Doctor Who: Silents II – “Back to back on the fields” (Whovember #11 Omega)

Eleventh Doctor and Handles #Whovember 

No, you haven’t forgotten… The final Whovember concludes the story of the Silents as their plot crawls towards the Fall of the Eleventh. Their second plan had failed, so the Silence turned to their tall and forgettable servants. They could definitely get the job done… 

THE SILENTS HAD TWO FIRST APPEARANCES, BUT OF COURSE THAT’S EASY TO FORGET. Previously, they’d subtly emerged in a ‘deadly’ cameo in Series Five‘s The Lodger before emerging from the shadows in the two-part premiere of the sixth series.  When that season wrapped up the associated River Song arc in the middle, the Silence had failed twice to eliminate the Doctor.  When it came to resolving the arc, and dodging the 50th anniversary antics, Moffat’s other definitive creation proved crucial. Yes, the time of resolution was near:

First, another cameo…

Closing Time (Series Six, 2011)

the River Song we left in Let’s Kill Hitler hears a song that she knows, like us, means a season finale’s coming

It’s a refreshing step back to department stores when Closing Time starts. Of course, it’s less a sequel to The Lodger than Gareth Roberts Series Eight episode The Caretaker. There it’s thematic, here it’s picking up the Doctor on his goodbye tour. The Doctor’s death at Lake Silencio has been constantly reinforced as fixed point in time. This may be a light distraction, a bit of a riff on the Tenth Doctor’s extended farewell tour, but it’s crucial… While this Doctor’s constantly convincing himself not to help, he doesn’t have as many people to see (even though it’s been a hundred years at least since he personally met Craig) and is strangely open to a way out of his predicament.

There are some nice touches amid the frippery. Oddly, Star Trek gets another mention, again twice. For all the lightweight filler of Closing Time, the Cyber reveal and their slow involvement actually makes for one of their better appearance in the New Series. Since 2005, they’ve been treated worse than the Sontarans. In that respect it’s just a shame that love proves to be the Cyber downfall. And yes, at the middle of the plot is yet another deserted ship where the crew are purposed, like The Girl in the Fireplace, like The Lodger… However, this time it’s fortunate that the lightweight plot doesn’t fill 45 minutes. That gives the Doctor time to purloin four TARDIS blue envelopes and a Stetson… And we flash forward to the Silences’ plot three about to kick in. The kids in the street, reflecting on their fleeting meeting with the Doctor as adults are nonsense, but does help to build inevitability as we realise why Closing Time has to be on this list. In the final few minutes, the River Song we left in Let’s Kill Hitler hears a song that she knows, like us, means a season finale’s coming:

 “Tick tock goes the clock even for the Doctor”

It’s a multi-verse premonition that pops up at the end of Mark Gatiss’ Night Terrors, and would carry through to the thirteenth episode of the series…

Madam Kovarian is unknown to River, but with Silents as her heavies River has little choice. The Silents are Rivers owners, there from the start after all… And she’s suit-napped the day she earns her doctorate as well, just as she was dwelling on the Doctor’s death on the Plain of Sighs. “We were always coming for you” coos Kovarian. Well, they had to. The Big Bang had seen their first convoluted plot fail, although a rebuilt universe had not reset their goals, and Let’s Kill Hitler had seen off their second scheme with good old fashioned love. They didn’t have any other choice but a programmed Space Suit and an assassin we can only imagine at this point was chosen with an undoubted dose of spite.

Cut to: River in the suit, beneath Lake Silencio, presumably time shipped in below the calm lake. It’s a haunting image. There’s no denying that the final plot is under way. There’s no doubt that the Doctor’s death is definitely nigh. Absolutely none.

The Wedding of River Song (Series Six, 2011)

It was the end of a long season, longer than usual considering its mis-season break. And then, after seeing River under the lake in the space suit, yet again, true to form… Another cliff-hanger is jumped. This is becoming a habit…

“And it’s another beautiful day in London”

And so begins what Moffat has called, “a big roller coaster ride of Doctor Who madness”. He’s partly right. At the episode’s start, we clearly aren’t in the London we know – all are time zones collapsing, and the world is stuck at the same time, the same day – as Holy Roman Emperor Winston Churchill says to his Silurian physician. But before anyone can point out that we’ve finally found a solution to the ‘Silurian question’ the Emperor’s imprisoned Soothsayer is inevitably proved to be the Doctor. For once it looks like the obligatory montage won’t happen, before the Doctor’s extended recollection of events that led to this time-splat yield: the longest montage yet.

Return of the Living Montage

Yes, things are getting a little monotonous two series in and at the end of the most complicated string of episodes in Who history, the stakes are high. We see the Doctor stalk around having made a quite inexplicable decision to evade his fate. It’s a speedy volte face after Closing Time and a full season reinforcing the inevitability of his demise. And it’s exactly because we know that it can’t happen that his new resolution needs to have a little more weight behind it. We see the information gleaned from a Dalek (rather savagely dispatched like so many thousand Cybermen in A Good Man Goes to War) lead to Gideon Vandaleur, envoy of the Silence (it employs an unsavoury bunch, that Silence) and more importantly, dead man walking; another rather suspiciously improved copy by the Tesselecta… the sophisticated time-traversing killing machine that… The Doctor employs as a mail man of the TARDIS blue envelopes. There then follows a good-natured Indiana Jones riff, complete with carnivorous skulls and a riotous return for the disembodied Dorium.

It’s Dorium who explains more about the nature of the Silence than the Tesselecta managed in Let’s Kill Hitler. A religious order, one he describes possessing “great power and discretion”. At this point he confirms the Silence want to avert the Doctor’s future… Yes, death would do that, sure. And using a fixed point in time? What better way. But what’s this? Another prophecy? The cup of signs and portents really doth runneth over… And this one is built for mileage:

“On the fields of Trenzalore, at the fall of the eleventh, when no living creature can speak falsely or fail to answer, a Question will be asked, a question that must never, ever be answered.”

Dorium wouldn’t be the last time the Doctor would have a head for a companion. It suggests that Tom Baker’s suggestion of a talking cabbage wasn’t so far-fetched – apart from the fact it could possibly in any way replace Leela.

We find out what happens when fixed points in time are denied

The parallel Doctor continues to relate the story as the familiar number gates of Silent sightings appear on his skin. At this point, the Silents return to their stalking routes. And at their hands is a space suit they make sure it’s in the right place, at the right fixed time. Even skulking on the dunes, as Amy saw in The Impossible Astronaut to ensure it. It’s jolly nice of the programmed suit to give River and Doctor time to talk. But when River quite impossibly finds a way to alter the outcome, we find out what happens when fixed points in time are denied. It is something suggested by Day of the Daleks, Father’s Day, Torchwood or even Big Finish’s Storm Warning? No, none of the above. Time just collapses into a boys’ own adventure where everybody has really cool jobs.

Really cool jobs

Boom. Amelia Pond, action woman, leading a rescue mission to save the Earth and quite aware that reality is distorted thanks to the time rift she grew up next to. If only the Silence had spent more time removing her from the equation rather than using her as a vehicle for their assassination. There’s the unusually effective Captain Williams, who at least has the decency to retain his usual cluelessness. Of course, the real problem is the Doctor, alive when he shouldn’t be, and aging in the epicentre. Hell, there’s only one thing for it. Off to Area 52, Cairo. Yes, ending a series with Area 52 that began with Area 51… It’s all rather too much.

Action kicks in when inevitably Rory is shown to have messed it up all over again. He may have captured over 100 Silents, but he shouldn’t have put them all in one place. I mean, who would do that? Thankfully Madam Kovarian is there for a bit of exposition and to take the brunt of a particularly vicious death, amid the Silent lightning attacks and nastily booby-trapped eye drives (the one way you can remember the Silents of course – we should have guessed). Here Kovarian explains that the “Silents would never allow an advantage without taking one themselves”. They are master strategists and seemingly unaffected by the time-mess around them. These Greys are seldom creepier, but easily dispatched by Super-Amy. It’s worth noting their malicious gloating considering what we learn on their next appearance. It’s a priest who says this:

“Rory Williams, the man who dies and dies again. Die one last time and know she will never come back for you.”

Up on the ‘roof ‘ it’s marriage time as River fulfils her truism: who else could River fall in love with but the man she’s programmed to kill? Just one touch is all it takes to shorten the time differential (that universe’s Blinovitch effect) which means, with most of the episode gone, we’re back where we started.

Wedding Vows

The Doctor is dying. Please, please help.

You have to wander how effective sending that message throughout time would be. But it’s not “Doctor” that would prove most important here. As part of the marriage the Doctor tells River his real name… Or does he? Rule one, as River tells her mother later on, “The Doctor lies”. In fact he must have told her his name, as suggested strongly in Series Four’s Forest of the Dead and crucially Series Seven’s Name of the Doctor. Among many reasons, that is another compelling argument that the Silents should have been in The Name of the Doctor, not pale imposters, the Whisper Men of the so-called Great Intelligence. If the Silents had appeared at that point, the Silence arc would have felt far more cohesive.

“There’s only one reason I would ever tell anyone my name. There’s only one time I could” – The Tenth Doctor, Forest of the Dead, Series Four

Madam Kovarian may have been killed in cold blood, but it was an aborted timeline, so she isn’t necessarily dead. Although that has never been proved. And that’s a shame, though it may have been the collapse of her third plan pushed her into the shadows after this. Because once the fixed point is reasserted and River has to kill the Doctor we uncover the truth. The Doctor cheats the fixed point in a duplicate thanks to the Tesselecta. Think about that for a moment…

The Doctor cheated a fixed point with a duplicate. A duplicate he could stand in so time knew he was there. So actually, time collapsed because the Tesselecta wasn’t shot. If you think that doesn’t make any sense then you clearly need to get out more. How could that, after months of build-up, possibly not make sense!?

The nadir of new Doctor Who

Small and quite extraordinary comfort

Truly shambolic. Jokerside is therefore forced to consider The Wedding of River Song as the nadir of new Doctor Who. It’s shamelessly nonsense, even surpassing the horrid paradox get out of The Big Bang. While the enjoyable romp of Let’s Kill Hitler managed to undermine the efficacy of the Silence, exactly one half series later Wedding manages to ruin River Song. What is strangely neat, is that in many ways, through retconning and association, both are quite nice thematic sequels to The Eleventh Hour. Watching them back to back may jar, but it provides a small and quite extraordinary comfort.

Astonishingly, amid the utter brain melting forced eclecticism of Wedding are some lovely moments, not that even they could be left in peace. The beautifully poised goodbye for the Brigadier is a highlight, but the end of Series Eight just had to give the old chap a far worse send-off didn’t it? Shudder. So, the Silence has been defeated once again, and it’s a year off for the Doctor of Twilights of Ponds and Dawns of Impossible Girls.

But still some questions remained, especially one that we couldn’t possibly misinterpret:

“On the Fields of Trenzalore, at the fall of the Eleventh, when no living creature can speak falsely or fail to answer, a question will be asked — a question that must never ever be answered: “Doctor who?”

Only answers awaited.

The Time of the Doctor (Christmas Special, 2013)

Oh Smith, why d’ya have to go!? Scientific deduction (and healthy subjectivity) had already proved him the greatest Time Lord… I mean, he aged incredibly between Series Five and Six sure, and that obviously affected his decision but still, just one more series, was that too much to ask? Hopefully, as the youngest ever Doctor, he’ll make it to Big Finish and stay for many years to come!

The end of a Doctor, a Christmas special… It’s the perfect chance to prove a major Moffat rule: His Finales are downbeat, with a soft melancholy that ensures there’s always a mass of loss to go with the sugar cubes of love. Aw.

Time of the Doctor starts with a voiceover – the message, the bell ringing across the universe that summoned everyone in fear…Except the man who stayed for Christmas. It’s a blinding start, with Daleks and the introduction of the Doctor’s longest ever companions, although we’d sadly not see him enough, Handles. Landing straight in the action, it’s no coincidence that while it’s mainly sketch-based, it’s not a mass of montage and there isn’t a rhyme, a song or a fairy-tale prophecy to hear. This time the Doctor doesn’t need to be dragged or summoned. Like the ship-boarding sketches themselves, it’s streamlined. There’s just a message that even the Doctor can’t translate. Quite how the Doctor doesn’t recognise the designs of the ships doesn’t matter, it’s funny, and it lets us see the all too rare sight of the TARDIS in a space scrap. If only the last half of Series Seven didn’t have such a horrid title sequence, truly worse than ‘The Wedding of River Song’ awful.

The Runaway Bride style comedy of Clara’s Turkey isn’t to everyone’s taste but there are worse problems in a story that can’t be faulted for ambition. There needs to be some comedy before the tragedy. And it even allows for some nods to the Powell Estate and flashbacks to The Christmas Invasion or The End of Time with the dash down the tower block stairs.

Endgame

So close to the Silence, we can hear it.

It’s when the message is revealed to hail from Gallifrey, a nice and timely pick-up of The Day of the Doctor, that the Papal Mainframe we heard of in A Good Man Goes to War appears. The marvellous Mother Superior Tasha Lem beckons, the clothes come off and we’re so close to finding out what the hell’s going on. So close to the Silence, we can hear it. Inside the Mainframe it’s all rather like Gallifrey at The End of Time, and this security church are similarly a lot like the Time Lords, interfering to stop things happening, changing their stories and to a point, lying to themselves.

“Keeping you safe in this world and the next”

Actually, The Time of the Doctor does a good job of tying things up, it really does. And that’s a relief, there was every reason to feel that the Silence arc would never have a resolution. But it’s not perfect, and it suffers from spending too much time answering new questions. Aboard the Papal Mainframe the soldiers return, all looking familiar, and Tasha’s mention of sacrifice shows that despite the flirting, everything is painfully serious. While the Doctor and Tasha are at the bed-altar, in the bowels of the ship there’s even time for a Silent joke. It’s well built up, and for once they’re in something other than a suit. But something’s not quite right… Clara. It doesn’t quite feel right that this isn’t the end of Amy’s story; for some reason the Angels were fashioned into the Ponds’ downfall, and it’s a shame.

For their last appearance, the Silents have wheeled out a new catchphrase and it’s scarier. “Confess” they hiss. It would take a trip to Trenzalore and a stockpile of monsters including Angels (Clara’s first encounter again, and for some fortunate reason they aren’t teleporting for strength) and wasted guest stars reveals that they are in a town called Christmas and there’s a truth field emanating from the clock tower. We always knew it wasn’t over. There in the tower is an all too familiar shape, the return of the crack between reality, the one we first saw in The Eleventh Hour. A reference to The Big Bang signals that this really is a farewell tour. The final crack, the leftover and… The return of the Seal of the High Council stolen from the Master in the Five Doctors! Oh joy upon fan-boy joy! So there’s only one thing left. Having dodged the question in the falsely titled Name of the Doctor, that question still hidden in plain sight:

“Doctor Who? Doctor Who?”

The translation is broadcast first via Handles, then a voice ‘almost’ like the one heard aboard the TARDIS at the climax of Series Five. It’s an elaborate test the Time Lords have set, all the more so considering they’re supposed to be trapped in a single moment of time. But this is Trenzalore, where we’ve already seen the Doctor’s tomb, where the risk is a whole new Time War, where the stakes are very high indeed. Very rapidly the last, long adventure of the Eleventh Doctor is set out before him and the Papal Mainframe shifts religion – to Silence.

Silence will Fall

So there we have it. Astonishingly, the source of the arc is right before us. As the epic montage of war unfolds, we see all manner of incursions thwarted including Wooden Cybermen and the obligatory comedy Sontarans.

The Doctor’s longest serving companion

“Fixing toys and fighting monsters”

When Clara returns with a 300 year late TARDIS, the clock tower roof gives us a wonderful scene: the Doctor has found people who want him to stick around, but also, alas, the final dawn that the 300 year old plus Handles can’t quite manage. “One more dawn, you can do it” runs the rather beautifully written exit of the Doctor’s longest serving companion. That makes way for confirmation that Captain Grumpy and the Tenth’s vanity issues have taken their toll. The Doctor is reaching the end of his final life. Of course, anyone familiar with The Deadly Assassin and countless tales since shouldn’t be surprised, but those following the Silence arc should. If this is clearly and well understood to be the Doctor’s final life then the Silence’s plot has been unnecessarily complicated. The poison from River, the way he made the Tesselecta mimic regeneration in The Impossible Astronaut/The Wedding of River Song. All utterly redundant. All they needed to do was hang on until he collapsed.

“Everything ends Clara, and sooner than you think”

300 years on Trenzalore understandably add to the Doctor’s understanding. Aboard the Mainframe one last time, the Doctor explains that the Silents, lined up alongside him, are confessional priests; a very popular idea, as they’re genetically engineered to ensure that people forget everything they tell them. It’s a gag, a fairly cheap one, with a kick to religion to match. All this time, sine the wheel was discovered, the Earth had been guided by confessional priests of a militant religion far in the future. At least that explains why they weren’t able to build anything themselves.

It’s also revealed that the Kovarian chapter broke away, and it was their first attempt that created the cracks through which the Time Lords could cause the current predicament. A destiny trap as Tasha calls it. A very complicated incarnation everyone else calls it.

Even worse than the slight inconsistencies, is the fact that the cycle of the Eleventh Doctor has been strangely inevitable. It’s a horrid thought in Doctor Who if you think about it. All that time, since his first appearance, during his longest life, his early days were rooted in the moment of his demise.

But with the Silence uncovered and the Silents explained, there is one balanced way to end the arc. And it’s a peace. Against the crushing power of the Daleks, the implacable evil of the Whovniverse that could even take the Papal Mainframe and kill psycho Tasha Lem, Trenzalore hosts the Winter of the Doctor. Where at last… “Those ancient enemies, the Doctor and the Silence, stood back to back on the fields of Trenzalore.”

It’s a nice conclusion, all fairly neat. But after all this it just wouldn’t feel right if everything was explained. Why for instance do the Silents have those electric powers, and quite what happens when they combine them into one electric pulse? I can only imagine it would bring down a ship…

It’s Tasha Lem, the stand-in River Song and evidently  lost companion, who pilots the TARDIS to bring a once again forsaken Clara to a Doctor who shouldn’t die alone. Now, the Silence arc concluded, the story gives way to solving the Doctor’s regenerative crisis. And just as it should be, it’s pitched against the Daleks. Clara is needed, but the Time Lords and presumably the survived Lord Rassilon have certainly mellowed if they’ve started listening to a human.

“Emergency: The Doctor is regenerating”

Mystifyingly creating their own familiar crack in space-time, the Time Lords give their last son a whole new regeneration cycle. Using his regeneration as a weapon is quite bizarre, but not as much as the Doctor’s temporary return to youth. It does of course make for a nice sign-off for Smith, but it’s not helpful in establishing the older Doctor that would follow.

At least, in the Doctor’s delusional, ill and fevered state there is one correction; the imagining of his original companion, the first face this face saw. At last Amy appears in the story she really deserved to be in. And so, after a strange and oddly self-serving final speech, the bow tie falls and the Raggedy Man is gone.

And with him the Silence is completed. And in a way, I guess it won. The Doctor survived. But Silence fell.

Previously on the Eleventh Whovember:

When the Silence was Plural… and When the Silents arrived…

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3 thoughts on “Doctor Who: Silents II – “Back to back on the fields” (Whovember #11 Omega)”

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