Sprawling, lacking the tautly-plotted perfection of ‘Blink’, and with too much bombast and over-familiarity at the end. But really… this was very good.
I haven’t read The Time Traveller’s Wife but I’m gathering from various reviews and plot synopses that the Doctor/River Song thread owes a lot to it. Regardless, it’s lovely to see some actual exploration of the consequences of time travel in Doctor Who. The perfectly judged aspect of this is in making her last meeting his first meeting. In a stroke this adds a layer of tragedy to what would otherwise be sentimental, and creates an interesting dynamic between the two of them. I do feel that the “Oh how I know that man” aspect is a little bit overplayed at the expense of actually developing a relationship between the two of them. I also feel that the seeming perfection of their future relationship will be perilous territory to explore because it’s been so hyped up that the execution will need to be flawless for it not to fall short of our expectations. But that’s now true of whatever Stephen Moffatt writes.
In fact, the meta level on which this episode operates is lovely. Professor Song’s references to “spoilers” is of course a direct nod to the culture of television fandom, whether Who related or otherwise, and the idea that the Doctor’s future history is in itself now a book penned by Professor Song makes him explicitly part of a story with future spoilers. When he offers to skip to the end with Donna he’s teasing the audience too. And of course he actually, really and truly manages to scare the monster of the week by having it Google him. Likewise Donna’s dreamlike existence within the Matrix-like computer core riffs brilliantly on the conventions of storytelling, whether novelistic or televisual, making scene breaks and transitions of time and place an explicit part of her experience. Just as Donna retroactively fills in the blanks between the previous scene and the current one, so do we. Layering on top of that is the little girl watching all the proceedings on TV, complete with Murray Gold’s orchestral blarings. As a metaphorical viewer of the series she doesn’t quite hide behind the sofa, but she comes extremely close. This is wonderfully playful, inventive stuff.
If I’m to be critical, some of Donna’s experiences here feel like padding, keeping her literally sidelined in a subplot while the Doctor and River bicker and flirt. Also the disintegration of her fictional life is never quite as heart-rending as the Doctor’s similar crisis in ‘The Family of Blood’. But there’s enough heart and imagination to hold it together.
In terms of SF the story is about as rigorous as any episode of Doctor Who, which is to say hardly at all, but it does at least have some sense of internal logic. The basic idea that the computer is a child who saved all of the people on the planet via teleports to the hard-drive does make sense, and became obvious midway through part one (leaving me to ponder why the Doctor is so dense that it takes him until halfway through part 2 to put it together). The idea that the shadow creatures live in forests which have been pulped to make the books is also a good one. But somewhere in this web of plotting and neat ideas the two-parter crosses the line from clever to contrived. I’m inclined to let Moffatt off the hook because contrivance is a common flaw in modern Who and here for once it’s offset by numerous virtues.
The actual threat of the shadows becomes far lessened this week because it’s subsumed within the running around, the character interplay and the exposition. The shambling skeletal creatures don’t convey much menace, and there’s never a tangible sense that the characters are afraid of the dark. That initial frisson of a scary idea, that ‘Blink’ managed to sustain and develop so well, isn’t really sustained here. I do however like the Doctor’s attempt to communicate with the creatures, which creates a very different but still effective sense of threat.
The ending recalls, seemingly explicitly, the “everybody lives” resolution of ‘The Doctor Dances’. It’s a note the series has tried to recapture many times since, most blatantly at the end of ‘New Earth’, and there’s a certain weariness about it that works against the otherwise strong execution. We’ve also seen the ‘last minute save’ scene a few too many times. The scene with the sonic screwdriver here is extremely reminiscent of the end of ‘Voyage of the Damned’, albeit with a different outcome, and coming hot on the heels of ‘The Doctor’s Daughter’ it does create the unfortunate impression that death is less permanent than it should be. This desire to keep characters alive for the future is a common difficulty in SF, or indeed in any open-ended narrative such as comics or even soap opera, but it’s not always good drama. It’s also unnecessary here since we know that the Doctor will see her again, so it’s a shame that the denouement doesn’t allow the darkness of River’s death to stand.
(As my wife notes, although the foreshadowing looks bad for Donna, the events of this episode do in fact explain the difference that River saw in the Doctor’s eyes in their later meetings. It was not the weight of Donna’s death, but the weight of River’s ‘death’.)
So we’re left with a flawed but hugely entertaining two-parter that is brimful of imagination, emotion, and self-awareness without ever coming off as smug or superficial. It’s not as flawless as ‘Blink’ or as fresh as ‘The Empty Child’/’The Doctor Dances’, and last season’s equivalent two-parter from Paul Cornell was definitely superior, but it’s still pretty darned good.