...a blog by Richard Flowers

Monday, April 05, 2010

Day 3379: DOCTOR WHO: Commeth The Eleventh Hour...


Once upon a time, there was a story made out of other stories. The little girl who grows up while the Doctor's back is turned. The fiery redhead in the TARDIS, the runaway bride. The escaped convict, on the run from the heavy-handed space police, in disguise as a human so they can't spot her. The patients in their beds, ready to make you jump. The Doctor stealing his clothes from a hospital locker room - done that one twice before! And the Doctor's new companion with a secret to do with time. And he's lying to her already.

Anyway, that's just what I thought; what does Daddy have to say...

This is Steven Moffat, writer, executive producer, showrunner, Grand Moff... this is his first and most important chance to set out his unique vision of the series for us: that of the dark modern fairy-tale.

It's very brave to open with an unknown child as your lead character, while the Doctor is very much a bizarre intruder, and yet it's a complete success, with a feel like a Roald Dahl story where grown-ups are stupid creatures shut off from the real world of, yes, the bizarre, the ludicrous, the frightening and the amazing. It's an agenda setting piece: this is a story for kids. For kids of all ages. Just don't grow up.

"The Eleventh Hour" is actually sixty-five minutes but it doesn't feel overstretched. On the contrary, it gives us chance to enter into the half-magic world of child Amelia before having a full-scale adventure with grown up Amy, and still have time to explore the beautiful new TARDIS. Three ages of once-upon-a-time, past present and future.

Really it's only the opening pre-titles sequence, the bit they chose to use as a one minute tease for the week before broadcast, that is, most oddly, the bit that doesn't belong. It's the bit that doesn't feel like a fairy tale. It's more of a final tribute to the Russell Davies era, the crash-bang-wallop era, from the Doctor hanging out of the TARDIS doors to the Bong of Big Ben. And it doesn't add anything, not a jot, to the story. Indeed, it very slightly undermines the Doctor's first appearance to Amelia, mountaineering out of the upset TARDIS.

That pre-title sequence is saying "this is a story about a man who hangs out of a flying police box" and this really isn't what this story is about; this story is about a little girl who grows up and only then discovers that her imaginary friend is real.

And because of that the episode might have been better to start with the new titles.

Ah, the new titles. Trying to be even more time tunnel-y than before: less TV movie time tunnel, more Tom Baker time tunnel. I think the lightning bolts will grow on me. Less sure about the arrangement of the theme tune.

On the other hand, the brassy "pah-pah-paaah pa-pa-pa-pom" theme for the Eleventh Doctor, as used in the trailer and extensively through the episode, is really catchy. Another hit from the school of Dance of the Macra and Chancellor Flavia's Lament.

And I'm loving Matt Smith's performance already. It's not just the catchy music, he really is that good.

There's a lot of David Tennant in it, of course, and that's not a surprise given that they want the audience to stay with them, but there's a new child-like quality, from food experiments and the fish custard to the joy of stealing a fire engine. Or caring about a decent shirt and not about stripping naked in front of Amy and Rory. Yet there can be a sense of immense age as well, as when facing down the Atraxi. And while the running and jumping about is similar, there's a much greater willingness to get up close and physical, for example: seizing Rory by the front of his nurse's uniform at one point.

And this is a Doctor who can seem natural opening the TARDIS doors with a snap of his fingers: it's the mix of godlike power and ten-year-old showing off.

There remains the dangerous possibility that Moffat is going to have him be even more "the lonely god" than ever, as though the Doctor has learned nothing from "The Waters of Mars" and "The End of Time". In a way, though, if the tenth Doctor was a "god", he was one who eschewed his responsibilities, ran away and hid from them, and then got vengeful when the caught up with him. The eleventh Doctor didn't do that; he got pro-active on the Atraxi and called them down for going too far. Mind you, the tenth tried to do that to the Sycorax in his first adventure, and the humans let him down quite badly, which may explain more of his maladjustment. If it's true that the Doctor's got more reason than he's saying for taking Amy along with him, then maybe this incarnation is going to be more of a planner, more like his second or seventh selves.

His relationship with Amy is straight out of "Press Gang". The beats of the dialogue as they listen and don't listen to each other; the tossed in genre-aware remarks such as "...and that is not how I'm introducing myself"; the way they're both so perfectly broken that they fit together. It's as much a signature as "chips" was for Russell.

Amy is Lynda Day; the Doctor is Spike. He's the cool alien; she's the head screwed on, head screwed up female. This is, of course, where Steven Moffat came in.

Of course it ought to go without saying that Amy is also Sally Sparrow, cunningly both the child version from the 2005 Doctor Who Annual and the adult version from "Blink".

This habit of repeating things from his own work, and others, revisiting themes and reusing ideas: is it just recycling or were the earlier stories rehearsal? Because this is something more, something better, and all of Moffat's life has been aiming towards writing this serial. When an artist paints the same study over and over, it isn't called repeating themselves.

Anyway, it's not like Terry Nation didn't submit the same Dalek story on at least four occasions.

So what we get is, superficially, a story about an escaped alien convict - very like season three's opener, "Smith and Jones" - but we splice it with Moffat's own "Girl in the Fireplace", to get a tale that crosses Amy Pond's timeline.

And then Moffat does it the same but better.

Meaning the Doctor doesn't just meet his future companion as a child before returning when she's grown up - he does it in a way that totally messes up her head so that she's exactly the person to run away with him.

Meaning he doesn't just unmask the murderous escapee - he brings back the prison warders and gives them a piece of his mind for threatening six billion innocent people too. And he does it by saying "look me up" right out of "Forest of the Dead".

In the same way we revisit other earlier themes and ideas, but with a new twist and polish. We get the alien experts called in, just like "Aliens of London" and cross it with Russell's trademark celebrity cameo and a dash of the subwave conference call from "The Stolen Earth" (with a dash of the TV movie - "you'll be magnificent, but first you have to...")

Also like "Aliens of London" the Doctor gets the time wrong, he's not five minutes late he's not six month late he's twelve years. And then he does it again.

And cracks in the surface of the universe: remember the Doctor's glass-shattering demonstration from "Army of Ghosts" and the threat of the same being what kept him from Rose.

Clearly we're going to be more upfront about this year's linking theme. Russell would throw in clues and hints to pick up - Bad Wolf, Mr Saxon - but hopefully Moffat will be cleverer than that and actually write in a plot. It's what he's good at, isn't it.

Clearly there's something about Amy. The Doctor sees it on the scanner in the end scene in the TARDIS, and then turns the scanner off and denies any special interest in her. We've had companions who are important to time in a strange unknown way before, whether it's Donna or Ace, but again we have to hope that Moffat has this plot planned out rather than winging it and wishing for luck or just making it up as you go along and hoping that the post facto justification makes sense.

So, the Pandorica will open: it suggests Pandora's Box, of course. And silence will fall. Which sounds a lot like "Silence in the Library".

One thing that is a clear departure from the previous regime is the lack of clear dating. Sure, we know that the Doctor meets Amelia when she is seven, then again when she is nineteen and again at twenty-one. But which, if any, of those years is 2010? We may in future weeks find out. Or we may not. But for the present, it makes the series setting a sort of every-now, an eternal British Easter.

Likewise, relocating from the very of-the-moment London adds to the air of a place out of time. The sinister goings-on in an English village, the Mini Cooper, the duck pond, the cottage hospital, even the "sexy" police officer, all these icons of Britishness add up to the very timeless charm of "The Avengers". At least until the flying eyeballs turn up.

It's all in keeping with the Moffat's repeated dark fairy tale vision for the series. (And "The Avengers" is often more than half modern fairy-story too.)

Ah, the flying eyeballs. The Atraxi. Will Ben Aaronovitch be miffed that his Metatraxi appear to have had their name nicked? (No, no, they're just like the Vinvochi to the Zochi... oh who am I kidding?)

The giant disembodied eyeballs are considerably more creepy than their prisoner who is in the end just another CGI snake (nice teeth on its human disguise-forms, though).

Actually, giant eyeballs are also quite in keeping with the idea of fairy story, the guards who aren't just always watching, they're nothing but always watching. And is this harking back to the concept of "Panopticon": that is Jeremy Bentham's original notion of a prison with nowhere to hide, rather than Robert Holmes satirical use of the same title for the Time Lords parliament.

Having said that, don't they make anyone else think of the comic strip, Perishers: the crabs in their pool disturbed by Boot the dog, known to them only as the "eyeballs in the sky"?

Entertainingly for a "limited" species, the Atraxi appear able to scan the alternative Earth for attacks too, since that's where the Cybus Cybermen smashing that window occurred. Of course, if they can take hyper-dimensional multiforms prisoner, the a parallel universe is probably child's play to them, limited or not.

Mind you, they can spot a Vashta Narada skeleton-in-a-spacesuit monster from the Library too, and they should be thousands of years in the future. And on a completely different planet!

The conceit of "the door that you cannot see" is another fairy-tale magic. But in realisation, the door with the perception filter doesn't quite work for me, because we don't see the perception filter. There needed to be something a bit odd, a bit off about the camera angles, perhaps, to suggest that it was a surprise when we do see it.

UPDATED A more serious criticism occurred to me later: all of Russell's openers feature the female sidekick doing something magnificent that saves the day - Rose's gymnastics, Martha seizing the Judoon's human-detector, Donna having just the right thing at just the right time - whereas Steve's opener literally has his feisty leading lady collapse at the moment of crisis. The Doctor defeats the multiform by playing with her dreams.

Oh, you might say, but it's the new Doctor's first outing, it's got to be his show... And yet structurally, it's even set up for them both to prove themselves: Amy defeating the multiform that has haunted her all her life, then the Doctor giving the Atraxi a ticking off. And yet, aside from ogling his arse, she's sidelined for the Doctor's "scaring away the aliens" moment too.

SECOND UPDATE And I didn't spot it on the first three times of watching, but imagine Rory's dialogue delivered by Jack Davenport... yes, Rory is Steven Moffat!

Is this the best season opener ever? Don't be silly: the best opener ever is "An Unearthly Child" and it's the reason why "The Eleventh Hour" even exists today.

All fairy-tales are re-tellings of earlier stories, repeating and revising earlier versions over and over until they feel a part of us like something natural. Everything changes; always the same.

Season Five of Doctor Who opens with a young orphaned girl stepping into the TARDIS and being shown the console room for the very first time (to be followed by a quick trip to the wardrobe room so she can get a change of clothes).

So does Season Thirty-One.

Next time...Anywhere in the universe, so long as it's brilliant. From the heart of England to Starship UK. But keep smiling for "The Beast Below"



Alex Wilcock said...

Ooh, that's much better than mine! I'm so pleased I didn't read it first ;)

Loads of brilliant points. But just for the end and Season Five: the story you're referring to is, of course, The Tomb of the Cybermen. Not just one of the series' best in 47 years; not just probably for me the best single performance by any Doctor; but the story that made Matt Smith fall in love with Patrick Troughton's portrayal and got him his bow tie. Gosh!

0tralala said...

Interesting... But on dates, Rory's hospital pass (seen in close up through the Doctor's eye) was issued 30/11/1990. What does that mean?

(I didn't spot that, the internet did.)