Sunday, 4 April 2010

Dr Who: The Eleventh Hour - TV Review

"Carrots?? Are you insane??"

It's been a long time coming. Fifteen months since the announcement of Matt Smith's casting as the eleventh Doctor, three months since David Tennant's weepy send-off as the tenth, two weeks of almost non-stop TV trailers and exhaustive Press coverage, one week of Matt Smith on every TV show except 'Dickinson's Real Deal'. You'd be forgiven if you were suffering from 'Dr Who' burn-out as, at last, 'The Eleventh Hour' burst onto the nation's TV screens this Saturday. Yes, it's been a long time coming and, thankfully, yes, it's been worth the wait.

He's here. Matt Smith has arrived as the eleventh incarnation of the most famous time traveller of them all and, after a breathless sixty-five minute opening romp of an episode which borrowed heavily not only from writer/new showrunner Steven Moffat's own oeuvre in the regenerated show but also from one or two of former boss Russell T Davies's scripts, the new Doctor and his latest flame Amy Pond set off with confidence and brio on a whole new run of adventures in a series which, despite the changes Moffatt has wrought to the show - beyond the obvious casting differences - looks as if it's going to plough a furrow not hugely dissimilar to the one which has brought the series such huge acclaim since 2005. Hard to imagine anyone really thought anything else was likely. 'Dr Who' wasn't broken, Steven Moffat hasn't come along to fix it. But we can see one or two stylistic changes. The move to shooting in HD gives proceedings an extra gloss and the tone of the show is shot through with a slightly edgier, more skewed style - I've seen the new show described as "The Avengers crossed with Hans Christian Anderson" and I'd say that's about right - with maybe a dollop of Tim Burton thrown in for good measure.

So where were we? Ah, yes - the Doctor's regenerated and the TARDIS is spiralling, on fire, towards Earth. Narrowly avoiding a collision with the Big Ben clock tower the TARDIS pitches up on its side in a rural garden at night. As an open-mouthed young girl called Amelia watches in disbelief, the raggedy Doctor stumbles out, barely coherent, and eventually sets off in his time machine promising to return in five minutes. Amelia's keen to join him in his travels so she packs up a little suitcase and sits patiently waiting in the garden for his return. He doesn't come back...well, not until twelve years later. Amelia has blossomed into Amy the kissogram, the crack in her childhood bedroom wall has spewed out an ugly snake-like alien and above the earth eyes-in-the-sky are threatening to incinerate the planet unless they get their prisoner back. The new Doctor has only twenty minutes to save the earth - and then his sonic screwdriver blows up.

Opening episodes of new series of 'Dr Who' are always a tough one to pull off; they need to re-establish the show and its format and they need to tell a good story too. Opening episodes for new Doctors have got all this to do and more; they need to reassure the audience that this is the same show and that this is the same man, even if he looks different to the one they've enjoyed watching for the past few years. For both Moffat and Smith this particular hill was a very steep one to climb indeed. Departing Doctor David Tennant has, over the course of three full series and a handful of specials, established himself as surely the most popular actor ever to play the part, taking the series to new heights of popularity even the much-adored Tom Baker couldn't reach. Tennant made 'Dr Who' achingly cool, he made it trendy, he made it sexy; he made it everything it is. It wouldn't take much of a misstep to foul it up and send the show spinning back towards the dumper of cultdom. Fortunately Moffat and Smith have more than risen to the challenge and, in one sixty-minute plus episode, created a vibrant and manic new Doctor who looks set to captivate the audience just as much as his predecessor.

The really exciting thing about 'The Eleventh Hour' is realising that the show will get so much better. Here we have an episode that has it all to do, effectively rebooting the series in much the same way Russell T Davies did in 2005, albeit with the advantage of knowing there's an audience out there who are familiar with the series motifs and icons. Even so Moffat has a lot to do; new Doctor, new girl, new TARDIS - and a proper story to tell underneath it all. That he does so revisitng former glories isn't particularly worrying but many of the images and ideas presented here seem to be ones which fascinate Moffat as a writer, concerning the circular nature of Time itself (wibbly wobbly, timey wimey as he might say - and oh how I wish Moffat had resisted the urge to thrown in that particular fanboy favourite quote) and those things which fundamentally terrify children (things under the bed in 'The Girl in The Fireplace' and, here, the crack in the bedroom wall behind which something nasty might just lurk). Moffat pilfers happily from Davies too; in truth the plot of 'The Eleventh Hour' is third season opener 'Snith and Jones' but with the space rhinos taken out. Moffat is on record as citing the 'Smith and Jones' script as pretty much pitch perfect so it's hardly surprising he's followed its lead here. Instead of an alien prisoner on the loose on the Moon we have an alien prisoner loose in Leadworth (anagram of 'Dr Who tale', fact fans); here we have the Atraxi, eyeballs in snowflake spaceships instead of rhinos (the Judoon) in big rockets. Once again the Doctor has to race against Time - not to save humans suffocating but to save the whole planet from incineration - to expose the alien (again hiding in human form) and return it to its interplanetary guards. Despite the high stakes, despite the breakneck pace running around, the computer virus gobbledegook, this is Moffat's simplest script yet - because it really had to be - and I'm sure we can indulge him a little cheeky self-plagiarism because it looks as if it's scarcely the shape of what's in store the next three months.

'The Eleventh Hour' really isn't about its story. It's not about its aliens, its spaceships, its bang and bluster. It's about one man. It's about the Doctor. It's about Matt Smith as the Doctor. And any lingering "he's too young" doubts were blown away in minutes as the new boy grabbed the character of the Doctor, understood it absolutely and instantly, and made it his own. I'm not so churlish as to say "David who?" but it's more than fair to say that by the end of the episode we're no longer feeling the loss of David Tennant but we're looking forward to the thrilling things Matt Smith can and most likely will do with the part. Smith's new Doctor is, at first, manic and unpredictable - it's the way of the man after a regeneration as he tries to find himself again. In 'The Christmas Invasion' Davies, boldly in retrospect, shuffled the Doctor off to the sidelines, buidling up the audience's expectation until he exploded onto the scene in the last act and took control of the situation. Moffat prefers to focus the episode's energies almost exclusively on Matt Smith and that's how it should be this time around because anything less is going to make pining Tennant fans miss their hero even more. But Smith nails the man from the off, whether he's dangling from the TARDIS as it careers over London or hauling himself out of the steaming crashed Police Box and indulging in superfast wordplay with the befuddled young Amelia Pond. The first five or ten minutes are almost surreal; as the Doctor's addled body struggles to right itself and there's maybe a touch too much slapstick in the Doctor's efforts to satisfy his culinary curiosity; spitting apples, beans and bacon all over the room pitches the show towards a CBBC level but Smith quickly brings it round when, after rushing back to the TARDIS he returns five minutes find it's actually twelve years later and Amelia has grown up into the leggy Amy, a flame-haired temptress in an unfeasibly short Police uniform. Smith is starting to fly now and we can see how he's latched onto the concept of the Doctor as old-man/young-man. He has the energy and vibrancy of youth and yet exudes the cool wisdom of the near-immortal ageless Time Lord. It's there in everything he does; the way he says his lines, the words he uses, his body language. Not for one moment did I feel that we have a bright young actor out of his depth playing a revered TV legend. Matt Smith just is the Doctor. And in the end it's all there in the final rooftop confrontation with the Atraxi. Busily assembling his new costume from clothes pilfered from the hospital, Smith reminds the Atraxi (and those of us at home) of the character's rich heritage (flashback frenzy for fans!) and, symbolically - and with enormous swagger and confidence - strides through the fading image of David Tennant to announce, to the Atraxi and to us out there in TV land, that "I am the Doctor." His final command to the Atraxi has all the arrogance of Tennant at his best as he warns them off. "" And they run. Fast. It's fabulously exciting to watch Smith's Doctor grow and grow in confidence as the episode progresses and there are a handful of other joyous punch-the-air moments such as the Doctor crashing a fire engine ladder into the window of the room where Amy and her quivering boyfriend Rory are facing off against the multiform alien in human form and running up said ladder to join them.

Of course 'The Eleventh Hour' also has to introduce us to the new girl in the Doctor's life - and here the episode is less successful. Previous debut episodes have focussed on the new girl, whether it's Rose, Martha, Donna - and told the story from their point of view as they meet (or, in Donna's case, re-meet) the Doctor and stumble into his world. This time we're with the Doctor all the way and Amy is running alongside struggling to keep up and struggling to understand it all. Karen Gillan looks striking and there are some wonderfully nuanced moments in her performance but Amy just looks flummoxed throughout the episode and its the end we don't really know much about her save that she had an imaginery friend when she was eight who let her down, she's been in therapy and she's about to get married. She has none of the family dynamic so vital to Davies's girls; no slap-happy Mother figure hovering anxiously in the background although there's Rory, Amy's slightly feeble boyfriend who we've not seen the last of. So where the Doctor ends the episode pretty much fully-formed, Amy's clearly a work-in-progress and it'll be interesting to see the dynamic between her and the new Doctor develop as her character grows stronger during the series.

So 'The Eleventh Hour', as a story, is pretty much a functional thing. Anything more complex would have detracted from the need to establish the new Doctor. But, happily, there's more to the tale than meets the eye and, in true Davies style, Moffat is already seeding the storyline of greater things to come. What is The Pandorica of which the multiform spoke? Why will silence fall? And who was Amy supposed to be marrying? Once again the show is working on several levels, satisfing those who just want to watch a fun romp every week and those who want to be rewarded at the end of it all with an even bigger picture.

Quibbles? Well, they're really rather minor. The episode could probably have lost ten minutes somewhere along the line - it didn't really need to be sixty-five minutes long and could have been tightened up here and there. Whilst it's wonderful to see Murray Gold back on board on composing duties - some of his incidental stuff here was quite brilliant - his reworking of the theme tune leaves a bit to be desired although it could be a grower. The show also maintains its tradition of wasting big name guest stars in little more than cameo roles - surely Annette Crosbie and Nina Wadia deserved more than the cough and spit turns they got here? The TARDIS has, of course,had a makeover too, with the exterior now closely resembling the Box used in the two (non-canoncial) Peter Cushing movies back in the 1960s - it's big, blocky, sturdy and it looks great. Ihe interior I'm not so sure about. It's huge, cavernous, a masterpiece of extravagant design...but I'm not sure I really see the point in building soemthing so huge when, traditionally, so little time is spent in it. Still, I suspect the nation's eight year-olds will have a rare old time assembling the inevitable new playkit (the last one confounded me and it sits alone and unloved, in my garage and in bits).

So a big thumbs up to Matt Smith as the new Doctor, welcome onboard to Karen Gillan as Amy - we look forward to getting to know you a bit better - and we also look forward to a series which, if the long end-of-episode things-to-come trailer is any judge, is going to be spending less time in contemproary London and more time dancing back and forth into the past and into the future. The journey's beginning. Where do you want to start? The Starship UK seems as good a place as any...

Reviews coming soon: 2012 on DVD, Clash of the Titans, Kick Ass, The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, The (new) Prisoner, Vampires, vampires everywhere...


FRANK said...

A thorough and balanced review Paul. Very impressive. I thoroughly enjoyed the episode and Matt is instantly the Doctor for me. I thought he was quite superb.

Not sure about the revamped theme music or opening titles but I can live with that.

I'm really very excited about the forthcoming season. And a good start with 8m in the ratings!

Anonymous said...

Nice review, Paul. Seems uncertainty about the new theme music is prevalent everywhere. I thoroughly enjoyed Eleventh Hour and it was definitely a story about the Doctor and Amy more than it was about Prisoner Zero and the Atraxi.

Sunshine Superman said...

An enjoyable episode, but I'm still not completely sold on the new Doctor. It'll probably take another two or three episodes before I'm fully comfortable with the new man. I don't like Amy Pond at all though.