vulture lists

11 From Doctor Who’s Eleven: Matt Smith’s Greatest Hits As the Doctor

Photo: Adrian Rogers/BBC

Yesterday, it was once again time to say good-bye to another Doctor as Matt Smith’s Eleven, after three seasons and four years at the helm of the TARDIS console, regenerated into Peter Capaldi’s Twelve. Let’s take a look back at the Mad Man With a Box, and some of the moments, lines, attitudes, and situations that really made Smith shine and stand apart from those who came before. And if you know your Matt Smith era of Doctor Who, then you’ll know that the only reasonable place to start such talk is with fish custard.

1. Eleven made quite the splash in his first episode, “The Eleventh Hour,” by climbing out of the TARDIS swimming pool and into young Amelia Pond’s (Caitlin Blackwood) life, demanding an apple. The apple didn’t taste right, and neither did the yogurt he requested afterward. His reactions to bacon and beans were even less positive, and the simplicity of bread and butter led to him hurling the concoction out the front door. But it was fish fingers and custard, of all things, that finally appealed to this new, crazed Doctor, and fans went wild for it. Seriously, Google fish fingers and custard, and behold the power of Doctor Who to take something that sounds so revolting and turn it into a pop-culture cornerstone.

2. A Doctor’s first reaction to a Dalek is surely worth noting, if for no other reason than the awareness of their place in the show’s history by the actor playing the lead role. In “Victory of the Daleks,” Smith’s Eleven met the insidious pepperpots for the first time, and they were … friendly? This was an unfathomable development to the Doctor, and in order to bring their anger to their surface, he went to work on one of Bracewell’s Ironsides – with a massive iron wrench. Eleven tore into the Dalek with visceral, petulant anger, and in the end the mission was accomplished. Much had changed since the Ninth Doctor’s (Christopher Eccleston) pants-wetting reaction to meeting a Dalek in Van Statten’s underground lair back in the first season.

3. “Vincent and the Doctor” was a clear highlight of Eleven’s first season, and the episode is littered with all sorts of magical moments from not only the Eleventh Doctor, but also the show in general (thank you, writer Richard Curtis). But perhaps Eleven’s most magically moving bit was in the episode’s coda, when he and Amy (Karen Gillan) returned to the Musée d’Orsay of the present after taking Van Gogh back to his proper time, at which point he explained to a tearful Amy why she shouldn’t view their journey with such futility:

Eleven: “The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant. And we definitely added to his pile of good things.”

4. Smith’s first season was shot with no knowledge of how his interpretation of the role would be received. The first material he recorded aware of his success as the Doctor was the Christmas special, “A Christmas Carol” (arguably the greatest of all the holiday offerings so far), and his entrance into the proceedings, through a chimney, covered in soot, is something that only Smith’s Eleven could have pulled off. There was a comical assuredness right off that bat that maybe wasn’t quite as polished before, manifesting itself through that awkward physicality — “the drunken giraffe,” as Steven Moffat has often referred to him — that belongs to Smith’s Doctor, and his Doctor alone. Also, talk of this scene would feel incomplete without mentioning this line:

Eleven: “Do you know in 900 years of time and space I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important before?”

5. The Doctor doesn’t often interact on a personal level with the TARDIS. Never, in fact … except for that one time when Neil Gaiman wrote a Doctor Who script (his first). “The Doctor’s Wife” saw the conscience of the TARDIS transposed into the body of a comely woman, Idris. Imagine Colin Baker referring to his TARDIS as “sexy,” and it becomes immediately apparent how unique Smith’s talents can be. There aren’t many Doctors before him that could’ve so effectively pulled off a heartbreaking romance with his own time machine.

6. Eleven had a peculiar interest in one particular human being that wasn’t one of his companions proper, and that was the zhlubby but lovable Craig Owens (James Corden), with whom the Doctor spent a great deal of time within two stories, “The Lodger” and “Closing Time.” It was in the latter tale that Eleven, upon interacting with Craig’s newborn, Alfie, declared that not only did he speak baby, but that the child was referring to himself as “Stormageddon, Dark Lord of All,” which, like fish custard before it, is precisely the sort of thing Internet memes are born of. Eleven also babysat Stormageddon — surely a first for the Doctor.

7. Eleven doesn’t like good-byes, as was declared in “The Angels Take Manhattan.” And how! It’s often said that though the Eleventh Doctor is very young on the outside, Smith plays him as very old on the inside. There’s a lot of truth to that, but it isn’t an absolute, as evidenced by the close of this story, when in the face of losing Amy Pond forever, he becomes a desperate, selfish creature reminiscent of a child having his favorite toy taken away rather than a 1000-year-old Time Lord. He begs and howls at her to not do the one thing that could reunite her with her true love, Rory, reacting in a way that no other Doctor has ever reacted to losing a companion. Amy wisely resists him, and it leaves the Doctor a crushed, broken mess, who spends months moping around Victorian England before running into Clara (Jenna Coleman).

8. One thing Eleven could be counted on to do was deliver great, passionate speeches to his enemies — lengthy diatribes loaded with equal parts pomp, circumstance, piss, and vinegar. While the obvious one occurred near the close of season five’s “The Pandorica Opens,” an even more impressive display comes from a far more seasoned Smith in “The Rings of Ahkatan.” Eleven bellows and gloats and pokes and prods at a planet-size false god, daring it to come and dine on his essence, as tears of remembrance and loss, and perhaps also for a future that might not be, stream down his face. The level of passion and emotion Smith brought to the series is at its most obvious in a scene like this, but look closer and you’ll see it painted all over his Doctor, throughout his entire era.  

9. The utter absurdity of “sand shoes and Grandad,” and Eleven’s ability to wield it so offhandedly as a means of describing his past selves is emblematic of how deeply Smith was into the role by the time of the anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor.” I neglected to give Smith his proper due in the recap last month, so let’s fix that here: Despite the episode featuring the welcome return of David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor and introducing John Hurt’s war incarnation (not to mention Zygons, Billie Piper, Time Lords, Jenna Coleman’s smile, and even bloody Tom Baker), “Day” belongs firmly to Smith. It’s a testament to his considerable talents that he not only held his own against all those other exciting elements, but managed to retain ownership of the proceedings as the current reigning Doctor, and was still generous enough to let everything around him shine so brightly. That was some high wire act, Matt.

10. Though not specific to any one episode, Eleven cannot be discussed without some talk of his relationship with and subsequent marriage to River Song (Alex Kingston), the developments and dramatic flourishes of which dominated much of his era (the arc of season six is essentially built around it). The comings and goings of the pair — in and out of each other’s lives at different points in their time streams — often strained narrative credibility, yet the emotion behind the wibbly-wobbliness was solid. River Song was surely the most divisive element of Eleven’s life, but it is important to acknowledge that without her, he’d likely have been a much different facet of the Time Lord.   

11. Ten had a style, but Eleven had style to spare. Whether insisting that bow ties are cool, trading fez for cowboy hat or deerstalker, or slipping in and out of tweed jackets and maroon waistcoats, no Doctor before the Eleventh had such a sharp sense of fashion. His ability to take such questionable bits of clothing and make them unquestionably work for him was literally a sight to behold. Admittedly, Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor also knew his way around the inside of a wardrobe, but Eleven took it to the next level, updating the idea of doing space and time with a chic flair that modern audiences related to and cosplayers devoured.

Matt Smith had a tough act to follow. His age and the fact that he was a complete unknown didn’t help matters. Yet even in his earliest episodes he had a grasp of the character and an understanding of what makes the show tick. It’s easy to take the current Doctor for granted, because Doctor Who is a series built on change, and there’s always the promise of something better and greater around the corner. I’ve made no secret of my excitement over the casting of Peter Capaldi, and I do believe he’s going to make one amazing Doctor, but throughout writing this piece I came to a realization: I will miss Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor like crazy.

Doctor Who: Matt Smith’s Greatest Hits