“Series” Premiere: Doctor Who – “The Eleventh Hour”

“The Eleventh Hour”

April 3rd, 2010

Part of me wonders whether I should be writing this review at all. You, my faithful readers, are not ignorant enough to think that I live in the United Kingdom, and as a result you know that I did not tune into BBC and catch the premiere of Doctor Who‘s fifth series, “The Eleventh Hour” earlier this evening. No, you are well aware that I found the notorious “alternate means” through which I could consume this material, and as a result I am incriminating (or, less hyperbolically, identifying a clear ethical conundrum for) myself by saying that I just finished watching Matt Smith’s debut as the eponymous Doctor.

The problem, at least for me personally, is that most of the conversation about the show is going to happen now as opposed to two weeks from now. While the series is a cult favourite in North America, it’s a major primetime event in the U.K., so the sorts of immediate responses and analysis going on at the moment are going to be the most diverse and (arguably) the most interesting. And, by nature of their taste in science fiction programming, there’s a mighty fine chance that the type of people who would be online writing or reading about the show in North America are probably tech savvy enough that they too would search for “alternate means,” which means that they’re in precisely the same boat.

At the end of the day, my view is this: this review will not be a plot description, nor does it have any chance of capturing the witty repartee that Steve Moffat brings to the table. It is not designed to replace the episode, or to inform those without previous knowledge how to illegally acquire or view the episode in question. Rather, it is a critical discussion of a rather intriguing and, at times, fantastic episode of television which builds from the momentum of David Tennant’s exit and has me legitimately excited to follow these characters into the rest of the season, or series, or whatever you want to call it.

And so if you have not found “alternate means,” and are intending on waiting until April 17th, then let the message be this: things are off to a fantastic start, Matt Smith is pretty darn great, and “The Eleventh Hour” is well worth 90 minutes out of your Saturday evening two weeks from now.

For those of you who have found “alternate means,” or who are here from across the pond, we’ve got some things to discuss.

Because I missed the Tennant years outside of the movies (I skipped “Planet of the Dead,” but I caught the rest), I found “The Eleventh Hour” very familiar. As in the specials, the show has to first build a relationship between the Doctor and his companion before moving into the episode as a whole. In the case of the specials, though, they were short term companionships, something that you knew going in would end by the time the hour was over. Here, we know that Moffat is trying to accomplish something very different, and so Amy Pond needs to be more than just an intriguing foil for the Doctor; in other words, she needs to be a character in her own right.

I can’t judge how effective Amy’s introduction was in comparison to those who came before her, but I thought this was about perfect in that it managed to introduce two new characters all at once. In the opening scenes with young Amelia, we get a sense of this orphaned girl who prays to Santa for someone to come save her from the crack in her wall as well as the new younger and slightly more physical Doctor. There was a lot of fun to be found in that opening scene, as the Doctor crash lands in her backyard and uses her kitchen in order to test out his new palette, but it was also incredibly important. You see that Amelia is so lonely that this magical Doctor from the sky is in some ways her new savior (forget Santa), and you see that Matt Smith has David Tennant’s wit but sort of throws himself into it a bit more. We saw bits and pieces of this at the conclusion of “End of Time” in January, but it’s clear that this Doctor Who is a bit more “off-kilter,” and the wackiness of the taste testing was an effective way to bring this to light.

It also serves as a nice juxtaposition when the Doctor disappears for twelve years and becomes, to her psychiatrists and her neighbours, an imaginary friend to Amelia as opposed to a real part of her life. Originally, they were like two children in some ways, kindred spirits ready to set out on an adventure together; when the Doctor returns he remains “young” in the sense that he is still sort of discovering his new body, but Amelia has grown into Amy, and an adventurous child has become a disillusioned kiss-a-gram. The goal of the rest of the episode, then, is for the Doctor to rediscover maturity and strength in order to repel the threat in question while Amy can reconnect with Amelia, the wide-eyed child who packed a bag for adventure but never left her expansive home. We get to see the Doctor earn the title of Doctor (without the TARDIS and without his Sonic Screwdriver, even), and we get to see Amy jump into the role of companion.

The plot was, by and large, forgettable: “Prisoner Zero” was given no characterization beyond some decent CGI and the fun mouth confusion device, and the invading forces were a neat visual presence but failed to offer any real fear or danger (especially coming off of the Specials, where the “stakes” were always extremely high). But it was clear the focus was on characters more than plot here, and so the show got to have a lot of fun with Amy’s various neighbours (porn surfing Jeff becoming the right-hand man of the “guy who saved the world” in major international channels, for example) as opposed to expanding on the threat.

The goal here was to show us the world that Amy was leaving so that we could have a sense of the life she was living – while “Amelia” seemed like a lonely and isolated child, Amy by comparison seems to know quite a lot of people in her small town, and so spending them with them helps remind us that she’s leaving people behind when she walks into the TARDIS. This is, of course, reinforced by the reveal that the conclusion jumped an additional two years in the future, and Amy is jumping off on her wedding night; we don’t know who she’s marrying (we presume Roy), and we don’t know if it was cold feet or simple spontaneity, but that sort of “backstory” will allow the show to keep the character pulled between the Doctor and the rest of her life. And while the show does enough standalone segments that this isn’t necessarily required, it’s clear that Moffat wants that to play with in the future.

While all “Premieres” are to some degree designed to serve certain functions, this is very clearly Steven Moffat’s “blueprint” of sorts. He’s rebooting the series in more ways than just Smith’s arrival as the new Doctor, and so he very clearly wants to redefine the show in his own image without damaging the series’ reputation. However, since I don’t entirely know what the show was likely before beyond Tennant’s final hours, I can only judge based on how well he was able to define, full stop, what he plans for the future. And on that front, this was a great script that was well-directed, and the cast lived up to the high quality necessary to be able to sell this shift. Smith isn’t quite a revelation, as he shares some of the qualities that made Tennant so compelling, but that he still managed to impress me despite how great Tennant was in those final specials tells you something about the quality of his work. Sure, I wasn’t “used” to Tennant as the Doctor, and am more open to change, but I can still say fairly objectively that he pulled this off marvelously. I also thought Karen Gillan managed to pull out bits of the young Amelia in her performance, and I won’t lie and claim that I’m not mildly smitten, which I guess is the idea.

I don’t know how often I plan on writing about the show in the future: while there’s a fair bit to talk about here, the show won’t always be quite as concerned about its future or its setup, and so I might be content to sit back and enjoy the ride. However, I think I’ll be sticking with the series from this point on: the writing was sharp, the performances were strong, and the “Coming Soon” clip showed both some fun action and some nice comedy, which are two of the qualities I most admire in what I’ve seen of the show thus far. I’ll probably write about the show again when there’s some bit of continuity that I need help with, but until then I’m content to say that I’m officially a “fan” thanks to “The Eleventh Hour.”

Cultural Observations

  • I’m always a little bit wary of death being tossed aside so easily, so the lack of reaction to the rude (Medical) Doctor’s death was a little bit strange. I understand the impulse, considering that the character wasn’t very nice to Roy and all so we don’t particularly care about her, but it still kind of sits wrong for me.
  • One thing about the plot that sort of confused me: I think that Prisoner Zero used ocular tricks in order to hide himself, such as hiding the door from normal view, but it wasn’t clear why we were able to see the door and they weren’t, and I wonder if they couldn’t have had it appear or disappear to reflect the characters’ perception. Also, I didn’t quite understand what was happening at the hospital: did the door disappear, and then was only visible in the mirror? The logic behind that was never clear, sort of lost in the plot if you will.
  • Did I say “mildly” smitten above, Re: Karen Gillan? Yeah, that may have been an understatement – she’s essentially a younger Felicia Day with a slight Scottish accent, and that’s just unfair.
  • Apparently, this was considered a “racy” episode by some in the U.K.: the indication seems to be that people are reading Amy’s occupation as “stripper” and raising their eyebrows at her decision to watch as he undressed. Perhaps it’s that I was watching it far later than it aired in the U.K. (where it’s basically in the dinner hour), but I didn’t really notice anything that “off,” so maybe it’s just my lack of experience with the series showing through here.
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12 Comments

Filed under Doctor Who

12 responses to ““Series” Premiere: Doctor Who – “The Eleventh Hour”

  1. TheMasterDS

    A perception filter shifts your attention off the object it protects. It’s as if you know its there, but you don’t want to. It wasn’t really touched on in this ep, but it’s been brought up before.

    Also, the bit with the mirror was referring to her being dressed like a cop.

    • Totally missed the latter point, thanks.

      As for the first, I got the gist of it but wonder if there might have been a way to visually capture the sensation beyond the effective (but abstract) “closeup of the eyes glancing to the side” technique.

      • It’s been used throughout the series though, often hiding more than a perfectly still door. Plus, an effect might’ve drawn the viewers eye to it, which I really don’t feel would be necessary since at that point the doctor doesn’t know, and why should you?

        Unless you remember the door opening of its own accord, which I honestly didn’t.

  2. Tausif Khan

    Will Doctor Who be a similar Cultural Catchup project (in terms of returning shows like Breaking Bad) or will you just watch the show as it happens?

    Also do you know if The House Next Door online is also reviewing the new Doctor Who episodes? I like their historical perspective.

  3. I don’t think you need to go through and watch all the Tennant episodes (many, especially in his last season, were forgettable) but I would suggest going back to watch “Blink.” I think it’s season 3, episode 7 (or around there) and is by far my favourite Dr Who episode if not my favourite episode of TV in general.

  4. Brice Gilbert

    Torchwood makes good use of perception filters. But yeah if you don’t plan on going back to watch every episode at least watch The Girl in the Fireplace and Blink.

  5. Evamarie

    I’d watch the old episodes of the new series. Blink is a necessity, as are all the Moffat ones – Girl in the Fireplace, but don’t forget The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances. I have a feeling that you’ll also need to watch Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead.

    I’d actually recommend all of the watching. There are important journeys for his character, not just as Tennant, but as Eccleston, too. The companions, Rose, Martha, Donna, all play different roles in his life. He’s had best friends, loves, rebounds, etc. I’m curious where on the spectrum they’ll place this one.

    The ending of season 3 is another must watch, in my opinion – to at least see John Simms as the Master the first time around when he was awesome and not just “hungry”. That’s also where the perception filters first come in.

    • deborasouza

      Yeah, since the preview showed a pivotal character returning, Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead are definitely a must if you plan on keeping watching. But yeah, all of his episodes are just such a blast.

      Glad to hear your thoughts on it.

  6. David

    I’d go back and watch the previous 4 seasons. While the quality jumps around quite a bit, IMO, the last “season” of specials all rate out as very mediocre compared to the actual series.

    • Luke

      Yep. Water of Mars was really good, but all the other recent specials were incredibly mediocre or plain awful.

      I’d definitely recommend that you *at least* watch Blink and the Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead 2-parter, Myles, since Moffat will be following them up in some ways in the current season.

  7. Pingback: Season Premiere: Doctor Who – “The Impossible Astronaut” | Cultural Learnings

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