There is a threat against the Earth and only one man can save the planet. This is a sentence that can describe many Doctor Who stories, but in this one, the familiar plot helps anchor the viewer, for the rest of the story is suffused with the unfamiliar- a brand new Doctor, brand new companion, brand new everything. There is a new hand at the tiller in the shape of Steven Moffat, who wrote some of the best stories of the Russell T Davies era. It is immediately obvious that Moff-Who has a slightly different feel from RTD-Who, without jarring the viewer. As with Moffat’s previous scripts, something mundane becomes something to fear- in this case, the crack in the wall in the bedroom of a child- a crack that opens to reveal a vast Cyclopean eye. The basic plot is simple- a prisoner has escaped through the crack and the captors, the Atraxi, want him recaptured at any cost- but the Devil, as always, is in the details. Steven Moffat gleefully plunders his own previous Doctor Who work, from "The Girl in the Fireplace" to his excellent short story "Corner of the Eye", but it is to serve a greater purpose. With a new broom sweeping clean, the audience needs a new identification figure and we are given that in Amelia ‘Amy’ Pond. Like Reinette in "The Girl in the Fireplace", the Doctor is a figure from her youth. However, Amelia belongs to a more rational, touchy-feely world, so her night of wonder results in years of therapy. So when she suddenly finds her imaginary childhood friend stalking around her house, her feeling is not one of wonder, but of disappointment and mistrust- the Doctor has to convince her, and, indeed, us, that he is the man we hope he is.
And, he suceeds. Matt Smith had the daunting task of following the most popular Doctor since Tom Baker (and, in my opinion, the best one since Hartnell). As far as I was concerned he had me from the second he clambers out of the toppled TARDIS, with a look on his face that could illustrate every non-scientific definition of the word ‘mercurial’. This is followed by a brilliant sequence where the Doctor (like Tigger) discovers what foods he likes. This immediately tests Smith as an actor, having to give the same reaction in different ways. By the time he is eating fish-fingers dipped in custard, we know this Doctor well enough- far less patient than his predecessor, but with the same sense of fun. People always try and see the actor’s predecessors in a Doctor’s first story and, for the first time, there is a hint of Colin Baker, only with an infinitely superior writer and director at the controls. Like Patrick Troughton and Peter Davison before him, Matt Smith drags us out of our mourning for his beloved predecessor- Matt is Doctor Who!
Amy is given the most detailed back-story of any companion to date, but the vitalising spark is the wonderful performance by Karen Gillan, being very sassy and clever, but struggling with her impractical clothing throughout. Gillan can work wonders with the smallest change of expression in her beautiful face and it looks like we are in for another great companion. I must also mention the wonderful performance by Gillan’s cousin Caitlin Blackwood as the young Amelia. There are a plethora of great guest performances, although it’s odd that performers of the stature of Nina Wadia and Olivia Colman have such minor roles. Colman, in particular, is one of the most physically versatile actresses in the world (she can play anything from an irresistible sexpot to a sour hag, with only minimal make-up) and I would love to have seen her in a larger role- but it was good to see her nevertheless. Patrick Moore makes a well-judged cameo (something he’s invariably good at) and the rich, distinctive voice of David de Keyser is heard as the voice of the Atraxi. The always delightful Annette Crosbie will hopefully return alongside Arthur Darvill’s Rory.
Steven Moffat has assembled a new stable of directors and Adam Smith helms shooting and actors with aplomb. Although the pacing as frenetic as it was in the RTD era, there seem to be fewer shots, as befitting the setting in a small village, rather than London. Andrew Smith creates scenes of tension and beauty, from Amy’s encounter with Prisoner Zero to the adorable scene where Amelia waits for the Doctor to come back. There is also the best use of a lens flare that I have seen for years. The production values are excellent, although the CG creatures seem a tiny bit unfinished, the imagination shown in the design of the Atraxi ships is laudable and there is, of course, the wonderfully lavish, yet retro, new TARDIS interior.
This is an excellent debut story for Matt Smith. If there is any criticism, it is that Moffat doesn’t quite have RTD’s knack for creating ordinary characters- compare with "Smith and Jones" (still the best series opener, in my opinion). The story is 20 minutes longer than "Smith and Jones", yet we know more about Martha’s family than we do Amy’s friends, by the end. However, the characterisation is more than adequate, and Moffat’s conceptual ingenuity counts for a lot. Matt stamps his authority on the programme with ease, so that we unreservedly accept the moment when he walks through a hologram of Tennant’s face. Doctor Who is back with an era that promises to be fantastic. However, there are questions raised, and as we notice, the cracks in the universe have not been ignored by the TARDIS...
NEXT: "The Beast Below"