Who’s there?…

My first Doctor Who – and you never forget your first, your first ANYTHING – was Tom Baker. He of the scarf. When he regenerated, I kind of lost interest in the Whoverse until it petered out. Then Eccleston took it up – I never really glommed onto him, but then, he was only around for a season … and then *HE* came. My Doctor. My REAL TRUE Doctor.

When David Tennant said “I don’t want to go”, I was screaming right along with that no, I didn’t want him to go either. Quite selfishly, I wanted him to keep going, to stay the Doctor, to be the only Doctor, the last Doctor, even.

When #11, Matt Smith, arrived on the heels of this regeneration, I was admittedly predisposed to dislike him.  And although he had his moments, like the luminous Van Gogh episode for instance,  my misgivings proved prescient. He gave away his status with both hands.

While the Doctor’s companions always had a certain looming importance in the storylines (admittedly the classic Who was rather silly about things sometimes – well – most of the time, really) to me it was still very much “Doctor Who” – Who was very definitely on First, as it were. The companions were secondary. They were the Doctor’s helpmeets, they were company, they were acolytes, even, perhaps – but what Matt Smith,  made the Doctor Who And Companion show into the Companion and Doctor Who show.

The companions (specifically Amy, and the unfortunate Rory who was really a dangle character who rode in a distant third – a companion’s companion – but who still managed to gain a disproportionate weight in the story) took over to the point that it was THEIR stories, THEIR storylines, and the Doctor seemed to be kind of along for the ride. Not in control. His TARDIS and his knowledge and his sonic screwdriver were at the service of the companions, and their agendas.

It severely diminished  The Doctor. It made the franchise slide a little backwards into the sometimes rampant silliness of the classic Who episodes. This Doctor was manic, childish, and while there were attempts at depth, it still felt as though a boy was standing there wearing his grandfather’s shoes and pointing a wooden spoon instead of a sword (or sonic screwdriver) and yelling SHAZAM and expecting stuff to happen. And  stuff still did happen, but the fact that it did was often a surprise. Or it didn’t QUITE gel. (Things got way complicated, with River. There are things in that timeline that I am still trying to get straight in my head.)

Which makes Tennant’s tenure in the role… extraordinary.

Because, you see, for me, what he did was simply… make the Doctor REAL. His Doctor was alive. His doctor was wounded, and proud, and he could drop into the dark side (“Waters of Mars”). Yes, he could be totally silly (oh, so many moments) and he could be poignant (often while, or straight on the heels of, being silly), he could be dangerous and noble and strong and you believed that he was indeed capable of doing whatever was necessary, whatever it took, he could laugh, he could make you weep, he could say “I’m sorry” and give it more meanings that you could ever believe two short simple words could ever hold.

To put it quite simply…. in the face of pepper pot villains (I’m sorry, but I never COULD look at a Dalek without wanting to season my soup with one) and a thousand and one impossible things happening before breakfast every single day… he made the Doctor alive for me. He made the Doctor one I could believe in.

There is a moment where he returns – against his own better judgment, possibly – to Pompeii to try and save ONE FAMILY from the flames… when he stands at the door of the TARDIS holding out his hand in a come-with-me invitation… that moment encapsulates it, in its own way, because it wasn’t aimed at the family in Pompeii. He was looking past them, past the flames and the ashes, through the glass of my television screen, and he was holding that hand out to ME. And if it had been remotely possible, I might have stepped up and taken that hand, and believed in the possibility that I would be stumbling into the unlikeliest spaceship in the history of storytelling and possibly be taken to the end of space and time. Or possibly to the beginning. And that I would never come to harm, at either end, or anywhere in between, because the Doctor was with me, beside me, behind me.. THAT Doctor. I  would have hesitated mightily if Matt Smith had made me the same offer.

They gave him real villains, the Tenth Doctor. My Doctor. Villains who were scarier than the pepper pots could evereverever be. Villains who were so utterly plausible and believable that I  looked at shadows and cemetery angels with a jaundiced eye forever after. He had to face things that mattered, in the fabric of space and time . That simply never really focused properly for me with any other Doctor ever.

I wept and wailed and gnashed my teeth when Doctor Number 10 left the TARDIS in the care of Doctor Number 11. I had dreaded that regeneration. And in so many ways I was proved right. And now another regeneration is night, and this time I’m anticipating it. I’m sorry, Matt Smith,  you were… kind of… filler for me.

It remains to be seen, what Peter Capaldi will do. Knowing some of his work – I am still in absolute awe of what he did with the role of Mr. Frobisher in the Torchwood “Children of Earth” episodes – I will be waiting for the tone and tenor of what he does with the new Doctor. I know he is capable of the depths required, the depths that Tennant managed to navigate with such aplomb. In 2014… we shall see how, and where, he steers the TARDIS that is now left in his care.

In the meantime, happy 50th, Doctor Who. It’s funny to note that for all your vast immeasurable “real” age… in this world… in my time… you’re exactly as old as me…

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  1. 1. Mike G

    It’s only because you don’t like Matt Smith that you accuse him of turning it from Doctor and Companion show to Companion and Doctor show. It’s the writers and director who make the decisions about the story line.

  2. 2. Korbin

    Hit the nail on the head. Well put…..

  3. 3. Alma Alexander

    Up to a certain point, you’re right. Good writing is the bedrock that underlies EVERYTHING, and I am the first person to admit that, and even shout it from the mountaintops, and I have done that in the past. But that being said… there were Matt SMith episodes which COULD have been wonderful… if it weren’t for the saddest words in the storytellers’ dictionary, “if only”. If only someone like Tennant could have been there to rescue writing that was not good,not bad, just marginal – and it’s the *interpretation* which might have pushed it over the edge. Tennant had his share of bad writing but he turned them into soemthing – I am thinking about that eposode of the perennial and permanent traffic jam which was just SILLY on the face of it… but then there came a moment when the Doctor remembered Gallifrey… and that moment was luminous. And the thing is, even with one of the compations playing an arguably large role in that episode… it was still focused on the DOCTOR, in the end. And that’s what my problem is with the Smith tenure. The Doctor took something of a back seat. I hope Capaldi takes the reins back into his own hands.

  4. 4. Scott Seldon

    I get so tired of reading how one actor does such a better job than another. It is all a matter of opinion, not fact. There are precious few facts presented and I don’t agree with any of the opinions.

    As someone who has watched every single Doctor and has viewed (or listened in the case of the 90-some missing episodes) all 800 episodes and the shorter specials and has been a fan of the series for more than 30 years, the only fact is that each actor resonates with different people. They are all excellent actors. Each one brings their strengths and each one strives to create a unique characterization. Each writer brings their own ideas and each Show Runner brings their own vision. It is a collaborative effort and this article disparages many talented people. Each Doctor has their fans and detractors. No one opinion is right.

    I would rank my 3 favorite Doctors as William Hartnell, Tom Baker, and Matt Smith, followed closely by Paul McGann. I find Tennant’s Doctor to be too whiny. For the 50th, I watched my favorite episode from each Doctor and Tennant’s did not hold up. While he is one of the three most watched Doctors (they rank Tom Baker, William Hartnell, then David Tennant by the UK viewing figures) and is very popular with some people, he is not universally loved as the best Doctor. And just because one is your favorite Doctor, that is not cause to insult any of the other actors who have held the role.

    We need to be professional and give a fair assessment when we look at things like this. Any TV or movie project is the combined effort of many people and when they create a successful product we need to admit that our dislikes are just our opinion and not the fault of the creative team. I’m not a fan of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine or where Star Trek: Voyager went, but that is my personal preference and is not indicative of the quality of writing or acting. Fans of Doctor Who are going to have their favorites, but this loathing I keep finding in fandom for where the next creative team takes things, be it Star Trek, Doctor Who, Superman, etc. has gotten old.

  5. 5. Alma Alexander

    Well, I will bow to your superior Doctor WHo experience if you watched EVERY SINGLE DOCTOR. I patently haven’t. I’ve seen scattered episodes of most of them, but my first consistent Doctor was Tom Baker (Way back when) and after that I didn’t really pick it up again until a friend of mine alreted me to the Eccleston episodes fairly close to the end of his run. I think the first “new” Who episodes I saw were the “Empty Child”/”The Doctor Dances” episodes (and in similar wise to themuch-vaunted “Sicth Sense” where everyone said they were so taken by surprise by the “Revelation” of the movie – well – I was not then and I was not with these episodes – it was squarely obvious to me who “mother” really was pretty much within the first ten minutes of the show. But they were good episodes, nonetheless. I might have liked to have seen a little more development with hte Eccleston Doctor because he was a bit of a “still waters run deep” character and I had the sense that there WAS more there to find if they had given it a chance – but then he left, fairly quickly, without the chance being given and Tennant turned up and everything just fell into PLACE for me with him in the role.. I honestly don’t see “whiny”, but obviously we all react to people differently and it’s your prerogative to see what you see when you look at things.

    But Doctor Who as portrayed by Smith… simply took away from it all for me, and again, this time it is MY prerogative to see what I see THERE. My post above was an opinion, no more than that, and I can see that yours differs, which is fine, but I have no way of judging Matt Smith as an actor in the sense of anything OTHER than the Doctor role because I’d never heard of him before he assumed the mantle and I’ve never seen him in anything else. I HAVE seen Tennant in a number of other roles and he shines in those, too. He makes his characters come alive for me, ALL of them, and makes even Doctor WHo seem… almost… real. Smith’s interpretation of WHo, though, verges (with a few shining moments of exception to be sure, one of which was tragically enough his swan song departure episode) on a live-action comic book interpretation. WHich is not in itself necessarily a bad thing, but done after Tennant put flesh and blood and bone into the character for me… I just bounced off of it. Hard. Sorry. Just an opinion. We’ll ahve to wait and see where Capaldi goes.

    As for your Trek preferences… I would have to agree with you as far as VOyager is concerned (it might have been the worst spinoff EVER of the entire franchise, actually, and its finale was utterly ludicrous for me) but once again – personal opinion and preference, remember! – I would have to disagree on DS9, That was probably the strongest of the shows, actually, if you take the Cap’n with a pinch of salt (he could overact in the best Kirk tradition, could Sisko…) Dare I ask what you thought about Babylon 5…?

  6. 6. Scott Seldon

    After the first few Doctors, the newer ones have often adopted a piece or two from their predecessors. David Tennant’s Doctor is very similar to Peter Davison’s. The grins, the glasses, the running. The stories are obviously quite different. Matt Smith’s Doctor is a lot like Patrick Troughton’s Doctor – a little silly on the surface, but it hides a dark deadliness. Though toward the end he was a lot more like William Hartnell’s Doctor.

    I really get that everyone has their favorite. For most, that is the first Doctor they watched. For others, there is often something that resonates that leads to preferring another.

    I started in the middle of Tom Baker’s episode, The Hand of Fear. I watched everything PBS showed (at the time they aired 1 episode a night, but later switched to 1 story every Sunday). I watched The Five Doctors on 11/23/1983 – my first introduction to the first three Doctors and to Turlough. Later as PBS got the earlier Doctors, I got to see their episodes. I got to see all of Pertwee in full Color before the tapes were lost. I kept watching as the Doctors changed, but I missed recording a chunk of late Peter Davison and early Colin Baker so I’m not as familiar with those as the the rest. I’ve eaten up the reconstructions, but they lack so much without the visuals.

    And you bring up my all time favorite SF series, Babylon 5. I watched it faithfully when it came out and I own in on DVD. Far better than DS9. My complaint about Voyager is that they had the setup for copying the best of TOS, but they went another direction after the first season. They missed the boat by putting the ship in a position to explore new space and not really exploring it very well. DS9 lost me when they began to copy Babylon 5. I stopped watching both DS9 and Voyager at the same time. I’d love a box set of the best 15 episodes from both those series, but I’ll never get the whole series like I have with TOS and that I want to (but lack the funds and viewing time) for TNG.

    Each person is entitled to their own opinion. What bugs me is when it mutates from opinion to fact. Either those who insist that the latest version is horrible and some older version is the best or when people trot out their opinion as fact. I have to be very careful about it myself. I’ve never thought that way, but sometimes my writing can come across that way.

  7. 7. Alma Alexander

    Aaaaansd I have to admit to owning B5 on DVD tooo :)

    I think VOyager simply blew their premise – the germ of it was, as you put it, that they simply didn’t explore the new space very well – another part of it was, as far as I was concerned, that there was absolutely no way to build real depth – they were always moving FORWARD, ever leaving things behind and never thinking about them again, it devolved into the “Alien of hte week” show” without much to hold on to as it hurtled on through space. They had a few characters with potential but even they never realised it It was just not a very good branch off of the great tree, is all, all around.

    I think in some ways B5 *sharpened* DS9 and somehow made it take beter stock of its stories and its writing. After all the two series were roughly contemporaries and B5 had a cohesion to it which DS9 had to respond to with its own plotlines or else the inevitable comparisons would leave the Trek show deeply in B5′s dhadow. To a degree, I think it worked – but of course I am a die-hard B5 girl and I’d pick that over anything ever just about so it stands to reason that I think it improved everything it touched…

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Author Information

Alma Alexander

Alma Alexander is a novelist, short story writer and anthologist whose books include High Fantasy ("Hidden Quen""Changer of Days"), historical fantasy ("Secrets of Jin Shei", "Embers of Heaven"), contemporary fantasy ("Midnight at Spanish gardens") and YA (the Worldweavers series, the Were Chronicles). She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two cats. Visit site.

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