Beyond his urgent need for a haircut, I had no real problems when Matt Smith was announced as David Tennant’s successor. My guiding principle in life has always been to judge a man by his actions and not by his resemblance to an Emo wannabe. David Tennant never really yanked my chain during his four years as the Doctor. No doubting his acting ability. I just felt that such a fine actor had essentially been playing pantomime for four years. So it was depressing to see Matt Smith play his regeneration scene as a parody of Tennant’s own regeneration. Super fast, almost gabbling delivery of lines and, where Series One ended on “Barcelona!”, the Specials season ended on “Geronimo!”. Plus ca change, plus c’est le meme thingummy.
My expectations sank even lower when we got our first sight of the Eleventh Doctor’s new costume. A bow tie and a geography teacher’s jacket smacked of an attempt to do a Patrick Troughton or to make a joke of Matt’s geeky appearance. So, when I sat down to watch the start of Series Five, I had every finger crossed and other things besides. Was I going to have to spend another four years watching DW just because I was a fan and it was entertaining fare or would the show once more reach down my pants and grab me by the heart?
More fool me (more fool I?) for doubting Steven Moffat. From the first few seconds, he’d captured me. Yes, the careering flight over London with the Doctor clinging to the TARDIS door sill was completely over the top but it was OTT in the best of ways – giving us a laugh and a thrill rather than trying to awe us with CGI for the sake of it. The new title sequence failed to move me but I’ve considered all versions which postdate the diamond tunnel effect of the first half of Tom Baker’s reign as being bastard interlopers.
Things got even better when the credits faded onto young Caitlin Blackwood. If there’s one thing that New Who casting people have been unfailingly good at, it’s been casting kids for the show. And the relationship between the Doctor and a child is at the heart of what Doctor Who means to those who grew up with the show. Young Amelia padding out into the garden in her nightie and wellies to find the TARDIS – isn’t that what any of us would have dreamed of? No? Heartless beasts!
When it came, what a debut by Matt Smith! We seem to have done away with the tedious habit of the Doctor lying unconscious for hours in a post-regenerative coma and the show is all the better for it. Matt is instantly successful in doing unforced and unself-conscious eccentricity. I love his way of delivering the script with stresses and inflections at unexpected points in the line. In a way, his speech patterns convey the alien eccentricity we expect of the Doctor without any recourse to “look how wacky I am” moments. Caitlin reacts to the Doctor wonderfully. It would have been easy for her to play Amelia as scared at this stranger landing in her garden at night or to have gone the other way and found his eccentricities funny. But she gives Amelia just the right feeling of curiosity triumphing over any instinctive (don’t talk to strangers) wariness. Weird as the Doctor is, he’s completely unthreatening to a child. It’s only monsters who have nightmares about the Doctor.
“You’re Scottish. Fry something.”
The tasting of the various foods is very funny without ever becoming silly or tedious because it’s entirely about the relationship developing between Amelia and the Doctor rather than about the physical comedy itself. So that, when they’re happily sitting down together to ice cream and fish custard, she’s already completely accepted him as a friend. Which is the point at which the Doctor remarks: “Must be a hell of a scary crack in your wall.” Has it taken this long for the Doctor to settle down enough to be up to tackling what’s scaring his new friend? Or has he partly been letting the food palaver go on this long in order to win her confidence?
“Looks like you’ve had some real cowboys in here. Not real cowboys, though that can happen.”
I have to confess that the whole Prisoner Zero and the crack thing didn’t fascinate me but I was too caught up in Matt’s physical and verbal performance to really notice that. Not to mention great throwaway lines like the cowboys one and: “You know when grown-ups tell you everything’s going to be fine and you think they’re probably lying to make you feel better?” – “Yes.” – “Everything’s going to be fine.”
I really like this mixture of that exchange where the Doctor isn’t treating her like a child in the face of danger and his immediately reaching out to hold her hand anyway. As if it’s as much for Amelia to provide him with reassurance as vice versa. I much prefer this to the increasingly carefree and overweeningly confident character the Doctor was gradually developing under Russell T Davies. I think that one of the vital ingredients in DW is for the Doctor to have an element of vulnerability. Children have an instinctive need to feel protective towards the Doctor. They’re more scared that the Daleks will hurt the Doctor and his friends than that they’ll destroy the Earth or conquer the universe. This is in part why I believe that efforts to portray him as a superhero or a godlike figure miss the point. If the Doctor can arrogantly scare off a fleet of monsters by declaring: “Look, it’s me. The oncoming storm” or open the TARDIS doors with a snap of his fingers instead of fumbling for his key as the monsters bear down on him, then we remove him from much of the danger. We want to worry about him. It’s become something of a cliché of Tom Baker’s that young children would sidle up to him and whisper solutions for escaping from the Daleks but for a child it’s part of their role to worry for him.
The Doctor hears the cloister bell from the garden and tears off downstairs to stop the TARDIS engines going postal. Incidentally, it’s a nice balancing act that we never heard it named. Just hearing that familiar chiming is enough on its own to send fanboys and fangirls shivering with delight whereas the sound alone makes it clear enough without any explanation to a DW newbie that’s it’s some form of alarm. There’s no need for the Doctor to say “oh no, it’s the cloister bell” and start the newbies puzzling over whether there’s a monastery in the village that they’ve somehow missed. Something similar happened with the Macra in Gridlock. It was a nice nod to the fans who could feel very pleased at knowing what the reference meant (but who probably wouldn’t have been interested in a full-blown Macra episode) while not being important enough to confuse newbies or irregulars. RTD needed a random monster in the motorway tunnels, why not namecheck the Macra? Strangely, for a man who had insisted on not pandering to the fans’ desire for backstory, RTD then went and brought back Davros. Bring back the Daleks and the Cybermen, yes. Threatening “robots” going around killing people willy nilly – what’s not to understand? But bringing back someone whose whole threat lies in his significance to backstory (and without any explanation as to who he is) – that was pure fanwank.
The return to the TARDIS brought another beautiful moment between the Doctor and Amelia. He actually ignores the imminently exploding engines to go back and reassure her that he has no intention of deserting her. Watch their faces immediately before he jumps into the TARDIS with a “Geronimo!”. Amelia smiles properly at the Doctor for the first time and he, looking back at her, gives her a wonderful half smile, half nervous glance. I’m already never tiring of the unexpected subtleties and nuance that Matt Smith is bringing to the role.
Off goes Amelia to pack her suitcase for an adventure with the Doctor. As she crosses the landing from room to room, we see that the hidden door which was shut when she returned upstairs is suddenly open. I don’t know about any children watching but I’m man enough to admit that, when I saw that, I nearly soiled myself. Ideas and potentials can be far more terrifying than any expensively CGI-generated monster.
What is the figure which passes in front of the shot as we look out of the window to the garden?
Cue some plot scenes in the hospital which didn’t particularly interest me beyond the curiously high number of coma patients in such a small local hospital.
The Doctor returns, gets whacked with a cricket bat and wakes to find himself handcuffed to a radiator by a kissagram. A few things happened here which I didn’t quite understand. I can understand (just) Amy whacking the man she’s dreamt of returning for her. I can understand (just) her pretending to be a real policewoman. But why does she say that Amelia Pond hasn’t lived in the house for some time – six months in fact? For a fib, it’s an unusually specific one. Six months?
Again we get scared by ideas rather than monsters. The idea that there’s a door in your house that you haven’t noticed for 12 years. When we finally see Prisoner Zero, he’s OK for a CGI monster but nothing to write home about. This might have been better (and more cheaply) realised had we only ever seen Prisoner Zero in his human disguises.
Karen Gillan and Caitlin Blackwood sharing as they do (a) red hair, (b) a Scots accent, (c) the same home and (d) two X chromosomes, the “Why did you say 5 minutes?” line isn’t such a revelation. But again the question of why she said six months is raised with no explanation.
I liked how all the residents of Leadworth had a totally blasé attitude to this scatty girl and her Raggedy Doctor obsession. By the way, I could gladly have Matt keep his raggedy outfit permanently as it looks better than the proposed geography teacher costume. The lovely Annette Crosbie is endearingly scatty and unfazed by Amy’s eccentricities.
Though clever as a one-off, the rewind function of the Doctor’s memory could quickly become annoying if it becomes a regular feature. I seem to be one of a very small number of fans who enjoys Arthur Darvill’s Rory. He combines the vague scattiness of the other Leadworthians with an obvious nervous adoration of Amy. I also think he disproves the idea that Moffat lacks RTD’s ability to sum up someone’s whole character in a few lines. “You made me dress up as him” tells us everything we need to know about their relationship since their childhood: Amy being a bit high maintenance and Rory giving in to her eccentrity because of his crush on her. Even better is this exchange between the three of them – DOCTOR: “Your friend? Not him, the good looking one.” RORY: “Thanks.” AMY: “Jeff.” RORY: “Ohhhhhh, THANKS!”. You need to hear the intonation rather than read the lines but you learn so much about Rory. A little insecure about his hold on Amy. A little exasperated by her.
Not that Jeff appears to be getting any lovin from Amy to judge by his internet browsing. Matt’s reaction to seeing it on his laptop was very ideosyncratic to this new Doctor. Christopher Eccleston might have said: “Jeff! Get a girlfriend!” in an impatient and exasperated tone of voice. David Tennant might have said it a slightly patronising, dismissive tone. Matt Smith’s tone of voice is almost one of shock and embarrassment. Another glimpse perhaps at a very different portrayal of the Doctor coming our way.
Then we have a lot of running around and driving of fire engines until Prisoner Zero is defeated. But not before Prisoner Zero lays out what sounds suspiciously like the makings of a story arc: “The Doctor in the TARDIS doesn’t know. The universe is cracked. The Pandorica will open. Silence will fall.”
This is followed by a nice little homage to the Third Doctor pinching patient’s clothes from a hospital, climaxing with an homage to all ten previous Doctors on the hospital roof. OK, the choirs became a bit bombastic at this point but there had been some nice musical touches from Murray Gold throughout this story. If only they could keep his hands off that volume switch.
When we return to Amy’s house, the Doctor leaves on a test flight of the TARDIS and we see an unusual scene. Little Amelia is again sitting on her suitcase, waiting for the Doctor to return in five minutes and we hear the TARDIS materialising. Then Amy wakes up at the sound of the TARDIS materialising in 2010 (presumably). Did a TARDIS really return for Amelia all those years ago or was Amy just dreaming it?
“I am definitely a madman with a box.”
And off they go on their adventures, leaving us with the sight of all Amy’s Raggedy Doctor dolls and drawings and…her wedding dress.
All in all then, a great debut for Matt Smith who shows every sign that, however rocky the scripting road may become, we’re likely to be carried over it by sheer fascination at his portrayal of the Eleventh Doctor.