TV: Doctor Who – Series Five

The cast/crew bit: written by Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss, Toby Whitehouse, Simon Nye, Chris Chibnall and Gareth Roberts, starring Matt Smith, Karen Gillain and Arthur Darvill

The ten-word synopsis: Matt Smith takes over from Tennant as the Time Lord.

In 2004, former Coronation Street writer Russell T Davies was gifted the chance to bring Britains’ best-loved science-fiction series back to life after a 14-year hiatus. By the end of 2005, Doctor Who was one of the most popular programs in the UK and had inspired a new generation of loyal followers to the way of the Sonic Screwdriver. Despite the criticism the man affectionately known as ‘RTD’ got for his leaps of logic and easy ways out, the remarkable job he did in bringing the series back and, more importantly, making it relevant cannot be understated. So whoever decided to follow on from him when he called time on his 5-year Who-based career would have to be a very brave man. Thankfully, Steven Moffat isn’t just brave. He’s also an undeniable screenwriting genius.

Having previously scripted fan-favourites including Blink, the Empty Child and Silence in the Library, big things were expected of ‘The Moff’. But it wasn’t just Davies moving on, but also David Tennant- the man voted by readers of Doctor Who Magazine the best Doctor of all time. His replacement was less obvious, but somewhat more inspired. Matt Smith, an unknown actor and former professional footballer, was given the keys to the TARDIS and a huge pair of metaphorical Converse trainers to fill.

So, against this backdrop of new beginnings and series rebirth, you’d forgive the episodes themselves of the fifth season for getting somewhat lost along the way. Surprisingly not. The never-outthought Moffat decides to ignore the safer, more mainstream approach Davies’ reboot took and head into the realms of fan desire. A massively complicated plot arc that takes (At least) three seasons to solve, a bombardment of new monsters and a darker tone add together to form one of the most exciting series of Doctor Who ever put together. Smith more than matches up to Tennant, making the sudden turn from sombre contemplation to irreverent excitement into an art form. His slightly off-beat delivery sits perfectly with the character who has long since moved on from the darker side seen through Christopher Ecclestone. Smith is not as good an actor as Ecclestone or Tennant in a traditional sense, but you’ll be hard-pushed to find someone more Doctor Who. Personally, he’s my favourite Doctor of all eleven, and I don’t say that lightly. New companion Amy Pond is portrayed by Karen Gillian, with the Scottish actress  doing a decent job in the role. While Amy appears to be just another ‘plucky young Earth girl’, Moffat cleverly averts the stereotypes by making the Doctor a key part of her life in more ways than one. The series’ arc is also built on her character, interestingly, which adds a new-found importance to every scene. Her fiancé Rory (Arthur Darvill) , meanwhile, is fantastic. Again, his slightly off-bet delivery is spot-on and he balances the comic relief side of things with his role as the emotional heart of the show better than anyone really should have a right to.

The series opener, the Eleventh Hour, is a lovely way of setting up the new era. The Doctor bounds around and saves the day with the youthful energy you’d expect from the youngest-ever Doctor and while the monsters in these post-regeneration episodes are essentially irrelevant, the Prisoner Zero is a decent attempt at a chilling conceptual villain. The next two episodes both carry heavy political undercurrents, which is fine, and they’re more ideas than messages. One of these is a Dalek episode. Personally, despite being an advocate of Who folklore, I’m, frankly, tired of the children of Skaro, as are most people. Mark Gatiss tries his hardest to make the story interesting, but, ultimately, it can’t get beyond the fact that we’ve passed Dalek saturation point.

The next story, a two-parter, is another example of Moffat getting his hands caught in the old-monster jar. Blink remains the high point of his career, and so you can’t blame him for wanting to try and rebottle that glory by bringing back the brilliant Weeping Angels. However, it seems to cheapen the power of Blink, especially as it becomes apparent that the Angels in that episode were massively under-powered. It feels like Moffats’ making up the rules with the Angels half the time, simply stamping more and more ideas from his ‘Scary Monster Concept’ jar onto them. He’s the king of Saturday night shiver-down-the-spine, but a number of the new gimmicks given to the Angels would’ve been better off as a better villain. The episodes were better than I remembered when rewatching back-to-back with the rest of the series, and gave us another glimpse of  the baffling River Song, before ‘Slightly annoying’ caught up with the intreage.

And despite Moffats’ desire to make every episode relevant in the grand scheme of things, Vampires of Venice and Amys’ Choice both feel a bit like fillers. Amys’ Choice, albeit, is a rather good filler, with Toby Jones standing out as the enigmatic Dream Lord. While I had the solution pinned down within 10 minutes,  I’ve spoken to those to whom it worked as a proper mystery tale. The Vampire tale isn’t a patch on the other episode writter Toby Whitehouse penned, School Reunion, but is the kind of by-the-numbers Doctor Who affair I think we all needed amid a series of head-wrenching running around.

Head-wrenching takes preference over running around for Chris Chibnalls’ Sillurian two-parter.  I hadn’t re-watched it in the year-and-a-half since original broadcast until the morning of writing, and had remembered it as a dull, clumsy affair based on one wonderful idea from another writer decades ago. The concept of the Sillurians, the Earths’ previous owners, now awoken and looking to win it back, is a brilliant one and something that could easily’ve fuelled a series of successful Hollywood movies instead of a couple of episodes of Doctor Who and hence it deserves to be done justice. Hence, I was pleasantly surprised on my second discovery of The Hungry Earth. While Chibnalls’ script is obviously heavily influences by the Planet of the Apes, I’d call it his best work following some average and some bellow-average Torchwoods and David Tennant story 42. It’s, again, heavily political, and balances the grand scale of worldwide war with the emotional power of individual humans found in a tiny settlement in west Wales very well. The Sillurians themselves are a bit rubbery-looking, but verge on believable if you’re not paying too much attention to the costumes. It also has a very moving ending, although it’s nothing compared to Richard Curtis’ Vincent and the Doctor.

The Love Actually and Blackadder scribe clearly had a lot of fun writing Doctor Who. He nails the irreverence of the Doctor, and creates a compelling and interesting one-off character in Vincent van Gough. While it’s not as funny as you’d be hoping for in an episode from the creator of Mr Bean starring Bill Nighey, but it’s certainly powerful. Curtis goes right for your heartstrings and tugs at them relentlessly, shrieking at you to cough up a few tears in return for the opportunity to watch his handywork.  And, boy, do those tears come.  Vincents’ face, the stirring music and a fantastic speech from Nighey come together to create an ending that’ll make anyone well up at least a little bit. It’s fantastic.

Gareth Roberts’ The Lodger, adapted from a rather good Doctor Who Magazine comic strip, is a decent enough story and comedian James Corden doesn’t look too out of place as everyman Craig Roberts. There’s also a chance to see the Matt Smith footballing prowess that brought him 4 games for Championship outfit Nottingham Forrest before a back injury ruined any chances of that particular dream coming to fruitation for him. We then move onto the finale, which is done on pretty much the largest scale possible. Not only is the entire universe in danger of ending, if things don’t go according to plan it’ll never have existed in the first place. “Today,” as the Doctor puts it, “Just dying is a result”. It’s a good ending to the series.  In hinds sight, it’s a rather satisfying one, with some great speeches and good lines and moments. (“That’s not how it works” “Yeah it is” “Yeah it is”) There’s the usual character building excersize for the companions, in particular the possibly-dead, possibly-plastic Rory. However, Moffats’ determination to create the cleverest interlinking run of Doctor Who episodes ever means that it leaves almost every question the series opened up left gaping wide. But one of the many lose ends is tied up, which just opens us up for another one. It’s ridiculous, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Russell T Davies and David Tennant left a legacy. Just the same as John Nathan Turner and Tom Baker left a legacy, or Sydney Newman and William Hartnell. Steven Moffat and Matt Smith had a tough act to follow, but even after just 13 episodes, they made sure they were well on the way to laying their own legacy, and long may it stand.

8 duck ponds out of 10

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