Doctor Who for Newbies: The Eleventh Doctor
by Kyle Anderson on February 1, 2011
Let’s dial our Type-40 Way-Back Machine all the way to January, 2010. Can anyone even remember that far? On New Years Day, the Tenth Doctor bade a teary goodbye in an everything-plus-three-kitchen-sinks-style finale. Russell T. Davies and David Tennant were out and a new group was coming in. With a show so popular in Great Britain and becoming increasingly popular throughout the rest of the world, could Doctor Who survive a major facelift? And who would be the ones to ask it what it didn’t like about itself?
For the position of new head writer and executive producer, Davies turned the reins over to Steven Moffat, who’d written a story for each of the previous four seasons and who’d won awards for nearly all of them. His stories were among the most inventive and mind-bending since the show’s return in 2005, and there was much hype surrounding his take on the show. Moffat had a television pedigree a mile long, having created a number of shows including the relationship farce Coupling and the modern take on Jekyll. His scripts are full of snappy dialogue, and he needed a new lead actor who could effectively deliver his words while embodying the essence of a millennia-old alien.
Moffat’s original intention was to cast an actor in his 40s as the Eleventh Doctor, and among the rumored names being thrown around as possible choices was actor Paterson Joseph, a veteran TV actor of shows like Peep Show, Neverwhere, and Moffat’s own Jekyll. Joseph, if cast, would have been the first black actor to play the role, sparking a number of debates. He wasn’t cast, of course, although Moffat’s eventual choice ended up being nearly as controversial. During a mammoth casting session for Moffat’s other show, a modern version of Sherlock Holmes (does this guy ever sleep?) a young actor named Matt Smith came in to read for the part of Watson, which eventually went to Martin Freeman. Smith’s agent got him an audition for the new Doctor, where he surprised everyone, including Steven Moffat, by knocking it out of the park. Why was this so strange? Matt Smith was only 26 at the time, making him two years younger than the previous youngest Doctor, Peter Davison in 1982.
The talk of the internets was that Smith was far too young to be playing the role, and after the announcement of Scottish actress Karen Gillan, then 21, as the new companion, a lot of people, myself included, worried that the show would begin to skew much younger. I think I even opined at the time that it would be “The CW in space.” I am very pleased to say I was a wrong, dumb, wrong-dumber from Wrongdumbia. Smith’s age offset his decidedly dotty old man take on the role very nicely and after the first or second episode, I stopped even noticing and saw only the Eleventh Doctor.
Equal parts silly awkwardness and quick-tempered ferocity, the Eleventh Doctor is compassionate to a fault, though he is often more concerned with the well-being of the many over the individual. He speaks incredibly quickly, usually catching himself once or twice in a rant to point out something odd. He tends to encourage/manipulate people into doing what he wants instead of directly instructing or commanding them, sometimes through very questionable means. There is a real darkness within the Eleventh Doctor, something his previous incarnation only briefly dealt with, and he is prone to moments of real menace, though they are quickly ebbed. He also likes to be right and is often visibly angry when he isn’t, though he usually calms down. Nevertheless, the Eleventh Doctor’s battiness comes from a place of fun and adventure, and he enjoys showing his companions things even he has never seen before. He clearly has no sense of what is or is not cool, as evidenced by his mode of dress which includes a bowtie and tweed jacket. He’s so not cool that he’s cool.
Matt Smith was placed in the decidedly precarious position of taking over for an extremely beloved actor in an extremely beloved role. A great deal of flack and backlash was aimed at Smith in many fan circles for “replacing” David Tennant, implying it’s somehow his fault that Tennant left. Tennant was going to leave regardless of who took over, so if anyone out there wants to blame someone for David Tennant’s departure, blame David Tennant. So there.
For my money, Smith as the Eleventh Doctor is a shining centerpiece in Moffat’s version of the show. By and large, their first season together produced superb stories, though even in the few episodes I didn’t enjoy, Smith’s performances are always top-notch. Eleven is a return to the early mold of the character as incredibly alien despite his appearance, exemplified in his complete inability to realize when women are hitting on him. It’s not so much that he’s an asexual being, it’s that he’s got more important things to worry about. He’s over 900 years old, after all.
Since there’s only been one season of Smith and there’s more to come, this can’t really be considered a “retrospective,” so instead let’s just called it a “spective.” Here are just a few of my favorite stories from Series 5. With the exception of two, I genuinely like every episode in the series, but since I don’t want to type up a summary/review of every single one, I’ve chosen four stories (six episodes) that are my favorites.
Story 203 – The Eleventh Hour
Written by Steven Moffat
Fresh off of his regeneration, the Eleventh Doctor crashes in a garden at night and meets Amelia Pond, the little Scottish girl with a big crack in her wall. The crack is actually not in the wall, but in the skin of the universe. Through the crack, they hear a voice proclaiming that Prisoner Zero has escaped. Before the Doctor can properly investigate Amelia’s big house, the severely wounded TARDIS begins ringing cloister bell signifying an emergency dematerialization. The Doctor runs out to it, telling Amelia he’ll be back in five minutes. In what is only a few minutes for the Doctor, he rematerializes in Amelia’s garden in the day time. While investigating, he is clocked by a police woman who handcuffs him to a radiator. He tells her to look carefully to see a door she didn’t know was there. Despite his warning, the police woman enters the room and finds the eel-like Prisoner Zero. As they run away, the police woman reveals she isn’t a police woman at all, but a Kiss-a-Gram and is actually Amelia Pond all grown up, now called Amy.
Elsewhere, a young male nurse named Rory, who is Amy’s boyfriend, tells the hospital’s doctor that the coma patients were all talking, all crying out for “Doctor.” Prisoner Zero has been using a psychic link to the coma patients to cloak itself from the Atraxi, the prison wardens and intergalactic peacekeepers. The Atraxi make an ultimatum to the world that if Prisoner Zero doesn’t surrender, the “human dwelling” (aka Earth) will be incinerated. The Doctor, Amy, and Rory only have twenty minutes to catch Prisoner Zero before the entire world is destroyed.
This starts the Eleventh Doctor’s tenure off with a bang. Moffat had the nigh-gargantuan task of introducing the new Doctor, the new companions, a new TARDIS and sonic screwdriver, AND set the stage for the season’s story arc all while making a premiere befitting an exciting adventure show. For my money, he pulls it off beautifully, and one immediately gets who the characters are and the tone the series is going for. I’ve seen this episode the most of any of them, and I never get tired of it.
The one downside for me is its rather hokey solution wherein the “entire world” has to do something to save the day, which is a lot like some of the sillier finales from the RTD era, though it doesn’t linger on it too long and before long, it’s back to the Doctor. Series 5’s budget was cut substantially from the previous series, and, as such, the bulk of the series’ stories were much smaller and focused on a small group of characters in more or less isolated surroundings, which harkened back wonderfully to the low-budget days of the classic series.
Story 206 – The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone
Written by Steven Moffat
The Doctor and Amy travel to a museum in the distant future where they discover a coded message from River Song (introduced in the Series 4 two-parter, Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead) on the side of a ruined flight recorder of the Starship Byzantium 12,000 years earlier (relatively). The Doctor takes the TARDIS to rescue River before the ship crashes on the planet Alfava Metraxis. Amy learns that the Doctor and River have a unique relationship meaning that, because of time travel, they keep meeting each other out of order. As such, she has had a number of adventures with him while he has only had one (that we know if) with her.
On the planet, River tells the Doctor that the Byzantium’s cargo is a Weeping Angel (introduced in Series 3’s Blink), and she calls for support from Father Octavian and his militarized clerics. They review a 4-second loop of security footage of the Angel in the ship’s vault. The Doctor and River read in a madman’s book that “That which holds the image of an Angel becomes itself an Angel,” which is just ducky because Amy’s inside with the footage loop that keeps moving whenever she stops looking at it. The Angel footage begins to creep out of the screen and the Doctor and River cannot open the door to save Amy. The Doctor tells her she must always look at it, but not in the eyes. Too late. Amy, thinking cleverly, is able to pause the footage in the half-second there is a break in the film and ends the Angel’s hold. To get to the Byzantium, they then must travel through a “Maze of Death,” a labyrinth of stone pillars and decaying statues, which wouldn’t you know it, are actually ancient Weeping Angels. Once in the ship, the crack in Amy’s wall reappears and begins sucking things into it, erasing them from existence. Things just keep going from bad to worse when the Angel from the tape manifests itself in Amy’s eye.
This is a powerhouse of a two-parter, and is Steven Moffat at his nightmarish best. Bringing back the Weeping Angels was an inspired idea, as they are among the scariest monsters ever to appear on the show since it began in 1963.
These were the very first two episodes filmed, but you wouldn’t know it from Matt Smith’s performance. He’s not shaky in his portrayal at all, and is, in fact, as surefooted here as he is everywhere in the series. Between the Eleventh Hour and these episodes in terms of broadcast order were two episodes that I plainly didn’t enjoy, and I was worried it would portend the way the whole series would go. Then, in week 4, The Time of Angels was broadcast and my fear started to ebb and by Flesh and Stone, I was once again confident the show was in good shape. This story could have been a feature film for how cinematic it was and the director Adam Smith, who also directed Eleventh Hour, established himself as one of the finest of the modern show.
Story 208 – Amy’s Choice
Written by Simon Nye
In a cottage in Upper Leadworth, five years after traveling with the Doctor, Amy and Rory are married and Amy is a state of pregnant I can only describe as “hella.” Breaking the peaceful atmosphere is the familiar sound of the TARDIS materializing. The Doctor greets his old companions warmly as they show him around their quaint little village. Out of nowhere, all three hear birdsong and are suddenly come over with sleep. They awaken on the TARDIS, in the “present,” and each say they’ve had an incredibly vivid dream. Again they hear the birdsong and fall asleep and wake up back in the village. A small man appears proclaiming himself the Dream Lord and tells them that one of these scenarios is real and the other is a dream; it is up to them to decide which. In each, they face a horrible danger: in Upper Leadworth, it’s aliens who have taken over the bodies of pensioners as a way to sustain their lives and who have acidy spit; on the TARDIS, the ship is dead and slowly freezing as it approaches a “cold star.” Rory believes the scenario where he and Amy are married is the real world and the Doctor believes the situation on the TARDIS is real. Each represents the perfect life for one of the men, but which one is the perfect one for Amy is up for debate. She has to decide soon, because it might very well be up to her to save them all.
As I’ve written about a few months ago in much MORE DETAIL, this was my favorite episode of the whole series, for a number of reasons, including its Twilight Zone-iness, the zombie-like elderly people, the excellent villain of the Dream Lord, and for the parallel world aspect of the whole thing. But truly I love it the best because the conflict rests entirely with the three principle characters and their personal struggles. Rory is a simple man who just wants to be married and happy, while the Doctor is a complicated cosmic event who needs to be in danger to feel alive, and Amy is quite torn by which world she wants to inhabit. This came as a surprise for me in the middle of the season, that Amy would be forced to choose between them (and ultimately lose after the following story). It’s a great one-shot ep and features my favorite performances by Karen Gillan as Amy and Arthur Darvill as Rory.
Story 212 – The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang
Written by Steven Moffat
Through another twisty, roundabout series of events, the Doctor receives another message from River Song and coordinates for where to go. He and Amy arrive on Earth in the year 102 AD near an army of Roman soldiers. River, disguising herself as Cleopatra, shows them a painting done by their friend Vincent Van Gogh called The Pandorica Opens, depicting the TARDIS exploding. The Doctor realizes “the Pandorica” an ancient, mythical prison said to house the most terrible thing in the universe, must be hidden somewhere memorable near the coordinates, somewhere like Stonehenge, one of the biggest henges in the world. Going underneath the henge, they find the Pandorica itself, a room-sized metal box outfitted with every kind of lock imaginable. The Doctor and River become concerned when they realize the Pandorica is opening from the inside and transmitting a signal across time and space and is summoning every bad thing that ever hated the Doctor.
To over-explain these two episodes is to diminish their surprise and impact. I haven’t even mentioned anything that happens in The Big Bang because no one could summarize it and do it justice. What’s remarkable about them as a two-part series finale is just how different the two episodes are from each other. The cliffhanger at the end of Pandorica is amazing and puzzling and then is immediately outdone by the pre-credits cliffhanger of Big Bang. In these two episodes, Steven Moffat throws every time-travel trope we’ve seen out the window and redefines his own description of “Timey Wimey.” I don’t think I’ve been as giddily happy watching television episodes as I was during these two. The actual science of the episodes is incredibly questionable, but for some reason I don’t care. The show isn’t about hard science, it’s about high-adventure and these episodes, like the majority of Series 5, deliver that in spades.
The ratings for Series 5 were solid, while somewhat smaller than previous years. Still, the show gathered very high appreciation scores and was still one of the BBC’s top shows. In December, 2010, the sixth Doctor Who Christmas special, entitled A Christmas Carol, was broadcast on the same day in the UK, USA, and Canada making it the first time this phenomenon occurred. I REVIEWED that episode when it came out, but again the team of Moffat and Smith managed to produce excellent science fiction and there’s more to come this spring. I, for one, hope Matt Smith remains in the role at least for another year.
Well, everyone, now we’re up to date. I’ve talked about every Doctor and most of the recurring villains the show has ever had. What more could I possibly have to talk about? So, it is with a heavy heart that I resign my position at Nerdist.com.
I’m kidding, fuckers. You can’t get rid of me that easily, nor can you think that’s ALL the Doctor Who topics to discuss. In the coming weeks, you’ll get stuff about Regeneration, the TARDIS, new DVDs, the new series, and the Gallifrey One convention in mid-February that I will be attending and plan to live-Tweet. See? So much more to do.
Thanks everybody for reading these and for your excellent feedback. And, if you’d be so kind, follow me on Twitter.