‘Hello, I’m the Doctor, and basically, run.’ The first thing to say about this is Matt Smith is phenomenal. No previous Doctor has had to carry so much of their first episode. Tennant spent most of his asleep. Eccleston kept dropping into Rose’s world. Even McGann got to be introduced through the eyes of Grace and Chang Lee. But here, the Doctor is our viewpoint character: we experience Amy’s strange world of scary cracks and empty duck ponds through him. More widely, this signals that Moffat’s version of the show is going to be increasingly concerned with its eponymous character (a fact sign-posted by his scripts for RTD).
The eleventh Doctor is as mercurial as his previous selves, but Troughton’s influence is clearly strongest. Crucially, too, it’s not the fan memory of Troughton as the funny one who turned up for anniversary specials, but the second Doctor as he appeared in The Tomb of the Cybermen: still funny, but as funny peculiar as funny ha-ha, and flipping between bumbling and sharp, shrewd moments of insight or action, fearless defiance, or brooding. I particularly like Smith’s early habit of issuing commands – to Amelia, as he demands food, or to the panicking geniuses of the Earth.
The only other character of significance is Amy, but here she’s defined almost entirely by her relationship with the Doctor, already ‘the girl who waited’. Again, this isn’t surprising – Madame De Pompadour, another little girl with memories of the magic man who burst into her world and vanished, Sally Sparrow and River Song are all, to some extent, obsessed by the Doctor, their destinies wrapped around him. Amy’s prickly, wilful and quick, but she spends pretty much the whole episode trailing after the Doctor trying to hide that she’s his biggest fan: ‘The Raggedy Doctor. All those cartoons you did when you were little’, with a room full of models and drawings of herself with her hero.
Here, Rory is the classic comic relief third wheel, although if he is the same age as Amy he’s doing well to be a qualified nurse at 19. The other characters are largely just background colour, even if they include some notable names like Annette Crosbie and Olivia Colman. I think that’s fair: the focus here is establishing the new Doctor, which was always a tall order given Tennant’s popularity. If this hadn’t focused on Smith, and nailed it, the show might have been in a tricky situation.
As it stands, I think this is remarkably successful at its central mission, introducing a few significant changes – a rural setting in contrast to all those London-based companions, a new title sequence, and a new colour palette, and grading that makes it look colder and bluer than the RTD series. Moffat already had a reputation for ‘wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey’ stories – this is pretty straightforward (just a few jumps forward that mean Amelia takes the slow path and the Doctor the fast), but with enough hints to future mysteries – ‘The universe is cracked. The Pandorica will open. Silence will fall’ – to satisfy audiences looking for something more substantial.
Next Time: The Beast Below