Thursday, April 22, 2010

Do NOT Mess With the Sciatic Nerve

Sorry for no new updates. Had a run-in with a box last week which did quite a bit of varied damage from some severe bruising to, according to my doctor, injuring and inflaming the Sciatic nerve in my back.


Seriously.... Ouch.

One of the side effects of this is that sitting and standing in various ways tends to put pressure on the nerve which then causes me trouble and one thing that seems to irritate it is chairs in general. I've spent the better part of the week sitting cross legged on a pillow on the floor of my apartment because it and lying down seem to cause the least amount of stress on the nerve bundle. As a result, I've NOT been able to sit at my computer.

The good news is that things ARE improving. Slowly. Sllllooooowwwwllllyyy. Hopefully I will be back up and posting again soon. I'm working on a review of "Doctor Who: Victory of the Daleks" and there will be a new episode airing this weekend and I hope to get that reviewed in short order so I don't fall behind.

In the meantime... take care of your nerves because they take a heck of a long time to sort out when you screw them up.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Everything You Never Really Wanted to Know About "Doctor Who" (so you didn't ask)

Doctor Who?

I, like a lot of people, had my first exposure to Doctor Who through my local PBS station back in the 1980's. Well, that isn't quite true -- I discovered a couple of years ago that my first exposure was actually through a local TV station near my uncle's place back in the early 1980's.

We used to spend a week or so with him every summer and one day we were 'rained out'. He lived near a lake and most days we spent most of the day either swimming in the lake or going out on his boat. One day a serious of thunderstorms rolled through keeping us penned up for the day. I had the TV on in the background -- waiting for the afternoon cartoons to come on. As there was nothing else on I stumbled onto this strange science fiction program. There was a man dressed in funny clothes and an elegant lady dressed in white and a robot dog and some kind of strange, crystal... It would not be until a few years ago that I learned what I had actually been watching was the last half of "The Armageddon Factor". I was intruged by the show but could not figure out what was going on (mostly because I had missed the first five epsiodes of "The Armageddon Factor").

But all that is neither here nor there. Where I first got a sense of what Doctor Who WAS was via PBS when I was a bit older. Unfortunately, my PBS station, like a lot of them, liked to show the entire stories run together late at night on a Saturday. When I was younger I wasn't allowed to stay up very late even on a Saturday, so it was seldom I got to see a whole story.

And then, as an adult, I found it again. Even more to the point, thanks to DVD popularity and illegal uploads on YouTube, I was able to see some of the show from the very beginning -- and I found it in many ways ahead of it's time. And this is all down to the unique vision and sometimes even courage of Verity Lambert and Sydney Newman...

In 1963, the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) was looking for a "children's drama" to run during the afternoon 'tea time' slot. Then Head of Drama at the BBC, Sydney Newman proposed the initial idea for the show along with writer C.E. Webber and Head of Scripts Donald Wilson -- That a teenager and her two teachers would run across a mad old man and discover that he was named "Doctor Who" and was in possession of an invisible time machine.

By the time it reached production it had changed considerably and the producer hired to oversee the show -- Verity Lambert -- would change it further. Lambert was, at the time, the youngest producer at the BBC and one of the few women in the producer's chair. Between Lambert, Newman and some of the first script writers, the series began with a familiar format...

The teenage girl in the original idea was transformed into the Doctor's granddaughter, Susan. The two teachers remained but the "mad old man" called Doctor Who was changed into the irrascible character known only as "The Doctor". The 'invisible time machine' was changed to something that could travel through time and SPACE and was also given a visible format. Lambert wanted something that the actors could be filmed walking into and then wanted an exterior that would be something "ordinary" in order to contrast with the extraordinary interior. In 1963 the British Police Call Boxes could still be seen on many street corners -- these were bright blue painted sheds with a telephone where police officers in need of backup or public in need of police help could call in. There was also a small space inside where an officer could leave a criminal cuffed until a patrol car could come and take them to a precinct for formal charges and booking. The script had called for the exterior of the ship to change every time they landed in a new location to disguise itself among the local scenery but this had to be jettisoned early on when it became apparent that the budget would not cover the creation of a whole new exterior piece for each story.

The show was meant to be "educational" -- teaching children something about history or science in each story. And it should be mentioned that at this time the BBC traded mostly in what was called "Serials". Just like the old, American movie serials, each Doctor Who story consisted of several half-hour installments. Each story could as few a two parts or as large as twelve parts (although it should be said that this only happened once). The bulk of the stories, though, had either four or six parts to them.

The stories initially round-robined with one story traveling back in time for a history lesson and the next story traveling into the future for a science lesson. From the start, though, Newman made it clear to Lambert that he did not want the futuristic stories to have weird, alien creatures in them. He feared that this would lead to the show being seen as a joke and he referred to aliens, rather derogitorily, as "Bug Eyed Monsters".

With the show basically outlined, all that was left was the casting. Lambert picked character actor William Hartnell for the initally cantankerous Doctor. Hartnell was only 55 at the time but saw the program as a way of breaking out of his usual roles of military sargeants, policemen, and thugs. Unfortunately, he was already suffering from arterialsclerosis and this left him with, at times, a faulty memory.

Carole Ann Ford, 23 at the time, was cast as the Doctor's granddaughter, Susan. Ford was initially intrigued by the role -- particularly when she was told that Susan would be "mysterious" and would also be allowed to have weird, mental powers such as telepathy. To her dismay, she found that none of this materialized and her role increasinly became to scream and play damsel in distress (DiD for short around this blog)and she left after only a season and a half.

William Russell, 39 then, was signed on to play science teacher Ian Chesterton. Russell had recently been seen on British TV playing Sir Lancelot in a TV show by the same name. Realizing that the show would need at least a little action, and that Hartnell would not be up for physical fight scenes, Russell's Ian Chesterton was to serve as 'ordinary person' to be a stand-in for the audience, to be a relatable figure to children (after all, what kid doesn't have a science teacher of some stripe?), to be a plot device so the Doctor could explain things, and of course to be the action hero. Russell would leave the role after two years feeling as if he was growing stale.

Jacqueline Hill, 34, moved in similar social circles as Verity Lambert and, after discussing the new program with Lambert at a party, Hill was asked to audition. An accomplished stage actress, HIll agreed to take on the role of History teacher Barbara Wright. The character would, like with that of Chesterton, be one of the show's 'relatable' characters and exposition devices. She choose to leave at the same time as William Russell and took a break from acting in order to start and raise a family.

Once the cast was in place it was on with the show!

Initially, it was decided to keep the Doctor mostly mysterious. Although now everyone knows him to be alien, at the time that was not made clear. It was never asserted whether he and Susan were alien or human from a distant time period. In the first stories, though, he is a rather angry and even threatening character. He literally kidnaps Ian and Barbara in order to stop them from telling anyone of his ship -- the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space -- meaning it's bigger on the inside than it is on the outside) and continues to denegrate their intelligence, insult them, and then attempts to kill a caveman in order to effect their escape. Fearing that their main character could end up scaring kids instead of entertaining them, Lambert ordered the third serial in the series to begin softening the Doctor's character. From there he would become the more well-known figure of the dottering, eccentric, whimsical but also crusading old man.

The other big change actually came in the show's second story. Lambert knew Newman's wishes about 'no bug-eyed monsters' but she felt very strongly about Terry Nation's script for the second story in the series. Nation, as many writers before and after him, used science fiction to deal with the issue of war in general and teach a bit of a moral lesson and allegory about WW II to a generation of kids who had never been touched by the fight. Thus, the Daleks were born. Thinly veiled stand-ins for the Nazi's, the Daleks were creatures hiding inside battle exoskeletons.

Despite the "bug eyed monster" element Lambert gave the go-ahead for the story, willing to take the heat from Newman... and he did call her on the carpet intially. When the ratings numbers for the story came in, though, Newman wrote Lambert an apologetic letter saying: "Do what you think best because obviously I don't know what I'm talking about." The Daleks were a hit and they would remain a hit up to the present day. There has not been a single incarnation of the Doctor who has not had at least one Dalek story (save the Eighth Doctor... sort of. More on that later).

Once the Daleks were out of the way the floodgates were opened to new and wild alien allies and enemies. Along the way, the purported science and history content -- always thin to begin with -- fell by the wayside but the show continued to deliver moral lessons both obvious and unobvious and put its characters into some suprisingly adult situations. In one story, Barbara, being chased by a local warlord, finds shelter with a poor merchant most of whose family had been slaughtered by said warlord's men. Living only for revenge and his last surviving daughter at one point the man puts Barbara and his daughter into hiding and gives Barbara a knife and asks her to kill his daughter if they are found by the warlord's men -- rather than have her suffer indignities at their hands. In another story Barbara is nearly raped by a fur trapper.

Over time, as well, the historical stories would become fewer and fewer in favor of more sci-fi stories. The sci-fi stories were found to garner better ratings. The historicals would not die out completely until after Hartnell left the role but they added in what would come to be called the "psuedo historical" -- a story set in an historical time period but with sci-fi elements.

The show also proved it's flexibility when Carole Ann Ford left. The writers worried if the show could survive the loss of one of the original cast members but they wrote in a replacement and soon breathed a sigh of relief as they saw the audience accept Vicki as a replacement for Susan. This would effectively set precedent for the regular changing of companions. Vicki (played by Maureen O'Brien) replaced Carole Ann Ford, Steven Taylor (played by Peter Purves) replaced Ian and Barbara, Dorthea "Dodo" Chaplet (played by Jackie Lane) replaced Vicki (sort of. Not getting into it, it's Trivial Pursuit stuff), When Purves left the show Lane was rather uncermoniously forced out behind him as the production team at that time didn't think her character was working out. Starting with a clean slate, the production team added Ben Jackson (played by Michael Craze) and Polly (played by Anneke Wills).

So the series proved it could withstand multiple changes of the guard... but could it withstand the ultimate change -- that of the Doctor himself? By 1966 Hartnell's health was deteriorating. He was often ill and his scenes had to be filmed around these illnesses and his memory problems were growing worse -- with him more often flubbing lines or forgetting chunks of dialogue. On top of all of that, Lambert and her production team had left the series by this time and the new production team and Hartnell did not get along well. It was agreed upon that Hartnell would leave the series. But Doctor Who was still going strong, still popular with the audience. Cancelling the show was out of the question but how did you replace the lead actor? And more to the point, who did you replace him with?......

To be answered in our next installment!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

More New "Doctor Who": The Beast Below

Last week we saw the debut of a new season and a new Doctor but this week was really the critical one for Doctor Who fans. It's one of those things that make the show unique and it's some of the stuff I talked about in my last review; that in a lot of ways, the first story with a new Doctor is often geared towards transitioning from the last incarnation to this one. Often this involves the changing of the entire supporting cast and/or setting for the series. Often it also involves the more subtle but recognizable shift in tone of the writing as well.

The point is that the first story is all about change and, as a result, viewers don't fully get a chance to see how the new actor and the new take on the Doctor is going to work on a weekly basis. They also often don't get a full sense of what kind of character the new Doctor is going to be. All of that is where the second episode comes in. The first story in the series can make or break a new Doctor because it is the introduction but the second episode can do so as well because it is the barometer for how things are going to progress from this point forward.

Happily, script editor, writer and show runner Steven Moffat proves that the 'second verse' is as good as the first and viewers get their first good, clear look at where things are headed... and it is a very good place indeed.

The Plot:
In her first outing in the TARDIS the Doctor takes Amy over a thousand years into the future where they stumble across the 'Starship U.K.'. At a point when solar flares threatened to roast the Earth each one of the countries built a space-going platform with basically their entire country on it then took to the stars until it would be safe to return to Earth and this is the United Kingdom (except for Scotland since it seems they built their own ship)

But Starship U.K. hides a secret. A secret so terrible that the government is willing to go to any lengths to hide it. The Doctor and Amy set out to uncover the truth but it may be too horrible for even them to face.

My Take:
Steven Moffat has said in interviews and elsewhere that he thinks of Doctor Who as primarily a 'kids' program' that adults can enjoy along the way. In other words, he sees it like "All Ages" comic books -- those comic books which are supposed to be able to appeal to both adults and children.

Sadly, All Ages stuff rarely ever actually IS. Most of the time All Ages becomes something 'kiddified' -- broken down to the simplest, lowest common denominator; something that panders instead of giving young people credit for having a certain amount of brains and sophistication. On those rare occasions when All Ages is done right it tends to fly beautifully, be remembered for years, and be hailed by critics. Take a took at animated series' like Tiny Toon Adventures or Animaniacs -- shows which are still remembered fondly today and appealed not only to their target demographic of kids but to the adults as well. I can remember being a college student and rarely missing an episode of Animaniacs. My friends and I all talked about it and laughed over the jokes and this was because the show didn't talk down to kids and threw in jokes that kids could get on one level but which older people would understand on a whole different level. And THIS is what Moffat understands and has crafted with this second episode.

The aim at children is apparent from the start of the story as we see children going home after a day at school. It is a strange but also dreary school -- something a lot of kids probably feel like their school is -- and one where a bad grade results in some dire consequences indeed. Again, this is a child's nightmare come to life -- the real-world fear that a bad grade will result in punishment turns into Moffat's dark fantasy fear that a bad grade results in something frightening. This is something that kids will get immediately but at the same time adults will smile and remember their own childhood fears and be transported back. The opening also is a bit surprising since it is the first time I can remember (even going all the way back to the classic series) in which the story opened with a child being put in danger. The show has had children in danger before but this is the only time I can think of in which it OPENED with a rather shocking scene of horror towards a child.

Of course, then the Doctor and his new companion, Amy arrive on the scene. We see a lot more of this Doctor's personailty as he fibs to Amy about his nature ("Observation only. I never get involved..." Yeah, tell us another one Doctor), acts nicely alien -- a little bit weird but with that undercurrent that he's the smartest guy in the room, and with just a dash of sprightliness thrown in as he leaps over the back of a park bench (can one still call it a park bench when it's technically not in a park? Just wondering here) and it's all just right. Just enough oddness for the Doctor to seems alien, to seem 'not one of us' but done in such a way as to have real charm and delight.

Prior to the season starting Moffat had said that the new Doctor would be more "professorish" and it is here that we get the first look at that. The Doctor begins almost immediately by teaching Amy -- trying to get her to see the world a bit more the way he does, challenging her to look at her surroundings critically, to think about what they can tell her, to open her mind and her eyes and see everything and consider what it can tell her. It is a nice touch and one done without bashing the viewer over the head with the fact. It also provides a sly little lesson in there for both younger and older viewers in that they, like Amy, should always keep their eyes and their minds open.

Moffat also makes a nice change-up to the format here as well. In the past, stories have usually had to come up with ways and reasons to separate the Doctor from his companion. Companions wander off or lag behind or get captured, etc. in various and sometimes horribly, obviously, plot contrived ways all to set up some narrative tension. Here, Moffat decides to quite frankly have the Doctor push Amy out on her own. He sends her off on a mission... no, in point of fact, he FORCES her off on a mission. When Amy seems reluctant to separate from him the Doctor basically threatens to take her right back to the small town of Leadworth if she doesn't do this. It lends some credence to my theory that the Doctor has an ulterior motive with Amy -- there is something he wants her to become and this is the first step in her transformation. At the same time it hints at the harder edge behind the Doctor which will come out later in the story.

There is also some nice political and social satire rather obviously hidden in the story as people routinely "vote to forget" something which is appalling to them. A truth which they do not want to face and so they don't -- a trait that is common throughout humanity. Of course it is then that Amy really shines and we get another 'lesson'. Once Amy faces up to the truth and keeps her eyes open and thinks critically she comes up with a solution to the problem -- she forges a new path rather than taking one of the forks seemingly open to her. The lesson that lies and willful blindness will never solve problems but having the courage to face the truth can lead to change. But at no point in time does Moffat explicitly sledgehammer viewers with this message and as such it comes off so much better.

Moffat also uses this episode to reiterate some of the points from the previous, Russell T. Davies era but the difference in approach can be seen almost immediately. The Doctor's insight into the psyches of children and parents leads Amy to ask him if he was a parent. Rather than an angsty moment, Smith's Doctor merely says nothing and that nothing speaks volumes. Likewise, when the inevitable moment comes where the Doctor must confess to being the last of the Time Lords viewers are not treated to a wealth of sad music and a Doctor trying to be stoic but with an attitude of a wibbly lower lip and a hint of tears. Instead we get a statement where it is obvious there is still pain there but the Doctor brushes it all aside quickly and cleanly. By underemphasizing things Moffat brings the situation home that much harder. Moffat also uses Amy's insight to help paint the Doctor as well; the audience sees the Doctor through Amy's eyes and through that in turn the viewers get a different look at the Doctor. Instead of being TOLD all the time about his compassion and kindness we literally SEE it through Amy. It is a very sweet moment in the best possible way.

And of course there is Amy. She is clever, compassionate and spunky herself. Taking on the Doctor in certain ways and also taking in his lessons and learning from them pretty much right away. Her misstep leads to an eventualy triumph and, as all companions must do pretty early in their tenure, she proves she has a right to travel with the Doctor.

She also becomes a kind of metaphor for younger viewers and a touchstone for the older ones. Like Wendy Darling in J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan Amy sees herself on the cusp of "growing up". Here the signal of her irrevocably entering adulthood is marriage but many older viewers probably had their own right of passage -- going away to college for the first time, moving away from home to get a job, getting their first apartment and paying their own bills, or perhaps buying their first house... there are many things which can mark that moment when we first consider ourselves to be 'adults'. The thing most of us adults realize as we get older is that most of us never grow up. There was a video that made the rounds in the winter in which a group of British police officers ran into some people sledding down a public hill after a snowfall. Rather than bust the sledders one of the officers took a plastic riot shield out of the back of their van, sat on it, and his fellow officers gave him a push down the hill and gleefully watched him nearly land in a ditch. At unexpected moments our inner children will always come out to play. But Amy doesn't know that yet... or perhaps she fears becoming one of those people who DO manage to destroy their inner child. Either way, this story sets up the idea of Amy's struggle. Her fears of entering 'adulthood', her fears of getting married, her uncertainty that this marriage is really what she wants -- that is a part of her and probably reflects similar questions in the younger viewers as they think about their futures and wonder what it will be like to grow up. For the older viewers, we can watch Amy's struggle and think back to our own aches and fears and tentative steps as we tried to figure out what it meant to be an 'adult'.

Of course, the episode is not without some shortcomings. Moffat packed so much in here that there really wasn't room for a lot of things. The sinister, smiling figures in the booths which resemble those mechanical fortune teller machines are never fully explained. Their nature and the fullness of their purpose are never spelled out. Certainly much can be inferred but it is a little disappointing to have to guess at certain things.

Also, Sophie Okonedo is an Oscar callibre actress and she does an overall excellent job here but the forced, lower class accent she adopts as Liz X seems very forced and on top of all that it understandably slips from time to time. This is NOT a knock on Okonedo, merely that Moffat probably should have just let her play the role straight rather than going for an added omph of a fake accent. It pushes the character over the top into something bordering on a parody.

Ovarall, though, the complaints are minor for a story that, overall, feels just what Moffat wanted it to feel like... magical. It is a story that will resonate with children (particularly because another one of the supporting characters here is a child) and remind adults of the children the used to be... and still are in those little corners of their hearts and heads.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

"Hello. I'm the Doctor."

This weekend actor Matt Smith debuted the latest incarnation of that perennial time traveling troublemaker known as the Doctor. That is, it debuted if you live in Great Britian. The episode won't debut on BBC America until April 17th. Yes, I've seen the episode... Guess how.

At any rate, I, like a lot of people, was skeptical when 27 year-old Smith was named to the role. He seemed far too young to take on the part which can be surprisingly challenging for a show usually considered a "family show". By the time I was done watching "The Eleventh Hour" I was grinning from ear to ear. It's possible yet that Smith may stumble, that his version of the Doctor could die aborning but for now... I actually like what I've seen.

But what about the episode itself? Ah, well... as always, spoilers will abound in the following. If you don't want to know then back out now and come back later. In the meantime... "The Eleventh Hour".....

The Plot:
When last we left the Doctor he had been dying of radiation poisoning and so had been forced to regenerate. This time, the energy thrown off by his regeneration had damaged the TARDIS, causing it to eventually crash land somewhen in the small town of Leadworth, England. Most specifically, he crashed in the backyard of little Ameila Pond.

To Amelia, an orphan living with her aunt, this was the literal answer to her prayers as it seems there was a crack in the wall of her room which was not an ordinary crack at all. The fact that she does not turn a hair at this very strange man who dines on a meal of fish sticks dipped in custard (yuck!) quietly impresses the Doctor and he investigates her problem and finds that the crack is in fact a crack in reality. On the other side is a prison and a certain 'Prisoner Zero' has escaped. The Doctor obligingly seals the crack but where is Prisoner Zero? Before the Doctor can investigate further there is a problem in the TARDIS and only by taking it for a short hop into the future can he put it right but he promises to be back in five minutes....

Unfortunately for the Doctor 12 years pass and his return sparks off a series of events... Prisoner Zero is on the loose, able to assume a number of different forms -- looking like any one of several people, those who were guarding Prisoner Zero have located the planet and now threaten to destroy it if Prisoner Zero doesn't surrender, and little Amelia has grown into Amy -- disillusioned when the 'magical friend' of her childhood never returned.

The Doctor has a planet to save, a criminal to catch and, most importantly, a young woman's spirit to put right. That's a tall order even for him and it's his first day in a new body!

Doctor Who has existed since 1963. Wrap your head around that. 47 years, eleven actors in the title role.

The show had gone off TV back in 1989 and was fairly dormant until producer Russell T. Davies revived it in 2005. The new series had a new look, a new attitude and a new actor as the Doctor. Between 2005 and 2010 Davies remained as the new executive producer and general "show runner" for the series and during the bulk of those years the Doctor was played by actor David Tennant -- who quickly became a fan favorite.

Davies, however, decided to step down and Tennant chose to leave at the same time, handing the reins over to new show runner Steven Moffat and new actor Matt Smith. For quite some time now everyone has been wondering what the results will be... and now the questions can be answered...

Moffat chose the daunting task of writing this first episode himself and he knocks it out of the park. The episode fires on nearly all cylinders and it does so because it never forgets that the best moments in Doctor Who are the moments about heart not the moments about freaky aliens (although those are important too).

From the first, though, Moffat does an excellent job of both giving little callbacks to the past (and sometimes even the distant past of 47 years ago) and yet not alienating and even welcoming new viewers. The story picks up roughly where the episode "Journey's End" left off but if you didn't watch "Journey's End" there's nothing here to really necessarily confuse you either. The TARDIS is crashing and once it lands the Doctor is off and running... he makes no mention of his previous companions, he makes no mention of the situation which caused him to regenerate; all of that is in the past now and what matters for him is the future.

Moffat's script swings from slapstick-style physical comedy, to sweetness, to witty, laugh-out-loud lines effortlessly. The scenes in which the Doctor meets little Amelia are heartbreakingly sweet and the two actors have an instant chemistry. Smith manages to convey an attitude of the Doctor as a 'universal, eccentric uncle' who genuinely cares about Amelia. At the same time, there is an undercurrent of arrogance (and later a self-confidence that borders on the kind of hubris which usually leads to a fall) which is tempered with some very funny lines. Take, for example, the sequence in which the Doctor demands various foods from Amelia but then, when given them, declares that he doesn't like them; eventually stating "You're Scottish, fry something."

This humor is something that is very noticeable with this story. It isn't that the show under Davies was without humor -- far from it -- but the humor Davies tended to put in was usually broader, more slapstick, more physical -- a bit like the kind of humor of Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello. Nothing wrong with that (I happen to like Abbott and Costello) but more of the humor here relies on witty lines of dialogue delivered with just the right comic timing. Like the following exchange between the Doctor and Amelia after the Doctor realizes that the crack in Amelia's wall is something rather serious...

Doctor: "You know when grown-ups tell you everything is going to be fine and you think they're probably lying to make you feel better?"

Amelia: "Yes."

Doctor: "Everything is going to be fine."

The aliens become more the grelbin that provides some of the flash and impetus for action but the heart of this story is actually in the relationship between Amelia/Amy and the Doctor. When the Doctor finally settles the TARDIS he tries to come back for Amelia and he is also extremely concerned for Amelia's safety. At one point he begs Amy, whom he thinks is a policewoman, to tell him what happened to Amelia. He is desperate to know, desperate to find out if the spunky little girl he met is okay.

Of course, spunky little Amelia has grown up into spunky Amy but whereas Amelia could still look at the world through the wondering eyes of a child, Amy has, like we all must do at some point in our lives, "grown up" and come to see the world through more cynical, practical eyes. There is no such thing as magic, there is no such thing as Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, and our world is often plain, boring, and ordinary at best rather than full of wonder. Amy calls herself a "grown up" but viewers are allowed to get the idea that it is a role she has not quite cemented herself into yet and so she is also playing at being a grown-up -- oftentimes acting the way she thinks grown-ups should and giving the kinds of answers she thinks grown-ups will.

The Doctor unwittingly damaged Amy when he did not come back for her, when he screwed up his time periods and now he wants the chance to "fix" her. In point of fact, at one point when she says "I grew up" he responds "Don't worry, I'll soon fix that". This is the heart of the story and it is such an achingly sweet heart at that. Smith and actress Karen Gillian, playing Amy Pond, play wonderfully together and put across the emotions here with just the right touch -- putting a little extra omph into the scenes that call for it but mostly playing it all with a light touch.

Of course, all of this isn't to say that the aliens are not quite fun. The moment when a large eyeball appears in the crack in Amelia's wall is startling and creepy. Of course you are expecting to see some kind of alien but to see something as ordinary as an eye only writ large and seemingly detatched from anything else it transforms what is ordinary into alien. Likewise, Moffat takes the simple phrase "The corner of your eye" and infuses it with sinister overtones and a weighted feeling of dread.

Prisoner Zero... has his moments. At times rather laughably obviously CGI... of the type one used to see in the overblown Hercules syndicated TV series of the 1990's... and at times something truly threatening. At one point the single creature masquerades as a woman with two little girls in pretty dresses and automatically my mind flashed to the creepy twin girls in Stanely Kubrick's The Shining. In something of a reverse, the alien creatures who were the guards of Patient Zero -- the Atraxi -- begin as odd eyeballs, leading one to wonder what the rest of them might look like... only to discover they are nothing more than the eyeballs and when placed within crystalline structure spaceships they look silly rather than threatening or odd.

Moffat also cannily decided to structure the story so as to emphaize the Doctor's intelligence, wit, and quick thinking. Throughout the series' history there have always been certain gadgets the Doctor could and would use to get himself out of jams. At times these things became crutches to the writers -- deus ex machinas which were relied upon when the writers wrote themselves into a corner rather than working to come up with clever ways to write themselves out. These gadgets consisted mostly of the TARDIS (the Doctor's time machine) itself and the Sonic Screwdriver which, when it was introduced in 1966 only screwed or unscrewed things but which could eventually be an acetylene torch, a scanning device, a sonic weapon, and able to mysteriously just "fix" broken machinery.

With this story Moffat robs the Doctor temporarily of his TARDIS, destroys his sonic screwdriver and depicts the Doctor as, at times, still weak and frazzled from his regeneration. The Doctor is at his most vulnerable here which helps to amp up the tension in the story. We don't have a Doctor with all his usual tricks and at his full strength so will this handicapped version be able to save the world? Also, by subtly robbing the Doctor of each facility slowly, through the course of the story, Moffat ends up thereby emphasizing the Doctor's creativity, smarts, and ability to think on his feet... he becomes the Doctor version of MacGyver and all the while without bashing the audience over the head with the fact.

Another subtle little thing Moffat did is buried in the title of the story. "The Eleventh Hour" is usally a phrase which is used to describe something which is done at the last minute or something that is saved from disaster at the last minute. The obvious meaning is that this is "The Eleventh Hour" in that this is the Eleventh Doctor's debut -- his 'hour to shine' -- but also, if you look at the clocks in the story, the Doctor saves the Earth from the Atraxi between 11:00 AM and 12:00 PM -- hence, it is also literally the eleventh hour of the day. There is also another meaning in that, in the end, the Doctor takes things right up to the wire and he manages to save the Earth at the last minute -- an 'eleventh hour' save. It's a clever little triple meaning(And it wouldn't be a modern Doctor Who story if we didn't have hints dropped of a looming threat sure to materialize at the end of the season and even more hints that both the Doctor and Amy are keeping secrets and lying to one another).

Perhaps the best moment comes close to the end. As the Atraxi project images of many of the alien beings which have threatened Earth (a few going back to the earlier days of the show) followed by images of each one of the Doctors, Smith makes his fully, dressed, fully quaffed, fully settled appearance as the Doctor -- walking right through the image of the Tenth Doctor, causing it to break up around him and announces "Hello. I'm the Doctor." At that moment Smith literally and metaphorically takes his place at the head of the line -- declaring himself as the latest model. It isn't a dismissal of what has gone before but instead a confirmation and acknowledgement of the past while at the same time moving boldly into the future. And Smith does such a good job there, as he has throughout the story, that you simply forget how young he really is. He does manage to convey an idea of someone odd, alien, and also timeless... he is no particular age he simply... is.

In the end this is what makes Doctor Who unique. Every few years the show largely reinvents itself... new producers, new actors, new writers, new characters, new stories, new adventures. The Doctor's face may change, his personality may shift slightly -- sometimes being more arrogant, sometimes being the seeming buffoon, sometimes being suave and witty, but always an explorer, always an adventurer, and always someone who fights for what is right and keeps a good and faithful heart.

Looks like Steven Moffat, Matt Smith, Karen Gillian and the rest of the cast and writers are off to a fine start.