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April 05, 2010

The Pinwheelest Pinwheel

Doctor Who: The Eleventh Hour

This story really should seem stale.

It's saturated with devices from the Moff's previous outings: the connection between the Doctor and a woman with whom he is temporally out of sync; the pedestal on which Amy puts the Doctor, impairing her romantic attachments; the use of catchphrases ("PRISONER ZERO HAS ESCAPED"); the specific dialogue lifted from previous Moffat stories (which is itself a trope within Moffat's stories).

And it follows the familiar pattern of RTD series openers. The actual "plot" of the episode is secondary to the "story" about the Doctor and his companion. The alien threat here is similar to that of Smith and Jones, and the Eleventh Doctor's confrontation with the Atraxi specifically recalls the Tenth Doctor's speech to the Sycorax ("It is defended") in The Christmas Invasion, citing the Shadow Proclamation seems like a deliberate nod to the Ninth Doctor's ultimatum for the Nestene Consciousness in Rose. Steven's script is built around the frame tried and tested by Russell.

And yet it feels completely fresh and new.

This is partially down to the new aesthetic of the show. I don’t mean the "branding" material, which I find disappointing: the new theme tune (I wanted less Gold and more Derbyshire, but we got the reverse), the (oncoming?) storm vortex, or the new font (who’d have thought that between Rusty and Moff, the former would show more restraint in his choice of on-screen typeface?). And was I the only one who was really hoping to see Matt Smith's face in the title sequence? But enough of that. In 2030 we'll still be slagging off (or defending) this title sequence, so I’ll leave that for now.

Who’d have thought that between Rusty and Moff, the former would show more restraint in his choice of on-screen typeface?

No, I mean the look of the show. Everything’s shiny. Brights are brighter, darks are darker, the color palette seems more intense, and there’s even a bit of lens flare in one scene. The opening scene with the TARDIS hurtling through the London sky is (deliberately?) very much in the style of the Davies era, complete with zoom from orbit, and the TARDIS careening through the air. But as soon as the opening titles (those dratted opening titles!) end, everything is different. Look at that red pinwheel, how it shines in the dark, the way the shadows fall on it. It's a striking image, not at all the way an episode would have started in, say, an episode written by Davies and directed by Euros Lyn. A single, striking image. It's only on screen for three seconds, but it changed my perception of what I was watching. That first instant was proof that the talk of a visual refresh was more than just talk.

As soon as we see the establishing shots of EXT. POND HOUSE, it’s confirmed that we’re not watching the same show anymore. Then we pan across the garden, dark and overgrown, full of life and mystery. A warped and mangled bench; a creaky swing. This is not the same visual world as the one established in Rose, or other series openers by Russell T Davies, most of which show the new companion in the middle of the bustle of the London. In interviews, we’ve heard that this version of Doctor Who was going to have a cinematic feel. The Davies era had been progressing in that direction, but this is an enormous leap toward the fantastic. The visual style has been compared to Harry Potter and Twilight, and I can see where that is coming from.

And it looks… well, fairy-tale. I was a little surprised to hear that word in the episode, after it’s been repeated over and over in interviews. Actors, producers, journalists, everyone has described the series that way, and I have a feeling that this controlling ethos was a specific mandate from the Grand Moff. I’d bet my buttons that Moffat had a big meeting before production started and told everyone that the buzzword to keep in mind was “fairy tale,” if not for the whole series then at least for this episode. I’m making this all up, but I bet it’s close to the truth because it’s all over the screen here. I attribute this largely to Steven Moffat's creative vision, but credit is perhaps better deserved by Adam Smith, whose direction brings it to life. Smith is a rookie, but he's a far better choice to establish the tone for a new Doctor Who era than, say, Keith Boak. In any case, there is a harmony of creative vision here, and if the first episode is meant to set the tone for the whole series (and judging from the trailers, this seems likely) then we're in for one beautiful series.

(Actually, there is an antecedent for Moffat's fairy-tale style in Davies-era Doctor Who: Moffat's own Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, directed by Euros Lyn. As Stuart wrote in his review when that story aired two years ago, "From the opening teaser [...] it simply feels like a different series." Was that story a backdoor pilot for Moffat's own vision of Doctor Who? Did Moffat work closely with Euros Lyn to dictate the kind of tone he wanted, establishing a pattern that would be used here? Again I’m speculating about what went on behind the scenes, but I think it's there on screen and not just in my delusional head.)

But the freshness of this episode owes as much to the script as to the visuals. Yes, the shape of the story resembles Davies’s season openers. Yes, the arc of the companion resembles that of Moffat’s previous guest characters. That’s the point, I think. We keep the basic Davies story structure, but delete the Davies companion and set up the Moffat protagonist in her place. For all their differences, Rose, Martha and Donna were similar in their motivation: they rely on the Doctor to rescue them from the banality of modern urban life, because they don’t belong there. Amy is different. She isn’t driven to escape. On the contrary, she seems to belong in Leadworth. She has a fiancée there, and her kissogram gig is hardly banal. The Doctor points out that she's the Scottish girl in the English village, but we don't get the idea that she's uncomfortable in that role. She feels no real need to go anywhere. It’s not about expanding her horizons by standing on the soil of another world or another era. It’s about her sheer fascination with the Doctor. Like Reinette. Like Sally Sparrow. But unlike them, she gets her shot with him. She’s not just a Moffat Protagonist. She’s the Moffat Protagonist Victorious. It's an interesting take on the role of the companion, and Karen Gillan seems suited for it. The material Karen's given here is a bit fluffy, but in the past few years the real thespianic meat for both Doctor and companion has been found in the latter half of the series, so I'm eager to see where Amy Pond's arc takes us.

When Matt Smith empties a glass of water, he does it magically.

Meanwhile, Smith’s Doctor is a breath of fresh air. It’s easy to see why Moffat cast him, even against his inclinations regarding the Doctor’s age. And he was right to do so, because there was not a moment during The Eleventh Hour when I thought of him as too young for the role. He doesn’t look young. He doesn’t even look human, nor does he act human. Fish custard is but one example. He walks strangely. He straightens Rory’s hoodie and pokes him in the forehead while talking to him. He handles props strangely: when Matt Smith empties a glass of water, he does it magically. And there’s such purity to his performance, more than Tennant’s. “I don’t even have an aunt” is a line the Tenth Doctor might have said, but it would have seemed wry or cheeky from Tennant. He'd follow it up with a wink. Smith gives it some earnestness. It breaks the pattern of Tennant’s smugness, but unfortunately the Tennant smugness does occasionally crop up.

Which is my only gripe: occasionally Smith steers it a bit too close to Tennant’s performance. This is understandable. Tennant was a popular Doctor. Perhaps it’s down to the script. As Stuart mentioned, it was originally written prior to Matt Smith’s casting as the Doctor. At that time, there was still a chance that Tennant would be returning to the role and could have appeared in this very episode, inaugurating Moffat’s “fairy tale” era in Smith’s place. Or perhaps Smith acts a little like Tennant to demonstrate that this really is the same man, despite the new face. He has the unenviable task of convincing millions of children that the Eleventh Doctor is the same person as the Tenth Doctor, a task which is made no easier by the fact that just a few months ago they watched the Tenth Doctor deliver a tearful denial of that very fact. Even so, I'm looking forward to what Smith has to offer over the course of the year (and hopefully not just the year), and give him some time to stretch out and really make the role his own.

Overall, I loved The Eleventh Hour. I really did think it was more or less perfect, and the minor gripes I've brought up barely registered on first viewing, nor did I really care at all about the recycled plot stuff (which I expect will be the key criticism from those who disliked it, the rational critics as well as the Lawrence Miles types. Is Lawrence Miles a type?). So, lots of positivity here. It did, however, inspire a couple of pessimistic thoughts about the future. It’s very easy to envision a scenario in which fandom has grown as disdainfully weary of the “same old Moffat shit” as they did during the Davies era. It’s not a happy thought, and I’m not saying we’re there or even close to there, but Moffat has confirmed what we knew from his previous scripts: he’s no more above recycling than Davies was. But he does it with considerable flair and style. So, on the flip side, I can envision a future where the “Moffat Fairy-Tale” is talked about alongside the “Hinchcliffe Gothic”, as one of the golden eras of Doctor Who.

But I'm sure it's too early to prognosticate. So roll on, Smith/Moffat era.

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