Sixty Things I Like About Who: #17 – 23
And here are still more ways in which Doctor Who has made me happy these past five years.
#17: “The Fires of Pompeii”
There was just so much to enjoy about James Moran’s first script for Doctor Who. It firmly established Donna’s inquisitive, caring nature and posed a moral question that’s been at the series’ heart since the beginning. It also had the Doctor and Donna mistaken for “Mr. and Mrs. Spartacus.”
Visiting what they believed to be first-century Rome–but was actually Pompeii on the day before the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius–Donna took a moment to ask something that a lot of fans had probably wondered. If the TARDIS had the ability to instantly translate their speech into the local language–in this case, Latin–what would happen if she started speaking in Latin? Answer: it’s translated into Welsh. (A Pompeii shopkeeper replied: “Me no a-speak Celtic. No can do, missy.”)
The central mystery of the episode was that although the town’s soothsayers had an unerring ability to predict the future, none of them saw the impending volcano. That’s because there was to have been no eruption. The alien Pyroviles had set up shop within the mountain and tapped its power as part of their scheme to convert all of humanity into their own kind. Suddenly, the Doctor and Donna found themselves with a horrible choice to make: allow the Pyroviles to conquer Earth or detonate the volcano themselves and be personally responsible for thousands of deaths?
“The Fires of Pompeii” also explained (sort of) why it is that the Doctor so often interferes with events except when he doesn’t. According to him, certain points in history are “fixed.” As a Time Lord, he can sense which must be allowed to play out. Granted that there’s an “if you say so” lurking here, but at least the point was finally addressed.
While the fate of Pompeii may have been fixed, Donna made the case that it didn’t necessarily apply to its individual residents. She convinced the Doctor into going back to rescue a family they’d befriended, claiming a small victory from the tremendous tragedy.
#18: Murray Gold’s Music
Old-school Doctor Who relied heavily on electronic music. Some of it was eerie, some of it lacked any sort of recognizable melody, and some of it was nigh-unlistenable. (Try getting through the soundtrack of “The Sea Devils.” I dare you.)
New series composer Murray Gold was given license to change all that. His work has a grand, orchestral sound that makes Who feel like a big-budget space epic.
For me, it’s the inverse of classic Star Trek and its ’80s/’90s follow-ups: old Trek‘s bold, memorable compositions were replaced by atonal noise meant to blend into the wainscoting. If Gold’s music calls attention to itself, so what? He’s as much of the ensemble as Billie Piper or David Tennant.
#19: The Gay Agenda
Over the past few years, a noxious element within Doctor Who fandom has accused producer Russell Davies–an open homosexual who created the gay-themed drama Queer as Folk–of pushing a “gay agenda.”
And I agree with them: Davies does have an agenda. I would sum it up as this: wouldn’t it be nice if we acknowledged that there are gay people in the universe, and treated that as if it was no big thing?* So, when doomed tourist Sky Silvestry–who wound up possessed by an unknown entity in the chilling episode “Midnight”–made an off-hand reference to her recent divorce, we learned that she had been married to another woman. It had no bearing on the plot, it just told you a little bit about the character in her last hour of life.
*With the obvious exception of Captain Jack Harkness, who has made a tremendous impression on Doctor Who and its spin-off Torchwood. But pigeon-holing** Capt. Jack as gay is like describing the dictionary as a guide to the letter Q. Jack sees everyone and every thing with an orifice as a potential sex partner.
**Seriously, if the pigeon had a suitable hole…
#20: The Macra
The episode “Gridlock” already had a fun idea at its core: imagine that you’re stuck in a traffic jam that feels like it’ll last forever, then imagine if it really did. The unlucky motorists of New New New New New New New New New New New New New New New York (that’s not a typo; it was the 15th city to bear the name “New York”) had been trapped in their hovercars for more than 23 years by the time the Doctor and Martha showed up. It may not have been a completely believable premise, but it worked as a bit of dystopian satire in the vein of British sci-fi comics such as Judge Dredd and 2,000 A.D.
Then writer Russell Davies pushed it even further by infesting the “fast lane” of the underground motorway with monsters. And not just any critters, but a thoroughly obscure race of Doctor Who baddies, the crab-like Macra. Prior to “Gridlock,” these crustaceans had appeared in only a single story, 1967’s “The Macra Terror.” Of that serial, only a few brief clips survived the ’70s purge of the BBC’s tape library.
Truth is that the big crabs were only incidental to the plot. Davies wanted something to be eating the motorists, so why not the Macra?
It was a fun piece of continuity-porn. It was also somewhat ironic, given that only a handful of classic Who monsters have been resurrected to date. We’re still awaiting the return of the Ice Warriors and the Silurians, but the freakin’ Macra got there first.
#21: Psychic Paper
With single-episode stories of new Who clocking in at around 42 minutes instead of the 90-120 minutes of a traditional four-part serial from the old days, it’s important to keep the story moving. Hence the return of the Sonic Screwdriver, the Doctor’s all-purpose, “get out of jail free” device.
But not even Sonic will get the Doctor out of his usual problem of being immediately mistaken for a stowaway/spy/murderer by the authorities. That’s where the Psychic Paper comes in; it’s a blank notepad that shows the viewer whatever its holder wants them to see. Instant credentials allow the storyline to bypass the part where the Doctor spends 20 minutes in a jail cell because no one accepts that he just happened to be standing next to the dead body.
#22: The Return of U.N.I.T.
U.N.I.T. (United Nations Intelligence Taskforce) is another holdover from the previous era of Doctor Who: a quasi-military organization dedicated to investigating and combating alien forces. Introduced during the 2nd Doctor’s tenure, it became a fixture during the 3rd Doctor’s exile to Earth.
The reintroduction of U.N.I.T. to the new series nearly didn’t happen. The real-life United Nations decided that it no longer wanted to be associated with the fictional group. (Heaven forfend that the U.N. be confused with a highly-competent team that regularly saves the world.) Thanks to a slight name change (Unified Intelligence Taskforce), U.N.I.T. is back and kicking Sontaran ass.
#23: Rose’s Scottish Accent
In “Tooth and Claw” the Doctor and Rose landed in 1879 Scotland, where they encountered Queen Victoria, kung-fu monks and a werewolf. And as fun as all that sounds, my favorite bit was Rose’s embarrassing attempt to fit in with the locals.