Prequel: For the first time since Series 2’s Tardisodes, several episodes of Series 6 came with a little online prequel. Not all of them, just the important ones, so naturally the premiere gets the treatment. It’s a short glimpse of an impressive Oval Office set, in which Richard Nixon takes a phone call from a little girl, denies the existence of monsters, and then completely fails to notice the Silent standing behind him. It gives you the sense of an Empty Child vibe, but with Richard Nixon instead of Richard Wilson.
The episode/series proper then kicks off with the Doctor getting the gang back together. I’m not a fan of companions living separate lives from the Doctor – life in the TARDIS should be their whole life, uninterrupted – but there will be much more egregious examples of this to come, so I’ll leave it for now. Besides, it’s all worth it for the glimpse of the Doctor trying to get their attention by invading a Laurel & Hardy film.
And then bam – ten minutes into the series, the Doctor is killed and his body cremated. It’s certainly a bold start. It was notable enough that the series started with a two-parter, deviating from RTD’s template for the first time. By the end of the first episode, Amy has revealed she’s pregnant and shot a little girl. This is definitely not a kids’ show, this is Moffat let loose and growing in confidence, taking the show into a different, darker and more complex direction, putting his stamp on it. Personally, I’m not concerned about trying to figure out whose version of Who is better – for me, both the RTD and Moffat eras were almost entirely brilliant, and both had their peaks and troughs.
Back to the story in hand, and you have to say it looks absolutely stunning. It’s another step forward from Series 5, as the new era gains its unique visual style too. The location stuff in the States is obviously a highlight, as is the design of The Silence. The way they have the outline of a face without any actual features, and the way they casually twist their mouths round while they’re zapping you, is the stuff of nightmares.
(Incidentally, is the race called The Silence, or are they each individually called a Silent, and so collectively known as The Silents? The former seems to be officially accepted, but I much prefer the latter, which is the way I originally heard it.)
There are several notable inclusions in the guest cast, the most shocking of which is Trojan from Gladiators as the Secret Service agent who takes Amy to the toilet. Then you’ve got Kerry Shale, of godawful Red Dwarf X voices fame, and two generations of the Shepherd family as Canton, a particularly kick-ass one-off companion figure, who even gets his own “it’s bigger on the inside” moment.
You’d have thought that the headline would be the presence of Richard Nixon, but he’s effectively just an incidental character in this celebrity historical – the point is that you’ve got the Doctor pissing about in the Oval Office around the time of the moon landing, and it just so happens that the President is Nixon. It seems apt that such a terrible scumbag isn’t afforded to opportunity to be a hero, something which the Doctor himself acknowledges. And he later advises Nixon to record everything that happens in his office, thus bringing about his eventual downfall. Good man.
The main thing you take from this series opener is a huge sense of scale – even the second episode has a big showy-offy pre-titles sequence, something usually only reserved for the start of a finale. It promises much for the coming year, seeding Madame Kovarian (or “Eye Patch Lady”, as she’s listed in the credits) already – another Red Dwarf alumni making an appearance in the creepiest of creepy children’s homes. There’s lots of foreshadowing involving Amy’s possible pregnancy and the little girl in the spacesuit – I know how it all ends up, but I can’t remember all of the details, so once again it’s fun to fill in all the blanks.
Speaking of which, River Song Timeline Watch: She’s quite unequivocal that all their adventures take place in the opposite order, which is obviously complicated by the fact that this adventure also contains a 200-year-older version of the Doctor. He’s a lot more comfortable around her than we’ve ever seen him before, but when “our” Doctor shows up, he’s deeply distrustful of her, perhaps more so than he was last time, to emphasise the difference between the two Doctors.
It’s interesting that River’s nightmare scenario – seeing the Doctor and him not knowing who she is – is something that we’ve already seen. But it’s worth re-examining now that we know River better, because we’re starting to care about her more than the Doctor does, and so we get the emotional beats from considering it from her point of view. Their first/last kiss is bittersweet to us, because it’s sweet for him and bitter for her.
So yes, there is much to talk about with this story, and I haven’t even mentioned the fact that it harks back to The Lodger of all things – even the seemingly throwaway format-breaking episodes are important to remember in Moffat’s era. The only other thing to discuss is the resolution, which is perfect because, in a similar way to Vincent and the Doctor, it establishes that what we see in the episode is also what we see in real life, thanks to the Doctor’s influence – the actual footage of the moon landing really does contain a message from a Silent, it’s just that we can’t remember seeing it.
Oh, and the regenerating child is brilliant and shocking, even when you know it’s coming. This series is not without its flaws – not least the fact it was chopped in half, which we’ll come to – but none of them are evident in its opener, which stands up as a real high point of Matt Smith’s tenure.