After watching Matt Smith’s debut as the Doctor in The Eleventh Hour, Erin said it best when she said, “That was cool with coolness sprinkles and just a touch of kick-ass sauce.” Any concerns we might have had about Doctor Who following Russell T. Davies’ departure as show-runner have been quietly put away. Steven Moffat is in charge, and he knows what he’s doing. Moffat’s debut story as showrunner may not have the mind-blowing quality of The Empty Child or the creepiness of Blink, but it’s elegantly plotted, and it has a sparkling script. Matt Smith and Karen Gillan could have hoped for no better introduction story in which to find their feet.
Please note that the full spoilery review follows after the break.
We pick up the story just where The End of Time left off, with the damaged TARDIS careening back to Earth with the newly regenerated Doctor frantically trying to keep control inside. We are treated to echoes of Russell’s style as the ship flies through London, and the Doctor barely manages to steer whilst hanging on by his finger-tips. Then, after nearly crotching himself on Big Ben, the Doctor manages to claw his way inside, just in time for the opening credits.
When I say the opener echoes Russell’s style of story openings, I think the effect might have been deliberate. There is the re-use of the now nearly cliché opening shot of the moon followed by a rapid descent on London, and the music is fast and frantic, but the opening is surprisingly short, and it isn’t long before Moffat puts his own stamp on the series. We’re treated to a new opening sequence, complete with new music, and then the story proper opens with a significantly reduced pace and a far more focused world view.
It’s almost as if Moffat is saying ‘yes, this was Russell’s way of doing things. Give it a wave, because now I’m putting it in a drawer.” Moffat deserves significant credit for having the courage to follow up a finale where the Time Lords reappear with a story about the Doctor befriending a young Scottish girl with a scary crack in her bedroom wall. Let’s give Moffat even greater credit for pulling this off in such a way that we don’t notice this shift in gears until after the fact and that, once we do, I think we appreciate it all the more.
A lot of this is helped by the acting, and Matt Smith pulls off the difficult task of portraying a newly formed Doctor whose body and character haven’t solidified yet. He’s basically playing David Tennant on adrenaline, because that’s essentially what the character is at this point. It works, I think, because his eyes are made for mania. But let’s not forget the actress that accompanies him, here: Caitlin Blackwood portrays seven-year-old Amy Pond, and it’s on her that the first scenes succeed or fail.
As far as I know, this is Catilin’s first acting role, and she’s instantly believable. We see her praying to Santa about the crack in her wall, and the voices coming from it, and she portrays just the right about of courage and bewilderment as she confronts the crashed police box and the Doctor within. She’s also an excellent foil for the Doctor as she tries to cook him something that his new mouth will willingly eat. These moments of comedy gold won me over on the episode early, and their importance can’t be overlooked. The best moment is when Matt Smith’s Doctor tosses the plate of bread and butter out the door (hitting a stray cat) and shouting “and don’t ever come back!”
But there’s also hints of tragedy in young Amy Pond’s life. She’s a Scottish girl living in England and she’s not fitting in. Her parents are dead and she’s living with an aunt she hates. Just the possibility that she might get to fly on board the Doctor’s TARDIS sends her running to fetch a suitcase, but those of us who know the inherent unreliability of the Doctor’s TARDIS know that the Doctor’s plan to nip “five minutes into the future” (to fix the engines) is setting poor Amy up for a fall.
And, speak of the devil. Twelve years later…
Karen Gillan’s portrayal of nineteen-year-old Amy is similarly a hoot. She has very expressive eyes (although, nitpick: her eyes are green where Young Amy’s are blue) and, when confronting an intruder in her house that turns out to be the man who left her in the lurch twelve years ago, has the confidence to hit him with a cricket bat and then pretend to be a police-woman using her “kiss-a-gram” outfit. And, I’m sorry to say, she had me fooled. I did wonder if her stockings and short skirt were strictly regulation, but the obvious answer did not come to me until Amy blurted it out.
And the story keeps on going. Moffat really shows his abilities, here, pulling together a tale that holds together on subsequent viewings. It’s not grand, and it’s not visceral, but it makes sense, and every scene within contributes to the final product. The crack that the Doctor helps seal up unleashes an alien life form known as “prisoner zero”, and when the Doctor arrives back at Amy’s house, twelve years later, the prisoner’s jailers track the Doctor, and arrive on cue. There are a couple of creepy moments, here, as Amy and the Doctor struggle to see an alien that has the ability to keep us looking away, and director Adam Smith knows how to frighten us with a single open door.
The Eleventh Hour is a study of making a virtue of one’s limitations. The Doctor finds himself with no TARDIS, no sonic screwdriver, little access to Earth’s infrastructure, an unfinished body, and twenty minutes in which to save the world. The pressure’s on. And Steven Moffat tells a credible tale of world-ending menace whilst keeping the action in a single village, and keeping the number of speaking roles down to under a half-dozen. The monster is a man with a dog and a handful of frightening teeth effects. Compare this to the over-the-top sequences of The Stolen Earth or The End of Time, and this is Steven Moffat saying to Russell T. Davies, “Look at me! I can end the world with a vegetable!”
This attention to detail carries over to the beginnings of the season-spanning plot. As in previous seasons, the references to the plot threads we’ll have to resolve in episodes twelve and thirteen land with the subtlety of a brick, but at least Moffat has made these elements integral to the plot of The Eleventh Hour, rather than something shoehorned in (it remains to be seen how well the other writers will handle this). And the fact that cracks in the universe can show up as cracks in a wall is a deeply creepy concept that will have you reaching for a trowel.
And I like how Moffat pokes a little fun at Davies’ propensity of making the Doctor a public figure. Everybody in Amy’s village, it seems, knows the Doctor, but only because the poor girl inflicted him on everybody during her twelve-year-long obsession with the man (resulting in the biting of four psychiatrists and the frank admission from Amy’s boyfriend Rory that “you made me dress up as him” — note that, on reflection, it’s clear that this occurred as a childhood game between the two, but for a moment there, I had far too clear an image of Amy and Rory’s sex life than, perhaps, I wanted). Amy seems to be quite a force in the village, with a number of the minor characters well aware of her eccentricities (and remarkably accommodating of them).
If I have any concerns, it’s that good though Matt Smith’s performance is, nothing much distinguishes him from David Tennant’s Doctor, yet. But this is early days. Throughout the episode, Matt Smith is essentially portraying the echo of David Tennant’s Doctor, but when his true self comes to the fore (after putting on new clothes and confronting the Atraxi), he’s still the Oncoming Storm, reminding the aliens who he is, and politely telling them to run. Well, we got a lot of that through David Tennant, so I don’t think we’ve yet to see Matt Smith’s take on the Doctor really emerge, though I caution again that it’s early days.
The closest comparison to The Eleventh Hour over the past five years would be Rose. This episode has to reintroduce Doctor Who, including a new Doctor and a new companion, to a sceptical audience, and I believe it does so brilliantly. It’s a whole different set of expectations, however, than a mid-season highlight. I don’t expect to find The Eleventh Hour to be in many fan’s seasonal top-three, but I am filled with hope and excitement with how the new season will play out, thanks to what I’ve seen here. Doctor Who is in safe hands.
Random Eleventh Hour Thoughts
- Arthur Darvill’s Rory is a bit of a damp squib (deliberately so), but there’s undeniable chemistry between him and Amy, which should make for an interesting dynamic — possibly even a romantic triangle — as we go forward into the season. I do hope that we’re not being set up for Mickey Smith Part Two, although I note that, in the final scene where Amy doesn’t tell the Doctor that she’s going to get married to Rory tomorrow, she is adamant that she has to be back home tomorrow so that she doesn’t miss “stuff”. Though she finds the pull of the Doctor’s lifestyle irresistible, it’s not so irresistible that she can just abandon the life she’s chosen to live. Indeed, I expect the theme of “growing up” will play a big part in Amy’s story arc this season.
- That said, how trusting is Amy, here? First the Doctor tells her that he’s only going to be gone five minutes, and he comes back twelve years later. Then he goes away again, and comes back two years later. This should tell Amy something about the inherent unreliability of the TARDIS. Does she seriously think the Doctor is going to be able to get her back to the church on time? Dream on, girl!
- And writing this up, this hits me: the Doctor is Amy’s stag!