Series Five is a great big giant success. The show goes through its first major behind-the-scenes shuffle but everyone seems pretty damned happy with the results. I'm probably happier than most. Everyone seemed madly in love with Tennant and RTD as they made their departure. Whereas I was starting to get a bit tired of both of them. So Moff coming along and changing things up as much as he did brought me greater delight than most. While he didn't stray too far from the roots his predecessor had planted, he made just the right amount of changes that I needed.
With his first season now under his belt, where does he go from here? Well, if he was truly following in RTD's footsteps, this would be a lather, rinse, repeat situation. We would get another season that has a huge fairy tale vibe. Rory and Amy would have some more relationship problems. River Song would show up in a non-linear manner and still not really reveal any secrets about herself. Then the Universe would blow up again and the Doctor would fix it!
Quite beautifully, though, Moff goes for something entirely different. Firstly, he messes with the whole structure of the season by sticking a break in the middle of it. On top of that, the nature of the season-long arc is changed radically. Since 2005, the Doctor has been facing threats to the Earth or the Universe, itself, as he reaches the season finale. This time, Moff turns the threat inward. The danger is to the Doctor, himself. Just to be even wilder with altering the format, we even start learning some of River Song's bigger secrets!
And now, of course, I'm even happier. This is what Doctor Who is all about. It re-invents itself on a regular basis and finds new directions to explore. Sometimes, bad choices get made. The show goes in a way it shouldn't and we get something like Timelash! But this is still far better than tired, old, formula-driven fodder.
Moff making a few significant changes to the formula of the show pleases me to no end. I will admit upfront: Series Five was a bit better than Six. But, if Moff had just tried to duplicate what he'd done in his first season (as RTD did for, basically, his entire reign), things would have been far worse.
THOSE FIRST FEW MINUTES...
Is there anything that draws us in more intensely than those first few minutes of The Impossible Astronaut? Watching the Doctor get brutally murdered in front of us is bound to grab our attention. But what makes this sequence all-the-more memorable is that it is executed (no pun intended) very effectively. Especially when you factor in all the various timey-whimeyness that is going all around it. River Song is having a picnic with the Doctor, Rory and Amy while being fully aware that another version of herself is going to climb out of the water in a moment and kill the Doctor. Meanwhile, another version of herself is also currently gestating inside Amy's womb. The Doctor still attempting to regenerate after he's been shot is another interesting nuance. As are all the various reactions the characters have before, during and after the assassination. The Doctor does a great job of being brave as he sees the astronaut emerge from the lake. Rory loyally does what is needed of him to dispose of the Doctor's body after he's killed. River fires uselessly upon herself and says something cryptic. And Amy just openly mourns the loss of her friend. Even Canton Everett Delaware the Third has a fun little moment as he tells the trio that he will see them again. It's all just so ridiculously iconic.
Of course, we know the Doctor isn't really going to die, here. Something will happen that will, somehow, alter the course of what we've just witnessed. Or there's something deceptive going on. All is not as it seems. We can't say for sure. But this is probably the best "hook" anyone has ever used to get us to watch the rest of the season. We're certain the Doctor will, somehow, find a way out of this. But we're dying to see what trick he's going to use.
Series Six is off to an amazing start.
BEYOND THE HOOK...
Certainly, those first few minutes of Impossible Astronaut grab your attention. But this is a two-parter. How does the other hour and fifteen minutes of the story fare?
Basically, Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon is good. Really damned good. So damned good, it almost makes it into my Top Ten.
Like Pandorica Opens/Big Bang, all the resources the Doctor needs to defeat his foe are subtly planted into the plot. We just don't see them till the Doctor actually takes advantage of them. Moffat is even more obnoxious with how well he can hide things than he was during the Series Five finale. Right at the beginning of the second part, he drops a big clue like: "I'm going to use Neil Armstrong's foot!" And, of course, we still don't get what's going on. Not until we reach that final confrontation with the Silence
And what a confrontation that was! This just might be the best villain tell-off/victorious moment for the Doctor we've ever had. Everyone is on fire, here. The Doctor knows his plan is about to succeed and is actually being playful with his enemy. River Song is extra saucy, too. And I absolutely adore it when Amy asks if their flirting is important! I also love how we still cheer a bit during all the intense action when Amy calls Rory a stupid face. It's a gorgeously-written scene that everyone grabs by the horns and really makes shine. Including the director. The pacing is so crucial at this point and he makes sure to capture it perfectly.
We should probably address one important issue: the Silence are vaguely similar to the Weeping Angels. They both can get up to some nasty things when you're not looking. But I will say that there are still enough differences between them that I'm not going to turn into one of those nasal-voiced pedants that has to proclaim things like: "Moffat is a hack! He can't come up with any original ideas!"
Or, at least, I'm not going to say it here. Perhaps in the next few paragraphs!
THE DIP AND THE RISE
Like Vampires of Venice, Curse of the Black Spot is our weakest link. Again, not an actually terrible adventure. It has its moments. But it's definitely the poorest story of the season.
Just like Vampires, the ending gets pretty messy. The Doctor, Amy and Captain Avery let the Siren take them to the other dimension where the spaceship is. Why are they not confined to beds like everyone else? Essentially, they're left to wander around and discover things because the plot needs them to. It does look as though all the beds are finally full. But that is just a bit too much of a lucky coincidence!
And then there's Rory. Turning him into Kenny from South Park never actually bothered me. They always found clever ways to write him back into the show after he appears to have died. So I actually quite enjoyed it when he's killed but, somehow, resurrects (also really loved the "Oh my God! They killed Rory! You bastards!" memes!). When he briefly kicks the bucket at the end of this story, however, it doesn't really work. The whole scene would have been better if Amy had just been good at CPR. Or the Doctor saves him, somehow. Or something like that. Just not what we got. Killing Rory, officially, is starting to happen too much. And is happening in a way that feels far too contrived.
My other major beef is that stories about alien technology not functioning properly and causing huge problems is also getting tiresome. We've been getting it a lot when Moff's in charge of the writing. Some of it has been brilliant, of course. Empty Child/Doctor Dances and Girl in the Fireplace were excellent tales that used this idea as their core premise. Black Spot doesn't use the device so well. And, really, we just need a break from this sort of plot. Fortunately, Moff learns his lesson and does give it a rest for a bit after this.
Like Series Five, the poorest episode of the season is then followed by the one of the best.
There are some people that actually complain about The Doctor's Wife. They claim it's nothing but fan service and, therefore, can't get into it. If this was merely a 46-minute episode where the Doctor is doing nothing but talking to the TARDIS the whole time, I'd find myself agreeing with them. Instead, it's an interesting and even mildly-terrifying adventure where one of the side-effects of the main plot is that the Doctor is able to talk to the TARDIS for a bit. The main focus of the tale is defeating House. The fan service is an almost cosmetic addition.
Which is the true beauty of this tale. Yes, it is a love poem about the Doctor and the most important relationship in his life(ves). We absolutely love it when the Time Lord complains to his vehicle about how she doesn't always take him where he wants to go. And then she points out the she always took him where he needed to go. It's a great moment that truly summarizes the entire history of the show. But it's still something that's kept in the background. Where it's meant to be. A story like School Reunion could learn a lot from this!
It is also massively cool to see Neil Gaiman writing for Doctor Who. It gave the show some solid street cred amongst fans of other franchises. "Oh!" we'd say to a Star Wars geek, "You're a fan of Gaiman, are you? Did you know he's written for Doctor Who? Hasn't written any Star Wars stuff, though, has he?! Clearly, Star Wars isn't good enough for him!" It helps, of course, that Gaiman is a gigantic fan of the show. So much so, that he calls the episode The Doctor's Wife. Knowing the extremely obscure story behind the title.
The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People has a fair amount heavy-lifting to do. While the main arc of the season is an attempt to help the Doctor avoid his own death, there is also a second ongoing story. Amy seems to be having a serious feminine problem! This adventure faces that issue head-on and ends up giving us one of the most brutal endings to a two-parter that we've ever seen (or is this, perhaps, actually a three-parter?!). Because of the gorgeous set-up these two episodes create, we can't wait to see A Good Man Goes to War.
At the same time, this story does something intensely unique. It creates a giant red herring in the main arc of the season. "Ahhh!" we all say as we see the Flesh copying the Doctor, "This is how he's going to get out of being killed! He'll send in a Flesh version of himself to get shot!" Yes, the copy made of the Doctor dies at the end of Almost People. But we figure he'll just make another one.
All of this distracts us from the fact that, after only one episode, we are shown the real solution to the problem. Again, I must admire Moff's bravado. One would think he would place the Teselecta later in the season so that we can really take the time to stew over the Flesh. I love that, instead, he presents us with something else that can alter its form almost immediately afterwards
Most importantly, though, Flesh/People has a solid plot all on its own. Like the Weeping Angels two-parter last season, it doesn't just take care of various arcs. It has some actual meat to its core premise, too. I particularly like how, even though both sides proclaim it, this isn't actually an "Us and Them" situation. The humans aren't entirely good and the Flesh aren't totally evil. It's more like a Silurian story. There are jerks and nice folks on both sides.
The Doctor's ultimate plan of having Jimmy speak to his son was exceptionally clever. He knew that the encounter would get either version of him to see how ridiculous things were getting and change his ways. Which, in turn, would create a domino effect with the rest of his "side". It's really quite brilliant that this is what resolves the conflict. Ganger Jimmy carrying on in Human Jimmy's place to bring up his son was also quite touching.
After a pretty crazy cliffhanger, A Good Man Goes to War has a lot to live up to. Impressively enough, it really does succeed. Even the pre-titles are pretty damned cool. After the opening credits, it's great fun to watch the Doctor assemble his army and put his plans into execution. All of it comes together quite smoothly. And I love it as Eleven gives Danny Boy the order to attack Demon's Run and then pretends to be a spitfire!
And then we get to the major plot twists. Both are very well-constructed. Kovarian getting the last laugh by making Melody a Flesh baby was quite brutal. And the Big Reveal about River Song being Melody in the future was very surprising. For me, at least. I seem to remember a whole slew of fans saying things like: "I knew who she was ten minutes into Silence in the Library!" Which, admittedly, is me making a ridiculous exaggeration for the sake of comedy. But then, I think many of these fans were exaggerating, too. Or, quite possibly, full-on fibbing. I saw absolutely no predictions of this nature in the fangroups before the episode went out. But, suddenly, after the story was transmitted - people were coming out of the woodwork claiming: "I knew it all along!" Why didn't you put your money where your mouth was and claim this before Good Man Goes to War was shown? It's kinda hard to believe you after the fact!
Anyhow, we reach the mid-season break in very good shape. A couple of major plot threads get resolved but there's also a huge tease of adventures-to-come. If this is what Moff is going to deliver when he breaks a season in half, then I'm all for it!
THE SECOND HALF - PART ONE
As we get to the second half of the season, Series Six is sitting pretty good. We've got three episodes that were extraordinary. Three that were very strong. And one that was "meh". Which makes for some pretty good stats.
But now we're doing a bit of a re-set. A very pointed rest in the transmission rate allows for a big change of emphasis in this latter set of episodes. Which is exactly what happens. The second half of Series Six feels a lot less cohesive. The Doctor isn't scanning Amy's womb every episode. There's not as much talk of his imminent death. River Song has less of a presence in the stories. The episodes don't feel as interconnected. Which is not actually a bad thing. But it is an adjustment. This always has the potential to alienate an audience. Things were running on one course that seemed to be working well. But, now, suddenly - things are different. One can't help but think of the old proverb: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!"
I'm more inclined, however, to support this sort of decision. "Never get in a rut!" is a non-existent proverb I've always gotten behind. So I applaud the change of tone that occurs in the second half of Series Six. Yes, we've lost some of that gorgeous dramatic momentum that the first half had. But I still feel that, overall, the season shows a greater sense of artistic merit by going in such a different direction after its break.
Let's Kill Hitler starts things off nicely and has a few decent surprises in it. I'm particularly impressed that we get even more Reveals about River Song so quickly (once more, of course, fans claimed: "I totally saw it coming from a mile away!") I would have thought Moff would have given the mystery a rest for a bit but he feeds us a little bit more of her origins. He does a pretty good job too of suddenly inserting a character into Amy and Rory's past who wasn't there before.
Kill Hitler is, for the most part, a fun a little romp that starts off the second half the season quite well. Nothing too extraordinary - if we're being honest. But still a good time.
Night Terrors comes perilously close to being a second weak link the season. It's still substantially better than Curse of the Black Spot. The plot hangs together quite well. The child actor playing George does an incredible job. He gets so very little dialogue but still conveys so much through his reactions and mannerisms. The director also deserves high praise. He does this incredible job of making so much everyday stuff suddenly seem quite eerie.
But this is, pretty much, one of the most blatant filler episodes New Who has ever made. It's almost like the briefing Moff gave Gatiss was: "Write me something deeply inconsequential that can be made on a shoestring budget." To Gatiss' credit, he actually delivers an excellent script. But it's just so hard to get behind a story that was made with the same sort of mentality that was put into Time Flight!
THE SECOND HALF - PART TWO
While the second half of Series Six starts off feeling a bit light and slightly unimpressive, that changes quite quickly with the next two episodes. Both are, quite frankly, magnificent. But I also love how they tell very different tales. It's one thing to create a great story and duplicate it. But to create two that are largely dissimilar shows real talent. This isn't a production team that works to a success pattern. They truly just know what's good when they see it and run with it.
The Girl Who Waited is full of wild concepts and a touch of absurdity (those handbots are so goofy! And yet, still menacing). There are lots of big fun ideas at work that make the plot feel very sophisticated and intelligent. But it doesn't stay in its head too much. There's a deeply humanistic side to it, too. I love, for instance, how Amy From the Future doesn't wish to become an aborted timeline. She might not have had the best life but she still doesn't want to be wiped out of existence. Whereas if Girl Who Waited had been about nothing but big sci fi theories, it would have probably missed this beat.
Karen Gillan really gets to show off her acting chops, here. She does a great job of playing two different versions of her character. Actresses who originally got their start as models tend to get nasty presumptions made about them. That they're just good at looking pretty on film. Karen, however, did actually attend some legitimate acting schools as her modelling career blossomed. She really shows off that training in a story like this.
The ending to Girl Who Waited is quite brutal. Eleven even seems a bit chilling as he is almost rejoicing that they've "saved the right Amy". But there's a very beautiful side to this all, too. We've all judged Rory and Amy quite a lot throughout the last two seasons. Seen their relationship as being a bit dysfunctional. But this story does a great job of showing us there was a lot more to them than we realized. With this sort of revelation now being made, it does make sense that the Doctor will soon try to drop them off for good. We've explored their characters about as much as we can.
We leave gleaming futuristic corridors and quickly find ourselves in the 80s hotel hallways of The God Complex. Again, I love how strongly these two episodes contrast each other and yet both tell equally excellent adventures.
God Complex could almost be described as surreal. And yet, we're certain there's some kind of internal logic going on that we know will get sorted out. The ultimate explanation that we do get for a why hotel has a minotaur and rooms full of nightmares is quite brilliant. Particularly since it makes a quick reference to the Nimon.
Strangely enough, I quite enjoy the stumbles the Doctor makes along the way as he tries to figure things out. Eleven has this nice fallibility that we see now and again. He just occasionally makes a completely wrong deduction that can even end up costing lives. We've seen this happen before in stories like Time of the Angels and Curse of the Black Spot. Sometimes, he makes bad guesses that have very heavy consequences. For some reason, I enjoy that the writers do this with the character every once in a while.
Rory and Amy's departure comes at a very odd time in the season. There are still two episodes left. Which leads us to believe that we haven't seen the last of them. Which is the case, of course. But still, it's a very nicely executed farewell.
THE END (BUT THE TESELECTA HAS BEEN PREPARED FOR)
With the Doctor now travelling alone, we're getting very close to how things looked at the beginning of the season. Which, admittedly, is some very nice writing. While I did say this half of the season feels less cohesive, it doesn't mean the arc has become completely non-existent. Things are being done more subtly. Which, in many ways, shows much greater skills in the story-telling process.
Closing Time is the most "RTDesque" story in the entire Moffat Era. The A Plot is sooooo threadbare. In some sense, it almost feels like The Next Doctor all over again. The Cybermen have been thrown in for good measure but haven't really been given all that much to do. Fortunately, they don't come up with a ridiculous plan to build a Cyber-Dreadnought. Nor are there any of those awful Cyber-Shades! But still, they almost don't need to be there. Their presence in the story seems so minute.
Fortunately, Craig Owen is back. This really helps to distract us from many of the greater problems in the episode. Closing Time is written in a manner that really allows Smith and Corden to play off of each other a lot more than they did in The Lodger. Which leads to any number of endlessly fun scenes. This really does help me to forget that there is very little going on in the actual plot. While I had a hard time forgiving this sort of writing back when RTD was at the helm, it's easier to do so, here. Mainly because this is the only time we really see it happen. Moff has been really good at making sure there's enough real story to actually fill the runtime. So I can let it slide just this once (yes, I know Moff's not the actual writer of the episode but he's still the one in charge of quality control).
Finally, we get to The Wedding of River Song. One of the more unusual season finales in New Who. It's over in only one episode. Admittedly, it's a little off-putting to not make it, at least, a two-parter. But it's also refreshing for the show to do something so different.
One of the episode's most curious features is how non-linear it is without actually using any kind of time travel. The story is simply told out of order. Normally, this only happens when characters are darting back and forth with TARDISes or vortex manipulators or other devices of this nature. Having events flow in such a manner without employing the usual framing device gives the whole story a very distinctive feel.
The best moment of the whole season happens smack-dab in the middle of Wedding of River Song. The way in which the passing of Nicholas Courtney is commemorated is done with great class and respect. At the same time, it's also very sensitive and touching. I remember the first time I watched the sequence and how deeply it affected me. Losing Courtney was very intense. He did a remarkable job as the Brig and I hated that we never saw him properly return to the New Series (yeah, yeah, Sarah Jane Adventures. I know! Spinoffs don't count, though!). It was great the way the show managed to capture that same sadness I was feeling over Courtney by making the loss of his character a pivotal moment for the Doctor, himself. This really is some great writing. A moment like this could have been so easily mishandled and come across as utterly tasteless.
How the Doctor manages to escape his inevitable death is handled most satisfactorily. Not only was the whole bait-and-switch routine with the Teselecta and the Flesh quite clever, but the way it's ultimately revealed that the Doctor isn't dead was also very good. River's very timey-whimey visit to her mother to let her know the truth of things was a great way to present it. The rapid succession of flashbacks with extra bits added into them made the Reveal much more interesting than just showing us the sequences in their proper order.
While this is a very different way to wrap up the season from what we've seen so far, it's still nicely done. Some seasons have had better finales, of course. But some have also been much worse (thankyou Moff, for never making the TARDIS tow the Earth!)
NOT SO SPECIAL CHRISTMAS SPECIAL
The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe had a difficult act to follow. Last year's A Christmas Carol is, easily, the best Christmas Special the show has ever made. It was a fun story that also had just the right level of gravitas to it. And, of course, there were a few touching moments that legitimately drew tears. I'm pretty sure there will never be a better Doctor Who Christmas Special than this one. Moffat, however, made a very desperate attempt to catch lightning in a bottle twice.
While I wouldn't say Wardrobe and Carol are identical stories, they do both go for a pretty similar vibe. Moff is definitely trying to play with out heartstrings like he did last Christmas. But everything feels just a bit too intentional. The sentimentalism in Carol feels like it happened much more organically. Whereas, here, we get the sense that Moff is genuinely trying to make us cry. So that we'll say something like: "Wow! This was as good as last year's Christmas Special!"
It's not an entirely bad episode. There are some nice moments. Madge dealing with the loss of her husband but still trying to keep it hidden from her children does actually start making us quite sad. Especially the scene where she reveals the truth to the Doctor. The three soldiers, though a bit underused, also provide us with a very nice laugh (Androzani Major seems to be populated with nothing but ruthless capitalists!) The ending where Eleven, at last, re-joins the Ponds is also very nicely done. Especially when the Doctor experiences his own tears of joy for what seems to be the first time, ever.
But a lot of the plot involving the magic forest or whatever it's meant to be hangs together quite awkwardly. There are even some bits that don't seem to make a whole lot of sense. With little or no explanation, the trees just happen to know that the Doctor will visit them one more time just before the acid rain starts. They seem to think that the best way to lure members of his party to their spaceship is to hatch a wooden statue in front of them and just have it walk away as it grows to an enormous size. Would this really lure anyone to follow?! I'm pretty sure even an adventuresome boy like Cyril would, eventually, just look at those footprints that are growing to a gigantic size and resolve to turn the Hell back and go home.
Overall, I'd call Doctor, Widow, Wardrobe a bit of a disappointment. Fortunately, Moff seems to admit this to himself. From this point onward, he learns to take the Christmas Specials in very different directions each year rather than try to keep re-creating the effect that Christmas Carol had.
A COMPLEX CONCLUSION
I recall Moff admitting something interesting during interviews after Series Six was over. He claimed that he felt he had made various storylines throughout the season a bit too complicated and that, in future, he will try to make the show more accessible to a general audience. It reminded me a bit of some interviews JNT gave in the 90s where he confessed that the Sixth Doctor's coat was a mistake. I make that connection because, in both cases, I am impressed with how unafraid these men were to criticize themselves. But I still savagely disagree with what they said! I adore Sixie's coat and I love how complexly-written Series Six is.
Bear in mind, of course, that Season Eighteen from the Classic Series is my favorite. A season that is so high-browed that it borders on pretentiousness! So I'm bound to like something like this. I'm even a bit sad that Moff follows through on his decision and tends to dumb the show down a bit from this point, onward.
Personally, I would have been plenty happy with more seasons like this. I expect science fiction to be something that requires a bit of hard thinking. I want to feel challenged as I sort out what a story's meant to be about. Series Six definitely accomplished that. I would even say it could have been a bit more complicated than it actually was and I would have still been fine.