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

000At 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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First (and unenthusiastic) thoughts on ‘The Day of the Doctor’

I was asked a short while back if I’d penned an ‘I hate Steven Moffat’ post of the now-familiar kind. Having seen ‘The Day of the Doctor’, this is it.

I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.

I hated it.

[Major spoilers follow.]

I didn’t hate everything about it. A few aspects of it had me grinning brightly.

  • John Hurt is the Doctor! Now entirely and officially. (How’s the numbering affected by this, incidentally?)
  • Peter Capaldi! (And, to a lesser extent, Christopher Eccleston!)
  • Gemma Redgrave’s face twisting slimily into a Zygon: nightmarish. Good luck sleeping tonight, children. (On top of this, a sterling mention of the Brig.)
  • The Hartnell opening titles, and the I.M. Foreman sign!
  • The round things.
  • ‘I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but at the time, so did the Zygon.’
  • Clara being a teacher (getting much needed character development). More so, Clara on the motorcycle.
  • Eleven. People argue whether Smith or Tennant’s better. As far as I’m concerned, the argument’s over.

Speaking of which, though… things I didn’t like were legion.

  • Ten. I know you probably love him. I don’t. And this episode showed him at his babbling, abrasive worst. The Elizabethan scenes, especially early on, were an enormous weak spot. Oh, and… about that:
  • SO MUCH WASTED TIME. An hour in, I was still waiting for plot developments I cared about. 75 minutes is a long episode, but a painfully short feature film, which apparently was what this aspired to be, cinema showings and all. You do not have time to mess around with screwdrivers, fezzes, rabbits, picnics, helicopters or royal weddings. (Regarding the helicopter in particular, the lampshading ‘Why didn’t you just knock?’ did nothing to aid plausibility. It backfired, in fact.) Clara’s door-opening payoff made me laugh, but not enough to make up for the precious minutes wasted on its set-up, and all this is especially frustrating from a writer singularly skilled at prologues where lots happens rapidly (c.f. ‘The Pandorica Opens‘, ‘The Name of the Doctor‘). To specify what I think was a core problem…
  • TOO MANY PLOTS, only one of which I cared about. Zygons hiding in the National Gallery could have been a strong mid-series episode – the statues scene was inspired, even if it a little too reminiscent of the clock-smashing in ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’ – but I struggled to give a damn about it here, especially with all the complicated shapeshifting. I know I can’t have been the only one who found Ten romancing Queen Elizabeth a wholesale come-down after Daleks laying waste to Arcadia. Just because Moffat can spin several plates at once doesn’t mean he should, and in fact this made the whole thing rather joyless in my eyes.
  • I am sick of the overly self-referential nudge-nudge-wink-winking of Moffat’s scripts – the War Doctor bristling about lip-locking being a prime example, on top of the recurrent ‘timey wimey’ lines, which I’ve never found as funny as he seems to think they are. In moderation, this sort of thing is nice. Used as much as it’s used currently, it makes everything feel like a Children in Need sketch. (Remember those ‘Space‘ and ‘Time‘ clips? No? I’m sorry I reminded you.)
  • On the point of lip-locking, I’m no prude, but does anyone else feel the raunch is just over the top now? The Ten/Elizabeth smooching felt out of character even for an exceptionally romantic Doctor, and the ‘compensation’ line was frankly awkward on a teatime family series. (Eleven’s ‘tight skirts’ moment in ‘Nightmare in Silver’, which has ‘Moffat insert’ written all over it, remains the all time low.) Relatedly:
  • Steven Moffat can’t write women. I know this is blunt – I’m sorry – it’s just true.Rose/Bad Wolf/the Moment’s flirting with John Hurt’s Doctor early on was just out of character (see above), even accepting this wasn’t actually Rose (see below). It felt like Billie Piper was reading Irene Adler’s lines from Sherlock… or River Song’s from Doctor Who. Or Amy’s, early on. Or Oswin’s. Or indeed Elizabeth’s in the same episode, who felt (as Ten did, actually) like a panto character. Osgood meanwhile, bespectacled and with a hopeless, geek girl hero-worship crush, was Molly Hooper in a scarf.It’s not that writing women requires some special or distinct approach. Moffat’s women, with the odd exception, are just tropes rather than characters, and often repetitions of the same tropes. His habit of cavalier sexism in dialogue (‘She’s been brainwashed, it all makes sense to her. Plus, she’s a woman… shut up, I’m dying!’) doesn’t help: the ‘prettier sister’ line was just uncomfortable, and Elizabeth’s ‘Men!’ comment cements her status alongside River and Irene in the ‘sexy man-haters to be conquered’ camp. Further, the gags about Ten repeatedly insulting the woman he was seeing simply felt cruel.
  • Switching back to Bad RoMents (I heard it’s a song), why bother casting Billie Piper if not as Rose? I realise this is a rock-and-a-hard-place problem: if we’d had the vintage ’06 Rose-Ten drippery most expected, I’d also be complaining. In fact, I thought the character succeeded, but thanks to Piper’s performance and despite the script. Via the witches in Macbeth and Tina Turner in Mad Max, she gives a great mystery-desert-sorceress, and has more to work with than she ever did as a companion, but her actual casting felt perfunctory.
  • Similarly, and with no need of further verbiage: what the fuck was going on with that 79-year-old-Tom-Baker cameo?
  • The way the Doctors turned on an apparent sixpence from destroying Gallifrey to saving it felt wildly odd. It took nine lives, one death and assurance of the physical cosmos being destroyed for this to happen. One would think the War Doctor had slightly more resolve, having exhausted other options, than to be swayed at this point by a tear from Clara.
  • Likewise, saving Gallifrey should not have been that easy. We’ve been told Time Lords were the inventors of black holes, able to hop lightly between universes and eradicate, if need be, all material existence: it seems just possible that prior to opting for the latter, as The End of Time told us they did (and surely this would be worth mentioning as a decision-making factor?), they’d have considered ways to save their planet – not least ones based on apparently everyday technology. Paintings, for God’s sake. Seriously, no one thought of this?
  • How did those paintings, by the way, even reach Elizabethan England?
  • In more abstract terms, I’m sick of Moffat’s tendency to have his cake and eat it, saving everyone or bringing back the dead, handing the Doctor victories through ‘timey wimey’ paradox on paradox, thinking third options up at every turn. A tradition of the series has been that someone (nearly) always dies, that moral compromises have to be faced and hands are sometimes forced by universal laws.Especially considering how many of its audience are children, this is brave, mature, important storytelling. I liked, for this reason, the comment to Hurt’s Doctor by Tennant’s and Smith’s, ‘You were the Doctor more than anybody else: you were the Doctor on the day it wasn’t possible to get it right.’Like JK Rowling’s Snape, he’s a man whose heroism stems from the courage to take necessary steps with no alternative when others are unwilling. Should there be an alternative, then, provided by the writer? We shouldn’t forget either in all of this that The End of Time made the (inventive) point Time Lord society no longer deserved saving; that war had made it as monstrous as the Dalek enemy. This point was reprised as recently as ‘The Night of the Doctor‘, so it seems odd that it wasn’t in play here. I sensed briefly, wrongly as it turned out, that the Doctors would somehow mitigate Gallifrey’s annihilation – saving its billions of children, perhaps. This still seems more compelling than the contrived, too-easy resolution of the episode.
  • I’d looked forward to seeing the Doctors arrange to meet in a fantastic way, a little like series five’s invitations across time from River to the Doctor. The Christmas Carol style ‘Here’s your future – now make a decision’ gambit? It played as hackneyed and dull, especially only three years after Who adapted Dickens’ plot.
  • I confess I wasn’t living for the stock footage of past Doctors. It convinced in ‘The Name of the Doctor’, where it was used creatively. It didn’t here. (Why, more to the point and excellent though it was, were all thirteen Doctors involved in saving Gallifrey? How did they know about this plan? And if they all remember doing it, why does the War Doctor – body number nine – still try to use the Moment, embarking on a plan his past selves all averted?)
  • It seemed very strange to show a single planetary battle as the decider of the War, conflicting with what I felt previous dialogue implied. I’d always imagined a conflict spanning all of time and space, not just isolated physical battlegrounds, like Enterprise‘s Temporal Cold War but better and less cold. (‘Ten million ships’, the Ninth Doctor told us in Dalek, burned – a bit many even for Gallifrey, surely?)
  • Especially with all those people dying nearby, what did the War Doctor hope to achieve by writing ‘NO MORE’ on a wall in gunfire?
  • Why regenerate John Hurt at the episode’s conclusion? I’d hoped, especially after his arc this story, that the character might turn up again. He might still, I suppose, snatched from between his birth and this episode, but that bitter early self is less interesting than one reconciled to being the Doctor. On the off-chance Eccleston ever did say yes to coming back, it’d be nice too to have had Hurt on hold for a regeneration proper.
  • Also, ‘wearing a bit thin’?! Time Lords don’t just spontaneously die. (Fine, William Hartnell did. But he regenerated his bloody costume.) And how exactly wasn’t he wearing thin during the Last Great Time War?

These are only my initial thoughts, of course. On repeat viewings, they might change – and I’ll certainly be rewatching. Come to think of it…

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A very British nightmare: 28 Days Later, Danny Boyle’s anti-imperialist zombie flick

Spoiler warning with immediate effect.

Content note: fictional scenarios mentioned of infanticide, racially motivated violence and (separate) sexual harassment, enslavement and attempted institutional and ritualistic rape-to-impregnate in a post-apocalyptic horror context.

Atop the Big Brother house, picking the undead off by long-range rifle through its outer fence, characters in Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set (Channel 4, 2008) wonder why zombies overrunning Britain gather outside. ‘Some kind of primitive intuition’, offers gauche outsider Joplin. ‘Don’t forget, this place was like a church to them.’ It’s a hat-tip to Dawn of the Dead, George A. Romero’s film whose walking dead are drawn by a instinct to a shopping centre where survivors hide; iconic scenes show them traipse brainlessly down retail aisles, hardly distinguishable from their former selves. Dead Set‘s treatment of reality TV reprises this as well, and both stories (if Brooker’s more overtly) are satirical, picturing consumerism’s nosedive into actual flesh-eating.

Zombie narratives make thought-provoking commentaries since they differ from us only in being dead – we see in them a duller, hungrier echo of ourselves, one less pronounced in vampires or werewolves, and their worlds feel instinctively like places ours has the potential to become. Loving genre parody Shaun of the Dead (2004) plays with this theme, and Dominic Mitchell’s social realist horror series In the Flesh, screened earlier this year on BBC Three, is built around it, but Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later was the film to codify the zombie flick as social criticism, reviving and updating it as a cinematic form. Its creatures, not zombies in strict terms at all, are raging, hyper-violent Britons, driven by fictional infection to mindless hostility; the aforementioned stories all owe something to it, and repeat views leave me more and more convinced it’s a horror of national identity.

Released ten years before the 2012 Olympics, whose opening Boyle would stage as a collage of British cultural iconography, the same hand is still visible at work in it. Bleak as it is, the film’s landscape is packed with imagery of this sort: a deserted London’s skyline, silent at its outset, a red bus on its side as if lying wounded; the black cab in which characters flee the city; the ruined castle where they picnic and stately home where they seek refuge; Manchester’s smoking ruins and the Lake District’s glacial valleys. Boyle’s Olympic ceremony leaps implausibly to mind in certain scenes, as a looted supermarket’s trolleys glide balletically into shot, horses canter unaware through English fields and wind turbines whirl next to the M6. Moments like these alternate surreally with ones of undiluted horror, suggesting the two might be sides of one coin. As we switch from pastoral idyll to Wyndhamian hell and back again, Cillian Murphy forced in his first major to end a feral child’s life, the thought occurs that what the script calls a ‘diseased little island’ might itself teeter between the two – that both are part of Britain’s character, infection merely letting them resurface.

Christopher Eccleston’s grotesque but somehow dignified commandant, Major Henry West, leads a troop of human villains who by obvious design (perhaps to emphasise this point) bring empire to mind. Lamenting his soldiers grow lebensmüde in their fortified, once upper class estate and sanctioning the rape of survivors Hannah and Selena (Skyfall‘s Naomie Harris in an early part), he confesses ‘I promised them women, because women mean a future.’ That Selena is black, a fact would-be perpetrator Corporal Mitchell fetishises, gives the soldiers’ planned sexual violence imperialist connotations, and procreation here seems little more than pretext for it: if pregnancy is what they want and not just an excuse, why Mitchell’s harassment of Selena on meeting her? Why no question of her current fertility, or whether ambiguously adolescent Hannah can conceive at all? Why force them, as West’s underlings do, to dress up in scarlet ball gowns?

Aptly-named West’s real motive may be as as colonial as his chaining and yoking the infected soldier Mailer, also black. ‘What do nine men do except wait to die themselves?’ he asks while justifying his scheme, hinting at homophobic paranoia – is West afraid the homosocial interplay of his brigade (‘You killed all my boys’, he later tells Murphy’s protagonist), unchecked by ceremonial sex with women, might flower into eroticism? These attitudes to sexuality, gender and race, ones Britain exported worldwide at its historical brutality’s peak, are dormant mainstays here of its establishment, reawakened by the (not quite) zombie plague. Even West’s voice implies he aspires to this regime, Eccleston’s native Salford showing through the major’s plummier, affected vowels, suggestive of a man with establishment pretensions, determined to appear above his roots.

A newer imperialism features too, if subtly, in Boyle’s film, released a year or so post-9/11 in Britain and mid-2003 stateside. Its opening shot, inserted perhaps during the War on Terror’s genesis, shows scenes of police attacks on British demonstrators, public chaos in the Middle East and topoi which would otherwise become familiar in the years after, before cutting away to reveal these on television screens, shown forcibly to a chimp clad with electrodes. The rage virus’s spread, about which nothing else is indicated, begins when animal advocates release infected chimps from this laboratory; should the fact this is the sole hint viewers get at the infection’s origins tell us, on some impressionistic level, that world politics Britain was entering at the time somehow created it? That the rage of rioters, soldiers and war victims the chimps are made to watch somehow transfers to them, and subsequently infected humans? Major West, at dinner with the film’s protagonists before revealing his men’s plans, comments that ‘people killing people’ is all he remembers seeing before the outbreak, ‘which to my mind puts us in a state of normality right now.’ The violence of the infected stems, it seems, from that already harboured and practised by Britain, especially through military men like him.

The corollary of this, embodied in Selena and Jim’s relationship, is that whatever use compassion has as an antidote to carnage, it has here and now. Their love story, a better one than zombie films have often told us, lies improbably at the film’s core: Selena, hard as nails and able to dismember her infected friend initially, regains some measure of humanity from Hannah and Jim during the film, despite initially warning him ‘If it happens to you, I’ll do it in a heartbeat’; Jim, initially reluctant to kill and slowing the party down, unearths his lethal side in order to save her and Hannah at the climax. When Selena, mistaking him for one of the infected as he kills Corporal Mitchell with his bare hands, hesitates to attack, Jim tritely, knowingly remarks ‘That was longer than a heartbeat.’ The moment their attitudes meet in the middle is when we know they care about each other, a balance between callousness and mercy being struck which offers some degree of hope, as if walking that fine line might be what saves them, and stops our own society’s collapse into an abattoir. Boyle’s film is a British nightmare, a horror of things lurking in our nation’s woodwork and what might befall us should we fail to toe the line.

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