It feels like it’s been forever since Steven Moffat was announced as the new showrunner and Matt Smith as the new Doctor. It hasn’t been, of course, but well over a year in both cases is nothing to sneeze at. For some fans, the anticipation has been damn near excruciating. Another very vocal minority had little interest in the continuing adventures of the Time Lord without David Tennant steering the TARDIS. And yet another group – perhaps the most important, due simply to the fact that they comprise a huge segment of the viewing audience – were understandably nervous that a new Doctor alongside a new head honcho might lead to a series that was somehow lesser than what had been seen over the past five years.
I’d like to believe that everybody was as utterly intoxicated by “The Eleventh Hour” as I was, but that’s probably wishing for too much. On the other hand, I can’t really see that it offered up anything that would possibly alienate audiences – not even in the form of the new Doctor, who’s not such a drastic departure from the antics of Tennant so as to drive viewers away. Indeed, the differences between Eccleston and Tennant are far more tangible than the divide between Tennant and Smith. All that said, Smith definitely has something of his own going on, and whatever that “something” is will most certainly grow as the season progresses. Both Eccleston and Tennant each took about a half season to find their Time Lord groove; Smith found it by the end of his first episode. I was wholly won over by him upon his delivery of “I am definitely a mad man with a box,” which was followed by an uneasy cackle that seems to imply this Doctor is not quite as right in the head as his recent predecessors.
But I’ve clearly jumped to the end of the episode far too quickly. The pre-credits sequence with the Doctor hanging onto the TARDIS as it flies over London is utter nonsense – derivative of the worst aspects of the Davies era, and completely different from the tone of the rest of the episode. Maybe that was the point? To reassure viewers right off the bat that they’re still watching the same show? I don’t know, but let’s hope there’s less of that and more of all that follows as the weeks move on.
Of course the sequence is followed by a brand new set of opening titles and a rearrangement of the theme tune. I haven’t done an immense amount of reading reactions to this episode, but even with what little I have read, there appeared to be an immediate backlash to these changes. Every time these basic alterations are made to the series, people complain, which is understandable, because why fix what isn’t broken? But “Doctor Who” thrives on change, and this is just another aspect of it. Eventually they get over it and move on, realizing that it probably isn’t quite the disaster their fanboy gut had told them on first viewing. Having seen the sequence numerous times now, I’m already digging it. Unlike the previous credits, the lightning bolts and cloud tunnel seem to indicate the TARDIS is travelling through some sort of space as opposed to time, and the rearrangement has grown on me with each subsequent viewing.
The next 15 minutes, which detail the first meeting of the Eleventh Doctor and the 7-year old Amelia Pond (Caitlin Blackwood) are deliriously charming, and it kicks off with the girl praying to Santa on Easter, and it’s nice to see Moffat’s keeping things on a vaguely secular level. Using children as a big part of the narrative has been a Moffat hallmark (“The Empty Child,” “The Girl in the Fireplace,” “The Silence on the Library”), and here it once again works as a wonderful means to cement the Doctor/companion relationship (although you may not find me as supportive of this gimmick in the coming weeks). No doubt the highpoint of this section is the search for food, which is something that’s never been done before during the post-regenerative state. If every cell in the body of a Time Lord rearranges itself during regeneration, then it’s perfectly reasonable to assume the tastes buds have changed, too. The Doctor thinks he knows what he likes, but it turns out he finds most of it disgusting. In the end, he finds a thoroughly revolting dish – fish fingers and custard – the most tasty and appetizing, which is a gas (or surely will be once it passes through his digestive tract).
On to the crack in Amelia’s bedroom, which again is another Moffat trademark: Turning the ordinary into something horrific or dangerous. He’s really fly at pullin’ that shit off. Behind the crack is a giant, staring eye, which intones “Prisoner Zero has escaped.” Before the Doctor can really get to the bottom of the mystery, the TARDIS Cloister Bell rings, which is never a good sign, and he returns to the ship. For the first time in a good long while, the Doctor isn’t having a post-regenerative crisis, instead the TARDIS is. While the latter is certainly novel (and at the very least a first for the series), the former allows for “The Eleventh Hour” to be a good and proper introductory story. It’s impossible for me to have any real objectivity in the matter, so I’m left wondering how this episode would play to someone who’d never seen the show before; probably not as efficiently as “Rose,” but surely better than “The Christmas Invasion.” Anyway, the Doctor promises young Amelia he’ll back in five minutes…
The five minute promise is almost certainly a bit that any long term fan will immediately recognize as an element bound to go pear-shaped. On the other hand, if you were new to “Who,” what happens next would likely come as a surprise. The Doctor does indeed return, only five minutes turned into twelve years. There’s a delightfully coy dance on the part of the adult Amelia Pond, who now goes by the name of Amy (Karen Gillan). She doesn’t let on that she and the little girl Amelia are one and the same. While there’s fun to be had here, I didn’t quite buy how unruffled Amy was by the Doctor’s sudden reappearance. He is, after all, a figure she practically worshipped for numerous years, and yet she plays it awfully cool, almost as if she at first doesn’t know who he is – is it possible she doesn’t recognize him right away? Another element that doesn’t work as well as it should was the room that’s only seen out of the corner of the eye. The viewer can clearly see the door, so there’s no reason to think the characters on the TV can’t. I hate to go for the obvious, but it seems the door should have been invisible, and then magically appeared to us at the same time it did for Amy. Splitting hairs? Lemme know if that’s the case. On the other side of that door is Prisoner Zero, a slimy eel-like creature with hideous teeth, which later takes on the appearance of a man and a dog, which is, once again, Moffat turning the ordinary upside down.
What follows, as you’re no doubt aware, is a romp in which the Doctor has twenty minutes to save the world from annihilation by the Atraxi, the giant, hovering eyeballs that now fill the sky. (Was I alone in having The Alan Parsons Project’s “Eye in the Sky” playing on a loop in my head while watching this episode?) They’ve come for Prisoner Zero, but cannot locate the creature due to its ability to take on the appearance of various humans. Once again, an element that doesn’t really work. These aliens can scan the entire world, have weapons and power beyond anything Earth can imagine, and yet one little alien with a handy disguise trick can run circles around them? There’s a fair amount of suspended disbelief you must endure to enjoy this hour, and yet, despite my complaints, there’s really nothing here that ruins what’s otherwise a wonderful introduction to a new era.
In the final moments, the Doctor returns to Amy once again, this time another two years later (again, an accidental overshoot). He takes her to the TARDIS – which he can now open by snapping his fingers (ala “The Silence in the Library”). (Nice gimmick, but let’s not rely on it, Steven.) Once inside, the brand-spanking new TARDIS interior is revealed, and it is positively gorgeous. The previous interior got the job done, but I was never a huge fan of it, and it wasn’t the sort of design I’d ever imagined a big-budget TARDIS should look like. Not so with this new set, which is every fanboy’s wet dream. It seems to contain an endless supply of bells and whistles and levels and stairs. Unlike the previous TARDIS, this one genuinely feels enormous on the inside, as opposed to just one room. Moffat has also wisely returned to the console room the scanner, which is a necessity in my book. How both the Ninth and Tenth Doctors lived without it I’ve no idea. The familiar shape of the crack from Amy’s room appeared once again on it – that crack will be important to this season. There’s probably a great deal more going on this episode than anyone is even aware of at this point. The whole thing came across as a tad simplistic, by Moffat standards anyway, and while he surely must know that he can’t create artsy, labyrinthine plots within every single episode, that’s not going to stop him from doing something deep and layered that plays out over the course of the season. Here’s a little something to chew on.
And now for a bunch of random stuff I unabashedly loved about “The Eleventh Hour”: Everything about Matt Smith, including his new duds and the way he acquired them. (The only thing that worries me is that here in the States he may be subject to Tucker Carlson comparisons, which would be nothing less than tragic); The way the sonic screwdriver continued to fail over the course of the story; The first 15 minutes, which were as magical as anything I’ve ever seen on this series; The art direction and look of it all. It was drenched in hues of dreamy blue and green, and for perhaps the first time in the new series, it genuinely felt as though there was attention paid to the background in addition to what’s at the forefront; Karen Gillan’s look – she’s hasn’t won me over as a character yet, but I could (and will) stare at her for hours; The dialogue, which was unsurprisingly slick and clever, and at times poetic even; All the little dolls and cartoons of the Doctor; And finally, the wedding dress, and all that it entails.
NEXT TIME: The Doctor and Amy travel to the far future, and encounter a much different version of Great Britain in “The Beast Below”, guest-starring Sophie Okonedo.
Classic “Who” DVD Recommendation of the Week: Check out an entirely different kind of introductory story for a new Doctor with “The Twin Dilemma,” starring Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant.
(Thanks as always to Sonic Biro for the screencaps.)