A curious episode this for a season opener. It rather flies in the face of the received wisdom that the season should kick off with an easily digested appetiser, full of interesting flavours but not too challenging on the palette. Even the initial sequence of Rory and Amy juxtaposed with the Doctor’s whacky hi-jinx– which is clearly designed to ease us back in with a bit of a comedy flourish–feels strangely indigestible, like a hectic continuation of the season finale ‘The Big Bang’.
It’s odd in other ways. It feels at times scattershot and unevenly paced, so jam-packed with ideas that they spill out in all directions, but without leaving a clear narrative thread for the audience to hang onto. It’s often hard to see where the episode is heading next, not in the sense that our expectations are dramatically overturned, but in the sense that it’s almost impossible to form expectations at all. In some ways, then, strangely unsatisfying.
Nonetheless I don’t wish to sound too negative. This is undoubtedly an ambitious and dazzling episode with a lot of great moments to commend it, even if they don’t (yet) add up to a satisfying whole. As we’ve come to expect from Moffatt the comedy is very funny, and the aliens are absolutely creepy (although more effective when not doing anything so prosaic as ‘sploding people in my view). I’m also very partial to the sequence in which the Doctor tells River he doesn’t trust her and turns to Amy for confirmation, mostly because it’s all so very ambivalent and Matt Smith delivers a perfect little flicker of sombre resignation. Smith is strong throughout, balancing his usual breathless gabble of thrown-away lines with some quieter moments of reflection and authority. Doctorish, in fact.
After last season and the Comic Relief skit I’m beginning to feel a little bloated from ingesting too many tales of complex interacting timelines, but this story makes effective and mostly restrained use of the device, reserving it for the single big ‘hook’ of the Doctor’s death and machinations. River Song’s presence complicates this of course but at least we’re already familiar with her very personal brand of temporal paradox. I’m reassured by the reference to the Universe exploding that we won’t be seeing any more Bill and Ted style boot-strapping of the kind seen in the last season finale. The conceit of the Doctor secretly recruiting his younger self after his own death tap dances around this neatly.
Moffatt’s two-parters do tend to form two halves of a whole, and on that basis trying to judge episode 1 in isolation is like reviewing half a book. If the second half can draw these chaotic threads to a tidy and dramatic conclusion then I’d go so far as to say that it may well crystallise into something marvelous, and the focus of the episode may appear much sharper in hindsight.