Fans showed up as early as three hours before a premiere screening of the first episode of the new season of Doctor Who at WonderCon. CBR News was there as BBC America presented “The Eleventh Hour,” featuring Matt Smith in his first story as the Doctor and Karen Gillan as his new companion Amy Pond. Many fans appeared with scarves, coats and various character costumes from the show and its spin-off series, “Torchwood.” Rumor had it Smith would make a surprise appearance with new head writer Stephen Moffat.
“Doctor Who” began in 1963, introducing the world to the alien time traveler who takes people from Earth to far away and often dangerous places. Since that time, the Doctor (never called “Doctor Who” within the show) has been played by ten men prior to Smith. His predecessor, David Tennant, had an unrivaled popularity both in the UK and here in the States. In fan circles, some wondered if Smith could possibly take over the part without Tennant’s shadow obscuring it.
In the Room 103 at San Francisco’s Moscone Center, the TARDIS noise and Daleks sound echoed through the hall as the lights dimmed and the BBC America trailer for the series played. While Smith and Moffat did not appear in person, the new Doctor and Gillan filmed a short intro for the WonderCon audience.
The episode begins with the Doctor’s ship, the TARDIS, crashing into a English village. He previously had been horribly injured and regenerated – he is healed, but became, essentially, a new person. It is ten-year old Amelia Pond who discovers the new Doctor as he climbs out of the TARDIS.
Thus begins the most crucial sequence in the episode. It is important to establish the new Doctor even though it is always stated his persona is in flux during these transition; in the script by Moffat this is illustrated by the Doctor having constant cravings for food. After Amelia graciously prepares the item he desired, he discovers he hates whatever he previously craved. After several attempts, the Doctor discovers he likes fish sticks dipped in custard. The audience was endeared to him.
The Doctor discovers a crack in the wall of Amelia’s bedroom is actually a crack in time and space. On the other side is a prison and something has escaped. Before he can properly investigate, he returns to the TARDIS, telling Amelia he will be back in five minutes.
Fifteen years later, the Doctor returns. Amelia – now called Amy – hits him with a cricket bat. Dressed as a police constable, she badgers the Doctor until he tells her about a door in her home that she has never noticed. Inside is the escaped Prisoner Zero who has waited all this time for the time traveler to return.The Doctor has twenty minutes the save the Earth before Prisoner Zero’s jailors incinerate the planet. Just a typical day for the Doctor.
Actually it is not. Moffat’s script reminds the viewer every so often that the Doctor is still in the process of regenerating. In this case, he loses focus and occasionally has chest pains, but it is often more traumatic. When a new actor takes over the part, he generally spends his first story in bed or otherwise hobbled as his new form coalesces. Here, Smith’s version of the Doctor is called to action as soon as the TARDIS crashes on its side. The choice allows Moffat to present Smith in a much more dynamic way than his predecessor was introduced; he literally passed out.
Throughout the episode, Smith runs, jumps, throws objects around and steals an ambulance. For as animated as Tennant could be in the part, it seems the Doctor has not been this active in some time.
Karen Gillan’s Amy Pond – with her long red hair and Scottish accent – was instantly liked by the WonderCon crowd. After the Doctor gives her a list of instructions, she tells him no and binds him by his tie to a car door, generating applause. While she is clearly meant to be something of a romantic interest, Amy does not instantly swoon the way some of the other of the Doctor’s companions (as they are known) have in the past. Following the screening, one fan was heard to say, “I like her a lot more than the others.”
If the episode has a weakness, it is the actual plot. Prisoner Zero and his jailers are never really a credible threat and the show has to go out of its way to remind the viewer that peril is around the corner. The emphasis is entirely on the new Doctor and his developing friendship with Amy. While the best episodes of the show have tight plots with strong villains, those elements would obscure the new Doctor as he begins to establish himself with the audience. Also, the break-neck pace of the episode keeps the viewer from noticing the Doctor is actually facing a paper dragon.
“The Eleventh Hour” succeeds in its primary goal, establishing actor Matt Smith as the Doctor. Toward the episode’s end, a hologram appears showing all the previous actors to play the part. Smith emerges from it and speaks into camera, “I’m the Doctor.” The audience irrupted with applause.
Following the screening, CBR News spoke with fan Steve Higgins, dressed as the Seventh Doctor, played by Sylvester McCoy. He gave it a glowing review. “I absolutely loved it,” he said. “I have a friend in the UK that saw it earlier today and texted me “’Oh, I don’t know. I’ve got to watch it again and see how I feel about it.’ Now that I’ve seen it, I’m like, ‘are you crazy?’ That was just brilliant. Unabashedly great. So I’m really excited for the rest of the season. “
The new season of Doctor Who premieres April 17 on BBC America.