“I’m the Doctor. I’m worse than everyone’s aunt.”
After four hugely successful years, actor David Tennant stepped down from his role as the tenth Doctor on Doctor Who. The show’s producers then announced a near-unknown to replace him as number eleven—Matt Smith, the youngest actor to ever portray the Doctor. Similarly, there was another big change behind the scenes, as fan-favorite writer Steven Moffat (Sherlock) took over as the new showrunner. Expectations ran high as the season premiered. Now that the entire season—or “series,” if you’re going native—has materialized on DVD, how does it hold up?
The Doctor (Smith) is a Time Lord, traveling the whole of time and space in his ship, the TARDIS. He has recently regenerated into a new form, just in time to meet an Earth woman, Amy Pond (Karen Gillan), who might just be unknowingly carrying with her a mystery that endangers all of creation.
There’s really no way to analyze this season without spoiling some things, so…
This episode list was written on psychic paper:
• “The Eleventh Hour”
“Do I just have a face that no one listens to? Again?”
When she was a girl, precocious young Amelia Pond was visited in the middle of the night by a magical man called “the Doctor.” He promised her would be right back, but then never returned. Years go by, and Amelia is now Amy Pond, who believes her “raggedy Doctor” was a dream, only to have him finally return. There’s a mystery to be solved, one involving a crack on her wall, and a strange sight that can only be glimpsed out of the corner of her eye.
Change is the air for Doctor Who as this season begins. Not only do we have a new Doctor and showrunner, but a new companion, a new TARDIS interior, and even a new sonic screwdriver. It’s a brand new Who all around. Allegedly, all these sweeping changes were done not just to welcome the new lead actor, but also to welcome new viewers, checking out the show for the first time.
The episode has a strong “fairy tale” feeling to it, as we meet the Doctor from a child’s point of view. This is also a good way to introduce newcomers to the sometimes bizarre logic that the show follows, combining the usual tropes of science fiction—such as aliens and spaceships—with more “out there” concepts—such as giant floating eyeballs that can broadcast signals to every electronic device on the planet simultaneously. The second half of the episode goes into high adventure mode, in which the Doctor has to solve a huge dilemma in less than 20 minutes, and with a lot of distractions. Amy follows along with him, bewildered and exhausted, just as the audience is bewildered and exhausted along with her.
Smith is perhaps a little too jokey at the beginning, as he goes the post-regeneration disorientation, not unlike his predecessors. As he verbally spars with Amy, and then as the crisis grows, we then see Smith make the character his own. As the Doctor runs around town, racing against the clock, thinking of solutions on the fly, we get that the stakes are high, but we also get that part of him is enjoying the crisis. The Doctor is simply in his element here. After enduring all he had to endure in “The End of Time,” he’s moved forward and is back to saving the world and delighting at the constant beauty and weirdness of the universe.
The premiere does a great job in its final minutes, setting up “what’s the deal with Amy?” as the central mystery of this season, along with that pesky crack on the wall, and a last-minute reveal that I’m sure will have most viewers wanting to jump into the next episode right away. Thankfully, with this box set, you can do just that.
• “The Beast Below”
“On five, we’re bringing down the government.”
It’s the distant future, and the entire nation of England is now on board a massive spaceship, in search of a new planet to call home. If that weren’t enough of a reason for the Doctor and Amy to check things out, it’s evident that something has gone horribly wrong for this flying kingdom. Children are disappearing, automatons are putting on their angry faces, the populace is unaware of any danger right in front of them, and a mysterious masked woman named Liz prowls the ship’s dark underbelly with a pistol in each hand.
As the season heads off into its first big space adventure, I wonder if Moffat felt the pressure to deliver on his reputation as an “idea man.” First there’s the nation-ship, and the big reveal of what lurks underneath it, but there are also monstrous automatons, this badass new character Liz, subplots about people’s memories being wiped, a curious experiment involving glasses of water, and more. With the possible exception of the automatons, everything does tie together by the end, but it’s still a “kitchen sink” episode, constantly bombarding viewers with one crazy concept after the next.
• “Victory of the Daleks”
“Nice paint job. I’d be feeling pretty swish if I looked like you.”
Now it’s World War II, and the Doctor is reunited with his pal Winston Churchill. No time for reminiscing about the old days, though, because it’s the darkest hours of the war, and Churchill is hungry for anything that can give England the advantage. This leads him to what he believes is new technology—a Dalek It seems perfectly subservient to its human masters and wants nothing more than to obey them. The Doctor, however, knows better, and he’s determined to find out the Dalek is really up to.
Only three episodes in, and we’re already butt-deep in Daleks? Maybe the creators knew viewers were expecting Daleks, so they wanted to get them out of the way early on. Either way, the big deal is not necessarily that the Daleks are back, but the Daleks have been redesigned. I guess if everyone and everything else on the show gets a makeover this season, why not the Daleks as well. I actually like the look of WWII Dalek, which is all green and clunky, looking more like a beat-up old tank than an alien. Then we get more redesigned Daleks, ones that have been controversial among fans. They’re brightly colored, and they look more plastic than metal. The fan in me sees this and thinks, “Let’s see where the show’s creators are going with this.” The cynic in me sees this and thinks, “They’re just trying to sell more toys.”
There are some nice moments here, especially how one part of defeating the Daleks rests on what it means to be human an ongoing theme of the series as a whole and Ian McNiece gives a fun, jowly performance as Churchill, but, new Daleks notwithstanding, this comes off more like a filler episode, while we’re all still wondering about the mysteries surrounding Amy that were set up at the start.
• “The Time of Angels”/”Blood and Stone”
“I’m sorry you’re dead, Bob, but I swear to whatever is left of you they will be sorrier.”
The Doctor and Amy explore a crashed spaceship, encountering a group of soldier-priests, as well as a couple of familiar faces. One is River Song (Alex Kingston, E.R.) a space explorer who knew the Doctor a little too well in season four’s weirdball “Girl in the Library” episode. The second belongs to the Weeping Angels, aliens that are so alien they are “abstract” to humans, but are incredibly dangerous and bloodthirsty. They were last seen in the mind-bending fan-favorite third season episode, “Blink.” Going in, I knew that both River and the Angels would show up in this season, but it was a fun surprise to see them in the same episode.
I was excited to see what they would do with the Angels, but the writers didn’t explore them in any new ways that I could tell. They’re basically scary boogeymen lurking around in the shadows, mindless killing machines that will tear you apart if you dare turn your back to them. I didn’t re-watch “Blink” before this one, and the whole time I kept trying to recall that episode, as I kept questioning the “rules,” such as they are, of the Angels and how they operate. The episode establishes how deadly they are, but it doesn’t tell us what they want, where they come from, etc. More interesting is that we get more hints about River Song and how she may or may not know the Doctor. I know a lot of fans have been infuriated by her character, but I think she’s an intriguing addition to the mythology, and she embodies a similar “adventuring rogue” type that Captain Jack Harkness brought to his early episodes.
As the episode builds to its conclusion, we get more teases about Amy Pond and about the crack, which is not just on a wall, but a crack in time itself. A lengthy stretch of episode has Amy trying to survive while forced to keep her eyes closed shut. This theme of Amy being able to see or not see certain things carries throughout the season. What she can or can’t see or remember is of great interest to the Doctor, and, therefore, to the audience as well.
• “The Vampires of Venice”
“Fish from space have never been so buxom!”
After the frightening experience with the Angels, the Doctor tries to “help” Amy by reuniting her with her fiancé Rory (Arthur Darvill, Robin Hood (2010)) and taking them to a romantic trip to Renaissance Venice (Ezio Auditore da Firenze does not have a cameo, sadly). Not surprisingly, the Doctor and friends run into trouble, with what appears to be a family of vampires taking young ladies away from their families for nefarious, murderous purposes.
After all the fear and death of the previous two-parter, this episode goes mostly for the humor, with the Doctor’s predictable but still amusing introduction to Rory. Once in Venice, the anachronisms come fast and often. When the Doctor is attacked by what appear to be vampires, he isn’t frightened, but instead declares the experience to be “fun,” before running for his life. As the episode progresses, we get to know the female leader of the “vampires,” and her interactions with the Doctor are well written and acted as they attempt to outwit each other.
Then there’s Rory. He reminded you all of Mickey, right? It can’t be just me who thought that, right? Like Mickey from the first two seasons, Rory is the annoying, whiny boyfriend who tags along. He’s “the dog,” as it were. OK, I guess he’s not that bad of a character, and, when looking at the season’s structure as a whole, he does have an important role to play. It’s just that I never really felt the chemistry between Rory and Amy, as it lacked the energy that had built up between Amy and the Doctor at that point. It’s possible that this is intentional on the part of the show’s producers, by contrasting the Earth-bound Rory with the far out Doctor, a contrast that would come into play in the next episode. For now, though, Rory doesn’t endear himself to the audience as the other main cast members have.
• “Amy’s Choice”
“If we’re going to die, let’s die looking like a Peruvian folk band.”
Amy, Rory and the Doctor find themselves bouncing back and fourth between the present and a few years into the future. A mysterious stranger shows up in the TARDIS, explaining that one timeline is real, and the other is a dream. It’s up to Amy to decide which timeline is the real one, and which will fade from existence.
This one’s a real keeps-you-guessing episode. By having the “other” timeline be in the near future, it’s very possible that it could be the real one, as opposed to the one we’re supposed to believe is the present. The episode gives us a much better establishment of Rory and Amy’s relationship. Life with Rory is safe and comforting, while life with the Doctor is unpredictable and dangerous. In choosing between two realities, Amy is really choosing between her two “guys.” It may sound like a simple, predictable plot, but the many twists and surprises throughout make this one a real winner.
• “The Hungry Earth”/”Cold Blood”
“The first meeting of representatives of the human race and homo reptilia is now in session. Ha! Never said that before.”
The Doctor, Amy and Rory investigate strange goings-on having to do with a giant experimental drill. The device has woken up something sinister underneath the earth. By the time it’s all over, the fates of two races will hang in the balance, and the Doctor and his companions will never be the same.
The bulk of this two-parter has to do with the humans at odds with some subterranean baddies familiar to longtime Who fans. In order to maintain peace, the Doctor encourages the handful of humans at the drill to be the best humanity has to offer, a tall order for any human, even when life and death isn’t on the line. But, honestly, all this conflict is really a set up for the episode’s final moments, in which the season-long arc takes a shocking turn, affecting everything to come.
• “Vincent and the Doctor”
“Is this how time normally passes? Really slowly, in the right order?”
At a museum, the Doctor notices something wrong with a Vincent Van Gogh painting, so it’s off to the year 1890 to meet the man himself. A strange creature is loose in Van Gogh’s village, and the Doctor and Amy require the painter’s help to stop it. The real enemies, though, are Van Gogh’s personal demons. Never famous or successful in his day, Van Gogh created his greatest work during his greatest despair, and this is the state the Doctor and Amy find him in.
Interestingly, the episode treats the monster-of-the-week as almost an afterthought, choosing instead to play up the interaction between our heroes and Van Gogh. The monster, it seems, is only here because Doctor Who viewers expect that sort of thing. A lot of times, when the Doctor meets some famous person in history, that person is already famous. In this case, though, neither Van Gogh nor anyone in his village can understand why these strangers are so enamored with the destitute painter. Van Gogh bounces back and fourth from his dreary “moods” to his excitement and love of painting. The proceedings then journey into tear-jerker land at the conclusion, in which the Doctor and Amy seek to provide Van Gogh with inspiration, with the help of an uncredited cameo by the always-great Bill Nighy (Shawn of the Dead). Some viewers might not like an overly-emotional, romanticized episode such as this, but not every script can be Daleks destroying the world. Sometimes a quieter, more meditative episode is needed to balance things out, and this one succeeds.
• “The Lodger”
“Annihilate? No! No violence, do you understand me? Not while I’m around, not today, not ever. I’m the Doctor. The oncoming storm. And you basically meant beat them in a football match, didn’t you?”
We go from a dramatic, sentimental episode to this one, which is almost pure comedy. Stranded on Earth while Amy is trapped inside the TARDIS, the Doctor rents a room from a good-natured schlub of a guy. The Doctor then investigates mysterious behavior from the never-seen upstairs lodger, as well as playing matchmaker for his new roomie.
So now it’s Doctor Who: The Sitcom? Well, why not? This episode is a lot of laughs as the Doctor blindly believes that he’s fitting in as an ordinary human, when in fact his befuddled new roommate and others have no idea what to make of him. Usually it’s the Doctor’s companions who do the “fish out of water” thing, but this time it’s him. The Doctor can face alien invasions and world-devouring anomalies, but dealing with ordinary folks on a day-to-day basis is an altogether different kind of challenge for him.
It’s not all slapstick, though, as the titular lodger is a creepy menace, mostly unseen, yet always a danger to our characters. Its big plan, once revealed, is an intriguing one, and I wonder if it’s a concept that the writers might return to at some future date.
• “The Pandorica Opens”/”The Big Bang”
“Minimum 12,000 battleships armed to the teeth. But we’ve got surprise on our side. They’ll never expect three people to attack 12,000 Dalek battleships. Because we’d be killed instantly. It would be a fairly short surprise.”
So just what is the deal with Amy Pond and the crack in time? To answer that, the Doctor and Amy visit England around 100 A.D., during the Roman occupation. There, they discover the Pandorica, a large cube that allegedly has something very nasty trapped inside it. The Pandorica will soon open, and when it does, the Doctor, Amy, and the universe itself will face their fates.
Former showrunner Russell T. Davies has moved on, but his penchant for continuity-heavy season finales remains. This is demonstrated in the first ten minutes of the two-parter, which contain numerous callbacks to previous episodes. These callbacks continue throughout. River returns, furthering the mystery about her relationship with the Doctor, and a number of other familiar faces come back as well. The second half of the finale has the Doctor bouncing around various eras and planets, revisiting key moments from this season. This forces you to pay strict attention, and you’ll want to go back and rewatch the scenes as they originally appeared right afterward.
Again looking back the Davies years, good ol’ RTD kept trying to top himself with the crazy season finales. We went from the Dalek emperor to Daleks fighting Cybermen, to the Master taking over for a year, to the head-exploding continuity-a-thon with Davros and a companion reunion that ended the fourth season. The finale of 2009’s specials then brought back both the Master and the Time Lords for more over-the-top continuity craziness. How to top all of that for this year’s finale? Moffat and his team instead go a different route. Sure, all of creation is danger of being destroyed, but this time around, the emphasis is less on spectacle on more on relationships, specifically the emotional connection between the Doctor and Amy. The second half of the finale is mostly sparse, with only a few characters interacting in an open, empty space. That might sound dull, but the actors keep it moving along with a quick energy, and the writing and direction keep you guessing with more and more surprise twists.
Some fans have criticized the post-2005 Doctor Who for too often being “emo” with a number of sentimental, tear-jerky moments. Other viewers, however, notably ones who wouldn’t otherwise dig this dork-tastic show, have responded to these elements, drawn in by the emotional ups and downs of the likes of Rose, Donna, and, in this case, Amy. The ending centers on Amy, and it does indeed tug at the heartstrings, with her closing scene a memorable. It works, though, because it’s earned over the course of the season, and not forced.
Picture and audio are stellar. I was concerned about some slight color bleeding during overly blue-lit scenes, but it wasn’t enough that will ruin anyone’s enjoyment of the series. For another plus, it looks like the BBC finally figured out how to fix that “music overpowering the dialogue” problem that plagued earlier Doctor Who DVDs, because the balance is greatly improved this time, with the audio creating an immersive experience that really draws you in. The English subtitles are a huge help for Americans struggling with the actors’ accents. Also, everything is subtitled—the commentaries, the featurettes, even the outtakes!
The entire season is spread out on five discs, with additional bonus material on a sixth. The best of the extras are the Doctor Who Confidential mini-docs, which offer a nice look at the elixir of hard work, ingenuity, and fun that went into making the series. Six episodes get picture-in-picture commentaries, where participants are very much in love with their own show. There are also additional scenes, outtakes, video diary segments, four “Monster Files” about baddies from the show, and more than 20 teasers and trailers. There are some cool illustrated postcards inside, and the hologram cover art is certainly an attention-getter as well.
This season was allegedly crafted in the hopes of drawing in first-time viewers, who’ve never seen Doctor Who before. While there’s plenty of fun to be had, Who newbies (Whobies?) will be lost on a lot of the details. If you’re curious about the show, you’ll want to make the investment and start with the 2005 series with Christopher Eccleston as the ninth doctor, and move forward from there.
Describing what I enjoy about Doctor Who to those not “in the know” can be tricky. After talking about the likable characters, the witty dialogue, and the mind-bending concepts, I still get blank looks. Instead, I’ve taken to summarizing the whole thing simply as, “It’s fun.” This season is pure fun, through and through. If the thought of Vincent Van Gogh using his easel as a weapon to battle an invisible chicken monster doesn’t put a smile on your face, then you’re the one with a problem.