A new era begins then, as “Doctor Who” says goodbye to David Tennant’s popular tenth incarnation of the Doctor, and warmly welcomes the youngest ever actor to assume the role of the wandering Time Lord, in the lanky, tweed-wearing shape of 27 year old Matt Smith. But as Series 5 kicks off (or season 31 if you want to be pernickety), it isn't just the actor in the title role who is changing: this time it feels like one of those exciting periods in the show’s colourful history when the slate is wiped clean, a whole new production team comes in, and the show as a whole - not just its lead actor - gains a new face; a period not unlike the one that saw the 1969-1970 changeover from the impish space-hopping of Patrick Troughton’s Doctor, to the earthbound, Quatermassy scientific adventure-faring of the Jon Pertwee years.
From the moment it was re-launched in 2005 with the high profile appointment of Christopher Ecclestone attracting a wealth of press interest for a series once popularly thought merely a quaint science fiction museum piece, Nu Who (as it was quickly dubbed) flourished under the confident and flamboyant penmanship of head writer and executive producer Russell T. Davies, gaining the BBC massive viewing figures in its prime time Saturday evening slot, and once again becoming a cornerstone in the TV schedules. The hand-over from Ecclestone to Tennant was smoothly orchestrated by Russell T. and the same BBC Wales production team who first brought this re-vamped series to the screen; and though David Tennant inevitably brought his own personality and characteristics to the role, the series continued in much the same vein and in a very similar style to that which had been developed previously - RTD’s writing favouring high-blown emotion, broad humour and story arcs which - at times - aimed for a truly epic scale, particularly in the ‘Bang-Crash’ series finales.
With Davies now leaving (after penning the most bloated and drawn-out New Years’ Day farewell episode for Tennant that any Doctor has ever received in the history of the series) and handing over the running of the show to Steven Moffat (along with the pivotal role of head writer), and with BBC Wales Head of Drama and executive producer Julie Gardner also leaving to be replaced by Piers Wenger, Matt Smith’s inaugural appearance became just the most public side of a total series re-packaging. Moffat’s self-penned opener - an extended hour-long special - was awaited with similar levels of feverish expectation to that which had previously greeted the first episode of the 2005 series.
In fact, Moffat has steered a careful course with his ‘reboot’. Why fix something that isn’t broke: the new series follows broadly the same format developed during the RTD years, but changes the emphasis on certain key aspects in such a way as to make us notice that there is indeed a different vision operating behind the scenes of the show. The ‘tumpty-tumpty’ theme music has been remixed (it’s awful!), and the Doctor Who logo’s been changed (it’s also awful!), while episode one introduces us to a brand new companion to accompany this new Doctor (she’s brilliant!). There has clearly been a lot of thought and effort put into getting the tone of the first episode right. The emergence of Matt Smith’s Doctor is rather cleverly made integral to the new companion’s back story, and Steven Moffat’s contention that the series is first and foremost a fairy tale, and a science fiction series only second, is heavily fore-grounded in his storytelling from the off. In fact, the tension between ‘reality’ and fairy tales, the inevitability of forgetting the past and re-constructing it as a more manageable fiction, and the problems of how to tell the difference between the two: these are themes that re-emerge again and again in most of the episodes, and get more pressing and insistent as this series develops.
Visually, the series seems to be abandoning the urban, London centric settings of the RTD era (even if most of it always was shot in Cardiff!) and placing a new emphasis during the earth-based episodes on rural village locations - conjuring echoes of Pertwee-era tales such as “The Daemons”, “The Green Death” and “The Silurians”, with their preponderance of cottage hospitals, village halls and church graveyards, etc. It all feels a great deal smaller in scale and less bombastic than the grand ambitions of the Russell T. Davies episodes; the primary locations of the first story, for instance, are a back garden with a shed, a village hospital and a duck pond! Perhaps it has a lot to do with BBC credit crunch-induced cutbacks but this new ‘homeliness’ isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
As usual, 2 Entertain are releasing the episodes three at a time, largely devoid of extras, before a big box set crammed full of special features eventually emerges - probably around Christmas time!
Episode One: THE ELEVENTH HOUR
Little Amelia Pond is scared of the crack in her bedroom wall. It glows and eerie voices emerge from it in the night. On Easter’s eve, she prays to Santa (“Sorry If I woke you up!”) asking him to send someone to fix it and, almost immediately, a big blue box that’s all smashed up and glowing crashes in the back garden of her house in the small Gloucestershire village of Leadworth, and a thin and ’raggedy man’ clambers out of it, introducing himself as the Doctor. He asks for an apple, but after rejecting the one that the little girl proffers, finally settles on a meal of fish fingers and custard! Then he examines the crack in her wall, informs her that it is actually a crack in the fabric of the Universe itself, and communicates with a giant eye that peers out of it and which booms the words, ‘Prisoner Zero Has Escaped!’ Then he rushes back inside his blue box, shouting that the ‘engines are phasing’ and that he’s got take a brief trip to the moon in order to get them realigned, but that he’ll be back in five minutes! Amelia packs a suitcase, collects a cuddly toy, puts on a warm coat over her nightie and runs to wait expectantly in the back garden, dreaming of adventure … Five minutes pass. Then an hour. The raggedy man doesn’t come back.
This is the 'dissapointed fairy tale' beginning to Steven Moffat’s opening scene of episode one of the new series of 'Doctor Who'.
Twelve years and four psychiatrists later (all of whom collectively failed to convince her that she imagined that raggedy man and his blue box), and Amelia Pond has changed her name to the less story book-ish (but not much!) Amy Pond; and she no longer believes in fairy tales. Which is unfortunate, because that mysterious, not-at-all-imaginary friend from her childhood is about to come crashing back into her life. It seems that a slight malfunction in the damaged TARDIS resulted in the Doctor skipping twelve years into the future, rather than the five minutes he had promised. So Amy is rather nonplussed when the same man, looking no older than he was when she met him as a little girl (and still clutching the same apple), re-appears in her house, because the clever seven year-old he met ‘five minutes ago’ is now a hardened and rather pouty kiss-o-gram girl!
After only slowly cottoning-on to the truth that the grown up young woman in front of him was once indeed that same little Amelia Pond, the Doctor tells her that for the last twelve years of her life, an escaped, multi-dimensional multiform alien known as Prisoner Zero, has been living behind a perception filter in her house, and now his guards, the Atraxi (represented by the giant eye behind the crack in her wall) have come to take back their prisoner, or destroy its hiding place - which the Atraxi see as not just Amy’s house … but the whole of the Earth! The Doctor and Amy have only twenty minutes to save the entire planet from destruction!
The bulk of this episode is rightly concerned with establishing the nature of the relationship between Amy and the Doctor, and setting the ground rules for it. Matt Smith has a marvellous scene with young Amy at the beginning, in which she helps him discover the kind of food his new incarnation likes to eat; Smith’s absent-minded professor in a young man’s body persona is instantly engaging, and by the second episode he’s made the role his own, developing a set of idiosyncratic mannerisms that have enough of Patrick Troughton -Smith’s favourite Doctor - in them to thrill fans of the classic series, while still incorporating the sudden manic bursts of energy which the re-launched show has made an integral, core aspect of every Doctor’s personality since the ninth incarnation. Karen Gillan is requisitely ’feisty’, as all 21st Century companions have to be, but hers is rather a bruised and damaged character at the start of this episode - and it’s largely because of the Doctor’s unreliability (while he was still in the process of regenerating) that her life has become so characterised by trauma and numerous trust issues.
Moffat is not afraid to address a sexual side to this rather tempestuous character, leading more conservative critics to accuse the show of corrupting minors, especially after an episode later in the series in which she briefly attempts a seduction of the Doctor! Here though, at the very least, the fact that Amy appears to have two casual boyfriends on the go at the same time (hardly a crime, but in the whiter-than-white world of Children’s TV, something like this is thought by some to be a bit off!) indicates that this is going to be a much more controversial companion than some of those we’ve had previously. She’s not over-awed by the Doctor either: he made her vulnerable when she was a little girl, filled her with hopes and then dashed them all. She’s not going to open herself up again, even if she does accept his invitation to travel in the TARDIS. In many ways he needs her as much as she need him (“Oh, I see - Lonely!” she remarks, cynically, after the Doctor tells her he ends up talking to himself if left to travel on his own for too long).
Karen Gillan is a great actress though, and Amy ultimately comes across as able and likable and the prospect of seeing her develop as she travels in time and space with the new Doctor - and the interesting dynamic between this very odd couple - is beguiling. It’s clear they both need each other, but this is not going to be an easy-going relationship. The story itself - the rush to capture that shape-shifting multiform and stop the Atraxi destroying the Earth, is, of course, quite secondary to this crash-course bonding between the Doctor and Amy, as well as the introduction of Rory and Jeff, her prospective beaus. But the great Moffat one-liners, the quirky shape-shifting action and the introduction of a whole bunch of beautifully written new characters makes this a spiffing start to a brand new era in the show's history.
And the same pattern as that crack first seen in Amy’s bedroom wall crops up again on the TARDIS monitor at the end of the episode, indicating that this is about to become one of those linking threads that run through all the stories in the series.
Episode Two: THE BEAST BELOW
The TARDIS has also regenerated itself during the time the Doctor and Amy were busy saving the Earth from the Atraxi: we now have a swanky new TARDIS interior to enjoy; still all rather Heath Robinson and cobbled together, but much, much larger and bathed in a soothing orange light. After a test run, the Doctor accidentally skips another two years into Amy’s future, during which time she’s got herself engaged to the soon to be long-suffering male nurse, Rory!
Her first adventure with the Doctor takes place in the far future, on the eve of her wedding (‘a long time ago tomorrow morning’): the 29th century to be exact, when the Earth’s entire population has vacated the planet on a fleet of spacecraft because solar flairs have made it uninhabitable ( a piece of continuity first developed in Tom Baker’s second adventure “The Ark in Space”). The TARDIS materialises on the Starship UK, a vast ship which harbours the entire population of the United Kingdom (although it no longer includes Scotland apparently, because they wanted their own ship!). The Doctor and Amy visit the ship’s recreation of Oxford street, which looks just as crowded and Cosmopolitan as the old one, complete with its bustling crowds, street markets and a taped-off road works - although this one turns out to harbour a giant tentacle concealed by a road works tent!
When they spot a child crying on her own, being studiously ignored by the colourful street crowds, the pair become intrigued, and the Doctor surmises that this colony ship is under the thumb of a police state.
Moffat supplies this particular episode’s stuff-of-child-nightmares quotient in the threatening form of robot-like beings called ‘Smilers’. These cowled figures sit in booths dotted all over the ship and have hideous painted grins on their reversible faces. Their heads automatically revolve in response to prohibited behaviour, and their expressions change into a malevolent frown to indicate their displeasure!
The time travellers are not the only two people onboard who are concerned about what might really be going on, concealed in the lower decks of this state-controlled surveillance society, though. A red caped, blaster-totting cockney - Queen Liz the 10th - is the Starship UK’s royal figurehead (“I’m the bloody Queen, mate! Basically … I rule!) and she is convinced her Government are up to something odd that they‘re not telling her about. She joins forces with the Doctor and Amy to discover the truth.
The genius conceit of this story is revealed when Amy is ‘abducted’ for trespassing in a prohibited area. Instead of being imprisoned or interrogated, she is simply given a vote, as are the entire population of Starship UK over the age of sixteen - every five years! First of all, the prospective voter has to watch a film, a film that tells them the truth … the complete and unvarnished, diabolical truth about the awful price that has been paid in their name to secure safety, ease of living and peace for the population aboard the Starship UK. After they have been given all the facts of the matter, they must then decide if they want to ‘protest’ or ‘forget’ by pushing one of two buttons. If more than 1% of the population choose to protest then there will be irreversible consequences for the future of the ship. Anyone who chooses to forget, though, will have their memory of the last twenty minutes automatically wiped and can then go back to living their life in blissful ignorance. Tellingly, when made aware of this truth, Amy instinctively slaps the ’Forget’ button and is then played a video she must have recorded during her lost twenty minutes, in which she pleads with herself to stop the Doctor from investigating any further and to get him to leave the ship immediately!
The forgetting theme is going to re-occur in future episodes throughout the series and that crack pattern appears again at the very end of this episode, unseen by anyone else except the viewer. Here, Moffat constructs a story replete with the darker, nightmarish elements from the fairy tale equation now informing the series; but ultimately it is about Amy using her implicit understanding of the Doctor’s true nature - the last surviving member of his race and someone who cannot leave a child to cry and face her fears alone - in order to solve an apparently impossible dilemma and, in the end, stop the Doctor making one of the biggest mistakes of his life. Here, then, she earns her right to become a fully fledged companion, rather than just a casual ‘pick-up’ (so to speak!).
Episode Three: VICTORY OF THE DALEKS
The TARDIS materialises in the command centre of the cabinet war rooms beneath Whitehall, during the darkest days of the Blitz - summoned there by Winston Churchill, who has a permanent direct line to the Doctor! But, as is becoming a habit with this eleventh incarnation, he’s a month late. In the meantime, the British war leader has embraced the creation of some secret robot weapons designed by Professor Edwin Bracewell - called ‘Ironsides’. These turn out to be the Doctor’s familiar and most hated enemy, the Daleks - painted in soldier green, with little kitbags attached to them, and a union jack flag beneath the eyestalk! Although they appear to be entirely placid and committed only to winning the war for Great Britain, the Doctor knows they must be up to something. There’s also another worrying problem: Amy has no memory of ever having seen a Dalek before, and she should. After all, they invaded the Earth and enslaved the entire planet not so long ago in the future! After making his identitiy known to one of the soldier Daleks, the Doctor’s ‘testimony’ is transmitted to a lone Dalek Saucer that is in orbit around the moon, and the recording is used to activate a progenator device which is poised to recreate the Dalek army. Since this device had been seeded with the DNA of Dalek leader Davros, it fails to recognise these last remaining survivors of the Time War as authentic members of the Dalek race. So they devised this entire plan to lure the Doctor to them through Churchill and their android creation, the inventor Professor Bracewell; the Doctor’s acknowledgment is then enough to kick-start the progenator device into operation, and a new Dalek race is born!
This episode proved to be somewhat controversial with many Whovians; it features a brand new design for the Daleks that has not been met with a great deal of enthusiasm. The gleaming, sleek and metallic Dalek design frequently seen during the RTD years was indeed a thing of beauty, while the inspiration for this new re-booted version (who destroy the last remaining ‘impure’ Daleks as soon as they emerge from the Progenator) seems to have been the bright, shiny, multicoloured forms that once populated the 1960s Dalek movies made by Amicus, which starred Peter Cushing as a human Doctor who invents his own time machine in his back-shed. They’re big and bulky-looking and come in an assortment of bright colours (to indicate that they each have a different role in the Dalek command structure). The stimulus for this redesign appears to have come from the fact that actress Karen Gillan is a great deal taller than Billie Piper, and thus seems to dwarf the old Daleks (which were designed with the fact in mind that they would be frequently appearing alongside Piper). But it cannot be overlooked that they provide a great opportunity for a vast merchendising range as well!
This episode has also come in for criticism by some who have complained that it features a rose-tinted, mythological version of Winston Churchill and of Britain during the Blitz; something that seems a little unfair given that this is a series which knowingly presents itself as fairy tale-like, and it’s hardly the place of a telly-fantasy for kids to start a debate on the complexities of Churchill’s motives and character. Writer Mark Gatiss has actually produced a charming screenplay here, with many keynotes resoundingly struck during scenes in which, for instance, the Daleks attempt to appear benign by offering people cups of tea, and a joyous pastiche of the attack on the Death Star at the end of “Star Wars”- only with modified World War 2 Spitfires attacking the Dalek Saucer in space.
The series themes appear more forefully than ever in this episode: for one thing, why does Amy not remember the Daleks? This plot device is a crafty play on that old lighthearted criticism of the series that, particularly during Jon Pertwee's earthbound years, aliens used to invade the planet on a weekly basis, yet no one ever seemed aware of the fact! Memory also plays an important role in prohibiting the Daleks from using Bracewell as a bomb to destroy the Earth. Although they are only artificial implants operating inside an android mind, Bracewell’s memories still make him a de facto 'human': and by reacting to his‘memories’ of a lost love in a human way, he overrides the Dalek-controlled imperative to activate the bomb at his core.
These three episodes mark a very strong start to Matt Smith’s tenure in this, the biggest role on British television. By the third episode, the David Tennant era is but a distant memory, and the young actor has ably put to rest any last lingering doubts that, at only 27, he may not have had the required screen presence or sufficient gravitas to make a convincing time travelling authority figure. Smith brings a hint of a slightly geeky, professorial persona to his portrayal, but combines it with bounding youthful energy and a vast confidence: this is a Doctor who can inspire and mesmerise those around him, but still become slightly awkward and reveal his essential alien-ness in his interactions with humans during certain situations. Karen Gillan, meanwhile, is a perfect compliment to Smith's tweedy Doc: Amy is able to notice important human details which the Doctor might tend to overlook, but she’s also the most fully realised and interesting companion the Doctor has had since Rose Tyler. Hopefully this pair will continue to travel together for some time to come.
Available on both Blu-ray and DVD, the disc comes with a ten minute featurette: the first part of "The Monster Files" produced by the makers of BBC 3's Doctor Who Confidential, which takes a behind-the-scenes look at the monstrous foes to be faced in this latest series.