Doctor Who complete reviews: The Eleventh Hour
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
The old order changeth, giving way to...who?
Fish fingers and custard.
Now there's a combination you won't find in your average fine dining restaurant. Hordes of students up and down the country swear by this sort of food, especially when they find that the budget's plummeted to zero at the end of the month. Result? Raid the fridge and the food cupboards and fill your belly with unusual if unappetising recipes.
Bet it leaves a funny taste in the mouth though – in fact, hindsight leaves a bittersweet taste in the mouth too. Especially if you're a picky, over-perfectionist reviewer who's poring over past analyses of Doctor Who stories. In 2010, I reviewed the whole of Matt Smith's first season, and scribbling my thoughts pretty much on the trot and working on first impressions. Looking back at those reviews, you'd have thought that I'd have stumbled across a brand new Golden Age of Doctor Who. Yes, even stories such as The Beast Below, the Silurian two-parter and the season finale were given the thumbs up. Well, I guess that when you're caught up in the hype and the thrill of seeing a brand new episode for the first time, it's easy to concentrate on the superlatives. Coming back to this season, though, does it stand up so well?
Well yes and no. Way back in Spring 2010, a lot was expected of the first Matt Smith season. Even as early as 2008, fans were wondering what was going to happen, given that Russell T Davies had announced his departure. Somewhat inevitably, Steven Moffat was the man chosen to take over the reins. Moffat, as well as being a self-confessed fan of the show, had produced a string of highly acclaimed Who classics, some of which are the finest that the series has to offer. So it was a logical choice, and now the fans were waiting with bated breath for the first Moffat season. Things got even more intriguing in January 2009, when a relative unknown with an odd Flock Of Seagulls haircut was chosen as David Tennant's successor. Just as was the case with Moffat, Matt Smith had big shoes to fill. Davies and Tennant had raised the profile of Doctor Who even further, garnering a long list of positive reviews, awards and accolades to the show's name. So a lot was expected of the new arrivals after the Eleventh Doctor arrived screaming in a flamey TARDIS.
"Steven Moffat takes a comparatively low-key approach with slow-burning, thoughtful stories that mainly depend on subtle nuances rather than big, demonstrative exhibitions"
Fast forward to now, and it seems that some of the fans are in a bit of a pickle about whether Moffat's stewardship has lived up to the initial promise. The first Matt Smith season, in particular has divided opinions of fans - some of whom do regard it as the dawning of a new era, some of whom feel a bit short-changed. Now this is nothing new. During Davies' run, some commentators bemoaned the regular Earth Faces Invasion plot, a lack of subtlety, and a shouty Doctor. In fact, there's always been dissatisfaction from some quarters with each era, whether some people think that the UNIT years are too cosy or that the Williams era is too jokey. And even if there are teething problems with Moffat's new vision for Doctor Who, well at least you can say that it's a notably different take on what had gone directly before. And hey, change is good, right kids? Otherwise we'd all be walking round like the Reverend Ernest Matthews and his hilarious big sideburns.
The fifth NuWho season is notably different from the previous four batches (and the specials, don't forget them). Whereas the Davies era was – for the most part - notably larger than life, Moffat takes a comparatively low-key approach with slow-burning, thoughtful stories that mainly depend on subtle nuances rather than big, demonstrative exhibitions. Whether or not this works is down to personal preference. A good portion of people have welcomed what's known as the Dark Fairy Tale approach. We're no longer in a world full of council estate high-rise buildings and dead-end streets, we're in a world full of quaint old English Midsomer-esque villages, stone circles and country drilling patches. This is seen right from the offset in The Eleventh Hour as the new Doctor stumbles around a genteel little spot called Leadworth, a place where there's a lush village green, a mysterious duckpond and a very close-knit community. You half expect John Nettles to saunter onto the screen to whisper in his best Prince Charles tones about how Amy's actually a closet axe-murderer. Even the way in which the story's shot, it's reminiscent of those off-kilter fairy tale films such as Pan's Labyrinth (a notable source of inspiration for this season, apparently).
Take the initial post-credits shot of the deserted garden at night with the little fan blowing plaintively in the breeze – just one example of the stunning cinematography in this story. It's a good indicator of what's to come, and also what we're leaving behind. It's goodbye council estates and hello Leadworth-style locales. Even the alien planets and spaceships look more dreamlike, whether it's the fairground tollbooths on Starship UK or the Where The Wild Things Are forests on board the Byzantium.
"A big, big problem with NuWho's fifth season is that it's largely about as terrifying as a teddy bear shop"
Of course a cynic might ask what's happened to the realism of the Davies-style grit. Or more to the point what's happened to the scares. A big, big problem with NuWho's fifth season is that it's largely about as terrifying as a teddy bear shop. There are one or two stories which nearly live up to the scary mantle, such as the Weeping Angels two-parter, but largely, this is a brand new world that's more concerned about complex plots rather than scaring kids. Which is bizarre, given that scaring kids is one of the key pre-requisites of Doctor Who. It's like having a circus without clowns. A good example of this new, emasculated Who is the way in which the stories wimp out of showing anyone getting killed. There are very few stories in this season which feature grisly death – one or two characters are killed off screen, or, if you're lucky, you might get a close-up of an unmoving foot or arm. Wow, I'm trembling in my boots.
Now maybe this is down to tougher BBC guidelines, but I doubt it, given that the 2009 specials still managed to feature a good chunk of pant-wetting terror, whether it's a skeleton head Master turning to cannibalism, a bus driver taking the horrible, flamey route back to Earth or even the titular hero becoming a power-mad lunatic. I've said many a time before that Steven Moffat seems to dislike killing supporting characters off in brutal fashion, and when he has, he's brought them back to life in a cheesy epilogue. The fifth season has this philosophy written through its core - the problem being that apart from one or two exceptions, the stories lack the scare factor, or come to that, even the Wow Factor.
"The stories of the first Smith season may be thought-provoking, intelligent and witty, but there's less excitement on display, which is a big disappointment"
The lack of Wow feels like a deliberate backlash against the big, bold concepts used in the Davies era. Successful or not, you can't deny that the Davies years contain their fair share of memorable visuals, whether it's Daleks exterminating reality TV contestants, a werewolf terrorising Queen Victoria, Cybermen masquerading as ghosts, a Titanic spaceship en route to Planet Earth on a collision course, or Gallifrey coming back from the dead. That's what Doctor Who is all about – implanting big, bold ideas and concepts into the heads of awe-struck kids who can chat all about that excitement in the playground on Monday morning. But with the first Moffat season, what are they going to chinwag about? “Cor, did you see those smiley head people do absolutely nothing?” “Cor, what about that shortarse bloke who took the piss out of The Doctor all the time?” “Cor, all those monsters who imprisoned The Doctor last week, er, where did they go...?” The stories of the first Smith season may be thought-provoking, intelligent and witty, but there's less excitement on display, which is a big disappointment.
But why waste all that energy on thrills and spills when you can spend your time disentangling the story arc? Yes, if you're a fan of shows such as Lost, then Moffat's vision for Doctor Who will be right up your street. Now a story arc in Doctor Who is nothing new. Try and watch The Long Game and you won't get the whole picture until the season finale of Bad Wolf/The Parting Of The Ways. The mysteries of Mr Saxon and the disappearing planets are strung out until the bitter end of NuWho seasons three and four respectively. But by and large, most of the Davies stories can be enjoyed as stand-alone adventures.
Moffat, on the other hand seems to fetishise the Story Arc to such a degree that questions posed in this season aren't answered till much later on in the future. Try and enjoy an adventure like the Weeping Angels two-parter in its own right and you can't so much, because there are a number of elements that only work in the context of the bigger picture. It's commendably challenging TV in a way, but on the other hand, it's deeply frustrating because it sometimes feels like the viewer's required to watch Doctor Who these days with a notebook and pen. And woe betide any casual viewer coming late to the party – if a newcomer decides to tune in into this season's two-part finale having not seen the other episodes - well, the characters might as well be speaking in Parseltongue.
But this is all to come. At the moment The Eleventh Hour offers a few hints as to what the viewer can expect from Grand Moff, but on the whole, it's a high-speed dash to save the world from oblivion. The Eleventh Hour eschews the Recovering Doctor In Bed approach as favoured in The Christmas Invasion , and instead forces him to save the world while trying to come to terms with his new regeneration. A bit like going into work to meet an important deadline with a killer hangover. Not that I'd ever advocate this, of course.
Already, this is asking a lot of Matt Smith, who not only has to carry the episode, but has to make an impact as a brand new Doctor and find favour with the hordes of Tennant fangirls who are still weeping into their hankies at his demise. So what do we know about this brand new Doctor? Well, judging from the first few minutes, he thinks he's regenerated into Gordon Ramsay. He strides into little Amelia's home and starts insulting her food, just like the craggy-faced chef does on an episode of Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares. Now this isn't exactly fair, given that Amelia's a long way off being the age of the hapless souls quaking in their shoes at Ramsay's bad temper. And also, this is basic food we're talking here, not gourmet cuisine. So apples, yoghurt, bacon, beans, bread and butter come flying out of The Doctor's spluttering gob – but fortunately without the swearing. In the end, he only decides on yummy fish fingers and custard, which should never ever be tried in a month of weekdays.
"This is a Doctor who is very much the embodiment of the old man in the young man's body"
But even with these weird food cravings, already we can see a brand new Doctor in the making. As I've said in past New Doctor reviews, each incarnation is the polar opposite of what's gone before. So what happens after you get a young, trendy, over-confident boaster who's obsessed with being the cool cat in town? You get a man who thinks that bow ties are cool. Yes, despite being younger in age than Doctor Ten, the new kid on the block (yes, kid actually seems quite appropriate, given that Matt Smith's eight years younger than me) is wilfully uncool. Throughout The Eleventh Hour, he's blundering and shambling about trying to make sense of the world, while trying to fit in with his surroundings. He even ill-advisedly tries to get down wiv da kidz after solving the crisis by bellowing “And the final score is, no TARDIS, no screwdriver, two minutes to spare. WHO DA MAN??” Whereas his predecessor might just have gotten away with this, Doctor Eleven then shuffles awkwardly like Brian Sewell at a JLS gig to the embarrassed looks of Amy and Prisoner Zero before mumbling: “Oh, well – I'm just never saying that again.”
Indeed, this is a Doctor who is very much the embodiment of the old man in the young man's body. If Peter Davison's Doctor stood for this concept, then Matt Smith's incarnation comes along and shakes a walking stick in your face. Take his relationship with his new friend Amelia Pond. He doesn't treat her as possible girlfriend material, but treats her in the style of a parental figure. He's outraged when Amy (as she now likes to be known) reveals her job as a kissogram (“You were a little girl five minutes ago!”) and even starts scolding her for shortening her name (“Amelia Pond! That was a great name!”). When he's with child Amelia, he's quietly authoritative without being too patronising (“You're not scared of anything! Box falls out of the sky, man falls out of the box, man eats fish custard!”). In short, this is a Doctor who's more of a wise old man – it just so happens he has a young face, which even then, at times, looks older than his 27 years. Sorry, Mr Smith.
His brand new costume sums up this wilfully uncool, ages-old approach. With his patch tweed jacket, braces and bow tie, he looks like a slightly manic geography teacher from 1952. Or Professor Hayter from Time-Flight. But despite this geek chic, the viewer still knows that they're in totally safe hands. In his confrontation with the Atraxi globe, there's that great bit when he walks through the flickering image of his predecessor and announces “Hello, I'm The Doctor. Basically – run!” A good number of people – including me – were a bit sceptical of newcomer Matt Smith, who up until Who, had appeared here and there in shows such as The Ruby In The Smoke (with Billie Piper) and Moses Jones (as sidekick to Shaun Parkes).
"What's great about Smith's performance is how understated it is – he doesn't ham it up or shout at the top of his voice."
But Smith's début is pretty much perfect. What's great about Smith's performance is how understated it is – he doesn't ham it up or shout at the top of his voice. He can do great, subtle comedy (such as when he walks crash-headlong into the tree). He can make big, grandstanding speeches without sounding too pompous – such as when he's telling Jeff and his laptop that they're going to be living legends (“This is it Jeff – right here, right now. This is when you fly, Today's the day you save the world”). And more importantly, he feels like The Doctor that we all know – Smith conveys that subtle gravitas throughout, whether he's chin-wagging with Patrick Moore, confronting the Atraxi or even imploring grown-up Amy to trust him (“Everything I told you 12 years ago is true. I'm real. What's happening in the sky is real, and if you don't let me go right now, everything you've ever known is over”). It's an old cliché to say that Matt Smith is an inspired choice to take on the mantle of The Doctor, but it's still worth saying. The one main constant of the season, Matt Smith IS The Doctor.
So that's the main new element of the season, but apart from Smith and Moffat, there's a whole host of other newcomers to assess. Let's see. Who else? Ah, there's Amy Pond, a young woman who drives The Daily Mail mad with her short skirts (yes, the same Daily Mail that constantly prints pictures of vacant non-entities such as Thing Kardashian or The Only Way Is Essex muppets in their underwear all the time) and who has possibly the tackiest nails in the galaxy. Amy's a funny one though. She's basically a modern-day Reinette but with a twist. Like Reinette, Amy's initial contact with The Doctor came through childhood, and after he leaves like a summer cloud, she thinks about this mysterious enigma to the point where it takes over her life. The Doctor has become this great big mythical legend to Amy, so much so that she's made little puppets and toys of The Doctor and the TARDIS, and has even suggested that her useless boyfriend gonk Rory dress up as him (fortunately, this isn't dwelt upon too greatly). “It's him though! The Doctor, raggedy Doctor!” gasps Rory. “But he was a story, he was a game!” The difference between Amy and Reinette though is that Amy gets her boarding pass aboard the TARDIS to see the stars.
"Even with the so-so scripting and characterisation in her first few stories, Karen Gillan contributes some excellent performances"
Only one problem though. Amy, at times, isn't exactly the most likeable companion to board the TARDIS, and at times, that's saying something. She's constantly on at useless Rory – although given that the useless scamp's wetter than an August day in Britain, this is no great surprise. She's constantly SHOUTING!! something sarcastic at the top of her lungs. And there's one or two points this season that her behaviour bypasses annoying and just becomes downright creepy (the conclusion of Flesh And Stone, anyone?). Fortunately, she'll calm down in the next season, but even with the so-so scripting and characterisation in her first few stories, Karen Gillan contributes some excellent performances, and by the looks of things, is in the show for a much longer haul than recent companions. Even if she does seem to pull that wide-eyed, goosed face at least 18 times per episode.
Rory's more of a problem though. In this season, he's yet to acquire Full-Time Companion status, which is a blessed relief for me, because I find him annoying. For most of his time in Doctor Who, Rory mooches about, resembling a cross between a slightly crestfallen Coldplay percussionist and Sydney from the Tetley Tea folk. OK, so he'll prove to be a dedicated hero in The Big Bang, but for the most part in Doctor Who, he's just aimlessly wandering around and giving off sad, wimpy vibes while being relentlessly henpecked by shouty, sarcastic Amy. Quite what Rory's big masterplan is I still don't know. At the time of writing, the last part of Season Six is still to air, but then at the time of writing, he's been killed off so many times, he's become Yosemite Sam or any other cartoon character who's died a million deaths. It all seems a bit silly, but god only knows who Rory is – maybe he's a figment of the imagination. Maybe one day he'll flicker out of existence after Amy finally breaks his heart. Overall, not a bad performance from Arthur Darvill, but I'm sorry - Rory for me, just grates on the nerves with his useless mumbling.
None of the other characters really stand out in The Eleventh Hour – another failing of this season actually, in that a good number of guest characters have no real depth to them. The Eleventh Hour is a case in point, with a whole parade of one-dimensional cut-outs. The elderly grandmother hen. The angry doctor. The harmless old duffer. The loser computer nerd with his somewhat dubious internet history. You'd probably get more in-depth background from a badly made plasticine model of John Major, but at least some of the guest cast do their best to inject these cameos with a semblance of vitality. Annette Crosbie is very good as Mrs Angelo, Olivia Colman makes for quite a creepy presence as the Mother, and it's nice to have Arthur Cox back for three seconds as the flustered Mr Henderson. Unfortunately, other cast members don't quite pull it off – the worst offender being Nina Wadia, who's better known as Zainab Masood, the crass comedy stereotype from EastEnders who wouldn't even have made the grade for Mind Your Language. Wadia plays Dr Ramsden with the similar sort of crass, top-volume bellowing as Zainab, and it's a great relief when she's bumped off by the snake head thing on a stick. Although inevitably, her demise is kept off screen, given the wussy attitude to showing scary death this season.
"Steven Moffat's script is fast paced and well written, and contains his usual penchant for mixing witty one-liners with intricate plotting"
Despite these problems though, The Eleventh Hour is a good start to the season, powering through with breathless adrenalin. The story may not have in-depth characterisation, but it's still an enjoyable yarn that sees The Doctor attempting to battle alien invaders while trying to fight off regeneration. Steven Moffat's script is fast paced and well written, and contains his usual penchant for mixing witty one-liners with intricate plotting. In a sense, there's very much a sense of casting off the old style of storytelling. If you're fairly new to Doctor Who, then if I told you that The Doctor fights against an alien from Earth with the help of global Big Brains and a cameo from a celebrity legend (in this case, Patrick Moore), then The Eleventh Hour sounds uncannily like a Russell T Davies script. But The Eleventh Hour slightly twists this in a different direction, by forcing The Doctor to work with his wits rather than with a handy get-out-of-jail-free card such as the Sonic Screwdriver (although it's back by the end of the tale). But after this adventure, there's less of this style of adventure and a shift to a new style of storytelling. Also at this point, the set-up of the Season Arc – the Crack in Amy's wall – is quite intriguing and holds out a lot of promise for the future. Shame about the fact that the “Silence will fall” reference isn't returned to until the next season though.
Production-wise, getting back to the brand new débuts, some of them work better than others. The new TARDIS looks great, especially the swanky new interior which is a mixture of advanced technology and antiquated, ramshackle inventions. The same can't be said unfortunately of the dreadful new titles and yet another re-arrangement of the theme music. The new titles, in which the TARDIS buffets about through coloured smoke and lightning looks like the sort of dreck that a six-year-old could devise on his laptop (well, if his mummy and daddy could afford to buy him a laptop, that is). The music though – well, I'm reminded of that Morecambe And Wise sketch with Andre Previn. Like Eric Morecambe, Murray Gold's playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order. It's a theme arrangement that sounds like a weedy, tinny remix of Doctorin' The TARDIS by the Timelords, complete with orchestra and – oh, what a surprise, Murray's Pompous Choir, who are still yodelling over the action with a complete disregard for anything approaching a tune.
"There may be a few bumps in the roads ahead, but at least The Eleventh Hour kicks off the new season in supremely confident style"
Luckily the visuals are still of a very high standard. The direction from Adam Smith (no relation) is very good, and he brings Moffat's script to colourful life with a real flair. There's various interesting shots, such as the atmospheric opening shot of Amy's empty garden, the striking effects of the Atraxi eyeball and that rather unusual total recall technique of The Doctor (which doesn't turn out to be a common element of the Eleventh incarnation). The shape-shifting Prisoner Zero works well when the humans are possessed and the sight of the big teeth and wide eyes is a valiant effort at putting kids behind the sofa. Lots of good, pacy action shots too, such as the rapid Doctor Ramsay food fights, the ride along in the fire engine of the climatic rooftop confrontation with the Atraxi – and hey, another bumper clip compilation for the fans. All to convince you that you're still with the same show.
Which it still is, of course – even if there are bigger changes in style and content around the corner this season. There may be a few bumps in the roads ahead, but at least The Eleventh Hour kicks off the new season in supremely confident style with a strong script from Steven Moffat, good visuals from Adam Smith and of course, a brilliant central performance from Matt Smith. Maybe fish fingers and custard aren't so bad after all.
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