Doctor Who: season 5 review

*** WARNING: SPOILERS! *** (Obviously …)

Yes, I know the current run of Doctor Who finished a week ago. But better late than never, especially if you don’t have the luxury of a vortex manipulator or even an obsolete, malfunctioning type-40 time capsule to hand …

So, season five of new Who is done and dusted. It seems like only a couple of weeks ago that a suspicious audience tuned in to see whether the new Holy Trinity of show-runner Steven Moffat, Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith and companion Karen Gillan were, you know, actually any good.

The answer: a resounding “Yes!”

What came before

I will always be grateful to Russell T Davies for resurrecting a show which had been an integral part of my childhood but which had become, well, a bit crap by the end (although nowhere near as bad as some would have you think). There were many great things he brought to the series, not least a willingness to embrace its own history and some inspired casting decisions, particularly David Tennant and Catherine Tate (the latter much derided at the time).

But by the end of his run, trivial niggles had become major irritations. In particular, a consistent tendency towards campness (something which pervades all of Davies’ series) and to write dialogue for David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor which involved him SHOUTING A LOT and being generally very angsty. (I love Tennant as an actor, but it all became a bit hammy towards the end.)

And then there were the season finales. Oh dear. Every year Davies would crank the melodrama up to 11, paint the Doctor into an impossible corner and then produce a deus ex machina resolution – often not involving the Doctor at all – which would leave me screaming “What? WHAT?!?” at the TV. A lot.

So I was glad when Davies announced it was time to move on. Not because he was bad, but because it was time for a regeneration behind the camera as well as in front of it.

An up-and-down start

I was even happier to learn Steven Moffat was to be installed in his place. The man behind Press Gang and Coupling, here was someone with a proven record. He had already produced some of the new series’ finest episodes: The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, The Girl in the Fireplace, Blink and Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead – each an exercise in taut, simple horror.

All the doubts focussed on the youthful and relatively unknown Matt Smith and his new companion. How would he compare to Tennant; how would she stack up against Tate, Billie Piper and Freema Agyeman?

The Doctor discovers the cracks in space and time (The Eleventh Hour)

We need not have worried. The Moffat-penned opening episode The Eleventh Hour showed us the template for what was to come: Smith’s Doctor immediately distinctive as the mad old genius in the young man’s body; Gillan’s Amy Pond feisty and confident.

From fish custard to the Eleventh Doctor stepping through a montage of images of his predecessors and enemies – as a reboot of the show, this was snappy and confident. And very good.

One question, just one more. Is this world protected? Yeah, you’re not the first to have come here. Oh, there have been so many. And what you have to ask yourself is: what happened to them? Hello. I’m the Doctor. Basically … run.

After this strong start, we entered the weakest part of the season. The Beast Below was standard fare, but important in that it established Amy’s worthiness as a companion, as she steps in to save the day by seeing in the Star Whale exactly what she sees in the Doctor himself:

It came because it couldn’t stand to watch your children cry. What if you were really old, and really kind and alone? Your whole race dead, no future. What couldn’t you do then? If you were that old, and that kind, and the very last of your kind … you couldn’t just stand there and watch children cry.

The less said about Victory of the Daleks, the better. I’m sure the colour-coded Daleks make for great merchandise, and that the concept of Spitfires in space looked good on paper but it was all a bit crap, really, as was the resolution where again it is Amy rather than the Doctor who saves the day in utterly ridiculous fashion.

The same goes for the laughable Vampires of Venice, a bandwagon-jumping filler episode if ever there was one. Okay, so we eventually discovered they weren’t really vampires. I had ceased caring by then. Best forgotten.

In between, we had the two-parter featuring the return of both River Song and the Weeping Angels, While lacking the visceral impact of their initial appearance in season three’s Blink, the Angels remain one of the simplest yet scariest enemies the Doctor has ever had. And, little did we know at the time, Moffat plants the seed in one brief, slightly curious exchange between the Doctor and Amy that pays off spectacularly in the season finale.

Hitting stride

Amy's Choice

In most seasons of Who, there has been a standalone episode which polarises audiences. (Season two’s Love and Monsters, for instance.) This year, that episode was Amy’s Choice, a one-off tale requiring the trio of the Doctor, Amy and Rory to choose between two perilous situations; one real, the other not. Ultimately, the Doctor realises both scenarios were dreams, but not before Amy decides to sacrifice both herself and the Doctor when Rory is killed and she realises she cannot live without him.

Indeed, Amy really is put through the emotional wringer as the second half of the season progresses. As if being slowly turned to stone by the Weeping Angels and seeing her fiancé killed (albeit in a dream) wasn’t bad enough, she is then sucked into the bowels of the Earth (The Hungry Earth), left by the Doctor to negotiate sharing the planet with the Silurians (Cold Blood), watches Rory die for real this time (Cold Blood again) and then simply forgets he ever existed, and then sent careering across space alone in an out-of-control TARDIS (The Lodger).

And that’s before she remembers and is killed by Auton Rory in the first part of the season finale!

The death of Rory aside, the comeback of the Silurians was a workmanlike effort at best, in which only the siege scenes within the church carried any dramatic oomph. A shame.

Who’s finest 45 minutes?

Vincent Van Gogh, as portrayed by Tony Curran (Vincent and the Doctor)

However, the episode which followed it, Vincent and the Doctor, was as fine a story as Who has ever produced. In fact, it was the highlight of my TV year so far.

This was a sensitive portrayal – and a fantastic performance by Tony Curran – of an artist who ultimately took his own life following a long history of depression.

Maybe it was just me, but it felt like there was a small, under-stated comparison drawn between Vincent and the Doctor. Both geniuses, both seeing the world around them in a different light to everyone else in a way which isolates them from other people, and both tragically underappreciated by virtually everyone around them. Vincent, alone, committed suicide. The Doctor has always had his companions to keep him sane, otherwise he could easily have turned out like The Master.

There was sadness in this episode, but it was coloured with humour, pathos and insight. The final sequence where the Doctor and Amy take Van Gogh to Paris’s Musée d’Orsay to see how much his work is treasured, and then return him home only to discover on their return to the present day that it did not prevent his impending suicide, may have caused a tear or two to escape my eye. (I blame the onions, personally.)

Huge credit here must go to Moffat and his less-than-obvious selection of writer for this episode, Richard Curtis, whose CV is stuffed full with comedy gems such as Blackadder, Four Weddings and a Funeral and Mr Bean. And if the Doctor’s closing remarks to console Amy sounded just like something Hugh Grant might have uttered in Four Weddings, it was no bad thing:

The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa the bad things don’t always spoil the good things and make them unimportant. And we definitely added to his pile of good things.

One final breath for levity in The Lodger served as a comical reminder that the Doctor, despite his outward appearance and all his experiences with humanity, is still not quite human. It was a nice down-beat to let us catch our breaths before the finale, light-weight but not insubstantial, with the otherwise grossly over-exposed James Corden putting in a touching turn as the Doctor turns into Cupid for the day.

(Incidentally, this was clearly the ‘Amy-lite’ episode to accommodate space on the shooting schedule for the Christmas special. Does this mean, as has been rumoured, that Christmas will be ‘Doctor-lite’? Interesting.)

Does this mean the Doctor really is God?

Filming at Stonehenge (The Pandorica Opens)

And so to the two-part finale.

In The Pandorica Opens, an elaborate trap leads the Doctor to Stonehenge, where his enemies have allied against him, having identified him as a threat to all time and space. The Doctor is locked in the Pandorica, while Amy is reunited with Rory, who turns out to be an Auton created from her memories and shoots her dead. Oh, and River Song is trapped inside the exploding TARDIS, which causes the universe to collapse. That small thing.

In The Big Bang, a future Doctor sets in motion a complex chain of time-hopping events which frees him from the Pandorica – yes, it’s a time paradox – and brings Amy back to life in the process. The Doctor devises a plan to fly the Pandorica into the heart of the exploding TARDIS, setting off a second Big Bang which effectively recreates the universe, but at the cost of erasing himself from existence. However, as he hops back through his own timeline, he plants the seed of a story in a seven-year old Amy’s mind: one final, desperate plan to save himself:

When you wake up you’ll have a Mum and Dad. And you won’t remember me. Well, you’ll remember me a little. I’ll be a story in your head. That’s OK – we’re all stories in the end. Just make it a good one. Cos it was, you know. It was the best. A daft old man who stole a magic box and ran away. Did I ever tell you that I stole it? Well, borrowed it – I was always gonna give it back someday. Oh, that box, Amy. You’ll dream about that box. It’ll never leave you. Big and little at the same time. Brand new and ancient. And the bluest blue ever. And the times we had. Would have had. Never had. In your dreams they’ll still be there. The Doctor and Amy Pond. And the days that never came. The cracks are closing. But they can’t close properly ’til I’m on the other side. I don’t belong here any more. I think I’ll skip the rest of the rewind. I hate repeats. Live well. Love Rory. Bye bye, Pond.

The Doctor’s canonically accurate description of the TARDIS, in slightly different words: something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. Somehow (and someone may be able to explain exactly how, because it’s not clear to me) River Song has left her TARDIS-styled diary for Amy to pick up, at which point her memories of her ‘raggedy Doctor’ come flooding back. Before you can say “paradox, anyone?”, the TARDIS materialises and the Doctor is back.

Let’s rewind a moment. You remember that earlier I mentioned the odd dialogue exchange in the Weeping Angels two-parter? Well, this is where it pays off. Amy, blind, has been left by the Doctor, who is without his tweed jacket at this point in the story. (It had been pulled off him by one of the Weeping Angels, and was later returned to him.) The Doctor returns, curiously wearing his jacket, and tells Amy:

You need to start trusting me. It’s never been more important. Remember what I told you when you were seven? … You have to remember.

Well, now we know it was the future Doctor who spoke to Amy, and we also know what he was referring to: the story of the borrowed blue box. Now watch Cold Blood again (or try the YouTube video below). Then I defy you not to slap your forehead.

It is stupefyingly brilliant – fantastically complex story-telling achieved with simple misdirection and an admirable economy of effort. I remember there being some chatter about the perceived continuity error with the jacket at the time. There were even some people who suggested it might be a future version of the Doctor. Hats off to them. I completely missed it.

There was so much about the finale that was subtle and intricate and truly inventive. A few personal highlights:

  • “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.” It’s so obvious with hindsight, and yet it had never occurred to me.
  • The loop within the time loop. It’s just a tiny sidebar which doesn’t really affect the main plot, but at the museum young Amelia has her drink snatched away from her by someone. Later she says she is thirsty, so the Doctor jumps back a few hours, steals the drink from past-Amelia and gives it to present-Amelia to satisfy her thirst. Presto!
  • We now know that Amy, “the girl who waited” for her raggedy Doctor, is perfectly matched with Rory, the lone centurion who waited nearly two millennia for her to emerge from the Pandorica. (But in the rebooted universe, is he still an Auton?)
  • The Doctor’s dancing at the wedding. (I assume they didn’t get Strictly Come Dancing on Gallifrey.)
  • “History can be rewritten.” This line popped up a few times during the series, suggesting that maybe specific historical events could be changed. But no, when Moffat said rewriting history, he actually meant recreating the history of the entire universe. Silly me.
  • Generally, the amount of zany, farcical humour which Moffat managed to inject into the plot. All reality is collapsing before our eyes, and yet I spent half the episode laughing. It takes a seriously good writer to be able to do that.

So, the Doctor effectively creates the universe with a big bang. Does that make him equivalent to God? And does that mean we don’t need CERN’s Large Hadron Collider to look for the Higgs boson any more? (Who needs to look for the so-called ‘God particle’ when we now know the Big Bang was actually just a Time Lord and his exploding TARDIS?)

Looking back, the season arc was immensely satisfying. Moffat laid the high-level plot of the cracks in time to signpost things for the casual viewer. For more observant fans he left a trail of breadcrumbs and loose ends – some obvious, others ingeniously disguised – which left the vast majority of us (well, me, anyway) groping around in the dark, utterly bamboozled.

And, to top it all off, not only did he set up a great season five arc, it looks like he has already got the key beats for season six mapped out. We know the Doctor is on the trail of  ‘the Silence’, and whoever has been manipulating the TARDIS. And the mystery of River Song remains unresolved. Truly, this is great writing.

In safe hands

I have been completely won over by both Matt Smith and Karen Gillan. I was unsure at first about Gillan’s Amy, but after 13 episodes she now feels like all the best bits of Rose, Martha and Donna rolled into one. And once you get past the gangling limbs and outward tomfoolery, Smith’s characterisation of the Doctor is remarkably layered and subtly other-worldly. In particular, to make a clean break from the Tenth Doctor, this exchange from The Beast Below turned the Doctor’s character on a sixpence and wiped away the angst in a flash:

Amy: So, there are other Time Lords?

The Doctor: No. There were, but now there aren’t. Just me now. Long story. There was a bad day. Bad stuff happened.

And while some bad stuff did happen on this initial run-out for the new cast and crew, the high points were so high that quite frankly I could have forgiven Moffat if he had sneakily inserted a couple of episodes of the execrable Knight Rider reboot on the sly. I can think of no higher compliment.

There is also one thing we now know for sure: bow-ties are cool. Fezzes? I’m not sure. Either way, I am now fully reassured that Doctor Who is, once again, cool. Bring on Christmas, and roll on season six next spring!

Doctor Who: season 5 ratings

5.01 – The Eleventh Hour (4/5)

5.02 – The Beast Below (3/5)

5.03 – Victory of the Daleks (1/5)

5.04/5.05 – The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone (4/5)

5.06 – The Vampires of Venice (1/5)

5.07 – Amy’s Choice (4/5)

5.08/5.09 – The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood (3/5)

5.10 – Vincent and the Doctor (5/5)

5.11 –The Lodger (4/5)

5.12/5.13 – The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang (4.5/5)

Overall – 4/5