When it was announced in 2009 that Matt Smith (then 27) would be taking over for David Tennant on Doctor Who, everybody went… “Who?” After all, he was so young and we hadn’t seen him in too much, so that seemed a fairly reasonable thing to say. Mind you, people said the same thing when a certain Tom Baker took over in 1974. The first thing we saw of Smith as the Eleventh Doctor was his comedic turn at the tail end of the otherwise atrocious “The End of Time,” but that wasn’t enough to truly let us know anything. And with Steven Moffat taking over as head writer, we really didn’t know anything of the kind of show Doctor Who was regenerating into. But we soon would.
Series 5 – 3 April 2010 – 26 June 2010
Moffat went for a complete shift with his first series, not retaining any of the characters or elements from the Russell T. Davies years (except one, which we’ll get to) and moved much of the Earth-bound action away from London or Cardiff to the small, quiet village of Leadworth and environs. This series also focused on a continuing arc and, much like Moffat’s individual episode scripts prior to this, the viewer had to pay attention week to week or risk missing things.
With the first episode, The Eleventh Hour, Moffat at once made an episode that was as close to an RTD-style runaround as possible as well as uniquely his. We start with the newly-regenerated Eleventh Doctor desperately trying to get control of the TARDIS which is in the process of burning and exploding thanks to the regeneration. He eventually lands in the back garden of a little Scottish girl, Amelia Pond, who had just been praying to Santa for someone to come help her with the scary crack in her wall. The Doctor, despite still “cooking,” offers to help and eventually discovers that the crack in the wall is actually a crack in space and time. Through it, he finds that something called Prisoner Zero has escaped and the giant-eyed prison guards, the Atraxi, are looking for it.
The TARDIS begins to make noise, so the Doctor runs out, but he tells Amelia to wait five minutes and he’ll be back. When the Doctor returns he sees the house is completely empty, save a policewoman who knocks him out and handcuffs him. However, it seems Prisoner Zero is loose in the house and has hidden a room from sight. At a nearby hospital, coma patients all begin saying things and a nurse, Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill), gets in trouble for it. The Atraxi demand that Prisoner Zero surrender itself or they’ll destroy the Earth. Jerks.
Though the policewoman claims that Amelia Pond hasn’t lived in the house for many years, we eventually learn that SHE is Amelia Pond, who now goes by Amy (Karen Gillan) and that she’d been in and out of therapy her whole life because of her imaginary friend, the Raggedy Doctor. Anyway, the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver blows up and the TARDIS won’t let him, in so he uses basic laptoppery to get all digital readouts in the world to say 0 and routed back to the cell phone in his hands so the Atraxi can get it. They go to leave, but he calls them back to yell at them for trying to blow up the Earth. Then he tells Amy he’ll be right back and when he does two more years have gone by. In her pajamas, she heads off with the Doctor, not telling him that she’s getting married in the morning.
What a frigging wonderful episode. It gives you everything you need to know about the Eleventh Doctor and Amy and sets up future episodes with Rory and even works in the timey-wimey stuff, which becomes all too important as we go on. It’s an excellent episode for people to show new viewers as well, because it does tell everything you need to know without getting too bogged down in anything. I’ve seen this episode probably a dozen or more times, and it’s just as entertaining as it ever was.
Next, the Doctor takes Amy to Spaceship UK for The Beast Below. In the future, all the countries break off into their own spaceships to fend for themselves (and Scotland gets its own). Something weird happens on the ship with the seemingly helpful robots called Smilers, whose heads turn around and toss people toward “the beast below.” Queen Elizabeth the 10th is on this ship as well, and is concerned for her citizenry. There’s something also to do once people turn 18 in which they are shown a video and have to decide whether to go along with things or rebel. Eventually we find out that the thing making the spaceship go is a Star Whale, a giant creature who’s essentially being tortured and fed people so that it will continue to go. People have to decide whether they’re okay with this and forget about it or rise up. Amy figures out that the Whale only wanted to help in the first place and would go a lot faster if it wasn’t in so much pain.
This episode features some great performances from Smith and Gillan, and on the surface the story is interesting, but if you really start looking at it, there’s really no conflict; the rhyme about the beast below doesn’t make any sense, the Smilers are nothing, and the whole thing hinges on an easily fixed situation.
This is followed by Victory of the Daleks, written by Mark Gatiss, his first script for the series since 2006. After the distress call from Winston Churchill at the end of “The Beast Below,” the Doctor and Amy travel to WWII-era London, only a month late. Churchill was calling because the Daleks were there, but now it seems they are the helpful invention of a scientist called Bracewell. The Doctor, of course, refuses to believe they’re nice and goes a bit crazy at them. But, hey, turns out he was right and they just needed him to recognize him to trigger their “Progenator” device, which created new paradigm Daleks who are again pure and not at all human. Then, turns out Bracewell is a bomb, so they have to talk him out of exploding, even though he thinks he’s a human being.
This could have been a really awesome episode, but sadly wasn’t. The interesting part, with the Daleks in the WWII bunker, is painfully brief, and the part that isn’t interesting at all, with Amy attempting to convince Bracewell not to blow up, takes way too long. Plus, it sends Spitfires into outer space without giving proper time to explain how and why they can do that. This episode flatly needed a longer running time, maybe even a second part, but didn’t get it. The direction, by Andrew Gunn, who also did “The Beast Below,” is also very shoddy. He never directed for the series again, thank gosh.
Speaking of directors, Adam Smith, who directed “The Eleventh Hour” to great effect, also directed Series 5’s first two-parter, The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone, which were actually the very first episodes filmed for the year. It reintroduces the Weeping Angels from Moffat’s “Blink” episode and River Song (Alex Kingston) from his library two-parter. In these episodes, the Doctor gets a distress call from across time and space to pick up River as she flings herself out of the ship, the Byzantium, which then crashes onto a planet, and militarized “clerics” come to help retrieve its cargo, a Weeping Angel. The ship is upside down in the middle of a mountain cavern, so getting there is a mite difficult. They have security footage of the Angel, which, they soon find out, is itself an Angel, and gets inside of Amy’s eye, which leads her to be effectively blind from having to keep her eyes shut.
Where they’ve crashed is actually home to dozens of angels who’ve been reduced to ruin over time but quickly rebuild themselves by killing members of the crew. The survivors make their way into the ship and inside the interior forest it uses for oxygen. Turns out, the crack from Amy’s wall is inside the ship and is pulling people into it, wiping them out of history completely. Though the Doctor thinks a quantum event will shut it, and that there’s no bigger quantum event than himself, he figures out a way to turn off the ship’s gravity so the Angels go tumbling into it. River goes back to prison, for the murder of SOMEONE. The Doctor takes Amy back home where they talk about how she’s going to get married in the morning, but she wants herself a piece of the Doctor. He thinks he has a plan.
There’s no hyperbole in this when I say that the Angel two-parter in Series 5 is one of the best 80-some minutes of television you could ever possibly watch. It is a thing of beauty, full of great ideas, superb locations and sets, fantastic acting, and genuine thrills. It is, as Moffat intended, the Aliens to “Blink”’s Alien. I admit that, while I loved “The Eleventh Hour,” the next two episodes left me a bit cold, and so it took this two-parter to really get me jazzed about the series again, which I would remain for the duration.
The Doctor decides the best thing for Amy is to do some traveling with Rory, so he goes and, after embarrassing himself, brings the goofy nurse aboard the TARDIS to give the affianced a romantic getaway. How about to Venice! Too bad there are The Vampires of Venice to deal with. Written by Toby Whithouse, this episode has all the hallmarks of Gothic vampire literature (aristocratic family, a castle, girls being turned into vampiric brides, aversion to sunlight, no reflection) but upends it when you find out that they’re actually a race of fish-aliens using perception filters to appear human. They are the last of their kind as well.
The episode brings Rory nicely into the mix and has a lot of fun moments. Rory even gets to tell the Doctor off about always making his companions want to impress him. The resolution to the episode is a bit of a “meh” situation, unfortunately, and it seems to repeat pieces from past episodes a bit too much. Still, it’s not terrible, and it features the Doctor showing his library card which has a picture of William Hartnell on it, which is a surefire way to make me like it.
At the halfway point of the series is an episode that gets unfairly overlooked by a lot of fans, but that I think is one of the best they’ve ever done. Amy’s Choice, by Simon Nye, presents two wholly different yet totally plausible situations for our characters to be in: One of them where they’re on the TARDIS, which is adrift in space headed toward a “frozen sun;” the other has Rory and Amy married and retired from the TARDIS (with Amy very pregnant) living in Upper Leadworth with alien-possessed pensioners killing people in town. They represent two possible lives Amy could lead and a possible way in which they all could die. A dastardly trickster who calls himself the Dream Lord (Toby Jones) is the mastermind of this ordeal, telling them that one reality is a dream but the other is real and they need to decide which is which. Ultimately, it’s really up to Amy.
This episode has everything I could possibly want in a sci-fi script: horror, comedy, old-age zombie things, life-or-death choices, mystery, and a bad guy who is genuinely frightening as well as strangely likeable. There is a very dark moment after Rory in the Leadworth reality is disintegrated by an elderly alien and Amy decides that this must be the dream, because otherwise she wouldn’t want to live without him. She is PREGNANT during this, though, so it seems as if she’s really putting all her eggs, so to speak, in one basket. It doesn’t matter, because we know everything will turn out okay, but the Doctor’s self-hatred remains. I just love this episode. So there.
The second two-parter comes from the controversial writer Chris Chibnall. The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood is a tribute to the Pertwee/UNIT years of the show, with a massive underground drill (like “Inferno”), an energy dome around a small village (like “The Daemons”), and, most noticeably, the return of the Silurians, or the Eocenes as they should be called but never are. The drilling project in a small Welsh village makes its way deeper into the Earth than anything ever has been, but something’s been coming up and pulling people below. They are, of course, the Silurians, most of whom had been hibernating for millennia, but a few have woken up to defend their underground city. One Silurian warrior (Neve McIntosh) wants a war between her two species, and knows that her twin sister (played by McIntosh as well) will bring down the fury if she gets killed. And so, she eggs on a woman whose husband and son have been taken, and eventually gets her wish.
Underground, some of the humans, including Amy, are the subject of experimentation, and, eventually, the leader of the tribe awakens and a peace is attempted to be brokered between the two groups. Whatever they decide wouldn’t amount to anything, though, as Amy and one of the drill teams’ scientists are in no way authorized to speak for the entirety of humankind, no matter how easy that would make things. Ultimately, it’s decided that the Silurians are ready to be awake and things go back into emergency shutdown. As she dies from a blast wound, the Silurian warrior attempts to kill the Doctor, but Rory jumps in to save him, taking the blast himself. This isn’t the worst part – the crack is there again and sucks Rory up into it. No matter how much the Doctor tries to make Amy remember, she can’t escape him being blinked away.
This is a case of the first part being really good but the second part being a lot less good. It’s not awful, but it’s just a bit silly and can’t really pay off a lot of the promise of the first episode. Nobody was really prepared, though, to have Rory get killed and then eRAAAZed from existence in the 9th episode of the year. I mean, what?! But, I guess I’d rather the thing that makes the story arc an arc actually be a thing than have it never show up until the end. Does that make sense? Anyway, Chibnall’s not terrible at all. Lay off.
As guest writers go, though, perhaps none have been as famous as Richard Curtis, he of Love Actually and About Time fame, among many, many other things (like Blackadder). He turns up to script Vincent and the Doctor, a typically schmaltzy pseudo-historical featuring one of the best real-person characters they’ve ever had, being Vincent Van Gogh (played brilliantly by Tony Curran). After seeing a monster in one of Van Gogh’s paintings, the Doctor and Amy go back in time to see if they can help him out with it. Van Gogh, true to reality, is virtually penniless, his work is unwanted, and is a pariah in Arles because of his crippling bipolarity and tendency for outbursts. In truth, he’s only a few months away from suicide. The monster turns out to be an invisible blind chicken who is scared and can only be seen (aside from by Vincent) in a mirror. After this poor creature is dispatched, the Doctor takes Vincent to the Musée d’Orsay and lets him see how his work is appreciated in the future. He still commits suicide, though.
This, as I said, is very Curtis-y. It goes for heartstrings and largely lands, though the plot is a bit flimsy (an invisible blind chicken alien? For reals, dude?). Still, the performances are terrific, the direction is great, and it gives an interesting portrait of a very troubled genius. There’s a sort of morality issue in the Doctor showing Vincent his future, and Amy thinking that might alter things in his life, but I do like that they don’t depict it changing how his life went at all, but maybe gave him a moment or two of happiness. That’s not a bad thing, is it?
From tear-jerker to funny bone-tickler, we go to The Lodger, written by Gareth Roberts. In it, the Doctor is stuck on Earth because of a weird time disturbance and Amy is stuck on the TARDIS. In order to figure out what’s going on, the Doctor rents a room in Craig (James Corden)’s flat. The Doctor, guess what, is weird and sort of cramps Craig’s style, especially by getting in the way of his friendship/they’re-desperately-in-love-with-each-other-but-never-say-anything with Sophie (Daisy Haggard). Some sort of alien force is tempting people to the upstairs of this house and killing them. Turns out, there is no upstairs to the house and it’s a perception filter again. The upstairs is a ship (that looks a bit TARDIS-y) and it needs to find a pilot. Do you think love will solve everything? You bet your dumb face! (I’m sorry, your face isn’t dumb.)
Despite another schmaltztastic final act, this is a really fun episode with some excellent interplay between Smith and Corden. It’s one of the rare occasions where the show has been able to be thoroughly comedic without becoming campy or overly silly, and it succeeds brilliantly. A lot of that is just because Matt Smith is awesome and can play awkward better than most anyone in the whole of time and space.
And for our finale, we have one of the most genuinely different and well-constructed two-parters in the whole of anything – The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang. Another signal from River brings Amy and the Doctor to ancient England where a Roman Legion is convinced (through trickery) that River is Cleopatra. She has gotten a lost painting of Vincent Van Gogh’s from Liz 10 on Spaceship UK from a tip off by Winston Churchill and it depicts the TARDIS exploding. Bad news, bears. The name of the painting is “The Pandorica Opens,” which is strange to the Doctor given that the Pandorica is a fairy tale. They’re right by Stonehenge so they go to an underneath part of it (The Underhenge) wherein is the actual Pandorica, a massive box that is said to house the most terrible thing in the whole universe. The Doctor wants to know what’s in it.
There are Cyberman remains all over the place from an apparent time when they tried to steal the box, or free its inhabitant, and one of the suits begins to rebuild itself, looking for a new human (Amy) to be its host. A Roman Centurian is able to destroy it, but not before Amy is knocked unconscious. That Roman Centurian is… wait for it… RORY! Why?! Doesn’t matter! The Doctor is very confused, but very pleased to see him, especially with his memories intact. This excitement is shortlived, though, because all of the Doctor’s enemies, including Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans, Judoon, and a ton of other ones that don’t get shown, are there to, it seems, take the box. River goes in the TARDIS to check something and finds herself at Amy’s house. Some investigating proves that all of the things were taken from Amy’s subconscious by someone. Rory and all the Romans turn out to be Autons and the Pandorica turns out to be a prison for the most hated thing in the universe: the Doctor! As he is put into it, Rory shoots Amy and the stars begin to blink out of existence.
But! Using some time shenanigans and causal loops, the Doctor is able to get out by having already gotten out… yep. He uses the Pandorica’s life-sustaining powers and puts Amy inside of it. Rory, a plastic man, decides to stay and guard her for 2,000 years until little Amelia opens it in the “present,” which takes place on an Earth that has nothing else around it, space-wise. Using River’s vortex manipulator, the Doctor is able to retrieve her from the ever-exploding TARDIS, which has itself become the sun. A fez becomes involved at a certain point. Lots and lots more happens, which I could explain, but I’m getting tired already. Suffice to say, the Doctor flings himself and the Pandorica into the exploding TARDIS and reverts the universe’s destruction. Unfortunately, the crack in space time is content on making him relive his life backwards, even through things we’ve already seen but didn’t know what we were looking at, until he finally submits and goes away.
Amy wakes up in her bed on the morning of her wedding. Her parents are there, having never been blinked out of existence, and the wedding goes well until Amy suddenly gets very sad. Someone (River) brought her a diary that looks like a TARDIS, and Amy suddenly begins to remember and the TARDIS fades into existence again. I don’t understand it, but I like it. The Doctor gives the book back to River, content that he will be seeing her again, and goes to leave. However, Amy and Rory aren’t having it and leave with him. Hooray!
Whoa. That is a complicated two episodes, but it’s befitting such a complicated series. I’ve minced no words about this before: Series 5 is my favorite series of the new Who, and it’s almost entirely due to how tightly plotted most of it is. Aside from “Beast Below” and “Victory of the Daleks,” I like if not love every episode, giving it the highest batting average of any, and there are 7 or 8 true classics in there. It’s brilliant.
Things get a lot more complicated relationship-wise in the next series, which is a bit of a comedown from Series 5, it must be said, and is not nearly as nicely-planned. But, it’s still got some good stuff in it and some controversial stuff as well. We’re nearing the home stretch, people! Next time, we’re going to Series 6.