11 April 2010

The Zero Room #1- The Eleventh Hour and The Beast Below

Welcome to the first of the promised occasional feature reviewing the latest series of Doctor Who. I'm a massive fan of the show, so I hope my already very indulgent readers will allow me a little fanboy post every now and then.

This week, the first two episodes, The Eleventh Hour and The Beast Below, introducing the new Doctor, played by Matt Smith, and his companion Amy Pond, played by Karen Gillan. Reviews will contain spoilers, so if you haven't seen the episode yet, toddle over to the iPlayer, or watch BBC Three at some point in the next century's worth of repeats.

So in The Eleventh Hour, following the bombastic ending to The End of Time, Part Two, a newly regenerated Doctor is about to prang his crashing TARDIS in quite spectacular fashion by wiping out a shed in someone's back garden. Luckily, the only person at home is a little Scottish girl called Amy, who's enchanted by the raggedy figure who sweeps into her life. An accident with navigation leads the Doctor to abandon her for 12 years, finally turning up in the small village of Leadworth again to reunite with the grown-up kissogram Amy has become. However, as is custom for Doctor Who, there's a peril lurking in Amy's spare room that may cause the planet to be incinerated in just 20 minutes.

All eyes are invariably on Matt Smith for this first outing, despite the best efforts of the costume department to have us ogle short-skirted Amy. Well that's there as well, but Smith is massively charismatic. There are echoes of David Tennant's Tenth Doctor in this first performance, but that's not without precedent in these post-regeneration episodes. Smith finds his own voice by the end of the episode, replete with student/professor get-up and bow-tie. And legs aside (yes, they're lovely too), Karen Gillan is immediately likable as Amy. Although Steven Moffat has previously written episodes like The Girl in the Fireplace, where a girl waits years for the Doctor's various visits to her life through unstable time corridors, Gillan's performance made it seem fresh.

The similarities to what has gone before don't end there. Moffat has previously expressed how great a script his predecessor's Smith & Jones was, and this opener covers remarkably similar ground. An alien prisoner hides out in a hospital, while big old space police romp about threatening to destroy every human involved if it's not brought to justice. And it's at that stage that you wonder if six episodes of Moffat per series might turn out to be too much of a good thing. Such fears are quickly dispelled by the performances, some marvellous one-liners and a novel solution to the crisis involving Patrick Moore and a porn-surfing tech guy. Yes, really.

The Eleventh Hour closes with our first look at a retooled TARDIS interior- the last of a number of revamps in this opening episode. Like its new crew, it's wondrous to behold and feels fresh even though it's something fans are innately familiar with. It does feel a little drawn out at 65 minutes though. While it's totally understandable that they want the maximum exposure for the Eleventh Doctor, the ticking clock elements would have felt better and tighter in a standard length episode. Nevertheless, a cracking statement of intent that embraces what has gone before while still inexorably pushing forward to a brand new era.

Amy Pond finally hops on-board the TARDIS and in The Beast Below, she finds herself a thousand years in the future on-board Starship UK. The ship is populated by all of the citizens of the UK, escaping until the extreme weather conditions on planet Earth ease off. The trouble is, the Doctor thinks it's not moving. That it couldn't ever move. The menacing Smilers seem to enforce a police state, preventing anyone from shedding light on the mystery except the enigmatic Liz Ten. But when anyone makes any headway, they're given the choice to "forget" or "protest", and almost everyone chooses the former. The Doctor however, has a much harder choice ahead...

Second episodes invariably take a starry-eyed new companion to amazing only-in-a-time-machine adventures, and this is no exception. And if The Eleventh Hour lacked action for Amy in its showcase of the new Doctor, then make no mistake- The Beast Below is Amy's episode. She wanders off to explore, as is the wont of any companion in this series, and gets to the heart of what's going on long before the Doctor. The problem is, she chooses to forget, a mistake that nearly gets her sent home by her outraged companion. Smith pulls back some of the attention here in a truly frightening turn that explores the character's darker side just two episodes into his tenure. But the culmination of the story marks Amy as a truly marvellous character, probably more capable than any companion since 2005, and a best friend to the Doctor rather than a romantic interest or eye candy for the audience.

It's still a very busy episode, with the Smilers and Liz Ten and the voting booth and the Winders and that final tantalising hook to next week's episode. But I'd only really say the Smilers lose out in Moffat's framing of the action around the Doctor-companion relationship. The Smilers are really quite frightening villains that may spook out a lot of the show's younger viewers- and that's what they watch for, of course- but the episode doesn't quite get the mileage from them that you'd hope for. I'd have liked to see more of Sophie Okenedo's feisty Liz Ten too, a character who was variously and very cleverly deployed for comic relief and pathos. The political allegory of the protest or forget choice is somewhat timely, as if Moffat knew there'd be a general election announced this week, and it all leads up to a potent denouement with the Star Whale's release from torture.

Matt Smith and Karen Gillan continue to be the best things about this new series, which is some feat when you have writers like Steven Moffat at the helm. In The Beast Below, we already have Smith beating Tennant with a terrific second episode. In something of a misstep, Tennant's second outing was the sub-par romp New Earth, but this is more akin to a Ark in Space or Four to Doomsday. Indeed, that's what the episode closely reflects- the classic series. It's largely studio-bound and distills the essence of the show into an excellent 45 minute mini-movie, with all of what has been added since 2005 still in there. There's a real fairytale quality to these first two episodes, but I'm not sure if that'll continue with next week's episode, so marvellously teased at the end of episode 2...

I'll be back in three weeks' time with reviews of the next two stories. Until then, why not share your comments below?

The next episode of Doctor Who, Victory of the Daleks, airs on BBC One and BBC HD on Saturday 17th April at 6.30pm.

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