I’m thrilled to introduce a new feature today, the Squeezegut Alley guest blog. We’re starting off with an absolute corker, as well. Here’s Tom Steward, with the first in a series considering the latest run of Doctor Who.
Who’s got the best show on television? Dunno. The Sopranos, probably. But only a matter of weeks after producer Steven Moffat and actor Matt Smith took over the programme, Dr Who is now eminently watchable again and could be a thing of greatness once more.
I’d become completely disenchanted with the direction the series had taken with Russell T Davies and David Tennant at the helm. It wasn’t simply enough to enjoy the Doctor’s adventures, you now had to worship the character and lead actor, whether you cared to or not. That combined with a limited range of storytelling and a stasis in characterisation brought the programme to the brink of credibility, almost as severely as producer John Nathan-Turner did with the series in the mid-1980s.
It’s a testament to the endlessly malleable format of Who that these worrying trends were reversed so quickly, and to Moffat and Smith that this was done without losing audience figures or denting the popularity of the central character. Moffat drastically improved the quality of drama, comedy and, in particular, horror of the programme over the last five years when he was an occasional writer. Though not a faultless producer (as some would have it!), since he took that role the series has regained many competencies. The pacing of episodes and series is now much more skilful, with a proper grasp of what it means to do long form storytelling, and not just cosmetically as a branding device as it was wielded under Davies.
The increase in the level of wit and successful comic writing since Moffat took over is undeniable (though writers Mark Gatiss, Gareth Roberts and Simon Nye need to take some credit here too), the show no longer relying on embarrassing slapstick to fill its funny quota. Moffat’s teleplays are, however, too densely plotted and overcomplicated on the whole, typically mistaking elaborate writing for complexity. Though this occasionally works well, with scenes involving the threat of the unknown and the horror that comes from it, it can often swamp the actors’ fine work and fog up the storytelling. Moffat has done an amazing job, however, in unwriting the mistakes of the Davies/Tennant era; letting characters be critical of the Doctor rather than standing around and admiring him, not trying to force the Doctor to be self-consciously fashionable or zeitgeist, disproving the necessity of a Doctor-companion love interest, and making the Doctor mysterious in motives and character again.
Undoubtedly the best decision Moffat made (or will ever make) as a producer was in casting Matt Smith. He’s the best thing to happen to the show in literally decades and could be the best character actor of his generation. He ranks amongst the finest portrayals of the role (and has probably already surpassed Tom Baker – most people’s default ‘favourite’ Doctor) and has re-invested the part with a genuine oddness that it has lacked at least since the re-launch in 2005.
The great Doctors have always known, seemingly instinctively, where to pitch their performance; when to overact, when to be measured etc. and Smith has that impulse. He can ham it up when being electrocuted by alien weaponry but knows when to brood or play the role (in the immortal words of Jon Pertwee) ‘straight down the middle’ – a quality sadly lacking in Tennant’s portrayal of the role, which was permanently wide-eyed and breathless. Not only is Smith’s performance a touching tribute to previous Doctors (especially Patrick Troughton – at one time the most lovable man on television!), it’s also a completely original interpretation of the role. Smith plays the Doctor as a socially awkward fish-out-of-water, something that (surprisingly) the show has only ever really hinted at before. Smith’s Doctor is a gangly twine ball of bad manners and inappropriate behaviours, rude or naive social conduct, completely unsettled when talking to the average human adult.
One of the delights of the new series is the introduction of more child actors into the main cast. Smith’s rapport with children is fantastic and we get a genuine sense of the show wanting to speak directly to children, something it did only intermittently in the previous five years despite concessions to kids’ TV (Barrowman, Piper et al.). It’s no coincidence that Smith’s Doctor talks to children like adults and adults like children. Once again, Dr Who shows that nothing about it is irrevocable and that new producers, actors and writers can thankfully turn the screws on old ones.