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Doctor Who (6th season, 2011)

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The Doctor is a man from another world, who travels through space and time in his big blue box called the TARDIS. He's usually accompanied by a pretty redhead, Amy Pond, and her kinda dorky husband, Rory.

It's Doctor Who, lighthearted science fiction that, when it's done right, can leave you in a better mood than before you watched, and might even give you something to think about. When the show is at its best, it's that rarity — television worth watching.

To find Doctor Who at its best, however, often involves seeing some Doctor Who that's not.

Always I'm re-watching the show, but about half the time I stop watching or start over after the fifth season. After that, the quality ain't what it was.

Here's the show's sixth season, and Doctor Who is still a cool show, but now it seems to know it, and it's patting itself on the back too much. There's still awesomeness in the mix, definitely, but with frequent missteps.

S06E00: "A Christmas Carol"

And it starts with a big misstep. 

The Doctor is explicitly agnostic whenever the subject of religion comes up. He's not a Christian or even an Earthling, but the show has a Christmas special every year. Sigh.

Until this one, though, the Christmas specials have always been episodes like any other, that just happen to take place at Christmas-time. This one goes all in on Christmas — it's about Christmas, even though it's set on a different planet.

As gently hinted by the episode's title, it's a Doctor Who retelling of Dickens. Michael Gambon plays the Scrooge character, The Doctor is the ghost of Christmas' past, and it's not as awful as it sounds but it's pretty bad, with a truly creepy, somewhat offensive subplot about a woman kept cryogenically frozen in a box.

It's OK for what it is, but what it is — The Doctor celebrating Xmas — shouldn't exist, and in my future re-watches of Doctor Who, I'm skipping this one.

S06E01: "The Impossible Astronaut"
and E02: "Day of the Moon"

The Doctor comes to America, and rendezvouses with Amy and Rory and an old friend named River Song. Then a mysterious astronaut wades out of a lake and shoots The Doctor, and as he begins regenerating (as his species does when they're killed) the astronaut shoots The Doctor again. The implication is that two shots makes it fatal, and The Doctor is dead.

Which is highly unlikely, on a show named after him.

Then an old man in a pickup truck explains things, and the monster of the week is The Silence, a bunch of space aliens that can't be remembered.

That last bit — people keep seeing the evil aliens, but then forget they've seen them — is a clever concept, well-executed, but the rest of the story feels overwritten, with kooky plot twists solely for the purpose of being kooky (like a lot off season 6, actually).

It's set in 1969, and one of the story's key characters is US President Richard Nixon, which is … difficult for me. I remember the real Nixon, so even though the actor playing him is OK and bears a resemblance and wears a prosthetic nose, it's … difficult. What's more difficult is that Nixon is presented sympathetically, when to me and to history he's an irredeemable bad guy.

S06E03: "The Curse of the Black Spot"

Thar be pirates here — old-fashioned pirates on a ship, flying under the Jolly Roger and looting and pillaging and such. And thar also be a disease — if one of these pirates gets the tiniest cut, he'll immediately develop a black spot that kills quicker than leprosy.

On the plus side, Amy gets into a sword fight to save the day, and the main pirate is played by Hugh Bonneville, who went on to own Downton Abbey

On the minus side, I don't generally care for pirate adventures, and this isn't a very good one.

The disease has a muse, a ghostly woman who appears from the sea, always accompanied by mournful and annoying singing on the soundtrack. And we're supposed to be charmed that the captain of a 17th or 18th century pirate ship easily masters the TARDIS controls and exclaims, "A ship is a ship."

S06E04: "The Doctor's Wife"

This story has some interesting ideas, intriguingly realized — the soul of the TARDIS takes a human form, helping The Doctor when he's lured to a distant place by Frankenstein people, made from stolen parts of other people.

TARDIS technology isn't often delved into on the show, and it's fascinating when it is, because the TARDIS isn't merely a machine or a vessel shaped like an old-fashioned police box; it's a living machine, with a heart and soul of its own, loyal to the doctor and sometimes skeptical and jealous of his companions. 

We know the basics of The Doctor's backstory — he's a time lord from the planet Gallifrey, who long ago stole a TARDIS, and he's been joyriding ever since. This time, though, we hear the same events from the ship's perspective:

TARDIS: Did you ever wonder why I chose you, all those years ago?

The Doctor: I chose you. You were unlocked!

TARDIS: Of course I was. I wanted to see the universe, so I stole a time lord and ran away. And you were the only one mad enough.

This is the first episode of the season that's unambiguously good, and it has a brilliantly happy/sad ending.

Now we're cooking. Let's do it again! 

S06E05: "The Rebel Flesh"
and E06: "The Almost People"

Imagine if you will, a job where the most dangerous labor is performed by high-tech projected mimicries of the workers' bodies. If there's an accident, only the mimic is killed, while the worker remains safe.

This seem like a solution, making even the most dangerous jobs safe, but has anyone asked the mimics how they feel about all the dying?

With eyeballs in the walls and freaky body morphing but also with a message, this is a frightful, thoughtful story that wonders who and what's human, and along the way there's a hell of a goose-bump cliffhanger between part 1 and part 2.

"It doesn't have to be about revenge. It can be so much better than that."

When the story of the mimics is over, there's still a gut-wrenching twist to come — a serious wow moment. I got frightened. I got properly, properly scared.

This is very good Doctor Who, and very good science fiction. You could watch this two-parter as a movie, and it would be better than Guardians of the Galaxy, but then again, so's an Alka-Seltzer commercial. (BTW, can you guess what movie I watched yesterday?)

S06E07: "A Good Man Goes to War"

Amy, pregnant and ready to pop, has been kidnapped. Her newborn daughter is whisked away by the baddest of interstellar bad guys, with Amy allowed only enough time to promise her baby that whatever it takes, she'll find her.

In this episode, The Doctor is more violent, cold-blooded, and cruel than he's ever been, which violates the show's general attitude of killing as only a last resort, but what the hell. The show always treats its rules more like suggestions, and this is a grandly outlandish and thrilling episode.

"I admire your courage. I should like to admire it from afar."

Yeah, when The Doctor is in this bad a mood, some distance would be a good idea.

There are some memorable characters — the blue-skinned Sydney Greenstreet, the savage warrior condemned to serve as a nurse, a soldier who briefly met The Doctor when she was very young, and the wife of the ferocious lizard lady we met in the fifth season. Also, the soldiers are Episcopalians, assisted by headless monks.

And there's maybe the biggest bombshell reveal in the show's history. It leaves me breathless, every time.

Yeah, Doctor Who still has the ability to tell a terrific story.

S06E08: "Let's Kill Hitler"

This one's not terrific. 

Turns out Amy has a lifelong best friend we'd never seen and she'd never mentioned before. It's a cheat when TV shows do that, but there's a lot cheating here.

The friend's name is Melody, and she's a slightly annoying, mostly stereotypical 'troublemaker' who immediately hijacks The Doctor and the TARDIS to Nazi Germany where, you guessed it, they sorta toy with the idea of killing Hitler. 

Man-sized robotic secret agents are driven by tiny spies, and instead of killing him, The Doctor saves Hitler's life, so — it's wacky! But 'wacky' Doctor Who grows tiresome quickly. There are so many absurdities and amped-up over-dramatic moments, there's nothing 'Doctor Who real' enough to grab onto and care.

There's also a forgettable attempt to out-plot twist the plot twist at the end of the previous episode, which adds really nothing to the storyline, and instead subtracts. 

"Let's Kill Hitler" is another episode I'll skip on future rewatches.

S06E09: "Night Terrors"

A neurotic young boy suffers from pantophobia — perpetual dread, or the fear of everything, so The Doctor makes a house call as child psychiatrist, to figure out what's haywire in the kid's head. 

The kid actor is perfect, and the story feels predictable but isn't, and gets better toward the end. 

S06E10: "The Girl Who Waited"

The Doctor, Amy, and Rory arrive at a planet that's actually a maze. And it's a "two-streams facility," which means there are two possible realities behind every door. And that means you can't even retreat by retracing your own steps.

Additionally, time moves faster in some rooms, slower in others, and Amy lucks into the wrong room, getting separated from The Doctor and Rory, and growing to middle age while they look for her.

This is like something from Black Mirror. In some ways it's a masterpiece, and it's weird, scary, and funny all at the same time. Objectively, it's quite a good episode.

Problem is, I don't watch Doctor Who objectively. I care about the characters, and what's done to Amy here is too much. She's already seen her newborn daughter kidnapped, and (spoiler) she'll never get that baby back, and now this episode leaves her stranded and abandoned, alone and miserable for the rest of her life? In a word, it's distasteful.

S06E11: "The God Complex"

Welcome to the Hotel California, except it's in England. It's a swanky but faded place, with something impossible in every room — a monster, a gorilla, a Weeping Angel, a clown, a coward... 

"It's funny — you don't know what's going to be in your room until you see it, and then you realize it could never have been anything else."

There's no escaping the hotel, which makes this episode at least superficially similar to the previous one, where there was no escaping the world-size maze, but this is better — more thoughtful, less disturbing.

It's also reminiscent of the episode before, in which a little boy had to confront his many fears; here, everyone (even The Doctor) needs to confront their fears. And this episode's better than that one, too.

It delves into the psyche of Amy and The Doctor, and into the show's own mythology and formula. Written by Toby Whitehouse (Being Human, and Doctor Who's "School Reunion"), it's a terror and a tearjerker.

It offers several interesting one-time characters, some tear-jerking moments, and a very poignant ending that feels like the beginning of the end for Amy and Rory, which it is. (Frankly, the show and the story arc for Amy and Rory would be better if this was their ending episode, but it's not.)

I've seen "The God Complex" numerous times, and it's one of very few episodes that, every time I watch it, I immediately watch it again.

But I haven't figured out all of what it means. "Cutting off your faith" is a key element, so it's an allegorical statement against easy beliefs, but I wonder if it's whispering something more. Watch it, and let me know, please.

Whatever it means, it's excellent Doctor Who, and it's the last good episode of the season.

S06E12: "Closing Time"

Karen Gillan (Amy) and Arthur Darville (Rory) are still in the credits, but barely in the show, as The Doctor is now traveling alone. This time the danger comes from Cybermen and lots of wiring with short circuits, but most of the story is about James Corden, back from last season's excellent episode "The Lodger." 

Like most sequels, it's not as good the original. Corden's lovable schlub character becomes one-note and tiresome, and his girlfriend (Daisy Haggard) was half of "The Lodger's" allure, but here she's only on screen long enough to say goodbye and hello.

"Closing Time" isn't quite a turd, but it's a shart.

S06E13: "The Wedding of River Song"

Here's the season finale. Through every episode, there's been an over-arching story about "The Silence," mostly dealt out in small bits that made little sense. This episode brings those strands together, but it still doesn't make much sense.

Blue-skinned Sydney Greenstreet is back, as are the Daleks and Winston Churchill, who's now a Roman emperor. Amy and Rory are back too, but they're not quite right. Balloons fill the air over London, The Doctor is supposed to be dead but he isn't, and in Area 51 time stands still, and it's always 5:02 in the afternoon.

I don't want to be too hard on writer-showrunner Steven Moffat. He wrote some great Doctor Who, and there's good stuff to come from him in seasons 7, 8, 9, and 10, but this episode falls short, as have several others this season.

Fortunately, the story ends with several minutes remaining, and those last few minutes of filler are kinda fun.

♦ ♦ ♦

There were some fine episodes in the sixth season — eps 4-7, 9 and 11 — but too many that just sat there, like this one. Ah well, The Doctor will be back next season, and so will I.

7/4/2024   

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