Stars: Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill, Alex Kingston, Mark Sheppard, William Morgan Sheppard, Stuart Milligan
Writer: Steven Moffat
Director: Toby Haynes
Network: BBC America, airs Saturday nights
Original Telecast: April 23, 2011
As DOCTOR WHO begins Series 6, Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill) have taken a brief break from travel with the Doctor (Matt Smith) to set up house and begin married life, but their respite is interrupted when they’re summoned along with River Song (Alex Kingston) and an elderly man named Canton Everett Delaware III (W. Morgan Sheppard) to rendezvous for a picnic in Utah. There they witness a horrific murder, but they have to keep quiet about it when the Doctor finally turns up to join them for a trip back to 1969. Who is the little girl calling President Nixon every day? Who are the mysterious figures that no one can remember seeing? What is the alien ship from last year’s “The Lodger” doing in a subterranean tunnel in Florida? And who is the Impossible Astronaut?
Although the new version of DOCTOR WHO that debuted in 2005 settled quickly into the more modern genre television convention of telling a longer-form story over the course of an entire series (season here in the US, folks) while providing individual adventures throughout – the fabled “story arc” fans are always so eager to puzzle over and theorize about before the big two-part revelatory finale at the end of each year’s run – this time it’s a bit different.
When show runner Steven Moffat took over last year with Series 5, initiating many changes in the popular show including a new Doctor, new companions, new TARDIS, new theme tune, new Daleks (um, never mind), and much more, he also threw out the old rule book that said “Thou shalt devise a story arc that lasts one year.” Given his penchant for time-twisting, logic-defying storytelling, Moffat instead planned a two-year arc that used Series 5 as a sort of Act One set-up for this year’s Act Two. If we factor in that we’re finally about to learn the true identity of frequent companion and mystery woman River Song, then technically this arc has been building since Moffat’s two-part contribution to Series 4 in 2008, “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead.” But what’s a few years to a wandering Time Lord?
That might be the reason why this series opener feels even more scattershot than most first parts of two-part stories, and indeed less like a series debut than perhaps it should. It’s not only a place-holder to move all the pieces into position for the second installment, it’s also the mid-point between all the mysteries still lingering from last year and their hoped-for solutions. So there’s lots of travel to various locations, some stunning American vistas, excellent dialogue, and a creepy new alien creature, but not a lot happening until the closing moments.
The episode also depends upon a supposedly “shocking” gambit which holds no dramatic tension whatsoever. Does any viewer really expect the death of the Doctor to remain unaltered? It’s not remotely a question of whether this is resolved, but how, and since that inevitably means some sort of cheat or change in the timeline as we’ve now seen it, it’s not all that troubling. And following the fake-out regeneration of Series 4, there’s also the danger of turning one of the series’ lynchpin pieces of mythology into a cheap trick, like the cat that always leaps through the window in a horror movie.
But what’s good? Well, a lot really. The cinematography is excellent, with the sun-drenched Monument Valley scenes balanced by the dank shadows of the aliens’ lair. Everyone in the episode is great, especially Mark Sheppard as a version of Bill Filer (see the classic episode “The Claws of Axos”) with a slightly better if still hoarse accent. And credit must go to Karen Gillan (or perhaps the writing and/or directing), because after having lots of problems with her character and performance last year, I was pleasantly surprised to see the Amy in this episode is far more grounded and likable, as she should be given the ending of Series 5. Let’s hope that’s a sign of things to come.
Murray Gold’s music is beautiful, particularly during the opening picnic sequence and its aftermath, there are a few visual nods to classic tales like “Logopolis” and “The Ambassadors of Death,” and even the Fifth Doctor’s catchphrase “Brave heart” is recycled by Matt Smith in a lovely touch. The much-vaunted American settings seem to be featured more next time, but the location shooting and Oval Office is excellent, and the show even resists going for too many obvious anti-American jokes apart from one minor if warranted jab at the US’ trigger-happy tendencies.
Finally, although the Silence is perhaps a bit too well lit in a few scenes and benefits more from darkness, the killing of a hapless White House staffer is one of the more disturbing deaths in DOCTOR WHO history. Hopefully it sends more than a few children and adults behind the sofa.
Next time, it’s the Day of the Moon! Bring your American flag and moon boots.
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