Tuesday 4 October 2011

Season 6: an overview.

Dr Who, death of the Doctor, The Impossible Astronaut, Lake Silencio
A man rarely enjoys being split in two, and so the question was how would Dr Who cope with 2011 being a year of two halves?

Well, the way it started suggested it'd cope quite nicely as The Impossible Astronaut promptly flung a hand grenade under us with the death of the Doctor before growing more baffling and mysterious by the minute. It was anyone's guess just what was going on but it was never less than gripping, with a great cliff-hanger ending that saw our protagonists facing certain death.

Its follow-up - The Day of the Moon - suffered from a poorly judged beginning, the equivalent of a bad writer declaring, "With one mighty bound he was free!" as we were suddenly joining our heroes several months after the previous episode's cliff-hanger, with a garbled to non-existent explanation of what'd happened in between.

Nevertheless, once the opening was out of the way, the episode created an unforgettable atmosphere of mystery and intrigue, with a great sequence in an abandoned children's home and a genuinely clever resolution that fully justified the backdrop of Neal Armstrong's moon landing.

Sadly, after this, things quickly took a downturn. The Curse of the Black Spot wasted no time in reminding us that pirate romps aren't as easy to do as they might seem and, without the necessary panache, can soon find themselves all at sea.

Next came arguably the year's most talked about episode; Neil Gaiman's The Doctor's Wife, which the critics and most fans loved but I thought was genuinely poor. Suranne Jones was excellent but the idea of the Doctor having a near romance with his TARDIS was for me a dire warning of what happens when you let fans write a show.

For me, following a hugely promising start, the season was now struggling to get going.

That feeling deepened with The Rebel Flesh, a solid but dull episode that barely seemed to have enough ideas to fill one episode, let alone two.

But then something odd happened because, although 95% of the two-parter's plot'd been used up in the first half, the second instalment - The Almost People - managed to be a noticeable improvement. It still had its weaknesses but the whole thing felt less workmanlike, and Matt Smith seemed to be enjoying himself immensely playing two Doctors at the same time.

Sadly, the episode's good work was betrayed by Steven Moffat bolting an ending on that totally went against the spirit of all that had gone before, as the Doctor killed Amy's ganger lookalike after spending two episodes telling everyone not to kill gangers.

Still, despite that, it did set us up nicely for the mini-season's conclusion - A Good Man Goes to War - an outing I personally loved, giving us a Sontaran nurse and a Victorian lesbian adventurer, as the Doctor finally encountered and took on the season's main villains.

And if the revelation that River Song is Amy's daughter felt like the air being let out of a balloon after all the build-up we'd been given, it wasn't enough to mar my otherwise fond memories of the tale.

It was a long cold hard summer of endless rain and falling temperatures in Sheffield. At least that's how I remember it but the series returned with Let's Kill Hitler, one of the great episode titles of all time. It was a fun romp but I'm not sure a fun romp was what was required after we'd been plunged headlong into a war between the Doctor and a nut-job religion in the preceding story. Some of us had been expecting the show to ramp up a gear from that point on.

After such overly-rich fare, Mark Gatiss brought us back down to Earth with Night Terrors which managed to be less than the sum of its parts. It also set a worrying trend, with Rory and Amy seeming unbothered  about the fact their kidnapped daughter was still missing. Part of this problem was created by episodes not being broadcast in the order originally intended but, even if they had been, it's hard to see how the effect of seeing things in the right order would've made any huge difference.

After this came the Girl Who Waited, a chance to explore Amy and Rory's relationship - apart from the bit that involved them having a missing daughter, of course. Karen Gillan was excellent in this, which only made it all the more painfully obvious how poorly the actress had generally been served by the writers since her first appearance.

The God Complex was one of the series' highlights and, with its tale of a minotaur loose in a fake hotel, proof that science fiction/fantasy doesn't need a mega-budget to work. Good news indeed as there're rumours of a tightening of the purse strings for next year's series.

Closing Time set out to recreate the formula of last year's The Lodger. I loved The Lodger, seeing the Doctor in unfamiliar domestic circumstances was a genuine treat but, thanks to its paper-thin plot,  inappropriate use of the Cybermen and a weak resolution, Closing Time failed to recreate the magic - although it did allow Matt Smith to produce one of his finest performances, demonstrating he can do comedy and pathos with equal alacrity as well as having the ability to act like an overgrown kid while still seeming ancient.

The Wedding of River Song was a very strange egg. Taken in its own right it worked well enough, being full of ideas and having fun with a version of the world in which all of history exists at once. It dragged at one point, thanks to so much of the tale being told in flashback but it was mostly entertaining.

If it worked in its own right, as a means of tying off the series, it ultimately left too many loose ends dangling and featured a cop-out ending that felt somewhat empty. It also left us wondering just where the show was going in the future. Is there more of the River Song/Silence saga to come or are we to get a break from all that?

I've said this elsewhere but I couldn't help feeling it was a season that fell between two stools. It's incorporation of an extremely demanding story arc mixed with stand-alone episodes meant it had a strange stop-start feel, in which stand-alone episodes felt irrelevant as they weren't part of the main plot, while the overall arc seemed interminable as it took twice as long to unfold as it should, thanks to it constantly being interrupted by stand-alone episodes. In retrospect it might've been wiser to have had stand-alone episodes only in the first mini-season, with the second containing only arc-related stories. That way it might've felt more like Dr Who's Abbey Road rather than its answer to The White Album.

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