The Doctor’s dead. He was killed in his Matt Smith incarnation by an astronaut emerging from a desert lake. And he was then shot again as he regenerated, killing him utterly. We know this as a grizzled American in a pick-up truck grimly informed Amy, Rory and River of his demise, even as River fired futile bullets into the astronaut’s back.
We also know he’s dead as head writer Steven Moffat spoke from behind the fourth wall to confirm that, yes, the Doctor was indeed dead. This was necessary as the amount of faked deaths in the last series reached epic proportions. Rory died twice, Amy once and even the Doctor appeared to be exterminated by a Dalek. All of which were repealed by the complex nuances of time travel, cause and effect and all manner of other things far too complex to go into here. In fact, they are far too complex to go into in Doctor Who. And that’s part of the problem.
For the record, we adore this very complexity that Moffat brings to Doctor Who. In the earlier series, his stories were always the emotionally intricate tales that complemented the more epic mythologies of Russell T Davies – The Girl in the Fireplace – or were fiendishly inventive and starkly different – Blink, Silence in the Library.
And he continued this rich vein when he took over. What’s more, the other writers aped his style of bleak and difficult stories – Vincent and the Doctor (Richard Curtis) and Amy’s Choice (Simon Nye) – all of which made Smith’s debut series on a par with the very best of Tennant’s run.
But what we’re now missing are the more human, soapy touches that Davies brought to the Doctor. These affectations didn’t necessarily make the stories better or the characters more rounded – the Jones family, for example, were insufferable – but it allowed viewers to take a more casual interest in the series. To not have to focus their entire attention on the plot else they miss something that makes the rest of the episode bewildering.
This opener to the sixth series seemed to suggest this problem – if indeed it is a problem – has become chronic. Moffat appears to be blinkered to the impulses of a mass audience. If we had our way, he would be entitled to be blinkered for the rest of his run as chief writer.
The worry, however, is that the bulk of audience – children after all – may become bored and desert the series for new heroes (and the 6pm start time doesn’t help either). And with smaller viewing figures, comes a smaller budget, with a smaller budget comes poorer writers, poorer actors… you get the picture.
Perhaps this is us fretting unnecessarily. After all, so long as there are enough monsters and explosions, most kids will be quite content.
But this episode didn’t have any explosions, and the monsters were of the kind that faded from memory the moment they went out of sight – think a Westlife song made flesh – even though you’d imagine that seeing what looked like a giant piece of recently spat out chewing gum would be impossible to forget.
They are the Silents (or Silence) and are behind a baffling plot to terrorise President Nixon in 1969 by making telephone calls directly to him using the voice of a little girl. A little girl who seems to be trapped in the suit of an astronaut.
We thought it was all brilliantly done, of course, with Matt Smith making David Tennant a distant, albeit fond, memory. But part of the reason we enjoyed it so much was that it leant defiantly towards the ‘harder’ sci-fi of early-80s Doctor Who, where little regard was given to part-time fans who watched it for such elements as ‘relationships’ like that seen between the Doctor and Rose. Sure, Amy and Rory are in a relationship but their marriage acts as a device that drains the tension from their interplay as they are hopelessly in love.
The relationship between the Doctor and River Song is more intriguing, and one that will be revealed this series, yet even this takes a back seat to the slightly indulgent complexity that will be one of this series’ strongest suits but also could prove to be its wobbly foundations.