The minimal Doctor Who Series 6 Part 1 set, out on Tuesday, July 19, consists of two discs containing the seven 45-minute episodes aired so far.
“The Impossible Astronaut” brought the 11th Doctor (Matt Smith) to the U.S. in an episode filmed partially in Utah. He, Amy Pond (Karen Gillan), Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill), and the impressive River Song (Alex Kingston) team up with a fired FBI agent (Mark Sheppard) in 1969 to fight the Silence, a race of alien invaders who are forgotten as soon as they aren’t seen. The season opening combined weird horror with the kind of historical playfulness I enjoy most about Doctor Who. In this case, he’s hanging out with Richard Nixon (Stuart Milligan) and making jokes about the moon landing.
Mark Sheppard, Matt Smith, Arthur Darvill, Karen Gillan, and Alex Kingston
“The Day of the Moon” concludes this two-parter with a dynamite opening sequence set up just to trick the viewer, as the supporting characters are pursued through the 60s, culminating in River’s dive into the pool. Lots of mental double-backs make a way to rewatch, such as with this DVD set, a must.
“The Curse of the Black Spot” lightens the mood with pirates (very trendy) facing a mystical siren taking away crew members. Hugh Bonneville, who plays the captain, will be known to American audiences from Downton Abbey, while Amy gets to play dress-up for a sword-fighting action scene. Even though the ultimate villain turns out be similar to “The Empty Child”, written for the first relaunch series by Steven Moffat, current show-runner, and there are a number of logic flaws, it’s a suspenseful adventure kids will likely enjoy. This episode was written by Stephen Thompson, who also worked with Moffat on Sherlock.
Matt Smith and Hugh Bonneville in Episode 3
Disc one ends on a high note with “The Doctor’s Wife”, a goofy but psychologically revealing episode written by Neil Gaiman. Idris (Suranne Jones) is a physical manifestation of the TARDIS who helps the Doctor recapture his ship when an asteroid (voiced by Michael Sheen sounding remarkably like Marvin the Paranoid Android) tries to take it over. When Amy and Rory are trapped in the ship’s corridors, the viewer learns more about both their relationship and the time machine. Jones’ performance is wonderfully mad, naive, seductive, and intriguing all at once.
“The Rebel Flesh” and “The Almost People” make up a two-parter about acid workers and their disposable Flesh doppelgangers. When these “Gangers” develop their own personalities, we get a classic British science fictional meditation on workers, class structure, and what it means to be human. Plus, there’s a duplicate Doctor, setting up plots to be resolved in the second half of this series.
“A Good Man Goes to War” returns to the underlying story of Amy’s Schrodinger pregnancy, bringing out all kinds of aliens, known and new, and big battles as the Doctor and his allies attack the Demon’s Run base. It ends on a cliffhanger, to keep us eager for part two of the series, but it’s a glorious ride getting there, with a thrilling revelation to tide us over. Plus, the concept of the Headless Monks, with their attack prayer, is both funny and creepy, as the best Doctor Who bits are.
It’s quite enlightening to re-watch the episodes knowing the tricks, already anticipating when something’s going to jump at you or knowing what the mysterious pronouncements mean when characters utter them. The show creators have done a terrific job so far of playing with surprises and cliffhangers, but the second (or further) time through, that simple source of appeal is gone, replaced by subtly skilled performances and impressive visuals. It all looks glorious on Blu-ray, a definite advancement from the earlier days’ dodgy production values. The American desert, where this series opens with a bang, is full of sun-splashed eye-searing vistas and in later episodes, corridors have never looked so good.
I’ve become particularly impressed by Darvill’s portrayal of Rory, who as Amy’s husband could easily become a fifth wheel. We know what the Doctor and the Girl do, in terms of story structure, but Rory’s role has become increasingly odd and important and all the more worth watching for that. We’ve also been reminded several times that he’s got his own set of skills as a nurse, especially in episodes three and four, when he interacts with Idris.
River Song is my favorite Doctor Who character of all, a woman who has her own adventures and can outsmart the Doctor and has just as much heart and dedication and a wicked sense of humor. Finding out more about her origins has served as the underpinning of this series arc, and it’s a mystery that has kept fans intrigued as it ties together several key threads.
Alex Kingston as River Song in Episode 1
The set is also available on DVD. This will make an excellent rental, or an affordable way to build the Doctor Who video collection gradually, but I hope that the eventual full series package has better extras. (Part 2 will be out in November, and the complete set is due for the holidays.) For instance, why don’t we get the behind-the-scenes Doctor Who Confidential episodes aired in the U.K. relating to these stories? Instead, each disc has one Monster File (which appears to be recut from the Confidential material).
The first disc extra is 11 minutes of actors, Moffat, and director Toby Haynes talking about the Silence, interspersed with clips from earlier episodes and design information. I didn’t realize how big they were until I saw the behind-the-scenes footage showing the characters in costume. Disc two has 13 minutes on the Gangers, from episodes 5 and 6, with producer Marcus Wilson, director Julian Simpson, prosthetics designer Neill Gorton, Sarah Smart (who played Jennifer, a key character in the episode), and other actors and special effects creators. The information on how they created the look of the “monsters” will be familiar to anyone who knows anything about current movie makeup technology. (The studio provided a review copy.)