Tuesday, 2 February 2010
The Geek Factor #1: "Splendid fellows," etc
ON THE DOCTORS
The world probably doesn’t need another favourite-Doctor rundown. But, it struck me recently, as I haven’t been doing this for very long, it would probably make sense to provide some thoughts on the Doctors, simply as a way of giving these reviews context.
There’s a good list here, on the blog Postmodern Barney, where it’s very nice to see the Seventh Doctor in the top spot, though the sixties Doctors are somewhat unfairly relegated. However, when I came to try and rank the various Doctors, I just couldn’t. It seems ridiculous to compartmentalise the Doctors in that way, given that I genuinely love all the versions of the character. I do love some of them more, but even so, it all seems rather meaningless and arbitrary, given that it’s almost impossible to disassociate each character from the success of his stories or specific era, and it’d vary depending on which stories I’d seen most recently anyway!
Christ – a fan who can’t abide a list; what a failure!
Besides, if I created a precedence for ranking everything, soon I’d be doing Favourite Masters (Deadly Assassin, Survival), Favourite Companions (Barbara, Ben, Liz, Leela, Ace), Favourite TARDIS Interiors (original, secondary, new series)… And that’d just get silly. So here are simply some thoughts on each Doctor.
The Eleventh Doctor
Well, what can I say? I suppose it is quite interesting being in a position of ignorance about something that soon everyone will have an opinion on, when, at the time of writing, all there is to go on is the final moments of The End of Time and the 2010 series trailer. The “geography teacher/Hoxton clubkid” costume is really the only element up for comment, and I’ve done that already (here) – though it can’t really be overstated: great boots.
Perhaps the thing I find most heartening about this new Doctor is, if you imagine Matt Smith stood next to William Hartnell (who, as the original, I can’t help but measure all others against), clubkid meets Edwardian gentlemen should just seem really… wrong. But it doesn’t. Even on a purely visual basis, it makes sense that Smith is a version of the same character. That seems like a pretty good basis to start out on.
The Tenth Doctor
There’s quite a lot I don’t like about the Tenth Doctor; the overstated emotionalism, and sometimes hammy performance (and, for someone as contrary as me, his current pop-cultural status doesn’t help). However, he does have the advantage of being given a range of stories which deliberately allow the Doctor to be characterised as an actual person, and to develop in hitherto unseen ways. That counts for a lot, but, although it might be a superficial view, his cheeky-chappie shtick just grates on me.
The Ninth Doctor
The thing I always emphasise about the Ninth Doctor is how ambiguous I feel about him – but, on balance, I like him (almost against my better judgement) because he’s so unprecedented. All those unbound or hypothetical Doctors that people make up or have appeared in different capacities in certain books and novels, they’re always basically versions or combinations of the existing Doctors. While you can see some of Tom or McGann in Eccleston’s portrayal, not in a million years would anyone have predicted a leather-clad Mancunian Doctor. And I’m fairly sure fandom would have been horrified at the prospect if it wasn’t quite so desperate for a new series by 2005. That’s probably all to the good though. His zaniness is overstated, but his at least outwardly distinct approach works.
The Eighth Doctor
The Eighth is an odd one. He’s a fantastic Doctor, and it’s very unusual feeling genuinely able to say that on the basis of one story, in which he nails the part. However, I do feel the understanding of the character displayed by the production team of the TVM was superficial at best, and, in retrospect, he could have done with some of the new series’ clarity in that respect.
It’s been noted before that there is something quite weak about the Doctor by the end of the TVM; obviously, the Doctor has been vulnerable before (something I quite like, as I’m dubious about him being infallible) – but in, say, Androzani, it at least chimed with the general doomy, end-of-an-era atmosphere. To have a new Doctor seem out of his depth at the end of his introductory story seems a mistake, and he could have done with some new series-style conviction and belief in the character as a hero, someone who is never weak or clueless.
It’s slightly unfair, but I also feel the character of the Eighth Doctor has been compromised by the ‘niceness’ (in the most mediocre sense of the word) and hugginess of a lot of his BBC novel series, where he was mired with wet companions like Sam Jones, or Charley in the audios. I know Compassion was a bit of a bitch, but she never lived up to her potential, and was arguably too little too late. I can’t help but feel a more uncompromising companion along the lines of the New Adventures’ Roz Forrester or Kadiatu Lethbridge-Stewart might have enabled him to show a bit more steel.
The Seventh Doctor
I can understand the problems some people have with McCoy. His era dared to do something that wasn’t a replica of the series’ seventies approach (and, inevitably, his stories form a large part of how people judge his performance), and was a bit too ‘madcap’ for some. He also had a weak start, and yes, the scripts didn’t always capitalise on his strengths as an actor.
But in spite of all that, I genuinely think he’s brilliant, and he’s absolutely one of my favourite Doctors. He inhabits the part, and is the polar opposite of the handsome romantic of say, McGann or Tennant, which is great – a more ‘difficult’ approach, but, I think, a more worthy one. He’s particularly brilliant at the little moments, which seems appropriate to the manipulative backseat his Doctor takes.
The Sixth Doctor
The constant knocking of the Sixth Doctor gets pretty tedious. I enjoy quite a lot of season twenty-two, and I think Colin Baker makes a good Doctor – unfortunately, there’s nothing remarkable enough about him to make him stand out particularly. To my mind, the idea of a dangerous, unpredictable Doctor is an appealing one; what’s more problematic is that he wasn’t allowed enough opportunities to actually characterise his Doctor, or even enough chances to really act.
I probably prefer this Doctor more in theory than practise, the upside of his not being afforded a great deal of variety or particularly strong writing on-screen meaning there’s a lot of potential to explore in other media. As such, the Sixth Doctor is a lot more interesting in terms of novels and so on than the versions which were unarguably effective on TV; obviously the most popular Doctors are going to be the ones people want to revisit the most, but what’s the point in missing adventures featuring the Fourth Doctor, say, which, to be successful, are simply going to have to stringently ape something that already works perfectly well.
The Fifth Doctor
My least favourite Doctor - although, inevitably this also reflects my feelings on his weak, directionless collection of stories, given how difficult it is to separate the character, actor, and era. Actually, of those angles, I quite like the idea of the character, I just don’t think he was sold terribly well, and was lumbered with a run of bland, directionless stories, and wooden companions.
Steven Moffat’s described him as the first of the ‘modern’ Doctors, but I find it hard to equate him with Eccleston or Tennant, who were characterised with a very sure hand, and where there is a feeling that everyone involved knew exactly what they wanted for the part. The Fifth, on the other had, struggles against not only, arguably, the weakest period of the show, but also against the cluelessness of a production team that didn’t know what to do with this vulnerable, effete version of the Doctor.
The Fourth Doctor
I have relatively little to say about the Fourth Doctor; Tom is clearly a great Doctor, but he doesn’t do as much for me as he seemingly does everyone else. I think I’m just all too aware that outside of his performance he has an unfair amount of advantages: he not only played the part for seven seasons (which is insane, when you think about it), he was also afforded a large variety of approaches and tone, a certain amount of stories which would be excellent whoever was in then, and a large number of successful, varied companions.
The ubiquity of such a long-running character plays a part in my feelings about this Doctor, but, more notably, I’d suggest there is often no real sense of genuine feeling in his performance. I find it hard to imagine the Fourth Doctor as an emotional being, even under the surface, as he mainly remains apathetic and detached.
The Third Doctor
Another one I’m quite ambiguous about. I do love the Third Doctor, but a certain amount of that comes from spurious feelings of warm fuzzy nostalgia, despite not being born for eleven years after his on-screen demise. It’s hard to be objective about long-term Doctors, but when you get through the familiarity, he does seem a lot different from the others; more grounded (appropriately, given the earth-exile format), more action-oriented, and perhaps the most serious of all the Doctors. People tend to ascribe a po-facedness to the First Doctor, probably because they don’t know anything about him, but I would say Pertwee’s performance is much more humourless.
As one of the most ‘classic’ classic Doctors, I’m often surprised by the underlying lack of appreciation for him there seems to be within fandom. As with the Fifth, I’m not a great fan of the majority of his seasons, but nevertheless, there is a blend of playfulness and authority in Pertwee’s (underrated?) performance which I find appealing. Perhaps one of the most out-and-out ‘heroes’ of all the Doctors, while I’d dispute whether that’s really what I want from the character, he certainly appeals to my inner child.
Though he has a reputation as a bastard, given the choice, I’d most like to travel with Three, as there’s a reassuring straightforwardness to him. The Second may be more lovable, but has a devious streak. And the Eighth would just lead to a Sam Jones situation, and we don’t want that.
The Second Doctor
Troughton is brilliant as the anarchic flipside to Hartnell, and has a far deeper characterisation that usually attributed to him (probably in part due to The Three, Five and Two Doctors). I do think he’s a totally brilliant actor; I’ve used this phrase before, but I love how he can switch from impish to chocolatey purring at the drop of a (stovepipe) hat. As with McCoy, he’s one of my absolute favourites, to the extent that I find it quite hard to qualify why. Given that Troughton managed to create an entirely lovable character also capable of a great deal of depth and sensitivity (as in his handling of Victoria’s desire to leave in Fury from the Deep), it’s tragic that the scrapping of so many of his episodes leaves him often overlooked.
The First Doctor
I’ve seen morons on messageboards ranking Hartnell lowest of all the Doctors, while freely admitting to not really having seen any of his stories, or (worse) only having seen him in The Three Doctors. Meaning they have entirely no right to rate him at all.
This particularly infuriates me because, given the increased marginalisation of older figures in popular culture, I can absolutely understand why the idea of an old Edwardian man, in black and white, is considered a complete turn-off. But, I adore Hartnell, and I genuinely think that’s he’s one of the absolute best Doctors, and for me certainly a favourite alongside, or even above Troughton and McCoy.
There seems to be a sense that people think Hartnell can only be appreciated with a major downturn in expectations, that to get anything from his period of the show you need to humour the series, or view it ironically. Well, bollocks. He might be one of the hardest Doctors to ‘get’ initially, but when you do, Hartnell is authoritative and, yes, irascible, but he's also loveable and very funny. His main strength though, apart from his unusualness as a TV hero, is his variability, which is probably unparalleled by any other Doctor, at least until Tennant. It’s not only the major shift from mysterious and accusatory in his initial stories to the more kindly granddad he become, but numerous permutations within that. I don’t think any other of the Doctors shifts so much within their characterisation. He’s always entertaining and compelling – an absolute star.
With the Seventh Doctor, my love for the character may in part derive more from the presentation of the Doctor within the series – that is, an acknowledgment of a grander, more mythologised character for the first time. With the First and Second though, it’s almost entirely due to Hartnell and Troughton’s masterful performances. I couldn’t love these men any more. Particularly Troughton, in my opinion, may well be the most effortless actor of all the Doctors.