Doctor Who: Silence – “Fooling you twice the same way” (Whovember #11 Alpha)

The Eleventh Doctor and the Silence that must fall 

It was the interminable, twisting arc that spun from the birth to the death of the Eleventh Doctor… Stay tuned for a Whovember look at the Greys of the Whoniverse, those oh so forgettable Silents themselves. Er, those oh so forgettable Silents themselves. But first… Comes a look at the quiet when they weren’t around: The Silence that constantly threatened to fall on number Eleven… 

JUST HOURS AFTER ONE OF HIS MOST EXPLOSIVE REGENERATIONS, THE ELEVENTH DOCTOR WAS EAR TO THE WALL, SONIC RAISED TO A CRACK IN THE PLASTER THAT WOULD BECOME ALL TOO FAMILIAR. Alright, it wasn’t quite exciting as it sounds – but it was confusing and it was everywhere: it was the Crack/Silence/Silents/River/Melody/Drop-off/ Generation game. But I think it’s safe to say that it finally ended when the Eleventh Doctor died on 25th December 2013. With many-a-head scratched.

He was the longest lived Doctor and he hardly had any respite from the Silence. All his scraps with the Daleks equate to a trip down the shops by comparison, Time War included. In fact, his only break came when he met the Impossible Girl and reintroduced himself to the Great Intelligence (which proved itself to be anything but).

When it came to the Eleventh Whovember, the complexity of this Doctor’s life posed a problem. But then thought Jokerside: Why not split the impossible riddle of the Silence in two: Betwixt the episodes featuring Silence and those featuring the Silents themselves, maybe there’s something interesting to find… And yes, she may glance on and off it, but that means the River Song arc is secondary.

First up, it’s all Silence, no Silents:

And it all began where it should, in the beginning…

The Eleventh Hour (Series Five, 2010)

This is a fairy tale and it’s glorious

You know, The Eleventh Hour might still be show runner Steven Moffat’s finest hour…. And that’s quite understandable considering it’s the one story he must have been writing for decades (and is tellingly on record as saying it’s the most difficult script he’s ever written). Sadly, little of the brilliance of this Smith opener was carried through Series Five. Second episode The Beast Below, despite intentions strong enough to form the basis for the Doctor Who Experience in London then Cardiff, managed to slow this new Doctor in his tracks and set an all too dreary direction for the majority of the series. Oh, there’s plenty to enjoy in those 13 episodes, but its washed out colour and change for change’s sake is a difficult adjustment after the pinnacle of the Davies, Gardner and Collinson years in Series Four. Although for the best part of an hour on 3 April 2010 you wouldn’t have guessed…

Crash

The Eleventh Hour starts in barnstorming style, with the TARDIS careering across London landmarks, and almost causing the unstable Time Lord a pre-watershed injury. Then, after the horrid fire (and ice) title sequence, director Adam Smith combines with Murray Gold to leave us no doubt that this is a fairy tale. And it’s glorious…

First we find Amelia Pond praying for help (to Santa it’s important to note) about the crack in the wall – seen half in focus. There are voices… And then her wish for someone, a policeman, is answered. With a sideways TARDIS that has somehow spiralled back in time (Amelia Pond doesn’t really exist in the present day, this is, unfortunately and conveniently, the mid-1990s). And the first words of the series? “Can I have an apple?” Sat atop the doors of the upturned TARDIS, the Doctor coughs regenerative juice after hearing about the crack in Amelia’s wall. “Does it scare you?” Yes it does. And there is nothing short of pure, bottled Doctor Who Ladies and Gentlemen.

Pure, bottled Doctor Who

Well played regenerative whimsy unravels from there, showing off the best of Matt Smith and the inherent mystery stitched into this series. It was a halcyon time: Smith wouldn’t be laden with over-expression for just over a year and the show wouldn’t crumple under enigma for at least a few episodes. There’s much to query, but in this brave new world it little matters that Amelia’s oddly home alone. We would barely see her aunt in the series and we would never again see that extended Leadworth family… When they had the chance to reappear, Rory and Amy had moved up in the world to Upper Leadworth. That rather makes a sham of the crafted opposition to the Powell Estate that Moffat surely intended… But oh well, on with the poor plastering…

“It must be a hell of a scary crack in your wall”

And so the Doctor’s first encounter with the crack. It doesn’t go all the way through, yet there’s a draft coming from this split in the skin of the world. Things are evidently a little wibbly‑wobbly, timey‑wimey as the Doctor listens where two parts of space and time that should never have touched and hears that Prisoner Zero has escaped… It all brilliantly filmed, dripping with suspense and depth as the Doctor opens the crack with his increasingly powerful Sonic and replaces the giant smile with a giant eye. While the crack is then sealed, having fulfilled its purpose, the mystery remains.

A short trip and the TARDIS then materialises 12 year’s late (yes, the present day 2010). And quite rightly The Eleventh Hour then steps up a gear to Spearhead From Space. Rory appears, a nurse, patients lay in a coma mouthing “Doctor” while the real deal has time to get used to his all grown up and soon to be companion. As a modern post-regeneration story it remains unbeaten. Not as slow, not as dark as Deep Breath, less whimsical than The Christmas Invasion, it paints emotion across the fairy tale almost perfectly. And it still manages to be a punchy and pacey – making use of a proper timescale even if the Atraxi are able to get to Earth at an inordinate speed.

It’s the antagonist, the shape-shifting Prisoner Zero who takes the initiative in the meantime. Quite why a prisoner knows the great secret of the series is unclear, but his prison sure was certainly sophisticated. While taunting about the “cracks in the skin of the universe” and the fact that “the Doctor in the TARDIS doesn’t know” we glean some key hints:

“The universe is cracked… The Pandorica will open… Silence will fall.”

As the Doctor almost points out, sometimes monsters should check their facts and shut their mouths (real and fake). Those taunts signal the Doctor’s call to action and the end game for Prisoner Zero and the Atraxi, with the prisoner’s revenge is to shout “Silence Doctor, Silence will fall” as he’s seized by its jailors, for the first time in its own voice. However that is soon lost as the priority falls to the Eleventh Doctor finding out exactly who he is.

“The Doctor will see you now”

And then, when the Doctor pops off only to returns yet another two years later, he finally finds a full-formed companion who had grown up next to a crack in the wall and would prove key to unravelling that mystery of the thing nobody could hear…

Enter the Vortex to uncover the mystery of Series Five‘s missing Silence plot here…

The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang (Series Five, 2010)

The polyfilla of exposition

Those cracks would make a hasty return, although successive episodes wouldn’t deal with it so well. A giant version acts as a convenient deus ex machina in the otherwise excellent Time of the Angels two-parter. It’s then the cause of Rory’s very real death in Cold Blood having been quite harmless in other time-spaces. The rather horrid time strings reach out to inexplicably remove Rory from reality but somehow manages not to dent the mystery too much. But it falls to the series finale to tackle them with the polyfilla of exposition. The clues in the title of course, thanks to Prisoner Zero and then River (an older version than the one we see here). We know that the Pandorica will open. It’s just about finding out what, how and why…

Pandorica’s pre-title sequence starts things as they mean to go on, connecting Van Gogh to Victory of the Daleks to River’s Stormcage prison to the Royal Collection of The Beast Below to the Maldovarium where we first meet Dorium; ending with a TARDIS hop from Planet One to Roman Britain. It’s a great sequence as we’ll come to expect, even if it sets expectations a little too high. The TARDIS is prophesised to explode by poor old Vincent (pinning it on one of the series episode highlights is an excellent idea). Although River optimistically suggests it “may not be that literal” there’d be little threat if it wasn’t…

“There was a Goblin, or a Trickster or a Warrior”

In some ways, it’s difficult not to think of this two-parter as the last time there was real, invested expectation in a series finale. Later Eleventh Doctor arcs, including the remainder of the Silence/Silent arc, loses the simple thrill. The chase to the Under-Hinge and the slowly unlocking of the Pandorica is exhilarating.

The hints and clues are hidden well too, with misdirection provided by River’s among others: “I hate good wizards in fairy tales. They always turn out to be him.” And it’s telling that this early in the arc, there’s little need for the slight brush of retconning we would see in later series.

Invasion of the hot Italians is one of Amy’s favourite subjects, as is Pandora’s Box… And if you are going to trap the Doctor, as ever, it’s best to use the companion. When the Doctor suddenly discloses that Amy’s life doesn’t make any sense it feels like we’re actually getting somewhere until we’re interrupted by a Cyberman. Without the ‘C’ it seems that these are Mondasian Cybermen and actually one of their more impressive appearances in New Who. That’s why those Cyberfaces sport teardrops: disappointment.

Silent Inversion

Ridiculous, unbelievable filler that distracts us from the cause illness

Hindsight covers further small rewards in Pandorica. The idea of the “nameless thing’ that is revealed to be the Doctor now feels like the birth of an idea that would snowball. It’s barely irrelevant here, but the Doctor’s name would become a key to the conclusion of the Silence arc. It’s a nice inverse, easily forgotten.

Knocking the Doctor’s oldest and mightiest foes into the shade

The bigger inversion comes with those metal heads. The reality of the Pandorica Alliance becomes clear – and it’s effectively the opposite of the Silence. The whole episode is a piece of misdirection because of course the Pandorica isn’t about to trap the universe’s most dangerous man and the Alliance aren’t here to witness his release: they’re here to lock him away. And the reason for that is to stop the future, well very imminent, destruction of the universe that the infamous cracks stem from. Like the later visit to Amy’s house, rounding off the nods to the Eleventh Hour, there isn’t any substantial link to the cause of the cracks in time. Almost like a symptom, it’s almost filler, ridiculous, unbelievable filler that distracts us from the cause illness. But it’s all very watchable and when the Alliance comes together it’s the best bit of the best half of the finale. In hindsight, it’s a paradox that also makes sense as it’s contained in this doomed universe – unlike the story resolution itself. And perhaps most importantly, by knocking the Doctor’s oldest and mightiest foes into the shade. The Silence becomes very threatening indeed.

While River is blown to the four corners of the galaxy, her father shoots her mother

On the way to that conclusion, the Cyber-cameo forms just one part of a siege in the best Doctor Who tradition. Simultaneous attack and defence as the Doctor and crew seize the Under-Henge and defer the huge alliance that the Doctor assumes must be there to greet the greatest danger the universe has ever seen. Elsewhere though, the TARDIS isn’t working correctly, even under the skills of its best pilot (sic). Some have suggested that there may be some eminently forgettable stowaways aboard the TARDIS although you can read too much into River’s asides in the TARDIS. In fact, the next episode suggest that it may be the Doctor himself.

But then, the oddest thing. The scanner screen cracks, in an all too familiar shape, and a male voice sneers, “Silence will fall”. Utterly inexplicable. A mystery that will never be solved and makes no sense in hindsight. Not seen the first time, it pops up twice again while River’s on the phone to the Doctor. Inexplicable as it is, there is sabotage and the TARDIS is being flown by somebody else. It’s 26th June 2010. The result is undoubtedly a fixed point in time, proven by the wall that blocks River’s escape and her immediate resignation. At the same time there’s the rather horrid coincidence that while River is blown to the four corners of the galaxy, her father shoots her mother. Not that we, nor the Ponds, know that at the time.

The inevitability of the TARDIS explosion had been mapped out all series. The Doctor knows that the future will see an explosion, and knows from the fragment he retrieved that it’s the TARDIS. It all makes for a rather glorious ending, replete with three way cliff-hanger, slow-mo and a threat to all of reality. Only that could unite this motley alliance of monsters, many of them gaining time abilities for the first time to cameo. Unfortunately, and not for the last time, the cliff-hanger ends with a horrifically misleading final shot. Galaxies exploding while the Earth fades to black, which is somehow it’s not quite convincing as the end of the universe. And if you’re wondering how supernovas signal the end of the universe you’re about to become very disappointed.

Jumping Cliff-hangers

Crushing everything with assumption and irrationality

1,894 years later and we’re on an Earth without stars. There’s the same pan as The Eleventh Hour, Amelia Pond and the crack in the wall and then… nothing. No TARDIS, no Doctor.

The Big Bang is a cliff-hanger jumping disappointment form the off. Unlike its predecessor it doesn’t wait to serve up logic before crushing everything with assumption and irrationality. Why would humans have a word for stars if there was just one stellar body in the universe? Richard Dawkins and the star cults? Just cheap jokes.

We may see Amelia’s aunt at last, but there’s no attempt to resolve the cause of the previous episode’s events. The mystery of the Silence is left, as the Doctor seeks to find a way to unravelled the cause and regain a status quo – or even better than status quo when it comes to Amy. The Pandorica, a side-note in its own right, is also brushed aside thanks to some rather simplistic reliance on self-serving paradox.

It would have been so much more satisfying to have solved the mystery of the Silence there and then at the climax of series five, to have concluded the series arc, but we’re left waiting, unsure if it will ever be answered. But then, having dismissed Who’s always erratic Blinovitch limitation effect completely (only retaining temporal energy – for the sonic screwdriver at least) things are left to get timey-wimey “complicated”.

It zips along of course, almost making the viewer forget about the completely new location and storyline. Sadly, the restoration field contained within the Pandorica, the Doctor’s maybe-prison, is the neatest thing about the episode, especially as it’s a Dalek reveals it. And perhaps, if you’re being generous, the something borrowed wedding refrain. With the universe reset much is explained away and forgotten by the collapsed previous universe. While Pandorica dwelt on the cure and not the sickness, this is a very poor prescription for mass antibiotics. The real threat comes with the rather self-serving journey the Doctor takes through time, closing cracks as he goes, until he’s brought back by the freshly re-parented Amy Pond.  How sad we never see them again.

The Silence are off the hook and would need a Plan B

That Moffat has called The Big Bang one of his favourites is worrying if not surprising… For all the witty fun it serves up, it’s certainly a far cry from the tightly coiled stories with which he carved his Who reputation.

Of course the something that abducted the TARDIS and blew it up, destroying the universe in the process, isn’t uncovered. The Silence, whatever it is, is still out there. But this Doctor, like his successor, are in no great rush to find out what could have easily accomplished this horror show.  Narratively this is a far stronger force than the Pandorica Alliance; the greatest threat he’s ever faced. But then again, it’s a whole new universe and there’s an Egyptian Goddess lose on the Orient Express that’s far more appealing (or possibly not, as it’s contradicted by Series 8). The Silence are off the hook and would need a Plan B, if they could possibly realise they failed what with it being a wholly new universe and everything… Fortunately, that night aboard the TARDIS, the Doctor’s companions are providing the Silence with just such a second chance…

Take a Chrono-leap to see how the second and third plots of the Silence called in the Silent heavies here…

A Good Man Goes to War (Series Six, 2011)

“Demons Run, when a Good man goes to war…”

You can tell A Good Man is a finale of sorts (well, mid-series) as there’s the obligatory Moffat rhyme.

It’s a great title, but misleading. True it’s the first time the Doctor’s really on the front foot, and against especially huge odds. Yes, this is the Silence in the midst of plan two. Having hatched further convoluted plans to destroy the Doctor involving impossible astronauts, forgettable Silents and Flesh decoys we get to see them. Or do we? Actually, by the end we’re not much clearer on their motivation of plan. It’s just a simple addition to an impenetrable web of confusion.

In fact A Good Man soon descend into being the integral episode in the ‘cousin’ River Song arc that began in Silence in the Library, and the tangibility of the Silence is more by very close association. At the fantastically named Demon’s Run we see the army of the Silence, led by Madame Kovarian. There are Anglican Marines running around perfectly normally, learning all the Doctor’s tricks and avoiding the Headless Monks and… No, there’s not a hint of the Silents. It’s a strange omission that sticks out a mile in this chronology; surely the Silents should be there? Although substituting them with the Headless Monks makes for a greater Doctor entrance (albeit thanks to a rather far-fetched divine grant)… After he waits half an episode to do so.

It’s almost like the Doctor made this universe easier for himself

Having eventually worked out that his companion was abducted and replaced with a Flesh duplicate the Doctor’s pretty angry. So angry he destroys thousands of Cybermen to make his point (sadly during the first glimpse at a Cyber war). Demon’s Run is nicely framed, fleshing out the residents while allowing the Doctor time to build his army. It’s pivotal for introducing Vastra and Jenny, and through a colonial conflict in 4037, Strax the disgrace of a Sontaran (Robert Holmes, spinning in his grave once again). It also almost ends the short story of the entertaining Dorium Maldovar.

When River arrives her sentimental greeting of Rory sticks out, far removed from the odd indifference of The Pandorica Opens or Impossible Astronaut. She was acting yes, but it feels like the build-up was a little undercooked.  Still, it’s River who adds weight to this rather slight story – an inverse siege as it is.

The Papal Mainframe is mentioned, before the Doctor’s small army makes way for a larger army of Silurians and Judoon (and Spitfires). Yes, an inverse Pandorica Alliance – it’s almost like the Doctor made this universe easier for himself. Or really wanted to celebrate the mid- Smith point with a greatest hits.  Still, there is a twist: “The Doctor must think he’s winning, right until the trap closes” says Kovarian. A rather deceitful line runs through the episode, no doubt designed to keep us on our toes along with the Doctor’s lengthy shadow clinging. “My friend, you have never risen higher” says Vastra as the Doctor appears to be winning. But then he meets Kovarian for the first time and things fall to pieces around an old Gallifreyan cot.

Melody has human and Time Lord DNA. But while The Time Lords became what they were by being exposed to the Time Vortex for billions of years Melody has been accelerated to become a weapon based on the Doctor’s own template.  It’s quite extraordinary to see the Doctor pulled and abused like this. Kovarian is utterly convinced when she tells him that the child is hope in an “endless, bitter war”. Shades of grey abound, despite an unclear motivation. There are moment of brilliance (the attack prayer) and horror (the Flesh Melody, shudder) but most important is the shift in character.

“Fooling you twice the same way? It’s a privilege”

Rory is very different here, as is Amy. The Doctor loses and there’s even Marine Lorna Bucket to make him feel particularly bad about it all. It delves into huge topics – balancing the Doctor as a weapon against God against childhood and motherhood. In fact, so heavy that it ends up as a strange anomaly in the series format. And perhaps it’s the most effective display of immutable time because of it. True, it would find marvellous companion pieces in the next episode and series finale, but this is almost un-Doctor Who. As the prolonged Gallifreyan/Language of the Forest reveal proves River Song to be Melody Pond so a rather touched Doctor flies, leaving his beleaguered army behind. Amid this strange conclusion the reveal of the next title is a definite highlight.

Let’s Kill Hitler (Series Six, 2011)

The Ponds: more of a temporal trap than New York

The final part of the Silentless Silence arc, and how far we’ve come. Immediately following A Good Man Goes to War, Let’s Kill Hitler is far removed from the Series Five that finished just one half series before. The episode really is rollicking, lovely to look at, roller coaster ride that acts as a strange companion, or conclusion to the previous episode. While that episode completed the origin of River Song, this shows how she broke her conditioning: how the Silence’s second plot failed. And there’s a lot of fun, history, silliness and hard science-fiction on the way. So hang on to your helmet.

The Doctor has had all summer but rather disappointingly he tells Melody’s parents that there’s really no point in finding her as they’ve already seen how River grows up. Then, as if by magic.  Mels appears and through a gun threat, abduction, proving that a gun can be fired in the TARDIS state of grace (anything to the contrary is a lie. The Doctor lies)… We find that she is River Song and Hitler is a mere distraction. The important elements are Time Lord genetics and the Teselecta; both rather fine sci-fi conceit. Mels’ revelation brings another, belated, dip back into the history of Leadworth but this feels unnecessarily ret-conned. If only it had been built in earlier… That said, there is something rather lovely about River growing up with her parents and learning everything she needs about the Doctor to fulfil her mission. Surely it also makes the Ponds more of a temporal trap than New York would later become. No wonder the Doctor had so much trouble landing in the right time zone in Leadworth in The Eleventh Hour.

Paradox runs through this series, despite being disproved at every point. The Teselecta is thrown away with a few choice lines. At this point, their primary role is to add threat to River through commentary and takes us annoyingly close to a major plot resolution: Mels, soon to be River, is a known criminal from the future: The woman who killed the Doctor, a confirmed fix-time death. (Yes, it absolutely has to be that the Doctor dies viewer, remember that).

The Doctor’s bespoke psychopath

If anything scuppers this fun, it’s that Moffat’s second regeneration episode shows a Time lady miraculously free of the post-Regeneration trauma and confusion that always afflicts the Doctor. Perhaps it’s because she’s trained and conditioned for one purpose, the Doctor’s bespoke psychopath, but as Series Six is so riddled with regenerative tricks it particularly sticks out. Particularly strange is the fact way the Eleventh Doctor talks about regeneration yet again – he should be very aware that he’s in his final incarnation, and there’s no need for him to be caught by a poison that can stop it.

With Hitler dismissed quickly (“Shut up Hitler”) after killing off Melody for good (who else could?), Let’s Kill Hitler becomes the sequel to The Impossible Astronaut while also, surprisingly, delving deep into The Eleventh Hour. It’s particularly uncanny when young Amelia Pond is chosen as the voice interface by the TARDIS, a foreshadowing of Time of the Doctor. The black tie death suit is also a throwback to The Big Bang.  All things considered, Let’s Kill Hitler tries very hard to be the crux episode of this arc.

Not quite the whole story

In the endgame, more light is cast on the Silence. Not a species, “but a religious order or movement” as Teselecta Amy says (duplication is a running theme in the higher quality Series Six). The Silence’s core belief is that silence will fall when the first question is asked – the oldest question in the universe, the one hidden in plain sight. Not that the Teselecta knows the answer. “Unknown” Amy says. “Unknown”.

And so the Silence’s second plot takes many years of work, enacted by one kiss and destroyed by love. And in his death the Doctor creates the River Song we know. To be sure, it’s a bit of a leap for a conditioned psychopath, but fits the ongoing themes of cycles and reinforcement. Not only did he secure her death in the future/past, but he also gives her the famous diary. And after the Sisters of the Infinite Schism take care of her, she’s cast off and heads to Luna University be an archaeologist in 5123.

It’s quite the fitting end to the Silent-free Silence arc, although it’s not quite the whole story, nor River’s. Before the Order disappears, before we learn the truth, they have one third attempt at destroying the Doctor left in them.  And for that they’ll need some foot soldiers who can really do the job.  Sorry, lost my place – where was I?  Oh yes: they’ll need some foot soldiers who can really do the job… 

Next: Whovember #11 – How the Silence fell to the Silents until they and the Doctor stood back to back…

 

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