Last week's season opener "The Impossible Astronaut" raised a multitude of questions, right from the opening shock of the Doctor, two hundred years into his personal future, apparently being killed. It then went on to add into the mix a mysterious little girl wearing an Apollo spacesuit, who seemed to be his killer, plus a species of disturbing, monstrous creatures able to manipulate human memories at will and move among us completely unnoticed—and which have been intimately involved with the events of the Doctor's life since the beginning of last season. In "Day of the Moon," writer and showrunner Steven Moffat at least ties up this first two-part story by giving the Doctor a notable victory over the "Silents," but the little girl is now even more enigmatic than before, and the Doctor's fated death is still hanging over him at the conclusion of this episode—and presumably will be until this season has run its course.
Doctor Who has never really tried serialised storytelling on this scale before. Its basic nature has always been an anthology series—a string of separate, discrete adventures. Occasionally reference would be made to the events of past stories, but not often to the point where actual plot threads would be carried forward from one story to another, and the individual stories merged into a greater design. I think the only previous time Doctor Who even approached what Moffat is doing here was a quarter of a century ago—the 1986 season of the classic series, which was broadcast as one fourteen-episode story, "The Trial of a Time Lord," although it actually consists of a overarching framing sequence with three more-or-less independent stories embedded within it. That season suffered from both a lack of planning (the end of the story was still undecided even as the episodes were being written) and behind-the-scenes conflicts and disasters (principally the death of the main writer, Robert Holmes, before he could complete the final two episodes), meaning that the final product was one of Doctor Who's most notable failures. This time, with Steven Moffat firmly in control of the story structure, the signs are good that the show might produce something extraordinary.
I've seen an interview in which Moffat admitted that he has a tendency towards over-clever plotting, always being tempted to keep throwing in new elements and twists, or finding a tricky out-of-sequence way of telling the story, out of a fear that otherwise the audience might get bored and drift away. There's no doubt he has an incredible talent for plotting, and most of the time the viewer is intrigued without being overwhelmed, and it's a delight to watch all the pieces of the puzzle come together. (A personal favorite is "The Girl in the Fireplace", where the very last shot of the story is the key piece which explains the whole plot.) Occasionally, however, things go wrong, and I think the opening section of this episode is an example of Moffat trying to be too clever.
After the cliffhanger reprise, we suddenly jump forward three months, to July 1969—the time of the Apollo 11 mission. The Doctor's companions Amy (Karen Gillan), Rory (Arthur Darvill), and River Song (Alex Kingston), are now apparently on the run and being hunted down by FBI agents led by their friend from last week, Canton Everett Delaware (Mark Sheppard). Canton shoots Amy and Rory and takes their bodies back to a hangar in the infamous Area 51 where the Doctor (Matt Smith) is being held prisoner, with a box of impenetrable "zero-balance dwarf star alloy" (for classic series fans, a nod back to "Warriors' Gate") being built around him. A cornered River Song dives off the top of a skyscraper before Canton can shoot her as well. But it soon becomes apparent that this was all a ruse—the deaths were faked, and Canton was simply bringing the team back together after they had spent the three months investigating the extent of the "Silent" incursion.
One thing this sequence does have going for it is that it allows director Toby Haynes another chance to show off the gorgeous scenery which the Doctor Who team went to America to take advantage of. The chase through the Utah desert, and the stand-off atop the Glen Canyon Dam, contain some breathtaking shots. But the whole scenario feels like over-complication for its own sake, and is full of plot holes. The fake shootings may have been enough to fool any Silents watching, but surely the FBI agents with Canton would have noticed that Amy and Rory weren't really dead? Just why was the Doctor being held prisoner, anyway? He would have been much more use out in the field than sitting in a chair for three months doing nothing but growing a beard. And River's leap off the skyscraper is there simply to repeat the trick from "The Time of Angels" of the TARDIS arriving to catch her—an idea which worked beautifully the first time, but seems more like a labored gag here. Fortunately, once we're past the opening titles and the team is back together again, the story resumes its forward momentum, starting with an expository section in the TARDIS where some much-needed information is delivered.
Canton: "How long have they been here?"
The Doctor: "As long as there's been something in the corner of your eye, or creaking in your house, or breathing under your bed, or voices through a wall…"
As I mentioned last week, the "Silents" are another very impressive monster concept from Steven Moffat, and their central characteristic—the fact that anyone seeing one automatically loses all memory of that fact as soon as they break eye contact—means the Doctor's friends have to adopt methods such as drawing tally marks on their skin in order to leave some evidence behind of a meeting with them. The Doctor provides some hi-tech "nano-recorders" which can be embedded in the palm of the hand and allow people to record their voice during an encounter. Using the photo of the Silent which Amy captured on her phone last episode, he also demonstrates how post-hypnotic suggestion can be associated with even an image of the creatures, which will affect someone's actions. This whole scene in the TARDIS is long and somewhat static, but very necessary: because there's such a continually shifting gap in this episode between what the audience knows and what the characters know, it's imperative that Moffat establishes mechanisms to allow us to keep track of what's going on. (He's also, with typical cleverness, laying out all the clues as to how the Doctor will eventually defeat the Silents.)
The episode takes a horror-movie turn (in fact, after the expansive vistas of the opening section, the rest of the episode is remarkably claustrophobic) as Amy and Canton go in search of the spacesuit-wearing little girl. They arrive at a strange deserted children's home, Graystark Hall, run by a feeble, confused man named Doctor Renfrew (Kerry Shale). (Presumably, "Renfield" was felt to be a bit too obvious...) Moffat again dips into his familiar bag of tricks with the haunted-house interior and spooky, ominous messages on the walls à la "Blink", but it works brilliantly; it becomes apparent that Renfrew has been driven out of his mind by continual memory-wiping from the Silents over the years, and has been scrawling GET OUT and LEAVE ME ALONE on the walls and on himself, to no avail. The sequence where Amy discovers a room containing a whole colony of Silents sleeping on the ceiling like monstrous bats is genuinely disturbing. The trick of having more tally marks appear on her hands and face at each cut, indicating encounters with a Silent which have been wiped from her memory, is an obvious technique, but really works to increase the fear factor. The final shot of her leaving the room as we see a Silent standing impassively behind her is chilling.
Meanwhile, in a jarring contrast, the Doctor is happily working away on his plan to defeat the creatures, which involves breaking into the Apollo 11 capsule on its launchpad. Naturally he gets caught by security, but he simply sends a message to River and Rory and they bring President Nixon (Stuart Milligan) in the TARDIS to talk the base personnel into releasing him. Last episode Nixon was played more or less believably, but this week he is distinctly more comic, making pompous entrances to the strains of Hail to the Chief on the soundtrack and being used essentially as living psychic paper in order to get the Doctor or his companions out of sticky situations. (Obviously, the Doctor hasn't yet repaired or replaced his psychic paper which got broken in "A Christmas Carol"—or perhaps Moffat has decided to play down this element in the Doctor's arsenal for now. It was certainly noticeable in this story that, up until the end, little use was made of the Doctor's sonic screwdriver, which had become increasingly like a magic wand over the last few years.)
The story makes the amusingly cheeky suggestion that the Doctor is ultimately responsible for feeding Nixon's paranoia, by telling him to be on guard against the Silents ("You have to tape everything that happens in this office—every word… You have to trust me, and nobody else"). On the whole, though, the story is no more concerned with presenting a realistic, nuanced portrayal of Nixon than last year's "Victory of the Daleks"" was with Churchill. The gay marriage bit at the end with Canton is definitely more of a 2011 moment than a 1969 one. Speaking of Canton, I thoroughly enjoyed Mark Sheppard's work in these two episodes and would happily see him come back for more. I have no idea whether he will be appearing in further episodes of this season—but the fact that Canton was important enough to be invited to the Doctor's funeral last week at least suggests the possibility.
An extremely weird twist in the tale occurs back in the children's home, when Amy sees what looks like a hatch in a door open and a woman wearing a futuristic-looking eye patch peer out. The woman looks around, says "No, I think she's just dreaming," and closes the hatch. But when Amy opens the door, not only is there no one in the room beyond but the hatch itself has vanished—the door is solid. It's totally unexplained within the context of this story, but it reminded me strongly of similarly disconnected events in another great recent genre series, Life on Mars (and its sequel, Ashes to Ashes), where the protagonist was in a coma and experiencing multiple levels of reality. Is a part of this story taking place in someone's head? The little girl's, perhaps? No doubt we'll be seeing Eye Patch Lady (as the credits call her) again in the future, but for the moment she remains an utterly bizarre non sequitur.
Beyond the door, Amy discovers the little girl's bedroom, with lots of photos of the girl on a desk—and one showing Amy herself, cradling a baby. She hardly even has time to be shocked at this before the girl herself appears in her spacesuit, still begging for help as she was when Amy shot at her at the end of the last episode. Karen Gillan does a great job of portraying Amy's terror as the Silents come in and take her. Canton hears her screams as he confronts a Silent which has come to give instructions to Dr. Renfrew, in one of my favorite exchanges from this episode:
Canton: "Are you armed?"
Silent: "This world is ours. We have ruled it since the wheel, since the fire. We have no need of weapons."
Canton: "Yeah…" (shoots it) "Welcome to America."
The strands of the plot begin to come together as the Doctor, River and Rory arrive at the scene. The little girl has somehow ripped her way out of the spacesuit and escaped—revealing the suit to contain alien technology collected by the Silents which was keeping her alive and providing her with protection, weapons, and communication abilities (neatly explaining her ability to phone up the President in the previous episode). Amy's nano-recorder has been left behind on the floor, still relaying her thoughts from wherever she is. For a moment, it seems horribly reminiscent of the data ghosts from Moffat's "Silence in the Library"—a message from beyond death—but the Doctor quickly discovers that Amy is still alive, but captured.
A lot of the scenes concerning Amy, Rory and the Doctor in the last half of the episode are very well performed, but seem to involve a rather pointless resurrection of the "love triangle" issues which I thought had been worked out fully last season. As is made clear at the end of this episode, Amy deeply loves Rory and sees the Doctor as her "best friend," but she is given deliberately ambiguous lines ("I love you… I know you think it's him… I know you think it ought to be him… but it's not. It's you") which Rory then painfully misinterprets. Although you can hardly blame him for thinking "My life was so boring, before you just dropped out of the sky" is a reference to the Doctor—Amy later claims she was being metaphorical, but I find that rather unconvincing. I'm not sure where Moffat is going with this; perhaps it has something to do with Amy's on-again/off-again pregnancy. This remains deeply mysterious—she seemed convinced she was pregnant at the end of last episode, only to blithely dismiss the very idea this week. Even the TARDIS can't tell, when the Doctor surreptitiously scans Amy at the end of the episode, swapping between 'positive' and 'negative' results with no conclusion reached.
In contrast, the other relationship this story explores, between River and the Doctor, is a pure delight. The chemistry between Matt Smith and Alex Kingston is even better than last year, and both actors are superb as the Doctor and River become ever more flirtatious over the course of the story, culminating in the scene where they are back to back, facing off against the Silents:
River: "What are you doing?"
The Doctor: "Helping!"
River: "You've got a screwdriver. Go build some cabinets."
The Doctor: "That's really rude!"
River: "Shut up and drive!" (pushes him toward the TARDIS)
I had my criticisms of earlier parts of this episode, but the Doctor's actual defeat of the Silents is Moffat at his best, combining what looked like a host of unrelated elements into a surprising and ingenious solution. The Doctor realizes that the television broadcast of Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon was not only watched by a large fraction of the human race at the time, but will retain its historic importance (and therefore, be shown again and again) as humanity moves further out into space. So it's the perfect moment for the Doctor to insert a clip of a Silent, with the post-hypnotic suggestion, "You should kill us all on sight." It's a brilliant hoist-by-own-petard ending.
The Doctor: "You've given the order for your own execution. And the whole planet just heard you!"
Afterwards, it's time to take River back to her Stormcage prison cell, and another installment in the constantly shifting relationship between River and the Doctor. The Doctor is now fond enough of her to offer to take her with him, but she declines because she has "a promise to live up to." Much to his surprise, she draws him into a passionate kiss (Matt Smith's flailing arms at this point are hilarious). Afterwards, she realizes to her shock that he has never done this before, and given their reversed timelines, what that means for her.
The Doctor: "You know what they say, there's a first time for everything."
River: "And a last time."
And so the Doctor and friends head off for further adventures, even as the Doctor comments that the little girl in the spacesuit remains a mystery. And Moffat finishes the episode with a huge surprise, as the caption "New York—6 Months Later" appears. In an alley, a vagrant encounters the girl, looking ill and coughing, and asks if she's OK.
Girl: "It's all right. It's quite all right. I'm dying. But I can fix that. It's easy, really. See?"
And she throws her head back as the golden glow of regeneration surrounds her! I have absolutely no idea where this is going. Obviously she is partly or fully Time Lord, but how? And what is her connection with Amy?
Despite having a few concerns with some specific parts of the plot, I thought this two-part story provided a wonderfully epic start to the season. Clearly momentous things have been set in motion, and the Silents are an excellent new monster. Concerning the darker tone of this season compared to last, Moffat has said that "we've done the rollercoaster—now it's time for the ghost train." Judging by these opening episodes, it's going to be a wild ride.
Next Week: It looks like we're going to be taking a brief break from the ongoing mysteries, and jumping into a swashbuckling pirate adventure, with "The Curse of the Black Spot."
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: As I mentioned above, "The Trial of a Time Lord," the second (and last) full season starring Colin Baker, is worth a look as an early example of the show attempting the sort of arc storytelling being attempted this season.
Screenshots from doctorwho.sonicbiro.co.uk
Steven Cooper is a software developer and long-time Doctor Who fan, living in Melbourne, Australia.