A haven for couch potatoes everywhere

Monday, 5 April 2010

Fish Custard

Desiree discusses Matt Smith's debut as the eleventh Doctor Who

Rooster doesn't like Doctor Who. He says it irks him wildly, all that chasing and shouting and inexplicable noise. I said to him, I said Rooster, it's sci-fi, it's meant to baffle you! But I was only saying that to shut him up. I don't really believe that for a moment.

Science fiction should make sense. Within the imagined world in which it is set, within the parameters established by good writing and carefully constructed narrative, it should all make some kind of glorious, heart-stopping sense. Russell T. Davies's relaunch of Doctor Who, starting in 2005 with Rose (the episode in which the ninth Doctor, played by Christopher Eccleston, and his new assistant, played by Billie Piper meet for the first time) was magnificent, and did for sci-fi what Any Dream Will Do did for musical theatre: shifted the boundaries, attracted massive audiences, and upset some die-hard fans.

I'm a big fan of the 'new' Doctor Who (and Davies's 'Year Zero' approach was echoed by new lead writer and exec producer Steven Moffat in Saturday's episode: the computer virus...?), and I like the ways in which it has brought family drama, romance, and real emotion to the sci-fi genre. The first two series (Eccleston and the first series featuring David Tennant) are often descibed (by me, after a bottle of Mateus Rose) as "the perfect love story."

I loved the Doctor and Rose so much that I couldn't watch Series 3 the first time round; it would have been like seeing an ex-boyfriend with a new woman. Though it turns out I didn't miss much in that series, apart from some superb writing by Steven Moffat in Blink. David Tennant settled into his role as the tenth Doctor very well, though with a little too much emo action on occasion. He was popular, and very good, and as such the devoted DW audience awaited Saturday's debut by Matt Smith with some anticipation.

I had eventually watched Series 3, and loved Series 4, so I shared this anticipation. I prepared myself well for the show; I was home alone, and settled down two minutes before the show was to begin, with a glass of wine, a bottle of wine for top-ups (this was a 65-minute series opener after all), and a small bowl of organic cashew nuts. Reader: those cashew nuts went untouched. I was that riveted, I didn't even think about my snack. I took leave of my senses, clearly... but reasonably so, for the episode was a televisual triumph.

The opening scene seemed standard fare: the new Doctor hurtling towards Earth, mid-regeneration, clinging onto the TARDIS, which itself was undergoing some kind of transformation (later revealed to be the construction of a Heath Robinson-esque new interior, complete with retro typewriter). The context into which he crash-landed, though, was different to anything which had gone before. Moffat (with a history of award-winning DW episodes behind him: the aforementioned Blink, The Girl in the Fireplace, The Empty Child...) centred the action around a small village (a refreshing change; we've seen so much of London), and a small girl (who later grew up into a feisty young woman). Country lanes and a cottage hospital were the backdrop for this truly scary tale, where danger came in the shape of a crack in the wall (echoed later in the TARDIS's new display screen, interestingly; let speculation about the series arc begin...).

Moffat put his own stamp on the series from the outset with a script featuring spare, witty, and moving dialogue, the quality of which was matched by a great performance by Matt Smith. Now, I don't thrive on change, me. And I've invested a lot of emotion in the Doctor over the last few years. I must admit I was a little apprehensive about Smith making his debut. I expected the worst: a middling approximation of Tennant, with floppier hair. I was proven wrong within the first few minutes. Smith's manner and timing were perfect; indeed, his whole performance was outstanding right from the outset.

From his demands for a range of increasingly bizarre foods ("You're Scottish, fry something"), to his aside as the adult Amy searched the house for Prisoner Zero ("Do I have a face nobody listens to? Again..."), to his interaction with the village inhabitants ("I'm the Doctor, I'm worse than everybody's Aunt") there was one constant: this Doctor works. This Doctor is a masterful combination of writing and casting which is a genuine joy to watch. I had read that Moffat had in mind a middle-aged Doctor for the eleventh incarnation, but that Smith had impressed him so much in auditions that he changed his mind; I think we've only just started to see what Smith can do...

Though largely warm, and often jovial, throughout (part of what I have seen referred to as Moffat's "fun agenda" for this series), the Doctor's words and manner changed when he took to the roof of the hospital towards the end of the episode, in what must have been a deliberate mirroring of the end of The Christmas Invasion, Tennant's first episode. Against a backdrop of flashbacks of previous Doctors and aliens, Smith's calm-casual delivery of "I've put a lot of work into it [the Earth]," hinted at the Doctor's devotion to the human race, which had too often been loudly exposited by Davies and Tennant. The crowd-pleasing line, though, was uttered shortly afterwards:

"Hello, I'm the Doctor. Basically: run."


And that, reader, once I'd recovered from my swoon, was me hooked. I kicked my legs out, threw my head back, and cheered. This Doctor is under my skin already, and, as I'm sure you know, a potato skin is thick and gnarly. I like to think I take some persuading, but perhaps not, under the right circumstances; I evidently cope with change much better than I think.

Like Rose back in 2005, this episode introduced a new Doctor (and his companion) in a way which allowed the audience to immediately identify with the characters, and root for them. Perhaps it's easier when both the key players are new (though Rose's reaction to the Eccleston-Tennant regeneration offered some nice continuity and emotional depth), though risky of course, as it's potentially difficult for an all-new cast to win over devoted fans of the tenth Doctor. But the writing was good, the performances were good, and.... it made sense. The storyline was simple, genuinely frightening, emotionally involving without being sentimental, and ...it made sense.

As the credits rolled, I toasted all involved, refilled my glass, and immediately logged on to Facebook, where I publicly declared my pleasure at the episode I had just seen. Rooster arrived home some hours later to find me re-watching it on iPlayer, glass in hand, re-toasting the Doctor at every opportunity. Rooster, I said, come here and watch this, you'll love it; it makes sense.

To quote RTD, via Christopher Eccleston in The Parting of the Ways: "You were fantastic." Sometimes delight is found in unexpected places; I had hoped Matt Smith would be pretty good, and actually he was wonderful. I should have had as much faith in Moffat's writing and casting as the Doctor himself had in his final snack combination: fish fingers and custard. He loved it; we all loved it. Roll on next week.

Over and out,

P.S. Karen Gillan was excellent as Amy Pond too... We'll be reviewing her next week.