There are times – and those times are happening gratifyingly often these days – when an episode of Doctor Who leaves me gasping for breath, unable to fully process what it is that I’ve just experienced. Moments when all of the promise ineherent in the format suddenly pays off, massively and satisfyingly. These are the occasions when you count yourself fortunate to have kept the faith all these years, because you’ve been served up a treat that so totally justifies your love for the programme that you’re stunned at the idea that anyone – anywhere – might not love it as much as you do.
Day of the Moon (Saturday, BBC1) was one of those occasions. Ever since Steven Moffat moved from Russell T Davies’s Crown-Prince-In-Waiting to The Man In Charge, he’s been slowly shifting away from everything that was established in the previous few series. This is how it should be. No two eras of Doctor Who have ever been exactly identical. Indeed, it’s the juxtaposition of styles that keeps things fascinating. Every few years you get a shake-up and you’re watching a new programme, but one with just enough links to the past to make it feel like a massive, never-ending story.
Last year saw a few remnants of the Davies breakneck hugger-mugger, everything-at-once style. The Elveneth Hour started with the traditional Match of the Day zoom into a pell-mell opening scene with Murray Gold belting out something strident over the top, before the weirdness began to creep in. The weirdness was there all through last season, getting stronger and stronger.
That weirdness took over last night, in the most wonderful way. At times, I felt I was watching a magimix of all of the tv shows I’ve ever loved, from the torches-in-cellars antics of The X-Files, a bit of the hell-for-leather rampant adventure pacing of all of the best adventure serials, to the random, never-quite-explained weirdness of Twin Peaks. All fed into that beautiful Doctor Who format and spat out the other side as something unique.
It confused the hell out of me. It shocked me. It surprised me, constantly, and finally it delivered an authentic drop-me-bacon-sandwich moment which presumably set the internet forums into meltdown. I wouldn’t know, I was too busy gaping at the screen in astonishment.
There are certain things that appear in Steven Moffat scripts, over and over again. Some of them are immediately obvious – his love for twisting the plot and making your brains scream in your attempt to keep up. Some of them are perhaps slightly less so. He’s terribly fond of leaving little gaps in the narrative, forcing you to pay attention as you try to work out what’s been happening while your back was turned. Last week, Canton was very very much onside as we shivered our way towards the cliffhanger. Shockingly, this week we started one of our heroes captured already (The Doctor, in Area 51 and getting a little taste of the medicine that was doled out to the lone Dalek back when Eccleston was on the American beat). River, Amy and Rory were all on the run from the suits. We see Amy and Rory gunned down in cold blood by Canton, and River seemingly commiting suicide rather than suffer the same fate. All before the credits even rolled.
In a script that plays with concepts of perception and memory of course, all is not what it seems. Everyone is on the same side, attempting to combat an occupation that has happened off-screen and long ago. If Nigel Kneale were still with us, he might grump a bit about Doctor Who once again treading on his territory. He always said there were three basic science fiction plots – we go to them, they come to us, they were here already. Last night, we discovered that they were not only here already, but had been for a very long time indeed.
How do you defeat an enemy that lurks in the shadows, who is always there just behind your shoulder, and who you forget the minute you turn away? The Weeping Angels will get you if you don’t keep an eye on them at all times. The Silents will get you if you do. They’ve been here forever. Working themselves into our mythology, into our paintings, into our fiction, into our paranoid imaginings. Much like the Fendahl all those years ago, Mankind exists purely to be shaped and moulded into something that’ll prove useful for someone else. And the worst of it is, we never even know about it.
In amongst all this shuddering paranoia, we had room for one of the most breathtakingly audacious jokes that Doctor Who has ever seen. I’d been warned a few days before – there’s a routine involving one of the Tardis rooms that will have you groaning at the sheer levels of ridiculous on display, yet punching the air at the same time. That’s what they said. They were right. I didn’t punch the air. I bounced on the sofa and cheered though, as River trumped last year’s blown-out-of-an-airlock rescue with a plummet into the Tardis swimming pool. It was so beautifully thrown away, too – one minute she’s falling off a building, the next Alex is joining the gang and drying her hair. The confidence, the sheer brilliance of that moment, and it’s just chucked at you with no time for you to appreciate it, because there’s something else to move on to.
The best Doctor Who makes you grin like a maniac while the chills are creeping down your spine. Last night I switchbacked from cheering with joy to being freaked out like the programme has rarely managed before. When Amy turns round to reveal a nest of Silents hanging from the ceiling, batlike and watchful… the cold crept deliciously into the bones.
All through the episode every time things were getting too grim, we’d have a moment of comedy gold like Matt’s “There’s always one bit left over, isn’t there?” while sitting in the Apollo space capsule, or Tricky Dicky being heralded by a blast of “Hail to the Chief” on his every appearance. I swear that cue got shorter everytime, like Jack Elam’s does in The Cannonball Run.
The twists and turns and questions kept on coming. The mysteries, piling up. Just how long have The Silents been here? Is Amy pregnant, or isn’t she? Is that little girl her child? Was her pregnancy manipulated by the Silents, and if so, what happened to the child? Is the little girl related to Amy? Will she grow up to be River? What’s with River and The Doctor, anyway? Are they even more out of sync with each other than before? And then…
Everything slowed down, just for a few moments. While the main plot grumbled along in the background the focus shifted to Rory.
A lot of the noise and thunder about MoffatWho has focussed on the relationship between The Doctor and Amy, and quite rightly so as it’s a fascinating dynamic. Thing is… to concentrate on all of that is to miss out on some of the best, most subtle and affecting stuff that Doctor Who has ever been blessed with. Rory’s little conversation with The Doctor as he reveals just how much of his 2000 year vigil he remembers. His total devotion to Amy. Just watch Rory’s quiet determination as he lays it on the line for the Doctor – “She can always hear me, Doctor. Always. Wherever she is and she always knows that I am coming for her, do you understand me? Always.” That’s beautiful, romantic writing, and I felt my heart crack slightly as Amy seemingly ignored all of this in favour of yet another plea for The Doctor to come to her rescue.
To be honest, moments like that make me dislike Amy slightly, possibly because my tarnished, romantic soul wants Rory to have the ultimate fairytale ending. He deserves it, and it seems that Amy is totally unable to appreciate just what he’s done for her, and continues to do. As it turns out though, the little girl who waited is well and truly aware of just what the little boy who waited means to her. She’s just not very good at expressing it conventionally. As Amy and The Doctor had that little chat leaning against the console, I wanted Rory to come out of the shadows and punch them both. Thankfully we got something much more satisfying, and I’m glad that The Ponds now seem to be as devoted to each other as it seemed Amy was to her Raggedy Doctor. Lovely.
Meanwhile back at the main plot, threads were being drawn together. The console room from last year’s The Lodger was – presumably – left behind after humanity delivered a righteous kicking to The Silents, and if Moffat really had that planned all along, my hat goes off to him. Or would, if I was wearing one.
A little flashback sequence reveals just a bit more about all that foreshadowing last year, but with the promise of much more. Then… well, you know how Tom’s “Homo Sapiens…” speech in The Ark In Space is the moment when he nails it completely, where his Doctor gets a moment that you know will be quoted for years? Here comes Matt Smith, in yet another showboating, showpiece moment, but which feels like a genuine, old-style throwback to original flavour Doctor Who. Doctor against the enemy. No hope. With a fluorish, he saves the day, and the monsters get their backsides handed to them on a plate.
The last time humanity pitched in to help themselves, it was all a bit messianic with a magic Doctor floating across the screen and a Return of the Jedi funeral.
This time, humanity is saved by television, and the whupping is handed out off-camera. As someone once said, The Medium is The Message. Never more so than in this case, and it’s all because there’s a teeny-tiny gap in Neil Armstrong’s legendary speech. Just enough for The Doctor to go to work in. How very clever. How very wonderful.
Monsters despatched, it’s time for another Moffat favourite, where the main plot is neatly cleared away leaving room for a coda which leaves time for a few farewells before throwing things wide open again and making you question everything you’ve just watched.
River’s waters are muddied again (sorry). Now, not only are The Doctor and River travelling in opposite directions, but they’re meeting out of sequence. The time is out of joint. Oh, cursed spite. Who will be born to set it right? Amy’s little child, perhaps?
There’s even time for a little farewell to Canton and Tricky Dicky. Thanks to a word from The Doctor, it looks like Canton’s going to get to stay in the FBI after all. Nixon’s non-plussed reaction to Canton’s little revelation was another tiny moment, shining out in an episode of bigger, grandstanding moments. It’s a credit to both performers that it works so well.
One criticism I read today of Stuart Milligan’s portrayal of Nixon was the levels of charisma on display – in that Nixon’s defining characteristic is that he didn’t have any. Fair comment, I suppose, but I couldn’t help enjoying that little twinkling in the eye. Nice to have it confirmed that The Doctor had a hand in Nixon’s tape-recording of all of his conversations. Good one mate. Thanks to that, our hero sets events in motion that unseats another villain, almost by accident. Or is it?
At long last, we have an unattached Doctor with his best mate(s) travelling the Universe having rollicking adventures. As they set off for an exciting adventure with some pirates and a homicidal Lily Cole, it looks like we’re finished for the week.
Oh, no. Moff’s got one last surprise for us. If you saw it, you’ll know that it throws things wide open. Again. Who is that child? Why is she regenerating? Is Amy actually a Time Lady, slumming it in the manner of The Family of Blood, or Utopia? Is this connected with the energy drawn out of The Doctor when he died at the start of last week’s episode? Just how are we going to find our way back to that moment as the season wears in? I have no idea. No idea at all. And I love it. Is it Saturday yet?
Oh, and Kerry Shale was in it too. Like I needed any more reasons to love it.