Review: Doctor Who, S7, Eps. 1-5

I have thoroughly enjoyed showrunner/head writer Steven Moffat's fresh take on Doctor Who, and I've equally enjoyed Matt Smith's take on the character and the deepening relationship between the Doctor and his new companions, Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill). Part of the excitement may have been being in on Seasons 5 and 6 as they've been broadcast; I came to the 2005 reboot late and gorged on Netflix streaming of the episodes as my school and work schedule allowed. The redesigned Doctor Who title card for serie...

The problem with coming to the show late was that the conversations around the episodes had already happened, so it was like coming to a party late only to find the leftovers -- paper plates, cups, empty bottles and cans, and handsful of snack foods strewn all over the counters and tables -- after all the people have left the house and moved on to the next party. So part of my excitement about seeing the episodes as they've aired is also waiting to see what the reviews are like, whether I agree with them, leaving comments, and joining in the conversation myself.

I do have to often remind myself -- this is just a TV show and there are reasons beyond reasons why stories and seasons work out as they do. Reading The Writers Tale by previous showrunner and the man responsible for the series reboot Russell T Davies showed just how haphazard and crazy-making is the production that goes on behind the scenes. I'm sure Moffat's reign has been no different. That so many good episodes get made that delight so many people is something to be thankful for, and I usually find something to enjoy even in the so-so episodes.

Anyway -- the final episode of this mini-season aired over the weekend, so here are my (I hope) capsule comments. And keep in mind I've only seen these episodes once, so, caveat emptor. Also -- Spoilers!

Asylum of the Daleks

Well, I babbled on all about this episode in a previous post. I'll reiterate that, despite the story's longing to impress with its epic scale, it still felt like a small episode. Small emotionally, that is. I could never believe that Amy and Rory would have separated, so that seemed like fabricated conflict and it was never referred to again (much like Amy's inability to have children; she adjusted to that pretty well, didn't she?). But the Doctor's discovery of Oswin's true nature -- and the show's toying with the audience all the way through till the twist -- is classic Moffat and was absolutely brilliant. He has a weakness for being too clever by half and loves high-concept structures (such as Donna Noble's life in the library, which used the standard TV technique of jumpcuts as part of the storytelling method).

Still, a throat-grabbing season opener, written with his typical quickness and smash-panache. It's probably unfair to ask other writers to create Moffat-type blockbuster stories; he's really the only one who can do that kind of story justice. And he's one of the few to actually play with timey-wimey stories, though I fear he over-relies on certain types of time-travel stories to the exclusion of others.

Dinosaurs on a Spaceship

A romp, which is what was called for, but not a story I'll come back to often. The villain was the kind of unrelieved evil bastard that we rarely see in the series and I was frankly glad for the Doctor to send the guy to his reward, morals be damned.

What I liked most, though, was the interplay with Rory's Dad, Brian, and the changes that occur to him due to his adventuring in the TARDIS.

Amy, particularly, finds herself still to be the girl who's waiting for the whine of the TARDIS. Why is the Doctor's gaps between visits getting longer and longer? Also, that chilling moment of dialogue that Steven Cooper captured so well in his review:

When Amy tells of her fear that one day he'll simply stop showing up and she'll be left waiting forever, he promises her, "Come on, Pond. You'll be there till the end of me." Amy cheerfully replies, "Or vice versa," and then there's an odd, rather horrible pause until the Doctor finally says softly, "Done…" He immediately pretends that he just meant he had finished what he was working on, but it's obvious that something important has been set in motion. An ominous portent for the future, and a signal that the time for carefree adventuring is over.

Also, the way he looks longingly at Amy and Rory as they gaze down at Earth. The look of immense sadness on the Doctor's face is a signal to me that he already knows their future. And this is one of his last chances to let that sadness show.

A Town Called Mercy

Not much of Amy and Rory in this episode, but a great setting and a moral quandary reminiscent of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The Doctor is better used here, and the acting and speeches are all done to a faretheewell. For such a talky episode, I found it absorbing. Definitely one I'll see on a threepeat.

The big honking bash-us-over-the-head-with-it clue is that the Doctor was taking the Ponds to a Day of the Dead festival. Oh come on! Isn't that a little too on the nose?

The Power of Three

Most reviewers commented that this felt like a classic RTD episode: invasion of Earth, big emotions, UNIT. Good stuff and props to the writer Chris Chibnall for delivering an episode that delivered on the emotions but not so much on the story.

I agree with most of the reviews that say the ending did not live up to its promise, but when does that ever happen in most stories? The premise is always the best part, with Acts 1 and 2 exploring the implications of the premise. Act 3 usually comes up short. It's even worse in genre stuff like science fiction or Doctor Who (I like The Moff's description of the show as fantasy and fairy tale). As Harlan Ellison has said of writing science fiction, the emotional and intellectual content has to always sink below the level of the rococo furniture of plot, pacing, logic, etc. How many really great Doctor Who endings have there been? RTD hit the reset button multiple times, as did The Moff in "The Big Bang," so let's just be glad the ending didn't take up more time.

The A story for me was the Ponds finding that they enjoyed real life, non-Doctor life. I couldn't quite believe that Rory missed the running around and adventuring; he always struck me as the one most likely to want to settle down and live a normal life. And Brian's pointed question to the Doctor of what has happened to his previous companions was gloriously and gravely delivered by Matt Smith.

"Some left me, some got left behind, and some—not many, but… some died. Not them, Brian. Never them."

Does the Doctor know at this point what will happen next? If he does, how dare he look at Brian in the face, and smile, and salute? Even so, that final moment is gracious and wonderful.

The highlight, the sheer emotional pinnacle of the season thus far is the conversation between the Doctor and Amy, where he confesses his love for both Rory and Amy -- "you're imprinted on my hearts" -- and that he's never running away from things, but running to them before they fade -- as Rory and Amy will fade. It's a heart-choking moment as they simply sit and enjoy each other's company. Amy is the companion whose life has been the most affected -- even abused -- by her time with the Doctor. It's astonishing how Gillan lets Amy absorb those experiences and still find peace and happiness with both Rory and the Doctor.

Again -- is this the Doctor stealing one last moment of closeness with the Ponds after the New York adventure? Just because we see these stories in a particular order doesn't mean Moffat isn't playing timey-wimey games with us.

The Angels Take Manhattan

Oh. My. God. I had to watch the last 20 minutes standing up as I was too anxious and scared to sit without squirming. Typical Steven Moffat story! Timey-wimey, breakneck speed, fabulous images, chilling plot twists, and darker, more jagged emotional edges for the Doctor. I was aghast at how he left River to get herself free of the Angel and then not noticing the price she paid to get free -- and her determination to keep him from knowing the price all of his companions pay. Although River didn't play a big part in the story's big moments, her presence made this a family episode and she lent considerable weight to the emotional moments.

Amy and Rory are getting older, as is River -- but not the Doctor. The Doctor loves Amy and Rory but we know he also likes the company of the young and can't bear to see these short-lived humans he loves wither and die. How to resolve this? And -- the actors playing Amy and Rory have stated they don't want to do any cameo appearances on later episodes. The Ponds' farewell has to be final, and Moffat must craft that type of story. (Unless he's lying. Rule One: Moffat Lies.)

Yes yes yes, there are plotholes. (How come Amy and Rory aren't scooped up the big Angel when they're not looking at her? Why aren't the Doctor and River taken by the graveyard angel? Where do Amy and Rory wind up when they're sent back?) But as Moffat has said, the scene on the roof with Amy and Rory is where they grow up, where they come into their own and are free of the Doctor. The Doctor offers little help to anyone in this episode and suffers the most loss. The cleverness that enabled a reboot of the universe and escaping death on the beach is not present here. Amy's final scene, as she has to say good-bye to the Doctor and give instructions to River without turning to look at them, was powerful and wrenching. I'm sad that Rory didn't have a similar farewell scene, but his moments on the rooftop made up for that.

Notice how the headstone didn't include their years? Probably not significant. The point was to show that they had lived long, full lives -- without the Doctor. And continued to help him with the writing of the novel that provided the clues he needed to get him out of the dilemma with the Angels. That device is so reminiscent of what Sally Sparrow does in "Blink"; Moffat really loves to pieces and overuses the Bootstrap paradox of time travel, and I dearly wish he could think himself out of that device and play a little more.

I so, so want a few lines in a future episode where he looks them up in old newspapers or books -- why did they stay in New York? How did they survive their first days in New York with no ID, no money, no friends, no comforts of home? How could two people used to the comforts of the modern era adapt to mid-20th century life? But then, hadn't they survived much worse? Maybe it's enough to know that they lived happily ever after and -- though they didn't decide it on their own -- had stopped waiting and started living.

Final stray thoughts

  • I've enjoyed Moffat's series-long arcs, with all their clues and secrets that only made sense after the season was up and I saw the episodes again. Despite Moffat's contention that this mini-season would be made up of standalone blockbuster episodes, I still think he has laid clues and elements that tie the stories together into a whole. I can't wait to watch these episodes again, now that the Ponds -- I should say, the Williams -- have well and truly left the scene.
  • One of the visual motifs many commenters noticed was that each episode had blinking, buzzing light bulbs on the verge of going out. I don't think that has any deeper significance than being a visual/sonic element to tie these stories into more of a thematic whole. I will note that Moffat likes buzzing light bulbs; just watch "Jekyll." Also, I remember Francis Ford Coppolla talking about a scene in "Godfather II," where Vito Corleone's first victim pauses in a hallway to screw in a lightbulb that's blinking and buzzing. Coppolla's contention, as I remember it, was that something odd has to happen just before a major explosive event, something out of the ordinary that signals the extraordinary that is about to come. Think about those eerie moments before Sonny is killed in "The Godfather"; he knows something is wrong but doesn't know what. Similarly, I think Moffat told the writers or production team to throw in some buzzy light bulbs to signal to the audience that something was about to happen, so keep watching.
  • One of the thematic motifs for this season has been endings, growing older, and growing up. Amy and Rory are aging faster than their friends, she needs reading glasses, River needs to keep up a bravura front (wasn't she supposed to be growing younger?). But the Doctor hates endings and the Doctor never ages. As one reviewer has remarked, series 5-7 have been about the companions -- these stories have been about Amy and Rory's journey.
  • I think the blockbusters idea sounded great on paper and made for great-looking episodes -- better than anything seen in the RTD era -- but their size and scale failed to deliver what a good bottle show like "Amy's Choice" could. The stories were so big and so swift, yet had to compressed to less than 45 minutes. that there was no time to let the emotional moments breathe. I missed those moments.
  • Various reviewers made much of Amy's repeated warnings to the Doctor not to travel alone, that traveling solo unmoored him from his moral bearings. No one ever mentioned that Donna Noble said this to the Doctor way back in "The Runaway Bride." So I couldn't help but think this was simply reiterating a point that had been made very effectively years ago. And I couldn't see right off what Amy's observation added to it.
  • Also, let's remember -- it's early days yet. After I've lived with these stories for a while, and seen the episodes again, I may feel very differently. Moffat's stories have always rewarded repeat viewings.
  • Can we have a round of applause please for Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill? I was not impressed by Gillan in "The 11th Hour" but by the time of "Amy's Choice," I thought she was great and she only got better, with "The Girl Who Waited" being her masterwork. And Darvill, stuck with a potentially thankless part, made the most of it and became a great source of decency, strength, humor and humanity in the stories.

I may yet have another Doctor Who related post up my sleeve at some timey-wimey in the future. Until then -- waiting impatiently for the Christmas episode!

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Michael E Brown @brownstudy