My David Tennant Era Overview

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Tanlee
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Every so often I’m tempted to try to reappraise Tennant’s Doctor. Certainly ever since Moffat’s era went colossally off the rails with Let’s Kill Hitler, I’ve found myself digging out old Tennant episodes and found occasional comfort food viewing in rewatching them.

But there’s one problem. There’s nothing really to grip hold of with Tennant’s Doctor.

RTD’s Doctors were conceived in reaction to the classic show’s previous missteps, which is ironic because the idea of making each new Doctor a complete contrast to the last was originally a disastrous JNT sensibility (or rather anti-sensibility). Eccleston seemed characterised solely as being the anti-McGann. Inversing the Victorian frock coated gentleman into a volatile, inarticulate thug in leather. Infact the leather jacket itself seemed born of desperate fannish neuroses that had still never gotten over the shame trauma of Colin’s coat.

But the problem as I said was Eccleston had no stable grounding, no discipline or integrity. Neither did Tennant really, but Tennant was designed to be the safer, more cheerful, chummy and humanity-loving contrast to rough, misanthropic grumpy Eccleston. Again these qualities weren’t really handled with any moderation or care.

Tennant was specifically designed to be just like the popular braggard kid in school who you either thought was cool, or just plain couldn’t stand. I was mostly in the latter camp.

Now on the surface it seems RTD was rightly being cautious with the Doctor’s character. When the show began in 1963, the Doctor wasn’t the main point of identification, he wasn’t even the third. So it was no skin off the character’s nose that he acted like something of a bast*rd. But by the time the show reached the 70’s, the Doctor was almost always written as someone of good heart who you were generally fully on side with.

Then the 80’s happened, and of course most JNT apologists desperately try to claim that any Doctor after Tom Baker would’ve faced less forgiving, ‘unfair’ criticism, and that the ‘Tom Baker fanboys’ are somehow ‘disloyal’ or ‘narrow-minded’ in their failure to warm to a Sixth Doctor characterised as a woman-beater in his debut. Of course fans like Russell would say the show had practically committed suicide there and then (although I get the horrible sense that in Russell’s superficial, fashion-conscious mindset, the coat was the greater mistake).

To me the rot set in earlier than that, but for the same reason. I’m deeply uncomfortable with the fact that my favourite show produced Warriors of the Deep, which depicted our hero suckeding up to genocidal lizards who are intent on global ethnic cleansing. And surely a popular family show that’s a paragon of all things noble and progressive wouldn’t do that.

But alas by that point the show had long accumulated a fanbase that insisted the Doctor be nothing less than sycophantic and belligerently protective toward said ethnic cleansers, because continuity and precedent from the Pertwee era demanded it, and those fans had the producer’s ear. The thinking behind the show’s making had stopped being about giving the public a hero they could even remotely feel on side with, and more about what the more undesirable constituency in fandom would accept, or at least excuse based on hazy memories of back in 1963 when the First Doctor nearly bludgeoned a caveman. Now there’s no evidence this is what killed the show’s ratings, but I can’t for the life of me believe it did the show’s popularity any favours, and whatever reasons it was being put to death, that kind of mean-spiritedness ensured the show wasn’t worth saving.

Of course RTD went out of his way to go against any possibility of that ever happening again. So Tennant was made as chummy, agreeable and bubbly as possible. I’d say RTD succeeded too well there. Obviously he succeeded in terms of making the Doctor liked and beloved by millions, and not making them tune out in disillusionment in the way Colin’s Doctor allegedly would have. And to be fair Russell’s approach crystalized just how unacceptably moronic and mean-spirited the idea behind Twin Dilemma was, and how ashamed we should be as fans for trying to excuse or defend it for the last thirty years.

But when all’s said and done, Tennant’s Doctor is kind of forgettable.

Yes that’s possibly a minority opinion on my part. And I’ll also admit that even now, after Moffat’s era has degenerated into a serious train-wreck, I still can’t help see fans with incessant complaining how they don’t like Smith and desperately want Tennant and Russell back, as an utterly sad bunch even by fandom’s standards.

Even Terrance Dicks warmed greatly to Tennant’s Doctor in a way he never had with the JNT Doctors. But that just might be the problem. Tennant is too agreeable. Much of modern fandom's geek-feminist quotient have turned on Doctor Who ever since Moffat took over. Now the signal to noise ratio being what it is, many of their complaints of sexism seem to me to be ridiculous cranky nit-picking about anything and everything a prominent male character does.

But Tennant hardly ever provoked their complaints, save for his doing Martha cold, and his saving Donna’s life in Journey’s End by erasing her memory against her wishes. Apparently not wanting to let her die pointlessly makes him patriarchal scum.

But that means even the most nit-picky, sanctimonious feminist fans struggled to find anything worth getting offended about with Tennant’s Doctor. That should give you an idea of just how bland, safe and clean-cut he was.

Is it down to the personality of his creator, Russell T. Davies? Is Russell really just that superficial that there’s no substance to him, and ergo no substance to his hero? Well I don’t really know Russell, but from interviews, it comes across in his manner as though everything’s a performance with him. I’ve described him several times as an egotistical, vitriolic man-bitch and cheap shock-jockey whose remarks about autistic fans have often been vile.

But if there was one forum that loved to slate him, it was the Anorak Zone. a haven for loud, smug man-children who’d never outgrown their schooldays where sitting at the back of the bus, mocking everything and never being enthusiastically gushing, was mandatory if you wanted to be ‘cool’. After I was inevitably booted from the site, there came a point where on reflection, once the shock effect of all the vitriolic, shock-jockey posts wears off, you realise just how utterly uninteresting and unmemorable these people are. By sneering at everything, they bring their lack of any appreciation or cultured sensibility into sharp, depressing relief.

Basically Tennant’s Doctor is probably what RTD would be like if he was clean cut. And as such he’s just rather boring. Or at the very least comes across like he has to compensate at a thousand words and tones of inflection a minute to prevent you realising he’s boring.

Now Kaan Vural has admitted that he has a hard time seeing any credibly of the Doctor in Tennant’s portrayal for reasons that coincide with some of my own. And I did try to develop the fan theory that somehow Tennant’s Doctor was like the Sixth Doctor. A Doctor whose inception was entirely based on necessary survival mechanisms. Just as the Sixth Doctor was designed to be more brutish and ruthless to be more adept at surviving a violent universe, so Tennant also seemed to be designed with the hyperactive and somewhat adolescent personality of an unrelenting, daring, foolhardy thrill-seeker. After all death and danger in this universe require quick-thinking, direct action, speedy efficiency, and the courage and daring of fools and madmen. For instance, in Doomsday, armed with only a sonic screwdriver, he infiltrates the Daleks’ lair and rescues Rose from their clutches in the space of two minutes.

There was also that curious moment in End of Time where during the threat to the whole of creation, something seemed to snap in the Doctor and he briefly became a stripped-down mute assassin, deciding robotically like clockwork which of the two evil Time Lords to kill. Hinting that his amiable human mask had fallen away, revealing the cold alien pragmatism below.

But I think the failing of the Tenth Doctor can be summed up as being simply that ironically, for all the propaganda about Russell’s gift at characterisation and emotion, he seemed incredibly averse to ever actually giving Tennant anything genuinely character-building. This is something Steve Lyons argued in Time Unincorporated 3. Infact Tennant’s Doctor is almost always somehow bailed out by something or someone rather than ever getting to make any defining choices or decisions. Even in the ‘darker’ affairs of Voyage of the Damned and Midnight, there’s always an Astrid Peth or a stewardess ready to sacrifice their life to despatch the villain whilst he’s captured and helpless. Even The Satan Pit ultimately cops out of showing the Doctor facing a new challenge to his complacency, by obfuscating the conclusion.

There were attempts to give him darker moments of ruthlessness, such as in The Runaway Bride with his drowning the Racnoss babies, or punishing the Family of Blood, or his megalomaniacal turn in Waters of Mars. But somehow even these ended up counting for nothing. Waters of Mars promises to go somewhere unprecedented and dangerous with the Doctor, but it’s almost forgotten in the next episode, and again it’s poorly defined just how saving someone who was originally fated to die, somehow makes him turn evil. If anything it makes him feel puppeteered rather than wilful.

The retributive denouement of Family of Blood is done in such a rush montage and so wrapped up in the magical and supernatural that what he’s done feels vague and undefined, and almost like a music video collage of moments making up something very metaphorical or magic trickery. And is it me or does the sequence seem to be playing safe by using Son of Mine as a potential unreliable narrator? In The Runaway Bride, the entire conflict was so achingly pantomime that it never really feels like anything truly serious has taken place. And furthermore, when we reach Turn Left, we realise that far from growing as a character from the event, he almost ended up giving up and letting himself drown if not for Donna pulling him back, because apparently the Doctor is now that insensible and incapable without his companion.

Yes, the big problem is that when it comes to a situation where there genuinely is no way out for him, like in the countdown to the Reality Bomb in Journey’s End, when it comes time to him to prove his worth against the odds, one gets the sense that he has even less spine or capability than even Davison’s Doctor. The stories put him to the test so little, that when it finally happened, all he could do was fail miserably, and never actually grow from the experience (though Davison being almost always put to the test and almost always failing moronically was no better, and in many ways worse, especially since the easy solution was usually abundantly at his feet in episode one despite his procrastinating pretences that using it constituted some kind of moral dilemma).

That’s the problem with the Doctor being ‘awesome’, because RTD’s enforced complacency meant he had nowhere to go or grow from there. This is likely the source of the big divide between the general public’s appreciation of Tennant, and how fans like me saw him, and why we weren’t so sad to see him go, so much as impatient. RTD Who was a soap, and Tennant’s Doctor was a generic, simplistic, overly apologetic male soap character. Ultimately he was no modern Tom Baker. Tennant’s defining moments were routine break-ups, goodbyes, apologies, regrets and tears, defined by what happened to him more than what he actually did, and so when he left, he was more than replaceable.
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Allons-y
 
 
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Tanlee wrote:Eccleston seemed characterised solely as being the anti-McGann. Inversing the Victorian frock coated gentleman into a volatile, inarticulate thug in leather. Infact the leather jacket itself seemed born of desperate fannish neuroses that had still never gotten over the shame trauma of Colin’s coat.
Actually the short hair cut and leather coat was initially McGann's suggestion for his Doctor.
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Allons-y
 
 
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Tanlee wrote: Yes that’s possibly a minority opinion on my part. And I’ll also admit that even now, after Moffat’s era has degenerated into a serious train-wreck, I still can’t help see fans like Ed Watkinson and his fellow Planet Mondas bunch of whiners with their incessant complaining how they don’t like Smith and desperately want Tennant and Russell back, as an utterly sad bunch even by fandom’s standards.
That's a bit harsh "people don't share my opinion, therefore they're whiners and sad cases", also I don't think anyone has said they desperately want Tennant/RTD back. I think Tennant was brilliant, the best we've had and RTD was pretty good too, better than Moffat, but I don't especially want them back, the show moves on and you couldn't revert to a previous Doctor.
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:4thDoctor: There's no point in being grown up, if you can't be childish sometimes!
Tanlee
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Allons-y wrote:
Tanlee wrote: Yes that’s possibly a minority opinion on my part. And I’ll also admit that even now, after Moffat’s era has degenerated into a serious train-wreck, I still can’t help see fans like Ed Watkinson and his fellow Planet Mondas bunch of whiners with their incessant complaining how they don’t like Smith and desperately want Tennant and Russell back, as an utterly sad bunch even by fandom’s standards.
That's a bit harsh "people don't share my opinion, therefore they're whiners and sad cases", also I don't think anyone has said they desperately want Tennant/RTD back. I think Tennant was brilliant, the best we've had and RTD was pretty good too, better than Moffat, but I don't especially want them back, the show moves on and you couldn't revert to a previous Doctor.
Oh dear. I wrote the review a while back, last year.

I forgot I indulged that bit of immaturity in it. So sorry.

I just know at the time I loved Smith and was baffled and annoyed and tired out by people hating on him for seemingly no good reason.
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iank
 
 
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The Tennant era is genuinely so schizophrenic I honestly wonder what hallucinogens the production team were smoking from 2006-2009. There are flashes of brilliance throughout (more so than the subsequent era, which went through a relatively more understandable (if no less disappointing) fall from great to dismal fairly consistently) but they sit side by side with so many absolutely ghastly abominations it's like a rollercoaster ride from Hell. Likewise, Tennant is relatively likeable and charismatic, but encouraged to go OTT too often and saddled with a morally hypocritical and deeply annoying character. Add to that gigantic WTF missteps like the whole sick-making Rose arc and... yuck.
(Doctor Who) has been hijacked and redefined as a lucrative modern franchise. They've literally taken a square peg and painfully made it fit a round hole by taking enormous liberties with much of its fundamental essence. There's no turning back now.

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Tanlee
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iank wrote:The Tennant era is genuinely so schizophrenic I honestly wonder what hallucinogens the production team were smoking from 2006-2009.
It wasn't until recently I discovered that RTD used to be such a heavy drug user he nearly ODed (and actually wrote one Queer as Folk episode on this topic). Since learning that I now think I understand why RTD's era looks more chemically run than even Resurrection of the Daleks did.
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I liked Blink. Everything else was crap, pretty much, but Blink really worked. It was onl;y slightly spoiled by that bloke in the coat and glasses who kept popping up on the DVDs.
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