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Change is a funny phenomenon. All things must end and change is inevitable. Change has long been a part of Doctor Who; from the moment that William Hartnell laid down on the floor of the TARDIS console room and regenerated (or as it was then ‘renewed’) into Patrick Troughton, audiences realised that few things in Doctor Who were ever going to remain a constant.

Whaddaya know?  The UK finally enters the space race!
When David Tennant announced in late 2008 that he intended to bow out of the show at the end of the series of specials in 2009, the massive fan-base that he had built up were aghast –Tennant took over from Christopher Eccleston at the end of the first series, and the BBC were completely taken by surprise at just how phenomenally popular he would become. Kids loved him, chicks dug him and there was a genuine niceness to the character that was seemingly missing from Eccleston’s take on the Doctor. As well as Tennant leaving the show, executive producer Russell T Davies, along with producers Julie Gardener Phil Collinson, had also decided that it was time to move on, so when Doctor Who came back for a new full series, there would be many differences afoot.

The BBC took the unusual task of unveiling the new actor to play the character nearly a full year before he would appear on television. Speculation had put three actors in the frame and the public was almost frantic to see who was going to step into David Tennant’s trainers. On the third of January, 2009, twenty-six year old Matt Smith was officially announced as the Eleventh Doctor, much to the consternation of hard-core fans, who were not impressed by the young age of Smith and even less so by his appearance, which many people liken to a certain character in a Mary Shelley novel, or—more cruelly, Rocky Dennis…

Over the course of the year, the negativity only seemed to build against Smith and very little seemed to leak out whilst production was underway. Only little clips recorded on camera-phones and the odd audio excerpt found their way into the public domain, and these were still muddying the waters of opinion. Confidence started to build when Smith’s costume was unveiled, as it showed some of the more unconventional aspects of the character—which hadn’t really been seen since Paul McGann played the Doctor—nd echoed Patrick Troughton’s outfit.

During the final moments of The End of Time Part II, which was broadcast on New Year’s day, 2010, British audiences got their first official glimpse of the Eleventh Doctor, but many people had their doubts about Matt Smith's portrayal during the final scene, as it seemed to echo the manic nature of the Master's regeneration near the end of series three. Thankfully, this was merely a result of the regeneration, and the Eleventh Doctor finds his feet almost from the outset of series five.

Karen Gillan was brought onboard to play companion Amy Pond. There are some who would point out that whilst RTD was accused of having either a Welsh agenda or a gay agenda during his time on Doctor Who, others have started to accuse new executive producer Steven Moffat of having a Scottish agenda. Could this be merely a product of an overactive imagination, or is there an ounce of truth in it? Either way, the casting of Gillan was a masterstroke, as she embodies everything that is good in the best companions and also adds a few nice little touches of her own into the mix—oh, and she also does the best bug-eyed look of astonishment or horror since Anneke Wills.

Other changes that have taken place include the Doctor getting a new sonic screwdriver and the TARDIS having a complete overhaul, including a new exterior that looks remarkably like the one seen in the Peter Cushing Amicus…  sorry Aaru films. There is also a new logo (which incorporates the TARDIS into the logo) and a new and slightly more sinister version of the theme, which we aren’t great fans of. Also, we want to go on record as saying that the concept of the TARDIS being repeatedly hit by lightning bolts in the time vortex is remarkably childish, but now we’ll get on to looking at the episodes themselves…

They teach home economics earlier in life these days,,,
The Eleventh Hour
Following straight on from The End of Time Part II, The TARDIS is plummeting towards Earth, with the newly-regenerated Doctor hanging by his fingernails on the threshold of the door. The TARDIS inevitably crash-lands in a back garden in the rural community of Leadworth near Gloucester in 1996, and a little girl named Amelia Pond takes the Doctor inside and attempts to feed him the foods that he craves in his post-regenerative state.

The Doctor enchants young Amelia and notices that a strange crack in her bedroom wall is the protrusion into our dimension of an escaped convict who goes by the name of Prisoner Zero. The Doctor disappears in the TARDIS, off in search of Prisoner Zero, promising Amelia that he would be back in five minutes—but young Amelia learns a hard lesson that five minutes is relative to the Doctor and she does not meet him again until more than a decade has passed. The adult Amelia—now calling herself Amy—has spent much of the intervening time obsessing about the mysterious ‘Raggedy Doctor’ who made such an impression on her as a child and now works as a kissogram. After an initially bad reaction, with Amy knocking out the Doctor and handcuffing him, she teams up with him to save Earth from Prisoner Zero.

The Eleventh Hour was written by new Executive Producer—we refuse to use that naff US term ‘Show-Runner’—Steven Moffat, who was responsible for some of the best stories from New-Who (the best of which was probably the series three ‘Doctor-lite’ one, Blink) and he certainly gets series five off to a fresh start. There are many instances of Moffat’s twisted ability to take seemingly mundane things are distort them into fantastical or sinister concepts—the crack in Amy’s bedroom wall is an ingenious variation on the monster-under-the-bed chestnut—and Moffat’s humour runs through the script like a stick of seaside rock.

Matt Smith effortless confounds his critics by turning in an assured performance that recalls some of the more whimsical aspects of previous Doctors, specifically Patrick Troughton, and is certainly capable of pulling off the more dramatic aspects of the role. When the Doctor finally pulls himself together after his regeneration—and after a montage of all the previous Doctors—he confronts Prisoner Zero and Smith is pretty impressive at that.

Karen Gillan is very good as the adult Amy Pond; Steven Moffat has created one of the most believable companions in New-Who. Pond is a woman who has learnt to fend for herself and is intelligent and resourceful; she retains the sense of wonder from her childhood and has a desire to see the universe. Oh, and she also does a fabulous bug-eyed look of horror and/or surprise.

Special mention must go to actress Caitlin Blackwood, who portrays the young Amelia Pond—she is just wonderful to watch and she plays off Matt Smith so well that you can really see something of the future chemistry that the characters will have.

Ah, fruit and hair colour-coordinated!
The Eleventh Hour is a great introduction to Matt Smith, Karen Gillan and Steven Moffat’s tenure on Doctor Who. The extended running time (it clocks in at around an hour) gives the story more time to breathe and allows Smith more time to develop the character—in stark contrast to Tennant’s first story, The Christmas Invasion, where he spends most of the time comatose. The Eleventh Hour is not without its flaws—the whole ‘silence will fall’ motif that runs through this series seems somewhat forced (Moffat has used a cryptic three-worded phrase before ‘count the shadows’, anyone?) and the confrontation with Prisoner Zero was somewhat by-the-numbers in terms of its writing rather than performance, but it was nice to see brief clips of all the previous Doctors to help tie the original series and the new one together.

The Beast Below
The Doctor and Amy materialise aboard the Starship UK, a vast interplanetary craft that contains the remnants of the United Kingdom, who escaped deadly solar flares in the 29th Century.

Whilst investigating the reasons behind a crying child, the Doctor and Amy realise that all is not what it seems, especially with the sinister Smilers, who appear to be protecting a secret from the population of the ship. Whispers of the ‘Beast Below’ cause our heroes to start investigating and they discover that something very large and awfully angry is lurking in the bowels of the vessel, but they realise that all is not what it seems and that the Doctor and Amy realise that they have an opportunity to put right a cruel wrong.

The Beast Below—personally speaking, of course—is probably the weakest of the three stories in this set. Written by Steven Moffat, much of it seems as though it has been done before in New-Who and science-fiction in general. The whole concept of an alien environment that has twisted shades of the present day was seen in the series one dog The Long Game and the idea of an alien life-form being tortured by humanoids in order to serve them was almost identical to the Star Trek: The Next Generation pilot story, Encounter at Farpoint.

An idea for Doctor Who that had been kicking around since the early eighties was entitled Song of the Space Whale and had been rejected and re-pitched several times before being buried. It would appear that the idea finally found someone who had an interest in such a concept and was included in Doctor Who after thirty years.

"I 'ate you, Butler - get that bus aaht!"
Whilst on their travels, Moffat introduces the future head of the monarchy, and she isn’t white—no problem with that, and that’s not a particularly great leap, seeing as our present monarchy is Teutonic in origin anyway. Liz Ten as she is known is largely kept aboard as a figurehead with little power of her own. Liz Ten, like the present one, is kept around in order to maintain the status quo and allow the population of the Starship UK to have someone to look up to and help them to forget the grim situation they are in. It is later revealed that even the reigning monarch has to vote every now and again, and that with the help of the Doctor and Amy, things are to change forever aboard the Starship UK.

Steven Moffat has crafted a script that was a sly satire of the election that was just around the corner when this story was broadcast. Everyone aboard the ship has to vote every five years—in one of the many voting booths on the starship, they are shown a video and afterwards to choose to forget what they have just seen and have their memory wiped and live in blissful ignorance or to protest against what they have just seen. During many elections, the UK tends to forget events immediately prior to the election and want to just maintain a state of ignorance, but that’s just us venturing into potentially dangerous political areas.

The performances are still good here—Smith is still either consciously or subconsciously channelling David Tennant, but is beginning to make the part his own by having his Doctor seemingly firing on too many cylinders when walking into a situation and exploring any and every tangent before making an informed guess as to how to handle things. Gillan is also very good, but is shouldered with the burden of being the prime mover in terms of the story, jumping in and making the crucial decisions, rather thantThe Doctor; this is a theme that reoccurs in this series and it is a curious one; the Doctor is a nine hundred year old being who has travelled in time and space and gained the wisdom of the ages—to have someone realise something critical that he hadn’t noticed once or twice is fine, but to have this happen repeatedly begins to make the central character look weak or idiotic. Matt Smith is walking a fine line in his characterisation of the Doctor—a bumbling Doctor who is somewhat accident-prone or can be viewed as a fool by his adversaries is one thing, but by taking away the strength of character to resolve situations and foil his enemies himself is quite a serious misstep so early on into this incarnation.

In an environment where dog-fouling is rife, Amy realises that she has left her shoes back in the TARDIS
We know that there are many people who found the following story to be the weakest in the set, but we personally think that The Beast Below has that dubious honour—it flows along reasonably well until the monarchy is introduced and the concept of an habited environment on the back of an animal has been done before (Terry Pratchett) and the animal being tortured for the good of the humans it serves has also been seen previously ( Star Trek: The Next Generation), then the freshness that it started with quickly runs stale.

Victory of the Daleks
Following on from the end of the previous story, the Doctor materialises in war-torn London at the request of Winston Churchill (Ian McNeice), who announces that one of his chief scientists, Professor Bracewell (Bill Patterson) has perfected devices—known as Ironsides—that will help Britain win the war against the Nazis.

The only problem is that the Ironsides are actually Daleks, but they appear to be subservient to the British government— ’I am your sold-ier!’, they constantly inform them. Churchill's stubborn streak means that he is more interested in the possibility of defeating Hitler and his forces than he is in listening to the pleas of the Doctor about regarding the evil nature of the Daleks.

Eventually, the Doctor realises that the whole thing has been a ruse in order to lure the last of the Time Lords to the last of the Daleks and bring about the birth of a new generation of Skaro's most infamous residents. These Daleks, when completed, could spell certain doom for the human race and the universe in general, unless the Doctor can stop them.

There is much to like about Victory of the Daleks—it was written by Mark Gatiss, who also penned one of our personal favourite New-Who stories, The Unquiet Dead—and there are themes, both subtle and blatant, that illustrate the obvious love that Gatiss has for the period. Gatiss seems to have taken his inspiration from Patrick Troughton's first story, Power of the Daleks, which featured the characters masquerading as servants to a group of unsuspecting humans, whist keeping their true nature a secret until they had been able to reproduce themselves and go on a bloodthirsty rampage of conquest. At one point—which both of us knew he was going to say—the Doctor mentions a ’final end’ for the Daleks, which was a reference to the climax of Troughton's Evil of the Daleks.

Ray Cusick is probably cursing Moffat at this point...
There are also numerous things to dislike about this episode—the redesign of the Daleks is probably the main thing; one can only imagine that the main reason for seriously screwing with the best part of half a century's design history was purely to bring about a whole new wave of merchandise that the BBC can milk for years to come. The new Daleks look awful, as though a dodgem car had mated with a Mini-Cooper, giving the thing a hunchback (or should that be ‘hatchback’?) and towering over anything and everything—there are shades of the idiotic ‘bigger is more scary’ mentality that was brought to the Cyber-King in The Next Doctor. Looking like a dodgem car is now somewhat appropriate, as back in their first story, it was established that the Daleks originally ran on static electricity...

Another problem this story has is that although the portrayal of Churchill in the script was pretty faithful, actor Ian McNiece was completely miscast in the role, transforming Churchill from being somewhat portly to being morbidly obese in a manner that would have elicited blood, toil tears and sweat merely from attempting to climb a flight of stairs—a feat that would have been easier for the Daleks to do in pre-McCoy Doctor Who.

Veteran actor Bill Patterson give a great performance as the would-be inventor of the ‘Ironsides’, giving a much greater depth to the part than most other actors would have and making the somewhat dubious climax slightly more palatable than it would have been otherwise.

The concept of Spitfires in space certainly seemed like a good idea, but it loses something when transferred to a moving, visual medium. Hammer Films used to drum up interest in forthcoming projects (not to mention as a way of trying to potentially snare financing) by coming up with a concept and then making an elaborate poster for it—as Hammer was being left behind by contemporary horror such as Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, one act of desperation was to produce a poster for a film provisionally entitled ’Zeppelins vs. Pterodactyls’; you get that same kind of vibe with this story, combining two completely unlikely opposing forces against each other, only here you had WW2 Spitfires going up against a Dalek mothership.

"Never in the field of television drama, has one actor been too corpulent to play Churchill"
Where the show seriously shoots itself in the foot comes during the climax, when one character is revealed to be something other than human and that this character could potentially destroy many, but destruction could be averted if he can get in touch with his humanity. It’s as cheesy as hell and really takes the edge off what was a pretty enjoyable episode.

Oh, we would be remiss in our duties as reviewers if we failed to point out that the review copies put out by 2Entertain are missing the ‘next time’ teasers on all three episodes. According to the good folks at the gallifreybase forums, the MD of 2Entertain was unaware of the changes and would be ‘looking into it’. If these omissions are going to be on the release copies, then it's bloody annoying as the previews of the next episodes are a staple of New-Who and it would be depriving the fans if they were taken out.

Video


Doctor Who is now being shot in Hi-Def and there is a general upswing in sharpness, even on the SD copies. (We would have reviewed the Blu-ray release, but it was not possible for us both to be furnished with Blu review discs). Colours on the 1.78:1 anamorphic image are very strong and pleasing on the eye; the blue colour hue of The Eleventh Hour and the red motif of The Beast Below look very nice indeed. Victory of the Daleks has a more processed, muted look to it—more than likely to give something of a period feel to the story—but looks pretty impressive all the same.

Audio


Oh dear—same old story with New-Who on SD. You are disappointingly presented with a plain old vanilla Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack. If you run it through an amp that can allow you to select a decent DSP, then it will sound better, but it’s certainly no substitute for a proper discrete 5.1 soundtrack—we guess, as always, they’ll be saving it for the inevitable box-set in November. We’re rankled that the Blu-ray copies have a DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, but SD doesn’t even have Dolby Digital 5.1.

Extras


In order to get Doctor Who fans to buy the vanilla discs, 2Entertain are making them so that they aren’t completely bare-bones. What you have on this disc is the first part of a series of featurettes entitled The Monster Files, examining a particular adversary on each disc.

The first of these featurettes looks at—appropriately enough—the Daleks. This ten-minute examination of the new-look Daleks has clips from the show, popular tunes to underscore the intent and congratulatory interviews with the cast and crew where everyone interviewed slavishly raves over the new Dalek designs and tries to win over the more hard-bitten fans. In fact, it's essentially a cut-down Doctor Who Confidential Cut-Down (it's mentioned on the end of the featurette).

"We're the future - YOUR future!"

Overall


When it was announced that Russell T Davies was leaving Doctor Who, there were many who rejoiced, and that Steven Moffat replacing him was almost like the coming of the messiah. The reality is that Doctor Who is continuing as usual, albeit with very superficial changes and that things are little better or worse than they were under Davies.

Matt Smith and Karen Gillan are both great actors and the chemistry that they share is great fun to watch. Doctor Who will always have it’s good and bad stories, so just enjoy the good ones and let the bad ones wash over you without getting so worked up that you have a stroke whilst you post furious on an internet forum about it. Doctor Who is back and it’s in a safe pair of hands.


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