2 May 2011

The Zero Room #7- Blimey Wimey

It's been a while since we've been here, but I've since found that Steven Moffat's timey-wimey storytelling is slightly less impressive to me than it used to be. Here's a belated review of the festive special A Christmas Carol and a more current review of the opening two-parter, The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon, (to be referred to henceforth by the latter name, to save time.)

Reviews will contain spoilers, so if you haven't seen the episode yet, toddle over to the iPlayer, or watch BBC Three at some point in the next century's worth of repeats.

A Christmas Carol is sort of what it says on the tin, really. Naturally, there's a Doctor Who twist on it all, so we find the Doctor as he takes on the challenge of saving an old miser's soul on Christmas Eve. Kazran Sardick is a grumpy old bastard who holds the lives of over 4000 people, including Amy and Rory, in his hands as they crash towards the ground in a doomed space liner. Not bothering to wait for ghosts, the Doctor visits Kazran at different points in his own life to try and nurture him into a better person.

Going into this one, I actually had low expectations. Even with the standard brilliance of Doctor Who on its side, I was continuously concerned that this was going to be another retread of Charles Dickens' story, as already told by the Muppets, Blackadder, Catherine Tate, Scrooged, etc. etc. etc. Luckily, Moffat manages to find mileage in the timeless concept by injecting a big chunk of wibbly wobbly timey wimey formula.

Once again, it's a companion-lite episode, which leads me to think that Matt Smith is, in fact, tireless. The guy hasn't had a break since taking on the role, even without mentioning all of the spin-off media to which he's lent his talents. He's still on top form here, ticking all the boxes that epitomise the Doctor, and his Doctor in particular. He's righteously angry with Michael Gambon's Kazran, but like a bonkers older relative with his younger incarnations.

Kazran, who's now one of the most travelled of the Doctor's companions, despite having only appeared in this story, makes for an interesting Scrooge-like character. You can argue that the Doctor merely changes the facts to suit himself, and Gambon irately does just that in the later parts of the episode, but it's still an interesting and romantic look into human nature. There's only so much the Doctor can fix, and he arguably makes things worse at first, but you'll allow this episode an awful lot of licence because it's so accomplished in its festivity.

For one thing, there aren't many other TV shows in which an opera singer serenading a flying shark would so easily pass by. Even in Doctor Who, it would be a stretch if you weren't swept up in the romance of it all. In its own ways, it supersedes the two immediately previous Christmas specials by being neither disposable (The Next Doctor) or high drama (The End of Time). Like the best of Doctor Who, this one finds drama in... well, weird places.

A more dynamic and original title could have helped, but like I said, A Christmas Carol does what it says on the tin. It joins the ranks of Voyage of the Damned as an infinitely rewatchable bit of festive Doctor Who, and deploys the timey wimey stuff to create humour as much as pathos. It's the perfect underline for a great first year from Steven Moffat and Matt Smith, who continues to cement his position as one of the best Doctors we've ever had while constantly building on his portrayal.

After an absence in the previous episode, Amy and Rory have taken a leave of absence from the TARDIS at the beginning of Day of the Moon's first part. But then they're summoned to America, where they see an older version of the Doctor murdered by an astronaut. When a more contemporaneous version of the Doctor turns up, Amy, Rory and River Song keep his demise as a secret from him as they're dragged into another adventure in 1969. President Richard Nixon has been getting regular phone calls from a scared little girl...

Hm. This one's going to be a case of picking apart the good stuff from the ongoing arc. As a much more blunt counterpoint to last year's prelude, with the Doctor and young Amelia inspecting the crack in her wall in The Eleventh Hour, the opening of this one sets up a death fakeout. Yeah, I said "fakeout". Even the target audience must now be unconvinced by all of the deaths that happen and then don't happen under Moffat's run. There's some enjoyment to be got out of wondering how he'll get out of it, but it can't be said that part one of this story was much fun with all of the foreboding and enigma building going on.

Without any exaggeration, this series is starting to remind me of Lost. That random woman with the eye-patch who Amy sees was where the comparison occurred to me, but it's all over this opening two-parter like a rash. It's the first time a new series has opened on a two-parter, and it would have been preferable to be thrown into the action right away. If Moffat has answers to all of the questions raised here, I'm hoping he gets to some of them at the mid-series finale rather than dragging them out to episode 13 in the autumn.

It's a shame that I've begun to feel this way about all of the temporal gubbins, because here in particular, it distracts from the really good stuff. Moffat partially answers one of the previous series' going concerns by introducing the Silence, the race responsible for blowing up the TARDIS in the finale. If Moffat's first series was lacking in something, it was new monsters, so it's brilliant to see these creepy monsters so well conceived and realised by the production team.

There's also some gorgeous work by Toby Haynes, the best director on the previous series, whose work looks even more cinematic for the location shoots carried out in America than they did on sets somewhere in Cardiff in his previous episodes. Mark Sheppard, as Canton, proves to be one of those companion-who-never-was types with a pitch perfect performance. And after six episodes, River Song finally becomes more likable- Alex Kingston and Matt Smith really sell it this time, and their flirting shows the blossoming of some actual affection between them rather than some vague and non-committal prophecies.

Day of the Moon ultimately falters because of the expectation of episodes to come. While the good stuff here is really good, from the Nixon-related comedy to the very creepy central conceit, it's constantly obscured by scattershot enigmas. Hopefully it's all going to make sense in the end, because it sure as hell doesn't right now. This is a potentially great story that's running on about two-thirds capacity because of the timey-wimey stuff, so there's plenty of scope for rewatchability once the series is over. The trouble is, I'd preferred to have enjoyed it as much the first time around.

We'll return to The Zero Room in two weeks' time with reviews of episodes three and four. Until then, why not share your comments below? Yes, I did see that little girl regenerating. No, it didn't shock me. That should tell you something, I think.

The next episode of Doctor Who, The Curse of the Black Spot, airs on BBC One and BBC HD on Saturday 7th May at 6.15pm.

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