TV Review: Doctor Who S6 E09 – ‘Night Terrors’

Cast: Matt Smith, Karen Gillen, Arthur Darvill, Daniel Mays, Jamie Oram, Emma Cunliffe ~ Writer: Mark Gatiss ~ Director: Richard Clark ~ Year: 2011

Doctor Who S6 E09 Night Terrors promo pic Matt Smith Daniel Mays

[xrr rating=3/5]

The Low-Down: After the time-warping loopiness of ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’, something calmer and more traditional – ‘Night Terrors’ has plenty of flaws, but sharp dialogue, strong atmosphere and another great performance from Matt Smith all steer this episode through to a fine conclusion.

What’s it About?: Summoned by an unexpected call via the Psychic Paper, the TARDIS crew find themselves visiting a dreary tower block, where a young boy is living in a state of permanent fear. Eight-year-old George is convinced that there are monsters lurking in his cupboard, waiting to claim him – and the Doctor is soon discovering that he’s frighteningly correct…

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

It’s not exactly a surprise that an episode like ‘Night Terrors’ has happened on Steven Moffat’s watch – no other New Who writer has been quite so dedicated to exploring childhood fears in such a specific way, and the only real surprise is that it doesn’t come from Moffat, instead being the fourth New Who episode to be written by prolific actor/writer Mark Gatiss. Considering Gatiss’ run on the show has been a bit on the inconsistent side (going from the quality of ‘The Unquiet Dead’ in S1 to the rushed pacing and garbled storytelling of ‘Victory of the Daleks’ in S5), it would have been easy to be concerned about this episode – but while Night Terrors is far better than his Season 5 outing (or the rather weak S2 episode ‘The Idiot’s Lantern’), it’s a curiously quiet and simple episode that settles for being solid rather than memorable.

Weirdly enough, ‘Night Terrors’ is also a semi-flashback to New Who’s history, with a council estate setting that’s like the grungier, less welcoming flipside to the Powell Estate where this latest incarnation of the show spent so much time.  Considering how integral this kind of location used to be to the make-up of the show (especially in S2, where I occasionally felt like Who had transformed into a tour of Council Estates through the ages), it’s a refreshing jolt to find that for Amy and Rory, this is an unusual sight to find on the other side of the TARDIS doors, and shows exactly how much the show has spread its storytelling wings in the last few years.

Of course, much of this grunginess plays into the story of George’s fears (especially Andrew Tiernan as the bullying landlord), and the direction tries as hard as possible to amp up the menace, especially once the action arrives in the shadowy corridors of the dollhouse. It’s been a while since Who has tried this hard to be deliberately spooky, delivering the kind of safe-yet-unsettling child-friendly scares that the programme specialises in (especially in the Jan Svankmajer-inspired scene where the landlord is transformed into a doll), but if there’s an ultimate flaw in ‘Night Terrors’, it’s that it’s a little too deliberate and literal. The story itself is enjoyably presented but surprisingly simple – in a way, the simplicity is a relief after the convoluted histrionics of ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’, but it ends up feeling like such a purposeful exercise in fear that there’s very little to it.

We’re on very literal ground here – plenty of Moffat’s scares in the past have been based on the idea that the monsters children are scared of are real (whether it’s shadows, the creatures under the bed, or something you glimpse out of the corner of your eye), so it’s not exactly a surprise when it turns out that George’s ‘monsters’ are very real. Who works best with layered storytelling, especially when it’s undercutting expectation, and while the “She can’t have kids!” is a tremendously effective revelation, most of the episode runs along very traditional, well-telegraphed lines. It’s a ghost train (a phrase Moffat’s used to describe this whole season), but one that never really feels in danger of being more than an entertainingly spooky spectacle. The mishappen dolls are creepy – but without a specific reason for them to be stalking the corridors of the dollhouse (other than “Well, dolls are creepy”) they’re a surface threat to drive the story, and not much else. (There’s also the simple fact that this is basically a standalone episode with no mention of the overall arc (aside from the slightly clumsy end shot) – it’s because ‘Night Terrors’ was moved from the episode 3 slot, replaced by ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’, but it does end up feeling weird that the seismic revelations of ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ don’t get any reference at all.)

At the least, the emotional pay-off of the story genuinely works. Once again, we have an episode climax revolving around a father and son bonding where one of them isn’t what they seem, but thankfully this is much more effective than the similar sequence in ‘The Almost People’. It’s a very New Who case of ‘love conquers all’, but one which doesn’t feel like a cheat, partly because the simplicity of the story keeps the focus on the characters. There’s also, of course, the subtext (which I didn’t spot, admittedly, instead first reading it in Adam Roberts’ great review of the episode here and then thinking “Oh, of course…”) that’s possibly the most subtle and effective use of what sometimes gets stupidly referred to as ‘the Gay Agenda’. In short, George is a kid who’s different (but doesn’t quite understand why), and that difference terrifies him to the extent of convincing himself his parents are going to reject him, and it’s only when his father finds out the truth and tells him that he loves him anyway that the crisis in George’s head is resolved. Add to that the fact that he’s hiding everything that scares him in the cupboard/closet (and the presence of a dollhouse, hidden away), and it’s amazing how blatant yet effective the subtext manages to be, hiding in plain sight and not battering the audience over the head with its own significance.

Ultimately, the episode works better as a spooky, dream-like psychodrama that the lead characters just happen to have wandered into, than as the scary thrill-ride it occasionally seems to want to be. There are some nice visual nods to Terry Gilliam’s cult classic kids adventure Time Bandits, while the support performances ride that New Who line between earnest, effective and a little too cartoony. Daniel Mays is mostly excellent with only a couple of weak moments, Jamie Oram does a pretty good job of maintaining a near-constant level of wide-eyed fear throughout the entire episode, and Andrew Tiernan yet again proves he’s the go-to guy for heavy-set and menacing villains.

It’s the leads who really make this episode, however. The kookiness of the Doctor/Amy/Rory team can feel overwhelming in an episode like ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’, and yet here it livens the episode up (with even Amy and Rory feeling slightly alien and out-of-place in this setting), adding colour to the downbeat and grungy world of the council estate. More than anything else, though, Night Terrors once again proves that Matt Smith makes a downright fascinating Doctor, and is arguably at his best when he’s got a relatively mundane setting to play against. There’s something tremendously endearing about the way the Doctor wanders into the lives of George and his father, and Smith controls the leaps from comedy to drama with commendable skill (especially in the “You see these eyes? They’re old eyes” speech). Combined with some great one-liners and enjoyable physical comedy, Smith raises ‘Night Terrors’ up by several degrees, and leaves it as a fun and entertaining episode that’s certainly ahead of this season’s weaker moments, but isn’t likely to linger in the memory.

The Verdict: A solid, modestly enjoyable episode that acts as a good counterpoint to ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’, this isn’t Doctor Who at it’s strongest (and does feature a couple of clunky moments, like the unconvincing ‘dragged into the cupboard’ sequence), but a combination of strong dialogue, charm and an effective emotional through-line leaves ‘Night Terrors’ as a quiet but satisfying example of Who storytelling.

Previous Doctor Who Season 6 Reviews:

S6 E08 – ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’

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 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 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’

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’