It's amazing how many of the best Dr. Who stories ever are in this one season.
Twenty seconds into this episode and we know we're in the hands of a wonderfully witty comedy-action writer.
Two minutes into this episode and we know it's the "let's make fun of American TV & Film" episode. No problem there. That's a genre that needs skewering.
An alien ship has sent out a distress call and crashed in London. Should be easy to find, right? Just ask about the thing that fell from the sky and find the big crater. Pity it's during the height of the London Blitz. The scene where the Doctor inadvertently becomes a stand-up comedian by asking those questions right before the air-raid siren sounds in priceless.
Once again they drive home the message that in spite of being from an insanely advanced alien culture the Doctor is a people person, not a techie person. Hmmm, there would be an interesting meeting. Can you see the Doctor and McCoy swapping tales over mint juleps?
Now we get the additional message that in spite of being an adventurous sort of guy, the Doctor isn't a stereotypical action-adventure hero. That role goes to our new cast member Captain Jack Harkness, as perfect a throwback to the Golden Age of Hollywood as you're likely to find, only updated for the 21st Century. It's wonderful to see another old favorite tastefully modernized in this way.
Haha! Hello Jack-me-boy, I know your Daddy! Your spiritual Daddy at least.
For those of you who missed the glory days of independent comic books, Donna Barr's award-winning The Desert Peach focused on a bunch of people who picked the wrong time to be born German. They ended up fighting in the German military during World War II. None of them were ideological Nazis, many were from groups the Nazis loathed, but there they were trying to stay alive and off the radar of both the Allies and their own increasingly out-of-control government. I highly recommend it to anyone who is not childish.
One of the most memorable characters is Luftwaffe Oberleutnant "Rosen Kavalier" (Yes, it is a made up name. You wanna make something of it?) Physically he looks exactly like Captain Jack: the face, the jaw, the cheekbones, the hair, the build. He wears a black leather World War II combat pilot's uniform, the most important part is a fancy oversized watch on it's black leather strap. He's a cocky, charming, insanely courageous, bisexual, amoral, suave, thrill-seeking, promiscuous combat pilot who becomes a con man after leaving the military, and who grows up a lot after falling in love with an honorable and much older man. Captain Jack is so much like a kinder, gentler version of Rosen, it's astonishing.
Back to this story. Something apparently connected with the crashed ship is turning people into gasmask wearing zombies. BZZZTTT! That's the "overused meme" buzzer going off. We now have three different zombie stories in the first season, and the limit is one zombie story. Yes they're all wonderful, but one of the producers should have put his or her foot down all the same. And they're not even a satire on people who don't think, so they don't even have that excuse.
The Doctor investigates and is told to consult "the Doctor", a character whose story obviously parallels on our Doctor's own story. "Once I had children and grandchildren. Then the way came. Now I have nothing left but my work taking care of others." There are hints as well that the Time War paralleled Britain's experience in World War II without the American cavalry coming over the hill, including a lovely "it's always darkest before the dawn" speech that doesn't say "it's always darkest before the dawn".
The parallels point out something else about Dr. Who. In spite of all the efforts to describe him as alien, he's not. He's very foreign, he's haunted by baggage both known and unknown, but at no point in his entire existence has he ever seemed alien to me. He's the "stranger in a strange land."
Speaking of parallels, Jack is also a former "Time Agent". What's that? Did some sort of "Time Agency" step in to fill the void left by the extinction of the Time Lords and solve the problems mentioned in the last episode? If so who's running it? I get a delicious but highly improbably image of a future Doctor as Jack's ultimate boss, then after Jack mentions his little amnesia problem a delicious and only slightly less improbable image of the Master in that role. And how many "Time Agents" are there anyway? Jack's apparently run this same con a lot, but in order to completely snooker a new one each time there would have to be hundreds of agents not cross-checking with each other.
I could go on about the Doctor's witty banter with Jack and Rose in the second half, but that's been over-covered already. I will point out that this story is a companion piece with "Father's Day". In "Father's Day" it's a Daddy who saves the world, here it's a Mummy who saves the world. It continues the season's excellent theme that it's ordinary heroes -- doctors, reporters, Moms and Dads -- who save the world every day. Which isn't to say you don't need a "professional" from time to time, but without all those "amateur" heroes taking care of people on a daily basis the world wouldn't last until sundown.