Well, that made... no sense whatsoever. Good fun though. Spoilers follow.
Before a bunch of Who fans have a go at me for not following the plot and accuse me of being a heathen with no interest in complex and challenging television, I would like to point out a few things. 1. I have had a very long week. 2. I have had a very long day, since I was at staff training at work all day, and then had a two-hour drive home. 3. I watched this with a large glass of fizzy white wine in hand, something that always goes to my head (typing this very blog post is, I confess, presenting something of a challenge). 4. I watched the episode together with CurrentHousemate, who has seen none of series 5 and only 'The Doctor's Wife' from series 6. She was the model viewing companion, but I felt the need to explain the odd bit of plot on occasion!
I do not think this is a particularly unusual set of circumstances in which to watch Doctor Who, and I think I missed some of the nuances, which I do think that is a problem with the show. Having said that, I did actually follow most of the plot pretty well and I enjoyed the episode very much, partly from sheer relief that Rory didn't die again. His military side was once more on display (though without the centurion costume), and that's always nice to see (what can I say, I like a man in uniform).
This episode gave us Winston Churchill as Caesar, thanks to River completely messing with Time in obscure and complicated ways. I'm assuming that the reference to him as 'Holy Roman Emperor' rather than 'Roman Emperor' is deliberate - the Holy Roman Empire was a Medieval-Early Modern empire that I know very little about, other than that one Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, did not get on with Henry VIII, and it had nothing to do with the Roman Empire (other than using the name for propaganda reasons). Since all of Time was totally mixed up, though, I think this was deliberate and the audience was supposed to notice it.
This episode's use of the Romans rather encapsulated all that I both like and dislike about Moffat's Who, I think. On the one hand, he clearly loves the Romans, and I'm all for that. We've had more Romans in the past two seasons than in the previous four decades, and I'm very happy about it (not least because it gives me a great excuse to blog the episodes they're in). On the other hand, Moffat's love of mixing things up in new and crazy ways, while it keeps things fresh, means we never really get any depth to any of the things he skims over. 'The Fires of Pompeii' is, ultimately, ten times more satisfying than all the Moffat-Roman episodes put together, because it delves into an event from Roman history and uses it and explores it. We get to know Caecilius and his family, we care about them, and we are invested in their future and that of Pompeii (doomed as it is). The Romans here, however, are just window dressing, like the the pterodactyls and the totally random hot air balloon-car things (that look like something out of the third Gormenghast book, which I haven't read because apparently it's weird). I love seeing them, and seeing the familiar SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus, 'the Senate and the people of Rome') all over the place, but it can never be truly satisfying when nothing really meaningful is done with them.
That goes for the episode, and indeed series 5 and 6 as a whole, too. I loved the Death!Chess, but I'd rather see a whole episode based around Death!Chess, that really explored the idea and what could be done with it (I'm very fond of 'Bad Wolf', which is similar I guess). Ian McNeice as Churchill is great and Spitfires in space back in series 5 was undeniably cool, but it made limited sense and denied us a real exploration of Churchill, Spitfires or Daleks (and yes, I know Mark Gatiss wrote that episode, but it was pretty clear from the Doctor Who Confidential that followed it that he was given clear orders from Moffat). Cleopatra turning out to be River Song is funny but I'd rather see a story about Cleopatra. The best episodes are those that take an idea and explore its ramifications in depth - like 'Vincent and the Doctor' (Van Gogh, depression), 'The Doctor's Wife' (the Doctor's relationship with the TARDIS), or 'The Girl Who Waited' (Amy's character and faith in the Doctor).
Since River Song was featured heavily, we also had one obligatory archaeology joke - suggesting that archaeology is idle fantasy. As a text and literature-focused historian and classicist, I am duty-bound to find this very amusing. I tittered (it's totally untrue though, obviously).
As a whole, then, this episode was great fun - Simon Callow returning as Charles Dickens was probably my favourite moment (talking to Bill and Sian, my favourite Breakfast TV presenters - this will mean nothing to anyone outside the UK I'm afraid). Major questions were resolved, things all the fans had deduced years ago were confirmed, and I like the idea of River tearing Time itself apart for love. I'm soppy that way. There was a strong Douglas Adams vibe about the whole thing as well, which is always good (the Question that cannot be answered, as opposed to the Answer without a question, and Time getting stuck at 5.02pm, surely a Long, Dark Teatime of the Soul). Oh yes, and a military base in the pyramids - that was cool too. But next year, it would be nice to have a few more episodes that get stuck into a real idea and give it some extended thought, and preferably an arc that doesn't leave me reassuring CurrentHousemate that no, it's not really supposed to make sense.
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