04 January 2009

...when the Doctor's younger than you are

Well, there's no getting away from it[1], it's 2009. And I said I'd be making a New Year's resolution to post here more. So let's give it a go.

I spent most of yesterday writing a Surefish column -- due up sometime this week, with any luck -- on the casting of the new Doctor Who. Although in fact it's less about the specific casting of young Matt Smith than about the recasting of the Doctor in general, and how it compares with the periodic renewals of Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood and certain pagan fertility gods. Oh, and that Jesus chap. Actually, I don't think I've squeezed quite so many abstruse references into a column before, so that might be worth looking out for. (Or not. Your call.)

The casting itself is something I'm having trouble forming an opinion on. Some of my fellow Book of the War authors have jumped both ways on this, neither of them being directions I'm altogether inclined to leap in myself.

I wasn't previously aware of Smith's work, not having seen any of the items on his disconcertingly brief TV CV. I know Party Animals got a certain amount of praise, but how much of that was due to Smith's performance I have no idea. Even if I had heard of him... well, there were plenty of names being touted around who would have excited me far more.

Chiwetel Ejiofor, for one. Paterson Joseph and Idris Elba, for two other ones. Excellent actors all, each with a degree of maturity and gravitas which it's very difficult to imagine emanating from a 26-year-old.

What I find baffling, really, is this: even if Smith is (as outgoing showrunner Russell T Davies and his successor Steven Moffat both seemed to be asserting on last night's Doctor Who Confidental), a brilliant, innovative actor who's perfect for the part -- why couldn't he have waited another 10 or 20 years before being given it? (It's not as if, with the best will in the world, his looks are going to spoil... although in fact that weird, otherworldly face is one of his best credentials for the role.)

The Smith Doctor may or may not be an outstanding interpretation, but I'd be a hell of a lot more excited to be looking forward to the Joseph, Ejiofor and Elba Doctors -- and then, if he was ready for it, the Smith one -- than the Smith one right now. Are the showrunners really that impatient? (And yes, I know Peter Davison was only 29 when he got the part... but for pity's sake, when William Hartnell was cast he was twice Smith's age. What's wrong with a happy medium?)

I can't entirely work out how to view the Eccleston-Tennant-Smith progression, either[2]. Consider a respected, globally recognised cinema and TV actor with an impeccable artistic pedigree, giving way to a rising star with a solid theatrical background... who's followed in turn by an unknown with a couple of TV credits.

One possible interpretation -- and I've seen it espoused online -- is that the series is doomed, and has been on the way out since Eccleston left. The other is that, as it's got bigger, it's become less reliant on the recognition of its star... and that, in fact, being cast as the new Doctor is now all the credentials an actor needs.

If nothing else, the sequence of Eccleston (40 years old at the time of casting), Tennant (34), Smith (26) rather suggests that the future twelfth Doctor is currently recuperating from a critically-lauded pre-Christmas stint as a Wise Man, or possibly a Sheep.

Anyway. Personally I'd have much preferred to see an older Doctor introduced as a contrast to Tennant's breezy laddishness... but the fact that the new Doctor is even younger doesn't necessarily mean more of the same. Moffat is (as his 2008 Children in Need mini-episode Time Crash amply demonstrated) a big fan of the aforementioned Peter Davison's interpretation of the character, often described as "an old man in a young man's body". Tennant, by contrast, rarely gives us any indication of the Doctor's great and venerable age, choosing instead to give us his best impersonation of a four-year-old on tartrazine.

If Smith's all Moffat cracks him up to be, he may well be capable of pulling off as effective a version of this character as Davison. That would certainly be something to see -- and, of course, it genuinely requires a young man in the part.

It's a hell of a gamble to have taken, though.

[1]Except possibly through extensive calendar reform. According to these chaps it's actually 02009, which I rather like.

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