by Jonathan Rothwell

Changes to the Doctor Who guide

I recently made some changes to the Doctor Who viewing guide in preparation for Series 8, which begins on 23rd August with Deep Breath. (Of course, with the BBC being the BBC, the first five scripts have now leaked.)

For a start, the list of Who episodes with individual ratings has now been broken out into its own page, and as a bonus now names the writer and director of each story. Having everything on one page was becoming unmaintainable; in the future, once I finally get round to producing a list of suggested Classic Who episodes, I might break them out again. Hell, maybe in time a mini-site will be better, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

The other major change was to update the ‘episode critical path,’ or the ‘quickest way in.’ This section reliably generates the most correspondence, so my thanks go to Mike Wertheim for picking my brains on this, and to Kyle Ruby for not reaching through the computer and killing me when I droned on, bouncing suggestions off him for improvement.

The biggest change is that it no longer starts with Rose. Yes! Astonishing! Anyone who knows me well enough to know how much I love Who will know how much I love Rose as an opener to the series. For its time, it was a perfect introduction to Who for kids—I watched it live, on transmission, with my family, aged twelve (the perfect age to be a Doctor Who fan) and was instantly enthralled.

However, looking back at it now, although I still love it to bits, I worry that its cheesiness, with the burping wheelie bin, the weird Auton Mickey, puts people off. Never mind that Rose still has its classic, dark Who moments (the Auton Mickey gets his head cut off, the Doctor casually mentions that Rose’s colleague Wilson is ‘dead,’ and the bank manager from the Nationwide adverts is gunned down in front of his family.) For sophisticated viewers used to shows like Game of Thrones and Firefly, Rose veers a little too far into off-putting kids’ show territory, so it has to go.

The fortunate thing is that The End of the World, the second episode, is even better than Rose, with much less abject cheesiness. It’s more ‘conventional’ than Rose, too, being more representative of Who’s ‘monster of the week’ format as a whole. It’s newbie-friendly, it’s warm, it’s funny, it’s got surprisingly dark themes, it’s got a high death count, and it also introduces the idea of the Time Lords along the way. So, The End of the World it is, for many new Who fans’ first Doctor Who episode—we’ll see how that turns out in time.

The critical path was previously very dependent on River Song’s story arc, and the puzzlebox nature of Steven Moffat’s stories. I haven’t removed these completely, and River Song’s arc still mostly survives, but it has been de-emphasised in favour of introducing more of Who’s staple villains and settings. Dalek remains sacrosanct, of course; I have also now included Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways, because I re-watched it recently and bloody loved it. Totemic of Russell T Davies’s Who scripts, although the regeneration sequence seems rushed, it still forms a core part of the Time War arc.

Moving onto Series 2, by some mistake, I had forgotten completely about School Reunion. Although Sarah Jane Smith, and the brilliant Lis Sladen, are now gone, they are not to be forgotten, and School Reunion, while a little cheesy, gives a wonderful new angle to the dynamic between the Doctor and his companions. It’s back in, as is Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel, the best new-series Cyberman story save for Nightmare in Silver.

Series 3 remains with only Blink, and Series 4 remains with only Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead. Although it’s achingly difficult not to include more of Martha, Donna and Wilf, the ‘quickest way in’ is already much bigger than it was already, so I hope people do go back and watch start-to-finish when they have the time!

Waters of Mars remains, and also new is The End of Time, which—I hope—acts as an adequate introduction to the Master and as another critical strut in the Time War arc. Although I know next to nothing about the next series, and have managed to avoid most spoilers for now, the Master is surely long overdue a reappearance.

From then on, from Series 5 to 7, I allowed myself more leeway: River’s arc mostly survives, and I’ve also made an effort to include what I consider the ‘best’ episodes, along with some ‘less great’ ones.

Although Who is sometimes great, the nature of the show means there will be some duds: I saw this summed up recently on Twitter as sitting down to watch Star Wars, not knowing if you’re going to get The Empire Strikes Back or the Holiday Special. This is almost exactly right (it’s a tradition that goes right back to the execrable The Gunfighters, and the ambitious but disappointing The Enemy of the World.)

Anywhere, there’s my rationale for the changes to the Viewing Guide. As always, any suggestions for improvements or violent disagreements, please, by email, to the letter ‘j’ at this domain.