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Secrets and Shadows: An Advance Review of Steven Moffat's Doctor Who

Fairy tales are funny things.

Ostensibly stories for children, they manage to capture that incredible sense of wonderment and awe that we all have when we are younger, as well as darkness and terror, a fear of the things that go bump in the night.

When I spoke to Matt Smith and Steven Moffat a few weeks ago for a feature I wrote on the new iteration of Doctor Who--which launches Stateside this Saturday on BBC America--both of them described this new Doctor Who as a "dark fairy tale," and, having seen the magical first two episodes, I can say that the comparison is particularly apt.

Under new head writer/executive producer Steven Moffat, Doctor Who has been transformed. 27-year-old Matt Smith has stepped into the role of 900-year-old Time Lord the Doctor with an equal mix of relish and madcap verve and he's joined in the TARDIS (which itself gets a facelift, along with the Doctor's trademark sonic screwdriver) by Scottish actress Karen Gillan, who plays new companion Amy Pond.

While I have an eternal love for David Tennant's Tenth Doctor (as fans of this site will undoubtedly know), I do have to say that Smith's Doctor is remarkable: at once mad scientist, man-child, and manic magician rolled into one.

I don't want to reveal too much about the plot of these first few episodes because Doctor Who truly thrives when it surprises. And these first two installments offer much in the way of surprise and tantalizing thrills. In other words: they have to be seen in order to truly feel just what Moffat, Smith, Gillan, and Co. are trying to achieve here. But I will say that Smith's charm, poise, and quirkiness are one of the series' best weapons.

In just his first scene--where he attempts to sample an array of food in order to settle into his newly regenerated body (culminating in a stomach-churning combination of custard and fish sticks)--Smith wins you over through sheer force of will, effortlessly offering the very best aspects of Tennant's Doctor with new twists of his own. The result is one that pays homage to Tennant (he wears his cast-off wardrobe for the first 45 minutes or so) while setting up the Eleventh Doctor as a separate entity in his own right.

It's not an easy feat to follow in the footsteps of David Tennant but Smith proves that he's more than up to the task. His Doctor is at once all wide-eyed wonder and haughty tutor rolled into one: a creature of paradox whose knowledge is only ever truly appreciated when he's in the company of another.

Which brings us then to Gillan's Amy Pond. I don't want to give too much away about Amy but I will say that Gillan's spin on the role of the companion is one for the ages, offering a character that's not only different than Billie Piper's Rose, Freema Agyeman's Martha, and Catherine's Tate's Donna but who is uniquely connected to the Doctor in a way that no other companion has been.

A Scottish girl in an English village, Amy shares the outsider status of the Doctor, exploring the notion of belonging or not belonging, of sharing a home but not having one. There's immediately a simpatico spirit between the two travelers, a connection forged in a sense of being the Other, with its roots in the series' dark fairy tale aura. She's plucky, resourceful, and secretive, keeping something vital from the Doctor that might have changed his offer to her to travel the stars with him. (You'll have to watch to find out just what that is as well as the circumstances of their first meeting.)

The first episode, "The Eleventh Hour," written by Steven Moffat and directed by Adam Smith, is a staggering beautiful introduction to the new Doctor Who, a one-off mystery caper that at once sets up the new characters while exploring the small English village that Amy lives in, a village that conceals a dangerous creature known as Prisoner Zero, whose presence might spell doom for the entire planet. (My only complaint is that Prisoner Zero is far more terrifying when he's not seen than when he is. Which I promise will make more sense when you see the episode.) The installment deliciously sets up that overarching fairy tale sensation, offering a plot that is at once exciting and utterly heartbreaking. It seems that even a Time Lord is a prisoner to time itself...

The second episode, "The Beast Below," written again by Moffat and directed this time by Andrew Gunn, offers the first real adventure for the Doctor and Amy Pond as they travel to the far future and encounter a Great Britain that is little more than a metal spaceship amid the stars. But this ship and its seemingly docile society hide a dangerous and horrific secret. Look for Sophie Okenedo in a fantastic guest starring role as the mysterious Liz Ten, and for Amy to prove her worth to the Doctor.

Moffat's Doctor Who seems to have retained the sense of awe and beauty of Russell T Davies' run but has replaced some of the--for wont of a better word--silliness of some of those episodes with a darkness and grit. Fairy tales aren't always upbeat stories of magic and mirth but are often cautionary tales that explore the darker impulses of human nature. They might be intended for children but that doesn't mean that they are exclusively created for children.

In the hands of Moffat--the writer of some of Doctor Who's most beloved installments including "Blink" and "The Girl in the Fireplace"--the series becomes a winning mix of light and dark, adventure and heartache, home and away, the past and the future. Based on these early episodes, Moffat's tenure promises to be a legendary run on Doctor Who, filled with fire and spirit, joie de vivre and madness. In other words: exactly what the Doctor ordered.

Doctor Who launches Saturday at 9 pm ET/PT on BBC America.


Bella Spruce said…
David Tennant was brilliant, no question, but I think Smith is also destined for great things and I can't wait to see him and Gillan in action. Especially with Steven Moffat at the helm, as most of my favorite Doctor Who episodes were written by him. All of that, plus your amazing review, and I'm beside myself with excitement!
Anonymous said…
I'm a little concerned after watching the first ep & seeing the trailer that they're revisiting too much from past seasons. I love Moffat's stuff, but I think it's time for him to find a new schtick.
That said, by the end of the first ep I was kind of enjoying myself.
Paige Madison said…
I was concerned when they cast Matt Smith and seeing the "look" they gave him wondering how in the world he's going to follow David Tennant. However, after watching the sneak peaks and the extended release from Episode 1, my concerns were put to rest. I can't wait until this weekend to watch the whole thing.
cory said…
I'm a late fan of Doctor Who. When the first season premiered on Sci Fi back in 2005 I checked out the first few episodes, thought it was cool but didn't really get into it. After "Aliens in London" I stopped watching. A couple of years ago I started again and again stopped when I got to that episode (dunno why I didn't check out the ones after that). And then around the time "The Waters of Mars" aired I started season two on Netflix and got into the show, and after catching up with Tennant's episodes I finished season one. While waiting for season five I've been reading your reviews and posts about the show.

The wait for season five was most definitely worth the painful wait. I love the rebooted version just as much, in some ways it's a little better. It definitely feels fresh while feeling like the same show, and the Eleventh Doctor and Amy Pond are already iconic IMO.
Anonymous said…
Having viewed both of the first two episodes of the new season, for the first time ever as a Doctor Who fan dating back to the Classic series, felt that the show is now being targeted at a much younger age by SM than the prior 4+ seasons headed by RTD.

I hope that the remainder of the season won't continue feeling like a children's show, because here in the US, it has never been viewed entirely as such, often airing late at night in my Chicago market on PBS. BBCA also tends to air it later in the day than it is aired in the UK...
usagi said…
Just like Ten replaced Nine, it took me almost the entire episode to fall in love with the new Doctor. But as in Xmas Invasion, one cue won me over:
in Xmas invasion: No second chances. I'm that sort of a man

in the Eleventh hour: Did you think no one was watching? You lot, back here. NOW.

Both show what the Doctor is about, and I must say I'm confident about Eleven now. As for the companion, I really like her, and think she'll do great things. Even if I have a feeling Donna will always be my favorite.
Unknown said…
I don't think S5 feels any more childish than the past four seasons. It does feel like a dark fairy tale, but there are plenty of dark fairy tale-ish stories for adults and I think the show is as enjoyable for older viewers now as it ever was.
The CineManiac said…
I absolutely loved the first episode. Eccleston was my first doctor and I'll admit I was bitter about him leaving and it took a few episodes for me to get Tennant.
I was leaning a bit more towards liking Tennant in Tooth and Claw, and The Girl in the Fireplace cemented his place in my heart and I fell in love with that Doctor (in a purely hetero sort of way)
But in one episode Smith has won me over. His Doctor was almost pitch perfect, and Amy Pond seems like a perfect companion.

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