Kindness and fury
After nearly fifty years and eleven actors, we have some idea of what makes the Doctor: “He’s dangerous, he’s sardonic even when he’s sincere, he’s manic, you don’t quite trust him even when you do, and he needs his companion to keep him from going over to the dark side.” He’s a bit distant, and “he has no compunction about manipulating people or dropping them entirely.” He’s dangerous — when the Doctor is around, people die — but he’s irresistible, and, in the David Tennant incarnation at least, he’s a walking broken heart. He’s the one who has to make all the impossible choices and save the world, even though he may not be able to save you.
After Christopher Eccleston spent a year breathing new life into the Doctor Who francise, and sacrificed himself to save pop singer Billie Piper (a.k.a. Rose Tyler) from a case of terminal omnipotence, David Tennant stepped into the Doctor’s trainers and travelling coat for a four-year, three-season run as the Tenth and best Doctor. The Tenth Doctor’s run actually starts off a bit slowly, not entirely hitting its stride until halfway through #10’s second year (and second companion).
In “Human Nature/The Family of Blood,” the Doctor and companion Martha Jones hide out in early twentieth century England from a family of intergalactic hunters. In order to keep the family from tracking them, the Doctor has to alter his physiology to become human, and hide his memories and identity in a pocket watch. (It’s Doctor Who. Believe it or not, it all makes sense in the episode. Mostly.) The family is relentless, but they’re short-lived, so if the Doctor and Martha can hide for a few months, they’ll be safe.
While they’re hiding, however, the Doctor has no idea that he’s been anything other than John Smith, schoolteacher at a boys’ boarding school. To make things worse, he’s fallen in love with the school nurse, Joan Redfern. In order to become the Doctor again, John Smith has to give up his existence. In effect, he has to die for the Doctor to live, and since the Family of Blood has found him, the Doctor has to live in order to be able to save the people John Smith loves.
It is, interestingly, a story in which the Doctor is almost entirely absent, even when David Tennant is onscreen, and when the Doctor returns, his return is terrible.
After this episode, David Tennant’s Doctor is constantly on the edge of not being the Doctor anymore. After defeating fellow Time Lord The Master (the brilliant, manic John Simm) in “The Last of the Time Lords,” the Doctor nearly gives up his itinerant existence in order to care for (and imprison) the one being who could actually be a full and equal companion. In “The Waters of Mars,” the Doctor abandons Time Lord constraints and attempts to intervene in a fixed point in history — avert a tragedy without which the human race might never have set out to explore the universe. In “Journey’s End,” the Doctor prevents a full regeneration (and the same sort of identity death that John Smith faced) by shunting his regeneration energy into the creation of a full second self, who isn’t a Time Lord, isn’t immortal, and, not coincidentally, end up getting to lead exactly the sort of life the Doctor wishes that he could have, sharing a single lifetime with an equal partner, instead of an eternal series of temporary companions.
Whatever he does, the Tenth Doctor is never able to escape the costs of his actions, and indeed, his very existence. He is always apologizing to the people he cannot save, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
In some sense, judging whether the Tenth Doctor is the best Doctor isn’t an entirely fair competition, since, rather unusually for a new Doctor, Tennant inherits a lot of the strongest elements of Eccleston’s (and Russell T. Davies’) modern Doctor Who relaunch. Doctor Who isn’t really known for continuity — in fact, each regeneration is normally treated as an entirely fresh start — but the Tenth Doctor benefits from the show’s willingness to reach back to previous companions and previous Doctors, and to continue to build on the relationships the Tenth Doctor creates. Companions depart and return — Rose Tyler, Martha Jones, Donna Noble, and even Sarah Jane Smith, who traveled with the Third and Fourth Doctors. Every departure is heartbreaking. Every return comes at a cost, and leads both to triumph and further heartbreak.
For all that, in all honesty, I’m a bit surprised to not find myself fonder of Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor. The current head writer, Steven Moffat is responsible for many of the very best episodes of both the Ninth and Tenth Doctors’ runs, including “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances,” the Christopher Eccleston episodes that finally made me a full-on rabid fan of the Doctor, and my absolute favorite episode, “Blink,” which really should totally devastate my argument since David Tennant is barely in it.
But the Eleventh Doctor’s episodes are somehow shallower. The Tenth Doctor’s playfulness with language (“Allons-y! I should say allons-y more often. Allons-y. Look sharp, Rose Tyler, allons-y!”) is transformed into a penchant for silly hats. (I’ll give you the fez, Matt Smith, but the stetson/bow tie combination is not cool.) Even worse, Moffat somehow steps on his own best ideas. The Weeping Angels, so frightening and unique in “Blink,” (“The only psychopaths in the universe to kill you nicely. No mess, no fuss, they just zap you into the past and let you live to death.”) are transformed into brutes that just snap your neck.
I will look forward to the new season, especially if it gives Matt Smith a chance to figure out who his Doctor is without Amy Pond. No Doctor who hasn’t lost a companion is really the Doctor, and that, ultimately, is why the Tenth Doctor has to stand above Nine and Eleven.
Who is the best Doctor from the modern Doctor Who?
The Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) by Sarah Werner
The Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) by Gavin Craig
The Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) by Sarah Pavis
River Song (Alex Kingston) by Matt Santori-Griffith