Spoiler Level: Medium, because there are too many big things to spoil them all properly.
Last year's Doctor Who season opener, "The Eleventh Hour," was—by coincidence and design—a good jumping-on point for the series. Season 5 began with a perfect storm of transition, simultaneously ushering in a new Doctor (Matt Smith), a new companion (Amy Pond, played by Karen Gillan), and a new creative team (led by executive producer, head-writer, and evil-genius Steven Moffat). It was an unusual situation: fans with more encyclopedic knowledge will no doubt correct me, but I think this is only the third time in 48 years that Doctor Who has begun a season with such a totally clean slate; there is usually a familiar hand at the helm, a familiar Doctor to welcome a new companion, or a familiar companion to reassure viewers that the latest madman is still the Doctor we know and love.
Moffat rose to the challenge and used the opening to good advantage. As I discussed last week, he cleverly gave us a brand new companion, Amy Pond, who had somehow known the Doctor all her life; in the process, since both the 7- and 21-year-old versions of the character were on hand, Amy served as a surrogate to whom children and adults could relate. And the story itself was good for all audiences: clever without being confusing, scary without being traumatizing, funny without descending into farce. It wasn't the best episode of Doctor Who ever, but it accomplished its purpose: to make new and old viewers alike feel like they were in safe hands.
With this year's season opener, on the other hand, Moffat seems to have different goals entirely, and "safe" is nowhere on the agenda.
Last week I quoted Moffat on how Doctor Who is fundamentally a fairy tale, but I left out the part where he said that "fairy tales are the way we tell our children that there are people out there who might want to eat them." As a writer, Moffat had a reputation for a while of being afraid to kill anyone onscreen. (The first story he wrote, in Season 1, ended with the Doctor joyously proclaiming "Just this once, everybody lives!") But Moffat is also responsible for some of modern era's scariest monsters (the Empty Child, the Clockwork Men, the Weeping Angels, the Vashta Nerada), and some of its darkest moments (the end of "Girl in the Fireplace," the sad death of Miss Evangelista in "Silence in the Library," and Kazran Sardick's abusive father in "A Christmas Carol," to name just a few.) He's to be blamed for more than his share of soiled pants and troubled dreams.
In addition to giving children nightmares, Moffat enjoys giving viewers of all ages headaches, especially through "wibbley-wobbley, timey-wimey stuff." For a show about a guy with a time machine, Doctor Who has rarely employed time travel itself as a plot device: time travel has primarily been used as a way to get to the story, not as a story-element in its own right. But Moffat, perhaps more than any show-runner before him, likes the possibilities and paradoxes of jumping backwards and forwards in the time-stream, the Möbius strip construction of plots that circle back on themselves from effect to cause and back to effect.
There are many charms to be found in this sort of writing, but also many pitfalls. When it works, it’s a delight, as in the brilliant opening sequence of last season’s “The Time of Angels.” When it doesn’t work, however—as in the resolution of the cliffhanger between “The Pandorica Opens” and “The Big Bang”—it can feel like a cheat, a too-easy deus ex machina tempus that weakens the integrity of Moffat’s writing and undermines any sense of threat.
Based on this season’s opening volley, the two-part story, "The Impossible Astronaut" and "Day of the Moon," we can count on seeing the less reassuring sides of Steven Moffat in Season 6: the monster-under-the-bed side, the temporal mind-fuck side, the I-dare-you-to-guess-what-will-happen-now side. This is hide-behind-the-sofa, sink-or-swim Doctor Who, and from the looks of things Moffat is just getting warmed up.
I won't attempt to summarize the plot here, because I couldn't possibly, and if you've not seen the episodes you should stop reading this review right now. I will say that this was full-throttle Doctor Who, and full-throated Steven Moffat—possibly to a fault. Moffat threw everything but the kitchen sink in these two, and then he threw in the sink, and then he pulled a few nasty things out of the sink, just for good measure. As a result I'm not sure yet the episodes completely work; they seem to move through elements too quickly, and they definitely raise many more questions than they resolve—too many, perhaps, for Moffat to ever resolve, especially when you add them to the ones already hanging.
First, there is the Silence, our new scary-assed villains, who look like Edvard Munch’s Scream but also bear a more than passing (and less than coincidental) resemblance to the “gray men” of alien-encounter lore. They are classic Moffat creations: with the Weeping Angels, you couldn’t take your eyes off them or they would kill you instantly; with the Silence, you can’t take your eyes off them or you will forget them instantly. (Also like the Weeping Angels, they become more logically problematic if you think about them too much, but let's try not to do that.) You can feel how badly the show wants us to be terrified of the Silence, but somehow they just aren't as scary as they should be—yet. (One of the problems is that they don't do anything. They look creepy, and it's a scary idea that you can see a dozen of them advancing on you in a dark room and then forget they're there—but unless they then do something to you, they become less threatening and more...well, forgettable.) But I'm willing to suspend my disbelief: despite the rather hasty resolution to what we are told is their 800,000 year (give or take) occupation of the Earth, we know we haven't seen the last of these bastards.
But the Silence almost seem like the least important elements of this two-parter, which starts with the 1,103 year-old Doctor crossing his own time-stream to invite all his friends—and his 908-year-old self—to his own death, and then really gets complicated. Next, there's the mystery of the Silence's pet girl in an astronaut suit, which may or may not also be the mystery of Amy's on-again, off-again pregnancy, which may or may not also be related to the mystery of River Song, who may or may not also be responsible for the Doctor's mysterious death. (And, lest we forget, we also have the mysterious woman I'm calling Big Nurse Eyepatch, who appears just long enough to suggest this might all be a dream.)
And if we weren't already thoroughly confused, Moffat has one more surprise for us: the mysterious little girl can fucking regenerate.
Did I mention that these episodes did not make quite such a good jumping-on point as last season's opener? That they are not quite so user-friendly?
You have to admire the balls on Steven Moffat, and his willingness to do something different with a 48-year old show. And this is completely different storytelling than we're used to—open-ended, with on-going sub-plots, and a slightly more adult tone than we've seen in a while. Last year, the most common phrase heard among the fan base this time of year was, "In Moffat We Trust." Now, a year later, it seems to be, "I don't want Doctor Who to turn into Lost." Cynics have pointed out that this is a much more "American" style of television, a shift that happens to coincide with BBC America's full-court press to market Doctor Who on our heathen shores. (That may be true, and if the BBC and Moffat have decided to go after the American market in a bigger way, more power to them.)
But I doubt the push into the American market is the only reason for the change—in fact, I doubt it factored much at all. Since Doctor Who began there have been nearly 800 individual episodes broadcast, comprising over 200 full stories—and that's not counting audio-dramas, novels, and other non-canonical material. The formula and consistency may be what makes it work, as I argued last week, but there is also a constant necessity to keep the show fresh, and to find the places it has never gone before. It's a tricky path to walk: to keep us guessing, to keep us wondering, to tell new stories and new kinds of stories while still keeping everything that makes it Doctor Who.
I'm more than willing to allow Moffat and crew some license, and see where they take us. But I confess I also loved the little meta-shout-out at the end of "Day of the Moon," when the Doctor says they could go investigate who the little girl is, and what it all means, or they could go off and have a few adventures first. "Who's in the mood for adventures?" he asks.
Yes, please. Endlessly un-resolved sub-plots are okay, but let's go have a couple of good old-fashioned stand-alone adventures for a while. Pirates? Cool. An evil mermaid? Awesome. A self-contained set, a ship in distress, and some silly costumes and swordplay? Sounds just about right. Sounds very Doctor Who.
And now a new regular feature, which I'm calling Things I Meant to Discuss But Didn't Get Around to This Week:
- The show looks fucking fabulous. People who were complaining last year about budget cuts are suspiciously silent this year: Doctor Who has never looked this good. It's not just the wide-open vistas of the location shoots, it's also the production design, the decidedly non-dodgy special effects, and the incredible attention to detail. (The orphanage set scared me far more than anything lurking within it.) This is a production team working at the height of their powers.
- It seems some fans are taking issue with the slightly less pacifistic Doctor in these episodes, but I suspect they are mostly new series fans, and, specifically, David Tennant fans. Yes, the Doctor has always abhorred violence, and prefers to talk and reason his way out of conflicts—but it was only during the Tennant era that executive producer Russell T. Davies decided to make the Doctor into Jesus Christ. To me, the Doctor is the kind of guy who gives you every opportunity to back down, and then—when you force him to—he just wipes your entire species out of the universe without a moment's thought. Moffat and Smith seem to be bringing back the Do-Not-Fuck-With-Me Doctor, and I like it.
- Sometime very soon I have to find room to properly praise this cast—especially Matt Smith, who is just staggeringly good. One moment he's hanging upside-down and being marvelously childish—"I'm being extremely clever up here and there's no one to stand around looking impressed! What's the point of having you all?"—and a few moments later he's slumping in a chair, looking dire, looking tired, looking every day of his 900+ years. I love this guy.