“I haven’t faced death. I’ve cheated death. Tricked my way out of death. And patted myself on the back for my ingenuity. I know nothing.”
— James T. Kirk, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
With last week’s Christmas episode of Doctor Who, the bow tie has fallen to the floor of the TARDIS and we’ve said our final good night to the Raggedy Man. What is a fitting epitaph for Matt Smith, now that his run as the show's title character has ended?
I keep coming back to a sentiment that’s been cropping up for a while now: He deserved better.
The writing and plotting shortcomings of Doctor Who have been so glaring for the past couple of years that the 50-year-old BBC sci-fi show’s growing popularity in the United States (even as its ratings have sagged a bit in the U.K.) has to be attributable to something other than the stories. Most notably: the energy, charisma, and likability of the show’s leading man. After his somewhat stretched-out three-season-plus run, Smith tends to come in second in “Favorite Doctor” polls, behind his immediate predecessor, David Tennant.
But, provided with meatier material from showrunner Steven Moffat, Smith might well have made a far stronger bid for the top spot out of the 13 men who have canonically played the role.
Faced with a skeptical fandom after taking over for Tennant in 2010, the then-26-year-old, relatively unknown Smith turned in a series of winning performances in his first season, the fifth full slate of episodes since the series was revived in 2005. Smith brought not just a youthful appearance (River Song once called him “an ageless god who insists on the face of a 12-year-old”) but also an endearing physicality to the role, what with all the Kermit-esque arm flapping and his tendency to stagger and spin about like a cross between Brian Boitano and a five-minute-old giraffe.
But he could also convey that his character was almost a millennium old. The fussy way he wrung his hands—directly borrowed from hipster-favorite Second Doctor Patrick Troughton—is an old man’s mannerism. And in his stillnesses, he could look troubled and careworn in a way that few of his predecessors ever did, even those who played the role in their 50s. Quite a feat, and utterly in character: The 11th Doctor was the oldest version to date.
Smith’s approach to the character, and the obvious on-screen chemistry he had with co-stars Karen Gillan as Amy Pond, Arthur Darvill as Rory Williams, and Alex Kingston as River Song helped the whole ensemble sell the entire ridiculous package that is Doctor Who. His first season had its problems, but the individual episodes and the season-long arc had enough momentum that—along with the slicker direction and more polished production values compared to the previous rebooted Who—the whole thing hung together well.
The problem was never with Smith’s performance. It was with Steven Moffat’s conception of the character.
Viewers got a succinct briefing on Moffat’s vision in the Season Four two-part episode he wrote, “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead,” in which Moffat’s creation River meets Tennant’s 10th Doctor. At one point, she turns into a mouthpiece for Moffat: While she thinks that the 10th Doctor is OK, “Now, my Doctor, I’ve seen whole armies turn and run away, and he’d just swagger off back to his TARDIS and open the doors with a snap of his fingers.”
All incarnations of the Doctor have been at least a little bit arrogant, but they’ve also tempered that arrogance with varying degrees of humility, selflessness, and a sense of wonder. But if Moffat were running things, the Doctor would swagger, dammit.
Once Moffat took the reins, swagger he did—looking pretty sexy doing so, thanks to Smith’s performance. The first season rings with the sound of the Doctor telling people how awesome he is, and how scared they should be, because he’s awesome.
To the Atraxi in his first appearance: “Hello, I’m the Doctor. Basically, run.”
To the Weeping Angels: “There’s one thing you never put in a trap. If you’re smart, if you value your continued existence, if you’ve got any plans about seeing tomorrow, there’s one thing you never, ever put in a trap. … Me.”
And then, of course, his signature barrage of bluster, the “Hello, Stonehenge” speech from “The Pandorica Opens.” Since we, the audience, know that he’s ultimately going to prevail, these repeated instances of the 11th Doctor bragging on himself to a sky full of alien menace (which happens again in his farewell Christmas special) come off as bullying.
So, he’s a swaggering bully—who also withholds vital information from the people about whom he supposedly cares the most. During the first season, when Rory dies and gets swallowed up by the Crack in the Universe, thus ceasing ever to have existed, the Doctor remembers Rory, but Amy, Rory’s fiancé, doesn’t. Does the Doctor say, “Amy, listen to me, I know you don’t remember, but you had this fiancé, and you’d actually decided to go through with the wedding after that time you sexually assaulted me, but he got drawn into the Crack in your wall—and I know that it’s got something to do with me. Look, here’s a piece of the TARDIS I pulled out of the Crack! With your help, we’re going to fix this, I promise. And we definitely will not start off two of the next three episodes by going to museums. Come along, Pond!”