Sunday, April 18, 2010

Flashback Review: Doctor Who - "The Eleventh Hour" (Series 5 Episode 1)

Episode Rating: A

This review of "The Eleventh Hour," the Doctor Who Series 5 premiere and first episode of the Steven Moffat/Matt Smith era, was originally written during my time with The Denver Post's YourHub, though I have no idea now if it was actually published! But I'm presenting it here (maybe for the first time online) in its original, unedited form in honor of Moffat's upcoming final episode, "Twice Upon a Time," and to link to in my Ranking Every Steven Moffat Doctor Who Episode project, for the sake of completion. Keep in mind this was written in 2010, while I was still in High School. Opinions and writing quality are that of a teenager. 

During his five-year tenure with Doctor Who, show-runner Russell T. Davies got an awful lot of crap from fans about how he was running the show.  Most of these complaints seemed pretty nit-picky if you ask me, and way too many people complained about how Davies injected what they perceived as “angst” into the proceedings.  That wasn’t angst—it was character development, which last I checked is a good thing.  I’ll be the first to admit that with one big exception, Davies’ scripts were often below the quality of the other writers, but looking at the big picture, the man was an excellent show-runner who brought the series back to television after over a decade in limbo, and always kept things fresh and exciting.  Was there some “angst?”  Sure, if you want to call it that.  But apart from the occasional misstep any TV series is wont to have, Davies’ Doctor Who was always fun. 

All that being said, the first episode of the new series, The Eleventh Hour, made me forget about pretty much everything that came before during Davies’ era.  With this episode, we have a new Doctor in the form of Matt Smith, a new companion played by Karen Gillan, a new (and improved!) TARDIS, and most significantly of all, a brand new show-runner, Steven Moffat.  If you read my Top Ten Doctor Who Episodes article, then you’ll know that Moffat is my man—when that guy puts his pen to paper, it’s not ink that flows out: it’s gold.  The guy wrote The Girl in the Fireplace and Blink for crying out loud, not to mention a few other equally impressive outings.  So while I do respect Davies’ work immensely, having Moffat in charge excited me about the new Who more than anything else, and I am ecstatic to report that The Eleventh Hour is everything I could have hoped for from a new era of Doctor Who. 

The episode is far and away the best premiere of the revived series, and while Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant both got memorable intro episodes in the form of Rose and The Christmas Invasion, respectively, Matt Smith’s showcase is far stronger than those two efforts. 

And Smith is really the first thing to talk about here; the revived series is now three for three with their casting of the lead role.  After just one episode, I can’t say whether or not Smith is better or worse than Eccleston or Tennant (and I haven’t ever watched the classic Who series), but he’s certainly on par with two actors I would have assumed unbeatable.  Smith is lively and energetic from the get go, and he’s obviously having a grand old time portraying the iconic Time Lord.  He handles the intense moments wonderfully, walking a deft line between where Eccleston and Tennant stood on the darker material.  Eccleston would get scary-angry, Tennant would shout up a storm, but Smith keeps his cool, radiating power and intensity while maintaining his sense of fun.  But the most impressive thing about Smith by far is that, despite his youthful status (he’s the youngest of the eleven Doctors), he simply seems to burst with wisdom.  It’s very easy to believe that this is a 900-year-old mind in a 26-year old body. 

This was best demonstrated in one of Smith’s early scenes with the young Amy Pond, where Amy says she likes having no relatives.  She asks the Doctor if he agrees; he promptly does so, but a vague flicker of doubt crosses his eyes.  Without speaking, Smith’s Doctor is telling us that he does still yearn for the family and society that he lost during the Time War, despite his assertion of comfort to the young Amy.  Now that’s some damn fine acting.

As for his new companion, Amy Pond, I really like her as well.  Karen Gillan is excellent in the role; she’s feisty and independent, but not annoying, which some past companions have bordered on.  Moffat’s script understands that a female character can be strong-willed and independent without resorting to stereotypical nagging.  She and Smith have excellent chemistry, and if Moffat plays his cards right, he could have written a companion to beat the current champion, Rose Tyler.

See, the most interesting thing about Amy is her back-story.  Moffat’s entire script is insanely clever, but the coolest part is Amy’s “origin” tale.  The Doctor visits her as a young girl, just after he’s regenerated, and they bond over food in what is one of the single most brilliant sequences from the revived series—fish sticks and custard!  The Doctor promises to come back for her in just five minutes, but do to a combination of the still-ongoing regeneration and the busted TARDIS, he arrives twelve years late.  This idea is similar to The Girl in the Fireplace, where the Doctor experiences the whole of the relationship in one day while she lives with him in her mind for her whole life.  That concept inherently makes Amy endearing and also means that she doesn’t quite trust the Doctor.  Thus, in the episodes to come, their relationship will probably be more intriguing and complex than what we’ve seen in the past.

If all that The Eleventh Hour established were the things I described above, then it would still be a great episode.  But Moffat wisely includes a good old fashioned monster story to keep things interesting.  Similar to how he turned ordinary objects like statues and shadows into nightmarish monsters in prior episodes, here he takes the concept of a crack in the wall and turns it into a horrifying demon.  But he doesn’t stop there—this monster can shape-shift into the bodies of coma patients, meaning that it could conceivably look like anyone.  This makes the creature a very strong antagonist, especially considering the kinds of enemies we’ve gotten in past premieres (little blob-creatures made of fat and giant cat nurses).  Granted, the CGI on the snake-thingy looked a little fake, but the writing was so strong that, while watching, that didn’t affect my enjoyment.

Moffat puts Amy and the Doctor in a very interesting situation as they fight this thing, robbing the Doctor of his TARDIS and his sonic screwdriver.  Thus, he’s got to save the world relying on his wits alone.  Due to this set-up, Moffat doesn’t get to use an easy or silly Deus Ex Machina like Russell T. Davies would usually resort to—instead, the tension builds and builds until we get to the incredible climax, where the Doctor’s masterful trickery seems worthy of an Ocean’s Eleven twist.  And things don’t stop there!  Oh no, once the Doctor has eliminated the threat of both the monster and the intergalactic police threatening to incinerate the Earth, he calls the Police back for one more conversation.    

This was my favorite scene of the episode—the Doctor confronting the Atraxi face to face as he prepares his new costume.  The writing was simply brilliant, and I loved how in scanning Earth’s history, the Atraxi see images of the first ten Doctors—and then Matt Smith steps through the hologram in full costume.  That sent chills down my spine.  I loved it when David Tennant stepped out of the TARDIS on the sycorax ship in The Christmas Invasion, but Smith’s “intro to the world” moment here was even cooler.

When all is said and done, The Eleventh Hour is one hell of a TV event.  It packs in so much into one hour, introducing us to both a new Doctor and a new companion while simultaneously providing a riveting Earth-in-peril story.  Everything comes together beautifully, and Moffat’s script is on fire, full of great one-liners and moments.  Murray Gold’s musical score is still wondrous, the camera work is excellent, and there’s a strong sense of direction to the proceedings.  The only thing I didn’t like about the episode was the new opening title sequence.  I think the animation is pretty cool, but the music just sounds...wrong.  The music for the opening over the last few years was intense, and really got the blood pumping.  Here, it sounds stripped down to the bare minimums, and for the first couple of bars there doesn’t seem to be a sense of rhythm or melody.  But that hardly brings down the quality of the overall episode.  If the rest of the series is half as good as this opener, then we’re in for a fun couple of months. 

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