There’s a new Doctor on the horizon. The first female Doctor. This has some people wondering if it’s time to try out this show I love so much.
Well, that’s what I’m here for. Because when you love a show as much as I love Doctor Who, you have opinions.
These are mine.
“On every world wherever people are, in the deepest part of the winter, at the exact midpoint, everybody stops and turns and hugs. As if to say, ‘Well done! Well done, everyone! We’re halfway out of the dark.'”
“Hey,” said Steven Moffat, as his first Christmas special approached. “What if, right, what if the Christmas special was actually about Christmas, instead of coincidentally taking place on Christmas?”
(I mean really, Donna Noble, getting married on Christmas Day? Dick move, if’n you ask me.)
And so came A Christmas Carol, which may well still be my absolute favourite of the Who Christmas specials. (Last Christmas, which we haven’t reached, is competitive.) On Christmas Eve Amy and Rory, mid-honeymoon, are stuck on a spaceship about to crash due to unstable clouds covering the planet. The one man who can stop it, Kazran Sardick (Dumbledore his own self, Michael Gambon), refuses to do so. The Doctor has one night to turn a mean, rich, old man nice.
Fortunately his old pal Charles Dickens had a recipe for just that.
Over a series of Christmases*, The Doctor tries to find a way to make Kazran a good person… but he might do more harm than he expected. And along the way there are flying fish, visits to the Rat Pack, fezzes, and a for old school fans, a brief appearance by a familiar giant scarf.
It’s love and loss, hilarious and heartbreaking, and it features a tour de force performance from an extra energetic Matt Smith. Moffat explained it thusly: in The 11th Hour, Smith was an unproven quantity. He was replacing the beloved David Tennant, no easy feat, and he knew he had a crowd to win. In A Christmas Carol, he’d won them over. Some might still prefer Ten to Eleven (not I, though it’s super close), but Eleven was still a hit. Which means Smith got to strut. The second The Doctor arrives via chimney (it’s Christmas, he got excited), he is captivating.
*Moffat also said “What if this show about a time traveller used time travel a bit more?”
Series Six: River Song and War With The Silence
Moffat believed that Doctor Who should always be event television. It‘s arrival should be an event, which meant not being predictable like American network television shows. This meant rarely premiering at the same time any given year, and in the case of series six, it meant taking just under three months off around the halfway point.
He had another new idea for series six as well. This was the year he said “Let’s open with the finale.” The two-part premiere, The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon, is every bit as epic, sweeping, dramatic, and eventful as most finales tended to be, with the exception that the stakes are less universal and more planetary. It’s a knockout opener that sets the stage for the year to come… the Silence, hinted at in series five, make their terrifying debut, there’s a mysterious girl who might be a Time Lord, a woman with an eye patch only Amy can see, River Song’s back, Amy has a secret, and The Doctor dies in the opening minutes. Although a Doctor 200 years older than last time Amy and Rory saw him… and the next, as it swiftly turned out.
Of course, once you’ve opened that big, you have to keep the the momentum going. So just saying “Bad Wolf” once a week is off the table. They needed equally big moments at the mid-point and the finale, and A Good Man Goes to War, the last episode before the three month hiatus, didn’t disappoint. It’s a huge showstopper of an episode, filled with twists and action and unforgettable characters (plus a couple of returns), and it sent us off to break with an instantly intriguing promise: “The Doctor Will Return in… Let’s Kill Hitler.”
And if the title of the finale, The Wedding of River Song, doesn’t have your attention, what show have you been watching?
Things get big in series six. The show embraces The Doctor as a galactic hero, only to have him realize he’s taken it all too far.
Although there’s a whole other reason the Silence is gunning for him… there’s a question The Doctor is destined to be asked. The first question, the oldest question in the universe, hidden in plain sight… a question they feel must never be answered. The Doctor must die. Silence must fall.
There’s a lot of prophesying in the back half. And worry not, it’s going somewhere.
Moffat realizes that The Doctor has been fighting off the worst that time and space have to offer for a long time now. Long enough that he’s become a figure of legend, heroic or horrifying depending on who’s telling the legend. Maybe this is one of the issues anti-Moffat people have… they preferred the anonymous wanderer to the man who stares down entire armies with a glib speech. But in fairness, this has been building for a while, since back in the Davies era. If not Dalek and The Parting of the Ways, then certainly when Ten stared down the Vashta Nerada in Forest of… the… Dead…
That’s a Moffat episode. Son of a bitch, that’s a Moffat episode.
In the back half, The Doctor himself realizes he’s become too big. He never meant to inspire the kind of fear that raises armies against him. So it’s time to step back. And, well, he is scheduled to die in two centuries, unless he can figure out a way around it.
(The continued existence of the show, and the two subsequent incarnations of The Doctor, might indicate he has a decent chance of figuring out a way around it.)
We also see a trait that has become a key part of the 11th Doctor: the old soul with a young face. Despite being the youngest actor to ever play the Doctor, Smith excelled at showing the weight of the Doctor’s 908 (1100 and change by the last couple of episodes) years of life. When his scheduled end draws near, he can’t pretend he hasn’t gotten tired.
That said, this might have something to do with having spent two centuries travelling more or less on his own. Sure, there’s some escapades with River Song along the way, but for those two centuries we don’t see, he’s mostly alone after parting ways with two returning friends.
Amy Pond is the first returning full-time companion since Rose Tyler. And she remains as Amy as ever.
Rory’s back as well, and now he’s a full companion instead of just popping in and out. He expands on his role from last year as the man willing to call out The Doctor when necessary. He loves the travel, and he loves doing it with Amy, and sure he likes to help people, but while he likes The Doctor fine, he’s never been under The Doctor’s spell. When a line’s being crossed, when Amy’s life is being risked, when there’s hypocrisy to be called out, Rory is on it. Also he dies a lot. But if you’ve made it this far that’s not news. He died twice last year alone.
Oh, and he can remember those 2000 years he spent guarding the Pandorica while made of plastic. Sometimes he can, anyway.
Series six also dips its toes into a whole new concept where companions are concerned: the idea that they can be dropped off at home for a spell. Classically, when a companion leaves the Tardis, that’s it. They’re done. An odd few might pop back for a visit (Rose, Martha, Sarah Jane), but in general, good-bye was good-bye, not “see you in a bit.” But The Doctor wanted to give them a chance at normal married life. Maybe a kid or two, which… well… you’ll see.
When we rejoin the Ponds in Impossible Astronaut, they’ve been on their own since the honeymoon. A month, maybe two, not more than three. But then after watching the older Doctor die, they’re back on the Tardis with younger Doctor for ooo, six or seven months before getting dropped back off after A Good Man Goes to War. No, yeah, that’s accurate, I have reason to know that time frame is about accurate. And after a realization hits late in the series, The Doctor sends them home again, to a new home he’s purchased for them (somehow), this time for good. Well, he thinks. The thing about The 11th Doctor is that he can never turn away from Amy forever. And even when he does, he can’t replace her. For two centuries, she leaves a void he can’t bring himself to fill.
(Some anti-Moffat people decry series six for two scenes in which The Doctor asks Rory for permission to hug Amy, rather than asking Amy, claiming that The Doctor is acknowledging Rory’s ownership of his wife’s body. To that I say… be serious. The Doctor and Amy hug all the time, he knows Amy is okay with hugging him, this is well and truly established and has been since The Beast Below. Rory, on the other hand, can be sensitive about his place in Amy’s life compared to The Doctor, and there are moments when The Doctor wants to make sure he’s not setting that off. He asks Rory for permission to hug Amy because Rory is the only person who would mind. Come on, people, surely there are better ways to fight rape culture than attacking platonic, consensual, mutually appreciated hugs. Because when you blow things like this out of proportion, you make it harder to talk about the real stuff.)
(Yes, hugs do require consent, so if Amy were uncomfortable about hugging him, this would be an entirely different conversation, but she’s not and it isn’t.)
The Life and Times of River Song
Sure our main story is the Silence’s latest effort to kill The Doctor, and the reason why they’re trying so hard to do so, but along the way we answer a key question… who is River Song? Who was she, and who will she be to The Doctor? Is she The Doctor’s wife (do not expect this question to be answered in The Doctor’s Wife)? Is she a murderer? She is good with that gun.
Look… I shouldn’t talk about it here. But suffice to say, it’s a satisfying story, every bit as twisted and timey-wimey as it deserves to be.
The Supporting Cast
Hmm… Amy, Rory, River… that’s about it, really. There are some spectacular one-offs along the way, some of whom even survive meeting The Doctor, but none I’d call a “supporting cast.”
Oh, except this. Remember when I said that Silurian Neve McIntosh (The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood) and Sontaran Dan Starkey (The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky) would be back as more notable characters? Well, it’s happening. A Good Man Goes to War introduces us to their more popular selves. McIntosh plays Madam Vastra, a Silurian who started solving murders in Victorian London (including catching– and eating– Jack the Ripper) with her maid/wife Jenny following a run-in with the Doctor. Starkey is Strax, a Sontaran The Doctor punished by making him serve as a combat nurse. Vastra, Jenny, and Strax are some of The Doctor’s first stops assembling his task force to hit Demon’s Run. We’ll be seeing more of them, even the one who seems to be dead.
The Big Bad: Chief among the Silence, and the species known by that name, are aliens who look a little like the classic grey aliens, with a suitably spooky twist. The trick of the Silence is that the second you stop looking at them, you forget they exist. They could be in the room with you and you wouldn’t know, because unless you’re looking at them you forget anything was there. They also work alongside some of the Catholic marines we met back in Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone.
(Some anti-Moffat people used The Doctor’s method of dealing with the Silence in Day of the Moon as a way of decrying Moffat and Eleven. To this I say… they had enslaved the Earth, they killed innocents on a whim, The Doctor gave humanity the only way of driving them out he could… and you’re taking their side? Who hurt you? And why didn’t it stick? Also, the scene where he springs his trap is amaze-balls, so nuts to you.)
This Year in Daleks: They mostly get the year off. One unfortunate Dalek gets a cameo appearance in the finale, but other than that, Moffat decided that maybe the most dangerous yet also most defeated race in the universe could use a year off to recharge. The Cybermen drop by a couple of times, though.
Classic Monsters Revived: None this year, but they double up with some deep-dives in series seven.
The Good: The Flesh are a good sympathetic creature, providing another two-parter where it isn’t clear whose side The Doctor should even be on. Actually there’s a lot of “monsters” who aren’t as bad as they seem this series. A siren preying on the sick and injured who’s less sinister than she appears; a minotaur feeding on faith that’s as eager as anyone for The Doctor to stop him; killer robot nurses who just want to help, it’s not their fault their medicine is lethal to humans; a shapeshifting person-shaped time machine with a minaturized human crew that actually wants to do some good for the universe, even if their idea of good is a little… Black Mirror. The giant wooden doll zombies with children’s voices, however, they’re just jerks.
You heard. Giant wooden doll zombies with children’s voices singing an ominous nursery rhyme. One friend snapped at that point, screaming “Fuck everything about this episode!” Also the nursery rhyme contains the theme for the rest of the year… “Tick tock goes the clock, he cradled and he rocked her… tick tock goes the clock… even for The Doctor.”
The Bad: They all work for me, really.
The Ugly: They don’t avoid having a lot of closeups of the minotaur just because that episode has some weird directing choices.
Back in the Davies era, Moffat would come in, write one story, and it would be the best one of the year. In series six, Neil Gaiman arrived to do the same thing to Moffat with The Doctor’s Wife. Although… when someone on Twitter attempted to get Gaiman to talk smack about Moffat, he not only heaped praise on Moffat as a writer and person, but also gave him credit for “all the best lines in The Doctor’s Wife.” And there are some great lines in that episode. Gaiman’s initial goal was to explore the larger Tardis interior, and to make it a hostile environment, but along the way he tripped over something wonderful.
The Doctor gets a distress call from a Time Lord named the Corsair, leading him to take the Tardis outside of space as we understand it to a meteor calling itself House. Soon the Tardis goes dead, because the soul of the Tardis has been planted into a woman named Idris. Finally, for the first time in seven centuries, The Doctor and the Tardis meet face-to-newly-acquired-face, and it’s amazing. Or, as The Doctor and Amy put it…
“She’s a woman and she’s the Tardis.”
“Did you wish really hard?”
The Doctor is hoping that he’ll find living Time Lords here. He thinks that if he does, maybe he can explain why he did what he did in the Time War, wiping his own people out.
“You want to be forgiven,” says Amy. The Doctor freezes, half turns back, and with just a hint of a crack in his voice, asks “Don’t we all?” Amazing moment, subtle and profound, utterly relatable and just a touch crushing.
Great lines. Fun episode. Really touching end. And I knew Moffat had to have written at least one line, the one about “the only water in the forest is the river,” but it wouldn’t be the first time Gaiman wrote a TV episode and left a note for the showrunner saying “put a prophecy in here.”
Curse of the Black Spot is pretty forgettable, and it’s sandwiched in between the far superior Day of the Moon and The Doctor’s Wife. But frankly that is as bad as series six gets: fun, interesting, but somewhat disposable. It’s a pretty solid year, all told.
The primary arc episodes–Impossible Astronaut, Day of the Moon, A Good Man Goes to War, Let’s Kill Hitler, and The Wedding of River Song– all range from really damn good to utterly spectacular. God Complex may have some really spotty directorial choices, but is notable for its sweetly tragic end, and the introduction of Tivoli, the most invaded planet in the galaxy (“Our anthem is ‘Glory to Insert Name Here.'”) Closing Time brings back an old friend, and it’s a perfect reunion.
Curse of the Black Spot and Night Terrors are adequate episodes that don’t add a lot to the overall year. I doubt you’d hate them, you’d probably enjoy them, but if you didn’t watch them you wouldn’t really miss much.
Actually, I kind of see Night Terrors as what Fear Her should have been. At the centre… spoilers… is a child who is actually an alien, but instead of trapping people inside of drawings out of selfishness, this alien child traps people inside of a doll house out of terror. Replacing an extended tantrum with a child’s nighttime panic attack makes all the difference in terms of sympathy. At least I felt so.
Notable Guest Stars
- Professional Awesome Guest Star Mark A. Sheppard, best known as Crowley on Supernatural but also a veteran of Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Chuck, White Collar, Leverage, and that’s just off the top of my head, brings his usual growly charms as ex-FBI agent Canton Everett Delaware III in the two-part premiere, one of those temporary companions that you wish could stick around. And his older self is played by his father, William Morgan Sheppard.
- Craig’s back! James Corden returns in Closing Time, as Craig pitches in for what The Doctor thinks will be his last ride. Every series could have involved a Doctor/Craig adventure and I’d have never minded.
- Supermodel Lily Cole is the siren-like figure haunting the pirates of Curse of the Black Spot. A phantom-like figure who lures men to their doom but doesn’t talk much is right up her alley, I feel.
- Perpetually underrated but always excellent British actor Michael Sheen, Frost in Frost/Nixon, Tony Blair in The Crown, and many other things, plays the voice of sentient meteor House in The Doctor’s Wife.
- Imelda Staunton also lends a voice as the Interface in The Girl Who Waited.
- Apparently Raquel Cassidy was on Downton Abbey. Not sure as who. Look, if you want Downton Abbey cast spotted, you’re mostly on your own.
Between the end of The God Complex and the start of The Wedding of River Song, The Doctor is happy to keep running, pretending he doesn’t have an unmissable appointment at Lake Silencio. The thing that changes that? The moment when he decides it’s time to head back to Utah (albeit after pulling one little trick)? He tries to call up his oldest human friend, Brigadier General Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, friend to Doctors Two through Seven, for a night on the town. But the nurse on the other end of the phone informs him that the Brigadier has passed on. This isn’t just a sad moment for The Doctor. It’s the show acknowledging the recent passing of Nicholas Courtney, who played the Brigadier across three decades of the original series and two episodes of more recent spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures. The Brigadier may have never made it to new Who, but his legacy, and his importance to the show’s history, aren’t forgotten.
Closing Time opens with a nice parallel to the opening of The Lodger, as Craig once again swings open the door expecting to see Sophie but instead is greeted by The Doctor. And on the subject of Craig, turns out that spaceship that was parked over his flat in The Lodger was an abandoned Silence craft.
One night in 2011, after a few nightmares, it was clear I wasn’t getting any more sleep, so I got up a few hours early and decided to catch up on Doctor Who. What did I get? God Complex. A hotel full of nightmares. Thanks.
Speaking of God Complex… every room in the hotel The Doctor and the Ponds find themselves in has someone’s nightmare in it. Including The Doctor’s. He finds his room, but we aren’t shown what’s in it. If you think that’s a cop-out, well, I used to think so too… but be patient.
Six years, six years I have been convinced that in one episode, The Doctor called Rory “Mickey,” confusing him with former companion-boyfriend Mickey Smith. I finally found the moment. It’s in The God Complex… but he didn’t say “Mickey.” He called Rory “Beaky.” Needless to say, I’m crushed.
The Doctor’s Wife is also the first episode I can think of to establish that Time Lords can and do shift gender during regeneration, beginning to pave the way for Jodie Whittaker. Sure it took six years to get there but, hey, it was a start.
Shoulda paid closer attention to that diner in Impossible Astronaut, Doctor. It’s gonna turn out to be significant in a while.
Impossible Astronaut changes the saddest moment of series four, as it shines a new light on when River and Ten crossed paths.
If you didn’t notice, a lot of complaints about Moffat and Eleven were aimed at series six. And these were the complaints that made it hard, if not impossible, for me to take the anti-Moffat crowd seriously. Two of the ones I flagged? Nonsense. Shenanigans. Although next series there’s… well… we hit a problem.
Doctor Quote of the Year: “Those were the days.” Nobody infuses that line with sadness like Matt Smith.
Historical Guest Star of the Year: The most notable comes in the first two episodes. Moffat and the writers thought “We keep having The Doctor meet all these really great characters from history, so this time why not have him meet someone who was a little bit rubbish?” And so did The Doctor team up with President Nixon in Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon.
In addition, Winston Churchill is back when time breaks in The Wedding of River Song. Charles Dickens also has a cameo in that episode, as a news team asks how he plans to top A Christmas Carol. Seemed a little meta, since the next episode would be the Christmas special, and people must have been wondering how Moffat would top his own A Christmas Carol. (Spoilers… he didn’t, but he tried.) And Hitler does predictably make an appearance in Let’s Kill Hitler.
Saddest Moment: “I just wanted to say… hello. Hello, Doctor. It’s so very, very nice to meet you.”