Steven Moffat blasted his second season onto our screens with a superfast speedboat of confidence, imagination, and energy. The season teemed with ideas, boiling from his endlessly inventive and dynamic brain. Stories didn’t just have one linear idea, or one measly sub-plot: they often had three or four plots running simultaneously like programs on a deranged, superheating computer. Linear plotting was ruthlessly stomped out and the paradoxes of time travel were exploited to the full. Here was a joyous, effervescent, hilarious, roller coaster ride through all of time and space.
My dictionary defines ‘genius’ as ‘extraordinary intellectual power, especially as marked in creative ability’. Given that definition, is Moffat then not a genius?
And here was Matt Smith, now supremely confident in the role of the Doctor: Smith, who used about half his talent as Prince Philip in The Crown, gives a consistently beautiful performance. His Doctor is dotty, endearing, so gangly and gangling that he is unable to walk in a straight line, over-brimming with the exuberance of the script and the energy of the Time Lord. Matt Smith could turn on a dime to brooding, dark, unknowable – as in the moment in The Impossible Astronaut when he dismisses his three companions back to their timelines (home and prison) because they won’t tell him what they know about his future. This was a Doctor worthy of his predecessors, in whom viewers could see a direct line back to William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, and Tom Baker.
Smith was wonderfully supported by Karen Gillan (Amy) and Arthur Darvill (Rory). Amy is clever, sarcastic, devoted to the Doctor and to her new husband, and occasionally exasperated by them both. Rory is nervous, sceptical, clumsy, ordinary, and soars to the heights of heroism when required – step forward, the Last Centurion and Captain Rory Williams. Strong characterisation, first class acting: a team seldom bettered in the TARDIS.
And then there was River Song…
Let’s look at those stories again.
It’s usually said that Christmas Day stories are a bit rubbish – and they sometimes are. But A Christmas Carol is endlessly inventive, boiling with enough good ideas to sustain a whole season. Michael Gambon and Matt Smith are first class and the story fizzes with excitement and charm.
Moffat delves into the Christmas tombola to bring out a fistful of diverse, eclectic imagery. The first delve brings up remembrance of British TV Christmases past. The Christmas disaster movie! The Poseidon Adventure – a crashing spaceship! Jaws – the Steven Spielberg shark! And the bridge looks like the Starship Enterprise, but it’s crewed by Brits in P&O uniforms! They even say it’s a Galaxy Class spaceship (Enterprise D – see, I can do cross-series references)!
Boldly acknowledging the source, this is Dickens’s A Christmas Carol retold. The Doctor is the Ghost of Christmas Past, rewriting the memories of Kazran Sardick. ‘New memories,’ murmurs Gambon. ‘How can I have new memories?’ We have Victorian Christmas card imagery; a Scrooge/Sardick who is not entirely wicked but just doesn’t want to give Abigail (the Welsh mezzo soprano Katherine Jenkins) a final, and terminal, Christmas Eve. With such lashings of charm and sentiment and suspense and disaster, of course it’s all going to end happily. Now that’s how to do Christmas Doctor Who.
Back in 2010, Sardick’s line, ‘Get me some funny poor people next time’ was witty. Nine years later, with 1.5 million people in the UK relying on Foodbanks every week, it raises a wryer smile.
The season proper started with one of its strongest episodes. The Impossible Astronaut is a delight. Moffat slowly unpeels the skein of the plot, so that we are endlessly intrigued and, just as a plot strand seems about to be resolved, takes us down another path. He can do comedy and epic and horror and drama in an episode, and switch endlessly from one to another every couple of minutes. So the story starts with two moments of what seems silly fluff: a naked Doctor hiding under the skirts of a Restoration lady; a Second World War prisoner of war escape with the Doctor and a British officer tunnelling under a camp. Only 10 minutes into the episode (10 minutes, let it be said, crammed with more material and ideas than many entire episodes in other seasons) and we understand the fluff’s dramatic function. To reintroduce us to the Doctor and the series after the break, of course, but, in terms of the narrative, to demonstrate that the Doctor killed on the beach is 200 years older than the Doctor in the diner, and has had many adventures before being reunited with Amy, Rory, and River. No wonder he is so delighted to see them.
Wonderful visuals and moments. The astronaut rising from the water! The Doctor is shot! He starts to regenerate and is shot again! The Doctor’s funeral boat burning on the lake at night! The masterly design of the Silents! President Nixon troubled every evening by a child phoning in distress: she can reach him wherever he is. A woman in a washroom thinks that the Silent is a guy in ‘a Star Trek mask’. The astronaut again in the warehouse! The tunnels under the floor, which spread throughout the whole planet! The infestation of the Silents.
J Morgan Shepherd is a delight as the older Canton Delaware III – who is he? Why is he on the beach? Well, the same as Rory and Amy and River – he got an invitation in a TARDIS blue envelope.
And so did River Song. Alex Kingston is wonderful in the role and River is always a pleasure to watch. She is funny, clever, sassy, feisty, sexy – and dangerous. She loves the Doctor as a wife and, when reunited with him in the diner, slaps his face. He makes her so angry she almost bursts. If the Doctor were ever to be regenerated as a woman, that would be how to do it. And why not cast Alex Kingston as a female, gutsy Doctor? Now there’s an idea!
And again we see what a superb Doctor Matt is. He throws his whole body into his performance: he becomes a question mark, his legs gangling so wide apart you can see a whole planet through them. He is funny and witty and clever and crazy and – that word again – dangerous.
Very little is resolved by the end of the episode but I was absolutely absorbed for every second. Moffat’s critics say that his episodes are too complicated and irritating. I remember a class of my Year 10 students (aged 15) saying, at the time, that they preferred the David Tennant episodes and the comparatively straightforward plotting of Russell T Davies’ tenure. Moffat responded to similar criticisms by saying that Doctor Who wasn’t a show you could watch with half an eye, while you were texting or whatever. It required your full attention. And why not? This is part of the appeal of Moffat’s best episodes: they are supremely absorbing, fiendishly complicated, and intellectually satisfying. They never patronise us, never give us simple fare of plotting that goes from A to B to C. (Ryan gets bike. Ryan tries to ride bike. Ryan can’t ride bike. Ryan throws away bike.)
Day of the Moon is another tour de force, with Moffat fully exploiting the possibilities of the format to give us a story which makes crazy but glorious narrative sense. What a delight! The opening moments dump us into a completely revised scenario, where Canton is now bad and brings body bags for Amy, Rory, and River. The first two are shot. The Doctor, now bearded and straightjacketed, is held in a high security facility. Soldiers build walls of Dwarf Star Alloy (from Warriors’ Gate, 1981) around him; the body bags are delivered, are opened to reveal Amy and Rory, and all dive into the TARDIS, now invisible (for the first time since The Invasion, 1968, or, y’know, the previous episode, but who’s counting?).
Wow. Phew. Strong performances and visuals abound. Kerry Shale is great as the crazy custodian of a children’s home, convinced it is 1967 and not 1969. He is caring for only one child and the orphanage is infested by the Silents: continual forced amnesia eventually fries your brain, the Doctor explains quietly. The walls are scrawled with messages – ‘Leave Now’, ‘Get Out’ – which the custodian tries to sponge off. ‘It must be the children. Ye-es.’ There is some wonderful horror film imagery with the Silents hanging bat-like from the ceiling as a storm rages outside.
Splendid jokes are tossed into the mix: Rory can’t resist touching a model of the lunar module and breaks off the aerial. ‘Black?’ asks President Nixon of Canton’s intended fiancé. ‘Yes,’ Canton explains. Nixon begins to say he’s more liberal than people think when Canton continues: ‘He is.’ (This had more impact in the UK in 2011 than it does today: same gender marriage wasn’t legalised in England, Scotland, and Wales until 2014). River is, of course, splendid, funny, and sexy. Rory’s jealousy of the Doctor continues – is Amy pregnant? Who is the father? (Or should that be, Is Who the father? Ha ha – Get back in your box, you tabloid TV critic) And who is the eyepatch lady?
There is sadness and poignancy. River and the Doctor’s timelines run in different directions. She kisses him lovingly to say goodbye and he squirms. That’s not the first time we’ve done that, says River. Actually, says the Doctor, it is. The time will come soon when River will meet the Doctor and he will have no idea who she is. (That time already came in Silence in the Library/ Forest of the Dead, 2008.)
Given the crazed ride of the first two episodes, it’s time to slow down and tell a simpler, more lineal story. While not perhaps a classic, The Curse of the Black Spot again boasts excellent performances and visuals.
Hugh Bonneville is first class as Captain Avery, growling his way through his beard and, hilariously, finding the TARDIS easier to operate than the Doctor imagines. Steve Thompson works in the pirate clichés with wit and zest: Amy swashes her buckle and swings into shot on a rope. There is cutlass wielding a-plenty, and the Doctor is made to walk the plank. Lily Cole is beautiful and quietly alarming as the Siren.
1980s producer, John Nathan-Turner used to post script notes on the walls of his office. There is a story about these. One carried the title, ‘The Doctor’s Wife’, and was a ruse. Nathan-Turner suspected a mole was leaking information to the fanzines: if the fan press (A5 and photocopied back in those days, laddie) published the name of an upcoming story as ‘The Doctor’s Wife’, the existence of the mole would be confirmed and JN-T would enjoy getting one over on the fans.
Fast forward some 25 years and Moffat – or is it Neil Gaiman? – cleverly plays on this old story by entitling this episode, The Doctor’s Wife.
Huh? Didn’t we know the Doctor’s wife was Cameca, from The Aztecs (1964) or Marilyn Munroe from A Christmas Carol…? Hang on, those were just fiancées. Um, surely River Song is the Doctor’s wife? Intrigue mounted before a frame of the episode had been screened.
Of course, the Doctor’s wife is the TARDIS! Now given female human/Time Lord/oh, humanoid anyway – form as Idris (Suranne Jones), breathing with good lines and wonderful humour. ‘Did you wish really hard?’ asks Amy when the Doctor introduces Idris to her. Idris joins this season’s army of feisty, sexy, gutsy women, to whom Moffat and his team often assign, quite rightly, the best moments and the best lines: Amy, River, Idris, Madame Kovarian. Now that’s feminism, in a way that (to take a completely random example) turning the Doctor into a fluffy feminine Yorkshire blonde might not be.
And what confidence this series has! Hollywood actor Michael Sheen voices House, the villain. ‘Fear me,’ he breathes. ‘I’ve killed hundreds of Time Lords.’ ‘Fear me,’ replies the Doctor, ‘I killed all of them’.
And Neil Gaiman writes the script! And loves the programme! And, when it was voted top story of the season, posted a video of himself online running across the fields at top speed, shouting, ‘Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!’ And Blue Peter got viewers to design a new TARDIS console! Which was the 1970s-esque console room Idris and the Doctor build together!
This, in 2011, was Doctor Who at the height of its popularity, confidence and power. And to think that the BBC had considered cancelling the show when David Tennant left… That’s management for you. Wherever you go, whatever industry you are in – management thinks nutty things.
The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People has some good moments and good ideas, but it often feels a little off-kilter and misses the mark. There is a good opening: someone is killed in an industrial accident, but the watching workers are completely unmoved. Perhaps this is a thoughtful satirical dig at our indifference to those who do hazardous or dangerous jobs, necessary for our comfort and survival. The designs of the Gangers are effective: Moffat apparently suggested that they should look like the jellied flesh of an eyeball, veins and all. The Rebel Flesh ends with revelation of the Doctor’s Ganger double – something Moffat apparently suggested to writer Matthew Graham, which delighted the latter and inspired him to write a second episode to what had been originally intended as a single episode story. But is there enough meat there to sustain a second episode?
I wasn’t entirely convinced by the locations: several Welsh castles trying hard to pretend they were a monastery/factory, rather than just castles. (It reminded me a bit of a mental hospital pretending hard to be the inside of the TARDIS – remember The Invasion of Time, 1978? I found Sarah Smart’s performance as Jennifer a little grating: ‘I can growwwwwww’ she moans, as she stretches her head out 20 feet. I’m afraid my children, then aged 11 and 8 burst out laughing. Matthew Graham was a wonderful writer of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, but his Doctor Who episodes were, I think, much less sure-footed. Fear Her (2006) was forgettable fare and Graham has not written for the show again. Whatever happened to him…?
Epic returned in A Good Man Goes to War and The Wedding of River Song. Both are strong and visually pleasing episodes, but the sandwich filling between them is a series of lighter and apparently cheaper stories which, while good, are a little disappointing. Had the money run out? Was it being saved to finance the more visually exciting epics? I’ve no idea if this were the case, but there is sense of the series holding itself back between its dramatic climaxes, and a ho-hum, it’s another story about Amy, and time to start to drum your fingers on the arm of the sofa…
The great gag at the end of The Almost People is the next episode title, Let’s Kill Hitler. Gales of laughter from my family. The episode itself is a bit of a mess: Moffat playing around with timelines again, but on an off day. Doctor Who almost always involves a battle between good and evil (until moral relativism became the order of the day in 2018) but, probably wisely, avoided depictions of real evil in our world. The show had never done the Nazis, except in incidental scenes, and a 1960s story treatment called Dr Who and the Nazis was dropped in early stages of development. How could you deal with such depravity in a family fantasy show? Moffat’s questionable approach was to make fun of Hitler and the Nazis: the old b*stard is seen wondering at the TARDIS while River Song mocks a troop of stormtroopers before knocking them out with regeneration energy. This is all rather silly and, for this viewer, uncomfortable in tone and approach. I’m afraid I found Nina Toussaint-White’s performance as Mels irritating. But the story introduces the Teselecta and initiates River’s storyline, so sets things up for future stories. And past ones.
Night Terrors, The Girl Who Waited, The God Complex, Closing Time… Saving money, saving money? Each episode looks a bit less visually impressive than the season’s epics, with location filming confined to a couple of settings or sets. For the most part, the lack of visual feast is more than compensated for by the quality of the script and the performance. Now, that’s getting it the right way round and suggests the helpful influence of the classic series (remember The Sun Makers in 1977?).
Night Terrors is quite a jolly story which plays on the classic fears of childhood: what’s in your wardrobe? Are nightmares real? (Yes, dear reader. Oh yes. Be very afraid.) Night Terrors also cleverly uses imagery from children’s stories and the crude designs of 19th Century dolls house and peg dolls. Amy as a doll is delightful, frightening, and hilarious.
I think it’s a bit of a mistake to follow this story with another which is heavily focused on Amy (due to Series 6’s transmission order switching around), especially after the previous season’s Amy’s Choice. The Girl Who Waited is, again, pleasing and entertaining. Amy in a parallel timeline is left behind and fetched again. To be honest, I didn’t find it easy to tell the difference between the two Amys: middle-aged Amy still looked like the 20-something one: the only real difference appeared to be a doughy dewlap. It would perhaps have helped if her hair had been grey. On the other hand, these were the days when I often watched Doctor Who after slinking off for an anaesthetising beer in the pub – most necessary after a week of teaching secondary school students – and I was not always at my most alert or most attentive.
I think The Girl Who Waited suffered from the tendency, common to all three NuWho showrunners, to become too interested in the companions rather than the Doctor. After all, the showrunners had created the companions but had inherited the Doctor: it was perhaps understandable for them sometimes to be interested and invested in the characters they had created rather than the character they had inherited. For the viewer, though, I found this sometimes unbalanced the story. However fascinating it was to witness Rose and Martha’s pining for the Doctor (the gorgeous, pouting David Tennant), the non-sex love Rory-Amy-Doctor love triangle, and the exciting adventures of Ryan and his bicycle, it could start to wear a bit thin: the viewers, unlike the showrunners, might be more interested in the Doctor than the companions. (Though that might depend upon the Doctor.)
The God Complex is, I think, an excellent and underrated story. Again, full use is made of basic phobias – not least, the terrible horrors of all pervasive Eighties musak (tinkle, tinkle, plink, aieeeeee!) and a hotel of infinite corridors that looks as though it’s straight out of The Shining. It is a profound and appealing idea to have one’s personal terror behind each door. Some were positively inspired: the P.E. teacher (if you haven’t brought your kit, you’re doing it in your pants!); Rita’s father, furious with her for getting B’s, not A’s, and being, like so many bullies, a pathetic physical specimen. Perhaps it was a bit unoriginal to have a minotaur creature as the monster, although I liked the Nimon being name-checked: a distant cousin, as the Doctor said (and similarly a bit unimpressive in design). I loved Amara Karen’s deft, sensitive, and affectionate performance as Rita and desperately wanted her to be taken on as a companion: she acted almost everyone else off the screen. Toby Whithouse is a good writer. Was he asked to be showrunner after Moffat left? Whatever happened to him?
Well, good stuff but still low key. Another low key episode followed with Closing Time. This is really a re-tread of The Lodger with the return of Craig Owens (played by someone called James Corden), the Cybermats (hooray!), and the Cybermen. Craig’s house (from The Lodger) is replaced by a big store as the main location. I felt a bit of deja-vu: this is the third story in the second half of the season to be based in one building or complex – the doll’s house, the hotel, the department store – and I was left wondering if the BBC were just putting the budget aside for the biiiiig finale.
Thankfully, the epic paid off and The Wedding of River Song is a chef-d’oeuvre – a visual and intellectual treat of fiendish and knotty plot which twists and turns and turns again. This is not an episode to be watched with half an eye, or while texting: just when you think you’ve got the plot sorted out, it twists again (like we did last summer…). Moffat delights in the paradoxes of time travel and fully exploits them. So we open with a batty alternative world where the Emperor Winston Churchill (Ian McNeice is back!) is attended by his Silurian Doctor and the Doctor is a bearded soothsayer. Huh? Whaa…? Simultaneously (I think), in another time zone, the Doctor plays Live Chess and frees the beheaded Dorium… Steam trains zoom into pyramids emblazoned with Old Glory and the legend Area 51Tthe Silents stare and watch from their tanks… Everyone wears an eye-patch drive… Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart is dead and the Doctor ruefully discards the blue envelope which would have invited him to Utah. Oh, and Charles Dickens has written a Christmas special, which he announces on BBC breakfast television, and pterodactyls swoop down through the park, but that’s by the way. (Pterodactyls are pests. Do Not Feed Them.) In a triumph of imagery and imagination, the Doctor shot in Utah turns out to be the robot Teselecta – the Doctor within a robot copy of himself.
By contrast with the fuss made in 2017 about casting a woman as the Doctor, The Wedding of River Song contains three feisty, sexy, powerful, and strong female characters: Madame Kovarian, River Song (of course), and Amy, who leaves Kovarian to her death (albeit in an aborted timeline). There were strong female characters who carried the narrative years before a female Doctor appeared: strong female characters, moreover, who kicked ass and were a little different from the Thirteenth Doctor and her Fam – who, from 2018, arguably represented a step backwards in the series’ presentation of women.
Back to The Wedding of River Song. Moffat does not forget the less complicated thrills: the Silents press their horrible hands against the glass of their water tanks, and it splinters; the water seeps through the pyramid ceiling as the Silents advance on our heroes; Gantok is devoured by skulls that irresistibly recall the first story back in 1963 and the episode The Cave of Skulls. And then Moffat does it again, pulls off a narrative tour de force, setting up the new season with Dorium calling, “Doctor Who? Doctor WHO?” and introducing the fields of Trenzalore.
What a delight, what a pleasure. Series 6 (or indeed Season 32!), I think, is how to do Doctor Who.
Two final questions to DWC readers:
- In The God Complex , the Doctor opens his door to reveal his worst terror and says, ‘Yes, of course.’ What do you think he saw? Sure, The Time of the Doctor retconned it to be the crack in time, but that doesn’t entirely fit, does it? So what do you think was initially supposed to be there?
- And what would be behind your door in the hotel?
By Frank Danes, who opened his door to find Chris Chibnall was showrunner.
NEXT: Scene it!