There are tough acts to follow, and then there’s David Tennant.
Tennant played the ninth incarnation of the titular Doctor in the BBC show and to say that he was a fan favorite is an understatement. Who fans like to say that you never forget your first doctor, and everyone has their favorite version; for the longest time my favorite Doctor was the fourth version, played by Tom Baker. This isn’t so surprising given that his tenure on the show was once the most repeated in the United States, thanks to PBS. However, as much as I liked Baker, Tennant is my Doctor.
Enter Matt Smith. After four highly successful seasons of the regular show, numerous Christmas episodes, and mini-movies, Tennant and Who showrunner Russell T. Davies left the show to pursue other projects. Season Five not only has a new Doctor, but an entirely new crew, writers, and producers. Stephen Moffat, famous for Who episodes “The Empty Child” and “Blink” took over Davies’ position, and relatively unknown Matt Smith stepped into the role as the Eleventh Doctor. Understandably, there was some trepidation on the part of the fans, and thankfully, Smith manages to not only honor what other actors have done with the role, but he also infuses the character with a personality all his own.
Tennant’s version of The Doctor always carried an air of sadness. Underneath the manic energy and insatiable curiosity about the universe is an old, scarred man burdened by the weight of years and the regrets inherent in living a life less ordinary. In some ways his Doctor reminds me of Hamlet, which is not surprising considering Tennant is an accomplished member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and made his name through his performance of the melancholy Prince of Denmark.
That weight and sadness are almost completely gone in the Eleventh Doctor. Smith brings to the role a wonderful mad energy to the role: wise and goofy, learned and foolish all at the same time. The sense of age remains, but he truly acts like a man regenerated. In terms of the story, this is the same man (well, Time Lord, but why split hairs?), but one who has been literally reborn. He possesses the same memories, the same knowledge as all ten previous incarnations, but that experience is coupled with the crazy energy of youth. I thought it would take me several episodes to get used to a new actor playing the character, but Smith won me over the second he popped out of that blue, blue box and it’s a testament to his prowess as an artist to make such an iconic role his own in an incredibly short amount of time.
Along with a new Doctor we have a new companion—Amy Pond, played by Karen Gillen. Let me say right off the bat that I’m in love with Amy, as I imagine most everyone else is. She’s Scottish, red-headed, bold, gorgeous, and completely unlike any companion I’ve seen before. Moffat describes her as the bad girl of Doctor Who, but I don’t think that’s accurate. She is the boldest companion in terms of her sexuality and attraction to the Doctor (she’s the only one to actually try and sleep with him), but that doesn’t make her bad, just confident and certain of what she wants. I suppose I’m getting a little off topic here, but labeling her as a “bad girl” brings up many troubling gender stereotypes that I’m not sure the showrunners even realize. Thankfully, this doesn’t show up in the actual show, just in the extras. All I have to say is, Tennant may be my Doctor, but Gillen is my companion.
The chemistry between Smith and Gillen is palpable, and given that the show is really about the companion, the success of this show is due in large part to their performances. That said, the brilliance of the writing can’t be ignored. Under Davies’, Doctor Who was as big and bold as the universe, but Moffat takes a much more personal route in the stories. This isn’t to say that the season isn’t full of those big, colorful, wonderful moments of Who madness—all I have to say is that one episode features Spitfires flying in space, fighting a Daleck warship—but the focus remains more on the effect these adventures have on the characters and how they grow and change. It’s a strange combination of the epic and the intimate, and it’s pulled off beautifully.
Finally, it should be mentioned just how different the show looks now. Anybody familiar with British television knows that the shows look different as compared to American television. It’s not just that people talk with different accents or the locations are obviously different, there’s a quality to the picture that’s subtle, difficult to describe, and utterly British. You can watch ten seconds of a British show with the sound off and know instantly that what you’re watching is BBC produced. Season Five is a step in a new direction in terms of picture quality. It’s brighter, for one, and sharper, yet it still retains that ephemeral BBC quality.
The TARDIS also gets a complete makeover. Some wags on the internet describe it as “glam,” which actually isn’t far from the truth, but the word suggests a certain shallowness that really doesn’t describe the new set. It’s larger, brighter, shinier, and more colorful, and like the Doctor, it feels fresh and new while at the same time completely familiar. From what I gathered from the extra features, the set designers took their cue from the Peter Cushing Doctor Who movies, which was a bit of a point of contention among the fans (then again, any change becomes a bit of a point of contention among the fans when you have a show that’s been around as long as Doctor Who) because the movies didn’t follow Doctor Who cannon. Moffat, though, was a big fan of the look of the movies and wanted that incorporated in his version of the show, and I have to say that it is gorgeous. The use of colors and the brighter lighting enhance the overall feeling that this is a rebirth, and new start infused with a fresh, mad energy that’s a joy to watch.
Even with a new showrunner, a new Doctor, and a new companion, this is still the same Doctor Who we know and love—paradoxically larger, brighter, smaller and more intimate at the same time. Consider this fan very pleased.
The Eleventh Hour
The Beast Below
Victory of the Dalecks
The Time of Angels
Flesh and Stone
The Vampires of Venice
The Hungry Earth
Vincent and the Doctor
The Pandorica Opens
The Big Bang
Doctor Who Confidential
Each episode is presented in fullscreen 16×9 aspect ratio with the audio in stereo, and they look great. As I said, this new crew brings in an entirely new look to the show and in terms of quality, it’s never looked better.
For the most part the extras are your standard fare, but for fans of extras, there’s quite a bit to like here. My favorites were the Monster Files and the Confidentials, because they were the most focused and they delved into the history of the show, which I find particularly interesting given that I’m an American my exposure to Doctor Who has been severely limited until very recently. The worst, I have to say, are the video diaries. They tend to be rather unfocused and, well, boring—little better than what you get when your dad plays with the video camera.
2 Meanwhile in the TARDIS’ Additional Scenes
4 Monster Files
3-Part Video Diary
13 Doctor Who Confidentials
6 In-Vision Commentaries
20 + Teasers and Trailers
Moffat, Smith, and the rest have done an amazing job of taking an established, beloved franchise and simultaneously making it their own and honoring its past. I know that many Science Fiction fans view any kind of change to their shows with trepidation, but take it from me, this is—as the British say—absolutely brilliant. Highly recommended.
BBC Worldwide Ltd. presents Doctor Who (The Complete Fifth Series). Starring: Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, and Arthur Darvill. Running time: 585 minutes. Rating: NR. Released on DVD: November 9, 2010.
Tags: BBC, David Tennant, Doctor Who, Matt Smith