Cast: Matt Smith, Karen Gillen, Arthur Darvill, Alex Kingston, Mark Sheppard ~ Writer: Steven Moffat ~ Director: Toby Haynes ~ Year: 2011
The Low-Down: An episode that asks more questions than it answers, Day of the Moon is weird, inventive and packed full of highlights – but is Steven Moffat in danger of making Doctor Who a show that’s too clever and complex for its own good?
What’s it About?: Three months after the events of The Impossible Astronaut, the Doctor is imprisoned and Amy, Rory and River Song are on the run, trying to find out about an enemy they can’t even remember. The truth may lie in an abandoned orphanage – but is Amy pregnant or not? And what has Neil Armstrong’s foot got to do with this all?
The Story: (WARNING: As with most of my Doctor Who reviews, the following contains a hefty load of spoilers…)
Two words of warning for Steven Moffat: Ghost Light. For those out there without an encyclopaedic knowledge of Classic Who, Ghost Light was one of the last broadcast stories of the original series run, back in 1989 – a fascinatingly ambitious and dark story that layered on the complications as if they were going out of style, but seemingly forgot to tell the audience exactly what was happening. Result? A Doctor Who adventure that was easier to admire than like, which ended up as rather more baffling than genuinely creepy – and while the Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon two-parter is streets ahead of Ghost Light in terms of ambition and execution, there’s still the sense that the show is aiming a bit too far ahead of its audience, and so busy being ferociously clever and dark and scary that it’s in danger of forgetting to actually entertain.
It’s mildly bizarre to find myself criticising Doctor Who for being too intensively complex and clever – after all, one of the main criticisms of the RTD era was that there was too much bombast and emotiveness, and not quite enough of the kind of dark smartness that Moffat regularly delivered in his stories. Trouble is, I think we’re getting shown what happens when the needle swings too far in the opposite direction, added to which Moffat has now loaded the series with enough ongoing mysteries to fill an entire season of Lost, and I’m not sure if doing that to a show like Who is a good idea, when there’s the very good chance of annoying the hell out of your audience.
All this makes it sound like I didn’t like Day of the Moon, when I did – it’s a stylish, gripping episode with some fantastic sequences, and I have the feeling that when we know exactly where all the events within the episode fit in with the overall arc, it’ll be even better. Trouble is, right now it’s not a completely satisfying story – the actual tale of the Doctor finding a way of overturning the presence of the Silents is really good, and the final twist of using the ‘One Small Step’ transmission combined with the Silents’ own words is a genuinely brilliant one, but at the end we’re still perplexed, and I never watched Doctor Who to be perplexed. I take my hat off to Moffat for trying something seriously ambitious, but it’s also kind of weird to find myself looking forward to next week’s episode simply because it looks like it’s going to be a nicely self-contained tale of Pirates on the high seas that’ll be fairly light on the arc (even if it’s also written by the man who wrote the not-especially-good middle episode of last year’s Sherlock).
There are decisions in Day of the Moon that are daring – most especially shifting forward three months without any warning, and never really giving us a clear resolution of the final cliffhanger (we get a couple of flashbacks, but that’s it) – but there’s also a lot in Day of the Moon that we have to take on trust, and stuff that simply doesn’t seem to make sense (like the way that the Doctor goes from an imprisoned fugitive to working with President Nixon again without any kind of join). Now, this isn’t the first time Who has had a light attitude to plots making sense – RTD would pull this kind of thing all the time, but it’s less of a problem when you’re telling big bold and brassy blockbusters. Complex plots that make the audience pay attention have to make sense, and the end result is a story that’s compulsive but doesn’t quite earn what it’s reaching for.
The Lost comparison is, unfortunately, a fairly strong one – I didn’t have anywhere near the problems everybody else had with the finale (although I do feel the entire sixth season is massively flawed, and that the finale is a piece of television that regularly switches between massively misconceived and strangely brilliant, frequently within a few minutes of each other), but the feeling I got from this two-parter is very similar to the sense I got from the less satisfying sections of Lost, where it was more about heightening the mystery than advancing the story, and where the component parts of the drama didn’t all feel like they fitted together. Because in Day of the Moon we have some great components – a spooky villain, some fantastic setpieces (especially the gun battle in the Silent control room), another great turn from Matt Smith, some well-played shocks (especially the opening teaser sequence, and the brilliant end scene), and a couple of nicely played emotional sequences (most notably the material between Rory and Amy, as well as the brief scene between Rory and the Doctor).
But by the end, we still don’t know exactly how all these components fit together. Yes, we know that the Silents are the Silence that was referred to throughout S5, but we don’t know why – neither do we know how the Silents’ plans fitted in with the fact that the Doctor is due to be killed in 200 years (and that one of them seemed to be still alive in 2011), or with the crashed spaceship in The Lodger, or with the fact that they apparently blew the TARDIS up in order to destroy the Universe in The Pandorica Opens… Well, there’s a massive list of things that we don’t know, and I honestly don’t feel that piling a whole selection of ongoing mysteries on top of the ongoing mysteries we already had (Who is River Song? Why was the TARDIS blown up? Who exactly are the Silents?) is a great idea. It’s as if the episodes had to be edited down too much and a little too much connective tissue was lost in the process, and I can’t help crossing my fingers that a whole selection of these mysteries are going to be at least reasonably wrapped up by the mid-season finale, otherwise Who is going to be in real danger of becoming a show that’s more clever than it is fun. Which would be a crying shame…
(Okay – brief theory time. The Silents appear to be utilising TARDIS-like technology, and now they seem to have spent an inordinate amount of time on Earth getting Humanity to the point where space-suit technology was possible (was that *really* the only thing they were aiming for?). Plus, they’ve now been in charge of either transforming or supervising a child who we now know is at least part Gallifreyan – is this Amy and Rory’s baby? (The obvious concept is “It’s the Doctor’s baby!” but I really can’t see Moffat going down that road) The question is – is someone attempting to reboot Gallifreyan civillisation, possibly using the Earth in order to carry this out? Is that why the TARDIS explosion happened – did they know that the Doctor would find a way of ‘rebooting’ the Universe, and use that to their advantage, working something into the fabric of the newly ‘booted’ Universe at the same time? Are the Silents merely pawns in a bigger game? A game that’s possibly being played by whoever said ‘Silence will Fall’ back in The Pandorica Opens?)
Moffat is a writer who thrives on complications – this often makes for brilliant, immensely satisfying television, but sometimes he needs reining in, because otherwise you start getting complications for complications’ sake. One of the reasons I loved The Eleventh Hour so much, back at the beginning of S5, was that it was surprisingly simple, giving the Doctor a relatively clear objective and allowing the audience along for the ride (which is vital – and one of the reasons why, despite their spookiness, the Silents aren’t as scary as the Weeping Angels – as the audience, we don’t actually know what their intention is). The Eleventh Hour was also an unashamed crowd-pleaser, and I’m a little concerned that I’ve yet to spot an upcoming episode that looks clearly like that kind of all-out colourful romp. Doctor Who needs that sort of episode – 13 weeks of dark, weird and scary might start getting a little repetitive, especially if the major arc keeps piling on the mystery and tying the timeline in ever-more complicated knots.
I don’t want Who to trip over its own feet. I don’t want it to get too complicated, and start alienating the audience that rediscovered it back in 2005. I hope these are just initial teething troubles for S6, and it’s very possible that when I next revisit Day of the Moon, my mind will have seriously changed, and I’ll be able to enjoy the episode on its own terms, rather than getting slightly vexxed by the mass of flapping plot-threads. But right now, I’m a bit worried about the show’s future – and that’s something I never expected to be feeling after a Steven Moffat two-parter…
The Verdict: An episode that feels like it should come with its own flow-chart diagram, Day of the Moon is daring and almost brilliant – but gets held back by its own elliptical nature, and the sheer number of ongoing enigmas. Here’s hoping that the show can bounce back, and that the quest to out-do Lost in the head-scratching mysteries stakes only lasts so long…
Previous Doctor Who Season 6 Reviews:
2 thoughts on “TV Review: Doctor Who S6 E02 – ‘Day of the Moon’”
Excellent post. And not just because this is more or less what I thought. 🙂
I enjoyed the episode but when writing about it later I did have to remind myself what was going on.
Although I hugely enjoyed both episodes at times, on reflection I’m left feeling that the arc-to-standalone ratio was slightly too high. Too much is left unresolved, creating a slightly unnerving sense of having missed something. I need closure! 🙂 I do applaud the edgier style in many respects, however.
I also share your worries about alienating the general viewer, although the final ratings for episode 1 are very respectable so maybe I’m patronising the audience. It’ll be interesting to see how the ratings for the season progress.