There is a received wisdom that Russell T Davies' time on Doctor Who divided fans and that he delighted and appalled in equal measure. Well, all that seems a long time ago now, and as nothing compared to reactions to Steven Moffat's first series at the Who helm. Of course, Moffat has a long and accomplished track record, including the underrated Coupling and, in the last year, co-writing the superlative Sherlock and the screenplay for the upcoming Tintin movie. And this is before we even start to consider his contributions to Series 1-4: The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, The Girl In The Fireplace, Blink and Silence In The Library/Forest of the Dead. Unlike Davies' broad emotional sweeps, Moffat seemed more adept at dealing with tricksier elements of plotting and continuity, something which would play a large part in series five's arc. Reaction to the series was polarised between those who thought that he had trashed the entire franchise to those, like me, who thought he had breathed new life into it. It was not an unalloyed success, but there were many wonderful highlights to justify the rating.
Episode one introduces us to a new Doctor, a new TARDIS, a new companion and, shock horror, new titles! Matt Smith is surprising, looking (as some have noted) like a young man built out of parts of old ones, but sounding as beautifully eccentric and alien as The Doctor should be. Frankly, from the moment of, "Fry something, you're Scottish" and "Fish custard", I was sold. It was an episode that took lots of chances, including the wonderful time lapse sequence where The Doctor first meets Rory. And it was a nice touch to position Smith in the canon in his meeting with the Atraxi (who still sound uncomfortably like a brand of handcream to me).
In contrast, the promised thrills and spills promised in episodes 2 and 3 were a bit underwhelming. The Beast Below was a serviceable pot boiler to introduce us further to the new TARDIS occupants, though the much heralded Smilers turned out to be something of a red herring in the larger scheme of the plot. If episode 2 was underwhelming, then the Daleks' appearance in episode 3 was probably the biggest let down of the entire series, feeling as much of a misfire to me as series 3's clunking Daleks in Manhattan. The design of the new generation Daleks aroused huge amounts of anger and negativity. These were almost secondary matters compared to the story, which simply did not work. It was also disappointing that the solid Bill Patterson was not that well used in his role.
After this lull, however, things started to pick up again with the Weeping Angels double bill The Time of Angels and Flesh and Stone. Reintroducing the high point of series 3 was a risky gambit, but one which allowed both Smith, Gillan and the returning Alex Kingston some time to develop their characters and really let them fly. The second part in particular was stunningly good. In comparison, the following Vampires of Venice could have been a real disappointment, but happily wasn't, managing to maintain some of the two parter's momentum. What is noticeable by this stage is the crackling dialogue and the rapidly developing interplay between the Doctor, Amy and Rory: it's this kind of writing that the Moffat Who really manages to excel at.
Next came the Silurian two parter: The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood. In retrospect, these episodes, while serviceable, are not hugely spectacular. They left me feeling much the same as I had with series 4's Sontaran encounter: glad that they'd been revisited, but not wedged in the mind in the same way other episodes were. Such things are common in mid-series, where it's possible for the pace to drop off a little in anticipation for the run-in to the end.
In contrast, Vincent and The Doctor was simply stunning. It's an episode resonating with colour and real emotional power (though some accused it of being emotionally cheap and manipulative), and possibly my favourite full episode of the run. Tony Curran's van Gogh is by turns inspirational, irrational and convincingly tortured; it's a fine performance and does Richard Curtis's script justice.
I wasn't expecting much from The Lodger, having a difficult relationship with James Corden. Thankfully for me, the Corden of the The History Boys showed up, instead of the one from Horne and Corden. The main thread of the plot was almost incidental here; we got much more fun from Smith playing for laughs and the rather sweet relationship developing between Corden's Craig and Daisy Haggard's Sophie. It was a fine appetiser for the inevitable finale...
..which didn't disappoint. One of the big criticism's of RTD's time at the helm was that series finales tended to be lots of noise and plots holes colliding in a big messy heap at the end. In Moffat's hands things were very,very different. Things which seemed inconsequential or just wrong (like the jacket in episode 5's forest scene) suddenly took on huge amounts of extra meaning. And of course, there was Moffat's delight in playing with the narrative structure, the timeline and the expectations of the audience. None more so than episode 12's threat from all of the Doctor's adversaries being nothing more than a cypher for the wonders of what was to come in the final episode of the series. The Big Bang manages to make the end of all creation an intensely personal experience, centering everything around Amy and her life. It's a masterstroke, and one that is tightly and nimbly written. The "Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue" moment had the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end, jumping up and down with glee. The ends that needed tying were tied, while enough was left hanging to bring us into the 2011 run running
As mentioned before, the series did have its low points and longueurs, but these are easily outpaced by the highs, of which there are very many. Karen Gillan's Amy Pond has not met universal approval (I think she's fine), while Smith has a claim to have not only prevented himself becoming trapped in Tennant's long shadow, but to have surpassed his forerunner. Smith's Doctor is sparky, funny, occasionally and unexpectedly melancholy, lanky, otherworldy and, of course, obsessed with bow-ties. Series five represents good progress, and bodes well for 2001's split series six.