Friday, November 11, 2011

The Keys to the TARDIS: The Eleventh Hour

I was introduced to Doctor Who on a snowy night in a rented house in Montreal. It was dark outside the windows and very, very cold; but the room was painted in colors that tricked you into imagining warmth, and the couch where we sat was both comforting and old. That is the first thing I remember about Doctor Who: hurtling along in a bright, golden story through a freezing winter night.

The second thing that I remember is David Tennant. I can’t decide now which episode in particular was the first one I saw. The specifics are obliterated by manic brio, long limbs pelting across the screen, a rage of pinstripe, and mouthful after mouthful of words delivered at blistering speed.

There aren’t many characters on television who I’d be willing to stand by a declaration of love for. Most sit somewhere between bland and unlikeable. Some manage a shallow charm. A few clamber up to addictive or entertaining, but the ones who inspire resilient, unwavering affection are much more rare. To me, David Tennant’s Doctor was Doctor Who. End statement. Full stop. Utter and absolute. This was a character I could go on watching for as long as he had stories to inhabit.

Obviously, I knew that the Doctor changed. After that night in Montreal, I went out and gorged myself on Doctor Who. I was charmed by Tom Baker and Christopher Eccleston. I found William Hartnell faintly terrifying. But they weren’t really the Doctor. They were people pretending to be. So, when I sat down to watch "The Eleventh Hour," it was with doubt, suspicion, and the prediction of regret. Doctor Who, I told myself, might very well be over, at least for me.

The first ten minutes of the episode inspired a whiplash change of heart. The trappings of "The Eleventh Hour" aren’t particularly compelling: a shape-shifting alien who sometimes looks like a soggy eel (and where is the rest of it hanging from?), giant eyeballs zooming across the sky in giant snowflakes. But those first ten minutes are magic. A small girl is all alone in a large and creepy house, and in her bedroom is a crack in the world. She isn’t afraid, not really, because she is brave and says exactly what pops into her head. But when a box falls out of the sky and crashes into the deserted garden, the person who steps out of it is bright, mad, and dangerously changeable. He’s high-strung, newly minted, magnificently likeable, and the only person (the only one in the whole, entire universe) who can help her and cares, immediately, that he does.

All the important parts of the episode, the ones that introduce characters and open the door to fondness, work and work beautifully. I can ignore the giant eyeballs and toothy, extraterrestrial moray eels because when Matt Smith says, “I’m the Doctor,” I find myself ready to be convinced that it’s true.