Welcome to the first of a series of weekly recaps for the latest season of Doctor Who, now being broadcast on Saturday nights by BBC America. This opening episode lives up to its title by being an hour long rather than the standard 45 minutes, and introduces our all-new regular cast line-up of Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor and Karen Gillan as his new companion Amy Pond.
Before we begin, I’ll note that BBC America are showing these episodes two weeks after they’ve been seen in the UK—this episode, for instance, premiered over there on Easter Saturday. So even if you’ve seen later episodes in the series, please keep spoilers out of the comments for episodes which have not yet aired in the USA. Also, there’s been a certain amount of confusion (some of it emanating from the BBC itself) over whether this batch of episodes should be called Season 5 at all—other designations like “Season 11.1,” “Season 31” etc. have been advanced for various reasons and argued over with the usual intensity you would expect from an Internet debate over any topic, no matter how unimportant. As it happens, I’m sticking to calling it Season 5 because: (a) it makes perfect sense to me to do so; and (b) that’s what the BBC America schedule page is calling it.
Whatever you call it, this is the first episode to be overseen by new showrunner Steven Moffat, taking over from Russell T Davies, the man behind Doctor Who’s incredibly successful resurrection over the last five years. Moffat contributed one story to each of the last four seasons, to great acclaim each time. He was the natural and popular choice to take over the top job, and this year he is writing six episodes, overseeing the other seven, and devising the season arc into which they all fit. Naturally, the change of showrunner brings with it one of Doctor Who’s periodic shifts in style and emphasis, which is apparent even in this first episode. The Davies era was concerned (particularly at the start) with embedding the essential strangeness of the Doctor within the context of normal urban life that the non-fan audience could relate to—as exemplified by the central character of Rose Tyler. Moffat seems more willing to embrace strangeness for its own sake; his episodes often seemed to stand apart from the overall narrative lines of Davies’ seasons (I’m thinking particularly of “The Girl in the Fireplace” and “Blink”). In terms of its basic plot, “The Eleventh Hour” parallels the 2007 season opener “Smith and Jones”—an escaped alien prisoner is hiding on Earth, other aliens pursuing it arrive trying to track it down, and the situation escalates into a threat to the entire planet—but the differences in tone are striking. Instead of taking place in London, the whole story is contained within a quiet English village, with almost no reference to the wider world at all.
We pick up just after “The End of Time” left off, with the wrecked, burning TARDIS tumbling down to Earth. What will be our last sight of the familiar control room has the Doctor dangling from the open doorway and hanging on for dear life, as the console succumbs to gigantic explosions in a “we’re never going to be needing this set again” manner. This sequence segues into what turned out to be my least favorite thing in the whole episode—the revamped title sequence. The visuals are mostly fine, with the TARDIS now being tossed around through a much stormier vortex than before, although the big metallic blue font in which our stars’ names zap into view (complete with lightning bolts) makes the Superman-style zooming in the previous title sequence look like a model of restraint. No, the real problem is the music. I’ve enjoyed the various orchestral arrangements of the Doctor Who theme used over the past five years, but I was hoping for a turn back towards the spooky original Delia Derbyshire version—still the best after nearly fifty years. Instead, Murray Gold has come up with a Hooked on Classics rendition which buries the actual theme under a pile of extraneous noise. Particularly unwelcome are the brass fanfares blaring over the opening bars, and the drum machine obscuring the melody line. It gets a little better towards the end, with an interesting choral bit, but it’s still one of the weakest versions of the theme I’ve heard. A pity, because I thought Gold’s incidental music for this episode was generally excellent.
Of course, the most important facet of this new-look Doctor Who is the new Doctor himself. Everyone was waiting to see how relative unknown Matt Smith would cope with the task of taking over the role from the incredibly popular David Tennant. Most of the misgivings were over his age—at 27, he is the most youthful Doctor ever. For all Moffat’s statements about how Smith had blown them away in his audition, instantly getting the character of the Doctor, the concerns remained—just how believable could this guy be playing a 900-and-something-year-old alien?
Well, after just this one episode, I’m prepared to deliver a verdict—Moffat and co. have got it spectacularly right. Matt Smith has absolutely grabbed the role of the Doctor and made it his own, with an assurance and confidence rivalling that in Tom Baker’s arrival 35 years ago. He certainly doesn’t play it as young in any way. In fact, he seems to me a quieter, more cerebral Doctor than either Eccleston or Tennant, with his mind constantly whirring away observing and making connections, staying one step ahead of everyone else; I had no trouble believing he could be the smartest guy in any room. Combined with this is an amusing eccentricity in his movements—an “elegant shambles,” to use Moffat’s own excellent description—that makes him continually watchable. It’s a truly impressive performance, and I’m genuinely looking forward now to seeing where he takes the Doctor over the course of this season.
One thing the producers did to help him was to employ the strategy also used back in 1982 when Peter Davison (at that time, the youngest Doctor ever) had the same challenge, following on from the iconic Tom Baker. Davison filmed three later stories, allowing him to fine-tune his characterisation and performance, before going back to tackle his debut adventure. In the same way, episodes 2 through 5 of this season were in the can before “The Eleventh Hour” started filming. It’ll be interesting to see over the next few weeks whether there’s any sign of tentativeness or indecision in Smith’s earlier episodes, because he seemed totally in command of his performance through every moment of this one.
He’s also helped by the structure of the script, which gives him the space to show off what he can do by starting with an uninterrupted fifteen-minute section where we see only his Doctor, interacting with one other character. The TARDIS ends up crashed on its side in the garden of a home-alone seven-year-old Scottish girl, Amelia Pond, who has been praying for someone to come and fix an odd crack in her bedroom wall. She’s initially wary of the strange man who climbs out of the box demanding apples and falls to the ground (“Who are you?” “I don’t know yet. I’m still cooking”), but his manner is so direct and child-like that they immediately connect, and he sets off to investigate the crack—though not before walking straight into a tree. (“Early days…steering’s a bit off.”)
In the kitchen, the physical comedy continues as the girl tries to keep up with his cravings for various foods—apples, yogurt, bacon (“You’re Scottish, fry something”), baked beans, bread and butter—with him deciding he hates each one and spitting them out or making disgusted faces. My favorite part was the flinging of the plate of bread and butter out into the night (“And stay out!”)—followed, naturally, by off-screen crash and yowling cat noises. He finally settles on a couple of quintessential childhood foods, fish fingers and custard—together. They sit down companionably to eat at the kitchen table, where we learn that Amelia is an orphan, living with her aunt. So far this scene might seem like a prolonged comic diversion, but now comes a great payoff:
The Doctor: “So, your aunt. Where’s she?”
Amelia: “She’s out.”
The Doctor: “And she left you all alone?”
Amelia: “I’m not scared.”
The Doctor: “Course you’re not, you’re not scared of anything. Box falls out of the sky, man falls out of a box, man eats fish custard…and look at you. Just sitting there. So you know what I think?”
The Doctor: “Must be a hell of a scary crack in your wall.”
The last line, suddenly pulling us back to the plot with a suitably ominous musical cue, is perfectly played by Smith. It was not long after this point that I realized any worries I’d had about whether he was up to the role had completely disappeared.
Steven Moffat is a master of using fears children can relate to to fuel his stories—in “The Girl in the Fireplace” it was monsters under the bed; here it’s a weird crack in a bedroom wall through which strange noises can be heard. The Doctor manages to repair the crack, but not before discovering that it’s a “crack in the skin of the universe” leading to another place entirely, and hearing an alien voice saying, “Prisoner Zero has escaped.” This leads to another creepy idea, of some presence lurking in your house unseen, never able to be glimpsed except out of the corner of your eye.
But before the Doctor can investigate further, the TARDIS cloister bell sounds, warning that the machine faces imminent destruction. The Doctor rushes back inside; Amelia asks to come with him, but he says it’s not safe yet, making a fateful promise to her that he’ll be back in five minutes. The TARDIS vanishes; Amelia rushes to pack a little suitcase, takes it down to the garden, and sits on it, waiting for her friend to return…
Doctor Who hasn’t always had the best fortune with child actors, but they really lucked out with Caitlin Blackwood as young Amelia. She gives a perfect natural, open performance—especially impressive considering she had no prior acting experience. (She’s also, coincidentally, a cousin of Karen Gillan, and the family resemblance really helps to sell the idea that they’re the same person.) I particularly loved her deadpan delivery of “What…a real one?” when the Doctor told her his box was actually a time machine.
The TARDIS returns, belching smoke and needing to shut down and rebuild itself. The Doctor manages to not notice that it’s now daylight outside as he runs into the house yelling for Amelia, having realized that this “Prisoner Zero” must have been hiding in there. Someone knocks him out from behind, and he wakes up to find himself handcuffed to a radiator by an attractive policewoman wearing a very non-regulation skirt. She is, of course, the now grown-up Amy Pond. Most of the Doctor’s female companions tend to get tagged with the description “feisty” (actually, is there any young female lead character who isn’t described as “feisty” these days?), but rather than just present that as a given, the story shows us how she got that way. This time, the Doctor has managed to change the course of his companion’s life even before she joins him.
The Doctor: “You’re Amelia!”
Amy: “You’re late.”
The Doctor: “Amelia Pond. You’re the little girl!”
Amy: “I’m Amelia, and you’re late!”
The Doctor: “What happened?”
Amy: “Twelve years.”
The Doctor: “You hit me with a cricket bat!”
Amy: “Ha! Twelve years.”
The Doctor: “A cricket bat!”
Amy: “Twelve years. And four psychiatrists.”
The Doctor: “Four?”
Amy: “I kept biting them.”
The Doctor: “Why?”
Amy: “They said you weren’t real.”
She eventually has to abandon the pretence of being a policewoman, crying “I’m a kissogram!” before pulling off her hat and letting loose a mass of ginger hair with a swish worthy of a shampoo advert. Karen Gillan and Matt Smith have a tremendous chemistry together, batting Moffat’s comic dialogue back and forth (“Why a policewoman?” “You broke into my house—it was this or a French maid!”) while showing how the initial spikiness between them slowly eases as the Doctor wins Amy’s trust. This culminates in a hilarious scene where Amy, still not quite believing that this man is her childhood friend come back, traps the Doctor’s tie in a car door in order to get him to talk sense. In a typical piece of Moffat cleverness, he wins her over by producing an apple which Amelia gave him earlier. It’s a lovely bonding moment between them, which works even in spite of the director resorting to slow motion and lens flares in a misguided attempt to make it “magical.”
Apart from the sheer enjoyability of Moffat’s dialogue (I’ve had to severely resist the temptation to quote more of my favorite moments, or this recap would end up twice as long), there are any number of places where lines will link up with or reflect others elsewhere—this script has clearly been polished to within an inch of its life. For example:
The Doctor: “Who’s Amy? You were Amelia.”
Amy: “Yeah, and now I’m Amy.”
The Doctor: “Amelia Pond. That was a great name!”
Amy: “Bit fairytale.”
This is an ironic reference back to the kitchen table scene, where the Doctor delightedly told young Amelia Pond her name was “like a name in a fairytale.” What an efficient way of showing how the disappointment of the Doctor’s failure to return for her would lead Amy to grow up burying her dreams beneath a brittle, somewhat cynical personality. Or there’s this, which will come back at the end:
Amy: “You told me you had a time machine.”
The Doctor: “And you believed me.”
Amy: “Then I grew up.”
The Doctor: “Oh, you never want to do that.”
Once Amy’s trust is regained, we get into the actual plot part of the story—the Doctor tracking down Prisoner Zero before the pursuing aliens, the Atraxi, lose patience and burn the planet. Although the plotting fizzes along with Moffat’s usual ingenuity, this stuff can’t help but be less interesting, partly because the only real characters in the story are the Doctor, Amy, and Amy’s “kind of” boyfriend, Rory (Arthur Darvill). Everyone else is strictly functional, even when they’re being played by Annette Crosbie, Nina Wadia, or Olivia Colman—and not forgetting a bonkers cameo from the great Patrick Moore. The Doctor quickly hacks into a worldwide videoconference call to release a computer virus which will reset all clocks and displays to zero in order to get the Atraxi’s attention. It’s interesting that neither Torchwood nor UNIT, which loomed so large in the previous era, are so much as mentioned—Moffat seems to be recalibrating the world of the show away from the situation that developed over the last five years, where pretty much everyone in the world was aware of both the existence of aliens and the organizations that deal with them.
Prisoner Zero itself makes for a somewhat underwhelming foe—rather like the skeletons in spacesuits in “Silence in the Library,” it tends to not actually do anything apart from look menacing. The concept of a shapechanging creature which can look like multiple creatures at once, e.g. a man and a dog, is very good, and it’s nicely unsettling when the man and dog keep moving their heads in sync. Later, it takes the form of a mother and her two girls, and it’s momentarily chilling when the mother’s voice comes out of one of the children’s mouths. And I liked the final twist where it takes the form of the Doctor, thanks to its link with Amy, and young Amelia peeks out from behind him (again, cleverly reflecting a shot from earlier). But the creature’s natural form is a rather unimpressive CGI snake, and the idea of having the human disguises suddenly open their mouths to reveal the alien’s fangs gets way overused. (While I’m on the subject of the CGI, the Atraxi ships themselves are one of the goofiest designs ever seen in Doctor Who—basically a giant eyeball inside a spinning snowflake. It almost works in spite of itself out of sheer oddness.)
The intricate plot mechanism finally works itself out as Prisoner Zero, tracked to a hospital where it has been using coma patients as sources for its disguises, is tricked into reverting to its natural form, when it is detected and recaptured by the Atraxi. Before it disappears, however, it provides some mysterious hints of something big to come. “The universe is cracked, Doctor. The Pandorica will open. Silence will fall.” What does that mean? At this stage, I’ve no idea…
Up until now, the Doctor has been borne along by the plot, but now, with his regeneration almost complete, he finally takes control. First, he orders the Atraxi to come back and face him because of their threat to burn “a fully established Level Five planet.” Then he casts off the persona of the “raggedy Doctor” as he finds some new clothes in the hospital lockers (following a precedent set by the third and eighth Doctors). Up on the roof of the hospital, he confronts the Atraxi.
Amy: “So this was a good idea, was it? They were leaving.”
The Doctor: “Leaving is good. Never coming back is better.”
Matt Smith is given an iconic moment, as he tells the Atraxi to check whether the Earth is protected, and they project holograms of the ten previous Doctors. He walks through the image of David Tennant to reveal the Eleventh Doctor, complete at last in his professorial costume with tweed jacket, braces and bow tie, ready to see off these aliens with one simple line:
The Doctor: “Hello. I’m the Doctor. Basically… run.”
With the threat over, the Doctor is delighted to discover that the TARDIS has finished repairing itself. Immediately forgetting everything else, he dashes off. Amy runs after him, but to her astonished dismay the box dematerializes in front of her.
In the next scene, Amy is woken in the night by the sound of the TARDIS arriving back in her garden. The Doctor apologizes for rushing off—he was only taking his brand new time machine on a “quick hop” to the moon and back. But—surprise!—erratic navigation has struck again…“That was two years ago!” As the saying goes, history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.
The Doctor: “Oops.”
The Doctor: “So that’s…”
Amy: “Fourteen years.”
The Doctor: “Fourteen years since fish custard. Amy Pond, the girl who waited. You’ve waited long enough.”
Finally, Amy gets her chance to enter the magic box. But she’s no longer sure she really wants to.
The Doctor: “So, coming?”
The Doctor: “You wanted to come fourteen years ago.”
Amy: “I grew up.”
The Doctor: “Don’t worry. I’ll soon fix that.”
With a snap of the fingers, the Doctor opens the door (a nice callback to Moffat’s “Forest of the Dead”). The new interior is a warmer, more magical space than the single echoing chamber of the previous era. There are now multiple levels, stairways leading off to other areas, and a console full of strange objects—levers, gauges, hot and cold taps, a typewriter, even an old gramophone horn.
These last few scenes are played perfectly by Smith and Gillan. They already seem like a great Doctor/companion team, falling into an easy banter, and yet they are both keeping information from each other. Just as the Doctor is promising he had no ulterior motive for asking Amy along, the TARDIS scanner screen beside him is showing an image of a line in the exact same shape as the crack in the bedroom wall. Cue ominous music…
And Amy asks him to agree to get her back tomorrow morning, but won’t say why—“Just…you know, stuff.” After the TARDIS has left, we pan across Amy’s room to reveal…a wedding dress hanging in her wardrobe. She has run away on the night before her wedding…why? For one final childhood adventure before she has to finally grow up? Or for some other reason? I can’t wait to find out.
NEXT WEEK: The Doctor takes Amy on a trip centuries into the future; they find themselves in a space-going United Kingdom overseen by the sinister Smilers in “The Beast Below.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: “Robot,” starring Tom Baker in his very first story as the Doctor. As I mentioned above, Baker’s performance in this story, where he just completely inhabits the role of the Doctor from the off, came strongly to mind when I saw Matt Smith’s debut.
Steven Cooper is a software developer and long-time Doctor Who fan, living in Melbourne, Australia.