Debuting in 1963, Doctor Who was an afternoon serial originally launched by the BBC as an educational program for children. By the fifth episode, it had pretty much abandoned that pretense and settled into a science-fiction show centered on an eccentric alien scientist who travels through time and space in an old blue box that is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.
Canceled in 1989 due to a combination of low ratings and new network management that considered it (essentially rightfully) as a hokey embarrassment, an abortive attempt to relaunch the show was made in 1996 by the American network Fox.
It wasn’t until 2005 when the show was finally brought back and turned into a significant international success by show-runner Russell T. Davies, the producer and writer of a number of successful and acclaimed dramas. On April 3rd, the first episode of a new series aired on the BBC, with a new show-runner and head-writer, Steven Moffat, creator of the sitcom Coupling and starring a new Doctor, the eleventh, played by Matt Smith, and a new companion, fiery Scottish redhead Karen Gillan.
The Bureau Chiefs are big nerds, and naturally we sat down to watch it.
Overall I thought it was a very good episode, particularly the opening sequence with the new Doctor and little Amelia Pond. Even though we’re reminded several times that he’s still “baking” and not really fully formed yet, Smith had a manic energy there and a sense of humor I thought was really engaging. If I’m being completely honest, the big middle section of the story felt a little weaker to me, mostly because it’s the standard “introduce the new Doctor and companion” set-up; mysterious alien menace that the Doctor has to defeat with a time limit and limited tools, all while getting to know a plucky young woman. That’s not a bad thing; it’s a story structure that works very well for the show, but it did feel somewhat repetitive.
As for the new plucky girl, Karen Gillan is very appealing, and I like the air of wounded trust that she has in her interactions with Smith. It’s a nice change from the devotion and adoration we’ve seen from the companions in the new series. She’s much more skeptical of him, and she has reason to be. I hope that’s a thread we see developed.
I was also struck by some of the tonal changes. The menaces feel a bit more surreal than they were during the Tennant and Davies years. Cracks in walls and giant alien eyes are a bit more abstract than alien rhinos or squid people. It also felt a bit more “grown-up.” Both Moffat now and Davies before him emphasized that the show was primarily for children, but Moffat seems to be aiming at a slightly older, or at least more worldy, child. Amy being a kiss-o-gram feels like it’s coming from that. It’s a child-like idea of a job that’s slightly sexy, but in a giggly, naive way. Same thing with her having multiple boyfriends, or sort-of boyfriends.
I enjoyed the way the choice of Amy as a companion shows the direct effect of a few minutes of interaction with the Doctor, and the results of that interaction are not necessarily all positive. I hope this is followed up on later in the series. While the episode did follow conventional story lines, it did so in a way that felt pleasantly nostalgic (especially the call-out to the previous doctors) instead of overly derivative.
I was wondering a bit about the casting of Smith, but he does bring out the slightly unhinged quality that I think the best interpretations of the Doctor have. Every first episode featuring a new doctor is going to have an origin story quality to it as he figures out his new incarnation, and I think this one did a good job bringing that out. I’m guessing some geeks are going to start investing in bowties and suspenders.
Season openers are usually fairly weak, since they’re often introducing a new Doctor, new companion, or, in this case, both.
There are two stories here: one of alien beings looking for an escaped prisoner on Earth, and one of a girl who’s lived her whole life trying to make sense of something that happened when she was a child. The former story is bland and forgettable, which is fine; that allows it to get out of the way of the latter story. Matt Smith puts aside everyone’s standard “new Doctor” fears in an instant, bringing a childlike, anarchic, unpredictable air to the character (a nice change from all the “Dark Doctor” stuff we’ve been having to deal with).
New companion Amy Pond gives us only a little more than a saucy tease, but the version of her as a child, Amelia Pond, is wonderful. Amelia is a serious little child who hosts the Doctor without being troubled at all by his bizarre ways. These scenes are wonderful, and if the show had decided to roll with Amelia as-is, I wouldn’t have a problem with it. The story here is not about flying eyes who are looking for an alien shapeshifter they won’t recognize if it’s shifted its shape, it’s about how Amelia Pond becomes Amy Pond, with a newly-regenerated Doctor at the center of it.
Amy’s story cannibalizes most of the previous companions from the new series. The script is very similar to “Smith and Jones,” Martha’s debut. The fact that a single previous encounter with the Doctor changed her life forever is the same situation as Donna’s. And of course Rose was the innocent bystander with no future roused into action by a chance encounter.
Unlike the others, though, Amy is being given a deliberately sexy air — the odd police uniform leaked out in early photos turns out to be a “kiss-o-gram” costume, complete with seamed stockings. There is a lot of attention paid to her eyes and lips. And when the Doctor undresses in front of her, she eagerly looks on with a smile. We’ve had crushes on the Doctor before (ad nauseum, I might add), but this doesn’t seem like a crush, and although I am not thrilled about another companion mostly driven by her physical/romantic attraction to the Doctor, it would be nice if that attraction were a little more on the naughty side (Moffat did give us Coupling, after all.)
The TARDIS, too, gets a makeover, and it once again emphasizes its role as an organic being, linked inseparably to the Doctor himself. The architecture and function is decidedly Not Of This World, yet the central console — the heart, so to speak — is a bizarre amalgamation of familiar things turned unfamiliar, odds and ends turned to mysterious purposes.
It’s difficult to be a Doctor Who fan and fear change; change is a built-in feature of the show. Moffat seems to be drawing a thick line between the previous seasons and his tenure, and nothing is spared; it’s all new. Yet, in a delightful touch, he adds a montage of the previous Doctors — all of them — to show that he hasn’t forgotten about the past. He is greatly aware of where he’s come from. And, it seems, highly confident of where he’s going. I think think this is going to be a very fun season.
What is everyone else’s reaction to the new Tardis? Apart from the new actor, that’s probably the most significant visual break from the last five years of the show, and I’ll be honest, I wasn’t exactly overwhelmed. I wasn’t a big fan of the previous TARDIS either; I liked the scale of it, but thought it just looked rather dingy and dull.
I do actually like that they’ve made the new one even bigger, and the gleam, the polish of it, with all that glass and lighting and stairs and galleys going off into the distance makes it look very “sci-fi”, almost self-conciously so. But I groaned when I saw the hot and cold taps, the typewriter and the gramophone horn. There are all these otherworldly, constantly moving bits on the console, and then you’ve got these deliberatly retro elements mashed on that visually out of style with the rest of the room. They feel like nerd-pandering, like the designers are trying to wring some life out of the “steampunk” fad before it fades away.
I felt that the console showed a nice link to the Doctor himself, who is a similar mix of anachronistic elements used to odd effect. And I like the contrast with the gleamy, what-currently-passes-for-high-tech areas surrounding the console. (I would have to say that my favorite TARDIS interior was the TV movie one, which this kind of reminds me of.) I am hoping that the emphasized exits off the console room will mean that finally we’ll see more of the interior.
I thought it was a little too steampunk, and that glowing glass spire going up and down seemed more than a little phallic.
When thinking about the show again, I think Moffat did a great job in blending in darker, more adult elements into a family friendly show. The idea of an interdimensional escaped prisoner living in one’s house for years is genuinely creepy. The psychological effects of an encounter with the doctor in childhood bring a disturbing and more realistic element into the whole Doctor/companion relationship. Even though this was played for laughs when the townspeople reacted to Amy’s infamous imaginary friend coming to life, the final shot of the Doctor-centered relics of her childhood was a little sad. What would her life had been like if she hadn’t met him as Amelia?
Going forward, I thought both Smith and Gillen were very good in their roles, and I’m looking forward to their dynamic being explored more. I’m also hoping that the business with Amy’s wedding and Rory gets developed more. One of the aspects of the first two seasons I didn’t much care for was the selfishness and self-centeredness of Rose, especially when it came to the way she treated Mickey. While it’s true that Mickey was also a bit of a prick, Rory comes off immediately as a nice, devoted guy. If Amy ran off and left him at the altar, that makes her pretty unlikeable, even if she has waited fourteen years to have an adventure with the Doctor.
I thought it was clever the way hints were seeded for future stories here, as well. Not just the “the Pandorica will open” and “silence will fall” bits that telegraph the big themes, like Bad Wolf or Torchwood did in earlier seasons, but the implication that the Doctor didn’t go back for Amy just because he’s lonely, that there’s something more to her that he’s investigating, or the very subtle hint that something is up with Rory, if you happened not to blink during the close up on his ID badge. Those are all threads I’m looking forward to seeing the development of.
Honestly, the running off before the wedding aspect of the story was part of the episode that seemed a little too familiar to me, just because of the whole thing with Donna’s wedding before.
I get what you’re saying about Rose’s selfishness, but I don’t think I’m particularly worried about it with Amy yet. Partially because I’m finding Amy more appealing than Rose, and I’m really hoping that the Mary-Sueness of Rose’s storyline isn’t transplanted into the current season. Rose is the main reason why I haven’t watched all of the more recent seasons. I think that having Amelia be so profoundly affected by the Doctor in childhood gives grown-up Amy sufficient motivation to run away when she gets the chance to be with him. If it is Rory she’s ditching that wouldn’t be good, but how often is it that you get to adventure with the focus of your childhood fantasies? And Amy’s basically an orphan. She gets a pass from me on this one so far.
The other possible hint I notices was the “MYTH” brand laptop (with the “Y” being a Greek psi). Don’t know if it means anything. I think we shouldn’t assume that Rory is the guy who will be at the altar tomorrow; two years have passed, and she didn’t seem all that crazy about him then. Honestly, I go into each season trying not to have too many expectations and just letting the show bring me what it will.
I’m interested to see how Smith handles the more dramatic stuff. As with Tennant, his first appearance was designed to play up the Doctor’s humorous, fun, crazy, unpredictable and, most importantly, likable sides to win over the audience fast. But if this season is anything like previous ones, there are going to be moments of melancholy and intensity, and we haven’t seen how Smith does those yet.
I think Tennant, at least what his Doctor became in his last few appearances, probably would have played the moment where the Doctor tells the prison-guard aliens to “Basically, run” very differently, with more intensity compared to Smith’s grinny approach. In some ways, that feel is a bit of a sigh of relief after the last few Davies movies, which seemed to try very hard to be IMPORTANT and have pathos.
Still, I know by the season finale there’s going to be some big dramatic moment Smith’s going to have to play straight. I’m curious to see whether it works.