Getting ‘Spacey-Wacey’ Has Never Been Scarier — or More Fun: ‘Doctor Who: Series 6, Part 1’

Showrunner Steven Moffat’s era of Doctor Who hits its stride in the first seven episodes of Series 6. This season begins with “The Impossible Astronaut”, a deadly story taking the Doctor (Matt Smith), Amy (Karen Gillan), Rory (Arthur Darvill), and River Song (Alex Kingston) to the Utah desert, Cape Kennedy, and even the Oval Office in 1969. It concludes with “A Good Man Goes to War”, an otherworldly cliffhanger of sorts that answers a crucial question (Who is River Song?) while creating dozens of new questions to be answered in Part 2. In between, the quality of episodes vacillates between extraordinary sci-fi and merely escapist entertainment. Overall, however, these stories illustrate Moffat’s vision of the clever, humorous, and often scary world of Doctor Who.

Moffat, now in his second season of visualizing the Eleventh Doctor’s adventures, has returned to an earlier style of Who storytelling by serializing the episodes so that at least some story elements continue from week to week. In Series 6, Part 1, the overarching story centers around the women in the current Doctor’s life: Amy Pond and River Song. Why are they so important to the Doctor? Are they instrumental to saving him, or are they in some way responsible for his death?

Moffat also favors two-part stories within the bigger framework. Within the first seven episodes are two such pairs, the season-opening “The Impossible Astronaut” and “Day of the Moon”, and episodes 5 and 6, “The Rebel Flesh” and “The Almost People”. These two-parters work as stand-alone units, but some plot revelations, such as the nature of those “almost people”, figure into the larger mystery surrounding Amy.

“The Impossible Astronaut” starts the season at a brisk pace, even for the always-running-into-danger Doctor. The TARDIS lands in the American West in 1969, just before the moon landing. US audiences may find the portrayal of Richard Nixon a distracting rather than humorous impersonation, but seeing the Doctor keep “cool” by wearing a Stetson and leaning against a big red convertible more than makes up for an annoying Nixon. (For the record, both Matt Smith and the Doctor he portrays succeed in making bow ties and hats—from fez to Stetson—must-have fashion accessories.) Such a fast-paced, startling first episode is a hard act to follow, but the majority of the following episodes keep up the rapid-fire action and plot twists.

Part 1 includes some “firsts” for Doctor Who. The season opener is the first Doctor Who episode filmed in the US. It makes good use of the American West as a backdrop for a shocking revelation about the 1,103-year-old Doctor’s future. Episode 4, “The Doctor’s Wife”, was written by sci-fi guru Neil Gaiman (author of the Sandman series, among scores of comics and novels), his first episode for the venerable television series and the one that takes the Doctor outside the universe—yet another first. Of all episodes in Part 1, Gaiman’s story may be the best loved, not only because of audience affection for the author but for the heartbreakingly lovely introduction to the Doctor’s “wife”. If you ever wondered who might steal the Doctor’s hearts (he has two), this episode suggests the romantic possibilities for intergalactic travelers.

Although these pleasant “firsts” make this two-disc set well worth having, the first half of Series 6 also came under criticism for its dark, detailed plot developments. Some parents thought the depictions of killing or death too disturbing for children to watch. Some viewers thought the plots difficult to follow. Nevertheless, Moffat seems determined to establish his own direction for Doctor Who, one that includes monsters, dark deeds, and time shifts. This is not Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who, but it is compelling science fiction, often with a dash of horror.

By the end of these seven episodes, the connections among Amy, Rory, River Song, and the Doctor are made clearer in surprising ways. The depth of the Doctor’s protective streak toward Amy takes him ever closer to war at Demons Run. (“Demons run when a good man goes to war,” River Song recites from a poem.) The “shocking revelation” of River Song’s identity at the conclusion of episode 7 may not be all that shocking for fans who followed the clues offered in previous episodes, but “A Good Man Goes to War” both sufficiently concludes the first half of Series 6 and sets up the next batch of episodes.

Aside from a few missteps (e.g., “The Curse of the Black Spot” is entertaining but not as thought provoking as other episodes), Series 6, Part 1 continues to unravel more layers of the Doctor’s complex past, future, and personality while providing some excellent adventures in time and space.

Special features in this set are two Monster files explaining the latest in a long line of opponents faced by the Doctor: Gangers and The Silence. Because Doctor Who is well known for its long-running battles with such foes as Cybermen and Daleks, these new monsters are important to the series’ evolution. The Silence, in particular, is a worthy adversary. They have a high “creepy” factor—their existence can be recorded, but, once people turn away from the Silence, they cannot remember seeing these nightmarish creatures.

American audiences may not be familiar with the Doctor Who: Confidential episodes broadcast by the BBC immediately following a new Who episode. These behind-the-scene explorations of characters or special effects provide insights into the technical expertise required to bring monsters to life. The Monster files are Confidential-style analyses of the design and character development of the latest Who monsters. They feature commentary by Moffat, the cast, and production specialists. The special features are especially helpful for hardcore fans who want to know how the series is made.

In the US, BBC America brings the Doctor to his many fans, and their Doctor Who website is full of trailers and news to keep a waiting audience up to date. U. audiences can see the official site created by the BBC, although visitors from outside the UK may not be able to download or view all clips. Not to worry—both sites provide ample updates to keep Who fans happy.

If you need to catch up with the Doctor’s latest adventures or review a plot point or two before new episodes begin 27 August with “Let’s Kill Hitler”, now is the time to watch Part 1. Grab your Stetson and step into the TARDIS for the wild ride that is Series 6.

RATING 8 / 10