The Captain Kirk Problem: How Doctor Who Betrayed Matt Smith

The actor playing the 11th Doctor performed more than admirably for four years. But the show's writers let him down.

Matt Smith in his farewell Doctor Who Christmas special. (BBC)

“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!”

No, he doesn’t, and they do start off two of the next three episodes by going to museums. And then they find Rory again for no good reason, other than that Arthur Darvill is incredible (watch Broadchurch ASAP) and every show on TV needs more Arthur Darvill in it.

The entirety of Season Six is when Moffat’s fascination for plot twists and open-ended mysteries (in our house, we describe this unfortunate tendency as “plotty-wotty”) took over the show, and the whole product suffered. As for the Doctor himself, in Season Six he: didn’t tell Amy or Rory about the anomalous readings he was getting about her pregnancy (and why was he pregnancy-testing her, anyway?); hypnotized humanity into becoming a race of killers (but the Silence are creepy, so screw them, right?); and invited all of his “loved ones” to stand unwitting and unwilling witness to his own faked death.

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.