On January 3rd, 2009, Matt Smith was unveiled as David Tennant’s successor in a television special on BBC One.
Hindsight, if it ever bothers to look at these relatively ephemeral documents in the first place, will surely view this as the rough draft of the Peter Capaldi announcement. In every regard, that is a refinement of this – pacier, more variety, and more of a sense of what it wanted to be. This, on the other hand, is presented as a special episode of Doctor Who Confidential, and gives the overwhelming sense of being cobbled together so that there was something more impressive than a press release.
The bulk of the thirty-five minutes are given over to yet another history of the Doctors, with all the differences in emphasis you’d expect. Colin Baker gets about three sentences, clearly still retaining his status as the Doctor it’s OK to dump on. Indeed, everything here is very much the official history as of the Davies/Moffat era, which is basically the official history that existed before with a few nips and tucks. Tom Baker is given a decently technical analysis by Davies, Moffat, and Tennant, who combine to offer up a reading of why he was good. Pertwee gets re-evaluated a bit by Moffat, and Davies clears up the details of the Hartnell era a bit. There are the trademark musical montages that define Doctor Who Confidential in all its wonder and frustration.
Indeed, if anything the nature of this announcement as an episode of Doctor Who Confidential speaks volumes about the way in which the show thinks of itself at this point. The announcement of a new Doctor is big news that goes out on BBC One, but under the banner of the BBC Three “auxiliary material for the hardcore” show speaks volumes about exactly what Doctor Who still was – the property that had unexpectedly come back and become a hit. The underlying anxiety that fueled every second of Rose, and indeed of the first season (even if only in production) is still there. Nobody’s quite willing to just come out and bombastically declare “here is your major cultural news of the day” and then drop the mic. Instead we get a potted documentary about the nature of the role that means that more time is spent justifying why we should care about the new Doctor than anything else.
It’s possible to read this as another part of the Davies era’s arrogance – as Davies thinking it’s a big deal that the show would move on after him. But it is. Up to 2009, the show really was a freakish revival spearheaded by one creative genius who did the impossible. The fact of it continuing with a complete changeover of creative personnel was, in point of fact, a huge risk despite the fact that historically the show had done it loads of times. Nobody knew if this would work. We do know now, and we know in a way that makes 2009 look strange. But at the time there was a real question mark over it for anyone who wasn’t hugely committed to the “Doctor Who can be made like it’s the mid-70s with no changes and any attempt to do otherwise is foolish” school.
And so what we have here is a bit of typically ecstatic puffery that’s actually clearly terrified that the entire thing is about to come crumbling down. Not least because, of course, the actual casting wasn’t going to excite many people simply because Smith wasn’t hugely well known. And yet the show had just done Journey’s End and the also very popular The Next Doctor. It was at once huge and fragile in a way that is difficult to see clearly even just five years later.
The result of this oddness, however, does not actually make good television. The episode amounts to a twenty-five minute thumb-twiddle to avoid announcing Matt Smith and thus having everybody turn off. This, at least, is a technique retained by the Peter Capaldi announcement. But here it seems almost to be the point of the exercise. When Matt Smith appears, there’s no fanfare or voiceover – they just cut to him talking about getting the part. He doesn’t even get a caption mentioning who he is for the first ten seconds, and it vanishes five seconds later. The moment of announcement is almost entirely swallowed, such that if you make the mistake of looking away from the screen you’ll actually manage to get through the special without knowing who the Doctor is beyond that he’s named Matt.
This is not actually that bad a thing. Smith was not a hugely well-known actor upon being cast – I’ve seen people argue that he’s the Doctor who was least famous upon being cast. The actual announcement of the impending Matt Smith era was almost necessarily without substance. Tennant talks about the strangeness of the early days of being cast as the Doctor, in fact. There are no scripts or decisions to be made yet. The part is inchoate. The pictures from the time speak volumes – Smith, in clothes utterly unlike what he’d end up wearing, was photographed by a photographer who had no idea what he was shooting, with the TARDIS added into the background later. There’s no actual information about what the Eleventh Doctor is going to be like here. It’s just the sentence “Matt Smith has been cast as the next Doctor” drawn out over thirty-five minutes. Sure, in hindsight you can see bits of Smith’s Doctor in his interview clip, but they’re just glimpses through smoke.
In many ways the most interesting part are the clips of Smith’s prior acting roles. Ruby in the Smoke seems an obvious precedent, but for all that it looks like the Doctor and Rose running around, his character sounds nothing like the Doctor. None of his past roles do, really. Actually, the only moments when he looks at all like his Doctor are the interview itself, where he’s broad and gestural and prone to the quick reversals and counter-reversals of what he says. “It’s exciting. Nervewracking. Exciting. (Pause) Exciting. (Pause) Keeps me sleeping,” he says, and in hindsight, it’s the Doctor saying it. But all of this is hindsight – tea leaves and interesting archeological notes. Nothing more.
But if the Matt Smith announcement tells us nothing of substance about the Smith era, it does at least give us a fair amount of information about the Tennant era, which it brings to a close. From this point on, the Tennant era is over. It has to be – we’ve seen the future, even if only a shimmering moment of it. At this point everything is just filling in the gap between the present moment and the inevitable future. Which is an impressive transition – the Tennant era has felt valedictory for ages, after all. We already knew Moffat was taking over, and the smart money was on Tennant leaving, as we’ve said. The Next Doctor was already about how the Tennant era was over, or, at least, it tried half-heartedly to be about that.
And, of course, what’s really impressive is just how long the victory lap is. Never mind the Doctor’s reward – Smith is unveiled nearly a year before his first scene airs, and well over a year before his first actual episode. Again, it’s worth comparing to Tennant or Capaldi, who had relatively short periods between their announcement and their first appearance. Eccleston, obviously, had quite a long one, but that was also quite a strange moment in the series’ history, so it barely seems to count.
For this to happen in a year with far less Doctor Who than normal is further strange. Especially after a year that ended up with fourteen Doctor Whos, thirteen Torchwoods, and twelve Sarah Jane Adventures – losing eleven of those Doctor Whos and eight of the Torchwoods felt jarring at the time. To combine that with the Doctor Who that did exist feeling out of its time, like a holdover from an already cancelled past, made it further strange.
Which, returning to the announcement special, makes its strange nature somewhat more understandable. Doctor Who in 2009 is a strange dreamlike state, after the end of the Davies era (which happened with Journey’s End) and before the dawn of the Moffat era. It would be weird enough if there were actually a full season of Doctor Who to discuss – instead there’s the orchestrated farewell of someone who’s already left, and a long wait for Doctor Who to make yet another television debut. As a result, it’s an entire year in which the paratext of Doctor Who overwhelms the actual text, so much so that the actual series becomes little more than an AU fanfiction about its own production.