Saturday, 30 April 2011

Always A Bit Left Over: Doctor Who review



DOCTOR WHO: 'The Impossible Astronaut'/'Day of the Moon'

Since this blog only came into existence on Tuesday night, the first half of the two-part opening to Steven Moffat's second season in charge of the Doctor Who juggernaut arrived a few days too early for review. Appropriately enough, this review will therefore travel back in time and take in both parts, with a little help from the BBC iPlayer (it's bigger on the inside).

After a touching dedication to the recently departed Elisabeth Sladen, our dear Sarah Jane, Moffat kicked off the new season with the Doctor doing what he does best. Hiding naked under regency ladies' dresses. Erm... I mean, larking about in time and inserting himself into history to get the attention of his newlywed (and housebound) companions. There was no particular reason for Amy and Rory to have suddenly settled into domesticity, especially since they had been travelling in the TARDIS as recently as five days before the new season started in two Children In Need mini-specials on March 18th, except to allow the groundwork to be laid for a mystery involving four TARDIS-blue envelopes. Moffat has always been a writer with an eye on the future, but while these two episodes were had their moments, it seemed that in all his time-bending trickery, the present had been left behind.

Part One, 'The Impossible Astronaut', certainly set enough intriguing plays in motion. In addition to the blue envelopes, we had the return of Dr. River Song; the Doctor's death and viking funeral; and the appearance of an old man named Canton Delaware who assured Amy and co. that they would soon be meeting his younger self. The Doctor's death at the hands of a mysterious - nay, impossible - astronaut was well staged, seen from the point of the view of the companions as the Doctor deliberately accepted his fate, shot down in mid-regeneration. Moffat's withholding of information and director Toby Hayne's use of abstract snapshots (the astronaut in the lake) and the unsteady handheld quality of his capturing the Doctor's nascent regeneration lent the scene a disorienting quality.

Although the regeneration and viking burial imagery has been overused by the series, the cast played the moment movingly, especially Karen Gillan's frenzied weeping over her fallen Doctor. Naturally, when a younger version then ambled happily into a nearby diner, it felt like Moffat was issuing a challenge directly to his internet speculators. The scene in the TARDIS that followed, where Amy convinced the Doctor to follow her lead even though she couldn't tell him why, reversed the Doctor-companion knowledge dynamic and set up everyone onboard with secrets not yet revealed.


This opening fifteen minutes was far and away the strongest segment of the two-parter, because the further it went on, the more apparent it became that Moffat was doing all his plotting for future episodes. Much as Iron Man 2 was a dud because so much of the film was dedicated to setting up The Avengers, there was virtually nothing in 'Impossible Astronaut' or 'Day of the Moon' that felt of interest as a self-contained story.  'Impossible Astronaut' was the stronger, because Who two-parters have taught us to wait until the second half for all the interesting stuff to begin and that it's the power of the individual elements being set up that are where we can find joy in the first part. Because it was still possible to believe that 'Moon' would answer at least some of the posed questions, 'Astronaut' felt like it had a purpose. The Silence were as sinister of any of Moffat's foes, playing into his usual thematic preoccupation with the unreliability of immediate perception and memory, despite looking more prosthetic than most of New Who's monsters. (Their slow-gaping mouths were effectively harrowing though). A shame their name - an important fact given the foreshadowing that had already taken place in season one - was revealed early in 'Astronaut''s credits.

The potential of a creature forgotten when out of sight was established in 'Astronaut', but properly explored in the most suspenseful parts of 'Moon'. It allowed a lot of clever tricks whereby the camera followed the action from the perspective of the characters' memories rather than their physical selves, with the gimmick of a subdermal communication implant serving as warning that we had skipped past a forgotten Silent sighting or threat that could still be very real. The marks each character drew on their bodies to remind them of when a Silent was around served the same purpose and played out in an atmospheric moment when a barefaced Amy looked out of a window into a stormy night, only for the reflection of lightning in the glass to reveal her face covered in black marks. As with everything in the episode, this device was evidently introduced with an eye to paying off in the future: since we know the camera was as vulnerable to the Silents' powers as the characters, Moffat can revisit and add to the episode any way he sees fit. Amy being held hostage in the monsters' lair for much longer than first though will, you'd imagine, certainly be a subject for later review.

Unfortunately, as ingenious as the idea was, Moffat left the biggest gap where the plot should have been. It's all very well building for the future, but no writer is doing their job properly if they can't supply an engaging narrative at the moment the viewer is watching it. 'Astronaut' and 'Moon' gave the impression of a chess player planning his moves ten in advance but neglecting to realise he will be open to attack after his next turn. The plot amounted to little more than a conceit, that a parasitic race called the Silent had been post-hypnotically controlling the human race since time immemorial, used to hang future ideas off before being quickly wrapped up in a small room, itself both a callback to last season's 'The Lodger' and foreshadowing of upcoming danger. 

Not a single one of 'Astronaut's questions was resolved, and the cliffhanger was typically illusory - when will this series learn that to do a suspenseful ending, it has to be more than a moment in isolation? The only time Who has done this right was in the 'Human Nature'/'Family of Blood' serial, where the discovery of the Doctor's true identity by the monsters changed the stakes for the following episode. 'Astronaut''s revelation that Amy was pregnant (in a wibbly-wobbly way) came totally out of the blue and her prior indifference to getting into dangerous situations meant it didn't change anything, while her firing on the astronaut had already been established as not having an effect. 'Moon' was worse still, at times coming across as an assembly of scenes designed to make an appealing trailer - the 'killing' of the companions, the bearded Doctor in chains - but transparent and meaningless as part of that single episode's plot.

The sole purpose of setting the episode against the 1969 moon landing was so the Silents could get the human race to build them a suit (the 'Day of the Moon' title meant nothing) and Moffat could use a cool image.  Amy's capture, meanwhile, was lingered on until the Doctor revealed to his companions that he had known all along how to find her location and save her, which they did by means of an uncharacteristic (for the show) massacre and needlessly turning the sonic screwdriver into a beam weapon. The final scene, revisiting the little girl who had abandoned the astronaut suit for reasons that, again, will presumably be revealed later, ought to have been a huge moment, but turned out as just another drop lost in an ocean of foreshadowing. 

Moffat rightly drew plaudits for his long-term thinking in his first season in charge, but each time managed to deliver compelling narratives that held together within the boundaries of each episode. Though he may revisit these episodes later in the season and close some plotholes - though I'd be astonished if he picks up all of them, especially the myriad small ones - far too much of this opening set felt like posturing, destined to be forgotten as soon as you've turned away from the screen.

Best Moments: The death of the Doctor ('The Impossible Astronaut'); Amy explores the abandoned orphanage ('Day of the Moon').



Anonymous said...

I agree with pretty much all of that, though setting the episode at the point of the first real global TV event did serve the purpose of hoisting the Silence by their own petard.

Anonymous said...

Excellent critique of the episode. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I am going to disagree with the other two comments and the original author of the blog.

The strength of Moffatt's writing lies in exactly the type of premonition pretext that is evident through both episodes.

RTD created this pattern in most of his opening episodes and Moffatt simply continued the pattern laid down.

I do think that Moffatt is a more intricate writer than RDT and explores the time travel aspects of Dr Who is a deeper and more significant way (The Girl in the Fireplace, Blink).

These are the concepts that attract me to Dr Who more than any other so I find Moffatt's style and content enormously rewarding and enjoyable.

Anonymous said...

This review seems shallowly considered. You might want watch more closely and/or do a bit more thinking.

For instance, The Day of the Moon [Landing] is the day humans began a revolution to throw off their alien slavemasters.

Seems like a pretty meaningful title to me.