In almost 50 years, Doctor Who has never been quite like this. With this season opener, the current production team show the world that they don't feel the need to play it safe any longer.
To get the obvious difference out of the way – Doctor Who has never before filmed in the United States of America. (The TV movie was filmed in Canada.) Interestingly, though, the show doesn't linger on the location. Besides throwing together the more obvious American icons in the first few minutes and the ever present accents, the locations are used, quite rightly, as a background to the story rather than an excuse to throw plot and character to the winds. This isn't Doctor Who Goes to America. This is Steven Moffat reminding us that the Doctor cares for the entire Earth; it's just easier to park the TARDIS in the Home Counties. In fact, the story could have been set basically anywhere on Earth and though a royal wedding wouldn't quite have the same science fiction resonance as the moon landings, the entire plot could have easily been set in Britain.
In a further break with expectations, and despite a three-month time skip between them, these episodes actually flow together as a single entity surprisingly well. The Impossible Astronaut is certainly a vastly more charged drama. Not since Blink has an episode maintained a feeling of tension across almost 30 minutes (and Blink didn't spend some of that time fleshing out regular characters). Though not as oppressive, Day of the Moon maintains the atmosphere of the first part, but through rather more obvious tropes. Whereas the first part utilizes the ominous presence of The Silence and the companion's suppressed grief to keep the viewer unsettled, the second part is obliged to explain away some of the mystery and must resort to more straightforward conceits, such as an orphanage straight out of the X-Files, complete with a Rocking Horse In An Empty Room™. (Alright, I'll concede that it was better lit.)
The Silence themselves are an impressive creation – a deformed version of the stereotypical Grey alien, at once familiar and yet unsettling, draped in a suit carved by someone that was once told what a suit looked like. Despite being quite literally a man in a rubber mask, these monsters are scary in the simplest way. They just watch you, standing not quite still. As with all nightmare fuel, once we learn more about the creatures, their impact will likely lessen and I'm not completely convinced children will pick up on the idea that The Silence are supposed to be the shadow watching you sleep from the shadows. However, they can potentially occupy a niche that Doctor Who monsters have left clear for many years – the puppet master. Their first story uses them mostly as a fairly inactive, but malevolent, force, but the magnitude of their scheming will likely become evident with time. Further, they cannot help but move onto the attack following the Doctor's equivalent of Order 66 in the conclusion, which is when we shall see the full potential of this race.
Actually, conclusion probably isn't actually the right word to describe Day of the Moon. Though the immediate story involving Richard M. Nixon was concluded, this is very much the first act of a much larger story. It is scattered with throwaway references to the not yet happened, posing almost too many questions for anyone person to care about, from an eye-patched woman with a dimensional portal to that little girl proving once and for all that regeneration is the ultimate cliffhanger. Indeed, the very structure of the episodes requires there to be more to come, throwing away a three-act structure in favour of a series of short adventures and cliffhangers. Though we know these characters well already, by the end of the 90 minutes, they are all suddenly standing in a very different light. The Doctor may have proclaimed the Silence defeated, but there is no triumphant music – in fact, for the Doctor, escaping in a hail of bullets and bodies should count as defeat. It might be this very reason why he'd much rather wander off on a few 45 minute adventures before working out what's going on with the universe. After all, he's never gone looking for the Daleks after defeating them.
|"It's so difficult to get served at the bar, they forget me and my order!"|
It isn't only the writer that's exploring new territory here. Matt Smith absolutely shines throughout both of these episodes. David Tennant and Christopher Ecclestone brought the emotions and troubles of the Doctor to the surface, giving a modern and hugely successful take on the humanoid alien. You could empathise with him and come to understand a little of this ancient man's troubles, though there was always just enough mystery to keep him different. By assuming the audience is aware of this groundwork, Matt Smith is now able to build a truly unique Doctor. On the surface, he is quirky and ridiculous, running through time and space without a worry about the ripples in his wake. Just underneath, though, is a truly ancient genius with all the troubles of his predecessors boiling away, carefully concealed, but more important than ever. Those troubles haven't gone away – he's just gotten better at running away from them. He is now completely in control, able to park the TARDIS sideways onto a skyscraper, able to actively enjoy flirting with River, and still so far ahead of his enemies, they occasionally decide to wander off in a different direction behind him. This is all most obvious with Matt's 1109 year old Doctor. In a beautiful piece of acting, a slight change of rhythm and e_xpression produce a man believably vastly older than the happy-go-lucky version we grew to love over Season 5. If Moffat and Co. are going to continue giving Matt material to work with, his Doctor can only get better and better.
Now, these episodes aren't perfect. There is an awful lot going on for 90 minutes and a second viewing is practically required to make sure you've got the hang of everything. And a third viewing is then required to check those little details that came up in the second weren't just your imagination. Personally, I left my first viewing of each episode feeling as if I'd just experienced something new. I just couldn't tell you if I actually liked it. The opening ten minutes of each part show an almost reckless disregard for the audience, flitting from scene to scene with the barest minimum of link. The Doctor waving through time and the companion corral across America feel like they could be episodes in their own right and it can leave a bitter taste in the mouth to have interesting and engaging plots dropped in a matter of moments as the writer seems to have mistaken them for the universe spanning romp at the beginning of The Pandorica Opens. When you watch something, you assume the beginning is going to set up the remainder of the story. The introductions of these episodes are very different to the body - tonally, visually, and emotionally. On a second viewing, you know they aren't the point and can enjoy them for what they are, but on that crucial first (and for most, only) viewing, it seems the production team may have been in too much of a hurry to introduce us to their brilliant arc plot and have accidentally made themselves have to grab the audience's attention twice.
However, all of this is academic if people are watching and enjoying the show and all indicators show that people are happier than ever with Doctor Who. Doing that with something this different should be applauded. This could be the way the show survives to its centenary.