Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
If you’ve never watched a single episode of Doctor Who, you can pull up a chair to Episode One of Season Five, “The Eleventh Hour,” and watch it as a standalone without really suffering confusion or needing explanation. This can’t be said for many episodes of the popular, long-running British science fiction/fantasy series, but “The Eleventh Hour” is one of those episodes that introduces a new cast in the form of a new Doctor and new companions. But perhaps most notably, Season Five also begins a new metanarrative and important story arc.
What I love about Doctor Who in general is that it’s unapologetically childlike. Not childish— childlike: it invites you to accept absurdity, simplicity, and the fantastic without skepticism, but with wonder and awe. It presupposes Good and Evil and the notion that there are heroes out there who should—according to a code of unquestionable and intrinsic goodness—save the day. And the best of all these heroes in this story is the Doctor, aided by his companions. You never question the Doctor’s capability or desire to ultimately be and do good, and although the Doctor can operate as a solo act, the Doctor chooses to not be alone, working best with companions, friends, and aids.
Doctor Who is essentially a fairytale, marrying complexity with simplicity, universality with specificity, and awakening the childlike longing for the otherness of eternity. In my opinion, no Doctor does this better than Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor, no companions are better as “fairytale companions” than Karen Gillan’s Amelia Pond and Arthur Darvill’s Rory Williams, and no single episode is better at illustrating these fairytale themes than the pilot episode for all of these characters, which is of course “The Eleventh Hour.”
The episode opens when the Doctor crash lands his TARDIS (his time-and-space-traveling magical blue box) in Amelia Pond’s front yard late one night. She’s a young girl with a crack in her wall and no parents, and because the Doctor always finds himself exactly where he is needed, we know this crack must be important—and it’s scaring young Amelia, and because it’s important to her, it’s important to the Doctor, so he promises to help.
When the Doctor asks Amelia what her name is, she tells him, and he says that it’s “a brilliant name—like a name in a fairytale. Amelia Pond.” He enunciates each syllable for dramatic effect. “The Eleventh Hour” is the beginning of Amelia Pond’s fairytale, complete with a “magic” apple—the first thing the Eleventh Doctor asks for when he emerges from his TARDIS in Amelia Pond’s yard.
But before he can help Amelia with the crack in her wall, the Doctor has to sort out his problematic TARDIS, so he promises to be back in just a few minutes and leaves. And Amelia Pond sits and waits. And waits. And we’re invited to simultaneously one of the best openings of any of the episodes of Doctor Who and one of the saddest, because the Doctor doesn’t know that his time-traveling TARDIS is misbehaving, and that although he’s promised to return in just a few minutes, his TARDIS will not bring him back for much longer than that.
When the Doctor returns, he meets a woman named Amy at the house he thinks he just left, and he doesn’t realize that the young Amelia Pond he left all alone that night, he left not just for a night, but for twelve years. Amelia grew up to call herself Amy, and it took her a lifetime of therapy to unravel the “fantasy” of the “Raggedy Doctor” who visited her and promised to save her from the scary crack in her wall. And now, she doesn’t believe in him or his ability to save her anymore.
Because the Doctor was whisked unintentionally away for twelve years, the crack in Amy’s wall was never fixed, and an evil creature emerged from it into her village—one that’s been haunting her for her whole life, and one whose presence now threatens the world. The Doctor always gets called back exactly when he’s needed most, though, so his reemergence into adult Amy’s life at the eleventh hour fits the narrative structure of the story. But in order to save her own life, and help the Doctor save the world, Amy has to reignite the childlike faith and longing she’s spent so long trying to suppress.
Sometimes belief looks like submission. Like giving up, letting all our carefully erected defenses down, and giving in to something much simpler and better than we’d ever dared hope for. Or maybe, than we’d ever dared hope for since we were much younger and far less jaded. The Doctor doesn’t ask Amy to believe in him without proof, but the only proof he can offer her is her own faith in him from when she was a child.
When the Doctor crash landed in Amelia Pond’s yard twelve years before, Amelia introduced him to a variety of foods, because he had just regenerated into the Eleventh Doctor and didn’t know what his new mouth liked yet. One of the foods young Amelia gave him to eat was an apple—it’s what he asked for, after all—and she gave him one onto which she carved a smiley face. He tucked it away in his pocket before boarding the TARDIS and promising to return. Of course, the journey he took was, for him, a few minutes, but for Amelia twelve years, so the apple in his pocket with the smiley face stayed fresh.
Grown Amy, struggling against belief, struggling to be rational, does not believe that this man who has returned is the “Raggedy Doctor” she’s spent her whole life dreaming of and trying to suppress longing for—until he takes out the apple. In a great scene where the earth is in peril and the Doctor has twenty minutes to save it, and he has only an apple to convince Amy Pond that he is who he says he is, he puts the apple in her hand and pleads with her. “Amy, believe for twenty minutes.”
It was almost too late for Amelia Pond. She grew up! She had to grow back into “believing in fairytales again,” as C. S. Lewis would say. And when the Doctor reappears in her life, to save her life and the lives of everyone on the planet (because he’s the Doctor and that’s what he does), he convinces her with, what else? A “magic” apple from her youth.
Of course, ultimately Amy believes for much longer than twenty minutes, because she discovers that the object of her faith and longing is true. He’s not just her “Raggedy Doctor,” but he’s the Doctor, and childlike faith can now move into mature belief. He’s capable of saving her and saving the world, and he will do it.
What “The Eleventh Hour” shows us about the roles of faith and longing in belief is that sometimes having faith like a child awakens belief when all else fails. Sometimes the eternal longing that lives in the heart quickens the mind, too. Amy never really let go of her “Raggedy Doctor,” even though her mind—and everyone in her grown-up life—tried to rationalize him away. And her lifelong longing for her Raggedy Doctor spilled over into the lives of those closest to her, too, some of whom are more able to immediately believe on sight. When her boyfriend Rory sees the Doctor for the first time, he says, in shock, “It’s him, the Raggedy Doctor!… But he was a story, he was a game!”
In another episode, but one that harkens back to “The Eleventh Hour,” the Doctor tells a young Amelia Pond as she’s sleeping in her bed, “We’re all stories in the end; better make it a good one.” He’s fading out of existence, looking toward that still-present and still-scary crack in the wall, telling her all about their adventures together in a vain hope that she—her subconscious—will remember him. Because the stories children tell, and the dreams they dream—the faith and longing they carry with them into adulthood have the power to lead to belief. Jesus said, “Let the little children come unto me.” The faith Amelia Pond put in the Doctor as a child was proved, at the eleventh hour, to be not a vain one, but a true one.