Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Order of Rassilon #1: Matt Smith, The Ancient Amateur

Hair, nose, chin.  I guess that everything on Matt is abnormally large...
When I started writing this list about 10 days ago, I had no idea that, when I got to number 1 on the list, that very Doctor would have already announced his retirement, leaving me to write an obituary for my favorite Doctor in the franchise.  When I first saw a picture of Matt Smith, I thought "This is going to be the ugliest Doctor of all time."  I was very wrong about that, as his pure charm and attractiveness shine through when he's moving around.  Matt Smith's Doctor was a truly excitable child with the wisdom of an ancient soul.  Something old, something new...

If you want to talk about big shoes to fill, Smith had his work cut out for him just as much as Peter Davison did, if not moreso.  Smith not only had to replace the most popular Doctor of his time, he had to replace Doctor Who's first real male sex icon, a man whose screaming fangirls could contend with the Beatles' concert at Shea Stadium.  But Steven Moffat said that, while he expected it to take about a season and a half for the audience to accept Matt Smith, he really felt that everyone fell in love with him the second he popped out of that TARDIS and said "Hello, I'm the Doctor."  His first landing on the ground showed his new trademark Doctor stance. The way that Matt Smith moves is simply unique.  The way he stands.  The way he moves his hands.  The way he jerks around exaggeratedly with his head flopping all around.  It just gives this lovably manic quality to him that is both endearing and exciting at the same time.

"My anger at the Daleks has turned me into a ferret!"

Where Tennant's Doctor was cool as a cucumber, Smith's was a little different.  He had an unshakable confidence when staring down a Dalek battle fleet, but fell into a bumbling mess when trying to talk to women.  His first kiss with River is hilariously awkward.  I feel like that's the appeal of the Eleventh Doctor to really awkward nerds:  It gives us this hope that, even though we're terrified of everyday social situations, if the chips were really down, we could be just as brave as the Eleventh Doctor.  All the Doctors have shown a striking confidence in themselves to be a primary trait (the Second Doctor appeared to be very terrified and/or stressed, but still knew that he was strong enough to handle the situation), but none have combined it with awkwardness the way Matt Smith did.  That's the brilliance of his performance:  he's awkward and confident, childish and ancient, silly and serious, handsome and gawky, sometimes all at the same time.

Smith was lucky, as well, as he was surrounded with some truly amazing people.  Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill were the first multi-companion pair since the 5th Doctor's outings with Tegan and Turlough, which was also the last time we saw a full-time male companion.  The "no hanky-panky in the TARDIS" rule that had been instituted in the classic series by Jonathan-Nathan Turner was violated once or twice with Amy, but for the most part hers was a love story that was going on inside the TARDIS, with the Doctor merely as a chaperone.  Traditionally, companions left the Doctor when it was time for them to get married.  Jo Grant, Leela, Peri, and even the Doctor's granddaughter, Susan, all left the Doctor because they fell in love a man they met during their adventure with the Doctor.  The Amy and Rory storyline taught us that that wasn't a coincidence.  The Doctor doesn't want to become too attached to someone.  "He hates endings" River tells us.  The Doctor ducked out on his companions that wanted to get married because he didn't want to see them grow old and die, or become too involved in their new life to stay with them.  Remember the end of the second Whinnie the Pooh book where Pooh just turned back into a stuffed animal because Christopher Robbin grew out of him?  The Doctor didn't want to turn back into the little, stuffed, raggedy Doctor puppet.  He got out first.

Amy was the first and only companion to convince him to stick around and bring her husband with her, allowing their relationship to grow and develop over a decade of their lives (and 300 years of the Doctor's).  It went into a deeper Doctor/Companion relationship than ever before, and not in a simple romance way like the Tenth Doctor/Rose relationship.  Colin Baker at Denver Comic Con last weekend said that he thought the Doctor and his companion should not even notice that they are of different genders, and that it should be a strictly paternal relationship.  The Doctor's relationship with Amy, despite her early on misinterpreting it as sexual, was actually extremely paternal.  Rory was, in some strange ways, a son-in-law to the Doctor, which made them both friends and, in some cases, rivals.

The Eleventh Doctor's awkwardness with women made you wonder how the First Doctor could possibly have had a granddaughter.  Thus, it only makes sense that the woman to win his heart would have to be someone assertive enough to be the pursuer.  Thankfully, Moffat had just such a character lying around ready to be used from an earlier episode he wrote in the David Tennant era:  the aggressive, and sexually aggressive, River Song, played brilliantly by Alex Kingston.  Moffat claims to have not had a plan for River when he wrote "Silence in the Library" (I'm not sure if I believe him), but it seems funny that a character who was created before the Eleventh Doctor had been cast actually turned out to be a better match for the Eleventh Doctor than for the Doctor she originally appeared with.  River became an important part of the Eleventh Doctor era.  The entire era is defined by the characters of Amy, Rory, and River.  Jenny, Vastra, Strax, and Clara, who are the primary supporting characters at the moment, really seem to be more of an entourage that's been made in preparation for the 12th Doctor.  The Pond family was the real focus of the entire effort:  Amy (mother), Rory (father), River (daughter), Doctor (son-in-law).  Yet, while these may have been the biological and legal labels for how they relate to each other, in a brilliant irony, the way they act towards each other completely flips these relationships around.  The daughter and the son-in-law end up actually being the experts, becoming parent figures for their own parents/in-laws.

This should be hanging over the fireplace in the TARDIS.
Alex Kingston and Matt Smith were a match made in heaven.  She was sexy and fiercely independent.  He was horrified of her sexually, and she was almost his equal intellectually.  While they may have disagreed about the neccesity of violence in battling evil, the Doctor always respected River's ability to get things done.  Moffat once said that he had an endgame planned for Amy, Rory, AND River.  I can't imagine how there could be an endgame for River, as her first appearance was her death.  It would be a tough way to write her out of the show at this point.  Hopefully, she'll stick around to annoy the 12th Doctor.

Most importantly, Matt Smith was backed up by the greatest writer in Doctor Who history:  Steven Moffat.  Those people who say that Moffat ruined Doctor Who and want Russel T. Davies back must be the kind of people who would wait in line for an opening night screening of Fast and Furious 6 and call The Godfather boring.  Moffat's writing is light years ahead of even the best of Davies's episodes.  He created fascinating stories that didn't just lean back on the classic villains for excitement.  With the exception of the Great Intelligence, most of the season-arcs were focused more on a new villain that Moffat invented, most notably The Silence.  Not seen until "The Impossible Astronaut," The Silence are implied to have also been secretly involved in the explosion of the TARDIS, meaning that they were the primary villain of the entire era, despite appearing in only 3 episodes.  In all of Moffat's season finales, classic series villains and races show up, but they are always side characters, added for flavor, who serve as extra menaces in an episode about something else.  A Dalek attacks the Doctor in a library, but while trying to repair the universe from a Silence plot.  Another Dalek gives the Doctor the information about trying to find the Silence.  A Silurian and a Sontaran appear in "The Name of the Doctor" but, unlike the classic series, they are exclusively protagonists of the stories.  Moffat took his own original, imaginative stories and sprinkled them with a little bit of familiar Doctor Who flavor by placing these iconic characters in the background.  It's distinctly Doctor Who, and distinctly Moffat.

Moffat's most unique talent is actually steeped in a Freudian concept called "the uncanny."*  While this isn't something Moffat has ever cited as an inspiration for his writing, the definition of "uncanny" sounds strikingly Moffatian:  "The uncanny is a Freudian concept of an instance where something can be familiar, yet foreign at the same time, resulting in a feeling of it being uncomfortably strange or uncomfortably familiar" (from the Wikipedia page).  Moffat says he does just that:  he tries to make something strikingly unfamiliar, grotesque, and horrifying out of something that is commonplace and familiar.  He's done this with gas masks, clockwork toys, statues, dust in sunbeams, "the smilers," whispers in the darkness, and, most recently, wi-fi.

"Are you my mummy?"
The truly terrifying concepts behind Moffat's best episodes are emphasized perfectly by Matt Smith, whose Doctor is so optimistic and brave that the darkest moments of the Eleventh Doctor's era become less scary when you realize exactly who is standing in the way of these monsters:  A man who, unarmed, can taunt an entire fleet of ships, telling them to come and get him.  Matt Smith's Doctor is the man who stands firmly in the way of everything terrifying in the Universe.  He is what monsters have nightmares about.

Now, as he departs, he will leave behind a legacy of being in the shadow of what many will continue to call the greatest Doctor in the new series, or possibly in the whole franchise.  Few will give Smith the credit he deserves for being his own, unique, and brilliant version of this 50 year old character.

The age of the David Tennant vs. Tom Baker debate is over.  Long live the age of the Matt Smith vs. David Tennant debate!

It's a tie, guys!  You're both pretty!
*I owe this concept of linking Moffat to "the uncanny" to someone I saw at the Popular Culture Association conference.  I don't remember her name, but can look it up upon request.

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