“Demons run when a good man goes to war.”
Series 6 of Doctor Who is when we first discovered what new showrunner Steven Moffat would be like as a showrunner. We got a taste of his wibbly-wobbly approach to storytelling in the previous series, but this is where he really shifts into gear. For better or for worse.
Despite what you think of Moffat’s tenure on the show, most people associate his years with complicated plots spoken very quickly. With this sixth series, he begins to experiment more with the serialised nature of the show. Sure, it’s still got the usual monster-of-the-week formula (and some episodes are truly standalone) but there’s a definite, concrete story running throughout the series for the first time in the revival’s history. Other series had their recurring motifs and plot points in Bad Wolf and Torchwood and we saw shades of that with the crack in the wall in series five. But here, this narrative is no longer a b-plot full of blink-or-you’ll-miss it clues and lines of dialogue. Instead, it opens the series and isn’t concluded until the very last episode.
And the event that kickstarts the series, and provides the bulk of the mystery throughout, is the death of The Doctor himself. Now, in my opinion, this is very cleverly done. We all know that The Doctor can’t die, so however shocking the moment is, we know something will happen. It turns out that the Doctor we witness die in the opening episode is from the future, and the series is really spent trying to avert that event. It plays with the idea of time, and you really have to be willing to just go along with the show’s already wonky set of rules in that regard, but it’s a hell of a hook for a series opener.
And for anyone else, that would be the most important thing in one series of a show. But Steven Moffat didn’t stop there. Elsewhere in the series we have huge revelations about Amy and Rory’s baby, after discovering that they are expecting. This leads into the whole River Song storyline, which only gets more confusing. On top of that, we have a weird eyepatch-wearing woman sliding back solid walls, that only Amy can see – as well as the fact that Amy is not real for a good portion of the episodes and is in fact a plastic replica. Throw in an order of aliens that you forget about when you look away from them, and you’ve got a very fast-paced series.
It was really around this time that Doctor Who became a show you couldn’t miss an episode of. Of course, I never would miss an episode, to me that was tantamount to blasphemy, but to parents across the country who only tuned in now and then, this is undoubtedly where the series got too much for them. And there’s an argument that the show lost something in that decision – something that the Jodie Whittaker series has attempted to amend to a degree.
But what it lost in casual viewers, the show more than made up for in new converts from across the pond. This is when the show really took off overseas, airing on BBC America on the same day as over here in the UK. But unlike a lot of other shows that lose something in that move to America (looking at you Miracle Day), Doctor Who embraces it and delivers of of it’s most ambitious series yet. The first two episodes take place in America, but it doesn’t feel like it’s pandering to its US audience. 1960s America is a perfect location for the show, as the characters interact with shadowy g-men, the first manned journey to the moon, and even with Tricky Dick Nixon himself. Throw in the Silence who, in their black suits, look like something from a 60s pulp comic, and you’ve got yourself a great story.
And the series contains some really strong stories throughout. As I have found with my previous rewatches, the weaker episodes are never as bad as I expect. Maybe it’s because I’m not waiting a week to watch them, but episodes like “Curse of the Black Spot” and “Night Terrors” are fun standalone episodes. Both are pretty throwaway, but include some really good performances, sci-fi ideas, and scary moments – even if they don’t always advance the plot. Another good episode I was absolutely dreading to watch is “Closing Time”, the second of the James Corden episodes. While not quite as good as “The Lodger”, and sadly still written by transphobe Gareth Roberts, it had some really funny moments of physical comedy and some wonderful moments from Matt Smith, as the Doctor faces his oncoming death.
Like always, there are a few standouts this season. For me, “The God Complex” is perhaps the best episode here, taking place entirely in a creepy 1980’s-style UK hotel. Behind every door is the guest’s worst fears, and to top it off, they’re also being pursued by a minotaur. For me, it’s just a really effective and interesting episode, with a really fantastic idea at its core. The practical effects used on the minotaur are also really great, and represent a highpoint in creature design in a show that is renowned for it. Another great episode is the Doctor-lite “The Girl Who Waited”. This sees the gang separated, with Rory and the Doctor remaining in the normal timestream, and Amy ending up in one where time moves much faster. Apparently made on a lower budget than other episodes, it’s once again an example of how a really original science fiction concept can elevate an episode. It also features possibly the best episode ending in Nu-Who, as the Doctor is forced to leave aged Amy behind. And it offers us a more serious look at Rory and Amy’s relationship, with Rory getting to be his own character, instead of being a punching bag.
In the middle of the series there was a big break when it first aired. That wasn’t a popular decision among fans, I’m sure. But here, watching it back, it has benefits and drawbacks. Firstly, it gives us an awesome mid-season finale in “A Good Man Goes To War”, but conversely, it sort of makes the actual season finale – “The Wedding of River Song” – feel a bit underwhelming. Both are great episodes, with Moffat running at full steam, throwing ideas and twists and turns at us one after another. But the whole format of the series just isn’t as enjoyable as the tried and tested two-part finale. It often feels like Steven Moffat needs more than one episode to explore a lot of these ideas. With that being said, watching it now in my own time, I am a very big fan of these twists and turns. And it is impressive how much the show crams into 45 minutes, and still keeps the whole thing easy to understand.
I couldn’t discuss series six of the show without mentioning what many people consider to be one of the all-time greatest episodes. Written by Neil Gaiman, “The Doctor’s Wife” is every bit as effective as people say. I sort of missed the hype with this one at the time. I enjoyed it, but like with “Vincent and the Doctor” I missed what made it so great. Confronted by the TARDIS in human form (played excellently by Suranne Jones) the Doctor finally gets a chance to converse with his oldest friend, adding a new and unexpected layer to their relationship – the only relationship on the show that truly endures. But elsewhere in the episode, there are some very effective moments of horror, as Rory and Amy get trapped wandering the TARDIS. It’s a fantastic episode, with wonderful writing that’s truly sold through some great performances. I’m starting to think that Matt Smith is the best actor to ever play the role. He really can act, and brings such a sense of fun to the role, as well as a sadness and age (which is crazy because he’s the youngest actor to play the Doctor).
The supporting characters get more chance to shine this time around. Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill are both around for the long haul this time, and both of them get moments of their own. Amy moves beyond being the girl who was obsessed with the Doctor and becomes one of his most capable companions, as well as the emotional centre of the series, after both witnessing her best friend’s death and losing her child. Rory just gets the chance to be his own man, after following Amy and the Doctor around and playing second fiddle for far too long. You feel the friendship between him and the Doctor, and it no longer feels like the Doctor just lets him hang around because he likes Amy.
Overall, this series doesn’t quite hit the heights of the previous one, but it aims big nonetheless. None of the episodes are bad – we don’t have a “Fear Her” or “In The Forest of the Night” here anywhere. The worst episodes are still good and each have standout moments. But when it shines, it’s really, really great. I realise that Steven Moffat’s way of writing is not for everyone. I also realise that there’s a good chance I will get bored of it after watching all of his episodes in quick succession. But right now, it still feels like he breathed new life into the show and managed to make it feel suitably different from what came before. And ultimately, if there’s nothing else, Matt Smith is brilliant in the role. The episode could be 45 minutes of him in a room and I’d praise it. This rewatch has completely opened my eyes to his Eleventh Doctor, and made me realise just how great he is.
In series seven, the dreaded mid-season break returns, but Steven Moffat at the time also promised a return to standalone stories. We also bid farewell to Amy and Rory, and hello to new companion, Clara. I’m looking forward to it.