After leaving the audience hanging for several months after the revelations at the end of "A Good Man Goes to War", Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat is back with a bang, kicking off the second half of the season with an episode packed with his trademark witty dialogue, dazzling perspective shifts, and a surprising number of answers about the mysterious River Song. The deliberately provocative title might suggest a light-hearted romp, in the tradition of most of the show's previous season openers—and the episode does start out that way, but ends up leading to a critical turning point in the lives of the Doctor and his friends.
Amy: "Can you ride a motorbike?"
Rory: "I expect so. It's that sort of day."
The hectic atmosphere is set right from the start by the wonderfully energetic opening sequence with Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill) in a cornfield, racing around in their Mini. In typical Moffat style, it's eventually revealed that they are creating a crop circle spelling out "Doctor" which their local newspaper will then report on—and sure enough, they screech to a halt to find the Doctor (Matt Smith) waiting for them, a copy of the paper in hand. ("Seriously?" "Well, you never answer your phone.")
When we left them at the end of the last episode, Amy and Rory were about to be returned home by River Song (Alex Kingston) while the Doctor went off in search of their stolen baby, Melody Pond—who, they had just learned, was destined to become River herself. It's now several months later, and they have summoned the Doctor to see if he's found her—but they are suddenly interrupted when a red Corvette roars up to them and a woman gets out. It's the sort of showy entrance we've seen River make several times, but Moffat knocks us off balance by instead introducing Amy and Rory's previously unseen best friend, "Mels" (Nina Toussaint-White), a rather wild and crazy woman prone to stealing cars and waving guns about. The double surprise—first the appearance of this unknown character in place of the expected River, and then the delayed reversal later in the episode with the realization that the first expectation was (in a way) right after all—was extremely clever of Moffat.
Mels: "I need out of here, now."
The Doctor: "Anywhere in particular?"
Mels: "Let's see. You've got a time machine, I've got a gun. What the hell…let's kill Hitler!"
After the opening titles, there's an extensive flashback montage showing Mels growing up alongside Amelia Pond—providing a welcome return for Karen Gillan's young cousin, Caitlin Blackwood, who portrayed Amelia so well last year. Mels is a handful at every stage of her life—from acting up in class to getting arrested for stealing a bus. Amy and Rory are exasperated by her, but they remain good friends, as Mels is fascinated by Amy's tales of the Doctor. (Of course, their faux-parental behavior toward her is another element which is ironic in the light of later revelations.) Gillan and Darvill are both excellent in these little vignettes, convincingly bringing back their characters as they were at the start of last year. In an amusing (and again cleverly ironic) twist, Mels turns out to be the one responsible for Amy realizing her feelings toward Rory.
The flashback ends with a lovely transition back to the present, as the past Mels tosses a model TARDIS into the air in Amy's bedroom, which seamlessly turns into the real thing careening through the sky of Berlin in 1938. Inside, there's a funny moment for classic series fans as we find Mels has reacted badly to the Doctor telling her that guns couldn't be fired inside the TARDIS due to its interior being in a state of "temporal grace." This always struck me as a particularly silly idea, right from when I first heard it in "The Hand of Fear" in the 1970s—especially when in later stories it tended to be conveniently forgotten about. So hearing the Doctor say "Oh that was a clever lie, you idiot! Anyone could tell that was a clever lie!" was most appreciated.
Meanwhile, the second strand of the plot gets under way, as a Nazi officer in Hitler's HQ has an encounter with a mysterious robotic shape-changing creature that has infiltrated the place, and duplicates his form (via a very impressive morphing effect). We see some kind of Star Trek-like command deck from where a crew is apparently remotely controlling this thing. Moffat wisely takes the time to play through the whole sequence of this "Tesselecta" in operation—studying the officer, copying his clothes, then his face, then disposing of the original. Not only does this provide a nice contrast in pace to the breakneck storytelling we've seen so far, it also ensures that the audience has all the necessary information about how the machine functions and what the crew's objectives are, which will become important later. There's an impressive number of quirky ideas packed into this section, seamlessly presented—such as the internal security system (the "antibodies"), floating metallic jellyfish which zap anyone they find without the proper authorization ("You will experience a tingling sensation and then death"). It all builds to the revelation that the command deck is not actually elsewhere at all—the crew really are inside the robot, miniaturized by something called a "compression field" (a callback to the classic story "Carnival of Monsters").
It's a mark of Moffat's amazing richness of ideas that such a memorable concept—a shape-changing robot carrying a miniaturized crew from a time-traveling future "Justice Department," on a mission to seek out and punish notorious war criminals—should form merely a subsidiary element in this packed story. He's not above exploiting the humorous possibilities, either—when the fake German officer is walking along, the captain inside complains about the faulty shock absorbers in the knees; later, when the Tesselecta takes the form of a soldier on a motorbike, the crew get to do some fun "banking around corners" acting.
It seems the Tesselecta has journeyed to this point to kill Hitler (although the crew soon realize they have arrived too early to do that). In any case, its confrontation with the dictator is interrupted when the TARDIS comes crashing through the window, knocking the fake officer down.
Hitler: "Thank you, whoever you are. I think you have just saved my life."
The Doctor: "Believe me…it was an accident."
The production design is up to the usual very high standard for this series, as is the make-up for Albert Welling as Hitler. However, despite the title of the episode, Hitler is (probably wisely) relegated to being a minor comic character here. After being punched out and held at gunpoint by Rory, he is unceremoniously shoved into a cupboard and out of the story. His one major achievement is to accidentally shoot Mels in passing, and her story reaches its climax as she lays dying. I thought the reveal of her true identity was masterfully done, as she banters with the Doctor about one day marrying him, and tells the Doctor he can ask her parents for permission right now, as they're both standing next to him.
The Doctor: "Mels. Short for…"
Amy: "Yeah, I named my daughter after her."
The Doctor: "You named your daughter…after your daughter."
It's a wonderfully tangled timeline that bears comparison with some of the classics of literary time-travel science fiction—maybe not quite as complicated as the flow of events in something like Robert Heinlein's "-All You Zombies-", but certainly as close as I'd ever expect to see on a mainstream television series. With the usual whoosh of regeneration energy, Mels disappears, and Melody Pond is reborn into the form we know as River Song. At the moment, though, she has no idea who this "River" person the others keep referring to is. She is focused on carrying out the task she was conditioned to perform by those who had stolen her as a baby—killing the Doctor.
This episode provides Alex Kingston with a huge range of material to play with. Melody's first confrontation with the Doctor is played at tremendous speed, both tense and farcical, as she enjoys checking out her new body, complete with a recreation of a moment from The Graduate ("Hello, Benjamin")—a fun echo of the "Mrs. Robinson" moment in "The Impossible Astronaut". There's a hilarious "I know you know" / "I know you know I know" dance as the Doctor anticipates and evades several attacks in rapid succession, in a manner reminiscent of a scene in 2005's "Boom Town" (or, even more closely, Moffat's spoof Doctor Who sketch, "The Curse of Fatal Death," written way back in 1999). The quick-fire editing of this sequence is a particular highlight, but the direction from newcomer Richard Senior is excellent throughout the episode.
Melody finally manages to outsmart the Doctor thanks to a very River Song-like tactic—poisonous lipstick—and leaves him dying. The victorious psychopath waltzes away to enjoy the delights of 1930s Berlin, and Kingston's portrayal here is hugely enjoyable, a simply unstoppable force as Melody wipes out a squad of German soldiers with her excess regeneration energy and gets some new clothes by the simple expedient of gatecrashing a high-society dinner and ordering everyone to strip at gunpoint. The Doctor sends the rather shell-shocked Amy and Rory after her, while he retreats to the TARDIS. They encounter the Tesselecta again, and this time they end up being miniaturized and drawn inside the machine—which has now adopted Amy's appearance.
Rory: "I'm trapped inside a giant robot replica of my wife. I'm really trying not to see this as a metaphor."
The Tesselecta crew have identified Melody Pond as the most notorious war criminal in existence—the woman who killed the Doctor. They restrain her—but suddenly the Doctor reappears. He's still dying, but has taken the time to change into the wedding formalwear we saw him in last year in "The Big Bang". It's at this point that the "romp" nature of the episode gives way to something deeper, as the Doctor has realized his only hope of survival lies with River Song—a woman who doesn't yet exist. The way he slowly intrigues Melody into wanting to know more about River is beautifully played by Matt Smith and Alex Kingston. She gradually drops her hard-edged flippancy as the familiar bantering makes its first tentative appearance when he brandishes a "sonic cane" ("Are you serious?" "Never knowingly"). Opposite her, Smith gives an astonishing display of physical acting, expertly portraying the Doctor's weakness as his legs give way and he stumbles all over the place, keeping himself going only by sheer willpower. He finally becomes too weak to move, begging "River" to save Amy and Rory, who are trapped on board the Tesselecta.
Amy and Rory are about to be zapped by the "antibodies" when they are rescued by the TARDIS—piloted, to her own surprise, by Melody. Another piece of the story falls into place as Melody says the Doctor told her she is "the child of the TARDIS"—as we saw in the last episode, she is something more than purely human through being conceived aboard the TARDIS in flight. The TARDIS herself taught her to fly it, neatly tying up a point from last year's "The Time of Angels" where River teasingly told the Doctor she was "taught by the best…It's a shame you were busy that day."
They return to the Doctor, who makes a last request to Melody to "find River," and then expires. I found it a surprisingly emotional moment—surprising because: (a) we all know the Doctor won't really die, right? And: (b) even leaving that aside, he's already got one death hanging over him—at the lake in Utah as we saw at the start of the season. Indeed, this very episode has gone out of its way to emphasize that the Doctor's death there is a fixed point in time—an unavoidable fate. Nevertheless, these final scenes are convincing, thanks to being played beautifully by all four of the regulars. In a very satisfying tying-up of the plot, Amy is able to use the Tesselecta to answer Melody's question—the same one the Doctor asked at the end of the previous episode: Who is River Song? Finally understanding her own identity as River, Melody is inspired to sacrifice her remaining regenerations to bring the Doctor back to life.
River: "He said no-one could save him. But he must have known I could."
The Doctor: "Rule One: the Doctor lies."
It was very satisfying to finally get so much of River's story cleared up, and to see that Amy and Rory did (in a sense) get to raise their daughter after all. There are still plenty of questions open, though; in particular, River's incarceration in the Stormcage prison for killing "a good man." The suspicion that her victim is, in fact, the Doctor is only reinforced by the final scene, showing River starting on her road to becoming an archaeologist with the line, "I'm looking for a good man."
We also got some more information about the Silence, thanks to the Tesselecta's records of the Doctor's death:
The Doctor: "Who wants me dead?"
Tesselecta: "The Silence."
The Doctor: "What is the Silence? Why is it called that? What does it mean?"
Tesselecta: "The Silence is not a species. It is a religious order, or movement. Their core belief is that Silence will fall when the Question is asked."
The Doctor: "What question?"
Tesselecta: "The first question. The oldest question in the universe. Hidden in plain sight."
So it looks like the weird memory-wiping creatures from the first two episodes, Madame Kovarian and her allies from Demon's Run, and who knows how many others are all part of some grand conspiracy. What "the first question" could be I have no idea, but with this episode Moffat is clearly beginning to resolve the great mass of plot threads started over the last two years (or in some cases, even earlier), and I'm looking foward to finally seeing the big picture once all the pieces of his huge jigsaw are finally put into place.
Next Week: The Doctor finds himself in the scariest place in the universe—a child's bedroom—when Mark Gatiss provides some "Night Terrors."
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: As I hinted above, "Carnival of Monsters," starring Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning, was brought to mind a couple of times while I was watching this story. It also has a similar kind of playfulness, and a clever plot that fizzes along with great ingenuity from Robert Holmes, one of the greatest writers of the classic series.
Steven Cooper is a software developer and long-time Doctor Who fan, living in Melbourne, Australia.