Thoughts on: The Husbands of River Song

Warning: spoilers.

Steven Moffat stated in an interview that, for a long time, he thought that this script, the 2015 Christmas special, might be his last for Doctor Who. He didn’t know if he’d be continuing as showrunner after 2015, and undoubtedly had at the forefront of his mind the possibility that this year’s Christmas special might very well be the last episode he produces for Doctor Who, at least as showrunner. And, truly, The Husbands of River Song feels very much like a swan song of sorts. It isn’t just that it ties up the seven-year story of River Song in what feels like definitive and satisfying closure — there’s a relief and gaiety, but also a genuine emotional touch, to the proceedings that lends to it a sense of warm finality. I mean, much of it is silly farce, but it’s silly farce done in such a loving, adoring way that it does feel as much a personal statement from its writer as much as it is a bit of lighthearted seasonal fluff. You can feel, in a very real sense, Steven Moffat smiling affectionately through the script. To put it another way, if Heaven Sent and Hell Bent were the soaring final act, the coup de grâce to the Moffat era, then The Husbands of River Song would have been the rousing encore.

As far as Christmas specials ago, this is surely the campest, fluffiest, most farcical yet. And there’s nothing wrong with that. After the intense and emotionally devastating three-week long coda to Series 9, a lighthearted, comedic, self-consciously camp story about the Doctor and River Song stealing a bad old king’s head, jam-packed with the most juvenile, lame humour Moffat could muster, was exactly what we needed to bring Doctor Who in 2015 to a close. It was the perfect tonic to one of the darkest, heaviest ends to a series since 2005. And this episode wasn’t just a worthwhile watch for that reason — lighthearted camp can often be tedious, forgettable pap (e.g. Partners in CrimeThe Crimson Horror), but this was genuinely fun, funny and well-written farce. It was so self-consciously camp and silly — the characters, the lines, the whole situation were supposed to be unutterably ridiculous — that it was good, and it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. If nothing else, it’s highly pleasurable and gratifying light Christmas viewing, which is as it should be.

At heart, though, this was a story about the Doctor and River Song, not King Hydroflax’s head. It was a joy to watch Peter Capaldi’s Doctor and River Song together, no less in a situation where one doesn’t recognise the other. It was also poignant to watch the Doctor visibly hurt by River’s not recognising him and by her flirtation with what seems like everyone apart from him, when she thinks he’s not watching. The situation made for some fantastic moments, hilarious as well as poignant, not least the Doctor’s side-splitting and eminently re-playable performance when he gets his chance, “finally”, to do the “It’s bigger on the inside” thing. Easily the best “It’s bigger on the inside” of them all, in my opinion. But moments like the Doctor and River’s tension-laden conversation at the dinner table on the supervillain luxury resort spaceship carried great emotional weight. And of course, River’s speech, insisting the Doctor (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”), the love of her life, doesn’t love her back, was very good, very earnest and emotive.

All of which made it so much better when River finally recognised the Doctor. The dynamic between River and Capaldi’s Doctor, and the flirting and the banter, after River recognised the Doctor was every bit as good and electric and convincing as River with Matt’s and David’s Doctors. It does make me wonder, even, whether the moment shouldn’t have been delayed as long as it was, whether we could have been treated to more quality Twelve-River action. As a close to River Song’s story in Doctor Who, though, the episode was perfect: as lovely and beautiful and emotional as you could want. The show, in tying up River’s seven-year long character arc, brings her story full-circle, ending it by leading into Silence in the Library, the first time we ever see River, but the last time River sees the Doctor (in life). As an effective addition, it was interesting to see that the Doctor has learnt his lesson from Hell Bent — he knows, and accepts, that this is the last time he sees River before she goes to the Library, where she will meet her end, and he can’t change that. When he says “Times end because they have to,” and “There’s no such thing as happily ever after,” he’s clearly still internalising his lesson re Clara, as well as resigning himself to River’s fate. Which is as punchy and profound an instance of the Doctor’s character development as it gets, frankly. “Happily Ever After”, though, as River insists, only means time, and it’s such a gratifying and lovely end to River’s story on Doctor Who to know that River and the Doctor will have, practically, as much time as they could want to spend together on their final night. And that final shot, of the Doctor and River gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes, was beautiful. Happy Christmas, indeed.

Rating: 8/10.


Quote of the week:

“It’s bigger on the inside!”

Thoughts on: The Name of the Doctor

“What kind of idiot would try to steal a faulty Tardis?” are the opening words of this finale. Then the zoom out to the magnificent, domed Capitol of Gallifrey with the captions “Gallifrey, a very long time ago…” Without further ado, we’re treated to a scene of William Hartnell as the First Doctor nicking the Tardis for the first time, with a little help from one Clara Oswald. This episode doesn’t mess about in getting across the message that this finale was going to be big, but big in a very different way to any previous finale. Previous finales have all been huge, universe-shaking events, the stakes always bigger and better than ever before. There are no reality-destroying schemes afoot here, no universes to reboot, no Dalek legions to thwart, but, in terms of its significance for the show itself, this finale was as huge as any of Russell T Davies’ show-stoppers or Moffat’s mind-benders.

This finale was rich in continuity, advancing the 50-years-and-counting narrative of Doctor Who more than any dramatic standoff with the Daleks or the Cybermen or the Master has ever done. I love that. For suckers for continuity like me, this finale was just 45 minutes of entrancing viewing, notwithstanding that not all that much actually happened. Given a choice between a soaring series of Doctor Who at its storytelling best, but light on continuity, like Series 4, and a fairly undistinguished series that nevertheless advances the narrative of the show in an exciting way, I have to admit I’ll choose the latter every time. Maybe that’s why I adore the somewhat maligned Series 6 so much more than much of the rest of the fandom. And what we got in The Name of the Doctor was very exciting indeed. The punchy, jaw-dropping pre-titles sequence, showing Clara popping up everywhere throughout the Doctor’s life (with delicious cameos of the classic Doctors), established in an explosive way that, if you thought you know what “Impossible Girl” mystery was about, the answer was bigger and better than you could ever have imagined.

Let’s start with the meat, though. In essence, this is a fairly uncomplicated story about Richard E. Grant, who wants to take his revenge on the Doctor for all the Doctor has done to thwart him. With his terrifying minions, the Whisper Men, Grant lures the Doctor and his friends to his grave at Trenzalore, where he’ll enter the Doctor’s time stream and upset the Doctor’s life (but killing himself in the process). This was all riveting stuff, but Grant could have been given a more convincing motive. It’s the fact that it involves a sacrifice on Grant’s part that makes me question it. If J.K. Rowling taught me nothing else, it’s that malevolent beings like Lord Voldemort and Richard E. Grant fear death more than anything else. Perhaps he could at least have sent a few of his Whisper Men into the Doctor’s time stream to do the dirty for him, instead of killing himself.

One of the critical scenes of this finale was where the Doctor was enjoined to speak his name in order to open his tomb, else Grant would kill his friends. And the Doctor resists. For a moment it seems like he’d see his friends die rather than utter his name, before River saves the day (although, did anyone else initially go “What, his name is ‘Please’?!”) That raises a pretty big question about what’s so significant and critical about the Doctor’s real name that he won’t even divulge it to save his friends. It was suggested at the end of the episode that the Doctor reverted to using his real name during the Time War, when he dropped the moniker “Doctor”, which is why he’s so secretive about his real name, but the Doctor was keeping his name secret long before the Time War. Sorry, my fanboy imagination is running wild here. Just indulge me for a moment. I like the idea that the Doctor has an even bigger, darker secret behind his real name, and his concealment thereof, which he’s kept close to his chest ever since he adopted the name “Doctor”, when or before he set off in the Tardis all that time ago. It’s never really been made clear why the Doctor left Gallifrey in the first place. In Hartnell’s time the Doctor very suggestively referred to himself as an “exile”. But that’s all for another time. The scene was, in any case, a hugely tantalising tease about the mystery surrounding the Doctor’s real name, the secret “hidden in plain sight” which no writer for this show has ever thought (or dared) to answer.

The centrepiece of this episode, though, was the much-hyped revelation of the nature of the impossible enigma that was Clara Oswald. The vicious disruption of the Doctor’s time stream is destroying everything the Doctor has done over his life; whole galaxies are being extinguished in the sky, all the Doctor’s friends dying. To save the Doctor, Clara enters his time stream to expel from it the scourge of Richard E. Grant, frustrating the latter’s heinous devices once again. She splits into a million echoes across time and space, always there to deliver the Doctor from the designs of his rat-faced assailant. Those scenes, portraying Clara living a million lives in a million places and times, stalking the Doctor like his guardian angel, were just wonderful. Clara’s interactions with the Doctor’s past selves were fan-pleasing in themselves, but it all sent a distinctive chill down my spine (particularly Clara pointing the Doctor’s first incarnation to the right Tardis). Moffat sure knows how to conjure up classic references effectively. I hadn’t seen the classic stories when I first watched this, but even I felt enriched by the great invocation of the show’s history that it represented. I acknowledge the criticisms of this sequence to the effect that Moffat has made Clara too important an influence on the Doctor’s life, but I don’t really entertain them. The Doctor’s companions have always been the best of him, as the Doctor himself admitted. It doesn’t bother me that Clara is given such profound importance in the Doctor’s life. On the contrary, I loved the idea.

What tops this finale off, though, is its emotional appeal. For one, the relationship between the Doctor and Clara has just been rendered of cosmic importance, which is bound to tie the two together more closely than ever before. We can see that in the touching way the Doctor risked everything by going into his time stream to recover Clara. Their “reunion” inside the Doctor’s time stream, a distressed and confused Clara tumbling into the Doctor’s arms, was moving. The love and gratitude on the Doctor’s face as he embraced Clara was real. Especially given his realisation about how devoted Clara is to him, that she would go into the Doctor’s time stream, split herself into a million pieces, live a million lives, to save him. Secondly, there was River Song. The reappearance of River Song’s ghost, following the Doctor as he faced up to this terrible ordeal on Trenzalore, was poignant enough, but the revelation that the Doctor could see and hear River all along was too much. “You are always here to me. And I always listen, and I can always see you.” Beautiful. Shut up, there’s just something in my eye. Like a stake. Their final, final farewell had a satisfying, yet sad, air of closure and finality, and, really, there was no better way it could have been done. “See you ’round, Professor River Song.”

Rating: 8/10.

P.S. I have a feeling I’ll live to regret this, given I’ve got exams very inconveniently coming up in the next few weeks, but I want to try to finish off the rest of these reviews for the specials and Series 8 before Series 9 airs on the 19th (or the 20th for me). That means I’ll probably have to do one review per day until then… allons-y! (he says unsurely).

Thoughts on: The Angels Take Manhattan

That ending tho. Never mind whether this episode as a whole was a fitting farewell for the beloved Ponds, their exit itself was torturing. The Ponds’ exit. It had been talked about and heavily foreshadowed since the latter half of Series 6, but I wasn’t prepared for when it finally came. Steven Moffat is often compared unfavourably with his predecessor when it comes to emotion and sentiment, but here he’s really pulled off one of the most gutwrenching character exits ever in the show, even rivalling that of Rose at the end of Series 2. Before they’re even gone for good, Amy and Rory’s slow-motion, emotionally-charged descent has overwhelmed the senses. Moffat toys with your emotions like this, bringing you down, then raising you up again as relief washes over you upon seeing that it had worked and the irrepressible Ponds had lived… and then he swoops in and cruelly wrenches them away again, in the most shocking, stupefying way possible. She’s gone. She’s dead. To make things worse, you see the Doctor overcome with grief, his heart, as yours, ripped in two by Amy’s tearful sacrifice. The only consolation is knowing that Amy and Rory had lived and died happily together.

The entire episode was building up to this moment, and it was really choreographed quite skilfully. The “death” of the Ponds looms over the episode, the foreboding omens nagging cruelly and keenly until the moment finally comes. The episode even teases you when it essentially tells us that Amy’s going to die, i.e. “Amelia’s Last Farewell”, but then indicates that no farewells are necessarily predestined when River apparently pulls herself free without breaking anything… before a yelp of pain from River a few moments later sadistically strikes out that ray of hope. By the time Amy and Rory make that fatal leap together, you’ve been primed for a punchy, dramatic, emotive farewell… which makes their actual farewell so much more effective, because you simply don’t see it coming, and your head is a rush of confused and conflicting emotions. I can confirm that the episode successfully left me an emotional wreck the first few times I saw it; the impact has dulled over repeated rewatches, but it’s still five of the most affecting minutes of Doctor Who since the Doctor said goodbye to his granddaughter ten incarnations ago.

More generally, this episode had a lot to like, apart from the obvious. I don’t want to detract from the excellent The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone at all, but the Weeping Angels were probably the most scary here they’ve been since Blink. The film noir style, and the romantic setting of some grimy, forgotten corner of Manhattan, really suited the Angels, and there were some effective, moody shots of the Angels that really set the hair on end. The concept of the Weeping Angels’ maintaining this battery farm to feed off the same victims perpetually was a stroke of grisly creative genius, adding effectively to the conceptual terror of the Angels. No longer are they the “only psychopaths in the universe to kill you nicely” —  spending the rest of your days in a dirty room under the thrall of the Weeping Angels, only to meet yourself at the point of your death so you can be sent back in time all over again, sounds horrific. Moreover, the cherubic Angels are also a very scary new form of Angel. I haven’t been this creeped out by infants since Child’s Play. The children’s giggling sound effects were a great, chilling touch.

Despite the brilliance of the battery farm concept, I wasn’t so enthralled by the way the story played out. Given, this episode was all about Amy’s and Rory’s exit, and so substantive plot and storytelling was a subordinate consideration, but the story itself was fairly ho-hum and failed to exploit the full potential of its excellent concepts. I suppose I felt that the Ponds deserved a more memorable story for their exit, notwithstanding how memorable their exit itself was. Rose, Martha and Donna’s exit stories were all big, theatrical affairs which gave each of the former companions a fitting sendoff, and it was the scale of those stories, and their sense of event and occasion, that made the companion exits each such emotionally-charged moments. In contrast, I’m not confident that, in ten years, people are going to remember The Angels Take Manhattan for being anything other than “the one where Amy left”. As someone who jumped on the fanwagon during the Matt Smith era, this was my first companion exit, and incidentally the exit of my enduring favourite companion, and generally the episode itself is no more memorable to me than to anyone else.

Perhaps I’m making too much of that, though. One other thing I will say for the episode was that the performances all-round were exceptional. Karen Gillan gave the performance of her career in the last fifteen minutes or so of the episode, evoking exactly the teary, emotionally devastated response from the audience that her character’s dramatic exit justified. Arthur Darvill, too, deftly manipulated the audience’s feelings about his character, particularly during those mesmerising moments as Rory stood on the ledge. Alex Kingston played an understated and sympathetic River Song, portraying compellingly her character’s complex feelings both about her parents and about her husband, especially as this was the first time River has revealed to the Doctor that their relationship hurts her and “damages” her. Matt Smith, of course, was superlative throughout, his outstanding moment being the Doctor’s grief-stricken reaction to Amy’s death, Matt’s powerful acting at that moment evoking much the same reaction in the audience’s, even intensifying what was already a profoundly emotionally affecting moment. Amy’s “afterword” was a touching, uplifting final word to the story of one of the show’s greatest and most beloved companions. That closing shot, with little Amelia looking up hopefully to the sound of the Tardis, was beautiful.

Rating: 7/10.

Thoughts on: The Wedding of River Song

I have friends who are casual viewers of Doctor Who who’ve told me the show became far too confusing for them in Series 6. Perhaps it’s true that complicated series arcs put the casual viewers off, since traditionally (i.e. under Russell T Davies) Doctor Who has been a show you tune in for an entertaining “story of the week”, rather than a show with a continuous serialised narrative you need to keep up with, like Game of Thrones. For the casual viewer, then, The Wedding of River Song might seem like impenetrable nonsense. It relies heavily on an understanding of the Series 6 arc for its appeal. For us fans who do tune in eagerly every week, though (or at least for this fan), it was an exciting and gratifying culmination of a host of irresistible arc-related mysteries we’d been teased with all series. Although the episode looked messy (there were cars with balloons attached floating around London…), and moved at a pretty quick pace, it didn’t actually end up the undignified ejaculation of arc-revelation that it might have been (and which a certain regeneration episode ended up being…). The answers to the mysteries surrounding the Doctor’s death and the Silence and River Song were conveyed satisfyingly and didn’t end up unduly impinging on the scene-setting and plot progression.

I thought the idea of the story was really intriguing, i.e. that time is imploding because the Doctor failed to die his appointed death because River Song got sentimental and couldn’t bring herself to kill the love of her life (women, right?). There were dazzling scenes of all of time happening at once, which were just a bit nonsense, but delightful fun nonetheless (Winston Churchill as Roman Emperor anyone? Charles Dickens promoting his latest “Christmas special” on BBC Breakfast anyone?). This felt a tiny bit repetitive, as Moffat played with a similar concept in Pandorica, but that didn’t bother me too much. Any excuse to have Winston Churchill say “Good Lord, man, have you never heard of downloads?” works for me. The flashback format worked well, I think. It was an effective way both to pull the audience in, beginning the episode at the heart of the action with bloody great Pterodactyls flying around London, as well as progress through a substantial amount of narrative quickly by having the Doctor recount to Churchill what’s been happening up to that point.

I mentioned in my review of Pandorica that that finale was just a “pit stop” on the road of a much longer, greater overarching narrative. In The Wedding of River Song, we’ve moved further along that road, finding out more about what the Silence are and about their attempted orchestration of the Doctor’s death, but there’s still a great deal of mystery surrounding this long-term arc. That’s good. Like I said, this finale was already substantially arc-heavy in content, and if it had been any more so it would have been unwatchable. We did learn some more tantalising details of the greater plot at work, but the episode still made room for an enjoyable, captivating story about two fated lovers, the Doctor and River Song, and how all of time and space regrettably had to come between them. The Doctor’s ingenious solution to that particularly awkward conundrum was a satisfying way out which no one can honestly say they saw coming. That said, it was clever, but perhaps I was expecting something more? I’m not necessarily disappointed, but the makeshift resolution added to the sense that this finale was the most low-key yet (despite the stakes being just as high as Pandorica or The Stolen Earth).

In addition, this episode, although fast-paced, was peppered with wonderful, memorable scenes. There was the Doctor resisting the suggestion that he had to go to his death, before receiving a phone call informing him that his dear old friend Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart had passed away, and solemnly bringing himself to admit, finally, that his time had come, as it comes for all, time machine or no. There was the moment of the Doctor’s “death” at Lake Silencio, where, in the last seconds of his life, the Doctor selflessly chose to gently console and comfort River, Matt delivering with pathos the Doctor’s dying words. “You are forgiven. Always and completely forgiven,” in particular brought on the goosebumps. Very powerful stuff. There was the profound scene where River in the Receptor room of the pyramid shows the Doctor how much the universe loves him before he dies. “You’ve touched so many lives, saved so many people. Did you think when your time came, you’d really have to do more than just ask? You’ve decided that the universe is better off without you, but the universe doesn’t agree.” The Doctor seems taken aback and genuinely startled to learn this, especially given how much he’s been wallowing in guilt and self-loathing of late, which River was determined to snap him out of before he went, and justly so. The marriage of the Doctor and River itself was mesmerising, if a bit brief and understated. Finally, one of my favourite moments of Series 6 was the Doctor trying to set Rory up with Amy with the words “She said that you were a Mister Hottie-ness, and that she would like to go out with you for texting and scones.” Oh, Eleven. We adore you so much.

Some final thoughts. I think, for the first time, I actually saw Eleven and River. Before now, the pairing of Eleven and River always seemed somewhat awkward to me. Maybe it was the visible age difference, or the actual age difference (1,100 to, what, 40?). But I thought they were excellent together in this episode, especially in the Receptor room of the pyramid, and I totally see them now. Perhaps it’s because the Doctor seems to have noticeably aged; he seems older, more worldly, more jaded, than the energetic young puppy dog he was in, say, The Time of Angels, which makes for a more convincing dynamic with River. Secondly, Madame Kovarian was set up as a major player in the machinations of the Silence and in Series 6’s arc in general, but she was wasted in this finale. She got all of ten lines (I counted). That said, she wasn’t a particularly good character in the first place, but her presence in this episode was a bit pointless. She was basically plot fodder for Amy to get her revenge over Melody. Finally, although the episode held off answering too many questions, it pointed energetically at the way ahead by hinting really tantalisingly about where the Eleventh Doctor’s arc was heading. “On the Fields of Trenzalore, at the fall of the Eleventh, when no living creature can speak falsely, or fail to answer, a question will be asked. A question that must never, ever be answered…” Cue Whovians smacking their lips hungrily.

Rating: 8/10.

Thoughts on: Let’s Kill Hitler

I’ve always considered this episode a bit unspectacular, a bit of a misfire as an attempt at a mid-series “opener”. I’ve had to somewhat reevaluate this impression after this viewing. Although the episode has many problems and is far from perfect, there’s also a lot to like in there. Far from being a story about knocking off Hitler, this episode resolves the burning question about Amy and Rory’s daughter, i.e. River Song, hanging over from A Good Man Goes to War. It’s substantially a story with little in the way of plot, except concerning River’s attempted assassination of the Doctor. Maybe this is my main scruple with the episode. Without an actual story anchoring the episode, it all feels a bit messy and uncoordinated. I appreciate the revelations about River Song/Mels, and the arc development concerning the Silence’s conspiracy to kill the Doctor, and River’s role therein, but I find hard to look past how disjointed and poorly choreographed this episode feels.

Let’s talk about River, though. The “River” we see at the beginning of the episode, the delinquent Mels, is different from the River we know and love. Both River and Mels are “bad girls” with a rebellious streak, but unlike River’s misbehaviour, there’s no method to Mels’ madness, no purpose to her anarchy. Perhaps that reflects the subsequent influence of the Doctor over River? Mels was raised by a cult to be a psychopath with the sole purpose of killing the Doctor—it’s no wonder she was perennially in trouble with authority. Mels is portrayed as a delightfully diabolical woman; this was particularly apparent to me when the Doctor first realised he’d been poisoned, and his body had begun to give way, and Mels merely stood there smiling wickedly… before proceeding to terrorise the people of Berlin. But right at the end, with the Doctor on his deathbed, she becomes the River Song we recognise, giving him her regeneration energy to save his life. “Hello, sweetie.” It’s a beautiful moment. Alex Kingston was enjoyable to watch; she carried out really well both the comical (“So I was on my way to this gay Gypsy bar-mitzvah…”) and the more villainous stuff that she obviously had riveting fun playing, but also the more emotive and agonised material near the end.

The last fifteen minutes or so of this episode, in general, redeem it in my estimation. While the first half hour was messy and over-pitched, the final third was close to sublime, beginning with the Doctor struggling to hold onto life in the TARDIS, arguing with the TARDIS’s voice interface, successively taking the forms of himself, Rose, Martha, Donna and finally little Amelia Pond. The Doctor’s argument with voice-interface Pond was funny while it lasted, but also touching that Amelia Pond’s hologram’s utterance “fish fingers and custard” roused the Doctor into action. So was it also touching watching the Doctor, dying and weakening by the second, trying to force himself to save his friends, and River. Matt Smith conveyed powerfully the physical and emotional turmoil the Doctor was in as he tried in vain to struggle through his impending death to help his best friends. Supremely selfless, even at the point of death. And I’m as moved by the resolution to this episode as much as anyone: the beginning of River Song, when she rejects her conditioning and selflessly delivers the Doctor from death.

Some final thoughts. I thought the story of Mels’ growing up with Amy and Rory was charming. Especially the moment we see Amy and Rory get together. Too cute. Rory himself was written well in this episode. He’s steadily becoming less of the wimp he was when we first met him, and more of a brave action man. Marriage apparently suits him. Although, as I said, the episode is not without its very visible problems, the last fifteen minutes are exceptional, absorbing viewing, and effectively redeem the episode in my eyes. That raises out the company of “meh” episodes and into that of “good” episodes, in my book.

Rating: 7/10.

Thoughts on: A Good Man Goes to War

What would provoke the Doctor enough for him to mobilise an army? That’s the question this episode answers as we see the Doctor mounting an armed assault upon the people who’ve stolen Amy and her baby. It’s an epic, barnstorming culmination of certain arc threads that have built up over the first half of Series 6, manifesting as something like a mid-series “finale” in its scale and drama, but still leaving an intolerable cliffhanger to be resolved when the series “returns” in Let’s Kill Hitler. In truth, this episode was a bit of a mess, trying to do an awful lot in 45 minutes, with a distinct dearth of actual plot as substance was crowded out by arc resolution and show-stopping action sequences. However, the essence of this episode was the arc stuff—which was as gratifying as it was jaw-dropping—as well as the numerous character moments that interspersed the action. It’s a great one to watch, but, of course, watched best in its proper chronological place in Series 6.

After the torturous cliffhanger that The Almost People left us with, we’re naturally ravenous to discover who had taken Amy and who the eyepatch woman was. We’re presented with scenes of a fully-blown army mobilising themselves against the Doctor. And Cybermen. I wasn’t sure what the Cybermen were there for, actually. They could have made that more clear. But these scenes of these heavily-armed and -manned adversaries of the Doctor making preparations to do battle against him really conveyed a sense of there being some greater, momentous plot at work here—of which not even the Doctor seems to be aware. Those who’ve seen The Time of the Doctor would know what this is all leading up to, of course, but viewing this for the first time would be baffling. Especially given Madame Kovarian’s pronouncement about “this endless, bitter war… against you, Doctor.” What war? What could possibly drive an army, that isn’t comprised of Daleks or Cybermen, to take up arms against the Doctor? And why on Earth would they want to turn Amy’s baby into a weapon? This episode offers no answers to those questions… they are to be left hanging, some of them for a very long time. But the payoff is great, if confusing. I promise.

This episode displays another interesting, rarely seen, side of the Doctor. “A Good Man Goes to War” is exactly what it says: what would make the Doctor, the supreme pacifist, amass an army and go to war? We have an answer: committing such an outrage against him as attacking the people he loves to get to him. The “Colonel Runaway” scene shows the terrible vengefulness that animated the Doctor over this enormity. And the Doctor’s spittle-flecked anger in that scene is genuinely frightening. He’s a foreboding presence when he chillingly pronounces, “Good men don’t need rules. Today is not the day to find out why I have so many.” Matt’s Doctor is usually so cuddly and frivolous that it’s always a shock seeing real, cold fury in his eyes. And Matt does anger really well. One of the reasons Matt’s unpredictable, mercurial, inscrutable Doctor is my favourite. More generally, the episode also successfully conveys a sense of the almost mythological enigma that the Doctor has become through his travels, so much so that his very name strikes fear into armies. Lorna Bucket described him as a “dark legend”, leaving Amy befuddled, but little does she know of the twelve lifetimes he’s spent (not unjustifiably) acquiring a reputation, such that his name has all but passed into myth and legend. I think sometimes we get so familiar with the Doctor, especially Matt Smith’s and David Tennant’s more extroverted Doctors, that we forget that this is how the rest of the universe would see him.

All the cinematic action was interspersed by a number of wonderful character scenes. Lorna Bucket recounting the time she met the Doctor to Amy. Amy and Rory sharing a happy moment over their recovered child. The Doctor realising in astonishment who River Song was. River revealing to Amy and Rory who she was… and, God, that cliffhanger was amazing. Jaw-dropping. I remember exactly where I was, what I was eating (pizza), where my jaw was, and how I felt when I first watched that moment. The effect of that revelation has dulled with time, and now that I know who River Song is, but I still recall vividly what it was like watching it when it was broadcast. I thought Amy superbly written, and acted by Karen Gillan, in this episode. She was a woman under great emotional strain, but holding out strong nevertheless, which was portrayed brilliantly by Gillan. It was painful to watch Amy (in a good way) in profound emotional trauma after she’d realised she’d been tricked and her baby had been stolen from her at the end of the episode. This episode added layers to Amy’s character; the wise-cracking, sarcastic, vivacious Scots girl was nowhere to be seen here, although Amy did bravely force a smile through the pain and trauma she was experiencing.

Rating: 8/10.

Thoughts on: The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon

Steven Moffat has gone for a big, explosive opening for Series 6 in this creepy, exciting, showy romp of a two-parter. They’ve pulled out all the stops and gone to film in the colonies the United States, and, just to prove they’ve been there, there’s a delightful masquerade of American imagery and symbolism, a celebration of Americana. The story opens with Amy and Rory and River Song summoned to the beautiful wild landscapes of Utah. If that wasn’t enough to pique your interest, within the first fifteen minutes we witness the Doctor being killed by a mysterious astronaut that emerges from a lake, an incredibly surreal and mesmerising scene. Moffat couldn’t have begun Series 6 on a more audaciously thrilling note. It couldn’t have set up more compellingly the series arc that would play out over Series 6 (an arc that I personally love).

This story is about the Doctor and Co. chasing the clue that the Doctor’s future self left them before he died. The little girl and the Silence. This story is bursting at the seams with mystery and intrigue and unanswered questions, which effectively makes for captivating viewing. It oozes conspiracy and suspense: this isn’t a “Doctor fights the monsters” story, it’s a “Doctor investigates something very mysterious” story, and it’s done sublimely here. It manages to combine the thick, compelling mystery of the little girl and the Silence with a succession of wonderfully entertaining comedy moments. It also contains a number of gratifying character moments: Amy’s grieving over the seemingly dead Doctor, River Song’s sad contemplation to Rory of her bittersweet relationship with the Doctor–that poignant “foreshadowing” of Silence in the Library, the renewed tension between Rory and the Doctor after Amy disappears. River’s pained reflection upon what was coming for her and the Doctor I thought was particularly poignant, if only because we all already know how it all ends for her, and how too true were her words: “And the day is coming when I’ll look into that man’s eyes, my Doctor, and he won’t have the faintest idea who I am. And I think it’s going to kill me.”

The Silence though. Steven Moffat is at it again. God, that man has a knack for scaring viewers. This two-parter is positively seized with creepiness, featuring what I consider Moffat’s scariest creation, the Silence. They’re ghoulish, husk-like apparitions with withered, hollowed-out faces who speak in unsettling, raspy voices. Their appearance is terrifying enough, but they also come with the ingenious gimmick of being completely forgotten as soon as those who see them look away from them. Oh, and, if that wasn’t enough to make you start glancing around nervously everywhere you go, they can persuade you to do things subconsciously after you’ve looked away from them. Their first appearance, when Amy sees the Silent watching her in the distance at Utah, was really creepy. And surely when the Silent in the White House bathroom kills the woman, contorting and inflating and filling the room like some kind of foul ghoul, was one of the scariest things Doctor Who has ever screened? The scene with Amy in the room in the orphanage was also tremendously scary, the lighting and cinematography manipulated expertly to induce an unnerving sense of panic and suspense. Imagine you’re a child seeing the Silence for the first time. I think it’s only when you imagine watching this story as a child that you realise the genius of this monster, how terrifying they really are. It’s almost as though the Silence were designed to frighten children away from Doctor Who. I was 16 when this story was first broadcast and even at 16 they freaked me out.

Although it’s controversial among many fans, I love the resolution, the way the Doctor uses the Silence’s power against them and raises a “revolution” against the Silence. It’s a clever, ingenious ploy to bring down the Silence’s infestation of the planet that’s a testament to the Doctor’s wits and ingenuity. That said, there is an element of truth to the controversy around the Doctor’s actions. The Doctor’s actions seem ostensibly out-of-character: the Doctor is, truth be told, effectively manipulating the human race into committing genocide against the Silence. The Doctor is apparently wronging two groups here: the Silence, whose wanton genocide he is orchestrating, and humanity, whom he is turning into unknowing instruments of his mass murder, deprived of the free will to resist the impulse to murder. More than that, the Doctor is condemning the Silence to death without really knowing what they are. He’s figuratively (or perhaps not) shooting before asking questions. I remember being somewhat uncomfortable with this when I first saw the episode, and, to some extent, it’s still hard to justify the Doctor’s actions. Perhaps we just need to keep in mind that the Doctor is hardly as indisposed to violence and death as he usually pretends to be, and that he probably did think he was doing the right thing, or at least that he had no other choice. I will, in any case, at least say that the scene where the Doctor confronts the Silence in their base and triumphantly reveals his victory was awesome, as was River’s badass taking down the Silence single-handedly.

The story leaves a number of burning questions unanswered, such as what the Silence are, who the little girl is, what her relationship to Amy was, how she can regenerate, and what’s going to happen about the Doctor’s death. That’s good. I want unanswered questions. I want series-long, even multi-series, narratives and arcs. I want to be kept interested. I want constant mystery hanging over this show. I love it when Doctor Who becomes a serialised show with an ongoing plotline. Others are less taken with Moffat’s penchant for series arcs, Series 6 being the series arc par excellence, but I like having the sense that there’s an ongoing mystery that’s leading up to something big and profound. This story has left my appetite wholesomely whetted, excited to see more. A fantastic start to Series 6.

Rating: 10/10.