I used to hate Matt Smith. I thought he was a dreadful choice for a new Doctor. Too young, too inexperienced, not taking it seriously. Just not ready, somehow. Karen Gillan was no better. They looked like two teenagers who’d hotwired the TARDIS and were taking it for a joyride through Stretham. Worst casting decision ever. I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me, Doctor Who died that day.
That was 2009. Once he’d actually started doing it, I thought he was brilliant. There are some Doctors who have warming periods, their characters pushing and wriggling against the skin, trying desperately to burst out over the course of a series. Capaldi was one; McCoy was another. Smith nailed it from his very first scene (all right, his second; the first is basically a lot of running around the console room trying to put it out). Here was a man who seemed to contrast innately with himself, both wise and foolish, both ancient and boyish, like Caspian at the end of The Silver Chair. He didn’t have a clue about people, except when he did. And you instinctively trusted him, despite (and perhaps because of) the fact that he was, even on his good days, as nutty as a fruitcake.
Can you say that sort of thing now? Probably not. But I will anyway. The thing is, Smith isn’t just a likeable Doctor; he’s actually a phenomenal actor. And seeing as it’s been ten whole years since that first series – an entire decade in which the world has become a darker, stranger and sillier place – it felt like a good time to go back and look at just why he’s so compelling. This is not an Eleventh Doctor Highlights collection; there are a million of those doing the rounds already and most of them are dull as a brick. This is an attempt to delve a little deeper – not much, just a toe in the water – and work out exactly what it is that makes him so compelling, so personable, and so much fun to watch.
1. Fish fingers and custard (The Eleventh Hour, 2010)
“Eccleston was a tiger,” Steven Moffat once wrote, “and Tennant was, well, Tigger. Smith [is] an uncoordinated housecat who pretends that he meant to do that after falling off a piece of furniture.” It’s a curious reading, not least because this now iconic vignette – one that spawned a thousand tiresome memes, at least three pointless in-episode references, and a flurry of Americans bombarding Quora to ask whether fish sticks really work with custard (spoiler: they do) – is very much the Eleventh Doctor’s Tigger moment. Superficially it’s just an excuse for a lot of slapstick, but there can be few establishments of character so complete, so memorable, or so beautifully portrayed. Post-regenerational Doctors are either lethargic or manic, depending on where the story needs to go: this decisively falls into the latter category, as Smith bounces into the Pond residence demanding food like a student in a shared house after a night propping up the union bar. He bounces off the walls, walking the tightrope between jubilant buoyancy and righteous indignation (“Carrots?” the Doctor intones, in an uncanny imitation of one of his predecessors) with just the right amount of energy – and he bounces off the perplexed Caitlin Blackwood so beautifully it’s a crying shame they didn’t get a whole series together.
2. Keeping Up With The Kovarians (A Good Man Goes To War, 2011)
Furious and fiery, the Doctor strides into the military compound that is Demon’s Run like he owns the place, swiftly dispatching the guards and rescuing Amy and her newborn daughter, all without a drop of blood spilled. It’s all a ruse, of course: Madame Kovarian isn’t going to let their secret weapon go that easily, and the fall that follows is swift and heartbreaking, even in the face of its Eastenders-coloured plot twist. But it’s this scene, halfway through, that quickens the pulses, as Smith monologues at Colonel Manton (Danny Sapani), demanding he humiliate himself over the airwaves. Like Luke in the Emperor’s throne room, it’s a moment where the Doctor comes dangerously close to losing control – but what is so striking about this, as with many of Smith’s examples of Sturm und Drang, is just how quiet it is, the actor only shouting once, before dropping his voice to a whisper and flexing his jaw anxiously, seemingly wrestling internally over whether or not he should wipe the corner of his eye. It would be some months before the Doctor learned that not all tears are evil, but that’s another story.
3. Stormageddon, Dark Lord of All (Closing Time, 2011)
Say what you like about James Corden – we certainly have – but there is no line in Series 6 that makes my children laugh as much as “Peasants. That’s unfortunate.” It’s always fun watching the Doctor interact with babies, even when they fall foul of the Blinovitch effect and threaten to rip the universe apart, but there can be few interactions more touching than the back-and-forth between Smith and Alfie in Closing Time. Admittedly, the back is mostly a series of pre-recorded shrieks and gurgles, and the forth is largely a string of jokes about Craig’s rubbish parenting. But while Smith is wonderful to watch throughout the entire episode, switching between playful banter and quiet, crabby wisdom in the blink of an eye, it is in the quiet moments with Alfie (sorry, but I cannot bring myself to call him Stormageddon) that he really excels, delivering sardonic whimsy with the tenderness of a new father – or perhaps a favourite uncle – and all the while scarcely rising above a croaky murmur.
4. Doctor, Doctor (Nightmare in Silver, 2013)
In the fourth season of Knight Rider, there’s an episode where K.I.T.T. is hacked by one of his original programmers, who inserts a new control module that sends him off the rails. The producers managed this, on screen, by running William Daniels’ voice through a filter and having him say “ain’t” (prompting a sweat-drenched David Hasselhoff to remark “You must be sick”). But it’s easy when all you have to worry about is a talking car – how do you turn a lovable protagonist into the embodiment of evil? Smith manages it, curiously, by keeping his vocal performance even and level – a plot point later on – but drastically altering the body language, giving the Doctor a theatrical swagger to go along with all the boasting, jumping onto the table like the star of a Broadway musical, his limbs flailing with a control and poise we haven’t seen before. Steven Woolfenden’s direction helps tremendously, echoing the scene in The Two Towers where Gollum is seen arguing with himself: still, the moment belongs to Smith, who manages to be likeable even when he’s playing an utter b*stard. There’s an awful lot wrong with Nightmare in Silver, but this worked a treat.
5. Trenzalore (The Name of the Doctor, 2013)
You only need to watch the first forty seconds of this. It’s the one where he cries. He cries with the realisation that something terrible is about to happen, with the knowledge that a hornet’s nest has been tapped. His hand massages temples and claws at his cheek as if to somehow wrench away the hurt. And he follows this sudden outburst of raw emotion by leaping up from the sofa and walking out of the room to towel his face, just after he apologises. It’s about the most British thing ever.
6. I’m going to look at rocks! (Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, 2012)
Smith’s Doctor was usually at his best when he was oblivious. The caring and the pathos had its place – it occupies several places in this list – but the lasting image, surely, is that of a man out of time, ridiculous and manic and getting excited at the smallest thing, usually when the world is about to explode. “Are those… kestrels?” an anxious Rory asks, which gives the Doctor cause to reply, with utter sincerity, “I do hope so.” There are a great many scenes like this across his tenure, but this is the one that made the cut – largely because of Mark Williams, whose response to being flung onto an alien beach (actually the ship’s engine room, although we don’t know that yet) is to harrumph for a moment and then pull out a foldable trowel and dig in the sand. Brian may hate travelling, but he’s more like the Doctor than he realises.
7. End of the line (The Time of the Doctor, 2013)
The Time of the Doctor broke the laws of regeneration, explained the crack in the universe, and also gave us the longest-serving companion ever: a reprogrammed Cyber brain who carries an urgent message for three centuries. Deaths are always best when they’re quick and dignified, and everything about this scene is brilliant, from Clara’s respectful silence to Smith’s look of confused concern as he realises Handles’ lights have gone out for the last time. And if the Doctor’s quiet, understated “Well done mate” doesn’t have you sobbing, I don’t think you’re fully human.
Honourable mention: Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough (The Pandorica Opens, 2010)
I really didn’t want a big speech in here. That particular cliche is so well worn you can practically see through it. Yes, vigour and pomp are a guaranteed conversation starter, and there’s plenty of moments like that: all escalating cadences, anger and bellowing and capitalised transcripts littering the Tumblr feeds, but hey, at least if you’ve got those you don’t have to listen to Murray Gold’s over-produced triumphalism. It makes the BAFTA shortlists (unless you’re Peter Capaldi, anyway) but it really is rather tedious. Still, even I like this one, if only because it was the first one we had, and I’ll concede that in this scene, the Doctor becomes the sort of hero I’d follow into Mordor. And when you consider that, 10 minutes later, they were all shoving him into a box, it’s really quite funny.
Oh, go on, then. Tell me which ones I missed…