Shift Change: ‘My’ Doctor Who

Doctor Who the TARDIS

IMAGE: Doctor Who (BBC)

It’s been a good year to be a fan of Doctor Who.

From the introduction of a new companion in the character of Clara Oswald (okay, technically she was ‘introduced’ last year through a bit of tricksy foreshadowed storytelling, but she took her place in the TARDIS properly this year), to the command of the role that Matt Smith now effortlessly brings to his portrayal of the Doctor (by the way, early-Matt-Smith-critics: he was always this good), to the rollicking, world-record breaking fiftieth anniversary special, ‘Day of the Doctor’ (which has become the highest rating drama on BBC and BBC America this year; is the first dramatic program to have screened simultaneously in 94 countries; and was running over with fan service and love for the series), those who love Doctor Who and all its glorious, sprawling wonder and goofiness have had much to revel in.

On the other hand, for those who just don’t see the point of Doctor Who the past couple of months were probably wearyingly tedious…

After all, there has been a veritable onslaught of retrospectives and news broadcasts and spoofs devoted to anticipating this birthday event.  There was Mark Gatiss’ love note to the series and its original star, William Hartnell, in the historical drama An Adventure in Space and Time (the hypercritical part of my brain acknowledges that it was all highly romanticised and at times clogged with self-aware exposition; but the emotional part of me was charmed utterly, and even choked back a tear in that final scene when the echo of this actor’s legacy was met with a warm smile from his latest successor).  There was Peter Davison’s (the fifth Doctor’s) playful, homemade spoof The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot; there was Doctor Who: The Ultimate Guide; there were hours and hours of talking heads espousing their love and recounting the minutia of the show in specials.  Google even changed its homepage in an enchanting homage.

For anyone not a fan of Who, all of this fuss must have started to seem like a waking nightmare.  And considering that these people are already very sick indeed (their crippling medical condition, Being Terribly, Tragically Wrong (BTTW), affects innocent people the world over) my heart really goes out to them.

(Incidentally, donate now to the BTTW fund.  Your small donation can help get DVD box sets to baffled viewers who desperately need them.)

But for anyone not sick to death of hearing about all things Who (and who can stand to hear me pontificate further), this past week I published a retrospective on the Doctor over at PopMatters.  I discuss the history of the show; how its ingenious conceit allows it to regenerate itself along with the needs of its medium and its viewing audience: how week to week it can bounce between genres and plots, from science fiction to historical drama, from parody to tragedy, philosophical think-piece to screwball fun.  I gush about how vital and innovative the show has always been; ramble shamelessly about how grand every single little bit of ‘Day of the Doctor’ was; I even get in a petty dig at K-9.

…Also, I liken Colin Baker’s costume to something ‘hosed out of a unicorn enclosure.’

So there’s that.

In any case, it’s my quick (for anyone who has ever read anything I have written, you know ‘quick’ is a thoroughly misleading word) love letter to the most unique, and most brilliant television-y television show that has ever been.

Despite all of my self-indulgent waffling, however, the one element I didn’t get to discuss was my own relationship to the show…

Because that’s the great thing about Doctor Who.  It’s generational.  Enduring.  You can stumble upon it while channel surfing.  You can inherit your devotion to it like you would a football team.  You can watch it change and grow – revel in the good years, gnash your teeth at the bad – all the time knowing that your opinion, like everyone else’s, is relative.  It is a show to fall in love with and grow alongside.  Watching it as a child you can be wonderstruck by all the gizmos and daring-do; as an adult you can marvel at the boundless imagination on display, at the ideological and philosophical debate being dressed up and played out in colourful metaphor.

It’s why many fans have a ‘my’ Doctor.

‘Sure, all the other Doctors are great,’ they will say, ‘but [INSERT NAME HERE] was my Doctor.’  And at that point they will twiddle the tassels on their floor length scarf, rock in place in their Converse All Stars, or take a bite from the celery stalk on their lapel.

Frequently, this favoured Doctor is the one that the viewer grew up with – the first incarnation that swept them off on an adventure, who they first saw repel a Cyberman invasion, who they first saw stroke the TARDIS console tenderly.

That wasn’t really my experience.  To be honest, my earliest memories of watching Doctor Who were hardly love at first sight.  I remember I was about five years old, watching it at my grandparent’s place in black and white…

The television!  The television was black and white!  The show was in colour.  It was the eighties.  And… and… it was probably a rerun (it wasn’t).

How old do you think I am?!

Anyway.  It seems extraordinary to say now, but at the time neither the show nor its principle character made much of an impression upon me.  There was no ‘my’ anything.  In fact, if I recall correctly, I spent most of the time thinking that he was the Riddler (it was Colin Baker, and the question marks on the collar threw me off); I kept waiting for Batman to turn up and kick him in the neck (again: it was Colin Baker).

It was only when I returned to the show years later that I became enamoured with what I found.  Here was a sprawling, discordant text colliding against itself in reruns, shifting and mutating with every tale.  The Doctor I first watched properly was multiform.  He bounced between a youthful, puffy-haired cricketer, to a Victorian dandy in a vintage roadster; from a velvet voiced hippie to a skittery, conceited explosion of light and sound.  I leapt about in his lives the way he leapt around in time, liking aspects of some, abhorring elements of others (Hey Doctor, Y U strangle Peri?!), but appreciating them all as part of one great potpourri of splintered sci-fi selfhood.

And even when I caught up to the show itself, I still saw them all as one.  Sylvester McCoy had a lovely wellspring of cunning under his sunny exterior that I found arresting; despite the tonally disjointed mess of the Doctor Who television movie, I was charmed by Paul McGann’s romantic Doctor; I admired (even if I didn’t completely embrace) Christopher Eccleston’s haunted soldier; and I swooned (in a totally manly way) at David Tennant’s heartsore, lonely wanderer.  Each had new inflections that brought further depth to this amorphous creature, but for me, no single face could hope to encapsulate it all.

And then Matt Smith happened.  And then I got it.

Doctor Who Matt Smith

IMAGE: The Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith)

Because here, suddenly, was my Doctor.  The Doctor I hadn’t realised I’d always wanted.  Goofy, awkward, all limbs and hand-gestures and muddled lexicon.  Sombre and soulful, with eons of pain in his eyes; this marriage of Peter Pan and a sad old god clicked with me from the moment Matt Smith scrunched up his face and said, ‘Must be a hell of a scary crack in your wall…’

So for three seasons I finally watched the show as if I was seeing it all for the first time.  I finally saw the Doctor – my Doctor – send the Cybermen horde on their way.  Saw him outwit the Daleks, and the Sontarans, and the Weeping Angels, and… well, pretty much everyone by the end of that first year.  I saw him grieve the loss of his companions.  Saw him reaffirm his abiding romance with the TARDIS.  I saw all of time and space, and the eternal sartorial flair of bowties.  And best of all, in ‘Day of the Doctor’, I saw him restore hope to the heart of the Doctor Who mythos: to save the Doctor from himself and undo his greatest mistake…

But there is one more Doctor Who rite of passage that all fans of the show must endure, and that I am now about to experience for the first time.  Because eventually, everyone’s Doctor dies…  Their ‘my’ must give way to the communal ‘our’.  And as has already been announced, this Christmas it will be Matt Smith’s time to surrender the role to another.*

I would never, of course, do anything so asinine as declare the show ‘cannot go on without him’, or ‘it’s best years are over’.  That is abject nonsense.  Peter Capaldi will be great, the adventure will be grand, and many exciting new wonders have yet to be explored; but I am still going to reserve my right to observe an utterly self-indulgent moment of celebratory sadness.

My Doctor – the Doctor I had waited for – is going to die.  However, as innumerable other fans before me have already experienced, in spite of the sorrow, what is about to happen becomes one of the greatest gifts that is built into the heart of the show.

Because Doctor Who will endure.  It will be different, sure, but even though it won’t have this Doctor anymore, it will take the best parts of his narrative, his portrayal, his quirks, and fold it into the whole.  The journey will be cosily familiar and exhilaratingly new all at once, and there will be a whole new universe to explore, and adventure to be discovered, through brand new eyes.

Because even though my Doctor will be gone, someone else’s is just about to be born.

It’s a good year to be a Doctor Who fan.  It turns out it’s also a good year to become one too.

the eleven doctors copy

IMAGE: The Eleven Doctors (BBC)

* And considering that this is a Christmas story, and is the culmination of the ‘Silence will fall’ arc, I’m guessing I will never be able to hear the song ‘Silent Night’ again without wistfully peering into the middle distance and sniffling.

9 Responses to “Shift Change: ‘My’ Doctor Who”

  1. Great entry! I will miss *my* Doctor, but at the same time I know the next Doctor will be great, we will have great adventures. But not going to lie it is going to be tough for me.

  2. Tom Painter Says:

    Wonderful article Colin! You are correct when saying Matt Smith was always this good, I think he has been phenomenal since day one. There are very few actors that have portrayed the Doctor that have embodied the role immediately, often it takes a few episodes or a whole season to warm up to the new incarnation but for me, Matt was one of them. From the moment he gave his talk on top of the hospital in his first episode and ended it with “Basically … run.” I was sold.

    When someone asks me, “Who is your Doctor?” I have to think for a moment. One name doesn’t automatically spring to mind, my thoughts become filled with moments in which the ideal of The Doctor is embodied on screen and not limited to a single incarnation. My first was Tom Baker (re-runs on BBC2 back in the early 90’s, either that or I had a TARDIS of my own that I’ve misplaced) and tradition would dictate he would be my Doctor and for a while that may have been the case. These days I think of Tennant and Smith. Indeed some of my favourite Who moments of all time have come from the Matt Smith era.

    Matt Smith has wonderfully embodied the ancient man in a young body. I’m not sure how he does it but his eyes can look youthful and exuberant one moment and millenia old the next. It will be a facet fo the character I’ll miss during Capaldi’s tenure. I’m a sucker for a well done speech and Matt Smith has had some absolute winners played with relish by him. Whether he’s using his reputation to turn back every enemy he’s ever faced (one of my favourite story elements over the last couple of seasons have been him realising his actions over the last five decades of television have warped the meaning of his title almost irrevocably) or staring down a malicious Lovecraftian menace that consumes children in a blood tithe (part of me imagining the Illusive Man’s base on the far side of it might factor in to the enjoyment of that moment). He has played all of these moments beautifully. I’ve found that mediocre episodes have been saved by his performance.

    The events over the past year have had the by-product of giving me two other Doctors I would love to see more from. Part of me would love to see more John Hurt as the War Doctor, although showing any of the Time War would be a travesty. Nothing the production team could conjure would live up to the descriptions thus far; ‘The Nightmare Child’, ‘The Horde of Travesties’, the ‘Could-Have-Been King with his army of Meanwhiles and Never-Weres’, ‘The Skaro Degradations’ to name a few. Doing justice to the images conjured by these titles and each Doctor’s performance at the time of mentioning them would be an impossible task. ‘Night of the Doctor’ provided a final look at Paul McGann’s unfairly maligned 8th Doctor, it left me floored by his performance and the tragedy that is his Doctor’s short tenure. As much as we have his audio dramas, I would absolutely love further televised adventures with him, I think we were robbed of something special. Damn you Fox for once again getting your mits on a beloved sci fi series and having no idea what to do with it.

    I’ve loved Matt Smith’s incarnation of the Doctor. He has had some wonderful stories and proven all of his pre-release detractors dead wrong during his years as the mad man with a box. The fairy tale tone of Steven Moffat’s tenure as show-runner has worked some absolute wonders with the character and the show as a whole. I will miss Smith as the Doctor something fierce but look to Peter Capaldi and know that his legacy is in great hands (if we don’t get a post watershed ‘Malcolm Tucker’ inspired take on the Doctor then something will have gone terribly wrong). ‘Time of the Doctor’ will be grand, even through a tryptophan induced coma, as is tradition.

    Once again, wonderful article, keep up the great work! I look forward to reading your retrospective.

    • Thank *you*, Tom, for that fantastic reply.

      That was wonderful – and particularly welcome now that I am in the midst of my predicted, heady, self-indulgent, mournful gloominess.

      Ah, Matt Smith… I will miss ye…

      And I completely agree about those magnificent speeches (actually, I completely agree with most every single thing that you said, but I’ll stick with the speeches for right now…) As I was reading your retrospective, I was reminded again of one of my favourite Matt Smith moments, in an episode that weirdly doesn’t get a lot of love, but that I thought was lovely, ‘The Rings of Akhaten’.

      The Doctor has that exquisite speech at the end of it, crying out to a vampire god that would feed on the lives of others, that would crush such unique individual wonder.

      (I’ve said this elsewhere, but…)

      People might deride Doctor Who for being too optimistic (and for being too cheesy), but that episode, and that moment showed that by the gods it carries the weight of its story with it, and never loses sight of the power and preciousness of hope – investing every life with meaning and purpose.

      For me that speech was a big, bold, vibrant statement about the importance of narrative, of the extraordinary, irreplaceable beauty of each individual, and the story that is their soul.

      And to see Matt Smith wring every ounce of sadness and sacrifice from those lines, to see a tear roll down his cheek as he remembered all that he had loved, all that he had lost, as he again offered himself up to save others… Well, I just can’t imagine how any other actor will be able to convey something so personal and so grand all at the same time.

      It’s for that reason that I will be forever grateful that he took off the bow tie before he changed into Capaldi. Again – I am sure that Capaldi will be great. But he’s different. Necessarily different. And the territorial little nerd twisting inside me was glad to see that the bow tie, and all of the goofy, anachronistic ‘cool’ that it symbolised of Matt Smith’s Doctor, will remain for him alone.

      Again, thank you so much for this comment, Tom – it has really made my day.

      • Tom Painter Says:

        Thank you for your kind words Colin, they are very much appreciated. Since writing my first comment, I have read your Doctor Who retrospective and I must congratulate you further. Wonderfully informative, heartfelt and witty, I enjoyed it unreservedly.

        Now that Matt Smith’s tenure has come to a close I can emphatically endorse it as my favourite run of Doctor Who. The range he presented as the Doctor in his final outing was quite extraordinary. A man that has run all his life deciding that if he is to die, it will be saving as many as he can, even if that just means everyone in this one village. All those who are and all those who have not yet come to pass. His final achievement will be doing the one thing he finds impossible, staying still, for the good of others.

        It seemed entirely appropriate that, for a man that has sacrificed so much, lost so much in the name of causes greater than himself because it was the right thing to do, because they were what The Doctor would do, that his people would put their faith in the ideal he forged for himself with the creation of that mantle. He had sacrificed so much for them that they trusted him to find another way because that is what The Doctor does.

        I have heard people decry the ending as a Deus Ex Machina, which I personally think means they need to go back and re-read the definition of the term (a sentiment I extend to the leaf at the end of The Rings of Akhaten which also happens to be a favourite of mine). I have seen people pick apart the episode’s minutae which I find bizarre given that the closest the show has ever come to explaining itself is: ‘wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey’ which is hardly Neil DeGrasse Tyson (although he did at one point state that that description of space-time is fairly accurate, so go figure). Personally I find that all qualms with the episode fall by the way side as a result of an aforementioned element of Smith’s run: one hell of a speech.

        His final moments in the TARDIS were heartbreaking in a very intimate way, almost the antithesis of Tennant’s operatically sentimental send-off. Both certainly did the job but in very different ways.

        “Yep. And I always will be. But times change and so must I. We all change when you think about it, we’re all different people, all through our lives and that’s okay, that’s good. You’ve got to keep moving, so long as you remember all the people that you used to be. I will not forget one line of this. Not one day. I swear. I will always remember when the Doctor was me.”

        As the last words of a man with many faces, many lives these words are deeply personal. As a writer of an episode these words are a declaration that The Doctor is not just a pair of shoes to be filled and a paycheck to be cashed. As an actor its an affirmation that the orle has had an indelible effect on his career. As an icon to millions this is a promise to his fans. As a fan this is a promise to their hero. As a mad man in a box with a scared companion this is a reassurance that everything will be fine, that the next man will be different but he will be me. I thought it was perfect.

        Factor in one last visit from the first face he ever saw, add some fish fingers and custard and you’re left with one of the most touching, heartbreaking and yet somehow hopeful endings to a Doctor’s run in the shows history.

        I will always remember when the Doctor was Matt.

        Goodnight Raggedy Man.

      • That was absolutely beautiful, Tom.

        It’s everything I wish I could have said.

        (I’m genuinely choking up here.)

        Thank you. Thank you.

  3. Tom Painter Says:

    Not really related to Doctor Who (by really I mean at all) but I was just wondering if you have had a chance to check out Gamefront’s latest Mass Effect ‘Catalyst Reinterpretation’ piece?

    It started off with some promise but has fallen apart quite spectacularly. The scientist in me very much dislikes assumptions asserted as fact without evidence and the English Lit student in me squirms at poorly substantiated interpretations of a narrative. Making these articles a perfect storm of cognitive discomfort. I may have face-palmed in the double digits by the end of the second article.

    • My apologies for the late response, Tom – and thanks for giving me the heads up about these pieces.

      I hadn’t actually heard about this series of articles, so when you pointed them out I thought I would take a break from the article that I have been writing (an obnoxiously sprawling look back at 2013), give them a quick read, roll it all around in my head for a minute, and then reply straight away.

      And then I read them.

      And then it all came flooding back…

      Mass Effect.


      So yes, I’m sad to say that I definitely share your opinion of this writer’s argument. It was a noble effort, and was a kindness to Bioware to take their garbled plot at face value, but try as he might, his whole argument seems to collapse in on itself. Unsubstantiated presumptions are treated as fact, contradictions are recast as validations, head canon, fueled by blinding goodwill, fills in the gaps.

      I wish that I could say that it’s a beautiful dream, but most horrifyingly, even if you just give the leaps in all narrative logic a pass, it ultimately just helps point out precisely why I found these endings so distasteful in the first place. Take the Bioware writers at their word, read their work through this article’s *extremely* generous lens, and it is still a vulgar conclusion with a disgustingly juvenile statement to make. It still remains a hopeless, turgid mess, ill-fitting the series that brought it into being, and unworthy of the audience that had faith in something more.

      Originally I started explaining all this in greater detail in my reply to you, but it rather ran away with me (which seems to happen a lot whenever I open the floodgate on Mass Effect 3), so I shall have to beg your indulgence for a moment longer as I wrangle it into something less frothy and more coherent.

      • Tom Painter Says:

        Trust me, my ability to wrangle my musings (probably more appropriately termed rantings) into anything less than sprawling streams of consciousness, equal parts rambling and frenzy, is likewise often deemed ineffective by analytical inertia. I look forward to the rest of your response. What you may term ‘obnoxiously sprawling’ I would term ‘intellectually thorough’.

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