Doctor Who’s top 50 controversies

From scares to sex, budgets to bonkers ideas, and race to regeneration, Andrew guides us through Doctor Who's top 50 controversies...

Being ‘the kids own show that adults adore’ brings more risk than the phrase suggests. Having to appeal to a wide range of ages has occasionally meant Doctor Who has run foul of moral outrage, the parents of traumatised children, and idiots who think that kids’ TV is automatically rubbish. On top of that, the show’s strong performance despite its budget, and its reputation as child-friendly have given it problems within the BBC itself. That’s before you take into account fandom, behind-the-scenes infighting, an ageing audience, and increased media focus in the twenty-first century.

Here, then, are fifty controversial incidents from the history of Doctor Who.

50. Bug-Eyed Monsters

Sydney Newman, a genius of telly, occasionally had his off-days. One of his stipulations in the creation of Doctor Who was the lack of any ‘BEMs’, or ‘Bug Eyed Monsters’. He was therefore quite annoyed with Producer Verity Lambert at the prospect of the Daleks, having envisioned the show as being more educational. Lambert and Script Editor David Whittaker had to fight to include the monsters. The rest, as they say, is Terry Nation’s bank balance.


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49. William Hartnell

On top of the notorious ‘Billy-fluffs’, where Hartnell would mangle his lines due to a combination of intense production schedules, illness, and as a deliberate character trait, Hartnell was a difficult man. He had his favourites amongst the guest actors, and wanted things to be just so. His attitudes to race and religion have also been remarked on by Nicholas Courtney and Anneke Wills, who attributed anti-Semitic and racist comments to Hartnell respectively. Yet, actors from those backgrounds spoke of getting on well with the actor. The issue will most likely remain inexactly detailed, a complex and unedifying blight.


48. Regeneration

Without regeneration we wouldn’t be discussing the show’s 50th Anniversary, yet in 1966 the first regeneration did not go swimmingly. BBC archives show a generally negative reaction to the Second Doctor: ‘Most of the comment centred round Patrick Troughton as Doctor Who. Much of this took critical form.’ Though there is some positive comment in the report, the words ‘idiotic new character’, ‘playing for laughs’, and ‘His character is peculiar in an unappealing way’ are among the choice criticisms.

My personal favourite is ‘I feel the character is over-exaggerated – whimsical even.’

Hindsight, eh?


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47. Patrick Troughton’s Affairs

A recent biography of Troughton revealed that his personal life was chaotic, littered with affairs, cover-ups, and indiscretions. The Second Doctor was a very tactile man, and his attitude caused difficulties for his wives and children.

Also he liked to pee on golf courses, but that’s not so much controversial as just a bit weird.


46. Toberman

The character of Toberman was written as deaf, and wearing a hearing aid. Roy Stewart was cast, but the hearing aid and the deafness was lost en route to the screen. Thus, we have a black man who barely speaks a word, and is treated as a primitive and a slave.

When showing Tomb of the Cybermen to people for the first time, the explanation of ‘He was meant to be deaf’ really doesn’t help.


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45. Questions and test-tubes > Scientists in mini-skirts

Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks inherited the character of Liz Shaw from the previous production team. As a scientist, albeit one whose interest in mini-skirts coincided with being drafted into a top secret military organisation, it was felt that her character made it harder to provide exposition. As a result, she was replaced by someone who could ‘pass the Doctor his test-tubes and tell him how brilliant he was.’

This continues to be a source for debate, as it implies Doctor Who‘s lead female role cannot be anything but intellectually limited, proposing characteristics such as feistiness, bravery, feistiness, curiosity and feistiness as positive alternatives.


44. Terror of the Autons, Police and troll dolls

Not content with revealing policemen to be blank faced, gun-handed Autons, Robert Holmes further destroys your sanity by making you afraid of flowers, chairs, and your teddy bear.

Amazingly, there were complaints. Barry Letts took these on board, rather than issue a statement demanding that the nation’s children ‘Man the hell up’.


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43. We’ve got the wrong Sarah-Jane

For years, it was known that another actress had initially won the role of Sarah-Jane Smith, and that Lis Sladen had come in after it hadn’t worked out. Research for The Invasion of the Dinosaurs DVD discovered it was in fact April Walker, and it was because Jon Pertwee felt she was physically imposing and had poor chemistry with him. Barry Letts let Walker go, paying her in full for her Season 11 contract.


42. Pertwee, money, and leaving

The team was breaking up. Roger Delgado had died. Terrance Dicks, Barry Letts and Katy Manning were leaving. Jon Pertwee decided to leave as well, partly to avoid being typecast. The man himself also stated that his request for a raise had been turned down, leading to speculation that his departure was motivated by money. More likely, he was planning on leaving anyway but thought ‘What the hell?’


41. ‘He’s a Chinese…’

At the time of The Talons of Weng-Chieng it was not unknown for Caucasian actors to play characters of other ethnic backgrounds using make-up. It had been common practice previously. Now, though, it looks both racist and desperately unconvincing. The fact that a group of Chinese criminals features one Asian actor and then some stuntmen in make-up makes the distinction all the more apparent. Li H’Sen Cheng comments ‘I understand that we all look alike’, and that’s even more untrue when John Wu is standing next to Pat Gorman.


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40. Hinchcliffe and Holmes vs Mary Whitehouse

In making the show for ‘the intelligent fourteen year old’ (but without actually telling anyone in advance), the early Tom Baker stories teetered on the edge of what was acceptable for a family show. The knock-on effect of Whitehouse’s ‘Won’t someone please think of the children?’ protestations was that Hinchcliffe decided to overspend on some episodes of his final series, meaning that Mary Whitehouse not only effectively curtailed the Hinchcliffe era, but weakened the Williams one before it had even begun.


39. The BBC vs Graham Williams

Graeme Williams struggled at times as the producer of Doctor Who. Not only had he to cope with BBC edicts demanding he rectify the overspending and adult tone of the previous regime, but he had to cope with inflation, strikes, and Tom Baker. As a result, his era is saddled with a reputation as cheap and cheerful, when in many respects it was a massive battle to get anything on screen at all. In some cases, they didn’t succeed.


38. It’s not finished… it’s finished

Shada is unfinished. It always will be. Industrial action made it impossible to complete, but since then we have had a VHS edition with linking narration, an Eighth Doctor webcast, a Gareth Roberts novelisation, and an animated version intended for DVD release. Ian Levine put in a lot of time and effort to this version, but for various reasons it was decided that it wasn’t acceptable. Cue lots of grumbling, capital letters and online malcontent.


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37. Stop that, it’s silly

Douglas Adams’ tenure as Script Editor is typified by two things. Firstly, there’s some glorious bouts of imagination tied up with strong Science-Fiction concepts. Secondly, the levels of silliness occasionally veer into the unacceptable. Partly this is down to Tom Baker, who by this stage felt untouchable, and his willingness to muck about rubs off on the rest of the cast (including his drinking buddy, Graham Crowden). Doctor Who attracts people who want things to be taken very seriously indeed (begging the question of what the hell they’re doing watching Doctor Who), and this approach was a step too far for some.


36. Tom and Lalla, sitting in a tree

Doctor/Companion romances aren’t unexpected anymore, but there still remains only one that took place off-screen. Tom Baker and Lalla Ward’s off-on-off relationship appeared to be digital rather than analogue, and its state affected a lot of their scenes together. There’s City of Death, where they run around Paris holding hands (basically all of the Doctor/Romana shipping comes from here), and then there’s State of Decay, where they can barely look at each other. Anyone who’s heard her on a DVD commentary will know that Ward’s scorn could power a national newspaper for months.


35. Out with the old…

Kids love K9. So what better way to bring them on board with your new uber-serious version of the show than by blowing him up after five minutes?

Like K9, the Sonic Screwdriver was deemed too useful a device, a hindrance to creative storytelling, and it too had to go. Script Editor Christopher Bidmead’s thoughts on the current iteration of the Sonic Screwdriver make for amusing reading.

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34. Stop that, it’s also silly but in a different way

In a response to the silliness that had crept into the programme, Season 18 went in the opposite direction. This not only made the show less fun for some people, but it also fell prey to the inherent silliness of the show. The problem is that few things are funnier than someone treating something inherently ridiculous with the utmost severity. Hence we have Logopolis, home to some of the most ludicrous ideas in the show’s history but with an oppressive funereal tone.

No amount of Tom Baker looking moody is going to detract from Tegan’s bewildering obsession with planes, ‘Adric, can you swim?’, or how little sense the Master’s plan makes.


33. Do-able Barkers

Eighties producer John Nathan Turner and his partner Gary Downie were revealed to have pursued young fans at conventions, some of whom were below the legal age of homosexual consent at the time. Their term for fans they deemed sufficiently attractive was ‘Do-able barkers’.

This was only revealed in a 2013 biography of JNT, and it made the national press. If it had been reported at the time it would probably have resulted in convictions, scandal, and potentially cancellation. Would you rather have Eighties Doctor Who or spare some young men a potentially traumatising indignity?

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32. Too Many Adrics on the Dancefloor

With Nyssa being added to the roster as a late addition, it was decided that the Fifth Doctor’s TARDIS was too crowded, and one of the three companions had to go. After Peter Davison stated the case for Nyssa remaining on board, the axe fell elsewhere. And what an axe. Grown men admit to weeping as those silent credits rolled.

The next time you watch Jurassic Park, just remember that none of it would have been possible without your fourth-favourite Alzarian teenager.


31. The Six Doctors

For the Twentieth Anniversary story, a few bridges were burned, and kindling was laid for future burnings. Director Douglas Camfield was reportedly annoyed at not being first choice, although his health would have prevented him from returning. Robert Holmes, brought in at the request of script editor Eric Saward, was unable to make his idea for a multi-Doctor story work (though his involvement would later lead to The Caves of Androzani, and Saward falling out with John Nathan Turner). The tick-list writing process was compounded by the uncertainty over whether Tom Baker was going to appear. When Terrance Dicks took over the writing, he was annoyed when Saward kept inserting Cybermen into the script. For a celebratory story, it was something of an ordeal.


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30. Cyber-disagreements

The authorship of Attack of the Cybermen is disputed. Credited to Paula Moore (real name Paula Woolsey), it was either written by Woolsey, written by Woolsey and heavily re-written by Saward, written by Saward, or plotted by continuity adviser Ian Levine with Saward adding the dialogue.

To this day, no-one has been able to agree about it, nor satisfactorily answer the question ‘Why on earth would anyone claim to have written Attack of the Cybermen Part Two?’

We continue our look at 50 Doctor Who controversies on page two…

 Here’s the second page of our look at 50 Doctor Who controversies…

29. Grimwade Syndrome

Director Peter Grimwade got things done, even if he wasn’t the most popular man amongst the cast. His episodes are tight, well-paced, and visually impressive. Although his scriptwriting was variable, the show needed distinctive directors of Grimwade’s ability at the time. After a story he was due to direct fell through, Grimwade took the cast and crew out to dinner, intending to take John Nathan-Turner out separately. He never did, as the producer felt as if he’d been dinghied and took the huff. Grimwade never directed for the show again, and eventually handed over his final script for the show to be finished by Eric Saward.


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28. Exploding typewriters

The Twin Dilemma is not very highly regarded. It certainly fails to disguise its financial constraints, and straddles the dividing line between ‘Brave’ and ‘Foolhardy’ with reckless applomb. It is frequently voted as one of the worst stories ever, and follows one immediately from a story frequently voted one of the best ever – The Caves of Androzani. Eighties Doctor Who often fluctuated wildly in quality from one week to the next, and this is perhaps the best example of how frustrating it could be.

The writing process was further complicated when Anthony Steven claimed his typewriter had exploded. This is obviously no excuse. Duncan Bowles’ typewriter explodes all the time and he just sucks it up and meets his deadlines.


27. Strangling

Not content with merely being a below-average story, The Twin Dilemma decided to go one further by making the new Doctor thoroughly unlikeable. While this approach has its fans, the consensus is that the show went too far when the Doctor attempted to strangle his companion. Peri, who suffers so much in the TARDIS that she makes Tegan look like Jo Grant, has almost forgiven him by the end of the episode. Viewers, on the other hand…


26. This is all rather violent

Season 22 came in for criticism for its violence, as the show had before. According to director Graeme Harper, the plan was for it to be broadcast in a later timeslot than before, though this ultimately fell through. This means that you could tune in at 5.20pm to see men drowning in acid baths, mercenaries having their hands squeezed bloody, and hybrid-Dalek’s brains blobbing up and down.

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It’s the kind of thing that could be used as incriminating evidence for a show under threat of cancellation. Fortunately, the production team had seen no evidence to suggest this whatsoever.


25. Cancellation

After season 22 came a period known as ‘The Hiatus’. With the BBC needing to save money, the show’s twenty-third series was postponed. Even the BBC News reported the news as ‘taking everyone by surprise’. Then Head of Drama Jonathan Powell states outright on The Trial of the Time Lord extras that ‘we did try to cancel it’.

Cancelling it may have been kinder, in some respects. Certainly the impression you get of the BBC’s attitudes to the show for the rest of the decade was that of a disinterested cat occasionally remembering it has a mouse it can torture.


24. The Trial of a Time Lord

Having cancelled the original, partly developed Season 23, the BBC were unable or unwilling to find a new producer to take over the show, and so the same production team who had been deemed not good enough were told to make a mere fourteen twenty-five minute episodes for ‘a relaunch.’ That was essentially all the instruction they received. The return of the show was compromised, essentially ignored by the BBC management and not given any time, money or direction to make it work. Under considerable pressure, the fallout from The Trial of a Time Lord resulted in a parting of the ways. Robert Holmes passed away, Eric Saward left, scripts were written with lawyers involved, and there was no word from the BBC on the show’s future.

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23. SURPRISE KIDS’ SHOW, kthxbye

The BBC decided late in the day to make another series, under the stipulation that Colin Baker be removed from the role and the show concentrate on being light and fun. So, with no stories, no script editor, and no Doctor, and an edict saying ‘Be frothy’, Season 24 went into production with less than nine months til broadcast. It’s lack of preparation time exacerbated the problems with the thinly written role of companion Mel (Bonnie Langford) and resulted in a unique mix of CBBC romp and 2000 AD strip.


22. Armpit-gate

On the set of Dragonfire Sophie Aldred hadn’t shaved her armpits, and there was a slight fuss.


21. This looks good. Can’t have that

Remembrance of the Daleks looks great. The soundtrack (although one of Keff McCulloch’s better ones) dates it, but largely it’s a solid production. It did, however, go over budget. The BBC’s response to this, rather than note how well-received the show was and how much more impressive it looked, said that director Andrew Morgan was never to work on the show again.

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Cat. Mouse. Torture.


20. Let’s just not tell anyone it’s cancelled

After the furore that erupted in 1986, the BBC’s strategy for cancelling the show in 1989 was slightly more underhand: don’t say anything unless asked, then say it wasn’t technically cancelled, it just wasn’t on at the moment. Normal service would be resumed as soon as the BBC worked out what to do with it. Amazingly, sixteen years later, it turned out the answer was ‘Give it some welly, some love and a bigger budget’.

Gosh, who’d have thought?


19. The new Doctor…

In the interim, Doctor Who Magazine pounced on any related news at all, like a hungry, hungry hippo with low self-esteem. This is perhaps how the strange activities of Mr David Burton were deemed worthy of print. Two unseen pilots had apparently been made that featured Burton as the Eighth Doctor, who later confirmed to the magazine that he had filmed a pilot called Doctor Who and the Monters of Ness, with Seventies Who director Paul Bernard.

None of these things are verifiable, and are most likely nonsense, even if Burton did have a car with ‘The New Dr. Who’ written on the side.


18. The Dark Dimension

Some Cyberman concept-art and a plot synopsis were all we ever got of The Dark Dimension. Focussing on the Fourth Doctor – to the annoyance of the others – in an alternative timeline, with new takes on old monsters (including a Wolverine-influenced take on the Cybermen).

BBC Enterprises were making a straight-to-video special that snowballed into a big enough project for other departments to notice. The death knell came when Philip Segal arranged a deal to make new Doctor Who episodes, and the conflict of interest killed the project.


17. The New Adventures

In hindsight, Torchwood shouldn’t have been such a surprise. The previous time that Doctor Who had tried to go all dark and sexy and edgy (Why do people say ‘edgy’ anyway? Everything has an edge, or else it’d be infinite) was with the New Adventures book range. While there are some brilliant stories in there, it was felt that there was a ticklist writers had to complete: needless violence, the Doctor being incredibly manipulative, Ace having sex and some jarring swear words. It was a bit of a shock to the system compared with someone saying ‘toss’ in Survival.


16. The TVM

Where do we start? First we thought there were going to be Spider Daleks. There aren’t Spider Daleks. That would be nonsensical. Spader Daleks, sure, but not Spider Daleks. Then we discovered that the Doctor was going to kiss a lady. Worse, he was going to be half-human. Both of those things were terrible, but really we were lucky. Anyone who has read a synopsis of the ‘Leeky Bible’ knows that a full series would have been a full on reboot with an origin story to make the writers of The Next Generation go ‘What, really?’. In hindsight, we got off lightly.


15. BBC takes over the book range from Virgin

The BBC, disinterested as it was in the show in 1990, suddenly noticed that the Virgin Books had a decent market for tie-in fiction, and were doing really rather well. So, with a large group of writers, audience and continuity already established, the BBC took back the book range from Virgin and did it themselves without having to do any of the legwork. This was further exacerbated by a new range that – while largely having better covers – didn’t really know what it was trying to do for a while. Fortunately, one of the latter Virgin authors had a few ideas that would shake things up a tad.


14. Lawrence Miles happens

Read Alien Bodies. Do it now. I will wait.

Good wasn’t it? You might also have noticed that quite a lot of the ideas in it have cropped up in some form in televised Doctor Who post-2005. So many, in fact, that I don’t have space to list them here. It not only hugely informed the TV series, but it was so staggeringly confident compared with much of the book range, that it informed much of that too. However, not everyone was on the same page, and authors started taking things in different directions, until eventually all bridges involved were burned, spat on, burned again, and then finally scatologically desecrated in a vitriolic interview that proved once and for all that, while Miles is undoubtedly brilliant with language, he is perhaps not the best at networking.

That’s before we get onto his blog about the new series.


13. The Shalka Doctor

A new Doctor! A new era for the show! A new- oh, never mind, it’s been cancelled.

The internet-based adventures of Richard E. Grant’s numberless Doctor have been consigned to the realms of the non-canonical (‘Let me out!’ cries Anachrophobia, ‘I might only be an Eighth Doctor Adventure but I’m vastly more entertaining than Meglos‘.), announced shortly before the TV show’s comeback. At the time, the idea of the Master being an android, and Richard E. Grant’s performance  as the cold, vampiric Doctor were not ideas that fandom welcomed. The recent DVD release has at least given people a new perspective on the story, possibly helped by the fact that it doesn’t stop to buffer every thirty seconds.


12. Strangled at rebirth

The BBC has given us many great things, but like Doctor Who, it is not a coherent entity in terms of vision or personnel. It is also so large and flailing that it resembles nothing less than Cthulhu failing to unhook one of the other elder god’s bras while both of them are suffering from tapeworms. Perhaps then it is not a surprise that the show’s relaunch in 2005 took the perseverance and enthusiasm of a select few to convince a wary organisation that it was in any way a good idea, and that it occasionally took a selective approach to the truth to keep the show alive. For more details, see Doctor Who Magazine #463.



Billie Piper? BILLIE PIPER? Billie Piper? As companion? NOT ON MY WATCH. The only Billy-Piper I’ll accept in Doctor Who is the First Doctor’s smoking equipment of choice AND NO OTHER. A pop-star in a serious acting role made famous by such characters as Dodo and Melanie Bush? Nonsense. And she’s beautiful but she will never love me. This is awful. What does ‘Honey to the Bee’ EVEN MEAN?


10. Gay Agenda

Gays? GAYS? Gays? In Doctor Who? NOT ON MY WATCH. The only gayness I’ll accept in Doctor Who is the frivolity of a well-timed Dudley Simpson leitmotif AND NO OTHER.

The supposed ‘Gay Agenda’ – ie. Hey, gay people exist, let’s mention that – is a superb example of blustering melodrama masquerading as moral depravity. How dare Doctor Who be a platform for any sort of equality?


9. Smug

The 2006 series of Doctor Who saw Rose and the Doctor grow even closer after his regeneration, only to be heartbreakingly parted forever (ahem) at the series’ end. However, prior to this their behaviour had rubbed some viewers up the wrong way, until the word ‘smug’ became a byword for their relationship. While perhaps it went a bit far at times (listen to Queen Victoria, you two, she has a point) it was also something that was clearly setting them up for a fall. And lo, it happened. If you go into the Tenth Doctor era thinking he’s supposed to be hugely flawed, it really makes it much more satisfying.


8. Deus Ex Machina

What is a Deus Ex Machina? Roughly speaking, it’s when an unprecedented ability or event is used as a resolution. Russell T. Davies is so often accused of using these that, on forums, every mention of the phrase means the impending arrival of someone pointing out that he doesn’t actually use them in any of his series finales. They are all hinted at, suggested and implied beforehand in at least some small way.

That’s not to say they’re above criticism, just that you might want to get your facts right before doing so.


7. The Doctor’s reward

Now, I love the Ninth Doctor’s regeneration. It’s wonderful that the incarnation who spent so much of his time masking his emotions gets one, final burst of joy before he goes. Inversely, the cocksure and charismatic Tenth Doctor gets to glare meaningfully at his old friends from a distance before regenerating in tears by himself. Reactions ranged from the extremely tearful to the extremely enraged, to my girlfriend’s Dad saying ‘Oh god, there’s still fifteen minutes to go.’


6. The new paradigm

Tellytubby Daleks. Skittle Daleks. I-Daleks. The United Daleks of Benetton. The list of derogatory names for the new design went on long into the night. In hindsight, they’re alright when they’re filmed from the front, it’s just their weird Igor-hump/Smart car boot that looks wrong on them, and when they’ve been used since they’re largely filmed to hide this. Perhaps coupled with the anti-climactic Victory of the Daleks and the internet’s role in allowing gut reactions unbidden into its pages, the fuss got a little bit out of hand.


5. It’s sexy
Amy & The 11th Doctor

Doctor Who got into trouble with the Daily Mail when the paper decided it’d be good to pretend to be upset over how sexy Amy Pond was, and how damaging this was for children. The problem seemed to be that occasionally she wore sexy shirt skirts or sexy shorts (NB. There is no such thing), and it was bad for children to see her sexy legs. What if they went out and, in a delirious mindset brought about by premature exposure to sexy legs, did all the crime? Because of sexy legs?

The Daily Mail has obviously not looked outside recently. Or, indeed, since the 1960s.


4. It’s sexist

This accusation could be made at almost any time in the show’s history, but the female characters in the Moffat era have come under close scrutiny. His ability to write characters might not be at the level of Russell T. Davies (it’s like criticising a mountain for not being as tall as Mount Everest), but besides characterisation (he’s accused of writing unrealistic, borderline sitcom characters defined by their gender’s reproductive capabilities) there have also been complaints about the lack of female writers on the show, and that it increasingly resembles a ‘Boys-Own adventure’ (even if this is infinitely preferably to a Boyzone adventure).


3. It’s so complex

Steven Moffat, having made a name for himself with episodes featuring multiple time-zones as a major plot point, became show runner, and had a go at doing something with the established format of the show since it returned in 2005. Then, for his second series, he tried something different, something more involved, that altered the format of the series and required more concentration than usual. It got a mainly positive response, but there were those who complained that it had grown too complex to follow. As a result, the next series switched to more standalone episodes.


2. Clara Who

Bearing in mind some of the criticisms above, the decision to make new companion Clara a plot-device based over several time-zones, a sexually confident (and, in one jaw-droppingly awful moment, sexually objectified) young lady, whose backstory remained a mystery…well, it was an interesting decision, put it that way. As part of the hyper-real fantasy world Moffat’s Who is based in, characters aren’t grounded in the same realism as before. With Clara, though, there was not a lot else to her other than said mystery, a character who never seemed quite real in her responses and questions, almost like she’s been designed as the ideal companion. Perhaps she has. If only Lawrence Miles hadn’t written that idea already.


1. I Hurt myself today

There are eleven Doctors, officially. The Shalka Doctor, the Metacrisis Doctor, the incarnation David Banks played in The Ultimate Adventures when Jon Pertwee was ill… none of these count, officially. Possibly because there was a section of the internet that hadn’t been annoyed with him, Steven Moffat decided to throw a spanner in the works (The Restoration Team will be replacing this spanner at a later date) by revealing another Doctor in the shape of John Hurt.

Some people genuinely tweeted that they would never watch Doctor Who again. It’s a hell of a place to stop at.

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