

    …it’s appealed to many people who felt themselves to be on the outside and on the edges…

    I read something similar about Star Trek years ago, and I think it’s probably true in general of science fiction that emphasizes imagination at all.  After all, once you set your stories somewhere that isn’t the real world, then those who feel marginalized in this world have another where the rules are different, the cultures are different, and the values are different.

    And once we imagine those things are different, then it’s easy to imagine that maybe in this imagined world we fit, we belong, and are no longer pushed aside.

    With Chris Chibnall’s focus on the real world, I’ll be curious to see if he explores the other side of it.  Science fiction is “what if,” and there’s no reason not to tell stories that ask, “What if the world valued people like ____?”

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