Well, I like him. I like him a lot, in fact. Matt Smith, the 11th actor to assume the part of The Doctor—not counting those Peter Cushing movies, parodies, and whatnot—has a long shadow to escape, coming on the heels of David Tennant’s long, beloved tenure as the Tenth Doctor. He does it with aplomb in the first few minutes of “The Eleventh Hour,” the revived series’ fifth season premier and first under the guidance of new head writer and executive producer Steven Moffatt. Like Tennant’s first appearance, Smith throws himself into the part as if he’d been playing it all along, even though he shows up wearing Tennant’s old clothes and still shaking up some of the after-effects of his transformation.
A limber, deft-footed actor, intensely physical performer, Smith’s just-short-of-manic boisterousness makes him instantly endearing. In his early scenes with young Amelia Pond (Caitlin Blackwood), he seems like a harmless, caring eccentric, a persona he doesn’t really let drop until the final—at first seemingly unnecessary—confrontation with the Attraxi. The moment literally has Smith making the part his own, emerging tweed-clad and bowtied from a holographic projection of past Doctors to make sure at least one potential enemy knows the Earth will be firmly under his protection, thank you very much. It’s a moment that might be dismissed as fan service if Smith, Moffatt, and episode director Adam Smith didn’t play it so well.
Yet, as snugly as Smith fits the part, I’m still not sure what separates Eleven’s personality apart from Ten’s. Traces of Tennant’s performance remain in Smith’s portrayal. Is the Doctor still trying to find his new persona? Will these vestiges be cast off like Smith throws away Tennant’s old clothes in this episode? I suspect we’ll find out in the fullness of time. For now, Smith’s Doctor seems a bit less tortured than Tennant’s and a bit less capable of hiding his oddness. Tennant’s Doctor had some conspicuous eccentricities, but he never smacked himself in the face. Repeatedly. And, of course, we never saw Tennant eat fish fingers dipped in custard, a funny moment hopefully never to be repeated again for the benefit of viewers with sensitive stomachs.
As for what separates Moffatt’s Who from Davies’, I think we get a clearer sense of that here. Moffat penned some of the best episodes from the Davies era, most characterized by their exceptionally strong narratives, keen sense of character, and efficient plotting. “The Eleventh Hour” is no exception. Moffat’s script introduces the new Doctor, his latest companion, said companion’s friends and family, and a new-look TARDIS interior, all within the context of a classic, fast-paced The-Doctor-versus-bugeyed-sharptoothed-monsters plot.
Moffat also puts a decided emphasis on a fairy tale-like tone familiar from episodes like “Blink” and “The Girl In The Fireplace,” episodes with threats that owed as much to folklore as science fiction. That’s to say nothing of the romantic tone of “Girl,” a tone that looks likely to return this season. In the 12 years between the Doctor’s first visit and his return 12 years later, little Amelia has grown up into Amy Pond (Karen Gillan, who’s similarly instantly winning as the Doctor’s new companion.) Within those years, and in the two-year gap between this episode’s final two scenes, the Doctor has become an idealized figure, something between the father protector she never had and the perfect husband she’s presumably given up finding as she settled for whomever she’s scheduled to marry the morning after the Doctor’s return. It’s a bit like Peter Pan returning to whisk Wendy away to Neverland the night before she’s resigned herself to a quiet, normal life.
Is it too sexy for Who? Smith and Gillan are certainly easy on the eyes, but that’s not really anything new for 21st century Who. Neither is the obvious sexual tension beneath the Doctor’s relationship with Amy, even if it’s a already more pronounced than the tension between Christopher Eccelston and Tennant’s pairings with Billie Piper and a bit less obviously one-sided than Tennant’s stint with Freema Agyeman. Apart from the Tennant/Catherine Tate pairing, sexual tension has been a constant of the Doctor Who revival. (If anything, the Tate era, which I really liked, felt refreshing for the complete absence of sexual tension.) The question is what Moffat will do with it. I don’t really have any theories about that beyond this: I don’t know that Amy’s going to be eager to return to make it to the church on time.
That’s fine. For now I’m happy to have them out there wandering around the stars.
• The new TARDIS interior is something, isn’t it? The typewriter’s my favorite touch.
• Is it just me, or have the special effects improved a bit?
• I reviewed this episode from a screener of the UK cut provided by BBC America. If I reference anything cut from the American cut, my apologies. Hopefully BBC America will cut more thoughtfully than the Sci Fi Channel (now, of course, the wrestling-happy SyFy network.) They never cut anything essential, but some good stuff ended up on the cutting room floor.
• I do not know who Patrick Moore is.
• “You’re Scottish. Fry something.”