Doctor Who: a celebration of David Tennant

Andrew looks back at how the tenth doctor, David Tennant, swept some Doctor Who audiences off their feet and injected welcome silliness back into the show...

Remember 2006? Torchwood had yet to flail onto our screens, The Sarah Jane Smith Big Finishaudio plays continued the adventures of Elisabeth Sladen’s popular character, and all we knew about the Tenth Doctor was that he could recite lengthy passages of The Lion King and could throw a small citrus fruit with unerring accuracy. By and large his personality wasn’t fully formed, but what we’d seen had been very promising. 

After the 2005 series Doctor Who was back, more popular than anyone had expected it to be, and David Tennant was an up-and-coming young actor who had worked solidly to great acclaim in theatre and on TV. He was, also, a massive Doctor Who fan. Now that the role was being played by someone with detailed knowledge of the series (I have been informed that Tennant can identify Target Novelisations just from looking at a small detail of Roger Delgado’s nose from the cover) it meant that the back story would be more readily embraced, elements above and beyond the returns of the major monsters and villains. It also meant that he knew what elements of the character could be reacted against, developed further, or explored for the first time. After the relative seriousness of Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant’s tenure allowed Doctor Who to be really, really silly again. For that, we have much to be thankful for.

Initially, we weren’t sure if Rose and Ten would work. If anything, they got on better than before, to the extent where they started to get on people’s nerves a little. The series arc investigated the impact that the Doctor had on people’s lives when he moves on. It was all about setting up Rose and the Doctor for a fall, as sometimes they had so much fun that they forgot to consider other people.

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Ultimately, Rose Tyler is the defining character from this era. Martha Jones, sadly, doesn’t get a chance to emerge from under her shadow until it’s too late, as Rose has firmly planted herself in the Doctor’s brain. Donna Noble is a much stronger, more mature character as a result. It allows Rose to return in The Stolen Earth without any jealousy. Mind you, if she hadn’t come back in Series 4, imagine how much more bittersweet her cameo in The End of Time would have been. 

Ten is, then, infatuated. He’s also incredibly tactless as a result, his brain working so quickly and his tongue acting accordingly that he doesn’t really have time to engage any sort of filters, saying incredibly rude things amidst the genius without realising it, sometimes to hilarious effect. He’s bewitching and charismatic when he’s on your side, obstinate and insufferable when he’s not. The companion’s role is no longer to be an audience identification figure, but to translate the Doctor into a more palatable individual so people don’t simply get confused and annoyed by him, as happens in Midnight.

Largely, David Tennant’s Doctor sweeps people off their feet though. He’s the Sixth Doctor with mass appeal, good jokes and stylish clothes. The over-confidence and self pity is an undercurrent rather than a dominant trait. He also has similarities with Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor. Both are occasionally unlikeable for reasons of hubris, and part of massively popular Doctor Who families. 

For me Tennant’s Doctor is quite a dark take on the character, with a mile-thick front of bonhomie. He’s got the chirpy and cocksure swagger thing going on and is quick to quip but because Tennant isn’t naturally eccentric – rather naturally charismatic – it’s an easy interpretation to see this as a front for a damaged, occasionally thoughtless man who is unaware of the lives he is wrecking. Because he’s so magnetic he attracts people to him only for them to get killed or go through sheer hell in the process. Other Doctors have this trait, but for Ten it’s more pronounced. Look at Rose. That’s the love of his life, and she ends up estranged in another dimension with a homicidal clone version of him. This is what happens to the people he adores. 

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He’s like a cross between a magpie and Galactus – Devourer of Worlds. Companions start telling people how they know he’s dangerous, but that they can’t help themselves. What makes it worse is that people are willing to forgive him until he inevitably goes too far in The Waters of Mars and, without anyone to tell him otherwise, then goes on a mini-hedonism binge to avoid confronting his mistakes.

This Doctor has a universe wide legacy and is adored by millions, but he’s also a fascinatingly divisive and possibly bi-polar figure who pushes the boundaries of what a popular and attractive TV character can be. It’s very interesting to see how this behaviour is not just tolerated but filtered into a positive, because the man is also fundamentally good and does wonderful things, all said with a smile and a laugh and a twinkle in his eye.

It’s easy to forget that he’s also completely horrible  to his closest friends. Take The End of Time. It’s a study of four old men who, when faced with death, don’t really want to die very much. The most heroic character in it is Bernard Cribbin’s Wilf Mott, who rescues an anonymous man from the radiation chamber without a second thought. The Doctor, who will regenerate anyway, briefly rails at Wilf before accepting his fate only after pointing out how big a sacrifice he is making. The character is ugly. Hugely flawed. Yet he’s one of the most popular intepretations of the role ever, and The End of Time is one of the most popular episodes of the show ever (based on audience figures and Audience Appreciation Index results). That’s pretty fascinating, as far as I’m concerned. The Tenth Doctor is both illuminating and repellent, both the romantic hero and the tortured lunatic. Every aspect of this duality is mined for all its worth by David Tennant.

After Matt Smith took over there was a period of Tennant-bashing – a monstrously unfair act considering the good will he bore fandom, and the impeccable way he represented the show – which happens a fair bit whenever a major change occurs. Possibly Series 4 and the Specials were slightly tired to some fans, but the critical acclaim and audience reaction to some of them was, if anything, higher than any time since 2005. If you dislike the Tenth Doctor, try to think of him as someone you’re supposed to dislike a bit, and that makes some episodes vastly more interesting and bearable.

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I’ll be blunt: the Tenth Doctor is, personally, far from my favourite incarnation, and quite a few of the arguments presented here are highly subjective and represent a minority of fandom, but nonetheless, he’s still the Doctor. Yes, he’s one of my least favourites, but he’s still the Doctor. 

By virtue of this fact, well, he can’t help but be a little bit brilliant, can he?

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