5:1 The Eleventh Hour
5:2 The Beast Below
You're like Father Christmas, the Wizard of Oz, Scooby Doo, and I love you very much...
This is going to be difficult.
Seasons 3 and 4 were so bad, and the End of Time was so jawdroppingly shameful, that one is tempted to rave about Steven Moffat on general principles – to give him the Nobel Peace Prize simply because he is not George W. Bush. On the other hand, the degeneration from Dalek and the Satan Pit (as good or better than anything in the Original Series) to, say, the Stolen Earth (literally beneath contempt) happened so quickly that one feels one should err on the side of caution. Yeah, this time you gave us a funny, well-paced scene between the Doctor and Little Amy. This time you presented us with a moral dilemma that actually seemed to be a dilemma. Sure, for the last 72 hours I've been thinking about the line "...and then I'll change my name because I won't be the Doctor any more..." and grinning. And granted that Steven Moffat thinks that Doctor Who has more to do with fairy tales than with science fiction – and granted that the floating England is supposed to be dream like and impressionistic – then the Beast Below seemed actually to be a story in which most of the plot-threads were actually tied up by the end.
But that's only this week. You're just leading us on. We've been hurt too many times before. Next week you're going to kick us in the teeth.
The first thing to say is that Steven Moffat has done this story before. Twice. At least.
This is not to say that it is not a good story. In fact, the idea of a character who meets the Doctor when she is a little girl, and then meets him again when she is all grown up works much better in the modern era than in seventeenth century France. One suspects that this is the story which the Moff has always wanted to tell, and that R.T.D. persuaded him to shoe-horn it into an historical.
So: The Girl in the Fireplace the big controlling idea behind Doctor Who Season 5. We are going to see the Doctor through Amy's eyes, which involves seeing him twice. He's the fairy tale raggedy Doctor that had breakfast with Little Amy and he's the super-sexy complex man who Big Amy handcuffed to the radiator. And that double vision is not a bad reflection of what the programme has become: maybe what it always was. Doctor Who is both the programme you remember from when you were a kid; and it's the programme you are watching now, warts and all. It's both a children's fairy tale and a modern cool CGI soap. Both adults and kids love it, but in different ways. And maybe, in "the language of the night" the Doctor really is and only ever should be Amy's imaginary friend; and the monsters are really only her nightmares. Doctor Who is the kind of thing which lives in children's imaginations. R.T.D.'s Doctor was Christ in plimsolls, space-Jesus worshipped by the whole universe and commemorated in stained glass. Moffat's Doctor does indeed come in answer to a little girl's prayers. But the god she is praying to is called Santa.
It was, I think, cowardly to do all this from the Doctor's point of view. It would have been braver to do it from Amy's. We should have stayed with Amy for some of the years when people thought she was mad, and spent some time doubting with her if the Doctor was real. We should have been looking at the Doctor through her eyes, wondering if this new visitor was the same man she met all those years ago: not looking through his eyes wondering if the woman in the police uniform was the little girl he met five minutes ago.
The scenes between the Doctor and little Amy were really well done. They felt like something out of the Secret Garden or Bagpuss. The joke about the Doctor not knowing what kind of food Doctors's like best outstays its welcome, but it does give us the sense that the Doctor has spent a reasonable amount of time with Amy: long enough for him to actually be her Imaginary Friend. And it's very funny.
The most wonderful thing about Time Lords is I'm the only one.
(When was it happening? The TARDIS is flying over modern London (Millennium Dome, London Eye) but ends up in a cottage "12 years ago" – where 12 years ago is clearly "the olden days". Are we being subtly informed that the Doctor met little Amy "now" and grown up Amy "12 years in the future". I hope that the village where Amy lives will become a regular setting and that we get to know some of the characters. Just so pleasantly different from that generic London-Cardiff where everything used to happen.)
Even in the Christmas Invasion, David Tennant was very definitely not Christopher Eccleston. One could see the direction that his "not being Christopher Eccleston" was going to take, even if he was going to fill in some of the details as he went along. Matt Smith, I'm afraid, very definitely is David Tennant. Same buffer zone between stylish and geeky clothing; same arrogance; same habit of fast-talking his way out of problems. So far his unique selling point seems to be his child-friendliness. He made friends with Amy when she was a child: he keeps interacting with children and empathizing with children. Tennant would not, I think, have made so much out of the line about "when grown ups tell you everything's going to be fine..."
The beginning and the end of episode 1 were very strong. I didn't see either punchline coming. But the middle seemed to be in the very worst tradition of New Who. We have a monster which makes no sense whatsoever, but which the Doctor can exorcise using fast-talk and gobbledegook. Yes, the Doctor pointedly saves the day without his magic wand or his magic box: but in the end, he saves it with a magic computer virus and because these are the kinds of alien prison guards whose attention can only be attracted with a special magic alien guard attracty telephone. I don't think this particularly mattered – the story wasn't about the shape shifting criminal or the giant eye-ball. But it's interesting that when we need some kind of threat to act as a background to the Doctor and Amy getting to know each other, the new series still defaults to "puzzle aliens defeated by the magic internet" rather than, say, "men in rubber suits who want to conquer the earth".
Am I alone in finding it a little queasy that something which is explicitly constructing itself as kid-friendly includes quite so much innuendo? I understand that everyone else in the whole world thinks that the only notable thing about That Superhero Movie was that one of the characters used the word "Cunt". But That Superhero Movie was marketed as being for persons over the age of 15. Jokes about internet pornography and a lady not turning round when a gentleman is undressing seem a little... well... preferable to R.T.D. making toilet jokes every five minutes, actually.
The Beast Below I thought was very good indeed. The whole thing was driven by Big Red Buttons of the most shameless kind. There was really no way you could work backwards and imagine anyone actually building that space station. If you were leaving the earth because the earth's resources were running out, furnishing your schoolrooms with the kinds of desks that were obsolescent when I was at school would be rather more trouble than using modern ones, I think. (Do modern kids look at that scene and say "Oh, a rather traditional English classroom?" as opposed to "Why are those children sitting at funny tables?") And it's hard to see why anyone would say "Hey, make the surveillance cameras and the security robots look like seaside mannequins of the kind no-one can remember". But that didn't seem to matter, because we were clearly in the realm of Alice in Wonderland via The Prisoner. A dream/nightmare of England; a big floating metaphor. The imagery worked. I liked the idea of a spaceship where the transport tubes are still styled like the London Underground.
The Big Terrible Secret felt kind of like a lift from Ursula Le Guin but it was genuinely big, genuinely terrible and genuinely secret. I thought that the moral dilemma really worked nicely. I thought that the confrontation between the Doctor and Amy, though it came a bit too quickly, was convincing. I thought that the Doctor and Amy having the hearts-to-heart looking out into space was way too much like the End of the World. I thought the final pull-away at the end was much too much like the final pull-away at the end of Girl in the Fireplace: only there wasn't much point in it because we'd already been told about the whale.
It's a real problem that Doctor Who is now so much about the Doctor (as opposed to being about the places he goes and the people he meets). This is maybe why Smith is so much like Tennant: Tennant has so redefined the role - not the mannerisms, but what the Doctor is, that if Smith wasn't like Tennant he would run the risk of not being the Doctor. Only two stories after the regeneration, and it is already all about being old and sad and the only one of your kind. And this would not be so bad if Moffat didn't feel the need to lay it on with a bloody trowel. The Giant Space Whale, apparently, is old, and sad and the only one of its kind, but therefore it is kind, specifically, kind to children. At the beginning of the episode, we see the Doctor being kind to a child, and his whole relationship with Amy is based on having been kind to her when she was a child. This is extremely unsubtle.
But at the climax of the story, Amy has to explain that the Whale is old and sad and the only one of its kind, and therefore kind, especially to children, the camera pans to the Doctor and soppy music plays – as if the comparison was too obscure and buried for us to work out by ourselves. And then, at the end of the episode, Amy goes through it all over again. The Whale is old, and sad, and the last of it's kind, unable to decide what it wants for breakfast. "Sound a bit familiar?" Yes, fine, we got the message, could we move on now?
In the old days we knew that the Doctor was either a fugitive or an exile. But only rarely did he meet characters who were fugitives and exiles, and if he did, he didn't feel the need to say "Oh,did I mention? I'm a fugitive and an exile myself".
So: to over praise because they're not RTD, or to under praise because we don't want to set ourselves up for another disappointment? It's only a TV show, after all. It's not like I'm breathlessly willing it not to suck and can only really watch it properly on the second viewing. Let's go for a qualified, but still quite enthusiastic thumbs up.