Doctor Who: Series 9, Episode 13 – The Husbands of River Song

“Are you acquainted with the criminal River Song?”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

So, she’s back. After a period in the middle of the Matt Smith era where Doctor Who appeared to be becoming The River Song Show, I’d thought I’d be annoyed to see her again, despite Alex Kingston’s scenery chewing antics. But actually it turns out a break can be good, and it was genuinely nice to see River back. Continue reading “Doctor Who: Series 9, Episode 13 – The Husbands of River Song”

How sexist is Doctor Who?–Part Ten

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Welcome to Part Ten of my attempt to analyse the sexism in every Doctor Who story ever, using the Bechdel Test – and my wits. For a reminder of the rules, check the Intro here. Then, going by Doctor:

  1. William Hartnell
  2. Patrick Troughton
  3. Jon Pertwee
  4. Tom Baker
  5. Peter Davison
  6. Colin Baker
  7. Sylvester McCoy / Paul McGann
  8. Christopher Eccleston
  9. David Tennant

A quick reminder of the Test:

  1. It has to have two named female characters
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something besides a man.

As Russell T Davies departs with a pretty good record of gender balance, in comes new and hotly divisive showrunner Steven Moffat. At the time, fans seemed very optimistic about this development – after all, he had a strong record of writing inventive, scary and acclaimed stories. However, his very distinctive style, while popular in small doses, proved less universally welcomed as a constant of the show. That’s fine, of course; every showrunner has their critics, and RTD was certainly not beyond criticism. But for those who do dislike Moffat’s style, the level of vitriol was several notches higher than it had been for RTD. And one of the criticisms most frequently aimed at Moffat was that his writing was actively sexist and misogynist.

I’ve always thought that a bit unfair. I don’t think Moffat is a faultless writer (far from it), but one of his trademarks is writing strong, capable women who usually outshine the hapless men around them. Though I do acknowledge that his palette there is somewhat limited; after a while, all these flirtatious, impossibly witty heroines do start to feel a bit… samey.

Also incoming with Moffat was a new Doctor – the seemingly far too young Matt Smith. At 26, Matt was the youngest ever Doctor, leading to fears that the next one would have to be in his (or her) teens. Thankfully, Matt turned out to be a superb Doctor, actually more popular than many of the stories he appeared in. The fact that his quirky, often quite dark performance went down so well with viewers was quite an achievement after the near-universal popularity of David Tennant.

While I very much doubt that Matt Smith himself is in any way sexist or misogynist, he doesn’t write his own dialogue (well, not much anyway). So let’s delve into this new era, and find out how it compares to older ones…

Continue reading “How sexist is Doctor Who?–Part Ten”

Doctor Who: Series 7, Episode 14–The Name of the Doctor

“I’m Clara Oswald. I’m the Impossible Girl. I was born to save the Doctor.”

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Steven Moffat loves to engage with the fans of Doctor Who. And he particularly loves to bait some of the more humourless fans whose presumed ownership of the show makes their gorges rise in anger at the thought of anyone doing something with it that they personally don’t like. He’s got form, provoking them with titles like Let’s Kill Hitler and The Doctor’s Wife (which turned out not to be literal), then having the Doctor seemingly actually get married – or did he?

Continue reading “Doctor Who: Series 7, Episode 14–The Name of the Doctor”

Doctor Who: Series 7, Episode 5–The Angels Take Manhattan

“I always tear out the last page of books. That way I don’t have to know the ending. I hate endings.”

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New York, New York. So good they named it twice. The Big Apple. The city that never sleeps. The city that… well, wasn’t strictly integral to the plot of this emotional farewell to the Ponds (finally given the name of ‘Williams’ as a last courtesy to Rory). Don’t get me wrong, the location work, by the talented Nick Hurran, was exceptional, moody and atmospheric. But really, this story could have played out anywhere. New York was just the icing on the cake. Since I’m on the topic, shame they didn’t consider Los Angeles; given the monsters involved, that might have been somewhat appropriate.

But then, it wouldn’t have had that gimmicky title, reminiscent of countless Hollywood classics (ironically enough), but most of all, for me anyway, the masterpiece Muppets Take Manhattan. Though this did manage to be scarier than that – just. I’m not sure whether I’d rather face a Weeping Angel or an enraged Miss Piggy.

Indeed, gimmicks seemed at play a lot here. As I theorised a while ago (see last week), the temptation to have the Statue of Liberty be a Weeping Angel was just too good to pass up (perhaps Mr Moffat is gambling that nobody remembers Ghostbusters II). It did look great, looming over that rooftop with a snarling mouth full of fangs, but the spectacle did require some equally spectacular leaps in logic. For a start, given its illuminated location in the middle of New York Harbor, it would have to be quite lucky to be unobserved enough to move when it needed to. And when it did, did nobody notice it had gone? It was hanging around that rooftop for quite a while!

There were leaps in logic aplenty here, both within the episode itself and as part of the larger story of Amy and Rory that started back in The Eleventh Hour. When did the future Ponds arrive to wave at themselves during The Hungry Earth? What was the real explanation for Amy’s excessively large house? Why did she not remember big events like Dalek invasions? And if we were never going to get answers to all these things, why have the Doctor continually drop hints about them?

Still, if there’s one hallmark of what I guess we must now call ‘the Moffat era’, it’s temporal paradoxes. Time has been rewritten so much over the last couple of series (not to mention rebooting the entire universe based exclusively on Amy’s memories) that it can be used as a way to paper over such inconsistencies. I don’t much care for that rationalisation though – it smacks of a post facto way to excuse loose plot threads.

Given Moffat’s fondness for rewriting timelines, it seemed a matter of convenience here that suddenly the Doctor was unable (or unwilling?) to change futures he’d seen or knew about. He’s managed to rewrite time plenty before (see Day of the Daleks for an obvious example), to the extent that Russell T Davies had to invent the concept of ‘fixed points in time’ to justify why he sometimes couldn’t. But that principle has always been flexible to fit narrative continuity; that’s why the Fifth Doctor couldn’t just nip back to that freighter and rescue Adric (thankfully).

I can understand why, reading the above, you might think I didn’t enjoy this episode. But actually I did, to the extent that I was prepared to (just about) forgive it those staggering leaps in logic. After all, they’re mostly the ones that only fanboys like me were going to spot. I’d guess that, for most viewers, the biggest concern was the final farewell of Amy and Rory.

In this, the script was clever, playful and tricksy. It had been well-publicised that they were leaving, so  I’m guessing it was written with the assumption the viewer would know they were leaving, making the suspense depend on how it was going to happen. Would they decide to stop travelling with the Doctor (after last week’s affirmations)? Would they be killed? Would they simply die of old age?

Moffat’s script cunningly played with all these expectations, ultimately managing to make the Ponds’ fate a combination of all these things with, bizarrely, still managing to live happily ever after. That might seem like trying to have your cake and eat it to some, but actually that element of the script hung together just fine. After wiping out the Angels HQ by dying twice (in one episode – a fitting farewell for Rory), Rory then got zapped back to the past. Amy chose to follow him, to be with the man she truly loved. They both lived happily ever after, in the past, unable to return. Then died of old age, leaving a Manhattan gravestone and a message for the Doctor. And as I said, all that at least made sense, and actually managed to prove just about everyone’s speculations right in one way or another.

The script was actually masterful at misdirection from the very start, introducing a Raymond Chandler-style PI who seemed to be narrating the story, then got zapped back in time by the Angels after witnessing his own death as an old man. It was good to see the Angels back to their original USP of sending people irretrievably to the past and feeding on the time energy thus produced; gripping though their last appearance was, it never seemed consistent with what we knew that they were suddenly dispatching their victims by snapping their necks.

As it turned out, most of the episode ended up being set in that film noir era of 1938, to which Rory had been zapped while off getting a coffee for Amy and the Doctor. That gave the director, set designers and costume designers the chance to have a field day with noir conventions, into which the Angels fitted surprisingly well. True, the ‘McGuffin’ of having one Angel in the custody of acquisitive crime lord Grayle (nice to see Mike McShane) neither made sense nor was followed up on after the gang escaped; but that’s the sort of window dressing so frequently used by Chandler, who confessed that even he didn’t know who’d committed one of the murders in the 1946 adaptation of The Big Sleep.

But really, all the twists, turns, moody lighting and misdirection were all to get Amy and Rory to the roof of that building, and the point of both choice and affirmation that, finally, they were more important to each other than the Doctor was to them. Rory’s plan did (just about) make sense, based on what the Doctor had already told him – avert the death of his elderly self by dying now, and (for wibbly, wobbly reasons) the resultant paradox would cancel out everything the Angels had done, leaving him alive again.

When it comes to standing on a ledge about to jump, though, it’s a leap of faith. It was the first of a number of points in the story where you thought Rory in particular was going for good. The scene was beautifully played by Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill, who by now must feel like they know the characters inside out; and when they both jumped (to the Doctor’s anguish) it felt like that must be the end for them, slo-mo, heartfelt Murray Gold music and all.

But no, they woke up back in that graveyard, sitting bolt upright like Captain Jack returning to life. And all looked rosy until Rory noticed that gravestone – given the themes of the episode, perhaps he’d have been all right if he hadn’t seen it. His sudden instant disappearance at the hands of a lone surviving Angel was the last we’ll ever see of him, and that felt like a bit of a cheat. It did explain why the script had already given him two emotional death scenes this week, but ultimately just disappearing – that didn’t feel right, somehow.

Thankfully, Amy got a truly heartwrenching farewell, as she made the near-impossible choice to leave the Doctor, to leave her daughter, and even to leave the here and now irrevocably behind, to be with the man she loved. That scene, for me, was actually quite difficult to watch – given the genuine offscreen chemistry oft displayed by Karen Gillan and Matt Smith, their emotions seemed to transcend mere acting.

It was the little coda that really got me, though, as the Doctor realised that the handy “River Song, Private Eye” book referred to throughout must have been published by Amy herself, and would have an afterword. So it proved, and as Karen Gillan’s voiceover reminded us of everything Amy’s done and seen over this last three years, it was hard not to tear up.

So, the Doctor’s lost his best friends, for the first time in this regeneration. How will he cope? “Don’t travel alone,” was Amy’s sage advice – we all know what happens when nobody’s there to stop him. It might have been fun if River had accepted his offer to travel with him for a bit – Alex Kingston was on good form this week, balancing the scenery-chewing with moments of genuine pathos and emotion. She also looked surprisingly good in a trenchcoat and fedora, though I would have expected 1938 eyebrows to be raised at a woman dressed like that!

However, I’ve had my complaints over these last few years that River’s ubiquity and dominating presence seemed to be turning the Doctor into a supporting character in his own show, so having her around all the time might not be a good idea. Besides it would be hard to square with what we know of her character’s future. She’s already been paroled from prison and gained her professorship – because the Doctor’s been wiping out everyone’s records of him, not just the Daleks. Lucky for UNIT last week that he left their database alone.

Farewell then, Amy and Rory. I know they’ve not been to everyone’s taste; some friends of mine have been less than keen (putting it mildly) on Amy’s character or Karen Gillan’s realisation of it. But I’ve enjoyed them both. I think Gillan did have to grow into her character more than Arthur Darvill did (he seemed to have it nailed right away), but Amy ended up being far more interesting than she first appeared.

Whatever your opinion of Moffat’s stewardship of the show, you have to concede he’s tried doing something really different with these companions – having them flit in and out of the Doctor’s life but never really leave, while they aged in real life between his visits. And let’s not forget that they ended up being the parents of the Doctor’s wife!

And now they’re gone, after a longer continuous period on the show than any companions since its return. Christmas will explain how the Doctor manages to pick up the girl he’s already seen converted into a Dalek then blown to bits. Well, it might explain; with Moffat, you can never be too sure.

For now, this was an emotional episode that frustrated as well as entertained. Ten out of ten for Amy’s farewell, only five out of ten for Rory’s. Brilliantly atmospheric, but often didn’t make sense if you stopped to think about it. Mind you, doesn’t that just sum up Moffat’s style in one sentence?

Doctor Who Season 5–the Facebook Marathon: Part 4

The adventure continues.

March 11, 2011, 9.06 pm. With friends from various corners of the globe now chiming in on the Facebook discussion, it’s time to embark on the first two parter of Doctor Who season 5 in my marathon viewing. For the purposes of these posts, a two parter counts as one story, so both episodes are covered here.

NB – as before, if your name or image is on these screenshots and you’d rather it wasn’t, PM me on Facebook and I’ll edit the image. Thanks!

After only one episode away, that man Moffat is back, and he’s brought his most popular baddies with him…

Season 5, Episode 4: The Time of Angels

Somehow, my Facebook typing remains mostly accurate despite my increasing consumption of that most British of beverages, gin and tonic:

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River Song is back, and she’s trying to escape from a futuristic prison that looks suspiciously like a maintenance tunnel in Cardiff. But I’m more preoccupied with the oddly familiar young man she’s entrancing with her hypno-lipstick:

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At this point, I hadn’t become as jaded with River’s constant reappearances as I was later to become. This leads me to question the bleeding obvious:

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At this point, some ire is directed toward the then-new showrunner:

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The dialogue is channelling Frankie Howerd:

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As an Angel looms out of a TV monitor to reach for Amy, Steve sees it differently:

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As ever, I’ve discovered that one of the cast is quite an attractive young man; thankfully this trope hasn’t ended with the departure of Russell T Davies:

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As this is the second time I’ve seen it (the broadcast being the first), hindsight enables me to pick out some inconsistencies that I missed the first time:

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Ever the Robert Holmes wannabe, Moffat is ratcheting up the terror:

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The first episode reaches an exciting climax, but I’ve noticed something different from the original transmission:

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After a fag (no, a cigarette, not the other kind), it’s straight back for part 2:

Season 5, Episode 5: Flesh and Stone

Even more than the first part, Mr Moffat is letting his influences show:

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Like Tom Baker, Matt Smith has an excellent habit of counterpointing the scary bits with humour that doesn’t undermine them:

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The Doctor tricks the Angels into revealing their difference from the Spanish Inquisition:

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Being a little tipsy now, I decide to ruminate on the ongoing plot arc by quoting Leonard Cohen. Amy (not that one) chimes in:

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Contradicting what we’d previously been told, the Angels can be fooled into freezing by making them think you can see them. I may be tipsy, but my fanboy nitpicking head is still functioning perfectly. Steve comes up with the only possible explanation:

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As the terrifying set piece of Amy picking her way, blinded, through the artificial forest unfolds, I’m more preoccupied with her shoes:

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The Angels are defeated by hurling them into Amy’s crack, erasing them from ever having existed. Not for the last time, my nitpicking power enables me to spot that Mr Moffat’s timey-wimey narratives don’t always add up:

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With the excitement over, it’s time to (re)assess the story as a whole:

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So, opinion was more divided on this one, and even I had to concede it wasn’t as good as I said in my initial review. If you’re a regular reader of the blog, it’s worth noting that I write my reviews as soon as possible after watching, to capture the impressions I have at that precise moment. It’s actually not that unusual for me to become more critical of a story after I’ve given it glowing praise, it’s a habit I’m trying to combat!

Doctor Who: Series 6, Episode 13–The Wedding of River Song

“You’ve decided the universe would be better off without you… the universe didn’t agree.”

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“…they were all wearing eyepatches!” Right, got that out of the way. So, this was the big one, the one that had to wrap up the oh-so-confusing story arc that’s divided fandom and caused newspapers to write articles with titles like “Has Doctor Who got too complicated?” And did it manage to tie up all those loose ends successfully? Well, actually yes, with yet more hints of a bigger storyline to come that surely must lead up to the 2013 50th anniversary of the show.

As usual with Steven Moffat, The Wedding of River Song was bursting with imaginative ideas almost thrown randomly into the mix, and hinged on some pretty sophisticated sci-fi and philosophical concepts. This was, actually, more satisfying as a plot resolution than I expected Mr Moffat to manage. And yet, for all that, I found it curiously lacking in… something. I can’t really pin down what, though my first thought was ‘feeling’. Yes, it resolved this season’s aspect of what it now clearly a longer overall plot. But while I’ve enjoyed the puzzle box plotting so beloved of Mr Moffat, his Rubik’s Cube plot has been so cerebral this year that it satisfies without actually stirring the emotions. I used to complain that Russell T Davies’ plot conclusions were all feeling at the expense of logic; this time, despite a fine balance in last year’s The Big Bang, the season finale seems to be quite the opposite. It’s logical, it makes sense, it answers the questions (well, the ones for this year anyway) – and yet it left me curiously unmoved. It’s as though Moffat’s having such a fine time showing how he solved the puzzle, he’s forgotten we’re supposed to like and be emotionally affected by the characters who form its component parts.

That’s not to say I hated this, mind. It perhaps had too much to pack in for a one episode story, and it certainly would have been totally inaccessible to anyone who hadn’t watched the series overall. But what we saw rattled along quite excitingly, pulling together not just plot points but themes that have dominated the year.

The main theme, of course, was the Doctor’s increasing guilt and self-loathing, and the story showed us how, over the course of this season, he’s managed to convince himself that he does more harm than good. And that, ultimately, the universe would be a better place without him. His weary acceptance of his own oncoming death, which Matt Smith brought across so well last week, was very much to the fore here. One of the key factors about the Eleventh Doctor, as I mentioned a while ago, is his fallibility; and it fits that, in thinking this, he’s actually wrong. If the episode can be said to have had an emotional climax, it was when River opened his eyes to that, with the universe eager to come to his aid – “all you had to do was ask”.

And of course, how the Doctor gets out of that death has been the biggest question of the year. Steven Moffat stated as the year began that “one of the main characters will definitely die in the season opener”. It was audacious that it should be the Doctor himself; still more audacious to state bluntly that it was a real death that couldn’t be got out of, a point hammered home by this episode’s insistence that the Doctor’s death was one of those fixed points in time that simply cannot be changed. But this is Steven Moffat, and he’s getting good at misdirecting his audience in advance. The Doctor’s Rule One – the Doctor lies – is almost certainly the mantra of its showrunner these days.

He may perhaps have overloaded the series with red herrings this year, conscious of the fact that fans would be analysing every little detail. What was the business about Rory talking about his time in the TARDIS in the past tense in The God Complex? Why so many episodes that centred on father/son relationships? These things may pay off later, as the longer arc is gradually revealed; but it’s probably not a bad idea to have each season function as one complete story within that arc. Year one was all about the Crack and the Pandorica (and we still haven’t had a satisfactory explanation of why the TARDIS exploded); this year has been all about the Silence, River Song, and her erratically unfolding life story. These aspects meshed together logically enough as a resolution to how the Doctor’s death could be simultaneously guaranteed and averted.

First though, we had to see how we got there. The episode had a clever, tricksy, non-linear narrative. Plunging us first of all into a visually imaginative world where steam trains roam the London skylines, cars float around under balloons, and Roman legionaries wait impatiently at traffic lights was deliberately disorienting. The further revelation that it was always 5.02pm on 22 April was another Sapphire and Steel like touch in a series that has been full of them this year.

It was also nice (if fan-pleasingly self-indulgent) to see the return of so many characters from the show’s past. Simon Callow popped up in a cameo as Charles Dickens, with a presumably post-modern reference to how good “this year’s Christmas Special” was going to be. Dr Mahlokeh the Silurian was back, as Roman Emperor Winston Churchill’s personal physician. And Churchill himself had rather more than the cameo part that those were; although ultimately, his appearance had nothing to do with the advancement of the plot. As he called for his soothsayer to explain “what’s gone wrong with time”, it was a surprise to absolutely no-one that the ragged figure his legionaries dragged in turned out to be none other than the Doctor – albeit with some of the most unconvincing stick-on facial hair I’ve ever seen. And I may have been imagining it, but was Matt Smith wearing a wig this week? His usual hairstyle was there, but somehow unconvincing, as though it was glued on…

That may or may not be a Moffat Big Clue (it probably isn’t), but we then got the preceding events filled in as one of those Star Wars style quests across multiple alien worlds Moffat seems so fond of. Here again, we got some really imaginative ideas tossed into the mix without any real exploration or development. As with A Good Man Goes to War, a lot of these might have been interesting enough to sustain an episode in themselves; the ‘live chess’ game with 4000 volts running through the pieces, the seedy bar the Doctor meets the Teselecta in (Mos Eisley spaceport?), the cavern of still-living, carnivorous heads lopped off by the headless monks. When I reviewed A Good Man Goes to War, I said that this was evidence of the abundance of interesting ideas Moffat has, and I still think that’s true; but churlish though it may be, I’m beginning to wonder whether it’s more the case that he has the ideas and doesn’t really know what to do with them beyond making glancing references.

Whether or not that’s the case, it made for a colourful snapshot of a complicated galaxy (though whether the vignettes all took place in the same time zone was unclear). And the pit of skulls devouring an almost unrecognisable Mark Gatiss as Gantok was one of a number of memorable scary images this week. Not to mention another Moffat trope, the cameo inclusion of a big bad just to move the plot along – in this case a rather muted coloured New Dalek. I wonder whether its grey look was a result of damage or whether the production team have had second thoughts about their new Day Glo look? It’s also worth noting that the Dalek Amy drew as part of her remembrance of the Doctor was definitely an old style one…

Of course, this was all to lead us to the point where we came in – the death of the Doctor at Lake Silencio, in what, as Richard says over at the Millennium Dome blog, must be the most ridiculously convoluted assassination plot ever. And that was where it all changed, as River declared (contrary to what we’d previously been led to believe) that fixed points can be changed. Whoosh, bang, whiteout, and there we were back at the episode’s start, with all of history happening simultaneously.

That’s a neat concept I’ve seen played out in various comic strips over the years (notably 2000AD and, erm, Doctor Who Monthly). I’m not sure it actually makes any sense if you stop and think about it, but it mined a rich seam of weirdness as we saw Buckingham Palace adorned with ‘SPQR’ banners and heard Winston Churchill talking about downloads.

At that point it started to flow in a bit more of a linear way, and became slightly easier to follow. The return of the Silence was well-handled,with the creepy revelation that Winston and the Doctor have been seeing and forgetting them all through their conversation; though given that the Edvard Munch-alikes still seem to be in charge, it seems that, contrary to what we’ve been told, they are a species rather more than they’re a religion. Certainly their human lackeys – in this case Frances Barber as the memorably hubristic Madam Kovarian – seem quite disposable to them.

It all led to the big emotional scene at the top of the pyramid, in which River finally, actually, married the Doctor. This was an emotional scene, but it somehow lacked the punch of previous Big Teary bits in the Finale – notably the Doctor’s sacrificing of himself at the end of last year’s The Big Bang. And in fact, the plot here was quite similar to that episode too; the Doctor has to die, but how can he get out of it?

As it happened, I thought the way he got out of it this time was considerably less imaginative than having Amy dream him back into being. With at least one duplicate Doctor (from The Rebel Flesh) and one shape shifting time travelling robot having been seen this year, it seemed so obvious that it would be one of those substituting for the real Doctor that I assumed it would be another red herring. But no; with the Teselecta robot and its crew featuring so heavily in the ‘Previously on…’ sequence, it seemed a clincher from that point that they’d be taking it on. When the Doctor actually bumped into the Teselecta at the seedy space bar, that felt like it pretty much confirmed it. So when the script revealed the big switch, in that actually rather nice scene with a River out of time visiting Amy, it actually felt like a bit of an anticlimax. It also seems rather lucky that the Teselecta is capable of doing such a convincing job of imitating the regeneration process…

Of course, the other main plot point driving this year has been Amy’s pregnancy, and the not entirely unexpected reveal that River was her daughter. I – and a number of others – have found it slightly unbelievable that, since she discovered the truth about where baby Melody had gone, she and Rory seemed so unaffected by the loss of her opportunity to actually bring her up. Yes, it’s sort of a resolution that she actually grew up alongside her, and that, as River, Amy knows she’s going to turn out all right. And yet, at the same time, it never seemed believable that any parent would so easily accept that she would never get to bring her child up in a normal family environment.

I’d been hoping this uncharacteristic behaviour would pay off later (as some sort of mind control, perhaps), and here it did, but in a rather half hearted way. OK, you could say that Amy cold-bloodedly murdering Madam Kovarian for revenge over her lost baby is actually quite extreme; but as River comments later, it happened in an aborted alternate timeline – even if Amy is still torturing herself with guilt over it. It seemed to come rather out of nowhere too; this is the first time since she lost Melody to Madam Kovarian that Amy has even seemed that upset about it. For that matter, she’s had Madam Kovarian locked up for a while in the alternate reality and hasn’t hurt her till this point. Still, while I generally didn’t find it that satisfying, this was at least an acknowledgement that a real, breathing mum would actually be pretty upset over this turn of events.

Alternate Rory was pretty cool though, with his black ops uniform, gun and eyepatch. He got to be a hero again this week, as he held off the Silence despite being in agony. The fact that the Silent who spoke to him knew that he dies and comes back all the time was amusing, but did unfortunately underline another Moffat trope that many have come to dislike – the fact that, in Doctor Who these days, death is no real threat as anyone who dies will be back in some contrived way. This point was even further underlined by the return of the now bodiless Dorium Maldovar, who was mainly there to explain the plot.

And the plot’s not over, it seems (not that I really expected it to be, after last year’s finale). We now know that the Silence want the Doctor dead because, at some point in the future at a place called the Field of Trenzillor, he will answer a question they don’t want answered. We were teased by this all the way through the episode, as Maldovar told the Doctor fairly early on offscreen, but it didn’t take a genius to work out that the question (in a show that’s ever more concerned with dissecting the identity of its title character) was “Doctor who?” To underline the point, Maldovar’s head shouted it ever louder as the screen faded to black on an enigmatic close-up of Matt Smith. Doctor who indeed? A query the show’s never fully answered, with hints dropped every time we learn something about him that there’s some other, bigger revelation to come. If his identity is enough for a species/religious order to want him dead because it threatens them, it’s obviously a pretty big deal – and again, I’m wondering whether all this tantalising is leading up to a big revelation for the 50th anniversary.

All those returning characters felt, like Journey’s End, a bit self-indulgent, so if they do another big reunion for an anniversary special, it will already seem like a tiresome gimmick. But it was nice to see Amy and Rory again; the fact that they were in an alternate reality is a neat way of not invalidating the impact of their departure a couple of weeks ago. Plus, very much in keeping with the style of new Who, that penultimate scene in their garden was pretty much confirmation that they’re not gone for good. Whether they’re back as regulars next year I’m not sure (though there are enough unanswered questions about them that I feel they should be). But I’m sure we’ll be seeing them again at some point.

Unlike, sadly, Nicholas Courtney. It was a lovely decision of Steven Moffat to have Nick’s memorial within the show itself, rather than as a line in the credits. Admittedly, the scene felt tacked on, but if anyone deserves to have a scene tacked on to an episode, Nicholas Courtney is the one. Matt Smith did a nicely subtle job of portraying grief, something he seems very good at this year. It felt right that this often repressed Doctor should react in such an admirably stiff upper lip to hearing of the death of his longest standing friend. Of course, as a time traveller, he could pop back and visit the Brigadier whenever he liked, but that wasn’t really the point. This was really a memorial to the man who played him, but it was fitting that the character too got a send off. Whether it was intentional or a mere coincidence for it to have happened in a story so full of eyepatches we may never know..

All in all then, a conclusion to a controversially complex series that tied up the loose ends well enough while leaving us with hints of more to come, yet was for me a bit unsatisfying. It satisfied my head, but not my heart. Last year’s finale got this balance just right, for me anyway, but this year’s felt like it had tipped just too far towards the cerebral, despite the glorious visual invention on display. In a final analysis, I didn’t hate the Big Arc as so many others did, but this year neither was I that thrilled by it. I’ve actually found the standalone episodes more rewarding generally, with the arc stories (particularly A Good Man Goes to War and Let’s Kill Hitler) seeming like witty pyrotechnic displays that were full of complexity but somehow lacked substance. While I’d hoped for more, The Wedding of River Song was enjoyable enough, but I hope Mr Moffat pulls out a few more stops next time.

Doctor Who: Series 6, Episode 12–Closing Time

Craig: “You gave up your hours for me?”

The Doctor: “Of course. You’re my mate.”

ClosingTime

After the admittedly satisfying big philosophical themes of the last two weeks’ episodes, it’s nice to get back to a good old-fashioned romp. Gareth Roberts’ Closing Time was unashamedly that, a runaround bit of fun, but nonetheless contained some real depth along with the adept comedy as the Doctor put a brave face on his rapidly approaching doom to engage in one last bit of “noticing” with his friend Craig. This sequel to last year’s The Lodger contained no real surprises but was satisfying nonetheless; like that episode, it was a romp that centred very much on the nature of friendship, particularly as it applies to the Doctor.

Having guilt-tripped himself into dropping off Amy and Rory last week, this was plainly a Doctor who, as he put it himself, had “been on his own for a long time”. As we later learned, he was only one day off from his ‘inevitable’ death, which means, given the ages we were told in The Impossible Astronaut, that he’s been travelling alone for about 200 years. No wonder he’s lonely! Like the Tenth Doctor’s interminable farewell tour during his regeneration, he’s decided to try a social call on old friends; thankfully without all the sturm und drang that accompanied that trip. In the case of Eleven though, it seems the closes friend he has outside of his companions is Craig Owens. Fittingly enough, as he spent a while living with Craig – we all have fond memories of flatmates we get along with.

Craig’s moved on since the Doctor last saw him though; he’s in a nice new house with Sophie and their baby Alfie (or as he prefers to be known, “Stormageddon, dark lord of all”). Sophie’s off for the weekend, leaving Craig to cope alone for the first time, which plainly fills him with ill-disguised fright. So, despite his initial reservations, a social call from the Doctor is probably the best thing that could happen to him!

Gareth Roberts is a writer who’s always had a good sense of what the show’s about, having cut his teeth writing Douglas Adams-esque novels recreating the overtly comic Tom Baker/Lalla Ward era. His tendency towards outright humour has produced the same divisions in fandom as that era did, with some complaining that his scripts are too funny and lack menace or depth. In my view, that misses the point; just because a story is humourous doesn’t exclude either of those things. Closing Time was a good case in point. It may have lacked the complex timey-wimey plotting of the series recently, or the big concepts of the last few weeks (which may be a welcome change for many in any case), but like his best episodes of The Sarah Jane Adventures, it was a good straightforward adventure enlivened by some real depth of character.

This worked because there really were only about three characters in it (or four, if you count Stormageddon). As Craig, James Corden once again proved that he can be a very good comic actor, despite his often annoying comedy shows and public appearances. As with The Lodger, Craig is effectively the straight man in this odd couple, and Corden once again had fantastic chemistry with Matt Smith as a comic duo. The other major character (though she was really only a comedy cypher) was Val, but it was great to see Lynda Baron back in the show. I’ve got a feeling this may have been one of Gareth’s suggestions; not only did she sing the classic “Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon” in 1965 comedy romp The Gunfighters, she’s perhaps best remembered as the fantastically over the top Eternal pirate Captain Wrack in 1983’s Enlightenment. Not to mention her best known role, Nurse Gladys Emmanuel in Open All Hours!

Val helped catalyse many of the best comedy moments in the episode, with the running gag that she thought Craig and the Doctor were a couple, something Craig didn’t cotton on to until the very end. This wasn’t just a bit of comedy business though; it caused the Doctor to muse on the nature of his relationships with people. “Partner? Is that better than ‘companion’?” Elsewhere, the gag sprang up in other ways – most notably the Doctor’s hilarious attempt to distract Craig from the fact that they’d just teleported into a Cyber ship. “Look into my eyes Craig… It’s you, it’s always been you.” “Doctor, are you going to kiss me?” Followed by Matt Smith’s comically gruesome portrayal of how the Eleventh Doctor might try that; he’s certainly not the smooth operator that Ten was.

I can already hear certain sections of fandom begin to scream about the return of the ‘gay agenda’ to the show, but, innuendo aside, this was more of a bromance than anything else, believably showing a friendship between two men secure enough to joke about that. The sequences of the Doctor and Craig chatting in Craig’s house were the real point of the episode for me, with the bolt-on trad sci fi plot almost incidental. Who hasn’t had a heart to heart with their best mate on the sofa late at night? And, inevitably, who hasn’t then looked round to realise said best mate has fallen asleep while you were opening your heart to him? All that was missing, in my experience, was the four pack of beer on the table; and we’ve already established that this Doctor doesn’t really care for booze. The Doctor’s wry smile, and genuine fondness as he tucked Craig and Alfie into a duvet, said it all.

Matt Smith was on sensational form this week, as in fact he has been every week since the show came back for the autumn. Regardless of the quality of each episode, his performance has been consistently excellent, and for me has depths of subtlety not usually displayed by Ten (sorry, Tennant fans). In Closing Time, this was a believably resigned, weary Doctor, nonetheless prepared to put a brave face on the angst for one last run at thwarting the bad guys. Smith was able to go from the genuinely comic (his chats to Alfie, his attempt to demonstrate a remote controlled helicopter in the shop), to the heartbreakingly sad. The scene in which he unburdened his woes to Alfie, using the sonic screwdriver to project a starscape on his ceiling, was a tour de force of, effectively, solo acting. His sad resignation of his fate, while eulogising all the possibilities a normal human baby has in front of him, was one of the highlights of the episode; and certainly worlds away from Ten’s grumpy attempts to dodge what he knew was coming. And there was still comedy in that scene, easily leaped to from the pathos, as the Doctor explained that the real angst would come later, with things like mortgage payments – “save your crying for later.”

The whole business about being able to talk to the baby – something we established the Doctor can do in A Good Man Goes to War – provided many of the episode’s comedic and dramatic highlights. The Eleventh Doctor has already shown himself to often be joking, or outright lying – “Rule One. The Doctor lies.” So it’s hard to know whether the baby talking business is either or both of those. If not though, Craig may want to worry about young Alfie – if, at the age of one, he already wants to be called ‘Stormageddon’, thinks of everyone else as ‘peasants’, he may be rather a worrying personality when he gets old enough to properly articulate all of this. But of course, by the end of the episode he’s happy to be called Alfie, and proud of his dad (who’s no longer simply “not-mum”). It’s an amusing aspect of the plot that even the baby has a character arc – though Sophie seemed less than pleased that his first word was “Doctor”.

Of course, it’s a given that Doctor Who can’t just be a character drama or comedy, especially these days; there has to be a sci fi plot as well, on which the character arcs can hang. As with other character driven stories (The Lodger, School Reunion etc), this was a pretty straightforward thing that felt like something of an afterthought to drive forward the character arcs, but it was nice to see the Cybermen again. It fits with Gareth Roberts’ love of the classic show that he should bring back such an archetypal monster (not to mention the line “You’ve had this place redecorated. I don’t like it.” from both The Three Doctors and The Five Doctors). Gareth has said that, as nobody was using a classic monster this year, he felt that he might as well bring one back.

This is unlikely to be remembered as a classic Cyberman story in the vein of Tomb of the Cybermen or The Invasion, though. Fittingly for the setting in a shop, these were the bargain basement Cybermen, with a typically ill-thought through plan. So, proceed with the conversion of humanity via a department store fitting room? Yeah, that’s going to work. Thankfully the script didn’t shy away from pointing out the absurdity of this, with the Doctor explicitly telling the Cybermen that it wasn’t going to work with just six of them; shades of the post-modern moment in 1976’s Terror of the Zygons, in which the Doctor points out, tacitly, the show’s budget limitation to a would-be world conqueror: “Isn’t it a bit large for just about six of you?”

But it was nice that the show finally brought back the Cybermats, the metallic rat creatures first seen in 1967’s Tomb of the Cybermen. I was never too sure in the original series what these things were actually supposed to do; it’s only in 1975’s Revenge of the Cybermen that they actually pose any sort of threat, as they go around injecting a space station crew with poison. Here, they had another purpose; they were there to siphon off the power from the cables that Colchester council had rather ill-advisedly put so close to the buried Cyber ship. Oh, and they can attack you with their oh-so-cute little organic gnashers.

Those real, animal-like teeth were not only cute, but served to remind the viewer that Cybermen aren’t robots, they’re part organic too. This was reinforced by their attempted conversion of Craig – “your designation will be Cyber Controller”. Well, without wanting to be too cruel to James Corden, it’s fair to say that the Cyber Controller we saw in the classic series was always, how shall I put this, on the ‘chubby’ side.

Also notable was the fact that the conversion process was more like that of old, with Craig’s entire body being bolted inside Cyber armour, rather than the recent process shown of simply removing the human brain and placing it in a metallic body. I rather liked that, as I thought the brain transplantation wasn’t quite horrific enough. And it’s justifiable too, as that process was being employed by Cybermen from an alternate universe; these are the homegrown variety, refreshingly free of the Cybus Industries logo on their chest. Mind you (and I know this is a budgetary consideration), this would have been a great opportunity to redesign them; while fans are still in shock about the redesign of the Daleks, the Cybermen used to be retooled practically every time we saw them.

Also not exactly original, but entirely in keeping with the themes of the story, was the manner of their defeat, as Craig’s love for his child managed to overcome the Cyber conditioning. It was amusing to watch the Cybermen’s heads explode as they struggled to cope with the concept of parental love, but this still couldn’t disguise the fact that this was, basically, the same resolution as in 2006’s The Age of Steel. Not that this really mattered when that resolution played so well off the themes of the story – love, parental instinct, and friendship.

So, a nice, trad sci fi story, underlying a sensitive examination of the nature of friendship, with some heartfelt insights into the show’s main character. Not a demanding episode, but a fun and touching one. I never thought I’d be glad to see James Corden, but after last year’s episode, his odd couple chemistry with Matt Smith was a delight to see again. And Gareth Roberts mix of comedy and pathos was perfectly pitched. It was a good standalone story – this second half of the season has had a better track record than the first with those – that still played cleverly into the overall plot, as we saw a brief return for Amy and Rory. Having said that, I could have hoped that Amy would find success in life at something a little more substantial than modelling for perfume – and since we all now know what ‘Petrichor’ means, who’d want to smell like damp earth?

But the real meat of the plot arc business was in that (seemingly very tacked on) final scene, as we were unexpectedly shunted into the future to see Madam Kovarian confront, and recruit, River Song. Frances Barber was hamming it up like mad, which is probably the best way to deal with being in a scene with Alex Kingston, as the monsters formerly known as The Silence bolted River into the previously seen astronaut suit to wait beneath the surface of the aptly named Lake Silencio.

It’s still hard to fathom the logic of this plot – if they had River bolted into the suit as a little girl, why not use her then? Why use a late 60s vintage Earth space suit to disguise their assassin at all? And why have her pop up from the bottom of a lake to kill her target? It’s like the most contrived Bond villain scheme of all time, but we can hope that next week’s final episode might make some sense of it all. At least Madam Kovarian’s tale of River’s frequent brainwashing does explain why she doesn’t remember herself having done this in The Impossible Astronaut; though it was far from clear where in her time stream she was when bolted into the suit as opposed to standing on the shore watching herself rise from the lake. Still, that final shot of her helplessly strapped into the suit beneath the lake was a doozy, even though that (presumably Moffat-penned) children’s rhyme about the Doctor’s death seems a bit contrived to me.

Other recurring oddnesses – yet again, we had a father-son relationship crucial to the plot, with the mother all but absent. There does seem to be a recurring meme of monsters getting in through reflective surfaces, in this case the mirror in the shop’s changing room. And what was that business last week with Rory talking about himself in the past tense, and both he and Amy flinching from each other? Knowing Steven Moffat, next week may or may not resolve things, but timey-wimeyness will be central to it all. As the Doctor gathered his blue envelopes and gained a convenient Stetson from Craig, the stage was set for the death we saw at the very beginning of the series. Now let’s see how Moffat gets us out of that…