Sunday, 23 October 2011

Doctor Who: Series 6

Doctor Who: series 6

Well then. Wibbly wobbly timey wimey writ large across thirteen episodes. This was certainly the most ambitious series of the show since the revival, at least in terms of arc plotting. You can’t deny that Moffat got the series off to a cracking start, and the ideas were fantastic. I’m not entirely convinced that it all came together in a satisfactory whole, but I’ll get to that.

First of all, Matt Smith. Once again, he delivered an absolute triumph of a performance, barely putting a foot wrong through the entire series. In my opinion, he has thoroughly made the role his own, and the quality of his performance covers a multitude of sins. Here’s hoping that it will continue to do so for a long time. His byplay with Alex Kingston is a joy to behold, and the physicality he brings to the role is wonderfully alien. Does his natty green coat enhance his performance? Well, maybe not, although it certainly looked quite swish, especially paired with the Stetson. It was the nuances he brought that really made it though; the little hints of fury in “The Impossible Astronaut”, the joyous spin at the end of “The Doctor’s Wife”, and his chilling breakdown of cowardice in “The God Complex” stick in the mind especially.

Enough fanboying though. There are other factors to consider, after all. Acting wise, Alex Kingston was clearly having a blast in the hammiest role in the show since Rassilon devoured the scenery a few years ago. I don’t’ think it always worked though; her scenes with Matt Smith aside, there were times when River came across as unbearably smug. Not quite the Mary Sue some corners of the fandom have dismissed her as, perhaps, but pushing the boundaries. Whether that is Kingston’s interpretation or exactly what Moffat wanted, I’m not entirely certain. To a certain extent, it perhaps doesn’t matter. Regardless, while I’m a big fan of River Song, but I’ve got to admit to a certain amount of arc fatigue with her. I would be very happy to have her crop up again in future episodes, but here’s hoping she won’t be quite as integral to the plot from now on.

Elsewhere, Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill were very good as Amy and Rory – Gillan particularly shining in “The Girl Who Waited”; I had problems with the episode, but her performance as two very different versions of the same person was excellent. Darvill’s acting is more understated, but all the better for it. I think it a wise move to have a more grounded character amidst the eccentricity and ham, and it makes it all the more thrilling when he breaks out the badassery as the Last Centurion.

In terms of the writing, everybody concerned seems to have maintained the same standard as the last series at the very least. I couldn’t honestly say that there was a bad episode this year, and overall I would say things had improved. There weren’t as many by the numbers episodes, and even those episodes that could best be described as filler were far more interesting. Neil Gaiman was all conquering, eclipsing even Stephen Moffat’s efforts, but “The Doctor’s Wife” was the pinnacle of a mostly very well written series.

Finally, in this section at least, it would be remiss of me not to mention the fantastic effects work. Even since the revival, some of the more ambitious sequences on the show have fallen flat due to technical failings, but everything looked incredible here. Some episodes had clearly had tight budgets, true, but achieved excellent results with few resources.

And then there’s the arc plot. As I’ve said, it was a brilliant idea – the Doctor is dead! Now he has to find out how it happened – but the payoff was lacking. In part, I suspect this is because it isn’t the final payoff; I’m putting money on us having to wait until the fiftieth anniversary to find out the ultimate truth of everything, but by then Moffat will be asking us to keep track of plot elements that have been in place for three or four series. That’s fine for those fans who will quite happily discuss every aspect of the show endlessly, but I’m curious as to the effect on more casual fans, especially younger ones. Moffat is very fond of commenting that Doctor Who is a family show, and how important the child audience is, but while I would never advocate dumbing down, I am a little dubious as to how many seven or eight year olds can keep track of four years of hints, time travel complications and plot teases. Perhaps they just don’t worry about it, and take it on a week by week basis. Furthermore, whatever the merits of long lasting plot strands, it would be nice if some resolution could be provided at some point. Be honest, how many of the questions of the last two series have been answered? We know what was causing the cracks in time, but not why the TARDIS was being blown up. We know who killed the Doctor, and to a certain extent why – but why like that? Why did River need to be in an Apollo spacesuit at that precise time? Moffat has answered the superficial questions, but left the larger ones for the future, while adding yet more questions. I love his writing, and I remain confident that he will wrap everything up in a neat and satisfying package…but I do have that little fear that he’s made everything too big. We will see.

Episode by Episode:

The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon: 4/5

What an opening! I think first of all, a big round of applause for the director and art team, because there are some wonderful shots in these two episodes. Utah has never looked so good. The mysterious letters, picnic and then death of the Doctor is a fantastic twist, although slightly undermined by the fact that you just know the Doctor isn’t really dead. Sure, we don’t know how he’s going to get out of it, but that he will eventually is never in doubt. Seeing Smith reveal a little hint of the Doctor’s arrogance and superiority, even in relation to his friends, is chilling, but beautifully played. The Silence are a terrifying creation, even before they let out that little roaring scream and try and blow you up with electricity. Looking back though, while these episodes are filled with fantastic dialogue, great character moments, and some rip-roaring action, there is more than a little style over substance. The chase sequence at the start of Day of the Moon, for instance – why exactly was that a good plan. It’s never really explained why the American military is hunting down the Doctor and his friends, especially since the President himself is counted amongst those friends at this point. On a related note, I understand the Silence needed to raise River/Melody somewhere, but why that orphanage? Why did she need to be put in an Apollo spacesuit? There are implications that they have been guiding human development to this level precisely so that they can have this technology, but it seems so utterly pointless.

That is with the benefit of hindsight though. Taken on their own merits, it’s a cracking start to the series, and some of the best episodes of the series.

The Curse of the Black Spot: 3/5

Doctor Who and pirates. What’s not to like? Not a lot, but there isn’t a great deal to love, either. More than any other episode this series, this is Doctor Who by numbers. It’s fun, but inconsequential. Nothing wrong with that at all, especially after the intense opening, but equally I wouldn’t be disappointed if I never saw it again. Hugh Bonneville turns in a decent performance, while Lily Cole excels at looking pretty in an unusual way, admittedly not all that much of a stretch for her, and hey, pirates. It does have the biggest error of the series though, with one pirate disappearing without even a mention – just a little bit sloppy, that!

The Doctor’s Wife: 5/5

Best episode of the series, hands down. I was one of the many fans who let out a joyful squeak when it was announced that Neil Gaiman was writing an episode, and happily it didn’t disappoint. For a start, it’s easily Matt Smith’s best performance, slipping from excitement through fury to something like love, back to callous rage before finishing by breaking your heart. The basic idea of the TARDIS being the ‘love interest’ is excellent, and Suranne Jones is outstanding in the role, with a script to match. Rory and Amy are perhaps a touch short changed, relieving familiar beats to those seen in The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang, but with a darker twist; Gillan and Darvill still acquit themselves admirably. A fantastic episode, bolstered by Gaiman’s obvious love of the show and its history, here so obvious that it is almost tangible. If you watch one episode of Doctor Who, make it this one.

The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People: 4/5

Almost a companion piece to last years The Hungry Earth/In Cold Blood, in that it’s a decent two parter that will inevitably be remembered more for the jaw dropping conclusion than anything else. Well, maybe not anything else – Matt Smith is once again outstanding as the Doctor and his ‘Ganger’. It’s a rather more hard SF plot than the show normally goes for, delving into some interesting moral questions. The whole concept of ‘gangers’ is rather cool, and played for some rather dark comedy early on, and there’s some lovely stuff for Rory with the main antagonist, Jennifer. Sadly, this is somewhat squandered by the end; Jennifer degenerates into a generic (if freaky) monster, and the moral issue of whether the gangers are real people or not is undermined by the Doctor’s casual execution of Amy’s ganger. Yes, she wasn’t as advanced/sentient as the others, but still. On the other hand, killer twist at the end. Really, really good.

A Good Man Goes To War: 4/5

Bags of awesome. From the Doctor and Rory storming the Cyber fleet and winning, to the Doctor winning the battle of Demon’s Run in under five minutes without a shot being fired, to another glimpse of Eleven’s brand of tranquil fury, to the final revelations about the baby and River’s identity, this episode is just one long blast of adrenaline and fun. The idea that River is Amy and Rory’s daughter is perhaps a little predictable, but it’s well handled, but the only real problem with the episode is that so much stuff is crammed in, not much of it gets time to breathe.

Let’s Kill Hitler: 5/5

Possibly the ballsiest episode of the show ever, and has the best line ever written: “Well, I was on my way to a gay gypsy bahrmitzvah for the disabled, when suddenly I thought ‘Gosh, the Third Reich’s a bit rubbish, I think I’ll kill the Fuhrer.’ Who’s with me?” Alex Kingston is clearly having an absolute ball, and the battle of sorts between River and the Doctor is wonderful. The Tessalector is a neat idea (and instantly another possible answer for how the Doctor will avoid his fate, along with the Flesh avatars), although the death bots on board don’t quite stand up to scrutiny if you think about it. Great fun, great script, great performances, audacious…a slightly cheesy ending notwithstanding, utterly superb.

Night Terrors: 3/5

After ‘Curse of the Black Spot’, this probably the weakest episode of the series, for similar reasons to Gatiss’ previous contribution, ‘Victory of the Daleks’ in series 5. There’s a lot to like here; the dolls are extremely creepy, the Doctor making a house call is done very well, and the troubled family relationship is tastefully handled. The atmosphere is second to none, as well. However, after the excellent build up, you suddenly have ten minutes to wrap it all up, so George gets a hug and all is right with the world. Not a bad episode, but if it’s remembered for anything, it will be the look of it, not the content.

The Girl Who Waited: 4/5

Another good timey wimey idea, slightly undermined by a flaw in characterisation: I really didn’t like future!Amy, finding her to be a selfish, cold bitch quite frankly. Yes, she was lost in a separate time stream for years, but given everything Rory and the Doctor have been through to save her on occasion, it was hard to warm to her reasoning. Also, it appears that she is a prodigy, managing to recreate Time Lord technology from scraps. That came out of left field, to put it mildly. However, as I mentioned earlier, Karen Gillan gave an incredible performance; it was just an incredible performance as a character I didn’t care about, which wasn’t really her fault.

Aside from that, the look of the world was once again incredible, while it was refreshing to see the Doctor being so clinical. Some nice scenes between Rory and both Amy’s, and some fantastic dialogue more than made up for my dislike of future!Amy.

The God Complex: 5/5

One of my top three episodes of the series. Fantastically surreal, with a great monster and guest cast – David Walliams wasn’t quite unrecognisable, but he did do very well as a character who could have wandered in from a Douglas Adams novel. It was a real shame that Rita couldn’t stick around, as she would have made a fantastic companion, but her death scene was excellent. It was also a nice touch to have the Doctor take Amy and Rory home and leave them, rather than keep them around until they are killed in action. Very little to criticise, in fact.

Closing Time: 3/5

Another Doctor and Craig episode, as with last year’s The Lodger. As with that episode, it’s extremely funny, entertaining, and supremely throw away. You could argue that the penultimate episode in such a plot heavy series should have been more plot oriented, but it fit thematically and was a nice contrast to the bleakness of the rest of the series.

The Wedding of River Song: 4/5

Sadly disappointing, and I never thought I would be saying that about one of Moffat’s episodes. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to like – the idea of all of time happening at once, which gives us some delightfully crazy scenes, and the Doctor’s quest to find out why he has to die is thoroughly excellent, and very reminiscent of Indiana Jones. It’s always good to see the Silence, fast becoming one of my favourite villains, and the relationship between the Doctor and River is well handled. The revelation of how the Doctor escapes his fate is, as with River’s true identity, perhaps a touch predictable, but nicely done. However (and I’ve touched on this earlier), more questions! More questions and not much significant resolution. The sheer amount of great ideas in this episode, coupled with the all the usual great things about the show, make for a decent finale taken on its own merits, but held up as the end of a plot strand, it’s weak. Furthermore, I’m really not convinced by the whole “Doctor Who?” idea, not at all. A friend pointed me in the direction of the Cartmel Masterplan – long story short, the Doctor was going to be revealed as the reincarnation of one of the three Time Lord Gods, the Other – and that seems to make sense, and would probably be quite good if pulled off, but right now…very dubious indeed.

Overall: 4/5

Lots of excellent parts, that didn’t quite add up to a satisfactory whole. In future, if there is going to be such an intense arc plot, I really think the show would benefit from doing it properly. As it is, we had four or five episodes that centred on the plot, and eight episodes that either didn’t mention it at all or touched on it only lightly. There’s nothing wrong with crazy adventures, and arguably the show is at its best when it’s just the Doctor and friends bombing around exploring the galaxy, but the plot got shoved to the back far too often this series.

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