7 October 2011

The Zero Room #11- Back To The Shadows

The end of Doctor Who's sixth series played out in a way that is now typical of Steven Moffat's run as head writer, which is to say, it was unabashedly un-typical. But before The Wedding of River Song, Toby Whithouse turned in a Shining-inflected chiller, The God Complex and Gareth Roberts brought the series back to terra firma with a sequel to his Series 5 story, Closing Time.

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

Whenever I've said, in the last five years, that the series could sustain an ending that was more low-key and personal to the characters, closer to the first series finale, The Parting of the Ways, then The God Complex was the kind of episode I was talking about. It's a departure episode for Amy and Rory, but in the fashion of The Hand of Fear, in which Sarah Jane's exit only became pertinent right before it happened. Before all of that, the episode finds the Doctor and his companions in a drab 1980s hotel where nightmares live. In each room resides the greatest fears of the ragtag group of survivors. But what could be waiting for the girl who waited?

As will be discussed, some of the best episodes of this very inextricably linked series have been the standalone ones, free of ties to the episodes around it, and this is one of them. Founded on a fundamentally Doctor Who-esque concept, Being Human creator Toby Whithouse gives us a script that's fun, creepy and imaginative. And that's even before the script is excellently brought to the screen by director Nick Hurran, who thrives on its big concept and setting. It's to Hurran's credit that he directs the story like The Shining, and not like Scooby Doo, as certain chase sequences in the episode threaten to evoke.

The episode also features some more of this series' cracking supporting characters. David Walliams brings some humour to Gibbis, who's ostensibly a comic character, but has a darker edge when we see just how manipulative his yellow-bellied antics can be. Amara Karan plays Rita, a could-be companion character who you really, genuinely want to hop on board the TARDIS, watching the strong rapport she has with Matt Smith's Doctor. But as it's an episode about the Doctor's god complex as much as the prison-cum-hotel in which its set, so Rita inevitably meets a nasty fate.

Aside from a couple of surprisingly shonky lines of dialogue early on in the episode, The God Complex finds Whithouse firing on all cylinders, as fearsomely quirky as his work on Being Human and invested with a similar sense of melancholy in the build-up to the final scenes. Amelia Pond grows up to become Amy Williams, and she and Rory finally leave the Doctor as friends. Perhaps the direction of Amy's arc could be predicted after The Girl Who Waited, but to see it wrapped up in such short order is to the credit of the series and the characters.

So as the Doctor sets off on his own, a whole two centuries elapse in his life, bringing him closer to the events seen in Utah at the beginning of the series. At the start of Closing Time, he arrives on the last stop of his farewell tour- Craig Owens' front door. Since the events of The Lodger, Craig has moved house and had a baby boy with Sophie. A few electrical disturbances aside, he assures the Doctor that's nothing wrong. So naturally, the Doctor winds up working in a department store full of Cybermen. As you do.

If you've seen the trailer for Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, you'll notice that a lot of gags are repeated from the first film, and that the general tone is the same. That trailer looks like it is to Sherlock Holmes what Closing Time is to The Lodger, except the newer episode also has a lot more portentous stuff about the following week's finale. If this really were the Doctor's final adventure, it would be fitting that he spends it fighting one of his oldest adversaries. Spoiler alert- it's not his final adventure, and so this episode unfotunately feels like a stop for breath before the immensely convoluted final act.

I liked The Lodger very much, and there are certainly parts of Closing Time that I liked too. Gareth Roberts' affinity for comedy in Doctor Who has only gotten better over the last year or so, and the Doctor's ability to speak baby language comes back in a way that brings a lot of laughs. Once again, James Corden is most bearable when playing this character, so that's fine too. But it's the Cybermen who seem like a footnote. After they were reintroduced in 2006's Rise of the Cybermen, it's like the writers just stopped putting them into episodes that are actually about the Cybermen.

Closing Time is especially disappointing in its neglect of the Cybermen, after the brilliant scenes we saw in The Pandorica Opens last year. Along with their stifled cameo in A Good Man Goes To War, the series seems to have done a complete about-face in its previous progress towards making them effective and creepy once more. The other big misstep is a complete non-sequitur that sees Amy as a successful model. The distracted nature takes an episode that's reminiscent of the very first episode of the new era, Rose, and smudges its working all over the shop.

And as it turns out, the difficulty of finally doing a one-part finale is that the 45 minutes of The Wedding of River Song are quite absurdly functional. The Doctor heads for his death, which we all know for certain he's going to get out of, somehow. The effect is like having watched Steven Moffat do an incredibly elaborate and complex magic trick all series. While I was watching, I had no idea how it was being done or how exactly it would conclude, but neither did it interest me all that much.

All that is fun about this episode is ultimately quite easily dismissed, because when we're told that all of history is happening at once, that means more returning elements, like Ian McNiece as Winston Churchill, Simon Callow at Charles Dickens, a random Silurian and some Romans. It never seems as imaginative as it's meant to, because more than ever before, the setting is completely incidental to the convoluted conclusion of... well, only some of the series' sprawling arc. Moffat's writing is as strong as it's ever been, but his storytelling seems to be showing the strain of overseeing 14 episodes a year.

Once the shape-shifting Teselecta from Let's Kill Hitler returns, you can pretty easily figure out how the episode will wrap up the Doctor's death. But the episode leaves less time in the frantic functionality of the thing for a properly effective return for the Silence. They're an iconic foe for the Doctor, but wouldn't it have been nice to see more of them? Wouldn't it have been more clever to reveal that the Doctor and his friends have actually been encountering the Silence all series, but they forgot they had seen them? At the moment, there's still more confusion about them than mystery.

Loving Doctor Who as much as I do, I still see plenty of good in The Wedding of River Song, because the cast keep the quality up to a certain standard each and every week. It doesn't change the fact that this feels like the weakest episode 13 we've seen in the whole of the revival. There are lots of ideas, not enough cohesion, and at the moment, the final promise that the Doctor will step back into the shadows and make less of a fuss about himself sounds fantastic. But even then, the next series is hobbled by the transformation of a running gag into The Most Crucial Thing In The Universe Ever, showing that we're not out of the woods yet. Being clever never did anyone any harm, but being straightforward in the next series wouldn't hurt either, Mr. Moffat.
We'll return to The Zero Room at Christmas, but after that, there are no new episodes until next Autumn, I believe. It's good to see them putting the series on when the nights are less summery, and hopefully it will give them time to put the Series 6 arc to one side, and get back to a more standalone format.

Doctor Who will return to BBC One and BBC HD on Christmas Day.

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