Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Doctor Who Interlude: I Legitimately Like Matt Smith Now

Editor's Note: I'm having a bit of a dry spell writing about FEMA and writing here, so I'm falling back on my store of on-computer documents. This is very non-NCCC; it's about Doctor Who, one of my favorite TV shows. In fact, this is also very SPOILER-FILLED, because that's how these things tend to work. So if you have not yet watched Season 7, Part One, and intend to not have it spoiled for you, it would not be the world's best idea to keep reading. (I am this anal about spoilers because I hate them, so I don't want to spoil it for anyone else.)

When you consider where Doctor Who was halfway through Series Five compared to today, halfway through Series 7, it is just incredible how we got from there to here.

Consider: at the start of Five, the show had been entirely reborn. We had a new Doctor, new Companions, a new television czar in Moffat, and an entirely different look and feel to the series. Russell T Davies shot Series Four in high definition, but with so many of the crew and staff leaving after Four, Five looked entirely different. It was bright, cartoonish, unrelenting. Five struggled, and to an extent, Six did too. Certainly there were great moments scattered throughout both, but in my opinion, they did not compare to the heights of Davies’ tenure.

There’s always a period of adjustment from old-Doctor to new-Doctor, but Matt Smith took longer to settle in than most. I think a large part of the change was that we, the viewer, saw David Tennant doing what he did. We saw him laugh, we saw him grieve, we saw him scheme and we saw his boundless energy and excitement—but it was always him showing us what he was capable of. In Moffat and Smith’s first two seasons, they often enough showed Amy and Rory and River reacting to or talking or speculating about Smith’s Doctor, but with comparative rarity did they let him show off his own complex, less-goofy self. Even in the great introspective episode of Season 5 (the “Peruvian folk band” one), Smith himself doesn’t speak for his Doctor’s inner darkness—some other actor does it for him.

In Series Seven, that’s all gone away. “The Power of Three” was as deep and complex a portrait as any Doctor has shown in the new series, it was Matt Smith doing the portraying along with his Companions, and more importantly, everything worked! Smith played a fantastic episode! “The Power of Three” was brilliant, and I’ll tell you why. One of Doctor Who’s recurring flaws under both Tennant and Smith is that events never seem to have a lasting impact on the Doctor. He can be castigated and dissected and exposed by his enemies, hurt or betrayed by his friends, but I rarely got the sense that it has a major impression on him between episodes. It’s wiped away and gone in time for the next adventure. This was true in Davies’s time because of that worthy’s largely episodic approach to Who, where most episodes were unconnected to each other except by the vaguest references. Moffat took the show in a more serialized direction during 5 and 6, but that was still true for the most part… but not in “The Power of Three”.

Matt Smith’s Doctor, in his hearts of hearts, is a six-year-old boy. Throughout Smith’s tenure, he can’t stand to stay in one place for longer than it takes to defeat the bad guy… until he has to. He’s happy running around the universe with Rory and Amy as friends, but a better word would be as a family. Where the First Doctor was a grandfather to his Companions, Matt Smith—in a very real sense, plot-wise—is their child, and he needs their love and support more than he ever lets on. Both of those things come out in “Three”, and it’s incomparably touching.

Smith has carved out his own identity as a Doctor. He’s grown into the role over the past three years, and he’s distanced himself from his illustrious predecessor, a task I thought was impossible back in early Series Five when Smith was acting like a zanier, shallower version of Tennant. Make no mistake, though: Smith is walking on his own. It's shining out of every corner of the show. Instead of the romantically tense Doctor-Companion relationships that defined Eccleston and Tennant’s tenures, Rory and Amy act as Smith’s parents. Amy’s flirtations with the Doctor are ancient history, and limited actress River Song has had a limited role.

Moffat and Smith are comfortable enough with this Doctor to do deeper, more introspective, more self-referential episodes like “Three”. At least this far through S7, the endlessly tangled plotlines of S5 and S6 have been junked in favor of something closer to Davies’s episodic format—but tied together through the emotional evolution of the Doctor in a way that Davies and Tennant never quite reached. There’s not been a bad episode in S7 yet, and it’s starting to give me exciting flashbacks of S4, when every single episode was solid or better. As Part 2 of Season 7 approaches, I can only hope Smith and Moffat continue their upward trajectory even though Rory and Amy, who gave the show so much of its energy, have taken their bows. Based on the evidence to date, I don’t think it’ll be a problem.

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