Warning: spoilers throughout.
It’s Steven Moffat’s turn in the drivers seat for the long-running sci-fi series, which alone is cause for celebration. Moffat, arguably the best writer working in television today, proved himself many times over to “Who” fans, having delivered the scripts for the best episodes of each of the previous four seasons of the modern era. Now he’s in charge all the way, newly promoted to executive producer and head writer. Better still, outgoing writer/producer Russell T. Davies and star David Tennant ended their tenures together with a run of specials that tied up all loose ends, allowing Moffat and his team to start from scratch, to make “Who” just the way he wants.
What Moffat wants, it turns out, is for “Who” to be jaw-droppingly amazing. The season premiere “The Eleventh Hour” is a chunk of storytelling that’s every bit as inventive, as exhilarating, and as utterly mesmerizing as Moffat’s previous “Who” scripts, perhaps even more so. (OK, maybe not better than “Blink,” but darn close.) I’ve watched it twice, and still itch for another go. How many TV shows can make you feel like that?
The story opens as “The End of Time Part Two” ended, with the newly regenerated Doctor (Matt Smith) crashing toward Earth. Simple enough; anyone can do crashes. But watch where Moffat takes us: the crash is used to a) force the Doctor to meet young Amelia Pond (Caitlin Blackwood) and embark on another of his curious adventures; b) explain away the massive changes made to the TARDIS, both inside and out; and c) win us over immediately with those first few shots of Smith, first as he giddily holds on for dear life, then as he emerges – soaking wet following a fall in his library’s swimming pool, and why would you even question why a library would have a swimming pool? – from his wrecked vessel, bouncing with life.
Smith proves himself to be perfect in the role from the moment we meet him, a brave performer with just the right mix of quirk and charm, able to convince us with a glance that impossible things are not impossible. His best moment in this episode comes not when we’re laughing about the “fish custard” or wowing to his fire truck-stealing exploits, but in the dialogue where the Doctor fake-assures Amelia “everything’s going to be fine.” It’s a scene that makes us laugh and scares us to the bone at the same time – a specialty of “Doctor Who,” and Smith nails it in five words.
(The whole episode is aces in terms of balancing fun and fear. Prisoner Zero and his eyeballs-and-crystals pursuers are terrific inventions; the “corner of your eye” premise is genuinely disturbing; the “twenty minutes to live” set-up gives us a quick pace without feeling forced about it.)
Blackwood as young Amelia does not last very long; this is a shame, since she’s such a wonderful actress in a wonderful role. But the story demands she grow up, for the story has an idea. A brilliantly mad, madly brilliant idea. Moffat’s own “The Girl in the Fireplace” was one of the few “Who” episodes, new or old, to deal with time travel not as a plot device to get the hero to the story, but as the heart of the story itself. “The Eleventh Hour” cribs that episode’s key notion, that a time traveler can meet you in one year and come back in another, yet to him it’s only a matter of minutes.
And so the Doctor jumps in his TARDIS for a quick hop five minutes into the future, which gets miscalculated to some twelve years. Little Amelia Pond has grown up to become Amy Pond (Karen Gillan), who spent her childhood biting psychologists because they didn’t believe the Doctor was real. The mistake is repeated at the end, when another five minute hop turns into two years.
But this is no gimmick. Moffat uses the mismatched-ness of the characters’ timelines as the heart of the characters themselves. Amy is not just someone who knew the Doctor long ago, for only a moment; she’s a woman who grew up devastated by his absence, the “Raggedy Doctor” who never came back, just like all the other grown-ups who promised but never delivered. When we meet Amy’s neighbors as they marvel over their discovery that the Doctor is, in fact, real, it’s played for a laugh, but underneath, each case of “it’s you!” becomes another sign of just how much the Doctor’s absence has formed who Amy is now. (Knowing this, then, the flashback at story’s end to a heartbroken Amelia is a final kick in the gut.) Now, perhaps for the first time since granddaughter Susan, we have a companion who feels connected to the Doctor her entire life, for whom future travels in the TARDIS is the obvious next step.
Even now, however, Moffat is not done with the layering of the teleplay. For when the Doctor does return, he is convinced, as we are, that only a few hours have passed; when Amy lies and tells him it’s been six months, he falls for it, as do we, convinced that the dreadful something hiding in Amelia’s house has taken her. Smith’s cries of “what happened to Amelia Pond?!” have a grief to them. When Amy finally reveals herself to the Doctor, we sigh a pinch of relief that young Amelia escaped from danger (if only temporarily), yet we have no time to revel in that feeling. The Doctor and Amy have a planet to save.
We also meet Amy’s boyfriend, Rory (Arthur Darvill), and hunky neighbor Jeff (Tom Hopper), and both play key roles, which suggests Moffat is following Davies’ lead in making the companions’ friends and family as vital to the series as the companions themselves. Moffat also throws in a mystery: the Doctor’s second return comes on the eve of her wedding, but who is the groom? Considering how quickly we warm to Gillan (like Smith, we’re won over the moment we meet her), this is a mystery I’m eager to follow.
Other Davies trademarks appear. The sonic screwdriver, a device I’ve never liked (especially in the Davies years, as it became a magic wand capable of fixing any story problem), almost disappears – Moffat teases us throughout that it’s busted for good – then returns at the end, thrilling/annoying fans worldwide.
We also see the hints, both subtle and so very otherwise, of a season-spanning story arc, one of Davies’ smartest inventions, ensuring that the new series’ standalone-episode format maintains the epic reach of the classic series’ multi-episode serials. Prisoner Zero’s warnings of cracks in the universe and silence falling are in-your-face announcements of this year’s arc; visual notes involving “Myth Computers” could be vital clues or red herrings.
And, perhaps most importantly, Moffat builds on Davies’ reworking of the companion’s role in the series. The classic series gave us companions that mostly got swept up in the Doctor’s travels; they’d stick around until suddenly deciding to stay behind on this planet or that. With the new series, companions maintain their ties to home and return often. A decent change of pace (even if it did require Davies to keep nearly all the action Earthbound, dampening the range of new-world imagination the series demands), but it forced too much “come with me” dialogue, that awkward scene where the Doctor would have to convince the new cast member to tag along.
Moffat’s teleplay uses the same trick but is blatant about it: the Doctor admits he’s begging for companions because he’s lonely. It’s one thing to travel all of time and space, but not to have someone to talk to, to share your adventures? The Eleventh Doctor is only a day old, and already he’s achingly alone, a most human quality for someone so alien.
Ah, but ultimately, this is Moffat’s “Who” all the way. When Smith steps through the smoky hologram of Tennant’s face and told the camera “Hello, I’m the Doctor,” it’s as bold a first-story announcement as Colin Baker’s similar “…whether you like it or not.” The scene was likely included to assure fans, many of whom view Tennant as the best of all Doctors, that the show would continue just fine with the new crew.
Really, though, by this point, nobody needed convincing. Smith had spent the previous fifty minutes winning us over. The role is all his. He’s the Madman with a Box.
(Oh, and one more thing: new TARDIS! Holy crap!)