Doctor Who’s 2011 season is quite confusing. There are some aspects of time travel fiction that are inherently confusing – a paradox wouldn’t be a paradox if it were straightforward – but for most of the previous 47 years Doctor Who hadn’t really gone down those paths very much. Suddenly the show was making up for that with a vengeance.
In this season we find (or appear to find): the Doctor, a future Doctor, a dead Doctor, a Teselecta Doctor, a Ganger Doctor, possibly a skeletal Doctor; Amy, a Teselecta Amy, a Ganger Amy, an old Amy, Amy the doll, a pregnant Amy – oh, and an Amelia hologram; Rory, a handbot called Rory, an aged Rory, a dead Rory, the Last Centurion Rory; River, baby Melody, Ganger baby Melody, young girl in New York, young Mels, Mels, psycho River-who-doesn’t-know-she’s-River, River the Impossible Astronaut, River who’s learning to be River. Sometimes a character will know which particular version of another character they’re interacting with, sometimes they won’t. Sometimes the audience will know which particular version of a character they’re watching, most of the time they won’t. Things don’t happen in a consistent chronological order for the characters, let alone the audience. It’s enough to give anyone a headache.
So does it matter if you need repeated viewings, diagrams and a spreadsheet to work out what’s really going on in a story – a story that is not only spread out over thirteen episodes and six months, but that’s bringing in elements from past seasons and will spread tentacles into future ones? There are at least the reveals that answer the bigger questions, even if the path that the story takes to arrive there is tangled and still, perhaps, partially obscure. And as viewers tie themselves in knots trying to work out what happened when to whom, twists creep in under the radar – River Song turning out to be Melody Pond might have been predicted by a few viewers, but the sudden introduction of Mels and her regeneration into River was a bolt out of the blue. The season also contained a number of stunning images: the astronaut emerging from the sea, the woman with the eyepatch, the advancing peg dolls, the restaurant full of laughing ventriloquist dummies, the headless monks and the cave of skulls, those are pictures that remain in the memory long after precise details of the story have faded.
There are some lovely – and often poignant – character moments, too. Misdirection leads Rory to wonder just who it is who Amy loves so fiercely, only to discover it’s him. The same trick is played for a second time, when Amy tells baby Melody of the hero who will always be there for her, and it’s not the Doctor, it’s the Last Centurion. So many people whose inner hero is exposed by time with the Doctor – like Laura in A Good Man Goes to War. “Who was she?” “I don’t know, but she was very brave.” “They’re always brave. They’re always brave.” Lives have been hijacked by the Doctor, have been lost because of the Doctor, and he doesn’t even remember them all. He turned them into heroes, and a lot of them became dead heroes. Was it worth it? It’s revealed that he feels guilt over Rose, Martha and Donna (“there must be someone left in the universe I haven’t screwed up yet”) – and, perhaps even more significantly, that he doesn’t like himself. It’s presented as a throwaway line, a joke, but this Doctor is dying and it’s a moment of raw truth. When, in The God Complex, he tells Amy “I stole your childhood and now I’ve led you by the hand to your death. But the worst thing is, I knew. I knew this would happen. This is what always happens”, he is deliberately trying to destroy her faith in him – but this isn’t like when the Seventh Doctor destroyed Ace’s faith in him in The Curse of Fenric by declaring “I wouldn’t waste my time on her, unless I had to use her somehow”, this has truth in it. The people who the Doctor loves, he also destroys. “This world is dying and it’s my fault and I can’t bear it another day.” How can anyone human even begin to imagine what it must be like to be the Doctor, to live with all that he’s done? In the end, he decides that the universe is better off without him.
But the universe doesn’t agree. That’s what River says. The only problem is – has she actually asked the entire universe?
That’s what this season gives us. It’s full of twists and turns, but it’s not the complicated timelines that are the puzzle – it’s the Doctor himself. The madman with a box has been running all his life, from the oldest question in the universe. This is one puzzle that we still don’t know the answer to.
1. “Come here, you scrumptious little beauty!” Yes, yes, it’s a big deal that there might be more Time Lords out there, but it’s an even bigger deal that that’s the box from The War Games! The Doctor’s Wife.
2. “Last time I did this, I ended up a toddler in the middle of New York.” The penny drops as Mels starts to regenerate and Amy discovers the schoolfriend she’s known most of her life is actually her daughter. Let’s Kill Hitler.
3. “I don’t want you to witness this. I want you to remember me the way I was.” Should-have-been-a-companion Rita dies, and a horrified Doctor realises the advice he’s been handing out is deadly. The God Complex.
4. “They blew up. I blew them up with love.” Luckily for him, Craig’s devotion to Stormageddon, Dark Lord Of All, turns out to be more powerful than the Cybermen. Hurrah for love! Closing Time.