Doctor Who: Matt Smith - the best 'Doctor' since Tom Baker?
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Martin's convinced that Doctor Who's 'chosen one' has been found after nearly thirty years...
Along with many others, I was worried at 2009's news that season 5 of the new Doctor Who would feature the youngest Doctor ever, in the form of Matt Smith (26 years old at the time of the announcement). Three years younger than Peter Davison when he took up the time-lord's mantle in 1981, it seemed that the BBC had abandoned the character's wisdom and sagacity in favour of floppy emo haircuts and 'youth appeal'.
And yet Smith's take on the trans-dimensional itinerant in series 5 of the series' new iteration - at least so far - has not only gone back to the very roots of classic Who, in my opinion, but is to boot the first Doctor I have really cared about since Tom Baker practically re-defined the character in the 1970s.
This seems harsh on the many intervening talents who took up the role, most particularly David Tennant, and I feel that I should explain before going any further.
Tennant's good looks and extraordinarily thin physique combined with enough considerable comic timing and gravitas to have potentially turned him into one of the best Doctors of the new (or any) era. But in my opinion Tennant was constantly undermined by Russell T. Davies' determination to turn him into a chimera between Christ and Superman, going very much against the grain of forty years of Doctors, who approached their problems (and numerous enemies) more like Sherlock Holmes than Iron Man. These previous Doctors (or at least, the best of them) solved moral quandaries and dilemmas not only in the absence of weaponry (something RTD respected), but with a straightforward dose of superior alien intelligence (something RTD very often disrespected).
You felt they were in danger, and that mattered. With Tennant, it seemed that there was no peril from which his constant self-aggrandisement (as written) could not combine with yet another deus ex machina to extricate him from danger.
David Tennant was undermined further by Davies's determination in the early series of new Who to make the Doctor an almost secondary character to that of his assistant Rose, hooking the show into an EastEnders/soap style market that would broaden it (profitably) beyond its sci-fi roots; an attachment which was so established, and so (in my opinion) over-emphasised in S1-4 that Tennant could not fail to inherit it and incorporate it into his interpretation of the character.
"The Doctor is fundamentally an alien, and too many of the writers and actors who have had a hand in Doctor Who since the reign of Tom Baker seem to have forgotten this fact."
I believe that David Tennant would have been the subject of this article if he had been The Doctor in the reign of Steven Moffat instead of Russell T. Davies, and that in this sense - for all that the role profited him and the new verson of the show garnered viewers - he was short-changed.
In terms of what the character of The Doctor is, fundamentally he is an alien, and too many of the writers and actors who have had a hand in Doctor Who since the reign of Tom Baker seem to have forgotten this fact.
In the 1980s, Baker gave way to the very young Peter Davison, who abandoned Baker's eccentricity for the characteristics of his (admitted, in many interviews) own favourite Doctor, Patrick Troughton. But the young All Creatures Great And Small actor had different qualities to offer than Troughton's pipe-playing eccentric, and his hopes of repeating that particular casting magic disappeared into a consistently aloof performance. The English know all about aloofness - it's not 'alien' to us, and Davison's take on the errant Time Lord consequently struck a frequently unfriendly note.
Davison's successor, Colin Baker, similarly interpreted 'alien' as 'aloof' and even positively 'hostile'. It wasn't until he conspired with fellow actor Nicola Bryant to tone down the written antipathy between The Doctor and assistant Peri (Bryant) in the extended series story Trial Of A Time Lord, that we even saw a glimpse of what this fine actor could have done with the part (and has since done via his audio Doctor Who adventures with Big Finish productions).
Sylvester McCoy's brief reign as the Doctor in the final series of 'classic' Who in the late 1980s saw some hint of the character's genuine eccentricity and curiosity return to the part. The diminutive actor was somewhat hampered by his slight physique, however, which should not have been a factor in a Holmes-inspired sci-fi character, but served to a certain extent to undermine his power in the lee of his more significantly-proportioned predecessors. In any case, the BBC had given up on Doctor Who just on the verge of a new wave of interest in science-fiction, so that was that.
A brief appearance by pseudo-Victorian Doctor Paul McGann in a very American-oriented one-off pilot not only recalled the non-canon movie work of Peter Cushing in the role in the 1960s, but also failed to get the series back off the ground in 1996 (though the actor, like Colin Baker and fellow Withnail And I compadre Richard E. Grant) has since done sterling work in Who audio adventures).
"Of the performance of Christopher Ecclestone in Doctor Who's big 2005 return, what can we say? Alternately gurning and morose, there's no telling what the actor would have done with the role if he had not bailed out after one series"
Of the performance of Christopher Ecclestone in Doctor Who's big 2005 return, what can we say? Alternately gurning and morose, there's no telling what the actor would have done with the role if he had not bailed out after one series - only that rather too much of what he established in new Who S1 arguably ended up informing David Tennant's take on the character in his three-season reign.
Which brings us back to Matt Smith, and what he is doing with the role of the world's favourite time-traveller.
He's doing a lot, and he's clearly on the same page as series producer Steven Moffat in returning the Doctor to where he should be emotionally - wise and yet endlessly curious, trusting and yet curiously naivé.
In this anti-paedophiliac age, there could easily have been a note of discomfort regarding Smith's kitchen conversation with the child version of Amy Pond in The Eleventh Hour, but we instead get a sense that we are dealing with a man of the universe, not of the world. Child-like himself, he's impetuous but without hint of malice or menace - in addition to the (welcome) new sense that he is not invulnerable himself, we feel safe with him. He's full of intellectual pyrotechnics, but they're all there not to impress or embroil, but just because he - in spite of knowing so much - has a thirst to know so much more than he already does.
He likes Amy Pond, and he's lonely enough to want a listening ear and another set of eyes to marvel at the new wonders of the universe with him, but not with the same desperate longing that (in my opinion) weakened David Tennant's take on the character as regards Rose Tyler. Smith's Doctor is clearly an alien, and his pragmatic response to Amy's amorous advances in Flesh And Stone can either be interpreted as the fruit of hard experience or a simple case of mis-matching biologies. Right now, his mind is on higher things - and what could be sexier than that? He's good-looking, brilliant, finally seems to have his temper and ego under some kind of control and is about as eccentric as a box of space-frogs.
I love this Doctor more than any since Tom Baker - and I wasn't expecting to. Oh, Steven, Matt...don't let us down...
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