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April 03, 2010

The Girl in the Spotty Nightgown and Red Cardigan

Doctor Who: The Eleventh Hour reviewed by Stuart Ian Burns.

11aWhen Steven Moffat’s stewardship of Doctor Who began in earnest there was a moment when he had to sit down and ask David Tennant if he wanted to continue. There was a moment, just a moment mind you, when Tennant’s mind must have raced with the possibilities. Another year. Just one more year.  Maybe two. 

I imagine it must have been somewhat like the scene in this month's Doctor Who Magazine’s comic strip The Crimson Hand when his alter-ego was gifted with the opportunity to bring down the walls of reality and save Rose and Donna. The possibilities. To play a whole season written by Steven Moffat with the future potential to beat Tom Baker’s record. 

Perhaps there is an alternate reality were we sat down to watch The Eleventh Hour with its new production team but the same old Doctor. Because that’s how it could have been. New head writer. New direction. And Tennant would have been brill – sorry – bwilliant! Like the shift from Hinchcliffe to Williams to Nathan-Turner. 

Same actor, same role, just played in a slightly different way. And we would have been excited because it’s Doctor Who -- but would we really have been satisfied? Would the new series have had this amount of buzz? Would Karen Gillan have been the companion, would we have had this story? 

Moffat only knows, yet controversially, especially considering my love for the actor in this role, I’m pleased that Tennant left when he did because it meant we could start again. New Doctor, new head writer, new direction. It’s such a rare occurrence. The only times I can think of (other than at the start of the series in the 60s) were for the TV movie and Rose

A proper regeneration. No held over scripts, no old characters hanging around (which rules out Spearhead From Space), no old actor in the lead role (sorry Storm Warning). New producers with a totally new ethos as to how they think Doctor Who should work, wrapped up in their choice of Doctor, choice of companion and choice of destination.

11bAnd what a new ethos. As Moffat said himself, a couple of times in the run up to tonight’s premiere, if Russell wrote (and how odd to be saying in the past tense) blockbusters and Superman, he’s more interested in fairytales and Tim Burton. From the off this didn't feel any longer like it was happening in the same universe as The Sarah Jane Adventures, let alone Torchwood

In the opening sequence we find a series which is more interested in the immediate problems of an orphan than a global threat, which isn’t really about giant special effects but the mad man in a blue box and the child talking over fish fingers and custard in a kitchen. Where Russell was fond of introducing about eight characters in various walks of life by the end of the first scene, Steven gave us just two. 

Functionally these opening scenes were doing exactly the same as in Rose; the companion greets an alien threat only to be distracted then ultimately saved by the Doctor, except as we’ve discovered with the franchise on so many occasions the stories may be similar but it’s the way that they tell them. This set up was also similar to Moffat’s The Girl in the Fireplace, the Doctor visiting a child who then obsesses about him for the rest of her life – or in Amelia’s case twelve years – until he visits her again. 

The writer is interested in the intricacies of time travel, the implications, yes, the wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey and that looks to be inevitably a repeated theme throughout the series - along with an explanation for the silence. Moffat's also interested in showing us how the Doctor’s mind works in the most explicit of ways as the episode drifted into Steve Rogers territory in showing us how observant a timelord really is.

This didn't feel like it was happening in the same universe as The Sarah Jane Adventures, let alone Torchwood

11cMatt Smith’s incarnation is still cooking but already we can divine a few things – largely because in the run up to the series, he and Steven have been quick to tell us. He’s slightly mad but able to be deadly serious when required. He has a child-like delight in everything but he also understands the universe. Like every other Doctor then. 

What Smith brings is an embodiment – not since Tom has an actor seemed to be simply being an aggressively emphasised adaptation of themselves rather than giving a performance.  Compare the moment in Confidential when he’s talking to little Caitlin Blackwood to Tom chatting to the young child in the studio material for Underworld. He has that same delight in her, the same ability to communicate with the smaller versions of the future us.

The details of Moffat’s characterisation are worth some scrutiny.  The Doctor here seems very confident – over confident perhaps, in that all singing, all dancing, season two of nu-Who way. Capable of charisma, capable of being serious, but there’s something slightly unhinged about him. Towards the end of the Davies era, the Doctor became the viewpoint character but now he’s been swept away from us again. 

The mystery inherent in the title is back, not least in that moment when he seemed to glimpse something on a TARDIS scanner only for him to turn it off like a student putting a phone bill to one side until their brain is able to cope with sorting out the itemisation and calculating how much their house mates owe. Did he only just visit the moon? If it was two years for Amy, how long was it for him?

Pre-publicity rather spoilt the reveal of the older Amy, though is was nicely played from the Doctor’s point of view. Having seen Karen in The Well and as much of The Kevin Bishop Show as I could stand, I had some inkling she was going to be good; but not that she would be this special, this funny, and be given latitude to be this naturalistic in comparison to the big performances of her predecessors.

Just compare the moments in which Amy stepped into the TARDIS for the first time with previous examples, the camera resting on her face as she stepped through the blue door shaped looking glass, her eyes filled with wonder, projecting the small child who's been waiting for this moment. She's able to simultaneously make Amy like dozens of other companions and also something new.

there’s a creepiness to a grown woman dancing off into the time vortex with an imaginary friend made flesh...

11dLike the Doctor, she too has her secrets, not least the wedding dress (and did Murray manage to sneak some of The Runaway Bride theme in underneath that reveal)? She too is slightly unhinged, with her dozens of models of herself and the Doctor. On the one hand this apes a child’s own impulse to make effigies of the characters from their favourite television show perhaps after watching Blue Peter and assuming their parents can’t afford to take them for a Character Options themed spending spree at Forbidden Planet. 

On the other, at the risk of sounding like Christopher Tookey reviewing Kick-Ass, there’s a creepiness to a grown woman dancing off into the time vortex with an imaginary friend made flesh, especially when she’s seen that flesh or at least the naked skin that holds it in place. At the risk of disagreeing with Alison Pearson, in making her specifically a kiss-a-gram, putting her in those clothes, it’s also a welcome return to the old 70s role for the companion.

About as close to the Davies era as the episode drifted was in the b-plot which was essentially the same as Smith & Jones except with the jailers/policeman going Vogon on the planet Earth rather than a simple hospital.  Amy’s bewildered boyfriend was pure Davies too. I’ve already seen reviews and message board comments deriding the story of the episode as being a bit thin, missing the fact that the story of the episode is the Doctor regenerating and meeting Amy.

The thing they dislike is the less important b-plot as though their brain can’t cope with the sudden switch in priorities. All too often, Davies’s episodes, despite their character beats would prioritise the alien threat on the assumption that alien threats are what Doctor Who is about. Doctor Who can be about that, and it can also be something else entirely and arguably his best episodes were the ones which, like The Eleventh Hourforegrounded the character story.

To an extent Moffat seemed here to be commenting on his predecessors approach to plotting; this was another occasion when a global threat was mostly completed by a single laptop in a bedroom, with accompanying shots of metropolitan areas, a single word slipping throughout the world, a literal God in the machine (two if you count Patrick Moore, three if you count Twitter – has the series ever been this properly zeitgeisty?) but the Doctor’s final defence of the earth was through words not actions, information science in the shape of all ten previous Doctor (hello Paul!) and the range of monsters he’s defeated new and old (Sea Devils!). 

The Tenth Doctor’s first action in defence of the Earth was to pick up a sword. The Eleventh doesn’t look like he could even lift a sword or would even want to. Remind me to have a discussion some other time about when The Eleventh Hour is supposed to be set. After intricately keeping to the timing of one year ahead in the last four and half series, do we even know now when Amy was picked up from? Paging Lance Parkin. Parkin to the blog, please.

The Tenth Doctor’s first action in defence of the Earth was to pick up a sword. The Eleventh doesn’t look like he could even lift a sword...

11eThe look of the show has changed too. With the exception of the budget busting opening shot of the TARDIS falling to Earth (which looked like a hold-over from the previous era) this was a show returning, at least at this point, to a simpler approach to special effects, even the aliens lacking the usual over engineering of The Mill. Changes to the landscape (signs and whatnot) were practical and there's a general shift from primary colours to something more naturalistic. 

The new TARDIS interior remains true to the make do and mend ethos of the previous version but the console elements more historical, like the remnant of an Antiques Roadtrip. It's also a return to the living space of old where companions may have hobbies to keep them happy whilst travelling in the time vortex. The doors suggest we'll be spending some time in here, all that talk of libraries and swimming pools.

So I was enchanted, beguiled, cheering, laughing and clapping. In the coming days, you may hear/read fans saying that this is how they wish the new series had always been, forgetting that in Moffat's episodes it already had been.  But "better" in this case is a pejorative word. It's simply different, more low key, but no less funny. Moffat's scripting is predictably hilarious and quotable. 

Plus this is only the first episode and one which is deliberately designed to be different. The coming attractions suggest a series which will be just as loud and exciting as what's gone before, with just as many shopping list style plots (Daleks & Winston Churchill, The Weeping Angels & River Song). 

About the only problem I have so far is with the titles, which seem a bit fan produced, a bit like something that might introduce one of the documentaries on the classic series dvds with a remix of the theme tune that sounds like an orchestrated version of the Delaware version but can’t quite decide how revisionist it should be. I miss the original version. I know it’s not very poppy, but it is otherworldly and strange which seems to fit this new version of the franchise admirably.

Next Week:  Rule Brittania, Brittania rules deep space …

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