Matt Smith as Doctor Who

Doctor Who Series 5 Episode 1 - The Eleventh Hour

Note: this review contains minor spoilers throughout.

Rarely has 65 minutes of TV had so much to live up to. 18 months after Sir David Tennant announced he was stepping down, 14 months after Matt “who?” Smith was unveiled as his successor, ninety-odd days after his first handful of lines in the closing minutes of The End of Time, Matt Smith’s first full episode of Doctor Who is here.

But it’s not just Smith’s debut episode. For the first time in its history, the series continues but every one of the key creative people is new-in-role. New Doctor. New companion. New head writer. New producer. (Note for pedants, obviously every one was new in An Unearthly Child in 1963, and there was a similar clean sweep for Rose in 2005, but that was after a nine-year gap. When Barry Letts took over as producer in 1970, he inherited script editor Terrance Dicks, and his predecessor oversaw Jon Pertwee’s first story. Letts himself produced Tom Baker’s first story before handing over the reigns to Philip Hinchcliffe in 1974.) The big question, after the colossal popular success of the RTD stories, was how new would it be? How new should it be?

The opening sixty seconds is so 2005-2009 as to be almost self-parody. There’s Murray Gold’s bombastic score, there’s the TARDIS hurtling past London landmarks, there’s a bit of barely-necessary wirework. Then suddenly we get a weird, off-kilter version of the theme, accompanying titles which seem to move a bit too slowly (and be over with too quickly) and then suddenly everything has changed. The texture is richer, deeper, slower, darker. The phrase “fairy tale” has been enthusiastically bandied around by the production team and a definite hint of the Tim Burton’s pervades the whole piece.

Then, up pops Matt Smith, spouting a few rather Tennant-ish lines and suddenly the mix of old and new seems exactly right. Quick side-note. Almost as soon as David Tennant got into his stride, I suddenly realised how some of Eccleston’s more flippant lines should have sounded (especially in Rose, The Unquiet Dead, and – tellingly – The Empty Child). It struck me that Russell and co had been writing for Tennant since the off, whether or not they knew it. This makes SmithMoffat’s job even harder. David Tennant, in performance and writing, is the twenty-first century Who and the new version may be erring too much on the side of familiarity, whereas it might be better to establish some clear water first.

From this point on, the overall feeling was one of tremendous confidence, both in the swaggering Doctor recalling the deadly alien menace just to give it a proper talking to, and in the power and speed of the storytelling and reinvention of the series. Amy’s backstory is fascinating, a lovely blend of Russell’s emo-Who and Moffat’s timey-wimey games. Smith still sounds a little bit public-school but is authentically bonkers in a very refreshing way. There are jokes for adults (“get a girlfriend”) and jokes for kids – I’m apparently the only one who thought that the food scene was embarrassingly juvenile; sudden inexplicable changes of mind plus spitting out food will certainly appeal to six-year-olds but left me cold. And the new TARDIS is absolutely lovely, inside and out. And then, there’s blink-and-you’ll-win-a-Hugo clips of all the old Doctors to ensure total fangasm.

What leaves me slightly disappointed is the plotting – usually Moffat’s great strength over RTD. I appreciated the fact that we avoided the sometimes unsatisfactory forty-minutes-of-escalating-threat-followed-by-a-sudden-and-unlikely-resolution-in-the-last-five-minutes structure of so many stories in Series 1-4. Instead, Eleven is actively working to solve a clearly-defined problem from about a third of the way in. But my favourite of the self-contained episodes establish quickly what they are about and mine that key concept for all it’s worth – think Dalek, Father’s Day, Tooth and Claw, Blink, Midnight. The Eleventh Hour sprang giddily from concept to concept and badly needed a bit more focus, almost as if several different stories had been combined and put through a meat grinder – all the bits of a good story were there but (if you’ll pardon the horrible simile) in a pile of unrelated bits and pieces.

Okay… this is about the crack in Amelia’s wall and what lies beyond it. Oh, this about what you can see out of the corner of your eye. No, it’s about a ward full of coma patients chanting the same- wait, what’s Annette Crosbie doing there? Oh, it’s about Amy Pond and her imaginary raggedy Doctor friend. Oh, no, it’s a rerun of that Sarah Jane Adventures story with the Judoon. Or in fact Smith and Jones.

And that’s the last, slightly disquieting element of The Eleventh Hour – how familiar it all was. Where the feel and the cast were all shiny and new, many of the concepts were shopworn and second hand – not just the escaped convict from Smith and Jones but the laptop conference from The Stolen Earth, the relationship fractured through time from The Girl in the Fireplace, the “Earth is defended” speech from The Christmas Invasion (but without the sour punchline to give it dramatic weight), the coordinated global message to the sky from Last of the Time Lords, the hospital setting and chanting zombies from The Empty Child and the companion about to get married from – of course – The Runaway Bride. Doctor Who has always plundered other narrative forms, but Moffat stealing from himself and the previous five years this early in the run does not augur well.

For all that, I’ll give it four stars out of five. The story is only really good enough for three, but Matt Smith’s supple performance, Karen Gillan’s equally impactful presence, that gorgeous new TARDIS and those wonderfully scary CGI teeth combine to earn it one extra star. I assume and hope that the best is yet to come.

Next episode: The Beast Below.

Talking to my GP father about homeopathy #2
So... what did I think about The Beast Below?