The pattern is broken. For five series since Doctor Who returned in 2005 we’ve had 13-episode runs following a fairly predictable pattern; this time the run is split, and opens with a two parter. And what a two parter! Having abandoned the template whereby each series starts gently with present day introductory episodes, Steven Moffatt uses the extra time to weave a story that is every bit as complex, confusing and timey-wimey as the last series’ finale.
When Doctor Who came back to our screens it was great just to know it was being made, and even better that it proved worth watching. But it wasn’t until Moffatt’s World War II two-parter (The Empty Child & The Doctor Dances), which created a true sense of period, combined with romance, a genuinely scary menace and tantalisingly mysterious questions (left resolutely unanswered) that I found myself enjoying it more than ever. And since then, it hasn’t always been that good, but many of the best episodes have been written by Mr Moffatt, so I looked forward to his becoming head writer.
Moffatt showed how well he could write neat, self-contained timey-wimey rom-com mysteries with The Girl in the Fireplace and Blink that stood alone, and as among the best of Doctor Who. But as head writer he also became responsible for the series arc, something introduced as part of the revival and yet never executed terribly successfully. His first series last year made the old format feel more consistent, even if it didn’t reach the heights of some of the series best stories, and the finale demonstrated the skill with which he managed to weave various threads through what, in effect, became “arc stories” (essentially those Moffat wrote himself, with the exception of The Beast Below which was more of a stand-alone piece).
I’m not going to attempt to write about the story of The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon because I’m still digesting it. Unusually I re-watched each of these episodes immediately to try to work out what was going on. But what was evident was how far the show has moved on this series: the quality of both episodes was outstanding. Uniformly excellent performances from the entire cast, chilling lighting, thrilling direction and editing and a tightly-plotted dizzying script. Atmospheric locations, beautifully judged historical nods. These were stories of the quality of Moffat’s best work, better than anything from last year’s series and up there with the best in the show’s history.
They were also clearly and unashamedly much darker and more complex; and arc-episodes packed with mysteries and unanswered questions, with perhaps only a third of the plot resolved and three major teasers that will presumably form the basis of the two major cliffhangers this year. Indeed the British press have been full of stories asking whether the show is too complex or scary for the family viewers (why, when intelligent and challenging US imports are so popular here is it always assumed that our home made TV must condescend to the viewers?) Despite the poorly researched stories and ignorant headlines about the low overnights, the consolidated ratings show how popular it’s been. And the press coverage can only be good publicity. The much more clearly defined arc-episode approach (with River as an arc character) seems to reflect the X-Files format mixing conspiracy stories with “Monster of the Week” episodes, and tonight’s piratical romp will presumably be one of the latter.
The change in the show’s direction will, of course, not please everyone – and Doctor Who fans are notoriously hard to please. But if the quality of the opening episodes can be sustained, this tantalising and thrilling show is Doctor Who as good as I hardly dared dream might be possible.
Exciting times for a lucky fan.