The Opinion Engine 2.0:
If Matt Smith was to leave Dr Who tomorrow and then the BBC rang to offer you the role, how would you play it?
Question from Risa Arendall via Facebook.
TV For a fan like me this is a two part question. Would I play it? Then how would I play it? My immediate answer to the first would be in the negative for the simple reason of concern at the kind of madness which has led the BBC or more specifically whoever’s running the show to offer the lead part in one of the flagship programmes to an amateur blogger from Liverpool with miniscule acting experience (a twenty week night course and understudying a public speaking competition at school). Apart from anything else we’re ex-directory which means they’d have to do some detective work to get the number which means they’d really want me and I’d be wondering whether this was their attempt to run the series into the ground.
To buy into the fantasy and assume in fact I do look, sound and have the acting ability of Laurence Fox (if not him for the twelfth Doctor, who else?) or Romola Garai (that's who else) would I take the role? Well, on the one hand it’s very seductive. It’s the Doctor. It’s the role of a lifetime, even if, like Matt Smith, you aren’t really fan before you get the call. Assuming there’s a decent writer at the helm, support from the BBC and you’re likeable enough to attract people to watch even on Christmas Day, you’re set up for life, especially now that it won’t necessarily typecast you in the way it might have done in the past. And even if that doesn’t work out the convention circuit is very welcoming.
On the other it’s hard bloody work and not just spending nine months in production with its bonkers scheduling. There’s the publicity machine, the endless interviews with people asking the same old questions, there’s the media you don’t want to talk to who’ll make up stories about you anyway and you wouldn’t be able to go out in public ever again if you’re a private kind of person. Then there’s the Malkovich element of seeing your face everywhere including the merchandise you once may have coveted. There’s no use picking up a copy of Doctor Who Magazine to find out what’s happening, because you are what’s happening.
Plus, and this is important, you’ll no longer be able to watch the show like a fan, which is at least one of the reasons offered for leaving by both Russell T Davies and David Tennant, that they wanted to be able to watch the programme again and not know what was going to happen. Which is bonkers, especially since you’re doubtless going to also be at the epicentre of merchandising freebees, boxes of books and cds and dvds turning up on a weekly basis, probably. But yes, that would be in the mix. Plus I’d be on the other side of the internet’s review nexus dealing with amateur bloggers from Liverpool describe how rubbish I am on a weekly basis.
And yet, and yet, like the tenth Doctor himself looking into The Satan Pit in The Satan Pit, there’s the itch. It’s Doctor Who. Why would anyone not want to be in Doctor Who no matter the consequences? Look at an average episode of Confidential and look at the production team at least, that family, that amazingly democratic family. Everyone says how much they’ve enjoyed working on the programme (at least the less egotistical ones, Swift) and it’s because of that family. There’s a reason Danny Hargreaves is still in there, blowing things up after all these years. There can’t be many shows like it.
In addition, for good or ill, even if you’re rubbish, you’d become part of television history. For most of the populace, Paul McGann only had one adventure as the Doctor, but he’s still the Eighth Doctor. He still appears in montage sequences, in the general historical articles in newspapers, still asked about the role, still does the convention circuit. People can barely remember who all the actors in the average soap are, or which series of Spooks this or that spy appeared in, but they always seem to know who’s played the Doctor. Never mind the fictional character, it’s become one of the few roles in which an actor can be immortalised.
So on reflection, yeeees, yeeees, I would do it! I would do it! And probably even if I wasn’t married to Billie Piper or a woman. Because actually the franchise is probably actor proof. Anyone can play the Doctor. Hugh Grant’s played the Doctor, albeit for just a few moments, and he was amazing. Arabella Weir’s played the Doctor on audio in an alternative universe story and she was amazing too. Those were twenty very good weeks and I probably would have given Henry V’s “Once More Unto The Breach…” a fair bit of welly, even if the sixteen year old version of me couldn’t remember all of it. I could be the first Doctor to improvise the role.
Agonising over, how would I do it? Doctors seem to be rather split down the middle between those for whom its a job of acting and those for whom the role is a natural extension of their personality. As you might expect there's some discussion as to which Who fits into which category, though there's not much argument that Tom Baker and Matt Smith were and are largely playing versions themselves. I'd argue Tennant is somewhere in the middle, giving the "Tennant" performance which crops up throughout his work.
Legendary writer Terrance Dicks always said that you just need to write the same Doctor and leave it up to the actor's interpretation but I'd disagree. The brilliance of Who isn't just that the show itself is flexible, or that the main character can change his appearance, it's also that his attitude is quantum locked with the needs of the story. The Eleventh Doctor in The Doctor's Wife is a different presence to Let's Kill Hitler then Closing Time, partly because of the writer but also because of the actor's reaction to the script.
To an extent, nuWho's spoilt the gene pool because aristocratic is right out. Unless Mark Gattis has a few ideas when he inevitably takes over, the Pertwee approach wouldn't work. Much as we love him, or some of us do, he's something of an alienating presence, and although like all Doctors he warmed up over time, the last thing you'd want is for him to be patronising all in sundry and visiting private clubs. He needs to be a bonkers presence, the benevolent alien with the darker side bubbling under the surface waiting to explode.
But always clever. And kind. Don't laugh (though you will), but I sometimes catch myself being Doctorish in real life, running my voice off, injecting a hint of unnecessary sarcasm and searching for the right thing to say in order to diffuse whatever mood someone's in. And problem solving, lots of problem solving. It's not on purpose, it's not consciously "What would the Doctor do?" It just sort of happens. Then I notice later. Or project it. I wonder sometimes if it's a fan thing. If we all do this. That we've all played the Doctor. Sort of.