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60 Brilliant Moments in Doctor Who History

‘He won’t hit the ground. He’s the Doctor.’

36. Doctor Who Night (1999)

November 1999. BBC Two was home to a night of Doctor Who programming. A whole night! Introduced by Tom Baker in, if not full flow then certainly without the edges smoothed off.

Documentaries, sketches, the last episode of the first Dalek story and the TV Movie. Featuring some dated but fun CGI, glimpses of sketches by Mark Gatiss and David Walliams, and an advert for the short-lived sitcom Hippies, the links are up there for all to see (alongside a five-minute documentary hosted by Dr Jim Al-Khalili discussing the theoretical science that could explain the TARDIS).

37. ‘…Dad’ (Spare Parts, Big Finish, 2002)

‘Spare Parts’ is an origin story for the Cybermen, set on a dying and desperate Mondas. If we’re honest, before ‘Spare Parts’, the Cybermen were either a bit camp or fairly generic but cool-looking robots. They were scary because they tended to hide away and occasionally kill people. However, in ‘The Tenth Planet’ they’re a much weirder and more tragic creation, and that’s what ‘Spare Parts’ returns to. Marc Platt’s script is extremely harrowing in places.

It’s due to Big Finish’ status prior to the return of the TV show that they could be this upsetting, because frankly it rarely goes this far on telly (Steffi’s slow, inevitable death in TV episode ‘The Waters of Mars’ is probably the furthest the TV show has gone). In 2002, with Big Finish cherry picking the bits of the New Adventures and BBC Books it liked, the audience was skewing older. Which partly explains the next entry.

38. ‘What Excuse Do You Have?’ (Jubilee, Big Finish, 2003)

In ‘Jubilee’, a story written by Rob Shearman for Doctor Who’s 40th anniversary, the Sixth Doctor arrives in an alternate timeline where a British Empire emerges from the ruins of a Dalek invasion. The stories of the Doctor’s intervention in that invasion have become commodified and trivialised, the horrors forgotten. It’s a stark reminder of what the Daleks are based on, what they grew out of. Sadly this story has aged incredibly well.

39. The Trip of a Lifetime (TV Advert, 2005)

For many of us, this was the first time we’d see those tunnels (part of the Millenium Stadium) but not the last. It’s curious watching it now, the 2005-ness of it with all those echoes and repetitions, but it’s a reminder of the excitement, the sense that the BBC was actually getting behind the show this time: There were so many billboards dotted around, I remember seeing them in the southside of Glasgow and thinking how much they wanted this to succeed. With this advert it was also the fact of Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor: here he is, here’s a crumb of him, here’s the TARDIS. And BBC One. Saturdays. 7pm. The sense that that time belonged to Doctor Who.

40. The Assembled Hordes of Genghis Khan (Rose, 2005)

This is a great TARDIS reveal (well, for anyone who hadn’t seen it in the Trip of a Lifetime advert): director Keith Boak came up with the idea of Rose running in, then coming out again to look around the outside before the full interior was revealed. As with so much of Series One, it gives you Doctor Who from Rose’s perspective so the reveal works for everyone, and the swooping pull-back of the camera gives you the full scale of the set, the contrast with outside, and Eccleston’s Doctor full of Hartnell’s terseness to complete the sense of alien wonder.

41. ‘There Was a War and We Lost’ (The End of the World, 2005)

You watch this scene and realise why the Executive Producer thought it was a show about death. It’s very simple, in some respects (must’ve been a pain in the hoop to film though) but in one line the Doctor’s past has an element of mystery that the entire audience can share. There’s a bridge here between the mythic and every day that this series in particular was superb at doing.

42. Ten Seconds (World War Three, 2005)

Previously, Doctor Who had tended to handwave any issues of what loved ones or parents might feel about companions disappearing from their lives for years. Often companions were orphaned or at odds with their peers, there was already a disconnect present. The show had considered the viewpoint of Ace’s Mum, but not had her voice it. So Jackie Tyler is new territory for Doctor Who, and on rewatching ‘Aliens of London/World War Three’ there’s a deep sadness in Jackie’s scenes that the show clearly empathises with, and grows on repeat viewings.

43. The Series Two Trailer (after The Christmas Invasion, 2005)

Obviously the first proper Christmas Special was exciting, but after that had finished we got this preview of Series Two. We’d just had our first David Tennant episode, but here were tantalising glimpses of more. New monsters, new stories, old companions and the new Cybermen. This was pored over, analysed, every nanosecond screengrabbed and posted on forums. Doctor Who was really very back and it was an incredibly exciting time.

44. ‘Emergency Temporal Shade’ (Doomsday)

Not to put to fine a point on it, but the idea of bringing the Daleks and Cybermen onscreen together for the first time and then – instead of some sort of epic battle between the two – just having them be incredibly bitchy to each other in a corridor… it’s art.

45. The Second Coming of Dalekmania (2008)

Doctor Who was back and more successful than anyone expected. You could buy a remote control K9, or Dalek, or a Cyberman helmet. There were so many action figures that you could not only buy Lady Cassandra – a sentient piece of human skin stretched across a frame – but you could also buy Destroyed Cassandra – an empty frame that came in a package declaring the availability of Poseable Action Figures.

This, though, was not the most incredible thing available. You could, if you so chose, buy the Dalek Sec Hybrid Voice Changer Mask for your child. Yes, you could imagine the delight on your little one’s face as they uttered the immortal line ‘I am a human Dalek’, their six facial tentacles shining in the Christmas morning light.

If that’s not a sign that Doctor Who is surfing the zeitgeist I don’t know what is.

Steven Moffat occasionally gets criticised for his use of time-travel in Doctor Who, which feels a bit like criticising an Indian restaurant for making spicy food. ‘Oh, he’s just showing off that he’s clever’, say people who apparently unironically watch a TV programme whose lead character says things like ‘You can’t kill me, I’m a genius’.

Scenes like this, where Sally Sparrow moves from flirting with a young policeman in one scene to finding him an old man on his death bed the next, are cleverly done in the clinical, cerebral sense. No doubt about it. That’s not why they work, though. The reason is the sudden and unexpected ending of a life, all done in the time it takes a rain shower to pass overhead.

I don’t know about you, but when the episode segued from a happy ending to the montage of statues they included specifically to terrify people, I cackled like Bette Midler in Hocus Pocus.

48. ‘You Are Not Alone’ (Utopia, 2007)

I nearly fell off my seat.

Smart move, really: if you want to make ludicrously exciting Doctor Who then get in the bloke who directed the cliffhanger to ‘The Caves of Androzani’ Part Three.

49. Everyone Has a Lovely Time Before the Trauma Happens (Journey’s End, 2008)

This rapid shift from Dalek mayhem and screaming to Doctor Who’s own ‘On your left’ moment. The bit where Freema Agyeman grins at the camera. The sheer joy of it all.

Of course, moments later everyone leaves and the Doctor, with Davros’ screaming presumably partitioned in his mind somewhere, knows what he’s going to do to Donna all the while he’s leaving the love of his life with a genocidal sex clone at the site of the worst day of her life. Still, it’s fun while it lasts isn’t it?

50. We All Sit Through a Special Edition of Doctor Who Confidential to Find out Who Matt Smith is (2009)

The Eleventh Hour Matt Smith Doctor Who

At the time, most of the speculation was centred around Paterson Joseph (who had already played a Doctor-like role in Neil Gaiman and Lenny Henry’s ‘Neverwhere’ in 1996), with Russell Tovey rumoured and later confirming that he did audition. There are unconfirmed reports that Chiwitel Ejiofor was offered the role.

Matt Smith was, at the time, mostly known for his theatre work though had a few notable roles on telly. His name emerged late in the day and for a lot of people this episode of Confidential would have been the first time they’d seen him. Many of us will remember the way the episode pushed the announcement back towards the end of its runtime, until the unassuming reveal of a very young man, looking slightly like Dream of the Endless having lunch at a country pub.

51. Bernard Cribbins Cries (The End of Time, 2010)

Bernard Cribbins reprised his role as Wilf Mott, Donna Noble’s grandfather, for the 60th Anniversary and it’s going to be bittersweet seeing him play the character for one last time. Cribbins has been an entertainer for as long as Doctor Who has been around, and a consistent fixture in children’s TV and film. A gif of him crying ended up as a punchline on social media, which seems appropriate. The man loved making people laugh, but in ‘The End of Time’ you can be assured that if Bernard Cribbins was crying then most of the audience was weeping along with him.

52. ‘Have I Impressed You Yet?’ (Flesh and Stone, 2010)

Similar to the jumping-into-a-picture moment from ‘Nightmare of Eden’, this reveal opens up ‘Flesh and Stone’ to give the second episode of this Weeping Angel two-parter a whole different visual feel to the first. And, bluntly, it’s just really cool. Children don’t have access to spaceships, on the whole, but they can find – hopefully – trees.

53. (Most of) The Web of Fear and The Enemy of the World Are Rediscovered (2013)

Doctor Who Web of Fear screengrab

11 out of 12 episodes of these two stories were returned to the BBC Archives after archivist Phillip Morris found them in Nigeria. Initially available via iTunes with a midnight release, they are now available on DVD and soon – assuming the writers’ children are okay with it – to be available on BBC iPlayer. I was covering the release for this website, and I remember the palpable excitement spreading through social media as hundreds of nerds pulled all-nighters because hell yeah we know how to prioritise.

54. Malcolm Clarke’s Work Takes its Rightful Place in the Pantheon of Music (2013)

This brief excerpt doesn’t cover the full majesty of the ‘Classic Suite’ at the 2013 prom though you can watch the full thing (and a very similar set from the 2023 anniversary concert) on iPlayer if you’re in the UK. Hearing the work of Dudley Simpson with a full orchestra is wonderful, and Paddy Kingsland’s score for the Fourth Doctor’s regeneration sounds beautiful. The most delightfully batshit moment, though, is when Mark Ayres and Peter Howell bring out Malcolm Clarke’s experimental electronic score for ‘The Sea Devils’ and play it in your actual Albert Hall.

55. The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot (2013)

Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Peter Davison in The Five(ish) Doctors

Much to Steven Moffat’s relief, Peter Davison wrote this skit about older Doctors trying to get a part in the 50th Anniversary special. Aware that it was going to be hard to include them in the story he’d written, Moffat jumped at the chance to feature them elsewhere. The bonus episode arrived with some prior knowledge, after people saw them filming, but for more people was an extremely pleasant surprise.

For hardier viewers who want to continue reliving 2013, there’s always the jaw-dropping ‘Doctor Who Live: The Afterparty’.

56. ‘It’s Alright to be Afraid’ (Listen, 2014)

It’s what we say about Doctor Who being scary, isn’t it? It’s okay to be scared. That’s the point, really: if you’re scared watching Doctor Who as a child then the Doctor is a reassuring figure, an ancient child, so deep down you know that there’s a safety net. ‘Listen‘ showing scared children the Doctor as a scared child and saying “Actually, it’s the fear that makes the Doctor like that”? That’s brilliant.

57. ‘The Moon is an Egg’ (Kill the Moon, 2014)

People complain about the whole ‘The moon being an egg’ thing from ‘Kill the Moon’ as if this isn’t the only properly good bit in that story. Oh, you want Doctor Who to be plausible sounding nonsense? Well it isn’t, so grow up. Symbolism’s been around for centuries so you can’t say you’ve not had plenty of time to get used to it.

Sixties Doctor Who assumes humanity will have space travel in the future, moonbases, colonies around the universe; in 2014 we know that optimism died out. Doctor Who is an ostensibly optimistic show and often that’s hard to square with reality. So here we have a miracle. Miracles, historically speaking, are not big on logic. You try feeding 5000 people with a bloomer loaf and tin of sardines. And so here we have a miracle that is, as tradition dictates, not big on logic, but nonetheless points away from cynicism and towards the romanticism of space travel. We also have Peter Capaldi giving a tantalising glimpse into how the Doctor sees the universe.

58. ‘My Name is Davros’ (The Magician’s Apprentice, 2015)

I mean, it’s one of the great cliffhangers isn’t it? While there are valid concerns that the show is looking inward at this point, I watched this in a room full of non-fans and most of them knew exactly what that reveal meant.

Re-watching ‘The Magician’s Apprentice‘, there’s a creeping dread that everything in this scene is something that can be taken and added to what the Daleks will become. This includes the Doctor’s inspirational messages. This two-parter is a huge Venn diagram of big characters, pointing out the interesting ways they overlap.

59. ‘You Don’t Have to be Real to be the Doctor’ (Extremis, 2017)

An idea Steven Moffat would return to frequently when writing the Twelfth Doctor is that ‘The Doctor’ is an ideal the person struggles to live up to. On a good day, he is The Doctor. On a bad day? Well.

Here, amidst a pile of other ideas, is the reveal that the Doctor has been sitting watching the episode of Doctor Who that we’ve just been watching. Beyond merely being a nice piece of meta-fiction though, there’s something inspiring in the idea that a fictional version of a fictional character can find something to cling onto when confronted with their lack of nigh on everything.

60. The 2017 Wimbledon Men’s Singles Final

Continuing the unexpected trend of Doctor Who casting announcements during major sporting events (after a promotional clip introducing Bill Potts during the 2016 FA Cup Semi Final) the reveal of the Thirteenth Doctor came after Roger Federer very considerately won in straight sets.

Bookmakers and fans had talked about Ben Whishaw and Phoebe Waller-Bridge as possible candidates. Everyone on Twitter seemed to be suggesting Richard Ayoade. Actual plausible suggestions included the then Death in Paradise lead Kris Marshall (as the Birmingham Mail put it ‘Aston Villa fan is new favourite to become next Doctor Who’) with Harry Treadaway and Sacha Dhawan also mooted in the press. The suggestion that the first female Doctor would be cast had bubbled away too, so when Jodie Whittaker lowered her hood it didn’t feel like just a forty-second wait. Forget the discourse, this moment itself was a big deal.

Doctor Who returns on November 25 with “The Star Beast”, airing on BBC One and BBC iPlayer in the UK and on Disney+ around the world.

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