I’ll admit that I was weary about David Tennant’s regeneration into Matt Smith. Smith is a phenomenal actor, but I had a few reservations about his time on the show. It was during these years that the show really blew up, becoming a big deal across the pond and cementing the reputation of the actors and creators. But as with things like this, when the goofy, nerdy thing that you like reaches the mainstream, it stops feeling like your thing. Suddenly you have to share it with the rest of the world. And often, the thing changes to please this wider audience, losing the eccentricities that made you fall in love with it in the first place. But upon rewatching the first of Smith’s series as the Eleventh Doctor, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The budget might have had a noticeable upgrade (something that became par for the course with every new incarnation) but this is definitely the little British show it’s always been. I may be proven wrong, but for the time being, I think the reason the show found it’s wider audience around this time is because it really is that excellent.
Matt Smith is The Doctor. Like David Tennant before him, he will always be remembered as The Doctor. From the first episode in this series, he establishes his version of the character. He’s youthful on the outside, full of life and energy. But he can turn that around in an instant, becoming older than his years and perhaps the most threatening of the new Doctors. He seemingly has less time for stupidity, and will tell his companions as much. He’s fun 90 percent of the time, but that just makes it all the more impactful when he snaps. He also has his own quirks, with his go-to phrase being “Gernonimo” (which, for my money, is better than “Allons y” any day of the week) and dresses like a mixture of a history teacher and a hipster barista. But Smith brings such gravitas to the role, which is crazy considering he was only 26 when cast – the youngest actor to play the titular role. He can deliver the mumbo jumbo (and with Stephen Moffatt at the helm, there’s plenty of that) but also the big speeches and the heart-breaking moments. Watching him now, it’s easy to see why so many fans cite him as their favourite.
Like David Tennant before him, he’s a more human Doctor. Or a good “Boyfriend Doctor” as Moffatt has been quoted as saying – which explains a lot. And like Tennant, it still feels like he’s outrunning his bloody past, especially the actions he took on Gallifrey. Of course, it’s only a matter of time before these issues are dealt with more head on, when the show veers into more serialised territory. But right now, things are nice and simple(ish). Each week is a new adventure, except for the odd two parter, and there’s a cracking plot (pun intended) running through the series regarding cracks in the fabric of time. It’s the perfect balance. It feels like a grander story overall than in previous seasons, but still feels like you could pop an episode on at random and enjoy it on its own.
As I’ve said before, the Doctor would be nothing without his companions. And in series five, he gets two for the price of one in (eventually) married couple Amy and Rory. Firstly, Amy (played by Karen Gillan) is a really fantastic companion. She’s fiery and can more than keep up with the Eleventh Doctor. She’s also strong, and when the Doctor occasionally raises his voice or loses his temper, you don’t worry much about Amy handling it. She is on an equal footing with the Doctor more often than other companions. Sure, there are still moments where she’s captured, but for the most part she can take care of herself. Weirdly, she’s also the thirstiest of all the Doctor’s companions, constantly lusting after the poor guy. These scenes are funny for the most part, thanks mainly to the excellent physical comedy of Matt Smith, who plays the Eleventh Doctor as a man who truly has no idea what’s going on, even in the face of the most obvious signs. But Amy’s advances do get a bit much in one or two moments – moments even Steven Moffat has said he regrets. But she’s a great companion overall, and is way more than just a short skirt, which is how many British journalists decided to see her. And she also has perhaps the world’s nicest partner in Rory Williams.
Rory, played by Arthur Darvill, is just a lovely bloke. He’s the reluctant fiancé to Amy Pond and he really goes through the wringer in this series. Firstly, his soon-to-be-wife almost cheats on him. Which is bad enough. Secondly, he dies and is erased from history – meaning there are a fantastic couple of episodes where no one remembers him except the Doctor. Finally he comes back as a plastic Auton, and is forced to wait 2,000 years for Amy’s return. It’s a lot. And I’m not sure many people could pull it off with such effortless likeability as Darvill. There is a sort of cognitive dissonance when he decides to act tough, because you just can’t see Rory being a badass. But as a reliable human anchor for the show, there’s no one better.
I was hesitant going into this series because I was convinced it contained a very weak run of episodes. I barely remember the finale two-parter, and throughout the run there were stories I hadn’t rewatched since their original airing. But I stand corrected on every single account. The more forgettable episodes, the one that have sort got a bad reputation, are supremely enjoyable. The weakest of the series is probably ‘The Beast Below’ and ‘The Vampires of Venice’ – but it feels wrong to call them particularly weak. They’re still fantastic stories. Even episodes that could be considered filler, don’t feel like that. It feels like that characters are constantly evolving throughout even the throwaway episodes. ‘Victory of the Daleks’ was an episode I felt a little worried by, mainly because I feel very strongly that old Winston Churchill was a ruddy great bastard. But in the madcap hands of Mark Gatiss, it’s a very silly and very enjoyable episode.
The standouts for me, in a series of superb episodes, are the two-part return of the Weeping Angels. I was concerned at rewatching their return, because ‘Blink’ is so excellent in its simplicity. But having heard this described as Aliens, and ‘Blink’ as Alien, it all fell into place. Yeah they have new powers now. There are more of them. We see them move. That’s awesome! This is an action science-fiction story (and there’s no shortage of either) whereas ‘Blink’ was straight-up horror. And the writing is so, so perfect throughout these two episodes. It becomes very clear why Steven Moffat was so perfect for the job of showrunner, whatever our thoughts on where he takes the show. He can throw techno-babble at you like nobody else, aided by Matt Smith. And you believe it and you follow it. It might not make sense, but very little fiction and entertainment I’m consuming right now seems to make obvious sense, so I’m all for it. Maybe when I was younger, this constant barrage of explanations and mumbo-jumbo got in the way of a cool story, but right now I’m all for it.
There are too many other great episode to talk about here (I could spend hours raving about the two-part finale) but there are two episodes I want to draw attention to. Firstly, ‘The Lodger’, in which the Doctor must move in with James Corden to solve a mystery in the upstairs flat. I was really ready for this to be rubbish. But like with everything James Corden is involved with, I will slag it off for weeks and then secretly really enjoy it (yes, even Cats). ‘The Lodger’ is just a really original and funny episode. It doesn’t break new ground or do anything crazy, but it’s different and there are some great moments for Matt Smith to run around freaking people out. And Corden is the perfect human being for him to act against. (I just really wish I didn’t enjoy Gareth Roberts’ episodes so much. The man is not great.)
Another surprise to me was the Richard Curtis-penned ‘Vincent and the Doctor’. Going into this, I’d always assumed people had forgotten about that episode. But over the years I was shocked to learn that people really liked it, like really liked it. I wasn’t holding out hope for my rewatch. I remember it just being forgettable. But it’s clear to me now that it’s because it flew right over my head. If you go into it for the monster of the week, yeah you’ll be a little disappointed (despite some fun practical effects around the invisible creature). But as a study of a very sad, very damaged man, it really hits home. Tony Curran’s Van Gogh is heartbreakingly tragic, a man riddled with self-doubt and severe depression. But that doesn’t stop him helping out when the Doctor comes calling. And their brief friendship contains multiple tear-jerking moments, not least of all the famous scene where the Doctor and Amy take him to the future to see just how fondly he’ll be remembered. It’s very heavy, especially for a show that tends to look on the bright side of things. But it’s really quite magnificent.
There’s a good chance that this just might be my favourite series so far. It’s so consistently good, feeling like a perfect marriage between the show’s brilliant first four series and the more complicated science fiction that was to come. Nobody sums this idea up more than River Song. She’s a character who becomes a bit of gimmick, with catchphrases and flirty lines. But here, she’s still very exciting to watch as the mysterious woman in the Doctor’s future. I’d love to be proven wrong by the way. Maybe the next few series will be excellent, and just maybe I didn’t appreciate them the first time around. We’ll see.
Overall, a fantastic series. Each episode has its merits, and thanks to a consistently strong cast, each is very entertaining. I also want to suggest the Christmas special that followed this series, ‘A Christmas Carol’. Though it still has a lot of the problems all the festive specials have, it blew me away with its writing and emotional moments, much like this series as a whole. I can’t wait to see where the Eleventh Doctor goes next.