I think the excellent Dave Owen might have reviewed two consecutive years of the TV series for DWM, but few have. So I was “surprised and delighted” to return to write about the 2011 run. I don’t kid myself about the reasons for that, though. My day job means I have good access to preview copies, which in turn means it’s easier for me to supply reviews that meet the magazine’s deadlines.
And so, from DWM #434.
Doctor Who just died for me.
Yep, at the age of 1,103, he passed away not so peacefully in Utah, America. So we don’t need to fret about him maxing out the regeneration cycle anymore. Truth be told, it was all rather unexpected. You know, for a series-opener. Cause of death? Baffling plot twist. Ouch! Those can be painful. The Doctor is survived by his best friends Mr and Mrs Amy Pond, plus ‘significant other’ (that’s the best we can do right now) River Song – although she actually died a couple of series back.
Oh, and by his 909-year-old self.
Audacious? Absolutely. Even though we were teased before transmission that one from the quartet of time travellers “WILL die”, smart money discounted the Time Lord. Fair enough, DWM had to give him his own variant cover last month, it’s his show, that’s just good manners. But killing the Doctor? Yeah, right. As if they’d do that. It’d be like Blake’s 7 without… erm.
Let’s not play dumb, though. We know that by Christmas the Doctor’s death will have been averted. But it’s a terrific tease for right now. Particularly the emphatic manner in which he was dispatched: blown away mid-regeneration, the corpse set on fire and then – as if that wasn’t enough (and it wasn’t) – the latter day version of Canton Everett Delaware III advising us: “That most certainly is the Doctor, and he most certainly is dead”. Funny. Until that point it still felt like there was a get-out clause. But having a wise old bird actually say the words put the tin lid on it.
This two-part curtain raiser is a very fine affair indeed. It’s exciting, it’s clever, it’s brilliantly scary and it’s obtuse in all the right ways. But what it isn’t is keen to please. There’s none of the excitable “we’re back”-ness of previous years. No “Hello! We’re new! Hope you like us!” Instead, this is a story that takes the intros as read. It feels, in fact, like something we dedicated ones would label a ‘fan favourite’ – an adventure that demands your full participation. Sure, the monsters and the setting are lots of fun, but if you’re not paying attention you’re going to get left behind.
It’s a bold take, and one that feels like a refocusing of Doctor Who for 2011, switching the show from a series to serial form. Numerous questions are raised, but answers are deferred till later in the run. How will the Doctor escape his future demise? What’s Frances Barber yabbering about, and how come the eye patch? Is Amy with child? Although, on that point, my more pressing enquiry is how long has the Doctor been surreptitiously scanning his companions to see if they’re in the family way? “Hullo Jo! Stand right there a minute, will you? Good girl.”
My crass considerations aside, this is truly exciting stuff. From a production point of view it reveals a more joined-up approach to this season, shooting elements from one block (Ms Barber’s episode) to include in another. It’s something the show dabbled in last year during the Doctor’s journey onto the sidelines of his previous adventures. But this is more overt, and the mixing and matching of elements gives the sense of fluidity – a run of episodes that tell one big story. We’ve seen the ‘plot arc’ tentatively blossom in DW since 2005. Now it’s become the plot.
It’s a take on Doctor Who informed by the rise of quality popular US drama, where it’s absolutely a given that everyone watching Dexter or True Blood is a stone-cold fan. Indeed, part of their success is their very immersiveness.
More than ever, The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon are Doctor Who episodes that demand to be talked about. They’re assertive, batting questions and revelations into the gallery. Plus, they’re shackling us in for a longer ride. To fully appreciate them, we’ll have to be in front of our tellies on Saturday nights right through into the winter.
It’s neat the show adopts a US-inspired structure in the year it finally, properly goes Stateside. And you can’t deny the vistas offered up by Utah let director Toby Haynes open up the visuals and give Doc tor Who a truly widescreen look. That said, the subsequent jaunt to 1960s America never quite feels like it’s landed in either that time or place. It’s hard to sum up why. Perhaps because it’s mostly indoors. Nonetheless, the Oval Office is a fantastic recreation, and Stuart Milligan’s surprisingly sympathetic Nixon does well to make us see beyond that nose. But even against the Utah desert, Doctor Who’s idiosyncratic Britishness shines through, Matt Smith a little silly in his Stetson, less Roy Rogers, more Ted Rogers (the 3-2-1 host, rather than The Tomb of the Cyberman space bloke).
Actually, maybe it’s not Britishness. Maybe it’s Moffat-ness we’re identifying. Steven Moffat is the kind of writer who can have his cake and eat it… probably thanks to some fancy dan time loop. He’s excited about being in America, but simultaneously taking pot shots at the country’s gun culture and the president’s oncoming ignominy. (Incidentally, I want a t-shirt with the slogan: “Say hi to David Frost for me,” please.) He even precipitates our analysis of the continuing story by having the Doctor state at the end of Day of the Moon he’s going to put the plot to one side for a bit and get on with some stand-alone adventures.
All of this is definitively, isomorphically Moffat. It couldn’t be more indicative of his take on Doctor Who. Structurally it unfolds in giddy narrative leaps (our intro to the young Canton cross-cutting with the TARDIS team wondering who he is), and countless pullback-and-reveal moments (from the unveiling of the 909 Doctor, to River Song’s sky-scraper swan dive). Thematically, it also prods at a score of the writer’s preoccupations. Here we find creepy phone calls, zombified spacesuits, disembodied voices, people leaving messages for themselves, television as a weapon and baddies who operate just off the radar of human comprehension.
To The Silence, then. In interviews the cast have been trumpeting them as the scariest thing since The Weeping Angels. It’s a valid comparison. Aside from that slight crossover in their modus operandi, both feel as though they come from folklore, which is fitting for an alien menace who’ve been with us since the “wheel and fire”. They’re the kind of intangible nasty that parents threaten naughty children with, and their realisation is great. A weird, rubbery mouthless approximation of a skull for a face, and those shovel-like hands. Tailoring from Don Draper’s laundry basket. Even more effective is the very sound of them, an unsettling, off-kilter fizz of white noise. You can’t quite tune into it. It feels… wrong.
Point of order though. The Doctor’s victory over the forget-me-nauts does hinge on a mahoosive contrivance, namely Canton – the least equipped person to handle a camera phone – capturing video footage of a Silent yakking about death in sufficiently vague terms that its meaning can be flipped with a spot of editing. And this happens after the Time Lord’s already tinkered with Apollo 11, so unless he’s extraordinarily prescient about the monsters’ penchant for video diary confessionals, this is a truly heroic spot of happenstance.
One other grumble – did anyone else feel uneasy about River’s butch slo-mo slaughtering of The Silence? Sure, she makes a mollifying quip about her “old man” not approving, but this sequence felt a little prurient. Glorifying death, it was a misplaced outbreak of bad-ass, which seems anything but Doctor Who.
Earlier we put forward the notion this is a story that isn’t keen to please. But it does flatter the viewer. It tells us we’re intelligent, we can join the dots and we can keep up with the pace. Having buttered us up, it then gifts us the best ever episode ending, one cleverly coded in by the Doctor’s death scene at the start of part one. “I’m dying,” says that odd little girl, picking her way through a New York back alley. “But I can fix that. It’s easy really.” Her hands glow with fire, she throws her head back… We saw this earlier, we know what it means.
Absolutely brilliant. A hornets’ nest kicked to bits. Got to keep watching, because we can’t fathom where this one’s going. Not if we live to be eleven-hundred and three.