I was going to reserve judgement on the new Doctor till the end of this series, but last week’s episode was so weak I now feel the need to speak out just to break the jinx.
I suppose it didn’t help that the series opened on such a high. The critical buzzword on‘ The Eleventh Hour’ was ‘assured’, but I think it was the best introduction to a Doctor we’d ever had. New Who kingpin Steven Moffat wrote a brilliant setup that went light on plot to focus on establishing the character, and Matt Smith was so perfectly natural and yet so totally different to David Tennant that, by the end, I was convinced he was the best Doctor yet. I was wrong, of course, for reasons I’ll explain later, but the omens were that good.
This new Doctor, born so fully formed, seemed more mercurial and more brilliant than his predecessor, and the script hung gracefully on the kind of deft devices for which Moffat is reknown. Think of The Doctor’s DVD Easter Egg chit chat in ‘Blink’, the Vashtar Nerada and Data Ghosts in The Library, or the titular fireplace aboard the SS Madame de Pompadour. Here we had fish custard, an electric blue space snake spying on a lonely girl for a decade, and a smiley face carved in fruit to prove time travel.
Moffat’s ear for a finely wrought twist always made a refreshing change from Russell T Davies and his increasing weakness for attacking the widest possible canvas with an ever chunkier brush. At his best (‘Turn Left’ and ‘Midnight’ to name just two) Davies could go toe-to-toe with the best TV writers on the planet, but Moffat’s scripts always felt more focussed to me, more efficient at characterisation, and as consistently demanding on the brain as they were entertaining. Throwaway lines sparkled throughout ‘The Eleventh Hour’ (“You’re Scottish, fry something”, ”I’m The Doctor, I’m everybody’s aunt”) and gave it instant replay value. In fact I watched it four times, back to back, which is more than enough to see any cracks, and there weren’t many.
There were a few, though, in ep two. Basically James Blish’s ‘Okie’ novels with an Orwellian twist and a dash of ‘Free Willy’, ‘The Beast Below’ saw an exponential increase in plot density that left precious little space for The Doctor to exercise his new eccentricities. Consequently it felt a bit too much too soon, and while its central moral premise - mass human collusion in torturing the last of an alien species to save our country - was engaging, it was also infuriating.
Why would anyone care about the Starwhale? Certainly why would anyone care enough to establish a sinister system of cyborgs that effectively murder children? And why would The Queen, of all people, choose nightmarish infanticide over alien wildlife? Was a whale worth wiping her memory for three centuries? Of course not. The choice was extinction or whale torture and we chose the latter, so why can’t she & we all just grow a pair and crack on with surviving instead of buckling under a pointless burden of subconcious guilt? It’s only a bloody whale! Let’s try to resist feeding our children to it shall we?
Karen Gillan and Mr Smith still made a great team though, with Amy saving the Doctor from the terrible fate of lobotomising the poor mateless mammal. She saved the day again in last week’s episode, but part of me wishes she hadn’t.
Plucked off the shelf as a story concept left over from the last series (where it was replaced by ‘Fires of Pompeii’) and written by the usually reliable Mark Gatiss, ‘Victory of the Daleks’ lacked the dramatic heft necessary for any new Doctor/Dalek confrontation. Remember Christopher Ecclestone’s powerful rant at the shackled Dalek in Series One? There’s a nod to that here, but sadly it serves only as a reminder of the emotional depth Ecclestone brought to the role and how far Mr Smith still has to go. Just in case you’ve forgotten:
Chris Ecclestone and David Tennant are both superb actors, superior in technique to every Doctor before them. As an audience we’ve been spoiled, for four series, by their ability to lift the weaker scripts by sheer force of actorly will, so the most crucial question posed by series five is this: does Matt Smith share that ability? On the evidence of last week’s episode I’d have to say ‘not quiet’.
To be fair, he wasn’t the only problem with this adventure, which put a Churchillian-cliche generator front & centre for the working life of the plot, which sadly ended ten minutes before the credits and existed solely to introduce the ‘new’ Mini-Cooperesque Daleks.
Bigger, fatter, butcher-voiced, in a variety of glossy colours and faintly hunchbacked (though still perservering with the pointless plunger) they had ‘fallen through a hole in time’ (again) and built a wee Scottish scientist just so they could recreate themselves through the power of The Doctor’s testimony. Not a bad idea.
Unfortunately, while The Doctor bravely kept them at bay with a Jammy Dodger (see? even this episode had its moments) the cyborg Jock boffin adapted three spitfires for space combat in about ten minutes to attack the Dalek ship (don’t ask how the pilots coped with that, two decades before the Apollo missions, or how their propellers and cannons operated in a vacuum, or how their wooden fuselages withstood re-entry, this is sci-fi for God’s sake!) Anyway, once our brave boys had put paid to the Daleks’ dastardly plan to turn on London’s lights mid-Blitz, the wee scientist was then revealed to be an Earth-shattering bomb that could only be defused by the power of Love. Awwww.
Yes, ’Victory of the Daleks’ was, at turns, as laughable and disappointing as the above picture might suggest, but, for me, it’s biggest problem was not the script, but Matt Smith’s inability to transcend it. Maybe it’s unfair to line him up alongside Tennant & Ecclestone. As a much younger actor he doesn’t yet have that pedigree, but he is The Doctor and he must maintain the standard. That said, his Doctor is such a different character and he does seem to wear it like a second skin, offscreen as well as on, so maybe there is a chance he’ll yet grow into the fantastic Timelord glimpsed in that first episode. My heart hopes so, but my brain doubts it.
Let’s see if tonight’s two-parter, ‘The Time of Angels’, can prove me wrong.
+++UPDATE: 25.04.10 – Episode Four, penned by Moffat, was indeed a return to form after what was now obviously a blip with the Daleks. How could I have been so stupid? ’The Time of Angels’ was better than ep two, and, in some respects, better than ep one in that it was genuinely scary. Far more so than ‘Blink’ even. In fact, the scene where Amy was trapped with the Angel was about as scary as Who gets, and every word - from River’s first to The Doctor’s climactic speech - was brilliantly written (Amy, potentially only seconds from death: “I don’t want you to die for me Doctor, do I look that clingy?”) Now I can’t wait for ep five, and will update this post accordingly next week. Has it changed my opinion of Matt Smith? I think he’s an astonishing Doctor, but I’m definitely waiting till the season’s over before making my mind up. I refuse to get sidetracked by one lame script again.+++
+++UPDATE: 07.05.10 – Ep Five and the second part of the Weeping Angels story: too elliptical, too many smug guffaws from Dr Song, and a bit of a car crash snog at the end that might have worked if it hadn’t been totally clueless as to what tone to strike – comically awkward? steamily sensual? Puzzlingly neither? I’m intrigued, though, to see how the Doctor rewrites time. Right now, I hope he rewrites River Song out of it entirely+++
+++UPDATE: 13.05.10 – Ep Six, The Vampires of Venice, written by ‘Being Human’ creator Toby Whithouse, was a perfect blend of comedy & drama that had the great idea of dragging Amy’s fiance, Rory, along to dissipate the pointless tension betwixt the Doc and his companion. Nice space fish too. Trail for next week’s ‘Amy’s Choice’ makes it sound a bit Sapphire & Steel in a multi-dimensional trap sense. Intriguing.+++
+++UPDATE: 17.05.10 – Ep Seven, Amy’s Choice, written by Simon Nye, turns out to be a massive internal monologue disguised as an interdimensional mindgame in which The Doctor’s nastier side forces Amy to finally choose who & what she really wants – The Doctor and a lifetime of alien adventure, or Rory and babies in a lifeless country idyll. Her choice, driven by grief, swiftly stamps on Amy’s more annoying emotional obsessions and hopefully strangles the love triangle at birth. Shame, then, that the ep wasn’t anywhere near as compelling as it sounds on paper, and I can’t quite work out why this should be – there’s lethal danger in both dreamworlds, and enough snappy dialogue to repel boredom. Perhaps, on reflection, it’s Amy. I don’t think she did enough, in the wake of Rory’s ‘death’, to convince me of her choice, which critically undermines the whole story, considering its title. An interesting concept though, and not short on ambition, so let’s call it a gallant failure.+++