Blu-Review: Doctor Who: Series 5: Volume 1

Written By Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss
Starring Matt Smith and Karen Gillan


Whenever I recommend Doctor Who to someone, or attempt to challenge their opinion that the show is nothing more than childish, campy daftness for kids, it’s always the Steven Moffat episodes that I steer them towards. While the quality of the series revival has over its previous four series wildly fluctuated, with greatness few and far between, Moffat’s screenplays unfailingly elevated the show not just to its own zenith, but crafted some of the most astonishingly great genre entertainment to grace TV screens.

Blink especially, doubling as a fantastic stand-alone episode to convert newcomers, managed to perfectly distill the essence of what has made Doctor Who such a memorable part of popular consciousness for almost 50 years: Intelligent and exhilarating sci-fi children’s entertainment that isn’t afraid to scare the living bejesus out of kids and adults alike. It was impossible not to be giddy at the prospect of Russell T. Davies handing over the showrunning reigns to Moffat – a writer infinitely more capable of delivering a higher standard of entertainment and someone not afraid to give kids the willies. Only, y’know, in a non-molesty kind of way. It’s no great shock, then, that the opening episodes of Series 5 constitute some of the most consistently entertaining storytelling of the entire show’s run.

As the story begins in The 11th Hour, young Scottish girl Amelia is kneeling at her bedside, praying to Santa for someone to come and fix her wall. A crack has appeared along the length of it, which would seem to simply be the hallmark of British craftsmanship, except for the fact that she’s been hearing otherworldly whispers through it. Before she can finish her sentence and hop into bed, the TARDIS careens through the sky and crash-lands in her back garden as The Doctor pops out, fresh from David Tennant’s regeneration into a brand new face. Inspecting the crack, he agrees that something’s rather wonky, but rushes off to check the ailing TARDIS, promising to be back in five minutes. 12 years later he finally arrives to greet an adult Amy who after years of waiting has finally repressed the idea of The Doctor as an imaginary friend. There’s no time for tea and girlie catch-ups though, as with a looming threat promising to destroy the planet, The Doctor and his new companion have 20 minutes to save the world. That’s not even enough time to watch an episode of Entourage!

“Amelia Pond,” The Doctor repeats with delight after the young girl introduces herself, “Like a name in a fairytale.”
He’s not wrong either – Moffat’s clearly aiming for a fairytale aesthetic with his series, evident in the wonderful childhood whimsy of the scenes with The Doctor and young Amelia, or the Peter Pan allusions of The Doctor swooping into Amy’s life to take her off into the stars for a life of magical grand adventure, leaving grounded adult responsibility behind. The Doctor as the absentee imaginary friend conceit is a fantastic idea, too, setting up the new fairytale undercurrent while establishing a new Doctor-companion relationship quickly, delivering a wealth of organic character and backstory for Amy without resorting to ham-fisted exposition. It’s a great introduction, made that much more wonderful due to the chemistry between the new actors.
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While the promised quality of Moffat was always a given, it’s the casting of 26-year-old Matt Smith as the 11th Doctor that proved to be the wild card for many when the news of his hiring was first announced. I can’t deny having felt apprehensive myself, knowing Smith only as ‘that guy from the especially forgettable episode of Secret Diary of a Call Girl whose head looks like a mash-up of Frankenstein’s monster and a mutant baked potato’. It only took about ten minutes to allay any fears about how well the youngest doctor yet would fare; Matt Smith’s is the most assured, confident and wonderfully-performed debut for a Who lead yet. Though he has a distractingly odd head – the structure of his skull clearly contains dimensions and geometry previously undiscovered by science – it also serves his choice of performance well; he’s strangely handsome, but less the dashing superhero that David Tennant’s Doctor was and more odd and distinctly alien in his behaviour. Our first real introduction to the 11th Doctor has a young Amy attempting to cook his favourite food, which he insists is apples. Then yoghurt. Then bacon. As he spits food everywhere with escalating gusto, it’s clearly aimed at kids, but Smith has a wonderfully deft slapstick physicality and comedic timing that makes it endlessly funny for adults, too.

Smith plays his Doctor as equal parts wise, slightly stodgy academic – managing to effortlessly exude an odd sense of no-nonsense sage authority despite his youthful looks – and strange alien observer – often invading people’s personal space, sizing up their face and actions with scholarly curiosity, or inspecting objects and the world with exaggerated hand gestures and eccentric childlike wonder. He’s astoundingly great in the role, and though it’s surely too soon to be throwing around “Best Doctor ever!” proclamations, he’s quickly and easily becoming my favourite, and his is undoubtedly the most assured first outing yet, giving the impression that he’s lived comfortably in the role for years.

Karen Gillan is just as refreshing an addition, too, and while it doesn’t hurt for straight male (or gay female) viewers that she’s astonishingly gorgeous (and constantly clad in uber-short skirts no matter the weather), she’s also an incredibly talented actress with perfect comic timing and great material to work with. Fiesty, intelligent and utterly adorable, she’s an infinitely more interesting and pro-active companion than Rose or Martha, with an effortlessly natural and sweet chemistry opposite Smith. While usually the companion is a clearly secondary role to the more enigmatic and heroic doctor, it’s proof of Gillan’s talent and presence that the two feel like equal characters.
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Opening episodes are always a tough act to perform, with the burden of introducing characters, laying groundwork for the ongoing series arc, all while delivering a self-contained entertaining story. Thankfully Moffat is gracefully economical with the runtime, managing to introduce new characters and establish a new core relationship, new enemies and a new ongoing mystery without feeling rushed or sacrificing adventure or gleeful humour. He doesn’t miss a chance to exploit kids’ bedtime fears either, with the idea of monsters that hide in peripheral vision sure to creep the crap out of kids. While the big menacing threat of the episode is rather less interesting in comparison to those more cerebral ideas, it’s hard to fault Moffat for using such an insanely fun episode to establish what the doctor does best: Saving the world from alien assclowns with wit, ingenuity and seconds to spare.

In their second outing The Beast Below, The Doctor takes Amy into the future to a time where Earth has been rendered uninhabitable and rather melty thanks to expansive solar flares, and humanity has taken to the stars. Landing the TARDIS on Starship U.K. – a floating space station housing the citizens of Britain and consisting of metal tower blocks, each one representing a different county – it takes about 6.2 seconds for The Doctor to surmise that there’s weirdness afoot, with the British people living under a police state, awfully secretive of what goes on below decks and eerily watched by creepy mannequins in retro fairground fortune teller booths.

A dab hand at conjuring up memorable monsters, Moffat’s offering here is equally iconic in appearance, with The Smilers looking like creepy fairground automaton cousins of The Gentlemen from Buffy’s fantastic episode Hush. It’s a shame, though, that they aren’t used to their full potential, as after the early ominous glares and a short chase, they’re quickly brushed away in favour of bigger plot points. It’s entirely welcome then that the narrative is crammed with other ideas both fun and intelligent ideas. With a timely thematic undercurrent centred around voting and government evils, it’s not tough to see the modern parallels, and Moffat manages to smuggle an awful lot of clever subtext, with no intention of talking down to kids – a sentiment solidified by the dramatically powerful and satisfying climax.
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As Amy makes a simple mistake and The Doctor is faced with the impossible choice of murdering another species so that humanity can survive, or vice versa, there’s a murky morality at play that’s surprisingly weighty, and does wonders for the development of both characters. Moffat and Smith waste no time this series to remind us that, although The Doctor may have a genuine love and respect for mankind, his loyalty isn’t solely to humanity, nor are his choices and instincts always the right ones. It’s a fantastic marriage of plot and character, and in the space of an episode effortlessly makes great strides to establish the new Doctor-companion dynamic, setting her up as the human, heartfelt counterpoint to his more brash, superior and over-thinking tendencies, while Smith further distances himself from the shadow of Tennant as a more old-fashioned Doctor, quicker to explode with righteous indignation.

Despite the heavier moments though, Moffat never sacrifices the sheer fun of The Doctor’s adventures, as Smith flits around like a manic whirlwind, leaping over furniture, inspecting people’s water, explaining it away with a quick “Sorry, checking all the water in this area. There’s an escaped fish.” and a knowing, sly tap of the nose. The show continues to be hilarious, the banter between Gillan and Smith is incredibly sweet and awfully funny, while Amy being completely left to her own devices and being eminently loveable even without Smith to bounce off further solidifies her as just as strong a character (and actress) by herself. A guest appearance from Sophie Okonedo as the mysterious pistol-wielding Liz 10 is a wonderful addition too, and she clearly has immense fun with the role. Unfortunately though, the wonderfully creepy Terrence Hardiman of The Demon Headmaster (and Jack Straw lookalike) fame is given nothing at all to do, and is entirely wasted on a rather non-existent role. Still, it’s a minor quibble in an otherwise amazing episode which juggles an abundance of plot, character and thematic weight whilst still delivering the magic, adventure and giddy fun one would hope to find in a Doctor Who tale.

With two fantastic episodes opening the series, it’s unfortunate that the third and final episode on the disc, Victory of the Daleks, isn’t up to the same high standards. Called to blitz-era London by Winston Churchill himself, The Doctor and Amy arrive to find that the British claim to have invented and are using strangely benevolent Daleks as weapons in their aim to win the war. Aghast that his nemeses are on Earth when he believed them to be destroyed and baffled by the Prime Minister’s claims that the Daleks are man-made by his research team, The Doctor rushes to unravel his enemies’ scheme and foil them once and for all. Again.
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Though certainly entertaining, it’s a rushed-paced affair that unfortunately spends too much time speeding to re-introduce the Daleks into the series continuity and too little time letting ideas and characters flourish. The proceedings are somewhat bogged down by a caricature performance by Ian McNiece as Winston Churchill, full of tiresome over-the-top jingoistic bluster and not much else, while Amy is largely absent until the last few minutes. It’s unfortunate, too, that the impossible moral dilemma of the finale skews awfully similar to that of the previous episode, with essentially the same resolution, only delivered with less grace and impact in comparison. It’s not helped by the (arguably) rather silly and needless redesign of the daleks; taking design inspiration from the Peter Cushing Dalek films of the mid-’60s, the larger, brightly primary-coloured new iterations look like a cheap merchandising ploy at best and giant, rubbery S&M sex toys at worst.

Though it’s the weakest of the trio included on the disc, it’s still a thoroughly enjoyable episode. Matt Smith continues to be completely amazing, while he and the writers are clearly defining the 11th Doctor as a much more fiery-tempered one. His outbursts of frustrated anger, beating a strangely helpful dalek with a wrench as it offers him tea, are a joy to behold, as is the Doctor’s fantastic biscuit bluff, using a Jammy Dodger to fend off a Dalek attack. It’s a testament to how great Smith is in the role that the world being threatened by oversized dimpled vibrators almost feels like a genuinely menacing threat, all thanks to how well he plays each scene opposite the Daleks. Bill Patterson is fantastic as lab scientist Bracewell, and is given ample character development in an episode that’s painfully hurried and light on character, with the climactic scene giving both he and an otherwise wasted Karen Gillan an impossibly endearing and utterly lovely scene in which to shine. There’s also the fun of the World War II dogfight in space, with oodles of Saturday afternoon war movie serial charm. Let’s just hope that Moffat doesn’t plan to overuse those sex toy Daleks any time soon.

A slightly weaker third outing and a penchant for using shoddy and awkward CG effects notwithstanding, Series 5 delivers the most consistently entertaining and wonderfully assured opening episodes of new Who yet. Matt Smith and Karen Gillan prove themselves a mesmerizingly wonderful duo, exuding an effortless chemistry, while Smith owns the role with an astonishingly natural eccentric confidence. Moffat’s Doctor Who is fantastic entertainment, and the trio of episodes collected here manage to be gleefully funny, oddly creepy, surprisingly touching and thoroughly exhilarating in equal measure. It’s a great sign of things to come for the show, and hopefully the quality will remain this consistent for the rest of Moffat’s run.

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On the Blu-ray:

The choice to release Doctor Who in individual volumes prior to an inevitable Complete Series 5 set isn’t as confusing as the timing of it. Surely considering the lack of extras (and therefore less time needed to prep the Blu-ray/DVD) it would be a much wiser to release the single volume sets the week after the episodes air?

Odd release pattern aside, visually the Blu-ray is technically flawless, with a gorgeous 16:9 1080i presentation. The first full Doctor Who series to be filmed in HD (though spin-off Torchwood has always been aired in Blu-ray-friendly HD), there’s a rather huge jump in set design and production values this time and the show looks all the better for it. Facial detail looks gorgeous, while the rural scenery of Amy’s town, the distinct, soggy Tokyo indoor marketplace look of Starship UK and the attractively rendered space vistas are all captured with equally detailed splendour. Unfortunately though, there’s no 5.1 track, only standard stereo audio, which sounds perfectly fine for what it is.

The 10 minute behind-the-scenes “The Monster Files” is rather disappointing to say the least. It focuses entirely on the Daleks (no love for the Smilers or the Atraxi, strangely) and seems to just be shorter snippets of the Doctor Who Confidential behind-the-scenes specials. Also included is a short sampler booklet for Oli Smith’s upcoming Who novel Nuclear Time.

Purists and fans of the ‘Next time on…’ credit sequence previews should note that they’ve been removed for the home video release. While that’s no big deal for most (personally I don’t tend to like watching an advert for something I’m about to watch anyway), it’s a shame that the great opening episode teaser with snippets from throughout the upcoming series is gone, too.

The lack of more substantial extras, or even just the addition of the teaser ads that aired in cinemas, is disappointing, but for those who only want to own certain episodes, or simply can’t wait to check out the episodes on Blu-ray, it’s a nicely-priced set that looks flawless in HD.


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Doctor Who: Series 5: Volume 1 is available to buy on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK now.
Click here to order the Blu-ray from Zavvi.com, where it’s currently only £12.85.

(Note: The images above were captured and saved at a reduced quality, and though they give an idea of how the show looks, they aren’t intended to reflect the true quality of the Blu-ray image itself.)