Doctor Who: Mid-season 6 review

*** WARNING: SPOILERS! (Well, it does feature River Song after all) ***

Season six (or season 32, if you’re a traditionalist) of Doctor Who reached its mid-season finale last night with the astonishing A Good Man Goes To War, an episode which promised to answer one big question – Who is River Song? – and yet also left other important questions unanswered and posed several new ones. As the series now enters an unfamiliar summer hiatus, it leaves at least one faithful viewer scratching his head at a seven-episode run which has varied between the sublime and the mediocre, and also signalled a distinct turn towards a darker, more horror-based approach which is likely to send younger viewers (and some older ones) scurrying behind the sofa and watching from behind their hands.

Stetsons are cool … and so are the scares

Nowhere is this ramped-up scare quotient more apparent than in the opening Steven Moffat-penned two-parter, The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon. One of the most ambitious Who stories ever in many respects – including location filming at the iconic Valley of the Gods in Utah – this story sets the template for what was to follow. Moffat mixes in moments of extreme silliness – such as the Doctor extravagantly waving hello to Rory and Amy from various points in history and his Stetson-wearing reappearance – before launching into a succession of shocks and horrors which left viewers reeling. From the Doctor’s death at the hands of an unseen assailant in a NASA spacesuit to the realisation that Earth has long since been manipulated by an invading species, the Silence, who are forgotten the moment you look away from them, there is a distinct step away from the sense of whimsy which was never far from the surface in the Russell T Davies era.

Moffat has a talent for turning everyday things into genuinely scary ones (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Davies based much of his drama on the Doctor’s angst as the last of the Time Lords; Moffat finds his in an altogether more visceral combination of visual and psychological horrors. The children’s home which Amy and Canton Delaware (a wonderful guest turn by Mark Sheppard) search is like something lifted straight out of the genre, while the use of tally marks on the faces and arms of Amy, Rory and River (to record their encounters with the Silence) is thoroughly chilling and one of this season’s enduring visual images.

In true Moffat style, the tale plants several seeds to be returned to at a later date, and leaves us with two genuinely puzzling conundrums. What is the deal with Amy’s Schrödinger’s cat pregnancy? And how is the mysterious girl able to regenerate at the end of the story? It’s not quite the perfect start – particularly because the basic premise of the Silence is a bit too close to the Weeping Angels, arguably Moffat’s finest creation – but it is nonetheless an energetic and thrilling start to the season.

Tricorns are cool … pirates aren’t

Sadly, two of the next three stories – the Pirates of the Caribbean-style The Curse of the Black Spot and Life On MarsMatthew Graham‘s two-parter The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People – are, at best, workmanlike. All five previous seasons of new Who have had their fair share of these – Boom Town, Graham’s Fear Her and The Vampires of Venice, to name but three – but in a truncated half-season run like this, their presence was felt all the more keenly.

Aside from a pleasing performance by Downton Abbey‘s Hugh Bonneville as Captain Henry Avery, Black Spot is a by-the-numbers tale of pirate clichés with a ‘villain’ (supermodel Lily Cole) whose true identity is lifted straight from Star Trek Voyager, when we finally discover she is actually an emergency medical hologram. The setting of a becalmed pirate ship failed to shiver my timbers in terms of delivering a sense of claustrophobia, not least because of the silliness of much of the script. However, it did achieve the laudable aim of being a relatively low-cost episode, allowing the budget to stretch further for the location shoot in Utah and other effects-heavy episodes to follow. That’s about the most positive thing I have to say about this story, however.

Tricorns are cool, but The Curse of the Black Spot was lukewarm at best (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

The Rebel Flesh was in many ways a throwback to classic Who tropes of old, combining the traditional base-under-siege story with an examination of the treatment of an all-but-human under-class – in this case the Gangers, who are duplicates manufactured from the replicating Flesh. It’s an interesting if well-worn premise, but what follows is two episodes of philosophical pontificating, running up and down dark, dank corridors, and a final, unexplained metamorphosing human-head-on-a-monster-body which was too similar to The Lazarus Experiment. Not to mention the fact that – in another lift from a Star Trek series – the Gangers’ appearance bore more than a resemblance to Odo and his fellow Changelings from Deep Space Nine.

And all to demonstrate an obvious lesson – that there is no reason to treat doppelgängers as different and somehow less than human when even Amy is fooled by the real and Flesh Doctors, and both humans and Gangers are equally capable of both monstrous and heroic acts. There were some lovely touches here – not least the surfacing of the Doctor’s previous incarnations in his Ganger version, the discarded pile of ‘malfunctioned’ Gangers and the macabre wall of eyes – but overall there was far less than a double episode’s worth of plot here, and what could have been a taut 45 minutes instead felt like a poorly padded 90.

The Gangers have a team huddle before making their next move (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

The TARDIS is sexy … and Neil Gaiman is a proper Whovian

Thankfully, in between those two pillars of mediocrity shone a beacon of light touched with, literally, a little bit of Stardust. Penned by the acclaimed fantasy writer Neil Gaiman, The Doctor’s Wife personifies the TARDIS matrix in the human form of Idris (a perfectly cast Suranne Jones). What starts out as a story of the grandest scale – with an antagonist, House, who eats TARDISes (or, at least, their Artron energy) for breakfast – actually becomes an intimate examination of the relationship between the Doctor and his “sexy” ship, complete with almost casual moments which cast the series’ established continuity in a new light. Idris reveals that the TARDIS stole the Doctor as much as he stole it, that she hasn’t always taken him to where he wanted but always to where he needed to go, and pokes fun at the way he pushes the TARDIS front door despite the instruction ‘pull to open’.

The Doctor meets his perfect match in the form of TARDIS-as-Idris (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

In between times, Rory and Amy takes us on a quick run around the TARDIS corridors as House plays gruesome tricks on them (such as forcing Rory to wait 2,000 years for Amy again), and the Doctor manufactures a makeshift TARDIS from an old Fairy liquid bottle and some sticky-backed plastic (the central console he builds was designed by a Blue Peter competition winner). The Doctor’s Wife is an indulgent luxury – a standalone episode which contributes something not inconsiderable to the series’ mythos but little to the overall season arc – but as a piece of fantastical wonder it is true Gaiman, who reveals himself to be a Who fan through and through.

Demons run when a good man goes to war

Which brings us neatly to the small matter of the mid-season finale, and what is to come when the series returns in the autumn.

Let me start with a simple statement: A Good Man Goes To War is an astonishing piece of television. Only five minutes longer than a standard episode – and therefore considerably shorter than a Christmas special – there is an immense amount of plot squeezed into 47 minutes which bring the first part of the season to a satisfying end while setting up the second with a labyrinthine series of twists which demands a second viewing.

The story actually begins with the final scene of The Almost People, where it is revealed that the Amy we have seen with the Doctor and Rory is merely a Flesh avatar. The real version, who is about to give birth, is being held captive by the eyepatch-wearing Madame Kovarian (Frances Barber).

Madame Kovarian (centre, played by Frances Barber) has fooled the Doctor not once, but twice (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

The pre-credits teaser is a reward for those of us who have always seen Rory as the Last Centurion rather than the lesser half of the Pond-Williams marriage. Dressed once again in his centurion’s outfit, he single-handedly storms a Cyberman control centre to deliver a message from the Doctor and a question from himself:

Where. Is. My. Wife?

As the Doctor’s message is conveyed in the form of an exploding Cyber fleet behind him, Rory makes a simple, steely reiteration:

Would you like me to repeat the question?

At this point, we are launched into a rollercoaster ride. The Doctor calls in debts from a variety of familiar faces and races: the spaceborne Spitfire pilots (Victory of the Daleks), the blue-skinned merchant Dorium (The Pandorica Opens), Captain Avery, Sontaran warrior-turned-nurse Commander Strax (a nice counterpoint to fellow soldier/medic Rory – and also to the Doctor himself) and the lesbian Silurian Vastra. River Song, however, refuses Rory’s call, stating she cannot be present at Demon’s Run until events have played out.

If the episode falters anywhere, it is here. Moffat crams so many characters and ideas into the plot – such as Vastra having just dispatched Jack the Ripper – that there is an element of gilding the lily here. But, having accused the Flesh two-parter of being short of plot ideas, it would be churlish to bemoan the point too much.

It is far easier to enjoy the considerable amount which Moffat gets absolutely spot on, as the Doctor seemingly manages to outwit an entire Cleric army without spilling a drop of blood, only to be fooled by a doppelgänger for the second time in as many episodes, as Kovarian escapes with Amy’s newborn baby while leaving a Flesh substitute in her place.

A few personal highlights:

  • The Headless Monks – surely, with their hooded cloaks and weapons which look suspiciously like lightsabers, a nod and a wink to Star Wars‘ Jedi?
  • The Doctor labelling the hapless Colonel Manton as ‘Colonel Runaway’.
  • “I speak baby.”
  • Lorna Bucket, touched – like Amy – by a brief meeting with the Doctor as a child, who ultimately loses her life for the opportunity to meet and fight alongside him.
  • The Doctor does not appear at all for the first 20 minutes, although his presence infuses every scene even when he is not there – which just serves to underline what Manton, Lorna and River all state, that even the briefest contact or the mention of his name has a profound effect on people across the universe.
  • The importance of meaning and context – Lorna’s people associate ‘Doctor’ with ‘mighty warrior’, as opposed to the more traditional connotation of a healer, which foreshadows the final revelation …

… That River Song is, in fact, a later version of Rory and Amy’s daughter Melody Pond (a commonly held theory for some time in Who fandom). The same Melody who has now been spirited away by Kovarian. The same girl who Amy tried to shoot at the end of The Impossible Astronaut. The girl who becomes the woman who will be locked up in the Stormcage prison for killing “the best man I’ve ever known” (either an allusion to the death of the Doctor in The Impossible Astronaut, or something more sinister still). And, most teasingly, a being with hybrid human/Time Lord DNA, who we have seen apparently regenerating (at the end of Day of the Moon).

So many questions, so long to wait for answers. We will start to unravel these continuing mysteries in the second half of the season, which will kick off with the mischievously titled Let’s Kill Hitler.

A few reflections

Continuing the trend started in Moffat’s first year in charge, it has certainly been a darker and more gruesome season to date. It has also been more heavily serialised, with far fewer standalone stories. Virtually every story is intertwined with the others in some way. Whereas his predecessor Davies often dropped a series of loosely repeating themes akin to a trail of breadcrumbs in his season arcs – such as Bad Wolf and Harold Saxon – Moffat’s overarching ideas are woven in a far more complex fashion, more like a cat’s cradle – you cannot pick at one strand without pulling on several others. This style of storytelling is altogether more satisfying for the committed fan, but also runs the risk of alienating casual viewers. Certainly audience numbers have been in gradual decline, but that is universal for all long-running series and the increasing impact of time-shifted viewing and migration to other platforms such as iPlayer further muddies the waters as to the impact that such changes are actually having on audience numbers.

It could also be argued that the series is gradually shifting towards a slightly older audience in a way that mirrors the maturation of its viewers. Ten-year olds who were first introduced to Who via the Ninth Doctor are now 16-year olds watching Matt Smith‘s Eleventh Doctor. Why shouldn’t the story-telling be a bit more ‘adult’ as a result?

Fundamentally, children have always been at the heart of Who. Moffat himself often talks about his writing in reference to his own children, or what terrified him as a child, and there has always been a direct relationship between his characters and stories and children. Amy first met the Doctor as a seven-year old and, of course, has now given birth to her own baby. And this entire season to date has been peppered with references to children. The Impossible Astronaut is the child Melody/River. The Curse of the Black Spot hinges on the importance of Captain Avery wanting to be a positive role model for his son. And the Gangers are effectively ‘born’ from their human masters. Everywhere you look, Moffat is writing directly to and for child viewers, and opening a door to the magical world of the last of the Time Lords, and this pays off in spectacular style in A Good Man, with a child becoming a key weapon in the war Kovarian is waging against the Doctor.

Under Moffat’s guidance, Who continues to grow up. As do we all. I will enjoy my summer, but when it comes to Who autumn cannot come soon enough.

Doctor Who: season 6 ratings (out of 10)

6.01/6.02 The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon – 9

6.03 The Curse of the Black Spot – 4

6.04 The Doctor’s Wife – 10

6.05/6.06 The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People – 6

6.07 A Good Man Goes To War – 10

Overall – 8/10

Links: Season 5 review, A Christmas Carol review