Sunday, 23 November 2014

Practically Perfect In Every Way

Doctor Who
The Eleventh Hour
Series Five, Episode One

Woo!  All change!

The Eleventh Hour is an explosion of newness.  New Doctor, new companion, new TARDIS, new showrunner, new look, new sound.  Frankly, in 2010, Doctor Who needed the shot in the arm.  No doubt it works really well as a jumping-on point for brand new fans.  But we can get to all that in a minute.  Let's deal with the most important thing in the episode, the most important thing in Doctor Who.  The New Guy.

Matt.  Smith.  Is.  Perfect.

"I know he's an alien, but the mask is a bit much."
*awkward silence*
We each have our own take on what the Doctor should be like, and some actors will hover closer to it than others.  This time, I lucked out: Matt Smith just feels like the Doctor to me.  Stuff like otherworldly genius, impossible old age and "alien-ness" is tough to convey, especially for an actor as fresh-faced as Smith, but he manages all of the above in a way that, for me, David Tennant rarely did.  His was a charming, funny, sometimes imposing Doctor, but often he just seemed like the loudest guy in the room.  People generally ignored him.

Smith gives the impression that his mind is working on several things at once; he buzzes with ideas in a way that singles him out from everyone else.  And it's not just how he delivers the dialogue.  It's a tremendously physical performance, bouncing and tumbling around like a force of nature, but always with a certain precision in the way he moves, and the way he speaks, that suggests he's got it under control – just.  Smith's accent oscillates between a prim British cleverness and his usual (affected) Londoner's cadence, which I find quite thrilling: he sounds like he's just burst into existence and is going in several directions at once, but always lands on just the right spot.

Despite all that, and gallons of whimsy and eccentricity in the script, he still seems like a genuine person – he even makes "Wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey" sound like something you might say.  There's an unselfconsciousness to his actions, especially when he seems to be in his own little world, or when he's spitting.  (There's a whole scene of this and it's brilliant, but I'm also thinking of the bit in The End Of Time when he spits on the TARDIS for no reason.)  There are moments when the very consciously witty script backs him into a more mannered corner – like the opening when he's hanging off the TARDIS, or yelling "And stay out!" to a plate of bread and butter – but mostly he gives the already excellent material that extra push into sheer, fizzing genius.  I'd never seen Matt Smith in anything before this, so on some level I was even more ready to believe that David Tennant had regenerated into a brand new person, and that he was quite probably the Doctor.  A star is born.

I could praise his performance all day, but there is an actual episode attached to it, and it's only fair to go into that as well.  So: hooray!  The episode is brilliant as well!

New Doctor stories have novelty value by default – surprisingly often, this is the only thing going for them.  But The Eleventh Hour doesn't take that for granted.  The episode is designed to show off this version of the Doctor, marooning him without an established costume, a TARDIS or (for most of it) a sonic screwdriver.  He's given a fairly simple problem: the Atraxi will boil the Earth if they don't get their hands on the shape-shifter, Prisoner Zero.  He solves it with whatever's to hand, plus heaps of Doctorly cleverness, leaving the audience in no doubt that this guy is on the case.  Now, I'm well aware that I'm being frogmarched into thinking the Eleventh Doctor is brilliant, but I don't care, he genuinely is – see Why I Love Matt Smith, above – and with the plot so focussed on its goals, there isn't room for any of the usual bollocks.  Hooray!

Start to finish, this is one of the smartest and funniest scripts in Doctor Who.  Of course it's the episode's mission to win you over, so it's loaded with jokes.  (My favourite: "Do I just have a face that nobody listens to, again?", which is the Tenth Doctor gag I've been waiting years for.)  But there's more to it than wit and charm.  Steven Moffat is laying the groundwork for his version of the show, so he revisits one of his favourite themes: time travel working at different speeds.

I wish kids didn't age so fast, just so we could have kept Amelia.
And also because life's too short childhood is precious blah blah.
Crashing in her garden, the new Doctor meets a little girl called Amelia Pond.  He soon pops back into the TARDIS, then emerges to find her grown up.  An encounter that lasts minutes for him has repercussions on Amelia's (now Amy's) entire life.  I don't even know where to start with this stuff.  The episode runs fifteen minutes longer to accommodate it, but it's time well spent developing the Doctor, who explains the very complicated situation of a new body via what foods he likes.  (Hence all the spitting.)  It's time well spent showing how time travel works, and how it can get complicated, as succinctly as possible.  It's time well spent developing Amelia, who immediately strikes a rapport and trust with the Doctor – of course the same will happen, by extension, with the audience, especially the young'uns.  These scenes are chock full of groundwork and narrative all essential to the series, but it's such bliss to watch Matt Smith and Caitlin Blackwood work that you'd hardly notice.  It's very skilfully done.

Of course, Amelia cannot be our companion.  (Alas.)  Zip forward 12 years and we meet Amy, a girl with a lifetime of annoyance that the Doctor didn't come back.  Karen Gillan instantly strikes her own rapport with Smith, building on what Caitlin did.  The episode is about her to a large extent, and it's cleverly set in a small town where everybody knows what she's like.  It's an immediately interesting dynamic: she's obsessed with the Doctor, as anyone would be after what happened, but it's a cause of psychological bother and embarrassment.  Parallels are drawn with meeting your imaginary friend, and all the awkwardness that entails, which is a great way to communicate the show's appeal to younger viewers, and a valid way to reimagine it for the rest of us.  It's an instantly relateable and unique Doctor/companion relationship, which helps define them both.

There are some perhaps less impressive details on the periphery.  Grown-up Amy works as a Kissogram, which on the one hand is a creepy, lecherous, possibly euphemistic fate for a (typically sexy) Doctor Who companion, but on the other hand it fits with her obvious predilection for a fantasy life.  So, cautiously: shrug.

Gillan is as hilariously watchable as Smith.  The same goes for Arthur Darvill as Amy's long-suffering boyfriend Rory, now faced with (and horrified by) Amy's imaginary fancy-man.  The three of them became firm friends in real life, and their on-screen chemistry is immediate and infectious.  It just works.

Doctor?  Tick.  Companion?  Tick.  That's pretty much mission accomplished before we even get to the villain, who (let's face it) is not the important bit.  Still, Prisoner Zero works really well.  He's a mix of CGI (it looks awesome) and various "multi-form" disguises, including a man and his dog, with the clever tip-off that he gets the voice wrong.  (It's usually the dog that barks.)  It's pleasantly sneaky for a post-regeneration story to have a bad-guy that changes what he looks like, and it allows for some sly external character development when he takes the form of Amelia, who tells the Doctor what a disappointment he's been.  (I usually hate this sort of thing, but for once it actually works, because Zero-Amelia isn't pulling this stuff out of a hat.)  One of the disguises is Olivia Colman, easily one of the show's quickest and best cameo roles, oozing menace for a few short minutes.  This is another natty way to show off the new Doctor: he's good at villain showdowns.

Obligatory title/theme comment: it's not the best.
Space and time are made of grey candyfloss?  Meh.
Plus the "sting" sounds like someone swizzling their milkshake straw.
Okay, so the whole Prisoner Zero thing borrows from Smith And Jones: alien hides from other aliens, takes human disguise, lurks in a hospital, Doctor tricks it into revealing itself.  But it's given such a dazzling coat of Steven Moffaty paint that it's not very noticeable.  Meanwhile the Atraxi borrow from the Sycorax and the Juddoon, but also the Vashta Nerada when they "look the Doctor up" and run away.  But hey, that idea works really well in establishing a new Doctor, so why not give it another go?  The Eleventh Hour is so good, I honestly don't care that I've seen bits of it before.  (And some of it's entirely appropriate: the Doctor nicking his outfit from a hospital is straight out of Jon Pertwee's first story.)  Besides, there's a constant starburst of new stuff surrounding it.

Production-wise, this is a seriously impressive piece of telly.  It looks stylish, the direction is slick, and the music is some of Murray's most sumptuous.  The guest cast is an utter winner, peppered with comedy names like Colman, Annette Crosbie and Nina Wadia.  It's an all-out charm offensive, which isn't to say it's only interested in being funny.  (See Colman.)  It's just very, very good at it.

Of course it's Matt and Karen's episode first and foremost, and on that score it's a roaring success.  But to my surprise every time I see it (and I've seen it many times), the rest of it holds up.  It's 60 minutes long, and without a dull or misplaced second.  Confident, funny, clever, comprehensible, utterly loveable on every level, and frosted (as a bonus) with New Doctor Novelty, The Eleventh Hour is so good, all other New Doctor episodes might as well take the day off.  This is how it's done.


  1. NO way. It's the 50th anniversary where Matt's on his best.
    His whole last season is superb, so there's hope for Capaldi ;-)

  2. This is almost unbearably painful to read, because we thought we'd managed to get over Matt but that turns out to be a lie and a delusion. And as you so correctly observe, this episode is SO GOOD. Sadness. (Have you seen Selfie, BTW? It was sneered at a lot and swiftly cancelled, and granted it suffered from a pilot entirely unlike the rest of the episodes, but we thought it was funny, charming and one of the best sitcoms we've seen for some time and, more to the point here, Karen is absolutely stellar in it. It's clear DW was a mere apprenticeship for her acting-wise.)

    1. Hi guys. Yeah, I'm sad too. I see bits of his episodes sometimes and I just think... well, y'know. I'm going through the rest of Series Five soon. Some happy days ahead, as well as... some other ones.

      I have not seen Selfie, though I'm aware of it. Must confess I didn't know it had been cancelled. (These days virtually everything US-made *is*, however.) I'll keep an eye out for a later, non-pilot episode if possible. I did see her in Guardians Of The Galaxy - not a lot to do, but I thought she had a lot of presence, managed the accent, and didn't come across like Amy at all. (I sound like a Secondary School Drama teacher!)

      My family tell me David Tennant's very good in Broadchurch, but I'm a) not altogether cut up that he isn't in Doctor Who any more and b) naturally mistrustful of anything by Chibnall.