TV Review: Doctor Who S6 E08 – ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’

Cast: Matt Smith, Karen Gillen, Arthur Darvill, Alex Kingston, Albert Welling, Nina Toussaint-White ~ Writer: Steven Moffat ~ Director: Richard Senior ~ Year: 2011

Doctor Who Season 6 Let's Kill Hitler Matt Smith Karen Gillen Arthur Darvill

[xrr rating=2.5/5]

The Low-Down: You certainly can’t accuse Doctor Who of not coming back with a bang. ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ is many things – fast-paced, imaginative, deeply nutty and at times very funny. The only thing it isn’t, though, is satisfying, and this latest batch of episodes looks set to continue being highly divisive…

What’s it About?: Months have gone by, but the Doctor still hasn’t succeeded in tracking down the missing Melody Pond, who’ll eventually grow up to become enigmatic archeologist River Song. Then, however, an encounter with one of Amy and Rory’s friends results in an unexpected trip to 1938 Berlin, and a confrontation with Adolf Hitler that’ll reveal some exceptionally bizarre truths…

The Story: (WARNING: As with most of my Doctor Who reviews, the following contains a hefty load of spoilers…)

As the credits rolled on ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’, I experienced a very unfamiliar feeling. I’d felt it before, quite a few times during Russell T. Davies’s run on Doctor Who, and I’ve already felt it often during Steven Moffat’s ambitious but far from perfect run on Who so far… but this was the first time I’d felt it following one of Moffat’s own episodes: actual, genuine, no-holds-barred disappointment.

Yes, despite the largely positive reception the episode seemed to get online (including some absolutely gushing reviews from people like SFX), I found myself scratching my head and actually realising “Oh dear, I don’t think I enjoyed that…” At first, I wasn’t even certain why – it’s not as if ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ doesn’t feature a ton of fun and enjoyable elements, or that it isn’t also crammed to bursting with some genuinely excellent dialogue. There are daring concepts, imaginative touches, and at least one storytelling gambit which (despite earlier reservations) did impress the hell out of me. And yet, by the end of it I was perplexed, baffled, and ever-so-slightly vexxed, which certainly wasn’t the reaction I was looking for.

I suspect this is partly because, in going for his most deliberately comic episode ever, Moffat’s actually crafted the closest he’s ever managed to a genuine RTD crowd-pleasing episode – with all the flaws and annoyances that come with that concept. This is very much a “Look at all the STUFF!” episode that’s absolutely determined to batter the audience down with how entertaining it’s going to be, but also suffers from some wild tonal changes, occasionally clunky dialogue (especially from River Song) and a general feeling that we’re watching lots of fascinating ideas thrown together in a heap rather than an actual story. Moffat’s storytelling often revolves around finding interesting and unusual ways of wrong-footing the viewer and subverting expectations, but ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ is so busy subverting expectations that it never seems to actually stand still long enough to engage as a story. Instead, of being a story, it’s a romp – a chance for the regulars to run around 1938 Berlin shouting at each other, without any real sense of progress or threat (except from the Teselector Antibodies – and, oh dear oh dear, whoever decided to do mechanical jellyfish tentacles should feel very apologetic, as the ‘menacing light-fitting’ attack was some of the least-impressive practical effects I’ve seen on New Who).

Of course, some of this is simply the weight of expectation, as well as the weight of the ongoing story. Moffat has said that the River Song storyline is going to get wrapped up this season (although how conclusively it does this is something we’ll have to see), and this is a very good thing, as the big arc this season has only been intermittently succesful. Many people have waved the ‘Too complicated for kids’ flag, which is nonsense – I have nothing against complicated, but I do have issues with unsatisfying, and that’s what Who is in danger of turning into. The overreaching arc since The Impossible Astronaut (and, in part, since The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang) has gotten insanely twisty and complex – comparisons have been made with Lost, but what Doctor Who is actually in danger of turning into is the modern version of Battlestar Galactica, at least in terms of the central overarching ‘mystery’. In the same way that the Cylon’s ‘plan’ and the general approach of what in the Galactica universe passes for ‘God’ ended up feeling like a loose excuse to string together a series of unconnected and improvised plot concepts, the current Who arc is so determinedly abstract that we’re eight episodes into this season and we can still only barely explain anything of what’s happening – and so much of what has happened can seemingly be summed up by simply saying “Well… Because! That’s why!”

‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ doesn’t function at all as a self-contained story – it’s part of a sprawling arc, but the arc itself is failing to be satisfying for the simple reason that we don’t know what’s going on. We do know that the Doctor is destined to die at the hands of the Impossible Astronaut, and that River is actually Amy’s daughter, and that she was created and programmed in order to be a weapon for killing the Doctor. We don’t know why any of this is happening (and, most frustratingly, nobody onscreen is actually asking). We don’t know why anyone would go to these kinds of insane lengths (like apparently detonating the entire universe in order to contrive the creation of a new Time Lord child) in order to create a plan with so many variables, and yet which currently seems to come down to “Get a psychopath with poison lipstick to kiss the Doctor”. Considering how many people he’s already kissed in New Who, it makes you wonder why they bothered going so complicated…

(Quick theory time: There is a possibility that the events of ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ happen because Melody/Mells escaped from the Silence with some of her mental programming still intact – she’s trying to kill the Doctor in this episode without realising that (as I suspect) she’s already done it, back when she was a child in the Astronaut suit. It’s the best explanation I can think of to solve certain problems – although it doesn’t explain what the Astronaut’s doing in 2011, or why River knows why she’s locked in the Storm Cage facility for and yet doesn’t seem to remember the events surrounding the Impossible Astronaut. (It’s possible she’s lying in that episode, of course, but it’s one hell of a cop-out). I am really hoping it doesn’t turn out to be yet another temporal loop-style “Oh, it happened that way because the Doctor knew the future and so made sure it would look that way” in the same way that River Song only becomes River Song because she’s told about herself. And yet, it wouldn’t completely surprise me…)

There’s a difference between mystery and obfuscation, and after a while the deliberate holding back of details (and the twisting complicatedness of the details we are given) starts feeling like being complex simply for it’s own sake. Like with last year’s finale, it’s the spectacle of concepts, rather than visuals – it’s IDEA! IDEA! IDEA! but the arc isn’t supporting it, and is tremendously difficult to relate to. Amy and Rory’s story arc should be taking them to some very dark places, but Moffat seems to want to throw difficult ideas in (like Melody’s abduction) and then just gloss over the consequences – most especially, in the case of Mells.

If there’s one aspect of this episode that fully displays the weird disconnect between sheer narrative ballsiness and dissastisfaction I experienced, it’s the character of Mells. On one hand, it’s a daring bit of writing, and the reveal of the regeneration (and her identity) did at least seem to justify the way she’d been crowbarred into the overarching story in a not-especially convincing way. But, for a writer whose main talent has been structure and forward planning, the way Moffatt has done this is downright bizarre – after all, there would have been plenty of opportunities to set Mells up as a character earlier, or at least vaguely mention her beforehand, instead of simply going “Oh yes, there’s this character we never mentioned before who’s one of our best childhood friends and who was constantly obsessing about the Doctor equal to (or even bigger than) Amy, and OH CRAP she’s got a gun!” It’s so ridiculously quick that it’s very difficult to swallow (and certainly doesn’t feel like good storytelling) – and it’s one of the elements where I honestly feel that ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ would have worked much better as a two-parter. If we’d had at least an episode to get to know Mells, she wouldn’t have felt quite so much like a comedy sexed-up bad girl thrown in for no other reason to get the plot moving in a very contrived way – as it is, we’ve barely registered her before she’s shot in the gut and then Alex Kingston is unwisely allowed to go rather over-the-top as the newly-born River Song.

(As a complete aside – I actually spent the entirety of ‘A Good Man Goes to War’ utterly convinced that Lorna Bucket, the mysterious ‘Amy Pond that wasn’t’ girl, was going to turn out to be River Song – that she’d die in the end, and regenerate. I was so convinced that I was genuinely nonplussed when it turned out she wasn’t, and I’m left suspecting that this actually would have been much better (and more satisfying) than the revelation we ultimately got).

On top of this, there’s the head-spinning logistics of it all – how did Mells/Melody get from late Sixties New York to Mid/late Nineties Leadworth? Why did she feel the need to hang out with her parents in secret while growing up? I presume Mells had parents – who the hell were they? How accurate are her memories? (And how did she know about Amy and Rory in the first place, considering she’s been abducted as a baby?) Is it all part of the plan, so that she can basically be a ‘sleeper agent’ and wait for the Doctor to turn up? Why didn’t she just kiss the Doctor immediately, rather than pulling an incredibly contrived “Hey, let’s use your time machine as a getaway” plan? How on earth did the TARDIS end up in Berlin 1938, when I would have imagined the Doctor’s response to a female gun-wielding psycho saying “I want to kill Hitler” would be to get her as far away from the Third Reich as possible? And exactly how many sexy-crazy alpha female bad girls is a sleepy village like Leadworth supposed to produce?

And, at the heart of all of this, there’s Hitler. There’s a certain admirable cheekiness to giving him only three minutes of screen time before throwing him in the cupboard, and yet it’s also uncomfortable because it is glossing over and trivialising a massive, massive subject (and using fascism as a backdrop for a light comedy romp and some “Gosh, isn’t it sexy to dress up in Nazi uniform” play from Alex Kingston). Also, the whole title of the episode ends up feeling like a serious con. Throwing the ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ title in at the end of the previous run of episodes set expectations, and the resulting episode doesn’t satisfy any of them – especially since instead of a Hitler-centric adventure, we get something altogether looser, flabbier and less interesting. It’s feeling dangerously like Moffat came up with the title, and then had to leap through all kind of narrative hoops to even vaguely justify it (and attach it to where he wanted the River Song story to go next), while the device of yet again having the Doctor on the verge of death (leading to several sequences that felt like photocopies of scenes from last year’s finale) led to not much more than Matt Smith howling and crawling on the floor like a hermit crab. And at the end, we’re left with exactly the same status quo as before (the Doctor and companions keeping secrets from each other – except this time there’s NO REASON for them to be doing this), and no real sense that we’re barrelling towards a significant ending. Season 5’s arc was occasionally clumsy, but at least felt like it slowly built towards a climax – Season 6, so far, is feeling like a wild collection of imaginative stuff that doesn’t hang together, and which – I’m sad to say – I suspect ain’t going to get anything resembling a satisfying conclusion.

I’d really like it to. I’d love to know who the ‘Silence will Fall’ voice from ‘The Pandorica Opens’ was. I’d like to know why the whole ‘blow up the TARDIS’ plot happened, and who’s responsible. I’d like to know what the Doctor did to annoy the Silence so much, or why their grey-faced servitors (words cannot sum up how frustrating it is to discover that – oh- they’re not called the Silence after all) went to such lengths to control human history just so they could get their hands on a space-suit. I would, in short, like it all to add up to a conclusion that draws a line under this whole section of the show. I just don’t have much faith that I’m actually going to get one.

Please, Steven Moffat. Prove me wrong.

The Verdict: An episode that ping-pongs wildly between inventive and sloppy, ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ has many high moments, but it’s also unfortunately ended up as my least favourite Moffat-written Doctor Who episode so far. My hopes were relatively high for this batch of episodes – they’re not so high anymore. But I’m at least hoping that a return to darker and scarier material, with the upcoming Mark Gatiss-written episode ‘Night Terrors’, might see the series get its storytelling mojo back…

Previous Doctor Who Season 6 Reviews:

S6 Eo7 – ‘A Good Man Goes to War’

S6 E05/E06 – ‘The Rebel Flesh’ / ‘The Almost People’

S6 E04 – ‘The Doctor’s Wife’

S6 E03 – ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’

S6 E02 – ‘Day of the Moon’

S6 E01 – ‘The Impossible Astronaut’

TV Links: The Doctor Who Tube Map

Doctor Who Tube Map by Crispian Jago

There’s something about the map of the London Underground (aka the Tube) – it’s got such a distinctive visual style that if you apply it to anything else, the results are almost always eyecatching. There’s plenty of examples I can think of over the years, but one of the most fun is here: the interactive Doctor Who Tube Map, which maps out the entire history of Doctor Who with all his villains and adversaries as stops on the London Underground. It’s the creation of Crispian Jago, a freelance IT consultant and self-declared ‘Godless Cornish Git’, and it has to be said that he’s done a splendid job – there are some typos (which apparently have been already highlighted to him on Twitter), but it’s always cool to see this kind of fan project, especially with the level of dedication that needs to go into it to get it right. So – anyone up for a trip to Judoon, taking in Cybermen, Zygons and Arcturus?

TV Review: Doctor Who S6 E07 – ‘A Good Man Goes to War’

Cast: Matt Smith, Karen Gillen, Arthur Darvill, Alex Kingston, Frances Barber ~ Writer: Steven Moffat ~ Director: Peter Hoar ~ Year: 2011

Doctor Who Season 6 Matt Smith Steven Moffat A Good Man Goes to War Frances Barber Madam Kovarian

[xrr rating=4/5]

The Low-Down: The finale to this first chunk of Doctor Who‘s season 6 is exactly the kind of big, broad and expansive adventure that we needed. A Good Man Goes to War may still leave us with plenty of questions and is arguably a little shapeless in places, but it also delivers satisfying adventure, well-timed twists and some truly brilliant dialogue, while finally casting some light on one of Who’s biggest current mysteries…

What’s it About?: Making the Doctor angry is not a good idea. With Amy Pond having been abducted, the Doctor and Rory are battling across time and space, calling in old debts in order to carry out a daring rescue on the asteroid known as Demon’s Run. What they don’t realise, however, is that they’re walking into a trap that’s been waiting for the Doctor for a long time – while it’s also finally time for River Song to reveal who she really is…

The Story: (WARNING: As with most of my Doctor Who reviews, the following contains a hefty load of spoilers…)

Yes, I saw it coming. It helped that I’d seen the idea bandied around as a theory online following the broadcast of Day of the Moon, but it was a concept that fitted all the facts, especially with the very obvious touch of both characters having water-based names (I can remember thinking “Pond? Why on earth is her surname Pond?” back when the companion was first announced. Now, of course, it all makes sense). Once Amy announced that her daughter’s name was Melody, it was pretty much on the wall – but all credit to Moffat for still managing to throw in a couple of moments of doubt, from the Doctor’s abrupt “It’s mine” line (when talking about the crib), to the point where we’re briefly left thinking “Wait a minute – ye gods, they’re not seriously going to have River turning out to be one of the Doctor’s family, are they?”, and all the serious Luke-and-Leia-style wrongness that might mean.

But, they weren’t. After a whole lot of waiting, we finally know that River Song is Amy and Rory’s daughter, and that her part-Time Lord DNA led to her being utilised as a weapon to kill the Doctor (which led eventually to her imprisonment in the Storm Cage facility). And while SF-savvy viewers will have unpicked Moffat’s complex web of plotting, the fact remains that this is still tremendously ambitious storytelling for a Saturday night family-aimed show, and that Doctor Who is still aiming high in terms of demanding storytelling and narrative twistiness.

(It’ll also be interesting to see exactly where the relationship between the Doctor and River goes from here, and what the ultimate resolution for him is (as we already know for her) – one of the quietest bits of characterisation is the nicely played sense of sadness from River Song when she realises the point in time that she’s reached, and that the period of the Doctor not knowing who she is has come to an end (and it also, in retrospect, makes the flirting between them that’s happened up until now a lot more poignant – River has always known exactly where this was going, and that her relationship with the Doctor was going to completely change once her identity was finally out in the open. Things will be different – but exactly how different?)

Naturally, of course, there are already people online moaning that the revelation of River’s identity was all rather predictable (simply because, as I’ve said before, moaning comes rather naturally to some Doctor Who fans), but while A Good Man Goes to War wasn’t perfect, it’s given S6 the injection of adrenaline it needed and ended this ‘pod’ of episodes on a serious high. It’s also possibly the most deliberately referential and continuity-crammed episode we’ve had yet (even managing to beat The Impossible Planet/Day of the Moon), and yet did succeed in getting most of the relevant information across in a way that’s still accessible, lively and fun.

It also leaves the weaker episodes of this run – especially Curse of the Black Spot – looking even weaker by comparison, simply because Moffat at his best is able to fire new concepts at the viewer at a rate that’s almost dizzying. Not only does he take the time-and-galaxy-spanning action of The Pandorica Opens and crank it up even further, but he also throws in a selection of new characters that do that wonderfully Doctor Who storytelling trick of hinting at a scope of adventures far beyond what we’ve seen. Top of that, of course, is the jaw-droppingly improbably yet hugely enjoyable Victorian duo of sword-wielding Silurian Madam Vastra (Neve McIntosh) and her maid Jenny (Catrin Stewart), who turned out to be one of the highlights of the episode. I’m still not sold on the Silurian make-up (less human-looking eyes would make such a difference) and initially thought “What the hell?!?” on Vastra’s first appearence, but was rapidly won over. McIntosh gets to have much more fun here than in last year’s tepid Silurian two-parter, and the banter between them combined with some choice innuendo pack a whole lot of life into the story (while once again showing that despite RTD’s departure, the so-called ‘Gay Agenda’ that a small minority of fans still complain about is alive and well.)

Even the deliberately comedic take on the Sontarans – played even more for laughs than they were in S4’s two parter The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky – managed to grow on me, with Commander Strax’s eventual fate turning out to be surprisingly touching, and Moffat keeps the tone shifting throughout, going from laugh-out-loud funny to emotionally intense. It’s how Doctor Who should always be – funny, fast-paced and deliriously inventive – and once again proves that Moffat is seriously good at delivering the goods when it comes to the big show-stopping episodes.

He also does the sensible thing in keeping it driven by emotion, while also being prepared to pull off some pretty dark moments – from the Doctor’s burst into all-out anger (brilliantly delivered by Matt Smith), to the horribly brilliant revelation that Baby Melody had been switched for a Flesh/Ganger duplicate. The baby disintegrating in Amy’s arms into a puddle of the Flesh is such a fantastically unpleasant image and packs a serious punch, and it’s good to see that Moffat still has a good sense of how far he can push things – that Who shouldn’t be too nasty, but that it also shouldn’t be too safe either.

There’s barely a weak link in the cast, and especially notable was Christina Chong as the mysterious Lorna, giving a really compelling performance despite the fact that you’re barely told anything about her. Both Karen Gillen and Arthur Darvill did great work, giving more nuances and levels to Amy and Rory’s relationship (and making the chemistry-free mess that was their initial relationship last year feel like a very long time ago), but the episode completely belongs to Matt Smith, who takes the Eleventh Doctor to some very dark and angry places and yet still manages to be kookier and more eccentric than ever (especially in the scene where he’s awkwardly discussing with Madam Vastra when Amy and Rory’s daughter “began”).

A Good Man Goes to War romps along at a fast pace and delivers the most enjoyable and genuinely satisfying ‘blockbuster’ episode since last year, along with some impressively mounted Star Wars-esque SF production design – but it still manages to notch up a few problems. A couple of Moffat’s narrative ticks are a little predictable (especially the reveal of the Doctor), and the Headless Monks themselves are initially intimidating yet ultimately end up as slightly unsatisfying villains, with the end action sequence not quite carrying the punch it needed. Frances Barber does a good job with her surprisingly short screen-time as the eye-patch-wearing Madam Kovarian, but I was expecting to learn a lot more about her than we got.

Naturally, this is the mid-season cliffhanger so there was no way Moffat was going to tie off every plot thread, but we’ve now got another set of bad guys whose motivations we don’t entirely understand – and, just to make things even more complicated, they’re bad guys we previously met (presumably in the future) as good guys (or at least guys who didn’t start their conversation in The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone by saying “Oh, by the way, sorry about that time we mounted an incredibly complex plan to try and kill you…”).

Using the Clerics from S5’s two-parter is an interesting yet odd choice, and we really need a slightly clearer motivation for this astonishingly big-scale plan (which obviously involved the Silence) than River Song’s end speech where she makes it clear that the Doctor’s impact on the Universe is now coming back to bite him (Does Kovarian have other paymasters than the Clerics? Is there another big bad waiting in the wings?). There’s also the fact that we really need this to tie together with The Impossible Planet’s 2011-set scene of the Doctor’s death (Was the astronaut-suit-clad Melody brought back from 1969 specifically for this reason? How does this fit in with the rest of the story?)

In short, Who has a gigantic number of questions that still need to be answered – but at least, with River Song having finally unburdened her secret, there’s the chance for genuine answers (and hopefully we’ll get them, rather than more questions). A Good Man Goes to War does end up feeling a little shapeless thanks to this lack of meaty explanations for the story’s backdrop, but Moffat’s dialogue, energy and inventiveness means it’s still full-tilt SF entertainment – big, bold, confidant, and not afraid to be just a little insane.

The Verdict: A thoroughly enjoyable mid-season finale that shows Moffat hasn’t lost his touch when it comes to emotionally engaging SF adventure, this is an episode where the minor problems and the flapping plot-threads aren’t enough to spoil the rollicking entertainment. It’s certainly hard to work out what on earth Moffat will have in store for us in the next batch of episodes – all we can do is wait for September, the aftermath of all these revelations, and the hilariously titled next episode “Let’s Kill Hitler”…

Previous Doctor Who Season 6 Reviews:

S6 E05/E06 – ‘The Rebel Flesh’ / ‘The Almost People’

S6 E04 – ‘The Doctor’s Wife’

S6 E03 – ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’

S6 E02 – ‘Day of the Moon’

S6 E01 – ‘The Impossible Astronaut’

Video: Doctor Who Anime

Found via BoingBoing (and lots of other places), this is one of the more impressive fanfilms I’ve seen out there – mainly the work of one person, this is essentially a 12-minute ‘highlight reel’ that gives you an Anime-style look at what would have happened in the 1980s if a Japanese animation studio had got their hands on Doctor Who. And it’s rather astonishing – there are rough edges here and there (and the voicework that isn’t hi-jacked from the classic series is a bit on the rough side), but some of the design and animation work here is really good, especially the stylised anime take on the Third Doctor, and all in all it’s a gloriously fun mash-up of genres that has to be seen to be believed…

TV Review: Doctor Who S6 E05/06 – ‘The Rebel Flesh’ / ‘The Almost People’

Cast: Matt Smith, Karen Gillen, Arthur Darvill, Raquel Cassidy, Marshall Lancaster, Mark Bonnar ~ Writer: Matthew Graham ~ Director:Julian Simpson ~ Year: 2011

Doctor Who Season 6 The Rebel Flesh The Almost People Matt Smith The Doctor Publicity Shot

[xrr rating=3/5]

The Low-Down: Showing that the deeply traditional base-under-siege Doctor Who story ain’t always as easy as it looks, The Rebel Flesh and The Almost People make up a potentially interesting two-parter that’s let down by some major pacing problems and misconceived villains, although is ultimately saved from total mediocrity by some interesting concepts, Matt Smith being brilliant, and one hell of an ending.

What’s it About?: Running into a solar tsunami, the TARDIS ends up making a sudden landing at an industrial station on a future Earth, where a dangerous acid is being mined with the aid of ‘Gangers’ – artificial duplicates of the mining crew, used in dangerous environments and casually disposed of when broken. However, when a second solar wave hits, the Flesh that makes the Gangers becomes self-aware, and it’s up to the Doctor to prevent the situation spiralling into bloodshed, especially when one Ganger starts preaching revolution…

The Story: (WARNING: As with most of my Doctor Who reviews, the following contains a hefty load of spoilers…)

It was never going to be easy following The Doctor’s Wife – which was not perfect, but did feature the kind of fast-paced inventiveness that Who does really well – and as I said in my last review, Matthew Graham wouldn’t have been my first choice to follow up Neil Gaiman, especially after the less-than-impressive S2 episode Fear Her. Well, the resulting two parter is definitely a much stronger story than that infamously weak episode, and also holds together better and more consistently than last year’s Silurian-themed two parter The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood… but it also shows that out of all the reactions Who should be aiming for, the very worst is a middling kind of ‘meh’.

This isn’t a story that thrives on the shock of the new – whether it’s a fresh take on an old Who enemy, or an odd, attention-grabbing twist we haven’t seen before – and in fact, up until the deeply surprising final two minutes, it’s engaginglyy played but very rarely surprising. We’ve seen this kind of story done plenty of times before, ever since S2’s The Satan Pit, but there isn’t enough pace or invention to distract us, while the plot also manages to echo S4’s Planet of the Ood (with the unfair exploitation of a race that yearns to be free) and especially the S5 Silurian two-parter, directly throwing humanity up against a dark mirror and showing what happens when we’re confronted with our own natures.

The central concept of the story – the Gangers themselves – is an interesting one, and the way the story deals with political subtexts is sometimes very effective (even if it’s also a little bit too subtle for its own good). Trouble is, we’ve seen Ganger-like duplicates before, and the fact is that they (and the twist of a Ganger version of the Doctor) aren’t quite strong enough a concept to hang a whole 90 minutes of television on.

While much of the character-based drama is well-played, it simply isn’t quite gripping enough, and it’s hard not to think how much stronger and focussed the story could have been if it had been a single episode. Added to this, you’ve got the slightly murky approach to the Gangers themselves – the potential was there for a ‘who’s the double?’ tension-fest in the manner of The Thing (which does seem to have been the initial intention), and in certain ways its good that they do try and explore the different levels of the Gangers, ultimately proving themselves to be just as worthy (and as flawed) as the humans.

The problem is that this doesn’t make for very dynamic bad guys – a necessity for Doctor Who to work – and it also undercuts the story’s tension. With large chunks of the plot involving various characters regularly switching sides (making it worryingly reminiscent of the 1970s Who story Colony in Space, much of which consists of miners and colonists capturing and recapturing each other ad nauseum), it’s like the story never quite catches fire. There are some excellent lines, and yet there are also some deeply clunky ones, and the lack of scale (with the perspective of the story completely confined to the Island monastery) meaning that the threat never quite feels big enough.

Given this, it’s a surprise how much of the story does motor along in an entertaining way. Despite the lax pacing, the direction pulls out plenty of atmosphere, the performances are largely strong (aside from a couple of exceptions, including an especially unconvincing child actor), and Matt Smith once again proves that he’s one of the most gleefully eccentric actors ever to get his hands on the role of the Doctor. Emerging from the TARDIS and exclaiming “Behold, a cockerel!”, he’s a delightfully kooky presence who brightens up even the less exciting scenes, while there’s also some nice nuances and depth given to Amy and Rory’s relationship (although I suspect some dialogue about Rory’s reasons for being able to sympathise with the Ganger Jen – thanks to his 2000-year-old experience as an Auton duplicate – may have been cut, and would have helped a lot).

Both episodes, despite their flaws (and a couple of especially weak CG shots), have more genuine invention and cleverness than The Curse of the Black Spot, although they’ve also got their fair share of logic errors as well (like exactly why it was necessary for the Ganger Doctor to sacrifice himself (other than to tie up a plot end), and where exactly did the second sonic screwdriver come from?). Ultimately, it’s an episode that’s a little too busy exploring the human condition to deliver the kind of adventurous scariness that Who does so well (and which The Doctor’s Wife pulled off with aplomb). A medium episode of Doctor Who is still good fun – it just has the danger of possibly not sticking in the memory, which is something you can’t say about most RTD episodes (even if they were sometimes only memorable for being extremely bad…)

Some of these problems (especially the ones of scale) are obviously down to money. The cuts in the show’s production budget were relatively obvious last year, and the gap between the blockbusting episodes and the smaller-scale stories does seem to becoming a little more extreme in Season 6 (with this being the second story this year to revolve around a small number of characters trapped in a relatively confined environment – and from the looks of things, there’s at least a couple more to come).

The end result is that the storytelling needs to get sharper and more imaginative to compensate, and while the budget could only stretch to a handful of shots of the surprisingly nasty Japanese horror-style mutant Jen Ganger in the climax of the episode, I can’t help feeling that this two-parter would have been much more gripping – and a hell of a lot more fun – if they’d eased off on exploring the human condition and just given us a cracking ‘The Thing’-style monster story.

However, while there is a lot of online grumbling about this initial slate of episodes (One thing Doctor Who fans never run out of is things to complain about), it’s worth remembering that last year had its own fair share of middling or not hugely impressive episodes. S6’s strike rate isn’t as initially strong as S5 – but then, I just end up looking at the major quality wobbles in the first seven episodes of S2 (excepting The Girl in the Fireplace, of course), and remind myself that creative teams are allowed to stumble a bit from time to time, and can sometimes take a while to truly get to grips with how difficult Who can be to pull off.

Some of this grumbling is, of course, because of the intricate story arc (and, simply, that Moffat is comitting the cardinal Who sin of – shock, horror! – attempting something that’s new and ambitious and not like what’s gone before), but the arc elements actually play into The Rebel Flesh and The Almost People rather well. We have the fact that the Doctor now knows more detail about his death in The Impossible Astronaut, there’s the slightly over-fast line that states we possibly may not have seen the last of the Ganger version of the Doctor…

…and there’s the ending.

Curiously enough, the last-minute revelation that Amy has been a Ganger duplicate for months (potentially since the appearence of the Silence in the White House bathroom?) is another mirroring of the Silurian two-parter and its sudden execution of Rory, although at least this feels a lot less tacked on and a far more organic part of the plot. The slightly hazy morality of the scene in question – the fact that we’ve spent the whole story establishing that Gangers should be treated humanely, and the Doctor essentially kills Amy’s non-self-aware Ganger – only really hits once the episode is over and you’ve had a chance to think about it (rather like the pregnant dream-suicide in Amy’s Choice). It’s still a magnificent twist, though, as well as a fantastically disturbing one, and it does raise the stakes massively for next week’s mid-season finale.

It’s also a natural evolution of Who storytelling – going from simply having something like ‘Bad Wolf’ turn up (and jerry-rigging a slightly convoluted explanation at the end of the season), to experimenting with full-on arcs that demand a lot of attention. There are potential risks involved; I think some of the episodes in this half of the series could have been stronger, and I’m also hoping that enough explanations are coming next week for this to feel genuinely satisfying – but I’m not about to start bitching about Moffat daring to do his own thing and approach the show with some serious ambition. I just feel like sometimes his cerebral approach doesn’t always suit the material, and that tonally S6 should possibly have had a little bit more fun upfront, and a little less dark and spooky character-driven soul searching.

The Verdict: A two-parter that does entertain but mostly leaves the needle firmly stuck on ‘average’, The Rebel Flesh and The Almost People is really just the latest in a long line of trad-Who two parters that didn’t quite come off (from Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel to Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks, and even The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky). It does, however, set the scene for next week’s mid-season cliffhanger, and certainly has me hoping Moffat is going to have something seriously big to deliver in ‘A Good Man Goes to War’…

Previous Doctor Who Season 6 Reviews:

S6 E04 – ‘The Doctor’s Wife’

S6 E03 – ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’

S6 E02 – ‘Day of the Moon’

S6 E01 – ‘The Impossible Astronaut’

TV Review: Doctor Who S4 E04 – ‘The Doctor’s Wife’

Cast: Matt Smith, Karen Gillen, Arthur Darvill, Suranne Jones, Elisabeth Berrington, Michael Sheen ~ Writer: Neil Gaiman ~ Director: Richard Clark ~ Year: 2011

Doctor Who The Doctor's Wife Season 6 Matt Smith Suranne Jones Neil Gaiman

[xrr rating=4.5/5]

The Low-Down: It’s ‘The One Written By That Bloke Who Wrote The Sandman’. It’s the episode with one of the most fan-baiting titles of recent years. And it’s also about the most inventive, fun and consistently excellent single episode of Doctor Who since S5’s The Eleventh Hour.

What’s it About?: An impossible message sends the Doctor to a junkyard asteroid outside the universe, where he encounters eccentric patchwork people and the parasitic House. But there’s also someone else – a woman named Idiris, who’s actually someone the Doctor knows extremely well…

The Story: (WARNING: As with most of my Doctor Who reviews, the following contains a hefty load of spoilers…)

I’ll be honest – I was a little worried about The Doctor’s Wife. Neil Gaiman writing Doctor Who did sound like a match made in heaven, but I’ve learned never to trust sure things where Doctor Who was concerned. Plus, there was that title – a fan-baiting proposition if there ever was one, especially in the wake of S4’s The Doctor’s Daughter (and its anti-climactic resolution in the story in question) along with the general speculation about exactly who River Song was going to turn out to be. Also, there was Suranne Jones – an actress whose first Who-related appearence was as a brassy, gun-slinging Northern version of the Mona Lisa in a not-exactly-astounding edition of The Sarah Jane Adventures. On top of this, the opening of S6 had been… well, not exactly shaky, but a little too arc-heavy, a long way from the confident energy of last year’s The Eleventh Hour, and backed up with an episode (The Curse of the Black Spot) that can only safely be described as ‘lacklustre’.

I needn’t have worried. Not only does The Doctor’s Wife bring a serious level of inventive fun and energy back to the show, but it’s also a stone-cold classic that features a tremendous amount of continuity that’ll enchant long-term fans without talking over the head of new viewers. One of the advantages of Doctor Who having such a long history is that certain writers can play off this history in imaginative ways, and Gaiman does this in such a wonderful manner, giving a new slant on a relationship that’s been there since the show’s beginning and yet has never quite been expressed like this.

The identity of Idris – that she’s the Doctor’s TARDIS in human form – is a brilliant twist (one that I didn’t predict in the slightest), and not only does it set up a pulpy, ferociously enjoyable episode, but it also gives us a wonderfully oddball relationship of the kind you could only ever pull off in Doctor Who – someone the Doctor has known for 700 years, and yet never properly met. The interplay between the Doctor and Idris is energetic, fast-paced and brilliantly done (from her initial outbursts of “My Thief!” to his complaints about the TARDIS’s reliability, to the final, heartbreaking “Hello” line), and what could have been over-kooky or twee is pitched at exactly the right level, aided by simply brilliant performances from Matt Smith and Suranne Jones (whom I’d never have recognised from her Sarah Jane Adventures appearence).

It’s an episode that’s utterly Gaimanesque, with plenty of gothic flourishes (especially with Idris herself, who heavily echoes Delirium from Gaiman’s The Sandman), but which also is steeped in Who mythology, utilising the background of the show in a number of imaginative ways and even giving us a long-awaited look at the TARDIS interior beyond the control room (with the dim, slightly creepy hexagonal corridors giving the dingy, atmospheric feel that the story needed).

What’s most surprising about the story, however, is that while there’s a brilliant pace and a cerebral edge to it, it also doesn’t feel like it would have been completely out of place in the Russell T Davies era – there’s an expansive big-heartedness to much of the episode that’s tremendous fun, and it also doesn’t fall into the trap of overdone sentiment that Vincent and the Doctor arguably did at its climax. Overall, this is Gaiman getting the chance to play with as many elements from the Doctor Who toybox as he can get his hands on – and while there are areas where budget has obviously come into play (the TARDIS-set sequences are never able to cut loose with the kind of mayhem that House would have been technically able to unleash), this is still a tremendously inventive and creative episode, giving us a style that feels modern while still capturing the pulp weirdness of Doctor Who at its best.

Slickly directed and well-played by everyone involved, it’s the kind of story where the tiny flaws only really stand out because there are so few of them. The TARDIS-pursuit sections never quite feel as if they fully live up to their potential, and it is unfortunate we ended up with yet another ‘fake death’ for Rory (although the proximity with ‘Curse of the Black Spot’ wasn’t planned, as that was originally to be episode 9 of this season, and the sequence in question was genuinely unsettling, with the disturbing graffiti giving it a seriously dark edge for Who). Yes, there are certain moments when the pace is a tad too fast, or we’re getting important information shouted at us over some slightly deafening sound design, but they’re over so quickly that they barely seem to matter.

What’s more important is the sheer quality of the writing, and how much of a difference it makes after last week’s somewhat unimpressive effort – while Moffat’s era of Who is still somewhat uneven, at least the highs are still turning out to be magnificent ones. As always, Who lives or dies on the quality of its writing, and Gaiman has set a new benchmark, giving us another episode that leaves you thinking “My God, why can’t it be that good every week?” He’s also given us the most genuinely satisfying episode of S6 so far, and yet more proof that despite its inconsistency, Who is still capable of being one of the finest SF shows on TV when it really hits the mark.

The Verdict: An engaging, funny and magical episode, The Doctor’s Wife will make it impossible to look at the Doctor/TARDIS relationship in quite the same way again. A seriously classy act, it’s not going to be an easy one to follow – and now’s not the time to mention that next week’s episode (the first of a two-parter) is from Matthew Graham, the same writer who gave us the abysmal S2 episode Fear Her, is it?

TV Review: Doctor Who S6 E03 – ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’

Cast: Matt Smith, Karen Gillen, Arthur Darvill, Hugh Bonneville, Lily Cole, Lee Ross~ Writer: Steve Thompson ~ Director: Jeremy Webb ~ Year: 2011

Doctor Who Season 6 Curse of the Black Spot Amy Pond Karen Gillen Pirate

[xrr rating=2.5/5]

The Low-Down: A lacklustre excursion into Pirate-infested waters, The Curse of the Black Spot isn’t the worst New Who episode by a long shot, but it’s certainly never in any danger of being the best.

What’s it About?: Following a distress signal, the TARDIS lands onboard a becalmed Pirate ship, but the crew are in fear of something out there in the water – a Siren (Lily Cole), who’s already killed most of their number. But, with Rory falling under the Siren’s spell, can the Doctor figure out what’s really behind this mysterious curse?

The Story: It isn’t always good to be prejudiced against certain writers – especially since expectations can often prove to be wrong – but unfortunately, there are also times when I’m proved completely right. When I initially heard that this episode was going to be written by Steve Thompson, the man responsible for the deeply lacklustre middle episode of last year’s Sherlock (The Blind Banker, aka The One With The Chinese People That Felt Like A Filler Episode), the chances of a brilliant standalone episode seemed pretty remote, and what we get is a long way from being brilliant; an episode that’s fun enough to be distracting, but never quite good enough to be truly memorable, and lacking the kind of insane invention that Doctor Who thrives on.

In fact, most of the problems with the episode can be laid at the script’s door, because after a relatively hearty start, the story soon runs out of interesting things to do with pirates (and it certainly doesn’t help that the story essentially gets smaller as it goes along – it only really feels in any way like the ‘spooky romp’ the trailers promised in the first ten minutes). The episode also runs into the problem that we’ve seen this story a few too many times now in New Who – the ‘supernatural threat turns out to have an SF explanation’ tale is almost as much of a staple as the Celebrity Historical, and while Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon subverted that kind of episode (giving us a very atypical adventure featuring Nixon), there’s no real subversion here at all. Even the leap from the boat to the space-ship (which is very reminiscent of 1978 Classic Who adventure The Stones of Blood) doesn’t carry any real sense of frisson or drama, and ultimately we spend far too long in the episode waiting to get past the ‘supernatural shenanigans’ and onto the meat of the story.

Another issue that’s rather more in evidence is that of budget. Who has, over the last couple of years, undergone some relatively strong budget cuts, and certainly isn’t quite functioning on the same scale as it was in S4, for example, but still has to somehow pull off epic adventures every week. Certain episodes are managing it, but others aren’t quite so able, and with its restricted scale The Curse of the Black Spot does feel distinctly like a ‘bottle’ show, with the regulars spending most of the story trapped in one location, while the spaceship has the same slightly threadbare feel that the Dalek craft (aka the redressed factory) had in S5’s Victory of the Daleks.

Of course, budget isn’t everything – but it does mean that you need really good writing to distract from the flaws. Robert Holmes, back in the classic run of the series, was a master at writing so well that the audience didn’t really notice that not much had actually happened in his stories, but Thompson isn’t anywhere close to his league. The script is pretty low on invention (and arguably throws in the ‘Amy in tricorn-hat-wearing swordfight’ scene a bit too quickly), and also seems unsure as to whether it’s playing it for laughs, being historically accurate, or going for all-out spookiness, ending up stuck somewhere in the rather unsatisfying middle-ground.

Indeed, it’s the kind of story where you almost wish RTD would rush back in and inject it with a bit of energy and some OTT pirate gags. Especially as it’s essentially going for the Pirates of the Caribbean route (in the same way that the Phillip Hinchcliffe era in the 1970s hi-jacked classic horror films), a little bit of exaggeration and luridness would have done this episode the world of good. Instead, there’s a deliberate ploy for historical texture rather than all-out pirate fantasy, and the results are… middling. A mildly distracting adventure that has a couple of nicely handled moments, but rarely gets the needle above ‘average’, shown by the fact that even Matt Smith can’t make the material he’s given work, sliding a bit too much into eccentric hand-waving mode here.

There is at least a fine performance from Hugh Bonneville as the Captain, giving the story more gravitas than it deserves, and while the ending is manipulative, nonsensical (exactly how is Rory suddenly drowning again?) and another example of Rory almost dying (which they could have gotten away with if they’d actually acknowledged it onscreen), I was actually surprised by how well the Amy and Rory relationship played in the latter half of this episode. It’s especially interesting to see Amy finally being unequivocally in love with Rory and letting down some of that rather brusque, inscrutable front of hers – the scene in the medical bay is surprising simply because it’s one of the first times it actually feels like Amy is Rory’s wife, and that the writers are succeeding in moving the relationship on.

Of course, there are the massive gaps in logic, the bizarre slip-ups, the strange decision to have the Siren catapult into the air every time she appears, and the frankly unforgivable error of cutting out the final fate of the Boatswain (Lee Ross), who gets deliberately injured and ‘marked’ by the Siren, and then isn’t seen again until appearing in the episode’s final scene. But these aren’t the largest problems to ever have appeared in a Doctor Who episode – plenty of RTD stories got away with a hell of a lot more, and The Curse of the Black Spot would be easier to forgive if it wasn’t quite so average.

However, for those taking this as a sign that Who’s in trouble – with a slightly overcomplex two-part season opener and a middling third episode – I’d just say, go back and look at Season 2. There, the season didn’t properly start firing on all cylinders until episode 4, The Girl in the Fireplace (and there wasn’t a huge number of highlights after that) – Season 6 has gone for the longer game, setting up stuff that will pay off later on, and while it hasn’t delivered an absolute slam-dunk classic yet, the quality is still pretty high, and if Curse of the Black Spot is the weakest episode of the season, that’s something I could definitely live with.

The Verdict: Light on the arc, The Curse of the Black Spot pulls off a few effective moments, but won’t be troubling anyone’s ‘Top Five S6 episodes’ lists. Here’s hoping that Moffat has some stronger standalone adventures coming, and that the next episode – the long-awaited Neil Gaiman-written episode ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ – sees S6 finally kicking into top gear…

Previous Doctor Who Season 6 Reviews:

S6 E02 – ‘Day of the Moon’

S6 E01 – ‘The Impossible Astronaut’

TV Review: Doctor Who S6 E02 – ‘Day of the Moon’

Cast: Matt Smith, Karen Gillen, Arthur Darvill, Alex Kingston, Mark Sheppard ~ Writer: Steven Moffat ~ Director: Toby Haynes ~ Year: 2011

Doctor Who Matt Smith Day of the Moon Still

[xrr rating=3.5/5]

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:

S6 E01 – ‘The Impossible Astronaut’

TV Review: Doctor Who S6 E01 – ‘The Impossible Astronaut’

Cast: Matt Smith, Karen Gillen, Arthur Darvill, Alex Kingston, Mark Sheppard ~ Writer: Steven Moffat ~ Director: Toby Haynes ~ Year: 2011

Doctor Who Series 6 Matt Smith Utah Filming The Impossible Astronaut

[xrr rating=4/5]

The Low-Down: Bold, bewildering and more than a little barmy, the opener to Season 6 of Doctor Who‘s new incarnation is an attention-grabbing adventure that may be a little too complicated at times, but certainly sets up one hell of an ongoing story arc…

What’s it About?: Mysteriously summoned to the Utah desert, the Doctor, Amy, Rory and Professor River Song are soon involved in a bizarre quest back to 1969, where dark events are occurring in the White House, and a sinister alien force lurks behind the scenes…

The Story: (WARNING: As with most of my Doctor Who reviews, the following contains a hefty load of spoilers…)

The RTD era is over. I mean, yes, it’s been over since The Eleventh Hour hopped onto our screens a year ago, but if there’s one thing that this opener to S6 brings home, it’s that this is very much a different show now. The Impossible Astronaut plays more like a season finale (which is a deliberate choice), and it’s about as far as it’s possible to get from the light, fluffy runaround nonsense of RTD opening episodes like Partners in Crime and Smith and Jones. In fact, it’s rather as if we’ve already leapt to Moffat’s equivalent of S4 continuity-fest The Stolen Earth with the sheer level of interconnections and fan service going on, and there’s a part of me that’s a tad concerned at this (especially as it’s always been the mix of daft showstoppers and brainier episodes that have kept the show’s popularity up) – but, admittedly, the rest of me is well and truly along for the ride.

And it’s certainly an eye-catching ride, managing to pull-off an epic, American adventure far better than the distinctly lacklustre Daleks in Manhattan two-parter in S3. There’s spectacle, there’s some great visuals- but on top of the gorgeous US location footage (which is sparing, but about as much as I figured we’d be getting, to be honest), there’s the major twist in the first ten minutes of the episode. Now, I already knew that one of the regulars ‘was going to die’ thanks to spoilers on the front of Doctor Who Magazine, and my money was on the Doctor, but not in the way it happened – a stark, bizarre and powerful scene that managed to have vague (probably deliberate) echoes of 1981 adventure Logopolis, where the soon-to-regenerate Doctor talks to the mysterious Watcher (who’s actually a projection of the Doctor’s future self). It’s really nice, very well acted, and is best because from then onwards it places all the characters in a really interesting emotional situation – the story does seem to be building up that everyone’s going to be keeping secrets from everyone else, and Moffat is also finding new wrinkles to the idea of having a married couple as TARDIS companions (especially if the ‘I’m Pregnant’ line is anything to go by).

Of course, there’s a get-out clause – and the Doctor being secretly enlisted by his own future self to possibly prevent his own death is a great set-up for a story, leading us in an admirably nutty direction while also giving Matt Smith plenty of chances to shine, showcasing the Eleventh Doctor’s comedy and his darker edges (along with his new status as Biggest Flirt in the Universe(TM)). The Impossible Astronaut is a fun, enjoyable and intriguing episode with plenty of standout moments and a great support performance from SF TV veteran Mark Sheppard, but in spite of the incredibly fast dialogue and the multitude of well-timed gags, it is a slow-burner – we’re more in character-building territory than all-out adventure, while the various enigmatic plot-threads have yet to connect up, meaning the final cliffhanger is more bemusing than thrilling simply because we don’t know yet what the hell is going on, leaving us with far more questions than answers (Why exactly is the Astronaut also a little girl? Why is Amy telling the Doctor right then that she’s pregnant? Is it because of what the Silent said? Why was the Future Doctor on the run for 200 years? Why are both Amy and River feeling ill after witnessing the Silents?).

I suspect that this’ll play much better once we’ve seen episode 2, and that maybe this story should have been shown as one big, attention-grabbing 90 minute special rather than a two-parter. With a new and intimidating enemy in the Silents (whose sequence in the White House bathroom is brilliantly spooky, even by Who standards) and a massive mystery (which is connected to the TARDIS-like craft from S5’s episode The Lodger, and may feed into the supposedly game-changing mid-season finale that’s coming in six weeks time), this is a different kind of Who opener that’s dark and demanding, but possibly a little too complicated at times. There’s also the feeling that Moffatt needs to be careful with the trans-temporal shenanigans from now on, as there’s the distinct danger of repeating himself and losing any freshness the concept had in the first place. A gripping opener, The Impossible Astronaut may not have won me over 100% in the way that The Eleventh Hour did, and much is going to depend on how Day of the Moon pans out (from the end-of-episode teaser, it certainly looks demented) – but Doctor Who is still a wildly inventive adventure, and one of the most unabashedly fun SF shows around.

The Verdict: Season 6 is go – and we’re already off to a head-spinning, complex start. Despite a few reservations, this is a strong opener, and if Moffatt can keep focus and not let things get too over-complicated, this could be a seriously impressive Who adventure. Now all we need is episode 2…

TV News: Farewell, Sarah Jane – A Tribute to Elisabeth Sladen (1948-2011)

Elisabeth Sladen Sarah Jane Smith Doctor Who Companion

I don’t like doing R.I.P./Memorial posts – because very often, even if famous/well-loved performers or actors have died, I don’t have much to say other than “Oh dear, that’s sad.” But news hit last night, on the 19th of April 2011, and frankly I’ve got to say something about this one, because this one feels terribly personal. It was bad enough when we recently lost Nicholas Courtney (the actor who portrayed Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart), but now Elisabeth Sladen has died, aged only 63. She was the actress who played the tremendously popular assistant Sarah Jane Smith from 1973-1976 in the classic series of Doctor Who, and who ended up returning to the role more times than anyone (especially her) expected, going on to appear several times in the relaunched version of Who,  and getting her own children’s TV spin-off, The Sarah Jane Adventures.

Of course, the question is – why? Why was Sarah Jane quite so popular and remembered as a Who companion? My Twitter feed over the last twelve hours has been a genuinely touching outpouring of disbelief, sadness, and a genuine affection for a performer who brought a serious amount of warmth and happiness into people’s lives – it’s a testament to how much impact Doctor Who has had, and it’s also a testament to exactly how bloody good Sladen was in the role.

Because, let’s be honest, when you’re looking at the classic series of Who, the companion is pretty often a fairly thankless role – they’re there to ask questions, get into danger, be kidnapped, undergo hypnosis, almost be sacrificed, and generally be an audience identification figure. There’s not much depth, and it’s up to the performer in question to actually make this slightly thin collection of ticks and story devices into a character the audience cares about.

There were few actresses in Classic Who who were as good at this as Elisabeth Sladen – Sarah Jane starts out in her first year (Jon Pertwee’s final season as the Third Doctor) as a deliberate ‘Women’s Lib’ character, a bolshy journalist who pokes her nose in places and willingly gets into trouble, but she soon settles down into a far less deliberately spiky character, and it’s in her first season with Tom Baker that she truly starts to shine. It’s partly because Sarah Jane is the prototype for what the companion would eventually become – she’s the point where the Doctor/companion relationship goes from one that had been largely parental in nature (especially with characters like Victoria and Jo Grant), to one that’s on a rather more equal footing, with the Doctor and companion as genuine friends. There are companions who followed who were even more capable, violent or intelligent than Sarah Jane, and one (Ace) who got a far more detailed emotional life than she ever did – but there’s something effortlessly likeable about Sladen in the role, coupled with the very obvious onscreen chemistry between her and Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor. Sladen and Baker got on really well, and it truly shows in their stories – the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane are a pairing who are such fun to watch, it’s hard not to be charmed silly by their adventures (a fact that’s helped by Sladen’s run on the show being largely in the Phillip Hinchcliffe era, a hugely acclaimed run of stories which features few (if any) actual duds, and several stone-cold classics).

It was lovely seeing her return to the show in 2006’s ‘School Reunion’ (I’m not a huge fan of the episode, but Sladen’s work is sensational), and everything I’ve heard and seen of Sladen’s offscreen persona suggests that she was an impossibly lovely person to work with. It’s tremendously sad that she’s gone, and a piece of my childhood is gone tonight – but her work, and Sarah Jane, will live on as a part of Who’s imaginative and thoroughly British history.

R.I.P. Elisabeth Sladen. You really will be missed.