Of all the stories around the Eleventh Doctor and the reason he is the way he is, the most telling detail lies in the way Matt Smith, the actor who plays him, was first considered for the role.
Amid a casting process that was deliberately skewed towards an older actor than the departing David Tennant, Matt walked into the audition on long spindly pins, an easy smile splitting that strong chin widthways, sparkly eyes hidden under a firm brow, and wearing his own tweed jacket. He looked eccentric, like his face was constructed from leftover parts from other faces, but still handsome and charming. He looked like a sharp old professor in a sixth former’s body, and he looked exactly like a British alien from Gallifrey with two hearts.
The only possible decision was to cast him right away, because somehow, despite being his own man, he IS the Doctor. And that’s really how the Eleventh Doctor operates. He’s the Doctor that knows his own reputation, he’s the Doctor that uses the fact that he’s been around a bit and has battled more than a few despots as leverage in a tight spot.
Compare this to the battle scene at the end of the Tenth Doctor’s first adventure and you notice a subtle change in approach. Ten spends his time working out how the Doctor should tackle the problem, given that he’s not sure what kind of Doctor he is, whereas Eleven wears his own patchwork skin with far greater ease.
Sure, he doesn’t know what food the Doctor likes to eat, but that’s regeneration for you.
And who is the Doctor? Well he’s this professorial old man, who skips and jibbers like a pixie. He’s a tall, stiff backed scientist with a sweet tooth and a disarming sense of personal style. He’s a vulnerable, empathic ball of kinetic energy with a tendency to launch into long speeches, he’s a comedian in a bad mood, a wide-eyed and empathic charmer, a veteran of appalling conflict, a thwarted family man with a god complex. Eleven is all of these things all the time, and has been so for longer than he was any of his other selves.
And because he’s been the Doctor for such a long time, he’s able to do things he’s not done in many years. He has a relationship with River Song, he attempts to keep in touch with old friends—like Jo Grant, Sarah Jane Smith, and the Brigadier—and old enemies, like the Ice Warriors and the Great Intelligence.
He gets into little scrapes all over history, moves into a flat, plays football, paints a fence, works in a shop. There is nothing this Doctor won’t turn his hand to in a pinch, and if he doesn’t get it right first try, there’s usually someone who can restart reality for him and help put him back together.
And because he is so comfortable with himselves, so sure of his bearings, he’s ideally placed to meet the inside of his own TARDIS, at long last.
And bicker with its voice interface about the effect he has on his own companions:
So in a sense, the story of the Eleventh Doctor is that of a man becoming comfortable with his lot in life—the sole survivor of the Time War and scourge of the Daleks—and maybe even using his past as a way of guaranteeing his future success, until that nasty business with the assassin Melody Pond, and the eventual loss of his favorite travelling companions Amy and Rory, forces him to drop the hubris, and realise that he works best when under the radar.
It’s all still bound up in the Time War, of course. For Nine, it’s still part of his daily existence, leaving Ten with the post-traumatic stress disorder, while Eleven provides the eventual consolidation of his pre and post-war selves. He brings all of his old fragmented personality traits into one, singular frame, and then tries to figure out how best to make use of everything he has become.
And why? Because he is the Doctor.
Find out more about the Eleventh Doctor, Doctor Who: The Doctors Revisited – The Eleventh Doctor is on BBC AMERICA on Sunday November 24 at 8/7c.