Reviewed: Doctor Who Series 5 – Brighter Than Sunflowers

Series 5 has always been my favourite series of post 2005 Doctor Who. I know that it’s still the same show it was before Russell T Davies brought it back, but maintaining the difference between Classic and New means I can have two favourites. Check out my other series review to find out which that is.

I have rewatched episodes of Series 5 since they aired, but only ever my favourites. The ones that I knew would reaffirm its place in my personal pantheon of Who. I didn’t go near the ones I didn’t like or outright hated. Upon rewatching the whole series for this review, however, I have revaluated some episodes – The Beast Below is much better than I remember and the Silurian two-parter much worse. I still hate The Lodger, but that is down almost entirely to James Corden.

New men Sauntering in

After five years, Russel The Davies steps down and the only candidate for the job takes over. The Man, The Myth, The Moff: one of the greatest writers Doctor Who has ever seen is now head writer… or showrunner or whatever you want to call it. Steven is in charge and change is a afoot.

I am not being hyperbolic when I say he is one of the best writers. The Empty Child/ The Doctor Dances is the show at its very peak. Clever, daft, scary, and brilliant – adjectives that could all be used to describe the man himself, but perhaps not every single episode he wrote. However, in 2010, the man had no iffy episodes under his belt and I was very excited to see what he would do. He wrote Blink, for cripes’ sake.

It is testament to his ability that there was no similarly obvious candidate when he left.

Young Liam was very excited when he heard the news that Steven Moffat was taking over. I think his ideas about Doctor Who chimed very well with my own. He seemed to be interested in ideas and concepts and playing around with time in odd ways. Exactly the sort of stuff that I wanted to see. He had a way of shooting for the stars and you had to admire his ambition even if he fell on his face, but I certainly don’t think that happened in Series 5.

Who would play his new Doctor? Who would be able to meet his vision? Turns out, we didn’t have to wait too long and we found out in a rather naff episode of Doctor Who Confidential in 2009. A floppy haired man sat in a chair and talked about how brilliant Doctor Who was; not much to go on. Or so you would think. Matt Smith was wearing dark clothing in the few mins of interview we saw so the forums were all alight with talk of him being the “Dark Doctor”. In retrospect, they were sort of right. We would not get a proper look until David Tennant didn’t want to go in the New Year.

A lot of the success of Series 5 is down to the newness of it all. Not only did we have a new Doctor, but also many new faces behind the scenes. The moment the TARDIS crashes into Amelia Pond’s back garden, you’re thinking, David Who?

I knew at the time that all the talk of Doctor Who not surviving the loss of David Tennant was nonsense. The show is bigger than any of the actors who play the lead role. [Note to self: Avoid mean Colin Baker joke.]

I remember seeing Matt Smith’s reveal at a friend’s house; I don’t think I even saw the whole thing. I had no opinion on him then, but as soon as we saw him checking that he still had legs, I loved him. He is not just a diluted Tennant; he is very much is own Doctor. Some fans were concerned that they had gone for another young man with brown hair, but that is where the similarities end. Smith was of a similar age to his co-stars, but I never once stopped believing that he was an ancient time-traveling alien. Old and young at the same time, just as the Doctor should be.

Three’s not a Crowd

We also got a new companion – well, two new companions, for a bit, sometimes. More on that in a bit.

It’s such a Moffat idea to have the Doctor meet his future companion when she is a child. Caitlin Blackwood is wonderful opposite Matt Smith and part of me wishes that we had more episodes with just the two of them. What we got was still excellent though. The Eleventh Doctor has only just regenerated and is still working out the kinks. Young Amelia deals very well with the mad man falling out of the box, something the Doctor points out. Smith’s delivery of ‘must be hell of a scary crack in your wall’ is subdued and full of parental concern.

The Doctor runs away and returns years later to find Amy (not Amelia any more) working as a Kiss-o-gram. An idea that is quintessentially Moffat – in a less good way. Amy seems to have no goals or direction in life, bouncing from one job to the next. Throughout Series 5, she grows up, with the help of her imaginary friend.

From the get-go, Amy acts like she know the Doctor deeply. She passes comments about his personality and the way he does things. Comments that would be weird for any other new companion so early on, but I think they work. Amy’s relationship with the Doctor is different from any other companion. She has known him for a long time, but only a very specific personal version. Time after time, her imaginary friend doesn’t live up to her imagination.

The reason she is the main companion is because the series is about her change. Rory may grow to be more adventurous, or outgoing, but he doesn’t really change. It’s all about Amy realising what she had all along. The two of them find a happy middle ground between Leadworth and the TARDIS, something that will be explored even more in later series.

Amy Pond and Rory Williams are both introduced in the first episode, but Arthur Darvill doesn’t get his name in the opening titles until Series 6. Which is a shame, because it continued a trend not really broken until Series 11. That the female companion gets top billing even when there’s a male companion who is very much part of the TARDIS crew. In my mind, Amy and Rory are a package deal and their relationship is the heart of the series.

I really wish Rory had been in this series more. Looking back, my opinion of some episodes was influenced by whether he was in it or not. I remember not loving Vincent and the Doctor, but I think that was because I was sad about Rory leaving.

I couldn’t exactly tell you why I latched onto Rory as quickly as I did. Maybe I saw something of myself in the character; I think it was his demeanour that made me like him so much. He reacts like a normal person. Whilst Amy and the Doctor are grinning like mad people, Rory is there to worry about dying. His fear is not cowardice though; he is obviously a very brave man. He was an interesting character before he waited 2000 years as a plastic Roman and I think that needs to be said more often.

THE ELEVENTH HOUR

By Steven Moffat.

Basically… Run’.

The Doctor.

That’s a damn good introduction to a Doctor. Many people cite that moment as the instant Matt Smith became the Doctor for them. I can’t pinpoint it for me, but it was certainly as early as The Eleventh Hour (if that phrase makes sense). Smith is a bundle of nervous energy that also has the capacity for great death. His chat with Amelia in the beginning is superb. He’s sorting out the problems of children – I can’t think of anything more Doctorish.

Smith is a very physical performer; his Doctor is not capable of simply standing still. Constantly twitching and flapping his arms about.

It’s a fantastic introduction to this Doctor and this era.

THE BEAST BELOW

By Steven Moffat.

Nobody human has anything to say to me today!’

The Doctor.

Before rewatching, I remembered not liking this episode very much. The memory cheats, however, and I enjoyed it much more the second time around.

Starship UK looks excellent and it’s interesting how they merge future with the past to create a sort of best-of vision where everything is recognisable, but also new. So it’s unsurprising when nobody bats an eyelid at the TARDIS.

It’s odd that the Doctor gives Amy a speech about not interfering when two years ago (for her), she saw him shouting at aliens on a rooftop. I suppose it’s to do with the fact that the Doctor wanted her along to find out what was so odd about her, which is not a plot point I love and Moffat reuses it for Clara. 

The weird clown faces sported by the Smilers seem like they’ve been added in because Doctor Who needs weird monsters and they are a bit out of place. In fact, it’s a bit all over the place. What works is excellent. The reveal of the Star Whale and the secret shame of Liz 10 both stand out, but there’s a lot of running about.

I am surprised that Sophie Okonedo did not return to the role (except for a cameo in The Pandorica Opens): she seems like the perfect fit for Matt Smith’s run. She is a very different type of English Queen, but as usual she starts off about to kill the Doctor. He really doesn’t do well with Royals, does he?

VICTORY OF THE DALEK

By Mark Gatiss.

Would you care for some tea’

An Ironside Dalek (Best line ever?)

Oh Mark. He has written for or appeared in nearly every series before, so that wasn’t going to change when his best mate got the gig. I haven’t read much of what he wrote for Who before 2005; I hear some of the books are excellent. I think I like him more as an actor than a writer, but there are always some good ideas in his scripts.

I remember watching Victor Frakenstien and thought, ‘This is exactly the type of film Mark Gatiss would be in’. Then he popped up five minutes later. Is he predictable? Possibly, but he clearly loves Doctor Who. His documentary on cinematic horror is excellent.

Anyway, we come to VotD, not to be confused with 1976 film Voyage of the Damned. Nor the 2007 Christmas special. Victory gives us Daleks in World War II, because that Nazi metaphor was just too subtle before. The pepper pots have come up with a clever ploy to unleash a new breed of purer, taller, more colourful Daleks on an unsuspecting universe. We all know how that turned out.

It’s always nice to see the Daleks being cunning. Seeing the deadliest creature in the universe pottering around the War Offices is surreal. They are able to use Churchill’s bloody mindedness in their favour. Even when the Doctor turns up and tell him exactly what they are, the Prime Minister is too focused on winning the war.

The Doctor is weary around Chuchill, because Winston wants to get the TARDIS to help win the war. There’s a slight mistrust between the two that isn’t really developed. He’s met the Eighth Doctor on audio, but it didn’t last very long. Something to go back to, I think.

THE TIME OF ANGELS/ FLESH AND STONE

By Steven Moffat.

We have no need of comfy chairs

Angel Bob

Returning to any episode with River Song with the knowledge of her later episodes is always interesting.

I have always liked the character, but I understand how others can find her annoying. This is one of her better outings, as she is still mysterious. From the moment she’s on screen, she is running rings round the Doctor. You can see that he isn’t quite sure how to deal with her. He’s very ready to fly away as soon as they arrive where she wants to go.

Amy continues her odd relationship with the Doctor, acting like she knows him deeply when she has had barely any time interacting with him. I know there have been a few stories outside of the TV show with just Amy and the Doctor, but I like to put them post-The Hungry Earth in my head. I think the first half of this series works in a short period of time – with Amy acting like she’s got an above-average awareness of this strangers… and getting some things wrong about him.

Matt Smith is excellent in this. It is well documented that this was the first story he filmed, but you would hardly know. He grabs the role with both hands and jumps right in. There’s a bit of technobabble and lots of waving his arms around, but he is very much the Doctor. His exchange with the Angels is wonderfully played, adding in humour when needed.

His Doctor is not always in control though. These first story show that the Eleventh Doctor is prone to anger. He shouts at all the humans in The Beast Below, punches Bracewell right in the face, and in this story he loses his temper with River. There are times when it seems that this Doctor is barely holding himself together and it’s brilliant to watch.

River looks genuinely shocked when he is angry at her; she must be used to him being more flustered and confused.

It’s a sad truth, but I believe Moffat’s writing declined slightly during his time as showrunner. He was still an excellent writer, but he wasn’t writing a succession of knock-out episodes. However, with Series 5, he is still on top form and this two-parter easily sits alongside his other longer stories. It’s certainly one of my favourites.

Then we have the scene at the end.

We’ve seen companions be in love for the Doctor or lust after him, but never quite so forcefully. After facing death and terror, on the night before her wedding, Amy tries to sleep with a man who is not her fiancé. This is bad.

I understand that this series is about Amy’s growth and leads to her understanding how she truly feels about Rory. She put away some of the more childish parts of her personality and grows up… a bit. Amy’s pass at the Doctor is almost played for laughs, because the new companion has to get off with the Doctor now – it’s the rule. She may not be as spiteful as Rose, but she is very manipulative of the men in her life. I don’t think I liked her at this point.

Amy grew on me, but this scene was just bad. It was a way to discuss Amy and Rory’s relationship problems without having her actually cheating. That being said, there are consequences and the next few stories deal with Amy and Rory and how they feel about each other. The Doctor shows surprising understanding of human love. Well, he’s always been a bit soppy, hasn’t he?

THE VAMPIRES OF VENICE

By Toby Whithouse.

You big stupid, great… Spongebob

Rory Williams

Because I am a big fan of Being Human (a show that does not get talked about enough), I always look forward to Toby Whithouse episodes. Exactly how much of School Reunion was written by RTD is up for debate, but it was a damn fine episode. Whithouse is excellent.

However, Being Human has better vampires.

We’ve seen quite a few vampires in Doctor Who. State of Decay and Curse of Fenric show two different takes on vampirism, with more to be found in other media, including expansion on Gallifrey’s ancient war against the vampires. (Is that something too stupid to come back in the new series?) Vampires of Venice once more uses a new version of vampires: weird fish people with perception filters. It’s not the worst idea.

Madame Calvierri is the vampiric matriarch. She accepts local girls into her school, but they never come out. It’s a fun premise and Venice is an absolutely beautiful setting, even if they filmed it in Croatia.

The story picks up after Flesh and Stone with the Doctor seeking out Rory, because Amy tried it on with him. It’s good to know that the Doctor understands human relationships well enough to know that that’s a red flag. He pops out of a stripper cake in a funny scene that gets some great performances from Smith and Darvill (“That reminds me, there’s a girl standing outside in a bikini – could someone let her in and give her a jumper? Lucy. Lovely girl. Diabetic”). The camera stays on the Doctor just long enough to be awkward. He then whisks them off to Venice. Maybe he thinks it’s romantic because he took Charley Pollard there once.

The Doctor invited Rory aboard, so why is he being so confrontational? I didn’t like it with Mickey Smith and I would later hate it with Danny Pink. I don’t understand why there is always the need to portray the Doctor as someone who is going to pull a woman away from their partner; it’s very annoying. In the initial TARDIS scene, the Doctor is annoyed that Rory guesses why it’s bigger on the inside. Rather than praising his intelligence, he gets grumpy that he wasn’t utterly amazed.

This irritating relationship continues, with Rory always being put down by the Doctor or Amy. I think it’s done on purpose though. I think you are supposed to be siding with Rory and thinking Amy is being selfish. Not before we get a couple of rude gags and Rory’s broom vs sword fight scene.

Like Amy, it seems that Rory understands the Doctor better than most. He says the worst thing about the Doctor is that ‘You make people want to impress you’, the implication being that that gets them killed. That’s very true. Amy runs head long into danger all the time to impress the Doctor, much to Rory’s annoyance. His trepidation is never framed as cowardice though; he is never less than brave.

The vampires are quite creepy. I think that the subtlety (fish monsters aside) works very well. They are mostly sexy ladies with fangs. They hiss menacingly, but are really a diversion. The idea that they are creatures so awful that they’d rather you think they were vampires is excellent. I wish the script wouldn’t undermine that by constantly calling them fish people. If they are so scary as to pose as vampires, then they should be scary when they aren’t. Which I don’t think they quite are.

AMY’S CHOICE

By Simon Nye.

If you had any more tawdry quirks, you could open a tawdry quirk shop

The Dream Lord

My favourite episode of Series 5. It’s such a brilliant premise.

It’s a little confusing to be greeted with Amy and Rory serval years after they travelled in the TARDIS. From Amy’s baby bump to Rory’s ponytail, everything is a little off. A beautiful English village can be one of the most off-putting places in the world. That’s coming from someone who lives in one.

Amy has a choice (hence the title): adventures with the Doctor or life with Rory? It’s really the question of the entire series.

It’s all the more heart breaking when Rory dies two episodes later. Amy gets to experience both of her options, but she doesn’t know it at the time. The crack isn’t the series-long mystery – it’s Amy and Rory’s relationship.

It’s a question posed by one of Doctor Who’s best one off villains. The Dream Lord played by Toby Jones.

THE HUNGRY EARTH/COLD BLOOD

By Chris Chibnall.

“Have you met monsters before?”
“Yeah.”
“You scared of them?”
“No, they’re scared of me.”

Elliot and the Doctor

Wales! You thought Moffat had abandoned the area, but Chris Chibnall brings us back. Underneath the countryside lies a dormant colony of Silurians who want to take back their planet from the Apes. These are new Silurians with masks and venomous tongues. They haven’t been seen for a very long time, so how does their return fare?

Their redesign is very good. The new prosthetics mean that Silurians actually have facial expression now. Their debut story was all about how they were a thinking, intelligent race and not just mindless aliens. Maybe the Brigadier wouldn’t have blown them up if ’70s Silurians could look sad… or do anything other than stare.

More than any other race in Doctor Who, Silurians are varied. Meet one Dalek and you’ve met them all (or been exterminated) but Silurians are individuals. There’s a world of difference between the bloodthirsty Restac and the scientific Malohkeh. This friction within a single colony paints a picture of a deeper society than usually seen on Doctor Who.

This is mirrored by the collection of humans above ground. Rory is concerned about Amy, but he is not willing to kill their Silurian prisoner, whereas Ambrose dives in with her taser (where’d she get that anyway?!) nearly sending the two species to war. The story gets so close to doing something interesting.

In Cold Blood, members of both species sit around a table and talk about the fate of their planet. Will they be able to share the Earth? Can they compromise? Nah, we’ll just push the problem down the road. The humans go home, the Silurians go back to sleep, and nothing is resolved.

If the story had been set in the future then we could have finally seen a period of history where they lived together. It’s a real missed opportunity.

VINCENT AND THE DOCTOR

By Richard Curtis.

‘The Ultimate Ginger’

Amy Pond

Coming back to a series nearly 10 years later (blimey, that’s too long) means I am looking at episodes differently. I am not in the same frame of mind that I was when they initially aired. Hopefully, I am now smarter than 18-year-old me, but my family may say otherwise. What I am trying to say is that I did not love Vincent and the Doctor when is first aired. I had issues, some of which remain, but I was mainly annoyed that Rory was gone. I spent the whole episode thinking about what it would be like with him in, rather than paying attention.

After watching it again for the first time, I can finally say I understand the love. There are moments in this 45 minute episode that are truly beautiful. Beauty is something that is rarely talked about in modern media. Things can be exciting, or tense, or epic, or sad, but beauty seems to be in short supply today. Not so with Doctor Who.

I am much more familiar with Richard Curtis thanks to Blackadder than any of his more famous rom-coms. I’ve not even seen About Time. All I can say is that an American lady must have broken his heart at some point. The consensus seems to be that his films can be a bit too saccharin; Yesterday looks like it’s a little too sweet for me.

I know even less about art. I’ve wandered round a few galleries, but don’t ask me about the history of Van Gogh. I could point out Sunflowers (or one of them, at ant rate), but not much else. Thankfully, the episode caters to us uncultured cretins. Vincent and the Doctor delves into the psyche of the artist. The man who famously cut off his own ear. We see him being ecstatically happy and soul-crushingly sad. An utterly amazing performance by Tony Curran.

He steals the show. A desperate, broken man, trying to make people see the world as he sees it. This is how artists should be portrayed on Doctor Who. Too often the show goes back in time to meet a famous writer or scientist and makes all the achievements the result of the Doctor. It annoyed me no end to hear the Doctor dropping hints to Shakespeare and Agatha Christie in previous series. It diminishes their creativity.

THE LODGER

By Gareth Roberts.

‘You can come and save me with my toothbrush’

Craig Owens

My opinion of some stories changed on a second watch. Not so this one. I find I like Roberts’ work outside TV Doctor Who much more. His Ninth Doctor novel, Only Human is excellent, as are most of the stories he wrote for The Sarah Jane Adventures, particularly those involving the Trickster. I say this because, recent controversies aside, I have liked a lot of his work… just not this one.

It might be the presence of James Corden. I never watched Gavin and Stacey, but I did have the displeasure of watching Lesbian Vampire Killers. I’m not sure why; I put it down to the presence of Paul McGann. I am sure he is great in many things, but not this. He’s off making lots of money in America now, so I doubt he cares what I think about his performance in Doctor Who 8 years ago.

It’s fine. He does a good job of playing an ordinary bloke. Craig is being kept in one place because he is in love Sophie, who in turn is in love with him. Thanks to the Doctor and a weird non-entity living upstairs, they finally get together. The Eleventh Doctor can be surprisingly perceptive about human relationships, but he also gave Amy and Rory bunk beds, so who knows?

A domestic Doctor isn’t a bad idea. What makes the TARDIS team of Amy, Rory, and the Eleventh Doctor so interesting is that they feel like a family. That’s what made most of The Power of Three so good, whereas here we have the Doctor doing normal human things and that’s about it. He has a kick about, makes some dinner, gives some relationship advice. All because he is stuck on Earth for a bit.

The villain of the piece is interesting, but we don’t get to see much of them before they are dispatched. I was very intrigued by the Time Ship on top of Craig’s house and had hoped it would lead somewhere, but it fizzles somewhat in Day of the Moon, our next and only other experience with it.

In previous series, we sometimes got a Doctor-lite episode, because fans have to give everything a special name. The Lodger is more of a companion-lite story. Amy is stuck in the TARDIS and can only interact with the Doctor over the phone. She gets to yell in an empty room and do some excellent Star Trek style wobbling about when the ship is unsteady.

THE PANDORICA OPENS/THE BIG BANG

By Steven Moffat.

I died and became a Roman; it was very distracting

Rory Williams

Here we are folks. The big bombastic ending that ties everything together and sends the series out on a high.

I love this.

Moffat may later crash in a piles of burning ambition (Hydrid, I’m talk about you), but the Series 5 finale is a joy to behold. So many excellent elements are crammed together to make a story that is wonderfully paced in a way that few Doctor Who endings are.

Where to begin? How about that speech?

Matt Smith standing on a bit of Stonehenge. As an Archaeology Graduate, I have some words to say to him about putting your feet on ancient monuments  As a Doctor Who viewer, I couldn’t stop grinning. Even now, watching it again, it still makes me happy. There’s a reason this speech is handed to lots of other Doctors at conventions. Colin Baker’s take is particularly good.

I think his speech in Flesh and Stone maybe a bit better, but this one is a belter. Armed with only a microphone, the Doctor keeps an army of many different aliens at bay. Matt Smith puts his all into every single word. It could easily be overblown and silly, but it works so damn well.

Sadly, it doesn’t stop them for long and many monsters from across the universe teleport (transmat?) under Stonehenge to put the Doctor in the Pandorica. If there were ever going to be something to unite Cybermen and Sontarans, it would be fear of the Doctor. I had quite the fanboy moment seeing them all in the same place. It also made me sad that we haven’t had a decent Sontran story in a long time.

The Pandorica Opens brings back Rory, even if the Doctor doesn’t notice right away. His entrance is sufficiently badass – who else gets to stab a Cyberman with a sword?! The confusion on Arthur Darvill’s face when Amy doesn’t recognise her fiancé is heart-breaking. He is an underrated actor.

I love the way he rocks backwards when the Doctor pokes him. (There’s a neat role reversal in The Impossible Astronaut too.)

Speaking of excellent acting, Karen Gillan sells the hell out of Amy’s realisation of who Rory is. There is a real pain and confusion etched on to her face as she begins to work it out – only for Rory’s Auton programming to take over when it looks like they have finally found each other again.

And then they all loose. Amy is dead and Rory has to stand guard over her for 2000 years. You could say the Doctor’s arrival with the sonic screwdriver is a rule-breaking get-out card, but this series is all about time travel, after all. I am okay with the Doctor traveling back to sort things out occasionally. He really breaks the bleak scene when he pops in with a fez and a mop.

The Doctor likes hats and River likes shooting them. Which is a shame, because I too thought fezzes were cool. River’s appearance here is great. She’s witty, mysterious, and likes to annoy the Doctor. So does Amy; we really should have seen her parentage coming. She even scares a Dalek.

My only issue with this serial is that it takes the idea of an crazy alternate timeline and doesn’t do much with it. It’s better to have too many ideas, than too few I suppose. The museum where Amy and Rory are reunited is fun little microcosm of the new history of the universe.

Finally, at the end of it all, Amy brings the Doctor back by wishing. Something that was so awfully done in Last of the Time Lords works beautifully here. Amelia Pond is able to imagine her imaginary friend back into existence. She has finally woven the disparate elements of her life together. Her husband watches her friend do the Drunk Giraffe dance. She doesn’t have to choose anymore. With a shout of goodbye, my favourite TARDIS team (I think I’ve said that about quite a few of them) sets off on a new series of adventures. As a family.

It was a wild ride that I had a lot of fun revisiting. I still think it’s one of the best series the show has every done.

NEXT: Tick tock goes the clock and all the years they fly.