Tom Steward continues his look back at this year’s series! Read his overview here.
The Eleventh Hour
This deliberately lightweight introduction to the new series smoothed the transition from the madcap farce of the Davies era. It’s been traditional in Dr. Who for the first episode under a new producer and actor to be a tribute to the departing crew and cast. For example, the debut of fourth Doctor Tom Baker and producer Philip Hinchcliffe – Robot – was a serial set in the familiar world of UNIT, paying tribute to the Pertwee and Letts Earth-bound era of hard action.
For the majority of this episode, Smith’s Doctor was dressed in Tennant’s clothes, his performance still couched in the floaty-eyed wonder of his predecessor. Rather than doing an impression, though, Smith was thoughtful and surprising where Tennant was grating and increasingly predictable.
Successful Who premieres also make significant breaks and their intentions clear straight off. The Eleventh Hour‘s comedy was predominantly verbal not visual. The settings were mundane and classically British (a quiet rural hamlet), and the Doctor came out not entirely sympathetically. As sharp a contrast as Tom Baker failing to karate-chop a brick Pertwee-style in the final scene of Robot!
The Beast Below
Although the challenges of a second episode (maintaining pace and performances) were ably met by Moffat and his brilliant actors, this episode exposed some of the new series’ weaknesses. The shift to Davies-like sentimentality in the latter stages tried too hard to pigeonhole the relationship between the Doctor and Amy as romantic before it had time to develop. This was a shame as the early part of the episode defined the dynamic more plausibly as one of teacher and student.
Moffat’s script was plot-heavy and reduced potentially fascinating characters, in particular Terrence Hardiman (The Demon Headmaster) as a shadowy government official, to mere exposition devices. The episode’s heart-stopping momentum made some plot elements (cryptic rhymes, unknown threats) almost incomprehensible.
However, Moffat’s horror credentials were shown off by one of the most terrifying introductions to a TV programme I can remember. The sequence, involving schoolchildren, subterranean elevators and the ventriloquist dummy-like Smilers, was a buffet of scares. Playing on basic but potent fears (dummies coming to life, slow-turning heads), it was nuts-and-bolts British horror par excellence. I haven’t been this chilled by the series since 1989′s Ghost Light, the underrated Sylvester McCoy’s disquieting and intangible haunted house chamber drama.
Effortlessly dopey and likeable, like his oft-cited favourite Patrick Troughton, Smith also displayed a genuinely awful temper, recalling the more abrasive William Hartnell. It was a magnificent performance, reviving the ambiguity and uneasiness lacking in his predecessor.
Victory of the Daleks
There was great fan animosity towards this episode, as there usually is to more historically-oriented serials. Criticism focused on the re-design of the Doctor’s most popular and established adversaries, the Daleks, as distended New Minis available in all pupil-burning colours.
I was equally nonplussed by the makeover, although it certainly reflects how the Daleks have been pop art design icons since the height of ‘Dalekmania’ in the mid-1960s. It’s a shame that this episode was so easily dismissed, as it’s a ripping yarn reminiscent of post-war comic strips like Eagle’s Dan Dare, with a very British sense of the mundane (the Daleks carrying box files and serving tea).
The writing was sharp, witty and minimalistic, with a historical rigour now sadly all too infrequent in the series. Ian McNiece’s Winston Churchill and the sub-plot of a pilot and servicewoman whose love is torn apart by war have also been subject to criticism. For my money, the portrayal of Churchill as essentially an underworld boss of dubious morality was bold and revisionist, avoiding the jingoistic hagiography usually associated with the historical figure. The restrained and de-personalised treatment of the romantic couple was totally appropriate to a story set during the collective effort of wartime.
It was also an episode that acknowledged the history of the series, with affectionate reprises of Troughton-era Dalek serials, reflections on how the Daleks used to look, how they used to be filmed and even how they found an afterlife as toys.