Doctor’s appointment: who will it be?
Well, forget any real stories or news for the next 24 hours, because the only story in town is: who will be the 11th Doctor Who? According to a BBC press release, the name is to be announced during a special Doctor Who Confidential show on Saturday evening at 5.35pm on BBC1.
Cue fevered posting activity on blogs and Twitter. Myself included.
Now, I did pretty well on this the last time we played this game. The new Doctor Who series hadn’t even aired yet when David Tennant popped up in a BBC3 series called Casanova; Peter O’Toole played the older version of the character, but the show belonged to Tennant, whom I hadn’t seen in anything before.
My only thought was: this is the longest and most public audition tape for a role that I’ve ever seen. It seemed like an absolute perfect pilot try-out for the part of The Doctor, and this was only reinforced by the fact that Casanova‘s writer and producer was a pre-Who Russell T. Davies.
“Shame Tennant hadn’t broken out in this role before Davies cast Eccleston,” I remember saying to friends at the time. And then the new Who debuted and I was very happy with the Ninth Doctor. At least, for about a week – until the news broke that Eccleston’s tenure would last no more than one season. The BBC were extremely unhappy that this news broke, and ever since that moment they’ve played an increasingly cunning game of cat and mouse with media and fans to protect their secrets as long as possible.
The minute I heard Eccleton was leaving at the end of the first season, I had no doubt that Davies had already lined up his man and would have been shocked if it hadn’t been Tennant. He just seemed so right, so perfect for the role that he was born to play it and anyone else would just be second best. Apparently, Tennant almost bottled out of accepting the role he had dreamed of playing since he was a child, but finally the deal was done and the news was announced – and I was able to smile smugly and remind everyone that I’d been saying so all along.
So based on this sterling track record of precisely one success, who do I think will be Who this time?
That’s the trouble: Tennant was the outstanding person to play the Doctor in 2005, and he still is now. All the names I’ve heard since Tennant announced he was stepping down back in October haven’t excited me or interested me in the way that the prospect of a Tennant Doctorship did four years ago.
Make no mistake, the likes of Paterson Joseph, Chiwetel Ejiofor, David Morrisey, Robert Carlyle, James Nesbitt and Rhys Ifans are all fine actors. But as the Doctor? They just don’t hit the spot for me. Joseph, Ejiofor, Morrisey and Carlyle just don’t have that ‘alienness’ that to me has always been a key part in the makeup of whoever has been Who. It was even why, as much as I like Christopher Eccleston as an actor, I didn’t feel his Doctor was entirely successful (although as a damaged, post-traumatic stress Doctor he was ideal. But it was just as well his was a one-season deal.)
Not to mention the public relations angle. Eccleston was never comfortable with the attention the role brings, and pretty much disappeared from PR supporting the series once his departure became known, not even appearing on the show’s behind the scene companion series. David Tennant, by contrast, seems tireless in his promotional activity, and is a fixture on Confidential – even writing and directing one instalment. And he’ll be on the show tomorrow, handing on the torch. Whoever the 11th Doctor is will have as big an act to follow in the PR/publicity stakes as they will in the series itself, and I don’t see any of those big names having that same full-blooded sense of commitment to being the series’ cheerleader-in-chief – they would be more “Ecclestonian”, I think.
Other names like John Simm, Anthony Head, Simon Pegg, Tom Ellis, Colin Salmon, Russell Tovey – even Billie Piper, Catherine Tate, Joanna Lumley and Lesley Sharp if the Doctor fancied a real change – all seemed to me to be rather unimaginative suggestions based on people who’ve been in the series before. Only once has an actor appeared in the series in another role before becoming the Doctor, and that exception – Colin Baker – sadly did not fare well. Even Sean Pertwee’s inclusion in the running seems more a case of nostalgia and sentimentality, but why he would want to take over a role so famously associated with his dad is a bit of a mystery.
So, as we get to the final 24 hours before the announcement, how’s it starting to shake out?
Pertwee is still in the running and mentioned as one of the two ‘finalists’, the other being Chiwetal Ejiofor. PR blogger Craig McGill reckons it will be Ejiofor and produces an interesting if not completely compelling case on how the timing of the announcement – with Barack Obama’s inauguration close on the horizon – suggests that the Doctor will be played by a black actor for the first time. I wouldn’t mind if he’s right, but Ejiofor doesn’t quite seem to have “it” as far as I can see – although I thought he was fantastic as The Operative in Serenity among other top-notch roles. As for the Obama/timing angle – you can think of that totally the other way around if you want, the need to get the announcement done before the inauguration becomes the big story and piles on pressure for a black Doctor to the point where the announcment of a white, male actor would be seen as a disappointment – and a climb down.
But it shouldn’t be about colour or sex – it should be about who is right for the part, who has “it” to bring a character like the Doctor to life. James Nesbitt certainly has “it” – that alien spark – and he proved it beyond doubt in the BBC’s Jekyll last year. In fact I watched Jekyll – penned by new Doctor Who head writer Steven Moffat – with the same “longest ever audition tape for the Doctor” feeling as I had with Tennant in Casanova. For a while, I was pretty convinced it would be him: but as time has gone on, I’ve begun to feel that Nesbitt is simply too obvious. He’s also too big a star – Doctor Who actors tend to be breakout stars because of their role in the series, not stars coming into it (Peter Davison is a possible exception having been in a supporting role in All Creatures Great and Small; but Tom Baker was out of work and doing labouring jobs when cast in the series by contrast) and Nesbitt is one of the most bankable and busy stars in British TV.
And so my guess for the next Doctor turned to another Moffat series alumni – Richard Coyle, who pretty much stole the show in Coupling as zany Jeff. Coyle also showed he could do very serious, straight drama with lead turns in both Strange and The Whistle Blowers. He seemed to have the complete range of acting ability in the same remarkable way that Tennant has. I’ve been surprised that Coyle hasn’t featured higher up the rumours and gossip swirling around. Even now, he’s outside the top 30 candidates in the bookies’ odds at something like 160-1.
So I’ve become resigned to the idea that it would be Ejiofor or possibly Paterson Joseph being unveiled tomorrow. Until an interesting snippet did the rounds, as captured on The Guardian website this evening, which reported:
Apparently it was none other than Peter Davison, who played the fifth Doctor Who from 1981 to 1984, who let slip the fact that the 11th Doctor would be unveiled in tomorrow’s Doctor Who Confidential program. It happened at the rather unlikely venue of Snibston Discovery Park in a conversation with a fan.
According to a post on the Doctor Who Online forum on New Year’s Eve, Davison said that the new doctor would be announced at the end of the show tomorrow, although “it is not someone you will have heard of”, he is reported to have said.
That end bit – “not someone you will have heard of” – is fascinating, if true. Of course, Davison isn’t an encyclopaedia of actors and just because he hasn’t heard of someone doesn’t mean that they are not well known by others – but it does seem to counsel against actors who have been top of the tabloids’ lists for months now.
And there’s some circumstantial evidence supporting Davison’s assertion of “the unknown” in a clip of tomorrow night’s Confidential being shown on BBC at the moment wherein David Tennant says in effect that the actor who is chose for the role will find his (or her) life completely changed beyond recognition. Would that be true of someone like Ejiofor who’s done pretty well for himself in the last few years in Hollywood? Or even Joseph, fresh from top BBC drama series Survivors? Even Richard Coyle, frankly, has had enough of a public profile to mute both those points.
Someone we’ve never heard of? There are a few names in the running that would catch the majority of people out – Tom Hiddleston for example, whose name seems to have entered the running after an impressive turn in the recent Wallander detective series with Kenneth Branagh. But that quiet, supporting role is not the kind of turn that makes you think “Doctor”.
But as it happens, a new name has tonight shot to the top of the bookies’ odds. An actor by the name of Matt Smith, who is most definitely an unknown. Like everyone else, I did not recognise the name either when it cropped up this afternoon, and I struggled to find the right IMDb entry for him (there are over twenty Matt Smiths on that site.) But then, when I found the right one, I realised that I recognised him after all.
He was one of the main cast of a drama series called Party Animals – a sort-of This Life set in the political world, another BBC attempt to do a “British West Wing“. It flopped, sadly – I rather liked it. I even have the DVD of the series. And Matt Smith was very good, and moreover he was good in playing exactly the offbeat, drama-comedy, weird character that an actor playing the Doctor needs to be. Interestingly, Smith has connections with the new Doctor Who series: he’s appeared in Billie Piper’s two series, The Ruby in the Smoke and The Secret Diary of a Call Girl, and so has been moving in the right circles. (There’s more information on him on Wikipedia and in a story this morning from his hometown newspaper in Northhamptonshire.)
If Smith were cast then it really would be a seismic shock. He really would be unknown, and his life would be changed beyond all measure. It could even explain why the announcement is being done now: the fact that his name has suddenly surged to the top of the bookies’ odds suggests that the news has already started to leak, and the Dr Who production team – still smarting from losing control of the Eccleston departure story – will know that they have to act fast. Plus, on the more positive side, releasing the news now will allow the public to get used to the idea, to let Smith hit the publicity road show before knuckling down for the production in May so that by the time the 11th Doctor shows up in the series there’s no “who the bloody hell is that?!” reaction.
I’ll be honest: for the first time since I saw Tennant in Casanova, I’ve found an actor I would be excited to see play the role of the Doctor.
The problem: he’s far too young. He’s only 26 (he would be 27 by the time the 11th Doctor takes up residence) which would make him the youngest Doctor by some way (Tennant was 34 when he entered the role, which feels about right; Peter Davison was the youngest, just 29 when he stepped into the awfully big shoes of Tom Baker in 1981, and he felt rather too young and gauche at the time, too.) In other words: Matt Smith would make an excellent choice for the 12th Doctor. But not, I think, the 11th – tempting though it would be.
So after all this rambling, where does it leave me? It seems the smart choice – the one that’s going to be announced tomorrow – would be to say Ejiofor, with a side reserve on Paterson Joseph. But I’m sorry, I’m not entirely convinced and would worry about the series for the next 15 months if that turns out to be the case – probably without any real cause, but still.
I’d still like to see Richard Coyle. I think he’d be a great Doctor, but it seems a remote possibility.
But right now … and maybe it’s simply the appeal of the completely new and left field that only emerged a few hours ago … but I find myself wishing beyond reason that Moffat would throw caution to the wind and go for the utterly unreasonable choice of Matt Smith. It would be the birth of a star in the same way that Doctor Who has shot David Tennant into the stratosphere, and would be a sight to see.
Yes sir, a sight to see.