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April 07, 2010

Up to Eleven...

Doctor Who: The Eleventh Hour
Review by Neil Perryman

11_dThe opening sequence didn't exactly bode well for this so-called "new era" of Doctor Who. As an exercise in managing my expectations they couldn't have released a better clip if they'd tried. Within seconds I had been traumatised by Murray Gold's unmistakable brand of schmaltzy razzmatazz which heralded the appearance of a comedic TARDIS special effect that looked utterly ridiculous. In short, it was wholly in-keeping with what I've come to expect from this show. So much for a change in direction, then.

Matters didn't improve when our hero was almost castrated by Big Ben in a stunt Harold Lloyd would have balked at on the grounds of artistic integrity. In fact, the only thing missing from this Bedknobs and Broomsticks-style introduction was a flying London bus from Planet of the Dead. Or maybe the Titanic. Had Russell really left the building? Or was this a clever homage to an era literally going up in flames?

And then the titles kicked in. Sadly, while they're an improvement on the last five years, they're still an aching disappointment. The sort of disappointment that only a fanboy can appreciate. The lightning bolts suggest an degree of danger and mystery but the tunnel of fire suggests a bout of chronic indigestion. The TARDIS spinning out of the logo is a nice touch, but I miss the promise of a large face looming out of the vortex. You can't beat a nice, looming face. And I bet Matt has a perfect face when it comes to looming. Sigh.

You can't beat a nice, looming face...

11_aThe disappointing visuals aren't helped by a new arrangement of the theme tune, which is - and I don't think I'm being controversial when I say this - bloody terrible. I was hoping for something moody, mechanical, and above all odd, but instead we got a superfluous Debneyesque intro which is followed by a weedy electronic whine that fights a losing battle against some bombastic strings and brass that I've grown to loathe with a passion that occasionally teeters into obsession. The theme music should be one of the most frightening elements of the show; it should unnerve you, it shouldn't make you want to victoriously punch the air or march in time like a bloody majorette.

I could feel my hopes slowly ebbing away and the programme hadn't even started properly yet...

And then Steven Moffat's name appeared in the credits and - as if by magic - I suddenly felt OK again.

The tone of the episode changed immediately. All that grandstanding spectacle replaced by a solitary child's voice and a spooky undercurrent of doom. The colour palette had shifted to a darker, colder blue and that eerie tracking shot was a million miles away from the wham-bam montages we've grown accustomed to of late. And then we got to enjoy an exta special treat: we were allowed to spend some quality time with two characters for what felt like, in modern television terms at least, an eternity.

The theme should unnerve you, it shouldn't make you want to punch the air...

11_bIt's rapidly becoming a cliche to exclaim that Matt Smith nails the part as soon as he looms into view (see, I told you) but he really does. I had expected to spend a whole hour over-analysing his every move for signs of uncertainty or overacting but I was carried away by his performance as soon as he opened that funny looking mouth of his. He is the Doctor. It really is as simple as that.

I never once felt that Smith was trying too hard: his madness and eccentricity was never forced and he never looked self-conscious or uncomfortable. Even when the Doctor's actions bordered on the absurd (and he sailed pretty close to the the wind in those first ten minutes) there's was still an effortless charm underpinning the performance. His insanity looked positively naturalistic at times.

Another cliche doing the rounds is that you can't take your eyes off him. This also happens to be true. Every gesture, every facial expression, every action Smith performs is a delight to watch. He's just so... alien. Just look at the way he empties that glass of water or eats those fish fingers. Oh boy, he's going to be good.

And whereas previous Doctors have tended to spend a considerable amount of time immediately following a regeneration unconscious or in hospital (occasionally both) the Eleventh is up and about, kicking arse and saving the planet, before he's even had time to change his clothes. There's no angst ridden mooching about or instability to contend with here. He doesn't make a run for the zero room and he doesn't conk out at a critical juncture. He doesn't even try to kill his companion. Sure, he acts a bit loopy in that initial food scene but he's still trying to define himself there ("I'm funny. Funny's good."). In fact, aside from the odd bit of cramp he's basically the Doctor within minutes of turning up to the party.

It doesn't hurt to get some bloody great lines too: "I've put a lot of work into it" - "You're Scottish, fry something" - "Basically...run". It's great, quotable stuff and a massive step up from yelling in French or burping whilst talking.

The Eleventh Doctor is up and about, kicking arse and saving the planet, before he's even had time to change his clothes...

11_cIt's just a shame that the episode goes to such ridiculous lengths to reassure you that this is still the same Doctor we know and love, even if he does have a wonky chin and silly hair. He had me with the apple - I didn't need a roll-call of ex-Doctors to ram the point home. Oh go on then, I'm a sucker for some old-school wibbly-wobbly flashbacking, if you really insist.

However, I was a little perplexed by the choice of foes in those flashbacks. Exactly when did the Hath pose a threat to this planet? Or the Ood, come to think of it. Where's Ian Levine when you need him? But I had to laugh when the aliens decided that we weren't that much of a threat, despite all the clips of war, death and destruction that un-spooled before their, erm, eye. Just think, if this had been Star Trek the whole thing might have kicked off again.

Anyway, once Matt had successfully put me at my ease I was free to worry about everyone else. And once again I really needn't have bothered.

Karen Gillan was just as compelling as Smith. In fact, when they share the same screen it's difficult to know where to look. She has a pout that by rights should annoy me but it's accompanied by a brooding, scornful intensity that hints at so much buried hurt and disappointment it's impossible not be entranced. Karen delivers her lines perfectly too, exhibiting just the right amount of damage/aggression/childlike wonder. Sometimes in the same sentence. It's a hell of a juggling act to pull off but Gillan rises to the challenge magnificently.

Exactly when did the Hath pose a threat to this planet? Or the Ood, come to think of it.

11_eOf course the performances are helped by the glorious set-up because as far as Doctor - Companion introductions go this one's a belter. Amy's entire personality has been shaped by her initial encounter with this strange man. It sent her insane. For years her family have "humoured her" while the hapless Rory has even dressed up as him for her. Whether this practice continued beyond childhood isn't specified but given her penchant for dressing up and acting out fantasies for a living it's difficult to say how deep her problems run. She's even been writing some fan fiction by the look of it. She's probably beyond hope.

You could also claim that Amy helped shape the Doctor's new personality, being there at the critical moment when he was still coming to terms with who he was. It's ripe for psychoanalysis (not to mention fliking) and this could be the first time we've had a situation where the Doctor and the companion are both completely bonkers.

I actually laughed out loud when we discovered that the Doctor had arrived a further two years too late after a quick sojourn on the moon. It's such a clever conceit, especially because it comes out of nowhere and you can't quite believe that Moffat had the audacity to pull the same stunt twice. But when you stop to think about the consequences of that second delay you are left with even more disturbing images of emotional damage and pent-up resentment. And then there's the wedding dress to consider. What happened in those intervening years? If she was crazy before, what on earth is she like now?

So to sum up, the two leads are magnificent and that's what counts. They have a weird chemistry and one of the most screwed-up dynamics of all time. How they'll develop from here is anyone's guess, but I can't wait to find out.

She's been writing some fan fiction by the look of it. She's probably beyond hope.

11_g The only times The Eleventh Hour didn't really do it for me is when it harked back to the RTD era with a reverence that genuinely surprised me. I've already mentioned the gaudy opening sequence, but there's also a pointless celebrity cameo where Patrick Moore makes a complete tit of himself, a handy video conferencing solution, the return of the all-too-convenient psychic paper and sonic screwdriver, an annoying catchphrase and a threat to contemporary Earth (even if it emanates from a country village and not a housing estate in Central London). Even the "running about music" is exactly the same.

It certainly isn't the clean break some of us had been hoping for. Even the best bits of this hark back to Moffat's earlier work under RTD. As Tom pointed out in his review there's a shopping list of tried and tested Moffatisms if you care look for them (if you are going to steal then steal from the best) but perhaps, as Damon suggests, the reset signalled by the Doctor at the end of this adventure isn't merely a literal one, it is also the final curtain for this type of adventure for quite some time. I do hope so.

Murray Gold's music, which is probably the most contentious holdover from the RTD years, might contain the biggest clue of all. For large swathes of the opening 45 minutes Murray plunders quite happily from his own back catalogue with themes harking back to The Runaway Bride, Utopia, The End of Time and many, many more. At first I thought this was laziness on his part but in retrospect it appears that Murray was attempting to provide a transitional score that doesn't exert its own personality until the final confrontation. It implies that the Eleventh Doctor would take 50 minutes or so to settle down into his new persona, which also implies that Smith nailed things a bit too early for the conceit to work, but either way there's a sense that things are moving on. I really like Amy's theme and the Doctor's new motif is undeniably infectious.

Amy's entire personality has been shaped by her initial encounter with the Doctor. It sent her insane.

11_fI've taken up far too much room and there's still loads of good stuff to talk about. Prisoner Zero's freaky inability to mimic its victims correctly is a clever twist on the standard possession threat, while the giant eyeballs perfectly encapsulate the fairytale aesthetic that we've been hearing so much about recently, conjuring up images of Tolkien and Roger Dean album covers as they hovered menacing in space in much the same way that bricks don't. There's some not-so-good stuff too: the Doctor's photographic memory is a nice idea but did we really need to see it? I just hope this doesn't become a regular "super-power" any time soon.

The new TARDIS deserves a special mention. Just like the titles, it doesn't break away from the past quite enough for my liking, and while the extra levels and space are welcome additions (and the windows are the right size for a change) the interior is still a bit too orange for me. Thankfully, the console remains cheerfully haphazard and Heath Robinsonesque, and some of the incidental details are fun to spot, like the drum pedals, the bath taps and the giant glass dildo. That thrusts up and down. And is it just me or is did that big round lava lamp/visualiser in the corner of the room dredge up memories of Zen from Blake's 7 and TIM from The Tomorrow People for anyone else?

All this and Moffat still finds the time to sow the seeds to a story arc that will hopefully exceed the on-the-hoof name dropping and blatant franchise advertising we've had to endure in the past. This one looks like it might actually pay off. There's ominous talk of cracks in the fabric of the universe (mirrored on the Bakelite TARDIS scanner), silence falling (I originally misheard the prophecy as "science will fall", which I thought sounded incredibly cool), and something called the Pandorica that probably shouldn't be opened but almost certainly will. In episode 12, I bet.

I think that covers it. On this evidence alone, my favourite television show just became my favourite television show again. And it's about time.

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