Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor: The Eleventh Hour

doctor who eleventh hour review matt smith karen gillan apple lens flare adam smith steven moffat

To hell with the raggedy. Time to put on a show!

By all rights, this should not have worked.

Which is easy to forget! Over a decade on, The Eleventh Hour is one of five (or seven, if you like) debut episodes for a new Doctor, and – more importantly – one of three inaugural episodes marking the transition to a new creative team behind the scenes. Hindsight obscures, in this case, making The Eleventh Hour look like something resembling routine, just Doctor Who doing what Doctor Who always did. It almost is, but not exactly, and it certainly wasn’t in 2009, and not with a reinvention quite so stark as this. The most obvious antecedent, The Christmas Invasion, hardly compares at all – recasting Christopher Eccleston aside, there’s a real (deliberately and consciously created, but real) sense of consistency to that episode. Part of that is because The Christmas Invasion was ‘only’ replacing the co-lead, where The Eleventh Hour had to reintroduce the programme’s main character – you could make the case, actually, that The Eleventh Hour has more in common with Smith and Jones than with The Christmas Invasion, but even then the scale doesn’t quite compare.

What makes it more unusual is the fact that more-or-less the entire behind the scenes creative team has changed. Which, again, feels almost routine in 2021 – three years into the Chris Chibnall era, over five year since Steven Moffat announced his departure, and about nine years since people started demanding he leave – but, at the time, was huge. For the most part, that just doesn’t happen: if the three executive producers and the star are leaving the show, the expectation is not that the show carries on without them. Yes, Doctor Who had form for that with the classic series, but the new series existed in a different context – the 2005 revival was largely (if admittedly not entirely) driven by a desire to do Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who specifically, rather than an appetite for Doctor Who generally. The show was hugely popular, sure, but it had also seemed to reach a natural endpoint – it’s not a massive surprise that there were conversations at the BBC about just ending the show, or that there was an expectation it might’ve failed. It could’ve! If it’d been anything less than perfect, it would’ve been abandoned in droves.

You can feel the panic onscreen, sometimes: The Eleventh Hour is fraught in a way Doctor Who hasn’t been since Rose. Most of the time, though, you don’t notice it – because the episode more or less almost just about is, in fact, perfect.

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So, at a point when the need to impress people has never been greater, that’s exactly what The Eleventh Hour does. It’s a sixty-minute showcase, an exercise in swagger and panache, demonstrating not only the confidence to insist on your attention but also the skill to back it up too. (To pick two examples of several: Murray Gold offers some career-best compositions, and Adam Smith’s direction raises the bar visually for the entire series going forward.) You can see how that grows from Moffat’s comedy background, actually, with so much of the episode almost acting like a sleight of hand – writing one of his most difficult scripts, he’s fallen back on something he’s familiar with, writing The Eleventh Hour essentially as a farce about a man whose day keeps going wrong. It’s a huge part of how – and why – The Eleventh Hour works, with those huge strides it takes to reinvent the programme, all the different plates that are spinning throughout, grounded in something that Moffat can do in his sleep.

It gives the episode space to take more risks in turn. Again, there’s an undeniable panache: not in choosing to build the episode around Matt Smith (they were always going to have to; the approach taken by The Christmas Invasion or Deep Breath wasn’t available here, for obvious reasons) but in building the episode around the default assumption that everyone will like Matt Smith as the Doctor. Or, no, actually – that they’ll love Matt Smith as the Doctor. It all relies from his charms, from his quirks, from his skill as an actor, from his chemistry not only with Karen Gillan (more on whom in the coming weeks, but she’s brilliant), but also Caitlin Blackwood. (It’s easy to forget what a remarkable stroke of luck it was that Gillan not only had a cousin who was the right age for the part, but also one that could actually act, and act well. So much of this episode – and the next three years, really – is reliant on how good Caitlin Blackwood is as the young Amy, to the point that it’s difficult to imagine the Moffat era without her.)

And it works, of course, because he genuinely is that good. One of the more common criticisms Smith receives is that he plays the part too similarly to Tennant – which is a superficial read of them both, obviously. You can see Smith redefining the part as the episode goes along, building an entirely new take on the part by the time it finishes – there’s individual line reads Tennant might’ve done similarly, sure, but not many. One that stands out in particular is his reaction to Prisoner Zero’s taunts: you can imagine Tennant playing “no, she’s dreaming about me because she can hear me” much more defiantly, the big moment of triumph. Smith is quieter, faster, there’s a note of insecurity – he’s not dismissing the taunt, he’s denying it, and suddenly the character feels so much bigger on the inside.

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What’s really striking, though, is how much of the next seven years is already there on screen – not all of it, not yet fully formed, but the shape of it is there.

One of the key themes of the Moffat era is this idea that the Doctor isn’t a person, the Doctor is an idea, somewhere between a character to perform and an ideal to aspire to. You can pick up on it a lot during Capaldi’s tenure (particularly in, say, The Witch’s Familiar or Hell Bent, but most obviously in Extremis, which finally makes it explicit) but it’s right here too. The Eleventh Hour pares back the iconography of the Davies era – no sonic screwdriver, no TARDIS, Matt Smith spends most of the episode wearing a version of David Tennant’s costume – but that’s not just about reinventing the programme, it’s more than “this is recognisably the show you love, just not how you expect”. It’s about deconstructing the character to demonstrate how much of it is just posturing – that’s why the big hero moment, the confrontation with the Atraxi, the moment where the character finally becomes the Doctor, is explicitly about “putting on a show”.

And that’s all over the episode – look at Prisoner Zero, shapeshifter, inhabiting different roles; look at Jeff, on call to the experts, pretending to know what he’s talking about – but it’s most obvious with Amy. That as much as anything else is what makes her a Doctor Who companion: she’s solving problems in the same way he does, assuming a role, improvising. It fits nicely with the fairytale aspect, too – she’s still a child playing dress-up, in a roundabout sense, and so is the Doctor, his heroism the same kind of make believe. It’s deliberately framed in those terms – that idea of the Raggedy Doctor as her imaginary friend, someone she used to draw cartoons of, someone she made Rory dress up as and pretend to be – and based in those same questions of identity. Is she Amy, pretending to be a policewoman, or is she Amelia, the lonely child? There’s an implicit (if uncomfortable) equivalence drawn between her as a policewoman and his police box – so there’s traces of Amy-as-a-Doctor-figure, which is the same idea explored more deeply with Clara in Series 9, The Eleventh Hour again echoing the future of the Moffat era. At the same time, that lonely child is how Moffat wrote the Doctor in The Empty Child and The Girl in the Fireplace, calling back to the past. “Look in the mirror,” the Doctor texts. It’s not just a reminder of her uniform, it’s highlighting how similar they are to each other.

That’s The Eleventh Hour, then: the Moffat era, putting its best foot forward, and showing exactly where it’s going right from the first step. Anywhere in time and space, anything that ever happened or ever will. Where do you want to start? Well, right here – it’s hard to think of a better place to begin.

Related:

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Forest of the Dead

doctor who forest of the dead review euros lyn steven moffat david tennant alex kingston catherine tate russell t davies

Everybody knows that everybody dies, and nobody knows it like the Doctor – but I do think that all the skies in all the worlds might just turn dark if he ever accepts it.

The attentive amongst you will probably have realised that I didn’t post this last week, since I am in fact posting it today. That’s because I uploaded Silence in the Library a week too early, it turns out; there was a week delay after The Unicorn and the Wasp that I wasn’t aware of, I assume for Eurovision or a sport or something. I’m a little annoyed, because it’s the first time I’ve got a date wrong across the whole project, but not massively so, because it was ahead of time rather than too late, and if any story works as an echo of the future it’s that one.

[In another instance of the future infringing on the past, kinda, I fixed the dates on the wordpress site.]

Anyway, though. Forest of the Dead. Let’s start at the end, as this story has been inclined to do.

River’s death is, of course, a deeply affecting moment. A lot of that comes down to the fact that David Tennant and Alex Kingston give great performances; this, much moreso than The Doctor’s Daughter, is the episode of series 4 that gives Tennant the opportunity to push the character in new directions and find more of a limit point for his performance. Certainly, there’s no character quite like River in terms of how they interact with Tennant’s Doctor, and if you think that The Doctor’s Daughter should have been more along these lines, it’s not a comparison the earlier episodes come off well in. Obviously!

Equally, though, it’s not just about Tennant; I spoke last week about just how good Alex Kingston is, but it’s worth pausing again to focus on just how good she is here. Here especially, actually, because this is arguably the most important scene the character has, given it pretty much defines our understanding of River as a character full stop. If her death in this episode hadn’t had weight – both as a poignant moment on its own terms, but also the weight to sell a shared history we’re not yet aware of – then it likely wouldn’t have worked anywhere near as well as it did. But, as we know, it did work, and acted as the emotional cornerstone of the next five years.

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Parts of the ending of the episode could come into a little bit of criticism, admittedly; there’s a sense that setting River up with a life within the Library, while very nice for a while, probably isn’t something she’d actually be especially interested in for long. (How close was she with the rest of the crew? I got the impression she’d only started working with them recently on a freelance basis, so they’re probably not friends she’d want to spend forever with. And that’s a very specific sort of domesticity that you don’t really imagine River wanting – flip the script and imagine the Doctor was saved in the computer, leading that life, and it’d have fairly different connotations.) That said, I’m less than inclined to make much of it, particularly since we return to it in The Name of the Doctor and find out that River has plenty of stuff going on to keep her occupied.

In terms of the broader resolution of the episode, too, there’s something of an argument to be made that it’s a little… not incoherent, but certainly less coherent than Moffat’s usually fairly tightly-plotted episodes have been historically. It’s not that it doesn’t make sense, or anything quite so significant, but rather that there’s this little sense that, as the plot shifts and picks up momentum very quickly, it was motivated by a desire to start wrapping things up first and foremost; it’s the bit where Cal starts to reject her surroundings, and the planet goes into self-destruct mode. Indeed, it’s the self-destruct mode part especially that feels like it’s a little out of nowhere – shouldn’t the increased peril at the end come from the Vashta Nerada? They end up a little forgotten anyway.

To be honest though, it’s not actually all that important. Mostly because the episode is still entertaining enough to pull it off; while watching it, that sense that there’s only fifteen or so minutes left and it’s time to pick up the pace is very much secondary to what’s happening on screen, and that’s the more important thing.

Also, though, there’s the fact that the Vashta Nerada and the Library aren’t reallythe heart of it, they’re just the set dressing – it’s the final scene, where the Doctor runs to save River, that matters most. (Indeed, that was going to be the title at one stage, The Doctor Runs.) It’s the most triumphant scene of the episode, as you’d expect, and it’s really the apotheosis of Moffat’s understanding of the Doctor; never giving in, never giving up, and always saving people.

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One of the other interesting things that struck me about this episode – just in the sense of an idle thought I’d like to pick at more in future if ever I do a proper analysis of this episode (unlikely but not impossible; there’s only one episodic project left I’d like to do with Doctor Who at this point, but, you know, spoilers) or something I’d like to read an essay on if someone’s already written it – and that’s the fact that, for all the significance of the library, large swathes of Forest of the Dead play out by television logic more than anything else.

What I’ve got in mind specifically is Donna’s life in the dream world – the place functions by taking the television style literally, making the narrative leaps of jump cuts into something discomforting and offputting. It’s a really neat trick, and quite effective here; Euros Lyn does a great job making this technique work. In the broader framework of the two-part story, it feels like it calls back to the opening of Silence in the Library, where Cal was essentially watching Doctor Who; this is a literalisation of that, putting Donna within a television world. Arguably – given there’s some interesting ideas about escapism going on in the background in terms of Cal’s character – you can look at this as a union of the two ways Steven Moffat would’ve experienced Doctor Who: books, and television.

I don’t know. I mean, like I said, it’s an uninterrogated observation, just something that occurred to me while I was watching it. In terms of the broader analysis, there’s probably much more interesting stuff that can be said of it – how it fits with Russell T Davies’ engagement with television as a medium, how it fits with Moffat’s interest in glitchy technology, how it fits with Moffat’s engagement with the idea of storytelling (which is the more overt and obvious idea running through the episode).

Ultimately, anyway, it’s a really good episode. Very entertaining and engaging to watch, lots of memorable scenes and imaginative concepts, and an episode that stands on its own terms even outside of the significance it gained in later years.

Related:

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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