• 6th May 2011 • Review by Seb Patrick •
So when Julian talked last week about a sea change in what Doctor Who is and what it’s all about, I don’t think even he realised just how far that idea was going to go. Because now we’ve got the next step – stories that simply defy being written or talked about as individual episodes, that are inextricably linked with the bigger picture to an extent not yet seen in six years of the revived show. Just about everything worth discussing in “Day of the Moon” can only be discussed within the context of things we haven’t yet been shown or told – and the reaction coming out of the episode is so heavily buried in the frenetic excitement of trying to figure out what it all means, and what’s going to happen next, that I’m initially entirely unsure as to whether the preceding 45 minutes of television were actually any good in their own right or not.
I mean, once I stop and think about it, I’m relatively confident they were – we were, after all, treated to what might possibly go down as Moffat’s best – and certainly his slickest – pre-titles sequence (and when Moffat’s pre-titles sequences include those of “The Time of Angels” and “The Pandorica Opens”, you know that’s something pretty special), as the freewheeling joy of series five’s best moments mixed with a hint of darkness in the minutes before the true nature of the “on the run” sequences became clear.
And, as ever, you can’t fault Moffat’s scripts for the array of dazzlingly inventive ideas – a recycler of his greatest hits he may frequently be, but that doesn’t mean the slightly fractured “but what if?” logic of his brain can’t still come up with a succession of fresh “Wish I’d thought of that” concepts. Here, the brilliance includes the reason for those mysterious tally marks, a further jigsaw piece in River and the Doctor’s relationship (somehow, the idea of it being a romantic one seems much more palatable if it only becomes so because the Doctor is swept along into it by reverse causality), and a truly special method of defeating the enemy that actually – for once – justifies the moment of Tenth Doctor-esque posturing. Not to mention, of course, the narrative trickery (probably Moffat’s best bit of the stuff since his Coupling days) of not letting the viewer see a number of initial encounters with the Silence – only discovering that they’d been duped at the same time as the characters onscreen had their memories refreshed, a wonderful sleight-of-hand game that actively involves the viewer in the monsters’ deception.
(Have we been shortchanged, though, with the way the Silence were dealt with? I mean, I’m not suspecting for a second that this is their last appearance of the series, but when all’s said and done it felt like a potentially huge threat was being dealt with and brushed away far too quickly and conveniently. And despite all the possibility for scares that they offered, when it came to their Big Scene they felt sadly lacking – not only had we already seen them in far-too-lingering close-up for their appearances in the orphanage sequence to be as genuinely chilling as presumably intended, but when a major new monster only manages to kill one person over the course of a ninety-minute story, you’ve got to wonder why you’re meant to be afraid of them at all. Although kudos for a highly Ghostwatch-style door-slamming moment.)
And therein lies perhaps the biggest reason why I find it difficult to commit fully to loving “Day of the Moon” – yes, it took my breath away and left me jonesing for the rest of this series and the unfolding of its mysteries; but in doing that, it slightly forgot to be a fully rounded and satisfying two-part story in itself and at the same time. I don’t want to join in with the chorus of people claiming that Moffat’s current run is all smoke and mirrors, dazzling tricks that blind the viewer to an inherent lack of substance – I believe there is something big and marvellous and brilliantly-constructed going on behind all of this – but the succession of applause-worthy moments offered up perhaps did something to deflect attention away from some issues of pacing and depth within the story itself.
Yet at the same time, if the episode is to be considered one chapter of a single thirteen-part story, then it’s far harder not to admire it; not to find it as compelling as it is at times (wilfully) baffling. The notion that an entire series might be telling a single story rather than a succession of loosely connected adventures hasn’t quite taken over just yet – the hand-waving explanation in the closing minutes of why the next episode is being allowed to be entirely standalone sees to that – but even so, there’s a sense we could be heading in that direction one day. The seeding of unexplained plot threads such as a futuristic eye-patched face at a window, or a regenerating child, are aimed squarely at the people who will already be inclined to come back week-on-week in the hope of finding answers – far more than any fanboyish homage to the “olden days”, this represents the series’ most overt attempt to shove the casual viewer away in favour of a loyal viewer base conditioned by six years of excellence to follow it on whatever journey it takes.
A comparison I’ve already seen made is that this is Doctor-Who-as-Lost, and I can sort of see where that’s coming from. But that show’s biggest flaw was that, the odd exception aside, the enjoyment of the episodes was really only linked to the unfolding (or, rather, frequent obscuring) of its central mysteries. The rewatchability of it was never particularly strong, because once you knew the answers – or had had the new shocking questions put to you – beyond that there wasn’t necessarily as much to commend it purely in its own right. Doctor Who, though, continues to retain so many of the elements that make it the best thing on TV – it’s just that many of them are things we simply take for granted. “Day of the Moon” sees the programme at such a level of confident, near-arrogant sure-footedness that to hesitate for a moment is to be left behind by it – but it is also, still, supremely well-made and fantastically entertaining television. It’s just that having been used to dealing in short stories for so long, we might need that little bit more time to adjust to Moffat giving us chapters of his novel instead.