On the 10th Anniversary of Matt Smith’s premiere episode on Doctor Who, Twitter looks back at The Eleventh Hour: the first episode in a new era of Who
Starring Matt Smith and Karen Gillan
Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Adam Smith
Friday 3rd April 2020 heralded ten years of the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) on screen, which made this particular episode, The Eleventh Hour, the next in a line of Doctor Who Watchalongs. Even stars Matt Smith, Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill, as well as writer Steven Moffat and director Adam Smith tuned in to tweet their own thoughts and ideas about the episode.
To put this episode into context, there was an enormous amount of pressure and scrutiny involved. Not only was the team tasked with introducing a new Doctor and a new companion, but also at presenting a new version of the show that demonstrated that Moffat held the show in capable hands. Russell T Davies had led the show as head writer since its 2005 revival, gradually getting more and more epic in scope with each series finale, culminating in the absolutely massive Series 4 finale Journey’s End, in which Torchwood, Sarah Jane Adventures and Doctor Who collided, not to mention the returning faces of Rose, Jackie, Mickey and Martha. A year later, David Tennant himself departed in the two-part festive specials The End of Time, seeing the Time Lord facing down his own past in the Time War. With the series becoming so epic in scale, it was imperative for Moffat to pull out all the stops with the first episode back, not to mention perfectly executing the introduction of both a new Doctor and new companion.
What resulted was certainly a departure to what preceded Series 5. The last episode tasked with introducing both a companion and a new Doctor (Rose) switched up the format considerably, by putting the audience substitute, Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) front and centre. The entire story was told from her point of view as, indeed, was David Tennant’s debut The Christmas Invasion, where the Tenth Doctor spent the vast majority of the episode lying down, only to be awoken in the closing fifteen-or-so minutes. Additionally, the series premieres since then, Smith and Jones, was also told from new companion Martha Jones’ point of view, while Donna Noble was similarly developed within Partners in Crime (though this wasn’t our first introduction to her). The focus within this episode is shifted somewhat. Though we are introduced to the episode through a young Amelia Pond praying to Santa for help with the crack in her wall, through which she can hear noises, the majority of the episode is told from the regenerating Doctor’s point of view.
Now, obviously, this is so that we can fall in love with Matt Smith’s portrayal of the Doctor. After all, new companions have been plentiful throughout the Revived Who so far, yet the acclaim for David Tennant was massive, and the huge expectation upon who would succeed him was obscene. Fortunately, throughout this episode Smith is practically bombilating with chaotic, childish energy. Bumbling throughout the entire hour, never quite sure what he’s going to do yet, yet perfectly safe in the knowledge that he is, in fact, the same Doctor that we have always known. All of this development throughout this hour with the iconic and triumphant “I’m the Doctor” moment, in which he defends the Earth purely through his own reputation. Seeing him in his own costume, with tweed jacket and bow tie is the perfect combination: the costume suggesting somebody old and wise, while his own personality is full with warmth and childish glee. That’s the beauty of Smith’s performance, really. It’s an uncanny and, dare I say it, unteachable ability. Despite being the youngest actor ever to be cast in the role of the Doctor, his eyes as the Doctor betray the signs of a creature long-lived, even though his own behaviour is absolutely bubbling with childish glee and excitement. As well as being absolutely delightful in its own right, it’s also a welcome departure from the serious nature that David Tennant’s Doctor ended up being, especially towards the end. A small reset back to the Doctor enjoying travelling around the universe in a box with his friend.
The direction is also particularly strong in this episode. Director Adam Smith clearly has a clear vision as to what aesthetic he wants, and the series has never looked better. Throughout the episode, we are treated to gritty and atmospheric shots, as well as stunning close-ups of our lead cast. One absolutely extraordinary sequence is when we see the Doctor work out what he has seen, leading to a Sherlock-esque montage as the Doctor sifts through the sensory input as he draws conclusions: all at a breakneck speed, allowing the audience a unique and unprecedented look into the Doctor’s thought process.
Then, there’s the introduction of the new companion, Amy Pond (Karen Gillan). We are first introduced to Amy as a little girl, who goes by Amelia, who encounters the Eleventh Doctor immediately after his regeneration when he crash lands in her garden. Despite promising her that she could travel with him, the malfunctioning TARDIS instead brings the Doctor back 12 years later, to be met with a now-adult Amy, who is none too pleased with the Doctor for abandoning her. The Amy we now meet is more brash, confrontational, feisty and cynical than the wide-eyed, trusting Amelia of the past. Revealing that her future after meeting the Doctor the first time involved multiple psychiatrists, and the entire community around her continually telling Amelia that The Raggedy Man wasn’t, in fact, real, has taken a huge toll on her emotionally, not to mention the scars already present from being orphaned and living with her aunt, with whom we infer she does not have a particularly positive relationship with.
So, so far so good right? Well, as three-dimensional as that appears, there’s still something about Amy that doesn’t feel quite real to me from this episode. That’s not to take away from the absolutely brilliant work that Karen Gillan does at realising what is written, I just suppose it’s somewhat more challenging to empathise and understand a character whose struggles you have not seen, and who so evidently has built so many walls to protect herself. The brash persona that Amy has built up as a result of many years of being let down by those around her – including the Doctor – has made her quite cold, and it’s almost impossible to see through to her vulnerability and hurt that might make her more accessible to the audience. However, in a similar vein to how she’s closed off and angry at the Doctor, it becomes hard as an audience to fully understand her. I wonder how different this would be had the episode been told more from her point of view: it’s definitely a compelling character arc that has been thought through, but without seeing it, it almost feels like it’s more a story than it is reality. Part of that, for me, I feel, is the change of actresses between little Amelia and adult Amy, making it quite hard to match the two portrayals up as being one characters’ journey. Perhaps, if the Doctor has met Amy at an earlier teenage year, and enjoyed the same journey with her, then this might have been more successful for me, or, indeed, if we had seen some of the story that Amelia had gone through between the Doctor disappearing and reappearing in her adulthood. Alternatively, a plotline involving the Doctor appearing and disappearing out of her life, as she grows up, disappointing her more than once while Amy tries to figure out how to solve the alien invasion problems herself might have been more compelling. If she had been continually let down by the Doctor at significant parts of her life where she might have needed him, and is forced to grow from that, and fend for herself, it might be more accessible and understandable from an audience perspective.
Part of this problem for me, I feel, derives from the slightly fairytale tone that the series adopts during this series. The Doctor even notes the fairytale sound of the name Amelia Pond. The whole concept of the Doctor disappearing out of Amelia’s life and reappearing twelve years later, making her the Girl Who Waited, makes her feel like more of a storybook character than it does an actual fully-realised companion. Indeed, as she progresses through the story, I often found that the storyline concerning the cracks in Amy’s wall was made to be more important than she was, and she became little more than a plot device – a gripe I also share with Clara Oswald in Series 7, in particular. There’s just something, for me, about skipping twelve years in Amy’s story that suddenly makes her feel much less real, especially when you take into consideration the fact that an alien fugitive has been living in her house for pretty much her entire life, and how she has spent this time having her perception altered with so as not to detect it. That’s something which is brushed over fairly quickly and, again, does not feel quite real. I feel like we learned more about companions like Rose, Martha and Donna in the first five minutes of their introductory episodes just by observing the way that they interact with the others in their lives. However, Amy doesn’t seem to have anybody else in her life. She has little in the way of friends, except for Rory, who she does little but boss around and has little back-and-forth with, and instead dominates him. We do not learn much about her from these encounters, compared to how we saw middle-child Martha juggling her multiple relatives on the phone at the beginning of Smith and Jones. This immediately set Martha’s character up as somebody level headed and non-confrontational, not to mention practical and solution-minded. As the storyline progressed, she continued to prove herself in this episode as being independent and courageous. Meanwhile, Amy appears relatively one note. She does not seem to veer too far away from brash and sassy at all times and, while this falters slightly with the Doctor asking her to travel with him, I still feel like this could have been pushed a bit further. Amy’s story within this episode is about her losing her childlike sense of faith, yet there does not seem to be much pushback at the end, when the Doctor does invite her to come travelling with him, at long last, from her. It seems slightly inconsistent for her to still fill that void as a character who longs for escape and adventure, and yet is also continually disappointed and let down by others, for her to be so dependent upon the Doctor in this way.
However, these problems aside, I have to conclude that The Eleventh Hour is a highly successful series opener. The actual adventure is compelling enough, and yet simple enough, to engage the viewer while also introducing the key elements of the story that is to be played out over the course of the series. There are also cunning hints to the overall story trajectory, with tantalising hints about “Silence will fall, and the Pandorica will open”. With this episode, Moffat quietened anybody’s fears that Doctor Who would crumble in his care, writing an episode that showcased the brilliant portrayal of Matt Smith as the Doctor’s eleventh incarnation. Alongside him, Karen Gillan is a pleasant enough companion to fill the vacant spot, though is still yet to be fully developed and fleshed out as a character – a definite move away from the priorities of the Davies era, in which the companions were presented as central to the programme above that of the character of the Doctor. A new era of Who had begun here, and while the later series of Matt Smith might have become more muddled and confused with overarching storylines that bamboozled even the most hardcore and dedicated of fans, the series was never as cohesive and focussed as it is in Series 5.