Taking over as show runner of 'Doctor Who' for season five, Steven Moffat set about making the series his own. With a brand new Doctor (the eleventh if you're keeping track) played by Matt Smith, Moffat raised the show's profile beyond what it had ever been before. The season was epic, memorable, and quite frequently brilliant. Season six went even bigger, showing the repercussions of the Doctor getting too big for his britches and exploring the origins of River Song (Alex Kingston), the Doctor's mysterious future wife. While season six was the most ambitious the show had ever been, the writing was uneven, and many of the revelations were a letdown. Perhaps realizing that the fans were unhappy, Moffat decided to take a different approach for his next stint behind the TARDIS console.
Instead of having a big, overarching meta-plot that weaves its way through the season, this time out 'Doctor Who' went the route of having the episodes be mainly standalone. The idea was to make each outing feel like a mini-blockbuster. The big themes so far involve the Doctor regaining his anonymity, and dealing with loss. Things begin with what should have been a bang but ends up a whimper: "Asylum of the Daleks." The Doctor, Amy (Karen Gillan), and Rory (Arthur Darvill) are teleported by the Daleks to their asylum, a prison planet for rogue Daleks that are too dangerous to be among their own kind. The premise is brilliant. If something is insane enough to be scary to the Daleks, then it should be one of the biggest threats the Doctor ever faces. Instead we get weezy old Daleks who don't even have enough power to fire a shot. Even worse, Moffat introduces automaton human slaves that somehow have a Dalek casing underneath their skin, which seems to be a significant departure from the way the Daleks do things for no good reason. These aren't Cybermen we're talking about here.
The Amy and Rory b-plot, which sees them on the brink of divorce, is spectacularly bungled. They go from being on the verge of divorce to their love being stronger than ever in one episode. It's abrupt and makes no sense. The one bright spot comes in the form of Oswin, played by Jenna-Louise Coleman. For those who don't know, Jenna-Louise Coleman is set to play the Doctor's new companion, to debut in the upcoming Christmas special. She's here as a bit of a teaser, with her character in the episode bearing an indeterminate relationship to the upcoming companion. Is she the same person with a different name? A distant relation? Something more wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey? We don't know yet, but what we do know is that she has undeniable chemistry with Smith. There's a great twist at the end of the episode, but the route to said twist is far too dull to be worthwhile. Also good is the final capper, which finds the Daleks echoing the infamous question, "Doctor who?"
Things pick back up with the second episode, "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship." The Doctor, Amy and Rory, Queen Nefertiti, and big game hunter John Riddell travel to a large ship approaching earth to determine whether it's a threat. They find dinosaurs, but all of the original inhabitants, Silurians, are gone. Turns out a scam artist, Solomon ('Harry Potter' alum David Bradley), had entered the ship, wiped out the Silurians, and was planning to sell the dinosaurs. Now the Doctor has to stop Solomon, save the dinosaurs, and do it all before the governments of Earth blow the ship to smithereens. Oh, and he has to do it while dealing with Brian Williams, Rory's dad, played by another 'Harry Potter' alum: Mark Williams. "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship" is a great time, one of the most silly, funny, and enjoyable episodes that the show has featured since its return in 2005. The dialogue is often hilarious, helped out by cameo appearances from David Mitchell and Robert Webb, two mainstays of recent British comedy.
"A Town Called Mercy" sees the Doctor, Amy, and Rory going to the old west to find an alien cyborg hellbent on vengeance against a member of his own race hiding out in the southwest corner of the United States. Like the previous episode, "A Town Called Mercy" is a one-off, although weightier than "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship." The cyborg is ultimately a tragic character, and the Doctor must deal with issues like genocide, murder, and just how far one should go in the name of self-preservation. The western elements aren't particularly well integrated, but act as decent window dressing.
'The Power of Three' reverses the usual formula, having the Doctor coming to stay with the Ponds. Mysterious black cubes pop up all over the earth overnight, in what the Doctor dubs "the invasion of the very small cubes". This attracts the attention of the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce, better known as UNIT, now under the command of Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave). The build-up is excellent, with the Doctor finally becoming a presence in Rory and Amy's real life. The actual threat is shoddily introduced and hastily resolved. Far more interesting is the idea that Amy and Rory might finally be outgrowing the Doctor. The Doctor's companions leave for a variety of reasons, although rarely is it of their own volition. The resolution again feels rushed, but the storyline is clear foreshadowing for the next episode.
It was known before the season started shooting that this year would see Amy and Rory's departure. In fact, it was known that the season would be split in two, and that their exit would cap off the first half. "The Angels Take Manhattan" sees the return of Moffat's two greatest contributions to 'Doctor Who': ominous villains the Weeping Angels, and enigmatic siren River Song. The Doctor takes Amy and Rory for a trip to contemporary New York, which is quickly ruined when Rory is zapped back to the 30's by devious Weeping Angels, where River Song meets him. Amy and the Doctor try to follow, aided by a noir novel by "Melody Malone," River Song's nom de plume. When the group does reunite, they find themselves in serious danger in the scariest Weeping Angels story since "Blink." Like so many things this season, Amy and Rory's exit feels abrupt, but still manages to be touching.
At the end of the day, it's still 'Doctor Who', and it's still a lot of fun. But the quality has gone up and down since season six started up. Season seven isn't done yet, and it's possible that with a new companion, things could be on the upswing. I hope it is, because I love the show, and I want to see it be the best it can be. There are some great episodes here, and only one real clunker, so in that respect it's better than season six. But let's see it get back to the unassailable levels of quality that we saw in seasons three through five.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Doctor Who: Series Seven, Part One' comes on two BD-50 discs with a slipcover featuring a dramatic image of the Doctor carrying a limp Amy away from an army of Daleks. There are a few trailers at the start of each disc for other BBC productions, but they are skippable.
The BBC presents 'Doctor Who: Series Seven, Part One' in an AVC-encoded, 1.78:1 1080i transfer. Why the BBC persists in releasing 1080i content in 2012 is a mystery we may never solve. However, the biggest downgrade to the image isn't the interlacing, but the filters. For some reason, this season is all about filters. Even the title sequence looks fuzzy, with colors cranked and contrast way out of whack. Several episodes also feature filters of some kind, perhaps to make the material, shot digitally, look more film-like. Maybe it's to suggest exotic lands and faraway planets. Skaro is oppressively red, while "A Town Called Mercy" is unmercifully orange. The filters at times detract from that perfect image you might expect from a current production.
However, the image isn't always altered, and often times looks very good. There's plenty of detail. You'll be able to catch all the little knobs and gizmos on the TARDIS console. Colors appear natural, although perhaps a little on the drab side. Amy's red hair comes across as brown in certain lights. Fleshtones tend to be accurate, although most of the actors are pale Brits, so it's going to look a little lighter than you might expect. Contrast can get a little wonky, with whites that seem like they're just about to bloom, and darks that fall off into shadow too quickly. Some of this is due to the particular style employed in each episode, which varies slightly from director to director. Some of it is to give the sense of heightened reality. Even with the interlacing I didn't notice much in the way of compression issues, although every so often a little posterization sneaks through, but not so bad that you'll notice it for more than a minute or two. The Blu-rays often look like they were intended, varying little from the HD broadcasts in anything but bitrate. Whether or not you'll like the way they were meant to look is another matter.
The BBC offers a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound mix that is quite strong. The mix favors the low end, with an aggressive LFE track to support all the explosions, gunshots, and laser blasts. Dynamic range is good, although it's often stretched close to the limit by the orchestral/electronic score and big sound effects. Surrounds are frequently active, as there's very little downtime in most 'Doctor Who' episodes, and imaging is decent. The interior of the TARDIS doesn't sound different spatially than any other location, for example, but you will get the appropriate sound effects for whatever spot the trio find themselves in.
The all-important dialogue is always crystal clear, never being overwhelmed even in the midst of a dinosaur chase or a mad dash from a coven of Weeping Angels. In fact, the balance is quite good all around, with the various elements of the mix never fighting with each other for dominance. A better showing than the image.
'Doctor Who' is near and dear to my heart. It is a show unique in the annals of television, and the recent revamp of the series has made it more popular than ever. And while the show garners higher and higher ratings, the quality of the series has been up and down since season six premiered. Season seven is only halfway done, and so far it's stronger than season six was at this point, but it's not quite up to the gold standard sets by seasons three through five.
As for these half-season releases, they appear to be aimed at more casual fans. Dedicated Whovians will wait for the inevitable full season set, which not only has more episodes but commentaries and more in-depth features. There's nothing wrong with his release, although the image does vary in quality here and there. Otherwise, the audio is strong and the special features, while not packed, are pertinent and often entertaining. And, hey, it's new adventures with the Doctor. That's always worth a look.