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Cowboys and Aliens: An Advance Review of Season Six of Doctor Who

"I wear a Stetson now. Stetsons are cool."

Let's be upfront about one thing, shall we? While Doctor Who is often thought of as children's entertainment, the long-running and formidable science fiction program is anything but child-like. Yes, the show airs in a decidedly pre-watershed hour in the United Kingdom and, yes, the current Doctor, Matt Smith, has his face emblazoned on everything from sheets to trading cards, but under the aegis of head writer/executive producer Steven Moffat, Season Six of Doctor Who feels quite adult in the best possible sense.

If there's a word to describe the first two episodes of Season Six, which kicks off with an astonishing and taut two-parter ("The Impossible Astronaut" and "Day of the Moon"), it's dark. If there was another, it would be trippy. This is Doctor Who at its mind-bending best, a mix of alien invasion intrigue, self-examination, and bizarro twists that unfurl themselves with insidious menace.

Moffat seems to relish the opportunity to push the already malleable boundaries of the venerable franchise, delivering a gripping plot that picks up several dangling plot threads from last season and from the ongoing subplot revolving around the mysterious identity of the even more enigmatic River Song (Alex Kingston), who Moffat introduced in his Season Four two-parter "Silence in the Library" and "Forest of the Dead." The true identity of Doctor Song lurks intriguingly underneath the surface of these two new installments, just out of reach of both the viewer and the Doctor himself.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Season Six picks up a few months after the whirlwind ending of Season Five, in which the Doctor's companions, plucky Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and vigilant Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill) tied the knot. Here, we see them in post-honeymoon domestic bliss, though each yearns for adventure in their own way. Enter the Doctor, the Time Lord with the unerring sense of wanderlust, just the thing to snap them back out of their quotidian reality... and a summons that brings them all together again.

Smith is once more at his very best, delivering a portrayal of the Doctor that's nuanced and fluid, an embodiment of quicksilver. Kingston, well, sings as the provocative and close-lipped River Song, combining a gleeful exuberance with a tragic dimension: she and the Doctor are on opposite trajectories, meeting once more in the middle. (Whatever their relationship, it's utterly heartbreaking.) Gillan is carefree and down-to-earth yet ethereal at the same time; her Amy Pond is strong, funny, and sexy. And Darvill's Rory remains tantalizingly out of touch with reality: he's landed the girl of his dreams but can't let go of his jealousy over her friendship with the Time Lord. Together, our neat little quartet of time-tossed adventurers make for an engaging set of travelers, each carting their own hefty baggage.

Much of these first two episodes were shot on location in America and the production makes great use out of the splendor and vastness of the Utah desert, as the Doctor and his three companions investigate some mysterious goings on that are tied to the United States space program of 1969. One giant leap for mankind and all that. But the mystery they're exploring involves a terrifying masked astronaut whose arrival on the idyllic picnic scene the TARDIS crew have created turns to chaos, the much-whispered mystery of the Silence, River Song, numbered blue envelopes, creepy Oval Office telephone calls, President Richard Nixon (Jonathan Creek's Stuart Milligan), and more than a few space-time paradoxes. And, oh, did I mention the always great Mark Sheppard(Firefly) guest-stars as ex-FBI agent Canton Delaware? (He'll share the role with William Morgan Sheppard; both have their secrets.)

(As for the Silence, I can't say much about them/it, but I will say that the Weeping Angels, who first appear in Moffat's "Blink," have some competition for creepiest Who villains as the plot begins to unfold here. They made the hair on the back of my neck stand straight up. As for the astronaut of the title, you'll have to see it to believe it...)

While "The Impossible Astronaut" sets up the direction for the season and creates an engaging plot, it's the heartbreaking and sensational second episode, "Day of the Moon," which kicks the storyline into first gear, a somber and electrifying installment that is almost dream-like in its intensity, a nightmare borne from the mind of Moffat that infects each of us in turn, uncoiling its snake-like heads to bite us when we least expect it. The companions are pushed past their breaking point and the chase that follows is as gripping as it is jaw-dropping. (You'll see what I mean, but it all comes together, I promise.)

Moffat's Doctor Who has humor, heart, and horror in equal quantity and that's keenly felt here, as the stakes are raised immeasurably within the first few minutes of the season opener. While there's the sense of joy at seeing the Doctor, Amy, Rory, and River unite, there's also an elegiac quality as well; change is afoot for all of them and their companionship is interrupted by deep tension between the travelers. Secrets have a nasty way of driving a wedge between people and dark, dark secrets can threaten to shatter the circle of friendship here. That is, when they're not being pursued by the forces of Earth and beyond, encircled and defeated at their darkest hour yet.

These are terrific episodes of discovery, imprisonment, and flight, as the Doctor and his trusted companions learn several shocking truths about the planet and themselves, and we're left to pick up the pieces, to strive to understand just what is going on here, to unlock the puzzle that Moffat and Co. have created. The result is surreal and haunting, a mind-game of the highest order that remains tantalizingly unresolved at the end of the second episode. We're seeing Moffat launch his season-long arc from the start with this gripping two-parter and the questions that linger are intensely nerve-jangling.

In fact, one can imagine quite a few viewers needing a doctor of their own when all is said and done... Fez definitely not included.



Season Six of Doctor Who begins this Saturday evening on BBC America and BBC One.

Comments

Hadley said…
Great review! Saturday night can't get here quick enough! If only I could time travel...
Beth said…
Oh, it looks/sounds so good! I've come to trust your reviews, so I'm pretty excited about Saturday (well, I was already, but more so now).
nel said…
ok, after reading this, perhaps I'll give it one more chance. I had to stop watching mid-way through S5 because I could no longer stomach Amy Pond. later on, I decided to finish it if at least to give Matt Smith, who I genuinely like, a break, but it didn't improve for me so i'd decided i wouldn't be watching S6. Whether Pond will no longer be like nails on a blackboard for me remains to be seen, but it sounds like Moffatt and Smith, at least, may have found their feet (perhaps with less pressure on them now), and that the heart and soul, and layered story-telling that i missed from the Tennant years may be back.
Tempest said…
Once again, thanks for demonstrating the fine art of creating excitement without including spoilers . . . (See, internet world, it can be done!)
Forrest Leeson said…
"we're left to pick up the pieces"

I hope this means Moffat started knocking the dominoes down instead of setting up even more of them...!
Unknown said…
Nice writeup on the season premiere. It was appointment tv at its' best (although I thought BBC said it was limited interruptions, I swear there just as many commercials as usual).

Moffat's Doctor (so far) hasn't reminded us every episode that he's the Time Lord. A very grown up thing to do.

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