Updated: May 29
This week we focus on the first huge turning point of modern Doctor Who’s reincarnation, the move from Series Four into Series Five. Following four outstanding years, perhaps hitting its zenith towards the end of Series Four, the wholesale changes of Series Five were always going to be a defining moment in the show’s history. Series Five definitely brought a change in tone, dynamic, budget, scope, cast, obviously, and has some memorable moments for sure, but for many this is the beginning of a downturn compared to the consistent quality of the first four seasons.
Not only is there a clean sweep of cast members, but we also have a new head writer, and even a new setting of the fictional town of Leadworth rather than east London, although it is still Cardiff anyway in reality. On top of that, the new series brings with it a new theme tune, a new logo, a new Tardis and even a new sonic screwdriver. So, with all of that in mind, this is essentially a fresh regeneration, yet again, as we move into the second decade of the 21st century.
Let’s focus on some of those changes before we get into the stories and analysis. The most important are the new Doctor, Matt Smith, and new head-writer, Steven Moffatt. Smith takes over from David Tennant, which is a big enough ask as it is, and all the more so considering he was more of an unknown than Tenant or Eccleston ever were. His casting even brought the inevitable headlines in the UK of “Doctor Who?”.His youth was also thought of as a negative, and he isn’t too big of a divergence from Tennant, being handsome, eccentric, energetic and youthful. For many around the world though, he is their Doctor, and has defined the modern era even more than the others. Even if his run of stories was wildly inconsistent, his performances and commitment never waned.
Moving on to Moffat, he had already been long-involved in Doctor Who before taking over from Russell T. Davies as executive producer and chief writer. For example, he was already responsible for writing such stories as the first series two-part story "The Empty Child" and "The Doctor Dances", as well as the episodes "The Girl in the Fireplace", from Series 2, and "Blink" from the third series, all of which are some of the finest episodes ever made. Armed with that knowledge, having made such wonderful standalone stories, it makes it all the more amazing how Doctor Who would end up so confusing and inconsistent throughout Series 5 and even more so beyond.
The third major development is, of course, the new companion, who is Karen Gillan as Amelia (Amy) Pond. This is not Gillan’s first appearance in the show, having already played a soothsayer in the Series 4 episode, ‘The Fires of Pompeii’. The casting director liked her so much that she was later brought back to be Amy. The longer-term story of Amy would get a bit strained but for Series 5 the plot revolves around her and the crack in her wall. Not to mention ‘The Eleventh Hour’ is potentially the best season-opener, companion-introduction and introductory story that there has been.
It must also be noted that Arthur Darvill also joins the team Rory Williams. He wasn’t as present in Series 5 as he may later be, his character was a bit underdeveloped and boring, he was easy to forget and his relationship with Amy strange to say the least, but he ultimately plays an important part by the season’s end.
Before we get into the episodes, for those of you reading these reviews for the first time, they are being written in light of our upcoming Doctor Who walking tour of Cardiff. The Welsh capital has served as the backdrop to most of the new episodes filmed this century, be it in studios or around the city’s streets and buildings, and a tour of those locations will become a reality later this year (hopefully). Series Five is no exception, especially in ‘The Eleventh Hour’ (Llandaff village), ‘Victory of the Daleks’ (Glamorgan Building), and both ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ and ‘The Big Bang’ (National Museum). In the meantime, consider these reviews a light introduction into what may or may not feature on those tours in the future.
Before we go any further, here’s the new theme tune variation and opening credits with the new DW logo. The tune does kind of work with the tone, being darker, more other worldly and space age, just as the show starts to spend more time beyond the stars than ever before.
‘The Eleventh Hour’ brings the Doctor and Amy together, both as a child and as an adult in her case. The respective meetings between the characters with the Eleventh Doctor are some of the most memorable scenes and interactions in the show’s history, and as mentioned this is one of the most highly regarded opening episodes and introductions of any Who series. Saying that, that’s all down to Amy and the Doctor really because Rory is fairly insignificant and Olivia Colman is wasted unfortunately.
The second story, ‘The Beast Below’, is an interesting concept, as the UK has moved away from Earth and is now floating through space as a starship upon a whale. The Doctor gets bizarrely angry with Amy towards the end which is completely out of character, and the Smilers were underused unfortunately considering they were genuinely creepy, and the ‘save the starwhales’ message was a bit rushed, but overall a nice idea and it instantly showed how significant Amy can be as a companion and as a human to offset the Doctor.
‘Victory of the Daleks’ is probably the most disappointing Dalek story up to this point, and not just because they became more colourful. If anything this should have been a two-part story as it was a good idea that was just completed too abruptly unfortunately, and the robot scientist was just too-easily released even though he was Dalek-made.
The first two part story was ‘The Time of Angels’ & ‘Flesh and Stone’, which brought back a memorable character from Series 4, River Song, and the most memorable villains of all, the Weeping Angels, and then manages to make a complete mess of the Angels and make them far less threatening. To a lesser extent River is also less intriguing, but that will inevitably be the case the more you get to know anybody. At first the future setting, religious-army guys, having River around and the video of the Angel on loop had set up a strong premise, but it lost its way across the two episodes. Finally, to finish off the second part we get the uncomfortable, out of character, and out of keeping, scene for Doctor Who of Amy trying to kiss the Doctor on the night before her wedding.
Moving on to ‘The Vampires of Venice’. Unfortunately for such an interestingly-named story and setting, it falls completely flat. Rory is annoying still by this point, not to mention completely disrespected by his fiancee and the Doctor, for laughs. The antagonists are boring and don’t quite make sense, and the resolution is dull. Essentially it is a nothing episode, especially considering what it might have been.
Something of a highlight in the middle of the series is ‘Amy's Choice’, in which Toby Jones really enjoys himself as The Dream Lord, and Rory makes a real contribution, albeit dying for the first time. The randomness of Amy’s personality and feelings from the first half of the series are shown to make some kind of sense here, as she is forced into a choice between dreams and reality, between space and normality, between the Doctor and Rory, and perhaps she might actually love him after all.
‘The Hungry Earth’ & ‘Cold Blood’ is both filmed and set in Wales, albeit in the fictional but nicely-named town of Cwmtaff (in reality Llanwynno, below). This makes three straight episodes either set or filmed in Welsh villages which paint them as quite old, dreary, boring places unfortunately. This is an interesting two-parter, however. It begins with a basic premise of there being something underground, we have a compelling antagonist in the Silurians, the stakes are raised from part one to part two with the disappearance of Amy and some local townspeople, and there’s some positive messages about races and species working together to share the Earth. But then Rory dies again, and this time for real...
Perhaps the most memorable story of the series is ‘Vincent and the Doctor’, written by Richard Curtis! The Doctor feels guilty about Rory’s death even though Amy can’t remember him anyway, and neither can the audience because he made such little impact up to now.
So they end up with Vincent van Gogh on their travels, which turns into the standout story of the year. It is a no hold back depression story, with the alien not-so-subtly representing Vincent’s inner demons. It humanises the Doctor and Amy and brings them back down to Earth, figuratively, and the story doesn’t shine away from mental health, made all the more powerful by Vincent not finding inner-relief just because he discovers from Bill Nighy that his work will live on.
‘The Lodger’ brings James Corden into Doctor Who for the first time, although he’s not the first History Boy to make an appearance. This story always felt a bit out of place for the series and just feels like one of those episodes that they insert as filler at the last minute, like ‘Boom Town’ or ‘Love and Monsters’. However, it is a lot of fun. Smith plays the comedic, fish out of water angle well, as always. Seeing him play human and play football is humorous and his interactions with Corden and the rest of the cast are enjoyable. Saying all of that, the villain is a bit silly and resolution is even more silly but it’s a good standalone effort.
The finale is the third two-part story of Series 5 and the last one there will be for a few years, namely ‘The Pandorica Opens’ & ‘The Big Bang’. This is where the events of the previous eleven episodes come together, sort of, and where the crack-in-the-wall plot device will pay off, also sort of. It is certainly ambitious, and full of great concepts. In 102AD the Doctor is forced inside the Pandorica, a box made up of Amy’s memories, by all of his enemies. The Daleks, Cybermen et al think the Tardis and the Doctor are the reason for the crack in the universe. An Auton version of Rory kills Amy, and then future Doctor appears to save her by putting her in the Pandorica in his place and giving her the Sonic Screwdriver. Rory protects the box as a Roman centurion for nearly 2,000 years until young Amelia touches the box in 1996 and re-awakes Amy. As the universe collapses, the Doctor rescues River from the time loop in the exploding TARDIS (where she has been stuck throughout) and realises that if he flies the Pandorica into the exploding TARDIS, it would restore the universe, but the cracks are unable to close entirely until the Doctor is erased. Amy brings the Doctor back at her wedding to Rory with her memories (due to the Doctor's last words to her as he was being erased). And breathe...
Needless to say, It is getting more complicated with each year, and Series 5 is the peak of that, at least until Series 6. Basically there were some great ideas, like Venice, bringing back the Weeping Angels, Starship UK, the underground race of Silurians in Wales, having all the bad guys together in Pandorica, but it never quite reached the heights its initial premise. It is often thought of Moffat that he is a big ideas man and can’t quite pull off his genius and fantastical plans, and that is the case in a lot of the episodes from this series unfortunately.
As usual, the best stories, the ones that stand alone as TV, that make sense, are well paced, have a premise, middle act and a conclusion, have good characters and a bit of charm are ‘Amy’s Choice’, ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ and maybe ‘The Lodger’. There are other great ideas like having the Daleks in World War Two, like bringing back the Weeping Angels or the Doctor dying in the museum but their potential was never fully realised.
It was still fun, and there was a lot to enjoy, and that is especially so considering some of what is to come over the following two series’. The show definitely feels fresh due to the overhaul of characters, actors and everything else we discussed earlier. David Tennant gave us a very slow and drawn-out goodbye so this was a welcome change of look, tone and sound. As always, the saving grace and stand out feature of Doctor Who is the actors, and Matt Smith and Karen Gillan really save the day here. In this instance it is not necessarily because they are great characters but rather because they are such likeable actors. The Doctor was a bit more silly and goofy than usual and the ‘fish out of water’ joke was overused sometimes, but Smith is just so exuberant and charismatic that he gets away with it. Much the same for Amy, who was an inconsistent character at times, especially during her love/hate moments with the Doctor and her own fiancee, but by the end you find yourself rooting for her, and also for her and Rory.
Therefore Rory came a long way, literally and figuratively. When he died at the end of ‘Cold Blood’, for the second time, he was basically forgotten by the audience and when he returned it was like, “oh yeah, Rory, I had forgotten he ever existed”. It was barely even noteworthy that he was back, as the audience had long moved on from him and he wasn’t that likeable in the first place. However, across the series finale he finally won over the audience and we were happy to see his wedding to Amy go ahead, even if Amy then threw herself at the Doctor once again.
Overall, despite being gloriously all over the place, with an initial run of so-so episodes followed by a mid-season run of very strong episodes, and then finishing with an ambitious and messy finale, it wasn’t too bad actually. It felt fresh, there were some exciting settings, plenty of humour and great performances, and featured some memorable episodes and one all-time classic. If Series 5 leaves us with anything, it leaves us wanting more of Smith and Gillan, and that can’t be bad.
Favourite Episode - ‘Vincent and the Doctor’
It was never in doubt. Tony Curran gives an outstanding performance as Van Gogh in one of the most heartfelt and poignant ever episodes of Doctor Who.
Worst Episode - ‘The Vampires of Venice’
This may seem harsh but the name and setting just promised so much and as a result it just feels like a letdown.
Favourite Character - Vincent
It could only be Vincent, for the story, the performance and the finale.
Favourite Villain - The Dream Lord
Toby Jones became the Dream Lord in his one-off appearance. There was genuine suspicion and fear of his intentions and the audience was never sure which choice Amy was going to make until the end.
Favourite Moment - Bill Nighy’s final speech, ‘Vincent and the Doctor’
The most emotionally impactful moment of the year.
Best Welsh Reference - The Welsh boy’s accent
As mentioned above, Wales doesn’t get the best representation in Series 5, as it’s portrayed as something of a dark and gloomy place in Amy’s Choice and the Silurian two-parter. However, the charming Welsh accent of the young boy, Elliot, by Samuel Davies, is as south-Walian as one can get.
Best Guest Star - Bill Nighy
Nighy’s appearance isn’t even credited, but it is memorable nonetheless, providing the best speech and most touching moment of the series in his final description of the work of Van Gogh.
Location you didn’t realise was Cardiff/Wales - Brangwyn Hall, Swansea
In ‘The Big Bang’, the museum in which the Pandorica sits is a combination of the National Museum in Cardiff, which is probably fairly obvious to anyone who realises how prominent that museum features throughout NuWho, and Brangwyn Hall in Swansea, which might have gone slightly under the radar. In fact, they spend a lot more time running around the Swansea building rather than the Cardiff building.
Location very obviously Cardiff - Llandaff
One of the stars of ‘The Eleventh Hour’ is the Cardiff suburb of Llandaff. Whether it’s Llandaff Cathedral, World War Memorial or the Cathedral Green, you can’t not but notice where this episode was mostly filmed.
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