"Early days. Steering's a bit off."
Last Saturday was the most pivotal Doctor Who episode in years.
Not in terms of story or anything, but how this one went down with the public would signal either the show's continued good health, or death.
Principally, it's the first episode after David Tennant's run, and since Tennant has established himself as the most popular Doctor Who ever, I wonder if there was an actor in the land who envied Matt Smith's dubious task of winning over his army of fans in just one hour.
Even I was a tough sell here. Having just watched the tenth Doctor's poignant end a mere six days earlier, I really hadn't had any time to mourn his passing yet.
But it was more than just one cast-change - the companion was being renewed too. In the world of Doctor Who, that's the entire cast.
This was also the first episode of revived Who not to have Russell T Davies at the helm, himself also a super-popular writer-producer. That Steven Moffat was capable of taking over the reins, I had no doubt, in fact he'd be my first choice. But my opinion wasn't really the issue here.
What would everyone else think?
It's at times like this I'm quite glad that my blog-publishing is about a month behind. If there was one thing the old series needed this week, then it was a lot of positive reviews of last Saturday's episode.
Alas, I cannot be a part of that, partly because this review will be published in May, but mostly because I didn't think this was a very good episode anyway. There, I said it. Funny - I always thought that being honest was supposed to give you the opposite of a heavy heart...
The Eleventh Hour (GREAT title!) wasn't exactly a bad edition, but on several counts I thought it simply did a bit less than okay, which is a risky score for a pilot. Yes, although this episode was starting Doctor Who's 31st season, this was effectively yet another pilot.
In the circumstances I expected them to retain as much of the show's existing goodness as possible, but no. By the end of this hour, in addition to havinbg lost the show's cast, we'd also have said goodbye to the familiar theme music, credit-sequence, logo, TARDIS interior set, and even the TARDIS exterior. Really - it's actually a different design of Police Box now. Quality aside, when you have a show as popular as Doctor Who, why on Earth would you risk changing everything like that?
Bridging the gap a little, the opening scene featured the new Doctor in the old TARDIS, careering out of control over central London. We don't see how he got into the position of hanging-out of its doorway, though this might have improved the cliffhanger to the preceding episode. Neither do we see what the TARDIS collides with that sends it spinning even more frantically out of control at the end of the scene. Basically, this hook scene goes nowhere.
This gives way to the new opening credits, which also feature the TARDIS spinning out of control, only much more slowly. Consequently these don't impress either, but I admit to being a tough audience on this one. The fact is that I loved the old opening visuals and music, which these seem to be partially inspired by. Still, music always takes a while to become familiar. I like the clever new logo, with the show's initials forming the Police Box, but still ever-so-slightly prefer the old one though.
Then we get to the episode proper, with the TARDIS finally crashing and Dr. Smith making his big entrance. Like the slowly-turning TARDIS in the credits however, this moment also had its impact reduced by the pre-creds sequence, in which we had already observed the new Doctor. That scene is really becoming less than optional now…
Although Smith is lumbered with having to somehow endear himself to his audience while repeatedly spitting out food on camera, this awkwardness passes quite quickly. After a filmic montage of his multiple regurgitations, we find him sitting down to a quiet meal with a young child called Amelia, and here it suddenly happens.
With Amelia looking after the barmy fool, the grandfather / favourite uncle relationship of Doctor Who's early days is established in moments. Though brief, this simple scene enables the Doctor's character to be seen without all the chaotic confusion that usually surrounds him. There's just him, Amelia, some food to eat (albeit fish fingers in custard) and, very very promisingly… wait for it… NO incidental music!
I can't tell you what a huge relief I found this. The Doctor and Amelia were talking away, and I could clearly hear what they were saying and everything. There was even a clock ticking quietly away in that room. Doctor Who has made a big effort in recent years to model itself on Hollywood, but for a while here it seemed more like an underground movie.
Even more so when they progress onto investigating the sinister crack in Amelia's bedroom wall, and from this point on I was rivetted. For about twenty minutes. Basically until the token zombies showed up with their usual high-profile world-invasion.
Granted, this stock storyline's usual intensity was somewhat lower than normal, with new director Adam Smith unusually taking his time over several shots.
There's also a very weird scene which I can only describe as the 'what did I see scene'.
This featured the Doctor actually turning to the audience and asking "What did I see?", before the camera roves around his mute location taking-in visual plot-points that he'd missed. Is he going to do that every week? Now this is what I call a new series!
The tragedy of this idea, of course, lies in all the things that this cleverer new Doctor doesn't pick up on. The Atraxi take over every form of communication on Earth, even including mobile phones, yet Amy later calls the Doctor from the hospital. Also, he uses Jeff's laptop (which is effectively the same as a mobile phone) to interrupt a web-conference that is somehow already in progress.
Going to the other end of the spectrum, as we mere humans lack the heightened observational powers of this new Doctor, it's all a bit surprising when he suddenly states that the Atraxi are monitoring all communications on Earth. (still despite having disabled it all)
Then, once defeated, the Atraxi vacate Earth off-camera. Then they agree to come back again, but this too is conveyed just through the Doctor's few words into Rory's telephone. That's a lot of action to follow without our seeing any of it.
It all gets too confusing to think about when the returned Atraxi find out about the Doctor's defence of Earth, including clips of elsewhere, from the planet's records, and then depart into space instead of back home through the crack.
Rather than "Don't blink", the key here seems to be "Don't think". Like much of the last four series. Hurrrrm. Maybe I'm not thinking enough?
Basically, I thought they had given Matt Smith a regular thinly-plotted David Tennant story to make, complete with mannerisms and manic personality, albeit toned-down somewhat.
It might be that the author was keen for the new Doctor to prove that he was every bit as capable as the outgoing one, however if so, then Smith was never going to win. After all, he could hardly be as Tennant as Tennant.
Mind you, in many ways this moderation of the character's extremes is a good thing. For example, his cure-all sonic screwdriver is less of a magic wand in this, as it takes the new Doctor four attempts to simply unlock Amy's front door with it.
What I really wanted to see here was the eleventh Doctor establishing his own uniqueness, but as the closing credits rolled, although I had enjoyed the episode, I still had no idea quite who this newcomer was. Maybe his overall vagueness was intentional, y'know, to keep us guessing.
I'll give him the rest of the series, anyway. Most previous Doctors have started out playing a generic version of the character - including Tennant - and allowed their own uniqueness to emerge over time. The exception I guess would be Colin Baker, who did this the other way around.
One character who I found harder to like was Amy. Once she's grown up, she becomes a kissogram, seems to mess around with Rory's feelings (and Jeff's?), and watches the Doctor while he's getting undressed, again in front of poor Rory. While Amy's character is more distinctive than the eleventh Doctor's, it's not in a particularly likable way.
Still, given that a further two years pass for her before the story's conclusion, during which time she gets engaged, I think we can assume that she's done something about those traits. Let's hope the author has too.
The main problem with the third character - Prisoner Zero - is that he/she/it simply never gets around to attacking. Anyone. Ever. When the Doctor and Amy flee her house, 'he' literally just stands in the doorway growling after them. Just what is Prisoner Zero in for - growling with intent?
As usual with Steven Moffat's writing though, his trademark crackling dialogue covers over a multitude of sins:
Doctor: (TO PRISONER ZERO)"Alright, we're safe. Want to know why? 'Cause she sent for backup."
Amy: "I didn't send for backup."
Doctor: "I know, that was a clever lie to save our lives. OKAY, yeah, NO backup. And that's why we're safe. Alone we're not a threat to you. If we HAD backup, then you'd have to kill us."
Disembodied voice: "Attention Prisoner Zero. The human residence is surrounded. Attention Prisoner Zero…"
Amy: "What's that?"
Doctor: "Well that would be backup. Okay! One more time - we DO have backup and that's definitely why we're safe."
Disembodied voice: "Prisoner Zero will vacate the human residence, or the human residence will be incinerated."
Doctor: "Well safe apart from, y'know, incineration."
I'm feeling mightily encouraged by the whole thing, and really looking forward to the next one. So long as the imaginative and funny Steven Moffat can keep his love of innuendo under control, I honestly think we're on the brink of the show's greatest era ever here. It's never been as great as it's about to be, and it'll never be as great again afterwards either. Hasn't started yet though. No pressure or anything!
I'm hoping for a big story arc about time, and some mopping-up of the state that the Doctor Who universe has been left in after the last five years. I even tried eating fish fingers in custard this evening - good call!
Welcome aboard Matt Smith, and good luck!