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The Newest 'Doctor Who': He Any Good?

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I doubt that anyone was more skeptical when the announcement hit that Matt Smith was going to be the newest incarnation of Doctor Who, but I have to confess that there’s something wonderfully nostalgic about Smith’s Doctor, even if it is within the confines of the updated spin.

See, I’m old school.

In fact, I’m just about as old school as you can be if you’re in America, and indeed (imho) I am the perfection of old school. An odd claim, of course, but hear me out. You see, if we discount the short-lived effort to bring Doctor Who to America around 1972 (when I was 1) with the Jon Pertwee incarnation (and I think it is fair to discount it ultimately), then Doctor Who was first available to be consumed by Americans in 1977 when the first four series with Tom Baker as the Doctor began airing on PBS. I was sick a lot when I was young, and if something is on PBS, it’s a simple fact that you’re allowed to watch it at any age. I consumed. I was 6. Checkmate.

We’re on Doctor 11 now, and there were three doctors and some ten years before Tom Baker took on the role, but Tom Baker IS The Doctor. The End.

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There is, of course, a sense in which it is inaccurate to say that all the actors who have come since are merely doing spins on Tom Baker impressions. It’s a clearly defined role, and all these actors, even Tom Baker, are just playing that role. Moreover, it’s an evolving role that has gone through changes since the early sixties, with countless writers, so forth and so on. Nevertheless, the sense in which such a claim is inaccurate is similar to the sense in which actors portray the King of Siam as having hair.

While David Tennant managed a brilliant job of bringing forth a Doctor new audiences could connect with, and fans could appreciate, there was something missing in his version of the Doctor. Before the Tennant fans get too riled at that, I should explain that the missing something has been missing for a while, and it probably isn’t a necessary component in any case. Tennant really was a great Doctor, and will probably serve for quite some time as the next generations Tom Baker.

Now, the problem is that whatever this missing element may be, it’s hard to put into words. It’s also difficult to accurately judge from the episode which finds The Doctor in the middle of regeneration, being that he is supposed to be somewhat off whatever will be his normal game. That said, and considering the fact that our newest Doctor is apparently meant to follow the chain created by Tennant’s Doctor (and rightly so), Smith might well have found a way to inject that missing element.

Oddly, in trying to describe this element of “Doctorness,” I keep coming back to the idea of age. Though the Doctor may be 450-ish, or nearly 1,000, depending on the story, Tom Baker’s Doctor was mind-numbingly old. Eternally young of spirit, perhaps, but he fairly dripped of being old. Old even well beyond whatever his age might be. The kind of age that comes with having seen the Universe in a way mere humans could never really comprehend. Partially a wisdom and experience that allowed The Doctor to look at events from a different perspective, but more than that. It was some kind of specifically ancient sensibility that ruled out the possibility of urgency. Baker’s Doctor was often distracted in the most intense moments, simply because of this unique perspective of events, and even when running somehow managed to seem like he didn’t really mean it.

Tennant talked old, acted old (in some sense), and demonstrated a good mix of the youthful energy and wisdom… but, he didn’t feel old.

Unfortunately, our first episode here finds the Doctor with twenty minutes to save the world from destruction, so a good bit of urgency is going to win out.

But, there are telling moments.

The show opens with the Doctor crash-landing in the backyard of a young girl named Amy Pond (well, it’s not the name she goes by at the time), and he has interrupted her prayer for help with the scary crack in her wall. After a slightly goofy bit of figuring out what the Doctor can stand to eat, there is a scene with the two of them sitting at the kitchen table that fit with the old school Doctor, even if it did feel Tennant-ish at the same time. Amy has mentioned the scary crack in her wall, and as the Doctor sits, eating his fish sticks and custard, the subject of Amy’s being brave comes up. It’s a well thought out scene, and I could sense a little Baker in it.

Before you know it, The Doctor returns to find an adult Amy Pond, and the adventure begins. Amy (Karen Gillan) is also a brilliant choice, by the way. Clever enough to think on her feet, bold enough to temporarily imprison the Doctor (twice!), but still a bit unsure of herself for all her independence.

Few games are trickier than taking over the role of The Doctor, and as I said, this is a tricky episode to really judge, but I think Matt Smith is on a great road to combine the best of all worlds.

Doctor Who airs on BBC America Saturdays at 9/8c, and according to reports has already broken the networks ratings record. Don’t miss it.

Have your say below. Is the new Doctor a hit, or a miss?

This new era of the BAFTA-winning series, which delivered record ratings for BBC AMERICA earlier this year, continues the tradition of rebooting with new lead actors and creative team. Steven Moffat, creator of some of the most frightening and award-winning Doctor Who episodes to date – including the BAFTA-winning episode “Blink,” which starred Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan – takes over as lead writer and executive producer.

For new audiences, Steven Moffat says: “Doctor Who is the adventures of an entirely mysterious stranger from outer space. With a time and space machine that can go absolutely anywhere. It’s literally a television show set in everyplace in the universe, every point in history and in every style and every genre. It’s all the other shows in one. You don’t have to watch the rest of television – this is it.”

The reboot series has the Doctor (Matt Smith) and his new travelling companion, the enigmatic Amy Pond (Karen Gillan), together exploring sixteenth century Venice, France during the 1890s and the United Kingdom in the far future, now an entire nation floating in space. But, the Doctor’s enemies are never far behind him including old nemeses the Daleks and Weeping Angels, plus new foes such as alien vampires, humanoid reptiles and a silent menace that follows the Doctor and Amy wherever they go.

Piers Wenger (Ashes to Ashes) and Beth Willis (Ashes to Ashes) are the executive producers and writers for the new 13 episode series include Richard Curtis (Pirate Radio, Love Actually), Toby Whithouse (Being Human, Torchwood) and Chris Chibnall (Camelot, Law & Order UK, Torchwood).  Guest stars include Alex Kingston (ER, Flash Forward), BAFTA-winner James Corden (Gavin & Stacey, The History Boys), Oscar nominee Sophie Okonedo (The Secret Life of Bees, Hotel Rwanda) and Tony Curran (24).