I am now officially caught up with New Who and eagerly awaiting the return of the Doctor later this month, as well as starting to bask in the excitement (and nervous dread) of the impending 50th Anniversary in November. Steven Moffat, who I praised in my last post and I’m sure will get his share of the spotlight in my notes below, gave a great interview a few weeks ago teasing what’s to come this year. The most intriguing bits of news: the anniversary special will not just be a one-hour episode (hurray!); It will be filmed in 3D (ugh); pre-production on season 8 is underway (good to hear); Matt Smith will be the Doctor “forever” (uh-huh). In particular, I was interested to hear his kind remarks towards previous showrunner Russell T. Davies. From what I can gather from the fandom, there seem generally to be RTD people and Moffat people, and never the twain shall meet. For the record, despite my profuse celebration of Moffat’s writing in my last post, I don’t think he is a better head writer than RTD. In fact, “The Eleventh Hour” is the only one of his scripts written since he took over that I love as much as the ones he wrote under RTD’s tenure. What I’m getting at is this: Running Doctor Who is tough, and even the best writers seem to find it a struggle. RTD and Moffat have different strengths and weaknesses (almost the opposite, in fact) and many of the best episodes were done when they worked together. Given that fact and Moffat’s comments in the interview, I would love for RTD to write some episodes under Moffat’s direction. I think that would excite me almost as much as more Neil Gaiman episodes (which I hope come annually for the rest of his life).
As for the upcoming anniversary: BBC America’s “The Doctors Revisited” specials have been fascinating so far, although I wish the documentaries were a bit longer. Rumors are flying as to who will and won’t be involved in the special (John Barrowman is apparently in talks, although I won’t trust anything until The Powers That Be choose to speak). Notably, David Tennant still insists that he hasn’t been contacted, but hope springs eternal. I’m sure he would cater the freaking thing if they ask him. I am cautiously optimistic about Moffat’s abilities, although we’ll see how this spring’s episodes go. I’m sure the only other time Moffat has been under this much pressure was in writing “The Eleventh Hour,” and as I said I think he knocked that one out of the park, so that gives me hope. I am really hoping for a story that acknowledges the long history of the show and all of the previous incarnations, but tastefully and dramatically so. In other words, something more artfully done than “Journey’s End” which, despite some truly great moments (i.e. anything with Donna), was far too excessive.
Enough speculation. Let’s get to some Moffat-led episodes that we already know are fantastic. Beware of the Spoilers Below. I also added in some pictures to spice things up, so make sure to revisit my last post on the Russell Davies Era, now with 100% more screencaps!:
1. The Eleventh Hour (series 5)
I’ll say it again: I loved The Eleventh Hour. For me, this is one of the only Moffat scripts since he became The Boss matching the level of perfection of his earlier ones. This actually isn’t too much of a knock. By perfection, I do mean truly perfect, and The Eleventh Hour, like Blink and The Girl in the Fireplace, is truly perfect. Considering the amount of pressure he was under, this is a remarkable achievement. The stroke of genius in this piece was the expansion of the Girl in the Fireplace story line in the character of Amelia/Amy Pond, and already in the first episode she is marked as The Girl Who Waited. This is Amy’s (and Rory’s) theme, and don’t anyone forget it. Like Reinette her, Amy “must take the slower path” and wait for her Raggedy Man. Vaulting to the top of the list of Doctor Who’s most poignant images is that of little Amelia sitting on her suitcase, waiting:
Continuing the Peter Pan parallels, the Doctor is (albeit unintentionally) a fickle sprite, flicking forward in time with barely a thought, casually coloring whole decades of Amy’s life. Companions have had themes before (with Rose it was both the thrill and the terrible cost of having adventures outside “normal” experience; Donna was all about the fulfillment [or not] of her potential) but it’s fascinating to see the companions’ theme fit so neatly into the sci-fi fabric of the show. Amy and Rory’s story is an exploration into the effects of time and time travel on them and, by contrast, the Doctor himself. This episode nails that theme and serves as a perfect bookend to The Angels Take Manhattan. I should mention Matt Smith, who had the unenviable job of following Tennant and plays this first episode with charm and delicacy. Moffat expands on the motif of the newly regenerated Doctor finding out what kind of man he is, although through the hilariously ordinary process of finding something to eat rather than challenging an alien to a sword fight. I could go on and on about this episode, but I’ll end with noting that what Moffat does better than anything else is to imbue the mundane with terror and magic: With statues, shadows and gas masks, I now submit cracks in the wall, things in the corner of your eye, and missing rooms in your house. The crack in the wall is also brilliant on a meta level: You just know, when he created a sinister crack that is slowly deleting all of time and history, that he is playing into his audience’s fear that he is going to ignore, screw up, or just plain erase the last five years of the show’s continuity. What a clever, cheeky man.
2. The Beast Below (series 5)
I’m aware of the fact that some grouches see this episode as an overall flop, and while I can agree with some of the criticisms mostly I put that down to plain old grouchiness. Emotionally, this episode is just lovely. Coming off of a string of manic stories in The Waters of Mars, The End of Time Parts 1 & 2, and The Eleventh Hour, The Beast Below is (despite a grand setting and high emotion) comparatively quiet and contemplative. The emotion is broad and boldly colored for a Moffat story (I totally agree with Tom MacRae’s analysis that where Midnight was Russell Davies’ attempt at a Moffaty script, The Beast Below is Moffat’s attempt to 0ut-Russell-Davies Russell Davies). Using the star whale, the titular beast below, as a metaphorical stand-in for the Doctor himself, this story is a character study of our hero. Amy instinctively understands the actions of the whale because she is learning about who the Doctor is, and by understanding them she saves them both. The story concludes with an epigraphic children’s rhyme:
In bed above or deep asleep, while greater love lies further deep. This dream must end, this world must know. We all depend on the beast below.
which exemplifies the Doctor as much as the star whale. Both are “very old, very kind, and the very last of [their] kind,” and can’t stand by while human children suffer. All this altruism comes at a cost, however. In a bit of stinging satire, humanity regularly chooses to turn a blind eye to the suffering these continual acts of salvation cause their savior. Fresh off his Tenth incarnation, few understand suffering like the Doctor but it takes the bright young companion (as usual) to save him from himself and stop him making the disastrous (and self-destructive) decision. The episodes cements Amy as a worthy companion, elevating her to the status of those gone before and kicking off the Doctor and Amy’s adventures together, reminding us that as long as the Doctor has companions he’s “always alright.” Finally, Peter Pan Imagery alert: Amy in her nightgown, flying through the stars (second star on the right and straight on till morning?):
3. Vincent and the Doctor (series 5)
As Bob McKee famously said, “Wow them in the end.” I had read about the power of this episode before watching it, so maybe I was primed for the almost inevitable disappointment. (Not sure why this should be: Amazing Doctor Who episodes always live up to their reputation.) In any event, I watched and waited to be moved and just wasn’t feeling it. I mean, it was beautifully shot, the actors were on form, the monster was scary (anything you can’t see is scary). But I didn’t feel it…until the end. Well done, Richard Curtis. Let’s not have any of this War Horse nonsense, this is truly a great piece of writing. Because it doesn’t matter how inspirational Amy is, or how remarkable the Doctor. Heck, even seeing the future can’t chase away Vincent’s demons. I don’t like to think that a sad end for Vincent was inevitable, that there was no hope, but I like the bravery of showing that the Doctor, with all his magic, can’t really save people. In fact, nobody can really save anyone else. All they can do, as Amy and the Doctor do for Vincent, is make life a little happier for each other. Like Midnight and The Waters of Mars, this is a “putting the Doctor in his place” story, though in a gentle rather than a traumatic way. This is bittersweet, not bitter.
4. A Christmas Carol (series 6)
This is one of those Moffat scripts that throws in everything and the kitchen sink, but for some reason this one really works. It includes the now obligatory crashing spaceship on Christmas Day; Fish that swim through the air; Steampunk; Dickens. The disparate elements all intertwine and serve the story wonderfully. I actually liked Michael Gambon (he’s good at crotchety, which is why he sucked as Dumbledore). In particular, this is Matt Smith coming into his own. He returns from the series break with far more confidence, neatly walking that fine line between being fully The Doctor and his own unique character. This is also my favorite “Christmassy” episode. RTD’s Christmas specials never had much to do with the feel of Christmas itself (though often good episodes otherwise), and Moffat’s more recent ones are atmospheric but have become a little convoluted. This one perfectly captures that indefinable combination of hope and spookiness which the season evokes and is also a great story. It takes place entirely at night and everything feels charged with spiritual significance, which really add to the Dickensian tone. Just beautifully done. Peter Pan Imagery Alert: The Doctor enters through a child’s bedroom window:
5. The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon (series 6)
I have my reservations about these. Moffat is sometimes entirely too cavalier with his jumps through time (in particular the opening of Day of the Moon is a difficult to grasp. It’s been how long since the last episode, exactly?). Whatever, those are nitpicks. This two parter is thrilling. In fact, as happens all too often, it was such a good opener that it was almost inevitable that the finale wouldn’t be able to match it. The problematic solution, however, shouldn’t take away from a brilliant set-up and this is certainly that. We get teased with River’s identity, as well as some ironic foreshadowing (backshadowing?) of Silence in the Library (“The day’s coming when I’ll look into that man’s eyes and he won’t have the faintest idea who I am. And I think it’s going to kill me.” She doesn’t know how right she is). We see the truly unsettling “death” of the still-regenerating Doctor, and the story concludes with an intriguing regeneration bookend. Best of all are The Silence, another clever Moffat villain. In the Silence, brilliant psychological horror (i.e. you can’t remember them when you’re not looking at them) is for once matched by brilliant prosthetics (evoking Munch’s “The Scream” and Rowling’s soul-sucking Dementors).
Whereas The Eleventh Hour introduced series 5 as a whimsical, witty fairy-tale, TIA/DotM sets up the more dangerous world of series 6 in a stylish and exciting way.
6. The Doctor’s Wife (series 6)
The Doctor’s Wife is the best episode of the Moffat era (so far) by a country mile. Just like Russell Davies before him, you can sense in every moment of this story writer Neil Gaiman’s lifelong love of the show, transforming fannish fancy into true art. Gaiman had been asked by Moffat to write an episode, and darn it if he wasn’t going to make explicit the unacknowledged yet most important relationship of the entire show: The relationship between the Doctor and the TARDIS. Befitting their “old married couple” status, unspoken annoyances are finally aired (“You never took me where I wanted to go.” “No, but I always took you where you needed to go” and “Pull to open” being among my favorites). The TARDIS’ timelessness is fitting and hilariously done (“Tenses are difficult” and the poignant reversal of hello and goodbye). Quickly this review is turning into just a string of quotations, and this is no accident. Gaiman is a great writer, and he’s at the top of his game in this episode. How about some more quotes?
House: Fear me. I’ve killed hundreds of Time Lords. The Doctor: Fear me. I killed all of them.
The TARDIS: You call me…Sexy. The Doctor: [embarrassed] Only when we’re alone.
Rory: He’s a Time Lord! Amy: It’s just what they’re called. It doesn’t mean he actually knows what he’s doing.
The Doctor: Alive isn’t sad. The TARDIS: It’s sad when it’s over.
Also, I’m a big fan of Matt Smith’s work on the show, but this is one of the only episodes for me that matches the kind of pathos that David Tennant brought on a more regular basis (perhaps because that’s not the direction Moffat chooses to take the story very often). The final scenes showcase just what he’s truly capable of as an actor. I also felt shocked to see the Ninth/Tenth Doctors’ old control room. Though it had only been a series and a half since we’d seen it (and only a couple of weeks for me in particular) it really did feel ghostly, as though it had died along with the Tenth Doctor.
It’s nice to know the TARDIS keeps his old things on file. As I said before, Gaiman’s aesthetic is perfect for the show and I hope he continues to contribute episodes (we already know he’s tackling the Cybermen in the second half of season 7). Gaiman set out to make his audience feel every emotion in a single episode, and he certainly succeeded for me (and apparently the Hugo awards committee).
7. Let’s Kill Hitler (series 6)
“You’ve got a time machine, I’ve got a gun. What the hell. Let’s kill Hitler.” This episode has maybe the best title in all of New Who, and I truly didn’t know what to expect. Well, I certainly didn’t expect what we got. A nod to one of the great philosophical time travel dilemmas (If you could go back and time and kill Hitler, would you?) that killer titular line and the entire Nazi subplot turn out to be nothing more than a red herring for the real story: Mels’ regeneration into Melody (Moffat really shouldn’t have called her Mels – it unnecessarily gives away what should have been a flawless revelation) and Melody’s transformation into River. I find it fascinating that River’s sudden and, honestly, rather flimsy reversal from hard assassin to Doctor devotee parallels the Tenth Doctor’s decision to trust River because of her future knowledge of him. For both of them, their first experience of meeting the other is with the other already knowing who they will come to be, and this knowledge that they will be better actually makes them better, in the present. They make each other into the best version of themselves. Sounds a bit like what marriage should be, doesn’t it? Just as the Doctor trusts River and finds a new level of intimacy with his TARDIS because River told him he will be able to one day, so River saves the Doctor because of his revelation to her that she is capable of loving and saving him. Wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey goodness. On their own these reversals (especially River’s) might feel contrived. Together, they mirror and complete one another. All of that thematic juiciness comes at the end, though. The majority of this episode is an insane, fantastic romp that just hurtles along. Also, it’s one of Moffat’s funniest. (Rory’s hilariously delivered, “Shut up, Hitler!” and the Doctor’s reaction to the holograms of his former companions). Actually, did I say the Nazis had nothing to do with the plot? Here’s another neat parallel for you: The mission to assassinate war criminal Hitler vs. the mission to assassinate (war criminal?) The Doctor. Just fantastic.
8. The Girl Who Waited (series 6)
Oh, Tom MacRae. I don’t know who you are, or where you’ve been since season two but way to come back with a vengeance. Did I say Moffat Who rarely has pathos? This episode is the very definition of pathos. In fact, you could choke on the pathos if it ever devolved into sentimentality, but it does not. This is not comforting or nice in an “it hurts so good,” Lifetimey kind of way. This just hurts. We’re back to the theme of waiting with Amy and Rory (made explicit in the title). If I have one complaint with the story it’s that Amy’s anger at Rory is a little unfair given that he did wait 2,000 years for her, but that doesn’t make her situation any less difficult. The real punch comes not from the waiting but from the choice. Rory cannot have his cake and eat it too. You cannot be both young and innocent and wise and experienced. When I saw the Doctor moving to slam that damn door in her face I expressed my displeasure out loud at the TV screen. That the Doctor and Rory make the right choice is not entirely clear by the end of the story. But it’s the only choice they could have made, right? They want to choose young Amy, I want them to choose young Amy, even old Amy chooses young Amy by the end. Still, I feel guilty for wanting that, and you bet your butt Rory does, too. After all that depression, I just have to mention one of the funniest lines in the history of the show: “Your mobile telephone. I bring you to a paradise planet two billion light years from Earth and you want to update Twitter.” I love when the show acknowledges its place in time and pop culture, and Smith’s delivery is flawless.
9. A Town Called Mercy (series 7)
Toby Whithouse does complicated Doctor Who very well. His scripts are funny and adventurous and have the Doctor saving the day, just like all good Doctor Who scripts, but the Doctor always comes out of them looking at best (School Reunion) like something of a jerk and at worst (The God Complex) like something of a psychopath. Here is yet another Whithouse experiment in Time Lord deconstruction. We find ourselves in a town called Mercy, and we are about to find out whether the Doctor has any mercy left. Of course he does, but the answer to that question is less sure than it used to be. I suspect that this story has been percolating for a while, because in Whithouse’s first DW script way back in 2006 (School Reunion) he had the newly regenerated Tenth Doctor proclaim with icy calm to the villain: “I’m so old now. I used to have so much mercy. You get one warning. That was it.” Here, it doesn’t take much goading at all for the Doctor’s patience, and his mercy, to run out. We see the Doctor do something he does very rarely, and never without warning (as he said above): He chooses to kill in cold blood. Not in defense of himself or a companion, but as an execution. Granted, he’s pulled back by Amy (yet another case of the “it’s not good for him to travel alone” motif) but the intent was there. Chillingly after Let’s Kill Hitler, the Doctor is still being compared to war criminals. Even more chilling is the Doctor’s pronouncement that Jex “[doesn’t] get to decide when and how [his] debt is paid!” Very true, and what do you bet those words come back to bite him? Who will decide when the Doctor’s debt is paid? The Daleks? The Time Lords? (Prediction: We have a new companion [Clara] who it is known will eventually be turned into a Dalek and has had multiple lives (or regenerations? I know she always looks the same and doesn’t keep her memories, but still…). Is she some sort of Dalek/Time Lord/Human fusion? If so, she would make a compelling candidate for the Doctor’s judge).
10. The Angels Take Manhattan (series 7)
I know this episode, the Ponds’ swan song, has detractors, and I actually think it’s plenty justified. There are things that drive me crazy. The Statue of Liberty as Weeping Angel was a clever idea that should have stayed a clever idea. Since when can the Doctor just give up regenerations to heal people? If he can do this anytime, what’s stopped him from doing this all along? (The “within fifteen hours of his regeneration” rule used to grow back his own hand and by River to save his life can’t apply, as he clearly isn’t within those parameters here). I begrudgingly accept that Amy and Rory can’t just leave New York and meet the Doctor elsewhere, although I try not to think about that too hard. Much like The Beast Below, however, the logical flaws are secondary to the emotion, and I think the emotional resonance in this episode is quite strong. It hinges, as so many Amy/Rory stories do, on death (read: Rory’s death) and waiting. Specifically, Rory’s death by waiting. Amy, whose greatest fear (as I interpret The God Complex and The Girl Who Waited) is waiting and abandonment bravely chooses to forsake the Doctor and her eventful life of adventure to join Rory in the past rather than let him wait for her. Unknowingly foreshadowed by the Doctor five years before in Blink, they are “sent back in time [to] live to death.” It’s Peter Pan again, where growing up and living a normal life are far more terrifying than facing any alien monster. As deaths go it’s not a bad way out, but we see this separation from the Doctor’s point of view and the realization is painful. His selfishness peaks through when he desperately pleads with Amy to stay, that “he will never be able to see her again.” Fortunately, Amy has finally reached a place of maturity in which she is able to choose Rory over the Doctor. Good for her.
Honorable Mentions: Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone (series 5); Amy’s Choice (series 5); The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang (series 5); The God Complex (series 6); Asylum of the Daleks (series 7); The Snowmen (series 7)
So that’s it. I am now caught up and “I, weary traveler, must take the slower path,” waiting for new episodes as they’re released rather than gleefully skipping forward in time like some mad person with a box. Painful though waiting for the Doctor can be, as Amy knows all to well, I am glad to have caught up just in time for the advent of the 50th Anniversary, as I’m sure 2013 will be one of the most exciting times to be a Who fan. Well done to the writers, Doctors and companions who have made the revival so successful, and I look forward to what the future brings for the next 50+ years.