I’m finally catching up on Matt Smith’s run on Doctor Who. In an episode I saw recently, he was able to do everything by himself. Everything. Of course he could do all the regular Doctor stuff like figuring out space-time conundrums and studying alien species and constructing odd contraptions out of cast off earth technology so the aliens can’t detect it when scanning for alien tech or something weird like that. But he also happens to know the exact weird mixture to dump down someone’s throat when they get sick from an alien disease that the has yet to identify. He talks to cats. He is also really good at football to the point that his roommate gets jealous. Yeah, it’s the episode with the roommate. Oh yeah, he also has huge piles of cash and everyone thinks he looks good naked. And all the interpersonal conflict with the roommate is overwhelmed by the Doctor having superhuman abilities at analyzing relationships between people as well as the ability to headbutt his memories in to someone else’s heads. Is there anything this guy can’t do?
Now I quite enjoyed this episode, but I think that’s one of the biggest concerns I have with the Doctor as a character. I like him when he has weak spots, issues, flaws, gaps in knowledge, etc. I want t know what makes him awesome and what he needs to overcome in order to be awesome. When he begins playing football (soccer to my fellow Americans) at a ridiculously awesome level despite never having played the sport before, I just felt weird. Like it wasn’t a “natural talent vs skill” moment. It was a “The Doctor comes in and is better than you at everything you felt you were good at” moment.
Now there is quite a lot good about the Matt Smith doctor. I’m more interested in why has he become such a godlike figure? In the commentary for the first Matt Smith episode titled “The Eleventh Hour”, the show runner mentions that if the Doctor weren’t sick from recently regenerating he would “solve the problem by sending an email.”
The problem was an army of alien eyeball ships that were going to fry the planet because another shape-shifting alien had hidden on earth and there were some other plot points but that just doesn’t seem tiny to me. So I don’t know if it is something like Mary-Sueism or just an overpowered view of the character by the producers but I feel like something is missing in the way he is characterized now. The missing piece is why he needs companions.
William Hartnell’s Doctor had definite use for the companions- both from a story and pragmatic perspective. His companion Ian knew quite a bit of Earth science knowledge and was more physically adept than the doctor. Barbara had history knowledge. All the sidekicks would sometimes notice something the Doctor had missed and though the Doctor usually ended up knowing best, having the others around him was a necessity.
Patrick Troughton’s Doctor ended up with two core companions at the end- the violent and instinct driven Jaime and the brilliant analytical Zoe. Both complemented his skills and though the Doctor was the leader Jaime’s willigness to charge in to danger or Zoe’s ability to solve insane math and science problems often saved the day. It was a team.
Even David Tennant’s Doctor would often have weak areas that were buoyed by his companions. When his moral compass had become cloudy, he had Donna’s stubborn nature to give him input on other ways to view situations. He had Captain Jack to do his immortal handsome gun-toting schtick when necessary, and most of his other companions were strong and reliable in their own rights as well.
I don’t have a problem with the companions themselves in the Matt Smith incarnation and I really do quite enjoy Matt Smith himself as the doctor. What seems to be missing for me is the idea of the gaps in skills possessed by the Doctor. When asked by Amy Pond why he brought her, he has a speech about how he needs her so he can see the wonder of the universe. The companions seem to be filling an emotional need for Matt Smith’s doctor rather than a functional one. Sure, other doctors also took companions for comfort- William Hartnell’s doctor clearly invites Vicki to journey him in some point to fill the void left by the departure of his granddaugther Susan.
But contrasting with many of the previous incarnations, this Doctor doesn’t seem to have a practical need for the people he invites along to ride in the Tardis. Rory and Amy are important and their story is growing on me and they certainly are developing as protagonists in their own right. It’s just in the stories it constantly seems like the only reason Amy or Rory are doing something is because the Doctor is otherwise occupied. They’re extra pairs of hands and emotional grounding for him. Maybe that’s intentional. The eleventh doctor certainly has a wild array of emotional issues to deal with.
Maybe that’s the point. He’s trying to be good at everything now so he doesn’t have to rely on people who he might lose (like Donna and Rose) or who might accidentally endanger him (like Wilfred did). It isn’t a fair way for him to view his companions and isn’t entirely accurate, but I hope that sort of thing is what’s going on with the character.
Still, one thing I’ve always preferred to have in even the most powerful of characters is some idea of what they’re not good at- what they need help with and what arenas they can be beaten in. Superman is weak versus magic and isn’t so good at interpersonal manipulation when compared with Batman. Buffy has difficulty dealing with pressure. Indiana Jones is scared of snakes. The Second Doctor sometimes isn’t sure what to do so he sits down to play his recorder.
Maybe I’ll see it soon but so far the only thing the Eleventh Doctor doesn’t seem good at is fashion sense- yet even then in failing to be stylish he winds up being endearing by declaring haplessly that he wears a Stetson now because Stetsons are cool. Even his weaknesses are strengths! Like that joke about the job hunter asked about what his weaknesses are and he replies, “He’s too giving and works too hard, is too much of a team player.”
It leads me to wonder how he really views his companions. If they’re more emotional crutches than important allies, how does that affect their relationship in the long run? Luckily, there’s still quite a few more episodes for me to watch.