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STUDIO: BBC Warner
RATED: Not Rated
RUNNING TIME: 655 Minutes
- Meanwhile in the TARDIS: Additional Scenes
- Doctor Who Confidential
- In-vision Commentaries
- Video Diaries
- Monster Files
- Teasers and Trailers
Britain’s #1 sci-fi institution continues its march into the mainstream.
Creators: Sydney Newman and Verity Lambert.
Cast: Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill, and Alex Kingston.
After his latest regeneration, the Doctor (Smith) adventures through history with Amelia “Amy” Pond (Gillan) a feisty Scot who’s been obsessed with him since they met when she was a kid. They fight time-crimes together, solve mysteries, and invite lots of Mulder and Scully style “will they/won’t they” questions… much to Amy’s fiancee Rory’s (Darvill) chagrin.
One of my favourite ironies is the way some people who seem made for one another never click. No matter how many interests or traits they share, they’re almost too similar to hit it off. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a similar thing going with Doctor Who. As I mentioned in the tag-team review for the recent holiday special, “A Christmas Carol”, I’m new to the show. How new? If you’d told me recently a sonic screwdriver was a nerdy cocktail or the average cosplayer’s sex position of choice, I would’ve been none the wiser. It always intrigued me why I never took to the program, nor Torchwood or The Sarah Jane Adventures, being as fond of “niche” science fiction and fantasy as I am (Deep Space Nine Dominion War marathon, anyone?) Nonetheless, my indifference to the show lasted until Matt Smith stepped into the big blue phone-box. Something about the combination of a new Doctor and show-runner (Steven “Jekyll” Moffat, replacing Russell T. Davies) caught my attention.
A slinky redhead never hurt either.
“The Eleventh Hour” is as straightforward a season opener as they come. Director Adam Smith gives one big introduction to the Doctor and his companions, Amy and Rory, and what an introduction it is. The TARDIS crashes in a 7 year old Amelia’s back garden and out pops Matt Smith’s box-fresh “Time Lord.” This unlikely pair become fast friends until, unfortunately for Amelia, her new pal does a runner. 12 years later, Amy’s lost the “too fairytale” Amelia but not the memory of her childhood visitor, the mysterious man who promised to show her the stars. Whom she waited for all night with her bags packed, ready to hit the temporal road. Good thing for Amy there’s an alien fugitive hiding in her house then, isn’t it? The Doctor rushes back into her life and the excitement he brings with him convinces her to finally run away in the night with him, despite the danger involved… and the fiancee it means leaving behind.
Steven Moffat and his creative team understand that television isn’t Lego: the “building”part isn’t the be all-end all. The haunting crack in space time that finally brought The Doctor and Amy together is one of many elements part of larger arcs, all of which are handled diligently over the course of the season. Within an hour, though, all of the obligatory “origin story” business is out of the way and our heroes start adventuring… in surprisingly ambitious style. The space dogfight with spitfires from Churchill vs. The Daleks alone wouldn’t look out of place in a major war movie. Against the odds, the special and practical effects on offer do an impressive job of realizing these flights of fancy. Some less forgiving viewers will scoff at the underground “homo-reptilia” of “The Hungry Earth”, but there’s more to Doctor Who than just actors in prosthetics. It’s smarter and funnier than any serial designed for the whole family has any right to be. How else could jokes about keeping things “fresh” in the intergalactic bedroom sneak their way onto BBC One at 6pm on a Saturday night? And if veiled sci-smut doesn’t do it for cynics, the terrific cinematography should at least give them something to ooh and ahh about.
Matt Smith is probably a big Minor Threat fan; the Doctor all but makes “it’s not how old I am, it’s how old I feel” his motto. This crotchety restlessness fits the comic aspect of the 900 year old “ancient amateur” well, but it works best during the dramatic moments typified in “Amy’s Choice.” The Doctor may have a dash of the picaresque hero about him, a lovable rogue whose two hearts are in their right places, but there’s also a great tragedy to him that elevates the show beyond lighthearted tea-time background noise. The guy’s been around. He’s watched generations of friends die. Skipping about history might seem like fun, but, as Toby Jones’ “Dream Lord” points out, it’s lonely work. This brings a heartbreaking dimension to the Doctor’s weakness for younger companions. He surrounds himself with awestruck youth because he hasn’t got anyone his own age or race to play with, not so he can simply perv over Karen Gillan in her police costume (although who could blame him?)
Pop culture tells us certain things about the Doctor, less so his companions. Karen Gillan’s Amy Pond quickly proves herself a worthy comrade whose job description far exceeds looking pretty. Amy keeps it together quite well when things get scary or messy (often) and isn’t shy of taking the initiative. This independence creates a wonderful friction between her and the Doctor that would’ve been impossible had she felt the need to ask his permission before pressing buttons or going off investigating. Amy does, however, lose her edge once she begins screaming “DOCTOR!” like Megan Fox screamed “SAM!” in the first two Transformers films. Unlike some genre girl characters who behave and dress like fanboys want them to, Amy’s too much of a “girly” girl for that. She’s attracted to the idea of accompanying the Doctor more than the reality. She wants the tourist’s history of time, the chance to meet famous figures, shake hands with her former/future self, and trips to Space Florida. Not the fine print. When she’s taken out of that comfort zone and into the clutches of evil aliens, she clearly doesn’t get the same kick out of heroism the Doctor does, and defaults to “scream for help” mode.
Alex Kingston’s River Song fulfills the Joss Whedon “tough chick” requirements instead. Flitting in and out of the Doctor’s life, Song hints at mysteries beyond those at hand (“The Big Bang”) as well as giving the main man someone more like him to banter with (“Flesh and Stone.”) “The Vampires of Venice” and “Amy’s Choice” are a remarkable brace of episodes, particularly strong on performance, story, and production design. The first transplants a familiar invasion concept in 16th century Venice with alien fish vampires (it’s a lot better than it sounds.) The second, a nifty psychological thriller, boasts pre-Nolan dream hopping. Think A Nightmare On Inception Street, complete with Toby Jones as the de facto Freddy Krueger (it’s exactly as good as it sounds!) “Vincent and the Doctor” finds the best balance of action and drama, as our heroes battle both literal and figurative demons with the not so expert help of a sulking van Gogh. Writer Richard Curtis (Notting Hill) turns a famous figure guest spot into a genuinely affecting look at human fragility and destiny. There’s even room for a memorable Bill Nighy cameo.
Obstacle after obstacle is thrown Team Doctor’s way. In the process, we’re given a deeper look into the titular hero’s psyche. For all his impulsiveness, he’s developed a fine moral barometer over those ten former runs. When it’s put under strain, the show really starts to soar. Full credit to Steven Moffat et al, then, for taking the Doctor’s foes beyond a safely black and white morality zone. Rich is the show whose hero continues to put untrained civilians in tremendous peril when he really should know better. Compared to Batman, the Doctor’s approach to companion collateral damage is outrageously irresponsible. He should wear a “come with me, if you want to scream” badge on his tweed jacket. As a furious Rory points out to him, The Doctor’s hurtling towards his very own “A Death In The Family” every time he recruits a new assistant. Despite his moral rigidity, he’s still too selfish to stop – ironic, considering his “all life is precious” outlook. No matter how fantastic the show’s concepts get, this very human foundation of conflict, mistakes, and good intentions keeps things afloat when ideas or special effects go awry. It’s just a shame the onus on speed deflects the drama a little during the season’s first quarter. There’s nothing clinically “wrong” with all that excitement and running about, but the early sugar-rush jars alongside the more measured final stretch.
Arthur Darvill picks up two awards: greatest surprise and premier punching bag. Rory undergoes the cast’s widest range of negative emotions: fear, jealousy, humiliation, insecurity, and he suffers it all for someone who’s often quite horrible to him (count how many times Amy throws herself at the Doctor, sometimes in front of Rory, before calling that harsh.) Rory’s in over his head, trying desperately to keep up with The Doctor who, in his head, is stealing his beloved Amy away from him with every flick of his fringe. All while trying to keep himself alive, of course. Darvill’s blessed with wonderful comic timing and a charming presence; his droopy take on the “clumsy, but sweet” boy energizes a tired archetype. For all his intelligence, Rory’s awkwardness is funny and identifiable. In a show full of sharp observations, the greatest truth of them all is how someone as noble and loving as Rory would endure so much pain for someone as undeserving as Amy.
I’ve cracked my own Doctor Who mystery. After all these years, I’ve finally sussed out why it never worked for me before. I thought it was kids’ stuff. Simple as that. I’d been turning my nose up at the franchise for years on the (mistaken) assumption that all this “wibbly-wobbley, timey-wimey” TARDIS stuff was too juvenile for my discerning tastes – an opinion not always helped by a few glimpses of Russell T. Davies’ work. It may tread dangerously close to total cheese on occasion and recycle the odd idea, but there’s too much magic on offer to get bogged down in such mundane complaints.
“Who da man?” Matt Smith da man.
Generous. Each of the five discs in this set* are presented well (in widescreen with optional English subtitles) and stacked with bonus features. Picture and sound quality are both outstanding – Murray Gold’s grandiose music gets the blood shifting in 2.0 just as much as Ron Grainer’s classic theme. Smith, Gillan, and Darvill’s on-set video diaries are funny “blog” style glimpses of lunch-times, make-up trailers and the like. There’s also the usual collection of short documentaries including “Monster Files”, neat little profiles of the Doctor’s various foes. Best of all are the “in-vision” commentaries available for selected episodes. A wide selection of actors, writers, and directors reflect openly on their contributions and the show overall. Actually watching those commenting adds an interesting dimension to this style of extra. The level of admiration and excitement visible, from Whovians and non-Whovians alike, is genuinely endearing. All this and some funny outtakes, too.
If you think you’ve outgrown Doctor Who, Steven Moffat will soon change that.
* The sixth disc included in the final release wasn’t available at the time of going to press (publish.) However, all the content listed was included on the review copy anyway. I’ll be very disappointed if that extra disc is comprised solely of Karen Gillan’s wardrobe test footage.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars