This evening the BBC reported that Matt Smith will officially be leaving Doctor Who after the 2013 Christmas Special. While sad for diehard 11 fans out there (like me!) it’s not entirely unexpected. Smith has had the title role since the fifth series premiered in 2010, with three companions (four if you count River) and a lot of declarations about how cool things are. David Tennant was around for approximately the same amount of time and companions.
It’s too soon to speculate about the 12th Doctor (younger or older? what’s John Hurt got to do with it anyway? will he FINALLY be ginger?) so instead let’s celebrate Smith’s glorious, bow-tie-wearing tenure in the TARDIS. (Spoilers for all of Matt Smith’s seasons, including the most recent episodes)
11. “The Snowmen”
In a much different Christmas Special than normal, we get to see how 11 dealt with losing companions, something that 10 went through too many times. Always a moody guy, 11 sets up an official pouting station in Victorian England to deal with the loss of Amy and Rory to the Weeping Angels. Of course, he’s roused by a fresh face and a fresh mystery, the second iteration of Clara and the return of the Great Intelligence. As far as plot goes, it’s not my favorite episode and it’s certainly the least Christmas-y Christmas special, but Clara gave Smith’s Doctor new life and new purpose, and helped him and the show bounce back without the Ponds.
10. “Let’s Kill Hitler”
Season 6 may have had its ups and downs but after the big reveal in “A Good Man Goes to War” everything was brought back down to Earth in this episode. It closed the book on River Song’s origin story, and on one of the biggest time travel paradoxes/cliches we’ve got (if we’ve got time travel why don’t we just go kill Hitler before he killed everyone else?). Best moment of the episode was when, weak and potentially dying, the Doctor appears leaning against the TARDIS in a white tie tuxedo and a top hat and says, oh so casually, “Doctor Who?”. How is that not cool?
9. “Asylum of the Daleks”
This episode would be higher on the list if Amy and Rory’s “divorce” sub-plot didn’t feel so contrived and useless, given that they’re back together and happy as clams in the next episode. But other than the Ponds, there’s great stuff happening here between the Doctor and the first iteration of his future companion, Clara, known here as Oswin Oswald. After spending the episode thinking she’s a human shipwrecked on the dangerous planet, only to find out she’s actually a mind trapped in the skeleton of a Dalek, the Doctor gets to question his own view of the world in the final scene with her. Are Daleks really all evil? The result is pretty sad, of course, when we learn they’re not, as Oswin kills herself to save the Doctor and the Ponds. The most heartbreaking moment of the episode, though, is when the Doctor realizes what Oswin is. “It’s a dream, Oswin. You dreamed it for yourself because the truth was too terrible,” he tells her, talking about her fantasy, souffles and all. It’s chilling.
8. “Cold War”
Certainly one of the best episodes of season 7 and indeed, one of the better episodes of Moffat’s tenure, “Cold War” takes the Doctor and his brand new companion to the not-too-distant-past, a Soviet submarine in 1983. It comes as close to a “bottle episode” as Doctor Who possibly can, forcing all the action into a confined space that ends up being scarier than a lot of the fantastical planets the series has traveled to. It’s another instance where the power of words over weapons is emphasized, a lot like the season 5 two-parter “The Hungry Earth” and “Cold Blood,” which is a big part of 11’s strategy. The supporting players are great, and the Ice Warrior is a interesting villain that doesn’t end up being as cartoonish as others. Plus there are many opportunities for Smith to turn around and utter an ominous phrase right into the camera. “He’s got nothing left to lose.” It could be so cheesy but somehow it’s not.
7. “The Beast Below”
Where Tennant was sappy, Smith was angry. Instead of the endless refrain of “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry” that plagued the end of Tennant’s time in the TARDIS, Smith’s Doctor seemed genuinely angered by most of the injustices and horrors he sees in the universe. “The Beast Below” was his first real outing, and immediately showed how different this man was from 10. When faced with the choice to kill the star whale or everyone on the ship, he doesn’t apologize to the people or the animal. He gets really, really mad. “Nobody human has anything to say to me today!” Ouch. This is only the tip of the angry Doctor iceberg.
6. “A Christmas Carol”
As beloved as the Ponds were, 11 often shined when he was separated from the couple, like in his first Christmas Special, when the Doctor must teach a curmudgeon how to love to save a space ship crashing towards a distant planet (it totally makes sense). Smith is also brilliant with kids, which was evidenced in all his interactions with the young Amelia Pond, and he and the young Kazran have too much fun fishing and running from sharks that swim in the air. A lot like “The Girl in the Fireplace” episode that Moffat wrote while Tennant was still in the TARDIS, the Doctor pops in and out of someone’s life over the year’s, becoming a huge influence while not actually spending that much time doing it. And of course, he married Marilyn Monroe.
5. “The Time of the Angels” and “Flesh and Stone”
A two-parter that sees 11 go against the Weeping Angels for the first time, the monsters that 10 battled in season 3’s brilliant “Blink.” Also the first appearance of River Song in 11’s time, and whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on your feelings toward the character. The episodes have some genuinely scary moments (how creepy was it when Amy counted backwards to her death?) and some pretty epic moments as well. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you there’s one thing you never put in a trap? If you’re smart, if you value your continued existence, if you have any plans about seeing tomorrow, there is one thing you never, ever put in a trap.” “And what would that be, sir?” Oh Angel Bob, you’re really quite thick.
4. “Nightmare in Silver”
Neil Gaiman is really good at writing for the weird and fast-paced 11th Doctor. In his second outing as a writer for the show, he puts 11 in his element in a multitude of ways: there are children for him to frighten, confuse, and save, he’s in a setting that seems okay on the surface but has a deep ominous feeling underneath, the setting is also full of lots of literal stuff to climb on and build with and blow up, he’s separate from his companion, and he’s interacting with mainly one character, and there’s a great deal of wit being traded back and forth. All of this made for an episode that could hardly have been acted by anyone except Matt Smith, especially when the cyber “Mr. Clever” is in his mind and Smith trades back and forth acting each. Quite an exercise.
3. “The Lodger”
One of the best parts of Smith’s portrayal of the Doctor was how alien he was. Tennant and Eccleston never seemed out of place in London but Smith was a guy you could believe wasn’t from this planet. That was never on display better than in this season 5 episode, where, stranded without his companion or his TARDIS, he answers an ad to be a regular roommate. Bonus: Before picking up acting Smith was on his way to being a professional soccer player, until an injury forced him out of the sport, which leads to his excellent scene where he shows up Craig on the field. Good thing Stephen Moffat found a way to incorporate Smith’s skills into the show. 12 probably won’t be as good an athlete.
2. “The Doctor’s Wife”
Did I mention that Neil Gaiman is really good at writing for the 11th Doctor? Because he’s really, really good. In a similar set up to “Nightmare in Silver,” the Doctor is separate from his companions, in an ominous world with lots of stuff, and interacting mainly with one character. The brilliant bit is that character is Miss Sexy herself, the TARDIS shuttled into a human body. There are a million wonderful moments in the episode, from Amy and Rory’s terror filled run through the halls of the TARDIS to the small clue about the season’s arc (“the only water in the forest is the river), but the greatness is in all of the Doctor’s interactions with the personification of his trusty spaceship. It’s not just awesome for the Doctor and the fans, it’s pretty hilarious. “Did you wish, really hard?” Amy asks. No but maybe some fan did.
1. “The Eleventh Hour”
Where it all began. Later in his run Smith’s Doctor would have to contend with the long and complicated story arcs that Moffat was implementing, and suffered because of it, especially in season 6. But at his very opening moments when the audience was forced to meet the 11th Doctor without the help of a known companion, Smith was at his absolute best. Everything that came to define his era was started in this brilliant season opener, still my favorite episode of the entire series. His mile-a-minute speaking pace, the girl who waited, the bow tie, the green sonic, the new TARDIS, “Geronimo” and of course, “Bow ties are cool.” What moment was better than when, after calling the Atraxi back to Earth to scold them for threatening to blow up the planet, he says, as images of the past ten men to hold the title scroll by, “Hello, I’m the Doctor. Basically, run.” It will be hard to top an introduction like that for the next guy.