On Counterfactual Doctor Who Musings

Over the weekend, with the world still in the afterglow of “A Study in Pink,” Sherlock‘s debut episode, reports began to surface in The Sun and The Daily Mail that Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch had been offered the role of the Doctor after David Tennant decided to leave.

Really? The Sun? Really? The Daily Mail? Really really? People took this nonsense seriously? It’s the Daily fucking Mail, for fuck’s sake.

The sum entirety of Cumberbatch’s quotation in the Daily Mail article is this: “‘David [Tennant] and I talked about it but I thought it would have to be radically different. And anyway, I didn’t really like the whole package — being on school lunch boxes.” Which is a far cry from what the reporter opens the article with: “Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch has revealed he was offered the role of Doctor Who, but turned it down.” All we have confirmed is one actor talking to another actor about a role, a role that ultimately went to someone else; anything more than that is a stretch, and there’s certainly no indication that Steven Moffat and Piers Wenger approached Cumberbatch in mid-2008 before auditions for the eleventh Doctor began. The Daily Mail‘s article isn’t impossible, but I tend to think that they stretched things a very good ways to get a sensationalistic story.

Journalistic integrity. *sigh*

Thinking about this over the weekend prompted a thought that I’d filed away in the back of my mind for a later day.

Consider the counterfactual where David Tennant decided to do the fifth season of Doctor Who.

We know from page 375 of The Writer’s Tale: The Final Chapter that on April 16, 2008 Tennant met with Steven Moffat to discuss the fifth season.

Tennant had previously decided that he would leave the series when Russell T. Davies did, and a series of specials after the fourth season was decided upon as their exit. Davies charts in TWT:TFC that in April 2008 Tennant was having a “wibble” — he intended to leave, everyone from outgoing producer Davies to incoming producer Moffat knew he was leaving, but he wasn’t sure. And so, on April 16, Tennant and Moffat met to discuss Moffat’s vision of the series and the season story arc, and according to Tennant he even read a script, “The Time of Angels.”

What if Tennant decided that he wanted to act in the fifth season, instead of just watching it?

(I’m going to leave the specials aside. We would likely have had both “Planet of the Dead” and “The Waters of Mars” as something very similar to what we got. But on the other hand, the world would have been spared the indignity of “The End of Time.” The existence of “The End of Time” proves Leibniz wrong; we do not live in the best of all possible worlds.)

Would the fifth season — the cracks in space, Amy Pond, River Song, the Big Bang II, all of it — would it have worked with Tennant as the Doctor?

The reason I filed the thought away — as it’s a thought I’ve borne since April — is that, at one point, I would have said “Yes” unreservedly, but as time has worn on I’ve had more… complicated thoughts.

I very much enjoyed Doctor Who this year. It is not flawless by any means, but it was, taken on the whole, very very good. After a few years of Russell T. Davies’ penchant for elevating manipulative emotion at the expense of plot and logic, to have Steven Moffat put together an entire season of episodes that told a large-scale story and gave the observant audience enough clues along the way that they could puzzle out the finale was refreshing (as I did here). Moffat didn’t take his audience for granted, and that was very much appreciated by at least this viewer.

One of my issues with the fifth season was the sense that Moffat wrote the eleventh Doctor like the tenth Doctor. “Matt Smith’s saying Tennant lines,” I remember saying at the office a few weeks into the season. “I’m waiting for a genuine Smith line.” In a way, that was true — Moffat believes, and not incorrectly, that the Doctor is the same person, no matter which body he wears, so of course the Doctor is going to say the same sorts of things in the same sorts of way, no matter which face is saying them this week. Case in point: Moffat’s “The Girl in the Fireplace,” which I cannot imagine with any other Doctor than David Tennant, was written for Eccleston’s Doctor. Supporting evidence: Tennant read the script of “The Time of Angels,” which ultimately starred Smith. Is it any surprise that the episode where I felt that Smith was uttering dialogue most like Tennant dialogue was “The Time of Angels”? Look at the scene as the Marines enter the cave maze and the Doctor babbles at length; that’s Tennant dialogue, not Smith dialogue. There is nothing in the first five episodes — “The Eleventh Hour” through “Flesh and Stone” — that David Tennant couldn’t have done. Nothing.

But then, once Moffat stopped writing all the episodes, once we reached “The Vampires of Venice,” Matt Smith’s Doctor took on a different tone. The dialogue stopped sounding like recycled Tennant dialogue. “The Lodger,” even though it began life as a Tennant comic strip, was so not-Tennant that I can’t imagine it working with any Doctor other than Smith (except possibly Colin Baker). My fear with “The Pandorica Opens” was that there would be a reversion back to the Tennant-esque Doctor as Moffat was again writing the character, and while the Doctor’s taunting of the starships hovering over Stonehenge was the story’s most Tennant-esque moment, the Doctor’s conversation with Rory in Underhenge — “The universe is big. It is vast and complicated and ridiculous. And sometimes, very rarely, impossible things happen and we call them miracles.” — was, at least for me, an anti-Tennant moment, the moment where Smith reached far back into the series’ DNA and pulled out the quintessential Troughton-ness of the Doctor. “The Pandorica Opens” was Smith’s “The Evil of the Daleks” or “The Tomb of the Cybermen” with Rory as Smith’s Jamie. Tennant’s Doctor was old, Smith’s Doctor was ancient.

Something else, too. Tennant would never have been as awkward with River Song as Smith was. She could annoy Tennant, she could confuse Tennant, but she couldn’t fluster him. I cannot imagine Tennant asking “Are you married, River?” with all the gravitas he can muster (Smith drops his voice an octave in that scene), only to have it blow up spectacularly in his face and finding himself without a clue of how to recover.

Also, I can’t imagine Tennant wearing a fez. :h2g2:

On the other hand, it’s pitifully easy to see how easily “The Big Bang” could have been a regeneration story had Tennant stayed for the fifth season — the Doctor pilots the Pandorica into the exploding TARDIS and sacrifices his life, resulting in a regeneration that coincides with the “rewind.” Indeed, considering the visions other Doctors had of past adventures and lost companions when they regenerated, I’m convinced that the rewind was intended for a regeneration sequence, with the transformation occurring at roughly the point where the Doctor says, “I think I’ll skip the rest of the rewind. I hate repeats.”

I think Tennant could have done the fifth season, but he would only have been okay with it. The fifth season works as well as it does because it’s a season of desperation. The Doctor’s seeming confidence masks the fact that, just below the surface, things are going very wrong. I bought Smith as desperate. I never bought Tennant’s attempts at desperation such as “The Waters of Mars.”

And the worst thing if Tennant had done the fifth season? There’s no guarantee we’d have had Matt Smith as the eleventh Doctor when Tennant left; he might have found other acting work and been unavailable.

I’ve tried to imagine that alternate fifth season, and I think that’s an idea I’ll leave on the shelf. I love what we got. I liked Tennant’s Doctor a lot, but I like what I’ve seen of Smith’s Doctor more. :D

When’s Christmas, again? I need more Doctor Who, and I need it now

3 thoughts on “On Counterfactual Doctor Who Musings

  1. The problem with your hypothesis that later episodes were written for Smith rather than for Tennant is that Gareth Roberts has explicitly stated that he wrote “The Lodger” with Tennant in mind; it was only later that Smith was cast, and all the differences between Tennant’s and Smith’s Doctors in that scenario come from Smith’s acting choices, not the actual writing.

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