I didn’t like the Eleventh Doctor. There, I said it. Eleven did nothing for me. And by that, I mean no disrespect for Matt Smith, who is an exceptionally talented actor with all the awkward, gangly physical comedy genius of Charlie Chaplin and the disarming charm of a labrador puppy, all eyes and floppy hair.
But he was too young, too cute to play a hardened, millennium-old time traveller whose near-immortality comes with the price of having lost everything and everyone he has held dear, again and again, who has seen the entirety of his species die in a Time War, and whose sole purpose in life is to save the universe from evil things which sometimes fart (I’m looking at you, Slitheens!)
What was Eleven preoccupied with when he first bounded onto our TV screens a few years ago? Fish fingers and custard.
The thing with Matt Smith is that although he could carry off a range of emotions very well, the moments in which he had to do so were too few and far between. Eleven was a man-child. A creature whose hyperactivity, which he turned up to eleven at all times, was at once hypnotic and exasperating.
Amy Pond and Rory as companions made it tolerable. Clara was a different story. In her, Steven Moffat wrote the ultimate Manic Pixie Dream Girl to Smith’s Manic Pixie Dream Boy. Both young. Both catalysts for change. Both impossible. And both seriously lacking an inner monologue.
What’s more, Eleven was the Hipster Doctor. He was concerned with being “cool”, even though his definition of cool was perfectly ironic in a, like, totally cool way. Fezzes were cool. Tweed was cool. Bowties were cool. Unruly hair was cool. You could almost imagine it: Eleven in his TARDIS, putting homemade jam into Mason jars while listening contemplatively to The Decemberists and curating his Instagram feed. And I suppose, given that Smith was announced as the Doctor in 2010, the year when hipsters took over the world, the choice for casting was somewhat inevitable.
He was different to Christopher Eccleston, who was a bit of a lad; different from (my favourite!) David Tennant, who had something of an enthused professor about him. Smith certainly opened up the franchise to a wider audience, both in the UK and across the pond. Thousands of awkward kids and misfits saw themselves in him – the most brilliant guy in the universe – and warmed to him quickly. And I suppose that’s not altogether a bad thing.
When Steven Moffat took over the bulk of the writing for Who, I was elated. Moffat is one of my creative heroes. He’s exceptionally clever, has a beautiful way of manipulating audience emotions, and is not afraid of hurting his characters (increasingly, by throwing them off tall buildings). For all of this, and for the masterpiece that is Sherlock, I commend him.
However, the last season of Doctor Who was, I’m sorry to say, a little bit crappy. It lacked the darkness and gravity it had championed throughout previous seasons, and instead seemed more preoccupied with being a spectacle, often to the point of silliness (The Doctor riding a motorbike up the Shard? Really??)
Sure, there were a few decent episodes (The Power of Three, The Angels Take Manhattan, The Crimson Horror, The Name of the Doctor), but the majority were starting to sound increasingly more like a children’s show (Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, Cold War). And yes, I am aware Who was intended as a children’s show, but under the remit of Russell T Davies had become a happy middle – a show loved by children for the stories and enjoyed by adults for the subtext. To have that and take it away seemed like a sin.
According to Tom Phillips in his article on Smith’s rise and fall:
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.
When it was announced Smith was to leave the show, speculation began about the new Doctor. Many began to say it was about time the Doctor stopped being a white guy. Lots gave their opinion about why they thought now was the time to have a female Doctor. Laurie Penny wrote an excellent post on the topic, raising a variety of great points, including this one:
Why is it so hard to conceive of a female Doctor, or a black Doctor? For the same reason that it’s so hard to conceive of a female president, or a black prime minister, or any world government or economic power not largely controlled by rich white men: because we cannot imagine it. Because we refuse to imagine it. Because the stories we tell ourselves and each other about power and history don’t often include women and non-white people in leading roles.
And this one:
Some fans argue that boys and men will be unable to relate to a Doctor who isn’t male. In fiction as in life, women and people of colour are expected to relate to the stories of white men and understand that we can never be the hero –but it never works the other way round. To expect little white boys to look at a black time lady and imagine themselves fighting her battles would be unthinkable.
The weird thing is, I found myself disagreeing. I know. Me. Disagreeing with a woman Doctor. I mean, surely I of all people should be first on board this bandwagon. But I wasn’t, and I couldn’t articulate why. And it made me feel like a Really Bad Feminist. It reminded me about the time I heard Lucy Liu was going to be cast as John Watson (Joan) in Elementary. It felt disingenuous; gimmicky. I mean, I certainly wouldn’t be ANGRY if the Doctor was announced as a woman, but I’d be unsatisfied. And I didn’t know why until I read Neil Gaiman’s comment on the matter:
…If I were show-running (I’m not) I wouldn’t cast a woman as the Doctor yet, and it would absolutely be on my list of things to do in the following regeneration. (I was the one who wrote the line about the Corsair changing gender on regeneration, in “The Doctor’s Wife” after all, and made it canon that Time Lords can absolutely change gender when they regenerate.) Some of that is stuff I’d find hard to articulate, mostly having to do with what kind of Doctor you follow Matt Smith’s Doctor with: someone harder and much older and more dangerous and, yes, male feels right to me, as a storyteller. Where you go after that, ah, that’s a whole new game…
And it made sense to me then: it wasn’t that I didn’t want a female Doctor. It’s that I didn’t want a female Doctor YET. Not because the world isn’t ready for the Doctor to be female, but because the DOCTOR isn’t ready to be female. After Eleven’s mess of a man-child, we needed somebody to bridge the gap. Yes, Peter Capaldi (along with Richard Ayoade) was the guy I was secretly rooting for. When his name was announced, Tumblr went mad, posting gifsets of him as the foulmouthed Malcolm Tucker (for whose interpretation he rose to fame in The Thick Of It) pitted against the Daleks. I allowed myself for a moment to fantasise about a Doctor whose catchphrase was “Fuckity-bye!” (and then I remembered this is a kids show and crawled back into my cave).
Opting for Capaldi was an ambitious choice. He’s an Oscar winner (for directing!) and an excellent actor, capable of staggering emotional range and gravitas. One hopes he will lend this to the Doctor when his time comes. Let’s have a distinguished, wry, world-weary (Universe-weary?), verging-on-curmudgeonly Doctor who’s more interested in teaching those wicked aliens to be nice than sordid culinary combinations and sartorial choices. The Doctor is often provoked to anger by his enemies. Watching Eleven getting angry was like watching a puppy growling – adorable. Watching Doctor Peter Capaldi being angry will hopefully strike fear in the hardened hearts of baddies everywhere.
Then, after Capaldi, I will be campaigning for a female Doctor – and no ditzy sexy thing either. Give us a role model. Give us a strong, sassy, confident charming woman, who is remembered not for being bevulva’d, but for being an incredible character. Might I suggest: Helen Mirren; Tilda Swindon.