Written by Steven Moffatt
Directed by Adam Smith
Once upon a time, young Amelia Pond met a mad man in a blue box.
A friend of mine recently asked where he should start with Doctor Who. Knowing that most modern viewers can’t stomach the pacing and lack of color of The Hartnell Era, I figured it wasn’t good to start with An Unearthly Child. And lets face it, Doctor Who really isn’t the same show anymore. Sure, there are similar elements, but the show has evolved in its nearly 50 years of existence. This serves to keep it fresh, on the one hand, but also serves to estrange and isolate if you like certain eras more than others. There is the opinion in fandom that any Who is good Who, but I don’t think this opinion is necessary. Like Neil Gaiman, I believe some actors really were The Doctor, others were actors playing The Doctor, and others still were only actors. So, while I may think The Hartnell Era is the ideal start for Doctor Who, I understand that my friend may need another starting point. I went with Rose, because for all Russell T. Davies’ faults, he crafted a great way to introduce Doctor Who to a new generation. He didn’t bog it down in continuity, introducing elements gradually. He drew quite a bit of inspiration from The Hartnell Era, even if it isn’t obvious on first viewing.
So, if this is a review of The Eleventh Hour, why am I talking about Hartnell and Rose? Because The Eleventh Hour is not a good introduction due to one scene: the pre-title sequence. The TARDIS is out of control and plummeting to the Earth. This follows on from the regeneration sequence of The End of Time, and thus serves to link it directly to what came before. A new viewer will immediately want to know what is happening. How did The Doctor arrive in this situation, and, frankly, why should I care? Supposedly Steven Moffatt wrote this scene at the behest of the BBC, an attempt to link it to what came before, but it more effectively takes the viewer out of the show. Besides, if you hated The End of Time, this only serves as an unpleasant reminder.
Truth be told, I think Steven Moffatt has an unenviable task in this episode. While Rose served to introduce a new generation to the basic mechanics of Doctor Who, The Eleventh Hour must follow a wildly successful run on a show that, for this same generation, has had only one creative force behind it. I don’t know that Doctor Who was ever as popular as it was under RTD and Tennant, and that includes Dalek-mania. And so we have a show-runner who defined the new show, and a Doctor that has won the hearts of many children and women (and some men) and both have stepped down and moved on. Steven Moffatt was a fan favorite writer during the RTD era, so he was an ideal choice for follow-up, but his style of storytelling is a far cry from RTD. Moffatt likes tightly constructed plots with seemingly unconnected elements converging into a unified whole with a healthy dose of horror and time-travel. On paper, this sounds rather exciting. But if Blink, the characterization of River Song in Silence of the Library, and the miniseries Jekyll are any indication, Steven Moffatt’s biggest weakness is his awareness of his own cleverness. While I thought Jekyll had many strengths, what constantly annoyed me about the series was how thoroughly clever the show’s dialogue felt. Don’t get me wrong, I like good dialogue, but I don’t like it when the show seems to know when it has good dialogue. It draws attention to itself. It takes you out of the show.
With The Eleventh Hour, Moffatt must start his new era of Doctor Who while somehow assuring fans of the RTD era that this is the same show. And make no mistake, Moffatt wants to assure fans of classic Doctor Who that he is also on their side. So, how does it fare?
For me, it is a mixed bag. I must admit that the episode is growing on me, but it has taken repeated viewings. First, I confess to not really enjoying the food sequence. Yes, I realize that this was done primarily for the kids, but it still feels overdone to me. Apples, bacon, beans, toast, fish and custard. In general, the rule of three is a good guideline for pacing. Two attempts (at most three) with a final success. Steven Moffatt is building the tone of this season as a fairy tale, and the number three is woven through fairy tales. Goldilocks and the three bears, three wishes from the genie, tasks or trials in fairy tales tend to number three. And let’s not forget The Three Little Pigs. I can’t say for sure I would enjoy the sequence any more if it had followed the rule, but I would probably be more likely to give it to him. As it stands, it comes across as a scene about a funny adult doing funny things, which will certainly ingratiate you to children faster, but will it really make them think you are safe?
Okay, I’ll bring it up now. Matt Smith is young. Yes, he is a very good actor, but he is young. This show needs The Doctor to have authority. The Doctor must make children feel safe, especially if we are going into the horror realm, which Steven Moffatt seems to love so much. One of the constant justifications of the horror in the Hinchcliff/Holmes era is that children, despite being scared, feel safe because they know The Doctor will win. They know The Doctor is in control. They know The Doctor is an authority figure like their parents and that they will be safe. I don’t think Smith’s age would stand out so much in this sequence if not for the eleven year old girl who needs him to be the parent. Their first meeting involves him droning on about apples and libraries in swimming pools. The look on young Amelia’s face says it all, “you, sir, are very strange.”
Thankfully, once we get past the silliness, the story picks back up. The scene between The Doctor and Amelia at the kitchen table is quite touching, due primarily to Caitlin Blackwood. She is an excellent actress. This is the first of many wonderful scenes that she will steal. Amelia Pond, has no parents, lives with her aunt. Again, fairy tale. But also very Doctor Who — a convenient orphan who meets The Doctor and is ready and willing to travel with him. Thankfully, Steven Moffatt will turn this particular element on its head. We rush upstairs to confront the crack in Amelia’s wall, a jagged line that we will see multiple times this season. It is a crack in time and space. At this point in the season, it is almost like a magic door, enabling two different points in space to be connected. One could even pass through the crack. We discover later that it has a second property: it erases things from existence. Exactly what causes each property to manifest isn’t yet known, and I’m not entirely sure Steven Moffatt plans to divulge this. The crack is just a threat, a symptom of a larger dilemma. Why it allows us to see a prison cell in one instance, and time-and-space-consuming light in other instances is not that important to the story. It’s a magic crack. It does what the author needs it to do.
I still get a bit choked up when Amelia, having been assured that The Doctor will return in five minutes, packs her little suitcase and goes into the yard to wait. She trusts him implicitly, more than any other adult she has known. And he lets her down. This scene
carries the weight of every disappointment we have ever had, when we had the audacity to become excited about something that was not to be. We sit, on our suitcase, hopefully facing that which we anticipate, a dark, dangerous house looming behind us. A failed job interview, a failed relationship, the death of a loved one, we look toward that which we hope will take us away, ever-aware of the threat of the mundanity and potential hopelessness of life which stands behind us. The Doctor is freedom and danger on our terms. The house is danger and sadness that we cannot control. The old life versus the new. And The Doctor fails to arrive. At least, not when we expect him to.
“Do I have face that no one listens to? Again?”
Once we get to the main threat of the episode, Prisoner Zero and the destruction of the Earth, the episode starts to pick up. We have this juxtaposed with Amy’s distrust of the adult she trusted, an adult who is now closer to her own age (in appearance anyway). There are definite hints of Troughton in Smith’s performance. He is very animated, constantly moving. He is somewhat bumbling, where Troughton was bumbling but always seemed to know what was going on as he tried to co-ordinate the situation toward a specific end. At this point, Smith is Troughton without the subtle manipulation. In much of The Eleventh Hour, The Doctor seems to be rushing to catch up, formulating on the fly. The reason given is the regeneration trauma, also a plot device meant to reassure fans of the previous era. There are definite Tennant-isms as Moffatt moves The Doctor between
incarnations. In this instance, Moffatt is being much more subtle than even Troughton was when he took on the role after Hartnell. The Second Doctor just gets right to it. It is only during the JNT era when we start having major regeneration trauma. Well, there is The Third Doctor, I suppose, who had a bit of trauma. But I’m chalking that up to the trial, forced regeneration, and exile. My blog, my prerogative.
Even at this early stage, I love Rory Williams. Rory is Steven Moffatt’s riff on the companion’s boyfriend, the one who has every reason to be threatened by The Doctor. Rory is the new season’s Mickey. And yet, there are definite differences. Mickey, in series one, was truly an idiot. He was content with the life he had and The Doctor upset that. While we have every indication that Rory is also happy, he is not an idiot. He may be a bit nervous and get tongue tied, he may not have had experiences to make him grow into a more dominant figure (and truly, with Amy as his girlfriend, he has most-likely been dominated into submission by her force of will), but he is observant and intelligent. We are told he is a good nurse, even if Doctor Ramsden loses her patience with him. Apart from The Doctor, Rory is the only other person in this story who notices something is wrong. The Doctor has more pieces, but Rory’s observation is crucial: coma patients seem to be walking around town. Sadly, no one believes him. Thankfully, The Doctor seems to see that Rory isn’t an idiot and doesn’t really treat him as such. He is firm, to keep the man focused, but he isn’t smug and patronizing like previous Doctors.
I absolutely love the speech The Doctor gives to Jeff. Sure, maybe it is Murray Gold’s inspiring music swelling in the background, but for the last few season of Doctor Who we have been told that The Doctor makes people better by showing them a different way of living. The Doctor is Jesus, basically. But here we have something different. Yes, Jeff’s life could very well improve after this. Opportunities can arise. The difference is that The Doctor gives Jeff an opportunity to grow here and now, not by traveling to distant planets or other periods in time. This could be anyone. As The Doctor said when Jeff asked why he was chosen, “It’s your bedroom.” There is no exclusivity. No, not everyone can travel on board The TARDIS, but everyone has an opportunity to fly.
Even Jeff, providing he gives up the porn.
“Did he just save the world from aliens and then bring all the aliens back?
We are breaking in a new Doctor and a new creative staff. As such, a heavy plot is not entirely necessary. Sure, we have end of the world stuff going on, and while Steven
Moffatt plays fair with the end of the world stuff, he is more interested in setting up the arc. But that doesn’t mean he skimps on plot. As is typical with Moffatt, we have many different threads that pull together in the end. Even The Doctor’s resolution of The Prisoner Zero crisis is carefully planned and quite clever. There are no super weapons. No crazy gadgets. Just a simple computer virus that sets every number to zero (i.e. Prisoner Zero), a virus that can be traced to Rory’s phone, which also has photos of all the coma patients as they walk around town. The Atraxi can sort it all out. Quite clever, I think. Prisoner Zero then takes Amy’s form (somewhat), which pads the plot out a bit more. I don’t know that it was entirely necessary to have the “and-we-stopped-him-oh-wait-no-we-didn’t” moment, but it does bring the threat just a bit closer to home for The Doctor.
The remaining moments in the hospital are for fans of both the old and new show, with references to Spearhead from Space as The Doctor steals clothes from a hospital, shots of all ten Doctors and various alien menaces from the new show and a few from the old. All carefully crafted to tell the viewers that nothing has really changed, so long as you keep in mind the tradition that has led us here. On this particular point, there is still disagreement among some fans. Is it the same? I believe it all depends on what constitutes “proper” Doctor Who. As part of a tradition, sure, you can make a good case for it. If certain eras define “proper” Doctor Who, however, there will be some agreement but much more disagreement. As long as they tell good stories, I’m sure I can silence my inner contrarian.
Silence will fall?
Series Six debuts about three weeks from now. I’m apprehensive. Looking back over this episode, I can say I enjoyed it. Looking back over the entire season, which I hope to review in the coming weeks, I remember enjoying that as well. Why should I be apprehensive of the new series? I think it is because Steven Moffatt hasn’t entirely won me over yet. I confess that I really disliked series four and the specials. I was ready for RTD and Tennant to leave. In my mind, the ideal way to experience series four and the specials is to listen to the soundtracks and imagine whatever ending you prefer. Murray Gold was able to effectively distill the emotion of Tennant’s last 18 episodes into music, which tells its own story. It compliments the episodes, but can also work effectively without them. How much of my enjoyment of series five was due to my desire for something different? I know I can’t expect Doctor Who to have the same magic it did during the Hartnell and Troughton eras. I know the show has and will continue to evolve and change. It regenerates just as The Doctor does. But I still don’t believe, at this point, that it is the same show. Each new era brings with it a new dynamic, some more drastically different than others. And while this really didn’t make much of a difference in the beginning for a variety of reasons*, the show has moved into an era of storytelling which luxuriates in continuity and internal mythology. Look at how tightly Steven Moffat crafted series five. Details are important, references are important. RTD played in mythology, both as a storytelling device and crafting a mythology for what happened while the show was away, The Last Great Time War which was fought off-screen. Doctor Who now exists with its own internal mythology that has been retconned voraciously since fandom began writing for the show (JNT era, New and Missing Adventures, EDAs and PDAs, New Who). If the show had been created in 2005, not merely revived, all these mythological details would be hammered out. Instead, we have a show that gets a reboot every three to five years, and each reboot brings a new storytelling style and interpretation of the essence of Doctor Who. It will, by virtue of the diversity of fandom, continually change and contradict itself. Even should rules be established, they will be broken. Not “may”, but “will.” As of A Christmas Carol, Steven Moffatt shows no interest in maintaining the rules established by David Whitaker. But, neither did Dennis Spooner 4X years ago.
But I’m just rambling on now. Ultimately, the quality of the stories is what matters most. Opinions of “proper” Doctor Who are as varied as the fandom that watches the show. The Eleventh Hour works for me, barring the intro sequence and the fish custard sequence. It serves to introduce the new characters, establish some groundwork for the arc, and set a tone. The Doctor, Amy, and Rory (well, soon if not immediately), Silence and River Song, fairytale, time travel, and horror. It remains to be seen if these will be Moffatt’s opening statements, or the entirety of his era.