What’s Next For Doctor Who After Matt Smith’s Exit? Anything and Everything
In the aftermath of the shocking announcement that Matt Smith will be leaving the role of the Doctor by the end of the year, Doctor Who fans from all walks of life have been buzzing with nervous excitement. Everyone wants to know who will be the next actor to play the title role in the series. Will it be Ian McKellen? Hugh Laurie? Benedict Cumberbatch? I had my own ideas, and was fully prepared to jump into the discussion when Neil Gaiman posted the following on his Tumblr blog:
I actually like it when The Doctor is a relatively unknown actor, or one without one huge role that made them famous. A star, like Sir Ian, brings all the other roles they’ve ever played to the table when they act…I want to see The Doctor. I want to be taken by surprise. I want to squint at a photo of the person online and go “but how can that be The Doctor?”. Then I want to be amazingly, delightedly, completely proven wrong, and, six episodes in, I want to wonder how I could have been so blind.
The more I thought about this statement, the more it made sense to me. It would be very hard for me to look at Benedict Cumberbatch as the Doctor and not think about his roles in Sherlock and Star Trek: Into Darkness. But when Matt Smith is onscreen, all I see is that madman in a little blue box who thinks bow ties are cool. I don’t see the parts he played in the past, because I don’t really know them that well. I just see the Doctor.
Interestingly, though, I realized that this feeling wasn’t limited to Smith. Being an American fan, Doctor Who has largely acted as a gateway drug to the world of British drama for me. As such, when Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant took the role, I also thought of them primarily as the Doctor. When Eccleston regenerated, I had no idea what to expect from Tennant. I even felt cheated, as though a new friend had left me just as I was getting to know him a bit better. But as I continued to watch the series, Tennant’s performance grew on me. Little by little I began to enjoy his goofy antics and quiet fury. Before I knew what had hit me, the Tenth Doctor had become my personal favorite. When it came time for Tennant to regenerate, I once again found myself clueless as to how the character was going to be portrayed. And once again, I found myself slowly growing to like the new Doctor as each episode aired and his character was built up, bit by bit.
It’s an adventure whenever the Doctor regenerates precisely because the audience has no idea what to expect. Each and every actor who takes on the role has a chance to do something radically different with the character. Tom Baker’s eccentric Bohemian was a far cry from his predecessor’s strapping man of action. The kind and friendly Fifth Doctor couldn’t have been more different from his successor, the alien and arrogant Sixth. No other show on television can pull off this sort of transformation as well as Doctor Who can, and it is certainly a contributing factor to the longevity of the series. But it’s exciting because of the way the character changes, not because of how much “star power” the next actor is going to bring to the show.
The casting of Smith in 2010 demonstrates why this is the case. As a largely unknown actor as well as the youngest to be cast in the role, Smith was something of a wildcard when it came to predicting how the Doctor would behave. His previous work as an actor was mostly in bit parts, so it wasn’t much to go by. His personality seemed quirky and energetic, but it remained unclear as to how those traits would transfer over to the Doctor. Fans were kept on the edge of their seats, anxiously awaiting every trailer, every interview, every hint. The announcement of the next actor to play the Doctor had raised more questions than it had answered. To put it another way, Matt Smith had been revealed to the world, but the character he was going to be playing onscreen remained a mystery, one the fans were desperately trying to solve.
I’m not trying to downplay the importance of choosing the right actor for the part. Obviously, the actor who plays the Doctor has a tremendous role in making sure that the character is enjoyable. But this is true whether the actor is a star or a complete unknown. As Smith’s success has proven time and time again, you don’t have to be a famous actor to make the Doctor fun to watch. All you really need is the ability to make the part interesting and engaging. At the end of the day, all this speculation isn’t really about who will be the next big star; it’s about what kind of character the next incarnation of the Doctor is going to be. People aren’t saying that Ben Whishaw should be the next Doctor just because they’re huge fans of his. They want Whishaw to play the Doctor because they think he could bring something new and interesting to the part. They want to be able to say “I have solved the mystery. I know what the next Doctor is going to be like.”
We like to believe that by knowing who the actor is, we will know everything about the character they are playing. It lets us think that we have some degree of control over our surroundings, that we understand what we are dealing with. We hear that the movie we are going to see has Steve Buscemi in it, and we say to ourselves “I bet he plays some sort of low-life gangster,” because that is the kind of role we are accustomed to see Buscemi play onscreen. But there’s always the chance that the movie we are going to see isn’t Fargo, its The Big Lebowski, and instead of the hardened criminal we were expecting, we get a lovable bowler from Los Angeles. One of the most amazing things about actors is that that they can surprise us. An actor can be a red herring just as easily as they can be a clue.
So if by some chance you happen to bump into me before the next Time Lord is officially announced, I might have a few ideas on who the next actor could be. But I’ll probably spend more time talking about what the character should be like. Should he be clownish, like the Second, or serious, like the Ninth? Should he be more human, like the Fifth or the Tenth, or should be be more alien, like the Fourth or the Eleventh? Or should they change things up for a bit, and have “him” regenerate into a “her”? Knowing who the actor will be may give us a clue towards the personality of the next Doctor. But it won’t be enough to solve the mystery on its own.
What do you think? Leave a comment.