-Dr. River Song
“Okay, kid: here’s where it gets complicated.” You may remember that as one of the best lines of last season’s finale. Amy Pond astonishes her younger self (and the viewer) by not only appearing in the Pandorica (where we thought the Doctor was locked up for eternity), but by being alive, when we had seen her get killed in the previous episode. Steven Moffat plays fast and loose with the rules of closed-loop circular logic; it’s one of his trademarks. The man loves to exploit the premise of time travel by telling stories the way magicians dazzle crowds with elaborate illusions. There may be no mystic substance to his gamesmanship, but if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief, he can mesmerize you with no shortage of wonderful tricks. Of course, the only way smoke and mirrors work is through misdirection: a great illusionist needs to keep an audience on its toes, and Moffat’s preferred method is to structure his stories in such a way that we won’t know what the heck is going on until the very end, and after that, going back and putting the pieces together is almost as much fun as having been bamboozled in the first place. As I said earlier: it’s like lost, except you know that it’s all going to make sense. Within limits, at any rate.
Things are definitely getting complicated. The last two episodes probably comprise the most ambitious storytelling in the history of Doctor Who. And that’s a pretty long history. Moffat isn’t just juggling a lot of balls — he’s keeping all those balls in the air by tossing them back and forth with his viewers, a gamble which, quite frankly, takes a lot of balls. He’s playing a long con, and I’m absolutely delighted to be playing the role of the mark.
Here’s what we know (so far). The Silence (yeah, I called them the “Silents” in my last blog post; my bad) have not been totally defeated. They’ll be around in the future, because one was watching when the Doctor was “killed” in the season premiere. They are creepy as all get out. They’ve been around forever, and they use other species to do their manual and intellectual labor for them. This last bit is probably of vital importance. We also know that the kid in the space suit can regenerate.
Holy crap, right?
Yeah. Somehow, the kid can regenerate like a Time Lord, but how that’s possible, we haven’t yet found out. (Though Moffat did kind of dub her “The Impossible Astronaut,” and now we know why, sort of, I guess.) Perhaps she’s the progeny of Amy and Rory, and her biology has been affected by being conceived in the midst of time-traveling adventures. (Amy calls the condition “Time Head.” Heh.) Maybe she’s the progeny of the Doctor and River Song. (Remember my dual-pregnancy hypothesis?) Maybe she’s neither. Amy may or may not even be pregnant, though the scene in which the Doctor confronts her about not telling Rory — with Rory listening in — is wonderful. I suppose it’s even possible that, somehow, she’s the spawn of Amy and the Doctor, though I don’t think Moffat is going to go that route. In any case, it was one of the most spectacular ways to end an episode I’ve seen yet. And the fact that it’s just episode two tells me that Moffat must have something really mind-blowing lined up if that’s essentially just the teaser for the rest of the series.
We also know that the Doctor will cross paths with Canton again. He has to, if he’s going to alert him to his imminent death and tell him to bring that gas can. And how about that Canton? “Welcome to America,” indeed. Good on Moffat for not neglecting RTD’s habit of featuring prominent gay characters. The way Moffat dropped that bomb on Nixon was very astute. Throughout the episode, Nixon had been used primarily for comic relief, though not at his expense, as in many other fictional riffs on the ex-president. The Doctor keeps deploying Nixon like a prop, a get out of jail free card, and thought a bit hammy, those scenes were hilarious and surprisingly gracious. You get the impression that old “Tricky Dick” may not have been such a bad guy after all. Then, right in the middle of his saying something about being more liberal than people give him credit for, Moffat skewers his latent racism and homophobia. Not in a brutal way; in an honest way. His unorthodoxically compassionate portrayal of Nixon is complicated in the subtle hints that Nixon’s infamous paranoia may have been rooted specifically in factors beyond his control. Namely, the Silence messing with his head (the tape recorder prominently displayed in “The Impossible Astronaut,” apparently having originated with a benign purpose), and the fact that the Doctor emphasizes to Nixon that the president must trust only him. What kind of idiotic advice is that? The Doctor isn’t going to remain on hand to be part of the cabinet. If Nixon doesn’t trust anyone but the Doctor, it might explain his isolation and virulent distrust later on in his administration? In that context, the Doctor’s sardonic farewell to the president seems typically callous.
Which is utterly brilliant.
Let me take a few moments to talk a bit about “trust” as a recurring theme before diving back into fanboy gushing. The tagline for this season is “Trust your Doctor.” Kind of a h/t if I ever saw one. What does it imply, though? As I said in my “Impossible Astronaut” post, the Eleventh Doctor is making it a bit more difficult to trust him than his predecessors. He plays things faster, looser, and closer to the suspendered vest. For the most part, Doctor Who has evolved away from the furtive shenanigans of the First Doctor. There have been times when the Doctor has done sketchy things of course. His sketchiness is one of my favorite things about the Seventh Doctor. Even the beloved Fourth Doctor courted the idea that he was a villain in “The Invasion of Time,” when he essentially used his home planet as the bait in a trap for the Sontarans. (Sketchy!) Most of the time, if the Doctor doesn’t earn the trust placed in him, it’s because of a blunder or a miscalculation. He’s fallible, a trait emphasized to greater or lesser degrees in different eras. (“Earthshock,” anyone?)
One of the many things that is both maddening and awesome about the Doctor is that he basically assumes that everyone should and will trust him. It’s a major conceit of the series that, half the time, he can just walk into a room and take charge. Think of how many minor characters have justified their leap of faith with a line of reasoning that goes, “He seems to be the only one who knows what’s going on. Might as well trust him.” Considering how often the Doctor bluffs his way out of potentially fatal situations, this is a hoary logical leap indeed. But somehow, he manages to engender trust in nearly all the “good” characters he meets in his adventures. We want the companions to trust the Doctor, because we want to see the faith be justified. It’s only natural that we would root for Amy to trust her Doctor, because her imaginary childhood friend also happens to be the most powerful, godlike alien in the universe. Who wouldn’t want that person as a best friend?
Moffat, clever boy that he is, has subtly introduced contradictions in this premise. In “A Christmas Carol,” the Doctor’s apparent benevolence toward a crotchety old miser led him to meddle in that character’s timeline. Kazran’s soul was saved, but his heart was broken — and a good woman was forced to give her life to save the Doctor’s friends. In the last season, both Rory and Amy died before the Doctor could save them. In “Amy’s Choice,” his dark, dream self forced Amy to choose death to prove her love for Rory. In the Silurian two-parter, the Doctor’s neglect of a small child led indirectly to the failure of peace talks that could have tipped the balance of history toward a prosperous, mutually beneficial future for both races of Earthlings. “The Big Bang” saw the Doctor using his companions (and himself, sort of) as a distraction for a Dalek so that he could get on with his work. River Song said it best: “Rule number one: the Doctor lies.”
In the last two episodes, Moffat has really hammered on trust as a theme. Obviously, there’s the implication that his meddling indirectly turned Richard Nixon into a paranoid freak. But he also uses parallel thematic construction to work the idea in different ways. Rory still has inferiority issues with Amy. In one of the episode’s truly poignant scenes, he holds a tiny, glowing receiver carrying Amy’s voice from the dark room where she’s held captive to the TARDIS control room. She babbles on about love and who should love whom and whatnot; Rory thinks she’s talking about the Doctor. It turns out that she was talking about him, but he finds it easier to believe that, in her heart, she’s unfaithful to him. She is, after all, keeping her maybe-pregnancy a secret.
Then there’s the creepy powers of the Silence. Your memories cannot be trusted. As Rory says, they literally edit themselves out of your heads. In a neat display of expert craftsmanship, the show emphasizes this in its very construction.
Let’s examine the scene in which Amy searches the orphanage alone. In order to give this some context, think back to the way the Silence were presented in “The Impossible Astronaut.” In almost every case, the camera would initially be facing a character as the character looked around a room or rounded a corner. The sound mix would signal you to be wary.
This would occur almost simultaneously with a change in the character’s expression, alerting us to the fact that they’ve observed something out of the ordinary, something worthy of scrutiny or fear. Immediately following would be an edit, often a reverse shot roughly equivalent to the character’s point of view. In the reverse shot, we’d see the creature. As long as the creature remained in the character’s eyeline, there may be several edits, maybe only a few. But at the end of the shot sequence, the character whose viewpoint we had adopted for the sequence would break eye contact with the creature. Perhaps they’d turn around, perhaps they’d just look elsewhere. The sound mix would return to normal. A vague puzzlement would appear on the actor’s face as she or he “shook it off.” Then, they’d continue with business as usual.
Suspense is a mercurial thing. Handling it just right requires almost unimaginable skill, and Moffat and his directors possess it in spades. In these scenes in “The Impossible Astronaut,” our suspense arises from our anxiety for the characters. We know more than they know. Once the pattern of the Silence encounters has been established, we are constantly aware of the threat lurking around them, perhaps even directly behind them. The sheer power of these creatures is immense; even in a straight-up fight, our protagonists wouldn’t stand a very good chance of winning. But they aren’t even aware of the threat; we are. A lot of times, writers keep their audience in suspense only by doling out tiny pieces of information, never giving the audience a clear idea of what is going on or what, exactly, the threat is. Here, the suspense works in almost the opposite way. Sure, we don’t know what the Silence are up to, but the main reason we’re chewing our nails raw is because the characters we care about are the ones who have the danger staring them right in the face, and are completely clueless.
The orphanage scene turns this on its head. Our protagonists have been clued in. They know the Silence are out there. They know they’re a threat. They’re prepared; the Doctor even implanted cool little psychic mini-recorders in their hands that flash when they have a message waiting for them. We in the audience know that, even if our characters don’t remember the encounters, watching them record the encounters will be a bit of a security blanket. Right?
Well, no. Steven Moffat isn’t here to tuck you in at night. He’s here to make you wet the bed.
In the very first demonstration of the handy-(literally)-dandy recorders, Moffat and episode director Toby Haynes pull a fast one. Conventionally, television shows don’t differ significantly in dialogue scenes. Camera setups may be fluid and sharp, but they’re efficient above all, and are mostly functional. Two-shots and shot-reverse-shot techniques are ubiquitous, even in the TARDIS control room. The Doctor, as usual, finishes his spiel, and then two things happen: we hear the sound of a door closing (everyone looks, briefly, but not so much that it’s significant), and Canton does something odd — he straightens the Doctor’s tie. Given what we later learn about his sexual preferences, this isn’t so odd (the Doctor is very handsome, after all), but at that point in the show, it’s unusual. Nobody messes with the Doctor’s tie. Nobody. Not even trigger-happy, flirtatious River. Prior to that tie-straightening, it had been a typical sequence of shots; expository business as usual. Then everyone notices the light flashing in Canton’s hand. The next thing we hear is the message he left for himself: “MY GOD, HOW DID IT GET IN HERE?”
This approximately is the moment when I crapped myself.
The characters turns around, and a camera tracks slowly past a Silent standing in the doorway, watching them all. Besides the shock that an alien could have penetrated the sanctity of the TARDIS (a rare event in Who history, though it does occur), the real shock is all in the technical construction of the scene. Haynes and Moffat set up a certain set of visual and aural expectations in “The Impossible Astronaut” — a template that viewers would naturally assume to be replicated in future episodes featuring the Silence. Instead, the expectations — the trust the audience placed in the execution of the show — were totally subverted. A new template has been established.
This new template is tinkered with a bit in the orphanage scene where Amy explores a room. As we saw in the expository scene in the TARDIS, conventional continuity edits within a scene are no longer to be trusted. We can no longer rely on aural or visual cues — such as the actor’s reaction to offscreen events, or an insert of the Silence silently watching — to tip us off that a Silent is in the offing. Instead, in the blink of a cut, Amy suddenly has dozens of tally marks on her face: one for each Silent she’s seen. Before, the characters were the ones who didn’t know what was going on; now, it’s the viewer put directly in the characters’ shoes.
In this way, “Day of the Moon” illustrates how easily trust and expectations can be totally broken. Unfortunately, this kind of formal playfulness is nowhere to be seen in the rest of the episode, but if Moffat and the other series directors choose to use the Silence as enemies in the future (and I sincerely believe, now more than ever, that they have to potential to rival the Daleks as long-term foes), the very techniques of episode filming can be even more experimental without sacrificing coherence. Moffat just gave his directors and successors a huge tool to pull out of the toolbox whenever they want to really put the audience on edge. Hopefully they make use of it.
This is why “what we know” might not be what it seems at all. If Moffat can undercut even the most basic rules of continuity technique with his monsters, what can he do with whole story arcs? This all feeds back into the question of whether or not the Doctor can be trusted. Does he have good intentions? Definitely. But what means will he employ to achieve those good intentions?
This entire episode was vintage Second/Seventh Doctor. RTD didn’t seem to think of the Doctor as a schemer. To him, the Doctor was a romantic adventurer more than a crusading strategist. To be sure, Eleven has boatloads of fun cavorting about the cosmos with his merry band, but when it comes down to it, Moffat seems to enjoy the Doctor outmaneuvering his enemies to a greater extent than Davies — and there’s little remorse in it. That’s another sharp difference. I can only imagine the skin-of-his-teeth escape David Tennant’s Doctor would have made after taking extraordinary measures to ensure that the Silence “had a choice” to go peacefully or be taken down. Matt Smith, by contrast, with a looney, roguish grin permanently affixed to his face, swaggers in to the heart of the Silence’s empire with a 1960s TV set, to accept their unconditional surrender. “What’s the point in two hearts if you can’t be a bit forgiving now and then?”
And then, with a swishy exuberance: “Okay, you got me. I’m lying. I’m not really going to let you off that easily. I’m nice and all, but it’s not Christmas.”
A couple years ago, when the first set photos of Matt Smith in his outfit surfaced and everyone went, “Ewww, bow tie and tweed,” I remember predicting that the Doctor’s latent badassery would be even more badass when clothed in sartorial nerdery. Climaxes like the one in “Day of the Moon,” I think, fully justify my prediction. From the very start of the episode, we’ve known that the Doctor had something up his sleeve. With the aid of Neil Armstrong’s foot, the Doctor had prepared the way for the Silence to issue their own death warrant. He knew right from the beginning how all this was going to play out. Or, at least, he had plenty of time to ponder it while he sat in the proto-Pandorica that was being built just for him, courtesy of the U.S. government.
This is a very different Doctor. He doesn’t kill people, but he apparently finds it a turn on that River Song does. He’s perfectly willing to use a Silent dying from multiple GSW as a prop in his grand plan, broadcasting it all over the world as a kind of gruesome parallel to al-Qaida beheading videos, in which an alien is forced to serve as a dire warning to his own kind — a direct incitement, as it turns out, to isolated acts of violence all over the world, wherever the moon landing broadcast has been received. And he knew this would happen. That’s what he meant when he said in “The Impossible Astronaut,” “A lot more happens in 1969 than anyone remembers.” Literally no one remembers the revolution against the Silence, but it was a momentous event nevertheless. Except the Doctor. He remembers. And it must be part of some plan that we haven’t yet seen unfold completely.
Some mysteries are partially solved. We think we know that River and the Doctor do have a formal, romantic relationship. (Heartbreaker: first kiss, last kiss.) All the speculation of “maybe they are/maybe they aren’t” has now been put to rest to some extent. Whether they are indeed husband and wife remains to be seen, but the melancholy of River’s parting stung a lot more than her on-the-nose “someday it will kill me” soliloquy from the last episode.
Other mysteries aren’t. “No, I think she’s just dreaming” may turn out to be the most significant line of the episode. We’ll be seeing that weird, metal-eyepatch woman in the door again, just as we’ll see Canton and the little Time Head astronaut girl. Amy and Rory clearly have some work left to do in their relationship, and the Doctor still hasn’t found a hat that River won’t shoot off his head. Strange things are afoot, and I trust that Moffat is going to spin pure gold out of it all. ☕