Spoiler free verdict: Doctor Who Series 5 episode 1 – The Eleventh Hour

The BBC screened the first episode of the new series of Doctor Who, The Eleventh Hour, in Cardiff on Thursday night. How did Matt Smith and co fare? Here's our spoiler-free verdict...

On Thursday 18th March in Cardiff, the BBC screened the virtually finished cut of Doctor Who: The Eleventh Hour. We were lucky enough to get a seat, and here’s our spoiler-free reaction to what we saw. A full, proper review will follow once the episode has been screened…

It’s probably best that we get one thing out of the way up front. And it’s this: if you’re looking for a major tonal shift from the Russell T Davies era of Doctor Who, you’re not getting it with The Eleventh Hour.

The episode picks up immediately after the cliffhanger from The End Of Time Part Two, with the Tardis heading into a crash landing. Then you get the same title sequence, just with a slightly different font and a new logo. The sonic screwdriver is still present and correct. And Matt Smith’s Doctor is the same man who was screaming “Geronimo” when we saw him last, and he says it again here.

The tonal similarities are hardly a massive surprise, given that it’s all in line with what Steven Moffat has been saying pretty much since he got the showrunner job. But we felt it worth pointing out nonetheless, in case anyone out there thinks this is a top to bottom overhaul of the series. It’s not, and let’s face it, it hardly needed it.

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That said, this is an episode about looking just a little bit closer (not least because we already wondered if we were spotting clues being put in place for the future). For as The Eleventh Hour progresses, Steven Moffat both overtly and subtlety begins adapting his Doctor to fit what becomes a slightly different feel for the show.

For arguably the biggest difference with this Doctor Who is it feels younger. That’s perhaps an inevitable observation given the age of the two leads, but there’s a feeling here that Moffat is playing on the fearlessness of youth as well in his writing. We’re not going down that path in detail because this is most certainly a spoiler-free write up. Yet even the way the show is directed by Adam Smith has a very modern urgency at times. However you look at it, there are certainly little evolutions to be found here.

On to the big questions, though: how did Karen Gillan, Matt Smith and Steven Moffat measure up in their new roles?

Appreciating that it’s way too early to judge based on a very nearly finished cut of just one episode, there’s clear promise here.

We warmed a lot to the rapport between Smith and Gillan, for instance. Maybe that’s influenced by the fact that the first scenes they shot aren’t actually in The Eleventh Hour, and thus had had a little time to get to know how the other worked. Whatever the reason, they’ve clearly clicked quickly, and that was reflected too in the Q&A session they gave after the screening. It helps too that Amy Pond is coming across as a strong companion, and one a little different to the last few travellers in the Tardis. And Karen Gillan is looking like a fine choice to play her.

Steven Moffat’s script, meanwhile, has an awful lot of business to get through here, even with the extended one hour running time. But you can’t help but feel that the show is in good hands by the time the credits roll.

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He’s certainly not lost his brilliant eye for picking the simple things in life that scare you and building a story on them, and not for the first time, he comes up with something strong to kick his adventure off with (it’s not his scariest work, but it’s really quite creepy at times for a series opener). However, he does get less room to play with the story itself here, given that he’s got to establish two brand new major characters and fit his narrative in as well.

Fortunately, it just about fits together, and certainly in comparison with Russell T Davies’ opening episode Rose – which is arguably the fairest one to compare it to – it’s hard to have too many complaints about what’s a confident and effective opening episode.

If we were being ultra-critical we’d argue that the story itself is ultimately the weakest part of The Eleventh Hour (although we did love elements of it, which, again, we don’t want to spoil here), yet that’d be really tough criticism. Because like it or lump it, this episode came with responsibility on its shoulders (being a mix of opening episode, new era for the programme and new actors to bed in), and Moffat deals with it brilliantly at times. Some of his one liners are outstanding, too, and he’s clearly having great fun with the comedy elements of the show.

The absolute highlight for us was the superb way that the new assistant is brought into the story. It’s just brilliant. Again, no spoilers, short of to say that by the time the end credits roll, understandable layers of depth to the character of Amy Pond have already been added as a result. That’s some achievement, and it’s going to stand the show in good stead.

So what about Matt Smith? The Doctor is still feeling the after-effects of the regeneration when we meet him, and that allows Moffat to shape the character a little as things go on. Smith’s performance is really very confident too. His Doctor is clearly in the infancy of his story arc, yet we warmed to him quickly and easily. How will he fare when the threats against his character are ramped up? Perfectly well, we’d suggest, and the show looks like it’s going to benefit from having a regular companion too.

The key to getting the most out of The Eleventh Hour, we’d suggest, is a bit of expectation management. We’ve just come off the back of two or three special episodes that were bringing a whole era of Doctor Who to an end, and if you put a season opener next to them, then you’re inevitably going to be disappointed. After all, the journeys here are at their beginning, and building blocks are being put in place for a further 12 episodes that will build on the foundations that are put in place here.

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Is The Eleventh Hour vintage Doctor Who? It was never really going to be. Is it a good, enjoyable episode with some terrific moments, that does a very good job of starting the show’s engines back up? Absolutely. And given the trailer of treats that we were shown at the end, the next few months look like being terrific fun.

We really hope so, for the signs so far are good. And they’ve got a brilliant new Tardis to play with too…

Our full review of Doctor Who: The Eleventh Hour will be live on Saturday 3rd April, immediately after the episode has screened.

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