Episode 1: The Eleventh Hour
The first episode of Matt Smith’s tenure as the Doctor, and of Steven Moffat’s as executive producer, sees the badly damaged TARDIS hurtling towards Earth with an unstable, just-regenerated Doctor fighting (rather unsuccessfully) to control it. And from this episode we get a very strong taste of what is to come.
Smith’s Doctor is more alien than Ecclestone’s or Tennant’s, positively eccentric in fact, as well as seemingly far younger – perhaps a subconscious attempt by the Time Lord to shed the guilt and angst of his predecessors? He is certainly more obviously funny in a way that immediately appealed to The Lad. The visual quality of the program has changed markedly, seeming sharper and with more refined special effects. The theme music has had a revamp, unfortunately loosing some “oomf” in the process, and a new “Doctor’s Theme” now adorns the score (I miss the old one, named “All the Strange, Strange Creatures”, but the new one – “I am the Doctor” – is catchy, so well done Mr Murray Gold). Themes of time travel and the complexities of plot that ensues are at the forefront, introduced gently as the Doctor visits Ms Amelia Pond both in her childhood and as a young woman. The confounding, head-spinning consequences of time travel are to be a feature of growing importance under Moffat, raising some difficulties in comprehension for 6-year-old kids, unfortunately.
As well as introducing the new Doctor, new companion, new TARDIS interior and even new music, this first episode of Series 5 also reveals the key plot of the new series’ story arc – the cracks in Amy’s wall – while ritually renewing its link to series gone by with a dramatic flashback treating us to glimpses of all ten of the Doctor’s previous incarnations plus a host of his enemies old and new.
Aside from that however, the story itself has little substance. The lovely Olivia Colman is somewhat wasted in her role, but Karen Gillan positively shines as Amy and Arthur Darvill is endearing as her beau, Rory Williams. The ominous uttering of Prisoner Zero – “Silence Will Fall” – sets the tone for not only this season, but indeed the next one as well. All in all, not a bad series opener, as they aren’t generally all that good anyway. Smith and Gillan show a great deal of promise, which is the main thing.
In the 29th Century, the Doctor and Amy arrive on the Starship UK, a colony spaceship containing the population of the United Kingdom who has left the planet to escape deadly solar flares (this was a central plot point of the classic serials The Ark in Space and The Sontaran Experiment). The Doctor, having discovered that the ship does not seem to be powered by normal engines, tells Amy to follow a little girl named Mandy while he explores the engine room. However it is Amy who inadvertently discovers the Starship’s terrible secret.
Not a bad episode, it introduces some nice features – Liz X (or 10, i.e. The Queen herself, who recognises the Doctor from her own ancestors’ encounters with him), the sinister Smilers, and an opportunity for friction between the Doctor and Amy which demonstrates her suitability for life on the TARDIS and properly establishes her relationship with the Doctor as well. That said, it isn’t really all that interesting, and Moffat himself called it “a bit of a mess”.
Amy accompanies the Doctor to the Cabinet War Rooms during the Blitz of WWII, in response to a call for help from Winston Churchill (apparently an old friend of the Doctor’s, naturally). The Doctor arrives late however, and in the mean time Churchill has enlisted the aid of brilliant scientist Professor Edwin Bracewell, who has invented “robot soldiers” called “Ironsides” to aid in the war effort.
Except that they aren’t robot soldiers at all. They are Daleks. The Doctor must try to understand their purpose in being in London and seemingly acting under human control, but in trying to do so he unwittingly aids his old enemies in their master plan – unleashing a “new Paradigm” of Daleks on the universe in the process.
There is much to like in this episode, but also much that does not work. Moffat felt the need to re-introduce the Daleks, and they work very well in the WWII setting. Writer Mark Gatiss was put in charge of their revitalisation; the New Paradigm Daleks are larger and more modern-looking, but their technicolour variety takes some getting used to. Ian McNeice as Churchill and Bill Paterson as Bracewell put in excellent performances, and the Spitfires in space are glorious. But it felt a bit rushed, and as a story it seemed to serve no other purpose than to undo the Dalek’s virtual destruction in The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End.
But that isn’t all that has been undone. You see, much to the Doctor’s confusion, Amy remembers nothing of the most recent Dalek invasion of Earth, and we will soon learn that this is because the cracks in time are erasing history bit by bit. But if the invasion is wiped from history, why do the Daleks specifically mention that they were survivors of the Crucible’s destruction in Journey’s End? What about all of the Doctor’s friends who participated in that storyline – have they forgotten it too? According to the Doctor in The Waters of Mars, the Dalek invasion was a formative event in the childhood of Adelaide Brooks, directly leading to one of those “fixed moments in time” – her death on Mars.
It smacks of Moffat erasing events that he doesn’t like, or which get in his way for some reason. What else has he chosen to “erase”? (Well, the invasion of Victorian London by Pete’s World Cybermen – in The Next Doctor – for one, though to a degree this was set up in advance). The convoluted consequences of erasing such events is also being treated in a cavalier fashion. Of course it is possible to explain how the cracks in time (and the climax of this arc at the end of the season) will address all of this, but it still leaves one wondering “why”, and what treasured moments are now deemed never to have happened?
I don’t approve. But, the Lad did like it. It has Daleks in bright colours, robots, space Spitfires…
The Doctor and Amy travel to a museum in the distant future and discover a message from Dr River Song – YAY!!! – engraved in Old High Gallifreyan, on a damaged flight recorder from the starship Byzantium 12,000 years in the relative past. The Doctor takes the TARDIS to rescue her before the ship crashes on the planet Alfava Metraxis. After the TARDIS lands on the planet, Amy learns that both the Doctor and River derive a unique relationship due to their both being time travelers: River has met the Doctor numerous times before in her timestream, while the Doctor still barely knows who she is, having met her only once before (an encounter she has not yet had, for it is the one in which she dies).
River warns the Doctor that the Byzantium’s cargo hold contains a Weeping Angel (see Blink), which can move only when unobserved by others. She calls down the orbiting Father Octavian and his militarised “clerics” to help her capture the Angel before the radiation leaked from the ship makes it too powerful, and to protect a large human colony on the planet.
What follows is a claustrophobic adventure taking place in ruined mazes, the interior of the crashed spacecraft and its hydroponic onboard forest. In the process we learn a great deal more about the Angels, about River, and about the cracks in time – which for the first time play a major role in this two-parter’s story development. It really is great to see Alex Kingston as River again – outstanding fun, overshadowed by the knowledge of what lies in her future, tweaked by lashings of mystery concerning her true identity. A very good pair of episodes, which the Lad thoroughly enjoyed (once I’d tried to explain how River fits into it all).
At last, we revisit Rory Williams, Amy’s fiancé. The Doctor gatecrashes Rory’s stag party and invites the two of them on a romantic trip courtesy of the TARDIS. They land in Venice in 1580 and soon find trouble. The city’s patron, Signora Rosanna Calvierri, claims that the Plague runs rampant outside of Venice. The Doctor knows this is untrue, and believes she is using the plague as an excuse to seal off the city. While investigating they encounter Guido, a boat-builder whose daughter Isabella hasn’t contacted him since enrolling in Signora Calvierri’s school for girls.
As events unfold it turns out that Calvierri and her son are not human. They are vampires. But not just vampires, but disguised fish-alien vampires (hiding on earth having fled “the Silence”). Whoo-hoo! Helen McCrory puts in an excellent performance as matriarch Signora Calvierri, oozing superiority and disdain. The special effects are quite good too. But the Doctor Who universe has its share of creatures which seem to be vampires, including the real thing (the Great Vampires and their converted acolytes), so introducing another seems superfluous – though the explanations given for their vampiric nature are clever, such as why they don’t have reflections and why we can see their fangs. In fact, yet another group of aliens disguised as humans? it is getting pretty old.
But this is a very sound episode with a strong comic streak helped along masterfully by Arthur Darvill’s performance as Rory. And with vampires and fish monsters, the Lad really liked this one. In fact I think the character of Rory made a particular connection with the Lad, he seems to be quite a fan.
The Doctor, Amy and Rory are in a trap set by the mysterious “Dream Lord” (Toby Jones), wherein they repeatedly fall asleep and wake up in a different reality. In one, Amy and Rory are happily married but pursued by elderly people possessed by murderous aliens, while in another they are on board the TARDIS, in danger of being frozen to death by a nearby “cold star”. They must decide which is the real reality and die in the phony one, to wake up in reality and escape the trap.