(Between the demise of the old Starburst and the birth of its new incarnation, there were fourteen Doctor Who stories broadcast that the magazine never got around to reviewing. This is one of them.)
Steven Moffat’s take on Doctor Who crashes onto our screens in a blaze of freshness and innovation.
At least, that’s what I was expecting to happen. The truth is somewhat different.
The pre-TARDIS crash sequence ought to have tipped the nod. Some slightly dodgy special effects and an overacting Doctor ... it’s very much out of the Russell T Davies book of Doctor Who. And there’s plenty more to remind audiences of the last five years in the next 55 minutes too.
For a start, there’s the plot of the episode. Plot always comes in as runner-up when the story’s that of a newly regenerated Doctor, but Moffat’s borrowing of Series Three opener Smith and Jones is rather more obvious to the regular viewer than Davies’ burglary of Spearhead from Space back in 2005. Which isn’t necessarily the worst thing. There’s one alien on the loose and another lot are on the lookout for it. Well, you need something more than the regenerated Time Lord to be happening. The new Doctor’s dialogue could have been written for the previous incumbent, too; there are moments during The Eleventh Hour when it’s hard not to imagine David Tennant saying the lines that have been written for his replacement. And what’s with that giant eye-in-the-sky? Straight out of the RTD book of obvious aliens. Moffat’s obviously got an eye on making sure he doesn’t alienate the regular viewers, and while we might have hoped for a more novel approach to his first story in charge, he must at least be applauded for not running off to the hills and cackling, “It’s mine now.”
None of this, is has to be said, manages to spoil a thoroughly entertaining episode. Doctor Who is well known for its ability to beg, borrow and burgle, and it’s never been a problem before; it isn’t now. The Eleventh Hour skitters across the screen in a thoroughly entertaining fashion.
Thoroughly entertaining, but nevertheless somewhat less than fulfilling.
The biggest problem with this opening instalment in the story of Doctor Number Eleven, is that although it seems quite happy in the knowledge of what it needs to do (which is to get the new Doctor up and running and acquainted with his new companion in as thoroughly entertaining a fashion as possible), Steven Moffat seems on far less certain ground when it comes to the actual business of doing it.
The Eleventh Hour is brimming with ideas, absolutely brimming with them. There are far too many ideas, in fact. Moffat can’t decide whether he wants his debut in charge to be set in a quiet English village disturbed by aliens (echoing The Daemons) or inside an English hospital where nothing is quite as it seems (Spearhead from Space, again). Or perhaps The Eleventh Hour is a haunted house episode (Ghost Light). But by trying to be all of those things at once, Moffat drops the baton and some of the elements come across quite short of convincingly. This ‘fairytale’ aspect that the new showrunner was so keen to apply (which is almost, almost tangible during the Leadworth sequences) unravels faster than you can say “Nice film sequence on the village green there (although surely a bit too techno for a fairytale village?) – but crikey, does that say 1990 on Rory’s badge?” And whenever the action relocates to the hospital, it all goes a bit ER-with-aliens and the Tim Burton atmosphere gets dropped like a hot Cheshire Cat.
It’s not as if Moffat doesn’t do a fair bit of borrowing from himself, either. The eleventh Doctor’s hopping forward through Amelia/Amy Pond’s timeline is straight out of The Girl in the Fireplace, and the cracks in the wall conceit is from the same armoury as monsters under the bed and scary shifting shadows. In typical Steven Moffat join-the-plot-dots fashion, the way in which the elements fit together doesn’t always make sense (why is Prisoner Zero still around after twelve years on the run? Seriously?) – and sometimes he’ll divert attention from the plot altogether in order to make a joke. “Duck, Pond!” becomes almost something of a running theme by the end of the episode, but we’re never quite sure why.
In fact, it is Moffat’s seeming insistence that dialogue be amusing as well as expository, that helps towards this creation of a whole to which the parts don’t quite add up. If it ain’t funny, it doesn’t get into the script – and the one who suffers this treatment the worst is Amy. Almost everything Karen Gillan (who strikes me as capable enough) is given to do or say seems designed to show her off as kooky and amusing; never are we given a sense of her as a human being, just a collection of psychological quirks and one-liners. Making her a “Kiss-O-Gram” comes across as nothing less than an excuse for the producers to outfit her in something titillating and inappropriate, and her relationship with Arthur Darvill’s Rory Williams is massively unconvincing (although it has to be said that the supporting cast are wheeled on for their cameos and off again so quickly, we never get to see them as three-dimensional characters either, so much as fodder for more jokes, and as a result, the entire environment in which The Eleventh Hour is set comes over as rather insubstantial); were it not for the manner in which she first meets the Doctor, we’d be extremely hard-pressed to understand why he comes back for her at the end at all.
But ah yes, the opening sequence in which the young Amelia first makes the Doctor’s acquaintance.
For if there’s one thing The Eleventh Hour gets absolutely, utterly, shockingly right, it’s Matt Smith as the Doctor. It’s a brilliant piece of casting, and Matt’s choices on screen are never less than just as brilliant. As written, the eleventh Doctor could have been played just as cocky and smug as his predecessor occasionally was, but in the hands of a young and extremely talented actor, and one who is very evidently crafting the part to fit himself, the Doctor is as new and as convincing as the rest of the episode needed to be. The opening scenes with Amelia are sublime; managing at once to be fresh and newborn and wide-eyed, and yet knowing and wise and responsible, Matt Smith spars with Caitlin Blackwood on an absolute level, leaving both actors looking smart and making the whole thing seem effortless and natural. It’s an extremely classy piece of television.
Matt carries the rest of the episode too, in an instalment designed to show off as many different aspects of his new character as possible. And towards the end, when he bursts out of Doctor Ten’s face (in a sequence that the script bends over backwards to include, rather unconvincingly), we are entirely persuaded that he is the right man for the job, and that the eleventh Doctor’s tenure will be a joy to be witness to.
Fingers crossed the rest of Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who can get its act together and match its lead actor’s consistency. The Eleventh Hour is an odd beginning, equally delightful and frustrating. But never less than thoroughly entertaining.
(If you’d like to go further into the programme’s past, I’ve collected together various reviews and articles that I’ve posted online over the years here: http://watchingdoctorwho.weebly.com/)