The last time lord

For me, Tom Baker has always personified “the Doctor” from the classic British SF series, Doctor Who. His bumbling, grinning genius, complete with absurdly long scarf and a bag full of jelly-babies, has always seemed to be sublime casting from my perspective. Tom Baker nailed the character in a way no one else did, before or after. While fine actors like William Hartnell, Jon Pertwee, and Sylvester McCoy did an amazing job defining and filling out the character, and all did admirable jobs of showing the multiple personalities of someone like a time lord, in my mind Tom Baker’s performance has always stood above all the others.

Until the current series, that is. David Tennant, the current manifestation of the Doctor, manages to bring all the personalities into one, in a way that almost transcends sublime. He combines Tom Baker’s bumbling good will with Pertwee’s sharpness of thought and wit, with Hartnell’s direct manner and sense of purpose, with even a touch of Patrick Troughton’s mania. He even manages to mix in a bit of Colin Baker’s haughtiness with Sylvester McCoy’s quiet confidence in a way that gives us a broth smoother and more pure than we’ve ever seen before. One gets the feeling watching Tennant’s Doctor that he would be as adept with an umbrella as he would a recorder or an over-long scarf in a time of need, and thats a HUGE gap to straddle, both in terms of coherent character and acting technique.

The final episodes of Tennant’s third season were an excellent example of new and old. For the record, I should warn NOW that spoilers will come up below if you haven’t seen the episodes “The Sound of Drums” and “The Last of the Time Lords.” This series of episodes brings back an “old friend” of Doctor Who regulars, The Master, in a classic psychotic role. Played admirably by John Simm, the new Master is younger, without the previously trademark dark and humourless facade, but his modified appearance has had no impact on his personality … as usual, the episode involves elaborate plans to take over the universe, thwarted by the Doctor. Along the way we learn more about the fate of Gallifrey, the home world of the Time Lords, and by the end of the episode, the Doctor is truly alone in the universe.

One of the things I loved about this series of episodes was the way it ties back to older episodes, extending the storyline of the battle between the Master and the Doctor. Both Tennant and Simm do an excellent job of using old characters to find new artistic ground, and Simm’s “over the top” portrayal of the Master is very fitting to the historic arc of the character. Like Tennant has managed to encapsulate all the historic personalities of the Doctor, Simm seems to have nailed the Master character as well, which is made even more unusual by the complete change in physical appearance between Simm and other actors in the role from the past. Moreso than any past change in the Doctor’s appearance, the new Master is a wholly different kind of person, and its remarkable to see that and the tie back to older characters at the same time. Hats off to Simm for fleshing out a character that has always been somewhat 2-dimensional.

I’ve been loathe to admit this as I’ve watched Tennant over the past few seasons, but unfortunately, I think Tom Baker has lost his spot at the top of my Doctor Who cast list. Of all the other’s who have played the Doctor, I still find Tom Baker’s adaptation the most compelling, but Tennant has taken that a step further IMO. Tennant has managed to become ALL the other Doctors, in one package … where other Doctor’s have taken one aspect of the personality and expanded on it, Tennant seems to have found the whole character in a very fundamental way. I’ve enjoyed these few season’s with Tennant’s Doctor more than I have with any other incarnation of the Doctor. It’s taken awhile for me to admit it, but the New Doctor is most definitely David Tennant.

Above image is from the Wikipedia entry for “The Last of the Time Lords.” It is originally a still shot from the BBC TV program Doctor Who, and used here under fair use for illustrative purposes.

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