Matt Smith: the rise and fall of the hipster Doctor

A young Doctor with old man's eyes, he whirligigged around the screen like a spider playing Twister against itself. But Matt Smith’s legacy suffers from the fact that something went awry in the writing of the last series of Doctor Who.

“Well, here we go again...”

With the announcement that Matt Smith will be bowing out of Doctor Who this Christmas, it’s time for us to play the regeneration game once more, with all that traditionally accompanies it: Will The Doctor Be A Woman headlines, slightly awkward discussions on the Today show, and all of fandom searching for an actor who can embody the hopes and fears of a nation via the medium of a kids TV show. (Note: I will accept Tilda Swinton, Idris Elba, or Jason Statham).

But it’s also a time to look back at the outgoing Doctor. Matt Smith plummeted into the national consciousness in a flaming TARDIS back in 2010, a whirlwind of limbs and hair and a catchphrase that didn’t quite catch (Geronimo, we barely knew you). The youngest actor to take on the role, he faced a huge challenge in taking over from David Tennant, who’d come to define the Doctor for a whole generation of fans.

Smith’s Doctor was a fizzing bundle of energy, enthusiasm and contradictions - by turns stern and childlike, he was both a dotty professor, and the first Doctor to care about whether he was cool. Smith gave the role a manic physicality. Legs from a 1930s silent comedy, arms waving at things in seven different dimensions at once, bow-tie rampant, he whirligigged around the screen like a hipster spider playing Twister against itself. 

Smith’s performance - like Steven Moffat’s scripts - would frequently try to go a dozen different ways at the same time, before finally pointing himself in the direction of the story and marching resolutely towards it. He had the air of someone confronting head-on the mysteries of the cosmos, and determinedly trying to chip away at them with his chin.

But then there were the eyes. Those old man’s eyes. When Smith was at his best (and he was frequently wonderful) it was all in the eyes; exhausted eyes, furtive and alien and so very, very old. More even than Eccleston and Tennant - who weren’t exactly bad at it themselves - Smith excelled at the sudden switch of tone, the moment where he’d pivot on a single phrase and the antic clown would fall away, replaced with someone aged and scarred and deeply unknowable. Obligatory Tom Baker aside, no other Doctor has seemed so truly ancient and otherworldly, and fans knew that those were the moments worth cherishing. It was mood dubstep; everyone was waiting for the drop.

It’s almost impossible to disentangle the qualities of Smith’s tenure as the Doctor from Moffat’s reign as showrunner; they fit each other so well, both in their qualities and their flaws. For some time, it really looked like the eleventh Doctor could become the definitive Who; the standard to judge all the others by. But Smith’s legacy suffers from the fact that something went awry in the writing of the last series; that for all the enjoyable twists and flips as they were in flight, very few episodes nailed the landing.

Because when the script was missing something and the momentum was gone, Smith had a tendency to . . . well, turn it up to Eleven. He’d overcompensate for the exposition dumps and the gaps in narrative sense, twirling and gurning and SHOUTING A LOT and tripping over his own elbows. He would do Hair Acting.

(It also didn’t help that he was forced to spend the past half-season playing Unsettlingly Creepy Doctor, time-stalking a young woman for reasons the plot never quite seemed to justify.)

To an extent, the show’s suffered under the weight of its own ambition (a pretty laudable reason). Ultimately, the Moffat/Smith years have fundamentally been about story. Not just the giddy, headlong rush of Moffat’s narrative, but the idea of story as a living, breathing thing - a force of nature in its own right. In Moffworld, the Doctor’s superpower isn’t his mind or his two hearts or his sonic screwdriver; it’s that he’s a legend. He’s a fable passed down the generations, “a goblin, or a trickster”, the thing monsters have nightmares about, the reason our language has the word “doctor”. 

This was no subtext; it was all upfront in the plot, as befits a post-Buffy, monsters-are-metaphors TV show. Smith’s first series ended with him escaping oblivion by becoming a bedtime tale he told to the young Amy, her childhood memories a life-support machine; his last with Clara literally jumping into his lifestory to save him, the ultimate sacrifice of giving herself up entirely to his history. It was all about story.

And if there’s been a problem with this last series, beyond the structural flaws and the tonal mis-steps, it’s the lurking feeling that none of these stories really demanded to be told. They didn’t live out in the world, in herds of wild narrative roaming the twilight, just waiting to be discovered and written down. They felt like constructs, awkwardly fitting themselves around external necessities - marketing material in search of a plot, or an extended trailer for the upcoming 50th anniversary episode. They forgot to bring the mythic.

If his tenure as the Doctor right now has a nagging sense of promise not quite fulfilled, Smith still has - naturally - time. There are two showpiece episodes to go. If the rumours that the 12th Doctor was actually cast months ago are true, then there’s reason to trust that the moment has been prepared for. Moffat has set an awful lot of plates spinning over the past few years; with a bit of luck, he’ll use them to serve up a feast, rather than it all resulting in an unfortunate mess of tears and crockery fragments.

Because all told - when given the chance to shine - Smith was and is a magnificent Doctor,  this mad man in a blue box, this great floppy nonsense with the extrovert hair and those weary, haunted eyes. Let’s hope his story gets the ending it deserves.

 

Matt Smith's Doctor was by turns by turns stern and childlike. Photo: Getty
ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories