One style of storytelling the “New Who” has generally avoided is that of the Epic Space Opera that was a feature of B5, DS9 and to a lesser extent StarGate. It’s generally and probably fairly considered, that this is a style which alienates mainstream audiences. It is a mark of the success of New Who and the complex timey-wimey plotting of the Moff, that we finally get just such a story here. Of course, being Who there is still plenty of humour too, but then to be fair it not as if B5, DS9 and StarGate were lacking in humour either.
There are perhaps some key differences between Who’s version of Space Opera and the approach of the US shows. Doctor Who is home-grown and never as serious as those shows could sometimes be, Doctor Who is much more individualistic (man in a box v armies and diplomats), Doctor Who has built up to this level of complexity and has earned both good will and interest from the audience by keeping its “Arcs” small and simple. There are some notable commonalities too. Much like the Trek shows, there is something of the Western about this story (Doctor gathers together a posse to deliver his own brand of vengeance/justice on the bad guys). But all of that being said, this is an episode which requires much from the casual audience and which would never have been attempted in the more straightforward RTD era, RTD at least felt the need to make his arc heavy episodes discrete season finales.
What we have here is almost certainly the most arc-centric episode that the show has ever done and it is clearly not a resolution point in any real sense, rather it is a crescendo. Everything the Moff has been in charge of since Silence in the Library builds to this point and one gets the sense that everything to come will follow directly from this point. The big one is of course the birth of Melody Pond/River Song and the resolution of the mystery (or most of the mystery) as to “who is River Song”.
Predictably, everyone and his uncle was on GallyBase claiming that they had guessed who River simply ages ago and that the Moff had built the thing up too much. I am calling bullshit on that. Nobody after Silence in the Library was saying “oh yeah, River’s the daughter of the next two companions”. The predictions were “Doctor’s (Time Traveller’s) Wife” (kinda correct, but much more to it than that), “Romana (or other favoured time lady)”, “Donna Noble”, “Bernice Summerfield”, “future female Doctor”. At no point in season 5 were people saying “Amy and Rory’s daughter”. Amy’s and Rory’s daughter only became a possibility after Day of the Moon which is exactly when we were supposed to start suspecting it (hence regenerating child scene). So essentially this only becomes “predictable” some 5 episodes before the reveal and some 3 years after the mystery first began. More on this once I get to “Let’s Kill Hitler”.
The resolution of the River-arc (such as it is) also serves as the resolution of the Amy’s pregnancy arc too. This is somewhat less elegantly for the fact that the Moff has not entirely earned this one. We never really get to see Amy or Rory come to understand that Amy is pregnant and what that will mean for them. We don’t get a sense of Amy bonding with the child or even being aware that she has a child. Rory certainly isn’t aware at all. Amy’s awareness is up for question, but the implication is that her consciousness was with the Doctor and Rory whilst her body was with Kovorian. The result is that the pregnancy falls somewhat flat and seems to serve purely as a function of the overall story arcs. The upshot of this is that for the rest of the season Amy and Rory seem to be oddly sanguine about the whole affair. Amy and Rory’s parenthood this season is as unaffecting as their relationship with each other last season. This is a real shame as both characters work much better this season as individuals and a couple. Moffat’s time-wimey, clever plotting in Let’s Kill Hitler just barely works as a way of seeping the matter under the carpet but there really needed to be another episode in between to deal with what the Ponds have been through.
Moffatt’s attempt to bring what we might call the Legend of the Doctor to the forefront works much better precisely because he has earned it. This is something that the Moff has been building up to and threading through the TV stories ever since Silence in the Library and prior to that in the brilliant short story Continuity Errors. This season in particular has seen the subtle revelation of the eleventh Doctor as a scheming manipulator in the mould of his seventh persona. To be fair this has been shown in the nicest possible light, but the difference is purely presentational. All the traits of the Cartmel/New Adventures era are present here; the Doctor manipulating his enemies and companions, the Doctor knowing more than he is letting on; the Doctor actively seeking confrontation with his enemies; the Doctor relying on an extending group of friends to execute the more violent aspects of his plan; the Doctor humiliating his opponents with words; the Doctor’s plan mostly succeeding but backfiring to an extent too; the Doctor being indirectly responsible for putting his friends through hell!
The reality is that the Doctor should be (and is) a powerful individual. He should be able to manipulate his enemies and he should be pre-planning his confrontations. Anything less than that makes the character appear to be, at worst, weak and foolish. If that makes him an uncomfortable figure to identify with that is all to the good. The Doctor should not always behave in way that is human or comfortable. I am firmly in agreement with the view that the Doctor is first and foremost an alien who wants to travel through time and space, rather than a “hero” who sets out to right the wrongs of the universe.
The bottom line is that the Doctor has always oscillated between being the scheming, mysterious, powerful and all-knowing alien force and the irresponsible mad man-child in a box sight-seeing his way through the universe who desperately improvises his way out of scrapes. Even the care free tenth Doctor had his Racnos, Family of Blood and Time Lord Victorious moments. A change of companions, big bads or a regeneration is all it would take to restore the character to the happily shambolic days of the 8th Doctor and Fitz or Charlie.
A more justifiable criticism is that there is little here to suggest the great fall prophesised/remembered by River Song. That may yet prove to be something that plays out over the rest of the arc but at things stand it is hard to imagine that the events of this story will eat away at the Doctor in the same was as say the events of Earthshock did.
Aside from the momentous developments in the on-going narrative, we also have an actual the (proper) introduction of a cast of quiet brilliant supporting characters. Off the top of my head I am struggling to think of a better ensemble of characters since the show retuned to our screens.
Madam Kovorian is a quite brilliant creation, equal parts Servalan and Travis, completely malicious and immediately hateable. I just hope she survives her death at Amy’s hands in the alternate reality of The Wedding of River Song. Quiet why she hates the Doctor so, who she is working for and how the silence are involved all remain something of a mystery, but I really think that Moffatt has come up with something here. She could be for Matt what the Deglado Master or Davros were for Jon and Tom. Her Headless Monk henchmen were utterly glorious and I hope that we have not seen the last of them either, a pure Science Fantasy monster but one which effortlessly and stylishly re-invents the role the Cybermen have had in the show ever since The Invasion.
Against them, in the Doctor’s posse we have the reinvention of the Robert Holmes double act as a kinky Victorian Ape/Reptile lesbian couple with Sherlock Holmes/Dexter overtones. Lorna Bucket works beautifully as the tragic reflection of Amy and to a lesser extent the smug-timey-wimey flirtations of the River/Doctor relationship. Dorium also felt like a throwback to the wheeler-dealers so beloved by Robert Holmes. Strax sees the series finally point and laugh at the Sontarans. I’m sorry but this was long overdue, the Sontarans are not a particularly interesting big bad to me and playing them for laughs is at least entertaining to me.
Finally, Amy does not like Jelly Babies and the Moff has clearly decided to prove that there IS in fact a grey area between foetuses and Jelly Babies (one for the Coupling fans).