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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Extendable tethers: skeptidrama and a lesson from Project Runway

If you haven’t read Greta Christina’s thoughtful, extrapolative recaps of Project Runway, the U.S. fashion-based reality series, you should – whether or not you’re a follower of fashion, talent shows or trash culture at large. Rifling through someone’s rubbish bins, as the tabloid press’s urban foxes will confirm, can be the fastest means of learning sordid truths about them; likewise, our culture’s attitudes to sex work, womanhood and cutthroatism show up most clearly crawling through its trash, and Greta’s posts dissect them. At present she’s in ‘writer hibernation’ working on her upcoming book, but since this week’s Runway offered a powerful lesson in conflict-response – one which brought various Deep Rifts and in-fights to mind - I thought I’d salute an absent friend.

Sitting comfortably? Let’s recite the parable of Ken Laurence, Runway‘s latest eliminee.

Placing last in a task where outfits had to be made for series fans rather than models, Ken went home in the tenth and last episode of the current series. The dress he gave the woman paired with him, an olive green above-the-knee affair, might feasibly have worked but was crammed with problems: its neckline was neither here nor there, caught as judges noted between plunging and scooping, its shoulders either side discordantly broad, faced with gunge-green leather; this same leather formed branching accent lines of inconsistent length on the dress’s front, which cut awkwardly across the wearer’s chest without continuing onto the back half; the garment’s length seemed slightly off, hem hovering in an odd place, its colour a touch-and-go choice. (Ken claimed his client insisted on the olive while he hated it, something both footage and her recap of the episode dispute; he now claims to have thrown the challenge so as to go home. Nor do I buy this: his dress seemed less than good, but not bad by design.)

By the time he left, Ken had placed quite consistently at the competition’s lower end. Barring a sudden, great leap forward, he probably couldn’t have won – but it wasn’t just due to his work that I’d spent weeks awaiting his departure. Throughout the series, Ken showed a disturbing, threatening attitude to those around him.

When another designer early on was angry, aggressive and abusive toward a colleague, Ken responded in kind; irrespective of how justified this was, and I wasn’t at the time unsympathetic, this inflamed an already heated, potentially dangerous situation. Teamed with two fellow contestants, one of whose technical skills seemed limited, Ken spent the challenge broadcasting his views of her uselessness – including to the series’ host and at length to its judges, covering his back when the group’s designs were slated – instead of working to keep the team afloat. When his individual work was criticised, he was often silent and contemptuous; when judge Heidi Klum disliked a dress of his, in particular, he fixed an intense, menacing stare on her which made her ask uncomfortably if he was ‘giving [her] a look’. (He didn’t respond.) When he made unpleasant comments to Helen, another designer, and she told him he was crazy, he replied she’d be crazy ‘if I come the fuck over there’ – a statement she very reasonably took as a threat, telling production staff she felt unsafe and prompting them to say they’d keep an eye on him. (Soon after he apologised to Helen. While she stated she felt it was genuine, his tone struck me as insincere, unremorseful and rehearsed.)

Finally, during the episode of his eventual elimination when fellow designer Alexander was moved into his room, attempting abrasively, presumptuously and insensitively to enter, Ken stood ironing in the doorway, intentionally obstructing him; once allowed in, Alexander shoved his ironing board aside and threw the iron across the room, at which Ken launched an extended, intense, threatening tirade against him and all nearby. Told by a production assistant to sit down, ‘take a breath’ and stay calm, he refused, continuing to swear aggressively at her, causing Alexander and another person to ‘run to [another] room, shut the door and lock it’. All other designers were shown next morning in the set’s green room, variously wearing sunglasses and under blankets, suggesting they hadn’t slept, where Ken flatly replied ‘I guess so’ when asked to discuss the night’s events with them. People moved previously into his room, Alexander among them, were separately accommodated, giving Ken his own multi-bed room, their placement together being deemed ‘too incendiary’; told he had ‘some anger management issues’, Ken seemed silent and contemptuous again, saying only that he ‘woke up fine’. Another contestant replied he didn’t, and that the group was ‘very shaken’, looking it himself. Helen worried about ‘another eruption’ and further ‘chaos’ when work resumed, but it nonetheless did, no further action being taken.

Ken’s elimination, so far as was shown, was due entirely to his lacklustre design. Despite his making others fear for their physical safety more than once, despite his apparently costing them sleep (and sleeplessness around sharp, hot, generally dangerous equipment is to be avoided) beside leaving them stressed and clearly nervous, despite his frequently lighting a match under heated situations in a stressful, strenuous environment, despite his absolute refusal to be calmed or learn from prior conflicts, no measures were taken against Ken, or for anyone else’s protection – had he managed a better outfit on the catwalk, he would still be in the competition. The biggest scandal here isn’t his conduct, it’s the failure of Project Runway‘s producers to address it.

Why did this happen? What made them fail to deal, in any clear way, with someone who was obviously, inarguably a danger to himself and others, as well as the competition’s smooth procedure? I’m fairly sure desire to manufacture drama played some part – less talented but provocative contestants being saved over proficient-but-demure competitors is a recognised phenomenon on series like this – but I can’t believe, even in mercenary U.S. TV producers, this would overpower all duties of care. Ken’s outburst this week should have been the final straw, but clearly wasn’t. However much he acted up, whatever the results, another chance was always given. People in charge, instinct tells me, never asked themselves what they’d penalise if not the actions at hand: they never counted their straws, not reaching the end of their tether, to switch metaphors, because they didn’t know where it was – or worse, because their tether had no end.

I’ve seen my past self doing much the same, and here skeptidrama becomes relevant. In recent bouts of antipathy toward him, those of us who criticised Richard Dawkins were described at times as nobodies seeking attention, trying to manufacture drama or rebuking him obsessively, finding any excuse to do so. In many cases, mine among them, this couldn’t be more distant from the truth: while I wouldn’t go so far as to say I ever heroised or idolised him, Dawkins was for a long time someone I admired strongly. His writing, however I might now appraise it, played a clear part in my leaving religion, lending me confidence I needed about living godlessly; my breath still catches when I read the extract on mortality from Unweaving the Rainbow, arguably his best book. My experience of work with his foundation was, though brief, broadly extremely positive, and its funds have gone to causes like QEDcon, Camp Quest UK and British Council of Ex-Muslims. I never wanted to knock Richard Dawkins’ views or conduct. Only in recent months have I become prepared to do so publicly, something which when I first did it spurred earnest fears of legal action in two colleagues. (Not, I should clarify, at Freethought Blogs.) As a consequence, like Project Runway’s makers and Ken Laurence, I gave him far too many breaks.

I let ‘Dear Muslima‘ go, when Dawkins trivialised and dismissed a woman’s discomfort at an unwelcome proposition. I let his statement ‘I’m not saying anything about her‘ go when asked this June if, two years later, he stood by his comments – refusing even to acknowledge or condemn the violent threats directed at her after her complaint, many of them from fans of his. Before that, I let his part in setting up a private, £18,000-a-year university with A.C. Grayling go. (This came a time of higher education’s stepped-up privatisation and marketisation. New College of the Humanities, the resultant university, belongs to only a handful of private ones in the UK.) I let his stated contempt for sociology go, despite the college’s name, along with his epistemological dismissal of philosophy and animus, based seemingly on very little knowledge, for anything he deemed ‘postmodernist’ – the latter especially ironic in the face of meme theory. (What is the notion social topoi self-perpetuate with no prior logic, if not fundamentally postmodern? Certainly not groundbreaking or new when Dawkins stated it.) I let his blind spot for the Church of England’s failings go, in particular its and Rowan Williams’ collusion with reprehensible Anglicans outside of Britain, and his strange affection for its schools; I let it go when I heard him say in 2011 that, should numbers ticking ‘Christian’ in that year’s census drop, the country’s Muslims might outnumber them, a fear as racist as it was ludicrously paranoid. I let his well-meant but unhelpful comments on non-monogamy go; I let his mocking anti-harassment policies go; I let his minimising sex abuse, years prior to this month’s controversy, go – in fact, I let his habitual use of child abuse, homophobia and violence against women as sticks with which to bash religion go, caring seemingly all too little for feminism, sexual politics or child protection on their own terms. I let his description of Atheism Plus (and certainly there are fair criticisms of it) as non-believers’ clearest mistake go, while saying nothing of the problems in our circles it aims to solve.

All this I tolerated. Each single grimace I saw as trivial, a minor misstep from a figure I admired, a caveat to my high regard for Dawkins which still didn’t outweigh it. In hindsight, that high regard blinkered me. How, I ask myself, did reaching the end of my tether take quite so long? That tether was, I answer, extendable: the admiration tying me to him stretched endlessly, mark of a Dickhead, whatever Dawkins did. However flawed, unwieldy or appalling his behaviour, however far he strayed from my core standards, tension never tugged at me. The tether of limitless patience, by which I clung to a figure I respected however far he went, whatever territory he entered, gave and gave.

This surfeit of tolerance wasn’t skeptical. It certainly wasn’t rational. In the cold light of day, I’m embarrassed to have erred so colossally. I’m not convinced, though, that it stemmed solely from hero-worship – I never thought of Dawkins as a hero to begin with, and I’ve seen the phenomenon elsewhere (not just Project Runway, either). On one basis or another, several friends this summer considered leaving secular bodies they had links to; some did, others didn’t, but in each case the deciding question was whether the end of their tether had been reached. Some had stayed put up to that point, and felt unsure, since they hadn’t asked themselves that question; not having had cause to ask themselves before what would be too much, they lacked a clear sense of whether the issues to hand were.

We don’t, in general, like asking this of ourselves – burning bridges of important personal or social value is a form of conflict to which most of us feel reasonably averse, so contemplating it is less than comfortable. Defining boundaries of foundational relationships, asking what would end ones we rely on for stable environs or identities, means thinking of them ending, and that thought means psychic dissonance – craving by instinct their preservation while rehearsing their demise. We need to do so, though: need to ask, when those we admire disappoint us, what would bring our admiration to an end; need to ask, dissatisfied by organisations, when we’d leave them, just as Runway‘s producers should have asked when they’d axe Ken. The option, otherwise, may never be available.

If you won’t consider when to sever ties, there’s a strong chance you never will. When we value an association, but the associates at hand don’t meet our standards, cognitive instinct can at times prefer the former: we opt not to dwell emotionally on their transgressions, tolerating them in practice if condemning them in theory, as was true both of me and Dawkins and of Ken on Runway – making our standards, almost axiomatically, stretchier, more flexible, less taut or rigid. There has to be a limit here of which we’re conscious: our tether must have an end and we must know where it is, because if not, we’ll never reach it. Our tethers of tolerant, patient approval will become extendable and limitless, our standards so flexible they hold no shape or form. If Project Runway‘s taught us anything, it’s that shapelessness seldom looks good.