Wednesday, February 2, 2011

"The Eleventh Hour"

You might notice at this point that the tone of these reviews somewhat changes. From here Steven Moffat, writer of some of the better episodes of the previous era, such as "The Girl in the Fireplace" and "Blink", had taken over the head writership of Doctor Who and the entire show was getting a revamp. The biggest change is of course the new Doctor, the Eleventh Doctor, played by Matt Smith, also known among the wise as "The Smith". He is basically pretty awesome. I was hesitant at first, thinking he would just be another young-and-trendy like the Tenth Doctor, and when he jumps out of the TARDIS talking about cravings it initially made me worry, but then he eats fish custard and is rather self-deprecating, and as the elements of the Tenth Doctor's personality visibly slip away we know we've got a whole new man on our hands. His eccentricity and alien nature are obvious and at the same time this regeneration has clearly moved him on from all the anxiety and neurosis of the previous incarnation. Matt Smith grasps the role very intuitively and plays him as someone who is clearly both old and weary as well as childlike and adventurous, someone who is familiar with humans but not one of them. It's wise of Moffat to avoid the normal 'post-regeneration' thing, using no more than a few aches and pains, some cravings and the ragged remains of the Tenth Doctor's costume which is disposed of to my considerable relief at the end of the episode. The Eleventh Doctor's outfit is also something important because it's not trendy or fashionable like the Tenth Doctor's. He says it's 'cool' even though no one agrees - he's clearly his own man with his own ideas. It's a welcome relief and the professorly outfit is nicely evocative of Classic Doctors with a modern touch. Basically, the Eleventh Doctor's awesome.
We're also introduced to new companion Amy Pond, who we first meet as a child. Caitlin Blackwood is incredibly good as the curious but slightly grumpy Amelia and is the best child actor in the New Series by a considerable margin. It also helps that as Karen Gillan's cousin she looks a great deal like her adult self. Speaking of Karen Gillan, she is of course good as the full-grown version of Amy Pond. It's amusing on rewatch to listen as she slips from the English accent she is using to fool the Doctor initially to her natural Scottish and the issues which have clearly plagued her life since the Doctor's accidental visit to her child self are expressed very clearly through her perfomance; the brashness disguising insecurity, her sense of doubt and so on. Some fans don't like Amy Pond but she's good stuff and if you don't like her you must be stupid. Nonetheless she's also funny and has a great rappor with the Eleventh Doctor and they clearly form a good team. So it's check check on Doctor and Companion and things are looking good.
Obviously the plot takes a bit of a hit with so much focus on introducing new stuff but it still manages to be decent. The huge Atraxi fleet flying over the Earth is a bit repetitive but at least we're not in London anymore and I applaud Moffat and his team for deliberately extricating the show entirely from London which had become way too familiar in the previous era. The cracks are interesting but I still wish we could ditch the sonic screwdriver and the psychic paper because they feel like cheats for lazy writing. I also think Prisoner Zero could have been something a bit more inventive than a fish thing which hung from the ceiling but at least it took multiple forms even if Olivia Colman is a bit hammy in the role. The big conference call to send out the 'zero' virus also seems a bit unnecessary but at least the plot elements are weaved together better - even the fact that Rory's been photographing the coma-patient-forms of Zero help to reach the resolution. I might also point out for the sake of someone else that it could have been funnier if the vehicle the Doctor had "commandeered" was the ice cream van.
Did I mention Rory? You're going to be hearing about Rory a lot in these reviews because I like him and worry that I associate with him a little bit but he's also a good character. He's fairly secondary in this one but we'll get to see him develop later. The humour in this episode is actually funny as opposed to the cringe-worthy referencing of earlier days and there's something satisfying about seeing Matt Smith step through the image of David Tennant and disperse it. The Atraxi are kind of cool but I wish their eyes looked less human. It's also good that they tie the plot into the Doctor and Amy's characterisation and how much a person can be effected by these kinds of unusual encounters in their youths and the follow-on effect this can have for other people, in this instance Rory. There's no purple prose about how great the Doctor is and he's definitely not a cool guy - the "Who da man?" scene is perfect for reinforcing this and making us like this Doctor more. He may be an alien, but he's fallible while simultaneously intelligent and crafty, and he's someone to respect and befriend rather than worship. He's pretty much just the right mix of everything and it comes across extremely well. This is by far the best introduction for a Doctor and it is probably one of the best episodes of the entire New Series. Even the new TARDIS interior gets points for being bigger, more geometric and angular and more mechanical-looking. The episode feels like the return of something which has been missing for a long time and it's immensely satisfying. Good to see the finger-click door-opening as well. The Eleventh Doctor's theme is also extremely catchy and a vast improvement over the melodramatic warblings of days gone by. The whole episode is a phenomenal improvement and it seems to better reconcile the concepts of Doctor Who with modern television. I could go on praising this episode but suffice to say it never gets old and it's special every time.

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