The Triumph of Doctor Smith

Doctor Who - Matt Smith is the Eleventh Doctor

Following his bravura performance in The Lodger, and in the dying moments before the Pandorica opens, it’s time to take an overdue look at Matt Smith’s Doctor.

The casting of the Eleventh Doctor caused a bit of a stir back in 2009; it seemed possible that we might get David Morrissey (so keen was the misdirection of The Next Doctor), but names like Russell Tovey and Paterson Joseph were also mentioned. When the role went to an ex-footballer, soon be known by his full title, “Twenty-Six-Year-Old Matt Smith”, the fans – in time-honoured fashion – began to worry. The hardcore were frightened because they thought the Doctor should be middle-aged and the shippers began to realise that they were going to lose their pinstriped eye candy. For my own part, I supported Steven Moffat’s choice of leading man – in spite of my surprise – but believed it was so unusual that the wider audience would not play along. I genuinely thought it would be Colin Baker all over again – even Matt Smith’s enthusiasm recalled Baker’s in 1983 – and when the pundits came out in force, telling us that the boots Smith was about to fill were very, very big ones, I thought this was game over.

Almost one Matt Smith season later, it is pleasantly surprising to see how things turned out. Even if you still prefer David Tennant, there’s no denying that Smith is a worthy successor to, arguably, the most popular Doctor Who ever. Smith – unlike Tennant – isn’t an obvious Doctor Who fan, but one cannot help feeling that he has picked up this beautiful thing we all adore and promised with all his heart to take the greatest care of it. From that perfect opening episode (surely the best of any Doctor bar Hartnell), Smith gave us something so intricate, so real and complete that a great many of us cheered at the TV and struggled to recall the last feller’s name. We chose to move on and Smith led us through the treeborgs with an energy and enthusiasm previously unrivalled.

Moffat’s observation that although Smith is vibrantly young he conveys great age is now a cliché, but a wonderfully correct one. From the swaggering cockiness of youth to the gentle, delicate insight of experience – via some mid-life crisis of staying ‘cool’ and coping – Smith has exceeded all expectations of interpretation to bring us a character so unflinchingly detailed that it feels, perhaps for the first time in the series’ long history, that the Doctor is a real person. Smith is both a brilliant ‘serious’ actor and a splendid comedian, achieving the best results by playing both for keeps. His success derives from his deep intensity and sharply focussed attachment to any given situation (something that his co-star seems yet to learn).

Not only is Smith’s characterisation rich, it is also very nicely textured. See, for example, how he sits upon Rosanna’s throne in Vampires of Venice, all fidgetty and never quite comfortable; see him jump excitedly up and down on his bed in The Lodger whilst chatting to Amy through his earpiece. Smith never stops finding things for the Doctor to do, even when only in the background of a shot. There is, for example, a lot of brilliantly understated ‘business’ in the TARDIS doorway at the start of The Beast Below. Smith’s skill here is that his character continues to live and breathe out of the limelight, whilst never distracting the viewer or upstaging his co-stars. Those that love him – and I count myself among them – admire his endless ability to fill the screen with a consistent sense of realism.

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Elton Townend-Jones is a journalist, playwright, actor, theatre producer and philosopher. He does ‘80s zeitgeist at

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