With the news overnight that Matt Smith is leaving the role of the Doctor (something I predicted in this post and which was initially contradicted in the popular press), I thought I might make this one, last post; specifically about the Matt Smith era.
Where to start? Well, if you’ll indulge me, I might start with my conclusions first. #1 - I think the Matt Smith Doctor is great. Truly great. I was worried with him being so young at first, but he absolutely sold me that he is the Doctor. So, no dramas there. #2 - Despite saying that, there are more episodes of his that I dislike, than like. That must sound utterly bizarre, but now that I look back on his era, I find that it’s sadly true (and you’ll see why if you read on). #3 Now that we can look back on all but two special episodes of the Matt Smith era, the differences between the Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat eras are marked. And the best way I can summarise them is to say that I liked the Davies era better than the Moffat era, however, I feel Moffat has written more good episodes, as a writer, than Davies. That said, all of Davies writing also falls within his era of showrunner, whereas Moffat had the luxury of doing a chunk of his writing when not the showrunner — and I think it shows, as most of Moffat’s truly great episodes were actually written before his era as showrunner. I think there’s something in that observation for all of us.
So, without any further ado, let’s talk through the Matt Smith era.
Matt’s first story, The Eleventh Hour, wasn’t an amazing story in and of itself, however, I think it was one of the best opening episodes for any Doctor. Especially in comparison to opening episodes from the modern era, I ask myself, was it better than Rose? Easily. Was it better than The Christmas Invasion? Yes, I think it was. And, even going back further in time… was it better than the TV Movie? Absolutely. Better than Time and the Rani? Don’t make me laugh. Better than the Twin Dilemma? I rest my case. You have to start winding back over 25 years to start to find opening stories that are as good as, or better than, The Eleventh Hour.
So where did it all go wrong? In the following episode, The Beast Below, the quality takes a nosedive and it’s not even like we can blame a noob writer, or similar, as it’s none other than Steven Moffat at the wheel! After delivering an episode that introduced the new Doctor with aplomb, and felt like a fairy tale, and many other great qualities… this was just bizarre and all over the place and, dare I say it… terrible.
I started to get really worried when Victory of the Daleks came out. I had thought the first episode of the series was really great, but there was something seriously amiss here. Matt Smith continued to be a great Doctor but, aside from being colourful, the new-look Daleks looked terrible; Spitfires in space were silly; and convincing a robot that he’s human to stop himself exploding was ludicrous… did anyone bother to script edit this at all? Panic sets in.
The Time of Angels and Flesh and Stone was Smith’s first two-parter and, with the return of the Weeping Angels, it seemed 96.4% of fandom was wetting its pants. Me? Not so much. I found it interesting that the Weeping Angels were really cool and scary in Blink but, when brought back in these episodes, they just didn’t create the same sort of feelings for me. Of course, they were still a great adversary (in a general sense) and these episodes at least saw the quality of the series take a slight upswing again, which was nice. But what on Earth was that godawful “seduction” scene at the end of the second part? If I wasn’t already disliking Amy Pond at that stage, the way in which she tried to shag the Doctor on the night of her wedding… I have no words. We’re supposed to like this woman? I mean, OK, maybe if she’d already been married for years, and her husband was ignoring her and she had a proverbial “seven year itch” to scratch… fine… at least it would be comprehensible. But, as someone presumably in love with her husband and about to get married… and she wants to shag the Doctor instead? No, no, no, no, no, no.
Onto the Vampires of Venice, which I thought was going to be a great episode… until the vampires were revealed to be fish people and it all went a little weird from there. I would have really liked to have seen a more traditional take here; with the vampires being… well, vampires. It would have been heaps spookier and scarier and more gothic. But instead, the writer seemed to get the jitters about Doctor Who being science-fiction and “needing” to give an explanation about the vampires not really being vampires at all. Sigh…
Ahhh, now things just got interesting. Amy’s Choice. Keep in mind that, despite loving the Matt Smith Doctor, I’ve been a little disappointed with most of the episodes of Matt’s series so far. Keep in mind I’m really disliking the Amy Pond character (and not just for that seduction scene at the end of Flesh and Stone). Yet this episode was great — even with Amy taking centre stage. As I said at the time, credit where credit is due, this was a trippy, funny, sad episode and everything I like about Doctor Who. To this day, this is still one of my “go to” episodes from the Matt Smith era.
The Hungry Earth and Cold Blood heralded what I thought was going to be an upswing after Amy’s Choice but, alas, despite bringing back the Silurians in a really interesting way, the two episodes — particularly the second part — just didn’t get there for me. More opportunities wasted in Matt’s first series. I was still loving his Doctor, but what on Earth was up with the show overall? It felt too patchy compared to the Russell T. Davies era.
Now, just as things started to look bleak again, Vincent and the Doctor happened. This really was a beautiful episode. Perhaps a bit like The Eleventh Hour, however, there was little actual story and the monster was utterly lame. But that wasn’t the point. The way Vincent van Gogh was portrayed, was amazing and heartbreaking. And who didn’t go and check his paintings (or at least think about it), to see if there were messages for Amy in them, afterwards? It was so well done.
The Lodger presented a different kind of episode when it screened. This was an episode I’d actually been worrying about, largely due to James Corden being in it, but it worked out OK in the end. It was funny, maybe even a bit OTT, but it still worked on most levels. The storyline was a little confusing, however, and did we ever really get to what the craft actually was, on top of Corden’s house?
And then onto the big finale - The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang. These episodes promised a lot and, on the whole, delivered. I’m still not sure how I feel about some of the concepts, like Rory becoming an Auton, etc, but there were enough great scenes and truly head-exploding concepts to make me like these episodes more than dislike them, that’s for sure.
Then we move onto Matt’s first Christmas episode, A Christmas Carol. This remains, I feel, one of the Smith era’s great episodes. Which is really saying something because, frankly, the Christmas episodes are usually a bit silly and… erm, festive. But this one… I dunno… there’s something about it… there’s such a deep tragedy in the middle of it all, that when Abigail gets out of her cryo-unit one last time, staring down death, and sings the house down, it’s one of the most strangely beautiful and affecting moments in all of Doctor Who’s history.
So if the end of the previous series was head-exploding, The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon took things to a whole new level of, “What the…?!?” I remember being truly perplexed by comments along the lines of, “When you see the Doctor being shot and killed, that really is the Doctor being shot and killed…” and wondering, “How on Earth are they going to explain that one?” But, as we learned later in the series, there was indeed an explanation — and it worked pretty well. But when there was only these two episodes to work on… man, it was confusing!
The Curse of the Black Spot just confused me. After an opening two episodes where a lot of heavy, heavy stuff was going down, it was like everyone in the TARDIS just decided to forget about it for awhile and have this light-hearted pirate romp. No, I wasn’t a fan at all. I was bored silly by this episode. Next…!
Which led us unto The Doctor’s Wife. I could spend the next hour or two writing nice things about this episode. It was just so… Who, despite being like nothing we’d ever seen in the series before. It felt quite magical. Neil Gaiman certainly sprinkled the right fairy dust on this one.
Ugh… back to annoying episodes. The Rebel Flesh and The Almost People arrived to cruel my happy straight after that glorious Neil Gaiman episode. I just couldn’t get into these at all. While the premise was somewhat interesting, I felt the story was too stretched as a two-parter. And, weirdly, it was the first part that felt more stretched than the second. Usually it’s the other way around!
A Good Man Goes to War and Let’s Kill Hitler aren’t really a two-parter, but the way in which they formed a mini-gap in the series means they are forever tied together in my head. The former was the culmination of where the background story in this half of the series had been heading… so there was some great pay-off there. Then Let’s Kill Hitler was just… well, it was just bonkers. A nice reveal about River. Some funny lines. But one wonders whether, like some Morrissey songs, the title was almost better than the actual contents?
Night Terrors was the kind of episode that was all, “Whooo! I’m really scary! Whooo! Look at me! I’m scaring you!” and, sadly, it wasn’t. It was pure lame sauce from start to finish.
Remember how I said earlier that I didn’t like Amy Pond yet, ironically, Amy’s Choice is one of my favourite episodes from Smith’s first series? Well, it happened again with The Girl Who Waited because this is very much an “Amy episode” yet I think it’s great. The concept of part of you splitting off and living a hard life, then having the chance to reunite with what it left behind… only to be shut out and, essentially never exist (read: left to die) is harrowing. It’s terrifying. The more you think about it, the concept is heartbreaking. And that’s what underpins this. I thought it was great.
The God Complex could have gone the same way as Night Terrors yet did scary in a more psychological way and was more satisfying in the end for doing so. My only complaint was that David Walliams (whose work on stuff like Little Britain I really adore), was still too recognisable as “David Walliams” even with alien make-up on and this tended to be more distracting than useful in the cast.
Closing Time took us back to The Lodger… and threw in some Cybermen for good measure. It had it’s moments, but lightning seldom strikes twice and I don’t think it was as good as the first episode with James Corden in it, primarily because it re-trod so much of the same territory, and the Cybermen weren’t very interesting, either. Don’t get me wrong; I didn’t hate it. But not one of the greats, by any means.
With a title like, The Wedding of River Song, I thought this had better be an amazing tour de force of an episode or there was going to be hell to pay. Remarkably, the episode delivered by starting off in an absolutely bonkers way, then tying up some loose ends (including what had happened in The Impossible Astronaut), and yet, even in its final minute, was opening up more questions. For a series finale that was one episode instead of two, and still delivered in spades, this was some truly great writing, now that I look back on it.
When I heard the episode title, The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, I thought, “Moffat’s gone too far this time!” because, while last year’s Christmas episode riffed pretty hard on A Christmas Carol (to the extent it was even called A Christmas Carol), it was at least a Christmas theme. Here, I had visions of Moffat riffing on CS Lewis for no other reason than, because he can yet, happily, aside from a very silly opening with the Doctor freefalling to Earth… from space… there was a lot more good than bad and, especially at Christmas, I found myself pretty forgiving.
After almost a year without any new episodes (yep, count the months!), and Doctor Who finally crashed back to Earth with Asylum of the Daleks which was… well, rather silly with healthy dollops of fan service… but it made for great viewing. Starting off on Skaro was quite neat (obviously this was Skaro before the Seventh Doctor blew it up for those of us who remember the Classic Era!), and then tossing our heroes into an asylum of mad Daleks was just crazy — if you’ll pardon the pun — especially as it meant different eras of Dalek could be shown, credibly, in the one location — all followed by one rather large surprise; the new companion we weren’t expecting until the end of the series. Who promptly went and died on us. What the…?!?
I can’t remember where I was, or when it was, but the moment I first heard Dinosaurs on a Spaceship as an episode title I was cringing as the obvious Snakes on a Plane reference flashed before my eyes and, given how that film wasn’t very good, clever or funny, to suddenly have a Doctor Who episode use that as its premise years later (when it’s not even a very strong part of pop culture anymore), ugh, I was scared, to tell you the truth. Fortunately, however, my fears were (largely) for nothing because, while the premise is indeed, “there’s a spaceship with dinosaurs on it”, I was genuinely surprised that there was still enough storyline hung off the concept to make it quite palatable and OK viewing.
I’m not a big fan of the western genre so, when I saw footage from A Town Called Mercy being plugged a long time ago, I knew one was looming for Doctor Who and could barely contain my yawn or even get excited from the point of view of, “Hey, it might be like that Hartnell story, The Gunfighters!” In reality, and much like Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, I wasn’t as repulsed as I thought I’d be… the premise of an alien trying to do good (after doing so much bad), was interesting but, in the end it just didn’t grab me; a competent tale, nothing more.
The Power of Three was an episode where we got a good dose of “Doctor About the House” to begin with (which is what I call episodes like The Lodger and Closing time which go for laughs by showing the Doctor doing “ordinary things”), followed by an invasion which I think would have had the whole audience on the edge of their seats as it was quite quirky and different. But then, just as it was getting somewhere, it wrapped up too quickly! The Doctor met the “boogie man” for Gallifreyan children (well, actually not even a real one — just a hologram of one); we met the Brigadier’s daughter (a cool concept, but I don’t recall him ever mentioning having one), and then with a wave of the sonic screwdriver, everything was solved and, um, that was it. A classic example of NuWho episodes that over-reach themselves then, in the final minutes think, “Oh wow, we need a quick way to wrap this up!” and some deus ex machina comes into play. Very unsatisfying and amateur in the writing department.
The Angels Take Manhattan was trumpeted as the end of Amy and Rory and, frankly, I couldn’t contain my excitement. While I didn’t mind Rory, Amy never grew on me throughout the entire time she was in the series and I feel the couple really overstayed their welcome. I also used to bristle at the way Steven Moffat would say they were the Doctor’s best friends — as if the Doctor apparently never gave a hoot about any of his previous companions. That said, what a disappointment that, while it finished in a certainly unambiguous way, Steven Moffat wimped out and made sure their departure was actually quite “nice” — relatively speaking. What a total cop out and, suffice to say, I think it made their ending on the show go out rather weakly and with little more than a whimper — not the kind of tear-jerking bang we expected.
Ugh. The Snowmen made me feel like Steven Moffat would have much preferred writing some sort of sitcom featuring The Doctor, his new assistant, and his motley crew of Victorian-era pals, rather than something that involved any sort of monster, or threat, this time around. Because the threat here — The Great Intelligence — didn’t seem very menacing at all, and was treated almost like some sort of annoying distraction to the Clara/Oswin Oswald storyline, which was particularly disappointing as the Intelligence is one of the Classic Era bad guys (not that you could really call a disembodied sentience a “guy”), that many people warmly remember. When I look back on other Christmas specials like A Christmas Carol, I wonder how Moffat could get that so right and this so… well, not wrong, but certainly not very interesting.
I’ll be honest; going into The Bells of Saint John I had a little apprehension about what it was going to be like as the basic storyline we’d heard about — that there was “something” in the world’s Wi-Fi — seemed a little cheesy and try-hard. But, happy days, it was actually a lot better than I expected and Jenna-Louise Coleman’s Clara character was bouncing off Matt Smith’s Doctor like Amy and Rory were just a bad dream (well, aside from Amy’s name being on one of Clara’s books), and it felt like great times were ahead for the second half of series seven.
The Rings of Akhaten brought the second half of series seven crashing down before it had time to begin. I wasn’t too sure what to make of it, with its claustrophobic 1980s-looking sets (like something out of Snakedance), and the main guest star being a young girl who sang a lot of songs. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind a song in Doctor Who (as I’ve said earlier in this article, I love A Christmas Carol which ends with a major song number), but this just seemed to have the balance wrong… an amazingly passionate speech from Matt Smith one minute; more singing (and not much else), the next. I just couldn’t get into it.
Cold War could have gone one of two ways — terrible or great — and I’m pleased to say it leaned more towards the great side of things. That’s not to say it was great. But it was pretty close. The return of the Ice Warriors was handled well, although I’m still not sure I can fully get into the idea of the tiny, fast creature inside the big lumbering body armour concept. Yes, I get why they did it that way (so the Ice Warriors don’t turn into another slow, stumbling race), but I’m still not sure my head’s fully around it, at the same time. It was certainly an improvement on the week before. Let’s leave it at that!
Hide was a good episode; not one of the all-time greats but a good, solid episode, with a small, simple cast; great acting and a halfway decent plot. This was Doctor Who in the tradition of Blink and other deceptively simple episodes that feel far more fulfilling than the episodes that try and over-reach themselves in plot and visuals — ironically something this writer’s other episode from this series — The Rings of Akhaten – was hugely guilty of!
I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS because there’s part of me that absolutely adores episodes with a large TARDIS component and, on top of that, let’s be honest and admit there was an awful lot of pure fan service in this episode, which was hard to ignore, too. The actual story itself, however, was a bit thin with a lot of running up and down corridors like we were back in bad old 1980s Doctor Who, interspersed with some nice bits of dialogue and some quite decent teases for the audience. I don’t think it did enough, in the end.
Well, bugger me, the resurrection of Mark Gatiss as a bloke who can write decent Doctor Who continued with The Crimson Horror; an adventure I wasn’t pinning high hopes on but, in the end, turned out to be a fairly good romp, decently paced and a bit “out there” but not stupidly over the top (for Doctor Who), either. Sure, it wasn’t perfect and not something that will become one of my all-time-favourite “go to” episodes, but along with Cold War, is another Gatiss story from later in the Matt Smith era that was better than some he has peddled in earlier series of Doctor Who.
Before watching Nightmare in Silver, I trawled through some online forums and reviews from UK and US fans — truly not to spoil myself, but to just get a general “feel” or “vibe” for what people were saying about the episode and, pretty much, it seemed that people either really, really liked it or really, really hated it. Once I could see it for myself, I found myself in the former camp, but perhaps to a slightly less degree as I’m getting really sick of kids in Doctor Who; I still think Cybermen never get used properly; and while the episode had Neil Gaiman’s fingerprints all over it, parts of it just didn’t work as well as they should have.
The Name of the Doctor was, at long last, the episode that everyone was waiting for. While not a perfect story, it was still good, solid Doctor Who and probably my only real complaint was that the music was quite weak, especially when Clara took such a major, ground-breaking step to save the Doctor — there was just no passion of even sadness in the music when she did that. And OK, sure, the story also left some things hanging, and opened up some new questions (which presumably are resolved in the 50th anniversary special), but on the whole was very good and will be an episode that can be re-watched quite easily, compared to so many others in the Matt Smith era which I really couldn’t care to see again in the next decade.