We saw the first hour of Matt Smith's reign as the Doctor, the time-traveling hero of Britain's iconic Doctor Who. The story was only so-so, but Smith's bravura performance completely erased our reservations. We can barely remember the Tennant era.
It was thrilling to see Matt Smith's debut in a room full of awestruck and excited fans at Wondercon. Probably always the best way to see new Doctor Who. I remember watching "The Twin Dilemma" for the first time at a convention in the U.S., just after it had aired in the U.K., and thinking it was the best episode evar - mostly just because I watched in a room full of excited fans like myself.
We'll have a full recap of the episode after it airs on BBC America, but here's a bit of an early review. Some spoilers ahead, so be warned.
This was almost a new pilot for Doctor Who, since so many elements were being reinvented or revamped over the course of an hour. In particular, we needed to bond with new companion Amy Pond - our first real companion after a year of throwaway stop-gap companions like Michelle Ryan. True to Steven Moffat's conviction that Doctor Who is really the story of the companion, more than of the Doctor, Amy got an elaborate, crystalline origin story.
In a nutshell, Amy's origin is a somewhat revamped version of Moffat's season two episode, "The Girl In The Fireplace." She meets the Doctor as a young girl, and he makes a strong enough impression that he becomes a kind of mythic figure in her life. It's a nice way to reintroduce us to the Doctor, since we see the Doctor's awesomeness through her eyes - although she also personifies our doubts about this new Doctor, as she questions his outlandish claims, and by extension his competence. But most of all, as Amy discovers the Doctor, we in turn discover her, and her childhood bond with the Doctor makes her our ideal stand-in.
The Doctor is more than usually mercurial, because of his regeneration and a severely busted TARDIS. Perversely, this makes him even more fascinating, both to us and to Amy. The "post-regeneration instability" trope has seldom been used to such great effect. The Doctor is flighty and even sillier than usual, swanning off for long stretches before returning and saving the day with minutes to spare.
Really, the episode lives and dies based on Matt Smith's and Karen Gillan's performances. And they're both captivating. Smith's hyperactive, joyful Doctor is already firmly established in my mind as THE Doctor. He gets some defining "fuck yeah" moments towards the end of the episode which seal the deal, if anybody was still doubtful, and his final speech to the Atraxi - very clearly recalling Tennant's speech to the Sycorax in "The Christmas Invasion" - puts him squarely in the proud tradition of Doctors, defending the Earth.
And Gillan is the right combination of skittish and impetuous, with a complicated enough relationship to the Doctor to keep the chemistry fizzing for a brace of episodes. And she leaves to go traveling with the Doctor on the night before her wedding! It'll be fascinating to see how that plays out.
Oh, and there were tons of menacing hints. "Silence will fall" being chief among them. But also, how does Amy's aunt know the Doctor's face?
Also: New TARDIS interior looks great so far, although perhaps a bit too campy with the mixture of low and high tech. (A mechanical typewriter?) And new costume looked good in action. All in all, a promising start.
Now for the slight criticisms - sorry, but these are heartfelt and not just nitpicking to prove that I'm a "REEL KRITIK". As an introduction to the new Doctor and new companion, it was nearly perfect. (I could have done without the endless "Doctor has food cravings" sequence, and a couple other bits.) But as a story, it was pretty meh. We get told that the Earth is in danger of being incinerated, but the threat remains abstract. We glimpse spaceships, and we meet Prisoner Zero, who snarls a lot but doesn't ever actually do anything - on screen, anyway. The menace is mostly suggested in brief dialog, then we go back to the character development. Likewise, the Doctor's victory is mostly won through stuff we're told about, rather than shown, like his magic computer virus.
"The Eleventh Hour" will inevitably be compared to "Rose," Russell T. Davies' first story and the story that launched the new era of Doctor Who. And "Rose" is clearly a stronger episode as an hour of television drama, not least because we see stuff happening and the story is told through action as well as dialogue - the Doctor tells us a lot about his character by grabbing Rose's hand, saying "Run," and blowing up a building, all in the first few minutes. The Autons are an ever-present threat, and they kill a whole lot of people, on screen. At the same time, "The Eleventh Hour" is a lot cleverer, especially with how it sets up the Doctor-companion relationship.
Actually, comparing those two episodes gives us a good sense of where Davies' and Moffat's strengths as writers lie. "Rose" feels absolutely grounded in reality. We see Rose at her job, folding shirts, and hanging out with her football-obsessed boyfriend Mickey. Davies takes a lot of care to make sure we see Rose in her ordinary life, so that there's a context for what follows. At the same time, Rose's relationship with the Doctor is pretty simple: He's this amazing man who appears out of nowhere, and he sees something special in her.
Meanwhile, Amy's job in "The Eleventh Hour" is mostly there to set up a few jokes. We never see her at work as a "kiss-o-gram," which is probably just as well, and her family and friends are introduced cursorily, except for Rory, who has a bigger role in the plot. Amy's whole context as a character is her relationship with the Doctor, plus the mysterious crack in her wall which launches the story. Thanks to the alien who visits her as a child and the other alien who lurks within her house for most of her life, she's fully part of the Doctor's world from the beginning. There's never a "normal" for Amy.
Am I saying that "Rose" is a better episode, over all, than "The Eleventh Hour?" As a standalone episode, yes. The more I think about it, the more I think that's the case. For one thing, "Rose" is just a bit more tightly constructed and less self-indulgent - in some ways, it's probably just the difference between a show that's desperate to re-establish itself after a decade away, versus a show that's already confident of being a hit.
On the other hand, "The Eleventh Hour" sets up a much more intriguing dynamic between the Doctor and companion, and creates a much richer set of circumstances for them to deal with. I have a feeling the payoff from "The Eleventh Hour" will be much greater than from the one from "Rose" was.
So what did you think?