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April 09, 2010

Stuff with bits in

Doctor Who: The Eleventh Hour (and a bit)

Who Smith kitchen Every Doctor Who fan, as Stephen Moffat acknowledged recently, has spent years mentally rehearsing how they’d write their own ‘new Doctor’ script. Well, everyone except Russell T Davies, if Rose is anything to go by. (Oh, two sentences in and I’m already putting the boot into yesterday’s guy.) So it takes a big man to actually live up to the perfect vision in our heads.

Fortunately, Steven Moffat is that man, and his introduction to the 11th Doctor was damn near perfect: Dark, spooky house. Little girl in her bedroom. Creepy crack in the bedroom wall. Girl prays for salvation, and salvation arrives in the form of a wheezing, groaning sound outside. Girl goes out to the garden and discovers a mysterious blue box. Sounds from inside the box, a hand appears, then another and finally… There he is, the new Doctor. And before he’s even said hello, he’s cracked some good gags about apples and swimming pools in libraries.

As entrances go, this was a doozy, with all the iconic totems – engines, TARDIS, Time Lord – delivered in the right order, in the perfect context of a child discovering the magic, the fear and the wonder of Doctor Who for the first time.

At least he got to make his debut in proper Doctor Who this time round, not on Children In Need or Let’s Slam Our Knackers Into Big Ben For Sport Relief or something

Or at least it would have been, if they hadn’t blown it with that glorified screensaver before the titles. I mean, what were they thinking? As a great man (or it may have been Sylvester McCoy, I forget) once asked: Have you no sense of occasion? Pitching Matt Smith into a sub-Harold Lloyd routine mere minutes before his wonderful, enigmatic reveal gives new meaning to the word ‘spoiler’. Imagine how much less impact Ursula Andress emerging from the Caribbean surf in Dr No would have had if, five minutes earlier, we’d watched her packing her flip-flops and catching the bus to the beach. Or if they’d shown Omar Sharif saddling up his camel, or ET falling to Earth hanging off the back of a dodgy CGI spaceship or… well, you get the idea. (Still, at least he got to make his debut in proper Doctor Who this time round, not on Children In Need or Let’s Slam Our Knackers Into Big Ben For Sport Relief or something.)


Who Smith Amelia But no matter – this early mis-step (which everyone seems happy to write off as the last gasp of the RTD era, even though the poor bloke had nothing to do with it) was soon forgotten amid the magical scenes that followed. RTD (that man again) once said the reason Doctor Who was so complicated to write was because, unlike most drama, it wasn’t just two people sitting talking in a kitchen. And here comes Stephen Moffat to turn two people talking in a kitchen into some of the best scenes in Who’s long history. Because even tricksy old Doctor Who is a cinch to write compared to that slipperiest of all TV mistresses, the sitcom, and the discipline Moffat has learned from sitcom writing shines through here, with every line (“You’re Scottish, fry something” “I hate yoghurt, it’s just stuff with bits in”, “Box falls out of sky, man falls out of box, man eats fish custard”) made to count.

The Moff had spent months telling everyone this was still the same show that brought us space rhinos and cat nuns and John sodding Barrowman

It’s unusual in frenetic nu-Who for the actors to be given such time and space to breathe, so I was almost disappointed when the plot proper eventually kicked in and everything got ramped up to, well, eleven. I know The Moff had spent months telling everyone this was still the same show that brought us space rhinos and cat nuns and John sodding Barrowman , and if you were expecting a radical reboot you were going to be disappointed. But everything I’d read and seen – the teasers, the trailers, the synopses – had convinced me he was just saying this to be polite to the last guy. So I was kind of surprised to see him taking leaves – and, at times, tearing whole chapters – out of the Russell T Davies Book of Frothy Caper Season Openers.

Except there’s one crucial difference: Whereas RTD scripts tended to shrivel and die when subjected to the harsh light of logical analysis, take a look at what’s really going on here behind all the CGI and pyrotechnics and chasing about and you’ll find all sorts of clever ideas, constructs and sly gags it’s easy to miss the first time round. Steven Moffat: the writer that keeps on giving.

Even so, I couldn’t help thinking Britain’s scarer-in-chief had let the nation’s kids down a wee bit by reigning in on the spooks. It was all there in the set-up – the isolated child, the crack, the secret room you can’t see – but the execution seemed deliberately geared towards avoiding any night terrors. Hence we only get to hear the voice in the wall (and not a very scary voice at that) when The Doctor’s there to hold Amelia’s (and our) hand. And Amy’s discovery of the creature in the hidden room would have been heart-stopping if it hadn’t taken place in bright sunshine. (One of the most insightful comments I read about the episode - present company excepted, of course - was by 12-year-old Daniel Purdie from Hove, who told The Observer the episode was “on the verge of being scary, rather than actually scary”. Neil, sign that kid up.)

Don’t get me wrong, there were some genuine chills – like the shape flitting across the kitchen window, or the door that opened a little more each time Amelia passed – but it still felt like a bit of a missed opportunity. The people in BBC Compliance would no doubt disagree.

It’s the sign of a true ming-mong that I’ve banged on for 800 words about the impact of the new executive producer of Doctor Who without actually mentioning the new, you know, Doctor Who. But what can I really add to what the world and his wife - especially the world’s wife, if the AI figures are to be believed – have said already: That Matt Smith was born to play The Doctor and, without wishing to get too giddily over-excited about it, stands every chance of being the best of the bunch so far. (If you don’t believe me, just look at the way he chucks that water out of the glass in Amelia’s bedroom. Now we know what The Moff meant about him barely being in control of his own limbs.)

Apples are rubbish, regeneration is a bit like cleaning your teeth, The Doctor is worse than anyone’s aunt and he is definitely, definitely a mad man in a box

Karen Gillan, too, is dazzlingly assured, seizing the opportunity of a genuinely original and exciting Doctor-companion dynamic and running with it (so far as you can run in a skirt that short). If you’re looking for her own glass emptying moment, check out her beautiful reading of the simple instruction “Go get coffee”. It’s truly a thing to behold.

Who Amy wet So if we’ve learned anything by the end of The Eleventh Hour (and a bit) it’s that our show – and by extension everything in the universe – couldn’t be in safer hands. We’ve learned that this year’s frothy capers are just as capery, but possibly a touch less frothy. We’ve learned that apples are rubbish, regeneration is a bit like cleaning your teeth, The Doctor is worse than anyone’s aunt and that he is definitely, definitely a mad man in a box. Seriously, I couldn’t be more excited if you told me Karen Gillan was going to spend the entire next episode running about in a soaking wet nightie.

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