Ever since we decided to work our way through the 2005-2013 archives, Doctor Who is pretty much all my eight-year-old will talk about. Whether it’s the number of Dalek appearances, the most enduring companions or the scariest episodes, he bombards the family with questions daily until my head is about to explode. It is like the ending of Eye of the Scorpion, lived out in flesh in a perpetual loop of happy, quiet insanity.
The other week he asked me which of the actors playing the Doctor was the best. This is an impossible question to answer – as impossible as the “How famous is X / Y / Z?” that I have to put up with any time I mention that this week’s guest star was in something else. I told him that every one of the Doctors was a fine actor in his own way and that they all had fantastic moments. With that in mind he asked me for my particular favourites, which I gave him, and which I might save for another article if Phil is willing to give it a shot.
Anyway, I think that’s sort of what led us to this point. Because everyone – everyone – has their favourite Doctor moments. There’s Matt Smith’s bombastic speech in The Pandorica Opens. McCoy trapped against a locked door as an advancing Dalek levitates up the staircase for the first time. The bit where Eccleston teleports Margaret Slitheen from one end of an alley the other (no, really, I like that one). But they’re not necessarily the moments that showcase how talented they were as actors. Troughton had some wonderful stuff in The Invasion, and it’s a shame that the BBC YouTube selection concentrates more on scenes of him running like a penguin with its arse on fire. And Capaldi acts his socks off in The Zygon Inversion but is arguably even better in the opening scenes of Hell Bent, in which he chews up scenery without saying a word. Guess which one triumphed in the hit count wars?
Over the past six months I’ve watched the entire Tennant run again, and have had cause to re-evaluate it. “The Tenth Doctor’s period has not aged well,” someone once said on Kasterborous (remember Kasterborous?) – and it’s something that stuck. Because while no one would question the abilities of Tennant the actor, the inconvenient truth is that Tennant the actor sometimes gets lost beneath the bluster and the monologues and (in Series 2 at least) the inane grinning. Still, I’ve re-examined my casual dismissal of the man and had a bit of a rethink. And seeing as we’re having a week to showcase him, and the Tenth Doctor is in any case Daniel’s favourite, it’s a good excuse to look back at some of the moments that defined him as an actor, and not just as a Doctor. These are mine. I’m sure you’ll have your own, and I look forward to hearing about them.
A life more ordinary (The Family of Blood, 2007)
You knew this was going to be in here. One of Tennant’s finest Doctor Who performances, and he spends most of it not playing the Doctor at all. Is that why we like it so much, perhaps? Would we have held the episode in such high regard had he retained his casual, contemporary composure, and played every scene the way he plays the final conversation with Joan? Is Playing Against Type a surefire way to grab yourself a BAFTA? Is that why Nightmare in Silver was greenlit?
However you look at things, it’s a stonking episode – helped in no small measure by the occasional snatches of recorded video that remind us how the Doctor’s supposed to be, in stark contrast to the man he’s become. It is a jarring and unsettling performance: the Doctor may insist that he is capable of ‘everything John Smith is and was’, but the casual indifference with which he assents to Latimer’s caning makes for uncomfortable viewing. There are so many fine moments in the story it is extremely difficult to pick just one – Smith’s conversation with Joan about his origins was a contender for the top slot – but it is this scene that injects his character with the vitality it needs to become fully three dimensional, as the teacher’s desperation manifests in choking tears and wide-eyed stares. The voice, too, is worth a mention: Tennant inflects Smith’s character with an almost nasal resonance that he usually leaves out, adding layers of pathos to his tragic situation – he doesn’t want to die, and for just a moment we don’t want him to either, even if it means we get the Doctor back. It would not be the last time we saw Tennant playing a man holding on to life for all its worth – but it may be the most profound.
Mugged in London (Partners in Crime, 2008)
This is wonderful. The scene belongs to Tate but it’s a testament to everyone involved that she was able to generate this sort of chemistry with Tennant through two layers of glass. Each opening story is about generating the dynamic between Doctor and companion; Partners in Crime manages it in complete radio silence, both characters exaggerating every line of soundless dialogue as if overacting in a school play, which wouldn’t work in any scene but this one. Everyone GIFs Donna’s molar-flashing dropped jaw at the moment she sees the Doctor (1:37), but Tennant’s own expression – that of someone who’s just made eye contact with a psychopathic ex-girlfriend in the pub – is nothing short of priceless.
“Each tea lasts an hour, and he wanders home alone” (The End of Time, 2010)
Did you ever see Heat? It’s a staggering piece of work and it all centres around a single conversation – the one time the central characters meet in person, before the final sequence. And it takes place in a coffee shop. Both of them talk about their aspirations, their drives and what gets them out of bed in the morning. Both are in their own way quietly lost, and both are plagued by bad dreams.
You can see where I’m going with this. The End Of Time is, to all intents and purposes, a story about parenting: Wilf trying desperately to fill the gap occupied by Geoff and simultaneously yearning to be a father to the Doctor. It is a story of conversations – the Doctor’s rejection of violence, the self-doubt Wilf exorcises in his exchanges with the Unnamed Woman, and the intertwining of destinies as one man waxes lyrical even as he gives up his life to save the other. But what’s great about this conversation in particular is how the gravitas of both performers elevates it from banality. Davies’s kitchen sink dialogue was sometimes successful, sometimes not – here’s a shining example of where it wasn’t, the Doctor’s philosophical meanderings about regeneration sounding childishly resentful, Wilf’s desperate plea for help sounding less, at least on paper, than the sum of its parts. And yet Cribbins and Tennant pile on the understatement until it becomes the entire scene, and that’s when everything bubbles over; Tennant’s throaty ‘Merry Christmas’, following the deepest of inhalations, ranking among his very finest moments as the Doctor. And they say you can’t polish a turd.
That’s no ordinary rabbit (Day of the Doctor, 2013)
Oh look, he’s doing his Batman voice. Superficially this is a strange inclusion: why on earth am I picking a throwaway scene with an obvious punch line? But it shows a side to the Tenth Doctor that is often lampooned, but is perhaps no better lampooned than by the Tenth Doctor himself. Tennant had stepped down from the role four years (or as good as) before this episode aired, which is plenty of time to establish a certain professional distance – and he approaches this with the same sincerity he adopts when reprimanding the Racnaross in The Runaway Bride, or the notorious ‘I’m from the planet Gallifrey’ fourth wall breaker halfway through Voyage of the Damned. His timing here is impeccable, and as a package, this whole little sequence beautifully encapsulates the episode’s generally tongue-in-cheek approach – notice the camera placement allows him to ostensibly tower over the scene, while simultaneously favouring the rabbit (and I’m sure this was the only way they could shoot the thing, but it’s a happy accident). As a handy bonus, this particular version includes French subtitles, which has me thinking about Bill Bailey.
Why I keep travelling (The Satan Pit, 2006)
If Doctor Who lost its way in Series 2, we can blame the love story. It’s one thing to have the Doctor fall for a companion; it’s another to have them giggling like a pair of lovestruck teenagers. It’s like watching those really irritating couples you knew in sixth form, always snogging and talking about relationships. Many wailed when the Doctor and Rose were separated by a seemingly impenetrable wall; I was one of those who expressed a great sense of relief.
Much like the series in which it is embedded, The Satan Pit is a deeply flawed episode – juxtaposing moments of frightening brilliance with a thoroughly ridiculous green screen monologue that concludes in unnecessary bellowing – but there are a couple of scenes that stand out. One is the moment the Beast explains himself: the other is this, a brief exchange with science officer Ida Scott, who prises truths from the Time Lord that some of his closest friends take years to uncover. Context is everything: supervillains reveal the truth of themselves just before they’re about to kill the Doctor; the Doctor reveals the truth of himself before descending to what he suspects will be his own death. But it’s the quiet, almost understated mumbling that makes the scene – these are important words, both in terms of defining the Doctor and his relationships with those dear to him, but Tennant has the sense to allow profundity to speak on its own terms, rather than adding the sort of vocal inflections that would have killed the scene outright. His eyes cast off somewhere, perpetually widened as if in surprise at this sudden candour, the Doctor is given a humanity we didn’t know he had. How fitting, in its own way, that one of the most touching Tenth / Rose moments should occur not on a windswept beach, or in a battle-ravaged London street, but in the form of unspoken sentiment, from beyond the visor of a space helmet, delivered to a woman we scarcely know.