Watching the Twitter feed on Doctor Who during the night of The End of Time, part two, I was surprised by the number of people who wrote off Matt Smith as the eleventh incarnation of the Doctor.
To be sure, these individuals represented a minority of the Twitter comments received, but they were there, saying things like “Doctor Who is dead with Tennant gone. Matt Smith is crap.” And I simply couldn’t fathom what they were talking about. I mean, on what were they basing their assessment? His one minute of on-screen time, acting in the frenzy that typically comes with the onset of regeneration?
Or, perhaps, this trailer for the upcoming spring season of Doctor Who?
Who sensible would predict what David Tennant had in store for us as the tenth Doctor based on his few minutes of screen time at the end of The Parting of the Ways? But despite all my previous experience with individuals, I’m still surprised that people would close their minds so thoroughly to new ideas based on the most spurrious of evidence. What other type of person or — dare I say it? — pundit, shuts his mind down within a few seconds of the start of a conversation?
As an aside, I cut my teeth on political debate, not through any political science courses at University, or through any lectures on rhetoric or any stint at a debating club, but primarily through participating in the various Usenet groups occupied by fans of Doctor Who back in the early to mid 1990s, and I have to say that not much separates political pundits and bloggers from science fiction geeks when it comes to fiercely debating and defending those ideas they happen to feel passionate about. Or, to put it another way, science fiction geeks are not much different from political pundits and bloggers… and just about the rest of the human race put together.
I had no problem with the trailer. A frame by frame viewing gives us much to be excited about this coming Spring. The new Doctor appears to be facing off against Daleks, Weeping Angels and Vampire Nuns. Many swashes will be buckled and much derring will be dooed. Matt Smith is wisely pulling himself out of David Tennant’s shadow by taking on the mannerisms and dress sense of an exuberant science professor (I can seriously see him thrusting his hand in the air and going “Ooo! Ooo! Over here!”). His “Geronimo!” catchphrase has promise, and companion actress Karen Gillan appears to be suitably terrified by the ride.
Matt Smith is not going to be another David Tennant, and thank God for that! Though there are a few core characteristics within the Doctor, the beauty of his character — of the whole concept of the show — is that the hero can change himself completely in a single moment. This allows for different dramatic avenues to be explored that couldn’t be explored in the hands of a different incarnation. This allows for us to have favourites between various incarnations and engage in lengthy debates on why my favourite Doctor can beat up your favourite Doctor. And, most importantly, it keeps the show from being stale. People criticized Peter Davison for playing his Doctor with vulnerabilities compared to the imposing figure of his immediate predecessor Tom Baker, but what choice did he have? If he didn’t take big strides to step out of Tom Baker’s shadow, he would have been criticized as a pale copy of the man. Now Peter Davison’s Doctor is remembered as a strong and subtle character in his own right. What steps does Matt Smith have to take to get out from within David Tennant’s shadow?
The trailer has Matt Smith’s Doctor doing two things that are quite odd; to my mind at least. Can you guess what they are? Yes: in one clip, Matt Smith’s Doctor rushes in and knocks down a lab-coated scientist with an action hero punch. And in another suitably disturbing shot, the Doctor fires a gun. This after David Tennant’s Doctor had to be cajoled into just picking up a service revolver by Wilfred Mott. He also takes a few swings at a Dalek with a crowbar, but then, every Doctor does that.
The trailer, of course, robs us of all context. We have no idea who, or what, Matt Smith is shooting at, and a quarter century of being a Doctor Who fan leads me to believe that the small smile on Matt Smith’s face when he fires that gun means that the target is something that wholly subverts our expectations.
But why put these two scenes in there at all? I’m wondering if producer Stephen Moffat isn’t hinting at a direction he might take, here. The Doctor eschews violence, and yet is forced to resort to it on numerous occasions. This dramatic incongruity is at the heart of a number of incarnations, particularly those who are, shall we say, somewhat less than bombastic and imposing. Patrick Troughton and Peter Davison in particular played off the fact that they appeared far less threatening than the enemies they were facing, but that indeed this led to the enemies underestimating these characters, which in turn led to the enemies’ downfall.
But Moffat probably wants Matt Smith to be something other than another Patrick Troughton and Peter Davison. And there is an interesting way that he could go. What if Matt Smith’s Doctor is a scrawny little man that doesn’t think he is, and refuses to act in such a way? What if he tries to throw a few punches, as Tom Baker and Jon Pertwee did? What if he tries to brazen his way out of certain situations? In the body he’s wearing? With that tweed jacket?!
He might well have that element of surprise going for him. The lab-coated scientist he punched certainly didn’t seem to know what had hit him.
Of course, we won’t know until the springtime, and we should all refrain from prejudging things until then, but it’s worth thinking about.