July 21, 2013 8:00am PT by Graeme McMillan
Choosing the Perfect 'Doctor Who' Star (Opinion)
If Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat is to be believed -- always a dicey proposition, given his love of teasing or simply outright misleading fans and press when it comes to potentially spoilerish information about the show -- then we have until December until Matt Smith, the current face of the BBC's long-serving Time Lord, is replaced by a twelfth -- or, perhaps, thirteenth, depending on what happens with John Hurt in this November's anniversary special -- incarnation.
The identity of just who will take over the role remains, for now, a closely guarded secret despite countless leaks, rumors and utterly incorrect suggestions to the contrary. Those who remember the various rumors and announcements prior to Smith landing the gig in 2009 likely also remember the misinformation and entirely wrong "definitive" speculation of different actors ahead of time (Paterson Joseph, we hardly knew you).
This weird limbo of knowing that we're due a new Doctor but not knowing just who that new Doctor is, is as much a part of the show's mythology as overly long scarves or young women running away with strangers in boxes against all common sense or logic; it's an oddly essential moment for the show's audience because it's the time when they can step away from the reality of the Doctor-that-is, and into the theoretical realm of the Doctor-that-could-be. It's the time when everyone can ask themselves, "What makes a good Doctor?"
Of course, what makes the best Doctor is a magic that is almost impossible to quantify; like pornography, you know it when you see it, and it's different for everyone who watches Who. There is no scientific formula for what makes the Doctor "work." That's why the world doesn't automatically agree with me that Matt Smith is the best one we've had in years, if not ever. Nevertheless, there are some basic demands that any potential Doctor must address:
The Doctor Needs To Be Smart. Specifically, the Doctor needs to be a convincing know-it-all. The format of the show demands that he's rarely, if ever, completely lost in whatever new location he arrives at on any given week. The Doctor, throughout his fifty-year run to date, has stayed the show's primary expositionary engine: He's the character who tells the companion, and therefore the viewer, what's going on. He's also the character who, because the show is about the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism, has to outsmart the bad guys on a regular basis. However, the Doctor cannot be off-puttingly smart, or so much of a know-it-all that he loses the sympathy of the audience. We need to be able to ask ourselves "How will he get out of this?" so that there's some tension in what we're seeing.
The Doctor Needs To Be Everything To All People. Okay, that might be a little extreme, but the fact remains that the Doctor needs to exist in multiple genres simultaneously. The show veers from action to comedy at a moment's notice and yet remains in many ways a kids' show. Certainly under both Moffat and previous showrunner Russell T. Davies' reign, there were moments of extreme sentiment or plot contrivance that were only excusable if you allowed for "Well, it'd be too dark for the kids otherwise" -- meaning that the central character has to be credible within each of these different worlds. Or outside his own world, for that matter; let's not forget that whoever plays the Doctor also has to do things like appear at the Proms every year, or make appearances for charities, or whatever else is deemed necessary by the Powers-That-Be at the time.
The Doctor Needs To Be Charming. This one goes without saying, perhaps; the audience is unlikely to tune in on a weekly basis to watch a show about a Charmless Man, after all. But the Doctor has always been particularly charming, I feel. He has to be, in order to win over the hearts and minds of those around him, from companions whom he lures away from their everyday lives doubtlessly lived on English council estates or suburbia to enemies and suspicious bystanders necessary for the resolution of that week's adventure. I have a theory that, at points, the Doctor's charm has been portrayed as his being attractive, or sexy, which feels tonally off for some reason (don't get me started on the possibility of David Tennant being too attractive to be the Doctor, for everyone's sake); despite various attempts by the show in recent years, the Doctor isn't a romantic lead, because that's too specific a reading of what makes him appealing to everyone around him. We don't need a sexualized Doctor, we need one who charms.
The Doctor Needs To Be Unknown. With the arguable exception of fifth Doctor Peter Davison and ninth Doctor Christopher Eccleston, each of the television Doctors to date have been unfamiliar faces to the audience (John Hurt remains a special exception on numerous levels, not least of all because we're still unsure whether he is, in fact, a Doctor at all). That anonymity and unknown quality is important, I think; we need to look at the actor and think, That's the Doctor -- not, Oh, wasn't he good in [Project X]? -- for the show to work. Perhaps that is true of specific fantasy figures in general; I've always thought that Superman should be played by someone that brings no real emotional baggage to the role for the audience as well. We need to be able to project a specific credibility onto them.
Somewhere out there is an actor (or actress -- my use of male pronouns earlier speaks more to historical precedent over the gender of the Doctor, not a belief that the Doctor can only be male) who would make a perfect Doctor. For selfish reasons, I can only hope that whenever we're told their name -- whether at today's Comic-Con panel (surely a near-perfect place to make such an announcement, despite it being outside the U.K.) or elsewhere -- our first reaction is, no pun intended, "Who?" That reaction immediately followed, of course, by "Actually, I can kind of see it…"