• 8th April 2010 • Review by Jonathan Capps •
In 2007, Seb and I hosted a gathering round at our flat to watch Utopia. We all knew that some shit was going to go down, but we weren’t entirely sure of the details, so when Derek Jacobi awoke as The Master we all went a little bit nuts. It’s probably the most exciting thing I’ve seen on TV in my adult life and a large part of that was down to the fact we’d made it an event by all gathering together to watch it. However, in the cold light of day, and even three years after the original transmission my opinion of the episode remains the same. All this is basically a roundabout way of saying that I’m fairly sure my opinion of something isn’t swayed by external influences. If it’s brilliant, then it’s brilliant, no matter what surroundings it’s witnessed in. Despite the fact that The Eleventh Hour was once again an event and opinions of it could easily be swayed for that reason, it’s still brilliant and it always will be. Long, long after Moffat is succeeded by Chris Chibnal or some such prick.
As the first episode not only of a new series but a new production team AND Doctor it’s always going to be judged slightly differently to a more regular episode. Its aims and priorities are different, as they should be, so if you’re faced with a fairly thin plot it doesn’t matter so much because the important part is establishing new characters, actors and tone. Yes, TEH (made all the better for having an amusing acronym) does have a thin plot and the resolution is almost perfunctory (basically, a magic laptop and a phone make some dim policeman aware of what should be obvious to them anyway) but it’s just very effective dressing for the real meat. In terms of series 5 as a whole, the important detail is in how and why Prisoner Zero was able to escape through the crack in time, and we certainly get a good lump of foreshadowing on that score, so the viewer is already pretty well versed in the Big Threat before it even becomes the focus of the series. Nice, simple and effective storytelling, and even though the foreshadowing appears to be a bit clunky, at least it’s done by a character who’d actually know about this and would want to taunt The Doctor about it. Effort has been made to make the dump more palatable (so to speak…) rather than just bringing in a psychic at the end of a shit episode to say a load of bollocks no one cares about.
Speaking of the main antagonist, Prisoner Zero was a very well executed exercise in saving some money. For a great deal of the episode, he was taking human form in the shape of the dreams of coma patents (chalk that one up as a Brilliant Idea) and this paved the way for some great performances, most notably Olivia Coleman and her creepy spawn. The image of those little girls bearing Zero’s fangs might well live in my nightmares for the rest of my life. When Zero reverts to his native form of The Master from off of The TV Movie, things got a little less impressive. But, hey, show me an FX house that can deliver convincing CG for a character that’s supposed to be organic and you will be showing me someone with a budget of many millions. The Atraxi crafts (or were they the Atraxi themselves?) suffered from similar ropeyness, but I’d say they looked no worse than what we’ve had before. The frankly bonkers design of the Atraxi does lend itself to this new ‘fairytale’ tone that Moffat likes to talk about, too, which does allow for less sophisticated effects and it’s more about the ideas rather than the execution.
Tone-wise, it was a strange episode, as it was obviously written in a way designed to straddle the two eras. The plot in general felt a lot like an RTD opener (such as, say, Smith & Jones), and this was especially evident in the very quick solution to the Big Threat and the video conference complete with celebrity cameo, but these are useful techniques that RTD perfected, so there’d be no reason why Moffat would abandon them, especially when one of his top priorities must’ve been to convince people this is still the same show. For me, though, it did feel very different indeed; somehow more restrained despite the fact it was very high energy. It’s hard to pin down, but I suspect it’s mainly down to greater subtleties in the characters and Matt Smith’s quite astounding performance.
As pretty much everyone in the world ever has been saying over the last few days, that man is so completely The Doctor it’s frankly scary. His performance as a whole characterised the whole episode, as he swings between Tennant and his new personality he manages to always hold on to his identity, but in way where you can practically see his transformation, with all manner of subtleties and quirks creeping in, in front of your eyes. He’s got all the old Tennant staples nailed down (ENERGY, ANGER, THOUGHTFUL), but done better, plus he absolutely and completely hilarious. Despite his sit-com pedigree, previous Moffat scripts haven’t always been packed with jokes, but he really, really lets rip in this episode (if painfully funny is his version of RTD’s bombast, then I’m very happy with that) and Matt’s flawless physicality and delivery does every single word of the script, comedy or otherwise, superb justice. The food scene is an obvious example of writer and lead clicking so completely (and, honestly, I defy you to find a funnier scene anywhere else in Doctor Who.) Conversely, Matt is a master at tiny physical details (my favourite being throwing the water out of the glass and placing it to his ear before he walks over to the crack in the wall to have a listen.) Details like this are littered throughout the episode, and they all serve to make sure we completely get the new Doctor very, very quickly and gives the character and the episode as a whole an immense rewatchability.
Speaking of characters being established comprehensively and rapidly, let’s move on to Amy. We first see her as a little girl when The Doctor crash lands in her back garden, but it’s not until we see her as a (fairly plain looking and not at all stunningly beautiful) adult that we see how brilliantly Caitlin Blackwood played the young Amy as the whole character seamlessly morphs into an adult. Characterisation was one of this episodes biggest strong points, and the fact that we finish the episode with such a clear impression of Amy and the extent to which The Doctor has, essentially, fucked her up is a testament to that. Amy is brand new to us, but for her the series to come is the culmination of her entire life which already makes her one of the most interesting companions we’ve had.
Looking at some of the changes the production team have made, I’m happy with a lot. The new Console Room is incredible, if just for the sheer size of the thing and the pant wettingly exciting addition of STAIRS leading to PLACES, which is something that was sorely missed in the old days. It actually feels like a proper hub for an entire ship, and even just seeing those doorways gives the whole thing an scale, even if that scale largely remains unseen. As for gripes, they’re pretty few and far between, although can you all take a wild fucking guess what my biggest problem with the episode was? If you don’t know, just go and read the entire Internet for a bit and you’ll get a good idea. Basically, no amount of ‘getting used to it’ is going to change the fact that Murray Gold has all but removed the opening bass line of the theme tune to make way for some dodgy melody that ISN’T IN THE THEME, nor will it bring back the original OOOEEEOOOS (which were always there, buried in the RTD themes.) The title sequence, though, I like. S’good.
It’s amazing, after so many months and even years of waiting for Moffat’s Who to arrive there was always a danger that it wouldn’t live up to expectations, especially since Moffat now has to write the type of episodes he’s never tackled before, but he’s taken the traditional first episode fluff and Moffated the shit out of it. Moffat Who looks like it will turn out to be as expected which, considering he’s rightly one of the most celebrated Doctor Who writers ever, is just about the biggest compliment I can give this episode.
It’s difficult, really, sitting here trying to say things about the episode and explaining why I loved it so much without it sounding like I’m taking a great big dump on the RTD era. That’s certainly not the case. The day I become one of those twats that insists that RTD was shit is the day you should all stamp on my head. Without him Moffat wouldn’t have a Doctor Who to take and run with and just because fans of the show seem to mostly prefer what Moffat is doing (so far, I hasten to add) doesn’t mean a great deal, because he wasn’t the Main Man when the show needed to be huge, brilliant and popular. Russell was and it’s because of him that we’re sitting here now, marvelling at what the show is turning into.