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April 10, 2010

The Moffat Manoeuvre

Doctor Who: The Eleventh Hour

Review by John Williams

It's hard not to get carried away by The Eleventh Hour.  I keep reminding myself that it's the first episode I've seen since the drawn out mess that was The End of Time, and that even if new show runner Steven Moffat had started the season with a 21st century remake of Timelash it would have seemed like an improvement, but I still can't resist the temptation to conclude from the evidence of this first episode that we are about to see the best ever season of Doctor Who.  That's not to say it was perfect; much of the middle section of the episode, with internet porn jokes, terrible celebrity cameos and UN vidlinks was pretty poor regardless of whether it was a final homage to the RTD years or just a way of easing the regular viewer from one era to another.  Similarly, the first hospital scene was a bit clunky and odd - why were all the patients shouting "Doctor"? - and the only good thing about the pre-credit sequence was that it wasn't the credit sequence. 

Ultimately though, none of this really matters because The Eleventh Hour not only featured some of Steven Moffat's best writing for the series so far, but also introduced the wonderful relationship between the Doctor and Amy which Matt Smith and Karen Gillan seized upon with their impressive debut performances.  Obviously the performances are key, in the sense that if Matt Smith had been rubbish, no-one would have given a damn about anything else, and he deserves all the praise that's been showered on him from this blog and the media generally, but for me the striking thing about the episode is how Moffat yet again pulled off the tricky manoeuvre of taking a well-worn fandom debate and turning it into an emotionally complex piece of drama.  That he did this with the introductory episode for a new Doctor, leaves me both admiring his chutzpah, and trying to work out exactly how he keeps pulling it off.

Moffat yet again pulled off the tricky manoeuvre of taking a well-worn fandom debate and turning it into an emotionally complex piece of drama

Moffat Moffat's sense of mischief seems to be the starting point for all of his stories.  No stranger to internet forums, arguing the toss and generally thinking hard about Who, he's spent a lot of time honing his views on what the show should be about, and has also enjoyed winding up some sections of fandom for their more entrenched beliefs.  So, he teased the fans who denied the Doctor's sexuality, complained vociferously about the effect of spoilers on the programme, and a couple of years ago brought an argument on the old Outpost Gallifrey forum crashing to a halt by announcing that, as far as he was concerned, Doctor Who was definitely a children's programme.  He then wrote The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances and The Girl in the Fireplace which not only riffed on the Doctor's sexuality but made it integral to the plot; and similarly in Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead he built the whole story around the perils of timey-wimey-ness and real-life spoilers.  Not many writers could have gone down this route without seeming self-indulgent or tricksy, and some people have levelled this criticism at Moffat's work, but the emotional range of these stories belies the mischievous origins without ever quite eclipsing them.  They are intellectual exercises (post-modern if you like) with an emotional whack - it's no wonder most Doctor Who fans adore them.

It would have been enough for most writers to believe that Doctor Who is a children's show and write it accordingly.  But as we've seen before Moffat prefers to grab hold of his arguments and make them the stuff of drama.  He has never done this better than in the opening sequence of The Eleventh Hour, which is surely one of the best sustained pieces of writing in the show's history.  There was so much going on that's it hard to know where to start.  The Doctor emerges soaking wet from the TARDIS like a new-born infant, and instantly he and Amelia are like children playing at make-believe in the garden.  The intensity of their conversation - the Doctor rather childishly snaps "Why?" when Amelia asks if he's a policeman, and he is instantly interested in the crack in the wall - reflects the Doctor's willingness to listen to a child rather than patronise, but also that he's existing in the moment just like a child.  He doesn't even know what he likes to taste, and the sequence of him rejecting various foodstuffs until he's satisfied will ring a familiar bell with parents who have despaired of finding anything that their baby will tolerate until a bizarre combination suddenly hits the spot. 

Baby There's hardly a pause before the Doctor investigates the crack in Amy's wall and his deduction: that it's not a crack in the wall but rather a crack in the universe, is both a brilliantly Doctor-ish and childlike diagnosis.  It's the opposite of Occam's razor, and exactly gets the characteristically solipsistic way that a child views the world, but it's also very recognisably the Doctor's modus operandi, and so by the end of the sequence there's no mistaking that to be the Doctor is partly to be a child.  When we eventually get to the equally wonderful closing sequence when the grown-up Amy stares around the TARDIS with childlike joy and wonder, and the Doctor lets her know that he'll soon cure her of being an adult, it's a fitting way of resolving Amy's earlier abandonment but also emphasises Moffat's view of the series: leave your adulthood behind when you see the opening credits and remember what it was like to be a child.

leave your adulthood behind when you see the opening credits and remember what it was like to be a child

Fair_cop It's a bravura sequence, and one that could seem a touch corny or sentimental if that was all there was to it. But only Moffat could fashion a fairy tale about the importance of childhood that features an orphan who ends up as a kissogram (allegedly a strippergram in the first draft) due to the trauma of being abandoned by the show's protagonist.  Only Moffat could go back to the potentially retrograde image of a red-hot sexy companion in a mini-skirt (long live the Straight Agenda) and manage to justify it on the basis that she dresses like that because she is a damaged and complex individual that will (perhaps) be healed by the man who initially caused the damage.  It's undoubtedly the case that many fairy tales are coded explorations of violence and sexuality but even so the relationship between the Doctor and Amy is well and truly f***ed up (as Neil has also mentioned), and I get the feeling that somewhere Moffat is sitting chuckling in front of a massive conveyor belt full of cake which he is both having and eating all day, every day.  But if the rest of the series is as good as the moment when The Doctor says "I am a madman in a box", makes a weird noise and Amy giggles with glee, then he can have as much cake as he likes.

somewhere Moffat is sitting chuckling in front of a massive conveyor belt full of cake which he is both having and eating all day, every day.

However, I'm a Doctor Who fan, and I can't write a review without worrying about something.  Moffat made the telling point recently in The Times that "I’ve tended in my writing career quite piously and quite sneeringly to inhabit after 9pm on BBC Two. And then you do Doctor Who and you think, ‘Isn’t it better to entertain an awful lot of people? And, also, isn’t it harder?" I'm pretty sure that the majority of the positive reviews of The Eleventh Hour in both the mainstream media and blogs like this were written by people who are very much "after 9pm on BBC Two" types.  The main exception to their "after 9pm on BBC Two" viewing habits is Doctor Who - I doubt that they are regular watchers of Holby City, for example.  So in some respects the jury is still out until we have spent a few weeks pitilessly analysing the overnights, seeing if Moffat can sustain four episodes on the trot and finding out if Simon Nye or Richard Curtis will be this year's Matthew Graham inflicting their versions of Fear Her upon us.

It's probably not worth worrying about though, as I get the feeling the new showrunner tends to come up smiling.  A few years ago one of the script writers on an earlier series of Who told me about a bet that was made between a group of writers where the challenge was to include the name of a curry house in one of their scripts.  Apparently this is quite a famous story (the restaurant was called the Chula) but I hadn't heard it.  "So who won?" I asked.  "Oh Moffat won", he said "Moffat always wins".

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