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Mar 01 2014

Weird and wonderful: why Matt Smith’s Doctor was better than David Tennant’s

Doctors

At Christmas, in a sudden, violent lurch, Peter Capaldi’s face became the Doctor’s. His announcement in the role pleased critics and excited fans as David Tennant’s had in 2005, fresh off the smash-hit set of Casanova – both actors, loved by the public as it was, were hotly tipped for the part. Capaldi, pictured last month in his incarnation’s costume, was by all means a great choice, but I couldn’t avoid mild disappointment. I didn’t want another David Tennant. I wanted a Matt Smith.

‘Who’s he?’, family members asked indignantly when Smith’s casting went public. Headlines were similar. However the Doctor looked, he didn’t look like that. The Doctor’s face was famous – it had eyebrows, not a six inch quiff or polystyrene-block chin. And he didn’t wear turnups, hipster tweed or dicky bows. Whovians winced when on-set photos first emerged, Smith hands-behind-back in dad jacket and charity shop shirt. Where now the gravitas and style of Tennant’s greatcoat, his pinstripe suit’s effortless chic?

Then ‘The Eleventh Hour’ aired in 2010. Bow ties were cool, the new lead said… and suddenly, near magically, they were.

Tennant’s Doctor owed his popularity to populism, handsome, charming and more human than Christopher Eccleston’s had been. Pundits urged his casting when they sensed he’d play a version people liked – like Jon Pertwee’s and Peter Davison’s, Ten was dashing, spry and classically heroic, the handsome head boy with top grades and track prizes. Of all the Doctors, he could most easily be from a different franchise, Buffy or Harry Potter say; at Hogwarts he’d have been a Gryffindor. Russell T Davies envisioned a mainstream, commercial Who, primetime hit rather than fan indulgence, which meant a mainstream and commercial hero. Ten’s character, like his costume, was pitched to be crowdpleasing, a matey, likeable leading man giving noughties viewers what they wanted. They fell for him, and so did his companions.

Smith’s Doctor was, by contrast, weird. He ate fish custard, danced terribly and couldn’t say no to a fez, looked twelve but acted eighty, moralised then all but murdered. In costume, character and casting, he was leftfield where his predecessor was a shoe-in TV lead – less instantly accessible a take, but finished all the more impressively for it. Tennant, though a formidable actor, played a character fangirls and -boys would always have swooned over – he never had to work that hard for their affection. That Smith’s Doctor, like his bow tie, was a harder sell is what makes his success remarkable, the product of a singular, tirelessly layered performance.

‘I don’t even have an aunt’, Eleven tells Amelia Pond minutes after his birth, who lives with hers without a mum or dad. He’s lucky, she says. ‘I know’, he answers – the slightest bit too fast, voice tinged with satisfaction, even pleasure. Blink (don’t) between Scottish jokes and nonsense meals, and you’ll miss the ruthlessness Smith sneaks into the line, infusing grief with disturbing new bravado. If Ten was a lionheart like Three and Five, Eleven was a dark-sided eccentric of the Troughton-McCoy school, bumbling to all appearances but stone-hearted, sinister even, when need be. It’s a more complex and interesting portrayal, at least to me. ‘Look Solomon’, he tells David Bradley’s villain later on, targeting his craft with its own deadly weapons. ‘The missiles. See how they shine.’

Tennant played a similar moment in ‘The Family of Blood’ (2007), but never quite found Smith’s brooding subtlety. Who could forget ‘The Doctor’s Wife’, four years later? ‘Fear me,’ sentient asteroid House threatens Eleven, ‘I’ve killed hundreds of Time Lords.’ ‘Fear me,’ he replies with a nod, part haunted, part self-satisfied. ‘I’ve killed all of them.’

In his fair and relevant critique of Steven Moffat’s writing, ‘The Captain Kirk Problem: How Doctor Who Betrayed Matt Smith’, Ted B. Kissell attacks this incarnation’s habits of ‘telling people how awesome he is’ and scheming deviously, damning Eleven as ‘a swaggering bully – who also withholds vital information from the people about whom he supposedly cares’. This was what made him work. Deceiving Martha was the most manipulative Ten ever got, but Smith’s Doctor (as River Song was fond of pointing out) lied constantly and to everyone – Amy, Rory and Clara for a start. The Doctor’s more interesting when he’s less of a white knight, but more than that, it’s what made this one’s playful whimsy meaningful. Eleven indulged his eccentricities to hide his heart of darkness. His childish side mattered because often, it was a front.

Who’d never had such an intricately woven lead. It may not again. Yes, Ten went off the rails in ‘The Waters of Mars’ (2009), but only because hubris was the obvious flaw to script such an unreconstructed hero. Tennant is a script-led actor, hence his success in Shakespeare, but one always sensed Smith, who studied Creative Writing and devised his character by making up short stories, knew more about him than anyone. His Doctor was seldom if ever obvious – instead of giving viewers what we wanted, he gave us what we’d never seen before, then made us fall in love with it.

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7 comments

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  1. 1
    Nathaniel Frein

    I always liked Smith and Eccleston more than Tennant in the role. Eccleston was raw and broken and hurting from the Time War. Smith was the most truly alien of the supposedly “alien” doctors, and that’s what makes him my favorite.

  2. 2
    EK Blackwell

    “This was what made him work. Deceiving Martha was the most manipulative Ten ever got”: Whoa, I can’t believe this statement. First, let’s talk all the lies that Nine and Ten made, which are so many that I don’t have the time to list them. But here’s some whoppers: he doesn’t use guns: LIE. The vast majority of Doctors including every New Who Doctor has used a gun INCLUDING making guns and cannons to use AND building THREE K-9 complete with guns and lethal settings that the Doctor ordered him to use. Second, that he doesn’t hang around people with guns. LIE! Many companions and the Doctor’s closest friends used guns and carried guns all the time way back to the start and all the way up. He lied about Rassilon, he lied about the Time Lord society, he lied about how regeneration works, he lied about their naming conventions, in fact he rarely told the truth about any of it. Manipulative? Ten manipulated every single person who traveled with him, repeatedly throwing away their choices and their wishes to enforce his decisions on them and refusing even to consider alternative ways! Donna can’t survive with Time Lord energy in a human brain? THE MASTER DID IT AND THE BODY LASTED FOR CENTURIES! So he COULD have Donna keep her memories; notice he didn’t tell her that! He withheld information all the time because he didn’t want anything but his own way. He made his choice about Donna and barreled through forcing himself on her in what the entire sci-fi genre calls rape. He even scarred their families through what he did and often sneered at their upset. THen let’s talk about how he married Liz I in a ceremony that was meaningless to him, slept with her and took her virginity, dumped her, and made tasteless jokes about it like a spoiled, entitled frat boy. How he turned another woman into a cement oral sex machine for the rest of her life and that it was presented as a positive dream come true for her. The only person who escaped him was Martha because she told she was fed up with his BS and walked out. But even she carried away the scars he forever inflicted on her.

  3. 3
    Trebuchet

    Smith’s Doctor was, by contrast, weird. He ate fish custard…

    Fish FINGERS in custard. Sorry, just couldn’t let that stand. I’m also missing Matt Smith already. And wish they’d left Nine on for a season or two longer.

  4. 4
    Nathaniel Frein

    And wish they’d left Nine on for a season or two longer.

    Oh hellz yes. Hottest Doctor EVAR.

  5. 5
    Rabidtreeweasel

    I probably would have really liked Smith if Moffat hadn’t been in charge of writing for him. As it stands, I prefer the stories written for Tenant, and this definitely bias’s my opinion on Smith. Personally, I think he was robbed of what could have been a truly marvelous run.

  6. 6
    cpps

    Yeah, I have to second #5. Matt Smith played the doctor fantastically, but Moffat just couldn’t hold up his end. I think a huge part of the problem is that Moffat just can’t write female characters. I mean, he does a fantastic job with Sherlock in part because the central characters in the series are almost exclusively male. In Dr Who though, the women are the Arthur Dents of the story; they are the people the audience is supposed to relate to and identify with. Getting them right is critical to telling a good story. Unfortunately Moffat’s women are all basically the same, idealized female character copied and pasted over and over again. They are witty and clever, sexy and sassy, always with some mystery about them that the Doctor needs to solve. They are plot devices rather than characters in their own right which makes it hard to identify with them or care what happens to them, and the world as a whole feels less real. Under those circumstances it’s pretty hard for Smith’s doctor to shine despite him being a fantastic pick for the role.

  7. 7
    lumi

    I respect your opinion, but it’s wrong. Tennant was the best Doctor because he had the best companions. Can Amy ever hold a candle to Martha or Donna? As the commentor above explains, Moffat is ruining things with his obsession with Manic Pixie Dream Girls.

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