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What’s in an Age?

Matt Smith is the youngest ever Doctor Who
So, exactly how much does age matter?

Since the casting of Matt Smith, the youngest Doctor yet, there has been a great deal of hoo-hah about his age. Even Steven Moffat, when making the announcement, evidently felt obliged to make heavy weather out of Smith’s combination of youthfulness and old age, as if to assuage the old guard that the series wasn’t about to become Skins in space.

However, despite the case for the prosecution being characterised by cries of “too young” (or even “too ugly”), you have to wonder how the casting of a substantially older Doctor would go down. We all know the disapprobation Smith’s casting has received will inevitably die down as fandom ‘unexpectedly’ realises, “I wasn’t sure at first, but now he’s my favourite Doctor!”.

There is an undeniable trend toward youthfulness in the media, giving a corresponding inevitability to the casting of a twentysomething Time Lord. Quatermass has been supplanted by programmes like Primeval, with ‘hot’ young casts. Robin Hood has gone from a 39-year-old Douglas Fairbanks, or even 36-year-old Kevin Costner, to a mid-twenties Jonas Armstrong. Even Bond villains have gone from the likes of Donald Pleasance and Charles Gray to Robert Carlyle. An indicator of our societal shallowness? Well, yes, probably.

Not that there’s anything inherently awful about younger interpretations of recurrent characters, or inspirational figures, but you’d have to look to geriatric crimefighters like Miss Marple or Jessica Fletcher to find older actors in even broadly similar roles (and Murder, She Wrote is all repeats anyway).

The First Doctor was an older actorPerhaps this trend toward youthfulness is symptomatic of storytelling shorthand, and the syncopated approach to modern TV – faster, younger… better? Whatever the reasons, it’s clear that never in a million years would we get a twenty-first century equivalent of William Hartnell fronting a teatime show. Though Steven Moffat has gone on record saying he was originally all for an older Doctor, he was almost certainly thinking more along Christopher Eccleston lines. The campaign for Ian McKellan as the Twelfth Doctor starts here.

What’s most ironic is the short-sightedness concerning the oldest of Doctors, the First. Because though Hartnell’s portrayal is very much that of an old man, he also originated the incongruous agelessness with which Steven Moffat ushered in the Eleventh Doctor. All the Doctors have their share of the childlike, but perhaps most plainly it’s there in Hartnell’s often overlooked warmth, and giggling, impish sparkle. Just think of his glee when he realises his part in the burning of Rome…

Such a figure wouldn’t play well with the upper echelons of the BBC in the current media climate. Given that children’s TV presenters have gone from ‘favourite uncle’ figures of the Johnny Ball variety, to the permatanned Andrew Hayden-Smith, it’s as if the media has made us so terrified that everyone over 35 is a paedophile that there’s a genuine abhorrence of presenting children with substantially older role models.

While this general marginalisation of visible older characters on TV and film is upsetting, in terms of the Doctor specifically, there is no reason to think younger is worse. After all, there have been three ‘young’ Doctors before anyway! And, had fandom had its act together in the seventies, the casting of Tom Baker would no doubt have caused widespread outrage. The whippersnapper!

Given the inherent changeability of the character, it seems absurd that anyone’s really upset about the prospect of a Doctor barely out of short trousers. (Maybe it’s just that no-one likes to be older than the Doctor?) It’s true there is an authority about him which seems to be synonymous with age, but perhaps the real reason is that we’re worrying what this means for the future – will this set a precedent for a run of interchangeably young, trendy Doctors? Given that, in retrospect, the Ninth Doctor’s unprecedented bovver boy leather jacket didn’t lead to a spate of hyper-masculine Doctors, it doesn’t look like we have anything to worry about. Yes, Matt Smith is young. Fortunately, it also looks like he will be great.

Neil Clarke writes the Doctor Who reviews page ‘Shall We Destroy?’

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