“Hello, I’m the Doctor. And basically… Run.”
So, after months of unrevealing trails, the new era is on us. The Moffat years! The first change of showrunner since Russell T Davies brought back the show we love and turned it into a juggernaut of ratings success. With so much riding on it, it was probably the most important episode since Rose opened the new series in 2005. A new Doctor. A new companion. Even a new TARDIS. Would the viewers be able to cope with so much change? What will we do without David Tennant?!
Reactions to The Eleventh Hour seem to be universally favourable, and with good reason. As the best writer of ‘The RTD years’ and a lifelong fan, Steven Moffat has an instinctive understanding of how to make the show work, and almost all his decisions here were spot on. The episode had superb pacing, a suitably spooky monster, and excellent dialogue to introduce a very well-cast new Doctor.
Matt Smith logically carried the lion’s share of the episode, since the plot had to somewhat come second to the idea of introducing the new Doctor. And he grabbed the opportunity of a lifetime with both hands, clearly relishing the part. The first quarter or so of the episode does little more than introduce him, but with his verve and enthusiasm eating up the screen, it’s never dull. And speaking of eating, the ‘my favourite food’ sequence was genius – showing the newly regenerated Time Lord at his most engaging and childlike. With an actual child to sound off against, he exhibited a rather Tom Baker-like combination of childishness and grown up cynicism – “You’re Scottish, fry something", being an unlikely thing for a child to say.
The dialogue, as I’ve come to expect from Steven Moffat since Press Gang, sparkled on the screen (well, it wasn’t actually visible, but you know the metaphor).
“You know when grown ups tell you everything’s going to be fine, and you think they’re lying?”
(smiles) “Everything’s going to be fine.”
Matt Smith’s Doctor, as the episode progresses, is clearly reset from David Tennant’s latter ‘weight of the universe on my shoulders’ persona, as he should be. He crackles with the joie de vivre of someone simultaneously grown up and newly born, and puts a physicality into the part that seems very new; he clearly thinks hard about how his movements affect the performance. Thus, he progresses from flailing uncoordinatedly about at the outset to purposefully striding and pirouetting around as he grows more comfortable with his new form. By the end of the story, he’s plainly settled down into his new persona completely, and something about it seems, despite his outward zaniness, a little bit darker than we’re used to. There’s a hint, just a hint, that he’s not telling Amy the whole truth as to why he wants her to travel with him – that enthusiasm seems for a moment a bit darker, shifty, almost evasive. I like that. Despite his bounce, this Doctor has a core of steel.
And what of Amy Pond, new travelling companion? Moffat’s given her an instant depth that previous companions have never had, by cleverly writing the Doctor into her life in sporadic instances from her childhood. I don’t know whether she’s going to carry on the previous trend of having a near-romantic relationship with the Doctor, but she’s already obsessed with him as the ‘imaginary friend’ of her childhood. So obsessed, in fact, that she’s willing to duck out of her wedding at a moment’s notice to travel with him – she can’t have believed, given her previous experience of the Doctor, that he actually would be able to get her back in time for it.
In fact, the whole idea of her having the Doctor as a childhood imaginary friend is typically clever in a number of ways. How many old-school fans – I’m betting including Steve Moffat – spent their childhoods dreaming of the TARDIS, ready to leap off into time and space as soon as the opportunity presented? And how many children of today feel the same way?
Of course, this being a Moffat script, there were moments of humour that were aimed more squarely at adults than kids (though kids often understand a lot more of that sort of thing than we give them credit for). Amy’s occupation as a ‘kissogram’ (surely ‘strippogram’ in earlier drafts of the script) gave rise to some saucy gags along the way, notably with the ever excellent Annette Crosbie – “I thought you were a nun?” “I dabble.” Not to mention tacit acknowledgment of what all young men with laptops in their bedrooms are inevitably looking at; although I’d have sworn that, given the look of Jeff, the Doctor would have been more likely to admonish him to “get a boyfriend” rather than a girlfriend. Even Patrick Moore got in on the flirting – “Doctor, who was your lady friend?”
Prisoner Zero was a typically scary Moffat creation, its mouthful of pointy teeth looking particularly scary in the face of Peep Show’s Olivia Colman. As with previous Moffat episodes, the ordinary and mundane was given a twist to give kids the same sort of nightmares that I had during the Philip Hinchcliffe era. How many kids now look with dread at the cracks in their walls? And after his terrifying depictions of statues and shadows, too! Moffat has a gift at pitching the scary factor at just the right level, which I think bodes very well for the forthcoming series.
But it wasn’t just a new Doctor and a new companion. We also got a new TARDIS, and even a new sonic screwdriver! Steve Moffat has publicly said that anyone who pitches him an idea solely for merchandising purposes would be thrown out of his office; nonetheless, I think there’s going to be a lot of those new screwdrivers sold this year. I’ve got mine already.
As for the new TARDIS, it’s a thing of beauty. The script has openly acknowledged now that it has more rooms than just the Console Room, and what we’ve seen so far shows that very well. The console’s in a nice separate area with a glass floor, and has itself been redesigned to reflect the new Doctor’s rather wackier persona. The controls now include a pair of bath taps and an old Olympia typewriter, and the whole thing has an overall cleaner look which no longer reflects its past as a relic of the Time War. The exterior regenerated too, with a new door sign, new window frames and even a new key – a standard Yale item this time, but seemingly unnecessary as the Doctor can now open the doors with a click of his fingers. Best of all, just audible in the Console Room is what I think of as the ‘proper’ TARDIS sound effect, the one I grew up hearing in the 70s and 80s.
Unlike Rose, the series is now so established that it can more openly acknowledge having some forty seven years of history behind it, too. So we got a marvellous moment of seeing all ten previous Doctors from the point of view of giant eyeball the Atraxi, culminating in that superb moment when Matt Smith stepped through their final projection of David Tennant to declare , “Hello, I’m The Doctor. And basically… Run.” Undoubtedly the crowd pleasing moment of the script, met with rounds of applause in the pub where I was watching it.
So, an almost perfect start to a new era and a new Doctor. The ‘almost’ part, for me and a few others, is the anaemic and lacklustre new interpretation of the theme music. Murray Gold, having got it pretty much right from the outset, has never been able to resist tinkering with the arrangement, and for me has now taken that rather too far. There’s so little of the original tune overtly left in it, particularly in the end credits, that it’s very disappointing. Even accepting that, it really lacks punch compared to the previous versions of the last five years, seeming almost too light and fluffy. That’s a shame, because it’s coupled with a lovely new opening sequence which is very reminiscent of the classic 70s ‘time tunnel’ effect, and has a great moment where the centre of the new logo turns into the TARDIS and spins off into the distance. The only thing which could make it better would be the inclusion of Matt Smith’s face, but that might be too retro for some. Still we’re obviously stuck with this version of the theme tune for this year, though for once I actually really hope Murray will rearrange it for next year.
As for the rest of the series, it looks every bit as good if not better. There’s obviously a story ‘arc’ (I still prefer the term ‘storyline’ myself, but I know that’s rather old-hat). Prisoner Zero dropped some very heavy hints about ‘the cracks in the universe’ and the Doctor’s apparently surprising ignorance of their cause; also something about how ‘silence will fall’ when ‘the Pandoracle is opened’. Oooh, interesting. And it’s all to come, in a series that promises us vampires in Venice, Daleks in World War 2, injured Cybermen and much, much more. I’m so breathless with anticipation, it’s like being a kid again, waiting for that final part of the exciting adventure you’ve been watching for weeks. I can hardly wait! David who?