The Triumph of Doctor Smith

Doctor Who - Matt Smith is the Eleventh Doctor

Following his bravura performance in The Lodger, and in the dying moments before the Pandorica opens, it’s time to take an overdue look at Matt Smith’s Doctor.

The casting of the Eleventh Doctor caused a bit of a stir back in 2009; it seemed possible that we might get David Morrissey (so keen was the misdirection of The Next Doctor), but names like Russell Tovey and Paterson Joseph were also mentioned. When the role went to an ex-footballer, soon be known by his full title, “Twenty-Six-Year-Old Matt Smith”, the fans – in time-honoured fashion – began to worry. The hardcore were frightened because they thought the Doctor should be middle-aged and the shippers began to realise that they were going to lose their pinstriped eye candy. For my own part, I supported Steven Moffat’s choice of leading man – in spite of my surprise – but believed it was so unusual that the wider audience would not play along. I genuinely thought it would be Colin Baker all over again – even Matt Smith’s enthusiasm recalled Baker’s in 1983 – and when the pundits came out in force, telling us that the boots Smith was about to fill were very, very big ones, I thought this was game over.

Almost one Matt Smith season later, it is pleasantly surprising to see how things turned out. Even if you still prefer David Tennant, there’s no denying that Smith is a worthy successor to, arguably, the most popular Doctor Who ever. Smith – unlike Tennant – isn’t an obvious Doctor Who fan, but one cannot help feeling that he has picked up this beautiful thing we all adore and promised with all his heart to take the greatest care of it. From that perfect opening episode (surely the best of any Doctor bar Hartnell), Smith gave us something so intricate, so real and complete that a great many of us cheered at the TV and struggled to recall the last feller’s name. We chose to move on and Smith led us through the treeborgs with an energy and enthusiasm previously unrivalled.

Moffat’s observation that although Smith is vibrantly young he conveys great age is now a cliché, but a wonderfully correct one. From the swaggering cockiness of youth to the gentle, delicate insight of experience – via some mid-life crisis of staying ‘cool’ and coping – Smith has exceeded all expectations of interpretation to bring us a character so unflinchingly detailed that it feels, perhaps for the first time in the series’ long history, that the Doctor is a real person. Smith is both a brilliant ‘serious’ actor and a splendid comedian, achieving the best results by playing both for keeps. His success derives from his deep intensity and sharply focussed attachment to any given situation (something that his co-star seems yet to learn).

Not only is Smith’s characterisation rich, it is also very nicely textured. See, for example, how he sits upon Rosanna’s throne in Vampires of Venice, all fidgetty and never quite comfortable; see him jump excitedly up and down on his bed in The Lodger whilst chatting to Amy through his earpiece. Smith never stops finding things for the Doctor to do, even when only in the background of a shot. There is, for example, a lot of brilliantly understated ‘business’ in the TARDIS doorway at the start of The Beast Below. Smith’s skill here is that his character continues to live and breathe out of the limelight, whilst never distracting the viewer or upstaging his co-stars. Those that love him – and I count myself among them – admire his endless ability to fill the screen with a consistent sense of realism.

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  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.

  1. August 8, 2010

    […] The Triumph of Doctor Smith […]

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