Every successful television series requires creative tweaks with the passage of time. The new Doctor Who (Saturday, Space at 9 p.m.) underwent a full-body makeover.
As befits a show about a time-travelling alien with the ability to regenerate into new humanoid form every few years, Doctor Who has been in a state of change since its debut on the BBC in 1963. No fewer than 10 fine British thespians have assumed the role, but the Doctor's 11th incarnation is more serious, stylish and - to the initial dismay of U.K. viewers - younger than any Doctor Who in the history of the franchise.
"Oh, there was a huge fuss made of my age when I was handed the role," chuckled Matt Smith, 27, in a phone chat earlier this week. "But that was all rather inevitable, simply because Doctor Who is part of the cultural fabric of Great Britain. He's a very important figure, so fans there are extremely protective of him."
I'm trying to just enjoy this experience as it's happening, and not look too far ahead.
When viewers last saw Doctor Who, the character was still in the hands of David Tennant, who capably commanded the Doctor's TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimensions in Space) spacecraft for five seasons. In a public poll, the readers of a Doctor Who fanzine voted Tennant "Best Doctor," even surpassing long-time favourite Tom Baker.
"I'll always feel deeply indebted to the good Doctor," said Tennant on the last TV critics tour in Los Angeles. "This was the role that completely changed my life."
When Tennant announced in 2008 that he was leaving the role, speculation on his replacement filled countless stories in the U.K. tabloids. Among other names bandied about as his successor: Sean Pertwee, son of former Doctor Who actor Jon Pertwee; and, bizarrely enough, Catherine Zeta-Jones.
But the lanky Smith, already a veteran of British TV and stage, had the part from his first audition. "I simply went in and gave my version of Doctor Who as clearly and boldly as I could," he says. "I already knew you can't pay much attention to the reams of opinion that surround the show. If you did, you'd never get anything done."
Now, however, viewers across the pond really like the new Doctor Who. The series premiered in the U.K. two weekends back and the feedback from both TV critics and demanding fans has so far been unanimously glowing. The TV reviewer in The Independent raved: "He is the Doctor. And he might be more the Doctor than anyone who was the Doctor before."
"So far, the response in the U.K. has been extraordinary and extremely gratifying for all of us working on the show," says Smith. "We never expected the fans to react so positively. It's the best we could have hoped for."
Over the phone, Smith is bracingly honest. He readily admits that he never watched Doctor Who while growing up in the East Midlands region of Northampton.
"Of course I was of that generation of children, God love us, that never had Doctor Who on television [the show was on hiatus from 1989 to 2005, save for a 1996 TV movie] Even then, I always had a high awareness of the show," he says.
As a towheaded teenager, Smith had his sights set on playing professional soccer, but those ambitions shifted toward acting following a serious back injury. He steadily scored roles on British television - in the BBC police drama Moses Jones and in the political drama Party Animals - and thereafter moved into theatre roles, most notably playing opposite Christian Slater in a West End production of Swimming with Sharks.
"Theatre definitely taught me discipline as an actor," he says, "which has been tremendously valuable playing the Doctor, because we have to learn enormous volumes of pages for each story, and we shoot a new episode every 12 days."
And make no mistake: This is not your father's Doctor Who.
In the first new episode, the newly regenerated doctor is paired with his latest companion, Amy Pond (played by Scottish actress Karen Gillan, 22), and then goes after a fugitive alien running around modern-day London. The alien's former jailers come looking for him and are willing to blow up Earth in order to ensure they've killed him. The second episode introduces a species known as Smilers - possibly the scariest alien species ever shown on the series.
The updated look and tone comes courtesy of producer Steven Moffat ( Coupling, Jekyll), whose chilling perspective of the future and the past runs through the entire series. "Steven is a true genius," says Smith. "He puts so much energy into each script and he's one of the greatest writers on television today. His imagination is vast and varied."
Young but wise, Smith knows his stint as Doctor Who comes with a time limit. He's committed to filming one more season following the current campaign - after that, it's a mutual decision between the actor and the producers.
"I'm trying to just enjoy this experience as it's happening, and not look too far ahead," he says cheerfully. "Playing Doctor Who is the hardest thing I've ever done, but also the most rewarding, and the most brilliant. To my mind, I have the greatest part on British television, and I want to keep it."