|In this scene, Clara is cleverly disguised as a hospital roof.|
It’s April 3rd, 2010. Lady Gaga and Beyonce are at number one with “Telephone,” while Rihanna, Cheryl Cole, and Boyzone also chart. I regret to inform my readership that we have also entered the dark days of the world: Justin Bieber is at number three. While we’ve been away Togo withdrew from the Africa Cup of Nations after an attack on their national football team, the Winter Olympics took place, and an 8.8 magnitude earthquake hit Chile. While in last week, Pope Benedict XVI referred to the sex abuse scandals within the Catholic Church as “petty gossip,” rescuers reached 153 trapped miners in Shanxi, China, the ROKS Cheonan was sunk by North Korea, and, on April 3rd itself, the iPad was first released.
Of the exact same age as the iPad, then, is the Matt Smith era, which kicks off with The Eleventh Hour. What jumps out the most about The Eleventh Hour with nearly four years of hindsight is how confident it is. This is the one of Moffat’s scripts for his own era that hardly anybody seems to have a bad word for. Even the fiercest critics of the Moffat era tend to make some comment about the squandered promise of this episode. This is one of the rare episodes of Doctor Who that seems to basically please everybody.
Its major challenge is that this was, in practice, a bare minimum. Moffat, Wegner, and Willis have essentially nothing to rest on save for their own talent. This was a moment where every critic was sharpening the knife. The resulting episode had to be absolutely critic-proof. It could get people to tune in based on the accumulated good will the series had from the Russell T Davies era, but equally, more than any other moment in the series’ history, this was a point where everybody had a ready-made excuse to stop watching. Even a whiff of “not as good as it used to be” would be devastating to the series right now, and so this has to be the episode of Doctor Who that anybody who is ever going to like an episode of Doctor Who will like.
The easy way to do this, by which I mean the way that would have gotten the series cancelled, would have been to do something that could more or less be described as Doctor Who by numbers – a story that was functionally indistinguishable from the Russell T Davies season openers. Admittedly, those expecting a decisive break from the Russell T Davies era are ultimately frustrated by The Eleventh Hour, which is still grounded in the structure of the Davies era. Indeed, the entirety of Series Five is, on a superficial level, structured like a Davies series. The first three episodes almost perfectly track those of Series One – a present day alien invasion story introducing the new Doctor and companion, a kind of weird future story, and a celebrity historical. Many of the later stories play familiar roles as well – the two-parter featuring a returning monster comes in episodes four and five, the big season finale in twelve and thirteen, the cheap one in eleven. This oversimplifies things – in almost every case this season Moffat takes the usual Davies approach and does something slightly but tellingly different.
And for all its basic familiarity, The Eleventh Hour does a lot that feels like a breath of fresh air without actually rocking the boat. Yes, the Atraxi and Prisoner Zero are firmly “silly” monsters, and there’s a healthy dose of comedy in the story that resembles the standard Russell T Davies season-opening playbook, and you’ve got various Davies-style innovations like big celebrity cameo, but those are only fleeting points of familiarity in a script that’s much stranger than it lets on. So much of this is stuff that the Davies era didn’t do and that it is difficult to imagine the Davies era ever attempting.
To take a subtler example that isn’t often commented on before we get to the obvious: Leadworth. This may be a fairly standard silly alien invasion, but we’ve never seen this sort of thing from the perspective of Leadworth before. This isn’t an innovation in the broadest sense – Leadworth is exactly the sort of location that the UNIT era frequented. But it’s an unusual route in for the new series – one that moves the emphasis of the story subtly. The Davies era was always defined in terms of the ordinary, but its sense of the ordinary was always defined primarily in terms of television. Leadworth, however, doesn’t come from television. (It doesn’t particularly come from the real world either, but we’ll get to that.)
It is in many ways productive to contrast this with its Davies-era equivalent. Much like Rose, The Eleventh Hour does have to introduce a new Doctor, a new companion, and an entire style of Doctor Who. Like Rose it’s structured around the anticipation for the moment when Amy steps on board the TARDIS. But there’s an entire secondary structure based on stripping away the iconography of the Davies era. It’s not just that Smith starts in the raggedy remnants of David Tennant’s clothes, but the way in which, over the course of the story, he loses Tennant’s TARDIS and screwdriver. He doesn’t get to have his clothes, his TARDIS, and his screwdriver until he’s accomplished his hero moment and steps through to complete the montage of Doctors. (Speaking of which, pay attention to where in the montage the camera flips from looking at the Atraxi to looking the other direction so that Smith can step through it. It’s not arbitrarily chosen at all, and emphasizes once again just how semiotically dense Doctor Who is.) In this regard the decision to open the episode with a comedy bit of the Doctor flying the crashing TARDIS over London makes sense – we have to see Tennant’s console room at the outset of the episode for the reveal of the early Smith console room to have the impact it does.
In other words, The Eleventh Hour gets to start from the premise “this is the show you’ve loved since 2005” and then to repeatedly say “but not quite how you expect it.” And yet nowhere in the course of watching The Eleventh Hour is there any sort of moment of estrangement. The great accomplishment of The Eleventh Hour is that at no point in watching it does anyone notice just how much is changing. Moffat quietly pulls an absolutely brazen bait and switch here – a story that reassures everybody that they still like Doctor Who while changing nearly everything about it. And he’s doing it at astonishingly high stakes.
Given how well it all works, it’s easy to overlook how easily it could have failed. There are several huge risks and strokes of luck here that all pay off. Nobody could have known going in, for instance, that Murray Gold was going to produce two of his career-best musical cues for this episode: the Amelia Pond theme used for the post-credits pan across her yard and the entry to the TARDIS, and, of course, the giddily pounding hero theme for the Eleventh Doctor, one of only a few bits of Doctor Who music to practically compel a singalong. The episode would have worked just fine if Gold had turned in an average or even slightly above average performance. But instead Gold turns out two musical cues as good as “Doomsday,” and in doing so makes the episode stand out.
Similarly, director Adam Smith does wonders. It’s not just the obvious things that clearly stem from a series-wide mandate: the decision, for instance, to swap out the orange-dominated color palette of the Davies era for the cool blues and greens that will define the Moffat era. It’s also things like the slow pan up Amy’s garden to her door under the “Dear Santa, I know it’s Easter now” monologue, or the way in which the Doctor searches his memories for the detail of Rory filming Prisoner Zero. Not all of it quite works – the series will never go quite that far with “Doctor vision” again, for instance. But more things work than not – the “corner of your eye” stuff is marvelous, and the scene of Amy entering the TARDIS, with the worm, golden glow of it pouring out onto her face in the rich night are absolutely immaculately shot. Similarly, for all that the TARDIS set proved infuriating to film on (the number of shiny surfaces made it nearly impossible to get camera angles that didn’t inadvertently show a reflection of a camera or a microphone), visually speaking it’s the best set they’ve ever had, and the long pan over a TARDIS console made up of ordinary objects like a typewriter and bits of a coffee maker is majestic.
None of this is enough to seal the deal, and it’s not like a more pedestrian TARDIS set would have ruined the episode, but it helps a lot that the things you have to reach for to criticize the episode are all terribly small and pedantic. But in addition to having various things go as well as they could, The Eleventh Hour takes a couple of absolutely massive risks that pay off tremendously.
Chief among them is Amelia. The decision to introduce the Doctor opposite a child actor could have been a series-killing debacle if we’d gotten the caliber of child actor we got in, say, Fear Her. Instead we get the definitive child actor performance in Doctor Who. Matt Smith has an impressive track record of getting absolutely killer performances out of child actors, but this is the high point. Caitlin Blackwood has to carry the entire load of introducing the new Doctor to us, and completely nails it. Even if the entire “fish fingers and custard” bit doesn’t sell you on the Doctor, the exchange about how grownups say “everything’s going to be fine” and you know they’re lying is absolutely phenomenal, and it’s phenomenal in a large part because of Blackwood’s knowing and frustrated sigh when she says “yes.” While I am not among those inclined to criticize Karen Gillan’s acting particularly, it speaks volumes that the emotional weight of how upsetting it is that the Doctor was twelve years late is carried not by anything Gillan does in this or any other episode, but by how brutally sad the image of Blackwood excitedly packing her bag (and the detail that what she packs is utterly useless and exactly what a seven-year-old would pack to run away in time and space is just so wonderful) and sitting fruitlessly in the yard is.
Related to this risk is the decision to ground the episode so heavily in Matt Smith. There are hardly any scenes in the entire thing that he’s not in – even when Amy and Rory split off to go to the hospital alone, the Doctor is texting and calling them to remain present in those scenes. The episode consciously sets itself up to live or die by the caliber of Smith’s performance. It’s not quite fair to call this a risk – if the casting for the new Doctor were botched the series would have been doomed no matter how they structured the episode. But the decision to have the new Doctor’s debut be based primarily on the hook “look how fun it is to watch the new Doctor” brims with an easy confidence. Once again, this is a product in part of sound decisions in production. The decision to hold this back to be the fifth episode in production was spot on. Smith’s performance actually has some real rough spots in its early days that we’ll see over the next four episodes, but working them out in stories where celebrity cameos and returning monsters draw the attention off of the Doctor makes it so that here, where we need to be completely on board with him, he’s impeccable. The Eleventh Hour is, in many ways, an extended argument for the claim that watching Matt Smith being the Doctor is fun in its own right.
And unlike The Christmas Invasion, and indeed the Tennant era at large, the script approaches this with an eye towards earning it. Tennant’s debut was all grandstanding moments left for him to nail. But Smith’s Doctor earns the audience’s love much more carefully. We’ve already mentioned it, but the “everything’s going to be fine” scene where he takes Amelia’s hand and opens up the crack in her wall is absolutely phenomenal. Smith gets the big moments right, but it’s in the little moments that he meticulously earns the audience’s trust that he’s going to work in the part. Things like the way in which he takes his sideways glance at the reappearance of the crack on the scanner, or his response to Prisoner Zero-as-Amelia’s “what a disappointment you’ve been,” are incredibly important. The usual line on Smith – indeed, the official line inasmuch as it’s what Moffat traditionally praises about him – is that he does a particularly good job of selling the Doctor’s age. And it’s in those little moments that this becomes clear. The manic and comedic Doctor who can’t settle on what it is he wants to eat is marvelous, but it’s the chill in his voice when he says how scary the crack must be if none of this scares Amelia that makes the part.
So we have a story that largely consists of comforting reassurances that this is still the show we all know and love. But under the surface there’s something far stranger going on. It’s not just the little details of The Eleventh Hour that hint at the strangeness to come: Amelia’s line about how people are always saying they’ll be right back is easy to miss within the context of the episode, but quietly sets up the entire “the crack ate her family” concept, for instance. And there’s the absolutely note perfect moment of the Doctor snapping his fingers to open the TARDIS, a callback to Silence in the Library/The Forest of the Dead that quietly flags everything the Moffat era intends to do. These, however, are mere flashes of strangeness.
No, what’s strange is the transition towards a Doctor Who based on a child’s perspective. Moffat does not quite go all the way towards Doctor Who with a child companion, an idea that, while broadly lovely, would be absolutely nightmarish from a filming perspective. But much of The Eleventh Hour is centered on the basic idea of a child looking at and engaging with the story of Doctor Who, and, more broadly, wanting to go on adventures. Amelia’s narrative is visibly a stand-in for engagement with Doctor Who in general. It drops into your life as a child, you completely fall in love with it and make stories about it and play Doctor with your friends, and eventually you grow up out of it. Except that The Eleventh Hour is, on every level, seeking to reject the idea of growing out of Doctor Who, and so it continues the narrative by having the Doctor drop back into Amy’s life and sweeping her off on adventures once again.
But this involves an explicit interaction with the tradition of children’s literature of the sort that Doctor Who hasn’t really done since The Mind Robber. The TARDIS/wardrobe to Narnia connection has always been an obvious one, but it’s never been one the series has been particularly eager to explore, and certainly not one the series has ever just decided to ground itself in. And it’s a huge shift from the Davies era. Under Davies, the TARDIS is the vehicle that gets you out of a humdrum working or lower middle class existence. Now, suddenly, the TARDIS is the Hogwarts Express.
There is a sense in which this is a clear improvement. The TARDIS, being in fact a wooden prop used in the production of a sci-fi show, is not, in fact, going to rescue you or anybody else from a tedious and soul-draining existence as a shopgirl. Reconceptualizing the fundamental tropes of Doctor Who as, in effect, pieces of a story has the appreciable advantage of being honest. The TARDIS is a narrative trope. Accepting that it is not actually a magical capitalist liberation machine at least frees us up to start paying attention to what it can do. The Moffat era still hasn’t tipped its hand as to what it thinks that is, but it feels like the right question.
And it’s clear from the start that this is an approach that has been thoroughly thought through. Leadworth itself harkens back to this as well. For all that the Davies era positioned the TARDIS as the escape from menial drudgery, it was in practice always assembled out of other bits of television. It’s not that Leadworth is something that has never been seen before on television, but rather that it’s difficult to read Amy as a character from some other television show who has unexpectedly been mashed into Doctor Who. Instead Amy, along with Leadworth, are visibly storybook characters. They exist not in a primarily televisual tradition, but in an essentially literary one.
The usual tagline for this is “fairy tale,” and it’s a reasonable term, but its use as a slogan for the era obscures much of what is actually going on in these stories. “Children’s adventure fiction” would be a more honest description, but it’s not as good a brand. The point, however, is more the contents than the label: the familiar and august body of stories in which someone, often a child, finds some eccentric space that allows access to another world: a wardrobe, a rabbit hole, the portal to Annwn, or whatnot, and crosses over to have adventures. This is not new ground for Doctor Who by any measure, but the decision to situate the show within one of its oldest and most iconic influences feels strangely fresh. The initial stakes of the era are sensible and, perhaps more to the point, compelling: the Doctor failed to take a child with him, and now must make it up to her adult self, changing Amy Pond back to Amelia. It’s too early to say with any certainty how this will play out, or how it will respond to the unfinished business of the Davies era. But it is, at least, interesting and, in its first big statement, compelling and entertaining.