Did The Tardis Miss The Boat? Looking At The Latest Doctor

by Special Correspondent Arturo Garcia

MattSmith

A message-board buddy of mine summed up my reaction perfectly: “And just who the hell is Matt Smith?”

Turns out the 26-year-old has been cast as the newest lead in Doctor Who, as confirmed Saturday. But, on one level, Matt Smith will represent, to me, a wasted opportunity.

Not that I think Smith will make a bad Doctor, necessarily; despite what some old-school Whovians may tell you, the series is hardly ever bad. But at a time when both the oddsmakers and popular opinion were backing the idea of the first Doctor of color, or the first female Doctor, this was the perfect chance for incoming executive producer Stephen Moffat to finally make good on the idea that “The Doctor could be anyone.”

Patterson JosephFor most of the nine weeks speculation ran amok about the Eleventh Doctor’s identity, the name on seemingly everybody’s lips was Patterson Joseph. Joseph had amassed a sizable resume on BBC television, most recently in Jekyll, also produced by Moffat; animated series Chop Socky Chooks (yeah, it sounds pretty bad); and the post-apocalyptic drama Survivors. One could say that the support toward casting Joseph, a known commodity, showed parallels to Peter Davison’s taking over the role after the last pre-eminent Doctor, Tom Baker. Davison had already become popular in his own right before taking on the role, taking some of the pressure off himself before embarking on his run aboard the TARDIS.

On another front, a group of female scientists began a public campaign urging Moffat and company to pick a woman for the role, arguing that a female Doctor would “bring the issue of the important contribution women can and should make to science in the public domain.” Indeed, names like Catherine Zeta-Jones and Helen Mirren began to pop up in consideration, though the bookies apparently had former Companion Billie Piper getting “promoted.” And really, how cool would it have been to have The Doctor, arguably the most brilliant person in the universe, be a woman for a few years? Imagine the slashfic gender-expectation-bending possibilities!

It’s tough to find an American equivalent to the character of The Doctor. Even if many people have played, say, Batman, the character has always been defined as the secret identity of Bruce Wayne. By contrast, not only has the mantle of The Doctor been worn by 10 different actors, but the role itself has changed with each re-generation. The character is still an arch do-gooder, of course, but David Tennant’s interpretation was different than Christopher Eccleston’s, which was different than Paul McGann’s, and so on.

And, as regards Tennant’s run, The Doctor is money — the centerpiece of a multimedia franchise covering books-on-tape, toys, fan magazines, conventions, memorabilia and three(!) spinoff series. “Journey’s End,” the fourth-season finale, was the No. 1 rated show in the whole U.K., the first Doctor Who episode to reach that level of viewership, capping off a week in which seemingly everyone in the country was wondering whether Tennant’s time had run out early. Put it this way: without Christian Bale and David Goyer, would anybody who didn’t read comics take Batman seriously anymore?

Charged with continuing all that success, the show’s creative team played it safe. Smith gives them not just another (white) bloke, but an actor they can mold into their Doctor. One could also argue that Smith also gives them an actor who would work more cheaply than Joseph, or Chiwetel Ejiofor, or many other contenders. BBC Wales Drama head Piers Wenger is quoted as saying, “It was abundantly clear that [Smith] had that ‘Doctor-ness’ about him. You are either the Doctor or you are not.” While that may or may not be true, this time around, Wenger and Moffat had the opportunity to make the statement “You are the Doctor” mean just a bit more, and chose not to take it.