I’ll readily admit that I’m a bit of a UK TV junkie (ahem), but it’s not just my fondness for British accents that has so endeared me to the newest season of BBC stalwart Doctor Who, which just aired its second episode in its home country.
The original Doctor Who debuted a couple weeks after the Kennedy assassination, but since then, the show has been produced on and off as the Doctor – a benevolent, ageless, time-traveling alien – has “regenerated” into the bodies of 11 different actors. Notably, writer Russell T. Davies revitalized the series in 2005 with Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor and Billie Piper (who can now be seen on Showtime’s Secret Diary of a Call Girl) as his human companion. Smart writing and slick – but still endearingly cheap – special effects garnered a new, hip audience and eventually earned Davies a spin-off, Torchwood, soon to be Americanized for Syfy. Following Eccleston’s one-season run, the Tenth Doctor was played by charming Scot David Tennant, who successfully drove the series for nearly fifty episodes. After Davies’ fourth season of Who, he and Tennant both stepped down and the show was handed off to Davies’ highly regarded deputy Steven Moffat. In a controversial choice, moppety twentysomething Matt Smith was cast as the Doctor.
Though I’m personally familiar with the history of Who, I had never actually seen an entire episode of the show before last week, when season five bowed with “The Eleventh Doctor.” Since I had followed the internet kerfuffle that followed the announcement that Smith was cast – fans were concerned that he was too young or too pretty or somehow contrary to the spirit of the role – I was interested to see how the actor would assert himself.
And I must say, he did a tremendous job. The Doctor is a peculiar role that requires rapidfire, off-kilter dialogue to be delivered with a cocktail of whimsy and heart. Smith’s Doctor cares deeply for children and the helpless, yet he has the confidence to stand up against seemingly impenetrable forces. More, he’s a guide to the strange and wonderful for Amy Pond (Karen Gillan), his new companion.
In “The Eleventh Hour,” we meet Amy first as a seven-year-old named Amelia when the newly-regenerated Doctor crashes the TARDIS – his spaceship/time machine that takes the form of a phone booth – in her backyard. Amelia is charmed and delighted by the “raggedy doctor” as he adjusts to his new body and helps her decipher the strange voices she hears in her house at night. The Doctor promises her an escape and says he’ll be back in five minutes – but when the TARDIS reappears, 12 years have gone by. Amy is now a spunky and disillusioned young woman, but after the Doctor literally saves the world, she is entranced all over again and eagerly jumps in the TARDIS without mentioning that the next morning should be her wedding.
Smith and Gillan have great chemistry, and more, Smith makes it easy to see what has Amy so starry-eyed. He’s appealingly confident about his observations and knowledge as he guides her through a 29th century version of Britain in “The Beast Below,” the season’s second episode. Like Tennant, Smith seems to be spitting out information so quickly that he can bury the Doctor’s emotional foundation, which has come to the fore since the rest of his race was destroyed. The Doctor acts like he travels through time as a whimsical observer, but as Amy points out, he often chooses to interfere out of the goodness of his heart – because he is “very old and very kind and the very very last.”
Beyond the performances, Moffat has thus far lived up to expectations as the series’ premier writer. The dialogue is full of wit and the dangers are very real. Doctor Who has always been a reliable show for heart as well as frights, and “The Beast Below” delivered both in equal parts. Moffat has wisely used the opportunity of the reboot to tell stories that speak to the heart of the Doctor’s character. In that way, this has been the perfect place for me – or any new viewer – to jump into the show and fall for it anew.
Matt Smith’s Doctor officially comes to BBC America on April 17, but the internet is a wonderful place, if you get what I’m saying.