[A revised and improved version of this essay appears in my book The Eleventh Doctor: a critical ramble through Matt Smith’s tenure in Doctor Who.]
I’ve just finished watching The Eleventh Hour, the first Doctor Who episode to feature the new eleventh Doctor played by Matt Smith. Fiona, the three boys and I squashed in together on the sofa and watched the broadcast — with some trepidation on my part. Now I want to get my first impressions down before they fade.
(I’ll be writing this mostly for people who are already familiar with Doctor Who, and especially the last four seasons, but hopefully it won’t be completely meaningless to the rest of you.)
This was a very important episode because so much has changed: most obviously it was the debut of the new Doctor; but it also marked the first appearance of a new companion, Amy Pond (played by Karen Gillan), which means that cast continuity was zero. By contrast, when David Tennant first appeared as the Tenth Doctor, he inherited the Ninth-Doctor companion Rose Tyler, so we had a fixed point of reference. As though a new Doctor and new companion were not enough, The Eleventh Hour was also the first episode to be helmed by the new showrunner Steven Moffat, who takes over from Russell T. Davies.
So let’s look at those three aspects separately … oh, and the actual episode.
Warning: spoilers follow!
The new Doctor
I have to admit that my heart sank when I first saw pictures of Matt Smith, when he was announced as the Eleventh Doctor to be — he looked like an even younger David Tennant, and I prefer an older, weightier Doctor. (I’ve not done the analysis, but the age trend from William Hartnell down to Matt Smith is inescapable.)
And in some ways, his debut performance bore out those fears: his portrayal of the Doctor resembles that of his predecessor much more closely than any of the other Doctors have — think of the difference between Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant, for example. Smith’s voice is very similar to Tennant’s, and he portrays the character very similarly too — zany to an almost self-conscious degree, with a hard core and, as became apparent in the episode’s final confrontation, the same edge of arrogance. At times, if I’d closed my eyes, it could have been a Tennant episode.
I’m conflicted about this: Tennant was an excellent Doctor, and I can see why the producers might have wanted more of the same; but the essence of the Doctor is surely that everything except his core does change. I hope that Matt Smith can transcend this initial impersonation and create his own Doctor, as both Eccleston and Tennant so successfully did.
Because his version of the Doctor is so Tennantish, it’s hard to make any meaningful assessment of Smith at this stage. I find myself struggling to find much to say about his Doctor that is specific to him. I hope I have more to say next week.
Anyway, he’s not rubbish.
The new companion
I have to admit that my heart sank when I first saw pictures of Karen Gillan, when she was announced as the Eleventh Doctor’s companion to be. The promo picture reproduced above should show you why: here she has Generic Glamorous Young Thing stamped all over her.
Happily, the reality is very different, and it turns out that she can really act. She has a curiously unformed face (rather like Bonnie Wright, who plays Ginny Weasley in the Harry Potter movies), but I was pleasantly surprised to find that this works in her favour. She is like a blank canvas that can readily be painted with whatever emotion the situation demands; and she does this with subtlety. (For an example of the Ginny Weasley resemblance, see the additional photo below.)
Now that writing this blog is making me think more carefully about her performance, I’m realising that she brought much more in the way of distinctive characterisation to her role than Matt Smith (so far) has to his. Whereas Smith gives the impression of being conscious that he is someone’s successor, Gillan seems to be making something fresh.
Of course, this isn’t the first time that I’ve been wrong about a Doctor Who companion actress: like most people I was horrified by the idea of Billie Piper in 2005; but she made Rose believable, memorable and sympathetic. Also like most people, I was sufficiently unhappy about Catherine Tate’s over-the-top special-guest spot in The Runaway Bride that I all but flatly disbelieved it when I heard that she was going to be the regular Series Four companion; but once I’d managed to shed my preconceptions and forget about the Runaway Bride train-wreck, I realised that she was doing a superb job; in fact I think that she is my favourite of all the Doctor Who companions I’ve seen, going right back to the days of Liz Shaw.
So the early signs are good that Karen Gillan will continue that much-better-than-I-expected streak.
The new showrunner
During the last four years of Doctor Who, Steven Moffat’s scripts have uniformly been among the best of their series: The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances in Series 1, The Girl in the Fireplace in Series 2, Blink in Series 3 and Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead in Series 4. In fact I’d say that with the exception of Blink, each of these has been the best story in its series, and Blink loses out only narrowly to Paul Cornell’s superlative Human Nature/Family of Blood.
Not only that, but Moffat’s episodes have been good for good reasons: they’ve been sharp, intelligent, thought-provoking, and apart from whimsical Girl in the Fireplace they’ve been very scary. Not only that, but they’ve shown us new sides of the Doctor that have felt believably in keeping with what we already know about the character while still stretching the boundaries.
So I was delighted when I heard that he was going to be taking over as head honcho from Russell T. Davies, whose episodes have in comparison seemed rather mundane, with the big end-of-series specials too often going over the top in ways that seem silly in retrospect. (Actually, I may be overstating that last bit: my hatred of Last of the Time Lords may be unbalancing my view.)
The question for Moffat is, now that he’s going to be writing six episodes per series instead of one or two, will be he able to keep the quality up? (Conversely, I’ve wondered whether, if Russell T. Davies had only a single episode to write, would that single episode be sensational? Because his best moments are undeniably brilliant. So it’s a shame that he doesn’t have an episode in this series, but maybe he wanted to avoid Matt Busby Syndrome — perhaps he’ll have one in 2011.) For Moffat, I think it’s a good sign that he’s had the humility to keep his writing duties down to six of the thirteen episodes rather than the eight that Davies wrote for his first series. Six may still be too many, but let’s hope not — maybe he has a decade’s worth of great stories cached and ready to deploy.
With all that said, I’d have to say that this initial episode had nothing about it that struck me as characteristically Moffetian, and it could very easily have been a Davies episode in a Davies series. I hope to see Moffat stamp his personality on the show as the series progresses, just as I hope to see Smith stamp his on the title role.
And finally …
The actual episode
Let’s see, now — a quick recap.
The damaged TARDIS (see the end of the last David Tennant episode) careens across London, with the Doctor hanging out of the doorway in an ill-conceived action sequence that is played for laughs. I really could have lived without this. The TARDIS crash-lands in the garden of a house where the young Amelia Pond lives with her aunt. The aunt is out, so the girl is the only one to witness another comedy sequences as the new Doctor tries and rejects various foods before settling on fish fingers and custard. My sons laughed like drains so I guess I shouldn’t whine too much about this bit. This done, we get on with the story. A mysterious crack in Amelia’s bedroom wall turns out to be a gateway to an alien prison from which Prisoner Zero has escaped. The Doctor realises the TARDIS needs attention, tells Emilia he’s going to jump five minutes forward in time, but inadvertently disappears for twelve years, only to meet grown-up Emilia who now goes by the name Amy (shades of Girl in the Fireplace if we’re playing Hunt The Self-Plagiarism).
The Doctor realises that Prisoner Zero has been hiding in Amy’s house all this time, using its illusion powers to conceal its presence and later its nature. The alien jailers, played by gigantic eyeballs, come to Earth hoping to recapture the prisoner and warn that they will destroy the Earth if he can’t be found in twenty minutes. The Doctor realises that the alien can appear in the form of people who it has formed mental bonds with, and is using the likenesses of coma patients in a local hospital. Enlisting the help of Amy and her boyfriend, he writes a virus that will reset every clock on earth to zero, hacks into an Internet meeting of NASA, Jodrell Bank and other alien specialists, and persuades them to upload the virus everywhere. This they now do. The alien jailors realise that all those zeroes are a hint that someone knows where Prisoner Zero is, and trace the virus’s origin as the cellphone that the Doctor carries. After some shape-shifting shennanigins, they recapture the prisoner. The Doctor rebukes them for their high-handedness and warns them away from further interference in Earth’s affairs.
Crisis averted, the Doctor returns to his TARDIS, takes a quick trip to the moon and back to check that all is well with its redesign (didn’t I mention that it was redesigning itself earlier? It was), and returns to invite Amy to travel with him. Only trouble is, he set the time controls wrong again (again!) and two years have passed since the adventure with Prisoner Zero. Amy agrees to travel with the Doctor provided he can get her home by the next morning, which he promises to do; we realise that that’s because her wedding is planned for the very next day. Exeunt, pursued by a bear.
I don’t want to be too harsh on this episode, because series openers are rarely outstanding — in fact, come to think of it, Rose, New Earth, Smith and Jones and Partners in Crime have all been fairly poor by the standards of their series — but I didn’t find much in The Eleventh Hour that I think is going to lodge in my hindbrain the way the empty child, the clockwork robots from GitF, the weeping angels and the Vashta Nerada have done. Maybe that would be asking too much from an episode that also has to introduce a whole new cast, though. Still, although it was enjoyable, it did feel a bit By Numbers.
Next week’s episode might be more indicative of where things are going.
A little bit of actual insight to round things off
If I was disappointed that Matt Smith’s Doctor was too David Tennant-like, and that Steven Moffat’s script was too Russell T. Davies-like, it occurs to me that this might have been deliberate. Given the all-new cast, the production team might have felt that the audience needed something familiar to cling to, hence the recognisable Doctor in the recognisable situation.
If that’s so, I suppose it’s understandable — for a first episode. But Matt Smith had better start being his own man pretty darned quick, and I want to see more of the depth and insight of Moffat’s previous scripts in his subsequent ones.
Update (5 March 2010)
I dug up the ages of all eleven actors to have played the role of the Doctor, at the time that they debuted in the role, plotted the results, and fitted a linear regression through the points. All this and more in the followup article.
Update (12 April 2010 but I should have posted it two days ago)
As soon as I’d watched it, I reviewed the second episode, The Beast Beneath, and liked it a lot more. I plan to write about every episode this series. If you want to follow along, you can find the reviews under the Doctor Who tag in the cloud on the right, or course subscribe to the RSS feed and see the reviews (and other articles) as they come out.