It’s fair to say that this week’s episode of Doctor Who has had a lot to deliver. Showrunner Steven Moffat has been slowly teasing answers over the last two seasons, so it’s natural that fans have been hoping for this season finale to tie up many of the loose ends generated by both this season’s events and the last. And it is only fans that are waiting for it, because as a casual viewer you just cannot come in at this late stage, as you won’t have a clue what’s going on.
Most of them are fortunately tied up (with the exception of the question as to why the TARDIS was blown up back in Series Fnarg, or Five to you non-Moffat fans), so it’s nice that the episode wasn’t disappointing in that respect. Of course, I don’t think anybody believed that the Doctor was actually going to die permanently at Lake Silencio (especially considering that Matt Smith is staying on for at least another year), but now we have an incredibly obvious explanation for how he escaped it.
That explanation comes in the form of the Teselecta, the shape-changing robot controlled by miniaturised people introduced in “Let’s Kill Hitler”. At some point before the lakeside, the Doctor stumbled back upon them and asked them to take his form and pretend to die in his place while he was safe inside it. Unfortunately, this explanation doesn’t really hold up when you think about it. My main problem with this (leaving aside the fact that the Teselecta can apparently replicate a Time Lord’s regeneration ability as well as appearance) is the fact that unlike the Teselecta introduced in “Let’s Kill Hitler” (which had clearly robotic mannerisms and made whirring noises), this one actually moves like a person. I can understand why it had the Doctor’s voice but not why it had his movements.
One of the central ideas behind the episode is that because of River Song choosing not to shoot the Doctor at Lake Silencio (her love is so strong she can change a fixed point in time, isn’t she special?), a fixed point in time was changed and an alternate timeline where time froze at the point of the Doctor’s death and all of history happened at once, so London was filled with Mini Cooper hot air balloons and Pterodactyls attacking children in a park. This led to a world filled with wonder, whimsy and Winston Churchill, and as such it was a shame to see it go to be replaced by the normal timeline. I for one would’ve been interested in seeing adventures in this altered universe, although time travel would’ve been rendered both impossible and unnecessary.
This episode also sees the return of this series’ main villains, the Silence. As mentioned earlier, we don’t find out why they blew up the TARDIS at the end of Series Fnarg, but we do get an explanation for their overall motives, although I do think that three seasons is a bit too far to stretch arc-based plots and plot points in general, especially if we have to wait a long time for the next season. I did feel they were used well here though and were genuinely creepy and properly alien.
Then there is the nature of the oldest question in the universe, the question that the Silence don’t want answered. This question turns out to be “Doctor Who?” Not gonna lie, that was A) predictable and B) a bit of a letdown. It also doesn’t really explain why the Doctor started fleeing when he heard it initially; from his reaction to what the disembodied head of Dorium Maldovar, the now headless man last seen in “A Good Man Goes To War” (and, in what has to be the stupidest line I’ve ever heard, the skulls in Maldovar’s tomb are moving because they were “beheaded while alive”; generally when that happens the subject goes from “alive” to “dead”) told him of the question.
The highlight of the episode was not Matt Smith’s hilarious facial expression when the astronaut doesn’t shoot him, or the fact that this entire episode came about as a result of the companions screwing up his plan. No, the highlight was the character Brigadier Alastair Lethbridge-Stewart (played by the late Nicholas Courtney, who passed away earlier this year) being given a send-off in-universe that tied into the plot and worked wonderfully as both an emotional scene and a tribute to one of the constants of Classic Doctor Who. If I was a more cynical man, I would suspect that the writers planned it that way.
After all that, the universe was saved from collapse by the Doctor returning to his original timeline where he had to fake his own death and the season ends on a happy note as it’s revealed to the companions that he’s alive but now travelling by himself. This fact was also revealed to Dorium Maldovar, who takes to yelling the “oldest question in the universe” at the Doctor as he leaves.
It’s been a while since I’ve been really impressed by Doctor Who episodes. The latter half of this series especially has elicited a ‘meh’ reaction from me and I don’t feel an overwhelming compulsion to watch them again just yet (and I’m not touching “Night Terrors” with a barge pole). Yes, this episode did a surprisingly good job of tying up the loose ends (considering Moffat had 45 minutes in which to do it, and he had to introduce a new world as well – this explains why the first 15 minutes are dedicated to exposition) and yes, there were some cracking moments in there. However, it just wasn’t as good as I was hoping it would be. I think I’ll have to wait until I see all the episodes in close proximity before I consider this to be a good season overall.