This week’s episode of Doctor Who sees everyone’s favourite Time Lord (actually, mine’s the Master, but never mind that) go undercover in Coal Hill School, posing as the new caretaker, John Smith.
It’s not the first time we’ve seen this name crop up, and doubtless it won’t be the last. But who is this mysterious Mr Smith, and where did he come from?
While the Doctor was happy to be known to a great many people as the Doctor, it could occasionally land him in hot water – as it did in The Gunfighters (1966), when the First Doctor misunderstood an Arizona local’s use of the word ‘Holliday’ and almost got himself shot in the process.
He later introduced himself as ‘Doctor Caligari‘, causing the Sheriff to remark ‘Doctor Who?’ – to which the Doctor replies ‘Yes, quite right’.
Curiously, the first recorded usage of John Smith as a Doctor alias seems to have come from one of his companions.
On board an enormous circular space station, Jamie is forced to improvise when the ship’s medic asks him the Doctor’s real name, which the highlander then reads off a piece of medical equipment that’s been made by John Smith & Associates.
The Second Doctor’s reaction is one of surprise – it’s clearly news to him, having referred to himself as ‘Doctor von Wer’ (which sort of, but doesn’t quite translate from German as ‘Doctor Who’) some stories earlier.
This was later retconned (more or less), with the First Doctor using the name in various (unofficial) prose encounters, and the Eleventh Doctor carrying a library card containing the name ‘John Smith’ and a picture of William Hartnell.
Still, it’s the Tenth Doctor who pays tribute to Jamie in Tooth and Claw (2006), when he introduces himself to Queen Victoria as ‘Doctor James McCrimmon, from the township of Balamory’.
‘I used to have a friend who went by that name’
Having a recognisable (if formulaic) name can be handy if you need to be in the system, or if you just need to get an irritating military type off your back.
The Second Doctor, finding his pleas of ‘just call me Doctor’ ignored, referred to himself as John Smith when being interrogated by a German officer in The War Games (1969) – earning him the response ‘Good. Now we are getting somewhere’.
Meanwhile, stranded on Earth, the Third Doctor registers as scientific advisor to UNIT using the same name, and was happy to be known as Dr Smith for years to come. How else was he going to get that driving license?
References to Balamory aside, it was the Tenth Doctor who was perhaps the most prolific user of the Smith identity.
The words ‘John Smith, insert Random Authority Figure here’, accompanied by a fleeting glimpse of the psychic paper, were almost as commonplace as his endless assurance that he was so, so sorry.
Not that the rationale wasn’t sound. The use of John Smith came in handy when you were desperate to pretend that you weren’t the Doctor, as the Tenth Doctor did when introducing himself to an amnesiac Donna Noble (Journey’s End) or a traumatised Victorian gentleman who had convinced himself that he was a Time Lord (The Next Doctor).
When the Doctor bumps into an older, wiser Sarah Jane in School Reunion (2006), he’s posing as a teacher called John Smith – Sarah Jane picks up on the reference, recognising it from her travels with the Third and Fourth Doctors, but it’s not until she sees the TARDIS that the penny drops. (She would later acquire a sentient computer with much the same name, which she summoned from the wall with the words ‘Mr Smith, I need you!’)
Not long afterwards, the Doctor assumes a human identity in order to escape from the Family of Blood, and it is the TARDIS that sets him up as a history teacher called – well, I don’t need to finish that sentence, do I?
Still, the Doctor’s attempts to put people at ease could backfire.
Trapped in a damaged space shuttle crossing the surface of the planet Midnight, and facing an unknown, faceless entity that has possessed one of the other passengers, the Doctor faces the ire of his already suspicious shipmates when he tries to pass himself off as John Smith, only for a scientist (played appropriately enough by Patrick Troughton’s son David) to retort ‘Your real name’.
When he refuses to cooperate they try and throw him off the ship, which might be interpreted as an overreaction.
By the time Matt Smith (no relation) was in the TARDIS, the John Smith moniker seemed to have almost-but-not-quite worn off.
The psychic paper was more or less present and correct, but the name, for the most part, was very much Doctor – as we see in Closing Time, when he gets a job selling toy helicopters in a department store while wearing a name badge reading ‘The Doctor’.
It’s all too much for Craig Owens, although not for his infant son Alfie, who then picks ‘Doctor’ as his first word.
In any case: it would seem that John Smith is back, and this time he’s a middle-aged Scot wearing a brown jacket and yelling at litter-dropping twelve-year-olds. And dealing with evil robots, of course.
Whether he keeps the name or not, I have a feeling Jamie would approve.