Doctor Who is over 50 years old, it’s died twice, been revived twice, and managed to have more people play the lead character than almost anything besides Tarzan or Sherlock Holmes. You can’t really say that there’s a “standard” episode, because it varies so much in tone, quality, and style over the run that it’s very difficult to describe in broad strokes. It also creates some very long-running jokes or callbacks, some so long that it spans a generation or two. As such, it’s often difficult for new fans to really get into the show, because even if you join after the latest incarnation, there’s so much mythology built up that it gets intimidating. This episode, though, avoids that.
The premise of the show is that there is a being called the Doctor that travels through time and space with various companions to fight evil. He’s an alien who lives and journeys in a 60s British Police Box called the TARDIS. Sometimes he fights aliens, sometimes he eats hot dogs, sometimes he meets famous historical figures. Honestly, he just kind of travels, but the TARDIS tends to take him where he needs to be. Sometimes he changes history, sometimes he can’t, depending on the writing. At the time of this episode, there had been 10 doctors, and the current one was played by David Tennant. His companion at the time was a woman named Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman).
Three factors set this episode apart. First, the Doctor and Martha are barely in it. Despite being the main characters of the show, this episode focuses almost entirely on a woman named Sally Sparrow (Carey Mulligan).
Second, this episode actually establishes some goofy, but still somewhat logical, rules of time travel in the Doctor Who universe, by saying that “most of the time, what happened didn’t happen until it happened, but it also didn’t happen and might not have happened if you didn’t know it happened after it happened, which allows it to unhappen if you intervene in a way such that it is still yet to happen at that time.” Or, as the Doctor puts it: “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but, actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly… timey-wimey… stuff.” But it’s really the third factor that most distinguishes it, and earns it a place on this list: The Weeping Angels.
The Weeping Angels are statues. In fact, they’re a lot of statues. Maybe even all of them. But they’re usually shown as female angels with their faces covered by their hands, hence, appearing to be weeping. And, most of the time, they’re just normal statues.
This isn’t a cute expression. They’re actually stone, and not living, when observed. But, when nobody is looking, they come to life and attack at unbelievable speeds, capable of traveling several dozen feet faster than the eye can blink.
And, if they catch you, they kill you in one of the most unusual ways possible. They transport you back in time, and then they eat the energy that your potential life would have generated. You get to live out the rest of your life, but it will probably start years or even decades before you were born. Even better, throughout the episode, some of the statues in the background respond not to the characters, but to the viewer, which can really freak you out the first time you notice it.
Before the episode starts, the angels have gotten the Doctor and Martha. However, as the episode progresses, Sally, the main character, finds that the Doctor has set up clues and hints for how Sally will beat the angels from years in the past. Things range from messages under wallpaper to hidden DVD extras, which leads to both a really clever and really horrifying scene. The progression of the episode is brilliant, because it manages to tell the viewer both that the Doctor has set all of this up, and also that it absolutely doesn’t guarantee success because “wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey.” Ultimately, the solution for the angels is both obvious and clever at the same time. (No, it’s not “mirrors”… although, later, it’s mirrors).
If you ever want to get a person into Doctor Who, this is the episode to show them. It requires almost no knowledge of the show, but it somehow manages to embody some of the best elements of it at the same time.
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Doctor Who is on Amazon Prime, but here’s the famous dialogue: