Bombastic, calculating, emotionally unpredictable and adventurous. But enough about Tony Fyler.
When Matt Smith popped up on screen in the Doctor Who Confidential Special, The Eleventh Doctor, he was the only person who’d been interviewed who almost none of those watching had heard of.
I’ve been a fan of Doctor Who since 1979, so I’ve seen Doctors come and go. While I hadn’t known anything about David Tennant before he got the part, I’d been won over, as I have been by almost every incarnation, so that by the time he left, I didn’t want him to go.
Matt Smith on The Eleventh Doctor though was Interesting right from the beginning. Young, but erudite and eloquent, for all he looked – as he said – like the challenge stopped him sleeping. And the fingers. Oh, the fingers. He seemed to have the makings of a brave new direction, for all he was essentially another young white man with way-out hair. All, it seemed, would be well in the cosmos.
When DWM ran what was a necessary ‘Who is…Matt Smith’ cover, he was dressed in what seemed to be his own clothes, and his own hairstyle, and he looked like he might be about to take the Doctor in a sparsely intellectual direction, a modern, perhaps slightly dark, thoughtful version of the Time Lord to contend with.
Well then the internet got involved and things went a bit pear-shaped. There were audio files leaked of Matt speaking lines from Victory of the Daleks, and they were…well, they were naff, to be honest – the Doctor calling people ‘Prof,’ and yelling ‘I am the Doctor – and you are the Daaaaleks,’ with an intonation that sounded sick, or drunk, or like an actor trying to play Shakespeare without knowing what the words meant.
It didn’t seem to bode well.
Then there was the casual way in which the costume reveal was handled – simple shots of Matt Smith on location, dressed in what-the-hell-was-that?
I had the same reaction to the outfit as Steven Moffat reportedly did when he saw it – ‘This is someone pretending to be what non-fans think the Doctor is. It’s almost a parody’ – the young, man dressed as a geography or physics teacher from the 1970s? It felt like, for the first time since Tom Baker, we had an actor who was born to play the Doctor…but he’d been dressed in a parody of what people thought the Doctor was.
All of those worrying moments though died a death during the first fifty minutes of The Eleventh Hour. The script sparkled, the tone divorced itself completely from the time of Tennant, and Smith himself brought a great new energy to his Doctor – from the ‘new mouth, new rules’ sequence, through the canny sideways instincts of the Eleventh Doctor – ‘Must be a hell of a scary crack in your wall’ – through to saving the world with a post office. He became the Doctor right in front of us, and he even made sense of the wretched outfit.
Well then it was blown, partially by a script that gave up, and partly by a performance that brought out a new smugness in the Doctor. The ending of The Eleventh Hour, which had the Doctor simply scare the Atraxi away by using the reputation of all his previous selves, set up very much the wrong comparisons – the last ten minutes of David Tennant’s debut story saw him talk the ears off the Sycorax, then fight a duel in his jim-jams for the sake of the planet, re-grow a hand and bring down a government.
‘Basically….run’ just doesn’t compare. Smith did well throughout his debut episode, but it was blown both for him by a script that had him do nothing at the end, and by him in a performance that made such a thing feel like a fundamental part of the Eleventh Doctor’s Modus Operandi.
The rot set in throughout the rest of Series 5. The Beast Below had this Doctor prepared to kill a harmless creature and blame humanity for the rest of time, when he was saved by his companion. Victory of the Daleks saw him doing the ‘Prof’ thing and sounding drunk as he attacked the Dalek, annnnnd then being saved by his companion. The Weeping Angel double showed the promise of the Eleventh Doctor again, and a couple of other episodes showed flashes of what he could be, but stories like The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood, Vincent and The Doctor (Sorry, I know, the feels, but storywise, it’s a giant space-chicken) and The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang seemed to suck the energy right out of the Eleventh Doctor, leaving me feeling by the end of Series 5 that this would be a Doctor to endure, rather than one who would live up to the potential of the actor who was playing him and shine. A Doctor where Smith was certainly working hard to convince, but sadly, was not adequately served by scripts that showed his range.
So what happened? What made me an Eleventh Doctor convert?
Firstly, A Christmas Carol happened. That Christmas special delivered what the last five minutes of The Eleventh Hour didn’t – certainty. A Doctor prepared to do whatever was necessary to get the result he wanted, but also a Doctor capable of moral complexity in his relationship with Kazran Sardick. With the exception of the first fifty minutes of The Eleventh Hour and the Angels double, this was the first time I saw Matt Smith really nail his Doctor to the mast, and it was both entertaining and wonderful.
The God Complex, which forced the Eleventh Doctor to go beyond his usual point-and-twiddle dynamic, face failure, face responsibility, and face a creepy hotel with nightmares in the rooms. The combination of innovative scriptwriting and direction that magnified it brought a performance out of Smith that showed the age of the character through those young man eyes.
The Snowmen. The Snowmen is much bigger in the process of growing to love the Eleventh Doctor than people generally appreciate. Why? Because not only does it show us how this Doctor responds to personal loss – some world-class sulking bringing out the real old man in the young body more than Tennant’s tearfests did (they instead brought out the six year-old in the Time Lord’s make-up). But it was also the first episode in which, for some of us, Matt Smith looked like the ‘real’ Doctor, rather than a kid in his granddad’s clothes. The Victorian velvet suited him, and showed the evolution of the character – the Doctor growing into himself. Matched with Clara Oswald, there was a spark of investigation and fun which he’d only occasionally had with Amy because Rory was always there to restore a balance. And by embracing the old man in the young body and the Victorian wardrobe, there was for the first time a sense of the Eleventh Doctor as the same crotchety old man who ran away with his granddaughter to see the cosmos. For the first time, he wasn’t trying to be somebody’s fairy godfather, wasn’t trying to be admired or adored or be cool. The Snowmen was actually the first time we saw the Eleventh Doctor simply being himself.
What happened? Finally, and most significantly, The Time of the Doctor.
Truly it can be said of the Eleventh Doctor that ‘nothing in his life became him like the leaving of it.’ Nothing in his era made quite so much sense as to have the Eleventh Doctor, whose whole sensibility was of the old man in the young body, finally, actually growing old before our eyes, using his last life to the full, and still saving the universe with every day of it. If the Tenth Doctor trumped him on his entrance, the Eleventh Doctor wiped the floor with his predecessor on the way out. And perhaps perversely, the youngest actor ever to play the role was the most convincing old man the Doctor has ever been. His regeneration, when it came, was a moment of finality and acceptance, an old man’s death, rather than a young man’s tears and rage and not wanting to go.
What was it that made me stop worrying and love the Eleventh Doctor? It was the certainty of A Christmas Carol, which he was denied on his debut. It was the rage and the age and the sorrow of The God Complex, where to some extent, his life of being Amy’s Fairy Godfather stopped being fun any more. It was the grief and the freedom of The Snowmen, the Doctor deciding for himself who he was, rather than nabbing some clothes and playing the hero. And it was the dignity, the strength and the old man wisdom of The Time of The Doctor, that made the Eleventh Doctor’s time in the Tardis as unforgettable to us as it ultimately was to him.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk