TR Review: The First Episode of the New Doctor Who


?Tomorrow night — well, Saturday on BBC America at 9pm EST for Americans who didn’t download a torrent of it — the new season of Doctor Who premieres. There’s also a new Doctor, a new TARDIS, a new companion, and a new guy in charge of the series — Stephen Moffat, writer of some of the new generation of Who‘s best episodes. In summary, it’s very, very new. BBC America was kind enough to send me a screener of the first episode, and I think it’s also very, very good.

Short, spoiler-free version: Matt Smith is great as the Doctor. You should have no worries about him taking over for Tennant, because he’s very much his own Doctor — weird, brilliant, absent-minded, silly, manic, and a total spazz. Karen Gillan is great as Amy Pond, the new companion; she’s sassy like Donna, smart like Martha, and adventurous like Rose, and she’s marvelous. The new TARDIS looks far less Apple store-y than it did in the promotional shots (actually, everything, including the actors, look better than they did in the promotional shots, oddly). The episode isn’t perfect — the middle bit kind of drags and the resolution is partially dependent on one of those silly Russell T. Davies-style deus ex machinas — but the beginning and the ending are just about perfect, and should easily clear a space for Matt Smith in any Who-ligans’ heart. And if you haven’t seen any Doctor Who yet, I think it would be a perfect episode with which to start.

If you’ve already seen the episode — for whatever reason — you’re welcome want to hit the jump for a slightly more spoiler-filled review. Or if you haven’t seen it, you can hit the jump and risk it. Or not. Whatever. Geronimo!

Okay, full disclosure — I started watching the new seasons of Doctor Who nearly a year ago, but I’m all caught up. I enjoy the fact that Doctor Who is a family that’s fun for kids but still fun to adults — that it doesn’t lower or raise itself to one group or the other, but instead entertains everyone simultaneously. I wish more shows did that. The point is I don’t get too uptight about effects (if there was a budget cut as rumored this season I didn’t notice it) or much of the show’s silliness as long as it doesn’t veer into stupid; for instance, I can believe the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver can do pretty much anything, but I have a hard time believing he can call all the heads of states and get them to agree to change all signs and clocks and screens in the world to display the number “0” simultaneously.

I don’t really want to get into the plot, since it’s either a spoiler or already known to you. Suffice to say, the Doctor crashlands on Earth in Amy Pond’s yard. While the TARDIS is regenerating itself, an alien convict escapes to Earth and a fleet of the alien Atraxi give the planet about half an hour to reveal the prisoner before they just blow the planet up. Obviously, the prisoner doesn’t feel like surrendering, and the Doctor is the only person who can make it. Thanks to the silliness I mentioned abvet, the “solution” is actually the weakest part of the show — but I don’t mean the resolution (I’ll get into that below). However, the beginning — the introduction of Smith’s Doctor, him meeting Amy Pond for the first and second times — and the end — every minute after the prisoner is taken care of — is outstanding.

I don’t have enough good words to say about Matt Smith. He’s just massively entertaining, and I’m really, really looking forward to seeing his Doctor’s further adventures. I’m not saying he’s better than David Tennant — for my own protection if nothing else — but I do think he’s the perfect choice to follow Tennant. Tennant’s Doctor seemed really… human. He got angry and sad, he was often terrified… none of that’s bad, of course, but that’s what sticks out to me as his Doctor, and I think it’s wise that this new Who has moved away from that, if only so the role can have its identity back after Tennant played it so long and so well. Please, Tennant lovers — I swear I’m not knocking Tennant. I honestly think that his portrayal was almost certainly exactly what the show needed, and needed for three great seasons. But I also think Smith’s Doctor is very possibly is exactly what the series needs now.

And what Matt Smith is is weird. Not just because of his looks, mind you, but everything. He moves weird, and I don’t just think it’s because he was getting his new body warmed up (his ridiculous punch in the later episodes preview seems to confirms that). He can barely stay still, he changes the conversation at will, he twirls, he talks to himself, he runs like a girl on psychedelic drugs — it’s clear his mind is working so much faster than his body is. Indeed, Smith’s Doctor is all about brains. While Tennant would happily get into a sword duel with an alien for the fate of the world, Smith’s Doctor saves the world entirely with his by thinking. Remember at the end of Tennant’s first episode, when that alien attacks him behind his back, and Tennant flips the trap door saying “No second chances” and it was totally badass? Well, I think Smith matches that awesomeness, if not exceeds it, by calling the invading Atraxi back to earth after vanquishing them (much to Amy’s consternation) to just spank the hell out of them through logic, knowledge of galactic law and his reputation of protecting Earth/kicking aliens asses. He sends them running without ever having to throw a punch. It’s grand.

Furthermore, he never once gets scared in the episode, even when he’s locked out of the TARDIS, his sonic screwdriver is broken, and the world’s going to end in 20 minutes. He just keeps thinking and scheming and running around like a spaz until he finds a solution, and then he implements and is smugly satisfied with it, but deservedly so. I feel confident Moffat is doing this on purpose, because he even highlights the Doctor’s superhuman powers of perception with a faux-Matrix-y shot of the Doctor analyzing his surrounding at one point. I imagine, to an extent, that this is very reminiscent of some of the other pre-Tennant Doctors — weird, brilliant, not someone you can totally trust to not forget and leave you on an alien planet 5 million years in the future — and thus a little dangerous, and thus really, really interesting.

I, for one, am totally down with a smarter and less human Doctor, especially since Amy Pond might be the most human companion of the entire series (she has a really, really strong first episode). Like I said, Karen Gillan’s Amy Pond is a mix of Rose, Martha and Donna — she seems like a perfect match for Smith’s Doctor, and looks like she’s be funny and smart and capable but totally boggled by the Doctor’s craziness. Her presence will let the Doctor be stranger and smarter and alien, since we’ll have her to connect with.

Obviously, it’s only one episode of one season. Maybe it’ll go downhill. But really, I have such faith in these new characters, and that Moffat knows how and why they work together so well, that I’m more excited about this season than I’ve ever been before. I’ve enjoyed all the Who I’ve watched, but I never thought I needed to own them on DVD. I honestly feel like this might be the season that turns me into a real fan. Call me crazy, but I think the future looks incredibly bright (sorry).