Doctor Who 9.13 – The Husbands of River Song

What a curious coincidence. There was a “bigger boat” joke in last night’s episode of Atlantis as well as this.

Anyway, knowing that sometimes details elude our kid, a couple of days ago, I made sure to remind him about some of the details of River Song’s first/final appearance in Doctor Who, back in series four: the screwdriver, the new suit, the Singing Towers of Darillium. He assured me tonight that it was not necessary. With the cocksure swagger of a preteen, he eyerolled that he remembered all of River Song’s prior appearances “pretty well.”

He really enjoyed the beginning of this story, which really is extremely funny, but it wore a little less well with him as it went on, despite it all being remarkably satisfying. I think it’s absolutely wonderful from start to finish. I said once before that the bookends of River’s story are by far the best parts, and I stand by that. It wraps everything up beautifully. I know that some people – not the least of whom is Alex Kingston herself – have said they’d like River to meet Jodie’s Doctor. If this wasn’t such a perfect ending, I might agree. Is this one of my favorite Who installments ever? It’s possibly in the top ten.

Also of big note here: the Doctor meets Nardole! I made sure to point out that I think Matt Lucas is a comic genius. His reactions during the opening scene here as the Doctor keeps crossing his arms – violating some royal protocol or other – are completely brilliant. Nardole is so great. He’s one of my favorite of all the show’s companions.

Doctor Who 7.14 – The Name of the Doctor

Let’s be honest. This episode does not make a lick of sense. It’s extremely well made, but it’s the living definition of just going along for the ride and accepting whatever the story throws at you, which include River Song and the Paternoster Gang and the Great Intelligence and several repurposed clips from old stories. So ever so briefly, for example, there was a tear in space and time and the Great Intelligence, wearing Richard E. Grant’s body, did something to prevent the Doctor from saving Gallifrey from that old invasion by the Vardans, and then there was another tear in space and time, and Clara stopped the Richard E. Grant body from doing that.

Eventually everybody goes home, except for the Great Intelligence, which is fractured into forgotten splinters in our hero’s memory, and his weird and ugly Whispermen, who fade into nothing, and River Song, who’s been dead a long time, and we never actually see the Doctor take his pals back to Victorian London. That’s because the episode instead concludes with the thunderous revelation that there’s another Doctor, played by John Hurt.

I told the kid this episode was going to blow his mind and it succeeded. “My brain is flat now,” he sighed, shaking his head. He enjoyed it because it’s all spectacle and danger and he’s very curious to know what comes next. I told him he’ll have to wait just about eight days. And he won’t even have to wait that long to find out who John Hurt is…

Doctor Who 7.5 – The Angels Take Manhattan

I get why people like “The Angels Take Manhattan” a whole lot. If you favor the big, sweeping, emotional heartbreakers, then this should do it for you, and it looks like a trillion bucks. Like “A Town Called Mercy”, it’s so beautifully photographed that I don’t mind watching most of it. And I’m sure that Karen Gillan enjoyed having a big, bombastic, memorable finale, and everybody acted the hell out of it. And I do love it when River Song sneers “Just wait until my husband gets home.” Otherwise, my questions about the time distortions around 1938 sort of overwhelm my ability to just sit back and enjoy the story, which is my problem, not the story’s.

Last night, we watched a Jason King adventure where the actors were at Elstree Studios while the library footage tried to make it look like they were at Heathrow Airport. I enjoyed pointing out something similar in tonight’s story, where we can tell that Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, and Arthur Darvill all got to go to New York City to film, but Alex Kingston didn’t. There’s a great little moment as they arrive at the Winter Quay apartment building trap where it’s really obvious, and I enjoyed going back to point it out to our son.

Doctor Who 6.x – Night and the Doctor

Doctor Who‘s sixth series came with some mini-episodes on the home video release. These are just for giggles, and our son definitely appreciated the low-stakes, timey-wimey simplicity of them. He really found a lot that he did not enjoy in series six, but these were more his speed, and he liked these very much.

Interestingly, the third and fourth stories play with the idea of being River’s first and final dates with the Doctor, which you’d have thought that they would have saved for a television story instead of a DVD bonus. In the end, it doesn’t really matter, because a few years later, Steven Moffat thought better of the second idea and, offscreen, the older eleventh Doctor does not take River to the place where they’ll have their final date. He saves that for his next self.

Doctor Who 6.13 – The Wedding of River Song

I think our kid summed up the majority of viewers when he called this one “completely and totally ridiculous.” It’s a mess, sometimes a very entertaining mess, but I really believe this was a draft or two away from being really satisfying. I did warn him that Steven Moffat’s story throws viewers right in at the deep end, which is part of the problem for me. There’s so much lunatic spectacle, with Romans and pterodactyls and Wars of the Roses eating up so much time that could have been spent detailing the story and giving the characters more room and time to breathe.

The biggest disappointment that comes from this business of throwing everything at the wall is that the Doctor and River’s handfasting is far, far too rushed. There’s about a minute of screen time regurgitating that business of “the universe thinks you’re wonderful and won’t let you die” bit from Moffat’s “Curse of Fatal Death” that could have been given to the Doctor and River to just talk quietly about how she felt, instead of desperately shouting because there’s no time.

I don’t know why I wanted this in particular to be better, but I really did. The whole production is achingly close to pleasing me, but there’s just too much going on to distract from the heart and soul of it.

On the other hand, Moffat pulls a really great sequence out of his hat when the Soothsayer starts telling Ian McNeice’s character of Emperor Churchill what all has gone wrong with time. Over the space of about three minutes, the Doctor decapitates a damaged Dalek, looks for dead men in shady taverns, is a contestant in a game of coliseum death chess, and deals with some carnivorous skulls in a catacomb. I’ve often referred back to the wonderful line of comics from Doctor Who Magazine, and this sequence feels effortlessly like kicking back and reading about six of those Steve Moore – Dave Gibbons one-shots from 1981 back to back. Montages like this happen a few times in Moffat’s tenure, but this is my favorite of them.

Oh, and the actor playing death chess against the Doctor is actor/writer Mark Gatiss, under a ton of prosthetics and makeup, to look like Rondo Hatton. He’s credited under the pseudonym “Rondo Haxton.” I thought about asking the kid whether that character didn’t look an awful lot like the big mean henchman in The Rocketeer, but I don’t think he enjoyed the story enough to appreciate it. Maybe he’ll like the DVD bonus mini-episodes better.

Doctor Who 6.8 – Let’s Kill Hitler

“Let’s Kill Hitler” is hugely disappointing to me, but the biggest surprise is that the hour doesn’t use the medium of television to its advantage. Here is a production that can definitely show, not tell, through the use of flashbacks and old footage, but it’s really just people talking and talking. They talk about brainwashing, but we never see the little girl in the astronaut suit, they talk about regenerating into a toddler and they don’t show it. They talk about Melody being programmed to kill, but they don’t explain when she became a combat expert and got hold of lipstick with alien poison in it. Did they teach all this to the little girl and entrust her to hold onto this unlikely weapon for decades, or did they train an adult and then regenerate her into the astronaut suit girl? Is the Alex Kingston body Melody/River’s third or her fourth?

They also talk about how the baby Melody became their good friend Mels and they don’t show any emotion at all over it. Amy and Rory have been agonizing over their missing baby for an entire summer and there isn’t a tear to be seen; they just accept that the puzzle’s been solved. Last time, it was the big rousing finale that the Doctor was going to rescue the infant, and there’s no emotional payoff to the revelation that he can’t. It feels so hollow that Amy and Rory don’t feel human anymore.

I wonder whether Steven Moffat had figured out how the Silence business was going to play out. This is the second hour in a row where somebody could have said something simple and direct like Madame Kovarian could have last week: “We can’t stop you after you get to Trenzalore, so we’re going to war with you now.” That creates a mystery and gives motivation to the villains. Instead we get gobbledygook about the oldest question in the universe being asked. That’s also a mystery, although it’s going to feel like an incredibly dumb one when it shows up five episodes down the line, but it’s not a comprehensible motivation.

Doctor Who 6.7 – A Good Man Goes to War

First things first: I genuinely don’t like Madame Vastra and Jenny one bit, but they’re really not at all obnoxious and obvious in their first appearance. I really do like the idea that the Doctor’s had lots of offscreen adventures and lots of old friends and allies we have never met. So how could we have made this business of pulling in several new-to-TV characters to save the day work better? Simple. You know who the Doctor should’ve picked up to save the day? He should have picked up Fey Truscott-Sade, Frobisher, Majenta Pryce, and Kroton the Cyberman.

So yes, this is a great big mess that’s entertaining in places and disappointing in others. There’s a lot less of Dan Starkey being silly and entertaining as Strax than I remembered, but the main problem, and it’s a huge one, is the villains. We never really get a real understanding of what these villains want, how they’ve gone about it, how they figured out that conceiving a kid in the Time Vortex somehow gives the kid bonus DNA, how they figured when and where anybody was conceiving kids in the Time Vortex anyway, why they hate the Doctor so much, and so on. Steven Moffat fills in a couple of these gaps later on, but this hour by itself is just head-scratchingly weird. The villain’s name is Madame Kovarian, and I’m not going to tell our son that he’s going to have to wait several more months to learn what her beef actually is. It’s not actually really resolved until Smith’s final episode, where it succeeds in feeling like a rushed afterthought.

The kid enjoyed the spectacle and the reappearance of old monsters, but the change in tone succeeded in depressing his enthusiasm, and the great big reveal at the end – River Song is Amy and Rory’s child! – had him even more disillusioned and annoyed than he was last time. He grumbled that “Day of the Daleks” made a lot more sense than this, and hoped that the show would get back to “single episode stories” soon. I’m not sure why he landed on “Day” out of the blue, but I told him that the next one would be more of the same, but the next four would be mostly stand-alone. He said “Whew,” with animation.

Doctor Who 6.2 – Day of the Moon

I’m not sure what annoys me more about the Ponds: is it Rory’s lack of self-confidence, or is it Amy giving him reasons to doubt himself all the time? I wish he had more backbone and conviction and faith, and I wish she wasn’t mean. And here’s a big reason why the series stopped catching fire with me around this time. There are some companions I like more than others, and I don’t like these two. Imagine you and your spouse going to dinner with them. Check, please.

But I have a bigger difficulty embracing this story, and the sixth series in general. It feels like giant swaths of it were left on the cutting room floor, including the characters’ emotional reactions to things. This will soon become a massive disappointment in later stories like “Let’s Kill Hitler” and especially in both “Deep Breath” and “Into the Dalek,” where Steven Moffat starts trusting that the audience is going to intellectually understand how these puzzles work out without spelling things out for the crowd. But strangely, no matter how much I might enjoy reading between the lines and putting things in sequence, I like the payoff onscreen even more. This is something I’ll come back to when it’s more disappointing, but the problem first appears here, where talk and connection are sacrificed in favor of plot surprises and action.

A couple of years before this was shown, DC Comics published one of the biggest disappointments I’ve ever read. Grant Morrison had been one of my favorite comic writers for many years, mastering cliffhangers better than anybody else in the business and inspiring a legion of also-ran imitators in the process. Some of his DC superhero stuff had been bubbling away out of sight for many years until the publication of Final Crisis in 2008-09.

Like almost all of these asinine crossover “events” from DC and Marvel, a full understanding of the story typically requires purchasing dozens of tie-in issues and related mini-series, and you can’t ever trust a collected edition, because usually – as was the case with Morrison’s genuinely excellent One Million in 1998 – the book version will delete one of the sixty-eleven tie-in issues which you need to read to make sense of each plot point. But Final Crisis was especially egregious because Morrison – apparently by this time too powerful for an editor to tie down – elected to tell the story in a deliberately fractured way, keeping events offscreen as though this epic story was on every television channel and reading each episode was like tuning into one network for a scene until you lost interest and then flipping around to find a fight scene. It was bold, daring, challenging, and also utterly impenetrable and incoherent. After the first issue, I put each subsequent one down having no idea what I’d read.

“Day of the Moon” feels a lot like that, and it’s not the only time this year, either.

At least “Day of the Moon” contains the triumphantly frightening orphanage scene, but even it is frustrating because the most interesting thing about it is that there is an amnesiac caretaker called Dr. Renfrew who has alternately been painting messages like “Get out” and “Leave me alone” on the walls and then, forgetting about the Silence, painstakingly trying to clean up after himself having no idea what year it is. This character vanishes completely from the story. Everybody was so concerned about the visuals being spooky and creepy and scary that they created something genuinely horrifying without even realizing it. This poor guy’s story is a thousand times scarier than the Silence hanging like bats from the ceiling.

It ends with something that’s just badly ill-advised for me. Did the Doctor pause, or stop to think at all, anywhere, about whether he should give the entire human race a post-hypnotic suggestion to attack and kill the Silence on sight? That bothers me tremendously. The big laser-gun shootout in the Silence’s time machine – a very interesting tie-in to last season’s “The Lodger” – seems to mark an ugly, ugly first for the show: giving a companion license to mow down a lot of alien baddies with shots to the chest. I liked it better when the Doctor told Leela not to use any more Janis thorns, ever. Maybe this would have felt better to me if the program was breathing and letting the characters talk more, and just explain things. But as we’ll see, this is the year the show doesn’t want to do that.

Doctor Who 6.1 – The Impossible Astronaut

Well, it starts well, at least. Actually, it starts extremely well. Part one of this story is really entertaining, but I’m afraid it doesn’t sustain it for me.

It’s fair to say that Marie and I were a little distracted and perhaps not giving series six the attention it deserved when it was first shown – I’ll explain a possible reason why on Wednesday – but sadly, Doctor Who started getting a little less engaging from this point and it continued disappointing me for a few years. Just like the previous time that Who hit what I termed a swamp – 1983-86 – it was still capable of some very good hours, just like the old show gave us gems like “Snakedance” and “Androzani” when it was otherwise forgettable. And “Astronaut” starts very well, with the creation of a great puzzle and mystery. It’s remarkably rewatchable.

Last night, our son and I worked out some possibilities for how long each Doctor lived. The show presents all kinds of contradictory evidence, which you can chalk up to either the Doctor lying about his age or production teams not particularly caring about this kind of minutiae and leaving it for fans to enjoy debating. I did this because the Doctor in the photo above, the one we see starting the adventure, claims to be two hundred years older than the one who then takes over the story after the older one – gulp – dies. I like the scenes in the diner, and the cinematography, on location in Utah, is beautiful. I also like the Doctor’s car a heck of a lot. Look at that beautiful car! They should’ve parked the TARDIS for a while and done some stories this season driving around the southwest in that gorgeous Edsel solving weird mysteries.

Joining the series this week: a ghastly, weird alien species – not yet named in the narrative – who keep people from remembering them when they’re not actually looking at them. Our son was confused by a lot of this story, but he was completely freaked out by these dudes, and told us that they were in his top three scariest Doctor Who monsters, along with the Weeping Angels and the Vashta Nerada. So congratulations to Steven Moffat, who created all of them and scored a hat trick!

Doctor Who 5.13 – The Big Bang

The most important thing is that our son recovered very well from last night’s meltdown, and he had as fine a day as a kid can have in lockdown when he’s meant to be on fall break and playing and his parents have to work. And he completely loved tonight’s puzzle box of a story, which arguably features Steven Moffat’s absolute finest use of what he calls timey-wimey storytelling, even resolving – as some people guessed (though not me) when it was shown ten years ago – the strange reappearance of the Doctor’s jacket from episode five.

Overall, our son laughed and wowed all through it, particularly adoring the Doctor’s fez and his idiot dancing, and told us in the end that it had blown his mind all the way to Norway. Norway’s been on his mind lately, since Slartibartfast started telling us about its fjords in Hitchhiker’s Guide. Me, I adore it, and just wish we could have spent some more time in Amelia’s starless world. I wanted to read the museum exhibits! I also need to get myself one of those Stone Dalek toys. For myself, not for the kid to pilfer and join his mob of toys.

We’ll start watching series six of Doctor Who in early November, but we’ve got a few related things to check out first. Stay tuned!

Doctor Who 5.12 – The Pandorica Opens

This didn’t go as planned. I was really looking forward to watching this again and moved it up a day, and it all fell to pieces in the end. Our son, I mean. A cliffhanger ending hasn’t hit him like this in years and years. He was devastated.

For a good while, though, he was enjoying this as much as a kid could. We hear Dalek voices from space and then Cybermen voices and then River lists a gang of alien ships in the atmosphere and he was hopping around, so completely thrilled we told him to knock it off. Everything the show gave us just blew him away. I loved hearing his little incredulous voice when the Roman legionnaires’ hands drop away to reveal guns. “…Autons?!”

If you’ve never seen this, it ends with one of the most over-the-top cliffhangers ever. Everything goes wrong, everything falls apart, to the point that Steven Moffat honestly spent the next five series in charge of this show trying for something else with the emotional and narrative oomph of this revelation. The Doctor is imprisoned in a trap designed to lock him away forever. About the only thing I ever figured out before Moffat revealed it was that the box was built for the Doctor, and oh, how delicious it was to see that unfold. Amy is shot dead by Rory, who’s somehow been reincarnated as an Auton, and River is trapped in the TARDIS, which has materialized in rock and is exploding. Then all the lights in the universe go out, fade to black.

Among the named baddies that we don’t see among the Alliance: Draconians, Drahvins, Chelonians. They stuck some Silurians and Roboforms and a Hoix in the room but I guess they didn’t have room in the budget for some new costumes for a one-off. Nice of them to pay for Christopher Ryan to come back and play another Sontaran general, though.

Ah, but the poor kid. Overstimulated, he let his worry for the characters bubble over, and exhausted, he let his annoyance that the story wasn’t finished bubble over, and wishing for a happy ending, he let his frustration that it looks a lot like the heroes have failed bubble over. He wept and stormed and we had to have a long talk about treating anger as a warning sign and needing to calm down. It’s okay to be disappointed, but anger is a little troubling to us. He felt a lot better after a good talk, and then Marie went upstairs to read his night-time story: David Whitaker’s novelization of “The Daleks,” which probably won’t help the overstimulation issue much.