Today I’m writing my last post on “The 11th Hour,” the first episode of Team Moffat’s run on Doctor Who. (I write “Team Moffat” rather than “Stephen Moffat” because no matter how much control the producer has over a show, there’s a whole team that makes his, or her, vision real: costume designers, carpenters, actors, musicians.) Previously I waxed on the characterization of Amy Pond, the Doctor’s new companion, and on the identity themes that suffuse the episode, but it’d be silly to make three days of posts on Doctor Who without mentioning the Doctor himself, so here I am.
The Doctor, like everything else in this episode, is trying to change his clothes, which is to say, to try on new identities. The 11th Doctor spends the first four acts wearing the suit and tie of the 10th – figuratively as well as literally.
The very first shot of the Doctor narrowly avoiding a hit to the bait & tackle from Big Ben, hails (as Behind the Sofa mentions) to the cheesiest moments of Team Davies’ run on Who. “The 11th Hour” isn’t a homage, though. Rather, it uses elements of previous seasons to undermine the old status quo. At one point, Amy slams the Doctor’s tie in a car door, trapping him. Somehow, during all those times when the Doctor was wrestling with the Master or the Ood, nobody ever used his tie against him. It was there mostly to look cool. No more.
The trappings of previous Doctors that linger in “The 11th Hour” are, like the Doctor’s old clothes, “raggedy,” and that’s the word most often used to refer to the Doctor throughout the show. It’s a descriptor not only of Smith’s ill-treated suit, but of the character who bore the pinstripes and screwdriver before him, a man worn ragged by the last two seasons, in which senseless tragedy was often abused to produce emotional effect.
Tennant’s Doctor, at the end of his run, was a shell of a man; his great failing was his inability to make meaningful choices. He lost Rose to an accident and Donna to technobabble; he tried to tell Martha how he felt about her, but never actually worked up the courage to do so, and so she left. The promise of “Waters of Mars” was that we would see the 10th Doctor, the bipolar control freak, finally follow his will to power, rise as a villain, and fall when he realized what he had become, and then regenerate into something new; unfortunately, Tennant’s Doctor didn’t follow through with his conviction to become the Lord of Time. Instead of such a true, tragic arc, we were treated to a pair of not-choices: first, shoot this arch-villain or that one or the machine that will trap them both outside time forever (oh, and you save the world whatever you do), and second, save the sweet old man from a horrid death due to radiation poisoning or let him perish to save your own cowadly skin (some choice to live with down eternity). Not for nothing were the 10th Doctor’s last words a weepy “But I’m not ready yet” – he saved the world more times than he made a choice and it endured.
At the end of Act IV, when the 11th Doctor confronts shapeshifting Patient Zero and sees a reflection of himself, he asks: “who’s that?” He sees Amelia, the little girl dreaming of herself with the Doctor as a companion, this tall man in a raggedy suit. “That’s you,” someone says off-camera. “Don’t you recognize yourself?”
The Doctor’s reply – “it’s been a busy day” – is played for a joke, but it’s deadly serious. He sees himself, the new regeneration, still wearing the clothes of the old, and is shocked by the juxtaposition; shocked, perhaps, by the memory of his repeated failure to make his own choices. It’s no accident that the first thing he does after forcing Prisoner Zero back to its true form is assume his own true form. “No more raggedy Doctor!” he cries; in a trice he’s naked, and in a blink clothed again – in his own clothes, with his own tie, which won’t be locked in any car doors any time soon. He’s cast out the emotional damage, washed himself clean, and moved forward.
By the end of the episode, when Matt Smith walks through the holographic succession of the old Doctors, he has decided what to keep (the sneakers, the jacket and button-down shirt, a tie) from his previous lives and what (the overcoat, pin-stripe, spiked hair) to throw away. At the end of the day we have a new Doctor, in a new TARDIS, with a new sonic screwdriver. He knows who he is.
Which is vital, because, as I said yesterday, Amelia will need as much help as she can get to answer the same question.
(Pulp Fiction, by the way. Only five points – you really should know this one.)