There’s absolutely no doubt that getting to play the Doctor on Doctor Who is a plum role. You’re the lead, you’re the hero, you always get to be the smartest guy in the room, you co-star with amazing women (and occasional men), you get to make fun of Daleks, you’re beloved throughout the UK and increasingly across the world, and even if your career goes south later you can ride the convention circuit for the rest of your life. It’s one of those roles that’s an undeniable jackpot.
That said, playing the Doctor presents some pretty daunting challenges as well. How do you play a genius who’s traveled to all ends of time and space over a 1,000-year lifetime? How do you portray those accumulated years of experience while staying relatable to an audience comprised largely of children? How much do you borrow from your last half-dozen predecessors in the role? Is your Doctor one of the funny ones or one of the broody ones? What ridiculous thing are they making you wear? And most importantly: How do you react when you encounter an old enemy?
Not kidding. This is a key, defining challenge facing any actor playing the Doctor. Doctor Who introduces new monsters and aliens each year, to be sure, but it also has a decades-spanning tradition of bringing its most popular monsters back for return engagements. Meaning that at some point a classically trained actor is going to find himself pretending to be awestruck and terrified staring at a beloved but goofy-looking adversary based on an ultra-low-budget design from the 1960s.
Christoper Eccleston set the gold standard for this in the 2005 episode “Dalek” when his Ninth Doctor is thrown in a cell with the titular creature, the first encounter between the Time Lord and his most iconic nemesis in 17 years (in television time, not in the Doctor’s lifetime). His reaction – alternately terrified, furious, and contemptuous – powerfully reintroduced to TV audiences the concept that an upside-down trashcan with a toilet plunger sticking out of its gut is the most deadly force in the universe. Because this is the key to Doctor Who, and the reason why the choice of leading man is so important: the audience is looking to the Doctor to know how scared to be. Of course the companion’s going to be scared; it’s all new to her, she doesn’t know what the alien is. But if the Doctor’s scared… well then we know we’ve got a real problem on our hands.
Eccleston was helped in “Dalek” by the fact that he was playing essentially a post-traumatic Doctor, drained of much of his usual flamboyance and humor. In this past weekend’s episode, “Cold War,” current Doctor Matt Smith serves up a master class in splitting the difference: delivering a potent response to a decades-old monster without losing the goofy eccentricity he brings to the role. In the clip below, the Doctor finds himself face-to-face with an Ice Warrior, a nemesis not seen since the 1974 classic series episode “The Monster of Peladon.” Smith, who is remarkably adept at rapidly flashing through a whole host of emotions in seconds, knocks it out of the park.
Watch his face as he turns around and registers the Martian’s presence. Counter-intuitively but brilliantly, instead of going for horror, he breaks out in an exasperated “You’re kidding me, right?” grin. Here he is, on a sinking nuclear submarine that’s running out of air, surrounded by Russian soldiers who want to execute him as a spy, and now this? It’s a fantastic way to suggest a man who’s spent centuries getting out of tight corners and has confidence to burn. He’s worried, he’s aggravated, but he’s still pretty sure he’s gonna get out of this one.
This is a shrewd acting strategy, holding back on the horrified reaction at this juncture, because less than two minutes later the Ice Warrior identifies himself. “I am Grand Marshal Skaldak.” And of course we’re hearing “sci-fi gobbledygook, sci-fi gobbledygook” until we see the Doctor’s face. Uh-oh. This isn’t just any Ice Warrior. Of all the green dudes from Mars wearing clunky turtle-looking armor, this one is particularly dangerous. You can see it in how Smith plays his reaction. He closes his eyes, quietly scolding himself for his earlier cockiness. This isn’t funny anymore. Now they’re fighting for their lives.
This is why, on Doctor Who, the primary responsibility for the storytelling comes down to not the writer, but the actor playing the Doctor. He (and perhaps someday she) is our guide through the story. He has to be funny, because when he stops being funny, we know things have gotten really bad. He has to be gentle and kind, because when stops being gentle and kind and starts being angry, we know the stakes have gone through the roof. As this clip demonstrates, Matt Smith is among the finest of the 11 actors who’ve played the role in terms of threading this needle.
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