The recurring theme of this season (apart from aren’t your mum and dad great) has been that of the Doctor’s fallibility. It remains open to question what the Doctor’s fall at Demon’s Run really is/was/will be, but here we have the third in a trilogy of falls as once again the Doctor, through no fault of his own, is put in a position where he gets things badly wrong. The first part of the trilogy was the loss of Melody, the second was the loss of Older Amy and here we have the Doctor severing his friendship with the Ponds after once again having made a mistake and after being confronted with his own personal failings in a pretty brutal way. For Rory and The Doctor this is practically “The Girl Who Waited part 2”.
This is also an episode in which the differences between the Doctors is indirectly highlighted. 11 never really had control of the situation. Rita clearly didn’t believe that he could save her, nor for that matter did Gibbis. Rory was actively expecting people to start dying! I think 10 would’ve had an easier time of this episode. Of course people would still have died and people would’ve turned on him in the end (see Voyage of the Damned and Midnight) but crucially they would have believed in 10 in the first place. 11 was just too weird and too unable to function on a human level to ever inspire that level of confidence.
The Doctor’s ultimate confession of his vanity to Amy is handled in a genuinely sensitive way, far less brutally than the similar confession to Ace in Fenric. The abrupt goodbye is similarly well handled; reminiscent of Tegan’s departure, but more mutual and with a much fonder overtone. In many ways this episode is arguably the redemption of the Doctor as he finally takes responsibility for the unintentional havoc he has wrought over Amy’s life (and to a lesser extent Rory). The Doctor has realised that he did not have a good enough answer to Rory’s concerns over Amy’s safety and that the best answer was to get Amy out of harm’s way. He does so in a way that gives Amy and Rory a real chance to live and enjoy a real life and marriage without Amy pining for him or a life in the TARDIS.
It is a shame that the culmination of the Doctor/Rory/Amy arc overshadows the other merits of the episode. This is by far the strongest contribution Whithouse has made to the series to date. The guest cast is excellent. The Conspiracy Geek is perhaps a little one note, but Rita is the latest in an honourable line of “characters who could have been companions”. Gibbis is a real joy, the kind of character who would sit comfortably in Douglas Adams’ Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy. The Doctor is suitably repelled by his sly and aggressive cowardice and the character is never played entirely for laughs. There is a low key menace to him throughout.
The energetic direction was impressive. Initially I found it a little gimmicky, but as the episode progressed the gimmicky flashes became simply a flourish of the overall style. This is another small way in which we see the show striving to tell stories in a new and invigorating way. It would be over-egging the pudding to have used this style in say The Impossible Astronaut, but it elevates this more straightforward tale. Night Terrors could certainly have done with this sort of verve.
Finally, we have the minotaur creature itself. Although it is not always wholly convincing it is far more convincingly realised than its closest comparator, the Nimon. In the end it is the intelligence and feeling underneath the costume that is the really interesting feature here and Whitehouse script and Smith’s performance as the Doctor subtly provide a great deal of character depth and sympathy for the creature.
All in all this is another notable and highly effective episode in season full of such strong stories.