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: Closing Time

Lightning doesn’t strike twice apparently, as Closing Time shaped up as an underwhelming sequel to Series 5’s successful low-key episode, The Lodger. Although, as light, pre-finale fluff it was enjoyable enough, I can’t help but cringe over all the very visible faults of this episode. For one, the plot was just a bit stupid. Although I liked the idea of the Doctor visiting his old mate Craig as a stop on his “farewell” tour before he goes to his predestined death at Lake Silencio, fighting Cybermen in the women’s section of a department store in Colchester is taking the mickey. There are two elements in conflict in this story: the comedy of “the Doctor and Craig” (and Stormageddon), and the menace of the Cybermen. Trying to recreate the tone and the charm of The Lodger while also involving the Cybermen just doesn’t work. The script might have worked better if they’d discarded the Cybermen and perhaps employed a throwaway monster instead while focussing on the character comedy between the Doctor and Craig, but, as it stands, Closing Time tries to be two things at once and fails by making a mockery of the Cybermen.

That said, there’s also much to like in this episode. Where it did succeed, of course, was the comedy. Matt Smith and James Corden, and their onscreen characters, have delightful, funny chemistry that makes them a terrific joy to watch together. The mediocre script was almost worth the ecstatic onscreen humour between the Doctor and Craig, and there were plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. To pick a few of my favourites, there was the Doctor’s idea of a “social call” apparently being to turn up unannounced on someone’s doorstep, inquire as to how they are, and promptly walk away. There was the Doctor inquiring, without a hint of irony, “Will I blush?” when asking about Craig’s baby’s name. There was the Doctor, trying to draw Craig’s attention away from the fact they’d just materialised in a Cyberman base, confessing his undying love for Craig… by which Craig actually didn’t seem totally repulsed (“Doctor, are you going to kiss me?”). And so on. The humour around “Stormageddon” and his power complex was a bit cringeworthy, though; it was a bit too hard to believe that Alfie was saying all the Doctor said he was, and I’d have assumed he was making it all up except it’s even harder to believe the Doctor has such a great wit. My other explanation is that the Doctor just thinks he speaks baby…

We have to talk about that resolution, though. Like many others who watched that sequence with their faces in their palms, I want to sit down Gareth Roberts and Steven Moffat and have a long, hard talk about not making the Cybermen into complete jokes. Okay, I’ll admit that that scene, where a seemingly converted Craig defies his cyber-programming when he’s overpoweringly affected by the sound of his baby crying, was quite emotively affecting, and, as far as “feel-good” resolutions go, it was pretty effective. But I can’t reconcile my appreciation for the scene’s emotive quality with the inane idea that the Cybermen can be defeated “by love”. The Cybermen are supposed to be the second most malignant, terrible race in the universe… and they were defeated by Craig thinking about his baby. That simply begs the question of why all the people who were converted by the Cybermen in the past who thought about their loved ones, as they inevitably would at the point of what was effectively death, did not escape and defy the Cybermen? The Cybermen were used as a throwaway plot device in this story to reinforce a point about Craig’s love for Alfie, and little more. They really deserved better.

To draw myself back from being overly negative again, there were other good aspects of this episode (that didn’t involve comedy). There was a very poignant scene in which the Doctor, left alone to take care of Alfie, recounts his advice and philosophy on life to the bawling little bub. “You know, when I was little like you, I dreamt of the stars. I think it’s fair to say in the language of your age, that I lived my dream, I owned the stage, gave it a hundred and ten percent. I hope you have as much fun as I did, Alfie.” The scene really profoundly contrasts the 1,100 year-old Time Lord with the budding slip of a child. And Matt Smith, as ever, really convincingly exudes the age and weariness of the Doctor, a remarkable feat for an actor of Matt’s age. Another poignant scene was the Doctor in Craig’s sitting room vocalising the creeping guilt he’s being feeling of late, a theme picked up in earnest in the previous episode (although that was 200 years ago, but I suppose the Doctor’s guilt never leaves him).

Hanging over this episode was the Doctor’s impending death, which was, for the Doctor, to be the very next day. The Doctor had been travelling around alone, on a 200-year “farewell tour” of sorts, before facing up to his inevitable fate. I liked this idea (plenty of space for Big Finish to insert Eleventh Doctor stories if they ever get the rights to the New Who Doctors), but it was a bit of a surprise to find the Doctor had aged 200 years since the previous episode. It was a bit hard to believe. It might have been a better idea to have shown 2-3 stories featuring the Doctor travelling alone, like David Tennant’s “specials year”, successively spaced over that period, before the finale, to better convey the time gap. In any case, was it just me, or did the Doctor seem more weary and as though he was feeling more keenly the weight of his years, than before? If it was intended, it was very well done, and reflected well the Doctor’s sense of resignation about his fate. Finally, I thought the revelation of River Song as the “impossible astronaut” (although not exactly the most unexpected of revelations) set up the finale brilliantly.

Rating: 6/10.

Thoughts on: The God Complex

I loved the concept of this episode. The idea of a creature that feeds on people’s faith, luring them into this elaborate trap so that it can groom them and digest their faith was nothing short of engaging, and, indeed, made for a wonderfully entrancing story. True enough, this story was, literally, a runaround (most of the episode was spent running through corridors away from a monster), but it’s one of the most original and mesmerising runarounds I’ve ever seen. The adaptation of the mythological Minotaur in the Labyrinth for the purposes of the script was a brilliant idea, making for a distinctive feel of the episode, and perhaps makes for one of the few instances in which “runaround” can’t be applied as a critique: running around is kind of what one does in a labyrinth, is it not? In any case, the setting was perfect, I thought; there’s something about an empty ’80s hotel that’s strangely unsettling and makes for the perfect setting for a story like this. Additionally, the idea that the Minotaur feeds on faith was an intriguing narrative idea, allowing for the thoughtful exploration of the nature of faith, and the dangers of blind faith, that ensued.

This episode was creepy. Not ostentatiously creepy in the traditional style of Moffat, or, recently, of Mark Gatiss in Night Terrors, but in its own distinctive way: there’s no terrifying monster (the Minotaur was scary but not that scary), but the scares are created by the characters’ own fear and apprehension about what’s going to happen to them. They’re scared so you’re scared. It gets under your skin; it’s claustrophobic and genuinely unnerving. The imagery of the creepy abandoned hotel, as well as the unsettling direction and camerawork, also add to the feeling of panic and foreboding that exudes from this episode. Seeing what entering your room did to you was also a disturbing sight; the Doctor’s conversation with the deranged Joe at the beginning was quite unnerving. And the things some of the characters saw in their rooms were particularly twisted; never mind the gorilla or the clown or Rita’s disappointed father (that one was a bit stupid), I’m thinking of Howie finding a gaggle of pretty girls in his room taunting him cruelly, or the Doctor’s mysterious “who” (himself, I suspect).

The exploration of the Doctor’s character was also really compelling. The point being made was that the Doctor was no hero, and it was misguided, if not dangerous, to view him so. This episode was about inverting our perhaps starry-eyed perceptions of the Doctor. We saw the Doctor assuring Gibbis that “No one else dies today”. And what happened? Two more people died, after the Doctor had sworn to protect them. We saw the Doctor invite Rita to come with him, only for her to die minutes later. The Doctor was right later to say that, in his vanity and his desire to be adored, he leads people to their deaths. He’s not a hero or a god, and it’s wrong to think of him as one. That’s why, in that excruciating scene, the Doctor was forced to break Amy’s faith in him to save her. The Doctor was finally confronting what he does to his friends, out of his own selfishness. “I stole your childhood and now I’ve led you by the hand to your death. But the worst thing is, I knew. I knew this would happen. This is what always happens… Forget your faith in me. I took you with me because I was vain. Because I wanted to be adored.” It must have been painful for the Doctor to break Amy’s faith in him like that, and Amy, the scales fallen, looks shattered, as she should—the Doctor was never the hero of her fantasies. I think it’s good that the series owns up to this. The Doctor shouldn’t be portrayed as a hero. He does heroic things, a lot of them, but equally, as he himself acknowledges, he’s ultimately destroyed everyone he loves, and keeps on doing it, out of selfishness. He’s a profoundly flawed character, and that’s what makes him interesting.

Indeed, having confronted his own demons, and determined the break the vicious cycle, he makes the decision to leave Amy and Rory behind. Watching the Doctor forcing himself to say goodbye to his best friends was moving, as the Doctor was visibly in pain over having to leave them. He hates being alone. He knows being alone is dangerous for him, and he hates and fears his own company, but he knows what will inevitably happen if he travels with companions for too long. It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that he was leaving Donna on her parents’ doorstep with no memory of him, lest she burn and die, or leaving the fate of the world on Martha’s shoulders, or leaving Rose stuck in a parallel universe. All these memories were too painfully vivid for him to feel comfortable about keeping Amy and Rory with him for any longer. The Doctor’s anxieties in this respect were really well conveyed in the writing and by Matt Smith, who played well the tortured old Time Lord, tormented by guilt and self-loathing.

One final thought. I couldn’t fit this anywhere else, but I thought Rita was a brilliant character. She was clever, intuitive, brave and engaging — in short, all the attributes of a great companion. She was obviously being set up as a “would-have-been” companion, especially with all the “Amy, you’re fired” and “Come with me” stuff, and, indeed, from this episode alone I can see that she would have been a wonderful companion. That made her death, and the thwarted potential it represented, all the more heart-wrenching. Another name on the Doctor’s guilt list. All in all, I thought this episode was near enough close to perfection. It’s a unique, thoroughly memorable episode which is as profound as it is thrilling. I’ve little hesitation in awarding it top marks.

Rating: 10/10.

Thoughts on: The Girl Who Waited

There are a handful of Doctor Who episodes which I balk at watching. Not because they’re bad, but just because of how emotionally wrecked I always feel after watching them. Among them are Vincent and the DoctorTurn Left and this one. The Girl Who Waited, at least to me, is one of the most emotionally torturing stories of the entire run of Doctor Who. It’s one of the few stories of which it can certainly not be said that it ended happily or satisfyingly, as we’re left devastated by the episode’s tear-jerking concluding moments. At the same time, while it’s a disturbing story, it’s also a beautiful story illustrating the strength of the relationship between Amy and Rory, showing, as it does, what Amy is prepared to sacrifice for Rory’s sake. The result is one of the most memorable episodes of Matt Smith’s era, and one of the most distinctive, unique stories of all.

It’s the ingenious conceit of Amy, and Rory and the Doctor being split up into two separate time streams progressing at different rates that sets up this brilliant story premise. To no small extent you can pin the blame for everything that went wrong here on the Doctor, who messed up the first stage of the rescue mission when he locked onto the wrong point in Amy’s time stream. Thus Rory finds himself face-to-face not with his perky, gracious young wife flinging herself into his arms, eager to hop back into the TARDIS as if nothing had ever happened, but with the time-worn, hardened version of Amy who’d lived more of her life inside this hellish complex than outside of it. Rory was justified in venting his frustration at the Doctor. And old Amy was certainly justified in the sentiments expressed in her words, “I think I can now definitely say I hate him. I hate the Doctor. I hate him more than I’ve ever hated anyone in my life.” It’s so disquieting to hear a companion say she hates the Doctor and mean it, but it was effective in getting that powerful message across: the Doctor stuffed up; the Doctor ruined his friend’s life; the Doctor deserves his friend’s animus.

It’s profoundly disturbing when we see what has become of Amy after Rory finds her — how badly the Doctor has stuffed up. She’s an embittered, thwarted shadow of her former self, something very different from the Amy we know. When Rory and, vicariously, the Doctor turn up, she’s determined to resent them both. She refuses to meet Rory’s eyes at first, stubbornly determined to keep chewing on 36 years of pent-up resentment, lest she soften under the gaze of her sweetheart. When the two Amys finally meet it’s striking how different they are. Young, vivacious, spirited Amy and old, haggard, hardened Amy. Karen Gillan portrayed well older Amy’s shock at seeing herself as she used to be, as if she’d forgotten what it was like to be the girl she used to be. “I’d forgotten how much I loved being her. Amy Pond, in the Tardis, with Rory Williams.” It’s touching, at least, to see older Amy slowly soften under the charm of Rory and the Doctor, as she lapses increasingly back into her old self, flirting with Rory, admitting her sonic “probe” is a screwdriver. In any case this episode added layers to Amy’s character, showing us that, stripped of all that we love about her, almost unrecognisable as the companion we know, what remains with Amy is her undying love for Rory.

Karen Gillan was exceptional. She really got the chance to show off her acting chops here, and seized the chance to deliver a consummate performance. She acted sublimely older Amy’s bitterness, anger, weariness, as well as her fond reminiscence, sympathy for Rory in spite of herself, and ultimately her teary resolve when wishing her farewell to Rory at the end. There was a particularly powerful moment that showcased Gillan’s talents when young Amy first materialised in Rory’s time stream, and Rory and Amy embraced each other, and old Amy looked dejected and embarrassed, and then Rory and young Amy gave old Amy an almost accusing look. It was like, to them, the older Amy was the anomaly, the accident, the inconvenient by-product of an experiment gone wrong, which, now that younger Amy was back, would need to be cleaned up as soon as possible. Older Amy’s look of disappointed dejection, and younger Amy’s look of accusation, or whatever it was, were both subtly affecting.

If this story does anything right, it’s in reinforcing Amy and Rory’s love for each other. Older Amy initially has zero sympathy for the younger version of herself. It’s not for herself that she eventually yields, but for Rory. “Rory’s the most beautiful man I’ve ever met.” That’s touching. Even after 36 years of feeling abandoned, Amy is prepared to sacrifice herself for Rory’s sake. She partially backtracks, but, ultimately, this is what she ends up doing when it becomes clear that the Tardis can’t sustain the paradox of two Amys from two different time streams. It’s a torturous moment when Rory is forced to choose between which of the two versions of his wife he wants. No matter what he does, he has to leave Amy behind. Arthur Darvill was magnificent in this moment; you could really see the agony and torment etched on his face, a bracingly evocative performance. Watching Rory and older Amy being forced to say their tearful farewell to each other felt like having your insides seared—that’s how painful it was. Amy, out of love for Rory, makes his choice for him, sacrificing herself for him. Greater love hath no woman than this.

Rating: 9/10.

Thoughts on: Night Terrors

This is a refreshing break from the arc-heavy material that has predominated most of Series 6 up to this point. It’s an effective standalone story, a typical modern Doctor Who story that oozes scariness but also carries an emotional touch. It’s not everyone’s cup of their hot beverage of choice, but I really like it, and in my opinion it’s easily Mark Gatiss’s best Doctor Who story to date (although the episode he’s penning for Series 9 sounds excellent). For the most part it’s a charming, sweet story about a father and son and the strains on familial relationships. It sympathetically portrays a family struggling to cope with the mental issues of their son, although, in typical Doctor Who style, it’s revealed that there’s more than meets the eye in this boy’s excessive paranoia.

The main reason I like this episode is its fear factor. The episode starts modestly enough, with the Doctor answering a call from a small child to “please save me from the monsters”, remarking that a child’s bedroom is the “scariest place in the universe”. At this point I’m sure a lot of hardened fans would have been facepalming and preparing themselves for disappointment. I don’t necessarily blame them—the premise is a bit corny. But, thankfully, this episode really does become something genuinely scary and eerie as Gatiss displays an unexpected Moffat-esque flair for the creepy. The scenes in the dolls’ house were surreal and pulse-quickeningly claustrophobic, with great use of light, camerawork and especially very creepy aural effects to induce anxiety and tension. The dolls themselves were downright terrifying, playing on the disturbing appearance of dolls, especially old-fashioned dolls like these life-sized peg dolls, after they’ve aged and decayed. I’m sure there were a lot of shaking children nervous about going to bed after watching this.

Another area in which this episode succeeds is its portrayal of the personal side of this extraterrestrial dilemma. We see the relationship between George and his parents strained over George’s issues, and we see George insecure and anxious about his sense of belonging to his parents. Despite the oddity of George’s being an alien, this is a sympathetic reflection of the emotional struggles countless concerned parents go through over children with peculiar issues, be they physical or mental. I’m sure it’s natural for such children to question and feel insecure about their parents’ feelings about them, as George did. Here we see two loving parents, especially one loving dad, totally dedicated to helping their child. It was a moving, heartfelt moment when Alex embraces George, assuring him, to the latter’s tearful relief, that he loved him and was devoted to him no matter what. Some might cringe at such an “over-sentimental” resolution, but I think it worked perfectly well, given that the science-fictioney dilemma in the episode was caused by George’s insecurity about his parents’ feelings about him.

Some final thoughts. Although Amy and Rory played a diminished role in this episode, I thought Rory was delightfully funny in the dolls’ house. “We’re dead — again!” should be his catchphrase. “Lights are great, aren’t they?” is also another Rory Williams classic. I also have to add that I wasn’t convinced by Jamie Oram, the child actor who played George. Child actors are always hit-or-miss, and this one, I’m afraid to say, was decidedly the latter. I hate to be harsh on an eight year old, but the thing about child actors is that if they’re not good, they’re positively distracting, and their performance actively detracts from the story, as here. Sorry, kid, but don’t take it too badly; very few children can act well, and you’ve got years and years to improve anyway.

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 Rebel Flesh / The Almost People

This two-parter, I feel, is something of an underrated gem. It’s sometimes written off as tedious, plodding and boring by fans, but I can’t say that I share this perspective. To me, it’s a captivating story, immersed in very dark, heavy themes involving a compelling moral dilemma. The premise that establishes the conflict of the story, sentient “flesh” taking the forms and personalities of their “hosts”, is intriguing, and if you buy into the moral dilemma that follows from that premise, this story can be truly mesmerising. In truth, I think it’s one of the most provocative, philosophical stories we’ve seen on Doctor Who—or at least on New Who. Certainly this story represents a much darker, more mature shift in tone from Series 5, which was primarily pitched at a younger audience and was more fantastical rather than discursive. To be sure, the story could have done with more pace and substance, but I think the “slower” sections were more than made up for, or filled, by the relentless exploration of the moral or philosophical dilemma at the heart of this story, i.e. the humanity, or lack thereof, of the Gangers, and the way they were perceived by the humans.

So I’ll get right to it and congratulate this story for having the boldness to discuss the meaning of life. Or the meaning of humanity, in any case. It was a really intriguing theme which was explored compellingly in the conflict between the Gangers and the humans. There was no doubt as to what “side” the story ultimately came down on: the Gangers were, emphatically, human, their lives and souls human lives and souls. It’s enthralling viewing as we’re not sure if the Gangers can be trusted or not, whether they’re human enough or not, with their vacillating between seeming undeniably human to something quite else. Only at the end where the Ganger Jimmy sees his son does it become emphatically clear that the Gangers are just as human as their counterparts. I also wonder if the story contained a very subtle subtext on related moral dilemmas surrounding the contentious issue of abortion; the show did the same thing subsequently in Kill the Moon. There was a brief tidbit of the Doctor’s dialogue in particular that piqued my attention in this respect: “We were all jelly once. Little jelly eggs sitting in goop. … We are not talking about an accident that needs to be mopped up. We are talking about sacred life.”

The story also portrayed quite accurately, and uncomfortably, the prejudice and aversion and mistrust that would naturally be displayed by humans to something perceived as almost human but not entirely. Perhaps a warning against human cloning: be prepared for lynchings. It also disturbingly portrayed the human inclination to bigotry against the unusual, the abnormal, the not-quite-right. The Doctor knew from the outset that the Gangers at least had the potential to be indistinguishable from their human counterparts. He played an ingenious trick on Amy and the others when he switched shoes with his Ganger, leading Amy to treat the “real” him as if he were a Ganger, much revealing Amy’s own latent prejudice—wonderfully resolved when Amy admitted she had been wrong to assume about the Ganger Doctor. “You’re twice the man I thought you were.” The moment when, after the Ganger Jimmy saw his son over the hologram and, the penny having dropped, went to save his counterpart, the humans finally saw their Gangers for what they were—not monsters, but themselves—was very gratifying. And human Jimmy’s death in the arms of his Ganger, giving his Ganger his blessing to take over his life, was a touching moment.

The Doctor, and the Ganger Doctor, had a brilliant role in this story. After the initial astonishment of seeing two Doctors (of the same incarnation no less), an “omfg” moment if there ever was one, it was delightful watching the Doctors interact together. That it was Eleven who was cloned made it all the funnier; they bounced off each other wonderfully, and all of Eleven’s quirky idiosyncrasies and eccentricities were amplified with hilarious effect when there’s two of him straightening their bow-ties and making distracted, enigmatic remarks. Matt acted against himself with brilliant precision, making the sequences where we see the two Doctors interacting not only convincing, but genuinely amusing. In particular, I liked the Ganger Doctor, fresh from the vat, struggling to cope with twelve lifetimes’ memories, overwhelmed by the Doctor’s twelve personas running around his head. The human Gangers were distressed by finding themselves in possession of whole lives, imagine what it must have been like for the Doctor’s Ganger to find himself with twelve. I wonder if the Ganger Doctor’s tortured screaming at one point was his reliving his undoubtedly vivid memories of the Time War… In any case, I liked the interesting way the Doctor was portrayed in this episode. He was more manipulative than we’ve seen him before, tricking Amy and the others into thinking the real Doctor was the Ganger Doctor, a beastly trick if there ever was one. There’s a few brief moments, when the (real-pretending-to-be-an-evil-Ganger) Doctor is with the other Gangers and Rory, in which the Doctor is genuinely scary, and you become frightened as the formidable thought of the Doctor teaming up with a gang of evil Gangers to orchestrate revolution hits you. It was revealed soon enough that that was all an act, but it was exhilarating, if unnerving, seeing the Doctor’s manipulative side.

But dat cliffhanger tho. Wtf? Omfg!!!

Rating: 9/10.

Thoughts on: The Doctor’s Wife

On occasion, New Who throws up a truly remarkable story whose conceit is so inspired, but also so simple, that you find yourself dumbfounded as to why the episode has never been made before. The Doctor’s Wife is such a story. It’s astounding that it took 48 years for the Doctor to meet his TARDIS in human form. When the idea was finally put into execution, it delivered consummately. The idea was audacious and daring, oh yes. The episode could have been totally ruined if the idea wasn’t done brilliantly. But, here, the TARDIS (henceforth referred to as “Idris”) in human form was simply delightful to watch.

When we first see Idris (as the TARDIS) she seems completely doolally. I was reminded with some amusement that this is what the Doctor’s post-regenerative trauma is often like. And the TARDIS’s matrix being deposited in Idris’s body would be much like the sensation of regeneration: finding oneself suddenly and disconcertingly in a completely different body and mind. Even when Idris had calmed down, she was every bit as mad as the Doctor (if not more so), with the additional charming idiosyncrasy of having all of time and space coursing through her, leading her to enigmatically pronounce things ahead of when they were supposed to be said, and reply to questions that haven’t yet been asked. This conveyed humorously what I suppose the TARDIS, as a supposedly sentient entity, must be like: a being that defies the constraints imposed on us mere animals by time. Idris’s trouble with comprehending tenses also alluded amusingly to this. In any case, I love how Idris’s personality was portrayed: a kind of Helena Bonham-Carter style madness. Although I’m quite sceptical about the idea of a female Doctor, Idris’s portrayal is actually a lot like how I imagine the Doctor would be like if he were a Time Lady. And Suranne Jones’ portrayal of Idris was exceptional, of course.

It was also gratifying seeing the Doctor and the TARDIS interact, after all this time. This is the ultimate fangasm episode, and, thankfully, the interaction between the Doctor and Idris actually did work really well. I think Idris’s portrayal would have had a lot to do with it—the TARDIS had to be as mad as the Doctor, or it would have been like just another Doctor-Companion dynamic. And I think the Doctor and Idris had excellent, electrifying chemistry together. They were delightful to watch. At times they seemed like an old married couple: “You are not my mother!” said the Doctor. “And you are not my child!” retorted Idris. Which actually says a whole lot about the strength and depth of their relationship, as Amy pithily observed: it’s always him and her, after all the rest are gone. At other times they seemed flirty and excitable, marvelling at the novelty of being able to talk to one another. It was also a cheeky but compelling idea to suggest that it was the TARDIS who stole the Doctor, rather than the other way around. Now that we’ve seen them interacting together, it doesn’t seem that laughable a suggestion. Finally, their “goodbye” moment was utterly beautiful. Surely one of the show’s most memorable moments, even if only for the reason of what was actually happening in that moment: the Doctor and the TARDIS had such a brief, special time talking to one another, and now they have to say goodbye to each other. No, I’m not crying. There’s just something in my eye. Shut up.

If I was to criticise something about the way the Doctor and Idris’s interaction was portrayed in this episode, I would say there wasn’t enough of it. If one is going to write an episode about the Doctor and the TARDIS being able to talk to each other, then, for God’s sake, milk as much out of that idea as humanly possible. Never mind Amy and Rory being chased around the TARDIS, let’s see the Doctor and the (living) TARDIS bickering, bonding, laughing, kissing, and more. Of course, this episode needed a substantive plot, not just a clever conceit, and to that extent House’s “stealing” the TARDIS with Amy and Rory trapped inside worked well, but I think the sequences we got that showed the Doctor and Idris actually talking and interacting meaningfully were too brief and too few. I feel we didn’t explore the Doctor and TARDIS relationship as deeply as we could have (although, in fairness, what we did get was still excellent in that regard). This episode could therefore have worked better if it were slower, with less rushing about, less focus on the relatively less important plot, and more intimate one-on-one sequences between the Doctor and Idris.

After putting in a somewhat lacklustre performance in the previous episode, Matt Smith is back in exceptional form here. He displayed an impressive range here, from the Doctor’s giddy excitement at finding himself the recipient of a Time Lord communication cube (much appreciated nod to The War Games, by the way), to his frightening resentment at discovering he’d been tricked about the presence of non-existent Time Lords, to his plaintiveness and heartbreak at being forced to say farewell to Idris. There was an intimate moment when the Doctor affirms that he wants to find Time Lords here because he wants to be forgiven for what he did. We haven’t seen the sorrow over the fate of his people from Smith’s Doctor to the degree that we saw it from Eccleston’s and Tennant’s Doctors. I have the idea that he represses his sorrow, like he represses much else. But this moment provided an unusual glimpse of the degree to which the memory of the Time War still pains the Doctor deeply. His frightening mood swing when he realised there were no Time Lords on this rock and he’d been tricked by the ghosts of their voices also conveyed powerfully the Doctor’s intense feelings about his people.

Some final thoughts. Rory’s and Amy’s being chased around the intestines of the TARDIS was captivating viewing. I may be wrong, but I think this was the first time we’ve seen inside the TARDIS beyond the console room in the revived series. Although Karen and Arthur were basically just running down the same corridor over and over again (Classic-style), those scenes really conveyed a sense of the Byzantine insides of the TARDIS. Rory’s being aged to death in the TARDIS was quite grisly viewing, that last scenario in which Amy finds Rory a withered husk very shocking and confronting. The first time I saw that I was actually very disturbed; it might have been the reason why I developed an aversion to watching this episode for a while. In any case, though, I think this episode is, on the whole, superb. A classic, to be sure, although there was, perhaps regrettably, still potential untapped in this idea.

Rating: 9/10.

Thoughts on: The Curse of the Black Spot

This episode is often maligned by fans as the underwhelming follow-up to the explosive Series 6 opener, a mundane pirate story with Hugh Bonneville its only redeeming feature. That used to be largely my opinion, too, but, upon this viewing of the episode I found it a lot better than I remembered, and I found myself appreciating it more than I used to. It’s an inventive use of the base-under-siege formula, involving a pirate ship under “attack” by an infatuating feminine spectre which spirits away the injured and sick. Perhaps the premise itself is pretty ho-hum, fairly uninspired, but it was executed well enough that it kept me interested throughout. It was at least as interesting as the two least impressive stories from Series 5, The Beast Below and Victory of the Daleks. I compare it to those two stories because it occupies the same place as them—the front end of the series following on the series’ opening story. And I think it compares favourably with both of them, which were both fraught with problems despite ultimately holding up well enough; this story is pretty well-rounded and doesn’t sport any glaring faults, and is even actually enjoyable and memorable (I find it enjoyable, at least).

One thing at which this episode succeeds is comedy: this script is just overflowing with genuinely funny dialogue, almost from the moment we see the Doctor and the Ponds. “A bit more laughter guys?” the Doctor coaxes as he stands at the end of a gangplank. “What kind of rubbish pirates are you?” Amy scoffs as the gang of brutish-looking pirates quail at the sight of the cutlass in her hand. “I’d like a beard. I’m going to grow a beard,” announces Rory in a daze as he ogles the pirates. “You’re not,” Amy stoutly rebukes him. And so on. Not everyone (few, in fact) would count it among the best stories of Series 6, but, God, it’s funny. And who, honestly, would deny that Amy’s sword-fighting with the pirates was pretty damned awesome? The Doctor’s alpha-male competition with Captain Avery was also very amusing to watch. Hugh Bonneville made an excellent arch-pirate, giving a very entertaining and convincing performance. However, the one significant criticism I would make of this episode is Matt Smith’s performance; he lacked the authority and the energy and the conviction that he usually carries, which he displayed as recently as the previous story, the opener. This is the first time in my marathon of Matt Smith’s era that I’ve noticed his performance being distinctly lacklustre. Perhaps I am seeing the first signs of the phenomenon, remarked upon by some fans, but which I haven’t noticed before, of the gradual decline in the quality of Matt’s performance over time?

One of the moments in this episode that really did stand out was Amy’s resuscitation of Rory at the end. It truly conveyed the strength of the love between these two, especially Rory’s confidence in Amy’s capacity to resuscitate him because he knew she would “never give up”. That was touching. It was torturous viewing watching Amy desperately, tearfully attempting to revive her husband, and the relief was sweet when, after a couple of horrific seconds, Rory began to cough up water and breathe again. They’ve been through a lot, these two, but this show keeps putting them through more trials and traumas, it’s no wonder they’re as close and as strong as they are. By the way, I thought I saw something poignant in the Doctor’s visible relief when Rory came back to life. I think he was reminded all too uncomfortably of how dangerous he and his lifestyle is to the friends he brings with him. He thought he’d almost lost another one. That was why he began to travel alone before he picked up Amy, after all. I wonder if he’s rather recklessly kicking the matter into the long grass here. If Rory had died (for real this time; there’s no coming back from actual real-world death), he would have been forced to confront directly his companion issue, but here it looks like he’s put the matter out of his mind because it’s too uncomfortable to think about. If only he knew…

Rating: 7/10.