I was very pleased indeed to land the regular role of reviewing brand new Doctor Who TV episodes for DWM, even though wise friends had counseled me it can be a bit of a no-win situation. It’s certainly horribly awkward when you’re addressing a story you’re not so keen on – and I’ll talk more about that, and the other, broader, challenges, in later posts. I think it’s fair to say Tom Spilsbury asked me after (sensibly) ascertaining I was positive about the current version of DW (a synonym, I’ve only recently discovered, not liked on the magazine). If memory serves, he actually popped the question after a press-screening of The Eleventh Hour – a story I really, really liked. As you can see. This very effusive text comes from DWM #421.
Once upon a time there was whiteness. Until…
A word lands with a phut! Then another – phut! – and another, appearing like footsteps in the snow. Soon they’re trooping along in packs of sentences getting faster and faster. Hear them: Phut! Phut! Phut! They break into a run (Phut-phut-phutphutphut!) and now… and now they’re hopping and skipping. Dancing. The best words ever.
We weren’t there and there’s no way we can know. But when Steven Moffat began to magic up his brand new Doctor Who out of the nothingness, that’s definitely how it happened. Fingers over a keyboard punching in letters that can take us anywhere and everywhere in the whole of time and space. With one condition. It has to be amazing.
The Eleventh Hour absolutely had to be amazing. Full on amazing – no ifs, no buts. From here Doctor Who starts all over again, and if our new Doctor, new companion, new TARDIS and new show hadn’t proved unequivocally brilliant, well, Doctor Who would have died for you and me on that Easter weekend. But the fact of the matter is – praise Santa! – it was amazing. That was obvious from the very first moment, with a fiery TARDIS pelting through the sky, the Eleventh Doctor hanging over the side, nearly whacking his knackers off Big Ben and kind of loving it. Utterly, utterly mad.
Although it all felt freshly minted, there was also something, well, maybe not familiar, but right about it all. The post-titles scene, in which a little girl gave prayers while the TARDIS thudded down in an overgrown, crazy-paved garden, seemed steeped in folklore… but brand new. How does that work?! How does Doctor Who evoke age-old archetypes we’ve never seen before? Is Moffat wibbley-wobbling timey-wimeying us? Perhaps it’s that’s this new Doctor Who is the most Doctor Who-y the series has ever dared to be.
Let’s time travel. It’s 2005, and – tell all your friends – Doctor Who is back.
“If you look at that series, so vibrant and brilliant then, it seems a little bit dry now, doesn’t it? And a little bit serious and a little bit worthy.” Listen up, it’s Moffat in his 2010 time eddy, reminiscing about that first year. “I remember writing it and thinking: ‘Got to prove it’s a proper drama series like real ones with people in the rain arguing about the government’. That whole bold new orthodoxy lasted how long? I mean, he turned up, he’s got short hair and a leather jacket. One year later he’s got a ridiculous coat and insane hair! And off we go.”
Five years on, the hair’s even less compos mentis, but five years on, we live in a Doctor Who world. “In 2005, the series was designed to fit into the existing television landscape,” says Moffat still floating ominously on the DWM scanner, “which it then massively changed by bringing fantasy to the forefront. So we’re no longer apologising – and this is not just us, it’s the previous lot [Russell, Julie, Phil] too – for being Doctor Who. Doctor Who is just boldly Doctor Who.”
Consider this: we originally encountered Christopher Eccleton’s bovver boy Time Lord in a London department store. When we first caught sight of David Tennant’s version he was rocking that (ridiculous) coat in a photo shoot on a slice of urban scrub with a tower block leering over his shoulder. Loopier, yes, but still very “proper drama series”. Matt Smith’s Doctor we meet in leafy Leadworth, near Gloucester. It’s got a village green, an ice-cream van, picket fences and a duck pond (no ducks, though). This could be Devesham (as seen in The Android Invasion, 1975), Little Hodcombe (The Awakening, 1984), Devil’s End (The Daemons, 1971) – any number of storybook hamlets featured in the series. In short, The Eleventh Hour beams direct from the heartland of Doctor Who.
But, make no mistake, the quaint village locale doesn’t mean the programme has gone all Beatrix Potter… or even Harry Potter. Leadworth is a place where people snatch videos on their mobile phones, Tweet, Facebook and forget to delete their internet history. It’s even somewhere folk are bitter and unhappy and in need of psychiatric help. Because, look again, and the cracks start to show.
Not in the Doctor, though. Matt Smith aces it. Any residual resistance we might have nursed for the new boy evaporates at the point he grappling-hooks his way out of the TARDIS and asks, “Can I have an apple?” And that’s about three minutes in. Dunno about you, but I actually felt a smidgeon of guilt in how quickly I forgot about the other fella (the tremendous, DWM anointed best Doctor ever, David Tennant, just to help you along) and accepted Matt as… well, he’s already got the makings of a new DWM anointed best Doctor ever, hasn’t he?
His time traveller bursts with business. He’s grumpy (“Am I people? Do I look like people?”), he’s rude (“And stay out!” directed at a slice of bread he’s hurling into Amelia Pond’s garden), funny (“Funny’s good”), childlike (“Brand new TARDIS, bit exciting!”), scary (“I’m the Doctor – I’m worse than everyone’s aunt!”), really scary (“I’m the Doctor – basically, run”)… we could keep going.
Suffice to say, all the stuff we heard about how Matt embodies an old soul in a young frame is true. In some of the crane shots he’s a foal galumphing across the green, but when he’s eyeballing the Atraxi – and isn’t it brilliant how he steps through a projection of his previous incarnation to do so? – he’s justified and ancient. Most definitely da man.
Playing his Girl Saturday is Karen Gillan. She has a huge act to follow – not Billie Piper or Catherine Tate. No, her cousin Caitlin Blackwood as Amelia Pond. The partnership Amelia and the Doctor strike up is fantastic, plugging straight into childish fantasies we all nursed of the TARDIS arriving in our back garden. The Doctor is bossy – “Do everything I tell you” – and then empowering, commending her bravery by musing that if she’s frightened of it, then “[it] must be a helluva scary crack in your wall”. Amelia lives in a secret, storybook world. She’s that classic of children’s literature, an orphan with an errant aunt, plus a name that’s “a bit fairytale”. It all works so well you sort of want her and the Doctor to stay together forever. Until we meet Amy.
“Feisty” has been the keyword Karen’s evoked in interview about the new companion. But, like Leadworth and the universe around her, Amy’s also cracked, and this sense of vulnerability underscores everything. You can see it behind her eyes, hear it in the faint quiver in her voice. When the Doctor vanished, promising to return in five minutes, he stole away Amy’s childhood. “Amelia Pond hasn’t lived here for a long time,” she says stoically, before later explaining she’s waited “12 years and four psychiatrists”-long for him to return. Even more damningly, Amy says, “I grew up”. The Doctor’s response? “You never want to do that!”
The moment he shows her the apple she gave him so long ago, Amy Pond is mended. Well, for now (bet the series revisits these themes – Moffat’s given himself 14 years of, erm, Pond life to go back and poke at).
For the time being, Amy’s reconnected with Amelia, and ready – rather more so than Get-a-Girlfriend Geoff – to be magnificent. She just gets it. Being in Doctor Who means you tie your hair up and start running, facing down every fear with a smile. Gangway for the Doctor’s new best friend!
It’s all so pingingly, zingingly new (except for the bits that aren’t, see next para). Adam Smith’s directorial style is fresh and punchy, majoring on pick ‘n’ mixes of huge close-ups. He also takes us somewhere we’ve never been before; into the Time Lord’s thought process with a lovely Hustle-meets-Terminator sequence as the Doctor info-crunches the scene.
Of course, Moffat’s script doesn’t completely pull the DW rug from under us. As well as acknowledging the series’ 47-year past, he doffs his hat to the era just gone with his use of psychic paper, the sly, “What? What? What?” and the evocation of the Shadow Proclamation. God bless him for that, cos we don’t want to wipe the slate completely clean, do we?
Time is odd. Once upon a time to come The Eleventh Hour won’t be thought of as the best Doctor Who adventure ever. It’s a slight story, with a plot – like so many before – turning on internet-based wizardry. In addition, it’s got a terrifying premise that it throws away: the horrors lurking in the corner of your eye. Although, perhaps Doctor Who can now afford to chew up concepts. I think possibly so. But, yes, time will bow this tale slightly. That, in part, will be due to weight of what’s to come, but also because we’ll soon take for granted everything it gets spectacularly right – namely the Doctor and Amy. Nonetheless, in the here and now I can’t remember loving the show so much.
It’s new new Who. It works. It’s amazing. What a relief! And best of all, that fairytale happy ending is just the beginning. From out of the whiteness, our new universe has burst into existence. But, listen: phutphutphut! There are more words coming. Words like “Daleks”, “River Song”, “Vampires” and “Pandorica”. As the Doctor says: Hello everything!