The final part of my mini-series on unfairly neglected Doctor Who stories!
I’ve never understood the sheer hatred Fear Her has inspired since its broadcast. Indifference I could understand, but not hatred. To many fans, this is the worst episode of Russell T Davies’ time as showrunner, if not one of the worst of all time.
I concede that the monsters are subpar. The father in the wardrobe conceit doesn’t really work. We don’t see enough to really buy it as a threat, and what we do see isn’t scary enough. And there is a huge dollop of sentimentality, especially over the Olympics. But excess sentimentality is, in my opinion, a problem with a lot of Davies-era stories and never stopped episodes like Doomsday and Journey’s End topping polls. At least in this story the Doctor and Rose seem likeable and believable, compared with other stories this season, where they often radiated smugness, acting like a couple of demi-gods who deigned to descend from Olympus to patronise us mere mortals. The bit where Rose shoots daggers at the Doctor for eating marmalade out of the jar is one of my favourite Doctor/Rose bits in this season, not least for being done non-verbally.
I suspect the problem for a lot of people with this story is that it goes further into both fantasy and children’s fiction than Doctor Who usually ventures, and low fantasy at that, thus alienating all the fans who insist that Doctor Who is Serious Adult Science Fiction. If you’re one of those fans, then this probably isn’t for you. But please don’t stop me from liking it.
Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS
This story seems to get a lot of flack just for having a TARDIS interior without roundels. In fact, the “roundels everywhere” approach is inconsistently applied in the original series – just see Inside the Spaceship (or The Edge of Destruction if you prefer) or The Invasion of Time. Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS is hardly flawless, with some confused plot elements that took me a couple of viewings to fully understand and a strange twist that requires the Doctor to fake a threat of destruction before the story introduces a real one. I have to say this is probably one of the weaker stories on this list for me. However, the TARDIS is presented convincingly as a living labyrinth leaking time, the Doctor is quietly manipulative and there are some nice surreal moments even if they production team’s intentions didn’t quite meet the budget with some rooms reduced to views through doorways.
Under the Lake/Before the Flood
I was going to write about In the Forest of the Night, but much of what I said about Fear Her applies to it. So I’ll go for Under the Lake/Before the Flood, which surprised me by appearing near the bottom of the poll for series nine.
I feel it has a lot going for it: the enclosed atmosphere of the first half (ghost story/base under siege hybrid) broadening out to the surreal abandoned mock-Soviet village of the second. The time travel paradox is handled well (I like time-travel stories, but they’re rare outside of Moffat’s time on the show, except for Dennis Spooner’s tenure as story editor*). It’s very creepy even if the pseudoscientific explanations don’t entirely hold water (again, not unusual for Doctor Who). There’s a decent monster too who towers over Peter Capaldi, although he isn’t seen much. The story even gets away with breaking the fourth wall, just don’t ask me how (well, as we would find out a few episodes later, the Doctor always needs an audience).
Arachnids in the UK
I admit that I don’t know which Jodie Whittaker stories are considered good, beyond knowing that I’m in a minority in preferring her first season to her second. Arachnids in the UK is a rather silly story, but a lot of fun, even if the not-Trump is a bit of a stock “evil American businessman.” Giant creepy crawlies is something Doctor Who has done quite a bit, with varying degrees of efficiency. It’s no surprise this feels like a bit of a throwback to the Pertwee era, with giant spiders, a corrupt businessman and an ecological theme. Leaving all the spiders to die is a bit of a brutal ending though.
That said, my favourite bit only happened in my head: when the Doctor asks “Are all your hotels built on repurposed sites?” Robertson responds, “Some of them are built on Native American graveyards.”
*For more on the appearance of time travel stories under Dennis Spooner and Steven Moffat, see my book, Regeneration: The Changing Style of Doctor Who, by D. G. Saunders, available from Lulu.com and also Amazon US, Amazon UK, Blackwells and Barnes and Noble!