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

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


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