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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  1. ljelondon says:

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head in your last set of parentheses there. A whole generation of Classic Doctor Who fans had adjusted quite well to being more-or-less the same age as the Ninth and Tenth Doctors, and then suddenly finding themselves considerably older than the Doctor has come as a bit of a shock.

  2. Rick714 says:

    Yeah, I’m good with almost any age Doctor as long as he can act and I have faith in the Moff. What I *would* like to see, is the addressing of the flip side of the age coin. Specifically, the whole “900 year old” bit. I’m guessing that “900” just sounds a bit cooler and more streamlined than stating that he’s roughly about 1800 by now but being one of those questioning, persnickety fans—I’m not that anal about too many things regarding Who but the age progression seemed rather consistent throughout the years. The second Doctor stated he was about 450. The fourth stated a few times he was around 750 and the sixth said 900. Evidently the seventh mentioned 927 or some such number. What I think would be hilarious is if the Moff just out and out stated that the Doctor’s a bit self-conscious and admits he’s fibbing about his age!

  3. castellanspandrell says:

    I’ve often thought he must be lying about his age. Either that, or he’s lost track (unlikely), or regenerations change his age somehow.

    I still remember the shock when Peter Davison was unveiled as Dr number 5. He was still 29 when cast, and 30 when he filmed the regeneration scene in ‘Logopolis.’ Matt Smith was 26 when he started filming Who. What difference should 3 or 4 years make?

    But I would baulk if they cast anyone younger than 25 ( I used to baulk at the idea of anyone younger than 30 doing it, but a new line has been drawn). The argument goes that the Dr can be anyone; people say the part is ‘actor proof.’ Erm, it isn’t. The Dr should have a certain gravitas, and you can’t get that with most youthful actors.

  4. Rick714 says:

    Agreed on the gravitas. There could be a 19 year old out there that possesses it as well, but who knows? I was very impressed by Smith with just the few lines I heard in that initial promo clip in the vortex. I think it also helps that he simply looks a bit odd. Usually a plus for the Doctor.

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