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Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Chapman on Who: A New Smith in the TARDIS

Patrick Chapman considers the 11th "official" Doctor

In Bruce Robinson’s 1986 film, Withnail & I, Uncle Monty says to his nephew, “It is the most shattering experience of a young man's life when one morning he awakes and quite reasonably says to himself: ‘I will never play the Dane!’ When that moment comes one’s ambition ceases.” These days, you could justifiably exchange the word ‘Dane’ for ‘Doctor’ and not many people would bat an eyelid. Well, maybe Uncle Monty would.

Richard Griffiths, who played Monty, was considered for the role of the Doctor when Tom Baker departed it in 1981. The actors who played Withnail and ‘I’, both went on to actually essay the role. Paul McGann was the dashing, Byronic, Eighth Doctor in the 1996 BBC/Fox telemovie pilot that, despite excellent ratings in the UK, didn’t go to series. In 2003, Richard E. Grant played the Ninth Doctor as a sort of jaded, Holmesian figure in Paul Cornell’s BBC webcast animation, Scream of the Shalka. This appeared just before the BBC announced a live-action continuation of the original series which had been put on hiatus in 1989 after a run of 26 years. Overseen by Russell T. Davies for BBC Wales, the revival would mean that the Shalka Doctor was relegated to unofficial status.

Davies’s first Doctor made his debut in 2005, played by Christopher Eccleston, a serious actor who gave Who instant credibility with the public. The show had become something of a guilty pleasure in the preceding two decades but Eccleston’s lone series as the Doctor left its mark. Now the part was one that attracted the top talent in the country. Eccleston’s bravura performance, along with some highly imaginative writing, reclaimed for Doctor Who its home at the heart of Saturday night. His ability to switch from manic comedy to fearsome intensity, had established his version of the Doctor as a favourite with children. When Eccleston left, how could anyone step into his shoes?

The answer came at the end of the first series of the revived show, when the Ninth Doctor saved his companion by taking fatal time-vortex energy from her body into his, and changed into David Tennant’s Tenth. A younger actor who had worked with Davies before, Tennant was a lifelong fan who not only made the part his own within his first few seconds of screen time, but soon had kids referring to Eccleston as the ‘old’ Doctor. He also became something of an unlikely heartthrob, and the popularity of the show only increased. It regularly gets audiences of over ten million, and has given rise to two successful spinoff shows, an empire of merchandising, and practically its own film industry based in Cardiff.

As it happens, Tennant famously went on to play the Dane, to much critical acclaim. I had the pleasure of seeing his Hamlet at the RSC last autumn, and was struck by the subtlety of his performance at the head of a seriously talented cast that also included Patrick Stewart, Mariah Gale and Oliver Ford Davies.

Now Tennant himself is leaving Doctor Who at the end of this year’s special episodes. Davies is departing too while new showrunner Steven Moffat takes over, with a new actor in the lead. On the third of January, nearly seven million people tuned in to an episode of Doctor Who Confidential, to see the Eleventh Doctor named as 26-year-old Matt Smith. (It’s a mark of how successfully re-established Doctor Who is that a show about the show can get such figures.) Incidentally, regular viewers will know that this is not the first time someone called Smith has occupied the TARDIS, ‘John Smith’ being an alias used by the Doctor since his second incarnation. There have also of course been companions called Smith: Mickey and Sarah Jane.

Change has been the hallmark of Doctor Who for over 45 years and Matt Smith is the latest incarnation of a character that evolves like no other. This is thanks to the by now well-known concept of regeneration, a plot device introduced in 1966 when the original Doctor, William Hartnell, had to leave because of illness. Rather than end the programme, the makers came up with the idea that when the Doctor’s body got ‘worn out’ he could change his appearance and his personality, although he was still the same man. I wasn’t around for the transition from Hartnell to Patrick Troughton’s impish Second Doctor, and was too young to remember the introduction of the action-man Third Doctor played by Jon Pertwee. My first regeneration was that from Pertwee, who was killed by an alien spider, into Tom Baker’s Fourth. Like many young viewers, it took me a while to trust this interloper but by the end of his first adventure, Robot, I was sold. Baker’s eccentric portrayal of the Doctor went on to become definitive. He was to his period of the show what Tennant is to ours. Baker stayed seven years in the part so that by the time his Doctor fell off a radio telescope and regenerated into the younger Peter Davison, the audience was probably quite ready.

Still, at 29, Davison was the youngest actor in the role to date and some worried that he was too young to portray this ancient character. Yet in the old series he was probably the best actor as the Doctor, combining innocence with a thousand-year-wisdom. His interpretation remains many people’s favourite. When writer Steven Moffat brought him back a couple of years ago in Time Crash, a special scene for Children in Need, the public’s affection for the Fifth was still very much there. In this short vignette, Davison’s Time Lord encounters Tennant’s, who breaks the fourth wall by declaring, ‘You were my Doctor.’

Davison's Doctor regenerated as a result of poisoning when he sacrificed himself to save his companion. After his tenure, there followed troubled times. The Sixth Doctor was a sort of arrogant buffoon with terrible dress sense, but the actor, Colin Baker, did as well as he could with what he was given. The scripts were not always quite as scintillating as they might have been, and the production values were little better than videotaped theatre. This low-budget approach had until now been part of the show’s charm but in the age of Lucas and Spielberg, BBC Controller Michael Grade was embarrassed by it and decided to give the tatty old show a rest. There was an outcry, and a really rather ill-advised charity single called ‘Doctor in Distress’ which was designed to alert the public to the Doctor’s plight. After eighteen months, the Sixth Doctor returned but lasted only one more series before the powers-that-be sacked the actor, blaming him for the declining popularity and quality of the show. Colin Baker was asked to do a regeneration scene but demurred. The following series opened with his much smaller replacement on the floor of the TARDIS, wearing a curly Sixth-Doctor wig, having banged his head. It didn’t take much to kill a Doctor in those days.

Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy, in contrast to Baker, started off as a bit of a clown. Known for his work in children’s entertainment programmes, McCoy had been brought in to lighten the tone of the show. A couple of series in though, under the guidance of new script editor Andrew Cartmel, McCoy’s Doctor became darker and more textured, and ended as quite a successful iteration of the character. In the dying days of the series, writers such as Marc Platt crafted intricate and challenging stories for a show that was finally regaining its creative edge, though there were missteps along the way. McCoy reprised his role briefly in the telemovie, offering a more rounded performance before dying in a hail of bullets and regenerating into McGann's Eighth.

While never officially cancelled, Doctor Who was put on indefinite hiatus in 1989. There was a failed revival attempt called 'The Dark Dimension,' which was replaced at the last minute by an embarrassing crossover with EastEnders for Children in Need in 1993. The rest was silence.

Except it wasn’t. A continuation of the ‘Cartmel Masterplan’ designed in the series proper to bring mystery back to the character, formed the beginnings of a series of novels which took the Doctor into the nineties. Among the writers were fans such as Paul Cornell, Mark Gatiss and Russell T Davies; who would all be involved later in the show’s creative and popular renaissance on television. The Paul McGann pilot proved a stylistic bridge between the old show and the modern series and, while Americanised, was successful in updating the show for the audience of the time. Meanwhile, in 1999, Big Finish were granted the licence to make audio adventures of Doctor Who, featuring old Doctors in new adventures. (I wrote one of these in 2006, Fear of the Daleks). Also in 1999, that man again, Steven Moffat wrote a spoof for Red Nose Day, called ‘Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death,’ an affectionate parody starring Jonathan Pryce as arch-nemesis the Master, Julia Sawalha as the companion; and as various regenerations of the Doctor, Rowan Atkinson, Richard E. Grant, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant and Joanna Lumley. It was all good fun, but it looked like that was the end as far as the Doctor was concerned, until Shalka, and Davies' brilliant relaunch.

The constants in Doctor Who have always been the character of the Doctor, his regenerations, the companions, the monsters, and time travel via the TARDIS. Change is in the show’s DNA. It can go anywhere, any time, and be anything. Doctor Who started as an educational adventure series for children but by its second story the Daleks had arrived, and they weren't giving homework. In the modern series, this element of evolution was brought home through Eccleston’s regeneration into Tennant. Now it’s time for another transformation and the moment has been prepared for.

When Matt Smith was announced, some newspapers asked the question ‘Doctor Who?’ But that was something of a knee-jerk reaction. Bookies had been giving odds on everyone from Paterson Joseph, to Chiwetel Ejiofor, to Catherine Zeta Jones. It is another measure of how seriously this show is taken now that such names are in the frame at all. Smith had hardly figured in the betting. Five years ago, an established actor was needed to re-introduce the character. Now the Doctor is once again so much part of popular culture that he can be played by an actor known for little else, which gives a sense of renewal to the series. Matt Smith is an inspired choice, clearly talented on stage and on camera, but without the baggage of wide recognition. There’s a Doctorish quality to his demeanour, which is an elusive something you either have or you don’t. What that means depends on who’s asking. The Doctor is in the eye of the beholder.

Of course the success of the modern show also depends on the writing. Davies’ own episodes were often brilliant, not to mention sometimes cheerfully insane. His home run of audacious stories at the end of the last series was remarkable, with ‘Midnight’ and ‘Turn Left’ being among the best in the show’s entire history. Steven Moffat takes over as someone else who can make Who original and great. One of the best writers working in British television today, Moffat’s CV includes children’s classic Press Gang, the smart yet warm-hearted sitcom Coupling, the chilling Jekyll and the new Tintin movie. When the WGA writers’ strike meant a clash of commitments, he chose the TARDIS over doing a second Tintin script for Spielberg, who understood completely. Moffat’s episodes have been the show’s cleverest and best-written, regularly winning Hugo Awards. The 'gas-mask' boy from 'The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances'; and the clockwork robots running a spaceship on human flesh, from 'Girl in the Fireplace,' were creepy and inspired. ‘Blink’ terrifies kids with its Weeping Angel statues that, like inverted gorgons, can get you if you don't look at them. The Vashta Nerada from last year’s two-parter, ‘Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead’ make children afraid of their very shadows. Those safe scares are what great fairy stories are all about. Doctor Who tells some of the best.

As to the question of Matt Smith’s tender years, it is not exactly the most shattering experience of an older man’s life when, one morning he awakes and quite reasonably says to himself: ‘The guy playing the Doctor is now younger than me.’ But it is perhaps one reason why some people, on hearing that a 26-year old is to take on the best role in British television, ask ‘Who?’

Patrick Chapman is an Irish poet and short story writer.
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