Over the past few days we’ve been pulling together clips devoted to Matt Smith’s portrayal of the Doctor, and having a think about his performances and his ability to inhabit that role as if born to do it. We’ve discussed him play the Doctor as a clown, a fearless general, a screaming thug and a sobbing wreck, and so have a lot of other people.
One aspect of Matt’s appeal that is less celebrated than it should be, possibly because it’s hard to define, is that he—and by extension his Doctor—is really, really good at talking to children.
And this is a crucial component of his success, one that has been emphasised heavily from the very beginning. Unlike in previous regenerations, the first face that the Eleventh Doctor sees is not that of a concerned companion, it’s the young Amelia Pond, who prayed to Santa for some help with a crack in her wall.
Right away that chemistry is there. He’s the Doctor, he wants an apple, except he hates apples, new mouth: new rules, and off they go…
It’s almost as if someone has decided that the best way for the Doctor to restart himself (especially given the popularity of David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor) is to go back to basic principles. He’s the eccentric child-like professor, and the person he is speaking to is his subordinate in every way, including age. That’s how the Doctor treats everyone, but if you place that dynamic into an actual adult/child relationship, it becomes immediately clear and accessible for everyone to understand, and accept.
Which is interesting, given than so much focus has been placed on the amount of grown-up kissing in recent Doctor Who. Everyone notices the shift of tone in one direction, but not the other. There is a lot more smoochy-smoochy going on nowadays, but to balance it out, there’s a corresponding rise in the amount of time the Doctor spends having very innocent conversations with children, and sitting on swings. He even installs bunk-beds in the TARDIS for Amy and Rory.
And actually, if we want to polarise this a bit, there are probably more children than there are kisses. There’s the Doctor’s ongoing relationship with young Amelia; the conversations he has with Craig Owen’s baby son Stormageddo…sorry, Alfie; Archie and Angie, Clara’s two charges; young George, the cuckoo alien in “Night Terrors; baby Melody Pond; little girl Melody Pond; Merry, the Queen of Years in “The Rings of Akhaten;” and Lily and Cyril Arwell from “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe.”
As a character, the Doctor uses his ability to talk to children to his advantage. When lying on the floor of the TARDIS, nearly dead from the poison administered by River Song, it is the young Amelia Pond that helps him work out what to do next. When stuck with the riddle of Clara Oswald, he goes back in time and meets her as a child, to look for clues. And when he can’t find a way into the gruff old heart of Kazran Sardik in “A Christmas Carol,” he goes back and gets the child Kazran from his own time-stream, to see what kind of old grump he will become.
None of which is that peculiar, especially given that Doctor Who is supposed to be a family TV show with a huge fanbase of children, and that the dynamic between the Doctor and his closest companions is often comparable to a family one (albeit one where the roles of parent and child swap constantly), but there really is something especially magical about the way the Eleventh Doctor can talk to children, as if he always identifies himself with them. As if they matter.
Which is curious too, given that the stated intention was always to play the Doctor as an old man in young man’s body. There again, it depends on your perspective. To a child Matt Smith is a young man in an old man’s body.
In any case, he’s a magical figure and he takes that seriously. That’s why YouTube is littered with examples of him talking to children at conferences and he never, ever lets them down. Look:
The next Doctor can grow as old and as crabby as he likes, but he will always need to be able to reassure six-year-olds that they’ll be safe so long as he’s around. That’s his job.
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