ELEVENTH MAN IN
Matt Smith resigns from Doctor Who, 1 June
|River Song (Alex Kingston), Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill), |
the Doctor (Matt Smith) and Amy Pond (Karen Gillan). (Image: BBC)
An affectionate appraisal of the Eleventh Doctor – “the madman in a box” – whose time in the TARDIS was over all too soon.
24 of Matt Smith’s 45 Doctor Who stories – nearly half – featured young children, and the first person he met was the infant Amelia Pond. Going with the idea that each new Doctor’s personality is formed by the environment around him when he regenerates (explaining why the Tenth became a mockney geezer), it should have come as no surprise that number eleven would be a hyperactive, slightly distracted child-man, dressed, to begin with, like a little boy trying to be an adult. From his rebirth onwards, childhood would be a central theme of the Eleventh Doctor’s tenure, either in the way he looked at the world or the content of the stories. This Doctor could “talk baby” and we saw his cradle. One story, ‘Amy’s Choice’, even featured old age pensioners as the monsters.In a move away from the epic movies-for-television produced by the Russell T Davies team, series 5 to 7 were a nightmarish, murky fairytale of disembodied skulls that ate people, dark nursery rhymes, carnivorous snowmen, malevolent dolls, haunted houses, living statues and, of course, “Dinosaurs! On a spaceship!” At the same time, the emotional content of the stories was some of the most mature Doctor Who had yet offered, with married companions Amy and Rory coping with tragic domestic problems, a (sexual) love interest for the Doctor, a cross-species lesbian couple, a story about manic depression and the Doctor facing up to his own mortality, as well as the living death of his two closest friends.
These extremes were embodied in Smith’s remarkable performance. It wasn’t to everyone’s taste; several people I know stopped watching, missing the manic blokeyness of David Tennant, or pining for the sage-like qualities of the earlier, older Doctors. But if you stuck with the show, you were rewarded by being privileged to witness a highly creative actor begin to blossom. Just like a child, Smith could run through several different emotional states in one sentence, leaving you with the impression that he was speaking aloud the sometimes random connections his mind was making. At other times, just like his favourite Doctor Patrick Troughton, Smith could underplay and turn on the menace and the gravitas, notably when a clone-Doctor was spawned in ‘The Rebel Flesh’ and when the genuine article visited his grave on Trenzalore in ‘The Name of the Doctor’.
He also brought the look of the Doctor back to the image us older fans knew from halcyon days. Gone were the deliberately anti-eccentric leather coats and Converse trainers, replaced from Christmas 2012 with velvet frock coats and waistcoats. It was a sign of how accepted Doctor Who had been by viewers that Executive Producer Steven Moffat and Smith could return to a style of dress that Russell T Davies had been self consciously paranoid about. And with a floppy fringe and a selection of bow ties that could be seen on contemporary catwalks, the Eleventh Doctor’s vintage haute couture surfed the fashion zeitgeist. Smith looked great
in it, too.
in it, too.
|Jenna-Louise Coleman as|
the impossible girl.
Around the eleventh man in, things weren’t always great. After a consistently good first series in 2010, the BBC began splitting Smith’s seasons in two. This decision – undertaken presumably for budgetary reasons – frustratingly affected the momentum of both Series 6 and 7, meaning that they had to launch twice. Unfortunately, the second half of both seasons contained some of the weakest episodes of their respective years, which did begin to affect the viewing figures. The repetition of the plot device of a machine going wrong in Series 6, together with one too many story resolutions based around the power of lurve, was disappointing after the carefully varied structure of earlier ‘New Who’ seasons. In Series 7, it looked like some of the latter stories were written after their posters had been designed first, putting spectacle before characterisation or logic.
Some of the media, notably the BBC-bashing Daily Mail, began to complain about convoluted and confusing storylines. But Doctor Who has always had its detractors and production shortcomings, and just like the best Doctors before him, even in an underwhelming story Smith was always entertaining, particularly when he was paired with the note perfect Jenna-Louise Coleman as Clara (a Sarah Jane Smith in waiting if ever there was one).
An innovation I particularly liked was using the weekly or monthly gaps between episodes to show that time was passing for Smith’s incarnation, be it in visits to the aging Ponds, the Doctor’s retreat to the clouds above Victorian London, picking up companions and returning them home between adventures, or the Time Lord’s first meetings with Strax, Madame Vastra, Dorian and Nephertiti. Consequently, the Eleventh Doctor’s busy off-screen life made it feel like he’d been around for a lot longer than four television years. A neat trick, but even with this life-extending novelty Smith still left you wanting more, the greatest testimony to how good his performance was.Good luck in Hollywood, Matt. We’re all rooting for you.