BBCHD - 30th April 2011 - 6.00pm
It's fascinating that Steven Moffat chose the end of the 1960s as his setting and President Nixon as one of the key figures in Day of the Moon. One of the strongest themes here is about indoctrination and brainwashing, where the Silence control human society and its development through post-hypnotic suggestion. This suggests an exploration of the politics of the period, where the Silence represent the continuing paranoia about anti-democratic forces seeking to undermine US foreign policy and the dominant hegemony of the military-industrial complex, already battling for hearts and minds in Vietnam.
"there's always a bit left over"Not only taking his cue from such films as The Manchurian Candidate, where American POWs were indoctrinated by other regimes and brainwashed to carry out political assassinations, Moffat also seems to be influenced by a number of Cold War espionage thrillers where the American government is taken over by a new enemy within, the state-sponsored security agencies. Naturally, this finds its apotheosis in the Watergate scandal depicted in All the President's Men and where Moffat shows the Doctor demanding Nixon record everything to effect checks and balances on his own sanity when faced with an enemy like the Silence.
Throw in the connection with Apollo 11 and the landing on the moon, itself enmeshed in long-held conspiracy theories where the faking of a moon landing was seen as a specific distraction from America's involvement in the Vietnam war and as a face-saving exercise to counter competitive Communists in the space race, which sees the Doctor pulling apart the command module, not quite putting it all back together and concluding "there's always a bit left over." This is wittily picked up later when Rory, dressed like a cast member of Mad Men, snaps off a radar dish on a model of the lunar module and can't quite put it back again after he and River pop over to reassure NASA scientists that the Doctor is working for Nixon. Perhaps an allusion to Moffat's own never quite perfect narrative resolutions that always leave us asking more questions.
The idea of a shadow world layered beneath our own reality is visually represented in director Toby Haynes' contrast between the desert hunt, that picks up the story three months from the conclusion of The Impossible Astronaut, and its immensely impressive helicopter shots of the Utah landscape, perhaps an homage to the car chase from another celebrated 1970s political conspiracy thriller The Parallax View, and the creepily realised subterranean nightmare of the children's home Graystark Hall, strikingly akin to some of most atmospheric episodes of The X Files. Here Haynes fires off all sorts of resonances with Grant Morrison and Dave McKean's Arkham Asylum and its own H P Lovecraft lineage. That the children's home represents some kind of otherworldly asylum is highlighted in that very bizarre moment where Amy sees Frances Barber's 'Eye Patch Lady' peer through a sliding panel in one of the bedroom doors and offer the diagnosis "No, I think she's just dreaming."
The desert may also represent the old values of pre-industrial America, less tainted by the influence of the Silence perhaps, as opposed to the crowded urban areas and cities, the Apollo 11 launch area, the centres of power where the Silence gather to exert their greatest influence on the greatest number of people. Rory, Amy and River are hunted down, the symbols of their free minds are written onto their skin as they notch up every appearance of the Silence to gauge the enemy's strength and numbers, like prisoners of an axis of evil state notching up the long days of their own incarceration. It becomes an amusing pre-titles bluff as we see each of the TARDIS team apparently meet their end and where Moffat craftily winks at us about those "marked for death" companions on the front cover of Doctor Who Magazine.
"our lives are back to front"Places of internment - from the Stormcage Containment Facility to the Area 51 puzzle box cell made of dwarf star alloy (hello Warriors' Gate) to child unfriendly spacesuits, the Silence's own TARDIS and that bedroom in Graystark - are all neo-Pandoricas from which even River determines, "there's always a way out" and out of which Moffat constructs a narrative of punishingly cruel complexity, simultaneously answering questions while posing many, many more. The constant theme of remembering and forgetting ("Oh, Tricky Dickie they're never gonna forget you") here takes in the Silence's modus operandi and the Doctor's solution to reveal them, where ironically it's a recording and television broadcast that mobilises the human race against them. The nano recorders he places in Delaware, Amy, Rory and River turn them all into walking Watergate tapes in which thoughts and speech, secrets and lies are determined. The truth about the Silence becomes as edited and erased over time as the gaps, re-recordings and erasures in the recorded conversations on Nixon's own taping system installed in the White House. A system suggested by the Doctor with "you have to tape everything that happens in this office, every word. Or we won't know if you're under the influence."
It also presumes the Silence's interference with the term of her pregnancy which now seems to simultaneously exist and not exist judging by the Doctor's scan. Bumpy-wumpy stuff, perhaps filling in some of the three month period between these two episodes, further confirmed by the fact that Frances Barber's character will reappear proper in a future episode and the pregnancy that is perfectly summarised in River's assertion that "our lives are back to front." This increasingly feels like the finale to a story that just hasn't played out yet.
From the White House to the TARDIS, there is a constant reiteration of uncovering information - through the embedded nano recorders, to cameras and television coverage and into flashbacks to previous mentions of the Silence. McLuhan's 'global village' is writ large (the mention of David Frost's iconic Nixon interview is another nod to this) and communicating information is all pervasive, suggesting that this is indeed a story that requires close attention to the details. Like the Silence, glimpse away from this episode and you'll miss or forget a vital clue.
Rory also uses Amy's discarded embed to witness her live feed from the Silence's lair and eavesdrops on private conversations. We get some very poignant expressions of the Doctor-Amy-Rory love triangle, something Moffat seems keen to keep evolving as a way of providing more second-guessing about their marriage and the Doctor's role as "her best friend" in it, that provide some powerful emotional moments where "stupid face" Rory's loyalty to Amy is tested and his jealousy of the Doctor emerges again. He and the Doctor discuss the nature of memory and "the door" in Rory's mind that opens to his experiences as a Roman, memories we thought he may possibly not recall after the events of The Big Bang. Again, there's that theme of painful or dangerous memories being contained, housed in the mind and yet connected intimately to the soul.
"you will bring the Silence"The other relationship that sits at the centre of this is the one with River and for me it really is quite clear that she is the Doctor's lover and the final scene at the Stormcage emphasises the tragedy of it, that time continues to demand of them a long-distance relationship where River already knows of her fate. Moffat uses that tragedy to further emotionally embed the inevitable revelation of who River will eventually turn out to be. You can bet though that with Moffat it won't be as simple as River being the Time Lord's lover. It'll get complicated.
Some of these are the core building blocks of the series arc, especially Amy's surreal experience of Graystark Hall, her kidnap by the Silence (her being told "you will bring the Silence" sounds very disturbing) and the impossible child astronaut who regenerates on a New York street, while others are Moffat indulgences such as River's plunge off a skyscraper into the TARDIS swimming pool complete with a ridiculous comedy splash.
This culminates in the spectacular gun fight with River and the Doctor against the Silence and where Haynes turns it into a ballet of flirting, shooting and explosions complete with sonic screwdriver and DIY jokes and eyebrow raising digs at the Doctor's morals in believing it's perfectly acceptable if River mows down the Silence ("my old fella didn't see that, did he? He gets ever so cross"). It's also quite delightful that in the middle of the 'straight' relationships that tend to be Moffat's major interest, he has time to underline the series's equal opportunities credentials with Delware's desire to marry the black man of his dreams. Nixon can't cope with such a suggestion so goodness knows how that's gone down with the BNP.
That said, this is a supremely confident episode, beautifully directed by Haynes and is sure to have the internet in meltdown for weeks with the number of intriguing clues that are seeded within and conclude with that regeneration. Performances are particularly good, especially from Matt Smith, Alex Kingston (River's flirting really hits the heights this week), Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill (Rory's "he's coming, I'll bring him. I swear" scene with the absent Amy is amazing). So far, Moffat's married couple in the TARDIS seems to have resulted in a tightly focused ensemble that can cope with the big action set pieces and the more intimate and emotional moments. My only minor niggle is that perhaps Stuart Milligan as Nixon provided the least effective of the performances. While he managed to get some of the vocal inflections spot on, the more we saw of the prosthetics he looked increasingly less like Nixon and it occasionally broke the spell of what was such an impressive episode.
For more on Series 5, including all the expanded reviews from 2010, try my book Doctor Who: The Pandorica Opens - Exploring the Worlds of the Eleventh Doctor published by Classic TV Press and also available on Amazon.