Bigger On The Inside: A Quick Start Guide To… The Eleventh Doctor
THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY WRITTEN FOR MEDIA BLASPHEMY.
It can’t have escaped your attention that Doctor Who recently celebrated its landmark 50th anniversary. The world’s longest running sci-fi show began in 1963, and has run on and off to this day. After thirty-three seasons, it’s 800th episode or so was simulcast to a record-breaking 94 countries and hundreds of cinemas worldwide on November 23rd. Clearly, there’s a lot going for it, but the sheer size and scope of the show can make it impenetrable for first time viewers.
For those of you who had never seen an episode, or only started watching it because David Tennant was a bit dishy, we’ve been working our way through each Doctor’s era, as well as the spin-off shows, to give you a quick over-view of each Doctor, companion, big name monsters and stories to snog, marry and avoid. Now as the Time of the Eleventh begins its funeral march, we round off the series with a look back at Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor.
THE ELEVENTH DOCTOR: MATT SMITH – 2010 – 2013
As the dust settles around the fiftieth anniversary celebrations, it’s easy to forget that we haven’t quite seen the last of Doctor Who for this year. The sheer liquid overkill of recent weeks is at an end, with all surviving Doctors (bar Christopher Eccleston) making appearances across mini-episodes, spoofs, and the gurt big special itself, and BBC Three even went to the trouble of putting around twenty companions in one room only to spend their time talking to One Direction instead. There was even a magnificent dramatization of the early years of the series, featuring David Bradley moving grown men and women to tears as an increasingly frail William Hartnell.
Yet there’s still one more episode to come. And it’s a biggie, not just because discounting prequels and minisodes, it’s the official 800th episode of Doctor Who since 1963. The reason for this is simple – on Christmas Day, Matt Smith’s tenure as The Eleventh Doctor will come to an end, and Peter Capaldi will rise to take the TARDIS on bold new adventures from next year onwards.
Capaldi’s casting – a massive coup for the series which has even made it into a Ron Burgundy viral video – and the announcement that incredible film director Ben Wheatley is on hand for his initial episodes to be filmed in January, has also helped overshadow Smith’s departure from the role. Whilst there’s no doubting that Capaldi is a big name, he nevertheless has some very big shoes to fill.
Put simply, Matt Smith is magnificent. The out-cry that followed his casting was quietly marked by anyone who had already seen him act on stage or screen, because they knew his potential. Inside that youthful frame was an actor capable of somehow making the Doctor seem older than ever before, yet also far more energetic than even David Tennant managed. Springing around the set like Bambi after a can of Red Bull, he always knew exactly when to tone it down, and bring on the pathos, and immediately impressed his critics in his debut episode, The Eleventh Hour.
That episode also established a fresh beginning for the show, in its first true revamp since it was revived. There was a new Doctor, a new companion, a new TARDIS and sonic screwdriver, the credits were very different and the music jumped up a notch… as did the cinematography. The first full series to be filmed in HD was a beautiful piece of work, which perhaps still remains Doctor Who’s finest visual aesthetic.
As for that companion, she was feisty, strong-willed, and just a little kooky, which is only to be expected when, aged seven, a recently regenerated Time Lord crash lands in your back garden, eats Fish Custard, then vanishes for twelve years by mistake. Amy Pond had a confused childhood, trying to convince everyone around her that The Doctor – in his raggedy, regeneration torn clothes – was real. When we meet her again, she’s working as a kissogram and is engaged to childhood friend Rory Williams, who thankfully soon joins the TARDIS team as a regular. For a bit. Before he dies. A few times. Then comes back to life, marries Amy, moves into the TARDIS with her and keeps dying occasionally. It’s complex.
As Amy and Rory, both Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill excel – their natural chemistry with each other, and with Matt Smith, shines through every scene, and despite Rory’s fractured existence, they form one of the longest running TARDIS teams in the show’s history, occasionally augmented by Alex Kingston as time-hopping flirt Dr River Song. Even when they leave the TARDIS at the end of their second series, they can’t quite stay away, returning for more adventures on and off for ten years from their perspective, and hundreds for The Doctor.
The stop-start nature of their time in the TARDIS demonstrates a bold new method of storytelling in Doctor Who. No longer do companions stick around for a year or so, then leave, never to be seen again. And no longer will Big Finish need to find ever more elaborate ways to squeeze new audio adventures in the televised series gaps when Smith, Gillan and Darvill inevitably return to their roles in ten or twenty years.
There is, however, a danger that the long gaps between stories at times can combine with show-runner Steven Moffatt’s willingness to go a little X-Files on the audience, and not quite explain everything. It can also lead to stories which feel as if they move at a leisurely pace until the last ten minutes, when all hell breaks loose and the resolution is garbled as a result.
But for that one glorious series, when Matt Smith took over, the show’s story arc made perfect sense, and the new team handled every eventually with huge confidence, building on the foundations that Russell T. Davies and his team had laid down, finally making a show that American audiences sat up and paid attention to almost as much as UK ones did. Sure, there were a few wobbly standalone tales, but when it worked, the show had never been better.
The decision to split seasons, and start narrative leaps in Smiths’ second series took its toll, with the somewhat convoluted season arc never quite being explained away as well as some fans felt it could have been, and as a result, Smith’s third and final season all but ditched major arcs in favour of standalone adventures with a vague back story to play with in the two finales. However, the show was now attracted celebrated actors, with Michael Sheen, Sir Ian McKellen, Hugh Bonneville, Olivia Colman, Celia Imrie, Michael Gambon, Jemma Redgrave, Toby Jones, Meera Syal, Liam Cunningham, Surrane Jones, Dougray Scott, Mark Williams and Dame Diana Rigg amongst those guesting during Smith’s tenure.
All good things must sadly come to an end, and both Gillan and Darvill elected to move on after two and a half seasons. They were replaced by Jenna Coleman as the mysterious Clara Oswald – a woman who died twice before The Doctor met the real one. This mystery lay underneath most of Series Seven, reaching its zenith in the grand finale as a lead-in to the 50th anniversary and Matt’s farewell. A farewell which feels as if it has come way too soon – as wonderful as Coleman is, Clara is still a relatively unknown quantity compared to the “Ponds” and it would have been nice to have gotten another series out of Smith, whose split-season tenure has left fans feeling he has gone before anyone had really seen what he could do.
Yet his era has left us with so many memorable moments, from the joys of Fish Custard to challenging the Atraxi. From pretending a Jammy Dodger is a detonator to giving Vincent Van Gogh a glimpse of his legacy. From threatening the assembled hoards of hundreds of enemies to come and have a go if they think they’re hard enough, to being trapped in a prison designed by those enemies for him, then whizzing backwards through time to say goodbye to a sleeping, seven-year-old Amy.
His was the Doctor who sat in the Oval Office and gave Nixon a lift in his TARDIS. He was The Doctor who made The Silence fear him, yet found the time to cheer up a scared little boy by making all the toys in his room come to life. He was also the Doctor who realised his travels were endangering those he loved the most, and gave them a real life to lead back on Earth, only to lose them so tragically to The Weeping Angels. He was The Doctor who became so fascinated by the Impossible Girl, he travelled across time and space to find her again, and made allies of a Sontaran, a Silurian and a Victorian martial-arts-packing lesbian. Yes, you read that last part right.
Matt Smith’s tenure has been eclectic, high budget Doctor Who filled with big name character actors and written by award winning writers (including Richard Curtis and Neil Gaiman, no less), which has seen the show reach new found levels of success. That 94-country simulcast last week was in no small part down to the success of the Eleventh Doctor’s era in finding an audience across the world, and despite having to overcome tremendous opposition surrounding his casting, and the need to follow one of the show’s most popular leading men, Matt Smith rose to the challenge, and has been never less than magnificent. I’m sure I speak for fans around the world when I say we will miss him terribly, but sadly, the fields of Trenzalore are calling…
STORIES TO START WITH:
The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone: The Weeping Angels were a huge hit in Blink, and whilst they’ve been somewhat overused since then, here in their second appearance they still packed a creepy wallop. Sure, this is a glorified remake of Aliens, but when it’s a glorified remake of Aliens featuring Weeping Angels, that’s no bad thing.
The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang: This is how you wrap up a season arc – helped by featuring possibly the greatest cliffhanger in the show’s history. The first part is mysterious and ominous, the second a more lighthearted romp which answers an awful lot of questions, and manages to feature possibly the most moving scene in the show’s entire history.
The Doctor’s Wife: What happens when you give Neil Gaiman free reign to write a budget-saving episode in which the TARDIS is personified as Surrane Jones. An inventive concept, which acts as a love-letter to the show’s past, present and future.
The Girl Who Waited: A tour-de-force for Karen Gillan, who plays both the Amy Pond we know and love, and an older version of herself left behind on a nightmarish world for decades by mistake. With the Doctor relegated to a minor role, it’s up to Gillan and Arthur Darvil to lead the way, and they’re able to break your heart.
Dinosaurs on a Spaceship: The best title ever, plus David Bradley, Mark Williams, and Sherlock star Rupert Graves having a bloody ball. Not even Mitchell and Webb’s ridiculous grumpy robots can spoil this one.
STORIES TO AVOID:
There’s surprisingly nothing out-and-out awful in the Eleventh Doctor’s tenure, so he’s about to bow-out with the most consistent run of stories of any Doctor. That said, there’s a few minor disappointments in each season, which could have done with another rewrite or an extra five minutes to wrap the plot up better. The Beast Below and The Vampires of Venice in Series Five fall apart a little at the end, but nowhere near as much as the otherwise brilliant The Power of Three in Series Seven does! And the less said about the way The Impossible Astronaut’s promise is squandered by jumpy follow up Day of the Moon the better.
There’s also a couple of slightly duller stories – The Rebel Flesh and Hide spring to mind, there. Cold War mistakenly revamps the Ice Warriors in a disappointing light, but is saved by its cast, whilst a few episodes are just plain silly – The Crimson Horror, we’re looking at you in particular here…