Reviews

'Doctor Who: The Complete Sixth Series': Whoniverse Steered in a New Direction

The Doctor is in—and back for the holidays. Doctor Who: The Complete Sixth Series should keep the whole family intrigued, puzzled, and occasionally scared by more than just the sight of Amy Pond wielding a machine gun.


Doctor Who

Distributor: BBC Worldwide
Cast: Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill, Alex Kingston
Network: BBC, BBC America
UK release date: 2011-11-21
US release date: 2011-11-22
Website
Amazon

In recent weeks, the BBC has announced a Doctor Who convention featuring the Doctor (Matt Smith) and the series’ showrunner, Steven Moffat; the announcement indicated the convention might not be suitable for children (because of its behind-the-scenes technical content). That information, paired with a £99-per-ticket entry, was less than well received by many Whovians.

A few days later, Variety broke the story that the director behind the last films in the Harry Potter series, David Yates, was working with BBC Worldwide to develop what could be the first film in a Doctor Who franchise. The controversy this time? Yates unfortunately mentioned that he and the BBC would be starting "from scratch". Those are fighting words to fans of the rebooted series (since 2005) or the complete program going back to 1963. In early December, however, Moffat tweeted that any Doctor Who film would star the current Doctor and suggested that such films would work within the established parameters of the venerable television series.

These days, Doctor Who fans may be wondering just where the BBC is taking the Doctor and how bumpy the road might be. Thus, it’s nice to see where Steven Moffat, at least, has taken the Doctor by the end of the sixth season. Moffat’s Triptik begins with a visit to 20th century America and, by the end of the sixth series, the Doctor and his companions have explored the reaches of outer space but also small, confining spaces—a deadly hotel (not in the US, but very 'Hotel California', nonetheless), a life-size doll house, and a hospital where kindness kills. Moffat answers key questions (Who are the Silence? More important, who is River Song?) but teases plenty more for the next batch of episodes, even if they won’t arrive until autumn 2012, Christmas special excepted.

The sixth series’ box set includes all 13 episodes plus what may be one of the best reasons to buy the set: the last of the Confidentials. In September, the BBC canceled the long-running behind-the-scenes Doctor Who: Confidential series, formerly broadcast in the UK following a new Who episode. The cost-cutting move made some fans question whether, if they bought enough convention tickets, the BBC might have the cash to fund a few more of the popular Confidential segments. In case the fan petitions and semi-serious suggestions for improving the broadcast giant’s cash flow fail to bring them back, at least the 13 nine- to 14-minute segments featured in this set provide an intriguing look at the Doctor, the TARDIS, and the Pond-Williams family tree.

Each disc in the box set contains special features ranging from in-depth commentaries to Comic Relief sketches to an additional scene to introductions to monsters. The range helps non-UK audiences catch up on everything Doctor Who related that they may not have been able to see on television throughout the year. The special features also provide useful background information to new viewers just meeting the Doctor, his companions, and foes old or new.

The episodes themselves illustrate the breadth and depth of Moffat’s vision for the Doctor’s evolution as he deals with death, life, and regeneration. The bigger budget road trip to international locations vies with claustrophobic episodes shot entirely on sets, full of tiny rooms with killer robots or aliens feeding off deep emotions. The exploration of the vastness of time and space is nicely contrasted with an exploration of "head space" and what makes characters who they have become.

New aliens abound! The Silence—surely one of the most fearsome (and coolest) aliens ever—are introduced, as are the headless monks. Although the gangers are less compelling, they do lead viewers to consider philosophical questions about “us” and “them.” The most beloved alien of all, the Doctor undergoes a great deal of change as he contemplates the meaning of life—and the finality of death without regeneration—for himself and his companions.

Although several thematically-linked episodes create long arcs, this box set also features the much-heralded episode, “The Doctor’s Wife,” written by Neil Gaiman. This lovely stand-alone episode may not have been everyone’s cup of Earl Grey but mesmerized me because of Suranne Jones’ performance and her interactions with Smith’s Doctor. Surprisingly, this season the Doctor has more than one “wife”— a milestone itself in the long-running series.

Another high point is “The Girl Who Waited”, an Amy-centric episode that emphasizes Rory Williams’ devotion as much as it does Amy’s stubbornness and determination to survive. This episode not only underscores the eternal love between Amy and Rory, but it paves the way for some of the Doctor’s important decisions near the end of the season.

With highs come lows, and the low point (for me) is the pirate episode, but even I have to appreciate how much fun the actors must have had filming it. At the recent Hurricane Who fan convention in Orlando, Florida, guest Arthur Darvill (Rory Williams) admitted that it was indeed exciting to go to work and play pirate, and Who fans may agree that swashbuckling is worthwhile entertainment.

Whether you like the Moffat-helmed series or find it too different from the Russell T Davies’ era, the sixth series represents what Doctor Who has become and where the Doctor and his followers will travel in upcoming episodes. Perhaps in a few years this box set will become a collector’s prize because it summarizes the state of the mythology, range of storytelling techniques, and philosophy of the Doctor nearly 50 years after the now-classic series debuted. In the meantime, it’s a good way to spend the holidays—especially while you wait for the Christmas special to be broadcast.

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