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Sunday
Dec052010

Eleventh Time’s a Charm

“David Tennant and [Christopher] Eccleston were good actors but Matt Smith is the epitome of Dr. Who in the tradition of Tom Baker & Peter Davison.”
~ @Aprillian posted to Twitter, 5 December, 2010

When a friend of mine posted this to Twitter recently, I had to agree. If you have no idea what we’re talking about, it’s because you’ve never seen Doctor Who, the BBC science-fiction television series that has been a staple of geek love more or less constantly since its debut in1963.  

The show features a character called the Doctor (it’s a name, not a title) who travels around Earth and other places in the Universe in a time-space machine called a TARDIS (an acronym for Time And Relative Dimension In Space), which, due to a malfunctioning chameleon circuit is permanently made to look like a 1960’s London Police phone box. This gives it the appearance of a blue phone booth that is, like a Bag of Holding, much bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. TARDIS prop used in Doctor Who series

The original Doctor Who series ran from 1963 to 1989, and featured eight different actors playing the titular character. Instead of employing the James Bond method (ignoring the issue) they use a bit of science-fiction magic to explain this. The Doctor, you see, is from the planet Gallifrey, and when a Gallifreyan’s body becomes too damaged to heal, it will attempt to regenerate. An unsuccessful regeneration results in a dead Gallifreyan, but a successful one results in a new actor standing up and saying “Hullo. Where am I? Who am I? Oh, right. I’m me. I’m hungry. But for what, I’m not sure…” 

It’s a bit of a corny device to keep the show going when the main player bows out, but like an Apple product, it just works. During the original run, the Doctor was played by William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, and Paul McGann.

The Eleven Doctors (L-R Top: William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee Tom Baker; Middle: Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGann; Bottom: Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith)

In 1996, an attempt to restart the series after its 1989 cancellation featured actor Sylvester McCoy, the last-known Doctor, regenerating into Paul McGann in the TV film Doctor Who. The film was not as commercially successful as producers might have hoped, so the idea of using it as a springboard for a renewal of the Doctor Who TV series was killed.

Then, in 2005, writer/producer Russell T. Davies convinced the BBC to let him have a go at rebooting the series. Christopher Eccleston was cast as the Doctor’s ninth incarnation, and the melancholy master of time and space found a niche with fans—both in the UK and in the US when the show was broadcast on cable’s BBC America station.

But Eccleston left after just one year, and David Tennant was cast to replace him as the Tenth Doctor. In the years since, Tennant has been voted “Best Doctor” by fans on numerous occasions, and seems to have even replaced the former favorite, Fourth Doctor Tom Baker, in most fans’ hearts.

After three wonderful years, Tennant decided to leave Doctor Who. And since he’d been cast as the Royal Shakespeare Company’s official Hamlet, who could honestly blame him? That’s not a chance everyone gets, and for Tennant to say “No thanks. I’d rather be the Doctor than Hamlet” would be neither expected nor reasonable.

David Tennant as Hamlet. Photo Royal Shakespeare Company, Ellie Kurttz/AP.

Since producer Russell T. Davies was leaving the show along with Tennant, it looked to fans like this might be the end (again) of Doctor Who.

The show has been saved, in my opinion, by two things.

First, when Davies left, his duties as Producer, Show-Runner, and Head Writer were filled by Steven Moffat. Moffat’s previous credits include the amazing ‘relationships’ show Coupling, the TV drama series updates of Victoriana staples Jekyll (based on The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson) and Sherlock (based on the collected works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle featuring Sherlock Holmes), as well as several of the most popular episodes of Davies’ rebooted Doctor Who series.

And then, there’s Matt Smith.

Matt Smith as the DoctorSmith is a baby. At only 27, he’s the youngest actor ever to play The Doctor. He has a mop of mouse-fur colored hair that resembles a horse’s forelock. He’s gangly. He’s not particularly good looking. But he may be the best Doctor, well, ever.

Why is Smith so good? And why is he more “my” Doctor than Tennant, Davison, or even Tom Baker?

Well, I’ll admit that when I first saw Tennant as the Doctor, I actually laughed out loud. I initially viewed the casting of a heart-stoppingly handsome man as my favorite Time Lord as yet another example of the warped Hollywood aesthetic infringing on my beloved Britain. “British people,” [says a woman who’s never been there] “aren’t drop-dead gorgeous as a rule of thumb. They look like normal people.”

Ahem. Maybe a bit naive of me, I’ll admit. And before I get a slew of angry emails, I’m not trying to slander the beauty of Britain. There are undoubtedly many attractive people in England, Scotland, and Wales (Christian Bale and Prince William immediately come to mind) but I just didn’t imagine anyone cast as the Doctor would, or should, be one of them.

My first Doctor was Tom Baker. He was not the most attractive man on television, even by the late 1970’s standards that made Telly Savalas into a sex symbol. Baker had a bigish nose and a gap in his front teeth. He wore strange clothes. In fact, with his huge coat and looooooong scarf, and ’70’s curly ‘fro, a la Roger Daltrey, he looked rather…alien.

Which is, of course, the point. The Doctor is NOT a human being. 

 

“But, you look human!” ~ Lady Christina
“Well, we came first, so actually, you look Time Lord.” ~ The [Tenth] Doctor 
The Planet of The Dead, 2009

I think the key to Matt Smith’s amazing portrayal of the Doctor lies in the fact that The Doctor isn’t supposed to be normal. He’s a bit of an oddball. Some of the Doctors have achieved this otherworldlyness better than others. Some have been more personable than others. Some have been fun, others broody. But until Smith, none have managed to pull off all of the traits you’d expect in a 900-year-old alien.

The First Doctor, William Hartnell achieved the proper degree of alienness, but was a bit too stiff and formal to ever be considered fun.

The Second Doctor, Patrick Troughton was a bit too ‘evil-eyed-mad-scientist.’ And, he had a Three Stooges haircut. Not his fault, but still…

The Third Doctor, Jon Pertwee, was a little more fun, and almost achieved the well-roundedness of character I wanted to find, but was hindered by his time period. Early 1970’s production values and some truly awful scripts probably hurt Pertwee more than his acting or interpretation of the character ever could have.

The Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker, was my favorite for many years, because he managed to bring the seriousness needed in dramatic and life-threatening script situations, but followed them up by offering a Jelly Baby with a cheerful sincerity that made you think “Hell, the world may end, but at least we have candy.”

The Fifth Doctor, Peter Davison, was the youngest Doctor yet, and his vanilla ice cream suit and cheery outlook modernized the Doctor quite a bit. He was kind of dim though, and not as quick-witted as some other Doctors.

The Sixth Doctor, Colin Baker, seems to have been paralyzed by coming in the wake of what was, at the time, the two most popular Doctors Who ever. His portrayal is a mashup of the other Baker and Davison. Unfortunately, he was never able to find his own footing in the character, and his Doctor is a bit lackluster as a result.

The Seventh Doctor, Sylvester McCoy was a Doctor losing his mind. He started as a kind of buffoon, but that humor quickly gave way to a dark, introspective character who seemed on the verge of breakdown.

At that point, the series was cancelled until the 1996 TV movie.

The Eighth Doctor, Paul McGann, is positively VICTORIAN. He would have been much more welcome in a Sherlock Holmes adaptation than a desperate drive to jump start a failing science fiction series.

And after Davies’ reboot in 2005,

The Ninth Doctor, Christopher Eccleston, is depressed. Not just moody, but full-on, ‘you-need-whatever-Gallifreyans-take-instead-of-Prozac’ sad. Granted, he’s the last of his kind, and his planet has been destroyed and time-locked, but he’s just…not much fun to watch. It’s like watching Morrissey do Macbeth.

The Tenth Doctor, David Tennant, is beautiful. I tried desperately to NOT watch the show when Tennant came, because, as I said before, I thought he was too pretty and was probably a bit of fluff. Tennant surprised me by being, not just a good actor, but actually very interesting as the Doctor. His journey begins as a madcap jaunt across the universe and ends as a Shakespearean tragedy. Beautiful, moving, and breathtaking.

And Smith. Eleventh Doctor, fun when he needs to be, silly when called for, smart, devilishly clever, kind, personable, and young. This Doctor is at home doing stage magic, playing “futbol,” or saving the universe. He’s a little ugly, a little weird, and very, very charming. 

In short, he’s a lovable alien, and more the Doctor than all of his predecessors.

Best. Doctor. Ever.

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