BBC1 - 3rd April 2010 - 6.20pm
Let's get one thing out of the way first. I do not think much of those new titles and the changes to the theme music. There, I've said it. Much as I love Murray Gold, and his work on The Eleventh Hour has some gorgeous new themes for the Doctor and Amy all whizzed up with echoes of everything from The End Of Time to The Runaway Bride, I'm not entirely sure his funked up version of Ron Grainer's original tune works. Its revisionism bends the instantly recognisable theme rather alarmingly out of shape and then has a few tokenistic Delia bits chucked in as a bit of reassurance.
The strangeness, which is the entire point of the Doctor Who theme, is tucked behind what sounds like an entirely new bit that Grainer didn't compose before being drowned in booming choirs and skipping drum beats. The other problem is the title sequence itself. If this is the vortex the TARDIS is travelling through then mix me a Manhattan and call me Sally. There just isn't a real sense of travelling into the unknown here. It just feels like you've run into a bit of turbulence amongst some very pretty cumulonimbus. As ever with major changes to Doctor Who, we can't all like everything. Never mind, I'll just have to put up with it. It might even grow on me.
Forget the branding bookends then and dive right in to a Doctor Who that gleefully plays with how you think the series works post 2005 but then spectacularly wrong foots you with giddy and witty scripting, an instantly charismatic Doctor and an equally attractive companion in Amy. Not since Tom Baker skipped on the spot with Ian Marter in Robot have we had an actor who so physically owns the role. Big, gangly Matt Smith is a fireball of sheer presence and simply commands you to watch him. You can see precisely why Moffat cast him and in this opening 65 minutes his faith has been rewarded. It truly is an amazing performance, is quixotic and mercurial but packed with enormous subtlety and naturalism too.
Whilst many things may seem familiar to us - the pre-titles of the TARDIS descent, zooming in from space and into the skies of London quotes many of RTD's season openers and specials, particularly the 2005 re-launch Rose, the video conferencing with the world's boffins, the transmitted computer virus displayed across various world locations - much has been swept away. RTD's penchant for foregrounding the melodramatic, soap elements of the companions immediate families - the Tylers, the Joneses, the Nobles - before the Doctor Who stuff, is replaced here by the story of a young, orphaned girl with an imaginary friend. A girl who waits 14 years to finally fulfill her dreams of adventure.
What Moffat does is replace the private emotional power of families and relatives, the now rather worn out romantic desires of the companion for the Doctor and his exploits, with a story of how a woman grows up and sadly disconnects from her own inner child. He's interested in the inner fantasy lives of children, something he has thematically exploited in his earlier episodes with specific childhood scares - the monster under the bed, the monster creeping up behind you - and shows young Amy's fantasy role playing of adventures with the raggedy Doctor. Her stories, drawings and dolls, so much like those created by any child that's watching who writes and acts out their own adventures with the Doctor, become sublimated into an adult life where the yearning for such adventure still exists but hasn't been acted upon. No wonder she likes dressing up and kissing people for a living.
As fans we live our fantasy lives out vicariously through figures such as the Doctor and from a very young age I'm sure many of us wanted that TARDIS to land in our own back gardens. Moffat's simply taken that notion and created Amy Pond, a reckless, independent and opinionated woman and embodied her as a more traditional kind of companion. What's also interesting here is that Amy has shared these stories and ideas of the Doctor so that it becomes a folk myth of the Raggedy Doctor, a child's tale that her friends have shared in. Note how embarrassed she gets when Mrs. Angelo mentions the cartoons!
To embrace the child-like, to rediscover it in yourself, to get back to the essence of your being is one of the main themes here whether it is the Doctor eating fishfingers and custard in Amy's kitchen, Amy remembering apples with faces or the Doctor and the TARDIS getting a facelift. There's a youthful swagger in the new Doctor that reminds you of Tennant's first year in the role until he got bogged down with all the loneliness and angst. The childhood scares are still there too with the crack in a bedroom wall ushering in some 'corner of your eye' creepiness that's classic Moffat. The big eyeball beadily observing the Doctor from the crack in the wall and later from the centre of a spaceship is a lovely surreal touch that visually announces the series new 'fairy tale' fantasy credentials. And fairy tales are all about showing children what to be scared of, including an alien who can't quite get the hang of possession as we see in some bizarre scenes where you can have a dog and bark yourself and where Olivia Coleman and the two girls put a wonderfully scary spin on the mother and daughter relationship.
We still have a boyfriend lurking in the background, with Rory being a sort of substitute for the Doctor who didn't quite rise to the challenge and became the literal opposite, a nurse. Whether that relationship with Amy will develop in this series is debatable. Arthur Darvill made a decent show of quite a low-key role in the episode and I look forward to his return later in the season. We have also yet to discover who Amy was going to marry before hopping aboard the TARDIS. In effect, the story reflects some of the themes of The Girl In The Fireplace but places the emphasis elsewhere. Madame Du Pompadour and the Doctor conduct a romance over decades wherein the erratic nature of time travel leads to the Doctor's own sadness and disappointment.
Here, the Doctor's gone so long after making a vivid impression on the young Amy the effect is to engender a fearlessness in a young woman born out of cynicism and disappointment. A rather interesting dynamic and one that the Doctor sees as a challenge when Amy enters the TARDIS and reluctantly agrees to the trip. "You wanted to come 14 years ago" he says. "I grew up," Amy responds. "Don't worry, I'll soon fix that." Just as every Saturday for the next 13 weeks he'll fix it for us too.
The Eleventh Hour also sets up a theme for the season too with the Face Tendril alien warning ominously that the 'Pandorica will open and silence will fall' as the Doctor cockily sends it back into the clutches of its Atraxi jailor. The alien threat, whilst interesting, is not really the point of the episode beyond offering something to test the mettle of a newly formed Doctor and reassure us and the Atraxi that this is indeed the same man with a quick rummage in their data banks to show us the previous ten faces of the Doctor and a collection of foes old and new. It's brilliantly done with Matt Smith then bursting through at the end of the sequence, shattering the final face, that of Tennant, triumphantly restored as the Doctor.
It's only problem, apart from the titles, is it might be a shade too long. A beautifully funny script, packed with great lines ("You're Scottish - fry something." "Patrick Moore? I'll get you his number, but watch him, he's a devil!'") simply rattles along but interesting as director Adam Smith's techniques are I just thought the Doctor's mind's eye sequence didn't quite work. It makes the point well enough that the Doctor never misses the detail, and it's a brave effort to do something that little bit different, but I hope it's something that isn't repeated throughout the forthcoming episodes because it'll become very annoying, very quickly.
Adam Smith acquits himself far better in the whole of the opening half with the young Amy, played with utter charm by Caitlin Blackwood, and the entire sequence of the Doctor trying various items of food is edited and scored to perfection and has that wonderful reverse in the comedy of the situation when the Doctor concludes that Amy is very brave but it "must be a hell of a scary crack in your wall" considering she's sat in the kitchen, in the middle of the night, with a total stranger who's eating fish fingers and custard. Equally lovely is Amy's entrance into the TARDIS, with Karen very cleverly providing Amy's wide-eyed wonder under a bluff, no nonsense 'too cool for school' attitude. Again, it's well directed, with both Smith the director and Smith the actor bouncing around the new TARDIS with abandon and it's beautifully scored by Gold.
So it's "goodbye, Leadworth and hello, everything" as the TARDIS hurtles off with Amy and one of the most assured acting debuts in Matt Smith's Doctor. His confidence as "the madman and his box" and Karen's welcome and rather atypical portrayal of Amy is more than enough to push the series off on its new trajectory. The Eleventh Hour works perfectly well as an opener, containing some of best moments of Doctor Who in years, but I'm convinced that the very best really is yet to come.
A completely revised and fuller version of this review is now available in my book Doctor Who: The Pandorica Opens - Exploring the Worlds of the Eleventh Doctor published by Classic TV Press
and is also available on Amazon.