Showrunner Russell T Davies used to say about David Tennant that he was so good as the Doctor, that he felt an obligation to keep presenting new and challenging material to keep him inspired. It’s easy to imagine that one of the stories he was talking about was Human Nature/The Family of Blood. In it, as I’m sure you know, Tennant plays both the Doctor and John Smith, the human persona he adopts in order to hide from the murderous Family.
I think it’s Tennant’s finest performance in Doctor Who, and he’s always good. But this story really gives him the chance to flex his acting muscles. As John Smith he changes his speech and his mannerisms just enough to create a vivid, new character but one which still suggests the Doctor, lying just under the surface. The scenes where he effortlessly switches from one to the other – for instance when a snippet of Doctor sneaks out when Smith holds the watch – are as clever a conjuring trick as the series ever showed.
But his real triumph is in telling the tragedy of a man who comes to gradually realise that his whole life is a fiction and that he must give up the woman he loves to save everyone else. Tennant’s greatest achievement is that by story’s end you both want the Doctor back and you want Smith to survive.
So if we were handing out Oscar nominations for Best Performance as Doctor Who, Tennant’s would be in Human Nature etc. What about the others? What’s the story in which they give their best performance?
First of all, we have to excuse Paul McGann for lack of material. You may want to nominate some of his audio adventures, but I’ve only heard one and I have no plans to listen to the other gazillion. John Hurt too, only gets one shot at it so he’s on the bench too. Capaldi has barely started, although perhaps Listen is an early frontrunner. And we’ll excuse the non-canonical Cushing as well (though maybe that calls for a ‘best of the rest’ post at some stage. Hmmm.)
Some Doctors peak early. Hartnell, I’d suggest, earliest. For me, he’s never better than in 100,000 BC. It’s partly because his deteriorating health played havoc with his ability to remember lines as his Who career wore on. But it’s also because in his first story, his Doctor is at his most slippery and dangerous. You really don’t know where you stand with him, and he’s at the centre of the story. It’s quite unsettling.
I don’t think he ever got as strong material again, and although later Whos saw him playing as part of an impressive ensemble (The Crusade for instance, or The Myth Makers), his character was never honed with such care as in those first four eps. (Though of course we don’t have all the episodes to judge. If The Massacre turns up tomorrow in a Mormon church car boot sale or something, perhaps we’d discover a dual performance as impressive as Tennant’s in Human Nature etc.)
Pertwee too, hits his stride early, specifically in Inferno. I don’t think it’s the best story of his era, but the Pert is great in it, particularly in the latter episodes where he’s trying to engineer a way out of the doomed parallel world. Never again do we see the third Doctor as vulnerable or as desperate, and after this story, I’d argue Pertwee becomes very settled in the role and is never as edgy again.
But if the Pert became too comfortable after his first few stories, I think it’s nothing compared to how settled Troughton became. As mentioned when talking about The Highlanders, the Trought in his early stories is too quixotic for the series to maintain, so he quickly becomes a safer, but still quirky Doctor. And that’s how he stays for most of his era.
It’s a brilliant performance, but it stays consistently at a certain level; perhaps because of the formulaic nature of many of his stories, he’s never really pushed. At least not his very last story, The War Games. Here, as the Doctor’s secrets are gradually revealed, Troughton gives a more varied performance than ever before. He’s wary and devious and ashamed and you really get the sense that for the first time, he has much to lose.
A common theme is emerging; when the lead actor gets a script which is a bit different, which pushes them in a new direction, then a great performance emerges. That’s the case with Eccleston in Dalek, a script which gives him a great outlet for that eye popping passion he has. It’s true for McCoy as well I think, and the script which stretches his character the most is The Curse of Fenric. McCoy could occasionally over egg a line, or mistime a gag, but I don’t think he puts a foot wrong in Fenric. The exchange in Part Four where he bargains with Ace’s life – a softly spoken command to Fenric to ‘kill her’ – shows he can move from slapstick to sinister and be totally convincing.
Colin Baker, on the other hand, is best in an (allegedly) more run of the mill story. I’ll wax lyrical about the much underrated The Mysterious Planet when I get a random chance to, but Baker is terrific in it. He’s the Doctor you always want him to be: funny, charming and compassionate, but still with a biting line in sarcasm. Peri demonstrates a real affection for this Doctor for the first time and the audience can understand why.
As for Davison… Well, it would be easy to say Androzani wouldn’t it? Again, it’s a story which offers his Doctor something more compelling than the usual fare, and Davison rightly seizes the opportunity and turns in a great performance.
But perhaps it’s an even greater achievement to give a terrific performance when everything else around you is a bit rubbish. And so we turn to Warriors of the Deep, long maligned for its rubbery monsters, overlit set and extravagant eye makeup. But block all that out (if you can. And then teach me how, would you?) and concentrate on Davison, who is acting his question mark socks off in this. To be properly compelling and passionate and to be giving it everything, while all falls apart around you… that’s impressive.
And so to Tom, probably the hardest to assess for a few reasons. Firstly, despite being endlessly creative and constantly trying to inject originality into the stories, his performance, like Troughton’s, is consistently comfortable. Take last random’s Image of the Fendahl for example. Is he good it in? Of course! Does his performance stand out from the crowd of other Tom stories? Um, not really.
Secondly, which fourth Doctor are we talking about? The mostly serious/slightly comic one of his first few (and last) seasons or the mostly comic/slightly serious one of his middle period? How do you compare the wildly different fourth Doctors of seasons 14 and 17, say? Well, let’s not try. Let’s allow two nominations from Tom. From his serious seasons, I’d choose The Seeds of Doom, where he’s magnetic and dangerous. From his jokier period, you can’t really go past City of Death, where his madcappery is given full license. He’s in love, in Paris and he’s giving it some considerable comic welly. Two astonishing turns.
So that’s it. A complete set of nominations for Best Performance by a Doctor. Award those Oscars at your leisure.
What’s that? I forgot about Matt Smith, you say? Well…
NEXT TIME… I’ll never forget when the Doctor was him! It’s time for The Time of the Doctor.
And just quickly…
LINK to Image of the Fendahl. Both are set in rural England. And that’s about it! Tenuous link alert!