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Published on June 22nd, 2010 | by Elton Townend Jones

The Triumph of Doctor Smith


Matt Smith and Karen Gillan in Doctor Who - Amy's Choice

Ah, Troughton. No discussion of Smith’s Doctor is complete without mention of Troughton’s. As soon as Smith declared Troughton his favourite – and face it, all the Doctor’s from Tom Baker have – the pundits latched on to the Troughtonesque qualities of his performance. Let’s put this to bed. All actors like Troughton’s work because he is, relatively speaking, perhaps the most accomplished and versatile television and film actor to have taken on the role.

If you know your broadcast history, the man is a legend in the way that even Eccleston is not yet allowed to be. But is Smith’s Doctor just a retread? Well, they both have craggy faces, wear bow ties and walk like little children. But the broad strokes of Troughton’s performance are those of almost permanent self-immersion, indignance and soothing apology. Smith can do these – and is, to some extent, informed by these – but they do not define him. Any apparent influence is just window dressing.

Unlike Troughton’s Doctor, Smith’s is capable of genuine sentiment and glowing pride in others. He displays sincere warmth towards those he encounters and those in his care. Unlike Troughton – or any other Doctor (except perhaps the Eighth) – he is genuine, open and friendly, and this allows him to be humbled by the humans of the 29th century, thrilled at the prospect of being someone’s lodger and eager to join Vincent in listening to colours rather than dismissing him as a madman.

Taking The Lodger as an example that best covers the season, this Doctor’s intelligence is sometimes fierce, sometimes naïve, but always utterly compassionate and thoroughly tactile. Smith inhabits the part, whereas all the others – Troughton included – simply performed it (however brilliantly). Smith’s is a fully contemporary take on the role of the Doctor, informed by modern, less theatrical acting techniques and supported by modern televisual grammar; as such, it makes Smith quite simply a better Doctor than Troughton. Put Troughton in The Lodger and it would not be anywhere near as good.

It might be just as easy to compare Smith to Peter Cushing – both walk funny, bumble about and have very similar silhouettes – but, in all honesty, the Doctor to whom Smith is closest is actually David Tennant. Certainly their vocal tones are very similar. Perhaps what makes Smith the most effective New Who so far is his combination of Tennant’s exuberance and Eccleston’s swagger. But again, his performance is more real, more genuine, less, well, performed than that of his immediate predecessors. Look at those clips of Tennant with River Song on Confidential – he suddenly seems oddly wrong in the part.

Whether or not you agree with the points I have made, it is obvious that Matt Smith has made the part his own and that the Eleventh Doctor is one of the strongest we have seen both on screen and on paper.

Doctor Who - Karen Gillan is Amy PondHe manages to combine the Big Doctors with the Little Doctors seamlessly, falling into neither camp and filling the boots of Tom, Jon, Sylv, Pat, Billy, Chris, Dave … Whoever! But unlike any other Doctor (and only Sylvester McCoy came close) he also manages to be both distantly alien and warmly human. Maybe the portrayal is actually not so alien, but played just as real as any part Matt Smith might play – it’s possibly just the context of TV drama that makes him look really weird – more real, less mannered than a Troughton.

Unfortunately, Karen Gillan plays up to this but hasn’t the same set of skills to pull it off. I have begun to suspect that if anything will hold Smith back from truly achieving greatness in the eyes of every fan, then it will be she for it was only during The Lodger that he finally seemed unconstrained by her. Perhaps they should team him up with someone older, someone who doubts his abilities, someone like Donna.

This may not have been the best season ever, but it is perhaps the most truly consistent with every episode being at least workmanlike and several of them being utter masterpieces. What is certain now is that what would once have been a below average episode will always stand tall while we have Matt Smith’s Doctor to watch and enjoy. Long may he reign.

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About the Author

Elton Townend-Jones is a journalist, playwright, actor, theatre producer and philosopher. He does ‘80s zeitgeist at www.25yearstoolate.blogspot.com.




8 Responses to The Triumph of Doctor Smith

  1. bobbygaga says:

    I’m getting a little bit tired of all the Karen Gillan bashing that’s been going on lately. Isn’t it a teeny wee bit harsh to claim that she is holding Matt Smith back? Give the lass a break, she’s playing the character of Amy (complete with all her very human frailties and foibles) exactly the way the Grand Moff wants it.

  2. Carn says:

    Yeah I was agreeing with a lot of it until the bit about Karen Gillan. Personally I think she’s fantastic and by far my most favorite of the modern era companions (and not just cos she’s the hottest), I just generally find her a lot more interesting than the previous few and I’ve never felt Smith was ‘constrained’ by her. In fact I love watching the two of them together whether having fun or during more serious moments. I want the both of them to remain in the show as long as each one wants to. This has been easily my most favorite series of Doctor Who in a long time.

  3. DalyJohmpson says:

    I definitely agree with this article on most points, including those about Karen Gillan, to an extent.

    I do think it’s a bit harsh to say she’s holding Matt Smith back as the Doctor, mainly because I think his skill as an actor speaks for itself, and I feel it would be an insult to him and his talent to say he couldn’t get past such an obstacle, if there was such an obstacle.

    First off, I do like Karen Gillan, but at the minute, it is just ‘like’. I think she has the potential to be great, but I agree that she doesn’t seem to have the experience yet to play the part to a standard to match Smith.

    I don’t personally see this as being due to her, ‘playing the character of Amy’, because I think Amy as a character is a fantastic match for the Doctor, and an absolutely fabulous companion. I just feel the portrayal, at present, isn’t up to scratch.

    It’s something I have noticed more as the series has progressed. Throughout the series, Matt Smith has developed his character and ‘become’ the Doctor, making Gillan’s over-acting and random hyper-emphasis of her lines and gestures more obvious; I don’t think this is down to Gillan being a ‘bad actor’, I just feel it’s lack of experience, there are times when it has been very obvious, (to me at least), she’s playing a part, almost as though she isn’t yet comfortable in Amy’s skin.

    I’m painfully aware that this sounds like more Gillan bashing, but I really don’t mean it in that way. I just think that thoughout the series, it has been blatantly obvious, even to the doubters, that Matt Smith has the experience and talent to pull off his character, but to me, it is this fact which has made Gillan’s comparative inexperience more pronounced.

    As I say, to end on a positive note, Gillan seems to have potential, and will hopefully begin to feel comfortable in the shoes of her character, and become more natural in the role, possibly to end up being considered as one of the best companions ever.

  4. Netgeezer says:

    What a detailed resume of what Matt Smith has done for us this season. Great article.

    Each episode has been a joy, The Lodger in particular gave us an even deeper impression of just how much depth Smith brings to the role.

    I am sorry to say that his companion, the pretty faced Gillan hasn’t likewise enamoured me with her performances. She just seems so pout a lot accompanied by maybe a frown or two…

    Oh well. It’s still the best thing on TV by far!

  5. dexter says:

    as a loooongtime american fan, i consider myself pretty pro-tennant (is it possible to “have” two doctors?); nevertheless, big ups for this piece, and i’m stoked about digging into matt smith’s 1st season. once again, kasterborous proves itself the place to be for thoughtful fandom.

  6. Patooty says:

    Agree with most of this, especially the bit about KG. It may seem kind to “give her a break” and talk about potential and time to get some experience under her belt and all that, but isn’t that what commercials, guest roles on TV, and small parts in theater is supposed to do for an actor? You don’t just give the second most important role on British television to someone who may “potentially” be a good actress and expect the fans to say “aw, bless…we’ll give her a couple of years to learn her craft.”

    KG aside, it would have been hard for Meryl Streep to do much with Amy’s character as she was written. It seems we were supposed to wait until the final episode to find out exactly why she was so cranky, bitchy, snarky, cold and immature, and frankly, that episode did nothing to redeem her character. It explained very little about Amy, while treating us to the sight of her trying yet again to jump the Doctor – this time in front of witnesses, including her brand new husband – and then abandon the parents she FINALLY GOT BACK without so much as a backward glance to run off with him in the TARDIS. At least Rory is going with her!

    But as for Matt, I agree that he turned out to be much better than I had initially feared, despite his age. While he doesn’t entirely pull off the Wise Man of the Ages exactly, he does manage a world weary look now and then that just about makes up for it. And he nails the humor beautifully. Frankly, he and Rory are the only reasons I will tune in for Christmas.

  7. farsighted99 says:

    Matt Smith shines so bright as the Doctor that anyone would find it difficult to match him. Alex Kingsley manages to pull it off brilliantly. When she and Karen are together, Alex takes some of the slack off Karen.

    Karen is good, but not great. She’s had a few excellent scenes, but honestly, little Amelia was more likeable as a character than Amy was. I just hope in the future that Moffat tones her down a few notches, and stops her grumpy look, yelling, and saying “Shut UP!” and give her a little more of a personality. She may not be the greatest actress, but her character could be given a little more depth.

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