Series 6.01 – The Impossible Astronaut

Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Toby Haynes


The Doctor has invited three of his closest friends to reunite in for a picnic.  But when The Doctor is killed, Amy, Rory, and River must join with a slightly younger version of The Doctor to find out why he was killed.

Utah almost looks like another planet.

 “That‘s okay.  You were my second choice for President, Mr. Nixon.”

There is a certain amount of analysis for this episode that will have to wait until I have seen the next episode.  The story is incomplete, and thus it is hard to really determine how well it works.  Sorry, can’t sing it’s praises at the moment.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t somewhat compelling.

The opening of this story, while setting up the mystery, felt like a primer on the show.  I can’t help but wonder if this is due to the huge push by BBC America to introduce more Americans to Doctor Who.  There is very little reference to previous (Moffat-era) continuity, instead having only the basic indications of what the concept of Doctor Who is.  And what a distillation it is.  I don’t quite say this admirably.  Based on the opening, Doctor Who is a science fiction show about a humanoid alien that mucks about in time and space.  Sometimes, he has friends along.  If the opening three minutes of the episode are indeed a type of introduction, then this is Steven Moffat’s thesis.  This is how he sees the show.  This is what Doctor Who means to him.  This is the type of story we can expect from his era and this season.

Doctor Who as a franchise truly can be anything, it truly can go anywhere.  But under each era, it is extremely limited, and under Steven Moffat, it will only tell one or two types of story.  In a way Moffat is a bit like Agatha Christie, not so much a murder mystery writer, but a writer telling stories where the details are important, they are clues that are given to the viewer to solve a mystery, a mystery that may not have the final clue until the last few moments of the story.  He is very good at this type of story.  But it is virtually the only story he can tell.  Gone is adventure and a sense of wonder.  And Doctor Who is no longer a children’s show because a) it is too scary, and b) children don’t read Agatha Christie-style mysteries.  They read adventure mysteries.  Stories with a sense of wonder.  The Impossible Astronaut is a fun story in places, it is fun to try to piece together the clues, to meet old and new characters.  But there is no sense of wonder, there is only a pressing need to solve the mystery, to survive the danger.  We want to see how The Doctor will get out of this one.  If you are looking for curiosity, wonder, or new worlds, this may not be the era for you.

He is watching us all grow up.

Does this mean I hated it?  By no means!  I’m eager to see where the story goes.  As I said before, I want to see how The Doctor gets out of this one.  But I now fully understand that I have to match the new paradigm in my expectation of Doctor Who.  For some reason, this has been a hard adjustment.  One of my nieces used to have difficulty pronouncing my name.  I found the mispronunciation endearing.  But as she grew older, she started pronouncing my name correctly.  Sometimes, I miss the way she once talked, but she is growing up.  I’m sure it will also be hard to see her grow into her teenage years and become an adult.  But change happens, nothing remains static and it doesn’t mean I will love her any less.  Doctor Who may never tell the types of stories it once did.  Each era is a product of its time and television continues to evolve.  In order to take advantage of the new advances in technology and in order to compete with other shows, Doctor Who must change and evolve.  And while it may do a very good job of telling the stories that it currently tells, it may not go back to telling stories with the sense of unpredictable wonder of The Hartnell Era or the world-building of a Robert Holmes or Chris Boucher story.  We may not see the visions of technological horror of Gerry Davis or the B-movie quirkiness of Terry Nation.  It is sad to see these things go, but it is also astounding that this show continues to survive and thrive and reflect the changing face of television.  If nothing else, Doctor Who provides a fascinating history into the development of the television medium.

Okay, right.  Enough eulogizing.  Moving onward.  I have to ask how much time has passed since The Big Bang and The Impossible Astronaut.  As we left series five, we knew that whatever gained control of the TARDIS was still out there.  There was that creepy voice that kept insisting silence would fall.  The Doctor seemed quite insistent that they track this down.  Then we had Amy and Rory take a honeymoon and almost crash at Christmas.  Now we are in series six.  Has The Doctor been stalling?  I would hope not because that would be extremely careless.  Whatever gained control of the TARDIS could, conceivably, do so again.  But maybe the passage of time isn’t important.  Maybe there will be answers to this question in the next episode.  As I said, hard to really review the merits of the story when it is incomplete.

The Silence courting rituals prove somewhat ineffective on human females.

I like the look of The Silence.  Anything based on Edvard Munch’s The Scream is going to be rather cool and creepy.  Does Steven Moffat have a fascination with impressionists?  Regardless, The Silence, at this point, are visually interesting and much more chilling (and better named) than The Floof.  Yes, we have Moffat once more mining his back catalogue, taking The Floof from a short story called Corner of the Eye, which was published in the 2007 Doctor Who Annual.  Tall, mal-formed bald men in suits are much more frightening than short, bald men in suits.  But what is more striking about the look of The Silence is their resemblance, not to Munch’s The Scream, but to the grey aliens in alien abduction tales.  Intentionally or coincidentally, Steven Moffat has tapped into a healthy dose of twentieth century American mythology in The Impossible Astronaut.  Starting with The Silence, they have large, hairless heads and cavernous eyes that could be mistaken for black bulbous ovals.  They are tall and thin (greys tend to alternate between tall or short, but they are always thin) and dressed in black.  The suits themselves, offering a juxtaposition with the alienness of The Silence, bring to mind images of the Men in Black.  Add to this the idea of American deserts and space suits and I would say that Steven Moffat is intentionally drawing from the alien mythos as built on by shows like The X-Files and movies like Men in Black.  Alien abduction stories, primarily due to The X-Files, are a part of the American mythology of the late 20th century.  Other elements of this

The Truth is Out There, Doctor

mythology, though not necessarily linked to The X-Files, are Richard Nixon (a controversial figure in American politics) and NASA.  It makes perfect sense for Steven Moffat to attempt to invoke these icons of American pop-cultural identity.  I’m curious to see what other images he might bring out in the next episode.  And perhaps he is right to remind American viewers of The X-Files.  At its height, it was one of the most popular and influential science fiction shows produced by American television.  Both The X-Files and Doctor Who have monsters and (at least under Steven Moffat) horror, and both have recurring mythological stories (or arcs or mytharcs, whatever terminology suits you).  Perhaps this is the ideal segment of the American audience to lure to Doctor Who.  While certainly not as dark as The X-Files, it could touch a common narrative format.

River Song and Rory have a good scene together where she laments her relationship with The Doctor.  She even speculates that when she finally gets to the point where The Doctor no longer knows her, that she will die.  It may be interesting, when all is said and done, to watch the River Song episodes in River’s chronological order.  Moffat may indeed be hoping we do it.  Perhaps he indirectly referenced Silence in the Library because he wanted us to revisit it.  Notice, both this story and Silence in the Library had space suits, even if one was futuristic.  Or maybe I am over-analyzing.  Regardless, I’m starting to doubt my most-recent River Song theory.  I’m now not so sure she is manipulating him at The Doctor’s (future version) behest.  She seemed too sincere when talking to Rory.  I am, at the moment, out of ideas.  Hopefully we will find out soon.

In this episode, Amy said multiple times that time can be re-written, and each time, River rebuffed her.  At one point, River even said that only some moments in time can be re-written and that The Doctor told her this.  This is very interesting because in series five, The Doctor was quite astounded when he realized time could be re-written.  So, either one of two things is happening.  Is Steven Moffat backpedaling?  Or is River telling us something that The Doctor is yet to learn?  Keep in mind that if The Doctor told River that only certain moments in time can be re-written, that this information is coming from The Doctor’s future.  So, if The Doctor currently thinks that time in general can be re-written, can we suppose that something will happen to change that?  And even more outrageous, could River Song’s life, as we have seen it, be re-written?  Ah, speculation.

Where does this leave us?  What pieces do we have to work with in order to speculate on the conclusion?  I said there would be spoilers, I suppose I need to provide some.  We were very deliberately not shown who was in the space suit at the beginning of the episode.  At the end, we were shown it was a little girl.  This could have been done to keep the reveal a surprise, but it could also indicate that the person in the suit at the beginning of the episode is not the person we see in the suit at the end.  There is a storyline in Babylon 5 where a space station, once thought lost, returns.  It is temporally displaced.  During the investigation we see a figure in a space suit.  Usually something bad would happen when we see him.  We find out, in a later season, that depending on when the suit was seen, there could have been different people in it.  I see no reason to assume at this point that a little girl killed The Doctor in the opening sequence.  It is entirely possible it is The Doctor himself and the scene where he finds a space helmet and puts it on could be foreshadowing.  That’s the thing about foreshadowing, you sometimes can’t see it clearly until the story is over.

And speaking of killing The Doctor, The Big Bang gave us a scene where The Doctor appeared from 12 minutes in the future and “died”.  In truth, he wasn’t dead, just seriously injured, possibly about to die.  I assume the reboot of the universe healed him.  Regardless, what we think we saw was not the reality of the situation, and this could be playing out again.  For Amy, River, and Rory, however, this does appear to be reality.  Amy fired the gun in the cliffhanger, presumably at the girl in the space suit (although the cliffhanger was deliberately shot to obscure the target).  It is entirely possible that Amy is setting up the sequence of events that lead to The Doctor’s death.  This possibility has yet to be discussed among the leads, but if they do, it could suddenly turn in to The Space Museum.  I somehow doubt The Silence will be as funny as The Moroks.

We have very little to go on regarding The Silence.  We forget them, even after we see them.  The Silence in the bathroom told Amy that she “will tell The Doctor what he must know and what he must never know.”  This echoes The Beast Below, when Amy chooses to forget about The Star Whale, she decides something for The Doctor to keep him from making a decision.  This idea is at play again with Amy, River, and Rory, only this time it involves The Doctor’s personal timeline.  Somehow, I doubt it will make him any happier or more willing to accept things.

A Christmas Carol

Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Toby Haynes

In order to prevent a star liner from crashing, The Doctor must convince a cruel man to use his technology to open a path in the cloud cover.

Doctor Who goes full-on steam punk

 “Halfway out of the dark.”

Let’s get the positives out of the way first (always a great way to start).  I think the visuals of this episode are astounding.  Quite beautiful, from the steam-punkish society to the fish flying in the clouds.  And what a fun idea, flying fish.  At least it is something different from a show that seems to spend way too much time on Earth.  Michael Gambon is a great actor and he performs Kazran Sardik with an amazing amount of sympathy and cruelty.  Through the strength of his performance, I truly believe the change.  The music was good, and overall, I enjoyed a story that had a lot to say about human pain and selfishness, albeit a more general selfishness, not so much those Dickens was taking on when he wrote the story from which this episode takes its name.  But the general idea of trying to see what brought a man to this point is still present.  So in all, I enjoyed it.

But that doesn’t mean it is perfect and it doesn’t mean I liked everything about it.

Continuity Errors.  I’m sure many people have already twigged the complete retelling of Steven Moffat’s first short story in the form of this Christmas special.  Continuity Errors was a brilliant short story in which The Doctor needs to check out a book from a galactic library.  The book will help in stop a war.  Unfortunately, the book is in a restricted area and the librarian won’t let him through.  While not written in first person, the narration follows the librarian, giving her perspective on everything that happens.  She never leaves the library, and The Doctor repeatedly meddles in her past, attempting to change her personality to such a degree as to finally allow him to check out the book.  A Christmas Carol is the same story, just with more urgency.  Now, to a degree I don’t mind that Moffat would retell this story.  It is a short story in a long out-of-print collection.  Why not put a new spin on it and re-release it into a more permanent format?  The only problem is that he has been mining this particular story for virtually everything he has written.  This story has a line that declares monster are afraid of The Doctor, a great line, actually.  This line has been repeated in The Girl in the Fire Place and The Eleventh Hour.  A planetary library re-appears in Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead.  In that same story we have the introduction of River Song, an smart-talking archaeologist who bears a slight resemblance to Bernice Summerfield, a companion originally created by Paul Cornell, who also appears in Continuity Errors.  If you can track down the story, it is certainly worth a read because it fits with what the New Adventures line was doing with The Seventh Doctor at the time, and it is fascinating as an indicator for how Steven Moffat would approach Doctor Who when he began to write for it.  Sadly, I think this is one of the more irritating aspects of the Moffat era, the recycling of material.  A detailed analysis of Steven Moffat’s stories will make recurring elements glaringly obvious.  The Doctor talks to children . . . a lot.  This is somewhat new.  Not only that, he has a tendency to talk to little girls and later meet them when they have grown up, only to find that they are in love with him (Girl in the Fireplace, The Eleventh Hour).  We have Sally Sparrow helping a temporally displaced Doctor get back to his TARDIS (How I Spent My Summer Vacation, Blink).  We have a dead character continuing to communicate to haunting effect (Silence in the Library, Time of the Angels).  We also have a race of aliens who dress in suits, are bald, and exist just out of the vision of humans.  These aliens follow us and feed off us in some way.  (The Floof in Corner of the Eye, The Silence).  Perhaps we could more accurately predict the outcomes of Steven Moffat stories if we study his back catalogue in greater detail.  We shouldn’t even limit ourselves to Doctor Who.  There is a scene in Jekyll where Thomas Jackman talks to Mr. Hyde via pre-recorded videotape.  Quite similar to the Easter eggs on Sally Sparrow’s DVDs in Blink.  So while I don’t begrudge Moffat drawing more heavily from his out-of-print story, doing so once more makes him look a bit like a one-trick pony.

The Time Lord that wouldn't grow up.

Another issue that gives me serious pause is how cavalier The Doctor is at manipulating someone’s past for a specific result.  This seems to fly in the face of certain “rules” of the show as established by David Whitaker and altered, but still largely upheld, by Denis Spooner (and other script editors of the show).  It has always been a tenuous rule that The Doctor cannot meddle in established Earth history (read: our history) except to set right what went wrong, but he can meddle in Earth’s future and the histories of other planets.  However, when he meddled in the future and histories of other planets, we are to never explicitly point out that this is what he is doing, changing history, just someone else’s history.  In A Christmas Carol, and much of Series 5, we are told time can be re-written, and this episode goes a long way to illustrate it.  In the pre-Deadly Assassins view of The Time Lords, preventing this type of meddling is one of the major functions of The Time Lords.  Without The Time Lords, New Who has had to establish certain natural correctives for the universe.  Thus, we have The Reapers in Father’s Day.  We have Adelaide commit suicide in Waters of Mars.  And while these episodes did create very small changes from the original timeline (as did The Aztecs, where the non-interference rule was first stated), these changes seem very personal and very inconsequential.  But the general theme of not changing established events is upheld.  No more.  The rule looks to be dead.  The only question I have:  To what end has Moffat dispensed with the rule?  Is he re-writing Doctor Who to suit his particular story-telling devices (with a large emphasis on time travel and manipulation) or is he setting The Eleventh Doctor up for a great, catastrophic fall.  If the latter, I may find the journey worth it, if the former, I may look on The Moffat era as a collection of good stories that ultimately killed Doctor Who.  Okay, so maybe that is a bit of an exaggeration, but a rule cannot be broken without consequences, and breaking a rule as big as this needs to have severe consequences.  I don’t think we have seen that yet.  At least when The Seventh Doctor would break the rule, we are given the impression that he took a lot of time and care to limit the damage.  That he would follow the changes and alter other histories to establish the minimal amount of change to the overall timeline.  While this is breaking the non-meddling rule, it is showing that there are distinct consequences to breaking it and that you must exercise a large amount of caution and put a great deal of work and thought into the change.  You cannot be flippant about it, which The Eleventh Doctor is.

And just who is The Eleventh Doctor anyway?  The reason I ask is because the scenes between The Doctor and old Kazran don’t seem terribly powerful except when old Kazran is caught in weakness (as when he almost hits a child).  But when Kazran is strong, The Doctor has no authority over him and seems to have very little presence.  This Doctor seems to relate more to children than adults, to the point that he can’t seem to command a room until he has made everyone aware of their weaknesses.  You could probably win shouting matches with this Doctor.  However, when The Doctor visits young Kazran, he becomes more of a big brother, an imaginary friend.  He is not an authority figure, not someone you could go to for advice or strength.  He is a buddy.  This is most-strikingly played out when adult Kazran (the mid-twenties version) decides to not go to The Doctor for help.  He goes with the stronger figure, which is his father.  The stronger will bends Kazran, and it is sad to say that the stronger will is not The Doctor.  This Doctor is a bit like Peter Pan, child-like, somewhat weak.  And I don’t just mean that Matt Smith is a young actor.  The Doctor himself is being written as child-like.  There are moments of an adult shining through, but this Doctor seems to prefer the company of children.  He is far enough out from The Time War to be a virtually new man (so to speak) and has an innocence that his previous two incarnations didn’t have.  But this Doctor doesn’t seem to be growing up, and it makes me wonder what will happen.  Steven Moffat is obviously building toward something.  Will that something make The Doctor grow up?

Series 5.12 and 5.13 – The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang

Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Toby Haynes

Not far from the camp of a Roman legion, beneath Stonehenge, is The Pandorica, the mythical prison of the most feared being in the galaxy.  And the prison is opening.

TARDIS go boom

 “Dalek fleet, minimum twelve thousand battleships, armed to the teeth.  Ah!  AAAH!  But we’ve got surprise on our side.  They’ll never expect three people to attack twelve thousand Dalek battleships . . . because we’ll be killed instantly, so it would be a fairly short surprise.”

**Opening remarks.  This review was written before watching The Impossible Astronaut.

It is hard to review this episode, on the eve of the series six premiere and all the revelations, spoiler and non-spoiler, that are floating about.  It is hard to view it with eyes untainted by visions of The Silence or the various trailer floating about.  It is hard to write this review without speculation, so I won’t even try.

This season saw the establishment of a plot-arc revolving around The Cracks and The Silence.  Until a few months ago, we didn’t know what The Silence was, and even now, there are precious few details as to motivation and method on the part of what has turned into an alien race rather than a description of an event.  The series has been escalating, despite a handful of episodes that seemed one-off stories.  And yet, it hasn’t been a serialized story like Doctor Who of old.  No, where format is concerned series five has had more in common with shows The X-Files or Lost than it has had with Doctor Who of old.  The Steven Moffat era has proven to be one drenched in continuity, not of classic Doctor Who, but of an escalating mythology of Moffat’s own creation.  We have long been impressed with how carefully he plotted his stories during the RTD era, and now he has been turned loose on the show, been given entire seasons to sculpt rather than an episode or two.  And he has proven with this finale that his interests lie with a larger scope than we had expected.  He never intended to reveal The Silence in series five.  He never intended for us to know who River Song was in a single year.  The question that arises, will the suspense and escalation, will the reveal, be worth it?

Best use of Cybermen in the new series.

Taking The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang as an indication, I think the answer is mixed.  I don’t think we can expect anything from the old series to be part of the big questions.  The Silence will not be related to anything pre-2005, nor do I anticipate River Song’s identity to be rooted in the classic series.  There is an awareness and an acknowledgement of what came before, but major details do not hinge on anything that hasn’t been recently established.  Case in point, The Pandorica, which was said to be a prison for the most dangerous being in the universe.  The Doctor gives a monologue that all but reveals that The Pandorica is his prison.  The only question is whether he is currently in The Pandorica, about to meet himself, or is he about to be put into The Pandorica (as we saw in the episode, the latter is the case).  Thus, The Pandorica was built to contain The Doctor.  A lot of build-up to a very simple revelation.  I expect more of the same regarding The Silence and River Song in particular.  We may not have all the pieces going in to it, but we will have them soon enough, and they will fit.

It didn’t occur to me until this viewing that perhaps The TARDIS is being controlled in The Pandorica Opens by the same ship that was menacing the timestream in The Lodger.  Perhaps watching the episodes so close together helped me make this connection, but it seems obvious when you think about it.  Although, before I knew we would see this ship again, what reason would I have had to expect it to return?  We’ve never really had to expect details from one season to bleed into another.  Moffat has raised the bar for the detail-obsessive, easter egg hunting fan.  And while this type of attention to detail is neat because it shows an engagement with the fans on Moffat’s part, I worry about details becoming more important than the plot or telling good stories.  At this point I’m not entirely sure we’ve rejected storytelling for details, but I could see that as a distinct possibility.  Television, especially sci-fi television, has changed so much over the nearly 50 years Doctor Who has existed.  Storytelling and scope in Doctor Who is not the same as it was in the Hartnell era, which was different still from the JNT/Bidmead era.  Take your pick of any era, and you will find others that are different, almost to the point of being unrecognizable.  Likewise, the modern show resembles early Who very little.  We have only to look at the destruction of all existence, a threat that arose in series 4 AND 5, and wonder if the scope has ever been so big in Doctor Who.  (Perhaps Logopolis if I could ever not be bored to tears enough to finish it.)  But the more interesting question to me, the one I struggle with off and on, is should the new show try to resemble the old show.  Should we truly care?

It's the end of reality . . . again.

Doctor Who can’t continually look back.  And yet, the way it has been going the last few years, the scope can’t very well grow any larger.  How many times does existence have to almost be destroyed before it becomes mundane?  The epic scope must be put back into the pandorica, if you will.  Steven Moffat might be thinking along these lines to some degree (I seem to recall a recent quote to that effect), but it is no guarantee.  Science fiction now demands continuity more than it did in the 60s and 70s, and to try to ignore the last five years would feel like a cheat and feel a bit foolish.  But in order to scale back the scope, one might have to risk breaking the show and putting it back together again.  It has happened before and been successful (thinking primarily of the Pertwee era, which was quite the paradigm shift for Doctor Who).  Doctor Who cannot continue to move in its direction.  It will not survive because eventually, saving the entire universe/reality/whatever will grow stale.  Doctor Who must change.

The Doctor's rogues gallery obviously doesn't follow his televised, audio, and prose exploits. Otherwise, they'd already know the outcome.

All this introspection may seem to indicate that I didn’t like these episodes.  Quite the contrary, it is rather good with great set-ups and reveals.  The return of The Autons is not only a wonderful moment and great use of the characters, it also provides a satisfying explanation for why Rory is still alive.  The speech at Stonehenge, when The Doctor talks down what seems to be a major alien attack, was a scene I loathed at first because it reminded me too much of how The Doctor dealt with the Vashta Nerada in series four.  I hated it then, I hated it now.  But that wasn’t what was going on.  The alliance was tricking The Doctor, luring him into a false sense of security.  Thank you, Mr. Moffat, for making us think you were repeating yourself, only to do something completely unexpected instead.   I love the story of the centurion, how he guarded The Pandorica throughout history.  I love how Moffat kept the time traveling straight and under control.  I love that Rory will still be on the TARDIS and hope that this has a calming effect on Amy.  She has grown irritating and the flirtatiousness is getting very old.

The series as a whole is a bit uneven.  I feel that the first half has a tightness to it, a unity as episodes flow one into the other.  And while there are definite low points in the first part of the series, there is a good character arc as the TARDIS crew is drawn together.  I think things begin to suffer after Amy’s Choice.  The series grows quite uneven, after this episode, almost as if there was less of a guiding influence over it.  We seem to just be spinning our wheels until we get to the finale.  If there is one thing that is apparent in thus far in the Moffat era, it is that the standalone stories suffer the most.  Moffat thinks rather big, and he seems to thrive the most in the two part stories, or stories relating to the arc.  He doesn’t seem to do as well producing other people’s standalone stories and, if The Hungry Earth / Cold Blood is any indication, he may not do as well producing other people’s stories period.  Time will tell.  Overall, I think series five was struggling to find its feet.  It had ups and downs but was largely good.  I look forward to seeing how the show develops and where this particular story (and era) goes.

Series 5.11 – The Lodger

Written by Gareth Roberts
Directed by Catherine Morshead

Clive Owen can’t bring himself to tell Sophie that he loves her, nor does he know what the upstairs neighbor is doing that makes all that noise.  But thankfully, his new roommate may be able to help him sort it all out.

“People never stop blurting their plans when I’m around.”

I enjoyed this line.  It was a fun way to play on the “master plan reveal” that most Who villains inevitably do.  Perhaps it isn’t the arrogance of the villains, perhaps it is just The Doctor.  He makes you tell him things.

I have to admit that this is a hard episode to review because it is the most-strikingly non-Who story of the season.  The basic premise of The Lodger is that of a situational romantic comedy.  And from this perspective, it works quite well.  It is funny, you are pulling for the couple, and you really grow to care about all the characters.  But attached to this is the Doctor Who element of an upstairs neighbor that seems to be luring people to his flat and killing them.  That killing results in disturbances to the time stream, which causes The TARDIS to be unable to dematerialize.  Thus, The Doctor is stuck on Earth and Amy is stuck in The TARDIS, which may be on the verge of being lost in the void.  So, The Doctor must put a stop to the activities of the upstairs neighbor and to do so, he decides to rent one Clive Owen’s spare room.  This way, he can gather information on the guy upstairs so he will know what kind of situation he is confronting.

Honestly, this is the first obstacle to suspending disbelief.  There are very few incarnations of The Doctor that would bother with the pretense.  In fact, I don’t think any of them would.  They would bound up the stairs and confront the mysterious presence, the disturbance of the confrontation likely luring Craig upstairs as well.  The entire final sequence would have been sorted quickly.  But where’s the drama and comedy in that?  So, we must accept the premise that The Doctor is being uncharacteristically cautious.  Perhaps it is the recent death of Rory that has made him careful.  Perhaps he doesn’t want to needlessly endanger Amy or Craig.  Or perhaps we need a lighter episode to pick us up from Vincent and The Doctor and ease us into the plot-heavy series finale that follows.  Either way, The Lodger is a fun-filled romp that manages to be a very good sit-rom-com, but a rather odd and uneven episode of Doctor Who.  Again, it is very hard to imagine The Doctor would bother.  Well, perhaps The Seventh Doctor, but he would only pose as a roommate to manipulate the situation.  He wouldn’t have been as clueless as this Doctor, and if he posed as a roommate it is because it would have been the best way to achieve the ends he desired.  The story dynamic would be completely different, in other words.

I rather like bits of the story, but I have to admit it is rather forgettable at times.  I’m constantly aware that there is an episode between Vincent and The Doctor and The Pandorica Opens, but I have a lot of trouble remembering which one.  This makes me feel bad because, again, it is a fun little episode, but I’m not sure that, given Doctor Who‘s ability to take me anywhere in time and space, to show me the wonders of the universe, that I’m going to be particularly excited to see a romantic comedy.

Dry Rot of Death

I must mention, however, that I’m not entirely sure we are done with this episode.  The upstairs flat ended up being a time ship, an attempt to build a TARDIS, according to The Doctor.  This isn’t something that just appears in an episode because you need an antagonist.  Indeed, we have both a trailer and official confirmation that we will see this ship again.  So there may be more to visit with regard to The Lodger.  Or it may have just been a way to introduce elements that we will see later that have little to no bearing on this story.  Either way, I don’t know that it will change my opinion that much.

Series 5.10 – Vincent and The Doctor

Written by Richard Curtis
Directed by Johnny Campbell

After seeing an unusual figure in a Van Gogh painting, The Doctor and Amy travel to 1890 in an attempt to find an invisible alien.

“This is the problem with impressionists, not accurate enough.  This would never happen with a Gainsborough or one of those proper painters.”

This seems to be one of those episodes that people either love or hate.  I fall into the former, but I can certainly understand why it is polarizing.  This isn’t a typical Doctor Who story.  In fact, you could probably make the case that it isn’t a Doctor Who story at all.  It is a character piece.  The title, once more, is a clue.  Vincent Van Gogh is the primary focus.  The Doctor is secondary and the Doctor Who elements are only there to provide reason for The Doctor and Amy visiting Van Gogh.  I think in this way, the story is a bit weak.  At times, even The Doctor’s characterization seems to be a little bit off, but we haven’t seen him deal with someone as broken as Van Gogh before.  Someone living with pain, just trying to get on with his or her life . . . The Doctor would praise this quality, but he wouldn’t stick around or want it for himself.  He would run away from it.  In truth, going in to this story, The Doctor has no real interest in Van Gogh, just the alien.  But The Doctor’s heart eventually breaks for the man.

I find this story inspiring, primarily for personal reasons.  Sometimes the struggle to keep moving when life seems hopeless is paralyzing.  Sometimes doubting one’s artistic competency tempts one to give up and settle for a mundane life, one marked by mindless routine and sterilization.  Stepping out of the endless circle of the blind following the blind is a frightening prospect because you may very well find yourself alone.  What this episode does for me is remind me that I may never see the influence I have on those around me or on the world itself.  Certainly, if I never do anything, nothing will be achieved.  But if I continue to try, continue to live, even if there is nothing seen in my lifetime, I may have contributed to the good in ways that are intangible.

So, I maintain that I love this episode for purely personal reasons.  More objectively, it has good points and bad points.  Tony Curran is magnificent.  Bill Nighy is wonderfully understated.  The settings are gorgeous.  Truly, I would love to visit the locations in this episode and Vampires of Venice.  Both were shot in Croatia and both are beautiful.  And I’ll admit that I rather like the space chicken.  Not every monster in Doctor Who has to be a humanoid mastermind.  As for it being invisible . . . well, these things rarely work as well as they should.  It saved some money on CGI, though.

One of many shots that recreates Van Gogh's paintings.

I mentioned earlier that The Doctor seemed a bit off in this story.  In the pre-title sequence, he was in quite a hurry.  But he and Amy were in 2010.  There is no hurry to go to 1890.  It’s not like a few more minutes is going to make a difference.  It’s a bloody time machine.  Likewise, some of the dialogue seemed a bit off.  Although, I really enjoyed the scene with The Doctor waiting for Vincent to paint.  He was bored and wouldn’t stop talking.  This seemed right to me.  Amy seemed toned down a bit in this episode, which is good, but I must admit that I’m growing rather tired of the “sexy” outfits.  Short skirts last story, short skirts this story.  Yes, in the past the female companions had often been outfitted in costumes that give the dads a reason to watch, but at least with Leela the costume was tied to her origin.  There were attempts to develop her in ways that led to alternate outfits.  With Amy, it just seems to be about short skirts.  Given she was just in the 1890s, I’m surprised she didn’t raise more eyebrows.

Oh, and listen very closely to the music in the cafe scene.  You will here “I Am The Doctor” (the Murray Gold version, not the Jon Pertwee version) played on an accordian.

Series 5.09 – Cold Blood

Written by Chris Chibnall
Directed by Ashley Way

Tensions mount on the surface as Ambrose grows more concerned for her family.  In the Silurian city, Nasreen and Amy must try to negotiate a peace.

“Nobody on the surface is going to go for this.  It is just too big a leap!”

Couldn’t have put it better myself, actually.  Back when Russell T. Davies was running the show, series two began with an alien ship appearing over London and an invasion seemed eminent.  The series ended with a large battle (also in London) between the Cybermen and The Daleks.  These are big deals.  Aliens had arrived and Earth really couldn’t deny their existence.  Yes, I realize that this played out every month back in the Pertwee era, but that was before the internet, before smart phones and instant communication by the masses to virtually everyone in the world.  It seemed somewhat plausible that The Doctor could defeat the aliens and UNIT could somehow cover it up.  The 21st century doesn’t seem that insular, however.  News breaks and spreads faster than anyone can track it (RTD seemed especially fond of showing shots of reporters and anchors reacting to the alien activities).  So, I couldn’t help but wonder if RTD was ushering in a new paradigm for Doctor Who, a paradigm where humans tentatively accepted that aliens existed.  I didn’t care for that possibility, but I knew I could learn to accept it if the stories were well-told.  Then we had The Master become Prime Minister and the coming of the Toclafane.  It seemed to me that the sky ripped open above the world’s largest shark, and the Toclafane flew over it on their way to massacre the human race.  In Doctor Who terms, this was a very big deal.  Earth, and the show, would NEVER be the same again.

Then, we had a giant reset button and PRESTO, it never happened.

Series four ended with the Earth being removed from its orbit and we were even given scenes of Richard Dawkins telling us that the Earth was in a new part of the galaxy.  This was not reset.  Sure, Earth was returned, but no one had their minds wiped.  Conversely, no one ever seemed to respond to it.  There was no significant exploration of humanity’s new place in the galaxy beyond a two minute conversation in Torchwood: Children of Earth.  And while I don’t necessarily want to see present day Earth arrive at the conclusion that it is small in the eyes of the universe, I don’t want to see stories just ignore what has happened and not deal with consequences that seem to have fertile philosophical or sociological ground.  It never seems to happen.

With this in mind, as much fun as the “fixed points” in time concept is, as inspiring as The Doctor’s speech to Nasreen is, the repercussions of a human-Silurian treaty are too big to ignore without completely changing the series.  Thus, the ending is a foregone conclusion.  No treaty will be made.  No real peace will be achieved.  This episode will go the way of every Silurian story before it:  no where.  We will be left with nothing more than the idea that the Silurians are just like us, most good, some bad, a few extremely xenophobic.  We are not ready for each other, not ready to share the planet.  Thus, humanity will remain and the Silurians will either be killed or return to hibernation.  So, this entire story can be seen one of two ways.  A) Its entire purpose is to introduce the Silurians to a new generation (not unlike re-imaginings in comic books) so further stories can be told.  This is an origin story, if you will allow the term.  Or B), this story is a rehash of old ideas and does not cover any new ground.

I am leaning toward B.

And the voiceover.  Why was the voiceover necessary?

Okay, let’s look at the positives.  I liked Nasreen and Tony.  They were fun and I’d love to catch up with them one thousand years later.  As infuriating as Ambrose was, I think she was believable.  And I liked Eldane.  So, basically, the acting was good.

The Silurian City look good.

I guess the only thing left to mention is the ending.  On the one hand, I was shocked on my original viewing, and on the other, I didn’t believe for a moment that Rory was gone for good.  I don’t know why, I just felt he would be back in some way.  My only real problem with his “death” is that he “died” just a few episodes ago.  Two deaths in three episodes.  Is it too much to hope that series six doesn’t have similar deaths?  Apart from feeling like it was too soon after the death in Amy’s Choice, I like that the cracks seem to appear at random, often when unexpected.  Karen Gillam does a great turn from grief-stricken Amy to memory-erased Amy, which is nice because I found her character quite irritating in this episode.  Why do “strong” women in modern television science fiction seem to flirty and mouthy?  Is this what the men who write them want?  Is it written to the male segment of fandom?  She’s had better characterization this season.  I’m starting to wonder how much longevity the character has.

See, here’s me getting negative again.  Final thoughts, Hungry Earth – good.  Cold Blood – not as good.

Up next, Vincent and The Doctor.

Elisabeth Sladen

I’m sure many have heard the shocking news that Elisabeth Sladen passed away yesterday.  It was quite startling, as I didn’t know she had cancer.  She was one of the first companions I have memory of and I always enjoyed the interplay between her and Tom Baker on screen.  She will be missed.

Series 5.08 – The Hungry Earth

Written by Chris Chibnall
Directed by Ashley Way

A digging project finds it has awoken something from beneath the Earth’s surface.

“Big mining thing.  Oh, I love a big mining thing.  Rio doesn’t have a big mining thing.”

The “scorpion in a box” trope (aka “A House Divided”) is a storytelling device, primarily of the horror genre, that sees characters trapped in a location while bad things are happening.  The threat is from the outside, but the real point of the story is the development of characters, pitting said characters against one another, and watching to see who cracks first.  This was a staple of The X-Files in its early years (with episodes like Ice and Darkness Falls being prime examples).  It practically drives the zombie sub-genre.  So while The Hungry Earth introduces The Silurians to New Who and is superficially about brokering peace between The Silurians and humans, the primary focus is on the breakdown of relationships and will as pressure is applied to the humans.  Alaya says it best once The Doctor has left the church, that one of the humans will kill her and there will be war.  Without the force of The Doctor’s personality, Ambrose and Tony could crack, either one of them has reason to threaten and possibly kill Alaya.

The force of The Doctor’s personality.  I have to ask, is The Eleventh Doctor capable of commanding a room?  Here’s the thing, The Hungry Earth, perhaps more than any other story since series one’s Empty Child/Doctor Dances story, feels like a classic episode of Doctor Who.  We have the remote English village and a mining project.  The pace of the first half of the episode feels about right for an episode out of the Pertwee or Baker (Tom) era.  Perhaps it is the tone, this atmosphere, but it makes me wonder just how much authority The Eleventh Doctor has.  Can he walk into a room and command it?  He looks young, which is one strike against him.  Tony and Nasreen don’t immediately buy his story of being from the ministry of drilling.  Sure, this Doctor can be stern, but I don’t, at this point, feel he can command a room very well.  I don’t suppose this is a requirement of The Doctor, but it something I miss in recent portrayals.  The Eleventh Doctor especially seems to come across more often as an awkward big brother figure rather than a safe, authoritative figure.

While Amy is missing from much of this episode, I do feel this is where her portrayal beings to slip.  I think that Chibnall is writing for Donna, not for Amy.  Or maybe this is somewhat intentional.  As the season has progressed, Amy has gone from doubtful, scornful, wide-eyed girl to using The Doctor to escape responsibility, to trying to have her cake and eat it too (not choosing between The Doctor and Rory).  Now, she is in a bit of a character limbo.  How does she grow as a character now that she has chosen Rory?  It is hard to see that the events of the previous episode have made much of a difference in how the behaves, and we aren’t going to be able to see much more change before the shocking event at the end of the next episode.  Honestly, I think the season had a certain momentum, and that momentum, at least where the characters are concerned, is about to become extremely uneven as we move toward the finale.

I don’t know that I have much more to say on this story until I’ve re-watched part two.

I do like the new companion, even if she is only here for two episodes.

Series 5.07 – Amy’s Choice

Written by Simon Nye
Directed by Catherine Morshead

The Doctor stops to visit Rory and Amy after being away for five years.  They have settled in Upper Leadworth and Amy is now quite pregnant.  Meanwhile, The TARDIS is about to crash into a cold star.  Two realities, but which is real?  And who is the mysterious Dream Lord?

Fedoras are cool.

 “Did I say it was a nightmare?  No, more of a really . . . good . . . mare.”

This episode is a bit of an improvement over the previous and it deals more effectively with the tension between The Doctor, Rory, and Amy than Vampires of Venice did.  That episode dealt more with Rory confronting The Doctor, but aside from sharing an adventure, nothing much was settled.  Here, the focus of the tension becomes abundantly clear, and it is in the title.  Amy must make a choice.  The Doctor represents fun and adventure and not growing up.  Rory represents adulthood, responsibility.  In truth, while we can understand Amy’s reluctance to choose Rory, she is being selfish and unfair to him.  Even her comments about Leadworth being boring reflect that.  But let’s not forget that if she chooses The Doctor, she chooses a man who also ran from responsibility.  He is a man who has spent most of his life running.  Thus, The Doctor also represents instability and unending drama.  Rory represents stability and moments of peace.  Perhaps this is why so many of the female companions of the New Series, are young and fall in love with him.  The Doctor of New Who stands at the pivot of childhood and adulthood.  He can show you responsibility, but he can also hold you back if you decide to cling.  Thus, the women who fall in love with The Doctor are betraying their own desire to stay young and not face responsibility.  To a degree, Martha Jones realized this, the damaging aspect of being with The Doctor, and she walked away.  She got out.  In New Series terms, death isn’t The Doctor’s constant companion, childishness is.

What makes The Dream Lord so interesting here (and yes, he is The Doctor’s unconscious) is that there seems to be an aspect of The Doctor that recognizes this and hates it.  The Doctor cannot truly ask Amy to choose in any other circumstance because it wouldn’t be fun or stroke his ego.  The Dream Lord, however, can  because he recognizes that the childishness in The Doctor can get himself and everyone else killed.  And truly, why should Rory be subjected to death in this way?  He is innocent, his only crime is falling for Amy.  The portrayal of The Dream Lord is compelling and chilling (no pun intended), and I can’t help but think that by playing this part Toby Jones has unofficially played The Doctor, but a side that we rarely see.  Yes, a lot of fans bandied the word “Valeyard” around after this episode, but I don’t think this is so extreme.   Maybe in some ways you could interpret this entire episode as a metaphor of the conflict between Old Who and New Who, with The Dream Lord representing The Old Doctors and Matt Smith being The New Doctors.

Amy’s fear of what Rory represents is evident in the second antagonist, the elderly who are possessed by aliens.  There is nothing left of their humanity and they feed off the young.  Basically, Amy sees settling down and growing old as a type of death, the replacing of her fun-filled, youthful self with something unusual and alien.  All she once was will cease to be, replaced with something new, different, and fearful.  A fairly obvious metaphor, when you think about it, but somewhat easy to miss in the taboo-breaking violence against the elderly.  We see them hit by boards, pushed off buildings, and even hit by a van.  It reminds me of the scene in Hot Fuzz when Nicholas Angel kicks an old woman in the face.  In both the movie and here it is meant for humorous effect, but the humor distracts a bit from the metaphor in Amy’s Choice.  In some ways, this episode reminds me quite a lot of Hot Fuzz, not that there are many parallels between the stories, but in HF the antagonists are primarily elderly, they are taken down violently, and both stories have a swan.

While it is hard to imagine this episode working without the context of what has come before, I think it has proven to be one of the best thus far in series five.  Sure, I liked The Angel two-parter, but it is a different type of story to this one.  Amy’s Choice needs the build-up of the previous episodes because it deals directly with that build-up.  It is a well-crafted character piece that is dressed as an experimental science fiction episode.  It puts to rest the tension between the leads and elevates Rory to an indispensable status.  His character is a bit subtle, not obviously important, but by choosing him, he has altered Amy’s character a bit, and we will spend the rest of the season shaped by his presence or absence.

Series 5.06 – The Vampires of Venice

Written by Toby Whithouse
Directed by Johnny Campbell

The Doctor attempts to re-ignite Amy’s romantic feelings for Rory by taking them on a date to 1580 Venice.   Instead, they find an academy for women that seems to be churning out vampires.

“Makes you wonder what could be so bad it doesn’t mind you thinking it’s a vampire.”

Sometimes an episode of Doctor Who will succeed or suffer based entirely on context.  And while context is not the extent of the failure of The Vampires of Venice, it certainly contributes to it.  First, Whithouse has written a story that seems more suited for the Russell T. Davies era.  The Doctor is once more the destroyer of worlds and Signora Calvierri heaps the guilt upon him.  This was the kind of thing done to the Tenth Doctor, and it grew very annoying back then.  Second, much of this episode rehashes Whitehouse’s previous story (from the RTD era) School Reunion.  In that episode, we saw alien bats taking human shape and masquerading as teachers in a school.  They gained control of the students and were attempting to discover the equation of the universe to allow them to gain control of all creation.  The Doctor is even given a scene where he and the headmaster

This part was originally played by Anthony Head.

verbally spar, each trying to convert the other to his side. In this episode, we have a group of alien fish taking human shape and masquerading as headmistress (and whatever Francesco was) of a school where girls are being converted to fish people as well, and in the mean time, Signora Calvierri has control over them.  The Doctor is even given a scene where he and Calvierri verbally spar, each trying to convert the other to his or her side.  The ultimate goal of the aliens in each episode is different, but the methods are rehashed.  Sure, Steven Moffat repeats himself, but tends to limit it to lines or themes*, but Whithouse seems to have decided to go even farther. If it works, it works, I guess.

(*Except in the case of Jekyll when Dr. Jackman and Hyde talk to one another through a pre-recorded video, which is essentially the forerunner to Sally Sparrow and The Doctor talking via DVD Easter Egg in Blink.  Apparently Moffat will reuse larger ideas, so long as they were used in different shows.)

The Second Doctor would have jumped out of a cake if he had the opportunity.

Okay, so the context is all wrong on this story, and we are revisiting material.  Apart from that, the story is perfectly decent.  The humor is what shines in this episode.  No, I amend that statement.  The humor and Rory are what work.  The Doctor jumping out of the cake at Rory’s stag party is my personal favorite scene.  The constant sparring between The Doctor and Rory is great.  Sure, The Doctor wants Rory along to get Amy to realign her affections, but they are still antagonistic.  And why wouldn’t they be?  Rory is ticked off at constantly being second fiddle to The Doctor, and he is, frankly, right to feel this way.  The two characters have great dialogue together, and the best scene in the entire episode is when Rory tells The Doctor that he is dangerous, not because he risks peoples’ lives, but because he makes people want to impress him.  Rory has been one of the few companions in recent season that has been able to make The Doctor face his own nature, even if the trait criticized in this episode is entirely accidental.  The Doctor doesn’t intentionally make people want to impress him.  But he is patronizing at times and he does exude enthusiasm when his companions figure things out.  Rory is necessary to break-up the dynamic of The TARDIS, and I am thrilled at his addition to the show.

The second best thing about this episode are the sets and costumes.  The BBC has always done well with period pieces, and this is where the visuals of the episode excel.  Unfortunately, the CGI is a bit sub-par in this one.  I realize it is ironic to accuse Doctor Who of bad special effects (given the history of the show) but the CGI in previous episodes has been quite good.  Here, it noticeably stands out, from the fish aliens to the backgrounds when The Doctor is trying to deactivate the machinery that is going to sink Venice.  I don’t need good CGI, but I hate that this episode looks good in every aspect except the CGI.  When your computer effects stand out and are extremely noticeable, then they fail.  It is like bad music mixing, something else that has happened in recent years in Doctor Who.

I hate to sound like I am tearing the episode apart.  I hardly made any notes during it because I was really enjoying watching it.  But the above areas are where I feel it succeeds and fails.  Especially given the tight plotting of the previous story it just stands out as a weaker effort.  Perhaps if it had been in another season, it would have worked better.  As it stands, it works best as a re-introduction to Rory with some great scenery.  A fun adventure, but rather shallow.