Friday, 3 August 2012

Why 11 is MY Doctor - by an Old and Jaded Classic Who Fan

First of all, a little background information. My first Doctor was Jon Pertwee – but my memories of him are very vague and consist mainly of unsettling moments concerning plastic daffodils and giant maggots. The Doctor I really grew up with, therefore, was the great Tom Baker. Tom was everything the Doctor should be: crazy, eccentric, alien – a manic grin, incredible sense of fun but with a very palpable dark side. That was what I wanted – that was what I loved. He was the Doctor. He was MY Doctor. As a child, you put your trust in the Doctor. You watched the show and knew that, no matter what happened, no matter what horrors were on screen, you would be perfectly safe because the Doctor was there.

I’m not sure whether New Who fans can really appreciate or understand the sheer devotion the show generated from children in the 1970’s. Every child watched it – if they didn’t then they certainly never admitted it – and each episode was heavily discussed and dissected in school playgrounds across the country. The show had a hold over children that is very difficult to explain and there was simply nothing else like it on our very limited 3 channel televisions. The show entranced children. It captivated us in a way that nothing else managed to do.

For those who have never experienced “Doctor Who” through a child’s eyes then let me give you a little taste. Saturdays were spent in an agony of excitement. You tried desperately not to actually leave the house – just in case something happened and you couldn’t get back home in time for “Doctor Who” (no videos or internet remember – if you missed it then you MISSED it). No matter what you were doing, one eye was firmly focussed on the clock – and usually that meant taking your place in front of the television hours in advance of transmission.

With each episode only being transmitted once and with no way of recording it, we certainly had to be dedicated and, in some cases, creative in order to watch the show. We had a thunderstorm once which led to a power cut about 10 minutes prior to “Doctor Who” starting – obviously, I was practically orbiting the ceiling in panic. My dad picked up our portable black and white television and led me out to the garage. He popped open the bonnet and hooked up the television to his car battery. So, with howling wind, rain and occasional flashes of lightning, we stood in the garage and happily watched the episode via the television propped up on his car engine. I have friends who missed family holidays in order not to miss an episode – which goes to show that the passion for “Doctor Who” tends to start early.

As a child you could lose yourself in an episode. Oh, you were just utterly and completely transported with the Doctor into these magical and delicious worlds. When “Doctor Who” was on – nothing else existed. 100% of your attention was focussed on the television – you lived every second with the Doctor and his companions. As you grow older, you tend to lose that – you still remember how it felt but a little bit of the magic fades and you mourn the loss of that time of innocence.

As the years go on, as you discover more and more about the show and how it’s made, you become more jaded, more cynical. A part of you will watch and critique the effects, the storyline or the acting. The magic goes. It’s no longer the single most important thing in your life. It’s a comfortable old sofa instead of a gateway to the stars.

Of course, with “Doctor Who” we Classic fans had to suffer through budget cuts and cancellations. Long, long years with no show at all – it was kept alive through fanzines and novels. Some lost hope that it would ever return but then that glorious day came when the BBC announced the show was finally returning to the schedules. Bigger and better than before, we were told. We hoped that was true – but flavoured it with a hefty dose of cynicism. A lot of us were far too jaded to allow the excitement to take hold.

So, back it came – and very cool and shiny it was too. I liked it a lot. But it was no longer my show. It was no longer MY Doctor up there. There was something missing – something that I couldn’t put my finger on until recently. Now, don’t get me wrong – I enjoyed most of it – obviously there were things that grated but I was desperate to LOVE it. I blamed it on the fact that I was older. It was ME that had the problem – not the show. After all, surely it’s impossible to recapture those childhood feelings? Impossible to feel like a 6 year old when you’re in your 40’s? Don’t you believe it. It happens – I just never expected it to happen to me.

It was such an inauspicious beginning - with the announcement of Steven Moffat as the new showrunner and subsequent unveiling of Matt Smith as the new Doctor. I had no real feelings either way as regards to Steven Moffat – I loved “Blink” but loathed “Girl in the Fireplace”. As far as I was concerned, his era would either be good or awful. Matt Smith, however … I had VERY strong feelings about. Yes, I was one of the “he’s way too young” crowd. How could a “boy” convey the age of the Doctor successfully? He wouldn’t have the experience or gravitas to pull this off. He was hired, I thought, purely to appeal to the teen crowd. I really owe Matt Smith a huge apology – I had made up my mind about him a long time prior to the transmission of his first episode. And I’d made up my mind that he was going to be awful. I was mostly convinced that this was THE nail in the coffin – that my time with the show was finally coming to an end. But then – “The Eleventh Hour” aired.

I don’t think I’ve ever changed my mind about something quite so fast before. By the time the food scene swung around, I was smiling. It turned into a grin during the conversation in the hospital with Prisoner Zero. And I actually clapped when the Doctor confronted the Atraxi on the roof. Yes – the “Doctor”. That scene confirmed Matt Smith in my mind as the Doctor. And, if I’m completely honest, it’s the quickest I’ve ever accepted a new Doctor – Classic Who included. He wasn’t MY Doctor yet – one episode does not my Doctor make – but as Season 5 progressed, I found myself getting increasing excited for each episode. Suddenly, Saturdays couldn’t come quickly enough – but when they DID arrive, I didn’t want to go out. I was clock watching again – weather watching too in case a sudden heavy rain shower interfered with the signal. A blank DVD was in the recorder a good few hours prior to the episode.

The turning point for me was the final two episodes of Season 5. “The Pandorica Opens” and “The Big Bang”. Superbly written, this two parter elevated Steven Moffat to the Robert Holmes level for me. Pulling a season long plot arc together in a way that left the viewer satisfied and NOT feel cheated in some way requires a special kind of skill – Mr Moffat seems to have that in abundance. It also nailed two other things. Firstly, I realised that the magic was back – the comfortable sofa had transformed back into my glorious “gateway to the stars”. I watched those episodes in the exact same way I had watched the show as a child: cross-legged in front of the television, 100% focussed on the screen. So much so, that when the episodes ended it was like waking from a dream – blinking a few times and looking around, wondering if anything else had happened in the world whilst I was “elsewhere”. I still care immensely about the how’s, why’s and wherefore’s of the show – I love getting down to the nitty gritty of how various effects are achieved – but it actually never really occurs to me until the third or fourth viewing of the episode.

The second thing that was nailed during this two parter was, of course, the confirmation that Matt Smith is indeed MY Doctor. For me, that’s a pretty big statement and I will quantify it by saying that, even during his first season, Matt Smith was very like a Classic Doctor. You would honestly think that he’d spent months watching the old stories, studying the character but, amazingly, he hadn’t. You could see touches of Troughton, Pertwee, Baker – this is no Superman … this is no “Oncoming Storm”. He is not all-knowing, all-powerful and all-seeing. What Matt gives us is what the Classic Doctors gave us – a trusting, wise, curious and yet sometimes naïve and definitely eccentric ALIEN. Oh, I had seen glimpses of this all season but I was rather knocked back on my heels at first by this young lad having such old eyes. During “The Pandorica Opens” and “The Big Bang” however, it was like my Doctor waved at me and said “You see? I was here all along. You just haven’t been able to see me for a while.”

Tom Baker was the Doctor of my childhood – his characterisation appealed to me during those formative years. Matt Smith is the Doctor of my adulthood. You can definitely argue that it takes an awful lot more to impress an adult than it does a child but one of the points of this is to convey that the show has given me back that childlike sense of wonder that had been missing for so long. Obviously, you have to credit the writing - the Grand Moff has assembled quite the stable of writers who have all obviously bought in to his vision of what “Who” should be. It’s dynamic and ambitious – superbly constructed with not a wasted moment or scene. It’s a symbiotic relationship though. You can have terrific scripts but if you don’t have a quality actor in the lead role or if the characterisation or interpretation of the Doctor isn’t exciting then you’re wasting your time.

The Eleventh Doctor is exciting to me – his childlike enthusiasm and boundless energy carry us all along with him. He babbles, he gestures, he talks with his hands a lot and because of this, his quiet moments have an even greater emotional impact. Eleven isn’t supposed to be still and quiet – and therefore when he is…it affects the audience deeply. We know he’s wearing a mask; we know he’s hiding not only his feelings but some of his darkness too – and that’s evident on those occasions when the mask slips, such as the end of “The God Complex” when he admits to Amy the reasons why he took her with him.

Eleven is my Doctor for all those reasons and more. He doesn’t just excite me – in Eleven I can see my childhood Doctors, I can see the weight of over 900 years in his eyes one moment…and a hyperactive 9 year old child the next. Eleven is crazy, funny, eccentric and obviously alien. Eleven is basically everything I love about Four – but with added extras such as the odd dose of self-loathing and loneliness, not to mention his awkwardness in any kind of romantic situation and Seven-like ability to mastermind and execute extremely elaborate plans.

Eleven appeals to both the child and adult in me – he’s that adored, magical character of my childhood with a complex and fascinating new spin. How could I not simply adore the incarnation that has given me my love of the show back? How could I not love the incarnation that makes me feel like I’m 6 years old again when I’m watching new episodes?

So, thank you Mr Moffat and Mr Smith (and sorry for ever doubting you!) for what you’ve done on the show so far – but most especially, thank you for bringing my Doctor back to me.

Screencaps courtesy of:

Sonic Biro
Cap Cap Cappity Cap