Updated: Jun 6, 2020
This week we move from the confusion of Series 5 to the mess of Series 6. The second year of the Eleventh Doctor was an interesting, controversial and inconsistent effort, one that has divided fans since its release in 2011. It might be the most ambitious and most unique of all the modern series' of Doctor Who, but for that it is also the most confusing and troublesome. It is a year that is full of grand ideas, some great performances and memorable moments, but it just never quite captures the consistency across the stories to make it a successful overall series compared to some of its predecessors.
More than any other series, Series 6 was dominated by specific story arcs, including The Silence, the death of the Doctor, and the life of River Song. As a result, across the 13 episodes it became a sizeable undertaking to keep those threads together and alive in order to bring them to a satisfying conclusion. Unfortunately, ‘The Wedding of River Song’ didn’t exactly bring about that satisfying conclusion to those storylines, and it was at times a jumble of a journey to get there at all.
Saying that, while perhaps not giving us the perfect pay off, Series 6 had some very enjoyable individual episodes, some funny moments and plenty of callbacks and tie-ins, so it was still fun even if it was a bit messy.
Regarding any changes and developments from Series 5, this is probably the most settled the show has been when moving from one year to another. There was no change in either the Doctor (Matt Smith), companion (Karen Gillan) or head writer (Steven Moffat) for the first time in NuWho. Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill) becoming an official companion was the biggest development, but that didn’t really come as too big of a surprise to anybody.
The biggest change this year was scheduling. Rather than playing out each episode on Saturday evenings over 13 consecutive weeks, there was a mid-season break for the first time. So following ‘A Good Man goes to War’ which aired on June 4th, there was a gap until August 27th when ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ was first broadcast, a misleading title if ever there was one. A break like this would be tried in Series 7 as well in a far more confusing manner.
Before we get into the episodes, for those of you reading these reviews for the first time, they are being written in light of our upcoming Doctor Who tour of Cardiff filming locations. The Welsh capital has served as the backdrop to most of the new stories filmed this century, be it in studios or around the city’s streets and buildings, and a tour of those locations will become a reality later this year, once tours are possible again. Cardiff is as prominent in Series 6 as ever , especially in, for example, ‘A Christmas Carol’ (The Exchange), ‘Rebel Flesh’ (Cardiff Castle), and ‘Closing Time’ (Howells department store). In the meantime, consider these reviews a light introduction into what may or may not feature on those tours in the future, and a fun look back on the individual series’ as well to get us through lockdown.
With the set up and changes all noted, it’s time to get into the respective stories, so let’s try and make some sense of it all, starting with the 2010 Christmas Special...
‘A Christmas Carol’ was really just a Doctor Who take on the Charles Dickens classic but it was really enjoyable and the concept of past, present and future unsurprisingly works nicely in the Whoniverse. This might just have been the best Christmas episode of the five there’s been up until this point, and it brought memorable appearances from Michael Gambon and Katherine Jenkins, even if it did break the rules of time travel a bit with the younger and older scrooge characters hugging.
Series 6 properly kicks-off with ‘The Impossible Astronaut & ’Day of the Moon’, which is the first two-part season-opener there has been so far. It gets off to a great start with the Doctor getting killed, for real, in the middle of the American desert, and the dilemma over whether to tell him or not once he reappears in the diner. However, from there it really slows down, picking back up at the beginning of ‘Day of the Moon’ when Canton rounds up Amy, Rory and River, only to slow back down again until the fairly satisfying finale of the moon-landing message to the Silence and when the little girl/astronaut mysteriously regenerates.
‘Curse of the Black Spot’ is a good example of the problem with Series 6. There is such a strong thread of plotlines across the series that need explaining, so why do we need side-adventures? That comes from someone who usually enjoys the novelty historical episodes like ‘Pompeii’, or even ‘Sherwood’ from Series 8, even if others like ‘Vampires in Venice’ don’t quite come off. So, the combination of Doctor Who and pirates sounds like a match made in heaven, and it’s a decent episode for sure, and Hugh Bonneville is so good as the ship captain you wouldn’t even recognise him. Overall, though, it has little impact on the wider story.
Now for ‘The Doctor's Wife’, which is potentially the best episode of the series, bringing together The Doctor and The Tardis physically. It contains a strong opening, arriving on a mysterious Time-Lord eating planet, Micheal Sheen’s voice brings some menace to the House character, and the chemistry and interactions between The Doctor and The Tardis were memorable and fun, as if they were an old married couple with a love/hate relationship. Hopefully she’ll be back some day...
‘The Rebel Flesh & ‘The Almost People’ continue the up and down trend of the series. It is as if the storyline requires a section about cloning and body switching, so these episodes were thought up and built around that necessity. They are a bit slow and dragged out, and could just have been told in one episode rather than two. However, they do serve some use, giving us Cardiff Castle for the first time, adding to the character and personality of Rory and giving us the big finale, that we haven’t had the real Amy for a while as she has been a 'ganger'...
Now things pick back up a notch with the Series 6A finale, ‘A Good Man Goes To War’. It is a bit random how all these alien helpers come out of nowhere to help save Amy but it shows that the Doctor is capable of raising an army, and Rory continues to be a great anti-hero. Madame Kovarian becomes more prominent here also, and her menace is unveiled more strongly in her emotional torture of Amy and kidnapping of Meoldy. The finale, of course, serves its purpose with the big reveal that baby Melody grew up to be River Song, even if it was pretty obvious by the time it was officially revealed.
‘Let's Kill Hitler’ provides the classic Steven Moffat trick of giving an episode a name that doesn’t quite match the events. The words are said in the story, however, by Mels, the life-long best friend of Amy who we’ve never heard of before, who would soon regenerate into River in Nazi Germany. This story is a complete change of pace for the series, but gets away with it due to the three month gap between episodes in mid-2011 as we now enter Series 6B. From the dark atmosphere of the previous stories this one is light and fun at times, as well as just being brighter and more colourful as a setting. It also makes great use of some well known Cardiff and Swansea buildings in order to create 1940s Berlin. Much like ‘The Rebel Flesh’ though, it seems to be cramming in an important plot device, the Teselecta, that will be important later, and River gives up all of her future regenerations in order to save the Doctor who she had been planning to kill in the first place, which seems a bit convenient.
Next we have another one of those side-adventures which isn’t crucial to the overarching story, ‘Night Terrors’. However, while sometimes derided for that reason, much like Pirates of the Gallifreyan was, it is still a decent concept and a good standalone episode. Scary dolls just seems very Whovian, and the vibe of the story is in keeping with the darkness and horror of much of the series as well. It can’t quite shake the feeling though that it’s just a break before the bigger things that are still to come.
‘The Girl Who Waited’ provides stiff competition to ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ for ‘Episode of the Series’. Again, something of a mission away from the overall thread of the series but one to be thankful for. Considered Doctor-Lite, but you wouldn’t even notice, it centres on the relationship between Rory and Amy, and the +36-years-version of Amy. It provides strong performances from both Gillan and Darvill and gives them a chance to shine in their own right without the Doctor. As a result, Rory is left with a heartbreaking choice between the two Amys. The whole situation makes one wonder why they even bother with the Doctor in the first place. More than any other companions, Rory and Amy have had it worst.
‘The God Complex’ is a bit like ‘Night Terrors’ in many ways. In this one we have a 1980s hotel in Porthcawl, in the previous episode it is an old mansion, and both are populated with eclectic characters and demons. However, ‘The God Complex’ is more memorable and has more to say. Essentially the hotel makes you face your fears, then you accept them, overcome them and “praise” them and you give yourself to the Minotaur-type antagonist. Amy’s biggest fear was waiting forever, Rory just had no fears and was shown the exit, and we may never know who “who else” was for the Doctor, but theories range from a crack in the wall, to himself, to the War Doctor. Whatever it was, it helps the Doctor realise that travelling with Amy and Rory will eventually be their demise, and he should set them free. Perhaps that should have been the end for them, but their time hasn't come quite yet.
James Corden makes a return in ‘Closing Time’. His previous story, ‘The Lodger’ was a fun, if a bit silly, episode, so it was no surprise to see him make a return, albeit in another silly and unfortunately, less memorable episode. His interactions with the Doctor were good, Stormageddon was a fan-favourite and it was Cardiff-heavy, so there was plenty to enjoy, but defeating the Cybermen with love just doesn’t sit right. Besides, in ‘The Lodger’ the alien-ship living on his roof was also defeated by love. This episode was one of those that gets thrown in to fill a gap it would seem, like many before it that sit in the slot before the grand finale of a series. So much so in this case that The Doctor-Craig story didn’t run for the full duration and we had a few minutes at the end of Madame Kovarian brainwashing River Song.
Finally we reach ‘The Wedding of River Song’, perhaps the most maligned series finale in all of Doctor Who. This was supposed to be the moment we had all been waiting for, from which there would be a pay off following almost a year of questions, like will the Doctor die? Who are the Silence? Will this series be the last for Amy and Rory? What really happened in the American dessert? Etc etc. With all that in hand, the outcome can only be classed as a disappointment, as it was rushed, focused too much on the Doctor rather than the other characters, and tried to answer all those questions while at the same time trying to fit in more ahead of Series 7. It is , almost, satisfying that the outcome was an old fashioned switcheroo, rather than a more convenient resetting of time and space or rewinding the clock a full year as we’ve seen in the past. However, considering we’ve waited a year to know what happened at Lake Silencio, only to discover the dead Doctor was a Teselecta all along seems lazy. It just felt like River’s wedding should have been a bigger deal as well.
Well that was confusing, and by far the most complex and complicated series so far. The timeline of events was all over the place, at times, Rory and Amy seemed to go from essential in one story to an afterthought in the next, as the writers didn’t know what to do with them, and some of the episodes were either dull, inconsistent at best or only existed for the sake of a mini-aspect of the overall arc. It was also lopsided, with the most important events taking place in the first two-part story or in the finale, as if cramming all of the most significant details into the traditionally most-watched episodes of any series.
The finale was wholly unsatisfying as well, as we’ve already touched upon, failing to answer many of the questions in a manner befitting the dedicated viewer. For the first time, the finale was only one episode, when usually it is two, or even three arguable in the case of Series 3. This finale more than any other deserved a double episode, but as a result we get too much information and too many ideas thrown at us in 45 minutes in the hope that it would pay off, and as a result ‘The Wedding of River Song’ doesn’t have enough space to breathe. It would have been great to experience more of the 5:02pm universe as it looked amazing, or more time to experience what should have been a seismic event, like the wedding of River, so as a result the audience can’t help but feel a bit cheated and short-changed unfortunately.
It is from this point that NuWho is considered by many to have fallen off a cliff, from which it has since never recovered. That is harsh, of course, but there is an argument to suggest that it is this period from which the show loses casual viewers, that the programme loses a sense of fun and becomes too serious and complicated, and it is less child-friendly (not that it needs to be). They are all valid complaints or arguments as well, but they are not necessarily bad things and that doesn’t make it a bad series either.
Rewatching the series and writing this almost a decade on , and with the benefit of hindsight, it is easier to appreciate the grand ambitions of Series 6. It is darker, scarier and set on a grander scale and in a wider universe than anything that has come before. It, just about, stands alone as 13 interconnected episodes with a beginning, middle, end and at least a viable conclusion. One can’t criticise what was attempted at least, even if it doesn’t quite come off as satisfyingly as other seasons. It’s different, and that’s not always a bad thing.
Best Episode - The Girl Who Waited
Perhaps notable that it’s not one that completely ties into the core-arc of the series, and also one that doesn’t feature the Doctor quite as much as the others. However, the dynamic between Rory and the Amys is superbly portrayed, as they face an engrossing dilemma. For two characters with such ups and downs, they have their moment here finally.
Worst Episode - The Rebel Flesh
While it does serve as a means to an end, it is just a little too slow. So slow, in fact, that it already drags without even bothering to give any context in the first place.
Favourite Character - The Tardis
The Tardis really did come to life in ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ and it exceeded expectations. The relationship and banter between Matt Smith and Suranne Jones was one of the highlights of the series.
Favourite Moment - River is a Pond
It was hardly a surprise in the way it was presented in the end, but it was still a big moment within the story.
Best Villain - The Silence
The Silence were pretty mysterious, which was the point, even if the pay off wasn’t as memorable as the characters themselves. However, the concept and presentation of them was great and they were suitably scary.
Best Guest Star - Michael Sheen
Sheen gets this on numerous counts. He is Welsh, of course, and you wouldn't even think in a million years that the voice of the House was his, and it's so understated as well which is just classic Michael Sheen. It's also a powerful presence that he manages to create even though it's an unseen voice.
Best Welsh Reference - Canton Everett Delaware III
Potentially a coincidence but the American CIA man had the same name as one of Cardiff’s oldest and biggest suburbs, Canton.
Very Obviously Cardiff/Wales - Temple of Peace
The Temple of Peace in Cardiff’s Civic Centre even gets a break for a few years after Let’s Kill Hitler because it has been used so much, but it is an ideal location to serve as Hitler’s office.
Not so Obviously Cardiff - Cardiff Castle
Cardiff Castle finally makes an appearance in Doctor Who! After six years and hundreds of filming locations around the city, it’s shocking to think it only appears in Series 6, albeit not for the final time either. It appears in the very episode that was just called the worst, ‘The Rebel Flesh’, and serves as the tunnels within the monastery.
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