Rating: Marvel Cinematic Universe, Phase 1

We’ve taken a bit of a swerve in our rewatching and rating project. In between tv series, we’ve decided to take a run at the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Here’s our take on Phase 1:

  1. Iron Man – 7
  2. The Incredible Hulk – 2
  3. Iron Man 2 – 6
  4. Thor – 4
  5. Captain America: The First Avenger – 8
  6. The Avengers – 10

It’s a bit of a mixed bag. The overall average is 6.2, which is perfectly respectable, but the range is all over the place, from pretty bad to meh to awesome.

You can tell that Marvel was still figuring out how to make not only a new kind of superhero movie but a new kind of movie franchise. The early installations are stand-alone, fairly slow-paced, and self-contained. We can still remember how exciting it felt to have a minor character like Agent Coulson pop up in multiple movies that weren’t sequels. Nowadays we don’t even get out of bed for a Marvel movie that doesn’t have at least three tie-in characters and a place in the ongoing arc of the Phase.

The Incredible Hulk, the largely forgotten Marvel movie, is on the bottom of the heap at 2. Formulaic and uninspired, the story drags itself from one obligatory action scene to another. Having seen Mark Ruffalo’s take on Bruce Banner, Edward Norton feels flat and unsympathetic. So much backstory is assumed that this movie feels like a sequel to something we’ve never seen (it takes care not to step on Ang Lee’s previous Hulk movie without actually picking up on its story in any meaningful way). Although there are some bright spots in this movie, like the visually thrilling foot chase through a Brazilian favela, you can see why we haven’t gotten another stand-alone Hulk movie.

We’re lucky that Marvel hedged its bets on launching the MCU with two movies instead of just one. Iron Man delivers much of what The Incredible Hulk lacks. While the story is still relatively straightforward and follows a predictable Hollywood three-act structure, it is more competently handled and more subtly embellished than Hulk. We get to see Tony Stark tinker and iterate not only on his suit designs but on his ethics and sense of self, which is makes his character much more interesting to watch than Banner, who has no real character development in his own movie. Robert Downey Jr. sells the character of Tony Stark as a flawed genius grappling with the consequences of his own choices.

Iron Man 2 carries on the good work of the original without adding much to it and begins the unfortunate trend of Marvel movies whose plot is driven by Tony Stark’s emotional issues. Thor has some beautiful art design and fun character moments, but mostly ends up feeling like the product of too many compromises.

Captain America: The First Avenger delivers a solid origin story not only for its eponymous hero but for the whole Marvel universe as well. With an alternate-version World War II dominated by Hydra’s experiments with cosmic technology and an American super soldier, the ground is prepared for a modern world of superpeople. Chris Evans’s performance takes a character who could be flat and sanctimonious and makes him charming.

But it is The Avengers, at a full 10, that crowns Phase 1. Joss Whedon’s last great work before his descent into self-satisfied mediocrity, The Avengers is a superhero movie that takes not only the idea of superheroes but the idea of a superhero movie seriously. The characters have both emotional depth and clear motivations. Their conflicts arise not from plot contrivance but from conflicting world-views and emotional needs. And they smash alien monsters together real good.

Got a different take on Marvel’s first hexalogy? Let us know in the comments!

Image: Still from The Avengers via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

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Rating: Doctor Who, Season 9

We’re back at it again, rewatching and rating another season of new series Doctor Who. Here’s our take on season 9.

  1. “The Magician’s Apprentice” – 4
  2. “The Witch’s Familiar” – 3
  3. “Under the Lake” – 6.5
  4. “Before the Flood” – 6.5
  5. “The Girl Who Died” – 4
  6. “The Woman Who Lived” – 4.5
  7. “The Zygon Invasion” – 2
  8. “The Zygon Inversion” – 2
  9. “Sleep No More” – 1
  10. “Face the Raven” – 1.5
  11. “Heaven Sent” – 5
  12. “ Hell Bent” – 2

This season is a real come down, with an average rating of just 3.5, the lowest yet. There are some reasons why many of this season’s episodes don’t rate very well. The showrunners made the interesting choice of making almost every episode in the season a two-parter. (Only “Sleep No More” stands alone.) This has the potential of allowing for more expansive and complex storytelling, which pays off in “Under the Lake” / “Before the Flood,” but in other cases, like “The Magician’s Apprentice” / “The Witch’s Familiar” and “The Zygon Invasion” / “The Zygon Inversion,” what we get is an episode-and-a-half worth of story with the Doctor filibustering to fill out the time.

The lowest-rated episode of the season is “Sleep No More,” which is trying to be a claustrophobic monsters-in-space horror story with a twist, but which can’t escape the absurdity of its premise. Doctor Who has managed to make a lot of mundane things scary, from children in gas masks to angel statues to repeated words, but this was a stretch too far. It doesn’t matter how much first-person shaky-cam footage you use or how much running through darkened hallways your characters do, there is just no way to make the crud that builds up at the corner of your eye when you sleep scary.

Special mention goes to the “Zygon Invasion / Inversion” two-parter, for being not only badly written and poorly paced but also having some troubling undertones. This pair of episodes picks up on the 50th anniversary special which ended with a colony of Zygons—shape-changing aliens that can mimic other life forms—settled on Earth in human form. Here, a splinter group of Zygons refuses to maintain the charade and begins waging a violent campaign against humans and conforming Zygons. The episode ends with the rebel Zygons agreeing to remain in human form. On one hand, the reversion to the status quo is necessary if the series is not prepared to deal with the ongoing consequences of a world full of humans finding themselves living next to starfish-like aliens. On the other hand, the implications of telling a group of immigrants that they can’t live openly and must hide their identity by conforming entirely to the culture of their new home is unsettling in these days of rising nativism and anti-immigrant hate. This is not the open-hearted, compassionate Doctor Who that we are used to.

The best episodes of the season are the two-parter “Under the Lake” and “Before the Flood,” both at 6.5. In this episode, the Doctor and Clara find themselves in an underwater station where a crashed alien ship is killing the crew and turning their ghosts into transmitters. It’s an intriguing mystery that develops slowly as the Doctor pieces together the clues. This episode is reminiscent of the season 2 two-parter “The Impossible Planet” / “The Satan Pit,” with the Doctor facing off against an ancient evil that uses written language to infect the crew of the station.

This is as far as we’ve gotten in our Doctor Who rewatching project. We’ll update with season 10 when we get around to it, and we’re looking forward to the upcoming season 11 and checking out Jodie Whittaker’s take on the wandering Gallifreyan.

This just wasn’t the season for us. How did it work for you? Feel differently about the season as a whole or an episode in particular? Let us know!

Image: Doctor Who season 9 cover via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

 

Rating: Doctor Who, Season 8

We have carried on our rewatching and rating to season 8 of the modern Doctor Who. Here’s our take:

  1. “Deep Breath” – 5.5
  2. “Into the Dalek” – 5
  3. “Robot of Sherwood” – 2
  4. “Listen” – 1.5
  5. “Time Heist” – 5
  6. “The Caretaker” – 3
  7. “Kill the Moon” – 6
  8. “Mummy on the Orient Express” – 6.5
  9. “Flatline” – 5.5
  10. “In the Forest of the Night” – 5
  11. “Dark Water” – 1.5
  12. “Death in Heaven” – 1.5

The average rating this season comes out to exactly 4, which is weak but not terrible. This comes in as the second-lowest-rated season after season 5, at 3.7. This season’s episodes are all over the place, which for Doctor Who is not a bad thing. Not all of the episodes work, but we appreciate the willingness to try out strange ideas, unexpected settings, and dramatically different moods.

This season also introduces Peter Capaldi as the Doctor, and it’s a bit of a shaky start. Capaldi’s intensity is a nice change from Matt Smith’s quirky detachment, but too often it manifests as anger. As that anger often gets focused on Clara, we have the uncomfortable dynamic of a young woman saddled with the emotional labor of managing a cranky older man’s moods, and one begins to wonder if someone in the production team is having a bit of a temper tantrum about changing gender dynamics in the workplace. Still, straight out of the gate, Capaldi is more convincing as the Doctor than Smith ever was.

Three episodes are tied for our lowest rating of the season, at 1.5. The first is “Listen,” an ambitiously strange episode that tries to recapture the atmospheric spookiness of the classic “Blink,” but falls flat. The Doctor is looking for a creature so good at hiding that no one has ever seen it. This intriguing setup leads to a disjointed series of maybe / maybe-not monster hunts that for some reason revolve around Clara’s fellow teacher and potential boyfriend Danny Pink. Despite some well-written and tensely-directed individual scenes, the episode remains too unfocused and too committed to the is-it-or-isn’t-it schtick to develop any meaningful narrative drive or reach any satisfying conclusion. The pieces of the puzzle lie scattered on the floor, refusing to come together and make a picture.

The other two 1.5s are the obligatory concluding two-parter “Dark Water” and “Death in Heaven,” in which the latest regeneration of the Doctor’s old nemesis, the Master—now female and going by Missy—reveals that she has been hijacking dead people to make liquid cybermen out of their bodies so that she can make the Doctor uncomfortable by… you know, nothing about the plot of these episodes makes any sense, or, really, matters. Michelle Gomez has a blast chewing the scenery as Missy (and provides a valuable canonical precedent for Time Folks gender-flipping during regeneration), but as usual in this series, the Master’s overly contrived plans just come off as a juvenile play for attention. As tends to happen on Doctor Who, putting the whole world in peril actually serves to lower the stakes, rather than raise them, and this season’s ender comes off as more petty than anything else.

At the other end of the scale, “Mummy on the Orient Express” is the best episode of the season, at 6.5. In this episode, a version of the Orient Express train flying through space is plagued by the appearance of a legendary monster only visible to its victims. On one hand, this episode would have benefited from some more development. Unlike on the replica Titanic of “The Voyage of the Damned,” we never get any kind of explanation as to why a space train in the future is a replica of the Orient Express with all the guests wearing period clothing. The guest cast, though excellent, is underused, and the ending leaves a huge plot thread conspicuously dangling. On the other hand, there are a lot of strong elements. The mystery is intriguing and its resolution neatly ties up the clues. The pacing runs along smoothly, and the device of an on-screen timer counting down the mummy’s attack is cleverly used to build tension. For mystery fans, there is also a subtle nod to Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, as what seems like a train full of strangers turns out to have been assembled for a very particular purpose.

What’s your take on this season? Does Capaldi do it for you? Is “Listen” just your cup of tea? Not enthused by the mummy on the space train? Let us know!

Image: Doctor Who season 8 cover via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Rating: Doctor Who, Season 7

We’re back at it, rewatching and rating season 7 of new-series Doctor Who. Here’s our take on this season’s episodes:

  1. “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” – 1.5
  2. “Asylum of the Daleks” – 6
  3. “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” – 5
  4. “A Town Called Mercy” – 5
  5. “The Power of Three” – 2
  6. “The Angels Take Manhattan” – 3
  7. “The Snowmen” – 6.5
  8. “The Bells of Saint John” – 6.5
  9. “The Rings of Akhaten” – 3
  10. “Cold War” – 5
  11. “Hide” – 6.5
  12. “Journey to the Center of the Tardis” – 2
  13. “The Crimson Horror” – 4
  14. “Nightmare in Silver” – 4
  15. “The Name of the Doctor” – 3

The average rating for this season is an unimpressive 4.2, a slight comedown from season 6’s 4.4, though better than season 5’s 3.7. On the whole, this season just feels half-baked. There are some great ideas here that are just wasted on meandering, unfocused, episodes. An evil living sun! A Martian warrior on a Soviet submarine at the height of the cold war! Dinosaurs on a freakin’ spaceship! All of these ideas must have sounded great when first pitched, but the episodes developed from them just feel like underdeveloped first drafts. There are also some episodes that start out with great potential and then just flop. Mysterious black cubes appear all over the world and no one knows what they do! A pulp crime novel predicts the future! Despite their promising starts, these episodes just fizzle out in the end. Many of these episodes feel like they could have been standouts if more attention had been paid to developing the script.

At the bottom of the heap this time around is the Christmas episode “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe,” at 1.5, about the Doctor trying to inject some delight into the lives of a grieving family by giving the children a magical trip to a winter wonderplanet. This episode’s problems are many, including misplaced comedy, uninteresting characters, and mediocre child acting. The biggest problems, though, run deeper. The whimsy is forced, and the story never quite decides how close it wants to hew to the C. S. Lewis original. Unlike some of this season’s other disappointing episodes, it’s hard to see this one’s problems being solved with another draft or two.

For best episodes of the season, it’s a three-way tie among “The Snowmen,” “The Bells of Saint John,” and “Hide,” all at a decent-if-not-outstanding 6.5. “The Snowmen” finds the Doctor grieving the loss of his companions Amy and Rory by hiding out in Victorian London, while sentient snow threatens a family whose governess is one version of Clara Oswald. “The Bells of Saint John” brings the Doctor and Clara together properly with a story of a nefarious company stealing people’s minds through wi-fi. “Hide” is a ghost-hunting story with a time-travel twist.

All of these episodes have their strengths. “The Snowmen” does a better job playing with it’s Mary Poppins inspiration than “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” does with Narnia. It also allows Clara’s character plenty of room to breathe and brings back the ever-delightful Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Strax. “The Bells of Saint John” is a tightly-paced paranoia thriller with lots of good action (even though the wi-fi mind-stealing plot never makes the least bit of sense). “Hide” begins as an atmospheric haunted house story that slowly unfolds to reveal surprising layers of complexity. While they all could have done with a bit more development, there are satisfying moments in each.

There are also some good long-term developments this season. Curious, resourceful Clara is a much more enjoyable companion to watch than Amy the bully. There is also much less hero-worshiping of the Doctor than in previous seasons.

That’s our take on Doctor Who‘s seventh season. What’s yours? Do you have favorites (or unfavorites) this season? Let us know!

Image: Doctor Who Season 7 cover via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Rating: Doctor Who, Season 6

Our rewatching and rating project carries on with season 6 of new-series Doctor Who. Here’s our ratings for this season’s episodes:

  1. “A Christmas Carol” – 7
  2. “The Impossible Astronaut” – 6
  3. “The Day of the Moon” – 7
  4. “The Curse of the Black Spot” – 4
  5. “The Doctor’s Wife” – 4.5
  6. “The Rebel Flesh” – 4
  7. “The Almost People” – 1.5
  8. “A Good Man Goes to War” – 6.5
  9. “Let’s Kill Hitler” – 6
  10. “Night Terrors” – 2
  11. “The Girl Who Waited” – 2
  12. “The God Complex” – 3.5
  13. “Closing Time” – 4
  14. “The Wedding of River Song” – 3.5

The average episode rating for this season is 4.4, which is a rebound from last season’s 3.7, but still well below the first four seasons.

This season has its good moments. The production team seems to have gotten a better handle on things and most of the episodes feel polished. The actors seem more comfortable in their roles and more willing to stretch their interpretations of the characters. A few episodes deliver new and creative stories. At the same time, a lot of this season feels underwhelming or poorly thought-out.

Our lowest-rated episode for the season, at 1.5, is “The Almost People,” the second part of a grimy industrial-punk story about goop-doppelgangers (goopelgangers?) gone rogue in a future acid-mining operation that for some reason happens in the remains of a medieval monastery. (Someone on the Who team clearly has a thing for goopelgangers: see season 4’s “The Sontaran Strategem” and “The Posion Sky.”) The first part was a bit nonsensical and left a lot of unanswered questions hanging (Why is acid-mining such a big deal in the future? Why use goopelgangers for it? Why are they in a medieval monastery? How did any of this get past health and safety, let alone the heritage council?), but at least it promised the possibility of a good old classic sci-fi “Who’s real?” and “What is the measure of a human?” story. The second part, though, just kind of falls apart and doesn’t pay off. Like last season’s “Flesh and Stone,” and “Cold Blood,” the second half of the story gets sidetracked into serving the season-long arc.

There are brights spots this season, though. Things start off at a strong 7 with an ingenious Christmas episode in which the Doctor finds himself traveling back in time to play Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Future and save the soul of a heartless old plutocrat just in time to save a crashing spaceship with his friends Amy and Rory on board. A two-parter follows, “The Impossible Astronaut,” rated 6, and “The Day of the Moon,” another 7, about the Doctor’s friends trying to save the Doctor from being killed by a mysterious figure in a spacesuit and in the process discovering the sinister Silence, who erase themselves from the memory of anyone who sees them. These episodes are a good mix of horror, action, and comedy, and the Silence make interesting counterparts to the Weeping Angels: while the Angels disappear when you look at them, the Silence disappear when you look away.

Although this season has its ups and downs, it also has some larger problems. One is the ongoing obsession with an arc story, which gets significantly more convoluted in this season, sometimes to the detriment of what could have been decent stand-alone stories. New-series Doctor Who has a pretty bad track record when it comes to season-long arcs. Most of them feel obligatory and ratings-driven rather than organic and meaningful. Arc-dependent episodes have consistently been some of the worst, while the best episodes have been those that have nothing to do with the arc. I’d be happy to see Doctor Who stop trying to be Lost and focus on being Doctor Who.

Another problem, which appeared in earlier seasons but gets significantly worse over seasons 5 and 6, is the amount of time and narrative attention given to other characters talking about how great the Doctor is. It was used as a cheap get-out-of-plot-free card at the end of season 3’s “The Last of the Time Lords,” in which a world full of people thinking good thoughts about the Doctor powers the deus ex machina ending, but in season 6 it becomes a recurring theme as ubiquitous as the whooshing of the Tardis. Even River Song, who started off as a fascinating character in her own right, gets reduced to a chorus girl singing the “Oh, Doctor, you’re so amazing” refrain this season. This character shilling goes along with the continuing attitude that special people get a pass on basic human decency to make some scenes really uncomfortable to watch.

How do the rest of you feel about this season? Got any favorites (or anti-favorites) you want to share? We know that not everyone shares our tastes or out perspective on Doctor Who, so let us know in the comments what you loved or didn’t about this season.

Image: Doctor Who season 6 via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Rating: Doctor Who, Season 5

In between seasons 4 and 5 of new-series Doctor Who there is a series of specials starring David Tennant, but our copy of the discs turned out to be defective, so while we wait for a good opportunity to replace them, our rewatching and rating project carries on to season 5.

  1. “The Eleventh Hour” – 3
  2. “The Beast Below” – 3
  3. “Victory of the Daleks” – 4
  4. “The Time of the Angels” – 6
  5. “Flesh and Stone” – 1.5
  6. “The Vampires of Venice” – 2
  7. “Amy’s Choice” – 2
  8. “The Hungry Earth” – 5
  9. “Cold Blood” – 2
  10. “Vincent and the Doctor” – 5
  11. “The Lodger” – 4
  12. “The Pandorica Opens” – 5
  13. “The Big Bang” – 6

The average rating for this season is a rather dismal 3.7, a big come-down from season 4’s 6.9. Nothing rises above a ho-hum 6, and almost half the episodes this season rate less than a 4, which is pretty much our minimal cut-off for ever wanting to see an episode again.

This season of Doctor Who poses one big question, and that question is: what on Earth happened to Stephen Moffat?? Many of our favorite episodes of previous season were written by Moffat: “The Empty Child” / “The Doctor Dances” in season 1, “The Girl in the Fireplace” in season 2, “Blink” in season 3, “Silence in the Library” / “The Forest of the Dead” in season 4. All these episodes were intricately-constructed masterpieces in which every piece fit, every tantalizing question had a satisfying answer, and the gee-whizery of the sci-fi was balanced with sensitive emotional stories. We had great expectations for Moffat’s first season a showrunner, and instead we got… this? The writing is clunky, the plots are full of janky bits that don’t fit, the characters are unpleasant, and the whimsy feels forced. We wonder whether the demands of production didn’t leave him time to develop his scripts more fully, or if perhaps the quality of his earlier scripts depended in part on good editing by the previous production team.

The new cast doesn’t improve matters. We don’t care for Matt Smith’s interpretation of the Doctor, which relies too much on surface wackiness and feels emotionally hollow. But even worse is the new companion, Amy Pond, played by Karen Gillan. All credit to Ms. Gillan for her acting, but the character is written as a whiny, self-centered bully. Both of these characters reflect an unappealing turn in Moffat’s writing, also visible in his series Sherlock: the belief that if a person is very clever or otherwise special, they get a pass on basic human decency. That’s a position we can’t get behind.

The lowest-rated episode of this season is “Flesh and Stone,” at 1.5. It’s the second part after the rather decent “The Time of the Angels,” following the Doctor’s adventures with a band of futuristic warrior priests in an underground labyrinth filled with Weeping Angels. The first episode give us a reasonably good set-up which the second just fails to pay off. The momentum built up in the first part sputters out as the second part pays its dues to the season-long “crack in the universe” arc. The Weeping Angels were one of Moffat’s most interesting creations in “Blink,” but they would have been better left alone than recycled for this episode.

The best episodes, both at 6, are “The Time of the Angels” and “The Big Bang.” “The Big Bang” does a better job of delivering the old Moffat magic with a complicated time-woven story about the Doctor and his friends racing to stop the end of the universe that was set off in the previous episode. It has some good moments and finally gives Amy’s Stockholm Syndrome victim boyfriend Rory something to do, but it never quite rises to its potential.

All in all, a real let-down of a season for us, but we know there are other folks out there who feel differently, including fans of Amy Pond and Matt Smith’s Doctor. What episodes this season did you love (or not)? Let us know in the comments!

Image: Doctor Who season 5 via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Rating: Doctor Who, season 4

Next up in our rewatch-and-rating project is Doctor Who (new series), season 4. Here’s what we thought:

  1. “Voyage of the Damned” – 7.5
  2. “Partners in Crime” – 9
  3. “The Fires of Pompeii” – 6
  4. “Planet of the Ood” – 6
  5. “The Sontaran Stratagem” – 6
  6. “The Poison Sky” – 5
  7. “The Doctor’s Daughter” – 4
  8. “The Unicorn and the Wasp” – 10
  9. “Silence in the Library” – 10
  10. “Forest of the Dead” – 10
  11. “Midnight” – 9
  12. “Turn Left” – 5
  13. “The Stolen Earth” – 4
  14. “Journey’s End” – 4.5

Season 4 is a brilliant one studded with fantastic episodes. The overall average for the season is an impressive 6.9, and even the lowest-rating episodes of the season are a couple of 4s—no real stinkers this time around. Part of what makes this season so great is the Doctor’s new companion, Donna. After pseudo-girlfriends Rose and Martha (who both had their moments—especially Martha), Donna and the Doctor are just chums traveling time and space, which makes for a fresh dynamic. Catherine Tate puts in a wonderful performance as Donna, letting us see the vulnerability and warmth of heart under her brassy exterior. She and David Tennant also play wonderfully off of one another in their comic scenes. There are also some ingenious episodes this season, making drama and terror out of things as mundane as shadows and repeated words.

The least successful episodes for us were “The Doctor’s Daughter” and “The Stolen Earth,” both coming in at 4. In “The Doctor’s Daughter,” the Doctor gets insta-sorta-cloned to produce a soldier daughter in a bog-standard sci-fi story about two warring races who have forgotten what they were fighting over in the first place. “The Stolen Earth” is the set-up to a two-parter about the Earth (and other planets, including, bafflingly, Clom) disappearing from space as part of a nefarious plot. Most of the episode is spent watching various familiar characters fail to do anything of any particular use. Both of these episodes have a shaggy-dog-story quality to them with an interesting set-up but not much in the way of payoff. Even the return of our beloved Martha in both of these episodes can’t elevate the limp writing.

But that’s okay, because we are spoiled with not one, not two, but three full 10s at the top of the list. First there’s “The Unicorn and the Wasp,” a delicious romp that brings us Agatha Christie with a giant alien wasp twist. This episode manages the difficult task of snort-guffawing it’s way through all the tropes of the English country house mystery while still creating a powerful emotional story around Christie’s famous disappearance and amnesia. Then there’s “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead,” a stunning two-parter that poses a complicated mystery with a powerful and satisfying resolution. The Doctor and Donna arrive in a planet-sized library to find it empty of people, but filled with shadows that can kill. After a perilous adventure and the slow unraveling of the library’s secrets, we end with a touching story about the lengths we will go to for the people we love. This episode is also noteworthy for introducing Professor River Song, marvelously played by Alex Kingston. A couple of time-travelers, the Doctor here meets River for the first time, just as she is meeting him for the last time.

Honorable mention goes to “Partners in Crime,” at 9, in which Donna and the Doctor run into each other while investigating the same shady weight-loss company, and “Midnight,” a claustrophobic horror story about a mysterious force copying people’s words.

There are lots of other Doctor Who fans out there, and you may have different takes on this season’s highs and lows. We’d love to hear about it. Feel free to share which episodes of season 4 you loved or didn’t.

Images: Doctor Who season 4 via IMDb; Donna and the Doctor via Send me to the Stars; River Song via Everything is Topsy Turvy!

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Rating: Doctor Who, Season 3

Time moves ever onwards and so do we. Here’s our take on Doctor Who (new series) season 3:

  1. “The Runaway Bride” – 5.5
  2. “Smith and Jones” – 9.5
  3. “The Shakespeare Code” – 7.5
  4. “Gridlock” – 6
  5. “Daleks in Manhattan” – 6
  6. “Evolution of the Daleks” – 4
  7. “The Lazarus Experiment” – 1
  8. “42” – 10
  9. “Human Nature” – 6
  10. “The Family of Blood” – 7.5
  11. “Blink” – 10
  12. “Utopia” – 4
  13. “The Sound of Drums” – 2.5
  14. “The Last of the Time Lords” – 3

Season 3 is a roller coast ride with some incredible highs, a few real lows, and a lot of good solid episodes in between. The average rating for the season is 5.9, a good showing and a noticeable increase from the previous two seasons, at 5.3. This season brings us Martha, a medical student with a good head on her shoulders and our all-time favorite companion. We also see David Tennant’s acting chops as he gets to play not just the Doctor but also an absent-minded schoolmaster and a murderous sun (yes, a sun). After some wobbly writing in previous seasons, this season gets more of a grip on how to balance the whimsical aspects of the show with its serious side.

The low point of the season is “The Lazarus Experiment” at a dismal 1, about a rejuvenation device that goes horribly wrong and turns its creator into a bad CGI scorpion thing. There are so many problems with this episode, from laggy pacing to a plot that is nonsensical even by Doctor Who‘s generous standards. Too much time is spent on Dr. Lazarus, a shallow stereotype of a bitter old man that we are apparently meant to find deep and engaging (and of course he’s called Dr. Lazarus—we couldn’t have a character who wants to restore his lost youth not be called Dr. Lazarus, could we?). Even a “reverse the polarity” callback gag can’t save this episode.

At the other end of the scale, there are two absolute standout episodes this season, both rating a full 10. The first is “42,” an intense and emotional thriller about a spaceship under attack by a killer star, whose predicament turns out to be more complex than at first appears. Everything in this episode is at its best: the fast-paced plot that still finds time for Martha to reflect on her time with the Doctor, the guest cast who even in their brief screen time bring life and depth to their space-trucker characters, and the music, which gives us one of the tenth Doctor’s most thrilling themes.

Burn With Me via DoctorWhoInfinity

And then there’s “Blink,” an episode like no other. The Doctor and Matha appear only sporadically in this one, and instead we follow Sally Sparrow as she slowly unravels the mystery of the Weeping Angels. This episode does ingenious things with time travel (a surprising rarity in a show about a time traveler), including messages left on the walls of an old house under peeling wallpaper and a long-distance conversation via DVD Easter egg. It is also a masterful demonstration that you don’t have to have violence or gore to be absolutely terrifying. This is an episode that rewards watching over and over again—just not late at night when you’re alone in the house.

Honorable mention goes to “Smith and Jones,” at 9.5, which introduces Martha with a story about an alien killer hiding in a London hospital—taken to the moon. We see Martha in action as a level-headed problem-solver while David Tennant gets to deliver some goofy comedy.

We know there are lots of other Doctor Who fans out there, and some of you have different takes on this season and its episodes. We’d love to hear about it. Let us know which episodes of season 3 you loved or didn’t.

Image: Doctor Who Season 3 via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Rating: Doctor Who, Season 2

We’re continuing to rewatch and rate Doctor Who (new series) with season 2. Here’s how the season looks to us:

  1. “The Christmas Invasion” – 6
  2. “New Earth” – 3.5
  3. “Tooth and Claw” – 9
  4. “School Reunion” – 5
  5. “The Girl in the Fireplace” – 9
  6. “Rise of the Cybermen” – 4
  7. “The Age of Steel” – 4
  8. “The Idiot’s Lantern” – 5
  9. “The Impossible Planet” – 8
  10. “The Satan Pit” – 7
  11. “Love and Monsters” – 4
  12. “Fear Her” – 5
  13. “Army of Ghosts” – 2.5
  14. “Doomsday” – 2

Season 2 carries on much in the same spirit as season 1, with a mix of highs and lows, and ends up with the same average rating, 5.3. David Tennant slides easily into his role as the tenth Doctor, although we found Rose started to wear thin as a companion in this season and by the end of it we weren’t sorry to see the back of her. (In fact, by the end of the season, we were much more excited to see her erstwhile boyfriend Mickey return than to see any more of Rose.)

The low point of the season comes at the very end, with “Doomsday”—the conclusion to a two-part finale in which Cybermen and Daleks fight in the skies over London—coming it at only a 2. Many things dragged this episode down, including the ham-fisted introduction of Torchwood, which had been teased all season long. Worse, coming after some of the well-crafted storytelling in previous episodes, this one chucks out any attempt at story development or narrative logic in favor of Daleks and Cybermen trash talking each other.

By contrast, the best episodes of the season, “Tooth and Claw” and “The Girl in the Fireplace,” both at 9, show off how effective the slow unfolding of complex stories can be. “Tooth and Claw” has Queen Victoria menaced by an alien werewolf in the Scottish highlands while “The Girl in the Fireplace” has Madame de Pompadour menaced by clockwork robots from the future. Although both these episodes involve historical women in danger, neither is a “damsel in distress” story, as both Victoria and Madame de Pompadour get to play active roles in their stories. These episodes also share a pattern of multi-layered plots in which things that seem bizarre and inexplicable at first gradually become clear as pieces of the story fall into place one after another.

We know there are lots of other Doctor Who fans out there, and some of you probably feel quite different about this season and its episodes. We’d love to hear your take. Let us know which episodes of season 2 worked for you or didn’t.

Image: Doctor Who Season 2 via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Rating: Doctor Who, Season 1

We have continued our rewatching-and-rating project into a series with a bigger fan following: the rebooted Doctor Who that began its broadcast life in 2005. We know that there are a lot of Who fans out there who are passionate about the series and feel strongly about certain episodes and characters. Here’s how we felt about the first season, starring Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor and Billie Piper as his companion Rose.

  1. “Rose” – 4
  2. “The End of the World” – 4
  3. “The Unquiet Dead” – 4.5
  4. “Aliens of London” – 6
  5. “World War Three” – 6
  6. “Dalek” – 4
  7. “The Long Game” – 4.5
  8. “Father’s Day” – 5.5
  9. “The Empty Child” – 8.5
  10. “The Doctor Dances” – 10
  11. “Boom Town” – 5
  12. “Bad Wolf” – 4
  13. “The Parting of the Ways” – 3

It’s a rocky start to the new show, which is understandable given how much weight this first season had to carry: living up to the nostalgia for the old show while proving that the Doctor Who formula could be made fresh, new, and relevant for a new generation. The average episode rating for this season is 5.3, which is low but decent.

The lowest-rate episode of the season is the finale, “The Parting of the Ways,” in which the Doctor faces off against a Dalek invasion of Earth in the future while Rose desperately tries to get back to him from the present. It rated only a 3 for several reasons. There are pacing and structural issues with the story and its ending relies too much on an almost literal dea ex machina. We find Dalek stories generally weak because the Daleks are flat as characters and overpowered as antagonists.

The standout best episode of the season, though, is “The Doctor Dances” at a full 10. In WWII-era London, the Doctor and Rose deal with both dashing Time Agent-turned-con artist Jack Harkness and a monster that looks like a little boy in a gas mask but who turns those he touches into mindless gas-mask-faced shadows of themselves. As the conclusion to a two-part story after the very strong “The Empty Child,” this episode is full of both sparkling wit, clever sci-fi ideas, and powerful human drama.

This season’s heart (or hearts) are in the right place, even if it doesn’t always deliver. The “dig in the couch cushions and see what you find” special effects budget of the old show was always part of its quirky charm, but the fist season of the new show clearly struggled to live within its means. Not every episode pulled off the right balance of whimsy and pathos. Still, this season did what it needed to: it brought us back the Doctor and the TARDIS and prepared the way for greater adventures to come.

We know there are lots of other Doctor Who fans out there, and some of you probably feel quite different about this season and its episodes. We’d love to hear your take. Let us know which episodes of season 1 worked for you or didn’t.

Image: Doctor Who Series 1 via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.