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Doctor Who S5E1—“The Eleventh Hour”: A Grand Fairy Tale

“The Eleventh Hour,” Doctor Who S5E1, is the perfect example of the show’s capacity for renewal and reset. S5E1 is a complete reset and it ushers in one of the most engaging and foundational chapters in the long history of the show. The show has always had a fundamental theme of change and renewal but often those changes are partial or made a secondary part of the story. For “The Eleventh Hour” this change is the primary thing. The episode features a new showrunner, a new Doctor, and new companions. Even more importantly than that, it launches an entirely new tone and stylistic direction for the series.

The Grand Moff

Doctor Who under previous showrunner Russell T. Davies was first and foremost a science fiction experience, a fantastic, often thrilling ride, but one relatively grounded in the world in which it was set. His shows were often interested in humanity and his own interests, such as helping people to accept LGBTQIA+ ideas and characters. With “The Eleventh Hour” the new showrunner, Steven Moffat, turns the show into something more of a fairy tale, or a dream. With Moffat’s focus on the surreal aspects of time travel his time as the show’s executive producer resulted in some of the best, most thrilling, and conceptually daring stories in the now nearly sixty-year long history of the show.

Moffat had been a fan of the original version of Doctor Who and had written several Doctor Who stories for the Virgin New Adventures series during the long hiatus between the end of the McCoy era in 1989 and the return of the show. He then went on to work in television with his big hit, the original version of Coupling, bringing him worldwide acclaim. When Davies was finally able to launch the revival of the show in 2005, Moffat was one of the first writers he brought on board.

His stories for the Davies era are still widely regarded as among the best of Doctor Who and introduced characters like Captain Jack Harkness and River Song. When Davies left the show at the end of the David Tennant era in late 2009, Moffat was the only real name bandied about to become showrunner. The excitement among the fandom cannot be overstated, we called the guy “The Grand Moff” and thought it would usher in a golden age for the show. 

With “The Eleventh Hour” and most of Series 5, the show was just that, at the peak of everything that it could be. (I’m so accustomed to the British TV labeling, I am going to stick to that. Series 5 is equivalent to “Season 5”.) The entire thing plays as if it is a timeless dream. Moffat’s ideas were fresh and compelling and everything seemed to pay off.

In his later years as Doctor Who showrunner, the viewer’s mileage out of the way his ideas are enacted may vary. Here though, at the beginning, with this entirely new direction, the show had a much-needed and amazing to watch bout of energy. Of course, the show would have never found that if Moffat hadn’t found the right person to play the Doctor.

A close up of the Doctor's (Matt Smith's) face with a ladder and brick wall in the background

Geronimo

The casting of Matt Smith was a bit of a concern to fans. Here was another tall, skinny, relatively good-looking, young white man cast to play the Doctor. Smith was, at 26, also the youngest person ever cast to play the role. He was also a relatively unknown actor, so people did not have any clue what type of acting skills or charisma he would bring to the part. For over a year, fans had a bit of angst and trepidation that somehow Moffat had made a terrible decision.

The cold open didn’t help much to alleviate this anxiety. Smith’s Doctor is hanging out the edge of the TARDIS, yelling and flailing about, with his new, unbearable, catchphrase of “Geronimo” on his lips. But then the credits roll and when we land we get the new Doctor, and the new show, fully realized. The “Eleventh Hour” in all its glory starts in a backyard in the English countryside.

It turns out that Smith’s Doctor is not “Tennant-lite” at all. While Tennant played the 10th Doctor as a sort of nerdy rock star, Buddy Holly in space, Smith’s 11th is the alien mensch, and most importantly, “the child whisperer”. Throughout the 11th Doctor era, any time we get to watch Matt Smith act with and interact off of children we are treated to something special. Smith’s version of the Doctor, especially in these early episodes, is exuberant and childlike to the point of (something silly, but not necessarily bad.) That is what makes this incarnation of the Doctor who he is, and what makes him endearing, or irritating, depending upon the disposition of the viewer.

Smith, it turns out, looks and acts somehow both far older and far younger than his actual age all the time. (This is still true by the way, check out his more recent, excellent work as Prince Phillip on Seasons 1 & 2 of The Crown.) His face is perfect for the Doctor from these very first scenes, all popping eyes, lack of eyebrows, and prominent chin. It makes him look alien but also approachable. Wise, but filled with mirth. As composer Murray Gold’s perfect theme for the character encapsulates, and Matt Smith sticks his head out of the TARDIS you can see it as clearly as you can hear it, “I am the Doctor.”

The Child Who Dreamed

With that in mind, S5E1 starts the Matt Smith Doctor’s journey at the perfect place. Immediately pairing him up with a child, the young Amelia Pond. Amelia is also the perfect entry point to the new style of the show, this is a fairy tale and at its heart is a girl, alone in the world, out of place, “the Scottish girl in the English village” with missing parents and no direction. When the TARDIS crash lands in Amelia’s backyard it is in response to her prayer. She is alone and scared, but also strong and resilient.

A close up of Amelia Pond (Caitlin Blackwood) praying in front of a blue wall with a lightened area highlighting the "crack"

Caitlin Blackwood, who portrays the young Amelia, is perfectly cast. She brings a sense of wonder and excitement for the adventure to the role. Overall though, she is asked to do two primary things, look like a younger Karen Gillan and react to Matt Smith being goofy. It is at these elements that she truly shines. The Doctor and Amelia bond over his newfound taste buds, as she cooks him a variety of foods and he proceeds to hate them all in hilarious ways until finally settling on the now-iconic combination of fish fingers and custard. Smith’s Doctor then turns on a dime, from the slapstick hilarity to a deep, heartfelt, connection with this child. As they go to find the source of her fears together, the viewer is pulled into the story of the two of them together. 

Caitlin is so great, and the character of Amelia Pond is so fully realized in this scene that it is almost a disappointment that she isn’t able to stick around. The idea of the Doctor, in particular this version of the Doctor, traveling with a child is an interesting one. It is an idea that would never actually happen, but an idea, like the notion of the Doctor traveling with a much older companion, that should really be explored.

This, however,  is not the story of the young girl traveling the galaxy and learning to express herself, it is instead the story of the young woman whose life has been filled with isolation and disappointment and how she can learn to grow back into the amazing person she was born to be. The TARDIS pulls the Doctor away, “just for a hop to the moon,” he says, and just like that, he is gone from Amelia’s life. The Doctor has left Amelia alone and this is no longer the tale of the child who dreamed, it is the story of the woman who waited.

The Girl Who Waited

We are given quite the introduction to that woman. The adult Amelia Pond, now calling herself Amy, knocks the Doctor out upon his return and handcuffs him to a radiator in the hallway. Karen Gillan’s star quality is apparent from those earliest scenes. She is now a key performer in two blockbuster action/fantasy franchises but for those of us who first saw her in this show, she will always be Amy Pond. From the very first moment she appears on the screen, with her giant hazel eyes staring down The Doctor, it is clear that she is going to be a dominant force on the show and in the rest of her career.

A close up of Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) in police uniform with a yellow lamp in the background

It has been 12 years since her encounter with the Doctor and this older Amy is tough and closed off. She has never let go of her identity or her dreams of something bigger, but she has also lost the sense of wonder that she had as a child. This is a common theme among the Doctor’s companions, but it has rarely been quite so succinctly stated, or emotionally resonant as it is in “The Eleventh Hour.” 

Her encounter with the Doctor showed young Amelia that there were possibilities in the world beyond her greatest imagination, but the older Amy is hardened by the fact that she feels she has lost the chance to explore those things. So, she also doesn’t trust this person who looks like the person from her childhood dreams, and the rest of the S5E1 has a lot of great little moments of the two of them learning once again what a great team they can be together.

Amy Pond’s whole season arc, and really her character arc over her two and a half seasons on the show, will always be about addressing this tension between the barriers she puts up and her need to free herself to be who she can be at her best. It is all encapsulated and distilled perfectly here in S5E1 though, all of the themes of loss and pain and resilience are threaded into the character from her very first scenes. As is the constant in her life, Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill.)

Rory is often thought of as being a bit of a sad sack in these early episodes, not the “Last Centurion” who waits and lives and dies and dies again to be at Amy’s side, but just the “put upon and put down” nurse. While he is that, and there are some incredibly irritating and weirdly acted and directed scenes with Rory being treated horribly as he tries to explain the weird things that are happening to his doctor boss, he is also already much more than that.

Rory is the one who first knows something strange is happening. His research and eye for the obscure point him toward the true state of what Prisoner Zero is doing by taking over the coma patients. And ultimately it is his cell phone that the Doctor uses to bring Prisoner Zero to justice. Rory and Amy will have a thousand bumps along the way to their ultimate fate, which they will embrace together, but from this earliest time, they are a team. Even though they don’t know it or really realize it yet.

“How do you know it is a ‘duck pond’ if there are no ducks?”

In the actual plot of S5E1, the alien being Prisoner Zero has escaped through a crack in space in time and lived in Amy’s house for the time between the Doctor’s visits. The Doctor’s return allows the Atraxi, the alien race that had imprisoned Prisoner Zero, to track him to earth and they threaten to destroy the entire “human residence” in order to get their prey. All of this is a classic Doctor Who plot, and while it is compelling and fast-moving at times it is never the point of the episode. The main goals of S5E1 are to set up the relationships between the three central characters and to seed the elements of the season-long arc, and those are the areas where it shines.

The Doctor (Matt Smith) and Amy (Karen Gillan) look into each other's eyes as she holds an apple
Before she agrees to get involved in the adventure, Amy has a direct confrontation with the Doctor over the fact that he abandoned her all those years prior. It is true in this case that it wasn’t the Doctor’s fault, that he was bounced through time against his will, but watching it in retrospect there is also a real truth here. The Doctor always leaves, the companions are always left to their own devices (or fates worse than that). 

So, while the Doctor is able to convince Amy that to him it is the same day, there is always that very real, and true to life, undercurrent, the Doctor is here, but only for now. Also, and most importantly, Rory is also there, as he will always be. Rory is a character defined in and through his relationship with Amy most of the time, but this is not always a negative. By being with Amy, and being for Amy, the core components of Rory’s character, which will show themselves again and again over the course of the show, are already established.

During the period when Amy and the Doctor are reconciling, the first of the “mysteries” that will be spread throughout the season start to be evident. The Doctor notices that this town is not exactly “right” and that there are other things afoot that have nothing to do with Prisoner Zero or the Atraxi—the most glaring example being the duck pond that has no ducks. This arc will culminate with “The Pandorica Opens” and “The Big Bang” where everything will come back to Amy and Amelia Pond and their experiences. Everything is woven together and can be traced back when you return to the show for a second (or third, or fourth) viewing. The setup and the payoff are both pretty brilliant and it is all an offshoot of this little conversation about a duck pond.

Capturing Prisoner Zero

After that, the Doctor, Amy, and Rory set off to capture Prisoner Zero. This is accomplished with a pretty hilarious bit of madcap running about. This includes the Doctor somehow crashing an ambulance into the hospital and crawling up the ladder in order to stand triumphantly in front of Amy and Rory as they finally face down the monster. Prisoner Zero has taken the form of a woman and her child, which allows for the show to use OSCAR-winning actor Olivia Colman in a glorified cameo. The role definitely does not need an actor as accomplished as Colman in the part, but she does do a spectacular job of scenery-chewing on her few lines of dialogue.

The special effects of Doctor Who have been notorious from the very beginning and while many people claim the effects are far better in the modern series, I’ve never thought they were much better. No matter how popular it can be at its height, Doctor Who is always produced on a shoestring budget, and the VFX are the area in which the show can never really seem to get a hold of what it can do with that money.

With that said, the bad CGI, like the styrofoam monsters of old, does not actually bother me. In the world of the show, to me, that is just how the monsters look. And so that is what I like to think here when, after some good psychological drama with him impersonating the young Amelia Pond and the Doctor, Prisoner Zero takes back his true snakelike form and is captured in some bright lights.

“I am the Doctor, basically run.”

So the Atraxi capture Prisoner Zero and leave, the human residence will be spared and all is well. Except that is not the way of this Doctor, or really any incarnation of the Doctor. In “The Eleventh Hour”‘s high point the Doctor calls the Atraxi back, literally with Rory’s cell phone, and gives them a message. As the Doctor heads up to the roof of the hospital we get one of the classic Doctor Who tropes, the Doctor finding his costume.

Rory (Arhur Darvill), Amy (Karen Gillan) and the Doctor (Matt Smith) jn his new costume standing on a roof looking toward the camera

In this case, he finds the clothes, changes into them in front of Amy and Rory (setting the precedent for a surprising amount of nudity throughout his run), and then emerges on the roof just in time to add the perfect flourish for this Doctor, his bow tie. Great costumes reflect both the exterior ways in which the character wants to be seen by the world and their internal desires and almost every Doctor’s look has suited them well, but Matt Smith’s costume here is perfect even considering all of that.

As noted previously, the most impressive part of Smith’s acting is his innate chemistry with children but easily the second most impressive thing is his ability to give a speech. He will do it countless times during his run as the Doctor but this first speech, informing the Atraxi that earth is protected is still among the best. Smith is able to take the playful lilt his voice always has and somehow make it dominant and commanding, and it is certainly a great notion of what the Doctor can be.

S5E1 ends with a bit more of the time travel shenanigans as the Doctor goes back to check out the now renewed TARDIS interior and skips ahead another two years instead of coming right back to Amy that same day. When he does come back, Amy has waited even longer, but also has started to move on, and his return breaks all of that.

Amy leaves to travel with the Doctor, leaving Rory (and the dress for their wedding that is supposed to be the next day) behind. Amy and the Doctor take off in the TARDIS, which has changed to a cornucopia of randomness that is a perfect match for this pair of adventurers, off to find all the joy and excitement the world has to offer.

This leaves the viewer at the perfect place to start the season—the Doctor and the companion embark on their adventure with all of time and space awaiting, but just a little bit more of the fairy tale has been lost as well. “The Eleventh Hour” speaks to all of us with that little kid inside. The Doctor, or however we hear our call to adventure, comes and takes anyone who dares to come out and play. Yet sometimes to see and hear that call we have to wait so long that we feel we have been left behind, and it is how we react when we finally get the chance that makes all the difference.

The Doctor (Matt Smith) and Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) at the TARDIS console shot from overhead

Clay Dockery

Written by Clay Dockery

Clay Dockery is an actor, author, and impresario extraordinaire. He is the co-editor of Why I Geek: An Anthology of Fandom Origin Stories and was the co-head organizer and creative director of MISTI-Con, Coal Hill Con, and The West Wing Weekend fandom conventions. He lives in New York City with his girlfriend and two chonky cats.

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