Much as Star Trek fans may argue over which crew members are best, or which ships, or even which universes, Doctor Who fans have favorite Doctors. I must admit to a paucity of knowledge of The Doctor before the recent resurrection of the series, staring Eccleston as The Doctor.
WARNING: There will be minor spoilers in this post. If you care about seeing the plot
This incarnation was in a privileged position in character development: the Time War between the Time Lords and the Daleks (Time Lords’ mortal enemies) had left them all dead, The Doctor as the only remaining Time Lord, and a few Daleks showing up as show villains from time to time. This left the Doktor angry, militantly pacifistic, and yet furious with the Daleks. This is best shown in Eccleston’s encounter with a Dalek, which drives him to spitting fury, and almost to murder. Eccleston embodies what evil lurks in the Doctor, the rage, the regret, and the loneliness of being the last of his species. While The Doctor had often kept humans around in his travels, Eccleston started the companion role, which has continued through the next two Doctors. He died redestroying the Daleks, and finally at peace with himself.
Eccleston gave way to Tennant, probably the best known Doctor. Whereas Eccleston was full of rage, this element was buried in Tennant, who spent much of his time being sad, and when he does exhibit rage, it is a quiet, silent rage, like in “Family of Blood”. Tennant’s main appeal is through his attempts at appearing alien, or in ‘explaining’ things to human characters in a way that leaves them wondering if anything has been explained at all. He brought humor to The Doctor in a way previous Doctors had not even tried, one-part penitent and depressed war veteran, one part optimistic time-changer, one part comic relief against a depressing backdrop. His many faces only make him seem all the more alien.
After three seasons, Tennant died to save the father of a companion after sealing off the Time Lords forever, and left the world with the same combination of sadness and optimism with which he had entered it with, his last words: “I don’t want to go”.
And with that, the older, more mature and sophisticated Tennant left, replaced with a new, younger, goofy looking Doctor. Many people reacted in shock, and were biased against this new Doctor, myself included. Tennant was my first and favorite Doctor, and I saw his replacement by a younger, less serious, goofy looking child as a sign that the show was headed in the wrong direction.
The new writer, on the other hand, had written my favorite Doctor Who episode of all time, so I tuned in to watch the new Doctor. What I saw was a blend of madness, alienness, and humor which may put Matt Smith (the new Doctor) on a higher level than Tennant, if he continues to grow as he continues the role. Whereas Tennant spent much of his time moping and brooding, Smith (and I write his name unintuitively; whereas Tennant and Eccleston stand on their own merits to me, Matt Smith is simply ‘The Doctor’ to me. Perhaps he has already affected me more than I think) is all full of bubbling optimism and humor. When he is world-wearied, his normal youthfulness makes those moments even more remarkable. He seems to have left his Time War baggage behind, as well, for the most part. His opinion on time itself differs from previous Doctors. Tennant had taken to labeling some moments in time as unchangeable, and while he tried and tried again, he proved himself right. Matt Smith, on the other hand, takes things to be the opposite, pushing for the people he meets to be the best that the universe has to offer. But where he really shines is in his expansion of Tennant’s role of the alien. Often times, he communicates in a way utterly incomprehensible to those around him. He has an utter lack of social ability, consistently insists that ‘bow ties are cool’ (which they are), and dances perhaps even as moronically as I do.
So while I David Tennant was my first Doctor, and I would call him my favorite Doctor for three reasons.
1) Tennant goes from angry to excited sad and back to excited seamlessly. Tying these emotions together is an excellent repertoire of expressive faces.
2) So many of Tennant’s episodes take place in awesome historical settings, as he visits Agathie Christie, the Shakespeare company, pre-WWI, The Great Depression, and even Pompey before its destruction. The writing may not be intrinsic to Tennant, but it is a part of the overall presentation
3) Tennant has some of the most fun, strongest episodes of Doctor Who, including “Family of Blood”, “Blink”, “The Sontaran Strategy” and “The Poison Sky”, “The Doctor’s Daughter” & “The Unicorn and Wasp”. I highlight some of these because central to their plot is an element of strong emotion that simply is only present with Tennant (with exception, of course, of Blink, which is so interesting because The Doctor cannot play a leading role). Family of Blood shows Tennant’s inner longing not to be alone, at the heart of The Doctor’s companionship. “The Doctor’s Daughter, on the other hand, shows how important being the last Time Lord is to The Doctor. The others on the list are just very interesting.
Matt Smith does have some strong supporting values, as mentioned above.
1) Revisiting the Weeping Angels of Blink was excellent. But that episode 2-parter is also indicative of the writing style of the new series. So many of the episodes feel either like unfinished one-parters, or unnecessarily long two-parters, as though the writers had written an episode and a half most often. Again, the writing is part of the presentation
2) Whereas sometimes Tennant sinks into the background, simply observing, and thus allowing for some boring episodes, Matt Smith never fades away. It means that, excluding the best episodes from either season, the average episode from Matt Smith’s series is more interesting than the average episode from Tennant’s series.
3) Matt Smith really seems alien all the time, from the very beginning, whereas Tennant seems a part-time alien. This element really expands the comedy of the series
So, as I said above, Tennant will always be my Doctor, but I certainly do like Matt Smith.
Thoughts? Who’s your Doctor?
UPDATE: I just watched the tail half of Season 4 of the new Doctor Who (Season 3 of David Tennant), from “Human Nature” through to the finale, and the beginning of “Voyage of the Damned”. First, I want to restate that “Blink” is the best Doctor Who episode I’ve seen. And Tennant’s confusion at The Titanic crashing through the Tardis’ wall is excellent. And ‘just Doctor, not Sir’ is excellent’.