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
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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage