The Triumph of Doctor Smith: Revisiting Doctor Who Series 5

The casting of the Eleventh Doctor caused a bit of a stir back in 2009; it seemed possible that we might get David Morrissey (so keen was the misdirection of The Next Doctor), but names like Russell Tovey and Paterson Joseph were also mentioned. When the role went to an ex-footballer, soon to be known by his full title, “Twenty-Six-Year-Old Matt Smith”, the fans – in time-honoured fashion – began to worry. The hardcore were frightened because they thought the Doctor should be middle-aged and the shippers began to realise that they were going to lose their pinstriped eye candy. For my own part, I supported Steven Moffat’s choice of leading man – in spite of my surprise – but believed it was so unusual that the wider audience would not play along. I genuinely thought it would be Colin Baker all over again – even Matt Smith’s enthusiasm recalled Baker’s in 1983 – and when the pundits came out in force, telling us that the boots Smith was about to fill were very, very big ones, I thought this was game over.

Almost one Matt Smith season later, it was pleasantly surprising to see how things turned out. Even if you still preferred David Tennant, there was no denying that Smith was a worthy successor to, arguably, the most popular Doctor Who ever. Smith, unlike Tennant, wasn’t an obvious Doctor Who fan, but one cannot help feeling that he picked up this beautiful thing we all adore and promised with all his heart to take the greatest care of it. From that perfect opening episode, The Eleventh Hour (surely the best of any Doctor bar Hartnell), Smith gave us something so intricate, so real and complete that a great many of us cheered at the TV and struggled to recall the last feller’s name. We chose to move on and Smith led us through the treeborgs with an energy and enthusiasm previously unrivalled.

Moffat’s observation that, although Smith is vibrantly young, he conveys great age is now a cliché, but a wonderfully correct one. From the swaggering cockiness of youth to the gentle, delicate insight of experience – via some mid-life crisis of staying ‘cool’ and coping – Smith exceeded all expectations of interpretation to bring us a character so unflinchingly detailed that it felt, perhaps for the first time in the series’ long history, that the Doctor was a real person. Smith is both a brilliant “serious” actor and a splendid comedian, achieving the best results by playing both for keeps. His success derives from his deep intensity and sharply focussed attachment to any given situation (something that his co-stars were yet to learn in Series 5).

Not only is Smith’s characterisation rich, it is also very nicely textured. See, for example, how he sits upon Rosanna’s throne in Vampires of Venice, all fidgety and never quite comfortable; see him jump excitedly up and down on his bed in The Lodger whilst chatting to Amy through his earpiece. Smith never stops finding things for the Doctor to do, even when only in the background of a shot. There is, for example, a lot of brilliantly understated “business” in the TARDIS doorway at the start of The Beast Below. Smith’s skill here is that his character continues to live and breathe out of the limelight, whilst never distracting the viewer or upstaging his co-stars. Those that love him – and I count myself among them – admire his endless ability to fill the screen with a consistent sense of realism.

Before this season began, it was feared that sticking the Doctor in a bow tie and tweeds seemed too deliberate. It quickly became apparent that Smith needed such an outfit from which to elicit his performance. He does look so blissfully Doctor-ish, and maybe we all felt a bit nervous and self-conscious about that. Christopher Eccleston’s leather jacket and boots deliciously pared down all the costumes that had gone before, and Tennant, to some extent, followed suit, but Smith is a very young man. To put him in something young and funky would have diluted the actor’s interpretative tension in his young/old persona, especially during Series 5, when the Time War angst seemed to have passed. The real catchphrase of the season – bow ties are cool – tells us so much about this Doctor. Look back at his first episode and, boy, does that suit look wrong.

Possibly the Doctor’s most iconic scene in 2010 is the one in Victory of the Daleks where he holds the Daleks at bay with a Jammy Dodger. He looks so right, so perfectly precise – as much a part of the programme’s design as the Daleks themselves – and Smith’s incredible features make him the best-looking Doctor ever. Smith was not a pretty boy, but he is the most fascinatingly alien-looking Doctor thus far. Yet as the weeks rolled by and his eyes twinkled at lovers, painters, galactic wonders, and thoughts unspoken, I began to find him oddly beautiful. I found myself wanting to look at him – and isn’t that what attractive is about? And his hair! That, my friends, is real Doctor hair; casting him one minute as mad professor, the next as disaffected teddy-goth, and the next as some dark, deliberate monster.

Smith is unarguably great in the role, but the writing of the Doctor is equally great. The best writers for the Doctor in Series 5 were Steven Moffat (of course) and Gareth Roberts (with his best script for BBC Wales so far), but all of 2010’s scripts brought some wonderful texture to the character.

When we first meet the new Doctor, he seems suddenly very alien and odd again. The way he looks at people, perceiving young Amelia as a new life form, eating fish custard and so on, is reminiscent of the Sixth Doctor, who operated on equally subjective extremes of mood and contrast.

It was easy to assume that this was all down to the regeneration, but these extremes are still intact in The Lodger when, for example, he sips Rosé and spits it back into his glass (and in just about any other scene in that episode). But such reactions aren’t quite as alien as they at first seem. Looked at from another angle, these are the actions and reactions of a being at peace with itself, unconstrained by societal bounds, open to possibilities and honest with the world.

This newfound openness (the Tenth Doctor equivalent seemed very artificial) sees him display an endless sense of thrilled glee in new situations – including the dangerous ones. But, in common with previous Doctors, he is heroic and bold in his dealings with his enemies. Be they Atraxi, Patient Zero, the Daleks or Rosanna, this Doctor steps right into the lion’s den and will even place his head between the beast’s jaws in order to sell his determination to protect those around him. Capable of great anger, he castigates the humans of Starship UK, the Daleks, and River Song alike.

His confidence in himself, although sometimes shaken (he doesn’t brag as much as the Tenth Doctor), manifests in many ways. His confrontation with Rosanna is almost flirtatious. He teases her with a predatory, sexual dance equal to her own, only to pull the rug from her by promising to tear her world apart. This aspect of the new Doctor is truly scary. And he knows it. There is an occasional sense of a truly dangerous and threatening Doctor just waiting to emerge in moments such as the one in which he nicely asks Ambrose to leave her cache of weapons behind (The Hungry Earth). His intentions towards Amy also seem very dark. When he takes her aboard the TARDIS, he lies (peeking secretively at the scanner display of the crack in the universe). Even after Rory’s double-death, he remains deceptive to Amy – when, as we later learn, he only needs to bump heads with her to explain the truth.

It is strange, but sometimes we like the Doctor to be scarier than the monsters he fights, and it is tempting to think his nicer qualities are a front for what the Daleks call “The Oncoming Storm” or, as has subsequently been revealed, “the Predator”. But it’s also very obvious that his experiences touch him: not just the thrill of them, but also the pain of them. When he has no choice but to abandon Octavian to the absent mercy of a Weeping Angel, he displays heartbroken tenderness (sensitively performed by Smith).

His deepest feelings are also exposed by an enigmatic but pained smile when Alaya asks him what he is willing to sacrifice for his cause. She thinks she has the upper hand because she is willing to die, but we already know him capable of sacrificing not only worlds, but worlds full of people very, very dear to him. It is only by a colossal act of will that he is able to keep his passions in check. This may add to our deepest concerns about the darkness he carries within him, but this is a man who is also capable of error, and the Dream Lord, in Amy’s Choice, plays upon such vulnerabilities.

This Doctor also overlooks stuff and gets things wrong in a way that the Seventh Doctor never would (until the moment of his death): by allowing himself to become preoccupied he loses Elliot to the Silurians; whilst sitting on Rosanna’s throne, he fails to realise that he’s sitting on the key to her power; he is also guilty of a misplaced faith in own abilities: “Nobody dies today.” Well, Alaya does. Rory does. There are far better stories this season, but the Silurian two-parter allows Smith to display the Doctor’s complex moral centre, and he plays it not as stoutly as Jon Pertwee did (in a similar story) but in a manner far more relaxed and intimate – a lot like Patrick Troughton might have.

Ah, Troughton. No discussion of Smith’s Doctor is complete without mention of Troughton’s. As soon as Smith declared Troughton his favourite – and face it, all the Doctor’s from Tom Baker have – the pundits latched on to the Troughton-esque qualities of his performance. Let’s put this to bed. All actors like Troughton’s work because he is, relatively speaking, perhaps the most accomplished and versatile television and film actor to have taken on the role.

If you know your broadcast history, the man is a legend in the way that even Eccleston is not yet allowed to be. But is Smith’s Doctor just a retread? Well, they both have craggy faces, wear bow ties, and walk like little children. But the broad strokes of Troughton’s performance are those of almost permanent self-immersion, indignance, and soothing apology. Smith can do these – and is, to some extent, informed by these – but they do not define him. Any apparent influence is just window dressing.

Unlike Troughton’s Doctor, Smith’s is capable of genuine sentiment and glowing pride in others. He displays sincere warmth towards those he encounters and those in his care. Unlike Troughton – or any other Doctor (except perhaps the Eighth) – he is genuine, open, and friendly, and this allows him to be humbled by the humans of the 29th Century, thrilled at the prospect of being someone’s lodger, and eager to join Vincent in listening to colours rather than dismissing him as a madman.

Taking The Lodger as an example that best covers the season, this Doctor’s intelligence is sometimes fierce, sometimes naive, but always utterly compassionate and thoroughly tactile. Smith inhabits the part, whereas all the others, Troughton included, simply performed it (however brilliantly). Smith’s is a fully contemporary take on the role of the Doctor, informed by modern, less theatrical acting techniques and supported by modern televisual grammar; as such, it makes Smith quite simply a better Doctor than Troughton. Put Troughton in The Lodger and it would not be anywhere near as good.

It might be just as easy to compare Smith to Peter Cushing – both walk funny, bumble about, and have very similar silhouettes – but, in all honesty, the Doctor to whom Smith is closest is actually David Tennant. Certainly, their vocal tones are very similar. Perhaps what makes Smith the most effective New Who is his combination of Tennant’s exuberance and Eccleston’s swagger. But again, his performance is more real, more genuine, less – well, performed than that of his immediate predecessors. Look at those clips of Tennant with River Song on Confidential: he suddenly seems oddly wrong in the part.

Whether or not you agree with the points I have made, it is obvious that Matt Smith made the part his own and that the Eleventh Doctor is one of the strongest we have seen both on screen and on paper.

He manages to combine the Big Doctors with the Little Doctors seamlessly, falling into neither camp and filling the boots of Tom, Jon, Sylv, Pat, Billy, Chris, Dave… Whoever! But unlike any other Doctor (and only Sylvester McCoy came close), he also manages to be both distantly alien and warmly human. Maybe the portrayal is actually not so alien, but played just as real as any part Matt Smith might play; it’s possibly just the context of TV drama that makes him look really weird – more real, less mannered than Troughton.

Series 5 may not have been the best season ever, but it was perhaps the most truly consistent to that date, with every episode being at least workmanlike and several of them being utter masterpieces. What did become certain was that even a below average episode would always stand tall whilst we had Matt Smith’s Doctor to watch and enjoy.

(A version of this article appears in the Children in Need anthology book, Whoblique Strategies, published by Chinbeard Books.)