Doctor Who has always had the power to unnerve and scare. Blogtor Who looks back to compare three of its most stylish chillers
Last week’s episode Village of the Angels was a real spine tingler, As such it joins a very proud tradition of Doctor Who stories so unnerving in concept and execution that even the usual sofa offers little protection. Particularly since the show came back in 2005 there’s often been a very special slot set aside in the schedule for the Stylish Scary One. Blogtor Who takes a walk down a creepy, moonlit memory lane to compare and contrast three of the best, with one from each showrunner: Midnight, Heaven Sent, and new entry Village of the Angels.
Trying to decide on the best of anything is difficult enough, but when you’re looking at something that has as passionate a fan base as Doctor Who, the challenge becomes practically impossible. How can anyone possibly do so, especially with these three episodes? It’s not like any of them are diamonds in the rough. Fortunately, the moment has been prepared for.
Originality, Surprise, and pushing the Doctor in new directions may be the perfect Doctor Who formula
As always in discussions of ‘best,’ the whole key to the discussion is what criteria are being used. What we evaluate these episodes against makes all the difference. For example, if considering whether Midnight is ‘better’ than Heaven Sent, and if one criterion is ability to stand alone, then Midnight wins on that count. If instead performance by the lead actor is chosen, then Heaven Sent should prevail, since the lead actor is practically the only one in the episode. So it’s all down to criteria.
Now that we’ve established ourselves as approaching this so reasonably, time to pick criteria to ensure we get the result we want, right? Well, we won’t do that (well, we’ll try not to), but we will avoid unavoidably subjective criteria like most appropriate music. That word ‘appropriate’ is just a can opener for a worm container.
With all that said, let’s specify the three criteria that Blogtor Who will be using to show how these three episodes shine:
Does the episode break new ground? Is it a first somehow? How is it different from all the many seasons and series of episodes in the past?
Everyone loves a good plot development they didn’t see coming. (Note: ‘Everyone’ should be taken with a shaker of salt. Or a pepper pot.) Does the episode have a plot twist suitably surprising and satisfying? (Further note: This was evaluated with total objectivity. Total.)
Does the episode reveal anything about the nature of the Doctor, or, given the nature of the show, the Doctor and companion relationship?
Midnight is a companion-light episode, which isn’t the most common. Added to that, it amounts to the Doctor and a bunch of humans talking, which is pretty well unique. And the creature is absolutely unique in Doctor Who, never seen, never directly interacted with, and utterly spooky in its effects. The climax of the episode has no running, no speeches, just the Doctor paralysed, repeating another’s words. You won’t find that in another episode. High marks.
Heaven Sent is essentially a one-hander, with only the Doctor, an unspeaking monster in the Veil, and a cameo. Plus the boy at the very end, who also has no lines. That’s it. Again, you won’t find another of those in the show’s annals. The setting is just as singular, as is how the Doctor gets out of it. More high marks.
Village of the Angels might seem to rank lower here. After all, a monster that isn’t new. A couple of major supporting characters similar to the two in Hide. And the plot is a base under siege, which has been used before, right? (Like in Midnight?) But those miss the strong original elements this episode boasts. Village of the Angels has that amazing quantum extraction. It has an exploration of the Doctor’s telepathic abilities unlike any before. It has new twists on the Weeping Angels’ established traits, like that which contains an Angel becoming itself an Angel. So, not as high marks as the other two? Nah. If anything, moments such as flaming paper angels, the polygraph angel, and that final image of the Doctor prove just how innovate you can be, even with established monsters.
Midnight’s steady rise in suspense culminates when the Doctor crouches wide-eyed, trapped with another’s words, when words are his weapons of choice. Stunning. The author’s mouth sagged open a precisely measured 1.2 cm. Then the Doctor proves unable even to save himself. Truly shocking.
Heaven Sent’s funereal exploration of grief, and of carrying on anyway, seems to reach a crescendo in that moment with the Veil. But it’s the puzzle of it all, and the revelation, that is the true measure of Heaven Sent’s plot twist. “And I haven’t…travelled…in time.” The author’s jaw sag was measured at 1.5 cm. Impossible to measure were the chills that ran up his spine at that moment. Incredible.
Village of the Angels’ building horror of the siege is punctuated by the visual reveal of the village’s extraction. Mouth opening 1 cm. But that twist at the end, when the Doctor puts her hands to her face, added an additional 1.5 cm. (The author wishes to reassure readers that no jawbones were dislocated in the production of this post.)
Midnight has the wheels come off for the Doctor—and the chassis disintegrate on impact with the road. Everything falls apart for him, and the reason is because he didn’t read the room right at all when the creature’s effects first manifested. Would Donna have helped him here? Without a doubt. For all his love of humanity, the Doctor is not human*, and this episode opened a new window on his alienness.
*Never mind his mother’s side.
Heaven Sent has even less companion presence than Midnight, and the Doctor doesn’t so much as make a mistake because of it, as to reveal the absolute obstinacy he is capable of over the love of a companion. For all his love of humanity, the episode reveals how the Doctor’s love for his companion can reach the point of obsession.
Village of the Angels has revelations about the Time Lords, or seems to, but let’s leave them aside, since the next two episodes will no doubt clarify those. More immediately, the Doctor’s need to understand her very self, and the overarching Flux arc, show she’s capable of walking away from her companions and a missing child. And yet, despite that need, she still does all she can to save Claire. Even as events work against her, and her chances of success dwindle, she doesn’t even consider giving up. She doesn’t show the mounting terror of Midnight or the raging despair of Heaven Sent. She shows the Doctor losing and losing badly, but with steely determination till the end. None of the Doctors lose like this at all often, and how they go down to defeat shows us a side of the Doctor we don’t always see.
In discussing the merits of one episode against another, it’s easy and understandable to let personal preference decide. Not everything is to everyone’s taste, and there’s nothing wrong with accepting that. Nevertheless, we benefit if the comparison shows an aspect we hadn’t appreciated before.
So when we look at these three gems, there’s no reason not to shine a light on them that shows the scintillating facets and polished faces. We may personally prefer diamonds to emeralds or rubies, but that doesn’t take away from how precious each of these are for us as fans.
The fan base is passionate for a reason, and that’s because the show has produced so many brilliant episodes over the years. These are three of the best. Enjoy—because the winners here are us, who get to watch and appreciate them.
Doctor Who: Flux continues next Sunday at 6.25pm on BBC One, and on BBC America and AMC+ in the US, with Chapter Five: Survivors of the Flux
As the forces of evil mass, the Doctor, Yaz and Dan face perilous journeys and seemingly insurmountable obstacles in their quest for survival.