In brief: I think Steven Moffat gave us an important clue to his thought processes in the last-ever Confidential. This is a man who is clearly brilliant at chess... but who thinks it's dull to watch, unless you throw in fireballs and explosions and four million volts!
And that's why a piece of this season's story which is, at its heart, very simple, has been dressed up with so many entertaining set pieces -- from the loopiness of time going haywire to the thrills-and-spills of live chess, hungry skulls, and even a scrapheap Dalek. None of this is needed, when the heart of the story is about the Doctor and his friends accepting (or failing to accept) death... but it's the sort of flamboyant ah-what-the-hell gratuitous imagination which so often makes Doctor Who take flight.
But it's also bound up with Moffat's self-described pathological fear of boring the audience, or indeed boring himself -- the same Sam-Raimi-ish frenetic mindset which made him say (back in 2005 or so) that he always hated cliffhanger resolutions, because to him it felt like the heroes had still been running away from that monster for the entire week in between. Come on, get on with something new! Now! And so that's how we get part twos like The Big Bang or Day of the Moon (or Forest of the Dead, for that matter), which begin with our heroes knee-deep in a completely different crisis than the week before, and make the resolution of last week as cursory as possible... or indeed this episode, which basically kicks off with the event we were expecting to be the climax of the story having already happened.
In fact, what we got in this episode was, effectively, a standard two-part series finale rolled into one... but which begins with the opening moments of part two, and then tells us part one in fifteen solid minutes' worth of flashbacks. The twist with the Doctor failing to be shot, and history going doolally, would be the sort of epic cliffhanger you'd usually end a part twelve on. And here, in a classic feat of circular plotting, he manages to make the moment we knew was coming from episode one both the kick-off for the episode (despite only showing it about twenty minutes in), and the climax.
It's kind of astonishing that despite this, the story doesn't feel rushed or especially disjointed. Moffat said earlier this year he felt that episode 13s tended to suffer compared to episode 12s -- one's unwrapping all the presents, the other's an hour of putting them away again. Hence, this year he wanted more of the straight-up rollercoaster ride of this year's Pandorica Opens, with a bare minimum of epilogue.
And structurally, it's a hell of a feat. When you look at the series as a whole, he's been really careful about his deliberate misdirection -- Moffat knew we'd be looking for a way in which the Doctor on the sands at Lake Silencio could be a fake, so he spent two episodes on the Ganger Doctor as a red herring, before introducing the Tesselecta in a more oblique way. (And then there's The Girl Who Waited, which suggests another timey-wimey way in which the timestreams could fork -- which would have tied nicely in with the mangled reality in the finale.) Even in the final episode, when he brings back the Tesselecta, he's doing it in the context of an episode which has already brought back Charles Dickens, Winston Churchill, and a Silurian from Cold Blood -- it just looks like one more of this year's random cameos.
So everything the episode actually tries to do, it does pretty much faultlessly. Fast, funny, charming, compelling. But it's only when you think about it that you realize what it isn't even trying to do.
First up, there's a whole bunch of threads it's quietly sweeping under the carpet. And I'm not talking about elaborate fan theories about why the Doctor ate an apple in The God Complex when he hated them in Eleventh Hour... I'm talking about things which were deliberately set up as mysteries, which don't seem to have paid off. Moffat has the Doctor spend much of the episode face-to-face with various minions of the Silence... and never actually has any of them explain why or how they blew up the TARDIS last year. (Was it part of their plan for that to destroy the universe or not? If not, and all they were trying to do was kill the Doctor, that's a rather spectacular own-goal. And wouldn't the Doctor have a bit of an interest in how they managed to pull off blowing up his ship?)
And more. Why was the Doctor being deliberately conspicuous in his journeys through time at the beginning of the series? Was he laying a trail to establish his movements on the way to Lake Silencio? That's my best guess, but Moffat seems to have decided this was too long ago to worry about with even so much as a line. We get some closure on the phrase "Silence will fall" -- referring specifically to the Doctor being silenced. But then what was the silence which Helen McCrory's brood of vampire fish saw through the cracks of the universe, and "the end of all things"? And what was the mysterious literal silence which the Doctor and Rory commented on at the end of that episode?
Even more specific bits of action which were clearly set up don't seem to have paid off. The Silents secretly ruling Earth, and getting kicked out, ended up having no bearing on their war against the Doctor. And back in Day of the Moon, there was a big set-piece in which Amy ended up locked in a roomfull of Silents with the door closing ominously... and then the next time we see her, she's free again, and nothing seems to have happened. (Until she promptly gets kidnapped properly a second time... never mind that she's already Flesh by this point, so there's no clear reason to do this.) I was expecting this to tie in to their control of her (or rather, her Flesh duplicate)... but there's no sign of an explanation. What the hell was that there for?
Never mind. On with something new!
But then you start looking at the questions about the Silence's plan. They've gone to all this trouble to build a robot spacesuit to fulfill the prediction that the Doctor will be killed at a specific place and time... though it's not clear whether this was some sort of pre-existing prediction they're trying to fit, or just a report of what they ended up doing. But here's the sixty-four dollar question, as they would have said in 1969: if they could build a suit which could act independently (as established both in Day of the Moon and here, it's in control)... why did they need River in the first place?
Even if there's some obscure reason they might need a conditioned psychotic half-Time-Lady for some of their future plans for next series or beyond, why involve her in a situation where she can contribute nothing -- except, as it turns out, to screw it up massively?
I have to say, this is beginning to make the massively-retconned Angel plot surrounding Connor look like a masterpiece of plausibility.
Generally I'm not keen on spending so much time on plot nitpicks or griping about unexplained bits of coolness. After all, they're nothing new for Who; we never did get an explanation of how Rose Tyler managed to turn up on random TV screens or make all the text in the universe read "Bad Wolf". But there at least, the character story of Rose's return was clear and sensible. This time, we've got a story which is going out of its way to obscure that sort of point. One of the things I was singing the praises of in the past few episodes was the clear emotional throughline, where each individual step on the Doctor's journey visibly meant something for him, Amy, and Rory... Here, that element is completely opaque. Because it turns out the journey they've been selling us is, in fact, a lie.
After spending a full episode in Closing Time establishing that the Doctor was ready to accept death, and was making his "one last trip"... then it turns out to be his final half-a-dozen trips instead, and he's actually getting to grips with his investigation of the Silence at last rather than going right to meet his fate. (Couldn't they have set those flashbacks before the events of Closing Time? All you'd need to lose would be the Stetson and the envelopes.) And then after he gets his answer about why the Silence wants him dead...we get him absolutely not accepting death, and raging against the dying of the light, until he's called up short by a wonderfully moving tribute to the Brigadier. Which is gorgeous... but the end result is just to get the Doctor to the emotional state he was supposedly in last episode. Except that he's still not in this state, because everything we see from here on out is him lying to everyone. And how much before that as well?
Now, I like it when the Doctor's a mystery, when he's surprising... but not so much when there's nothing we can get ahold of at all. Look at the contrast between this and End of Time part II, where the Doctor actually went through the kicking-against-his-fate phase and meant it. We knew, emotionally, what the Doctor stepping into that glass booth meant, both for his character and the nature of his heroism. We were right there with him throughout his change of mind. Here, the only emotional meaning that can be gathered at the end is that the Doctor is a clever bastard. Which, again, is nice, but not all that new. It's cleverness without change or sacrifice.
(Kate pointed out that the story is set up to look like the Doctor hearing that the entire universe wants to help him in his hour of need will form some kind of life-changing emotional closure... but it doesn't actually address the issues which have been driving the Doctor this year. He knows he has friends... he also knows that if he stays around them, he'll end up destroying them, or outliving them. And so at the end, he's off on his own, just like he planned to be. It doesn't change him.)
I'm reminded of the EDAs' Earth arc, which also covered the evolution of the Doctor's character through a century or more... it also undersold the final stages of that journey, but throughout the first five books, we saw the Doctor hit a succession of turning points which each pointed the way further on his journey. This time, I wanted to see more of those moments where the Doctor took a step closer to Lake Silencio. When -- and why -- did he decide to actively start investigating the rumors of his own death, instead of apparently ignoring it, and realize it genuinely was an inescapable bit of the future? At what point in his two hundred years since Amy did he stop running and embark on his farewell tour to Craig? What convinced him that he was done saving us, even if he only felt that way for a moment? These are dramatic turning points for the Doctor, major redefinitions of his character... but Moffat seems to be leaving those to the other writers like Toby Whithouse and Gareth Roberts, while he seems to be in keep-the-eight-year-olds-entertained mode.
And the time-travelling complexity actually works against the sense of cause-and-effect in character terms which is the basis of character drama. Think about it: what is the Doctor's original personal motive for going anywhere within a thousand miles of Lake Silencio, other than it being his destiny? (And if his motive is that he's convinced it's his destiny, why don't we see him getting convinced of that?)
This doesn't actually have to be a problem for timey-wimey adventures. Blink works so well because of its balance of a straightforward emotional story with a predestination paradox -- we can accept that the kind of tangled time-loop Sally Sparrow encounters because our focus is on her clear throughline, and everything she does makes logical and emotional sense in terms of her character... right down to the moment when she completes the time-loop, which becomes her choosing to get closure. There's no moment in Blink where people act the way they do only because time says they have to.
I've seen fan theories that the point of the Silents' plan was to get the Doctor to go to his death willingly, and that that's why they went through such a rococco means of convincing him that the rumors of his death weren't actually premature. (Not that they actually did anything directly to convince him of this, though.) If so, well, a line would have helped. But even then the logic still doesn't hold together... if he didn't have any reason to go anywhere near Lake Silencio before, they could hardly cause the event to have happened enough to convince him to make it happen in the first place.
And if you have to dig that deep to find an emotional throughline, that underlines how much of it isn't out there in the open.
Case in point: we still have no real motive for Kovarian and the Silence. "It's a religious order"... yeah. What does that even mean here, beyond them being fanatically devoted to whatever-it-is-they're-devoted-to? And what's Kovarian even there for? In storytelling terms she's there to be a Davros for the Silents, delivering the slabs of dialogue and personal conflict that the masks wouldn't allow... But what's in it for her? Why would a woman believe in the Silents' religion (whatever that religion may actually be) so intently as to do everything Kovarian's done? Even the most mechanical of Moffat's technology-blindly-running-amok monsters has more sensible motivation than that.
Having said that. the payoff on Amy finally disposing of Kovarian drew together a number of threads in a satisfying way. It finally explicitly establishes both that Amy has recognized that she can't get her baby back because she knows from River that it's not possible to change these events... but also that she's internalized a lot of personality-warping anger around it. Speaking as someone who was adopted, and who has seen how it affected my birth-mother to give me up -- and having heard how determinedly she did not talk about it during the years before we were reunited -- that rings fairly true. In general, the image of this alternate Amy -- so disconnected from her emotions that she can't even recognize Rory, even as she dreams of him -- ties in nicely both with the previous image of Amy being cut off from crucial parts of her life (so much throughout last series), and with her distant reactions to the whole Melody affair. Yes, in real-world terms those kinds of disconnections would mean she was deeply disturbed, if not outright psychotic... her cold-bloodedness in that scene shows that she's understandably disturbed.
Meanwhile, poor Rory gets sidelined again... it seems that again his fate was to be a red herring, as another possible candidate for "the best man [River] ever knew". All his multiple deaths this year and last led up to was a line from a Silent gloating that this death would be for real... and then it didn't even kill him. It's possible that me expecting something bigger may just be the fan danger of overanalyzing, given too much time to think about little hints and possible clues... but even just within the context of what was said explicitly in the series, it doesn't feel like enough of a resolution for his character. Amy going back for him does reaffirm her connection to him... but in the wake of Girl Who Waited, that feels almost redundant.
And River? Fundamentally, I feel like her character story has taken a back-seat to her history. She's a woman who's been conditioned by creatures which can edit themselves out of your memory while leaving the effects of their orders imprinted on your psyche... people have gotten a whole film out of a premise like that. You could get powerful scenes about how she finally breaks through it... but we skip past all that. She never so much as gets a confrontation with the people who have been programming her. In this episode, her story is only really important in terms of how it relates to the Doctor's.
(As for her love for the Doctor... well, if it's the sort of love that makes her willing to let the entirety of time disintegrate,simply because she can't bear to be responsible for his death... whoa, that blows Amy's level of "not living up to what the Doctor wants of you" out of the water, and knocks Rose Tyler's level of self-absorbtion into a cocked hat! Not that that's a problem in itself, like the Doctor being immature can make a character more interesting... but no wonder he insists that she serve her time in Stormcage. Clearly she's too much of a danger to herself and others to be let out unsupervised!)
In the end, though, if this story works on a level beyond an entertaining action yarn, it has to be about the Doctor and what his choices mean. And it does have some punchy bits which suggest a bit of meaning under the surface... The setup for the puzzle may not make much sense, but the solution instinctively fits with the themes of memory and history whcih have been woven through both years of Moffat's show. In his crack-addled universe, the way in which events are remembered literally has more impact than what actually did or didn't happen. And that we can believe; we know how an event is perceived can have more impact than the truth.
So as long as this moment is seen as the death of the Doctor, the universe can go on as it should... no matter if it didn't actually play out like that. It's a quantum puzzle, in which the fact that the event is observed (by the companions, or the Silents) is what determines the subsequent pattern of cause and effect. They've opened Schrodinger's box and found a dead cat... not realizing that it's just another dead-cat-shaped box with a live cat happily hidden inside.
And in that sense, the Tesselecta does form one hell of a cool image for the nature of the Doctor: the trickster hiding inside a walking talking box that's bigger inside than outside. It sums up both sides of him -- the cool, determined figure with a complex and brilliant plan to save the universe, and the little guy frantically running around behind the facade to try to make it all work. And now the outside face of the Doctor has died, and the little one just walks away from all of them... both from history, and from his human friends.
(Note also that it's the outside Doctor which hugs Amy on their last meeting in Utah, while the inside one stays hidden from them... and he never even goes back to tell them after the fact that he's alive. River's the only one he clues in on his deception, and even then only because he has to. This is very much not a Doctor who's been made cosy and caring. That moment in Impossible Astronaut where River slaps him, and says "even for you that was cold"? Even though we're now supposed to accept that she was play-acting through that whole sequence, I can believe that bit was real.)
There's clever and rich stuff there; I just wish I could figure out why I'm not connecting with it as strongly as in past years... I'm still liking it, but not as much. And it's tempting to connect that to the changes in the audience it's attracting... as the Radio Times points out, in the past couple of years Doctor Who's audience has gotten significantly younger, with a sharp drop in over-65s and a corresponding rise in children, and it's also skewing significantly more towards the upper part of the class pyramid. (Average ratings overall haven't really moved; basically, the show's as popular as it was before, with as many people as it was before... but they're not the same people.)
But the thing is that, as a still-young adult with a college degree, that should mean that Who is more up my alley than before. Matt's consciously eccentric and "university" Doctor may be someone who a young Chris Eccleston on a Salford estate would be more likely to thump than identify with, but he's more like the sort of Doctor I grew up loving. So why do I feel more distant from his adventures?
I don't want to fall into the trap of just dismissing it as being too complicated, either. Fans have funny ideas about what's complicated and what isn't... despite all the worrying about whether children will be able to follow the show now, the actual audience breakdowns show that more kids are watching regularly now. Which actually makes sense to me... Children are often mentally very sophisticated, if they can follow Dragonball Z in their millions they must have a lot of brainspace going spare, it's only emotionally sophisticated stuff which they don't have the life experience to really connect with.
And maybe that's it. In his eagerness to make the chessboard explode with four million volts, Moffat's not cutting as deep even as he managed in Press Gang. Even compared to last year in Big Bang, this time we got a wedding which bears no relation whatsoever to what it actually means to be married to someone.
I don't mean to deny that there is rich stuff below the surface. As I said way back in my Impossible Astronaut review, the question posed by the Doctor's death wasn't just "how is he going to get out of it", but "what are they willing to do to get out of it". Even if the latter is a distant second in the suspense-and-action stakes, there's still some nice new ground covered in the answers there. River's willing to tell the whole universe to go hang. The Doctor's willing to change his whole way of behaving, tread lightly across the universe, and distance himself from his human friends.
But there's an honesty, an immediacy, which feels like it's being lost. The idea that drama can now be hung on the possibility that the Doctor may do something cryptic someday on the Fields of Whoozybub, and villains saying "Doc-torrr", is exactly the sort of fundamentally unreal action which RTD made a point of avoiding.
And at the end of the day... New Who's already done a story about a woman's attempt to save a doomed man she loves causing the whole of time and space to disintegrate, and the man recognizing that he has to sacrifice himself to restore the world. And Father's Day was the only time Doctor Who ever made my dad cry. This episode genuinely entertained me, but I can't imagine it grabbing anyone's heart so intensely... and that's a tremendous shame.
* "Pond. Amelia Pond." Hee!
* Sir Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart... rest in peace. Now that was just beautiful, and a resonant moment that brings the Doctor down to earth. Yes he can go anywhere, do anything... but in the process he misses out on so many of the important moments in between.
* That nursery rhyme... I have to say, after watching this episode, I had the urge to watch The Gunfighters on DVD. I wonder what the connection could possibly be...
* Ol' Blue Head Is Back! A great little performance from Dorium.
* Remember that line in SJA's Death of the Doctor, where the Doctor says that when his time comes, he thinks "the whole universe would know"? Oh, RTD, you sneaky bastard, you were in the loop all along...
* Well, I knew Steven Moffat had been talking about his newfound appreciation for the McCoy years, but I wasn't expecting the story to end with a tribute to Silver Nemesis. :-)
Ratings: 6.1m on overnights, AI of 86, final figures 7.7m. When you bear in mind that they didn't have iPlayer in 2006, it looks like this episode is safely as big as Doomsday... though with the audience response a clear notch lower.