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A Matter of Time – Doctor Who: Season 5

Sorry… Sorry! Dropped it!

Hello, Stonehenge! Who takes the Pandorica, takes the universe. But bad news everyone… cause guess who! Listenw you lot, cause you’re all whizzing about – it’s really could distracting. Could you all just stay still for a minute? Because I. am. talking!

Now, question of the hour: who’s got the Pandorica? Answer: I do. Next question: who’s coming to take it from me?

C’mon!

Look at me: no plan, no backup, no weapons worth a damn – oh, and something else I don’t have? Anything to lose! So if you’re sitting up there in all your silly little spaceships with your silly little guns and you’ve got any plans on taking the Pandorica tonight, just remember who’s standing in your way; remember every black day I ever stopped you; and then – and then! – do the smart thing: let somebody else try first.

– The Doctor, The Pandorica Opens

Well, the first season of Stephen Moffat’s run of Doctor Who is over. And what a ride it was. On one hand, you had budget cuts at the BBC, putting an even great financial strain on the show’s transition to high definition, the first wholsecale chance of the entire cast between seasons since the show’s transition to colour in 1970 (and, fittingly, this was the show’s transition to high definition), and you had the World Cup skewing ratings towards the backend of the season. On the other hand, you had the writer of some of the show’s best episodes directing the entire run behind the scenes, the exploration of the time travelling nature of the central protagonist, and a blatant admission that the show is more a fairytale than a science fiction epic. And along the way, there was barely enough time to catch your breath.

No time to lose...

Amy Pond, there’s something you’d better understand about me cause it’s important, and one day your life may depend on it: I am definitely a mad man with a box!

– The Doctor, The Eleventh Hour

Perhaps the fairest comparison between this brand new season is to the very first season of revival. New doctor, new companion, new producer. It should also be noted that I am disproportionately fond of that first year – it felt like Russell T. Davies had a big Doctor Who story he’d always wanted to tell, with a beginning, middle and end, and this was it. So it felt with this season – it felt like Moffat had been planning this since he was a child, what with the Doctor’s mysterious future friend, River Song, the frequent perspective of the lead character as viewed through the eyes of a child, and the Legion-of-Doom-esque team-up of all the big baddies at the finale. This season was a story which had been folded over in the writer’s head many times before making it to the screen – and felt the better for it. In many ways, the season works better as a single story rather than thirteen episodes.

Gone was Russell T. Davies’ notion of “the lonely god”, replaced with the idea of “a warrior or a goblin or a trickster”. It’s telling that the season’s only mention of “the Oncoming Storm” (the Doctor’s nickname from the Daleks, as established in The Parting of the Ways) was a joke at a football match in The Lodger. To Moffat, the Doctor was never a god, even in the mould of the Olympians or the Romans. He was, instead, a fairytale (“we’re all stories in the end”) – a man who “would just drop out of the sky and tear down your world”. It’s neat that, throughout the season, Moffat has used the device of telling us about the Doctor without admitting to telling us about the Doctor – Ten’s egomania was an endearing part of his character (“I’m brilliant!”), but here Moffat prefers to introduce us to something, only later revealing to be a facet of his lead. In the case of Amy’s Choice and The Pandorica Opens, these little snippets hinged on us not knowing that they were descriptions of the Doctor (we assumed they referred to “The Dream Lord” and the thing inside the Pandorica). Indeed, The Beast Below and Vampires in Venice told us the story of the Doctor through analogy. In those creatures – the old, the powerful, the last – he and we saw himself reflected.

For man with a time machine, he's always tard(is)y...

So, is this how it works, Doctor? You never interfere in the affairs of other peoples or planets….unless there’s children crying?

Yes.

– Amy and the Doctor, The Beast Below

It’s a wonderfully effective storytelling tool – particularly when coupled with the idea of the character as viewed through the eyes of a child. The companion dynamic this year is consciously more magical than in previous years. Whereas Ten found “a mate” and his “best friend” in Donna, Eleven is Amy’s “imaginary friend” who returned after a rather long absence. Moffat’s set up of the Amy/Doctor dynamic is rather wonderful, with him literally falling out of the sky while she was just a child and then disappearing until she became much older. In a way, it’s almost like Drop Dead Fred, a movie about a woman’s childhood imaginary friend returning just as she needed him. Yet, Moffat has gleefully sexualised the relationship – take for instance that hilarious seduction sequence at the end of Flesh and Stone (“About what I want. About who I want. You know what I mean?” “Yeah! … No.” “About WHO I want.” “Oh! Right, yeah! … No, still not getting it.”) – which works if only because it acknowledges the fact that the character has a thing about travelling through time with pretty young ladies, but (in this incarnation at least) is completely oblivious to the connotations.

Still, it’s fascinating to see Moffat working at integrating the recent relaunch of the show with the original era. Episodes like Vincent and the Doctor and The Beast Below have been peppered with references to all ten past interations of the lead character. Davies never really ignored what came before his reintroduction of the show, but he only rarely engaged with it – so much so that a shot sketches of the Doctor’s previous nine faces in a diary in Human Nature represented a huge moment. Moffat is much more serious about the link. In many ways, it seems a concerted effort to link what came before with what is occurring now.

Dream on...

Ok, we’re going to get to that command deck, and we’re going to stop the angels, we’re going to save Amy, and we’re going to get everybody home.

How?

I’ll do a thing.

What thing?

I don’t know! It’s a thing in progress! Respect the thing.

– The Doctor and River Song, Flesh and Stone

I was impressed with a lot of the season, but I have to concede that some elements didn’t quite come together. The budget cuts were, unfortunately, quite obvious in episodes like Victory of the Daleks – which really felt hyper-condensed in a forty-five minute slot and rather ridiculous confined to simply the war bunker and the inside of an IKEA-assembled Dalek ship (which looked like a bland, white room, to be honest). The special effects in The Vampires of Venice seemed a little strained as well. On the other hand, the low key episodes that seem to have been constructed to save money – The Lodger and Amy’s Choice spring to mind – really worked well.

There was also a noticeable tonal shift between Davies’ writing and Moffat’s writing. Davies’ writing had a lot of heart but not really a lot of brains – his ideas were often too ambiguous or stretched or one-note, hidden inside wonderful character moments. On the otherhand, Moffat is the master of structure and clever concepts – seriously, Time of Angels is amazing as a concept-heavy episode – but somehow lacked the human connection which Davies offered. With the exception of Matt Smith’s Doctor, there were few standout characters this season – nothing akin to the work that Davies did, for example, with Donna or Rose and her family or Jack or Wilf or even guest characters like Jackson Lake or the Master. Amy had an ingeniusly and meticulously planned backstory, but she lacked the personality of classic companions, despite Karen Gillen’s best efforts – although I have grown quite fond of Arthur Darvill’s Rory (“the boy who waited”). Part of the appeal of The Lodger was that it offered a few of the guest characters this season who seemed “real”. Despite loathing Lesbian Vampire Killers with every fibre of my being, I actually wouldn’t mind seeing James Corden on the show again.

The season was beautifully planned, down to a tea...

Would. You. Care. For. Some. TEA?

– The Daleks express the quirky Britishness of the show, Victory of the Daleks

On the other hand, Moffat’s writing was smart and crisp and great – nowhere near as messy as his predecessor’s. Seriously, check out some of the wonderfully quotable lines the show offered up this year – and check out the fact that the series – launched nearly half-a-century ago on the premise – finally explored time travel to its full potential. I adored that Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone offered the Doctor dealing with the consequences of an action he had yet to commit. Or that his out-of-sequence encounter with River Song back in Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead was not a coincidence. Or that the entire series took place on the night before Amy’s wedding. Or the fact that the Doctor actually time-travelled backwards through the season.

Not only that, there was a fascinatingly bold experimental streak running through the year. Vincent and the Doctor did feature a monster, but it was also a strangely quite character study. I’m not entirely happy with it – the ending was a little too sweet – but it was something else and did deal with the painter’s fragile mental state in a surprisingly considered and mature manner. Amy’s Choice offered us a superb meta-criticism of the show (through the wonderful figment of the Doctor’s subconscious, embodied by Toby Jones), which is something very few shows (and fewer iconic shows) would dare attempt.

I’m actually really pleased with how the show tied together, much better than in previous years. Davies was fond of using an arc word (“Bad Wolf” or “Torchwood” or “Mister Saxon” or “the Medusa Cascade”) throughout his seasons as a bit of foreshadowing. Occasionally we’d even get an episode or two with a subplot which played into the finale (The Long Game for Bad Wolf; Age of Steel for Army of Ghosts; The Lazarus Experiment for The Sound of Drums) or even a repeated plot element (the bees disappearing – in a nod to Douglas Adams – and the disappearing planets before The Stolen Earth), but nothing akin to what happened here. Here, the consequences of the season finale played backwards through the timestream, and a lot of insignificant events (the Doctor’s chat to Amy in Flesh and Stone (“remember”) or Amelia falling asleep with her suitcase, waiting impatiently, or Amy’s big house) all tied together nearly perfectly into The Big Bang.

The Doctor and his most faithful companion...

Oh, okay. I escaped, then. Brilliant. I love it when I do that. Legs? [checks his legs] Yes. Bowtie? [checks his bowtie] Cool. [checks his head and shrugs dismissively] I can buy a fez.

– The Doctor, The Big Bang

The finale was perfect. It avoided the bombast of previous seasons (confined, mostly, to the British Museum – appropriately enough). Even the reset button – “Big Bang II” – felt oddly appropriate as the entire season had been an attempt to “reboot the universe”, with the cracks and the explosion of the TARDIS serving as an almost logical reset button. Moffat likely won’t get away with the same trick twice, but here it made sense. It was nice to get a few minutes with the Doctor at the end, a sharp contrast to the “big” moments one associates with the finales. Like the TARDIS, the finale was “big and little” at the same time, perhaps like the show itself.

It also helps that the finale was packed to the brim with the type of incredible moments that Moffat writes so easily. Not least of which was the fact that – even in death – the TARDIS kept the Earth warm for as long as it could. Or the Doctor sacrificing himself for his companion (which makes a change from the past couple of years where the onus has been on the companion to do the same sort of thing in the series finale – Martha’s wandering across the surface of the planet, Donna becoming brilliant, only to lose everything).

It was interesting to see Moffat phrase the episode’s resolution in purely spiritual (and borderline religious) terms. “If something can be remembered, it can come back” is more than a little bit similar to the “belief” resolution at the end of The Last of the Timelords. However, Davies couched his ideas in meaningless and unnecessary technobabble (“the archangel network”), whereas Moffat treats the notion as important of itself – it’s hokey, but why do we have to pretend it’s something less ridiculous than it is. Perhaps symbollic of the change in tone, Richard Dawkins has gone from the voice of reason during his cameo in The Stolen Earth to the butt of a “star cult” joke at the start of The Big Bang. Whereas his appearance lent the show credibility during Davies era, Moffat seems to say that the show doesn’t need that credibility. It’s a fairytale and shouldn’t be ashamed of it.

And, in some ways, it felt nice that show seems to be adopting a slightly larger attitude to plotting. Looks like we’ll have to wait to determine what exactly it was causing the explosion of the TARDIS on that date in time and whether River Song actually killed the Doctor. It’s a nice way of seeding events and sidesteps the potential exposition dump the finale might have required. Part of me is peeved at having to wait, but most of me is quite simply excited by the potential storytelling threads. Plus, the Christmas special – “an Egyptian goddess loose on the Orient Express. In space.” I’m there.

Vincent paints his monster in a new light...

It was also interesting to see the show play with the concept of its “monsters”. Apparently the BBC mandated that every episode of the relaunch feature a monster in some form or other. Here, none of them were what they seemed and at least the majority of them could be considered strangely sympathetic. The Beast Below was not a monster at all, the roving predator in Vincent and the Doctor was a terrified blind beast. The Doctor himself was the monster in Amy’s Choice – and, arguably, in The Pandorica Opens. In many ways, even the grand alliance of villains at the end of The Pandorica Opens were acting as heroes – trying to save the world (which, in fact, calls to mind a comic book I read recently – Justice – where a band of supervillains similarly grouped together to save the world from the heroes). Admittedly the show has used the concept of misunderstood monsters before, but it plays through the season like a theme. It’s a welcome note of moral ambiguity which fits well as a segue after the end of Davies’ run. After all, the tenth doctor’s time was truly up when he made himself supreme arbitrator of right and wrong at the climax of The Waters of Mars.

I like Matt Smith as the Doctor. It’s a tough role to step into, particularly for a young actor. He’s relaly made the role his own, feeling somehow unique and different to each of the iterations before him, yet calling to mind several of the older versions. In fact, despite being younger, he manages to make the character truly seem older than Tennant or Eccleston did in the role. It’s also reassuring that the character’s angst over the loss of his people in the Time War seems to have come a full circle after The End of Time, Part II – to the point where he can simply summarise it as “bad stuff happened”. Oh, and I’m starting to agree with him. “Bow ties are cool.”

Blast from the past...

It was a great first season and hopefully a sign of things to come. Hopefully the BBC can bring itself to restore the budget because… well, it’s among the very finest things airing on British television. It’s proof that television doesn’t need to be dumb or stupid or to condescend – and it’s all the more remarkable for doing this as “family” television. My aunt, my parents, my better half and my little sister all follow the show and all get little things out of it. In the meantime, Moffat can take pride in a job well done.

Is it Christmas yet?

Ahhh! But we’ve got surprise on our side – they’d never expect three people to attack twelve thousand Dalek battleships… because we’d be killed, instantly. So, it’d be a fairly short surprise. Forget surprise.

– The Doctor, The Pandorica Opens

9 Responses

  1. I loved the series despite disliking certain episodes but the final episode left me cold. I hated the final sequence, I’m utterly raging they brought back Rory and the final line didn’t leave me wanting more. I didn’t even shed a tear when Amy was shot. Either I’ve come to expect Richard Curtis sentimentality or this episode was just a little bit meh.

    • I was actually overjoyed that we finally got an unambiguously happy ending, after so much angst. I don’t want it every year, but it felt right. And I didn’t mind the reset, as it was fairly thoroughly set up. I don’t know, I can see that finale polarising people a bit, though.

  2. Hey Whats up, I’m a new Reviewer, just started reviewing moviews, you think you can give me, a couple of pointers? See what Im doing wrong? Btw Like all of your reviews, lots of personality

    http://koungaroo.wordpress.com/2010/06/27/killers-2010/

  3. Where did you get “Anything. Two limbs” from?

    (pssst…It’s” anything to lose”)

  4. Drop Dead Fred wasn’t played by Richard E. Grant – he was Rik Mayall (who would’ve made a fine Doctor, come to think of it).

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