❉ The genius of The Eleventh Hour lies in the way it takes nothing for granted – what matters in Doctor Who is the show’s present, not what it has been.
“Doctor Who was facing the perhaps its latest and greatest challenge this century: to get a mass audience to accept a new version of the series after Davies and David Tennant had established their version so strongly.”
Once upon a time there was a television series. And, as happens to all television series, over the years it became a little bit battered and fell out of favour with the Kings of the Sixth Floor. The Kings were devious, and starved the series of money and renown until it faded quietly away. What the Kings did not know was that a small band of followers had carried the body of the series away, and they tended to it until the time of the Kings had passed. Once, the series woke too early, and was quickly laid to rest again, but its second awakening saw it regain the power and prestige it had lost decades earlier. With the cunning of a giant Welshman, a dour Northener and a courageous girl the series returned to its former glory, beloved across the nation. The addition of a Scotsman when the northerner suddenly departed only heightened the successes.
But such successes, as all successes are, are fleeting…
It’s unusual for a series whose last episode was the most watched show on British television to need to prove itself. But then again, it’s equally unusual for such a show to go away and return a few short months later with a full makeover: quite apart from the behind the scenes shift with a new head writer, new producers viewers would be confronted with the obvious visual indicators of a new title sequence and an entirely new cast. Doctor Who was facing the perhaps its latest and greatest challenge this century: to get a mass audience to accept a new version of the series after Davies and David Tennant had established their version so strongly.
The genius of The Eleventh Hour lies in the way it takes nothing for granted – what matters in Doctor Who is the show’s present, not what it has been. It might have been broadcast a mere three months after David Tennant’s triumphant final flourish but it’s also very aware that, bar the TARDIS and the name of the show, this is an entirely new series: new Doctor, new companion, new producers and new head writer. There isn’t even a familiar monster to soothe the audience: this is the shock of the new all over again.
The episode would take the lessons learned from Rose and apply them to a slightly different situation: reintroducing the show to an audience already familiar with it. Once again, the Doctor would be reintroduced via the perspective of a normal human, becoming involved in events already in motion and not stopping until he’s saved the world again. It helps that Matt Smith nails the part from his first moments: a friendly whirligig of almost constantly flailing limbs who only reveals his hidden depths when he stops moving. There’s a presence to Smith that belies him being the youngest actor to play the role. Karen Gillan is equally great too, giving Amy Pond a fierce edge atypical of Doctor Who companions to that point. It’s perhaps the bravest acting choice in the twenty-first century series, as its not necessarily one guaranteed to retain an audience’s sympathy. They even manage to outshine an impressive supporting cast: as well as Arthur Darvill, there are comparatively minor parts for Nina Wadia, Annette Crosbie and Olivia Colman. This may well be the finest supporting cast in Doctor Who’s history, and certainly the only one to feature a Best Actor Oscar winner.
As with Rose, the plot itself is secondary: it’s a relatively minor skirmish for the Doctor, returning an alien criminal to his captors with, as typical in Steven Moffat’s scripts to this point, no casualties. Where The Eleventh Hour truly dazzles though is in telling three stories at once: the story of Prisoner Zero, the story of the crack in space and time which will form the season’s arc and kicking off Moffat’s most ambitious plan: with the hint that ‘silence will fall’ he begins another arc, one intended to cover the entire lifespan of this Doctor. The story itself may be simple but the storytelling is perhaps as ambitious as any in the show before or since.
With hindsight it’s astonishing that anyone was worried: it’s cast to the hilt, beautifully directed (reflecting the fairytale nature of the script) and equally as engaging an introduction to the series as Rose had been five years earlier. The success of Moffat and Smith meant that the show’s future was secure: it had conclusively proved that there was no one figure on whom the show depended for its success. Moffat would become one of British television’s most significant writers of the decade, Smith would go on to a film career and prestigious miniseries such as The Crown and Gillan would become the first star of the series to sustain a Hollywood film career. Doctor Who itself would guarantee its future beyond its fiftieth anniversary and into the next decade.
And they all lived happily ever after…
❉ A regular contributor to We Are Cult, Jon Arnold is the author of three volumes of the Black Archive series including ‘The Black Archive #1: Rose’. Obverse Books have created a code that lets you do a 3 for 2 on electronic copies of all the Black and Silver Archives the Obverse Books website – buy three electronic copies of titles from either or both ranges and enter this code: 9V3CVNOTA to get one of the three books free!