The Doctor, The Widow, and The Wardrobe

I recently rewatched Steven Moffat’s first New Who story, “The Empty Child”/”The Doctor Dances,” and it was much better than I’d remembered. My only major complaint, apart from the contrast between Captain Jack’s American accent and his UK English dialogue, is that the script comes down pretty hard on the boy’s mummy, treating her cover story as a tragic character flaw rather than an understandable means of dealing with a difficult situation. “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” takes a similar line against motherly white lies, but attempts to venerate mothers themselves, to the point of embarrassing overstatement.

Also featured in “The Empty Child” is this witty exchange:

ROSE: Look at you, beaming away like you’re Father Christmas!
DOCTOR: Who says I’m not? Red bicycle when you were twelve?

It seemed like good fun in 2005, but Moffat may have meant it. In 2011 we have a story in which the Doctor can be summoned by wishing for him, and he seems to have nothing better to do than invent and deliver extraordinary nigh-magical toys to a pair of children and their kind but hardly unusually helpful mother, Madge. If this is how he repays all small debts, it’s a wonder he ever finds time to save the universe at all.

Fortunately, the story doesn’t overplay the Doctor as Santa slash God angle; he’s still enough of a fallible mortal to be genetically male and thus unsuitable to the purposes of a pair of moving wooden statues, and he still doesn’t do even the slightest bit of research when he sets up the biggest gift, a portal to a planet that’s about to be apocalyptically deforested. There’s charmingly spontaneous, and then there’s criminally negligent.

For a while it seems as though it might be worth investing emotion in the fate of the doomed trees on that planet (which is standing in for Narnia, in case you were hoping something would). You see, these trees have souls, and we’re supposed to feel better about the fact that they’re harvested as what one character calls the “greatest fuel source ever” (with an apology on his face for what must be the laziest expository line ever) because their souls are conveyed through an incredibly convoluted, precarious, and unlikely scheme into the stars, where they’ll just float around happily forever. It’s hard to imagine the Doctor grinning away a genocide of humanoids with the same palliative (they’re in heaven now! isn’t that nice?). What’s certain is that if you decide to care about the trees themselves, this episode isn’t going to leave you any happier than “The Beast Below” if you cared about the space whale or “A Christmas Carol” if you cared about the people being used as debt collateral.

So then if you choose to regard the trees as the Krafayis of this episode, a way to make things Christmasy and Who-y while sneakily telling a story about a family who’s lost a husband and father in WWII, and the mother who quite accidentally becomes a sort of Rudolph guiding him home, well, you might be a little more satisfied. Madge’s no-nonsense stoicism does lift when she’s (a bit cruelly) forced to review her memories of her husband in order to find her way home, up to and including his death, suggesting that her reluctance to tell her children about it before Christmas is as much about facing her own grief as saving her children from theirs.

The script and direction doesn’t give us much to feel of the hole this downed pilot leaves in his family’s lives, though, any more than it gives us of the mystical ensouled trees. We’re left to assume it’s moving by definition. In contrast, there’s the coda where the Doctor goes to visit Amy and Rory for Christmas, having been admonished to clear up the mystery surrounding his death. The Doctor apparently doesn’t know that River has already spilled the beans, but since we the audience have seen her do so, we’re stopping to puzzle out why there should be any doubt about this when we should be feeling the moment. Fortunately, Karen Gillan and Matt Smith play this scene so charmingly that the emotion wins, and the moment is moving anyway. If you’re the type of Who fan who regards the Christmas specials as the highlight of each season, you might disagree with me that one old friend squirting another with a water pistol can be more endearing than a woman getting her husband back from certain death, but in this case, for me, it was. Since it’s Christmas, let’s be charitable enough to assume that’s what Moffat intended.

Let’s not forget the comic relief, the tree harvesters whose scanners are as powerless against natural fiber clothing as the sonic is against wood. They are funny, especially if you watch their facial expressions and if you’ve completely given up hope of taking anything in the episode seriously. Moffat’s mention of “Androzani Major” is supposed to be a little treat for nerds, a callback to “The Caves of Androzani”, which many old-school fans consider the very best episode of the classic series. (I’m still partial to “City of Death” myself, but I see where they’re coming from.) For those fans it’s not going to work as a treat, but an insult added to injury.

“Caves” demanded to be taken seriously, featuring a revenge plot, political assassinations motivated by avarice, the Fifth Doctor at his most heroic and self-sacrificing, large-scale natural disaster that actually affected people, and even a Shakespearean aside. The ostensible villain of the piece was inspired by literature (Gaston Leroux rather than CS Lewis), the second Robert Holmes character to be inspired by the Phantom of the Opera. The denizens of the Androzani system were after an incredibly valuable life-extending substance secreted by bats, and were prepared and fully competent to kill for control of it. Why the Doctor would imagine any planet in this system (which it presumably is; the head harvester calls them “Androzani trees”) would be safe for children at any point in its history is mystifying.

“Caves” was also one of the few Robert Holmes episodes not to feature bureaucrats as bumbling and concerned with appearances as these tree harvesters; a callback to “Carnival of Monsters” or “The Sunmakers” might have been a more appropriate choice. If you’ve never seen “The Caves of Androzani,” you can hopefully just enjoy “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” without knowing what you’re missing. If you have, it can only impair your enjoyment when you’re invited to make the comparison.

The God Complex: postscript

I just rewatched “The Horns of Nimon.” Let’s just say I think it’s fallen a bit in my esteem since I was a lad. Also, “The Stones of Blood” is my second favorite story of this era (meaning seasons 16 and 17 of classic Doctor Who). My first favorite is obviously and forever the fabulous “City of Death.” I was obviously drunk on minotaurs when I wrote my review of “The God Complex.”

The Wedding of River Song


THE UNIVERSE is disintegrating due to the Doctor’s personal PROBLEMS again.

DOCTOR: I’m going to die, for real.

RIVER: Don’t die!

DOCTOR: I have to.

RIVER: I won’t let you!


DOCTOR: Let’s get married.

RIVER: Okay.

The DOCTOR DIES, for real.

RIVER: Just kidding!

JAMBI THE GENIE: Here is the ultimate question.

Half of the FANS SQUEAL. The other half SCREAM.



0:00 – 5:00

SCENES from earlier episodes telegraph the SOLUTION to the Doctor’s DEATH.

CUT TO a montage, the BEST PART of the episode: CARS carried by HOT-AIR BALLOONS, CHILDREN feeding PTERODACTYLS in the park, a ROMAN SOLDIER on a CHARIOT policing traffic, CHARLES DICKENS on the news discussing his TELEVISION SHOW.


CHURCHILL, THE ROMAN EMPEROR: Extraordinary. Time has stopped at the exact moment of the Doctor’s death. Do you think someone’s trying to stop it from happening?

MALOKEH, THE SILURIAN MENGELE: That or having time collapse was the only way to squeeze in cameos by characters from the least-loved episodes of the past two seasons.

CHURCHILL: Surprised they didn’t dust off old van Gogh. Oh, wait, here he comes now!

DOCTOR: No, just me. I have a beard now. Beards are cool.


5:01 – 10:00


TESELECTA: In case you were getting popcorn during the “Previously,” we’re the deus ex machina.

DOCTOR: Tell me one thing. Just one.

TESELECTA: What’s that?

DOCTOR: How the heck do you spell your name?

CUT TO a “live chess” match, which sounds like it’s probably more fun than the official Doctor Who video games.

DOCTOR: What’s wrong with your face, Fenric?

GANTOK: It’s “Gantok.” Somebody put “Fenric” in the IMDB to mess with the fans and make them think I would turn out to be your chess-playing Viking-possessing nemesis from 1989.

DOCTOR: Who would do that?

GANTOK: Probably the same person who made me look like a Spitting Image Viking puppet and put all that chess imagery in the trailer.

CUT TO a crypt filled with SKULLS that eat people in SLOW MOTION. A WOODEN BOX sits on a PEDESTAL.

JAMBI THE GENIE: Did you just close that deadly trapdoor with your sonic screwdriver?

DOCTOR: Maybe.

JAMBI: Let me guess, was that the “things I could just as easily do with my hands” setting?

10:01 – 15:00

DOCTOR: Just give me a cryptic prophecy to carry us through the next season.

JAMBI: Sure thing, here you go.

DOCTOR: Thanks. By the way, I’m supposed to die!

JAMBI: Yes, you’re totally supposed to die!

NURSE: (on MAGIC TARDIS PHONE) By the way, an old friend of yours just died!

DOCTOR: Well, I’m in a time machine, so I could just go back and see him. In fact, just a minute ago I was talking about helping Rose with her homework and going to Captain Jack’s stag parties, either of which would be more fun than listening to me agonize about my death, which no one really believes is going to happen. I could go back just long enough to hold his hand while he dies, or go back ten years and bring him with me on adventures.

STEVEN MOFFAT: No you couldn’t. Rule number one: no time travel when it would actually be convenient.

DOCTOR: Righto.

15:01 – 20:00


RIVER: I’m going to stop time.

DOCTOR: I assume you’ll explain later how you were able to do that.

RIVER: Nope.

20:01 – 25:00


The SILENTS are hanging from the CEILING like BATS and it’s pretty awesome. We’ve almost FORGOTTEN they could DO THAT.

AMY: (is GORGEOUS) The name is Pond. Amy Pond.

DOCTOR: Then call me Doctor Moneypenny. Rowr.

CUT TO Amy’s office on a TRAIN.

DOCTOR: This is also pretty awesome.

It IS.

25:01 – 30:00

DOCTOR: Is my hair really going to be this long from now on?

MOFFAT: Maybe.

30:01 – 35:00

The SILENTS escape. MADAME KOVARIAN twirls her MOUSTACHE. The EYEDRIVES have arbitrary RULES.

RORY: (is a HERO)

AMY: (is a HERO back)

RORY: We’re adorable.

They ARE.

AMY: Oh, I almost forgot to be upset about having my baby stolen. I’ll do something morally questionable but satisfyingly direct.

35:01 – 40:00

RIVER: I’ve built a machine.

DOCTOR: What does it do?

RIVER: Well, do you remember the end of season 3, when you got everyone to think happy thoughts about you at the same time?

DOCTOR: Stop. You’re embarrassing me. In fact, you might want to watch this part with the sound off.

The SILENTS leave them alone for the EMBARRASSING PART.

DOCTOR: Okay, I’ll marry you, but you have to kill me. And then I’ll let you go to prison for it for a big chunk of your life, even though it’s not your fault and you won’t have actually killed anyone, and apart from the conjugal visits (assuming I feel like it and can steer the TARDIS precisely enough) I’ll get to run around scot-free. ‘Til death do us part, which I know it will because I’ve already lived through it.

RIVER: Some pre-nup.

Anonymous CHILDREN sing another ANNOYING NURSERY RHYME, hopefully for the LAST TIME.

40:01 – 45:00


AMY: So. Was he a Ganger?

RIVER: Nope.

AMY: Did he double back on his own timeline like I did in “The Girl Who Waited”?

RIVER: Nope. We didn’t see either of those things in the “Previously,” remember? He used the Teselecta.

RORY: But didn’t we see it start to regenerate?

AMY: And didn’t the Doctor have to die to repair time? You mean it was enough just for someone who looked like him to appear to die?

RIVER: Just have another drink.

CUT TO the crypt full of skulls.

DOCTOR: Whew, I got my hair cut. Now, it’s important that no one knows what happened to me. So River will tell Amy and Rory, and I’ll just tell you and that’s it. Until the next time I run into someone who’s met me before and they ask why I’m not dead.

JAMBI: Okay, so you pretended to die in order to lower your profile. But the ultimate question is exactly what everyone said it would be, and it proves that the universe still revolves around you.

DOCTOR: So? I’m a narcissist now. Narcissism is cool.



Like fast-forwarding through scenes from episodes we’d rather have seen just to get to a dull trick ending that puts us back where we began.

Closing Time

If you’re an American, you have a pretty good chance of being able to watch Doctor Who with little or no context for the guest actors in it. Billie Piper can just be Rose (and not a teenage pop star), Catherine Tate can just be Donna (and not a standup comic), and Lynda Baron can just be the gossipy lady in the department store (and not a sitcom star, or indeed the over-the-top pirate Captain Wrack from top-notch classic Who episode “Enlightenment”). James Corden can just be Craig Owens, the Doctor’s most occasional companion — excuse me, “partner” — and not a multitalented performer who apparently irritates a lot of his fellow Brits, including, most prominently, Patrick Stewart.

He’s still charming this time around as Craig, though slightly less so than in “The Lodger,” if only because he spends so much time being tiresomely hysterical about his new baby Alfie, or “Stormageddon, Dark Lord of All” as the baby prefers to be called (according to the Doctor, whose claim to “speak baby” is dubious but still hilarious). Why should this episode center around a baby? It’s a relatively kid-filled episode, actually, in which the Doctor demonstrates a remote-controlled flyer to a group of fascinated grade-schoolers and later gives lifelong memories of himself to three more, and two familiar faces cameo to sign autographs for a young fashion-conscious girl. If the episode is about anything, maybe it’s about human life continuing on in domestic yet wonderful ways while the Doctor’s is about to be snuffed out.

His fate is somewhat mirrored by that of an ailing Cyberman ship, apparently buried and dormant in the Earth and barely managing to hang on by stealing power and bodies to replenish its crew. You almost feel sorry for the tin dopes, though, with their silly walks and their lazy dull personalities that make Twiki from Buck Rogers look like Sir Anthony Hopkins. They barely stand a chance even before the Doctor sorts them out, yet another classic monster that the new series has drained of all remaining life or purpose. Frankly, I’m prepared and happy to let them just die off at this point.

On the other hand, no one is seriously expecting the Doctor to die, or even regenerate. We all know Moffat has painted himself into a corner just so that he can then paint a door on the wall and turn the knob and make it seem clever. Most of us have theories about what color paint he’s going to use (there are at least two obvious shades), so the “I’m about to die, just making the rounds to say goodbye” routine can’t help but seem like crying wolf. We’ve been faked out like this before in “The Stolen Earth” (not to mention “Let’s Kill Hitler” and arguably “The Big Bang”) and we’ve seen Ten make these farewell rounds in “The End of Time,” and sorry, but we know Matt Smith is in the Christmas special. There can be drama without characters appearing to die and then surprise! not dying after all. Enough is enough already…except that once again Matt Smith does a superlative job of selling us the Doctor’s dread and resignation, and reminds us that what’s obvious melodrama and plot contrivance to us is still real to this character, never more so than now.

Even though I’m sick to death of Cybermen, I always liked Cybermats, deadly little monsters that can hide under your couch and give you plague when you least expect them to strike. Except that in this they’re mainly just “quite cute,” comedy teeth and all, and how in the world they could hold anyone pinned to the floor when they have the size and powerful limbs of a chinchilla is beyond me. There’s a moment where I almost believed Craig would really be converted into a Cyberman and we’d have a much more shocking ending, but nope. So the plot itself is paper-thin, and the ending is at least twice as saccharine and far-fetched as the one in “The Lodger” (and the Doctor preemptively making fun of the sentimentality doesn’t make it any better). I was squirming in embarrassment and I was watching it alone. On headphones.

All that said, I really enjoyed watching everything except that one squirmy scene. It’s all about the moments: if I were to make a list of all the best parts, it would look a lot like the actual script. There’s the Doctor’s ongoing “conversation” with Alfie/”Stormy,” who apparently is already old enough to want a “hot babysitter,” and his observations on the priorities of adults (buying lamps, apparently). There’s my favorite subtle joke, where the Doctor grinds pepper onto Craig’s shoulders before massaging them (instead of oil, getting his condiments wrong). There’s the Doctor forgetting human phrases and customs and tasting things that aren’t food, as though he’s just as confused as he was in “The Eleventh Hour.” This is Gareth Roberts’s own take on the character, with little relation to anyone else’s (remember, this is the same Doctor who knew what Twitter was two episodes ago), but it’s my favorite.

And of course there’s the running gag where people think the Doctor and Craig are “partners” (the Doctor, not picking up on the subtext, wonders if “partner” is a better word than “companion”), and a contrived but still enjoyable bit of shtick (the “Doctor, are you gonna kiss me?” moment from the trailer) where even Craig buys it for a few minutes. Lynda Baron’s character finds the Doctor/Craig couple so charming and sweet that at first it seemed over-the-top, but when I thought about the alternative — she’s unnerved or disgusted by them — I just felt lucky that this is what we got instead.

There are some equally amazing moments that aren’t played (entirely) for laughs. One has the Doctor walking away from the flickering lights toward his TARDIS, determined not to get involved, but unable to stop himself from staying and getting a job in the department store in order to investigate what might be haunting it. It’s hard to imagine another Doctor having this conversation with himself in quite the same way, and impossible not to once you’ve seen it. And then there’s a small but striking moment when the Doctor has just listed off the missing store employees and explained the threat to Craig, and he turns his face away from Craig toward us, and all of his features are turned down in pure gloom, halfway between a sad clown and a German Expressionist silent film star. It’s the episode’s best special effect, and it’s just Matt Smith’s face.

And speaking of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments: as much as the new show and this season in particular have played up the idea that the Doctor puts his friends in danger (much like another fictional Englishman in a long coat), the truth is that in the classic series only two of his companions actually died (or one, depending on how you count), and even in the new series they’ve fared better than his sense of guilt would suggest. In what seems like a throwaway line, Craig points out matter-of-factly that if it weren’t for the Doctor, Earth (to name just one planet) would be a scorched rock in space many times over. The Doctor thinks (and says) those days are long past, but to us there’s real hope that they’re just around the corner.

Who cares about our baby?

Here’s an alternate view on “The God Complex”. I enjoyed the episode, and I think it works and makes as much sense in isolation as any episode of New Who. But I must agree with this reviewer that taken in context, Amy and Rory once again (as I noted when discussing “Let’s Kill Hitler”) do not behave like Earthlings who’ve had a Time Lord baby stolen from them and seen their Time Lord “friend” shot dead in his future, but like actors who have read the scripts and know all’s well that ends well. This makes it difficult to take them seriously as characters. It’s another reason why I’m hoping against common sense that we can close the book on these two and start fresh next season. I liked them, but they were saddled with way too much drama for the writers to sustain from story to story. This is the danger of giving companions an arc more complex than “I’ve grown to really like the Doctor.”

The God Complex

I’m a sucker for a minotaur. A guy with bull horns can make even an iffy story like “The Time Monster” just a little better, and I’m not gonna front like the hilarious “The Horns of Nimon” isn’t tied with “The Stones of Blood” as my second* favorite story of the Douglas Adams era of Doctor Who. So I’ve been looking forward to this one since I saw the trailer for the second half of this season. A minotaur whose labyrinth is an otherworldly hotel: sign me up.

The hotel in which the TARDIS lands (another vacation gone awry, this one a wrong turn in space rather than time) is probably supposed to evoke The Shining, though it also evokes The Budget. The hotel guests are kidnapped and their rooms furnished with their worst nightmares, essentially tenderizing them to be meat for the beast. This being the Steven Moffat era, however, it’s not so simple: the beast doesn’t feed on fear, but on the things people turn to when they’re most afraid, the forces in which they put their faith. And, luckily, the beast is old and tired of doing this, but it can’t stop on its own. Even more luckily, the Doctor is a qualified sponsor for Faitheaters Anonymous.

There’s a lot here that feels familiar. Thanks to the running-order switch, we had a story about people’s worst fears becoming solid just two episodes ago (“Night Terrors,” remember?). We had monsters that ostensibly echoed aspects of the Doctor himself at least twice last season (“The Beast Below” and “Amy’s Choice”). We’ve had treacherous corridors and mind games (“The Doctor’s Wife”). We’ve seen the Doctor kneel over a monster he’s essentially euthanized, who speaks to him in a language only he understands (“Vincent and the Doctor”), and seen him nearly euthanize another in a similar situation (“The Beast Below”). It’s thrilling to see a series that used to be derided for its rubber monsters and thin, superficial plots work so hard to be interior and meaningful, but when Amy jokes that their next visit will be to a house that isn’t really a house and contains “a goblin that feeds on indecision,” it’s an apt criticism. We’d be dangerously close to self-parody here if the story weren’t so satisfying.

It’s more satisfying if you’re already of the opinion that faith itself can be dangerous — that one form of strong belief can too easily be converted into another and made to serve sinister ends. I enjoyed the moment when the Doctor says offhandedly, as if it’s something they’ve discussed before, that Rory has “no religious or superstitious” beliefs and thus is of no use to the minotaur. If Rory has “faith” in Amy, it’s not the kind that means he expects her to save him from his worst nightmares, which is arguably an admirable, healthy, and mature perspective on love. It’s also clever that we see different kinds of faith (in luck, in authority, in wacky conspiracy theories) even if their potency seems a little exaggerated.

Of course, the theme we’re supposed to be most interested in is the one where the Doctor saves Amy by insisting that he can’t. (This is another moment that feels familiar, though I’m having trouble remembering why.) It doesn’t come across as a trick, though; it’s not a temporary lie to thwart the menace. He’s talking to fish-fingers-and-custard Amy as much as he is to now-Amy who’s about to worship a bull-headed creature; he’s saying true things, things I’ve always believed about this character that have seemed lost in recent years. He’s saying: “Look, I may have an amazing ship and two hearts and the ability to cheat death by changing my face, and I may have lived around a thousand years and saved the universe countless times, but when you get right down to it, I’m just a man, an eccentric curious clever lucky man with the best of intentions, but one who also can make the wrong choices and fail once in a while, and that’s a fine thing to be.” After “The Girl Who Waited,” some fans seemed really upset that the Doctor didn’t carry himself like a perfect golden hero. Here’s the perfect answer.

After last week, and Rory’s “past tense” comment this week, and the knowledge that the followup to the “guest companion” episode “The Lodger” is coming up next week, it didn’t come as a shock to see the Doctor leave Amy and Rory on Earth. It was still moving, though, and probably the most grownup companion farewell the show’s had since its revival — maybe ever. The Doctor doesn’t leave them in a parallel universe, or wipe their memory, or just lose them in an unlikely rebound situation; he says goodbye to them like a proper adult realizing he can’t interrupt their lives forever. Oh sure, he leaves Rory a bright red sports car, and he makes goofy shy faces at Amy as he leaves, but it just feels right in a way that this moment so often didn’t in the past. It’s all but guaranteed that we’ll see them again, even if it’s just to resolve the “Lake Silencio” plot in a couple episodes, but I almost wish we wouldn’t, if only to keep this perfect. It’s hard to imagine a new companion next season, unless it’s River Song, which would annoy a lot of people — perhaps including me, though it would mean a return to the Romana dynamic, which wouldn’t be so bad.

Bullet points!

  • This was a “bonkers prison” all right. If floating around the galaxy picking up innocent people for this minotaur to kill and eat is part of a just punishment, I’d hate to see the crime.
  • That sound the Doctor hears when he opens his door is the TARDIS’s classic warning siren, the cloister bell. I guess we’re to assume that his own worst nightmare is of himself (perhaps in his Dream Lord guise), given the self-loathing this Doctor is supposed to have.
  • I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the supporting actors in this episode, who were all pretty good. I didn’t enjoy the conspiracy geek as much, but since he was “blogging” when he was abducted I guess he was there to scare fans like me. I loved the moments where the Doctor flirts with the medical student and “fires” Amy so he can hire a new companion, even though those moments later come back to bite him.
  • The Doctor talks to the minotaur, first through a mirror and then through a sort of waterfall, in “The PasiphaĆ« Spa.” PasiphaĆ« was the minotaur’s mother in the original Greek myth. These are presumably all meant to be symbolic, but I admit I haven’t worked them out yet.
  • It’s a shame “Night Terrors” was moved, because it would have nicely bookended the season to have the Doctor toss a Rubik’s cube aside in frustration the third episode in, then pick it up again and solve it in this, the third episode from the end. It’s still a cool moment.
  • Just like a fanboy, I flipped right out when the Doctor namechecked the Nimon late in the episode. And the minotaur really was beautiful, if you like minotaurs. And I really do.

*Postscript, 17 December 2011:
I just rewatched “The Horns of Nimon.” Let’s just say I think it’s fallen a bit in my esteem since I was a lad. Also, “The Stones of Blood” is my second favorite story of this era (meaning seasons 16 and 17 of classic Doctor Who). My first favorite is obviously and forever the fabulous “City of Death.” I was obviously drunk on minotaurs when I wrote the above.

The Girl Who Waited

We rarely see the Eleventh Doctor on planets other than Earth. In the televised adventures, he’s set foot on alien soil (as opposed to ships or space stations) only three times: “The Time of Angels,” “A Christmas Carol,” and “The Doctor’s Wife.” Only one of those worlds was what you’d call populated, and that was by humans. We haven’t yet seen him step out onto an alien planet bustling with life and experience its culture before getting himself into trouble. He’s much more concerned with Time than Space. Since this show has historically been the other way round, we can’t really complain, but if his universe sometimes feels a little lonely, maybe that’s why. “The Girl Who Waited,” set on the fourth alien planet for this Doctor, is all about loneliness: how much you can take, what it does to you, what it drives you to do.

The planet’s name sounds like “Applappachia,” suggesting a place where hillbillies might buy iPads. It’s far more “Apple” than “Appalachia,” though: clinical, antiseptic white and metallic gray with bright iconic buttons. Turns out they’ve come to a vacation resort at a time of plague (“why don’t you look at a history book?” asks Rory. “That’s not how I travel,” replies the Doctor), and the planet’s collection of art, cinema, and horticulture has become the compensating comfort in the ultimate terminal patient ward. Amy immediately gets herself committed, through simple user error that probably wouldn’t have occurred if they’d entered through the front door with an escort rather than landing the TARDIS right in the middle of the place. We learn that the plague (which Amy can’t get, because she only has one heart, but the robots running the place don’t expect aliens so they don’t realize this) kills in one day, but time is compressed on the patients’ side of the facility, so that they can live out an entire lifetime in what is for their loved ones, watching through a time window, only a day. I didn’t quite get why each patient was kept in a separate timestream, so that they’d never be able to make friends with other patients and enjoy their company, at least. And I never got why, if the compression allows the patient to live an entire lifespan without dying from the disease, it couldn’t be mapped to the same amount of time for the loved ones on the other side, so that everyone would grow old at the same rate. But maybe this way you know that the people you really want to see are always on the other side of the glass whenever you want to come and see them, and you never have to wait for them to visit.

Except when you do. Say, thirty-six years or so. The Doctor’s steering is off, and in a place like this, off by a little means off by a lot. So by the time Rory catches up to his wife, she could be his mother. His mother in improvised samurai armor, wielding a katana, beheading medical robots who just want to do her the “kindness” of injecting her with medicines inimical to her alien biology, and really REALLY pissed off at being left alone for longer than she’d previously been alive. And when it becomes clear that saving Amy in the past means that Amy in the future will be annihilated, everyone has some hard choices to make.

It’s a little hard to fully grasp the emotional impact of this on Amy. From our point of view, she’s saving herself in the past and undoing her own imprisonment. From hers, though, she’s waited over three decades, gradually losing hope that anyone will come to find her, becoming resigned to her abandonment, and fighting desperately every day to survive against a relentless onslaught of innocently murderous robots…and all this work so that she can essentially be cloned and send her clone with the people she loves while she herself effectively dies. It’s for her own good, but either way, the Amy pushing sixty suffers crushing loss.

Overall it’s a very effective episode, apart from a few small complaints (why is the facility so unforgiving of error? how did Amy come to care so deeply about the fabric of time? and was it necessary to use quite so much slo-mo at the end there?). They skimp on the makeup in the long shots, but Karen Gillan does a fine enough job playing her older self that it hardly matters. Despite being as much on the sidelines in this episode as Amy and Rory were in the last, the Doctor has some subtle devastating moments, demonstrating again that he can’t always be trusted, and he’s all the more interesting for it. Personally I’m getting close to burned out on Amy and Rory’s simple absolute devotion to each other, which is such a given at this point that even old Amy’s fury seems more like a sulky tiff than a serious threat to their union. They’ll always wait for each other, and save each other, and think of no one but each other, and that’s beautiful, but we get it now, I think. Also, I really think one non-Dickens-related inhabited alien world in two years would not kill us, but unless it’s showing up in the finale, I doubt we’re getting one. But taken in isolation, on its own terms, this really works.

Small things of note:

  • “Sometimes knowing your own future is what enables you to change it.” Does this episode remind you of someone else who has a deadly future they might need to try and change? Perhaps even two someone elses?
  • The Doctor has a good memory for 21st century social networking services.
  • Mom’s as handy with a sword as her daughter is with a gun.
  • “Hello, handsome man!”

Night Terrors

Big twisty mind-blowing arc episodes like “Let’s Kill Hitler” are fun, but this show isn’t really about its main characters. The need for a central mystery is right there in the title. This is, in fact, how the show has managed to continue for 48 years in one form or another; it’s an anthology show, given continuity through an always-changing main character and an ever-rotating cast of (admittedly not always that distinctive) supporting characters. We’ve learned a little bit about where the Doctor comes from over the years, but still very little about the Doctor himself. That’s why the increasing sense these past two seasons that the universe revolves around the Doctor himself is so worrying. This show’s longevity depends on keeping the focus off who’s doing the travelling, but and on where they’re travelling to.

So “Night Terrors” is in some ways a step in the right direction. The Doctor, Rory, and Amy are there to explore the world of the week (in this case a high-rise tower block, which through inspired cinematography ends up looking as fresh as an alien planet), bring out its puzzles and threats, and help to solve and eliminate them. The trouble here is that the puzzles are pretty obvious.

It’s a standard new Who formula, especially when Moffat’s involved: something goes bump in the night, but it turns out to be from space! Surprise! There’s only so much we can complain about this, however, since it’s exactly the same formula that dominated 70s Doctor Who, especially the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era, arguably its most popular and successful period before the BBC Wales revival. The difference is that back in the day, the solution to the problem typically followed a raft of unpreventable deaths and involved cleverly improvised technology. These days it’s more likely to involve deaths that undo themselves like magic, followed by hugging and growing and learning.

Not that formula is unforgivable. As noted last week, stories driven by heart beat stories driven by surprise. Even if the formula means the plot’s obvious apart from a few details, it can still be moving. And it should be, but it isn’t, quite, even though the troubled boy’s father acts his socks off. Maybe it’s that we’ve already been places more emotionally adult than this, such as Rose facing her own family traumas in “Father’s Day.” Maybe it’s that scriptwriter Mark Gatiss’s subtextual formula is as familiar as his textual one: boy represses his emotions (never cries, stuffs his fears into a cupboard), boy’s parents don’t understand, everyone finally learns that the shadows on the wall and scary elevator noises were standing in for concrete fears that kids aren’t supposed to know about (in this case, financial problems that lead to overheard conversations about whether they can keep the boy who doesn’t realize how desperately he was wanted), everyone hugs and grows and learns. If it’s not quite moving, though, at least it’s respectable.

Two complaints about the way these themes are presented: first, the Doctor twice insists that “monsters are real.” However, the entire point, the only way they can be defeated, is realizing that they actually aren’t. You might argue that they are real, that they’ve been created from fear and now truly exist, but the way the doll’s house and its effects simply evaporate at the end doesn’t bear this up. If this is enough of a gray area that it doesn’t matter, why make a point of it? Second, the Doctor tells George that only he can stop the monsters (he’s gotta “believe”), but in the end it’s George’s father who has to make the leap and soothe George’s fears. The Doctor can be wrong (or senile, remembering the alien species he’s dealing with only at that point in the script where it’s dramatically convenient), the Doctor lies, but it seems a bit cheap to tease us that kids can defeat their fears through inner strength and then make George a largely passive victim all along.

So it’s not great, and there’s not much to it, but it looks terrific (maybe better than a lower-income apartment building should, but I’m not complaining) and isn’t particularly embarrassing. It’s a nicely self-contained episode, less ambitious than “The Curse of the Black Spot” but consequently less disappointing. At first you might question whether the Doctor’s “house call” is entirely in character — in the past he’s typically fallen into the role his title implies, arriving as explorer or tourist and helping out because he can’t help himself. But remember that just two episodes ago (“A Good Man Goes to War”) he found out his name had come to mean “great warrior,” and that he might now feel compelled to try and change that. It’ll be interesting to see whether and how this plays out during the rest of the season.

Good moment roundup:

  • George’s father suggesting that maybe scary TV or books gave George his fears, and the Doctor brushing these theories off. Mid-70s Doctor Who also saw a lot of controversy about whether the show was too violent and scary for young children; while I doubt they’re getting this kind of criticism today, it would have been a good response.
  • The glass eye in a drawer, a perhaps unintentional callback to “The Eleventh Hour.”
  • The sonic channels E.T., bringing George’s robot toys to life.
  • The Doctor, trying and failing to solve the Rubik’s cube and tossing it aside: “Must be broken. Hate these things.”
  • Amy and Rory (who are funny but mostly useless this time out) arriving in the doll’s house and thinking they’ve been killed by the falling elevator: “We’re dead. Again!”

Let’s Kill Hitler

Doctor Who is not a series known for good titles. The classic series is full of stories called things like “The Robots of Death,” “The Seeds of Doom,” and “Terror of the Autons,” to the point that its most successful parody (written by Steven Moffat himself) was called “The Curse of Fatal Death.”

“Let’s Kill Hitler” is a brilliant title, for two reasons. One is that it’s almost as far from those old-school corny titles as possible. The other is that it might be the biggest mislead in the history of the series.

I hope you’ve already watched it, so I don’t spoil it by saying this story drops any pretense of being about Hitler at the 17-minute mark. It’s a good thing, too; there’s something a little awkward about using Hitler as a comical red herring, made even more awkward by the fact that our heroes are required both to look appropriately appalled by their encounter with the dictator and also to lock him in a closet like a Scooby-Doo villain.

Ultimately, Hitler is a fairly arbitrary means of not only misdirecting us but also bringing in the Teselecta, a really entertaining concept: a person-sized, chameleonic space/time ship containing miniaturized future cops tasked with hunting down war criminals from the past, plucking them from time just before their historical deaths or disappearances, and punishing them through torture (“giving them hell,” as they themselves put it). It’s fun to watch them drive the body and update its disguises in their ninja mission to reach Hitler himself (their intended target), and perplexing to wonder why they waited until the very last minute to check their chronometers and discover they’ve arrived seven years too early and aren’t allowed to torture Hitler yet. It’s also weird that they’ve got all this technology but a really precarious security system of “antibodies,” but maybe that’s part of the episode’s theme about the fine line between damned and pardonable.

Some viewers will probably be tempted to damn Steven Moffat for Mels. I’m inclined to pardon him, but for 17 minutes I was thinking: okay, so Amy and Rory had a best friend from childhood we’ve never heard about before now, someone they played Doctor with (not like that), someone who watched them fall for each other (after Amy discovers he wasn’t gay, as she’d always assumed), someone whom Amy almost certainly would have told when the Doctor finally came back for her and who would have wanted to meet him right away. Oh, and she acts just like a young version of River Song, trigger-happy, thrill-seeking, and Doctor-lusting. Could this possibly be any more contrived? Then (I really hope you’ve already watched it) we find out Mels is short for Melody, and that she acts like a young version of River Song because she is a young version of River Song. And presumably she’s been biding her time since she regenerated in that New York alley in the early 70s, tracking down and then growing up alongside her future mom and dad, waiting until the two of them travel with the Doctor, have a TARDIS baby, and ultimately lose her to Eyepatch Lady to be trained to assassinate the Doctor. So, yes, it could be and is more contrived, but maybe it also couldn’t have worked any other way.

The Doctor turns out to be easy to kill, but hard to watch die, which I guess is a pretty good defense mechanism. It’s never really explained why he can’t regenerate his way out of it. Presumably this is one of the many quirks of Judas Tree poison, along with being painful but tolerable until the final moments, and being harmless to Melody herself. The high stakes almost, but not quite, distract from Alex Kingston’s unsettling acting when she’s being “given hell” and from the ruthless way Amy is willing to skip diplomacy and murder everyone on the Teselecta to stop this from happening (like mother, like daughter).

Perhaps more than any other Moffat script, this one is split between clever and melodramatic, and there’s not a lot of time for Amy and Rory to convincingly register the surely-mind-blowing situations they’re in: they’ve had a daughter, lost her, then realize they’ve grown up with her, and that she’s an assassin trained to kill the man they’ve trusted with their lives, and that they’ve narrowly saved both from certain death in the space of about a half hour. Generally they react not as they would, but as we do: as though this were a story they’re living in, and they’re impatient to get to the next chapter to see what happens to the characters they’ve come to care for. Kingston’s acting is just fine, but it feels as though even she’s a little uncertain how to play herself as a self-described psychopath who is yet somehow moved by the Doctor’s compassion and has a change of heart. It’s confusing because we know River pretty well now, and it’s hard to be really scared by her or find her epiphany surprising. That’s the real problem with spoilers: a story driven by heart will always survive them, but a story driven by surprise won’t.

Which is not to say I didn’t thoroughly enjoy it, even the second time. There’s plenty of heart, naked and exposed, but you have to look for it in the smaller moments, like the scene where the Doctor is trying to choose an appearance for the TARDIS voice interface. The ship’s first choice is an image of the Doctor himself and he protests, “Get me someone I like.” Then it’s Rose, Martha, and Donna: “guilt,” “guilt,” and “more guilt.” Finally he gets young Amelia Pond, “before I got it all wrong.” Some might call it emo, but Matt Smith puts the -tion on it and it works, heartbreakingly. For all the brain-melting revelations about River (and we’re not done, because apparently we still haven’t seen the crime she’s in prison for), this might be the key scene of the episode.

Then there are the one-liners:

  • Rory, inside the Teselecta while it’s mimicking Amy: “I’m trapped inside a giant robot replica of my wife. I’m really trying not to see this as a metaphor.”
  • Melody, inspecting her newly regenerated body and explaining why Alex Kingston looks youngest at the end of River’s life: “I might take the age down gradually. Just to freak people out.”
  • The time cops, wondering whether the Doctor is really supposed to die now: “Time can be rewritten. Remember Kennedy?”
  • The Doctor, working the title in as a meta-joke one more time: “Doctor Who?”

And, of course, the open questions:

  • Turns out the Silence are a religious order obsessed with some ultimate universal Question. Will we ever learn what it is, or is this a Hitchhiker’s Guide in-joke?
  • Why do so many people regenerate standing up in the new series? It can’t be comfortable.
  • How big of a nerd am I for wishing Moffat had written “transmat” (the Who term) instead of “beamup” (the Trek term)?
  • Who IS “Benjamin”? Did I miss it?
  • Is it my imagination, or does Karen Gillan look foxier and foxier as the series goes on?