Let’s start with a little bit of timey-wimey stuff, because context is everything. 2010 was a big, no, make that huge, year for Doctor Who. Five years and two doctors after its incredibly successful relaunch, the series saw two key departures. The show’s creator, Russell T Davies, handed over control to superfan Steven Moffat, while David Tennant ceded the blue box to an eleventh Doctor. Regeneration has always looked rather painful, but the Tennant-Smith transition has to have been the most wince-inducing in the show’s near fifty-year history.
Tabloid headlines and fan outbursts alike screamed that Smith was too young, too inexperienced, too quirky (Heaven forbid that we should ever see that trait in a Time Lord) and, just to add to his crimes, had unforgivably fabulous hair.
Incredibly, all this contradictory invective spread to the farthest reaches of the internet months before the young pretender had uttered his first line as the Doctor. How could this mere babe in arms of 27, with nothing but a sterling career in theatre and television behind him, possibly hope to fill the departing Tennant’s shoes?
The answer to this, of course, was that such an utterly pointless exercise would have been a little bit beneath Smith’s talents. Not since Daniel Craig’s Bond has such a mammoth quantity of humble pie been swallowed by the critics.
The complete fifth series DVD set is an opportunity to savour the development of this most complex of Doctors as one satisfying whole. Smith’s Doctor is a vision in tweed, touchingly confident of the ‘coolness’ of his bowtie and blissfully unaware of how very alien he actually is.
This Time Lord is a new, richly drawn and deeply mysterious character in his own right, but the echoes of his predecessors are there, a dash of Pertwee, a soupçon of Troughton. Never so overt as to be derivative or to veer into pastiche, they lurk beneath the surface as a wholly plausible reminder of the complex psychology of a constantly evolving being. Elegant, and yet hopelessly clumsy, a wonderfully silly super-genius (must I mention the fez?), fresh-faced and brimming over with youthful enthusiasm, even as he talks to kids with grandfatherly affection, this is a Doctor with genuine gravitas who can command the rulers of whole worlds and jump out of a wedding cake with aplomb.
I’d say more, but Moffat got it about right. We’re looking at “Patrick Moore in the body of an underwear model”. As rebirths go, it’s a pretty cool way to end up. The fact that Sir Patrick is actually in the first episode, as himself, is a definite plus.
The low expectations attached to Smith’s tenure were matched only by the unfeasibly high standards expected of Moffat as executive producer. Having crafted some of the most memorable and poignant episodes of the Davies era, there was understandable pressure on ‘the Moff’ as he took the reins. Oddly, the balance shifted over the course of series five. As Smith was lauded, so Moffat’s storytelling was derided in some quarters as cold, formulaic and derivative. Call me stupid (and, no doubt, some will), but I don’t get it. Yes, some storylines worked better than others. Welcome to the world of episodic television.
Okay, so Karen Gillan’s Amy Pond seemed a little underwritten at first, but the series finale helped to fill in the apparent gaps in her personality. Arthur Darvill could have been the squeakiest of third wheels as her luckless fiancé, Rory, but instead gave us some of the series’ most touching moments and a sterling comedy double act with the good Doctor.
The Eleventh Hour launched us into the brave new Whoniverse as the freshly regenerated Doctor met little Amelia Pond and promptly left her for ‘five minutes’ that turned into twelve years. Whoops. Returning to find his young friend all grown up and employed as a kissogram, the Doctor, still fizzing with nervous energy after his involuntary makeover, finally got round to solving the mystery of the terrifying Prisoner Zero and his equally scary pursuers. The crack in Amy’s wall, however, would prove to be a more intractable problem, and provided a continuing story arc that ran for the whole series.
After this exhilarating opener, The Beast Below was something equivalent to a difficult second album, liked and disliked in roughly equal measure. I loved the wisecracking Liz Ten, the high concept idea and the first sign that this was a spectacularly kind Doctor. Plus, you can’t quibble too much with anything that stars the Demon Headmaster in a supporting role. The real sticking point for many, however, was Victory Of The Daleks. Key to the controversy was, needless to say, the presence of the metal shuttlecocks of doom, reimagined here by Mark Gatiss as Professor Bracewell’s Ironsides (love it) and conscripted for Churchill’s war effort.
The Daleks’ inevitable ulterior motive led to another shocking revelation: they’d had a facelift more drastic than our hero’s. Widely mocked as ‘iDaleks’ for their toddler-friendly bright colours and obvious Christmas gift appeal, this new incarnation of the scourge of the Galaxy, like so much of this series, divided opinion. My only criticism was the lack of a purple one. Gatiss’ corblimey guv’nor vision of 40s London was a treat. And I’m sorry, but Spitfires in space are, as someone would definitely say, cool.
Almost nobody, it seemed, had a bad word to say about the following two-parter, The Time Of Angels/Flesh and Stone, which will undoubtedly have left an entire generation with a pathological fear of statuary. The return of the intriguing archaeologist River Song threw a little confusion into the mix, while the mystery was heightened by the taciturn scheming of soldier-bishop Octavian (a superlative Iain Glen, one of the most impressive guest stars in a generally great bunch). The Weeping Angels didn’t scare me at all, by the way. Nope. Wait, what was that noise?
Next up, pure fun. The Vampires Of Venice might have been low on real vampires (they were, erm, a bit more aquatic than usual) but was high on comedy as the Doctor and Rory vied for Amy’s trust. There was much to love here, from the stand-off between a superb Helen McCrory and a Doctor who proved to be more than her match in cunning and dignity, to the sumptuous evocation of sixteenth-century Venice.
After this, we got a character piece, Amy’s Choice, in which the tensions between the Doctor, Amy and Rory in the aftermath of that kiss came to a head. Toby Jones’ performance as the sinister Dream Lord provided the perfect foil to the Doctor, and the final revelation behind his identity left us with tantalising hints of a darker side to our favourite madman with a box. Weird and wonderful.
The second two-parter in the series, The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood saw the return of the Pertwee-era misunderstood antagonists, the Silurians, back to claim their planet, and a devastating loss as Rory fell saving the Doctor’s life, compounded by Amy’s utter failure to remember her lover’s existence as the dastardly crack in time sucked him into oblivion.
The only person other than the Doctor to feel her subconscious pain was a man with quite enough of his own, Vincent Van Gogh, who came to the duo’s aid in Richard Curtis’ magnificent Vincent And The Doctor. Tony Curran’s stellar depiction of this fascinating, tragic artist was one of many highlights in a beautiful, brave portrayal of mental illness. I saw this weeks after visiting the Royal Academy’s blockbuster exhibition, so the wish-fulfilment fantasy struck a deep chord. This was Blackadder Goes Forth Richard Curtis rather than his romcom persona, and all the better for it.
The Lodger defied expectations, as the Doctor’s unlikely flatshare with everyman Craig (James Corden) turned into a hilarious and sweetly touching tale in which a socially clueless Doctor gained a more than anthropological perspective on the human lives he so briefly shared.
With the finale, The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang, we were taken from the minutiae of daily life to the survival of the universe, as we learnt that the Doctor wasn’t the only one capable of cheating death.
The stakes were huge, with the prospect of Amy throwing a strop on her Doctor-free wedding day only slightly less terrifying than that of the universe disappearing at a rate of knots. Romans, an alien cast of thousands and Smith’s rather fantastic audition for Henry V. I’ll enjoy seeing Moffat top this one.
As if all that wasn’t enough, the DVD set also contains some choice goodies. ‘Meanwhile in the Tardis’ scenes add extra depth to the characterisation, my favourite being Amy’s extended introduction to the blue box of dreams, during which she bombards the Doctor with endless questions (“Why is it a police box? Is the bowtie a cry for help?”).
We also get the Cut Down versions of the Doctor Who Confidentials for the insider’s perspective on the show, along with commentaries and a selection of bloopers. If you haven’t already heard Smith’s rendition of the Who theme, prepare yourself.
So, there you have it. Smith might have done ancient convincingly, but an amateur he ain’t. How long is it until Christmas?
Doctor Who: The Complete Series 5is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.