I don’t particularly want to start a review this way, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that after watching the sixth season of the regenerated Doctor Who series twice through (once on TV and once now on Blu-ray) that I wasn’t worried about the show’s trajectory. Many issues in season five, the first with Steven Moffat running the series and Matt Smith as the Doctor, are easily forgiven as it was the first with both men in their current positions. There isn’t such leeway with the new season however and, what’s worse, is that the mistakes themselves seem more egregious.
This may, at first, seem like a difficult (or ridiculous) question, but what is a “typical” episode in a series about a guy who can travel through time and space? Well, in general, they ought to have him going somewhere–and/or some when–that he encounters a difficulty which must be overcome. He then struggles a little to suss everything out before reaching a happy conclusion by the end of the episode.
Season six of Doctor Who doesn’t have very many of these episodes, opting instead for such a huge overarching story for the season that typical episodes are both rare and feel almost out of place. And, while an overarching plot isn’t necessarily a bad thing, this particular one doesn’t unfold in terribly great fashion.
The season opens (excluding the Christmas special, also included in this set) with current Doctor companions Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill) being invited by the Doctor to America. Also invited on this outing is the mysterious River Song (Alex Kingston). The three arrive in America and meet the Doctor who quite quickly—okay, this next bit is sort of a spoiler but it’s about an event which occurs approximately 10 minutes into the first episode of the season and not discussing it and later events makes it impossible to talk about the season’s failings—finds himself murdered without hope of regeneration. That’s right, at the beginning of the first episode of the season, the Doctor is murdered. It’s okay though, he quickly reappears at a nearby diner to hang out with his friends once more. This new Doctor is actually a couple hundred years younger than the dead one meaning that this one is, eventually, still going to die.
So, there it is, the initial setup for the season – everything has to lead to this final moment, but there’s more to it than that, and the more makes it far worse (and, again, apologies, but we’re getting into some inevitable spoiler territory here). Amy Pond, as it turns out, is pregnant and is eventually kidnapped so that someone can brainwash the child into killing the Doctor. No fewer than six of the first eight episodes this season (there are 13 in total this season, again, not counting the Christmas special, and episodes at the end of the season too are larger story related) deal with this, and when it eventually does go away for a few episodes, it seems completely unbelievable. Amy’s child is, in the end, kidnapped, and the Doctor goes off to find the baby, leaving Amy and Rory behind on Earth to just kind of live.
Some of the standalone episodes occur with the child still missing and with many of the characters sort of ignoring that problem. There are unquestionably ways to do standalone episodes that wouldn’t destroy this grand story—why can’t they be tracking the child and end up in other places with problems—but Moffat and company opt not to go that route. It makes these standalone episodes that much harder to accept in a season which is crying out for more such episodes rather than less.
It is unclear how we, as an audience, are meant to accept the continuing of regular tales as Amy and Rory’s child is missing – as a parent, would you sit idly by all summer, twiddling your thumbs, as someone else went to hunt for your child… someone you couldn’t even contact? For some reason, Amy and Rory do exactly that, trusting the Doctor to make things right. It could be argued that the logic, maybe, is not wrong—he is the Doctor after all—but why they don’t insist on going with him is a mystery.
In discussing this all with a friend, he succinctly stated that what the season lacks is “room to breathe.” The weight of the larger story, and the number of episodes it appears in, crushes everything else. In an 18 or 20 episode season, the number of episodes (not the percentage) devoted to the story of The Silence, the plot to kill the Doctor, and Amy & Rory’s child would work, but with only 13 episodes, it is simply too much. There are some great moments in this story, The Silence is an excellent new monster, and the child story is good as well, but it’s all just too much.
Watched separately, the episodes which don’t deal with this overarching story are sometimes very good, particularly “The Doctor’s Wife,” which was written by Neil Gaiman and “The Girl Who Waited” which reverses one of the stories of Smith’s first season. In fact, these two episodes are shining moments not just of this season, but of the regenerated series as a whole. They show that Doctor Who isn’t out of ideas for clever, wonderful stories, but rather perhaps just needs to rethink some of the more grand notions.
Not sticking too long on the positive, the basic way in which most of the episodes this season are structured becomes tedious as well. Rather than telling linear stories, this season is big on the “twist.” Things do not simply progress here with the tension coming organically from the story itself. Instead, all too often the tension is derived from the story being told in non-linear fashion or with basic tenets of the episode/monster/problem turning out to be false (not that clues are ever provided for that being the case). While having some twist episodes is not a problem, when the audience starts to expect it of every episode, it becomes boring.
Gillan and Darvill are brilliant as Amy and Rory, but watching season six one can’t help but worry a little bit about Smith as the Doctor. The character is, and needs to be, at turns mad as a Hatter, funny, and angry. Smith handles the first two of these very well, but is never quite believable as angry. Even in the scenes where people have angered him to the point where he is ready to destroy everything and everyone in front of him, you still get the impression that he’s about to make a joke about suspenders (or bow ties) being cool (and while they may be, the joke would be misplaced at such a moment). There is a necessary, even if it’s only momentary, gravitas required of the Doctor (he is, after all, a destroyer of civilizations including his own), but one never quite gets that from Smith’s Doctor even in scenes where it’s meant to come through.
On the technical side of things, the Blu-ray release is truly excellent. Even if many of the episodes follow the same story, they still are given varied locales, allowing for different looks. The colors are brilliant – rich and beautiful. The amount of detail, too, is impressive, and even in the dark things are visible. Textures are readily apparent and black levels are good as well. In terms of sound design, the set features a 5.1 DTS-HD track and that, too, works. It is well mixed, with dialogue, music, and effects balanced properly and placed appropriately within the sound field. Plus, all the odd little wibbly bits of sound one would expect from alien ships, worlds, and bases are all there, truly putting the viewer square into the middle of the Doctor’s battles. In short, while you may find issues with quality of the stories themselves, you won’t find any with their on-disc presentation.
In terms of the special features with the set, there are several different “Monster Files” which give a closer look at the various baddies the Doctor faces this season as well as prequels (short little teasers) for several of the episodes. The teasers aren’t terribly interesting, but the behind the scenes Monster Files most definitely are. The shorts that are far more compelling are the “Night and the Doctor” ones (five are present) which allow Smith to rant and rave as the Doctor (the man is great with words even if he has trouble with anger) and gives us all a little insight into what goes on in the TARDIS at night. It is actually something of a coherent story (mostly), and a lot of fun. There are also commentary tracks for select episodes and two Comic Relief sketches. The best of the special features are the included episodes of Doctor Who Confidential which are general behind the scenes pieces for specific episodes of the series (they’re located under “Episodes” on the final disc in the set… well, they are except for the Confidential on the Christmas special and the one on Night and the Doctor/Comic Relief episodes). It isn’t the most involved set of special features ever, but they are enjoyable and informative, particularly the episodes of Confidential.
There are a whole lot of great—grand—ideas and a whole lot of interesting notions present in season six of Doctor Who, but they don’t always translate particularly well on screen. For a story that is given so much weight during the season to be rushed in the final episode feels like a terrible miscalculation, but for it to be given so much weight throughout the season probably is one as well. The show may still be the best science fiction series on television today, but it may have some work to do if it’s going to stay that way moving forward.