As we approach the end of another year and contemplate the latest, forthcoming instance of what has happily now become an annual yuletide TV event: the DOCTOR WHO Christmas Day Special (the second to emerge from the festive pen of Steven Moffat), it’s time also to take stock -- to look back and assess the season just finished. The November release of the latest bumper box set from 2 Entertain, featuring all thirteen episodes of series 6 on DVD (and Blu-ray), some extra mini-episodes written and filmed especially for inclusion in this collection, and last year’s Christmas special (along with a host of other Confidential-related bits and pieces), provides us with the perfect opportunity for trying to make some sense of what has surely been one of the show’s most ambitious and challenging seasons yet. It’s been a momentous year; Matt Smith’s second outing as the Doctor has seen show-runner and head writer Steven Moffat letting his penchant for fractured, jigsaw narrative structure further off its leash than he’s ever allowed it before (and there’s still the sense that he’s only just warming to the idea of what he can do with this approach). The series now looks much bigger: the visual style has grown darker, richer, has become often sweepingly grandiose and feels more film-like and epic: more informed than ever, in fact, by the visual exuberance of modern fantasy cinema and the big Hollywood movie production aesthetics that underpin, say, the Harry Potter franchise … only made for a fraction of the budget, of course. Much of this seems down to the work of production designer Michael Pickwoad who joined the show with the 2010 Christmas special (included on disc one of this set) and whose influence was immediately felt in that episode’s imaginative, spacious, future-Dickensian sets; but the special digital effects work on the show continues to impress year on year as well.
Steven Moffat, even more so than his predecessor Russell T Davies, and eternally conscious of the show’s flagship status in the BBC schedules, seems to have specifically set himself the task of moulding the series into as big an attention-grabbing TV Event as possible, filled with extravagant narrative gestures designed to draw an audience in and then keep it hooked. Traditionally, the series opener and the series finale have been the ‘big’ two episodes of any year’s run -- the ones that invariably get the most publicity and usually the highest ratings. This year, with the decision to split the series into two halves, with a three month summer break separating each segment (part of a plan to gradually shift towards the show airing at the end of the year rather than in the summer, since Moffat feels the autumn/winter months to be the most natural home for the series), the number of keynote, must-see episodes was at least doubled, leading to a mid-series finale -- which ends with the revelation of the true identity of the mysterious River Song (Alex Kingston), itself part of a narrative arc Moffat’s been engaged in seeding since well before Matt Smith took over the lead role from David Tennant, followed by what was effectively a second series opener when the show returned in the autumn with a madcap episode sporting the crazily glib title “Let’s Kill Hitler”.
There was also an attempt to consolidate DOCTOR WHO’s emerging profile in the States, where it has developed a small (small by US standards that is) but loyal following over the last few years or so. The 2010 Christmas special aired on BBC America on Christmas day at 9pm (only eight hours behind the hour-long episode’s unveiling on UK TV) and the first two episodes of series six were not only set in the U.S. but a considerable portion of them actually shot there as well. Moffat brought together a desire to return with a bang after the success of series 5 with a two-part storyline that included scenes set at Monument Valley on the border of Utah and Arizona, and at the site of Colorado’s vast, spectacular Hoover Dam. Monument Valley in fact, becomes the venue for Moffat’s most explosive attempt yet to grab headlines since he assumed control of the programme. Pre-publicity for the series opener let it be known that one of the main characters would die in the opening ten minutes … the Doctor, Amy, Rory or River. Considering we’ve already seen the last three each die once already (more than once in the case of Rory) without it seeming to make a whole lot of difference to anything in particular thanks to Moffat’s now customary tricksy style of plotting, which culminated in Amy’s childhood memories of the Doctor facilitating the ‘re-booting ‘of the entire Universe at the end of series 5, this didn’t really cause too much worry. But it turned out that Moffat’s shock plan was to show us, apparently, the final death of the Doctor – blasted stone dead in the middle of his regeneration cycle by an astronaut in an Apollo 11-style suit on the shores of Lake Silencio in the Utah desert. This arresting image, and the apparent (but not actual) closing off of any possible get out clause (but not really) was the starting point for the questions which became key to the whole of the rest of the series: who was the Doctor’s killer?, why did he apparently feel he had to die (and in such a peculiar style)?, and, more to the point, how they heck was Moffat going to write himself out of this corner given that we already know Matt Smith is coming back for a third series?
As it turned out, the Doctor’s inescapable death was just one thread trailing through an increasingly labyrinthine set of mysteries driving the narrative engine at the heart of this collection of episodes. The first part of the series also featured the mystery of Amy’s fluctuating quantum pregnancy and the nature and identity of the bizarre phantom ‘eye-patch woman’ who appears to her at sporadic moments throughout the first six episodes. Eventually we got some straightforward (by Moffat standards) answers to these questions and we learned that Amy had in fact been kidnapped (exactly when this occurred was never really made absolutely clear, but then so little this season has been, once you start trying to piece it together) and her consciousness beamed into a ’flesh avatar’ which had been living her life on-board the TARDIS ever since, while her real body was all the while lying pregnant with Rory’s baby in the 52nd century at Demon’s Run, overseen by Madam Kovarian -- the eye-patch woman herself (Francis Barber).
The two threads come together when we eventually learn that Kovarian works for a religious order of aliens known as the Silence, who have employed her to destroy the Doctor because there is some unspecified event, yet unseen, which involves the asking of ‘the ultimate question’ (Doctor Who?), that threatens their fundamental existence in some way (also unspecified). Even trying to type this coherently is getting a little tricky but of course it doesn’t end there: the weapon Kovarian has engineered in the battle to defeat the Doctor is Amy’s baby, Melody Pond, chosen because she was conceived on-board the TARDIS and therefore exposed to the time vortex, and therefore able to be used to set a fixed, unchangeable point in time where the Doctor’s death cannot be rewritten with a convenient spot of time traveling history re-jigging later on (fixed points are why, in the end, you can’t kill Hitler before his time), and the person in the retro astronaut suit that’s been engineered for the job turns out to be the grown-up version of Melody, which is … River Song! Who is also the Doctor’s wife …ish?!
Of course this is fairly sophisticated storytelling and some unusually dark subject matter (involving the loss of Amy’s child for instance), gets to be explored during the course of it. Both of these areas -- the complexity and the darkness -- led to quite a bit of negative comment from some quarters of the mainstream press, who claimed that the series was now far too complicated for the average six-year-old to follow and that much of it was too emotionally dark and scary for children in any case. Although the laudable ambition now present in the show does lead to Moffat getting a bit carried away at times, and there is undoubtedly something curiously unsatisfying about the structure of the series as a whole, we can safely ignore both these attempts to stir up controversy: first of all, the so-called ‘complicated’ episodes (all of the ones written by Moffat concerning the Doctor’s death, Amy’s kidnap and Melody/River’s fate) were some of the highest rated episodes of the series, so complicated or not, people were not turning them off. In fact, the series’ main problem seemed to be that these episodes so obviously existed apart from the rest of the show, with the other writers’ episodes being isolated stand-alone stories in which the events of the main narrative arc are hardly ever mentioned (except where a few scenes have been added at the end of them to lead into the next episode), that it sometimes looked like Amy and Rory were not too bothered about their missing baby, and viewers perhaps cottoned on to the fact that they didn’t necessarily have to stick around every week in order to keep pace with the on-going narrative arc.
Having said that, audience viewing figures remained pretty consistent, on average, with those which the show has been regularly achieving ever since its return, back in 2005. The complexity issue seems to be more of a sore point for parents who find that they can no longer answer the questions their children are asking them about what is happening on screen during some of these episodes. The way Steven Moffat chooses to write stories is grounded in constantly dishing up the unexpected, sowing mystery whenever possible, adding surprise at every turn and dealing in constant change. The fact is, Moffat has taken a leaf out of the book of some fairly high profile US fantasy series, such as “Battlestar Galactica” and adapted their traditional methods of constructing narrative arcs across extended seasons of episodes, to the more truncated British way of doing things. I would be prepared to bet that Steven Moffat was a massive fan of “LOST”; so much about the way his episodes are structured reminds me of how the show-runners of “LOST” became masters in the art of challenging the viewer by answering every question they painstakingly set up with at least half-a-dozen more, often leaving their cliff-hangers hanging for weeks, sometimes years before dealing with them again in the most tangential, suggestive way possible, adding layers of mythology then undercutting everything you thought you knew with a surprise revelation that turned everything on its head. Moffat has taken this approach and run with it, resulting in an extremely challenging speeded up version of the kind of thing “LOST” was doing across twenty-odd episodes, but now squeezed into five.
Much of this can often make for the most exhilarating TV there is right now: the second part of the two-part series opener, for example, is riveting stuff. Ignoring the momentous cliff-hanger of the previous episode, it instead jumps three months into the future, plunging us into a world we’re totally unfamiliar with. Consequently, we’re forced to watch every second of it like a hawk, looking for clues as to what might really be going on. That’s the key to Moffat’s style, and the resemblance of his storytelling to shows like “LOST”: you feel you have to watch a Moffat episode extra carefully, much more carefully than you would normally watch anything, and usually in rapt silence … and then you frequently have to -- and want to -- watch it all over again, this time to try and work out what you’ve just seen. Moffat loves the anarchy of a sudden narrative flip -- a shock introduction -- a crazy revelation that changes the nature of the game; most of all, of course, he likes playing with time paradoxes (there was loads of that in “LOST” anyway, towards the end) and pushing them to beyond the brink of absurdity.
This is fine. It was great in “LOST” too … until it came time for the series to end and actually answer all the questions, and tie up all those loose narrative threads. That’s where things got a little more problematic, and Moffat risks falling into the same trap of being just too intriguing in his teasing set-ups for the resolution to ever stand a hope of meeting audience expectations.
At the start of the commentary track for the series finale, “The Wedding of River Song”, Moffat makes a comment in jest which is actually pretty suggestive about how his mind works when he writes, and what he has been trying to achieve with this series. The episode starts with an attempt to recap the entire story arc in barely a minute. After laughing about what seems like a practically impossible task, Moffat admits that, actually, the director made a pretty good job of it, and then adds that if he’d realised the story could’ve been told this way at the start, he would have done so in the first place! This, in fact neatly sums up the way some of Moffat’s episodes this season have actually felt to the viewer: as if they were extended recap segments from episodes you’ve never seen. I’m reminded of a description of guitarist Johnny Marr’s writing style from back when he was one half of the Morrissey/Marr writing team of The Smiths, which said that Johnny Marr writes songs that seem like they’re made up entirely of a bunch of middle-eight sections strung together (this wasn’t necessarily intended as a criticism, Smiths fans). You could say that “Day of the Moon” feels like a bunch of cliff-hangers strung together, while the mid-series finale, “A Good Man Goes To War”, seems like a string of grand entrances, one after another, from a bunch of guest characters we haven’t seen for some time or even ones we’ve never previously been introduced to. Both episodes are intriguing, beautifully made and initially teasing. But consequently, the very final episode of the season feels like it has to accomplish an awful lot of work in answering the hows and whys and the wherefores of a plethora of questions that have been left behind in their wake; and although, once again, the series finale is crammed with huge, crazy Moffat ideas, it doesn’t quite feel as if it achieves that end, and, indeed, it becomes quite clear that it isn’t really part of Moffat’s concern to bring about such closure in any case.
The one good thing about this ultimate lack of resolution for much of what transpired this season, is that it helps retain a deep sense of mystery surrounding Moffat’s greatest success with this run – the invention and realisation of The Silence. It seems to have become another Moffat trademark these days, to invent new monsters for the show which remain deeply mysterious, and therefore retain their inherent scariness, even after multiple appearances. The ability to invent brand new scary monsters that are destined for future classic status is another of Steven Moffat’s great skills, and The Silence are a truly spine-chilling creation -- conceptually and visually equal to The Weeping Angels in their capacity for getting under the skin. The concept of a monster that is completely forgotten as soon as you look away from it is another high concept idea wedded to a design that, like that of the Weeping Angels before it, must be haunting the nightmares of millions of eight-year-olds right now. I’m guessing that, like me, Moffat grew up ingesting all those ‘true life’ paperback accounts of alien visitations recovered under hypnotic suggestion, for The Silence (who we’re told are a movement not a species, apparently) look designed from bits and pieces of UFO lore – spindly, bulbous-headed creatures who nest like bats, look a little like the Greys (the design was also in fact inspired by the figure in Norwegian artist Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting “The Scream”) but dress in smart ‘Men in Black’ suits. The most spine-chilling touch for me is those incongruously large hands. As is the case with the Weeping Angels, we still know astonishingly little about them by the end of the series -- which helps keep their scare quotient high, but leaves much up in the air concerning their relationship with Madam Kovarian and the religious order they represent.
Away from the main continuing story arc, there has been a strong run of stand-alone stories commissioned this season, the weakest of them being Steve Thompson’s “The Curse of the Black Spot”, a story clearly conceived as a response to the success of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, featuring Downton Abby star Hugh Bonneville as a fictionalised version of the 17th century pirate Captain Henry Avery and gamine model turned actress Lily Cole as a demonic Siren of the sea, who hypnotises the sick with a song and apparently kills them with a touch. This episode looked lush and sumptuous but resolved itself into a pretty standard story which largely seemed to repeat the basic premise of Moffat’s own “The Empty Child”/”The Doctor Dances” two parter and “The Girl in the Fireplace” from 2006, in which the threat each time turns out to be caused by futuristic medical technology that has gone wrong and become deadly through a fatal misinterpretation of the surrounding environment.
By far the most eagerly anticipated episode this year was Neil Gaiman’s story “The Doctor’s Wife”, which turned out to be packed full of nods to DOCTOR WHO lore while being every bit as fantastical and eccentric as you’d expect if you have any knowledge of the past work of this highly regarded fantasy author. The teasing title is in fact a reference to the one constant in the Doctor’s life: his beloved TARDIS, which here becomes personified in the body of a woman called Idris (Suranne Jones) after the Doctor is lured through a rift in space and finds himself in a TARDIS junkyard on the surface of a sentient planetoid called House, which lives off of TARDIS energy. After the ‘soul’ of the Doctor’s TARDIS is drained and put into the body of one of the trio of strange humanoids which are allowed to live on House’s surface -- patched up with spare parts taken from the Time Lords who have been trapped there before him -- the Doctor teams up with the TARDIS’s human form, Idris, to try and rescue Amy and Rory, still trapped inside the police box shell of the TARDIS while House (voiced by Michael Sheen) is absorbing it. The whole motivation for this story is the idea of what might happen if the Doctor ever got to talk to his trusty time machine (Amy’s reaction when she learns that the TARDIS has become a woman is priceless: ‘What happened, did you wish really hard?’) but along the way, Gaiman throws in nods to the show’s past, including the Time Lord distress boxes last seen in Patrick Troughton’s swansong “The War Games”, and a pretty nifty retro mini-console room constructed from discarded pieces in the TARDIS junkyard, which the Doctor and Idris use to pilot their escape from the planetoid and to catch up with the hijacked TARDIS shell.
The two-parter “The Rebel Flesh”/”The Almost People” by “Life on Mars” and “Ashes to Ashes” co-creator Mathew Graham proved a step up from his much derided episode “Fear Her” from the 2006 season, and revolves, like many episodes this series, around the concept of identity theft. The Doctor and companions arrive at a mining facility where a dangerous corrosive acid is being mined by disposable flesh avatars controlled remotely by their real-life counterparts. When the avatars develop their own sentience, copied from the memories of their hosts, it becomes difficult to deny the humanity of what were previously regarded merely as slave vehicles created for a specific job. The brief for this episode was given to Graham by Moffat for story arc-related reasons so that the episode could end on the surprise revelation that Amy herself was in fact a flesh avatar, her real body held prisoner elsewhere by Madam Kovarian and the Headless Monks, while her consciousness was being projected into her flesh copy. But Graham manages to bring much more to the table than just an extended prelude to the next part of an on-going story arc. The setting, a Gothic castle-cum-factory, is perfect for teasing out the classic ‘Frankenstein’ themes and relating them to the potential profit-motivated inhumanities of large-scale industrial manufacturing, but the story also provides a red herring solution to the death of the Doctor conundrum when the Doctor himself is copied as a flesh avatar.
“Night Terrors” saw Mark Gatiss return with another fine episode, this time involving creepy life-sized Victorian china dolls and scary things in the cupboard and under the bed, but eschewing his usual historical settings for a contemporary tale set on a high rise housing estate instead. “The Girl Who Waited” by Tom MacRae is one of the unexpected highlights of the season, a poignant and somewhat disturbing tale, featuring a stand-out performance by Karen Gillan, in which, due to a mix up with time streams, Amy is confronted with an embittered forty-year-old version of herself, who becomes that way after she is accidentally left behind by the Doctor and Rory, all by herself, on the surface of a planet for thirty-six years . Toby Whithouse’s “The God Complex” proved popular with fans and featured a Minotaur-like creature that roams the corridors of what looks like a 1980s hotel, feeding on peoples’ faith. Little Britain star and self-proclaimed DOCTOR WHO uber-fan David Walliams guest stars as one of the survivors, a mole-like coward called Giddis. Finally “Closing Time” is Gareth Roberts’ sequel to last years’ “The Lodger” in which Craig Owens (played again by comedy actor James Corden) returns once more, this time taking on the Cybermen with the help of his newborn son, while his partner Sophie is away. During his attempts to deal with the terror of becoming a new dad, Craig is surprised when the Doctor turns up on his doorstep for the second time, apparently paying one last visit to all his old friends before his final date with destiny on the shores of Lake Silencio, but soon diverted by a rogue cybermat on the loose in a department store’s toy section (it's inevitable that there will eventually be a toy version of this little fella available) and the crashed Cyberman spaceship buried for hundreds of years beneath it, and about to power itself back into life.
The DVD set features the 2010 Christmas special and all thirteen episodes of series 6 (or season 32 if you prefer) across five discs, with an extra sixth disc with all the episodes of the companion behind-the-scenes show, “Doctor Who Confidential”, cut down to 15 minute chunks as usual (plus the full hour-long episode for the Christmas special). It’s the last time we’ll be seeing this behind-the-scenes material, shot by Confidential and included on every boxed set since 2006, because the show’s now been cancelled -- so make the most of this final disc with a full two hours-worth of 'making of' bonus material.
There are also four ‘Monster File’ featurettes (themselves composed of interview segments from Confidential), the five episode ‘prequel’ scenes originally premiered on the BBC’s official Doctor Who website in advance of the screening of each episode, and five commentary tracks accompanying some of the key episodes of the series. The choice of participants once again doesn’t include Matt Smith among them, and this time there’s no Karen Gillan either. Arthur Darvill appears on two, though, and other notable participants include Francis Barber, Marshall Lancaster and Steven Moffat. It’s also nice to see the inclusion of the Comic Relief special 2-part episode “Space & Time”, in which Amy’s short skirt causes a tricky time paradox when Rory’s distraction during some maintenance work causes the TARDIS to materialise inside itself.
Even better though is the inclusion of five brand new mini episodes under the banner “The Doctor and the Night”, written by Steven Moffat and unseen anywhere else outside this DVD and Blu-ray set. Surprisingly, in amongst all the silliness, with a storyline about the Queen being transformed into a goldfish, Moffat actually addresses some of the psychological issues which have been papered over in the rush to keep the narrative of the main series moving, like the fact that Amy now has two alternative childhoods in her head co-existing at the same time. There’s also further elaboration on the relationship between River and the Doctor and a reference to an event not yet seen in the series but mentioned during the David Tennant episodes which were where River made her first appearance in the show. Craig Owens returns again for the final one of these segments, this time accompanied by his partner Sophie, last seen in “The Lodger” and played once more by Daisy Haggard.
It’s been a gripping, frustrating, bewildering but always wildly imaginative season, Moffat taking his restless imagination into previously uncharted areas of timey wimey craziness and Matt Smith consolidating his now hugely popular incarnation with an increasingly developed, nuanced performance of old-young-man awkwardness. This collection is of course an essential stocking-filler for the Whovian in your life.
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