Thursday, 8 April 2010

Doctor Who is back and it's better than ever

[Warning: contains some mild spoilers]

Over on The Busybody, Loren Rosson begins his series of reviews on the new series of Doctor Who and in the process reminds me of the fun we had a couple of years ago (Goodacre and Rosson at Doctor Who) as we commented and rated our way through Series 4 of the new Doctor Who.  Loren and I agree on our love for the show but appear to disagree on almost everything else.  I am a complete fanboy, often unable to find my critical faculties when I watch Doctor Who while Loren is a complete curmudgeon, often unable to find the child within when he watches the same programme.  Since a new series has arrived, "and it's about time", I thought it would be enjoyable to resume blogging about it, and it looks like we are off to an excellently contrasting start, with Loren offering "The Eleventh Hour" a mere two and a half stars while I don't have to think twice before giving it a solid 5 TARDIS groans.  I thought it the strongest season opener ever, beating even "Rose", which relaunched the series in 2005, and the strongest doctor debut ever, beating even "Christmas Invasion" the same year.  I have seldom enjoyed an episode so much.  As Louis Trapani and Ken Deep would say (and in fact did say) on Podshock, this episode was a home run.

But let me give a little more context to my enjoyment of this piece. It's now five years since Doctor Who returned to BBC1, in 2005.  There were four series in consecutive years, and then last year, we had just a series of "specials" ahead of the regeneration of the doctor and the series, with a new showrunner, Steven Moffat.  The specials were pretty good but not outstanding, with the possible exception of last November's "Waters of Mars".  They were fun and they gave us what we might have expected, but they never quite dazzled.  We had the repetition of familiar themes, we had some so-so plotting, and it by the end it felt a little drawn out.  In a way, the problem with 2009 was that it left us waiting too long for each episode and our expectations were raised too high.  But there was something thrilling at the end of it all, a regeneration.

I've always loved regeneration episodes.  One of my favourite Doctor Who moments from my youth was the regeneration in 1974 from doctor 3 (Jon Pertwee, my doctor) to doctor 4 (Tom Baker, everyone's doctor).  And I never quite forgave Tom Baker for staying in the role for so long that I was losing interest by the time he regenerated into doctor 5 (Peter Davison, the out-of-breath doctor) in 1981.  In the reboot of 2005, there was no regeneration from doctor 8 (Paul McGann, the one-hit-wonder doctor) to doctor 9 (Christopher Ecclestone, the "daft old face" doctor), and we had hardly had chance to get used to him before he regenerated into doctor 10 (David Tennant, the fangirl's doctor).

So when we finally had a regeneration, on New Year's Day, just before we flew back from England to America, it was kind of thrilling, but the thing that was most thrilling about it was seeing that first minute of doctor 11, Matt Smith.  He was instantly superb.  He cried aloud as his face appeared, replacing Tennant's, his energy and enthusiasm already bursting from every pore of his body.  It was just one minute, but it was enough to suggest that he was going to be brilliant.  And now, after his first episode aired on Saturday, we know just how brilliant he is and is going to be.

"The Eleventh Hour" is already one of my favourite episodes of Doctor Who.  It's everything a good episode of Doctor Who should be and more, bonkers, brilliant, scary, fascinating, funny and unlike anything else on television.  The pre-credit section provides a delightful link with the previous series, picking up the action with the TARDIS hurtling towards the earth, which in the land of recent Doctor Who means London and Big Ben.  The new credits along with the revised theme-tune were perfect -- back to the time tunnel look of the Tom Baker era, along with music that evolves from the rewritten noughties theme tune, which managed to be both funky and orchestral, throwing in some electronics that nod nicely to the show's past and the great Delia Derbyshire.

New show-runner Steven Moffat penned this episode, and its opening scene proper, in the garden of Amy Pond's storybook style house, had all his trademarks, like the opening scenes of his Series 3 episode "Blink".  And the episode's plotting typically borrowed motifs from Time Traveller's Wife, which is surely one of Moffat's strongest influences, seen in several of his stories, and especially Series 4's "Silence in the Library".  In the latter, the doctor meets his possible future wife, River Song, in a library for the first time, when she knows him but he does not know her, just as in Time Traveller's Wife.  In both, the woman is carrying a diary full of spoilers.

Now Moffat returns to an element in that book that he has already used once before, in Series 2's "Girl in the Fireplace".  Here, the first influential meeting with the time traveller happens to a little girl who has a future with the stranger but who must wait to see him again.  In the new twist on this familiar story, with the doctor meeting the young Amelia Pond, superbly played by Caitlin Blackwood, there is an added poignancy.  The sadness of Amelia's long wait for the doctor to return feels all the worse straight after one of the funniest scenes ever seen in Doctor Who, as the doctor rejects one type of food after another in the kind of way that kids will find hilarious -- there is nothing funnier than adults behaving badly.

During those first ten minutes or so, Matt Smith simply owns the role.  There is no period of having to get used to him.  Like the young Amelia, we like him straight away.  It's no wonder that Moffat apparently liked him instantly at his audition.  The viewer is fascinated by him -- he is familiar but different.  And so, when Amy is finally invited into the TARDIS at the end of the episode, it is our invitation too.  And for the first time since Ian and Barbara stepped aboard in fear in 1963, the viewer joins the companion in gazing in wonder at what they see.  Normally, we are in the know, and we are waiting with the doctor to see the companion express their amazement at seeing what we already know.  This time, we are seeing the new TARDIS interior (and it really does look gorgeous) at the same moment that Amy sees it, with a wide-eyed thrill.

Those who were hoping for revolution rather than evolution would be disappointed.  As many of us realized, the new show-runner, Steven Moffat, is in fact one of Russell T. Davies's biggest fans, and he works here with the RTD legacy, and you can see it all the way through, with reminders of episodes like "The Runaway Bride", "Smith and Jones" and "Christmas Invasion" as well as Moffat's own episodes like "Girl in the Fireplace".  In fact several plot elements were strikingly reminiscent of RTD's stories, sending out viruses by mobile phone, saving the world from a laptop in a young man's bedroom, characters walking around like zombies. Anyone hoping that this is transitional stuff for the first episode in the new era will, I think, be disappointed again.  The whole structure of the series looks RTD-influenced.  The next episode, a future UK flying in space, is straight out of the RTD manual.  This is exactly as it should be.  Moffat really seems to know what he is doing.

In our enthusiasm for the on-screen presence of Matt Smith, Karen Gillan and young Caitlin Blackwood in this episode, it's easy to forget the fourth major star of this episode, Llandaff in South Wales, which stood in for Leadworth, Amy Pond's home village.  Doctor Who is at its best when it is unashamed of its quintessential Britishness, and this location, with its village green, its post office, its duck pond, looked exquisite.  Here it is in one of the clips that was shown a lot ahead of the broadcast (and doesn't Matt Smith do a brilliant Tennant impression here? Close your eyes and it's him):

I suppose a large part of this was that it reminded me of where I used to live, near Kings Norton in Birmingham, which had a green just like this.  There are similar village greens all over the country and it's the perfect location for the first episode of a new series of Doctor Who.  It makes the episode feel right -- it looks fresh and yet authentic at the same time.

"The Eleventh Hour" was the perfect episode of Doctor Who, a series that is always the same but always different.  Matt Smith is the Doctor, recognizably the same man and yet completely different.  The series is recognizably new Who, with lots of continuity with the Russell T. Davies era at the same time as homage to the classic series.  The new TARDIS symbolizes that change, the homage, outside and inside, to the classic series, but located firmly in the new era.  Kids of all ages will have loved this one. This was a remarkably strong debut.   5 TARDIS groans all the way.


Loren Rosson III said...

Well Mark, we do agree on one thing. The Eleventh Hour is indeed the best season opener introducing a new companion. Though for me that's not saying much, since Rose, Smith and Jones, and Partners in Crime are all 2-star material. (For you, they were already up there at 4 1/2 or 5.)

As I pointed out in my own review, the "reminders", as you call them, of The Runaway Bride, Smith and Jones, Christmas Invasion and Girl in the Fireplace are so overdone that the story is a pastiche. Indeed a complete rip-off of Smith and Jones, with the exact same plot; very unoriginal. I wasn't hoping for a revolution, but certainly more evolution than this. Even allowing for different tastes, I'm amazed you can say this is one of your favorite stories of all time. It shouts mediocrity.

I agree with you, however, about the early scenes with the Doctor and young Amy (Amelia), especially the spitting out every single piece of food she gives him. At least in terms of Matt Smith's command of the character, we seem to be in excellent hands!

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks for your comments, Loren. I don't think "pastiche" is quite the right word; I prefer homage. Moffat has pulled off an almost impossible task here, to make the show feel fresh, young and energetic at the same time as satisfying fans of the classic series and, more importantly, the massive audiences that RTD has pulled in for Doctor Who. To have done this in such an effortless way, with lots of delightful moments, against such a visually stunning background, is a really amazing achievement.

One of the things I didn't get time to mention is the superb way that Moffat integrates history for the doctor into the episode that does not require one to know any more than Amy does. The raggedy doctor motif is quite brilliant and makes the doctor for Amy the same yet different too. RTD did something similar in Rose -- she goes searching for information and finds a nerd who knows all about him. But the raggedy doctor motif is even better than that -- she has been waiting for her doctor to come for twelve years, which makes three months seem like nothing.

TonyTheProf said...

Interesting how Moffat has put behind him the Council Estate family of the RTD era and put in its place, the country village, almost like something out of Avengerland (the UK series, not the Marvel comics stuff).

Did you notice to homage to the Pertwee Doctor in nicking clothes from a hospital? It was done in the 8th Doctor, but not as well.

Mark Goodacre said...

Yes; liked the way that he nicked his clothes from the hospital, and some comment from Rory like about this being stealing. Good 3rd doctor homage.

Yes, it did look Avengers-ish. Hadn't thought of that, but yes! I really loved the way it was filmed -- looked just great.