It was in the revamped Who that the idea of the Doctor as legend first began to gain traction. In the original series the character was sometimes portrayed as having a reputation, certainly, but for most of the time he was an itinerant, anonymous figure. Although that has remained the case from episode to episode over the last five years, we’ve also seen the growth of the idea that all of the Doctor’s various exploits cumulatively add up to a certain mythic quality. Perhaps Christopher Eccleston’s iconic rant to the Daleks in ‘Bad Wolf’ was the first major example.
Moffat ran with this thread right from the end of ‘The Eleventh Hour’, and of course in ‘The Pandorica Opens’ the Doctor’s reputation is such that all his foes gang up to trap him. At the time that felt like the culmination of the idea, but this episode takes it further still and shows that while the Doctor may now be able to bluff his way through any situation on reputation alone, that reputation is coming back to haunt him in more insidious ways. RTD was also responsible for the concept that the Doctor turns others into weapons to do his dirty work, and here we see the Doctor doing much that, except that he’s also becoming a weapon himself.
It’s all fairly arguable stuff but the episode just about makes its case and in a series as long-running as Who it’s interesting to find new takes on the character. Whether the Doctor learns from this will be interesting; generally he looks chastened by such concepts and then gleefully fandangoes his way out of trouble without so much as a look back. As Admiral Kirk would say: “No, I haven’t faced death. I’ve tricked my way out of death, and patted myself on the back for my ingenuity.”
As for the big revelation well I guessed, but was unsure up to the last minute. (And my guess was probably informed by the fact that internet speculation is now so all-encompassing that any plot twist will be predicted by someone somewhere.) I’ve seen a few comments that this was too straight forward, too much of a single bluff, but I think that’s unfair. Moffat gets criticised for excessively indulging his love of complexity for its own sake, and I think it’s imperative that River’s identity is not only a twist but a revelation that resonates emotionally and doesn’t feel like a writerly cheat. While there’s a certain amount of contrivance about it, inevitably, I think it strikes a good balance between predictable and shocking. And Matt Smith’s reaction is played with such a light touch that it wafts away any sense of melodrama. The way delight and surprise bubbles out of him almost in spite of himself reminds me of Alistair Sim’s Scrooge waking up to realise he hasn’t missed Christmas after all.
I know we’re only up to the mid-season break but that was pretty much a season finale wasn’t it? It certainly felt like the kind of breathless, epic romp we’ve become accustomed to at the end of the season, and the bringing together of many and varied familiar aliens even echoed The Pandorica Opens. There are downsides to breathless, epic romps and the bulk of the episode was certainly not what you’d call high in intellectual calories, but it was huge fun, full of funny lines, deftly and intricately put together as only Steven Moffat can. In many ways it also felt like a Russell T Davies finale, and that means that it felt far warmer and more accessible than the sometimes difficult season opener. So packed with incident and characters was it that there were plenty of broad brush shorthands to allow the audience to easily ‘hook’ onto the story, from the evil woman having an eye patch, to the blind religious fervour of the army, the sinister priests, and the blue-skinned spymaster from Parts Foreign. I’m sure some or all of these may be considered offensively stereotypical — there was even a hoary old joke about Stevie Wonder being blind, fer cryin’ out loud — but it all rattled by with well-meaning enthusiasm.
Perhaps slightly too much set-up to pay-off here, but overall a very likeable tale that (mercifully) adds clarity to what has become a complex array of story arcs. I don’t think I could have taken any more mysteries without some revelations.
Other random observations:
* Great episode title and rationale.
* Very impressed by Karen Gillan this week, and I thought the opening sequence with Amy was both nicely written and a very neat way to cut to the chase without going through endless scenes of captivity and birth.
* Loved the over-compensating Sontaran nurse (and Rory’s mixed emotions about his disgust at being a nurse)
* The Silurians are much more successful here than last season. A Victorian crimefighting Silurian may feel like a snippet from some ridiculously cartoonish spin-off, but it’s a spin-off I’d watch.
* Not one but two funny lines about (sympathetically drawn) gay couples in one episode. It’s like Moffat is trying to out-RTD RTD.
* Murdering an entire fleet of Cybermen hardly counts as not a drop of blood spilled. Cool scene though. I can’t decide if Arthur Darvill didn’t quite pull-off the ‘cool’ factor of this sequence, or if he kept it nicely grounded in Rory’s character.
* Slight redesign of the Cybermen, these being (I assume) the original Who flavour. Nothing major but I’m geeky enough to like it.
* Great discussion of baby Pond’s DNA that just about sold me on the whole timey-wimey DNA concept.
* Eye patch woman really is absurdly one-dimensional and absurdly far ahead of the game.
* The discussion of how unlikely it was that the ‘Ganger could be controlled throughout all space and time completely failed to explain it, while leaving the impression that they’d addressed the issue. Cunning.
* I’m getting hopelessly lost with River Song’s timeline but since she is always younger each time we see her, we must be approaching the Bad Thing she did that got her locked up. I think we all suspect what this was. But are we right, and in what context?
* I assume River couldn’t participate in this episode because she can’t directly interfere with her own history, although it was left unspoken.