“If you make a show like this, you have to make it like you own it,” said Moffat. “Otherwise, you’re just performing upkeep on a gravestone. It has to be a new, living, vital thing.”
Stephen Moffat gave the above quote to The Daily Beast a few days ago in preparation for the launch of “The Eleventh Hour,” the first episode of the new Doctor Who series. He was absolutely right. This is why the experience of actually watching “The Eleventh Hour” is so disappointing. If this episode is an accurate harbinger what is to come, then it is clear that Moffat has no real intentions of changing anything.
There’s no better example of this than the first two minutes or so. The episode opens with the Russell T. Davies’ patented opener of showing the Earth from afar and then zooming in to London. Ah, but wait – this time the TARDIS is flying over London and the Doctor, played by a slightly younger handsome fellow, is hanging off the edge. Also, the music is getting very loud! It seems I’m supposed to be excited during this bit. Then, just as things start to get going, we cut to the new opening credit sequence. The music is rearranged to be yet more schizophrenic (A choral back-up? Really?) and the font seems to be more sci-fi as well. There’s a different TARDIS spinning through a different tunnel, but it’s still fundamentally a TARDIS spinning through a tunnel. Considering all the individual elements that have been changed, it’s amazing that it still seems to be the Same Old Shit.
Perhaps this is unfair. After all, it’s not the opening credits that made the later Russell T. Davies episodes nigh unwatchable. So let’s get to the meat of the issue: is the episode itself new? Furthermore, is it any good?
For the first ten minutes or so, the answer to both of these questions is unequivocally “yes.” A mysterious crack in the wall! The new companion introduced as a young girl! Regeneration as picky-eating! And, oh look, the TARDIS library and swimming pool have made a return! It’s hard to overstate how much promise these first few post-credit sequences hold. Moffat has piled on both wit and horror, his two strengths, and it works well to create a marvelous sense of mystery. What’s behind the crack? Who is prisoner zero? Who is Amelia Pond? Why is she living in a creaky old house with her aunt?
Unfortunately, none of these questions get answered beyond a some basic throwaway lines. The crack in the wall turns out to be…a crack in spacetime! Behind it is some sort of prison, which we never see or learn anything about. Prisoner zero turns out to be.. a prisoner, and so on. They mystery and character of Amy (née Amelia) Pond are more or less put off for what we hope will be more exciting episodes later in the series.
This episode, it seems, is not interested in solving any mysteries or exploring new ideas. This episode is all about making sure the viewer knows that All the Same Old Shit You Love is still going to be present in the Moffat era. The Doctor runs around on 21st Century Earth and says things that seem crazy to the muggles but make sense to the viewer, therefore inspiring some chuckles. There’s a huge ship making demands on the whole of Earth for one minor request. Some obligatory jokes about modern technology and the ubiquity of smartphones. Montage of previous actors who played The Doctor. Etc.
What’s most surprising, though, is that Moffat isn’t content to simply re-hash the usual RTD motifs, but also his own. You’d think this would be difficult given that Moffat has only written four previous stories, but no, somehow he manages to steal from himself multiple times. The TARDIS cloister bell rings, the Doctor pops off, and suddenly we’re re-watching the end of “The Girl in the Fireplace.” (Hasn’t the Doctor learned by now that when he means to return in five minutes, he will inevitably arrive years late? This gag was old when RTD drudged it up for “Aliens of London.”) Amy’s mopey boyfriend looks and acts pretty much the same as Sally Sparrow’s mopey boyfriend in “Blink.” (Not the mention the “Duck!” line in the hospital.) Coma patients in a hospital start speaking mysteriously, and The Doctor deals with the villain, as in “The Forest of The Dead,” by telling the villain who he is. (Dealing with monsters would be a lot easier, it would seem, if the Doctor simply carried his résumé around with him.)
“The Eleventh Hour” isn’t terrible, per se, it’s just hugely unambitious. This was an opportunity to be bold, fresh, and daring – to show us what kind of new ideas Moffat and Co. were going to bring to the table. Instead, it’s a fairly standard run-around-and-save-Earth plot with a bunch of direct references to previous episodes and some clever dialogue. (At least the Doctor never looked forlornly into the distance and mumbled “If only Rose were here…”)
Perhaps this is Moffat’s olive branch to diehard fans of Russell T. Davies. Perhaps this is the segue from old to new. Or, perhaps Moffat really doesn’t have any new ideas to bring to the table. Perhaps Moffat is recycling his old handful of ideas because those were the only good story ideas he ever had. Only the rest of the series will tell.
UPDATE: Previous versions of this post read “Emilia Pond.” This has been corrected to “Amelia Pond.” In retrospect, this seems a pretty obvious error.