After the previous season’s intricate multi-episode plotting and a story arc which explored an on-going collection of mysteries including how the Doctor’s death on the shores of Lake Silencio in “The Impossible Astronaut” connected with the ‘the eye patch woman’ in the first half of the series who kept popping up in various episodes but could only be seen by Amy Pond, and the explanation for Amy’s ‘quantum fluctuating’ pregnancy, which eventually all ties in with a theme that had been running ever since 2008’s series 4 when Alex Kinsgston’s recurring character River Song was first introduced in the episode “Silence in the Library” and a mystery was alluded to involving the exact nature of her back-to-front-in-time relationship with the Doctor while David Tennant was still playing the role -- showrunner Steven Moffat decided to present the five new episodes making up this 2012 mini-season as stand-alone ‘epics’ … with bold, attention-grabbing titles that would ‘look good on a movie marquee poster’ and with each episode occupying a distinct sub-genre of its own.
This might appear on the face of things to be a reaction to the criticism series 6 received in the popular press regarding how its excessively complicated, labyrinthine plotting (which was beginning to resemble “LOST” for drawn out incomprehensibility) was allegedly making it too hard for children to keep up with or to understand the show. In fact, these five episodes do still share an overarching theme , but its more implicit and largely informed by the viewers’ foreknowledge of what was going on behind the scenes at the time of production in relation to some important up-coming changes in the line-up of the main cast -- which, from as early as back in March 2012, became a part of the pre-series 7 hype when 26-year-old ex-“Emmerdale” actress Jenna-Louise Coleman was announced as having been chosen to play the Doctor’s new companion from the 2012 Christmas special onwards.
This cleverly focused our attentions on the then-unaired (and still at that point unrecorded) five episode run that would be coming before it later that year, and on Matt Smith’s current co-stars, Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill, who had still not officially left the series although Moffat had by this point written their characters Amy and Rory into a position that no other companions had ever really occupied before them (except perhaps Susan Foreman in the original sixties series) after the previous series story arc revealed River Song to be both the Doctor’s wife (sort of) and Amy and Rory’s grown-up daughter from their future, thus making the trio now (literally) related to each other, and the Doctor unable simply to walk away like he normally does (his relationships with his companions usually come to an abrupt halt, after all) since Amy and Rory are (kind of) his mother- and father-in-law!
As we saw in the last Christmas special, “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe”, although he now travels alone, the Doctor keeps coming back to Amy and Rory. He can’t leave them to live out their ‘post-TARDIS-traveling’ lives as any normal married couple might expect to live: he’s there again for Christmas dinner (the Ponds always have a place at the table laid out just in case for, as ever, the Doctor’s visits are unpredictable and might be separated by great swathes of time) or, as we discover in the online five-part ‘minisode’ “Pond Life”, written by Chris Chibnall as a teaser for the first episode of series 7, regularly drops in at random moments for a visit or an update that reminds the couple of their former life of time travel and adventure.
The Doctor has a family now. Like most families, he’s not always in contact with them, yet they remain part of his life. “Pond Life” gives us a précis of the relationship between the Doctor, Amy and Rory as it now stands: the Doctor checks in with regular phone calls to tell his former companions what he’s been up to recently; he regularly bursts in on them in their bedroom in the middle of the night (‘I thought we had a rule about that!’) claiming their help is needed because the Universe is in peril … then realises he’s in the wrong time frame and the threat hasn’t occurred yet; and he leaves an Ood he was giving a lift to behind him, who the Ponds discover sitting on their loo the next morning. The final part reveals all is not well with the Ponds’ marriage, and the first episode of the series turns out to be an exploration of an older, more mature and jaded couple than the one we left behind last season. Time has moved on for Amy and Rory, but the tribulations of the past have left their mark on a relationship that now looks as though its disintegrating when they’re suddenly thrust back into the centre of the Doctor’s life -- ironically directly because of the intervention of his greatest foe, the Daleks.
“Asylum of the Daleks” is the big, bold, brassy season opener, designed by writer Steven Moffat to show off the series’ supposed epic, blockbuster movie style image to the upmost, right from director Nick Hurran’s awe-inspiring opening shot of a semi-fossilised Dalek on the scorched wasteland surface of Skaro. The Doctor is kidnapped and forced to attend the Dalek Parliament (a vast circular arena crammed with Dalek drones) then required to go on a mission for them to do a spot of his enemies’ dirty work: destroy a planet-full of shell-shocked and battle-scared Dalek soldiers that have gone a bit loopy even by this evil race’s already fanatically megalomaniacal standards. The ‘normal’ Daleks can’t stand these imperfect, deficient specimens, but are too scared to go anywhere near their unstable metal mental-case cousins, so it’s up to the Doctor to be beamed onto the planet surface, turn off the force field that’s protecting the asylum from the Daleks’ death ray, and presumably then get blasted into oblivion along with the insane brood it hosts, many of which are shell-shocked survivors of previous encounters with him from past stories! Because they know the Doctor works best when in the company of companions, the Dalek parliament also beam a dazed and confused Amy and Rory aboard the deep space saucer that now holds the Doctor prisoner (overseen by the Dalek Prime Minister, no less!), expecting them to help him in his mission.
This is an episode that’s been engineered with the intention of wowing us with spectacle. We’re given more actual physical Daleks on screen at the same time than we’ve ever seen in the series before. The quality of the CGI (which has to stand up, nowadays, to extra levels of detailed scrutiny ever since the show began broadcasting in HD) is superlative; and once we reach the icy surface of the asylum planet, where the air is full of lethal nanogenes that turn people into Dalek puppets, the episode becomes an eerie haunted house poke around dark passages full of Dalek relics from DOCTOR WHO history which fan-boys and -girls can tick off one by one.
At least, this is the surface appeal of the episode and the big sell intended to get bums on sofas (‘Every Dalek Ever!!’ screamed the front cover of Doctor Who Magazine before broadcast) for the start of the mini-season run; and the imagery for the most part doesn’t disappoint. But the story, at heart, eventually reveals itself to be more about the emotional drama – detailing perhaps the series’ most adult exploration of its characters’ lives yet, as the reasons for Amy and Rory’s estrangement become clear. There’s one other big revelation, of course: the inclusion of Jenna Louise-Coleman in the story as Oswin Oswald, the junior Entertainment Manager of the crashed leisure ship The Alaska, who turns out to be an insane Dalek imprisoned deep in the asylum’s intensive care unit, who doesn’t realise she’s no longer human. How her character in this story relates to Clara -- the name of her companion when she appears again in the Christmas episode -- is as yet a mystery which, I suspect, will run for longer than just that one episode.
Having saved the Ponds’ marriage by forcing them to confront the feelings for each other they’ve been previously supressing in order to live better with the grief brought about by Amy’s inability to have children because of the procedures inflicted upon her at Demon’s Run by Madam Kovarian in the last series, the second episode in this short run sees the Doctor crashing back into his former companions’ lives eight months later, when he calls upon them to form part of his new ‘gang’ -- along with Queen Nefertiti (Riann Steele) of Egypt and an Edwardian big game hunter called John Riddell (Rupert Graves) – and sets off with them all in the TARDIS for the year 2367, where a spaceship the size of Canada has been discovered to be on an unstoppable collision course with the Earth and is therefore about to be destroyed with defensive missiles fired by the Indian Space Agency.
Once again, big, silly blockbuster movie themes mask a core concern with the development of the relationship between the Ponds (now together again) and the Doctor: the former now beginning to feel themselves being increasingly side-lined as the Doctor’s visits become less and less frequent. It’s telling, after Amy and Rory are introduced to Nefertiti and Riddell for the first time, that Amy immediately rather pointedly asks the Doctor, ‘are they the new “us”?’ The episode serves partly as a reassurance that the Doctor still considers his former companions to be a vital element in his life, and also reminds Amy in particular that she still enjoys the excitement and danger implicit in traveling with him again, as we see when she takes control of the investigation of the upper decks. But the Ponds still have their everyday lives back in 21st century London to reconcile with this new on/off relationship with Amy’s Raggedy Man, a fact highlighted by the inadvertent presence of Rory’s Dad Brian (Mark Williams), who happens to be in the middle of fixing a light bulb in the Ponds’ living room when the TARDIS materialises around him.
Brian’s reactions to the insane situations he soon finds himself in when the rogue spacecraft which the Doctor takes his friends to investigate turns out to be an abandoned Silurian Space Ark carrying rare examples of now-extinct Jurassic dinosaurs from prehistoric Earth that appear to be roaming the decks unattended (hence the jokey blockbuster title referencing of “Snakes on a Plane” in the form of “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”), is the best thing about this otherwise uneven episode: the tentative relationship between Rory and Brian is touching and beautifully played by Darvill and Williams and provides the episode’s most affecting and convincing comedy moments. Chris Chibnall’s writing is stuffed with slightly whacky sci-fi ideas painted in big broad brush strokes, which help give it something of the feel of Douglas Adams’ work for “The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” in tone: the squabbling armour-plated robots, prone to sarcasm and hissy fits (and played by comedy duo Mitchell & Webb) live comfortably alongside wild concepts such as the Space Ark harbouring an internal beach and its own sea which are in actuality both part of the ship’s wave-powered engine system. The dinosaur sequences are generally impressive, particularly an open beach pterodactyl attack and several sequences involving a golf-ball-loving Triceratops, who ends up giving the Doctor, Rory and Brian a lift on its back in a fabulously daft chase scene. On the other hand, the episode also introduces the serious idea that the Doctor is capable of becoming a much darker character when separated for long periods of time from human companionship. A genocidal intergalactic space pirate-cum business man called Solomon (David Bradley) turns out to have been responsible for the murder of the original on-board Silurian crew after his ship was ‘rescued’ when the Ark picked up his bogus distress signal. He murdered them all in order to steal the precious dinosaur cargo it carried, but then found himself trapped after being injured by one of the dinosaurs.
The Doctor’s response to Solomon’s threats, and the pirate’s willingness to harm both Brian and Nefertiti in order to get the Doctor to cooperate with him, is to ensure that he remains trapped on-board his original craft at the end of the story when the missiles launched to intercept the Ark are reprogrammed to seek out Solomon’s ship instead. This makes an interesting contrasting parallel with the 1970 Jon Pertwee story (when the Silurians were first introduced to the world by writer Malcolm Hulke) in which the Doctor was set firmly against the Brigadier’s plan to blow up the entire Silurian race after it was discovered dwelling in a cave system; roused from their suspended animation because of nearby mining, the Silurians planned to reclaim their planet from the intelligent apes that had evolved to take their place the meantime. The Doctor favoured coming to a diplomatic compromise, whereby both races would share the planet, but in the end, the Brigadier’s violent methods won the day.
Now the Doctor’s response to Solomon’s crime is similarly uncompromising and unforgiving, highlighting for any viewer familiar with past history how far his morality seems to have changed since that first Silurian story. This appears to have been part of a deliberate plan on Steven Moffat’s part, since writer Toby Whithouse’s brief for the third episode of the run, “A Town Called Mercy”, was to write a story in which the Doctor’s morality is probed, examined and challenged. The ideal genre in which to do this is of course the Western, where vengeance, honour and justice are invariably the key ingredients, although this was an audacious decision for DOCTOR WHO to take since the only other time the series has ventured into Wild West territory was in the 1966 William Hartnell adventure in which the first Doctor pitches up at the O.K. Corral -- a story with a poor reputation in fandom (although the recent restored DVD release did rehabilitate it somewhat).
Once again, the episode is visually very impressive thanks to the production’s utilisation of the southern Spanish location of Almeria, a backdrop familiar from classic Spaghetti Westerns such as “A Fistful of Dollars” and “The Good the Bad and the Ugly”, where the pre-standing mock-up Western set of Fort Bravo still exist to furnish the episode with a lush, expensive look for free -- providing bags of classic movie Western atmosphere that is considerably enhanced by composer Murray Gold’s excellent incidental score, which sounds nothing like his usual work for the show, and makes use of banjos and slide guitar in a complete break with his familiar orchestra based backings.
The story is contrived to include, at various stages, all the iconic images and motifs one associates with any good Western: there’s a gun-slinging face-off between the Doctor and an opponent in the deserted town square while the population cowers in the local church praying for deliverance (although the Doctor’s packing a sonic screwdriver in his holster not a six-gun!); the Time Lord has to confront a lynch mob of frightened townsfolk when he’s made town Marshal at one stage; and he has to wear a cowboy hat, ride a horse (called Susan!) and -- of more symbolic importance for the him -- wield a gun. The arena for what becomes a detailed examination of how the Doctor’s morality operates and the challenges it faces, is a frontier township called Mercy -- named, in the wake of the recent violence and conflict of the Civil War, by Isaac, its Marshall (“Farscape” actor Ben Browder) in order to highlight his intention of making this a place of second chances, where the divisions and hatreds of the civil war years can be set aside and new beginnings forged.
Naturally, this isn’t a straight Western: the science fiction element is injected through a “Terminator” influence that’s bought to bear on the material thanks to a lethal alien cyborg Gunslinger (Andrew Brooke) who’s been laying siege to the town ever since it provided sanctuary to a particular stranger – a man called Kahler-Jex (Adrian Scarborough). When the Doctor discovers Kahler-Jex’s true identity though, he can’t help but identify with the Cyborg Gunslinger’s desire for justice: the alien that Isaac has been harbouring is indeed a war criminal who helped his people in a civil war on his own distant planet by converting some of its best soldiers into half-man, half-machine cyborg weapons programmed to kill. When the programming failed in one of them, that cyborg victim dedicated himself to hunting down his ‘creator’ across space to bring his own lethal brand of justice to bear on Kahler-Jex.
In the meantime, Kahler-Jex the war criminal has come to see the error of his ways and wants to atone for the pain and suffering he has caused, which is why he exiled himself in the Old West on Earth in the 19th century, where he now dedicates himself to helping the population of Mercy defeat a cholera epidemic and rigs up the town with its own electricity supply. But are Kahler-Jex’s past crimes so horrific that he shouldn’t be allowed to escape the Gunslinger’s justice, exercised for himself and the comrades who suffered so appallingly at this man’s hands? The Doctor is himself struggling with his own pacifist inclinations: his previous conviction that violence is never the answer has all too frequently led to his enemies surviving to fight another day, and inevitably they end up killing more innocent people as a result. It’s guilt over this fact which perhaps led the Doctor to being so unusually adamant about not allowing Solomon off the hook in the previous episode, and why he also decides, at a certain point in this episode, to allow the Gunslinger to exercise justice on Kahler-Jex.
This is the point in the story at which the Doctor’s special relationship with Amy (Rory plays a disappointingly passive role in this episode, but then there is just too much else going on in it to allow him space to contribute), and the traditional role of the companion in keeping the Doctor morally grounded comes into play. “A Town Called Mercy” manages a delicate balancing act between addressing some complex, adult moral dilemmas and providing the big key note set-pieces required by the genre. Andrew Brooke’s cyborg makeup, in combination with the human qualities he brings to his performance, underline the influence of “Frankenstein” on the episode, with the Wild West themes adding an interesting, colourful perspective on the classic story. Matt Smith’s acting is on top form here, with the Doctor flipping from amusing fish out of water-based comedy to being deadly serious and angry in a blink of an eye. The fact that Amy has become of vital importance to him in terms of helping him remember what he stands for and why, is ultimately the take-home message of this episode, setting us up for the final two stories and making it plain that a difficult decision is on the horizon for Amy and Rory now that they have begun forging a stable life seperate from their travels in the TARDIS. The fourth episode, Chris Chibnall’s second story for this truncated series, directed by Douglas Mackinnon, authors a situation that tests the relationship between the three main protagonists in a manner that’s opposite to the outrageous scenario conjured up by the same writer in “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”: whereas that story saw the Doctor whisking his former companions away in his customary style to an exotic situation filled with grand, large-scale threats and dangers, and exciting off-world monsters, the nature of the threat in “The Power of Three” involves him having to stay put on Earth, living with the Ponds in their house while he monitors the strange appearance overnight of millions of alien cubes all over the world.
It’s not long, of course, before the Doctor is simply crushed by the monotony of day-to-day domestic existence, while the cubes refuse to do anything. In the last Chibnall story we saw Brian, Rory’s dad, snatched from the simple operation of changing a light bulb in the Ponds’ living room, and plunged into a mad situation involving Triceratops-back riding and himself and his son having to co-pilot a huge alien Space Ark and steer it away from a collision with Earth. Now the Doctor is forced to deal with Brian’s world: domestic routine, house chores, watching telly. In the end he can’t stand it any longer and delegates Brian the task of keeping an eye on the Cubes and noting down any changes he sees for when the Doctor gets back from his frequent jaunts in the TARDIS, sometimes with Amy and Rory in tow, during which they have all sorts of unseen adventures while the ‘slow invasion’ at home continues. It’s a task Brian (played again by the brilliant Mark Williams) takes hilariously seriously, and the rest of the episode plays out during the course of a whole year in which the strain between Amy and Rory’s commitments at home and their love of the life only the Doctor can give them becomes the centrepiece of the story.
As was noted by many commentators at the time, this episode feels like a nostalgic call-back to the days of Russell T. Davies and the 2005 series, with its contemporary references (the Doctor mentions twitter with a look of disdain when told that the Cubes are ‘trending’ on the popular micro-texting site), guest appearances from ‘celebrities’ ( TV physicist Brian Cox appears theorising about the origins of the Cubes and Alan Sugar sets his candidates the task of flogging the alien artefacts in an episode of “The Apprentice”), and its focus on the domestic relationships between the companions’ family members. The episode also introduces Jemma Redrave as Kate Stewart, the daughter of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and now holder of the Doctor’s old post of scientific adviser to UNIT. The main aim of the story is to provide a lens through which to gain an overview of the relationship between the Doctor, Amy and Rory as seen from their point of view, as they try to come to terms with the unpredictable life it has given them and figure out where they should go next.
At the start of the story, they’ve more or less come to a decision to stop traveling with the Doctor when he next randomly turns up to take them on another one of his mini-adventures. For one thing, even if he does manage to get them back afterwards so that hardly any time has elapsed since they left (which is not always guaranteed) it’s becoming obvious that they’re aging faster than their friends and, as work commitments and earth-bound relationships tie them more and more to a normal domestic routine, their adventuring with the Doctor starts to feel like irresponsibility. Given this character-based aspect of the episode, the business about the true nefarious purpose of the Cubes and the intergalactic ‘pest controllers’ called the Shakri (the only one of which we see is played by Steven Berkoff) from ancient Time Lord Legend who turn out to be behind the whole plot, feels a bit rushed and unconvincingly tacked on at the end. This is really ‘a celebration’ of Amy and Rory before they leave for good at the end of the next episode. When they decide at the conclusion of “The Power of Three” to start traveling again with the Doctor full time, we know that something rather drastic must be about to happen to cause them both to exit the series for good come the end of “The Angles take Manhattan” -- the final episode in this short run, written once more by showrunner and Weeping Angles creator Steven Moffat.
An atmospheric 1930s prologue with a voice-over, spoken in hard-boiled pulp fiction style, becomes the overture to another wild, mercurial and unpredictable episode from the inventive mind of the show’s current head writer, Steven Moffat. Private detective Sam Garner (Rod David) is hired by an art collector called Julius Grayle (Mike McShane) to investigate moving statues at a set of apartment blocks called Winter Quay, but in what quickly becomes one of the creepiest episodes of the entire series since its revival in 2005, he encounters an aged and decrepit future version of himself in one of the rooms there, and also a hostile group of Weeping Angles – the eerie aliens who take the guise of Victorian funerary statues that only move when no-one’s looking and which feed off the displaced energy that’s created in the space-time vortex whenever they send someone back in time -- lurking along the stairways. As Garner heads for the roof, the scene concludes with him being confronted by a giant leering Statue of Liberty Angel, towering above the apartment block!
This is another episode about time manipulation and what can and cannot be changed about the past when one regularly travels backwards and forwards in it … a fairly traditional plotline throughout the history of the series, but never tackled with such a flair for exploiting the mind-bending impossible paradoxes thrown up by the concept as Moffat’s stories usually manage. In this final adventure for Amy and Rory, Moffat uses those paradoxes to create an emotional farewell for the two in a story that begins with Rory being sent back to 1938 after he’s attacked by an Angle in modern-day new York. The Doctor and Amy manage to locate the Winter Quay (which is a sort of battery farm that the Angles use as a store house of time displacement energy by keeping their victims locked up in isolation there) in New York, in the year 1938; and heartbreakingly for Amy, she finds an old Rory on his death bed in one of the rooms there.
A series of emotional scenes which highlight the Ponds’ commitment to each other above all else and which lead to the Doctor’s realisation that, although ‘time can be rewritten’ (as has been his mantra throughout most of his time with the Ponds) it can’t be re-made once you’ve been told what the outcome is meant to be in writing. This is a sort of Schrodinger’s Cat idea in which the future remains open until your given some kind of record of it that then fixes it in place as fact -- which is what the Doctor finds himself doing when a 1930s ‘Melody Malone' novel he’s reading to Amy in Central Park (with the last page torn out because he doesn’t like endings) suddenly introduces Rory as one of its characters, and it becomes apparent that the heroine of the novel is actually River Song, who’s written the book as a guide for the Doctor to help him track them down in time.
Meanwhile, the younger Rory, trapped in Manhattan with a load of incredibly scary Cherub Angles, realises that if he dies now the older version of him, seen by Amy dying in the apartment block, could never have existed in the first place, which will therefore create a paradox that will destroy the Angles. After a teary scene in which Amy and Rory agree to jump from the top of the Winter Quay Apartments together, it initially appears that the paradox they’ve created by doing so has indeed defeated the Angels and wiped the entire ordeal from recorded existence so that they have escaped the situation unscathed; but, in fact, the revelations of a cemetery tomb stone in modern-day Queens prove things are not so simple. The Doctor, unable to create another paradox on top of the one Amy and Rory have already made, ends up forced to accept the fact that he must leave his former companions to live out their lives in 1940s Manhattan, and that he will be unable to ever see them again.
It’s a typically convoluted, nonsensical tale of intricate timey whimey-ness, but with a real emotional kick to it underneath all the Gothic horror and time travel sci-fi stuff, that highlights the best qualities of Moffat’s writing for the show these days, while providing some of the most imaginatively scary imagery the show is capable of getting away with in its family viewing slot. These five episodes together constitute a pleasing five-part swansong for the Ponds and a final coda for the story of Amelia Pond; it’s also a tantalising taster for the new story that’s about to be told, as Jenna Louise-Colman prepares to enter the fray.This two-disc set includes all five episodes and the “Pond Life” mini-series, as well as the internet prequel scenes for “Asylum of the Daleks” and “A Town Called Mercy”. There’s also a forty-three minute documentary made for BBC America audiences in the States called “The Science of Doctor Who”, in which a bunch of seemingly random talking heads, including theoretical physicist Professor Michio Kaku, gabble on about how the ‘science’ of the programme is all based on reality in between numerous short clips from the show … It isn’t, and this is a poor substitute for previous Doctor Who Confidential featurettes, but probably the best we can expect from now on, now that that fine show’s been cancelled.