it's not a new doctor -- it's the same man. new doctor who showrunner steven moffat has said this a lot recently, and it's true. in his latest incarnation, the doctor is the same man. only different.
the BBC's time lord hero has a new face (matt smith, above at left), along with a lot of other new things. and at long last -- well over a year since smith was cast to replace outgoing doctor david tennant -- the ever-growing u.s. who fandom will see him in action in "the eleventh hour," airing saturday night on bbc america at 6 and 9.
do i even need to say it? all right, i will: SPOILERS AHEAD! STOP READING NOW IF YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS.
the episode kicks off at high, loopy speed, with the seriously damaged TARDIS flying out of control over nighttime london while the newly regenerated doctor dangles, hollering, from the open doorway. he crash-lands in the garden of a house where a girl named amelia pond, who lives there with her aunt, is praying to SANTA (ahaha!). she needs someone to fix the crack in her wall, from whence mysterious whispers emanate. "thank you, santa," she says upon seeing the battered police box that has just crushed the garden shed.
it's a great start (restart?), and in general i like matt smith as the 11th doctor. as much as i loved tennant (and christopher eccleston before him), and almost everything former showrunner russell t. davies did with doctor who (including bringing it back to the screen in the first place), i have been looking forward to a change. after all, change -- brought on by the character's periodic regeneration, allowing another actor to take over -- has been at the heart(s) of this show practically since it began in 1963.
tennant became the most popular doctor ever in the UK, but matt smith is going to be the biggest doctor ever in the states. not because he's better than tennant or even necessarily more appealing to americans; it's just about timing. BBCA has relatively recently been ramping up its profile and didn't even air the show first over here for much of the new who run (which premiered here on scifi). doctor who is still a cult jam here, but the buzz is building. the major u.s. dailies have made a fair amount of fuss over this latest series, as have the entertainment rags and blogs.
smith, 27, is the youngest actor to play the doctor (a couple of years younger than peter davison, who was 29 when he became the fifth doctor back in 1981). and his secret weapon is karen gillan, a 22-year-old scottish redhead who is super-cute and very likable as the doctor's new best friend, amy pond. this week they did some promo appearances in new york and l.a., and boy are they adorably goofy and geeky together.
this apparent turn toward the youth market might be worrisome, were the very fine writer and award-winning fan fave moffat not at the helm. as it is, all that talk about smith playing old in a young body wasn't complete hype. smith makes a strong mark here, and i think it will become more distinctive. still, eleven's catchphrase -- "geronimo!" -- is not a patch on nine's "fantastic!" or even ten's "allons-y!" but at least he still says "whaaaat?!" and now he gets to pingpong about time and space in a redone TARDIS that is, as moffat says, "even bigger on the inside." hallelujah for that!
(image lifted from the eclectic banana blog; thanks.)
moffat is straightforward about his take on the show. "doctor who is a fairy tale," says he -- more grimms than disney, of course. his previous who stories often feature fantastical goings-on and creepy hybrids of myth and science fiction -- the gas-mask people in "the empty child"/"the doctor dances," the fabled weeping angels of "blink." however, like fairy tales, moffat's stories resonate not because of the supernatural but due to the all-too-human: lies, guilt, secrets, love. both moffat and RTD are emotional writers, but where RTD's who popped on every level -- visually, sonically, dramatically -- moffat's is so far more nuanced and intimate, although just as likely to get loud and silly.
sure, the doctor has 20 minutes to save the world in "the eleventh hour" -- without TARDIS or sonic screwdriver. but that's just backdrop. this is really about setting up the relationship between the doctor and seven-year-old amelia, a complex and psychologically fraught connection that's a far cry from "nice to meet you, rose tyler. run for your life!"
still wearing ten's battered suit and trainers, eleven hauls himself out of the TARDIS wreckage, but his extraordinary entrance barely fazes amelia. that crack in the wall, however, has her worried. "must be a hell of a crack," muses the doctor over a restorative meal of fish fingers and custard (the culmination of some overlong spit-take slapshtick involving the doctor searching for the right food to help him through the last phases of regeneration).
he got that right. on the other side of the crack, an ominous authoritarian voice announces, "prisoner zero has escaped." amelia's heard those words before but doesn't know what they mean. the doctor doesn't either, but he's going to find out ... right after he deals with the regenerating TARDIS. he tells amelia he'll be back in five minutes, and then she can come with him. amelia packs a suitcase and parks herself in the garden to wait.
and wait ... .
"geronimo!" be damned; the real catchphrase this season may be "timey-wimey" (a moffat-ism that basically means time travel causes weirdness). that is, the doctor doesn't come back in five minutes: he comes back 12 years later. well, it seems like five minutes to him, but ... like i said. timey-wimey. get used to it.
anyway, little amelia is now stunning redhead amy (karen gillan), the girl who waited a fucking long time. and her wait is not quite over. if this all seems kinda familiar, you've probably seen the tennant episode "the girl in the fireplace." penned by moffat, it had the doctor popping in and out of the life of madame de pompadour in a similar time-stretched fashion.
i got that feeling a lot: moffat, another lifelong who fan and more of a traditionalist than RTD, has made something so different, yet so very familiar. moffat establishes through-lines that will doubtless run all season, one of which is related to that crack in amy's wall, something called the pandorica, and the admonition that "silence will fall." there's also a laptop boldly emblazoned with the product name "MΨTH" (which recalls the atmos thing from last season but might just be a throwaway gag). amy doesn't have a family (nor, thank god, an unrequited or even requited love for the doctor), but she does have tenuous ties to ordinary life that may prove hard to shake. yet all this treading of familiar territory is preferable to new ideas that don't really work, such as the fast-forward "doctorvision" bit meant to show us, i guess, how the doctor's perceptions work.
eleven's tweedy jacket and bow tie somewhat recall the second doctor's get-up, but he's not as deceptively clownish as patrick troughton played two. smith does have a distinctly eccentric edge to his acting, and if he doesn't radiate manic joy at playing the doctor from every pore (as did tennant), his doctor still at times comes across as benignly unhinged and perennially distracted, a la the great tom baker, the fourth, longest-running, and still best doctor ever.
happily, amy is a bit unhinged herself. who wouldn't be, after that childhood experience? the doctor clearly left a big impression, as she grew up making dolls, stories, and comics about him -- likenesses so well rendered that when he finally does return, everyone in her tiny town is like, "hey, it's YOU! the raggedy doctor! YOU'RE REAL OMG!" which is a pretty funny running gag.
it's rather horrifying, however, to have all the adults around you trying to convince you your "imaginary friend" isn't real, when you know he is. the experience has made amy more independent-minded but has also damaged her. "12 years and four psychiatrists," amy fumes at the doctor -- yikes.
the doctor seems a bit hurt by her attitude. "i grew up," she snaps. "we'll soon fix that," he cheerfully replies. the doctor is peter pan, and now amy doesn't have to grow up.
it is like a fairy tale, or a dream. we never see amy in regular clothes; she wears either her nightclothes or her ridiculous "kissogram" costume, a policewoman outfit with the shortest skirt evar -- just like how sometimes in dreams you're wearing totally inappropriate clothes for whatever's happening. even the new opening sequence befits a fairy tale, as the time vortex swirls like a menacing black rose, shot through with lightning bolts and fire.
likewise, we see flashes of the more dangerous being behind the doctor's devil-may-care demeanor -- the emergence, perhaps, of the great and terrible time lord described by river song in moffat's "silence in the library." the doctor is the same man -- a point beautifully reflected in a sequence where 11 suits up in his new outfit while warning off the extraterrestrial threat du jour, as a montage of his previous incarnations plays over the alien's info screen. but by the end, when moffat puts a clever twist on the doctor's oft-repeated command of "run," it's clear that 11 can indeed be her doctor.