The Captain Kirk Problem: How Doctor Who Betrayed Matt Smith

Smith and his fellow cast members, along with the stirring score, were doing their damnedest to convince us that this was all very moving. But even their best performances couldn’t paper over the hollowness of the characters and their relationships.

The first half of Season Seven was worse, with Smith whipsawing back and forth between his most manic, slapsticky tics—especially in “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” and “The Power of Three”—and Tennant-esque brooding, and it all felt somewhat desperate. The second half of the season, with new companion Clara Oswald, was similarly soulless, with the Doctor up to his old tricks of withholding key information from his fellow traveler, and with the pretty, plucky sidekick turning out to be a walking, talking plot device who sacrifices herself to save the Doctor because … the Doctor is Awesome. As The Atlantic’s Christopher Orr said of Peter Jackson’s indulgent, boring Hobbit movies, it’s like watching big-budget, poorly written fanfic.

The 50th Anniversary Special, “The Day of the Doctor,” offered a welcome respite from this dreary slog; it was easily the best Who episode Moffat had written since “The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang.” Despite the generally positive notices the special got, some critics hated Moffat’s retconning the defining act of the revived series: It turns out that the Doctor didn’t actually kill all of the Time Lords, as it had been written by previous showrunner Russell T. Davies, he just hid them away in a pocket universe. While I find Moffat’s compulsion to insert his own characters into existing Who continuity annoying (c.f. the laughable Forrest Gumping of Clara into footage of Classic Doctors in “The Name of the Doctor”), I actually don’t think his rewriting of this act of genocide totally obviates the Davies era’s emotional content. So it turns out that the Time Lords are lost, instead of annihilated? Hell, the Doctor thought he’d destroyed the Daleks, too, and they just keep coming back. Why shouldn’t the Time Lords get an out?

But while, within the context of the episode, this turning-already-established-defeat-into-victory didn’t bother me, it does fit into a pattern of storytelling cowardice on Moffat’s part. There are just never any consequences for any main characters in Moffat’s Doctor Who. Every apparent sacrifice, tragic loss, or moral compromise is invalidated by some kind of reset button, with no physical or psychological cost. The “loss” of the Ponds was so nonsensical that it doesn’t even count. They got to live full lives together in the past, but the Doctor could never go back and see them again? It’s insulting. Why not have the two of them make a meaningful sacrifice and actually, you know, die? Whose feelings is Moffat trying to spare here?

As Capt. James T. Kirk witheringly observes of himself—in a neat bit of character development that also doubles as commentary on how static Kirk’s persona was during the original Star Trek series—he’d always been able to find the out, the cheat code, the reset button. He’d never had to face the no-win scenario. He thought he’d gotten away with it again—and then he found out that sometimes victory does have a cost, in this case, the life of his best friend. Now, in story terms, it sucks that the Star Trek franchise promptly undid this by bringing Spock back in the next movie, but it’s because of Kirk’s change and growth that Khan is rightly regarded as the best of the Trek films.

The 11th Doctor is TV-show Kirk, not Wrath of Khan Kirk. He neither changed nor grew. Moffat even dubbed him “The Man Who Forgets” in the 50th Anniversary special—and in that episode, his journey is away from a defining, horrific moral choice he made, and towards a cheat code.

As an actor, how are you supposed to play that? Smith tried pretty much everything. Playful, petulant, shouty, giddy, mopey, nasty, lachrymose … he put it all out there, but with nothing really at stake, it was like watching a workshop at the Actor’s Studio or something. And even his considerable charms couldn’t smooth over his character’s jaw-dropping sexist comments, leering at women, and non-consensual kissing—culminating in the groaningly poor regeneration episode “The Time of the Doctor,” in which he essentially planted one on the Pope. Now, he apparently had had a relationship with her, but that’s also a problem: Yet another powerful woman turns to putty in the Doctor’s hands? Again, bad fanfic.

Smith’s farewell turn is certainly the worst of the NuWho baton-passers. From the forced sub-Mork & Mindy shenanigans with cipher Clara’s cardboard family, to the eyeroll-inducing voiceovers, to the repetition of “Doctor who?,” to the Attack of the Killer Regeneration, it was pretty painful to watch. As Moffat checked off the boxes, explaining the lingering mysteries of Smith’s run (about the connection between the Silence and the exploding TARDIS, etc.), all I could think of was The Eight Deadly Words that doom all forms of storytelling: I don’t care what happens to these people.

But you know what? Matt Smith, man. In the middle of this train wreck, he does a bit with a severed Cyberman head that actually finds a heartstring. When Handles finally craps out and “dies,” Smith, in his late-middle-age makeup, calls his name a couple of times and stares at the thing. The look on his face evokes memories not just of the similarly robotic K-9, but also of all the other companions long gone. Another one, his face says. I’ve lost another one.

Smith is a wonderful actor and was perfectly cast as the Doctor. His successor, Peter Capaldi, is also a wonderful actor (after watching him F-bomb his way through In the Loop, I have to stop myself from ending my cell phone conversations, “Fuckity-bye!”) and, despite my disappointment at the role not going to a woman this time around, I believe that he is also perfectly cast as the Doctor.

If only the problems with this show had anything to do with the cast.

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Ted B. Kissell is a writer and editor based in Southern California. He is the former editor of OC Weekly and has written for The Los Angeles TimesOutside Traveler, and American Way.

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