Sunday, June 19, 2011

Silence Will Fall: Checking in on Series Six of Doctor Who

I'll be blogging the first half of Doctor Who series 6 this August on MTVP as a "Summer DVR Dump," but Sarah and I thought we'd team up to give you a little preview and check in with the now completed first half of the series closer to the time when it actually ended. Enjoy!


The first half of Doctor Who series six had its share of highs and lows. One of those highs was most definitely the opening two-parter. Neither of us were really sure how we were going to feel about these episodes, which were set in America, when we first heard about that production decision. Doctor Who is quintessentially British, and tossing the Doctor and his companions into the American West worried us. The casting of the wonderful Mark Sheppard lessened these concerns somewhat. We were more than pleasantly surprised to see just how well suited Doctor Who was for the big budgets of America. The production was spectacular in the opening two episodes, “The Impossible Astronaut” and “Day of the Moon”. Monument Valley, Utah provided soaring mountain ranges and dazzling blue skies that were really there (not just photoshopped in or done through CGI). There was certainly some stuff filmed back in Cardiff, but the scale that they managed with going to the US to film was evident. And it really helped bolster the grandness of the beginning of the series.

Head writer Steven Moffat likes his two-parters, and as we were to find out, series 6 would be chock full of them. The opening set of two episodes not only set up the arc for at least the first half of the series, it moved character storylines along. Sarah squee’d like a little girl when River showed up and there was actual mutual flirting with her and Eleven. Kicking their relationship into high gear (or at least past idling) was rather unexpected, and it left Sarah in such a state that she re-watched the first episode not once but a total of four times the week it aired (and a fifth time during the Memorial Weekend marathon). Admittedly, there were several questions posed in the first two episodes (Who was the little girl and how could she regenerate? Why did she shoot the Doctor? Was Amy really pregnant?) that would somewhat be answered later on. It was nice to have some continuity with the villain in the episode, as well, in the form of the Silents. We heard vaguely about them in series 5, and it was good to find out who they were in the opening two episodes. We probably haven’t seen the last them of them, either. The character of President Nixon was also a lot of fun. He was over the top, and he had a habit of announcing himself as “President Nixon” every time he walked into a room. Harriet Jones anyone? We trust we weren’t the only ones expecting people to say “We know who you are”.

After the opening two-parter, a major highlight of this first half-season was the Neil Gaiman-penned episode, “The Doctor’s Wife.” Of the two of us, only Jen has read any of Gaiman’s work, and even she has only read “Stardust” (and okay, we both have seen the movie of “Stardust”), so we didn’t really go into it with a lot of expectations based on the Gaiman name. He seems to have a real sense of how to tell a Doctor Who story, of how to get in and out of a new world and predicament in 45 minutes. It was good fun to see the Doctor finally get to truly interact with the TARDIS. Not being viewers of the pre-Russell T. Davies era episodes, there was also some information about the Doctor’s history with the TARDIS that was new to us, like the fact that his TARDIS was an outdated model when he first found her, and he actually stole her (although the way she tells it, she stole him). Amy’s reaction when the Doctor tells her the TARDIS consciousness has been placed in a woman is perfect. She wonders if he “wished really hard.” Overall, what was nice about this episode was how it paid homage to what has come before- not just “classic” Who, but the Russell T. Davies era as well. It turns out that the TARDIS saves copies of all her old control rooms, and in “The Doctor’s Wife,” the gang ends up in the control room used by the Ninth and Tenth Doctors. Who would have thought that familiar green glow of the center column could invoke such nostalgia?

Another positive aspect of this half-season has been the development of the character of Rory. It was nice to put the Doctor/Amy/Rory triangle behind us after seeing multiple reassurances that Amy loves Rory and considers the Doctor to be her best friend. Beyond that, however, Rory’s experience in the series 5 finale, where he watched over Amy for 2,000 years and became “the Last Centurion” seems to have been the real springboard for his character growth in the first half of series 6. This began to be apparent in the season opener, “The Impossible Astronaut,” when Rory takes charge of the Doctor’s funeral, insisting that they “do it right” by using a boat out in a lake, Viking-style. The arc was completed in the mid-series finale, “A Good Man Goes to War,” when Rory, in full Centurion garb, angrily demands from all sorts of intergalactic baddies to know the location of his wife. Rory has come such a long way from the kind-of-goofy nurse to being someone strong and dependable. Arthur Davrill has also given some of the more memorable performances this season, especially in the opening two-parter. He has created a very memorable, distinct character in Rory.

When Sarah heard Moffat say we would find out who River Song was in series 6, she was excited. Very excited. She had been fascinated by River since “Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead” in series 4, where we first met her, and where she died, leaving Ten to wonder just who she was. As mentioned earlier, she was on cloud nine to see River and Eleven flirting so openly in the first two episodes. In true fan form, Sarah watched their scenes from “Day of the Moon” so many times she could quote dialogue (and in the case of the flaily kiss, do all the hand motions….yes she has no life). She’d been hoping (and Jen too) to be vindicated in the belief that River is in fact his wife, given what we’ve seen of them in the past 2 series. So hopes were high when we learned that River would reveal her true identity in “A Good Man Goes to War”. Too bad that revelation didn’t happen. All we got was River revealing in the last few minutes of the episode that she was Amy and Rory’s daughter (Melody). No mention of her connection romantically to the Doctor. Just that she was the daughter of his latest companions. While River seemed so concerned with the Doctor finding out her true identity, she seemed nonplussed about her parents learning the truth. The explanation for this wasn’t clear.

At the time (and she still does almost a week later) Sarah felt that this revelation was weak storytelling and too easy. Moffat says he’d been planning this since he introduced her in series 4, but that doesn’t mean it works well. What is intriguing about River is the mystery and how she knew so much about Eleven (and Ten). It was possible to recognize that there was a connection when the story of how River met the Doctor as a young girl mirrored Amy’s journey with her Raggedy Doctor. But maybe denial was better. Sarah liked that River knew how to fly the TARDIS better than Eleven and the way they verbally sparred. They were equals, in a way that the Doctor hadn’t had since Donna. Now Jen would argue that the Doctor and Donna were more equals than the Doctor and River, because River often seems to surpass the Doctor, but that’s a whole other discussion for another time. The bottom line is that finding out that River is Amy’s daughter honestly squicked us both out. It doesn’t sit right that the Doctor is getting involved with the child of his companion (even if that child is part Time Lord- which is really the only thing that makes it at all understandable).

Another issue that crops up is why in fact River differs from Donna in being part Time Lord. On the one hand, Donna did have all those crazy Time Lord brain waves dive into her head all at once. But it seemed pretty clear that there weren’t supposed to be part Time Lord-part humans in existence. It just didn’t work. And yet here we are, with River being part Time Lord from conception, and she seems to be fine (well okay that’s relative considering she’s in prison for murder). It just seems that the continuity of how species can interact in the scope of the Who-verse has been messed with. What made sense in the Russell T. Davies era now seems to not make any in the Moffat era. There are ways to fanwank this difference, of course, for instance, that Donna’s brain, since she wasn’t part Time Lord, wasn’t designed to handle those powers. But we shouldn’t have to do such mental gymnastics to enjoy an episode of “Doctor Who.” We both enjoy “Lost,” but “Doctor Who” should not be “Lost.”

Along that same line, it seems that with the Moffat era, we get handed a bunch of questions and just when you think you have answers, ten more unanswered questions spring up. Sure we know that Amy was really pregnant and why the little girl could regenerate, but it seems as though we really are no closer to learning why the eye patch lady wants Eleven dead and why they’ve chosen to use River as their weapon. Or how the young River possibly killing the 1100-year-old Doctor ties in with everything else (more on arc and continuity later)? The overall arc this season is much more twisty and “wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey” than anything we saw in the Russel T. Davies era. There is still, of course, some hope that the awesomeness of River will return by the end of the series. Cautious hope, but hope nonetheless.

Even more troubling than the squickiness of the River reveal was the structural problem created by the BBC’s decision to air series 6 in two segments separated by several months. Overall, it feels like the series was just starting to pick up steam when all of a sudden we were thrown into another hiatus. The problem created by the break might not have been apparent if the decidedly sub-par two-parter about the Flesh hadn’t come just before the mid-season finale. Sure, other series of Doctor Who have had unsatisfying early two-parters, such as the Sontaran two-parter in series 4 or the two-parter in series 3 where the Daleks are in Depression-era New York City, but there were plenty of other good episodes coming soon after those sub-par episodes to make up for it. For every “Daleks in Manhattan,” there was a “Human Nature.” We won’t get to see the good episodes to make up for the sub-par until September, and that brings down the show overall. While Moffatt seemed to think that splitting the series would add excitement because it creates opportunity for more cliffhangers, it has really just killed any momentum the series was beginning to pick up. His explanation that he was splitting the seasons so the younger viewers wouldn’t have such a long time to wait (they wouldn’t grow a foot while waiting for new episodes) just doesn’t work. If perhaps they’d planned it better and not had the Flesh episodes right near the end, it might not have been as noticeable. Nevertheless, we’ll both be anxiously awaiting the continuation of the Doctor’s adventures in September.

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