When a new Doctor takes over he nearly always inherits companions from his predecessor. It is a useful way for the viewers to feel comfortable that this is still the series they know and love, and also provides an identification figure through the weirdness of the whole process. So Troughton inherited Ben and Polly, Tom Baker inherited Sarah Jane and UNIT, Davison inherited Adric and to a lesser extent Nyssa and Tegan, Colin Baker inherited Peri, Sylvester McCoy inherited Mel, David Tennant inherited Rose, and more recently Peter Capaldi inherited Clara. If you ignore the two new launches of Doctor Who (McGann and Eccleston), then the only Doctor who doesn’t fit this model is Jon Pertwee, and that was unintentional. The original plan was for Zoe to continue but Wendy Padbury decided to leave along with Frazer Hines and Patrick Troughton.
So we have seen just one regeneration like this, where a new series starts with virtually nothing familiar, and even then UNIT was brought in to provide at least some familiarity. But apart from that, the Pertwee regeneration risks everything by throwing away just about everything that went before and showing us a completely new way of making Doctor Who, and to a similar extent Matt Smith’s debut does the same.
There is a thin veil of familiarity. We have another young, energetic, manic kind of Doctor, but the similarity with Tennant is only superficial. We are also starting on a road with this series that follows the same basic pattern that we are familiar with, so there is some hold-over from the Russell T Davies model of Doctor Who, but again: superficial. Because the very core approach to Doctor Who shifts dramatically with The Eleventh Hour, and the best way to understand how that works is to look at things from the perspective of the new companion.
Amelia is presented to us as a young child, and that has never happened before in Doctor Who. It is probably a good thing that it has never happened before because child actors in the UK who can pull off this kind of performance are rare to the point of being virtually non-existent. The gap is closing, but for decades the USA has completely eclipsed Britain in producing competent child actors. The twins in The Twin Dilemma are more the kind of standard we are used to here. Let’s label this Moffat’s Massive Gamble Number One and move on, because it was a gamble that was completely essential to the launch of Steven Moffat’s version of Doctor Who.
You see, the TARDIS has always been used by Doctor Who as a taxi service to the stars, and away from the mundane. OK, it’s a nice taxi – let’s call it a limo, but that’s what it is. It takes people like Ben, Polly, Harry, Peri, Mel and Donna out of their humdrum existences and shows them the universe. It allows Ace and Rose to escape their dissatisfaction with their working class lives. It rescues those who have been through tragedies (Victoria, Nyssa) or no longer really fit into their own societies (Leela, Adric). Sometimes it even kidnaps people (Ian, Barbara, Tegan). But here is something very different because the TARDIS shows up and it’s a magic door to another world, and from now on Doctor Who is going to embrace the children’s fantasy literature genre in a way that it has never done for a sustained period of time before.
I think it is fair to say that Doctor Who captures most of its fans when they are children. We might imagine ourselves walking through those doors and going off on adventures with the Doctor. What Doctor Who desperately needs to do, to be true to where it fits in the fictional world, is to show that actually happening, but the Doctor has never had a child companion and the reality of the matter is that it probably couldn’t happen without a very short series being produced. The showrunner who finds a way to achieve it and achieve it well (Moffat had a few little attempts but always fudged it) will be a genius. However, what Moffat does for the first time is to show us the truth of where Doctor Who really sits in our culture, alongside The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Secret Garden and Alice in Wonderland. So then we have the problem of carrying that over to an adult companion, and we have…
Moffat’s Massive Gamble Number Two. Amy doesn’t have a family. We will eventually find out why and it will be central to the season arc, but that’s putting the cart before the horse, because the real reason is to place her firmly in the orphaned child tradition, or the child away from home, or the child that has wandered off. Yes, she is an adult by the time she sets foot in the TARDIS, but this is a call back to the kind of fiction that is being paralleled here. And this is a gamble because all of the RTD era was about grounding companions in the reality of family life to show them as real people. All of this thematic stuff going on might not register with the viewer but it brings them into a world they are familiar with from their childhood, which is the reason why the sexualisation of Amy does seem to jar a little. It seems a bit wrong, whether you are actively identifying the reason why it is wrong or not. However, there is a slightly murky tradition of a grey area in children’s fantasy fiction that we could charitably call coming-of-age, so at least it is not entirely unfamiliar.
What this does so effectively though, by showing us a new companion as a child and then an adult, is to say to the viewer: you loved Narnia as a child, and it’s ok to keep loving it as an adult. You don’t have to grow out of it. And the same applies to Wonderland, or Neverland, or Lilliput, or the Land of Oz… or the TARDIS.
This comes at a crucial moment for Doctor Who, because a lot of new viewers came to the relaunch in 2005, and a lot of them were children. A whole new fanbase was created. And at this point we are five years down the road and a lot of those kids who were hooked on Doctor Who at the age of 7 or 8 are now 12 or 13, their teenage years are hitting them and they are thinking “is it ok for me to watch this stuff any more?” And the complete and total utter genius of The Eleventh Hour is that it answers that question with a definite YES!
I want to leave the review there because tackling this one theme has taken a while and I haven’t even done that justice, let alone thinking about going on to other stuff. Let’s see what Mike has to say when he does his review “from across the pond”. So as not to leave a thread hanging, I will just mention that there are about two dozen Moffat’s Massive Gambles, and a couple of significant ones are: the decision to have the new Doctor involved in virtually every scene in the episode, thus making a whole era live or die on an actor’s ability to nail the role to perfection, and: setting the story in a little village rather than inner-city. The reason that last one is so brave and clever and more than just a call back to the Pertwee era needs looking at, and I am going to do that tomorrow in the context of a wider look at the significance of Doctor Who settings, but for now let’s just think about the moment Matt Smith strides through the image of David Tennant’s face, dissolving the previous era of the show into nothingness. And therein lies the outrageously confident approach to Doctor Who that Steven Moffat gives us. He simply refuses to play it safe. RP
The view from across the pond:
David Tennant, the insanely popular 10th Doctor, is gone. Can Matt Smith… this odd man whose jawline could chisel marble, whose eyes are as old as time and whose finger-wiggling, hand-waving mania has just crashed the TARDIS… can he keep the Doctor alive or is our favorite show going to need to be put on life support? The answer to that may not come until the Eleventh Hour…
Fortunately Smith’s first episode is called The Eleventh Hour so we may be able to answer that question here and now.
Well, it may be one of the absolute BEST first episodes for any Doctor to date. Typically, the Doctor spends the better part of his first episode laid up and we don’t get a chance to see how he will be until the second episode. Smith’s Doctor, however, is a ball of activity from the outset, walking into trees and jumping into pools. At no point does he seem to be in need of rest, and that marks one of his defining traits throughout his run.
Humor is wonderful but only succeeds in science fiction if it doesn’t take away from the story. Doctor Who has often used humor to great effect. As luck would have it, the humor here is utterly marvelous. During our first encounter with Amelia, she’s kneeling on her floor praying to Santa (yes, Santa…). When she and Smith first interact, he wants food and asks her to prepare something for him (“you’re Scottish, fry something!”) which leads to a wonderful sequence of trying out new foods with his newly regenerated taste buds, only to finally settle on the now-iconic “fish fingers and custard”. Typically, I don’t care for gross humor, but there’s something about the way this is done that just fits everything that’s going on. Rory adds another level of humor as well: when the Doctor asks who Amy’s other boyfriend is, the “handsome one”, Rory’s “oh… thanks!” is said with perfect comic timing. And the Doctor’s “Who da man… I’m never saying that again!” is great. (I could have done without the “clear your browser history” humor… it seemed utterly unnecessary. But as I often tell my kids, they can’t all be winners…) The episode is marked by humor, fun and just enough of a threat that it keeps the story interesting and moving the whole time.
The chemistry between the Doctor, Amy and Rory is outstanding as well. Amy and the Doctor have a scene with an apple caught in slow motion that is beautifully shot. Throughout the episode, there’s a sense of old friends hanging out together. Even the Doctor running up Rory’s phone bill seems like something friends would do to one another. And there’s that scene… that fantastic, wonderful scene where the Doctor addresses the Atraxi and asks if the human race is a threat to them and if the Earth is defended. That moment of the holographic images appearing and then having Matt Smith step out of the face of David Tennant is the moment it crystallizes: this is The Doctor. It’s an outstanding scene. This is one of the things that made Tennant’s era so great: “moments”. Moments that you go back to again and again or look up on YouTube because they were so memorable, they epitomize the entire episode. The episode itself is fun, the monster (Prisoner Zero) is great and we get Olivia Coleman as a guest star. But it’s those moments like the hologram that utterly define the episode. Matt Smith as Doctor Who.
On top of all that, we get to see the newly designed TARDIS and I love it. The tiered, steam-punk look is amazing. Bright, beautiful, brilliant… dare I say it: “sexy”!
If I have one critique of the episode, it’s the Crack but that comes from the future knowledge of what it is. Without spoiling that here, all I’ll say is that we see the eye look out, so it must lead to Atraxi and there appears to be a prison on the other side of it. I’ll try to “track the crack” (I should have that trademarked and make a game out of it) and comment on what the viewer discovers as we cover more episodes with it.
So, a new era has begun with Stephen Moffat at the helm. As the Doctor says of himself, “he’s still cooking” but it looks like it’s off to a good start! Losing Tennant was not easy, but at least The Eleventh Hour came just in time! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Beast Below