21st Century Doctor Who Reviews: The Eleventh Hour

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 for the Shadowlocked website, 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. Even stories such as The Beast Below, the Silurian two-parter and the season finale were given the thumbs up. 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 classics, some of which are the finest that the series has to offer. 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.

Fast forward to now, and it seems that some of the fans are in a bit of a pickle about whether Moffat's stewardship lived up to the initial promise. The Matt Smith era has divided opinions of fans: some of whom regard it as the dawning of a new era, some of whom feel a bit short-changed. It's 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 whatever the era, whether some people think that the UNIT years are too cosy or that the Williams era is too jokey. And don't get me started on the current Chibnall era, which has caused great crashing tidal waves of polarising opinion. Even if there are teething problems with Moffat's vision for Doctor Who, 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.

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 Chief Inspector Barnaby to saunter onto the screen, pondering on whether 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.

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 problem with many 11th Doctor stories is that they are largely about as terrifying as a teddy bear shop. Some stories do live up to the scary mantle, such as the Weeping Angels two-parter or The Doctor's Wife, 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 Doctor Who is the way in which the stories wimp out of showing anyone getting killed. There are very few stories in this era 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.

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 before that 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. While he'll up the scare factor for Peter Capaldi's time aboard the TARDIS, it's a shame that it takes so long to get there.

But why waste all that energy on creating terror when you can spend your time disentangling the story arc? If you're a fan of shows such as Lost, then Moffat's vision for Doctor Who will be right up your street. 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 fetishises 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 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, there's going to be trouble. The characters might as well be speaking in Parseltongue.

But this is all to come. The Eleventh Hour offers a few hints as to what the viewer can expect from Moffat, 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? 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 bellowing. Plus, 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.

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. 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.

Despite looking younger in age than Doctor Ten, the new kid on the block 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 shuffles awkwardly like Jacob Rees-Mogg at a Little Mix gig to the embarrassed looks of Amy and Prisoner Zero before mumbling: “Oh, well – I'm just never saying that again.”

This is a Doctor who is 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!”). It's a Doctor who's more of a wise old man – it just so happens he has a young face.

His brand new costume sums up this wilfully uncool, ages-old approach. With his patch tweed jacket, braces and bow tie, Doctor 11 looks like a slightly manic geography teacher from 1952. Or Professor Hayter from Time-Flight. But despite this geek chic, the viewers still knows that they are 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 Doctor 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). But Smith's début is pitch 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”). More importantly, he feels like the Doctor that we all know, right from the outset – 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 was 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.

Apart from Smith and Moffat, there's a whole host of other newcomers to assess. Up next is Amy Pond. Amy is basically a modern-day Reinette but with a twist. Like Reinette, Amy's initial contact with the Doctor came during 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 Time Lord and the TARDIS, and has even suggested that her hapless boyfriend Rory dresses 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.

Because she's been let down so many times by the Doctor, grown-up Amy does tend to put on a steely front. As a result, she's not as instantly likeable as other companions. She's constantly on at poor Rory – although given that he's initially wetter than an August day in Britain, this is no great surprise. She has a habit of SHOUTING!! something sarcastic at the top of her lungs. There's also one or two points this season that her behaviour becomes a bit questionable (conclusion of Flesh And Stone, anyone?). Fortunately, she'll calm down over time, but Karen Gillan is never less than excellent as Amy, another bit of inspired casting. 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, and for most of his time in his first year, Rory glumly mooches about, resembling a cross between a crestfallen Coldplay percussionist and Sydney from the Tetley Tea folk. Admittedly, he'll prove to be a dedicated hero in The Big Bang, but for the most part this season, he's aimlessly wandering around and giving off sad, wimpy vibes while being relentlessly henpecked by Amy. Overall, a very strong performance from Arthur Darvill, but it's a shame that Rory takes so long to grow some backbone.

None of the other characters really stand out in The Eleventh Hour – another failing of this season actually, in that a good number of guests have no real depth to them. The Eleventh Hour is a case in point, with a 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. 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, such as Nina Wadia (better known as Zainab Masood from EastEnders). 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.

Despite these problems though, The Eleventh Hour is a superb start to the season, powering through with breathless adrenalin. The story may not have in-depth characterisation, but it's still a very 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 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 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). 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 tacky 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 thing that a six-year-old could devise on his laptop. As for the new title music arrangement... 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.

Luckily, the visuals are still of a high standard. The direction from Adam Smith is very good, and he brings Moffat's script to colourful life with a real flair. There are various interesting shots, such as the atmospheric opening shot of Amy's empty garden, the striking effects of the Atraxi eyeball and that unusual total recall technique of the Doctor . 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.

* How did the other regeneration stories fare? Find out in my ebooks on the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th & 8th Doctors!


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