Being a Doctor Who fan means embracing change. There have now been 11 lead actors in its long history (and those are the canonical ones), only two of whom have stayed in the role more than three years -- and when the lead isn't leaving, the supporting cast is hurtling through a revolving door unknown elsewhere in the television landscape. How many other shows have a new line-up of regulars every season?
But that doesn't mean that change comes easily. Like most fans I approached Matt Smith's debut with some trepidation, and I am relieved to report that most, but not all, of my fears have been allayed.
A Thorough Revamp
Going into season 5 of Doctor Who (premiere: April 17, 2010 on BBC America), my chief fears were (a) that the new young lead would seize on the manic disposition of his predecessor, David Tennant, and ramp it up to unbearable levels; and (b) that the new production team, led by Steven Moffat, would seize on the opportunity to change everything after the departure of Russell T. Davies so giddily that it would all be wrenchingly new, and unnervingly dissonant, to longtme fans. Basically I was afraid of a lot of seizing. The motto of the new team seemed to be carpe doctorem.
These fears were only intensified by Moffat's frantic post-regeneration skit closing out "The End of Time: Part 2", in which the new Eleventh Doctor flailed about like a loose-limbed marionette, kissing his knees and getting distracted by his own hair while the TARDIS was exploding. Moffat, though a dyed-in-the-wool Who fan who's written some of the new Who's most interesting stuff (his writing credits under Davies all range from memorable to striking: "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances," "The Girl in the Fireplace," "Blink," and "Silence in the Library"/"Forest of the Dead"), had his heyday in sitcoms (he created Coupling), and a viewer of the last five minutes of "The End of Time, Part 2" could be forgiven for fearing that Moffat, after hiring an inexperienced stripling to play a 900-year-old time lord, was planning disastrous turn toward outright comedy, to the detriment of a character established in comedic, dramatic, melodramatic, and all other forms over the course of 45 years.
The Doctor, Reinvented
Of course such fears were unreasonable, and "The Eleventh Hour" to some extent demonstrates how unreasonable. Most importantly, my anxiety that Smith had been miscast was fully assuaged: his debut allows him to flaunt a remarkable range. In particular, he's capable of a soft, still tone that is both authoritative and alive. His confused post-regeneration state of mind and apparent youth are lampshaded early on ("Why does no-one ever listen to me? Do I just have that kind of face that nobody listens to... again?") and then eased away from, so that for the bulk of the story the new Doctor is acting like he owns the place, tossing out non-sequiturs and tart put-downs like rounds from a semi-automatic, just like his earlier incarnations.
Two accessories help Smith make such a smashing debut. The first is the script, which is infatuated with its star and takes every opportunity to help the Doctor win. Despite the Doctor's seeming powerlessness -- the TARDIS is damaged and unavailable, his sonic screwdriver is broken, and he has no direct means of communicating with the aliens threatening the Earth -- everything he needs is right at hand. By collecting a male nurse (Rory, played by a bemused Arthur Darvill), his phone, and some other guy's laptop, the Doctor is able to commandeer the clocks and electronic billboards of the entire world in seconds. Is this some sort of magical decathlon for which he's been practicing? The climactic confrontation, while an epic win for the Doctor and his loving fans, also assumes an alarmingly craven adversary.
A Self-Possessed Companion
Smith's second accessory is Karen Gillan, who plays the new companion, Amy Pond. Gillan plays Amy as a woman slightly disphased with the world around her. At the outset she's a calm, peculiar little girl (played by Caitlin Blackwood) who prays to Santa for someone to fix the unnerving transdimensional crack in her bedroom wall (and politely thanks him when the Doctor's police box crash-lands into her garden shed), and who watches nonplussed as the raggedy Doctor (as she later calls him) subjects her to a kind of gustatory epilepsy in her own kitchen. When Gillan takes over she's effortlessly winsome, sharp, gallant, and insightful, and radiating out-of-placeness, like a sphere visiting Flatland -- all the qualities of an ideal companion. This, like the show's own hero-worship of the Doctor, continues and expands trends surging through the last four seasons. Even more than Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), the companion for the first two seasons, Amy is a creature out of sync with her environment -- a perfect candidate for being taken out of time to travel in the TARDIS. She's from the next universe on the left.
If anything lets down "The Eleventh Hour" it's the very silly villain -- not the Inmate Zero whose escape precipitates the crisis, but the entities hunting it, the Atraxi. These are realized as gigantic splay-fingered tinker-toys with gigantic eyeballs attached. Not since the spider-thing ships from "The Runaway Bride" have I seen a less compelling threat to Earth -- and this from Moffat, who created the genuinely creepy menaces from "Blink" and "Silence in the Library."
A New Doctor in a New 'Who'
Watching "The Eleventh Hour" I could not help but hark back to the last time a vastly popular Doctor was replaced by a younger, unknown quantity -- "Castrovalva", the first episodes broadcast with the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison), and "Four to Doomsday," the first story Davison filmed. In "Doomsday", as in some later Fifth Doctor stories ("Snakedance"), the Doctor has difficulty getting people to listen to him (no doubt the inspiration for Smith's joke quoted above -- which, by the way, he delivers with brilliant timing). In Chris Bidmead's "Castrovalva," what strikes the viewer is how vulnerable to Doctor is: he walks myopically into the Master's trap, takes a long time to form a firm idea of what's wrong and why, and draws the danger to himself and his companions so beyond the point of no return that one of the villagers has to sacrifice himself for the Doctor and his friends to escape. When the Fifth Doctor asserts himself at the end, it's an accumulation of literal character building, a story climax all by itself, and truly stirring (for Fifth Doctor fans, anyway).
The middle third of "The Eleventh Hour" does not have that level of storytelling courage. It sets up an impossible situation which the Doctor deimpossiblizes with his own technological superpowers and the blind faith of strangers he just met and slackjawed world leaders. What makes it work is that the beginning, showing his unorthodox bonding with Amelia/Amy, and the end, in which that bond saved the Earth, are based on characterization of a Doctor/Amy relationship that's alive with infinite possibilities.