Long time readers of the blog know two things about me, if nothing else, 1. I am a huge Dr. Who fan who watches from both a fan and academic perspective and 2. I oppose the tweening of SciFi, including Dr. Who. While I oppose the tweening of Dr. Who and other SciFi shows, I have seen every episode of Dr. Who, found things to like in some of the lesser seasons, and overlooked how poorly the low budget translated in the first season of the Dr. Who reboot, all because I truly love the mythos and the magic of the show and because I have the privilege to do academic work on it as well. So, you should know that I watched the 11th Doctor’s debut with the same fan energy and intellectual commitment as I would any other.
Matt Smith as the new Doctor, is still transitioning from his former self. As such, he is having a hard time controlling the TARDIS and other well known devices (ie the screw driver). However, time does not wait for a Time Lord to sort things out, so the Doctor finds himself in small town England discovering the prison break of a dangerous alien through a crack in a young Scottish girl’s wall while he is still transitioning. As the episode unfolds, the Doctor moves in and out of Amelia Pond’s life, with little regard to his impact on her, while trying to stop the escaped alien’s guards from incinerating Earth.
Karen Gillan does a great job as companion, Amelia Pond. She brings a nice mix of dead pan/incredulity and excitement to the role. Her cynicism, born out of unintentional abandonment by the Doctor when she was a child, seems much more palatable than that of Donna Noble. While Tate’s Noble was often judgmental and grating, Gillan comes at Pond’s cynicism from a place of hurt that wants to heal. And while both characters embodied a healthy modern interpretation of how anyone would react to the Doctor, Gillan’s character also lacks the sometimes questionable crassness of Tate’s choice in her role as Noble. This is important not only for the longevity of the character but also because of the sometimes negative stereotypes about the working class that Gillan’s Pond seems to shed.
For me, it was also a nice nod to Doctor’s past that Pond is Scottish and allowed to speak with her Scottish accent. While it may just represent the shift to a Scottish producer, ie Moffat, one needs only ask how many people in the Whoniverse have had to stifle their accent to get the job done to know this is an important shift in the ethnic representations of the show. One quibble, however, is that Gillan’s accent fades in and out throughout the episode. At some points her accent is thick enough that some N. American audiences will have trouble understanding her and at others she sounds English. Given that Gillan is in fact Scottish, the shifts feel very odd. They also represent a very minor indication of a larger problem with directing in this episode: often, the decisions the actors make seem to be completely without direction or directed by someone whose vision needs more editing.
The plot of “The 11th Hour” is essentially rehash of several different Dr. Who episodes with a dash or two of Torchwood ones. There is nothing new nor fresh about the escaped alien prisoner and the possible explosion of the world. In fact, I think one of the first Tennant episodes covered the same territory early in his time as the 10th Doctor. Worse, according to the “First Look” information, Moffat came up with the idea based on the combination of wondering about what caused a huge crack in his son’s wall and curiosity about what one sees or misses out of the corner of their eye. I don’t know what is worse, Moffat’s insipid inspiration or the fact that he thinks this rehash was born solely out of it. Given that Moffat wrote some of the most moving episodes of Dr. Who and that he is a long time fan of the show, I expected so much more from his first time at the helm.
In keeping with the tweening of the series, I think this is the first time the show has every wasted 10-15 minutes on toilet humor. While many of the Doctors have included transition jokes, like spitting out food they once liked or mocking the clothes they once wore, Moffat has Smith tasting an endless supply of increasingly liquid based foods and then spewing them out from different camera angles. He is aided in this stupidity by the young Amelia Pond, who is there to remind us: this is funny. Perhaps this kind of humor is entertaining in the genres Moffat is more familiar with as a writer, but in Whoville it plays like a bad episode of Pee Wee’s Playhouse minus the irony and wit.
No one watching the episode with me laughed. In fact, the combination of a young amused child and an adult behaving like a two year old with his food made everyone at my house question the taste level of season 5. It did not help that the background music to these scenes was the same cartoonish score they use in children’s programming … I’m not sure any adult watching was particularly interested in seeing Smith spit out his food over and over again, but I feel fairly certain no one was entertained by him finally settling on yellow pudding spooned into his mouth with fish sticks. As the father of a young child, Moffat may have been nodding to new parents, but let’s be clear, that is not his demographic. Intimately tied to the poor directorial decisions in this episode is the potential to alienate true Dr. Who fans in order to get younger hipper ones. (And can I just say, I resent that fans are characterized as neither young nor hip in these decisions?!?) Worse, none of this inane behavior is tied back to the plot with the exception of an apple he rejects at the beginning of this farce.
Also in keeping with the tweening of the series, Matt Smith’s Doctor Who is given to vernacular. At one point, near the end of the episode, he throws up his arms and shouts “whose your daddy?” While even the characters around him frown with disdain, the fact is they put in the script and the show. Something that clearly is meant to stick is Smith’s constant thumbs up to both the camera and the people around him when he talks. It’s an affectation that both annoys and speaks more to the age of the actor than the remaking of the character. His other references are a little less well known, and some involve unsuccessful, or banal, gay innuendo.
Moffat is straight and it sho. Davies introduced us to a mainstream SciFi world in which sexuality was fluid and characters identified across the spectrum. In Davies’ Whoniverse, characters who had picked a team were still at ease switch hitting or at least flirting with the idea. It made the series hot without resorting to typical sexist and otherizing gazes that permeate Moffat’s new world order. Surprisingly, given that Moffat gave us the first incarnation of Captain Jack Harkness, Moffat’s Whoniverse is a landscape in which Davies’ well scripted fluidity falls flat. While many of the jokes are at no one’s expense, they are executed by Smith in such a way as to permanently cement the character in a heterosexist narrative. The circulation of images of Smith from his outstanding role as Henry in That Face, a play about a confused young man, sexually molested by his mother and forced to wear her dresses, are misleading at best. The PR machine hopes that the sight of Smith in a dress will call up the playful goodness of both Tennant and Barrowman and ensure that those of us who are drawn to the queering of scifi will come a running. The reality is, that Smith looks no more comfortable in a dress in these shots than he does making gay innuendo in The 11th Hour, nor, at least in the case of the former, should he, since the decision to put him in a dress is not his own. Effectively playing opposite transmisogyny and homophobia is not the same thing as being able to embody sexual ambiguity or effectively convey insider humor. You don’t have to be gay to get it but you do have to be able to act beyond the basics.
Similar failures can be found in the handling of women in this episode. There are two women besides Pond, one of whom is a woman of color. The women of color, an Asian, plays the stereotypical role of dragon lady doctor. The other woman, an elder, fulfills the same role most non-main character elder women have on who, i.e. the quirky busy body who recognizes the Doctor immediately.
While Pond is a strong and funny woman with a mind of her own, the character also embodies several female stereotypes. As a child, she unquestioningly allows a stranger into her home and cooks him a number of meals without question. Despite being young, she is at ease in the kitchen. Smith’s Doctor is comfortable allowing her to stand on tiptoe to heat his food rather than help or do it himself. In fact he orders her around like she was made to cook and serve him. As an adult, Pond is a “kiss-a-gram” worker, which I can only assume is the tweened up side of sex work. Despite the fact that we are supposed to believe Pond is a Police Officer, she is in a uniform with shorty shorts and fishnet stockings with the proverbial line up the back of each leg. The camera makes sure to give us several long slow shots of her legs in these first reintroduction scenes, lest we miss it. And Pond wears this outfit throughout the episode despite it being inappropriate for the amount of running she needs to do. If you look at the image at the start of this section, you will see Gillan running while trying to hold the shorts down so as not to flash anyone. It’s insulting.
In fact, many of the early reviews have had little more to say about Gillan or Dr. Who than that they are “sexy.” SciFi Wire’s review is almost entirely about Gillan’s fishnet stalkings and the long slow shot that introduces them. Other reviews have been illustrated by similar montages to the one above, which was taken from a review that mentioned nothing else but Gillan’s “sexiness.” Not only does this behavior prove my point that Pond’s intelligence is overshadowed for many viewers by the objectifying camera gaze and costuming, but early releases of other shots of Gillan’s wardrobe imply that her skirt length will likely always be this high. Like many young actresses weened on a watered down version of “girl power” Gillan sees using sex appeal on the screen as empowering. When she is the one making the costume decisions, determining the angles at which she is shot, and how she embodies the character, she is absolutely right. As a femme, I could not possibly argue that being in control of one’s sex appeal is anything short of powerful. My concern here however is that Gillan is not the one making these decisions nor are they being made to increase the character’s power or depict female sexual power in general. Instead, Gillan’s gams, wide eyes, and fiery hair, are being used to bring in the pre-teen male viewer. Her body has been part of the marketing campaign to get people to watch the first episode and her costumes are part of the ploy to keep them watching. Why not trust that Gillan is an outstanding actress and market her as such? Why not trust that Dr. Who has a loyal following that would watch, and has watched, some very unattractive people in major roles on the series? These are the questions I think we need to ask about gender while watching this latest incarnation of the show. Moreover, they are questions that I think run markedly counter to previous visions for the show, especially with regards to the sort of feminist revamp of the companion role in it.
It should be noted that the gaze is supposedly shifted when the Doctor changes his clothes near the end of the episode. In a particularly homophobic moment, Pond’s boyfriend freaks out about Doctor Who changing his clothes in front of them and demands he stop. The Doctor simply tells him to turn around if he is bothered, which he does amidst loud proclamations of disgust. Pond, on the other hand, stands there drinking it in with a wide smirk on her face. Rather than subversive, this scene serves two purposes: 1. to once again cement the overarching heterosexist vision of the new series and 2. shift criticism of the sexist cinematic gaze by equating Gillan with the viewer. The problem with the second, is that there are no accompanying slow shots of Matt Smith’s body to objectify him nor his potential objectification steeped in oppressive gender norms. Put another way, he is an object for a brief moment and only to Pond, while Pond is an object for anyone interested throughout the episode, in the marketing campaign, and possibly throughout the season.
When Pond signs on as the new companion, she is not allowed to pack her own things like other companions. The Doctor simply tells her, there’s plenty of leftovers in the TARDIS for her to choose from. This episode was full of leftovers, the female companion should not be one of them.
Moffat also fails to adequately address the transition from Tennant’s broken-hearted refusal to have a companion in the last season to Smith’s open search for one. Pond asks the Doctor why he wants her to come with him and he responds by saying he was lonely and had started to talk to himself. The Doctor had been lonely for quite some time and that did not seem to matter. Worse, the previous Doctor had spent a considerable amount of time considering the impact of his presence on the women around him. This first episode of the 11th Doctor was defined by this same preoccupation, the Doctor drifts in and out of Amelia’s life irreparably changing who she is and how people see her, and yet he is the only one who does not seem to notice. He does not ask her what has happened to her since his last visit on either return. When he finds out that she has been forced to go to a series of mental health providers and mocked by townspeople, he neither apologizes nor attempts to rectify it. There isn’t even a moment when he stops to think about what he has already done to her life in the context of his promise to never disrupt another companion’s life again. And while we are all clear that the Doctor could not possibly keep from causing disruption in people’s lives, and that he is better with someone than without them, it does an extreme disservice to this storyline to have the 11th Doctor not only fail to recognize his impact but to appear indifferent to it in the face of some serious consequences.
When he whisks her away, he doesn’t even bother to find out if she has other plans, and in the ultimate rehash, it turns out she does: like the other red-headed companion of late, Amelia Pond is joining the Doctor when she is supposed to be getting married. The mix of old storylines and new anti-introspection bravado is one of the largest disappointments of the series next to the fish stick pudding stupidity. While the Doctor is supposed to be new each time, there is no reason to write in so much old information only to leave it unresolved. From the failure to address his impact to his ignoring all the references to Pond’s crush on him, this Doctor’s self-absorption insults the storyline to date and fails to reflect the critical lessons he has supposedly learned. Again this is a failure on the part of both directing and writing, either give us a new Doctor divorced from past issues or deal with his past in a legitimate way. At the very least, direct Smith to look tone down his mania and look introspective in these moments.
Finally, my opinion of Matt Smith as the Doctor remains on shaky ground. According to one of the people who watched the episode with me, Matt Smith’s performance “was so over the top” and annoying. It was as if Smith had watched Tennant at his most manic and turned it up 20 notches. He was in constant motion throughout this episode in ways that were dizzying rather than plot related and he also delivered most of his lines in a yell that was meant to convey urgency and really just came across as loud. While Tennant’s babbling and occasional grandiosity were endearing, precisely because they were meant to highlight the strange and “human” parts of Dr. Who, Smith’s seems like a bad parody for the Graham Norton Show. It grates early and often.
At least one of my companions walked out based on the combination of the food scene and Smith’s performance and another said several times that he would not be watching again as long as Smith was in the role. (Smith has a 5 year contract, so that is a really long time to not watch.) For my part, I tried to remember something Tennant himself had said about a photo from his first episode, “Oh yeah, that’s me doing my best impression of Eccleston.” In that episode, Tennant seemed oddly out of place as well. He still wore Eccleston’s signature leather jacket and tried to strut around the way Eccleston had. It was only in the second and third episodes that Eccleston’s ghost wore off and Tennant’s new version of the Doctor came to life. At the time, I remember worrying that Tennant was the wrong choice for the role; looking back on it, I think his ability to both embody Eccleston and make that embodiment seem strange and wrong, was an early sign of his genius. While I can’t say that Matt Smith is that kind of genius, his performance was clearly a parody of Tennant and did show signs of recognizing the subtleties of human interaction and the compassion that makes the Doctor so magnetic, even if those signs were rare and fleeting. If both Smith and the director can move away from the mania, I do think he has a chance to make the character his own and to give us something worth watching. My viewing companions, disagree.
Ive seen some really bad episodes of Dr. Who over the years, so it would not be fair to say this is one of the worst one’s I’ve ever seen. What I can say is that it was both insipid and insulting on multiple levels. The writing had little to no redeeming qualities and the plot had even less. The acting was uneven, with the supporting characters far outshining the main one. Both sexism and heterosexism seeped into this episode in complete defiance of the standards previously set. And yet, Gillan’s performance and Smith’s mostly hidden, but still slightly visible, potential make me want to give it another go.
Moffat is best known for his comedic writing and I think that is going to work against him here. However, he is a life long fan of Dr. Who, who has written several introspective and powerful episodes of the reboot in his time. I believe he can give us a brilliant new Doctor if he tries. Perhaps all he needs is for the acting, writing, and directing teams to gel. For now, belief in the franchise is all that will be bringing me back to watch the show next week that drove other fans watching in my house out of the room (and in one case to drink).
You should note, other people really loved this episode and their reviews are available online for those looking for a contrasting opinion.