We open with a story from my friend Gareth.
I was at a Maths Dinner last night, sat with a group of first and second years. One of the second years was moaning about how she’d just had her Halfway Hall, so she must be getting really old as her degree was half over, and how she was probably also halfway through her life. One of the first years suggested that she might regenerate, like Doctor Who. I said, “Ah, you’re talking about the new series of Who here, aren’t you?”
She said, “Oh no, I much prefer the old series!”
“Yes, David Tennant was much better!”
I felt a bit old.
She said, “Oh, you mean the really old series? I’ve seen a couple.”
Another said, “Can you watch them on the internet?”
I said that most were available on DVD, but some of the very earliest stories no longer existed. Which caused a flurry of:
“But surely they took backups?
“How come no-one recorded it?”
I felt old again.
I count the grey hairs, but not every sign of ageing is visible. Sometimes it’s a single moment – a realisation that springs from nowhere, the serial killer emerging from the shadows. Other times it is a creeping awareness; a collection of small things, a tableau of contexts that add up to that uneasy recognition: you are getting older. The realisation that you can no longer name a single record in the top forty, nor differentiate between them with any real success. The discovery that the word ‘sick’ has changed. So, too, the word ‘woke’, its new meaning a hip-and-trendy social justice moniker, its roots embedded in snobbery.
For me, it was a parent’s evening. My wife and I were older than all three of our children’s teachers. There was something miserable about it, even though we’d had months of snatched conversations outside terrapins to get used to the idea. I would attend on Monday mornings to hear anxious eight-year-olds pick their way awkwardly through the adventures of Biff, Chip and Kipper. Seeing the teacher write on the interactive whiteboard at the end of one session, I made a joke about Words and Pictures. She looked at me blankly. I realised I was a decade too late, perhaps for just about everything.
Let me flashback to January 2009; we’re at a petrol station in Craven Arms. I see the announcement splashed across the wrinkled front page of The Sun. There was a time when learning of an important story via the printed copy of a national newspaper was something that actually happened quite a lot, archaic as the concept may be for today’s generation. Certainly I had spent a few pre-smartphone days largely switched off, holed up in Shropshire in a house with rubbish broadband and a family that still liked to use Ceefax. (Often you exaggerate these things for comic effect. I swear this time I’m not.)
“The New Doctor is Matt…Who?” screamed The Sun, and it was a fair question. He’d done his share of theatre, but wasn’t what you would call a household name. There was a lanky, floppy-haired young man grinning at me from the front page of the newspaper, and I was appalled.
“He’s too young,” I complained to Emily, when I got back in the car, carrying a crumpled receipt and the large bar of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut that would see us back to Oxfordshire. “They’re casting a hip-and-trendy bloke who’s going to be, like, the Cool Doctor. I’m sure of it. He’s younger than I am!”
I was thirty. Perhaps that brings with it a greater sense of awareness of one’s age, or at the very least a greater sense of self-importance. I remember feeling very conscious of being thirty, a sense of authoritarian awareness, a vast and hitherto unchecked superiority complex. But a curious thing happens when you hit that fourth decade. At the age of thirty I was convinced I knew everything and had all the answers if only I could get people to listen. At the age of thirty-one, I still knew everything, but had given up trying to impart that knowledge. By the time I’d reached thirty-three, I realised I didn’t know anything at all, and almost liked it.
This is what happens to Krapp, the eponymous hero (and sole character) of Krapp’s Last Tape. Sitting in a dingy flat on his sixty-ninth birthday, Krapp passes the evening eating bananas and going back over old diaries – which take the form of cassette reels that he records every year. Having chosen a spool from twenty years ago, Krapp listens to his thirty-nine-year-old self reflect upon what an idiot he was in his twenties, before being pleased with the man he’s now become. Meanwhile, the aged, present day Krapp regards his younger self with contempt, but has low self-esteem, and nothing interesting to say about himself. The older you become, the less sure you are of things, least of all yourself.
In one respect it turns out I was right about the ‘cool Doctor’ thing, but things get complicated when you examine the age gap. Smith – while the youngest actor to date – was only three years Peter Davison’s junior, at least with respect to the age he’d been when he got the job. So I was thirty, but Davison had been twenty-nine; how would I have reacted in 1980? Still, that wasn’t the point. When Davison was in the TARDIS I’d been three years old. He was a grown-up – a young grown-up, but still a grown-up. It wasn’t the same at all. Even after the reboot and Davies’ insistence that you have to cast ‘younger’ actors because of the amount of running about, they were still looking at older, established actors – older than me, anyway – when they’d cast Eccleston and Tennant. This was new territory.
Things got worse not long afterwards, when the BBC released this publicity shot:
You can imagine the anguish. “Look at her! She doesn’t look a day over sixteen!” I remember bleating, trying not to notice the skirt, or apparent lack thereof. “It’s like they’ve left a couple of kids in charge of the TARDIS!” I must have been fun to be with in those days.
What happens is this: you develop your own perceptions of who the Doctor is, within a given set of parameters, and woe betide anyone who tries to change them. The Fifth Doctor was my Doctor, and perhaps that’s part of it: perhaps some of us rely on a Doctor who is older than us, someone to physically embody that experience in the way that, say, a twenty-year-old could not. And perhaps it’s when you reach that point – that metaphorical parent’s evening where everyone around you is younger – that it starts to become difficult to accept new incarnations. Perhaps it’s those of us who’ve grown up with the Doctor that find it hardest. Perhaps it isn’t. Pick one.
The other problem, as it turned out, was that I was imagining Smith as he’d been in the Sally Lockhart stories, or at least the two that were adapted for television. There he was young, largely sheepish and borderline cockney, or at least that’s how I remembered him, and a recent examination of surviving YouTube footage has proved me correct.
What strikes you about that now, of course, is the sheer amount of running: Colin Baker auditioned for Doctor Who by gunning down his predecessor; Smith cut his TARDIS teeth working with Piper. But still. Looking back now it’s easy to see how off base you were, but he just seemed like a bad fit – too youthful and exuberant to carry off the kind of gravitas the show needs. The series five trailer – which involved the Doctor punching out Bracewell in the execrable ‘Victory of the Daleks’ – didn’t help.
Then we got to Easter 2010, and The Eleventh Hour. And I think there’s a reason why this remains in my top ten New Who episodes some seven years later. Over the course of sixty-five minutes (although for thematic reasons, it really should have been fifty-five), Moffat introduces a new Doctor, one-and-a-half new companions, a whole new approach to the show, a host of gags, an unfortunate meme-that-should-never-have-been-a-meme and a cameo from Patrick Moore. And a story, of sorts. Well, a McGuffin. Half a McGuffin, half-chewed and then awkwardly dumped back in its wrapper. The threat of Prisoner Zero and the Atraxi were hardly among the most interesting that the show has faced, but in an episode which basically served as a game-changer I think we can let that go.
It was fast and frenetic and incredibly…well, English, but at the centre of it all was Smith himself, who absolutely blew me away. From his exasperation at the villagers’ reaction to the eclipse of the sun (“The end comes, as it was always going to, down a video phone”) to the moment he faces Prisoner Zero’s mimicry of his own as-yet undiscovered appearance with “That’s rubbish, who’s that supposed to be?”, Smith plays a character who’s simultaneously young and old – a pattern that was, by and large, set to continue. Whatever you may think about what Moffat’s done to the show – and I’ve written about that in ample detail, and also changed my mind on just about everything I once said, so let’s not go there today – and however much Smith’s later portrayals were loaded with the same gravitas and weariness that was arguably Tennant’s undoing (The End of Time standing as a hard lesson from which the producers have sadly refused to learn a thing), there is a brilliance about this opening episode that solidified the Eleventh as a Doctor who could be fun without being smug, who was as utterly alien as Baker’s Fourth, and who would take things to the brink before saving the day. And in Amy, Moffat created a lovably off-the-wall character who became my favourite companion, at least for a while.
It’s even more interesting when you compare Eleven with Twelve. There’s a self-assurance about Smith’s first episode that is missing in Deep Breath – a story in which the Doctor sleeps, fails to wash, mugs a homeless person and seemingly abandons Clara. It takes a needless cameo from the previous Doctor to convince her that she’s still travelling with (to all intents and purposes) the same man, and even then the two of them spend most of that first series arguing. It’s like watching Nicola Bryant with Colin Baker, although Clara is feisty enough to fight back in a way that Peri either couldn’t or simply chose not to.
And it occurs to me this morning, as I tap these final words while my children are next door getting their daily fix of CBBC, that it may have been around this time that I decided to stop growing up. Because there are old men who can marry years of experience with youthful exuberance, and that’s just about the best combination I can think of to go through this thing we call life. Besides, Clara’s journey as fan gestalt in Deep Breath has more layers than we thought. Clara prides herself on being comfortable with regeneration – her encounters in the Doctor’s time stream and her meeting with Tennant and Hurt indicate as such – but even she struggles to accept this new, ageing character. Whatever the Doctor says, the mistaken belief that he is her boyfriend works both ways, and her shouted rant at Madame Vastra about seeing past appearances is a smoking gun: the lady doth protest too much.
And perhaps that’s why I’m sympathetic to New Doctor scepticism: I remember, in that damp and cold forecourt at the beginning of 2009, exactly what it was like to fear change. I’d got it wrong before, of course – but seldom, if ever, have I been so pleased about it, more so because it’s the act of remembering that you were wrong that keeps me grounded. Perhaps youth is a state of mind – ‘old and grumpy and important’, as Tennant says in Time Crash – as much as watching out for the grey hairs. “Youth can not know how age thinks and feels,” Albus Dumbledore tells Harry Potter, “but old men are guilty if they forget what it is to be young.”
Anyway, you’ll have to excuse me: the opening credits to Dangermouse are rolling. It’s one of my favourite things on TV, largely because it’s the perfect way to resurrect a franchise – changing everything that needs to be changed without losing the spark that made it so appealing in the first place. Perhaps it’s even more appropriate given that I was convinced, based on what I’d read, that it was going to be a trainwreck. I was wrong about that as well.