Thursday, July 5, 2018

Doctor Who: the Doctors' best and worst performances

When I published my Classic Who countdown last summer, serving up capsule reviews of all 158 classic serials (from my least-liked to my most-loved), friends asked if I had plans to do the same for NuWho. "God, no," I responded -- but I did want to start branching into more NuWho essays, or at least essays that embrace the entire history of the series, from 1963 to the present. And I knew where I wanted to start: with the actors who've played the Doctor, and taking a hard look at their best and worst performances in the role -- the times when they especially shined, and the times when they notably did not. The truth is, Doctor Who has, by and large, been blessed with such extraordinary actors in the title role that it's easy to take their work for granted -- to presume their performances are uniformly strong, and not focus in on the highs and the lows. But actors, like the rest of us, have good days and bad days, and in the case of Doctor Who, there are all kinds of factors that can contribute to the quality of a performance -- just as there are all kinds of criteria I have for judging them. So below, the eleven actors who've essayed the title role (excluding the Eighth Doctor, who had only one full-length appearance), and what I'd consider their best and worst performances -- and why. (In the paragraphs below, I've bolded the stories that contain their best and worst work, but I vary the order in which I present them. Sometimes, I list the good before the bad, sometimes vice versa; if you only look at the titles bolded, you might be surprised, when you ultimately read the text, to discover which is which.)

William Hartnell (First Doctor): We start with one of the toughest. Because the Hartnell serials were practically shot live, and his memory issues -- always troubling -- were further clouded during the run by arteriosclerosis, how do you properly judge when he's at his best? Is it when his dialogue flubs are least damaging, or when the performance itself is most striking, even if he's serving up gaffes galore? Hartnell was always better in the historicals; he had experience in that genre -- the scenework was often meatier, and there was less technobabble to distract him and potentially drag him down. For me, his greatest performance isn't even in a serial in which he's particularly focal; it's merely a serial that no one else could have pulled off the way Hartnell did: "The Crusade." There was a GIF circulating Twitter a few months back, of the final moments of Episode 1, and someone commented, "No one gave good cliffhanger like Hartnell." And as wonderful as he is through the serial -- one of his few stories, mind you, where he doesn't have a single fluff: an indication of how well it suited him, and how much he took to it -- it's that one shot that's particularly astonishing. King Richard has forbidden Ian from going after Barbara, who's been kidnapped; he storms off, and Ian, irate, starts to follow -- when the Doctor holds him back with a warning look and a firm gesture. And the credits start to roll. It's thrilling: one of Hartnell and William Russell's finest exchanges, and not a word is required. But Hartnell had such authority that he could redirect scenes with merely a gesture and a glance. He's marvelous throughout "The Crusade" -- advising the King, confiding in the Queen, haggling with a shady vendor. (When the vendor, Daheer, bemoans his misfortunes -- "Am I not the most miserable of men?" -- the Doctor replies, with a wicked twinkle, "Oh yes, you are." Hartnell goes for the laugh and the jugular.) It's the rare Who performance that you can't imagine any subsequent Doctor navigating so effortlessly or effectively. And Hartnell's worst? Oh, it has to be "The Keys of Marinus": the only serial that truly defeats him. (As with Peter Davison, Sylvester McCoy and Matt Smith's worst, it's a serial almost designed to defeat him.) The Hartnell episodes were filmed on consecutive Fridays; typically, if Hartnell had a tough time one week (e.g., Episode 1 of "The Web Planet"), he rallied the next. You see him determined to do better; his resolve is visible and admirable. "Keys" is the only serial in which he never seems grounded, and no doubt it's the variety-show format that proves his undoing. It's the worst kind of serial for Hartnell. There's no dramatic through-line he can sink his teeth into, no ongoing guest stars with whom he can bond and engage. He has two miserable episodes up front, mangling every third line; he takes two weeks off, and when he returns, he's just as lost. (He even trips over the requisite farewell: "I think it's time to go back to the ship.") There's a touch of showmanship in the trial scene, when he pleads Ian's case before a tribunal -- but it's minor compared to his other Who performances, and if you watched only "Marinus," you'd have no idea what Hartnell was capable of bringing to the role -- and what, in fact, he did bring to it, against so many odds.

Patrick Troughton (Second Doctor): It takes Troughton some time to nail down his character -- there's a bit of trial and error (as with the hats, and the effort in "Highlanders" to make him a master of dodgy disguise); although he improves steadily through his first season, it's really not until his fifth serial, "The Macra Terror," that the Second Doctor feels fully formed. And as with several of his successors, Troughton's first serial filmed for his second season serves up his most dazzling performance. (This seems to be the point where the actor, following a few weeks or months off, returns to the role not merely refreshed but with newfound assurance, secure in what he's doing with the role and eager to stretch it that much further.) Troughton's first serial filmed for his second season was "The Abominable Snowmen," and it's an astounding piece of acting. (For the record, "Enemy of the World," two serials later, boasts the greatest performance by a lead actor in the classic series, but since Troughton's playing not just the Doctor, but an evil authoritarian, I've eliminated that one from the running.) By this point in the series, Troughton has forged a blend of focused intensity, patented indignation and flustered horror that's proven irresistible -- but "Abominable" threatens to undo all of his handiwork. Its monastic setting calls for hushed tones and muted acting beats, and Troughton has to take the Doctor's bold mannerisms and angular inflections and moderate them. He responds to the challenge brilliantly; in fact, it's startling how effortlessly he modulates all the quirks and tics on which he's build his Doctor, without sacrificing any of them. It's a quiet performance that never goes soft, and in its own way, it's as much a tour-de-force as his performances in "Enemy." (And he takes advantage of the gentler tone to play up the Doctor's tenderness -- as he consoles Padmasambhava, who's been kept alive for centuries, or coaxes the truth out of the spellbound Abbot, or eases Victoria out of her trance -- and that warmth saturates the story.) His worst performance? Well, he's tired at the top of "Seeds of Death," but ironically, that exhaustion seems fitting, given the serial's end-of-an-era feel. It's "The Krotons" that boasts his worst performance since "The Highlanders," and since that one is mostly a case of him trying too hard, it's "Krotons" I'm choosing to focus on. It's the rare Troughton performance that's oddly disengaged. Perhaps he's aware of the tripe he's been handed, and discouraged, but whatever the reason, his line-readings are uncharacteristically colorless -- until it's time to call upon his patented look of flustered horror (as when the phallic probe emerges from the Kroton computer), and then he mugs so outrageously that this once-delicious character trait degenerates into a can't-miss gag. It's pretty much his only Doctor Who performances that's all surface: there doesn't seem to be much going on beneath the line readings -- and occasionally, it seems more an impression of Troughton's Doctor than the real thing.

Jon Pertwee (Third Doctor): I quite like Pertwee in his first season, then I find his performances get slack for a while: because his new companion Jo no longer challenges him as Liz Shaw did, because the scripts are content to let the Doctor have the first and last word in every conversation, the soft reboot at the top of Season 8 -- designed clearly to make Pertwee happier -- ironically robs him of much of his creativity. The only performance in Season 8 in which I find his reactions sharp and fresh is in "Claws of Axos"; the rest seem an alarming step down from those of Season 7 -- and "The Mind of Evil" is a perfect storm of Pertwee mediocrity, coming at a time when his performances are their feeblest, and then highlighting one of his acting weaknesses. In his first serial, "Spearhead From Space," we had learned -- when the climactic attack of the Nestene tentacles had to be reshot, and they still couldn't get something that wasn't unintentionally funny -- that "being menaced" wasn't a good look on Pertwee. He knew how to play it as comedy (as he'd show, triumphantly, on Metebelis III), but he couldn't find it in dramatic terms. (He was no more successful with the telephone-cord trap in "Terror of the Autons.") So why write him a script that has him being served up at regular intervals to an alien parasite, forced to mime "terror"? They should have expected exactly what they got: an eye-bulging wind-up for Worzel. (It's particularly bad at the end of Episode 3, an ill-judged moment up there with McCoy's 12-second gurning in "Ghost Light.") That one's on writer Don Houghton, on script editor Terrance Dicks and on producer Barry Letts. But Pertwee hardly gets off scot-free. During the lengthy periods the script has him bedridden, he doesn't take pains to show pain, or resolve to recover, or anything visually interesting: he goes for "tired" -- he makes the easy acting choice. And he refrains from having to engage with most of the cast by adopting line readings that are inexplicably foul-tempered, even when there's no call for it. (Nicholas Courtney courts him with charm and patience, and in response, Pertwee goes on the attack. It's a strange dynamic that certainly doesn't endear the Doctor to us.) His best performance? Well, for me, it comes in Season 10, when his companion once again challenges him as Liz did (Jo Grant has, by this point, become a firecracker, and Katy Manning is happy to light the fuse at regular intervals), and when he's thrust into a situation that plays to all his strengths. Pertwee was at his dramatic best when the Doctor was caught off guard and defenseless, and at his comic best when entertaining a disguise. (No one could slip and out of disguises, and still stay in character, the way he could.) "The Green Death" lets him do it all. He's decisive without being abrasive (his "stop winding" at the end of Episode 1 is reminiscent of his memorable "cut it open" cliffhanger in "Ambassadors of Death"), and he's permitted not only to exercise his fighting skills, but to flex his comic muscles: on a wild visit to Metebelis III in Episode 1, then posing as a milkman and a cleaning lady later on. His final face-off with the BOSS is everything you hope for, then Katy Manning's departure inspires a closing scene that's not merely merely tender, but touching. Pertwee at his best.

Tom Baker (Fourth Doctor): What are there: about six versions of the Fourth Doctor? We see Baker getting acclimated in his first season; we see the full flowering of his intensity in his next two; then we get the appearance of the actor's ego and resistance, as he's yoked to a companion he loathes. (That would be Leela, one of the greatest creations in Who history, played by one of its finest actors.) Then we see him unexpectedly, willingly adapt to the screwball scenario of the Romana 1 stories, and out of that comes the outrageously self-aware playing of Season 17 -- and finally the moroseness of Season 18, in which it becomes tough to distinguish between the actor's unhappiness and the Doctor's end-of-an-era gloom. So putting aside the question of "which Fourth Doctor do you prefer," when is Baker, the actor, at his best and worst? Well, as will become a trend in this essay, his best performance, for me, comes at the start of his second season with "Pyramids of Mars," the first serial filmed for Season 13. And mind you, this is not a serial I particularly love, nor a season -- for that matter -- that I especially like. But this performance is ferocious and astounding. In the hiatus between seasons, Baker has determined just how much he wants to crank up the intensity. He's decided to amplify the very "alien-ness" of the Doctor by inverting his line readings: finding amusement in details that we ourselves might deem terrifying (as if the Doctor has seen too much to be fazed by mere terror), while putting a dark spin on pronouncements that should be inconsequential (as if the Doctor is aware of darker forces than humans could possibly imagine). The Doctor is as ill-tempered in "Pyramids of Mars" as in any serial, but Baker insists he has a right to be disagreeable; he tells you "the world is facing the greatest peril in its history," and no two ways about it: you believe him. (And he modulates his rage with quick flashes of heart and humor that Lis Sladen amplifies.) And his worst? Well, I rather loathe watching him through most of Season 17, when he's settled for gags and smirks and stunts -- but that's what the stories are asking of him. They're written to let him mug -- you can knock him for doing what's expected of him, but are they truly "bad" performances? But two seasons earlier, I think, shows the ill effects of his ego in much starker fashion. And just as "Pyramids" is a serial I don't particularly love, but one in which I find Baker sensational, "Horror of Fang Rock" is a serial I adore -- in which I see Baker dripping with self-absorption. (The story-line, the direction, and the exquisite Ms. Jameson more than compensate.) It's the serial during which Jameson took him to task for his poor treatment of her, and ultimately, he cleaned up his act -- where she was concerned. But in "Horror," instead of belittling his co-star, he's busy demonstrating his disdain for the director. (He and his previous co-star, Sladen, were vocal about their dislike for Paddy Russell.) He seems to be going out of his way to be disruptive -- you almost sense him daring Russell to yell "cut." Truculent and undisciplined, he stares into space while other characters are speaking, or upstages them with business; he doesn't even seem to be putting much thought into his own lines, trusting his charisma to carry the day. (Ironically, the thing that sees him through is the respect Jameson is according him.) In later years, the other actors won't expect Baker to address them; the scenes will be structured and staged so that he can do whatever he wants, and the action will continue around him. But in "Fang Rock," you can see the guest actors responding with surprise at his stunts, and being thrown off guard and off their game. It's a disrespect for others I find maddening. Is it his "worst" performance? Well, it's easily his most shameful. Good enough.

Peter Davison (Fifth Doctor): Peter Davison was the Classic Doctor who made me fully understand the appeal of the classic series -- because, of course, he's the Doctor whose approach anticipated the modern era: with the Fifth Doctor, we were no longer seeing the universe through the Doctor's eyes; he was seeing it through ours. He shared our sense of wonder, and our sense of dread -- and that, of course, became the template for the reboot in 2005. I love Davison most when he's true to that spirit of "reckless innocence" that he spoke of just prior to assuming the role. I like his earliest performances best, before story editor Eric Saward started to beat him down into someone "obsessed and depressed," and for me, all the best things about his vision of the Doctor come to a head in "Snakedance." It's the first serial filmed for his second season, and for me, just as with Troughton and Tom Baker, he'd had a season to decide what he wanted to keep and what he wanted to discard (in the latter category was the high-pitched whine he'd adopted in spots in his first season), and he returned to the show with renewed energy, confidence and experience. "Snakedance" shows the Fifth Doctor in full: the youthful intensity; the righteous passion and the nervous posturing; the constancy of a good teacher and the curiosity of a good student; the sincerity, tenacity and humility -- and Davison responds with his crowning performance. In the first half, he practically bounds across the set, piecing together the mystery of the Mara with wild leaps of mental agility; in the final segment, in a feat of concentration so intense it looks torturous, he demonstrates that focus, awareness and quiet resolve can often be the most effective weapons against evil. And his worst performance? Well, I don't care for Christopher Bidmead's reinvention of the Fifth Doctor in "Frontios" as "professorial" (his word) -- but Davison pulls it off splendidly. And I find his performance unfocused in "The Visitation," where his conception of the role and Eric Saward's are so notably at odds, but his vigor sees him through. But Davison has a couple of serials -- both scripted by Terence Dudley -- where the assignment seems to stymie him. Dudley's tactic, when the Doctor found himself in a scrape midway through a two-parter, was to then make him as ineffectual as possible, so that the plot wouldn't resolve itself too quickly. It's not an easy acting challenge to overcome, and Davison can't seem to find a solution. How do you render inertia interesting, particularly when you've conceived your Doctor as someone forever thinking fast on their feet? And it's in Dudley's "Black Orchid" -- ironically, a serial I quite like -- that Davison turns in his worst performance. Once we get past the cricket match -- in which his exuberance is irresistible -- the story keeps him muted and reactive, and Davison can't figure out how to make that visually arresting. (Troughton could've done it: see the scene early in "Abominable Snowmen" when he's held prisoner and keeps himself -- and us -- amused; McCoy could've managed it too -- he'd have fingered all the bric-a-brac in the room, as if his mind were silently racing toward a solution.) By the midway mark, both the actor and the character seem equally stymied, although it's not until the final reel -- when the Doctor spots Nyssa held captive on a rooftop, and Davison instantly regains his energy, because he has something to do -- that you realize how frustrated he's been up to that point. It's a dismal assignment, true -- but it is also the atypical one that defeats him.

Colin Baker (Sixth Doctor): Well, his performance in "Twin Dilemma" is atrocious, but it's four episodes of asking the actor to perform in a bravura style for which he (at that time) has no aptitude -- and it's his first serial to boot -- so I'm willing to cut him some slack. But five serials later, in "Timelash," when he offers up much the same performance -- well, that's inexcusable. As written, the Doctor is misogynistic and misanthropic throughout the serial, and Baker, maddeningly, does nothing to counter that impression. In fact, he seems to be embrace it. It's Baker's most mystifying performance: he's charmless, boorish and distracted. He resists every opportunity to temper his lines with playfulness, irony or self-awareness; instead, his default emotion is a callous disinterest. At one point, the evil Borad lets him catch a glimpse of his companion Peri, who's been chained a wall for hours, terrorized by a captive beast, and although the Doctor has no idea what she's been up to for the last episode-and-a-half, Baker doesn't respond with surprise, horror or even concern. The apocryphal story of a Colin Baker performance concerns "Mindwarp," in which the Doctor -- after being hooked up to a mind probe -- goes haywire and starts abusing Peri; the script never makes it clear if the abhorrent things coming out of his mouth are a result of the mind probe, a ruse on his part to dupe his captors, or a fabrication of the Time Lord relating the story -- and famously, when Baker asked the director for clarity, he couldn't offer any. But ironically, as you watch "Mindwarp," even if you have no idea what's happened to the Doctor, you fully believe Baker knows; it's in "Timelash" that, as you stare at the actor making inexplicable choices, you can't imagine what he's thinking. You can't tell if he's unaware how coarse and obtuse the character is coming off, or if he thinks he's displaying sufficient charm to offset it (he's not), or if he's not trying to offset it at all because he truly believes this is a palatable version of the Doctor. His best performance: it's his second, in "Attack of the Cybermen." I am not a big Colin Baker fan (at least, not of his performances during his original run on Doctor Who), but he's marvelous here, nailing every subtle shift of emotion. All the annoying mannerisms that proved a blemish on "Twin Dilemma" (and will once again resurface in the following serial, "Vengeance on Varos") -- Baker's constant pursing of his lips, his annoying tendency to over-enunciate, and his unfortunate habit of barking his lines, all in an effort to appear commanding -- are blessedly absent. Instead, he feels fully in command of the role simply by inhabiting it. As opposed to "Twin Dilemma," here's a script that plays to everything Baker does best, and he imbues the proceedings with a remarkable blend of untamed energy, self-reflection and light-footed charm. Ironically, "Attack" is too often remembered as an unrelentingly downbeat script -- probably because those are the kind of stories that script editor Eric Saward was best known for -- but it's actually one of the most exuberant of Sixth Doctor stories, and it both liberates and inspires Baker.

Sylvester McCoy (Seventh Doctor): McCoy had shown enormous agility and charm throughout his debut season; at the top of his second season, story editor Andrew Cartmel reinvents the Doctor as a cunning mastermind -- not a bad idea, but one that does little for McCoy. He's forced to barrel his way through serials with ferocity and authority that don't come easy to him, and too often (most notably in "Ghostlight"), he turns to gurning as a substitute for rage. But "The Greatest Show in the Galaxy," filmed pretty much midway through his run as the Doctor, is the most effortless blend of "old Doctor" and "new Doctor" -- it's a marvelous vehicle for McCoy, and he turns in his finest performance. It's not just the magic act that consumes most of the final episode, and that only McCoy could pull off; it's how the Doctor is caught off guard for much of the serial, and the nimble ways in which McCoy recovers. It's him stumbling out of the TARDIS at the start, and later tumbling into his seat under the big top. It's the thrill and embarrassment he conveys when told it's his turn to perform. And more than any specific moment, it's writer Stephen Wyatt and Sylvester McCoy's shared understanding that the Seventh Doctor triumphantly belongs among the misfits who frequent -- and work at -- the circus. It is, as with Davison's best performance (and Tennant's too), a story that specifically uses the Doctor's character -- his responses, and the effect those responses have on others -- in the way the story unfolds. His worst performance? Well, there are a couple to choose from in his final season. By that point, McCoy seemed unwilling to deliver even the most obvious lines with any sense of wonder or surprise. Tom Baker could do angry intensity; McCoy couldn't -- his newfound dourness wasn't a decent trade-off for his former joie de vivre. Even the simplest lines are delivered with a snarl. And nowhere does it get more out of hand than in "Battlefield," in which Ben Aaronovitch basically pens a script that plays to all of McCoy's worst excesses. The Doctor's dialogue is trite and melodramatic, and it calls upon McCoy to alternately gurn, grimace and screech his lines. From moment to moment, it's hard to know what's worse: the dialogue or McCoy's delivery -- but when they're both bad, they're memorably awful, an earworm still gnawing at your brain hours after the serial has ended. And even when the lines lighten up, McCoy doesn't; it's as if, going into his second season as a darker Doctor, he can't -- when it's advisable -- find his way back to that charming chap who'd once been so invigorating and inviting. When there's an option to be intrigued, he chooses to be annoyed; and when called upon to do his well-trod panic routine, he seems to have forgotten the steps. Aaronovitch's style here is an overwrought foreboding, and it's the worst possible tone for McCoy, who ends up simultaneously being pulled and pulling himself in unflattering directions.

Christopher Eccleston (Ninth Doctor): The first Doctor of the modern era comes out of the gate fully formed. Like Capaldi after him, Eccleston found a comfortable middle ground where he did most of the series, assuring that the glimpses of humor and explosions of rage were all the more exciting for being so unexpected. Eccleston was one of a trio of Doctors (Davison and Smith being the others) who was remarkable in his consistency, who never had a truly bad week; with Eccleston, if you're looking for "worst performance," you don't so much aim for bad as for "least impressive." And it's his second performance, in "The End of the World," that's his least distinguished. While it's true that the script lets him down -- giving him little motivation for a lot of his responses -- it's also true that he doesn't compensate with anything all that interesting. He smirks a lot, but you don't really understand what he's smirking about. When Rose reacts with surprise that the humanoid greeting them is a bright shade of blue, he responds with a broad smile -- but why? Is he excited about seeing a blue humanoid, or is he excited watching Rose get her first glimpse of alien life, or is he just excited about everything? Each guest's arrival prompts that same smirk -- Cassandra's appearance even merits a silent guffaw -- but you can't figure out what a 900-year-old Time Lord, who presumably has seen just about every species, finds so amusing. And later, when he's told that the ship has no maintenance crew in case of disaster, he exclaims "Fantastic" (his catchphrase) -- and you're just left as mystified as his colleague. What's so fantastic about potential catastrophe? What's motivating this version of the Doctor, you wonder -- and you sense Eccleston isn't being given the information that might help him convey it. Ironically, in Eccleston's debut episode, in which the Doctor is proactive, you don't much notice it, but in this follow-up episode, in which he's called upon to be largely reactive, you see what's missing. (Two episodes later, Russell Davies gives him a raison d'être when a spaceship lands in Central London, and the Doctor explains, "This is what I travel for, Rose. To see history happening right in front of us." And then you understand why he seems so entertained by everything, regardless of the potential perils.) His best performance? Well, "Dalek," of course, remains of the greatest acting feats in all of Doctor Who -- but it gives us a darker Doctor than the one who inhabits the rest of the season, and as such, it's in some ways an easier assignment for Eccleston. So let's just acknowledge that the confrontation between the Doctor and the chained Dalek is breathtaking, and gently search elsewhere for Eccleston at his best, arriving at the episode where all the traits of his Doctor coalesce most magically, "The Doctor Dances." Eccleston juggles it all with enviable ease: the rivalry with Captain Jack, the flirty antagonism with Rose, the compassion for Nancy and her son -- not to mention his mounting terror as he envisions the eradication of the human race. And when we get to the episode's glorious climax, when the nanogenes start to figure out how to use Jamie's DNA to heal him, and Eccleston eggs them on ("The mother, she's the mother. It's got to be enough information. Figure it out!"), then makes a personal plea ("Give me a day like this. Give me this one"), then once Jamie is restored, and realizing that he can cure the others, grows exultant: "You want moves, Rose? I'll give you moves. Everybody lives, Rose. Just this once, everybody lives!" -- well, if you're not crying by that point, then turn in your Doctor Who card. The end of "Doctor Dances" might be the single moment in Who history most likely to move you to tears; yes, Steven Moffat sets it up superbly, but Eccleston sells it, making it clear that -- even for a Time Lord who's seen what he has, who's witnessed civilizations crumble and galaxies reborn -- the mere reunion of a mother and child can be joyous, a few dozen citizens being healed can be wondrous, and a moment when everyone lives should be celebrated as a miracle. The sense of the Doctor not merely seeing history happen, but making it happen -- and passing his euphoria onto us -- is never more palpable.

David Tennant (Tenth Doctor): Perhaps as a response to Eccleston's interpretation of the Doctor as a man of moderation, Davies gives us, in Ten, a man wedded to extremes. And in his first few episodes, Tennant plays him -- dutifully and then some -- as Davies scripts him, prone to wild shifts of emotion and vocal register. But what do you do when the script doesn't call for any of those excesses? Mark Gatiss had a gift for writing Who scripts that seemed like leftovers from the previous Doctor's era -- e.g., "Victory of the Daleks," in which Matt Smith is called upon to play David Tennant. In that same vein is "The Idiot's Lantern," a script that seems more in line with Eccleston's approach than Tennant's. It's a fairly straightforward Doctor Who script, with none of the excesses of Ten that had already crystallized in "New Earth" and "Tooth and Claw." And, as a result, Tennant can't figure out what to do. His performance is all mannerisms and tics, many of them seemingly unrelated to what's being said. Early on, he walks in on a family and takes over the conversation; the father, a bully, interrupts, "I was talking," and Tennant counters, "And I'm not listening-ga." That "ga" is so large you could land a small plane on it, but more to the point, the line is eerily prescient: from that point on, Tennant himself doesn't seem to be listening. An upcoming scene with a police detective might be the nadir of his time on Who. There's an easy, internal logic to the scene -- the Doctor comes out joking, but once he starts to understand the gravity of the situation, he grows more serious and, in doing so, wins the detective's trust. But Tennant can't commit to that. He seems to be ignoring the script entirely, searching for ways to be outrageous, in an insane juxtaposition of vocal inflections -- ascending to castrati heights and dropping to basso profundo lows, often over the course of one line. (And then, heaven help us, when he's given his big moment -- "There is no power on this earth that could stop me" -- he delivers it at the top of his lungs: he goes for the obvious choice.) Tennant seems to have mistaken the wild extremes on which he and Davies built his character as being suitable for any occasion -- not just when they're called for. There's a talent to being glib, but still making it clear that you understand the gravity of the threat; that talent escapes Tennant in this story -- but ironically, it's precisely what gets the Doctor into trouble in the episode that boasts Tennant's finest performance. The Tenth Doctor can come off as smug and self-possessed, and "Midnight" not only riffs on that, but exposes it as the proverbial elephant in the living room. It's as much a story about the Tenth Doctor -- the way he acts and the impact he has on others -- as it is about an unseen alien terror. What do people make of you when you present yourself as the cleverest person in the room, when you're some mix of manic affectations and self-pitying grandeur? It's a character study for Ten in the same way that "Snakedance" was for Five -- asking, what kind of impression are you giving people, and what happens when they don't take you seriously -- or, in the case of "Midnight," when they perceive your deportment as "different," and therefore, threatening? Although "Midnight" is recognized as a classic, one complaint commonly lodged at it is that the passengers turn on the Doctor rather quickly (and reveal themselves a conveniently odious crew). But it only seems that way to us because we've been living with this Doctor for three years. But what if this were your first run-in with Ten, on a stalled space-ship in the middle of nowhere? With your own lives in peril, and struggling to identify the evil presence among you, might you not turn to him as the culprit -- not because he's alien, but because he's odd and outrageous? The very thing that makes Ten a unique creation also makes him easily perceived, in the wrong situation, as a danger, and Tennant's sensitive performance acknowledges that. And it's not only a multi-layered portrayal, but a triumph of technique. Ten is robbed of all vocal flourishes and body language -- the very things that (more than any Doctor of the modern era) define him -- and Tennant is charged with not only retaining the essence of the character, but demonstrating the Doctor's terror and resolve. He does so brilliantly.

Matt Smith (Eleventh Doctor): It's easy to remember Matt Smith's Doctor as he's defined by the end of his first season: as the imp with the fez who keeps popping in and out of time streams. It's arguable that Smith never serves up a more dazzling turn than in "The Big Bang," as he gives double-speed instructions to Rory, says his sad goodbyes to Amy, offers an autobiographical lullaby to Amelia Pond, and dances outrageously at the Williams' wedding. But let's not forget what "The Big Bang" is: one of the most breathtaking stunts in Who history -- and there's hardly a Doctor that you can't imagine, if placed into that story, giving a series-best performance. How about something that isn't designed as a tour-de-force but, due to the actor's genius, becomes one? Let's look at "A Town Called Mercy," an overlooked story in which Smith is especially remarkable. This is a new kind of showcase for Smith -- a character study of the Doctor, and what kind of man he wants to be; it's set in a small Western town, where the easiest thing for Smith to do would be to send it up -- you can absolutely imagine him as the quintessential raggedy-man sheriff, going all Don Knotts on us. But respectful of the material and the themes, he reimagines and ultimately reinvents all of his characteristic quirks. (It's not unlike the challenge that Troughton faced and mastered in "Abominable Snowman.") When he's pushing a fugitive down the street to his death, we recognize that familiar long-legged gait; when he's leaning against the railing of the jail-house, defending the fugitive from the townsfolk, we spot the rubbery posture and singular slouch that's, by now, well known to us -- but all his customary mannerisms, which have previously been comic fodder, are now reconceived for dramatic and visual effect. Against the most desolate of backdrops, Smith creates imagery that calls to mind the vision of the mythic Old West immortalized by American artists like Howard Brown and W. Herbert Dunton. His technique is never more expressive, his touch rarely as gentle. Near the climax of the story, the Doctor reminds the fugitive, "We all carry our prisons with us," and has a "lightbulb" moment -- and it's miraculously underplayed. You shudder to think what Tennant would've done with it -- but that said, ironically, Tennant would have breezed through the late-series performance that trips up Smith, in "Nightmare in Silver." It's a script that calls for an unfettered flamboyance, and flamboyant is one thing Matt Smith is not. When he turns into the evil Doctor, there's no spark, no fire -- it all seems surface gestures and voice manipulation. (Him swinging his arms as he strides atop a table, searching for suitably affectatious body language, is tough to watch.) And at times, the Doctor doesn't seem all that different from his doppelgänger: you can't always separate the Doctor's intensity and determination from his evil twin's wiry swagger -- but you can't imagine that was the intent. Admittedly, it's tough to imagine what Smith could have done with dialogue like "I could call myself Mister Clever. So much raw data. Time Lords. There's information on the Time Lords in here. Oh, this is just dreamy!" -- but the joke is, you can hear Tennant doing it, easily. And the odd shifts of emotion and intent that defeat Smith -- the Doctor warning Clara's young charge not to wander off, terrifying her with the dangers that lie everywhere, then capping it with a benign "Sweet dreams" -- would have been a breeze for Capaldi. (He would've been blissfully unaware of the impact his tales of terror were having, then punctuated it with a well-trod remark. Tom Baker, whose Doctor took pleasure in laughing at danger, would have nailed it too.) "Nightmare in Silver" stretches Smith, but in all the wrong ways, and by the end, it leaves him hunting for his own easy, unmannered style. Once the adventure is over, he indulges in an awful lot of mugging during and after his (horrible) final speech, as he wonders aloud about Clara's identity, before taking the TARDIS controls. You're left praying this version of his Doctor never reappears. (Spoiler: it doesn't.)

Peter Capaldi (Twelfth Doctor): I'm not going for obvious moments here; of course Capaldi is impressive delivering his anti-war speech in "Zygon Inversion" and imploring the Master and Missy to take a stand "because it's right" in "The Doctor Falls," but I can think of a half-dozen previous Doctors who would have performed those speeches wonderfully as well. They're crowd pleasers. I'm more concerned with something Capaldi did that made me marvel, that made me think, "I've never seen anyone manage this before." Capaldi and Moffat, of course, came armed in Series 8 with one of the more novel conceits in Who history -- that the Doctor is oblivious to the conventions of human behavior. (For some, that made him seem mean or ill-tempered -- there were even comparisons to Six that baffled me; the brilliant thing about Twelve's conception is that he was never deliberately unkind -- if anything, his need for companionship, and Clara's in particular, was greater than that of any other Doctors; he simply didn't understand the subtleties of etiquette and comportment.) And that notion is never played out more winningly than in "The Caretaker." On the surface, it's the most innocuous of episodes, but the way Capaldi's performance is pitched is striking. Although this is ostensibly the "comic" episode of the season, Capaldi doesn't play it any more comedically than he does the other episodes; given that it's a Gareth Roberts script, you expect another "Unicorn and the Wasp" or "Lodger" or "Closing Time" in tone, but Capaldi doesn't go there. Oh, the jokes come fast and furious, as when the Doctor first makes his disguise known to Clara, who asks after the real caretaker.

Doctor: He's fine. Hypnotized. He thinks he's got the flu. Also a flying car and three wives. It's going to be a rude awakening.
Clara: Is it aliens? Oh, my God, is that why you're here? Are there aliens?
Doctor: It's assembly. You'd better get going. Go and worship something.
Clara: Are there aliens in this school?
Doctor: Listen, it's lovely talking to you, but I've really got to get on. I'm a caretaker now. Look, I've got a brush.
Clara: Doctor, is there an alien in this school?
Doctor: Yes, me. Now go. The walls need sponging and there's a sinister puddle.
Clara: You can't do this. You cannot pass yourself off as a real person among actual people.
Doctor: I lived among otters once for a month. Well, I sulked. River and I, we had this big fight.
Clara: Human beings are not otters!
Doctor: Exactly. It'll be even easier.

But Capaldi doesn't play it as comedy. If it's funny (and it is, deeply), it stems from all the traits Capaldi has established in his Doctor: his obtuseness, his innocence, his tight focus. Capaldi keeps the humor firmly character-based, and in doing so, he keeps the story grounded. It makes the alien antagonist -- a rather low-rent creature -- seem legitimately threatening, and allows the Doctor moments of personal reflection and even character growth that wouldn't have been possible had this been merely "the funny episode." (When Clara confesses she loves Danny, the look of quiet confusion and disappointment that clouds the Doctor's face is powerful.) It's a mini-masterpiece of technique and timing, a heady balancing act, and although Capaldi has lots of memorable moments in his first season, there's nothing quite like this in the entire Who canon. If it's not his "best" performance, it's his most remarkable one. Capaldi's high-wire act of Series 8 gets diluted, of course, through the course of the following two seasons, as he encourages Moffat to make him less "the Twelfth Doctor" and more simply "the Doctor." He becomes more conventionally likable, and indeed he wins the hearts of a lot of fans who didn't warm to him at first. But the returns are declining. By his final series, he's become so avuncular -- he's developed such a case of the warm fuzzies -- that sometimes there's not much left to his performance at all. And "Smile" -- the episode in which he characterizes himself, only semi-facetiously, as a "scary handsome genius from space" and then punctuates it with a grin, as if to say "Here I am, the adorable Doctor you always wanted me to be" -- is the best/worst example. It's a performance that seems half-hearted and predictable, two adjectives you never expected to use in relation to Capaldi. On the "predictable" front are moments like his warning to the colonists, who are arming themselves to stave off the emoji-bots ("Think this will help against a whole living city?"), which he caps with a clichéd look of bug-eyed disbelief -- or when he pulls a plug from a giant contraption and (as smoke pours out, engulfing him) indulges in an awful comic double-take. On the "half-hearted" front -- well, first and foremost, he doesn't seem able or willing to commit to the single conceit of the plot: that the robots read your emotions, and destroy anyone who isn't happy. You see him appeasing them verbally -- "Good morning, I'm happy. I'm very happy. Look how happy I am" -- but his expression doesn't look all that happy. (He can't seem to sustain his smile, even when the logic of the script demands it.) But then, all of Capaldi's reflexes seem to have ground to a halt in "Smile"; there are lengthy pauses before he responds to the others, but you don't see much going on in his head. Like Pertwee, Capaldi was at his best when he was challenged -- in his case, when he was pioneering a new approach to the Doctor, forging an alien character at once sweetly needy and maddeningly aloof; when Moffat gifts him a more traditional, streamlined portrayal, his performances suffer.


Next -- I'm figuring some time in late 2020 -- a look at all the Doctor Who companions, and determining (as I did here) their best and worst performances. Meanwhile, want more Doctor Who? I rank and review all 158 Classic Who serials in a 16-part series that begins here. (There's an alphabetical listing of all my Classic Who reviews here.) I also take an affectionate look at the William Hartnell era; do an overview of the Jon Pertwee era (including a 10-best list); take an expansive look at the Peter Davison years (and his career in general); and offer fuller reviews of seven serials that I consider unfairly maligned.

4 comments:

  1. Another wondrous essay, Tommy! I might quibble a bit and suggest Enlightenment as Davison's best performance, but different strokes etc etc.

    Looking forward to 2020 to see your thoughts on Kamelion's finest performance!

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    1. OK, that was the best laugh I've had in months. You know, I sat down and made a list of all the companions a few weeks ago, to see just how daunting the next part of the essay would be -- and you probably will not be surprised to learn that I never once thought of Kamelion. Hmm, Kamelion's best & worst performances -- how to choose, how to choose... :)

      FYI, I've been doing a Davison rewatch recently, and almost switched his "best" over to "Enlightenment" -- great minds, as ever...

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  2. Yeah, I agree, multilayered really is the key to a good Tennant performance. His best performances are always when he utilises the full range of his character, but far too many episodes feature him dialled up to ten in all areas. If he’s angry, he’s incensed; if he’s happy, he’s manically jubilant; if he’s sad, he bordering on depressed. There’s just no nuance to him, and when he switches from state to state, the chasm between emotions is sometimes ridiculous. It’s impossible to imbue a performance with subtlety where there’s no room to do so.

    I do like the idea of the passenger’s willingness to turn on the Doctor being a response to Ten’s outrageousness: essentially turning what’s generally considered uneven characterisation into some sort of plot beat. It just strikes me as amusing that if Ten was deliberately written to be all over the place emotionally, these are the traits which in hindsight seem detrimental to his legacy, as fandom (with the exception of those who want to have sex with him) seem to dislike the jumping between extremes which became a defining trait of Tennant’s tenure.

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    1. I realize now I hadn't really taken my point about Tennant through to its logical conclusion, but yes, I guess what I would be saying -- via my thoughts about "Midnight" -- is that the Tenth Doctor was conceived in such a way that people's first impulse would be to hate him. :) For me, I never mind the extremes of Tennant's portrayal when the script calls for it (and I am in no way a Tennant detractor). It's when the script *doesn't* require that sort of flamboyance -- as in the aforementioned "Idiot's Lantern" and certainly in "Evolution of the Dakeks" as well -- that I find Tennant gets into trouble.

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