Yes, it’s been a busy week. Yes, it’s taken me longer to write this than I wanted. And yes, I loved last Saturday’s episode. I’d have loved it even if I’d watched it on my own, but seeing it in a gigantic hall with hundreds of other sci-fi geeks, and then getting to hang out afterwards with friends and essentially go “Squeee!” lots, was rather amazing. As you’d expect, fear the spoilers…
Curse you, Steven Moffatt.
I was doing fine. I’d gotten to the point where I was completely comfortable with my relationship with New Who – the occasional incandescent rage and cries of “No, they’re getting it WRONG!” which I’d habitually done during the first couple of seasons of New Who were long gone. I’d reached the point where I could enjoy Who for what it was – I could forgive the excesses, shake my head at some of the ridiculous moments, and be genuinely moved when the show genuinely moved me (most notably, in the roller-coaster of tone and quality that was The End of Time). I was approaching this new season, and the new Doctor, in a state of cautious optimism. I wasn’t expecting a massive reboot – I knew a lot of the New Who DNA would be remaining the same. It didn’t have to be brilliant. It didn’t have to be gigantically different in tone and content. It just had to be fun.
And then, what did Moffatt go and do? He had to go and make me care about the show again. He had to knock my socks off, slap a gigantic grin across my face, and remind me exactly how much joyous fun Doctor Who can be when somebody gets it right. The absolute swine…
Yes, it’s safe to say that ‘The Eleventh Hour’ certainly has to rank as one of the nicest surprises Who has delivered in its long history. In a way, it’s no surprise at all that Moffatt delivered a highly entertaining episode crammed with fantastic one-liners and a typically ornate use of time travel, but considering how tonally consistent most of New Who has been (even in the moments where I didn’t like it), I really was expecting more of the same. New Who’s unwillingness to change its format that much over the last couple of seasons was one of my biggest concerns, especially during S4, when things were still entertaining, but you could tell the show was starting to drift towards creative inertia, and that RTD was running out of things to say and variations to play (although considering how much he did do with the show, it’s perfectly understandable). The news that Moffatt was the new showrunner did get me excited – but it says a lot about much of the last few years that I ratcheted back my excitement quite rapidly, and at least half-prepared myself for disappointment. Just because Moffatt was taking over, it didn’t mean the show would lose the ability to produce episodes that annoyed and disappointed me as much as “The Sound of Drums” or “The Unicorn and the Wasp”. I’d wait and see.
That was also my reaction to Matt Smith’s casting, once I’d gotten over my initial “Who the hell is THAT?” reaction. It did seem a little weird that they’d gone so young – it was nice that he was relatively unknown, though, and at the least he was odd-looking rather than a dull fashion-model look, and had an interestingly eccentric manner in interviews. But, I would wait and see.
Then they cast the companion – and again, they went with an unknown, which was surprising. Okay, I thought – she’s certainly very attractive, and very tall, but it wasn’t as if her brief appearance in The Fires of Pompeii flouncing around as Handmaiden No. 2 gave me any idea whether or not she could act. I’d wait and see.
So I waited. And I saw. And I really, really liked it.
Without a shadow of a doubt, this is a new era for the show – a lot of the previous New Who ethos is there, but I was impressed by how much this episode went in its own direction, forming an identity that’s part New Who, part Tim Burton and part The Avengers. There’s very much a heightened Englishness to the show now – as I’ve said before, it’s nice that we’ve finally gotten to the point where the Doctor’s allowed to be posh again, and along with this there’s a very different feel to this episode. There’s very little of the urban edge of RTD’s time (especially in the first and second seasons) – instead, we’ve got a great example of the classic ‘sleepy English village under threat’ Who story, a sub-genre that New Who hasn’t touched up until now. In fact, there are plenty of moments where it’s strongly reminiscent of the 1970 Who story Spearhead from Space – a fact that I’m sure is deliberately done by Moffatt, considering it’s the only other Who story where almost every single aspect of the show changed (Doctor, companion, production team, and it shifted into colour). And it’s to Moffatt’s credit that this feels like almost as much of a quantum leap, because while his previous stories have hovered on the edge of being fairy tales, ‘The Eleventh Hour’ dives right in from the word go. It’s skewed in a more fantastic, slightly more whimsical direction but is still capable of being intimidating and scary, still recognizably Doctor Who even if the tone has been modulated and altered.
The one thing that makes me happiest of all is that the tone of ‘The Eleventh Hour’ feels extremely close in many ways to ‘Blink’. And I don’t just mean the way the ‘Corner of your eye’ scare sequences in the first half of the episode are pure Weeping Angels-esque stuff, or the way some of the other spookiness taps into it as well – it’s more that ‘Blink’ had a very different feel to much of New Who. It felt like the cartoonishness of some of New Who’s modern-day Earth episodes had been dialed down – instead of stereotypes or caricatures, the characters in ‘Blink’ felt like real people, and it was the first time that New Who had truly gotten that feeling I’d always gotten from the best Who – that this could be happening just around the corner, to people just like you and me. ‘Blink’ managed to feel more grown up than either New Who or (lord help us) Torchwood had at that point, and it also helped that it was intimate – it wasn’t going all-out to put the entire planet in danger or have billions of evil death-globes pouring from a fissure in the sky; instead, it was all small scale and much scarier and more affecting for it. And ‘The Eleventh Hour’ manages to capture that – the world may be in danger, but it’s a wonderfully English apocalypse, done small-scale (and without those incessant fake news reports that were starting to get old) but still utterly gripping. And while you can’t accuse it of gritty realism for a second, there is at least a sense that everybody’s on the same page (from the director to the cast to Murray Gold’s rather shockingly effective and non-annoying music score), that even the moments of comedy aren’t pushed too far over-the-top (even if a few come rather close).
Another surprising thing is that this essentially has the same “Moffat mix-tape” feel as S4’s ‘Silence in the Library’/’Forest of the Dead’ two parter did – you can easily argue that it’s a reworking of ‘Blink’ mixed with ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’ (along with an added dash of the alien convict hunt in ‘Smith and Jones’), and yet the familiarity doesn’t really effect the story in the slightest. The main factor in its favour is that while there are some very nicely played scary moments in the episode, this isn’t trying to be the ‘Dark and Scary’ episode in the way that Moffat’s previous additions to the series have been. Instead, familiar aspects are worked into a much brighter, more colourful episode, and the whole thing works a treat. I didn’t even mind too much that the plot really isn’t that complicated at all, because it was well-enough thought out to stand on its own two feet (Prisoner Zero is an odd but effective villain, managing to be both intimidating and slightly comical at the same time), and because it’s essentially there to drive the plot along while the real business of the episode – introducing the new Doctor, and setting up the relationship with the companion – is going on.
And yes, what a companion we’ve ended up with. The setup for Amy Pond is brilliant, a fantastic use of the time-travel format of the show to give us a kind of companion we’ve never had before, someone who’s now got a very unique relationship with the Doctor. It’s a really interesting way of making the episode work and bridging the gap between the younger and older audience, by having a companion who’s grown up with the idea of the Doctor, and it’s also really interesting because the Doctor has already let her down. Twice. The Doctor has rarely been allowed to be truly falliable in New Who (the only really notable exception being back in S1’s Aliens of London, with Rose accidentally being taken back home a year later), and the companion relationship has almost always been overwhelmingly positive. Now we’ve got a companion whose relationship with the Doctor (and most of the world, apparently) is strongly defined by disappointment. It’s a relationship with plenty of sparks, and which looks very unlikely to go with the kind of messianic hero-worship that did turn up at certain points in RTD’s era. The interplay between the Doctor and Amy throughout the episode is tremendous fun (and certainly pushes the level of adult humour the show can get away with in certain directions), and they’re both painted as the kind of characters who you instinctively want to see more of.
It helps that Karen Gillan is really good – yes, she’s gorgeous and looks absurdly fantastic in a policewoman’s uniform, but she’s also up to handling the character, being an empathetic audience identification figure and carrying off the comedy. Another thing that the multiple levels of Amy’s character brings home (thanks to the ‘Blink’ similarities) is how much of ‘Blink’s success was down to Carey Mulligan giving an absolutely fantastic performance. We don’t really know much more about Sally Sparrow at the end of ‘Blink’ than we do at the start – she’s just a smart, savvy Doctor substitute (which is no bad thing) designed for a one-off story. Amy is in for the long haul, and has got a companion set-up that’s unique in the history of the show – I love the fact that she’s going on the run on the night of her wedding, and I also love the fact that as much as she’s concealing stuff from the Doctor, the Doctor is clearly concealing things from her (like the fact that it may not be a coincidence the crack appeared in her bedroom wall). A Doctor/Companion relationship that’s sparky and great fun, and yet which is also built on distrust and secrets – there’s a whole variety of directions they could take this.
And, above everything else, there’s Matt Smith. Even after the first moments in ‘The End of Time’, I wasn’t sure – and the trailers for the fifth season haven’t always been fantastic (particularly the ‘Look, ma! THREE DIMENSIONS!’ one with the Doctor and Amy tumbling through an over-directed vortex). I wasn’t completely sold, and going into the episode he was one of the biggest unknown quantities. I was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, and give him time to figure out the role (in the same way that Tennant took a while to truly get comfortable with it). Instead, I now understand exactly why Moffat, despite his intention to go for mid-Thirties at least, ended up giving the role to the then-26-year-old Smith – because he owns the role almost from the start. The Eleventh Doctor is a downright charming mix of comedy, madness and intensity, managing to be simultaneously buffoonish and wise. Obviously, there is the fact that this is Smith’s fourth recorded story – it’ll be interesting to see if there’s any brief wobbles in later episodes – but he really does get the role, the sense of energy and eccentricity. It also helps that Smith himself is a fairly engaging and actorly oddball, and comes across in interviews as pretty close to the role he’s playing. Sometimes, the best way of getting an actor who’s good at playing eccentric is to cast a genuine eccentric – it worked with Tom Baker, and to be honest, there are few Doctors who’ve clicked with the role quite so confidently in their first story (at least, certainly not since Baker in 1974, who similarly tore up the staid world of UNIT in his debut ‘Robot’). He’s fun, he’s inventive, and he has the art of sci-fi acting down pat – of selling the dialogue with the absolute level of conviction so that you’re utterly sucked into the reality of what you’re watching, while also smoothly pulling off the comedy. The food scene (which is very silly, but one of the only excessive moments of the episodes, and does lead to the wonderful Fish Fingers in custard scene), the scene handcuffed to the radiator, the way he carries off the Doctor’s habit of completely taking over whichever room he wanders into, his first look at the TARDIS… there’s a ton of highlights here, and, at least so far, there’s no sign yet of the Doctor’s judgemental, arrogant streak. There aren’t any moments that stick out as “No- the Doctor wouldn’t do that.” Again, I have to tell myself that there are going to be ups and downs, and not every episode is going to be this good, but I’m genuinely more excited by the possibilities of the Eleventh Doctor and Matt Smith playing him than at any time in New Who’s history. Smith has completely sold me on the role, and it’s going to be terribly interesting to see how he carries on with the Doctor, and where the great Doctor/Companion setup goes.
Hell, I could go on for a lot longer about the things I liked (the surreal nature of the Atraxi spacecraft/creatures, the kooky ‘Doctor’s POV’ high-speed freeze-frame, the Patrick Moore cameo, the joyous fan-service of seeing clips of all ten previous Doctors, the line “You’re Scottish – fry me something!”, the gorgeous lighting on the moment where Amy finally decides to believe the Doctor, and much more), and I could bring up some of my few nitpicks (There are a few chunks of storytelling that are a little vague (particularly with the attack on the Hospital – does anybody actually die, considering we only hear this from Prisoner Zero?), and there’s a couple of factors that only hit on second viewing – like the fact that Amy pretends to have an English accent right up until the point where the Doctor realizes it’s her, and it’s really just so the Doctor (and anyone unspoiled in the audience) won’t work out it’s her).
But, to be honest the thing that I liked the most about ‘The Eleventh Hour’ is that it’s got a true sense of wonder. New Who hasn’t always been good at selling a sense of wonder before, mainly because I’m not sure it’s one of RTD’s skills – he’s good at energy, drive, fun and big emotion, and he’s also good at pulling off big blockbuster moments, but many of his attempts to tap that sense of wonder and magic in Who didn’t really work (at least, for me), often coming over as rather overwritten and overblown. RTD was great at the spectacle – and, despite my issues, he’s the man who brought Who back, made it successful and kept it successful – but couldn’t always capture that strangeness in Who, the strangeness that isn’t very big or very Hollywood. It’s the kind of strangeness that comes from a show that didn’t have a big budget for twenty six years, and had to pull off intergalactic adventures as a kind of cunning sleight-of-hand, using wit and imagination and the sheer determination of actors to make you believe that the impossible was really happening. It’s a very intimate strangeness, and ‘The Eleventh Hour’ had it in spades. Even if the rest of the season doesn’t measure up, we’ve gotten one of the most purely enjoyable and entertaining hours of New Who’s history – it’s certainly a hell of a lot sharper and better than any of last year’s specials, and a fun romp in its own right. Doctor Who hasn’t felt quite so genuinely Doctor Who-ish for a long time, and I can feel my inner fan getting quite giddy about where this could go. Yes, there could be disappointment. Yes, it could get even better. But either way, what we got in ‘The Eleventh Hour’ is something to be thankful for.
So. One week down. Twelve to go. My love of Who is definitely back. How long is it going to last? Only time will tell…