Operation: Platinum Age, Part 2

Continuing Elton Townend Jones’ appraisal of Series 5/Season 31…

Doctor Who - The Hungry EarthFortunately, The Hungry Earth has put things back on track. It’s been clear throughout the season that Moffat has been the strongest writer for the new regulars, but he also seemed to lack the equivalent of himself that Russell T Davies had. Perhaps Chris Chibnall will come to fulfill this role. The latest episode was strong and visually striking, and Chibnall’s handle on the regulars was certainly tight. While it’s a shame the production team didn’t recreate the Silurians of old – or incorporate the original face into their masks – the new versions are well designed, if a little Star Trek: Voyager (although, I suspect the scariest reptile we’ll see this year is the ‘70s lounge lizard’ Dream Lord we saw the week before…). Following a slight dip, Ashley Way’s lovely direction suggests that the season is now moving towards something very substantial indeed.

I’d put Ashley in third place for this year’s directors. Second place goes to Andrew Gunn (The Beast Below and Victory of the Daleks) who proved his ability with tasty pictures and delicious atmospheres, but first place – and surely we all agree on this – must presently go to Adam Smith. His work on the debut and Angel episodes was outstanding. Look at that golden blue light when the Doctor convinces Amy that he’s the man who visited her as a child. We’ve never seen anything quite so cinematic on Doctor Who, and he’s certainly up there with Harper, Camfield, Maloney, Sax and Lyn.

Having a whole new crop of directors has been good for the programme and great for the audience. We have been given some great moments: ‘fish custard’, ‘basically… run’, the Doctor’s ‘nobody human’ outburst, Ambrose being warned by the Doctor to leave her accumulated weapons alone, and the most perfect Doctor facing down the most perfect Daleks in perhaps the most perfectly Who-esque scene since Eccleston faced the Dalek Emperor. Possibly the best moment so far was the final scene between the Doctor and Octavian (in the grip of an Angel), closely followed by Rory’s stag (Doctor: ‘I thought I’d burst out of the wrong cake. Again.’).

Doctor Who - River Song played by Alex KingstonAlongside the new stuff, there have been some tasty Easter Eggs for long-time fans. I’m not just talking about Silurians, Daleks, River Song and the Angels. The new Doctor was fully revealed amid a montage of old Doctors and old enemies (how everyone cheered at the sight of the Sea Devil, but few pondered the significance – if any – of a Colin Baker era Sontaran). We’ve also had the Cloister Bell, a William Hartnell library card (I cheer every time I see the guy) and the ongoing TARDIS swimming pool gag.

But what has this series been about and what is it telling us? Where will it take us over the five remaining weeks? From the get-go, we’ve been presented with abundant mysteries: what’s causing the cracks in the universe? What happened to Amy’s mum and dad? Where was her aunt? Who was that in the kitchen? Did the Doctor return to Amelia, or didn’t he? These mysteries gained serious momentum with the ‘is it a continuity error’ jacket scene amongst the treeborgs in Flesh & Stone (which itself became wonderfully entangled with the ever perplexing mystery of River Song). Oh, and just what is it about that duck pond?

The sense I get from the first eight episodes is that they seek to question our perception of ‘reality’, our observation of it (how we alter it and how it alters us) and examine our interactions with it. We have been invited to doubt the boundary between what is real and what is not, because travelling through time ‘changes the way you view the universe forever…’ There are ‘eyes’ everywhere, in alien spaceships, in cracks in the wall; retracing their observations across Leadworth green, noticing impossible truths on Starship UK; sitting in the mouths of fabricated pensioners, twitching in polycarbide casings; and on the receiving end of quantum Angels, behind frightened eyelids (fine time for the Silurians to lose that third one!). Reality comes under fire when the mysterious orphan who lives with her aunt in a big dark house claims the Doctor as her imaginary friend.

Doctor Who - DaleksFairy tales are invoked both lyrically and visually by a terrifying walk through the dark forest, or the suggestion that the dangerous myth that awaits us at the end our journey – the thing that could change the world and kill us all – is only as unreal as we are. Dreams have run amok in word and deed. After a long wait, little Amelia seems to see/hear TARDIS return (or at least a TARDIS); this is sold to us as Amy’s dream, but it might be much cleverer than that. Memory is important in Amy’s story – why can’t she remember the Daleks? Can she remember what the Doctor told her when she was seven, or not? Did any of these things happen? Did any of them not? On Starship UK, Amy acts like Little Nemo in Dreamland; dressed in her bedclothes, the perfect lucid dreamer. There are dark rumblings of dreams that no longer need their dreamers, while Rosanna (who, don’t forget, saw ‘silence’) speaks of dreams faded and bad. Even the Doctor’s own nightmare of self-loathing has become manifest…

What any of this means remains unclear, but we know it will end as it began with the crack from Amy’s wall and the opening of the mysterious Pandorica on 26.10.2010. But will that be AD, as we’ve all assumed, or BC? And what of this ‘silence’ that seems already to have touched 16th century Venice? Have we encountered this ‘silence’ before? Having watched the first eight episodes a number of times, I’m beginning to feel that the finale might not involve Daleks (perhaps we’ll be getting them for Christmas?), and that the cracks might be a paradox caused by the Doctor’s attempts to prevent their ever occurring. But I’m also being niggled by the uncooked Doctor’s attempt to prove his credentials in the first episode. Here, he gave the scientific community Fermat’s Theorem, an explanation as to why electrons have mass and, perhaps most importantly, Faster Than Light travel – one of the latest scientific developments Rory claimed to have been reading up on when he entered the TARDIS in episode six. Coincidence? Maybe. And what about the couple waving at Rory and Amy from the future? Time can be written, re-written and unwritten, it seems, so how real is that future? Perhaps only as real as the past it came from…

What is certain is that we are now at the endgame for Smith & Moffat’s first series, with the thrilling conclusion to the Silurian story to be followed by two richly drawn character comedies and an explosive finale (with yet another new director). Since 2005, the best part of any season has been its last third. Smith has suggested that his Doctor is very different in the later episodes; he says his performance has improved. Like it’s all been sub-standard so far? This can only mean that this is, regardless of any faults (Daleks? Dream Lords?), going to be quite possibly the best season of Doctor Who we’ve ever had.

Welcome to the Platinum Age of Doctor Who.


Elton Townend-Jones is a journalist, playwright, actor, theatre producer and philosopher. He does ‘80s zeitgeist at www.25yearstoolate.blogspot.com.

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