Having stuck closely to the season pattern laid out by his predecessor Russell T Davies, during his first year in charge, Steven Moffat’s sophomore effort as Doctor Who showrunner finds him taking a far bolder and more inventive approach than before.
Playing off the audience’s newly-minted familiarity with Matt Smith in the lead role, Moffat very deliberately up-ends many of the patterns and conventions the series has come to rely on since the Davies relaunch.
First among these is the decision to open with a two-part story set in America in 1969, as opposed to the traditional, easy to digest opening episode set on contemporary Earth. From this decision, two things become immediately clear: first, that Moffat’s second year in charge is going to be one that rewards the regular viewer, and second, the show is being pushed into much headier genre territory than at any point since 2005.
Despite any concerns over this decision, these opening episodes – The Impossible Astronaut and Day Of The Moon – find Moffat on top form. Certainly, they’re a wild and slightly surreal ride, taking in shock deaths, children in space suits, alien parasites and even Richard Nixon, but Moffat never loses his grip on the material.
Deftly managing to set up several mysteries that will span the entirety of the season to come, he also manages to find time to create one of the new series’ most striking and affecting new monsters; the nightmarish Silence.
But these episodes aren’t just about creating a spooky roller coaster ride or planting seeds for later in the run, they’re also episodes that spend a fair while with the main characters.
During the 90ish minute running time, Moffat manages to deftly balance plot and spectacle and exposition, while also deepening, changing and complicating the sometimes fraught relationship that the Doctor, Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darville) share.
Throw into the mix a cool NASA based adventure, the return of the mysterious River Song (Alex Kingston) and the introduction of maverick 60s FBI agent, Canton Delaware III (the superb Mark Sheppard) and you have a story that’s truly memorable (unless you see the Silence, of course!) and as overflowing with character as it is incident.
However, despite the quality of the cast and the Swiss watch-like construction of the script, the real star of these episodes is director Toby Haynes. Making excellent use of the limited American shoot allocated for this story, Haynes manages to bring an epic scope to the visuals, while never losing sight of the story and the characters.
These episodes also give new production designer Michael Pickwoad the chance to shine, and he grabs the opportunity with relish. His work on creating a superbly evocative Area 51 setting in a Cardiff aircraft hangar is truly excellent, but then those same plaudits could be similarly dished out to his set of the Oval Office or the New York alleyway at the end of episode two.
Sadly, if the opening two-parter finds Doctor Who at its most distinctive, then it’d be fair to say that episode three – The Curse Of The Black Spot – finds the show at its most generic.
On paper, the idea of Doctor Who-meets-pirates is an enticing genre mash-up akin to series four’s Doctor Who-meets-Agatha-Christie romp The Unicorn And The Wasp. Unfortunately, the script by series newcomer Steve Thompson is uniformly lacking the wit, brio and character of Gareth Roberts’ earlier Christie yarn.
On the plus side, there is some nice direction by series newcomer Jeremy Webb (who landed the job helming the season finale after his work on this episode) and Hugh Bonneville is good value throughout.
Luckily, the series manages to find its sea legs again with the weird and wonderful The Doctor’s Wife. Scripted by genre legend Neil Gaiman, it’s an eccentric, witty and beautifully mounted episode, which plays with a central plank of the show’s mythology in a new, but blindingly obvious way.
Suranne Jones is potent and striking as the mysterious Idris and she sparks off Smith’s Doctor, who is on tip-top form throughout, with real vim and vigour. The episode also manages to squeeze in has a neat Amy and Rory strand where the two companions are terrorized inside the TARDIS by the disembodied villain of the piece, House (voiced effectively by Michael Sheen) and his Ood henchman, Nephew.
The Doctor’s Wife also sees a welcome return to the show for director Richard Clark, who directed both the masterful Gridlock and the hugely enjoyable The Lazarus Experiment back in 2007’s series three.
Despite having only handled a few episodes, Clark is clearly one of those directors that just gets the show. Here’s hoping it’s not another four years before he gets to take another trip with the Time Lord.
After these two stand-alone affairs, the series arc kicks off in earnest as events darken around our leads in the claustrophobic chiller, The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People.
Written by Life On Mars creator Matthew Graham and atmospherically directed by Julian Simpson, this two-part sci-fi/body-horror mash up is an entertainingly dark and strange ride exploring the intriguing notion of doppelgangers and identity.
Populated by a guest cast of top of the line British character actors, including Raquel Cassidy, Mark Bonnar, Sarah Smart and Marshall Lancaster, the story unfortunately doesn’t quite live up to its potential, and occasionally veers off into the overly convoluted.
However, despite these shortcomings, the story still manages to deliver both some truly memorable imagery and a number of strong guest performances (most notably from Bonnar and Smart), alongside a tour de force turn from Matt Smith as both the Doctor and his own (doppel) Ganger.
These episodes are also notable for containing two highly effective cliffhangers, the second of which leads directly into the finale episode of this shortened run, A Good Man Goes to War.
Hands down my favourite episode on this boxset, A Good Man is Doctor Who at its most expansive, cheeky and intelligent. Bringing together strands from the previous six episodes, but also plot points and riffs going back as far as 2008‘s Silence In The Library, it’s an episode where many chickens finally come home to roost.
As you may have heard, this is also the episode where we finally discover just who River Song actually is. However, the point of the episode isn’t really about that revelation at all. In actual fact, this is the episode where the Doctor discovers a lot more about who he is and – perhaps more pertinently – how he appears to the universe at large.
Suffice to say, it’s not a pretty picture, but one that’s brilliantly brought to life by Smith, most notably in his interactions with the fabulous villainess, Madame Kovarian (Frances Barber) and in the episodes final moments with both Alex Kingston and Karen Gillan.
Expertly directed by Who newcomer Peter Hoar, A Good Man Goes To War manages to give us a rousing, grand scale conclusion to 2011’s first run of episodes, while leaving us counting down the days until the second run begins later in the year.
Are we nearly there yet?
As with all 2/Entertain bare bones releases, the extras on offer here are pretty paltry. This time we get two Monster Files mini-documentaries, one on the Gangers and the other on the Silence.
Neither piece is long enough to go into any real depth or detail, but the behind the scenes material about the design and application of the Ganger prosthetics in particular is interesting, and well presented by make-up designer Neill Gorton.
Episodes:Disc: You can rent or buy Doctor Who series 6: part 1 at Blockbuster.co.uk.