Tuesday, January 04, 2011

What the Dickens? It's Doctor Who!!

You’ve opened your presents, you’ve had your turkey and the Queen has said whatever it is she’s planning to say about the upcoming royal nuptials… now, for millions of Brits, it’s time for the most festive part of the day – the Doctor Who Christmas special. More than one in five of us sat down (with our tissues at the ready) to watch David Tennant’s swansong last year. This year, brand new show supremo Steven Moffat has promised to deliver the most tinsel-laden episode ever. “It’s all your favourite Christmas movies at once,” he vowed. “In an hour. With monsters.”

The responsibility for this Yuletide cornerstone falls on the shoulders of the 11th Doctor, the Gallifreyan’s latest incarnation, 28-year-old Matt Smith. Catching up with The Big Issue while on his way from Cardiff to London, from where he will head over to America to film the Doctor’s first ever scenes on US soil – to screen next year – Smith quickly gets in a very Doctor-ish sort of flap about the fact that for a fair number of people he IS Christmas this year.

“Oh gosh,” he exclaims, the words tumbling out in a desperate dash. “I don’t know about that. Father Christmas is Christmas, and reindeers and turkey. To have an event like Doctor Who is of course a nice thing to celebrate and share but I think Christmas relies on a lot more. If we can add to the spirit and the anticipation of Christmas Day, that’d be a nice thing.”

Mastering Christmas is the last hurdle for Smith before he can properly be the Doctor. It’s a chance to step out of the shadows of his predecessor, David Tennant, whose humour and heart made him the most popular Doctor ever and allowed the show to grow into perhaps the BBC’s most profitable brand.

Smith joins Moffat in promising they have made something very special indeed. “I think it’s bloody brilliant, I have to say. It’s as Christmassy a Doctor Who as we’ve had. I think the spirit of Christmas and the spirit of the Doctor go hand in hand in many ways.”

The trailers reveal a slant on A Christmas Carol, with legendary heavyweight thesp Michael Gambon as the Scrooge figure and also starring angelic Welsh singer, Katherine Jenkins, in her acting debut. Moffat has revealed the plot follows the Doctor’s fiery sidekick Amy and her husband Rory who are trapped on a crashing space liner. The only way the Doctor can rescue them is to save the soul of a lonely old miser.

“Steven again has just tipped a notion on its head with time travel and he’s done it with great inventiveness and craft, as always. I’m personally really proud of it,” says Smith.

Matt Smith was far from universally welcomed when he was revealed as the replacement to Tennant (above) in January 2009. Could this odd-looking gangly youth (he was just 26 at the time) really make us believe he was a 900-year-old Time Lord?

Yet, at the end of series five, as the Doctor saw off almost every enemy he’d ever faced in one massive, mind-melting conclusion that played with the concept of time travel in a whole new way, the doubts were all but quelled.

Smith may not quite have the acting chops of Tennant, but he is a sparkling and witty Doctor. When it comes down to it, it’s just an awful lot of fun to hop aboard the TARDIS with him. The success of the new look was evident at the recent Doctor Who Live extravaganza, which travelled across the country playing to massive crowds, featuring a stupendous number of little boys (and the odd dad) in bow ties and tweed.

“It’s very exciting isn’t it?” says Smith, adding that he’s heard sales of both bow ties and tweed are on the up. “That’s always wonderful to see people dressed up. I love that. I think it’s cool.”

Even still, at the live show, the biggest cheer of the evening came when David Tennant was shown on the big screen. It was a deft bit of emotional theatre but you can’t help but wonder whether after seeing that, Smith feared that he may never escape the last Doctor’s shadow. “I’ve never felt his shadow because it’s such a wonderful role and his version is just the latest,” he insists. “I think if I had ever felt like that it would have been a problem.

“David is just a lovely, lovely man. I’m very fond of him, so I would never really think about him in those terms anyway.”

If Smith was sanguine before he began the role, he will allow that he has lately begun to comprehend just how big the challenge was.

“Of course, I suppose, with hindsight, one can look back on my first couple on months on the show and appreciate the magnitude of taking over from David, who was just brilliant and hugely successful,” he admits, thoughtfully. “But, actually, as soon as you put the bow tie on and the rest of it, the fun takes over and you can only enjoy it. So there is no sense of history.

“Also, it’s not just David – there’s Christopher [Eccleston] and Jon Pertwee and Patrick Troughton. There are 10 other men who are always going to go behind you. The past is always the past and will always be there. I don’t really contemplate it. I think you have to live presently.” Which is a difficult concept for a Time Lord. “Yes, indeed! You’re right!”

Of course, Smith was never alone in his mission to convert the sci-fi fans of Britain. At his side he has been lucky to have fantastic, leggy Scots redhead Karen Gillan, playing the Doctor’s equally amazing companion Amy Pond.

An instant star, she has redefined the role of the companion once again and has set the heather ablaze – whether she’s attempting to have a prenuptial fling with the Doctor or standing alone and terrified in a space-age forest while the petrifying Weeping Angels descend upon her.

Smith says Gillan has been a huge support, on and off the show. Both their lives have changed beyond recognition this year, as they’ve gone from virtual unknowns to two of the most recognisable faces on TV, for whose autographs children and their parents will camp out overnight in the rain.

It’s been an upheaval for Smith, not least because he’s had to move away from London (and his It-girl, model girlfriend Daisy Lowe) to live mostly in Cardiff.

“It would be different being up in Cardiff were Karen not around,” he says. “Karen is a constant source of laughter and bemusement to me. I’m very, very fond of her.”

So does that mean there’s no prick of jealousy when Gillan steals the limelight?

“God no, I’m proud of her,” he says, cheerfully adding he’s sure people tune into the show for her as much as him. “Why would you not?

“She’s drop-dead gorgeous, turning in brilliant performances every week – witty, funny, gangly. She looks like a preying mantis. She’s got all the right things going on.”

Since the viewing public have whole-heartedly agreed with this assessment – well, perhaps not the preying mantis bit – it came as a shock when The Sun (usually a reliable source of Doctor Who leaks) suggested Amy was going to be killed off part-way through 2011. Surely not! Challenged on the point, and with the BBC monitoring our interview, Smith comes over all defensive. “If I told you, I’d have to come and kill you and I don’t want to kill you,” he says, hardly dispelling our fears for Amy’s safety.

In fact, now I think about it, only a couple of minutes ago he was telling me she’d do brilliantly after Doctor Who. “I think she’s going to go on to do great things, not only in this show but I think subsequently she’ll go on and have a very interesting career because I think she’s brilliant, I really do.”

Oh dear. Watch your back Miss Pond.

Like the rest of us, Smith will be sat down around the telly come Christmas afternoon with his family, trying not to ruin the ending for his mum, dad, grandfather and sister, a professional dancer who recently went on tour with Take That. The work doesn’t stop for Smith when he goes home, though.

Since his career started, his loyal mum has been in charge of his fan mail and it’s a role she hasn’t given up, even after the trickle of letters became a flood this year. “She’s always pestering me that I don’t sign enough cards,” says Smith. “God love her, every time I go home she’ll sit me down and say I’ve got to sign all these things. She rules it with an iron fist.”

Winding down from saving the universe means two things to Smith – playing his guitar and football. From his earliest years he was always meant to be a footballer, only turning to acting after a serious back injury. You just need to mention his beloved Blackburn Rovers to waylay him entirely from any train of thought. However, with the clock ticking – Time Lords ironically have very tight diaries – I’ve got to bring him back to the biggest Doctor Who fan controversy he’s yet faced. We’ve all known for ages that Doctor Who was facing a time bomb in terms of the number of times he was allowed to regenerate.

The limit has long been set at 13 incarnations of the Doctor, or 12 regenerations – a number that must have seemed suitably remote when the show started in 1963 – but with the 11th Doctor currently in place, a way out of the accepted rule has become of pressing concern. Whovians waited with bated breath for how they would explain the transition. Would it be something to do with the Time Wars? Or the demise of the High Council of Time Lords?

The possibilities were endless. Then they slipped in a throwaway line in teatime spin-off show Sarah Jane Adventures – flatly stating that the Doctor now had 507 regenerations, with nary a sniff of a faux science justification, and the message boards went wild. How dare they cheat us of an explanation?
“That’s a Russell question…” prevaricates Smith, alluding to the fact it was previous boss Russell T Davies who wrote the offending line.

“You’d have to ask him because he’s better equipped to deal with that. I have no idea. I merely concentrate on number 11. The rest, once they get to 13, that’s their problem to worry about.” Smith hopes they’ll get some sort of explanation to stick, thus allowing Doctor Who to go on far into the future. “I certainly want Doctor Who to go on forever, it’s just wonderful. Why not?

“It’s lasted this long. The format of it allows the storytelling to be limitless and boundless and totally creative from one week to the next and without restraint, so why not? Why shouldn’t it go on?”

He is quite right, of course. Doctor Who to go on forever – given current form, who could argue with that?

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