Series 6, Episode 2: Day of the Moon

“You should kill us all on sight!”


I hate having summer colds! Still, I roused myself from my sick bed to watch the exciting conclusion of this opening two parter, which presumably sets out Steve Moffat’s stall for what’s going to happen this series. And while I did enjoy it, I had some – if not too many – reservations.

The pre-title sequence (one of the longest they’ve ever done, I think) immediately plunged us back into X Files territory with its ‘3 months later’ schtick avoiding an easy resolution to last week’s cliffhanger. It’s an audacious thing to attempt, though I had actually become rather tired of its use in American shows; still, along with the overall more adult tone, this season does seem to be aiming for a more American flavour. They certainly managed that, with some epic, if rather gratuitous use of big locations in Arizona and Utah, although I was slightly reminded of the similarly gratuitous extended sequences of Paris in City of Death.

Still, the time jump cleverly played with our perceptions of Mark Sheppard’s usual, more villainous, onscreen persona. We’re used to seeing him as bad guys, so it made it easy to believe that Canton Delaware had been taken over by the Silence. Of course, it was all an elaborate ruse to enable the construction of a totally isolated environment and get him and our heroes inside it with the TARDIS. Nice to hear the mysterious material described as ‘dwarf star alloy’, a nod back to classic serial Warrior’s Gate, but the whole ruse was itself reminiscent of the Doctor’s similar scam in The Invasion of Time – act like a bastard till you’ve built your snoop-proof room, then reveal your actual plan.

Mind you, it’s fair to say that most of the audience watching this probably don’t remember The Invasion of Time in that kind of detail, and if they do, then like me they should probably get more of a life. Probably more recognisable was that shot of the bearded, shackled Doctor surrounded by soldiers – that was almost a direct lift from the beginning of Pierce Brosnan’s last Bond movie, Die Another Day.

Enough with the references though – how well did it work as a conclusion to the story? Well, as predicted, it left as many questions hanging as were actually answered. First of all, if the Silence were the all powerful bad guys of the last season, would they have been defeated so easily? It was a very neat resolution, effectively using them as their own executioners, though it seemed a mite convenient that the injured one in the Area 51 cell should say something, on video, so precisely applicable to the Doctor’s intentions.

It also seemed a little easy that President Nixon became, effectively, the Doctor’s Get Out of Jail Free card. Those sequences were fun – especially the well shot reveal of the Doctor fiddling around inside Apollo 11’s capsule – but I did wonder why the Doctor, having been so reticent to allow Churchill too much knowledge of the TARDIS last year, would so blithely allow one of history’s dodgiest democratic leaders to travel hither and yon so easily. Given that the US were mired in the Cold War and Vietnam at the time, I’d have expected Tricky Dicky to at least try and nab an Owner’s Manual from the TARDIS bookshelves. Lucky the Doctor threw it out because he didn’t agree with it. Also handy that he got Nixon to tape everything in his office…

Stylistically, we were in effective X Files pastiche mode here, never more evidently than in the genuinely creepy sequence of Amy and Canton investigating the deserted orphanage. The message of ‘Get Out’ scrawled in what looked like blood over every surface was unnerving, but not half so unnerving as Kerry Shale’s shellshocked performance as Dr Renfrew. And the flashlight beams in dark, eerie rooms were much in evidence as Amy prowled the building. The concept of the Silence editing themselves out of your memory was used to give some cool reveals, most notably Amy’s discovery that they sleep hanging from ceilings!

At least from Amy’s perspective, the sequence became more and more dreamlike, almost David Lynch in style. Who was that mysterious woman with the eyepatch who stuck her head through a non existent hatch to proclaim “she’s dreaming”? What was going on with the little girl’s room, and that photo of Amy holding a baby? There were no answers here, but I’d say this sequence is pivotal to the story as a whole, and worth watching a few times to pick out clues. I’m going to have another go when I’ve finished writing…

Also in classic X Files mode was the ‘alien abduction’ sequence, with Amy (wearing a dark, Scully-like suit) strapped to a chair while a big light shone in her face and the aliens leaned menacingly towards her. The Silence look like a lot of things – Munch’s The Scream, the Gentlemen from Buffy episode Hush – but here they were most reminiscent of the classic Greys as often depicted in The X Files.

Character wise, we had some nice development here too. I thought Steve Moffat was trying to up Rory’s uncertainty about Amy’s affections again, but it was genuinely heartwarming to learn that the ‘stupid face’ she wanted to see rescuing her from the aliens was Rory after all. And Arthur Darvill played it beautifully, reflecting Rory’s doubts with a genuinely tense repression of emotion. I think I may be falling for him a little bit!

Equally touching was River’s lack of certainty after kissing the Doctor, realising that, from his perspective, it had never happened before. “There’s a first time for everything,” the Doctor gasps, but River’s heartfelt, “and a last time”, made you realise that, from her perspective, this might never happen again. I’ve never read The Time Traveller’s Wife – the novel from which this plot obviously takes its inspiration – but I wonder if it’s this moving.

But mentioning River brings me to possibly the biggest problem I had with this conclusion. The Doctor, while not actually helping, stood back to back with her as she systematically gunned down the Silence, after having admitted earlier that he does sort of think she’s cool for doing that sort of thing. That doesn’t really sit well with my conception of the Doctor – he’s been responsible for plenty of death, but he usually tries to avoid it, and never becomes as directly responsible as that.

Think of McCoy in The Happiness Patrol, taking down a totalitarian regime without firing a shot and actually talking an executioner into laying down his weapon by saying, “look me in the eye. End my life.” Or think of Davison at the end of the otherwise execrable Warriors of the Deep, staring miserably at the carnage and saying , “there should have been another way”. I’m not at all sure I like the idea of the Doctor wanting to resolve a situation like the hero of a Tarantino movie, even if I do like Tarantino movies. It’s not what I want from a character I think of as a man of peace above all; especially after having come up with a neatly conceived twist to defeat the Silence on Earth overall.

Ok, so that was my major gripe. Other than that, I thought it was a pretty good conclusion; more action packed than the first half while still retaining plenty of the creepy atmosphere that marked out this season’s beginning as far less kiddie-orientated than the last.

And those unanswered questions – the Silence may have gone from Earth, but what about the rest of the Universe? We know they have at least access to TARDIS-like technology from them having the same control room seen in the faux TARDIS from last year’s The Lodger – which I think I was the only person not to clock last week!

And given that we’ve been told the Silence don’t actually invent things themselves, where did they get that from? Could it be from the little girl who seems to somehow be at the centre of it all, who can apparently regenerate? Could she be the Doctor’s daughter from the episode of that title back in 2008? The Silence engineered man’s trip to the Moon solely so that humanity would invent them a spacesuit, it seems (which does rather cheapen one of humanity’s proudest achievements). Did they want it to imprison the girl, or did the girl, controlling them, make them get it for her? And is Amy pregnant or what????

So many questions, and while I like Moffat’s Chinese puzzle approach to plotting, it would be nice to get back to some straightforward adventure. Thankfully the show can still do that it seems – next week, for the first time since 1965, it’s pirates!

Series 6, Episode 1: The Impossible Astronaut

“A lot more happened in 1969 than anyone remembers. Human Beings. I thought I’d never get done saving you.”


So, a two parter to open the season, for the first time since Doctor Who returned. With that, a mid season break and a one part finale, Steven Moffat seems to be introducing some much needed variation into the increasingly formulaic structure of Doctor Who seasons. I think that’s a very good thing, as I don’t like knowing what to expect – but it does come with the risk that, as a setup for a second part, the season opener might not be as gripping as in previous years.

And was that the case? Actually, I don’t think so. Certainly The Impossible Astronaut set up many questions without answering them, but that’s the nature of a first episode. Nonetheless, this was gripping, atmospheric stuff, helped to achieve an epic feel by the advantage of some expensive (looking) US locations. And it started with a bang, with the much hyped spoiler about the death of a main character resolved in the first ten minutes. That, more than any other element of this first part, set up the biggest question to be resolved in the second part – if indeed it is. I have the feeling that a lot of the issues set up in this season opener are going to play out over the season as a whole, rather than being sorted out next Saturday.

The answer to the much hyped spoiler/poser about which main character was going to die was a genuine surprise. I’d inferred that it couldn’t be River, as we’ve seen her die already later in her timestream, but it could be either Amy or Rory, with most people’s bets being on Rory. However, with Arthur Darvill’s name now in the opening credits (excellent), this seemed unlikely.

Such was my uncertainty as the Doctor was shot by a mysterious figure in a spacesuit, I actually wondered if the production team had pulled off a major coup and sprung a surprise regeneration on us! I had conflicting feelings about that for a second, until the Doctor was, actually, shot dead. A Doctor, we later discovered, who was from some 200 years into his own future.

Yet again, then, it seems Steve Moffat is going to take us on a ride through ‘wibbly wobbly, timey wimey stuff’. The Doctor seems decisively dead, but in his current body. Since I can’t imagine that the BBC want to rule out the possibility of any more Doctors after this one, there’s going to have to be a very clever way out of that. After the last couple of years, I trust Steve to be clever enough to make this work, but it might cause a few ructions among those who already feel his plotting is a little… overcomplicated.

That aside though, what of the episode itself? From the outset, it seemed to be taking a different style than last year’s deliberate ‘fairy tale’ approach. We were into dark territory here, reminiscent in many ways of the better years of The X Files. The director obviously picked up this feel from the script, giving a very X Files visual feel to the story – aside from the epic Monument Valley locations, we saw the American corridors of power, spinning tape reels, and most notably, a creepy deserted building with our heroes using flashlights to penetrate the darkness.

There were plenty of memorable images too. The Apollo astronaut rising improbably from a Utah lake was unsettling, if surprisingly reminiscent of the similarly suited and armed Kraal androids from the mostly awful Android Invasion of 1975. But the most disturbing –and X Files like – image was of the new monsters, the Silents (or is it ‘Silence’?). Obviously tied into last year’s unresolved master baddy in some way, they were very creepy to look at, combining the Men in Black suits with a shrivelled, skull-like take on the classic alien ‘grey’ frequently reported in the close encounters that formed the backbone of The X Files.

And the concept that, as soon as you look away from them, you forget they’re there is an inventive twist on the perception-influenced Weeping Angels, another Moffat creation. The scene in the White House restroom as an innocent bystander was wiped out by one (“her name was Joy”) was deliciously creepy as she kept forgetting it was there the instant she turned away – until it vapourised her. Mind you, I suspect the White House cleaning staff may wonder what those peculiar bits are all over the floor…

Ah yes, the White House. The Oval Office set was superb, every bit up to the standard set by shows like The West Wing. I was fairly surprised to learn, from Confidential, that it was built especially for the show – it seemed so good that I had assumed it was a standing set used by various productions. But no, although it seems odd that no such standing set exists. I know there’s one for the House of Commons, I went there once!

Mention of the White House brings me to the guest cast. Since it has returned, one of the standard tropes of Doctor Who has been the episode eulogising a significant historical figure – Shakespeare, Dickens, Churchill, Van Gogh and so on. Richard Nixon is rather harder to eulogise, history having a fairly uniform perception of him as the bad guy. The Doctor did at least mention that he’d done things other than Vietnam and Watergate, at least. Stuart Milligan did a passable imitation of ‘Tricky Dicky’ from under more mounds of latex than Anthony Hopkins had to endure when playing America’s least loved President.

But the story’s not really ‘about’ Nixon. In fact, thus far there is only one fleshed out guest character, but he’s a doozy – the cynical hard bitten former FBI agent Canton Everett Delaware III. It’s almost a stereotypical role – with shades of The X Files again- but Moffat’s script and particularly Mark Sheppard’s performance bring it to life. Sheppard’s a bit of a genre legend, what with his appearances in Battlestar Galactica, Firefly and, yes, The X Files. I did wonder about the logic of bringing a British actor, based in LA, over to Wales to play an American – but it was great to finally see him in Doctor Who, so I could hardly quibble. And as if that wasn’t enough, we got the added bonus of his father, the legendary Morgan Sheppard, playing the character in old age. I loved his line – “I won’t be seeing you again. But you’ll see me.”


Mark Sheppard in Firefly, and Morgan Sheppard in Max Headroom

The dialogue in general had that flair of wit we expect from Moffat, who knows very well how to strike the balance between humour and chills in Doctor Who. Matt Smith was given some marvellous lines, which on a second viewing complement his actually distinct performances as the older and younger Doctors. The older was still somewhat playful – “ I thought wine would taste more like the gums” – but has an almost resigned, doomy air to him. By contrast, the younger one has all of the manic energy we’re sued to, bumping into the invisible TARDIS and memorably referring to River as ‘Mrs Robinson’. (“I hate you.” “No you don’t.”)

The relationship between the Doctor and his companions is now very strained by the secret they have to keep – the secret that they’re all there because of his death. That’s going to have an interesting effect on the drama from hereon in, depending on when he gets to find out. And find out he obviously will, as when he confronted the ‘astronaut’ he was obviously expecting what happened.

So, questions, questions, questions. Who was in the spacesuit that killed the Doctor? Could it be River, who hinted last year that her prison sentence was for killing a much-loved man? Could it be the Doctor himself? And who is River? Since Amy’s pregnant, could she be Amy’s daughter, adrift in time? Or perhaps even Romana in a future incarnation? Knowing Steve Moffat, the answers won’t be nearly so obvious.

Overall then, a good, atmospheric season opener, with a nicely dark new tone along with the customary wit and humour. The involvement of BBC America doesn’t seem to have diluted the show’s Britishness – in fact I wondered how American audiences would take to the Doctor’s assertion that two of the Founding Fathers had fancied him!  A pretty good ep – though not as good as last year’s earth-shaking Eleventh Hour – but hard to really say how good until we’ve seen the conclusion. Decisive opinion next week…

“My Sarah Jane Smith.”

There’s nothing ‘only’ about being a girl.” – Sarah Jane Smith, The Monster of Peladon

I don’t usually blog about TV deaths, real or fictional. For example, the recent demise of Being Human’s Mitchell (fictional), while it made me shed a tear, didn’t move me to jot anything down. And even the sad loss of all round gentleman and paragon of Englishness Nicholas Courtney (real) didn’t provoke an outpouring of writing. But the news last night of the shocking, unexpected death of Elisabeth Sladen, Doctor Who’s Sarah Jane Smith, has surprised me by how much it’s affected me. And to judge from Twitter, Facebook and the internet in general, I’m far from the only one. I’ve seen tributes from sources as varied as Stephen Fry, Charlie Brooker and NME.

I’m not one of those fanboys who invests so much emotionally in their favoured shows that the characters, and the actors who play them, seem closer than real life friends. But one of the most common phrases that’s been cropping up in tributes to Lis Sladen is that, “a little piece of my childhood died today”. For me and anyone of my age, that’s by far the best way of putting it. And the thing about Lis, and the character she created, is that she was a link to that childhood, who was still enthralling the children of today – and I’ve no doubt they’ll be as upset as the rest of us. Because she almost seemed to have never changed, I think we thought she’d be around forever.

Elisabeth was a jobbing actress with a solid CV of character parts when she was recommended to Doctor Who producer Barry Letts by Z Cars producer Ron Craddock. Letts was trying to cast a new companion to replace the phenomenally popular Katy Manning as Jo Grant, and by all accounts she hugely impressed both Letts and Jon Pertwee. As Sarah Jane Smith, a ‘liberated woman’ and journalist, she was meant to be a break from the Who tradition of ‘companion screams/twists ankle/needs to be rescued twice an episode’.

Of course, like other similar attempts, this initial character brief soon slid into the standard Who companion template. It used to be typical that a companion would only be clearly defined as a personality in their first and last stories, the rest of the time reduced to something of a cipher. Lis was once quoted as saying, "Sarah Jane used to be a bit of a cardboard cut-out. Each week it used to be, ‘Yes Doctor, no Doctor’, and you had to flesh your character out in your mind — because if you didn’t, no one else would."

And she did, taking the standard “What’s going on, Doctor?” type of scripts and investing them with a belief in the character as she saw it. And that’s when the five-year-old me made her acquaintance.

It’s true to say that her time in the classic series is something of a golden age. Most notably, the three seasons she did with producer Philip Hinchcliffe and star Tom Baker cemented her in my, and everybody’s, mind as the archetypal Who companion. That run included stories renowned as all time classics – Genesis of the Daleks, Pyramids of Mars, The Seeds of Doom, and many more. Tom Baker hadn’t yet slipped into self parody and was a warm, commanding and humourous presence as the Doctor, and the shows were just scary enough to thrill little boys like me.

And, it seems, Russell T Davies. Russell and I are of a similar age, as are most of the fans who were instrumental in bringing Doctor Who back to television. I think we all have the same place in our hearts for Sarah Jane, the companion in the stories that really formed our love of the show. Even John Nathan-Turner could never quite let her go, trying to bring her back to bridge the Baker/Davison regeneration, then succeeding in K9 and Company and The Five Doctors. Sarah Jane, due in no small part to Lis’ spirited performance, was the companion everyone remembered.

So when Russell wanted to bring an old companion into the new series, who better than Sarah Jane? Lis had been retired from acting for a decade, and was initially sceptical. But one of the strengths the new series has over the old is its depth of characterisation, and the scripts persuaded her.

2006’s School Reunion was a thing of beauty, bringing Sarah Jane back in a way that cleverly informed the development of the Doctor’s relationship with Rose. Obviously, fanboys like myself loved every minute of it, and couldn’t hold in a tear at the obvious, real, affection shown to Lis by David Tennant – another fanboy, of course. Their final scene together showcased Lis’ marvellous ability to play dignified, restrained emotion, in the same movingly understated way as her farewell scene in the classic series story The Hand of Fear.

It was no surprise that this appearance was a hit with the fanboys. More of a surprise was how much the new generation of fans took to Sarah Jane, and to Lis. She’d worked so well in the context of the new series, bridging its world with that of the old, that she soon became a regular part of Russell’s expanding ensemble of players. And ultimately, she was so successful that she got her own spin off show, The Sarah Jane Adventures. Captain Jack Harkness may have had a spinoff show too, but counting K9 and Company, only Sarah Jane had two!

Because of that then, there are two generations of fans feeling devastated today. I’ve seen comments on the internet from old guard fans wondering how they can tell their children the news. That’s tragic, but it’s also heartwarming – the children of today hold Sarah Jane Smith in the same place in their hearts as the five year old me. And that’s something very special indeed.

Finally, though, I have to say that beyond bringing this iconic character to life, Elisabeth Sladen was a charming, funny and lovely person. Even when she wasn’t ‘officially’ acting, she kept up with the world of Doctor Who, going to signings and conventions, and, like Nick Courtney, being one of the most patient and entertaining people to be with.

I met her at the 2005 Gallifrey One convention in LA, at which point she must have been playing her cards close to her chest about her imminent reappearance in the show. But what I remember most about her was chatting to my childhood heroine like a friend, about the movies we liked. It turned out we had similar tastes – we both think Casablanca is one of the best films ever made. She pointed out to me Van Nuys airfield – just behind the hotel – and told me that that was where they filmed Bogart and Bergman’s classic farewell scene, suitably dressed up with wooden flats to make it look like North Africa. I’d never known that. And she remembered my partner Barry looking after her daughter for her at a convention a decade previously!

Barry and I joined Steve Roberts and Sue Cowley in keeping Lis company during the interminable wait for the flight back to the UK, and she was very nervous. TARDISes and spaceships might not have been a problem, but she was terrified of flying. She still found time to try and blag a seat upgrade at the Virgin Atlantic desk on the pretext that she knew Richard Branson though!

Her death was a shock – I’m only really taking it in this morning. 63 is pretty young to go these days – in fact I was amazed to discover she was that old. And the fact that she kept working while so ill, and didn’t make a fuss about it, is a testament to how professional she was. There are a lot of people out there on the convention scene who knew her better than I who must be feeling pretty upset this morning, not to mention those she’d worked with on Who and SJA, and those who simply loved her from watching her on screen. To them, and to her family, my heart goes out.

“You know, travel does broaden the mind.”

“Mmm. Till we meet again, Sarah Jane.”

The Hand of Fear, 1976

Elisabeth Sladen 1948-2011