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Doctor Who: The Eleventh Hour (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Eleventh Hour originally aired in 2010.

So, coming?

No.

You wanted to come fourteen years ago.

I grew up.

Don’t worry. I’ll soon fix that.

– the Doctor and Amy

The arrival of a new producer on Doctor Who always represents a shift in some way shape or form. The change from Barry Letts to Philip Hinchcliffe must have seemed radical, even at the time. Graham Williams following Hinchcliffe represented a similarly strange departure. The departure of Russell T. Davies, the producer who had brought Doctor Who back to television after over a decade, was always going be a pretty significant change for those watching. Steven Moffat’s first episode as producer might not seem like it’s a shocking departure from what came before, but it also quite efficiently and effectively distinguishes Moffat’s tenure from that of his direct predecessor.

While by no means as radical a shift as Spearhead from Space, there is a very clear feeling that The Eleventh Hour brings with it significant tonal and thematic changes to the tale of the Doctor.

A mad man with a box...

A mad man with a box…

There are all manner of similarities between The Eleventh Hour and the Davies era that had just come to an end. In fact, it’s interesting that Moffat’s first season is as rigidly structured as Davies’ seasons tended to be. The opening two episodes are stand-alone tales, then there’s a two-parter, a bunch of standalone tales, another two-parter, another run of single episodes and a big two-part finalé. Moffat would shake that formula up over his following two seasons, sometimes radically. Here, however, there’s a very clear sense that Moffat is keen to respect the structure of the show he has inherited, and that the more dramatic changes can be postponed, as long as they are foreshadowed.

So, on the surface, we get an episode that could pass as a season-opener from the Russell T. Davies era of the series. It’s set in present-day England (or close enough) and sees the Doctor recruit a companion who hails from that most familiar of times and places. Like New Earth and Smith & Jones, the adventure heavily features a hospital. And, like quite a few of the “important” Davies episodes, it opens with a camera panning around the world before it zooms in on the action, giving us a sense of scale for this cosmic drama.

Something fishy going on here...

Something fishy going on here…

It all seems quite familiar so far, with no dramatic radical reversals. The companion is still human, British, female and from the present day. The Doctor is new, but he’s still male and relatively young. The action centres on a decidedly British setting. It hinges on something that appears normal (Prisoner Zero), but really isn’t. It also does a great job setting up elements that will build throughout the season towards the inevitable finalé. The cracks might be a little more plot-relevant than “Bad Wolf” or “Mister Saxon”, there’s nothing too distinctive about them… yet.

We even get a nice little sequence where the Doctor is presented as an empowering force, the kind of person who makes you into the best you that you could be on the best day you’ve ever had. Except there are explosions and aliens and threats and monsters and all sorts of other nonsense. The notion of the Doctor as a magical “space Gandalf” who allowed his companions to grow and develop as people was implied by the classic series, but Davies turned it into the show’s central theme, with each year arguably serving as a companion’s journey, with that growing self-awareness paying off in the finalé.

Eye spy...

Eye spy…

Moffat has arguably done away with this element, or at least radically toned it down. I’ll discuss it a bit more when I reach The Big Bang, but the emotional climax of the story doesn’t hinge on the companion realising who she is, it requires her to remember who the Doctor is. That’s a long way away, though, and we’ll get to that. Still, The Eleventh Hour does give us a dose of Davies-style empowering Doctor. Interestingly, not really for Amy, but more for Jeff.

As he explains:

Listen to me. In ten minutes, you’re going to be a legend. In ten minutes, everyone on that screen is going to be offering you any job you want. But first, you have to be magnificent. You have to make them trust you and get them working. This is it, Jeff, right here, right now. This is when you fly. Today’s the day you save the world.

Interestingly, Jeff is never seen again. Pretty much like all of Amelia Pond’s back story, but we’ll get to that. Although, I suppose, that makes sense. Jeff has been changed, improved, grown. His journey (as much as he had one) is complete. Also, his narrative function (making us wonder who Amy is marrying) doesn’t really revolve around him as a character.

Breathing new life into the Timelord?

Breathing new life into the Timelord?

Which, of course, brings us to the first big difference between Davies and Moffat when it comes to producing Doctor Who. It’s an idea that is very obvious even in Moffat’s first episode as producer. Davies did an excellent job providing an expansive and documented back story for his companions. Even those who interacted least with their families (Donna, for example) still felt like they were leaving something behind when they joined the Doctor on his adventures through time and space.

Almost immediately, Moffat makes it perfectly clear that Amy doesn’t have a back ground. Sure, she has a fiancé, and an aunt… but they don’t seem to feature too heavily in her life. She has no parents. She lives in a big house all by herself. Of course, all this would later be explained. The cracks, you see, had eaten her family and made it seem like they never existed. Eventually, in The Big Bang, it would all be fixed. Amy would have a family, a mother, a father.

Bow-ties are cool...

Bow-ties are cool…

And it would make absolutely no difference. They’d never pop up again. Even after the Doctor lost her in The Angels Take Manhattan, there’d be no mention or discussion of the Pond family beyond Amy and Rory. “I don’t do domestic,” the Ninth Doctor had stated, although he was clearly lying. It seems, though, that the Eleventh Doctor actually doesn’t do domestic. When the Doctor tells young Amy that he doesn’t have a family, she responds, “You’re lucky.”

I actually don’t mind this. While the focus on Rose’s family felt like a fresh way of examining the relationship between the Doctor and his companion, the idea did wear a little thin over time. I love Wilf, and I recognise that Martha’s family had a plot function to play, but I do like that Moffat had made a conscious decision as early as his first episode not to get too bogged down in mundane domestic drama. There’s a had medium to be found, and Moffat finds a unique companion dynamic in the married couple, so the involvement of parents and other relatives would feel redundant.

Dialling it down...

Dialling it down…

It also dovetails nicely into the change in the Doctor’s characterisation. Although later episodes in the season like Victory of the Daleks would pull back a bit from this interpretation of the character, it’s very clear that Moffat is moving away from the Time War related angst that defined both Eccleston and Tennant’s time in the role. The events in The Eleventh Hour directly lead out of The End of Time, when the Doctor was forced to kill his people all over again – it seems that it gave him some sense of closure.

We get a slight nod to his back story when he confesses to Amy, “I don’t even have an aunt.” After Amy tells him that he’s lucky, he responds, “I know.” It seems a rather conscious effort by Moffat to pull away from some of the darker stuff featuring the character, the wallowing in self-pity and the sense of eternal loneliness. It fits rather well with some of the comments he has made about the version of the character who appeared in Scream of the Shalka, with Moffat stating that television lends itself to a more cheerful Doctor.

A hands-on approach...

A hands-on approach…

This, again, fits with the larger change in Moffat’s characterisation of the Doctor. Davies suggested that the Doctor was “the lonely god”, a borderline deity who tried to temper his power by travelling with human companions. In contrast, Moffat argues that the Doctor is more of a trickster or an imaginary friend that an all-powerful god-like being. Indeed, The Eleventh Hour feels more decidedly like fantasy than anything in the Davies era, with a “mad man in a box” dropping out of the sky to comfort a little girl, only to abandon her as she grows up.

It could almost be Drop Dead Fred, the story of a grown woman who discovers that her imaginary friend has returned after years of being away. Indeed, the Doctor himself concedes that things are decidedly fantastical. “Oh, that’s a brilliant name,” he tells her. “Amelia Pond. Like a name in a fairy tale.” When he’s informed that “the raggedy doctor” has returned, Rory seems to find that especially impossible, in a world with walking coma patients and eyes in space ships. “But he was a story,” Rory protests. “He was a game.”

The girl who waited...

The girl who waited…

This is, after all, the story of “little Amelia Pond, waiting for her magic Doctor to return.” Despite what various script editors (including Christopher Bidmead) might claim, the show was always more science fantasy than science fiction – and Moffat’s interpretation embraces that from the get-go. That’s arguably the biggest difference between Moffat and Davies to be found in this episode. Davies imagined the Doctor as a fantastic figure intruding on a mundane life. To Moffat, the Doctor is just part of a tapestry of the fantastic.

There’s a reason that the show returned time and time again to the image of young Amelia Pond waiting. It wasn’t just because Caitlin Blackwood is a surprisingly strong young actress. It’s because it’s a fantastic story point, and one that anchors all of Moffat’s adventures in a decidedly human moment – a young child waiting for her imaginary friend, and gradually losing that sense of wonder as she grows older.

Everything's a bit sideways...

Everything’s a bit sideways…

While these are clear differences from the Davies era, Moffat includes several smaller divergences that acknowledge the work that his predecessor did in getting the show to the screen, while putting his unique spin on things. Parodying his predecessor’s knack for melodramatic apologies, Eleven is very apologetic about having to confiscate Rory’s phone. “Sorry in advance,” the Doctor states, sounding incredibly serious, ” …about the bill.”

Later on, after a changing sequence clearly inspired by Spearhead from Space, the Doctor confronts the Atraxi. Borrowing a page from Russell T. Davies, Moffat allows the character to use the imperative “run”, a staple of the Davies era. However, in a wonderful twist, Moffat doesn’t make the order an instruction to a companion. Instead, he reimagines it as a threat to an adversary. It’s a nice way of taking a familiar concept and putting his spin on it, something that Moffat does quite a lot of here.

Eye in the sky...

Eye in the sky…

However, The Eleventh Hour isn’t just about Russell T. Davies handing over the reins of the show to Steven Moffat. It’s also a season premier. It is the first time in the new series that we’ve received both a new Doctor and a new companion. Given that Moffat is (along with Paul Cornell) one of the best writers to work on the relaunched Doctor Who, the show works remarkably well as an hour of episodic television. It’s nothing too exciting or demanding, but it’s fast and it’s clever and it’s a solid introduction to both Amy and the Doctor.

The notion of a crack in the universe is a great idea, the blending of the fantastic and the mundane that the show does so very well. Moffat has an exceptional grasp for working on very basic concepts and fears, and there’s something wonderful about a monster lurking “in the corner of [your] eye.” I also like the nice revelation that the “human residence” refers to the entire planet, rather than merely Amy’s house, a wonderful way of demonstrating the scale of the problem.

Apple of his eye...

Apple of his eye…

The blu ray includes a nice post-credits scene, which has become something of a staple of the Moffat era. The show has adapted quite well to the modern age, with lots of shorts and clips available here, there and everywhere. The short scene at the end serves to build upon The Eleventh Hour as a potential “jumping on” point for new fans (even if the episode is fairly accessible as is). It’s Moffat’s dialogue, so it is all remarkably fun and charming, as Amy gets to list off a number of “frequently asked questions” about the TARDIS.

While most of the Doctor’s answers amount to little more than “trust me” or “don’t think to hard about it”, I do like his explanation for the fact that he travels through time in a Police Box:

It’s camouflaged. It’s disguised as a police telephone box from 1963. Every time the TARDIS materialises in a new location, within the first nanosecond of landing, it analyses its surroundings, calculates a twelve-dimensional data map of everything within a thousand-mile radius and then determines which outer shell would best blend in with the environment…. and then it disguises itself as a police telephone box from 1963.

Moffat would do an excellent job compiling this sort of additional material, and it’s great that the blu ray box sets collect so much of it. I’d really rather have longer episodes, but it’s a great way of maintaining interest in the show and of trying to reach new audience members.

Thinking inside the box...

Thinking inside the box…

Anyway, Matt Smith is great in the role. I’m quite fond of Smith, even if I’m not as big a fan of him as I am of Eccleston or Tennant. There’s a hint or two towards the end of The Eleventh Hour that we might see a more manipulative or less trustworthy Doctor. It’s quite clear, for example, that he’s lying (or at least not being entirely truthful) to Amy when he explains his reasons for taking her on-board. When she asks him why he’s inviting her, he replies, “Been knocking around on my own for a while. My choice, but I’ve started talking to myself all the time. It’s giving me earache.”

It’s a nice answer, but the Doctor has never seemed that self-aware. Granted, his isolation did lead to events like the climax of The Waters of Mars, but he still seems a little disingenuous about it. I also like the acknowledgement that a solo Doctor tends to require more awkward exposition (see, for example, The Deadly Assassin), while the companion provides a nice sounding board and a way to disguise plot-driving exposition as almost natural dialogue.

Up to Eleven...

Up to Eleven…

Still, the shot of the Doctor examining the crack on his TARDIS monitor belies his seemingly sincere answer. Whether it’s a sense of guilt for abandoning her, or a scientific curiosity about the crack, it’s quite clear that his motivations aren’t quite as simple as they appear. This is an interesting trait, as this is the first time we’ve seen that sort of characterisation in a new series Doctor. The Second and the Seventh Doctors were prone to these sorts of games and manipulations, and I’m actually quite sad that Moffat’s Doctor developed into much more of a straight-shooter than the ending of his first adventure might suggest.

Amy herself is a bit of a mixed bag this early on. I love her back story, but the present day stuff seems a bit… heavy handed. I like the admission that the Doctor’s absent-minded negligence towards his companions can have severe consequences – that his abandonment hurt her quite deeply at a young age. However, the fact she became a “kissogram” feels a little weird. It’s clear that we’re meant to consider Amy as somewhat dysfunctional, as she lies to Miss Angelo (and presumably other residents) about what she does.

That skirt would stop traffic...

That skirt would stop traffic…

However, in a small community like that, surely it’s an impossible secret to keep? It’s hard to imagine an agency operating out of a small village like that – although in Vampires of Venice, we do discover the village also has a stripper. More than that, it doesn’t really seem like Amy would happily show up and politely kiss random people. Given how the rest of the village (including the poor man with the car) seem to react to her aggressiveness as if it’s a matter of course, the episode doesn’t necessarily convince us that Amy would work well in any line of work that was especially customer-facing.

It also feels just a little bit gender-biased. I can’t imagine the Doctor picking up a male “kissogram.” Being honest, without resorting to the whole “Moffat’s Doctor Who is sexist” or “Moffat’s Doctor Who isn’t sexist” thing that the internet seems to have seized upon, I’ve had a bit of difficulty with how Moffat presents Amy’s life outside the Doctor. In Closing Time and Asylum of the Daleks, for example, we discover that Amy’s idea of success involves becoming a model. Which feels strange, because we have had no real indication that she had any interest in that area before. It just seems like the show decided that since Amy is an attractive woman, that’s probably something she should do.

"Trust me, I'm the Doctor..."

“Trust me, I’m the Doctor…”

Still, enough about all that. Minor complaints about Amy’s characterisation aside, The Eleventh Hour is a resounding success and one that represents that the transition between Davies and Moffat went relatively smoothly. In fact, I’d argue that it stands as the best season premier of the relaunched series, with only Smith & Jones coming close. I’m a big fan of Moffat’s first season, and The Eleventh Hour offers a bold mission statement for that wonderful year.

Geronimo!

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