Eccleston, Tennant, Smith

In the Doctor Who Tournament here at Little Storping, I mathematically proved (oh yes) that the Tenth doctor is the best of recent years.  But taken with the Fusion Patrol podcast (the final part is now posted) we now have all three as the best.  Whilst it may be fashionable in elections to have hung results, it’s not yet in tournaments (or we’d have a Murray/Berdych coalition claiming Wimbledon) and besides, do I actually agree with my own result?Whilst I’ve argued that many factors contribute to the character of each incarnation of the Doctor we see on screen, the performance each actor has given is perhaps the greatest.

Christopher Eccleston’s performance was slightly manic but the humour and the whimsy always felt force.  When he snapped back to the anger (as, say, in Father’s Day, “another stupid ape”) or the pain (in The End of the World when Jabe says “I just want to say… how sorry I am.”) that felt very real.  By contrast, Tennant is exceedingly good at the whimsy and in particular his ability to suddenly and unpredictably switch from one extreme mood to another is breathtaking, and reminiscent of early Doctors.  His comic timing, also, is perfect.  Where his performance felt forced was when he was playing the hard man (something Eccleston carried easily) as in School Reunion for example (“I’m so old now. I used to have so much mercy. You get one warning. That was it.”).  This developed, as Tennant became more comfortable with it, into the “Timelord Victorious” of Waters of Mars (having been held in check by the acid put-downs provided by Donna during the previous series) making a virtue out this over-reaching, but regrettably the theme fizzled out rather than being properly concluded in The End of Time, and story which showcased all the self-indulgence in his portrayal, alongside some of his best work in the part (the scenes with Bernard Cribbins).

Matt Smith shares with Tennant fabulous comic timing, but where Tennant is charming and familiar, Smith plays awkward and alien.  His performance is far lower key; he almost mumbles some of his lines.  Yet when he raises his voice (“There’s one thing you never, ever, put in a trap”) you feel compelled to take him seriously.  There’s also something incredibly empathetic in Smith’s portrayal, and the driving enthusiasm Tennant often displayed has become a more playful and joyful inquisitiveness.  It is an utterly compelling performance.

All the same, I am inclined to agree with my result: in his three years Tennant has given the greatest performances as the Doctor ever.  There’s something about his portrayal that just manages to make you believe not only is he really a 900 year old alien (a “Time King from the planet Gallibey” as Astrid calls him in Voyage of the Damned) but also that he actually was each of his 9 predecessors: there’s a little something of each of them there in his performance; a remarkable achievement.  It must help that he is an unashamed fanboy.  I heard Bennedict Cumberbatch (former potential 11th Doctor, potential 12th Doctor and, from Sunday, the current Sherlock Holmes) describe how he was eating in a restaurant with his mother, and Tennant came over to her and was star-struck: “You’re Wanda Ventham, you were in Image of Fendahl and Time and the Rani. ” What a nerd.  He’s one of us.

Matt Smith is just a whisker behind him though; and he’s only just begun.

About Simon Wood

Lecturer in medical education, lapsed mathematician, Doctor Who fan and garden railway builder. See for more...

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