Review by Mark Bousquet
“THE ELEVENTH HOUR” – Series 5, Episode 1, Story 203 – Written by Steven Moffat; Directed by Adam Smith – The Eleventh Doctor gets his first adventure, crashing the TARDIS in the back yard of a Scottish girl living in England in 1996. He hates apples and bacon and loves him some fish and custard. Everything’s still settling but this regeneration around it’s the TARDIS that takes longer to get itself pulled together instead of the Doctor. The Doctor meets little Amelia Pond, who’s not scared of anything except for a really big crack in the wall of her bedroom. Through this crack, Prisoner Zero escapes and hides in her house. The Doctor says he’ll be back in 5 minutes but it really takes 12 years. But then he’s here and saves the world and takes off and comes right back. And by “right back” I mean “2 years later.” It all works out in the end, though. Because It Might Be The Night Before Amy Pond’s Wedding, But She’s Not Going To Say No To A Madman In A Box Who Wants To Show Her The Whole Of Time And Space.
I can tell you the moment where Matt Smith won me over and it’s in the kitchen of Amelia Pond’s house. Still hot and exploding from the death of the Tenth Doctor, the TARDIS is hurtling back through time and over the city of London, crash landing in a back yard of an ordinary looking house. A little girl named Amelia Pond comes out to see the Eleventh Doctor pull himself up out of the TARDIS, the ship lying on its back. The Doctor and Amelia engage in some banter – the newly reborn Time Lord and the little girl taking it all in stride.
“Can I have an apple?” the Doctor asks the young girl.
Cut to inside. Amelia gives him an apple. He takes one bite and spits it out. “Apples are rubbish,” he declares and then proceeds to order this little girl around the kitchen trying to find something he likes. “You’re Scottish,” he says at one point, “fry me something.”
Amelia keeps trying and the Doctor keeps finding it all awful. He spits out beans. He tosses bread and butter outside. Bacon is disgusting. But fish sticks dipped in custard? Delicious.
It’s a manic sequence because of editing. It takes time to cook and prepare things; even just dropping some baked beans in a pan and heating it up takes a few minutes. We don’t see the in-between bits but one can imagine they’re not just standing in silence but the Doctor is likely continuing to come to grips with his new body (“New mouth, new rules,” he explains at one point at finding all of these delicious foods not to his liking) and asking this girl with no parental guidance in the house about that crack in her wall that she mentioned back when they met minutes earlier. When the Doctor finally finds his fish and custard the scene slows and the two of them are bringing their conversation to an end. The Doctor is impressed with how the little girl isn’t afraid of a strange man falling out of the sky in her back yard and compliments her on her bravery. “Do you know what I think?” he asks her.
“I think that must be a hell of a scary crack in your wall.”
And with that one simple line Matt Smith becomes the Doctor.
One of the great things about the Doctor regenerating is that writers have built in an excuse for shaky behavior early on. Freshly new, writers and actors through the years have developed this idea of the Doctor taking some time to find himself, often regurgitating old phrases and mannerisms. In this way, the new Doctor reassures fans that he’s still the old Doctor, but it also allows the actor and writers some time to figure out just exactly who they want this new Doctor to be. What will his mannerisms be? What words will form his catchphrases? What peculiarities is he going to adopt?
Truthfully, most of the time it’s needed. Troughton’s debut doesn’t exist in video form so I haven’t seen it, but Jon Pertwee’s SPEARHEAD FROM SPACE had the Doctor knocked out in a hospital. ROBOT saw a Tom Baker that was trying out clothes and characteristics with a decidedly creepy smile and was as much a Sarah Jane serial as a Doctor serial. CASTROVALVA had Peter Davison stumbling all over the place. THE TWIN DILEMMA had a bipolar Colin Baker attempting to choke Peri to death. TIME AND THE RANI gets bonus points for Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor simply being Not Colin Baker’s Doctor. THE MOVIE and ROSE had the benefit of a long lay-off and thus could introduce their Doctors fresh, but Paul McGann’s Doctor still spent a good 20 minutes or so with amnesia, and this was after the opening 20 minutes watching Sylvester McCoy get killed and Chris Eccleston wasn’t even the focus of his debut. Similarly, David Tennant’s first romp in THE CHRISTMAS INVASION saw him pulling a Pertwee and sleeping for much of the episode.
ELEVENTH HOUR has very little of that. There’s a few pangs of the chest and jerks of the shoulder, but for the most part it’s the TARDIS that takes the brunt of this regeneration, constantly booming and sparking and locking the Doctor out as it regenerates itself. Perhaps in 2010 audiences just don’t have the patience – or memory – to want to sit through an unconscious, confused Doctor, so Steven Moffat and Matt Smith keep the Eleventh Doctor moving, running, thinking and have him, for the most part, figure things out on the run, with a focus on the figuring out of the problem more than the personality.
Just as important as the debut of a new Doctor is the debut of a new showrunner. Steven Moffat steps into the Big Chair, replacing Russell T Davies, who’d overseen the show since it’s relaunch back in 2005. I’ve been a huge fan of Moffat’s work for a decade now (I’m rewatching COUPLING right now and remembering how much I loved his writing even before a creepy kid asked the Doctor, “Are you my mummy?”) but there’s a major difference between being the writer of one story a season and overseeing the whole program.
It’s like the difference between a relief pitcher and a starting pitcher. Just because you can enter a game in the ninth and throw gas past three batters and pick up the save doesn’t mean you can start a game and do the same.
Moffat’s stories – EMPTY CHILD and DOCTOR DANCES for Series 1, THE GIRL IN THE FIREPLACE for Series 2, BLINK for Series 3, and SILENCE IN THE LIBRARY/FOREST OF THE DEAD for Series 4 – are all excellent but they are also largely atypical of the season around them. Moffat’s scripts are generally more moody and conceptual than the preferred running and shouting and high emotions of a Russell T Davies script. (I’m talking generalities here; there are individual exceptions.) While I much prefer Moffat’s scripts to Davies’ scripts, I’m also aware that it’s a lot easier to be brilliant for one story a year than to be brilliant for four or five and oversee the rest to make sure it all fits together.
I’m also aware that a great Davies script is much more likely to attract a wider audience than a great Moffat script because Davies generally writes roller coasters and Moffat generally writes funhouses. You don’t have to think as much with a Davies script – in fact, sometimes this can hurt your enjoyment of a show (see: THE END OF TIME) – because the story is built to be an emotional thrill ride, but Moffat’s scripts often employ disconnected chronology and conceptual plot elements that reward an audience who pays attention.
The Tenth Doctor loved to tell people how clever he was and Davies generally invested his cleverness in David Tennant while Moffat put his cleverness into the script.
And, you know, let’s be honest, at the end of the day TV shows are here to provide entertainment and are often watched by people looking to relax for an hour. I’m not saying they can be bad but I am saying if you can only do one ride at the amusement park, I think more people in key demographics would choose the thrill ride over the funhouse.
All of that means I’m very interested in seeing how Moffat handles the change in position. So after ELEVENTH HOUR, how’s he doing?
Well, one episode in and we can see that he’s trying to give you a roller coaster inside a funhouse.
THE ELEVENTH HOUR is not one of the greatest stories in DOCTOR WHO history but it is the best regeneration episode I’ve seen and it is the second-best first story of a Doctor’s run. (ROSE is still the best debut story of the lot, and ELEVENTH HOUR is every bit as good as AN UNEARTHLY CHILD so long as we just look at the premiere episode and not the first time travel adventure that follows, because that story sucked.) ELEVENTH is fast, it’s fun, it’s got plenty of time travel plot points, and it’s got the youngest Doctor of them all bringing the weight of the years home better sooner than anyone else.
NEWSARAMA posted a story the other day previewing Neil Gaiman’s contribution to Series 6 and he had this to say about Matt Smith:
“He’s the first of the [new series] Doctors who actually feels vastly ancient. They all had these glorious different qualities… But with Matt, you actually feel his age all the way through, going all the way back. Almost for the first time since Tom Baker, the idea that the central entity and the body are two slightly different things. You know, this is an alien. This is not someone that you know. And it’s amazing.”
I felt that way right from the start of THE ELEVENTH HOUR when he starts ordering Amelia around in this boyishly haughty manner, to the end of the episode when he sheepishly asks Amy if she wants to come aboard the TARDIS as if he’s a 14-year old boy asking out his first girl, and then follows that up with a “I knew you’d come” denouement, sounding very much like a man who’s seen it all before.
This is the Doctor Moffat created, and while we always put the actor with the Doctor first, Matt Smith’s Doctor is also Steven Moffat’s Doctor, the way Jon Pertwee’s Doctor was also Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks’ Doctor, Tom Baker’s Doctor was Philip Hinchcliffe and Bob Holmes’ Doctor, Colin Baker’s Doctor was John Nathan-Turner and Eric Saward’s Doctor, Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor became Andrew Cartmel’s Doctor, and David Tennant’s Doctor was Russell T Davies’ Doctor. If you can get the actor and the showrunner’s pulling and pushing in the same directions, you can create magic. If you can’t …
Well, the coat wasn’t the only thing wrong with the Sixth Doctor’s run, was it?
After he’s had his stomach-full of fish and custard, the Doctor brings Amelia back around to that crack in her wall and we get to see the Doctor in action for the first time. Standing in the little girl’s room, sonic screwdriver in hand, the Doctor becomes riveted with the wall and the strange sounds emanating from behind it. “Even if the wall wasn’t here,” he tells Amelia, “the crack still would be because the crack isn’t in the wall, it’s in everything.” He gets the crack to open up and a big eyeball appears and the drumbeat of “Prisoner Zero has escaped” begins. The Doctor realizes that Prisoner Zero has escaped into Amelia’s house.
Here’s where we begin to really see the changed nature of Moffat’s writing in his new position. We’ve got the Doctor and this young girl and an escaped prisoner and it’s riding in Moffat’s pool of mood, but instead of ratcheting up the chills, Moffat pulls a Davies and brings the thrills. The TARDIS needs his attention and so the Doctor goes all running and fast-paced, telling Amelia he needs to take the TARDIS on a quick spin but he’ll be back in five minutes.
He leaves as Davies’ Doctor and comes back as Moffat’s Doctor because that five minutes has turned into twelve years. Not realizing the extent of his mistake (he notices that the sun is up so he knows he was gone for more than five minutes), he runs into the house and gets whacked in the head by a cricket bat. (Moffat uses the script to make the allusion to the Fifth Doctor instead of using the Doctor to do it.) When he awakens, the Doctor finds himself chained to a heater and a tall redheaded woman police officer standing over him.
Moffat loves his time travel plot elements and this change in Amelia is one of them. Similarly, Moffat loves his horror and this is one of them, too. In the most chilling sequence of the episode (and one that shows how simple it is to create a genuinely good horror moment), the little girl Amelia had run back into the house while waiting for the Doctor to return in five minutes and we saw a door at the end of her hallway that had been closed now opened from the inside. The Doctor now tells the police woman to count the rooms on this floor for him. “One, two, three, four, five,” she says. “Six,” the Doctor insists. “Look where you don’t want to look.”
Amy does and sees the door she’s never seen. Scared by the revelation, she also proves herself Companion-worthy as she walks to the room, and then enters it despite the Doctor’s pleading for her not to go in. She rescues his sonic screwdriver from the room, comes face-to-face with Prisoner Zero, and runs away screaming.
This sequence generates a few more elements from Moffat’s standard bag o’ tricks: a villain endlessly repeating one phrase over and over, creepy-voiced kids, and a threat that gives you time to figure out how to beat it. The Weeping Angels and Vashta Nerada were incredibly deadly but not constantly violent; there was time in between attacks for people to both become frightened and try to figure out a counterattack. Here, Prisoner Zero is only marginally interested in/capable of killing the Doctor, and the Atraxi (the jailers looking to recapture Zero) keep repeating how Prisoner Zero needs to be caught or they’ll destroy the “human residence,” which the Doctor realizes means the whole Earth and not just Amy’s house.
Just because Moffat has cloaked his tricks inside a Davies’ run and shout plot doesn’t mean they’re not there, and for the first time we get a Moffat script that rewards you more by not thinking than thinking too closely. There’s nothing wrong or deficient with what he’s doing, but if you’ve been paying attention to what he’s done before you’ll see him doing a lot of it again.
After the Doctor and Amy flee Amy’s house, the Doctor finally realizing he’s been gone for twelve years and that Amy has become a kissogram. The police get-up is just one of her work outfits and she and the Doctor spend some time bickering over how long he was gone and what’s become of her. In a really wonderful bit, the Doctor bursts into a stranger’s house to check out the TV to see the Atraxi’s broadcast about what they want and what they intend to do. The old woman is a bit taken aback but when she sees Amy she’s more interested in Amy’s outfit. “You’re a police woman now?” she asks. “I dabble,” Amy replies sheepishly.
“What kind of job is a kissogram?” the Doctor asks and Amy gets defensive. “I go to parties and kiss people,” she says. “It’s a laugh.” When the Doctor objects she tells him he’s worse than her aunt. “I’m the Doctor,” he states flatly. “I’m worse than everyone’s aunt,” he continues then stops himself and turns to the old woman to add, “and that is not how I’m going to introduce myself.”
They’re interrupted by Jeff, a Ken Doll of a guy who’s in awe of the Doctor. “It’s him, isn’t it?” he asks, wide-eyed. “Shut up,” Amy orders under her breath, but the cat, as they say, is out of the bag. Amy has insisted her whole life that the “Raggedy Doctor” is real, despite the insistence of four psychiatrists that he isn’t. She’s told stories and made toys and forced Rory to play dress-up all in an attempt to keep the memory of that strange man who fell out of the sky and opened up her wall alive.
Rory steals the show as Amy’s boyfriend/sort-of-boyfriend. Working as a nurse at the local hospital, Rory is sharper than his nervous demeanor lets on. He insists that the patients in the coma ward have been coming awake and has video proof of this, but his boss doesn’t want to hear it or see it, and forces him to take a leave. His path intersects with the Doctor’s for the first time when the Atraxi make themselves known in the sky. Everyone comes outside to record their appearance on their phones except for Rory, who’s standing among them photographing them. The Doctor wants to know why and Rory fills him as he now realizes who this guy is standing with Amy.
“It’s him!” he says, disbelieving what he’s seeing.
The Doctor, Amy, and Rory have a great chemistry right from the start and we see here the kind of jovial antagonism that works really well on a show like DOCTOR WHO where characters are forced to spend a lot of time together. The antagonism keeps everything from being all nice and friendly but the overall jovial nature of the arguing keeps things from getting too irritating. (At least in the short term.) It’s great to see Amy slam the Doctor’s tie in the door of a car and force him to answer questions about who he is and where he went, and it’s amusing to see Rory shakingly refer to himself as Amy’s boyfriend and Amy correct him by calling him her “sort of boyfriend.” Like the Ninth Doctor tweaking Mickey, the Eleventh tweaks Rory by referring to Jeff as “the good looking one.”
The resolution to the plot is decidedly Davies-esque, calling to mind WORLD WAR THREE‘s use of computers run by a proxy (then Mickey, now Jeff) and just general lack of tension. Moffat uses Jeff to deal with the Atraxi via a computer virus and stops Prisoner Zero in a limp showdown inside the hospital, which calls to mind the much better hospital scenes in the EMPTY CHILD/DOCTOR DANCES two-parter. Like Davies often used rushed plot resolutions just to get to the emotional fireworks, Moffat does the same here, using the defeat of Prisoner Zero to get to the Doctor’s final speech.
After the Atraxi take off, the Doctor uses Rory’s phone to call the Atraxi and order them back. “Sorry about the bill,” he apologizes. Rory’s response: “Did he just send the aliens away and then call them back?” While Rory seems designed to be weak in order to highlight Amy’s strength, Arthur Darvill makes him such a likeable, cohesive character that I leave the episode wanting to see him again as much as I want to see the Doctor and Amy.
Like the Third and Eighth Doctors before him, the Eleventh Doctor steals some clothes from the hospital so he can finally shed the Tenth Doctor’s clothes. “Is he stealing clothes?” Rory asks Amy in such a way that you can just see the years of worrisome history he’s spent pining over Amy and fretting over every other guy she’s been interested in. When the Doctor starts changing, Rory turns his back and asks Amy if she’s going to do the same; instead of Rory being a prude, it comes off as more him hoping Amy would, for once, follow his lead.
The Doctor heads to the roof, still assembling his wardrobe as he goes and the Atraxi come back. He spends a minute chewing them out and this is clearly intended to be Matt Smith’s “I’m the Doctor” moment. It’s early for an actor to have that moment when he claims the role for himself, but the real surprise to me wasn’t that Smith and Moffat were going for that moment now, but that it already seemed unnecessary. By the time he tells the Atraxi to check their records for all of the alien threats this planet had faced, and orders them to see who stopped all of those threats, by the time Matt Smith walks through a projected image of his ten predecessors to claim the mantle, I’d already come to that conclusion.
Hell of a scary crack, indeed.
With Murray Gold’s fantastic new score blaring and a beautiful new TARDIS interior, I’m totally ready to see where this ride goes.