Matt Smith, who plays the titular character on Doctor Who and has done so for four years, is a wiry fella. He sits there, very relaxed, very much the English actor, in a loose sweater and skinny jeans rolled up at the ankle to display colourful socks. Me, I’d like to like him, but I can’t. He plays that irritating guy on TV, the one with that annoying swish of hair.
Little wonder he’s relaxed, though. He’s been playing the Doctor, one of the most iconic roles in television. The darn thing has been going for half a century, and the BBC is making a big fuss about that. Not only is there the upcoming introduction of a new actor to play the Doctor, but the BBC has made a movie about the creation of the show and its first broadcast and impact in 1963.
Smith says that when he won the role, he was delighted, but then daunted. “I called my dad and said, “Dad, I got it, but I’m screwed!’”
After all, he was following in the footsteps of David Tennant and, before him, a long list of men who managed to make each Doctor rather different. Some made him flaky (Christopher Eccleston), others made him cuddly (Jon Pertwee).
Not that yours truly is any kind of expert on Doctor Who. Frankly, I grew out of it when I was 10 years old. Unlike most of the world’s geeky worshippers of the series, I actually remember seeing Pertwee as the Doctor, fighting those laughable enemies, the Daleks.
Like most chaps, I grew more interested in sports and, you know, eventually girls and stuff, and the Doctor, the “time-travelling humanoid alien,” seemed, well, nerdy. Before “nerdy” was a word I even knew.
Today, I see the appeal and can vaguely understand why Doctor Who is BBC America’s most-watched show. It’s still nerdy, but it is family entertainment and it underwent a major reincarnation eight years ago when writer Russell T. Davies reinvented the character and the tone, making it contemporary, witty and cool. When Steven Moffat took over in 2009, he also invigorated it, and the antique quality of the show has long evaporated.
“This has transformed my life and career,” Smith tells the assembled critics. “One hopes that it sets you up to get more work. But it doesn’t give you a divine right.” He also says that while working on the show it’s impossible to grasp the popularity of the figure around the world. He was at Comic-Con just before coming here and, he says, “Being at Comic-Con for Doctor Who is the closest thing you get to being a rock star.”
Right here, facing mostly male critics, the worship also exists. I feel like a spoilsport.
Smith is asked about his favourite moments, now that he’s about to depart the role. He’s very gracious, in the way that British actors tend to be in these situations. Sitting beside him is Jenna Coleman, who has been playing the Doctor’s latest lady companion, Clara. Smith says that some complicated scenes he did with her were his favourite moments. In turn, Coleman says, “Riding around London on a motorbike with Doctor Who was pretty cool.”
At last, someone asks about the hair. In Smith’s incarnation, the Doctor is a charming, witty fellow, always ready with a quip, but he also has his hair in what is called a neo-quiff. It’s a variation on the 1950s pompadour, Teddy Boy-style. David Beckham had the same thing for a while, but it didn’t seem so annoying on him. Perhaps because Beckham isn’t always trying to be quick with the jolly-good quips and jawing on about the time-travelling spaceships.
Smith laughs at the mention of the quiff. He isn’t wearing one today. “Oh, the hair – we sprinkle it with fertilizer every morning,” he says.
And so the worship goes on for a while. No doubt the new Doctor – the search is ongoing, the BBC says – will stir excitement, and the 50th anniversary will instigate even more geeky celebrations. Me, I don’t begrudge anyone enjoyment of it all. I just don’t get it.
Mind you, the upcoming movie about the show’s creation, An Adventure in Space and Time, looks interesting. It was a Canadian, Sydney Newman, then head of drama at BBC TV, who developed it. The show was also run by the BBC’s first female TV producer, Verity Lambert. And the first actor to play the Doctor, William Hartnell, in 1963, was a fascinating, strange man. (In the movie, he’s played by David Bradley, who recently played Lord Walder Frey on Game of Thrones and killed almost everyone in a climactic episode. Here, he told the critics, “Doing the scene, I enjoyed every moment of it. I enjoyed it rather too much, actually.”) We get a picture of early-sixties England and the machinations of making what was then a radical TV show.
Maybe it will help explain why I don’t get it, grew out of it and kind of hate it.