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Like Breath on a Mirror – The Time of the Doctor and the Farewell of Matt Smith

‘It all just disappears, doesn’t it? Everything you are, gone in a moment, like breath on a mirror,’ said Matt Smith in a heartfelt speech as he bid farewell to his starring role in BBC’s long-running science fiction series Doctor Who.

‘We are all different people, all through our lives, and that’s okay. That’s good, you’ve got to keep moving, so long as you remember all the people that you used to be. I will not forget one line of this, not one day, I swear. I will always remember when the Doctor was me.’

And with those words Smith’s incarnation of the Doctor was regenerated into his successor, Peter Capaldi, leaving behind almost five years of time-travelling shenanigans that had made the young actor a household name.

‘I don’t even know what to expect. I don’t want it to become predicable in any way,’ Smith told SFX while promoting the show’s 2010 festive special A Christmas Carol. ‘You have to play to the strengths of this show. But I think there’s a long way to go. Last year the first month was just a whirlwind.’ Smith’s casting as the Doctor was announced by the BBC on 3 January 2009 when, at just twenty-six-years-old, he became the youngest actor to take on the role. A little over two months earlier David Tennant, who had taken over the part from Christopher Eccleston, had announced that he was to step down following the broadcast of four special episodes, the last airing on New Year’s Day 2010.

Smith’s first story as the new incarnation of the Doctor was met with positive reviews, with many praising his energetic and likeable performance. ‘Smith carries off the youthful vigour of a new body and the ancient professorial wisdom with easy panache,’ declared the Guardian’s Daniel Martin, while IGN’s Matt Wales admits that Smith’s ‘infectious awkwardness and childlike exuberance had us from the get-go. If there was ever any worry that this relative newcomer might struggle to fill the sizable boots left by David Tennant, it quickly dissipated with Smith’s confident, spritely and surprisingly subtle portrayal of the centuries-old Time Lord.’

The story arc that had seen Smith’s Doctor through the majority of his stories had been his relationship with his feisty companion Amy Pond and her sweet-yet-naïve partner Rory Williams. Having grown up with a crack in her bedroom wall that would prove to be a rupture in the very fabric of the universe, Amy had proved to be something of a mystery to the Doctor, yet his friendship and loyalty to his newfound friend would become one of his greatest attributes. But in December 2011, just two weeks before the broadcast of another Christmas special, The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, twenty-four-year-old Karen Gillan announced that she would be retiring the character of Amy.

While this came as a shock to many fans, six months earlier the tabloids had reported that the young star had been found wandering naked around her hotel room in New York after what the Daily Mail had described as a ‘night of riotous partying.’ While Gillan had first been introduced to the show as a kissogram and often appeared onscreen in short skirts, following her announcement that she was to lay Amy to rest there was some speculation whether or not this was due to the incident in New York. Ironically, Amy’s final story, in which she would be sent back in time along with Rory to the 1930s by the Weeping Angels and thus lose touch with the Doctor, would take place in Manhattan.

‘Actually, I called Steven Moffat and arranged the dinner and basically told him roughly when I wanted to go. He told me where the story was at and where it was going and we kind of together came up with it,’ she told IGN in 2012. ‘I wanted to go on a high. Also, Steven Moffat comes up with endless, amazing ideas anyway, but I wanted to make sure that I went on a high when the character was at her prime.’ Having taken over as Doctor Who‘s show-runner for the fifth series, Moffat had created the characters of Amy and Rory specifically for Smith’s tenure as the Doctor, and over the course of the next two years the chemistry between the three actors would be met with considerable praise.

The Time of the Doctor

The Time of the Doctor

While Moffat had created several new characters for the renewed show, he had also brought back many iconic monsters and protagonists from Doctor Who‘s original run, which had been cancelled by the BBC in 1989 after twenty-six years on the air. Among the villains and creatures that were resurrected during Smith’s time as the Doctor were the Silurians (first seen fighting Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor in 1970) and the Great Intelligence, which had made its debut in the 1967 serial The Abominable Snowmen. Moffat had devised the Weeping Angels for Tennant’s 2007 story Blink, one of the most acclaimed of the modern episodes, while also introducing fans to new antagonists the Silence and the Whisper Men.

After three series, the fifthieth anniversary feature-length episode and several Christmas specials Smith made his swan song with the acclaimed finale of The Time of the Doctor. ‘I’m pleased I got through my time and they didn’t boot me out. Because I didn’t know!’ Smith admitted to the show’s magazine prior to the broadcast of his last episode. ‘The first year we did it, we didn’t even know if it was going to get recommissioned. And now they wouldn’t ever think of not recommissioning Doctor Who. Yeah, I feel really proud that we’ve all done good work over the last four years.’

Many of the story arcs that had been carried through Smith’s time as the Doctor would come into play in his finale. The crack in the universe would return, this time providing a portal between our reality and a pocket universe where the remaining Time Lords, the Doctor’s race who had fought their nemesis the Daleks during the Time War, were trapped. With Amy and Rory now long gone, the Doctor travels with his new companion Clara Oswald, who officially joined the show with The Bells of Saint John, despite earlier incarnations of the character having appeared in the episodes Asylum of the Daleks and The Snowmen, respectively.

Blackpool-born Jenna-Lousie Coleman, best known to television audiences for her role as Jasmine Thomas in Emmerdale, was officially cast as Clara in March 2012. ‘Who she’s playing, how the Doctor meets her, and even where he finds her, are all part of one of the biggest mysteries the Time Lord ever encounters,’ boasted Moffat in a press release. ‘Even by the Doctor’s standards, this isn’t your usual boy meets girl.’ Clara would be given her own story arc throughout the second half of the seventh series, with the Doctor regularly referring to her as the ‘impossible girl.’

One of the biggest challenges for Moffat in writing The Time of the Doctor was unravelling many of the complicated stories he had developed during Smith’s era, while also finding a way to continue to story beyond the rule of ‘twelve regenerations’ that was first established in Tom Baker’s 1976 serial The Deadly Assassin. With John Hurt’s War Doctor and Tennant having used up two regenerations, Smith’s incarnation was in fact the thirteenth, which meant that once his time had come to an end he would not be able to regenerate into a new Doctor. This would force Moffat to write his way out of a corner by adding a new twist to the story, which would allow the Doctor to continue with a new actor.

Desperate to save the Doctor, who has spent three hundred years as the protector of a small community on Trenzalore, his future resting place, Clara turns to the crack in the universe to plead with the Time Lords to intervene before it is too late. As an elderly Doctor makes his last stand against an invading force of Daleks, the crack appears in the sky and the Doctor is blessed with a powerful force which grants him the ability to regenerate once again, finally transforming into an older incarnation to be portrayed by Peter Capaldi, an actor twenty-four years older than his predecessor.

Peter Capaldi

Peter Capaldi

On 4 August 2013 Capaldi, best known as the foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker in BBC’s The Thick of It, was revealed as Smith’s successor. ‘It’s so wonderful not to keep this secret any longer,’ he told presenter Zoe Ball during the unveiling, following months of speculation on whether or not a female would be cast as the latest Doctor. It was a given that an older actor known for edgier roles would bring a darker aspect to the role than the younger Smith. ‘He’s more alien than he’s been for a while,’ Capaldi told Empire. ‘He doesn’t quite understand human beings or really care very much about their approval.’

The first official trailer for the new series, which made its debut during the Germany vs. Argentina World Cup final on Sunday 13 July 2014, hinted at the strained relationship between the new Doctor and Clara. ‘Doctor Who is always more the story of the companion,’ Moffat explained to Zap2it. ‘It’s her take on the Doctor, her adventure that she goes on with the Doctor that’s the story that we tell. The companion changes more than the Doctor ever does.’ During the trailer Clara announced that ‘I don’t think I know who the Doctor is any more,’ while he reveals that their designation is ‘into darkness.’

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