Doctor Who – The Eleventh Hour

A little under a week ago I sent in my entry for Big Finish’s short story competition – I’d written what I like to think is an excellent short story, where a brave, bright, but very little girl is scared by voices in her bedroom, which the only parental character mentioned in the story doesn’t believe exist, but the voices are made to go away through the intervention of the Doctor.

I thought it was possibly the best piece of fiction I’ve ever written, but ‘a bit Steven Moffat’, and it actually had a chance of winning.

All I could think, through the first ten minutes of The Eleventh Hour, the first episode of the new series of Doctor Who, as written by Steven Moffat, was ‘bugger’.

There are two things I want to make clear in this review before I go any further – two things which, unfortunately, due to the nature of online Doctor Who fandom, I need to say even though they really, really shouldn’t need saying.

The first is that even though I overall quite enjoyed the programme, I thought there was a lot to criticise within it as well, and in reviewing it I’m going to talk about those things. If you worry about someone ‘ruining your squee’, then please go away.

The second, and opposite, fact is that I have disliked the vast majority of what I have seen of the revived show as produced and written primarily by Russel T. Davies, and don’t really consider it to bear any relation to the programme I *do* like – but that I consider this a statement of personal aesthetic judgement about the programme, rather than a moral judgement about the programme’s creators or fans. In particular, I do not think Mr Davies is Satan, or that he wrecked the programme by allowing evil homosexualists into it, or that he is ‘destroying my childhood’ or ‘hating the fans’ or ‘stealing my programme and giving it to the mundanes’ or any of that nonsense. I just think he happens to be a writer/producer who is sincerely trying to make the best programme he can, but whose idea of a good programme is wildly at variance with mine. I also don’t think being overweight, gay or Welsh are, in themselves, reasons to attack someone. So if you wish to comment about how good it is that the fat taffy queer with his gay agenda has gone and given the programme back to the real fans, please go away.

Right, after that, with a bit of luck we might have got rid of the lunatics, and everyone reading this will be someone who regards Doctor Who as a TV programme, one to be judged by more or less the same standards by which one judges any other TV programme. So with that in mind, does Steven Moffat’s version of Doctor Who measure up?

Possibly the easiest way to look at this is to look at the things I didn’t like about Davies’ era, and see how Moffat’s version of the show compares to that. So the main things I didn’t like about Davies’ show were:

1) The morality of the show. It didn’t have any, and at times it seemed breathtakingly *immoral*, both in big ways (lionising Madame du Pompadour, one of the most disgusting individuals ever to have lived) and small (the bullying ‘let’s laugh at the nerdy nerdy nerds’ attitude of a good number of episodes). Both these, actually, are things that were more noticeable in Moffat scripts than others – but are still ultimately Davies’ responsibility as the person who set the tone for the show as a whole. My platonic ideal of Doctor Who would always side with the underdog, be that a slave being tortured to death in order to provide sugar for pampered French aristocrats, or a socially-awkward young man being mocked for enjoying science fiction DVDs.

2) The characterisation of the Doctor. The Doctor shouldn’t be a geek-chic indie kid generic hero who occasionally does something ‘wacky’, and nor should he be a lonely god who is the specialest person in the whole of special, but should be an intelligent, thoughtful, but fundamentally strange character.

3) The plotting. Things happening for a reason is nice, internal logic is also good. Davies ex machina less so.

4) Lack of imagination – everyone throughout history, whatever planet, in the year 200 billion or the fifteenth century, is exactly like people in early 21st century Britain. Big Brother and Britney Spears will be known until the end of the universe.

Looking at The Eleventh Hour in those terms, point one doesn’t apply – there is nothing horribly immoral in the story. It would be interesting if the Prisoner hadn’t been so obviously A Baddie – if there’d been a choice to be made between giving a possibly-innocent fugitive over or seeing Earth destroyed – but there was nothing actively immoral in there.

Point two I’m less sure on. Matt Smith is clearly a competent actor, but he didn’t seem especially Doctorish to me, and as Lawrence Miles pointed out, some of the lines would be easier to imagine coming from the mouth of Clint Eastwood than from Tom Baker. That said, he did save the world by actually thinking, and by noticing things, and that’s better than saving the world using handwavium. I’ll give him time.

Point three – there was a plot. It made sense, and the only problems with it are of the ‘but that’s not actually how computer viruses *work*’ type rather than the ‘but none of that makes any sense at all, even a little bit, why did he even *do* that?’ type. The one question I have is why the coma patients were all saying “Doctor” – there was no good reason at all for this.

Point four – well, this one was set in present-day Britain, so hard to say on this.

So overall, it’s too soon to say if the programme will be better than Davies’ effort, but there’s enough evidence that it will to be cautiously optimistic.

There are quite a few downsides, though. In particular, the show seems ruthlessly designed for the ‘geek demographic’, from the steampunk TARDIS interior to the guest appearance by Patrick Moore to the bow tie. It seemed so blatantly targeted to a demographic that I don’t consider myself part of that I felt put off.

Also, the story was very much Moffat-by-numbers. As I said, before, I wrote something that I thought very ‘Moffatty’ this week, and it turned out to be very close to the first ten minutes of this story (in fact I think it was rather better – those of my friends I asked to critique it can feel free to disagree in the comments). But structurally, this was very, *very* close to The Girl In The Fireplace, and the characters of Amy and Rory are more or less identical to the characters of Sally and Lawrence from Blink.

Not only that, but a *LOT* of the script was predictable. Little kid asks “How do I know you’ll come back?” to which the reply is “trust me, I’m the Doctor’. I was actually muttering many of the lines to myself before they were said. To a large extent the script was comprised entirely of cliches. Certainly, if you’d asked me to write the story I thought Moffat would write to introduce a new Doctor, I would have written something close enough to this that you could believe they were different drafts of the same script.

So it was still far closer to being cult-TV-by-numbers than to being proper good TV. The ‘classic’ series (or ‘real Doctor Who’ as I think of it) was in some way trying to do the same kind of thing as (at different times) I, Claudius or The Beiderbecke Affair or Boys From The Blackstuff or The Clangers or The Telegoons. It was often not up to the standards of those programmes, but it was trying to compete with those things. This series is trying to compete with Primeval and Robin Hood and Ashes To Ashes – it’s trying to do one very defined kind of thing. As far as that goes, it does it very well, and is probably the best show of its type. But I’d far rather an ambitious failure than a middling success, and my first impression of MoffWho is that it’s the latter.

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14 Responses to Doctor Who – The Eleventh Hour

  1. Bill Reed says:

    Sci-fi always borrows from the contemporaneous period in which it is written; isn’t that sort of the point? Davies’ Who was filled with evil reality television, evil Bluetooth, evil GPS, etc. That was one of his major recurring storytelling tropes, twisting everyday things into monstrous things, whereas Moffat seems to start with childhood fears and then make them bigger, badder, and realer. You could argue that Davies was writing something that was inherently sci-fi, and Moffat’s writing fantasy, but we all know that’s bullshit. It’s “science fantasy,” where anything goes so long as it’s aliens.

    A lot of this episode seemed to be Moffat playing at being Davies, which is fine– I love the Davies era, despite some obvious flaws and deux ex machinas. It’s a show that filled the Buffy-shaped hole in my heart. Tonally, however, this episode was big and brash and very much like New Who as it’s always been, so I’m surprised to see several critiques that think of it as so very different, because I’m not seeing it. Not yet, anyway– by the nature of having a different guy in charge, it’s bound to evolve into something that’s a bit more else.

    As for Matt Smith, I wanted to dislike him, I did, because Tennant was *my* Doctor, but he seemed pretty damn good, a mashup of Tom Baker, Patrick Troughton, David Tennant, and a dash of Peter Davison. I think he’s very doctor-y, the genuinely oddest Doctor we’ve had since the series came back. But I can’t fully judge from one episode.

    I discovered Doctor Who with the new series, so I’m therefore inclined to think of it in terms of the new series, rather than the original run, which comes across to me as this oddity that I’m very curious about and always willing to give a go but never quite enjoy. Well, not never– as I mentioned in a previous comment, I do love me some Hartnell, which just feels like an entirely different show, and I adore Pertwee, because his era is the most similar to the new series– it’s got a supporting cast and a lot of modern-day stuff and action and chases and all that. The first season of Tom Baker’s run feels strong– I love Ark in Space– but after that, the show loses me, aside from the odd story here or there.

    Now I’m just rambling. Opinions! Funny things, eh? Your idea of the show having a morality is not something I’ve ever considered before, but as an American, we define televisual morality as “the good guys win, and the bad guys fall off of something or explode.” I’ll have to think more on that respect.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      See, a *lot* of my problems with the show do stem from the morality aspect. It sounds utterly stupid, but a *lot* of my own morality – and indeed personality – I see in retrospect as having come from wanting, when I was *VERY* young, to imitate the Doctor as closely as possible. In many ways, when I returned to the show as an adult, seven or eight years ago, I was quite embarrassed at how much the Doctor resembled my idealised self-image…

      It makes perfect sense to me that someone who came to the show via the Welsh series wouldn’t enjoy the original series, because the two are such fundamentally different beasts – in much the same way I’m not a fan of the Welsh series but do enjoy the original.

      I don’t have a problem with Davies using contemporary stuff for storytelling purposes *in a contemporary story*. The evil bluetooth and so on isn’t so removed from the evil plastic consumer items in Terror Of The Autons, for example. I *do* have a problem with the idea that in hundreds of thousands of years people will be using *exactly* the same reality TV formats that were popular in 2005. If you want to do a satire on reality TV set in the future (though I’m not even sure if Bad Wolf was meant to be a satire as much as a celebration…) then show them having something sort-of a bit like current reality TV, not just the same programmes with ‘bot’ added to the presenters’ names.

      And yes, tonally, this was far closer to the rest of the Welsh series than to the series I love. But it was done *competently*, with no glaring, obvious, gigantic plot-holes and no characters changing motivation at writerly whim, and the Doctor didn’t commit genocide or anything like that. That level of basic competence is something that to my mind was missing from pretty much all the Tennant-era stuff I saw.

    • Wesley says:

      It’s interesting you should mention liking the Jon Pertwee era along with the modern series–I disliked the Davies era almost as much as Andrew, and the Pertwee seasons are my least favorite part of the original series. That’s partly because I found the writing flabby and most of the stories overlong, but mostly because it sticks so solidly to certain kinds of stories and settings–contemporary Earth, alien invasions, the Master.

      I like Doctor Who when it takes the characters into new environments and does something unpredictable. (That’s unpredictable because it’s imaginative, not unpredictable because it doesn’t make sense.) By contrast, much of the new series seems formulaic. A Doctor Who story is now a certain kind of story, and the writers don’t like to deviate from that mental model too often.

      It reminds me of Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles’s review of the original series story “The Visitation” in their About Time books… they disagreed wildly about the Graham Williams and John Nathan-Turner eras, but they both hated “The Visitation” because it was a Typical Doctor Who Story, which hit all the beats that someone with a nostalgic half-memory of the show might expect a Doctor Who story to hit.

      • Andrew Hickey says:

        Pretty much agree with all of that, though I do like Pertwee’s first series, with Liz Shaw, before it gets too repetitive.

  2. Nathan says:

    Interesting take. As a philistine who only knows of ‘nuWho’, ‘I’ve watched maybe 5 serials combined of ‘oldWho’ I disagree with some of your other articles on the subject (though I freely admit my ignorance) and fully appreciate the measured and mature response.

    I’m also aware you’ve vowed to not see series 4, but for continuity reasons I’d strongly urge you to, if not watch, at least read a very detailed summery of Moffat’s two-parter from series 4, as a character introduced there will apparently be very important in series 5 (she appears in the trailer several times)

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Oh, I’ve got enough friends who enjoy the Welsh series (I’m not prejudiced ;) ) that I know about River Song, and also know she’s essentially Bernice Summerfield with the serial number filed off…

  3. lionising Madame du Pompadour, one of the most disgusting individuals ever to have lived

    Your love of the old show doesn’t extend to Reign of Terror then? (I’d draw one of those similcons there if I knew how they went.)

    One of the attractions of the Doctor as a character is clearly his morality, to the extent that he’ll risk his life to defend a planet even as insignificant as the Earth. But one of the paradoxes about him is that at the same time he’s a very aristocratic character. A renegade Lord is still a Lord, after all. Denying that is denying an essential element of the show, I think.

    At first the new series assigned a lot of the ‘social levelling’ to Rose, who would naturally talk to servants, Ood and so on as equals. Perhaps they thought it came more naturally from such a character (with less of the connotations of John Cleese from Time Bandits), perhaps it made her less of a sponge for whatever the Doctor was staying.

    But all of that stuff is there in the new series, as much as it ever was, I think.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I actually haven’t seen Reign Of Terror yet, but I have no problem with the Doctor’s (and the show’s) view of the French Revolution being liberal-in-the-pejorative-sense – sort of “Now come on, we all know that Louis and Marie were bad sorts, but did you *really* have to cut their heads off? I mean, that’s going a bit far, don’t you think?”

      As for the rest, I think as well as Groucho Marx and Sherlock Holmes, the Doctor has a huge chunk of Tony Benn in him, especially in the Pertwee years…

      • Not Jeremy Thorpe?

        I think Reign of Terror is a pretty reactionary storyline, to be honest, and that it’s possible to think such a thing without being a frenzied guillotine afficionado. But I probably notice that more because it’s not actually as good a storyline as Girl in the Fireplace. (Old Who doesn’t always trump New Who.) Still, not much more to say if you haven’t seen it…

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          Oh, I’m sure it was – most British TV about the French Revolution is reactionary as hell. Just not yet seen it (one of the few Hartnells I’ve not got round to.)

          • While I’d generally go with the consensus that the historicals should be reappraised upwards, they do seem to have all too often been built around the notion that they shouldn’t try to buck the audience’s prejudices about history.

            It’s pretty much that the Nazi invasion was the template for history, either projected into the future (where they become Daleks) or the past (where they become upstart sans-culouttes.)

  4. Nathan says:

    Again forgive my ignorance, but I saw t he whole “lonely god” thing as a phase since the 9th and 10th were so clearly still affected by the Time War and weren’t anywhere near over it. It doesn’t seem until the 10th finally decided to move on

    In any case I see no indication the 11th has any such (such specific) baggage, seems to be more focused on wanting to find his own purpose rather than whining over his twicedead race. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad for it, a man can only grouse for so long.

    “I also don’t think being overweight, gay or Welsh are, in themselves, reasons to attack someone.”

    But the Welsh have such a funny language. Ok I’ll be good, the immature part of me HAD to get that out of my system. XD

  5. Yanaba says:

    While I enjoyed the ep a lot, I can’t deny that in hindsight, there were a lot of elements in the ep that end up being ‘known’ already. Insofar, it doesn’t surprise me that your story so closely resembled the episode. On that note, the coma patients asking for the Doctor reminded me of that WW2 ep with the gas-mask patients (can’t remember its name…).

  6. CoveredInBees says:

    Thank you! This is the first place I’ve seen that covers the plot similarities between this episode (which I very much liked, by the way) and Blink, The Girl In The Fireplace and The Runaway Bride. I was sort of astonished how much they ripped off their own material. And yet. . .I liked it.

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