Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Rose By Any Other Name?

Spearhead From Space was always one of my favourite regeneration stories. It's interesting that the last time Doctor Who was re-launched onto our screens – with Rose - it chose to borrow from that story wholesale. This time, in The Eleventh Hour, the references are more subtle (there's a hospital that, if it's not actually the one featured in Spearhead, calls it instantly to mind) but they're a very welcome touch for the introduction of a Doctor who, as well as being new and – since it's apparently an essential ingredient of any modern Doctor – a bit hyper, harkens back to the more old-school avuncular figure. It's a remarkable quality for any actor as young as Matt Smith to bring to the role, but it's immediately evident and thrown into focus by the wonderful early scenes in The Eleventh Hour where he first comes crashing into Amelia Pond's life. And ours.

A new Doctor for a new era, so the BBC announcer said before the show started. And this is more than just another regeneration story, after all. New Doctor plus new producer at the helm. New companion, new TARDIS, new logo, new music... you get the drift. But how different can it possibly be?

The answer, as it turns out: not very – and more than enough.

This is Steven Moffat's Rose. A New New Beginning, if you will. Nobody knows this Doctor so Moffat comes up with this ingenious idea of introducing him to Amy as a little girl so that for her he has always been the (raggedy) Doctor, who even manages to become a fairytale figure to people in Amy's life by virtue of her childhood games, cartoons, dolls etc. (She even got her friend/sort-of-boyfriend Rory to dress up as him.) Ever since he left her that night, sitting on her suitcase in the garden, waiting for him to return.

Heart-strings are well and truly plucked there, but we are spared the repeated biffings over the head with the Rusty emo-mallet – CRY NOW! - to which we grew accustomed. It's a genuinely beautiful, measured moment that immediately conveys the impression this strange fish-custard-eating loon has left on this little girl. An impression we get to carry with us as we jump forward to the future to rejoin Amy as a young woman.

Of course it's an ingenious idea. We know that from The Girl In The Fireplace. But it works so well here, we can forgive a little self-plagiarism. And in record time we've effectively seen the building blocks of a Doctor-companion relationship founded on a conflicting blend of hero-worship, betrayed trust and anger stored up over years of psychiatric treatment. Anger which boils over in a single outburst, right into the Doctor's face: “Why did you say five minutes?!” And although I'd already grown to like Karen Gillan as Amy by this point (she has, to my mind, an immediate SallySparrowlike companion appeal), it's this moment where she really arrives as a companion to watch.

While Amy is (in subsequent adventures) rapidly proving herself as quick-witted and clever a match for the Doctor as Madame De Pompadour, The Eleventh Hour is not as clever as Girl In The Fireplace. As the initial mystery of the hidden monster unfolds, the sense of fairytale spirals away into the loopier shenanigans of an alien hunt for an escaped convict. This emerging scenario has more in common with Smith & Jones than Rose. I seem to recall I quite enjoyed that one at the time, although it's one of those that faded on a rewatch. Whereas a second watch of The Eleventh Hour left me just as impressed. Frankly, even if this one had trotted out the Judoon again and relocated a hospital to the lunar surface I'm not sure I would have minded.

For one thing, the loss of that initial fairytale sensibility is reflective of Amy's own change of attitude – she's grown up, she no longer needs fairytales – so she claims – and that strikes me as something of a nice touch. But that aside, I think the difference comes down to something simpler than that.

What a difference a Doctor makes. And companion. And writer.

It's been a while, but I don't think by the Smith & Jones stage that Tennant's Doctor had become quite the intensely unlikeable character he developed into and the full extent of Martha's woodenness hadn't yet become clear. (It was her first story, after all.) But Smith & Gillan beat Smith & Jones hands down. I love the interplay between them. They're both highly charismatic and sharp and animated and fresh and funny.

Smith is the first Doctor I've properly *liked* since Davison's. Wow, now I've typed that I have to stop and think, that can't be true, can it? Hmm, let's see. My reasons for disliking the intervening Doctors are many and varied – Colin Baker a generally unpleasant, misjudged character; McCoy rubbish; McGann too short-lived an appearance in a disastrously bad story; Eccleston “Fantastic!” performance but earned the label Doctor Do Little; Tennant “Brilliant!” performance but a character so far up himself he lost all sympathy/empathy with me somewhere in mid-reign. But yes, so far, I like Smith's Doctor. A bold new concept known as 'subtlety' has crept into proceedings and it's also there in his interpretation of the role. Just as it's there in Gillan's take on the companion.

And I really really really hope this pairing doesn't turn into the (now standard) romantic schtick that was already beginning to feel like a time loop by the time Martha showed up to make (largely lifeless) eyes at her Doctor. The dialogue zings between them and will continue to do so even if (gasp!) their relationship remains this platonic best-friends uncle-niece dynamic they currently have going on.

As long as the writing's as top-notch as it is here. Moffat has the 'gift of the gab', for sure. The dialogue sparkles brilliantly throughout. Plot-wise he retains much of what we've seen from Rusty's Who – not least the frenetic pace and energy. And there are the inevitable (?) plot holes and/or questions that niggle when the episode is over and done. Eleventh Hour examples would involve, perhaps, wondering about a race (the Atraxi) who can scan for non-terrestrial technology but couldn't scan for a non-terrestrial criminal they've been holding prisoner for who knows how long. Or just wondering about the mentality of a species liberal enough to impose a prison sentence on said convict but sufficiently Republican, shall we say, to wipe out an entire world just because the fugitive won't come out with his hands up.

The Atraxi themselves are an oddity in that they call to mind the big bloated eye of the Nestenes (more from the old Target novelisation covers than the TV series) - a good thing - but also make me think of 'the eyeballs in the sky' from The Perishers - a somewhat less fortunate connection to make.

But what are a few bits of peel that get stuck in the teeth when the overall fruitcake recipe is so good? There were, in any case, bigger gripes for me. One would be the use of the Silence In The Library/Forest Of The Dead get-out clause. Although it made for a good moment, I'd really hoped we wouldn't see that argument – I'm the Doctor, look at all the things I've done, you can't defeat me so run – deployed again. Any alien with half a brain cell could break that circular chain of logic by zapping the Doctor with whatever ray they had to hand at that point. In a way, it makes a bit more sense here, since the Atraxi are, presumably, a reasoning species and have no actual reason to kill the Doctor, but the shadows in Library struck me as more elemental and had bugger all reason not to consume the Doctor in piranha-like darkness.

Then there was the heavily-flagged 'this year's cryptic foreshadowing of the season arc' bit. “The Universe is cracked. The Pandoric will open. Silence will fall. And one day we might not feel the need to trot out this tired and formulaic device.” Could happen. Sure, the fissures in time and space are intriguing, but do we really need these prophesies every year? Oh well, you have to hand it to Moffat for coming up with an inventive way to retain another quintessential feature of Rusty's Who – cracks in every story.

My one other gripe has more to do with a trait of modern Who than this particular episode. Back when I reviewed Rose for my blog, I headed up the post 'We Have No Time To Stand And Scare'. It was a comment on pace. Despite The Eleventh Hour's rapid gallop, I don't think Moffat is afraid to slow things down here and there, because it's the quieter pauses that really serve to heighten and intensify moments of action, not to mention fuel suspense. But there is a tendency among CGI monsters to do basically not much more than 'stand and scare'. Fair enough, Prisoner Zero doesn't wish to reveal itself, but Prisoner Zero is by no means the only offender in the CGI-monster line-up who basically does diddly beyond standing there and roaring or otherwise trying to look ferocious. There is, as a rule, very little interaction between CGI monsters and the environment and/or other characters. Here, there could have been more since they'd gone to the trouble of making it a shapeshifter, hence you do have an actor – and his dog – who can at least attack the Doctor or something. Instead, we're treated to seeing Olivia Colman as a (very welcome) guest star and yet left with the feeling that, actually, she didn't really do much. Admittedly any kind of fight arrangement would have been a challenge, what with her having a kid attached to each hand...

But actions speak louder than words. They also speak louder than opening your gob and flashing your fangs. No matter how frightening your dental work.

A proactive Doctor, especially one who bounds around with the energy of modern Who, ideally needs a more proactive enemy. At least on the proactive Doctor side of things, by removing the sonic screwdriver from the equation Moffat makes a clear attempt to oblige this incarnation to resolve the Prisoner Zero situation with a spot of hasty improvisation. That's an effort worthy of applause and leaves a satisfying impression that the Doctor has had to work things out rather than wave a magic wand. Which compensates for the get-out clause he uses to drive off the Atraxi.

And even that does give us the scene of this new Doctor stepping through the scanner images of his former selves, which for my money is a simple, ingenious way of acknowledging the series' past while confirming the arrival of this 'new Doctor for a new era'.

So, all in all, on my second viewing, my immediate enthusiasm for The Eleventh Hour remains intact. Five years on from Rose, there must be kids out there for whom this is the beginning and I hope they're (at least) as excited as I am. I like the new titles, by the way, but am 'not enamoured with' the new arrangement of the theme. Whereas, as far as the show's content is concerned, I wasn't a great fan of Rusty's track record, but so far I'm enjoying the Moffat remix.

Rose by any other name would smell as sweet? If that name happens to be The Eleventh Hour - or Amy Pond - then I'd venture to say much, much better.


Iceduck said...

The bits of Spearhead that weren't in Rose ended up in The Christmas Invasion, of course.

I must say, I love the idea of the Doctor chasing monsters away with his reputation, simply because it's still very new. At the time of Forest of the Dead, it had never been done before, and that made it hugely satisfying to me - better than reversing the polarity or setting off a Delta Wave or any other gubbins. We'd had four years of the Doctor proving he could defeat monsters - even without time to Stand and Scare - and I think there's plenty of room in the series for resolutions that examine the character rather than plot the monsters away.

I find your loathing of Davies's stories utterly baffling, of course - does it really need repeating so many times in the next guy's series? But enjoyed the review otherwise. :-)

SAF said...

Thanks. You make a fair point about the reputation ploy, and as I say it was balanced out in this one by having two resolutions to two different alien menaces. I do hope it doesn't get used too often though.

I think 'loathing' is too strong a word. I'm very much focused on the current series rather than on the past, but comparison is inevitable this early on and in any case it's more of a running gag for me, so imagine many of my comments about Rusty's Who with a wink on the end. ;-)

Steffan said...

I don't mind the odd comparison - I have no complaints with comparing the episode to Rose and Smith and Jones, or the odd gag like the "cracks" line.

But I'm currently enjoying this show less than I did under Davies. That's fine - tastes vary, as do individual experiences. And I love your enthusiasm and enjoyment of the current run (particularly since you're happy to acknowledge the bits you didn't enjoy as much).

I just found the references to the old show a bit too frequent - particularly since many of them read as though the reader is expected to agree that "RTD" is synonymous with "flawed Doctor Who".

SAF said...

Thanks, Steffan. You're probably right, I overdid the Rusty angle a bit. To be fair, it's not that I expect anyone to agree with me - quite the opposite, I love conflicting/contrasting views. It's more that I think everyone (who reads this blog) knows my views on the subject and I kind of play to that.