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.

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