Doctor Who series 5 episode 1: The Eleventh Hour review

The new era has begun: so with Matt Smith as the Doctor, and Steven Moffat in charge, how did series five opener The Eleventh Hour fare?

Matt Smith

 

Warning: this review contains spoilers. A spoiler-free version is here.

Appreciating that different people were looking for different things from Steven Moffat’s maiden episode as Doctor Who showrunner, The Eleventh Hour nonetheless firmly did its job. It proved to be both a sporadically excellent episode, and one that subtlety ushed in a new era for the show. It’s not up there with Mr Moffat’s finest, but it was still one of the better hours of television we’ve seen in a while.

From the off, we got Matt Smith as we met him on New Year’s Day, desperately trying to safely land a Tardis that’s feeling the after effects of the Doctor’s regeneration. And the immediate impression is that this is very much business as usual.

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Smith comes across not a million miles away from early David Tennant, not least with the “still cooking” sequence as he comes to terms with his new personality (although that was a fun scene, nicely played. Even if it did put us off custard. Bonus marks for the line “You’re Scottish: fry something”). And with Russell T Davies’ psychic paper making an appearance too, the show for a while felt on the same path as before.

Slowly but surely, though, Steven Moffat began to make his mark.

Firstly, The Eleventh Hour has the hallmarks of one of his stories, simply because there’s a very simple and very clever idea behind it. Previously, he’s played on the architecture around us and something as straightforward as shadows to tap into our nerve systems. Here, he focuses on a crack in the wall. We’d wager there’s a few children set to have nightmares just off the back of that. Furthermore, he then adds to the mix that things that you sometimes see in the corner of your eye. It’s a strong combination, that sets up the story of Prisoner Zero being on the loose.

The narrative that follows is then interesting enough, tailored around the Doctor’s knack of sorting things out in the nick of time. And there are some nice touches throughout, not least an unexpected cameo from Patrick Moore.

If there’s a criticism here though, then it’s a by-product of just how much business Moffat has to get through in one 60-minute episode. While the central story idea might not have spanned a two-parter, it’d perhaps have been interesting to give it a bit more breathing room in a standalone 45 minute episode. Because, appreciating that this is being really picky, it was actually this central story that we found to be the weakest link in a good episode. It wasn’t helped by some not especially impressive effects work, either.

Where the story paid dividends though was in the creepy early stages and in the finale to it, which allowed Matt Smith to step out into the open and begin to really make his mark on the character of the Doctor. Whether coaching an otherwise-ordinary human that they “have to be magnificent”, wryly delivering some of Moffat’s particularly well-tuned quips, or the confident manner in which he ultimately saves the day, it’s a strong debut for the actor.

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The highlight, possibly even of the episode, was when he brought the Atraxi eye in the sky back to Earth to give a lesson in why they should all run a long way away. “Basically, run”, he urges them, and Moffat treats us to a real sign that he’s tuned into the show’s long history with a slideshow of previous doctors and monsters. We allowed ourselves a little geeky squeal right there.

The other major strength here was the manner of the introduction of new assistant Amy Pond, played well by Karen Gillan. Here, Moffat gave a tip of the hat to The Girl In The Fireplace (one of our very favourite episodes of new Who), as he played with the erratic nature of the Doctor and the Tardis’ sometime-inability to accurately time travel (a recurring theme in old Who). He combined these factors to basically have the Doctor meet Amy when she was young, and then leave years instead of five minutes before meeting her again.

It was a clever move, not least because it proved a really efficient and effective way to give Amy a back story from the off. We’d suggest that we got more background from Amy in these sequences, and more idea of why she’s ultimately motivated to travel with the Doctor, then we’d have got in double the time had she brought her family along (although, to be fair, Moffat still sqeezed in the character of Rory, even if inevitably he wasn’t given much space in the episode).

Amy and The Doctor is a promising pairing, although this episode didn’t feel like it particularly tested them. Right now, they’re coming across as a pair of young, fearless people, which ties into the relative youth of both of the actors. We look forward to seeing just how that relationship is tested in the weeks ahead, as the cracks in their exterior no doubt begin to show.

We look forward as well to picking up some more of the clues for the bigger series arc. “The universe is cracked” and “silence will fall”, we’re warned. What’s that supposed to mean? Plus, are we supposed to read something into the fact that all the key electrical equipment appeared to have the same brand name. ‘Myth’, it appears to be called. Or are we just following the old Bad Wolf principle by looking for things such as that?

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In all, The Eleventh Hour wasn’t a perfect episode, but it was a good opener with many really strong elements to it. It left us with a lovely treat, too, with a brand new analogue-feel Tardis, full of enough old-fashioned touches to send us heading straight to the Toys R Us website to see when we can buy one of our own. There’s the hanging question of a wedding dress, too…

Doctor Who will deliver better episodes this series, and you suspect Steven Moffat will too. But as a series opener – one that’s inevitably much lower key than the episodes of the show we saw over Christmas – it managed to be both enjoyable and good fun. Plus, on reflection, it got through a lot of business and laid down some solid foundations, while also subtlety slightly shifting the tone of the show as a whole.

Perhaps the fairest comparison is with Russell T Davies’ equally efficient opener, Rose. And when you set that next to The Eleventh Hour, then you can’t help but conclude that Doctor Who is in safe hands.

Now that Mr Moffat has put his building blocks in place, and now that Matt Smith has been properly put at the controls of the Tardis, we can’t wait to see what’s coming up in the weeks ahead. Saturday evenings are far richer for the show’s return…

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