DAY OF THE MOON
Written by Steven Moffat, directed by Toby Haynes, 2011
I feel I may have been overly harsh with The Impossible Astronaut. It’s just that, while I applaud increased complexity in the series, I feel it could/should be better handled than as simply a plate-spinning exercise – yet, Day of the Moon worked for me in almost all the ways the previous instalment didn’t. Whereas that was forty-five minutes of frustrating and seemingly directionless foreplay, this flows and starts to makes sense, rather than being too busy delivering a zinging high-concept opener to bother with such trivialities as even a suggestion of where the plot was going to go.
The three-months-later opening is a typical Moffat curveball, and gives a welcome sense of scope (as it’s rare for a story to take place over more than a few days), which is also matched by the story’s geographical shifts. If you’re going to bother setting a story in America, I suppose it’d be a mistake to overlook the country’s ridiculous scale.
The more outré elements of Moffat’s approach to storytelling deliver some surprising and arresting moments (the Silence-flanked child-astronaut; Nixon appearing from a sealed prison cell), and generally gel better than in the jumpy first part. His continued (and impossible to ignore) reliance on familiar tropes – recordings/transmissions; a sinister child; writing on walls; monsters based round childhood fears; even down to specific elements like River’s freefall into the TARDIS – would be getting absurd if they weren’t coupled with an actual plot this time round.
Speaking of which, though grateful for it showing its face, I’m not sure this plot holds up to scrutiny that well; in fact, a lot of it doesn’t make a great deal of sense (as pointed out on Tachyon TV) - but, crucially, Moffat has a knack for circumnavigating these criticisms with events that seem absolutely, intuitively right, so you forgot they're not necessarily logical. So, on the surface at least we have a coherent story – which almost made me forget til the end that a) the Doctor’s willing self-sacrifice, b) the Silence/the Silents’ part in last season’s TARDIS explosion, c) Amy’s pregnancy, d) Frances Barber in a futuristic eyepatch, e) the identity of the Child, and f) holy shit, that cliffhanger… are all utterly unaddressed – and on top of the promised reveal re River.
I really, really hope none of the answers to these questions fall by the wayside. Perhaps it’s more frustrating though that the entire explanation for this plot is left hanging – what are the Silents trying to achieve with their occupation? And what do they need the child for – why the life-support? (Tying into the space race simply because they needed the suit seems a tad tenuous.) Also, why does the child only bust out of the spacesuit after her encounter with Amy? And is she no longer important once the Silents have Mrs Pond? And is the Aickman Road pseudo-TARDIS the Silents’, or something they’ve nicked? Can it time-travel?
And as for the Silents themselves: they're relatively freaky, in a Munch-does-the-Grim-Reaper double-whammy of tick-box creepiness, although not really outdoing the Weeping Angels as Best Moffat Monsters. I mean, why has no-one pointed out that a monster you can’t look away from is basically THE SAME PREMISE as the Weeping Angels? Or at least, leads to the same ‘don’t take your eyes off them’ scenarios. But, at least the inversion of the expected invader status is original, as is their having been on earth indefinitely. (Although this does smack slightly of the disclosure of Torchwood 1’s hitherto-unsuspected century-long presence – though at least this is kind of self-retconning concept.) The idea that every time the Doctor has or will land on pre-late-sixties earth they’re there is quite odd, and gives a sense of weight to the episode – but without necessitating Davies-style suspension-of-disbelief-busting and conspicuous worldwide incursions. The brilliantly satisfying conclusion wherein the human race fights off its oppressors… without knowing about it, is quite delicious.
What else? A less jokey, more emotionally convincing take on Amy and particularly Rory’s relationship works well. While I commend the twenty-first century version of the series’ insistence on being all things at once – funny, moving, scary, etc – the gap between the Chris Cunningham-lite of hordes of Silents clustering on the ceiling and the ever-present fanfare of The Star-Spangled Banner heralding Nixon’s various arrivals (which I though was very funny) nevertheless gives rises to some massive tonal lurches. Unless I was just feeling particularly uncharitable for part one, Day of the Moon seems more convincingly creepy, with its forays into (southern) gothic territory, but this did make me wonder whether it would have been more compelling without the underlying jokiness, for once?
Moffat’s tortuous approach to the series makes it increasingly difficult to make informed judgements, at least about an ‘event’ story such as this. I’m torn between being impressed by his audaciousness and also wishing that he’d still write – at least occasionally – with the self-contained coherence of something like Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead.
Also, how many people (like me) assumed from the trailers that the imprisoned Doctor prisoner was a secondary/future version, Jubilee-style?
THE CURSE OF THE BLACK SPOT
Written by Stephen Thompson, directed by Jeremy Webb
Stories aping the titles of pop-cultural bilge like The Da Vinci Code or Pirates of the Caribbean are always going to approached (by me) with caution. I didn’t expect massive amounts of originality, and The Curse of the Black Spot spectacularly failed to subvert those expectations. An arbitrary pseudo-historical setting with an arbitrary ‘supernatural’ villain, couched in slightly naff sci-fi terms, cf Tooth and Claw, Vampires of Venice, et al. Yeah, that’s what I thought.
The lazy historical shorthand of this story led me to spend most of the time watching it thinking how I’d inestimably prefer a see the show take the plunge and deliver a genuinely dramatic take on historical settings. Even – the very idea! – a pure historical. Having people say ‘blaggard’ doesn’t a convincing sense of time or place make.
Doctor Who has always been a beast of varying quality, of course – that’s all part of the appeal – perhaps most obviously illustrated by the yawning chasm of quality between The Caves of Androzani and the hot-on-its-heals Twin Dilemma. However, whereas that is at least impressive in its inexplicability, this unsteady volte-face from The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon is perhaps even more dispiriting, as it marks an example of Doctor Who at its most production-line banal. That this story could be entirely transplanted from the second half of this season to the second story in the running order speaks volumes about its inherent pointlessness and paucity of anything approaching originality or character development. A cutesy, precocious, kickable child (actor)? An eye-stabbingly inept father-son relationship, written with no feeling or insight whatsoever? A flippant guest-character-in-the-TARDIS scene? Really?
I might’ve moaned that Moffat took too long to let us in on the plot of his season opener, but at least there were still enough memorable things happening for it to never be less than watchable. This, on the other hand, is less a story, more a collection of contrived injuries, the repeated identical deaths of non-characters, and a criteria for ‘monstrous’ appearances almost more contrived than The Vampires of Venice’s. What a waste of the quite lovely Lily Cole, too, especially considering how good she is in Gilliam’s (overambitious but surprisingly effective) Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus.
I’ll concede that at least the final third stuff is a little unexpected, even if the solution to the situation does lift from Steven Moffat’s Girl in the Fireplace and The Doctor Dances – was Stephen Thompson (who?!) looking to pick up some brownie points with this blatant brownnosing? It does however suffer from the same damaging tonal shift as The Stones of Blood.
How can forty-five minutes of filler be so stretched? Talk about a first draft script; this doesn’t even warrant hating. Listen to The Smugglers instead.
THE DOCTOR'S WIFE
Written by Neil Gaiman, directed by Richard Clark
Well, this is certainly the one I've been looking forward to – if only for that ming-mong-baiting former JN-T decoy title seeing the light of day.
I can take or leave Gaiman – generally there’s rather too much just-because macguffin-based plotting in his writing; nevertheless, the prestigiousness of having him write for the show doesn’t escape me. Yet, my apathy aside, this quickly announces itself as without doubt the work of an original – especially in contrast to the generica of the preceding episode.
Gaiman brings a definite, richly detailed but off-kilter sensibility to the series, which rubs off even on the production design – the eroded formations of the crashed ‘spaceships’, the dresses and the hotchpotch costumes – and there’s a similar richness and depth to the concept at large: a sentient, TARDIS-eating asteroid outside of the universe, and the TARDIS herself being given human form. The latter of which could have been so awful, worthy of all those dreadful post-Survival movie concepts where David Hasselhoff and Eric Idle and god knows who else were mooted as Doctors. I had no idea what was coming so it’s a huge complement that the way it’s handled felt entirely natural, with Idris’ glitchy and non-chronological speech. A lesser writer would’ve just made a human TARDIS a sexy sidekick in a policewoman’s uniform, rather than a Helena Bonham-Carter-style “bitey mad lady,” so I can only be grateful that we dodged that bullet.
Perhaps the most notably thing about this story is how unapologetically fannish it is: from the title down to the throwaway inclusion of an Ood – which shows how misleading trailering can be; this is no recurring monster per se, rather the big-picture perspective of a fan to whom elements from throughout the series’ history are fair game to explore.
In terms of specifics, the Eye of Orion, the Matrix (kind of), and the High Council are namechecked, while ‘House’ and ‘Auntie’ and ‘Uncle’ suggest the Gallifrey of Marc Platt’s Lungbarrow novel; there are hints of Morbius’ Karn (crashed spaceships and stitched-together bodies); then there’s The War Games hypercube things; even corridors! Only an unashamedly slavering fan would give us our only glimpse of new series TARDIS interior space (aside from The Christmas Invasion), or have the Doctor build a console out of the remains of a hundred different crashed TARDISes. Then there’s the archived spare console rooms (that’s so fannish – the idea that any of the previous console rooms could be revisited), Rory’s brief query about the Doctor’s room, and the concept of the TARDIS’ consciousness residing beyond human comprehension or language and across all of space and time, which is straight from the novels.
Even the idea that exploring the Time Lords in post-Time War Doctor Who is entirely viable shows pretty definitively what a ming-mong perspective Gaiman’s coming from: exploring the Doctor’s initial theft (and the neat inversion of it/her being the one doing the choosing); the shaving mirror on the souped-up console… That a story containing all these elements isn’t a massive gushing fanwank of Gary Russell proportions – that’s impressive. It feels like fan fiction with a budget – and, in case you’re not sure, I mean that entirely in a good way, in the sense of the best New or Eighth Doctor Adventures, which drew on a fannish perspective to continuity, but made something new and original out of the ideas they tackled. Also, these things aside, that The Doctor’s Wife is dramatically successful despite consisting of a junkyard, some corridors, and a disembodied voice as an enemy – well, I take my hat off to Gaiman.
Though I really like his American Gods novel and have a soft spot for the Neverwhere series, Gaiman’s not an author I’d expect to praise. I think it just shows though that authors coming out of leftfield (despite being a long-term fan) and bringing a new sensibility to the series can be so much more rewarding than those who evidently feel they know what format is expected (The Curse of the Black Spot) and are afraid – or it doesn’t even occur – to subvert established boundaries. By way of example, the grotesque, Beckett-like Auntie and Uncle are far more interesting than you’d ordinarily expect from such short-lived characters, while ‘House’ - something innocuous made sinister - is so much better a name than some made-up SF bollocks (‘Zolfar,’ or whatever); in these elements, Gaiman unarguably distinguishes himself from the second tier of Doctor Who writers, who’d never inject this much interest into such tiny elements of their scripts.
Likewise, it speaks volumes that the idea of the tattooed Corsair will undoubtedly inspire countless flights of fan-fiction fancy. I love how buccaneering the name is, and, from only the couple of details we're privy to, he/she sounds far more interesting than the numerous other renegade Time Lords the spin-off media in particular has always been littered with.
It’s seldom that I fall a bit in love with every element of a story, but in this case the location, the characters – Idris/the TARDIS especially – House, etc, all did it for me. (And I think while its engagement with fannish preoccupations helped, it certainly wasn’t the be-all of the story, and references to the High Council or whatever wouldn’t have meant diddley had it not brought anything new to the table.) This “plughole of the universe” is one of those situations that could sustain so many more stories (which is surprisingly not that common in Doctor Who), and this magical and strangely moving story makes me very, very keen for Mr Gaiman to become a regularly contributor to the Doctor Who world. (Perhaps a novel...?)
The status of the titular wife could seem a cop-out of Doctor’s Daughter proportions if the story at large weren’t up there with The Girl in the Fireplace or Human Nature; those occasional new series stories where everything is above reproach. In fact, this really does feel like a perfect example of a Doctor Who nailing absolutely every element: it’s mysterious and intriguing, creepy, exciting, funny, moving – yet without the lurches of Moffat’s opener.