I love David Tennant. There is something about the man himself that seems to be so enthusiastic, gregarious and just being an all-around lovely bloke. David Tennant isn’t shy about saying he is a lifelong fan of Doctor Who. It influenced his decision to become an actor and he doesn’t seem to be able to put a foot wrong with the work he does.
Besides being the 10th Doctor he’s known for his detective in “Broadchurch”, playing “Casanova”, playing a mind-controlling comic supervillain in “Jessica Jones”, starring in “Harry Potter” as well as an accomplished theatre actor for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Although it’s been ten years since David Tennant left the role I was interested to read a YouGov survey David-tennant-britons-favourite-doctor-who-actor that has put David Tennant in the top spot as the most popular Doctor Who with the general public. The poll was done in the autumn of last year around October before Jodie Whitaker’s full series had aired. She comes in 7th place. How much you take these surveys seriously is a matter of personal opinion and everyone has their favourite Doctor. David Tennant, however, caught the public imagination with his Doctor in such a way that it is considered the ‘golden era’ of the show and it’s worth exploring why it is so for the 10th Doctor
I notice the first four spots on the survey of most popular Doctor actors are 6.1ft or above and when I saw David Tennant, in the London theatre production of Don Juan in 2017, what struck me there is something very energetic about the way he moves. Perhaps it’s his actor’s training to know how to use his tall frame so that his physicality dominates the room. This suits the character of the doctor to a tee who is a larger than life personality It certainly helps to be able to create an immediate authority when the Doctor enters a space.
Opening the door to a new Doctor
When the 9th Doctor was regenerating it could have been problematic for the programme. Having Christopher Eccleston’s performance secure a second series was a fantastic achievement. Those new fans captured in the first series could have been unwelcoming of the change. However, Russell T Davies, who is a very clever man, knew how to bring in the new Doctor in ‘The Christmas Invasion’ using Rose’s early confusion and distress as the pivot. The companion mirrors the audience viewpoint so exploring whether she and we would accept him.
There is a crucial scene when the 10th Doctor wakes from his post-regeneration coma, realised by Rose’s speech with a shot of David Tennant ‘s Doctor framed in the doors of the Tardis ready to fight and defeat the Sycorax. It’s such a triumphant moment. It harks back to the classic series as Doctors recover from regeneration and confirmed David Tennant as a continuation of the same character first introduced to Rose and also the audience. The imagery of having him using a sword (a traditional hero object) harked back to the 3rd and 5th Doctors also using a sword (against the Master) and reinforced the courageous nature of the Doctor.
A hero complex
David Tennant never played up to his good looks but he was probably the first conventionally “handsome” Doctor (in a geeky kind of way with his specs) of the revived series. Even Cassandra in “New Earth” described him as ‘slim and a little bit foxy’. Offered the role of the Doctor by Russell T Davies partly based on playing the lothario Giacomo Casanova it was perhaps inevitable David Tenant’s previous role would pull inspiration for his doctor. Christopher Eccleston had certainly made an impact in the first series with his own brand of Doctor but the 9th doctor was so haunted by his actions in the time war, full of guilt and anger that it didn’t allow for anything softer to be explored bar a brief flirting with Lynda with a Y.
This approach of a more romantic Doctor was a stroke of genius. Doctor Who was at the height of popularity among a general audience during Tennant’s run. The programme had just come back with a popular first series, so people tuned in for Tennant’s run. RTD didn’t shy away from portraying the 10th Doctor as a man with human type frailties and you can see David Tennant grabbing the opportunities in the scripts to show a less awkward, charismatic, boyishly enthusiastic outwardly easy-going Doctor. Those traits enabled the 10th to explore a more adventurous passionate side to his own nature which also brought along the general audience rather than just fanboys.
Although he declared to Rose in ‘School Reunion’ that his lifespan meant he couldn’t get involved, as human lives are so fleeting, the Doctor would still allow himself to be drawn to and led by strong women i.e. creating a mind meld connection with Madame de Pompadour, the shy bumbling master flirting with Joan Redfern in “Human Nature” or planning picnics with Elizabeth the First. When he saved River to CAL this made the 10th Doctor so much more relatable to the audience as a romantic hero.
Kiss from a Rose
As a departure from the original classic series rules, where the Doctor had always taken a more paternal disposition towards his companions it was slightly uneasy for classic who fans such as myself to see the romantic direction that the writing took with Rose and the Doctor being thrown together. But it chimed with the audience where the 10th Doctor exhibited such simple joy in just travelling that it was very easy for his companions to be swept along and fall in love with him.
The scene in “New Earth” where Rose and the Doctor are lying in the bluegrass just talking at the beginning of Series 2, watching the spacecraft arrive feels reminiscent of two lovers or very close friends with a shared sense of humour and a close chemistry. Billie Piper and David Tennant just worked so naturalistically together that it reflected in the ease of their characters and the general audience lapped it up.
He was the first new series Doctor who stayed for three series which gave enough time for a fan-base of young boys and also importantly a new female fan-base, who wouldn’t normally be attracted to a science fiction show to watch and grow up with him. A legion of Tennant fan-girls swooned! His first series had viewers of up to 9.24 million, the second series up to 8.71 million, the third 10.57 million. His Christmas specials are the only ones to hit 13 million viewers for the holiday period. What also made the 10th doctor era a successful one was the companions he was paired with. As companions, they weren’t wrapped in a mystery like the later Matt Smith era but their presence played the part of a mirror to faults in the 10th Doctor or facilitated ways for changing the Doctor for the better.
The writing for the companions did contain an element of ‘soapiness’ which spoke to the emotions of the audience. But as a dramatic device, it allowed interesting avenues to be explored on the experience of being a companion of the Doctor and also of the impact of travelling with him. Martha was the rebound companion after Rose who then chose to leave the Doctor because he couldn’t reciprocate her feelings but some companions were dropped off and just left hanging. in ‘School Reunion’ it was very interesting and new to see Rose feeling confronted by meeting Sarah Jane and also exploring Sarah Jane’s feelings.
Rose understanding that she wasn’t the only woman to have been important to the Doctor, added a more mature dimension to their relationship. The impact of Rose on the Doctor can’t be underestimated really Her presence opened up the Doctor to new hope that he wasn’t really alone. He acknowledged that she had made him a better person and in “Journeys End” the fact that humans and Timelords will have different life spans, meant the only gift in his power was to leave Rose with a human Doctor to live with.
You were born in battle, full of blood and anger and revenge. Remind you of someone? That’s me, when we first met. And you made me better. Now you can do the same for him.
The temp from Chiswick
High profile companion actors such as Catherine Tate were prejudged by the fans before they joined and she surprised everyone with how good she was. Donna Noble was an influencing factor on the 10th Doctor’s actions probably more than any other companion. In “The Runaway Bride” if Donna hadn’t been there to stop him the Doctor would have stayed and died with the Racnoss when he flooded the underground tunnels with water.
DOCTOR: I don’t need anyone.
DONNA: Yes, you do. Because sometimes, I think you need someone to stop you.
David rose brilliantly to the challenge showing with the growing losses of River, Rose. Joan, Renette how detached the Doctor had become. The 10th and Donna dynamic allowed the series to explore moral dilemmas which would take the Doctor along a darker road during series 4 and later the specials. What I do enjoy is that Donna was always allowed to challenge the Doctor’s long-held beliefs. Although not a conformist by nature the Doctor, as a Timelord, he was aware of the events that could be changed and those that were fixed points. In the story “Fires of Pompei” where she begged the Doctor to save someone is a truly touching moment and it established that the Doctor was able to break the rules if he wanted to.
DONNA: What, and you’re in charge?
DOCTOR: Tardis, Time Lord, yeah.
DONNA: Donna, human, no. I don’t need your permission.
Writing the Doctor’s character arc
The combination of Russell T Davies and David Tennant together was a dynamite partnership. With some brilliant planning from Russell, David Tennant managed to balance all the different aspects of his Doctor in a consistent way over three series. David Tennant was very versatile with a deft touch when it came to the more comedic aspects of the scripts but was then able to swiftly switch to drama effortlessly. There were various themes explored during the 10th Doctor era such as the Doctor being last of his kind, seeking to fill that void unsuccessfully. Yes, the 10th Doctor bounced around all happy abandon fizzed with energy and enthusiasm but David was also able to show the huge loneliness of the character.
His interpretation would suffer losses and have to say goodbye. Rose lost on a parallel world time, River and Renette dying, Joan telling him to leave, having to kill Donna’s memories. David Tennant was able to show a much more emotional Doctor than his predecessors. The scene where the 10th Doctor begged the Master to regenerate and held his body is a very 10th Doctor moment and I couldn’t imagine any other new who actor besides David Tennant allowing his Doctor’s emotions to show in quite such an openly tearful way.
With the words ‘no second chances. I’m not that kind of man’ from “The Christmas Invasion” set up from the beginning that this interpretation of the Doctor had an inner ferocity which carried through from Christopher Eccleston’s era. In “Human Nature” where he’s converted to a shy human, man how good is David Tennant with a magical script showing, on the one hand, a stubborn resoluteness, to stay as he was and live a normal human life but then training the boys to fight scarecrows or allowing Jenkins to be thrashed by his contemporaries.
It exposed the 10th’s character as still the damaged man from the atrocities of the Time War aware of the collateral damage he inflicted and left behind. He couldn’t allow for mercy fighting his enemies. Baines described the ‘fury of a Timelord’ as he meted out an everlasting punishment on the family. Davros described him as the destroyer of worlds.
DOCTOR: Don’t play games with me. You just killed someone I liked. That is not a safe place to stand. I’m the Doctor, and you’re in the biggest library in the universe. Look me up.
In “The Fires of Pompeii” the immediate consequences were the Doctor saved four people who wouldn’t have been alive otherwise due to Donna’s influence but without her, it created the opportunity for the later darkness of the ‘Time Lord Victorious’ where he tried unsuccessfully to save Adelaide Brookes and her crew. The contemplation of the 10th Doctor as a god in “The Waters of Mars” when he is on his own is a twist I never expected and it’s something I wished could have been explored for a little longer in the series. I loved the shade that David Tennant brought to those final scenes with Adelaide Brookes. I like to think that the reason his Doctor became that way was he feared the prophecy of his own death felt the weight of seeing other people die and just wanted to use his knowledge to change the outcome.
The end of the 10th Doctor era really gave David Tennant a chance to shine with the quiet simplicity of him saving Wilf from the chamber, his acceptance of his fate and the goodbye to his companions. I’m not sure if I enjoyed the sorrow of his ‘I don’t want to go’ moment but it was typical of his Doctor, which had a melancholy underneath the easy-going surface. A more human sorrow than previously.
Besides acting though David Tennant has also been diversifying his skills and I hope you have all been listening…
The “David Tennant does a Podcast with…” Series.
Eavesdropping to these podcasts has been a revelation not just about the guests but also about the host. These podcasts started as a conversation with his agent who loves the form and David Tennant asked people he knew to take part. His inspiration was Alec Baldwin’s Here’s the Things podcast where Baldwin sat down, with people he knew, for an interview where the conversation was allowed to wander. As a result, the “David Tennant does a Podcast With…“, although structured, allows the interviewee to just talk and in some ways be very intimate. I haven’t listened to all of them yet but with a different feel to each one, there is something for everyone. Some of my highlights are below:
• Olivia Coleman – Oh my gosh what a brilliant choice for a first podcast! From the moment “Coley” enters with her dog Alfred and is bantering with DT she seems modest and grounded. I am totally in awe of Olivia Coleman! Have ever listened to Desert Island Discs on Radio 4 where guests are interviewed about their lives and choose favourite music to take to a desert island? I always find with that the interviewer is a bit gushing about the guest but here DT, because they are friends, is able to tease an intimate portrait of Olivia Coleman from her without it coming across as anything other than relaxed and comfortable. His boyish wonder at her eating a cigarette she had to “sell” for a theatre audition or the shared dislike of prima donna actors is warmly engaging.
Olivia Coleman would have made an absolutely fantastic Doctor. From a very good performance in the “Eleventh Hour “as Mother ” I think she inhabits her roles with an interesting intensity. I read somewhere apparently Chris Chibnall asked her to be the Doctor but she turned it down which is a real shame. I can understand why from her stated a dislike of the paparazzi. David Tennant himself acknowledges that being the Doctor does bring worldwide scrutiny and interest nowadays and it requires adjustment. I suppose the life of an actor is more about the character parts they play, the art of acting and she just wants to do that. We’ll never see her as the Doctor now but I’m so happy for her that her star is in the ascendant with both a BAFTA and an Oscar for “The Favourite”.
• Whoopi Goldberg – Interviewing Whoopi Goldberg doesn’t seem like an obvious choice for a second slice of the podcast but the contrast to the first podcast is evident. She’s an intelligent actor who learned her craft in various theatre groups in San Francisco and New York her life seems to have been full of fortuitous moments. She has been in the right place at the right time being spotted doing a one-woman show by director Mike Nicholls which then transferred to Broadway or receiving a purple envelope from Alice Walker which led to her breakout role in the film “The Colour Purple”.
David Tennant seems a bit in awe of Whoopi keen to put her at her ease so her swearing definitely isn’t frowned upon. She doesn’t have any pretensions, is funny and is refreshingly down to earth-conscious of the distinction between her private persona and the responsibility to be in public ‘Whoopi Goldberg’ to her fans.
• Ian McKellen – An actor with a very dry sense of humour what is interesting is how much he has liked to challenge himself. He seems to love the life of an actor for much of his life preferring to be in disguise because it gave him the freedom to act but this seems perhaps a symptom of the times he lived through where being gay was illegal. Coming out in his late 40’s he describes the relief of coming out and how it has motivated his political life.
I’m interested in catching the rest…
For sci-fi fantasy lovers David Tennant is soon going to be starring in Good Omens playing a demon on Earth (based on Terry Pratchett’s darkly comic novel) which is coming to Amazon Prime in May. The tv production is being brought to the screen by writer Neil Gagman who collaborated with Terry Pratchett on the novel and who wanted to create a version that would honour his friend. Also, starring is Michael Sheen, who voiced House in “The Doctor’s Wife” so it should be a really interesting watch.
What are your thoughts on the 10th Doctor or David Tennant? Post your thoughts on here or on Twitter. Let’s talk.