Saturday, April 23, 2011

Here we go again

The gap between seasons of television programmes can be a bit tortuous at times. There's football, girlfriends, and all manner of other entertainment in the meanwhile so that, eventually, one stops noticing. The run up to the new seasons of Doctor Who can be especially unbearable, considering it has gone from "That highly entertaining, slightly campy thing the BBC airs ever now and again" to being the BBC's flagship. The buildup starts bang out of the gate after the first episode ends. Dripping, dripping, dripping with increasing frequency and then BAM! Short trailer, long trailer, magazines, interviews, and everything else in the time between the Christmas special and the new season.

Anyway, the point is the long wait is over. It's been more than a year since The Eleventh Hour hit televisions, and something like 43 weeks since the last series ended. Spoilers, as usual, will be found.

It's a nice change of pace, having the status quo intact. It's something we haven't really seen since the Classic Series, which always seems to meld seamlessly. This notion is of course aided by the fact that it is now being watched online and on DVD, but no doubt it was the case back in the sixties, when Doctor Who was on effectively year round. Series One was responsible for introducing a new generation to the Whoniverse, Series Two brought a new Doctor, Series Three and Four brought new companions, and Series Five brought a new everything. So it's nice, here, to begin with the same old Doctor, same old Amy and Rory, same old River.

There is, of course, that glimmer of fear. Early in the episode, when the Doctor is shot and begins to regenerate, there is that moment where your heart stops. After all, there are never a plethora of clips in the trailers -- often because they haven't finished editing the end of the season yet -- and we don't know how anything fits into anything. People assumed the scribbled-on faces were a part of Gaiman's episode, but they've been revealed to be the next episode. And being that the Moff is the man in charge, misdirection is the name of the game. Aided by the Doctor's romp through time, doing all the things he'd want to do, it does reinforce in the back of the mind the notion that when Matt Smith goes all glowy, Michael Sheen or Nicholas Hoult or someone will suddenly be standing there, new face reflecting in the astronaut's visor.

In the Moff, though, we are in safe hands. The Doctor is not dead in the literal sense -- well, he is. Wibbly-wobbly -- but he is dead in the way Moffat warned us. Over the course of the RTD era, in addition to a lot of other problems, the viewpoint shifted to that of the Doctor. It's very tempting to focus on the clever alien with the magic blue box, and while the series has never totally ignored him, at its best it knew when to keep a distance (see: the first two Doctors, the Seventh Doctor). Killing the Doctor allows us to see the rest of the narrative through his companions' eyes, and by and large it works.

But the clever opening creates a problem. Like Amy, we spend our time trying to come to grips with the incident. Naturally we actively take in everything else that occurs, but there is always that niggling thought at the back of our minds. No doubt this is what Moffat wanted, but I can't help but feel that it's somewhat detrimental to open, well, like that.

Another problem I have with this episode, and I suspect will be carried over to the next episode, is that for all the bigging up of America, this story could just have easily taken place on the banks of the Clyde and no one would even really notice the difference. This is ultimately a good thing. You can't help but feel that if they had gone to America while RTD was writing it would have been sixty minutes of everyone preening and being all starry-eyed and...well, thank god it didn't happen. Still, for all their bigging up of this, it feels like a letdown. It seemed like we were finally going to get our Two Doctors; a story which was originally going to be set in New Orleans and have a bit of a light jab at the differences between English and American society. Instead we get just another story.

On a semi-related note, the man playing Nixon. I don't expect dead ringers, but every time I got a shot of the man my brain thought LBJ. There's a bit too much gravel to the voice as well, but hey ho. It's a minor niggle, like I said.

It's always hard to judge a two parter written by Steven Moffat. The man's Doctor Who episodes always tend to be a bit ADHD; or, to modify an example from elsewhere, like giving a teenage boy Karen Gillan's Shortlist photos whilst he's sitting in a course on quantum physics. (On a very much related note: Yes, please.) But also because of the way the Moffat tells stories, the little tricks he likes to use. This episode was everything you'd expect from Moffat, but it wasn't textbook. Sitting down and looking at it, the boxes have been ticked, but by and large the boxes are not noticeable. Well, at least until you get up to use the restroom and find yourself fearing another of the Moff's classical psychological horror aliens will assault you. Oh Moffat. You do so love to give me heart attacks.

Anyway, back on track. Like I said, this episode, like a lot of Moffat episodes, is very ADHD. No sooner has the Doctor died we're meeting the past Doctor, and no sooner that than we're in the Oval Office than Amy's in the restroom and so on and so forth. This episodes whizzes past, moreso than any other I can think of really. Things like the Eleventh Hour and The Lodger have a bit of fun breeziness to them, but this is outright whooshing.

Not that this should be seen as a criticism. It's fast, sometimes perhaps a bit too fast, but it's a good fast. By and large the writing is good, the kind of good you would expect from Moffat. Little touches like Canton telling Nixon that he was his second choice for President, or the careful steering of the two characters who wouldn't recognize the Timeship (okay, Amy technically wouldn't) to it. Or that all signs to point to River being in the astronaut suit when the Doctor dies, but knowing Moffat as we do it's bound to be something much, much more delicious. But there are some moments as well that give pause. The end of the episode, for example. The revelation that Amy's sickness is caused by pregnancy and not the Silence is a good one, but it feels clunky and wrong when it happens. And the cliffhanger? I'm just not feeling it tonight.

Ultimately I'm not sure how I feel about this episode. There's the initial giddiness of Doctor Who's return, and it's definitely very good on its own merits, but somehow it feels lukewarm. Perhaps it's because of the very status quo which is welcome. Every new season opened with something new, something to galvanize and explore and captivate. And here we have just another well-done episode. You could smack this in the middle of last series and not really miss a hell of a lot.

Is that good? Probably.

The Impossible Astronaut definitely is. It just feels like it could have been something more. Considering this is a Moffat two-parter though, it's difficult to judge without the second half, so we'll see in another week.

Meanwhile, welcome back Doctor Who. God how I've missed you.

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