Monday, November 03, 2008

Doctor Who: A Gambler's Guide

"A pony says it's a bird."

For the modern generation, the next few months are going to be a wholly new experience: those who don't remember the Old Time have never known the gut-level angst of waiting for the focus of the entire universe to change, or the righteous fury of someone who has to inform his or her parents that Les Dennis would not make a good replacement, or the smack of fear that the New Man might be the most hideous human being on Earth. (When I was eight, a communications breakdown in the schoolroom led me to believe that the next Doctor was going to be Jim Davidson rather than Peter Davison, and the emotional scarring still hasn't healed.) In fact, even those of us who've been here for decades might have trouble recalling the sensation. We knew who Eccleston's successor was going to be within 24 hours of his resignation; McGann ambushed us while we were looking the other way; and nobody really cared who was going to take over from Colin Baker. David Tennant's departure is the uneasiest moment in Doctor Who history since 1984, and the results are likely to be just as catastrophic.

Or perhaps that's unfair. But if I'm permitted to repeat myself - and given that I wrote over 50,000 words on the last series alone, I'm bound to use up all the adjectives sooner or later - then this is the point where we find out whether the series can drag itself out of its showbiz offal-pit and become a programme about Adventures in Space and Time again. After the 2007 series, I foresaw a nightmare future-world in which Matt Lucas had become the new Doctor, yet this seemed the lesser of two evils when Catherine Tate was announced as the TARDIS's official silly-face-puller in residence. And now David Walliams is one of the bookies' favourites to fill the Tennant-shaped hole at the heart of the world. Admittedly, I'm running out of new ways to say "surrounded by media back-slappers on all sides, the production team has forgotten the difference between a drama programme and a BAFTA awards ceremony", yet the fact remains that nobody's likely to tell them if - when - they let celeb-culture cloud their judgement. For a while, it looked as if Tate might steal the Best Performance trophy from her co-star at the ITV awards: from the point of view of Big Russell and friends, sitting in the audience of superstars while guzzling drinks made from champagne and little children's tears, it must have looked like a vindication. It probably never occurred to them that it was largely a result of block-voting by geek-loyalists, or that if you gave them a straight choice, ITV viewers would choose Ant and Dec to be the new Doctor.

Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before, Number Two. I said, towards the end of this year's season, that it was time for Tennant to make his excuses. Not because there's anything wrong with him as an actor (indeed, he's the only Doctor who's managed to develop his performance with every passing year, rather than giving a knowing wink to the camera and expecting small children to be impressed by his very presence), but simply because he's become so successful that his image has distorted the nature of the programme. Writers are among the laziest people on God's Clean Earth, and even those who should know better relied on Tennant-standards during the 2008 series. The latter half of "Forest of the Dead" is very nearly a checklist of "Things David Does Well", and his performance alone is enough to stop "The Doctor's Daughter" being as awful as its script. It's apt that he's the first actor to have his Doctor-number in his surname, because he's also the first to treat the role as if it's something like a sacred trust [footnote 1]. Yet he's given us a Doctor who's clever and dynamic and popular and sexy, so his companion would've ended up standing around with her mouth hanging open even if they hadn't hired an actress who specialises in that sort of thing.

In short, we may have passed the point where Tennant has become irreplaceable, which brings us to the nub of the issue. As you've no doubt heard, the bookmakers at Paddy Power have drawn up a long, long list of actors, and are now inviting us to have a flutter on the identity of the next-in-line. I can't say for sure whether it's the first time this has happened (we can be fairly sure that it didn't happen in 1987), but it's certainly the first time it's happened since I've been of gambling age. I speak as someone who made a profit on the 2002 World Cup, then lost it all on Euro 2004, and I still haven't forgiven the referee for the England-Portugal match. So here's a rundown of the favourites, for any of you who might be tempted. Because even if the bookies research every possible angle before they announce the odds, this is the one area in which we have the advantage. Do they know how Steven Moffat or Phil Collinson think…? No they don't. But we do [footnote 2].

Patterson Joseph (4-1 favourite). Here's an experiment you can all try. If you're in the company of non-fans, and someone brings up the topic of the Next Doctor Who, tell them that the current favourite is Patterson Joseph. When they say "who?", just tell them: "He's black." I guarantee that at least 85% of them will just say "oh", as if that tells them everything they need to know. And in a sense, it does. Modern-day Doctor Who has a reputation for being a "Liberal" programme: "Liberal" is used in its modern sense here, to mean something that's politely pro-tolerance and anti-bigotry, but doesn't have the nerve to be properly left-wing. The media has latched onto this, so it's inevitable that a black actor is going to be the bookmaker's choice, regardless of what he actually does. And there is a certain appeal in the thought of hearing your slightly-racist uncle mutter "not as good as it was in the old days" under his breath whenever anyone mentions Doctor Who, but on the other hand… well, let's be frank. There's a reason that Joseph specialises in harsh, aggressive, alienating characters, and it's simply that he has no capacity for making the audience like him. Which is, after all, why he was cast as the self-obsessed Dalek-denier in "Bad Wolf". Turning him into the Doctor, especially after the audience has grown accustomed to the shining and beatific countenance of the Boy David, would result in the series collapsing after a single year of Moffathood and Joseph himself being remembered in years to come as "The One Nobody Likes to Talk About". Don Warrington, now, that's my idea of a black Doctor [footnote 3].

David Morrisey (5-1). There's a potentially interesting legal case here. Thanks to the October spoiler-glut, I've just discovered the title of this year's Christmas special, and David Morrisey's role in it. Ergo, we know for a fact that he's "The Next Doctor", even if he isn't the Next Doctor. So what happens if you put a bet on him at 5-1, then take your slip back to Paddy Power after Christmas Day, claiming that you've technically won? Bookies are used to "solid" results, even if those results involve a photo-finish or a stewards' inquiry. They're not used to taking bets on something that might involve regenerative ambiguity or non-contemporaneous timelines. It seems unlikely, though, that Morrisey's Next Doctor will turn out to be a permanent appointment… unless the whole Christmas Special is a devious test-run (see also the 50-1 shot). Ah! On closer inspection, I see that the Paddy Power People have been careful to specify "David Tennant's Replacement" rather than "The Next Doctor Who". They're smarter than I thought.

James Nesbitt (6-1). Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before, Number Three. Some years ago, Steven Moffat told me about an extra-special project he'd written for BBC1, which had been temporarily delayed because the "perfect actor" was busy with other work. This sounded terribly exciting (any series which needs a specific actor has got to be a masterpiece, surely…?), so imagine my disappointment when it turned out to be Jekyll, and the "perfect actor" turned out to be that git from the Yellow Pages adverts. And this brings us once again to the back-slappy world of showbiz. If you work in the media, where programmes of the Cold Feet oeuvre are regarded as the height of sophistication, then James Nesbitt is an A-Grade celebrity. However, for those who don't habitually watch ITV pseudo-dramas that involve successful middle-class people whining about their lack of serious problems - and that's the majority of the British population, myself included - he's just an annoyance in the ad-breaks. His furniture-chewing performance in Jekyll, complete with token attempts at "scary and maniacal" which seemed roughly as intimidating as a twelve-year-old telling you that his dad is a ninja, were so ludicrous that even the Radio Times was forced to treat it as a form of kitsch. And this is a magazine that thinks Heroes is a serious drama. But despite Nesbitt's prior association with Moffat, we can safely assume that he's out of the running, if only because his casting would result in parents across the nation having to answer awkward questions like "mummy, why is that ugly bald man pretending to be the Doctor?".

John Simm (8-1). In the right context, there's nothing wrong with Simm. His cheeky-faced integrity was one of the key reasons that viewers of Life on Mars didn't notice the piss-poor quality of the scripts, although perhaps his greatest role was as the ersatz Barney Sumner in Twenty-Four Hour Party People. (If you haven't seen it, then it's worth a look next time it's on Film Four, if only for the obvious drinking game: take a shot every time you see an actor who's been in modern-day Doctor Who. Christopher Eccleston has a cameo part as a homeless wino who quotes Roman philosophy at Tony Wilson, and that's entertaining even as a sentence.) Yet the hideous miscasting of Simm as the Master was another example of the production team jamming a well-known, well-liked media "face" into the series, whether he belongs there or not. There's no clearer sign of this than the way he's introduced at the end of "Utopia". You'd think, wouldn't you, that we'd get at least one close-up of the newly-regenerated arch-villain in order to establish his identity…? But, no. All we get are waist-up shots as he dashes around the TARDIS console, because the assumption is that this man is a Big TV Star, and therefore needs no introduction. When even Graeme Harper is so celebrity-dazzled that he can't direct properly, something's gone badly wrong.

Chiwetel Ejiofor (8-1). Middle England might just about accept a black Doctor, but they certainly won't accept one they can't pronounce. Hartnell! Troughton! Pertwee! Baker! Davison! Baker! McCoy! McGann! Eccleston! Tennant! Eji… Ejoili… Ej… oh, **** it, let's just hire Matt Smith instead.

Russell Tovey (10-1). Tovey's inclusion on this list is a direct result of Big Russell "coming out" and describing him as one of the nation's greatest rising talents (he was in The History Boys, of course, so he's probably used to being a fat-camp-man magnet). And there are numerous precedents for bit-part players becoming regulars in the Doctor Who universe, although hard-core fans might find it harder to swallow the Doctor's transformation into Alanzo the Helmsman than to accept that the Sixth Doctor was based on Commander Maxil's body-print, or that Martha was related to the girl with the Cyber-lubricant in her ear at Canary Wharf, or that the cute gap-toothed Welsh girl from Torchwood was somehow based on the cute gap-toothed Welsh girl who gave her poor little working-class life to save Victorian Cardiff [footnote 4]. As a leading man, however, Tovey has a problem: he's twelve. Or at least, he appears to have been strategically punched in the face until he looks twelve. The Doctors may be getting younger, and Davies may have insisted that the character needs youthful jumping-around abilities these days (isn't that what the companions are supposed to be for…?), but an incarnation who looks as if he might cry when you take his jelly away is pushing things a little.

David Walliams (10-1). Currently being mistaken for a serious actor by retarded television executives across the UK, plus Stephen Poliakoff. In fact, the lower reaches of the Paddy Power list are riddled with comedians who believe they can Do Drama (including both Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, the latter appearing semi-feasible after House, although I still can't watch it without expecting him to shout "dammit, John!" at any moment). One of these represents the ultimate nightmare scenario: Ricky Gervais at 80-1. This may sound like a long shot, but scarily, Greece were given odds of exactly 80-1 to win Euro 2004. And what happened there? I lost everything, that's what. Now we're all in that position.

Anthony Head (10-1). The major objection to Head being the Doctor is that it's just too obvious, but then, there are an awful lot of people at BBC Wales who've got even less imagination than the bookmakers: those who see Doctor Who as a "cult sci-fi" show seem convinced that the best way to keep the fans happy is to cast lots of people from other "cult sci-fi" shows, hence the hilarious attempt to parachute James Marsters into Torchwood. Nonetheless, it's true that the casting of Head would be welcomed by the kind of degenerate nerd-scum who described the embarrassing swimming-pool scene in "School Reunion" as "iconic". As with John Simm, there's absolutely nothing wrong with Head in himself, but casting him as the Doctor would be final, crippling proof that the series has given up any chance of having its own identity. Did I mention that I saw him in The Rocky Horror Show, in the days when he was only known for the Gold Blend adverts…? He had great legs.

Richard Coyle (14-1). If I had to look down the list of candidates and choose one based on nothing more than his name, then this would be the winner. The polar opposite of Chiwetel Ejiofor, it just looks right on the page: Eccleston… Tennant… Coyle. Sadly, he's the drippy one out of Coupling (read: "the geeky side of Moffat that he tries to keep hidden, or at least tries to be ironic about"), who then became some sort of Celtic warrior in a film about King Arthur that even fantasy buffs have managed to forget. Again, the association with Moffat guarantees him a place in this list, and puts Coyle in the "chillingly possible" category. But no matter how much they try to re-style him, he still comes across as a bad perm looking for somewhere to happen.

Sean Pertwee (14-1). Let's be honest, he wouldn't be here at all if he weren't called Pertwee. And if we're talking about the ability to engage a family audience, then he isn't even the most qualified of the Doctor-spawn. (I don't mean David Troughton, either. Think eyelashes and a functional womb.) Pertwee Jr's vulturine, granite-cast features suggest that his father mated with Darkseid from The New Gods, and even if you could somehow chisel a smile across it with a diamond-tipped drill, he'd still give you the impression that he'd rather be stamping on baby rabbits than fighting cosmic evil. This makes him ideal for television's "criminal psychopath" and "ruthless drug-lord" parts, which is why it seems so bizarre that he's the country's most sought-after voice-over artist. His numerous TV ads sound like the kind of thing you'd expect to hear in a near-future fascist dystopia, promising unlimited power for the masses with a creeping undercurrent of "…once all the defectives have been eradicated". Not perfect for this role.

Robert Carlyse (14-1). Oh, God, yes. Please, yes. Apart from anything else, Carlyse's casting would force the programme to climb out from under the mountain of rotting celeb-flesh and become something like a drama series again (albeit a drama with nods toward light entertainment, which is how it seems to work best). Donna Noble would be as unthinkable under Carlyse as she would've been under Eccleston, and his presence might even compel could-be-good-if-they-tried writers like Gareth Roberts to come up with proper scripts instead of collections of in-jokes. Carlyse's name has been mooted in connection with Doctor Who since the Eccleston mini-epoch, partly because both actors came from the same batch of Rising British Talent in the early '90s, and partly because they've been locked together in our mass-consciousness ever since Carlyse stabbed Eccleston to death in Cracker: this is why some of us half-expected the Doctor to regenerate into Ricky Tomlinson at the end of "The Parting of the Ways", and why Carlyse seemed the obvious choice to be the new Master. But nooooo, they had to go for This Year's Mr Popular, didn't they? Hearteningly, a recent Radio Times interview suggested that he'd be willing to consider a major part in Doctor Who, but that he simply hadn't been asked [footnote 5]. The question is, though… would the general public be able to accept anyone this intense, after four years of Tennant's "Mickeeeey!!!" approach? We can only hope.

Richard E. Grant (14-1). What, again?

Jack Davenport (16-1). Another actor well-versed in playing a manifestation of Moffat's psyche, having spent several years as "Steve", the hero of Coupling who walks a neurotic line between geekdom and self-confidence while treating his barely-concealed misogyny as a form of post-modernism. Davenport's case is strengthened by his Hollywood credentials, if you can ignore the fact that the makers of Pirates of the Caribbean cast him because of his lack of charm and charisma (I forget the name of his character, but Lead Snotty Englishman just about covers it). We should also remember that he's already had a shot at being the star of a "cult sci-fi" series, and that he utterly botched it. Ultraviolet was meant to do for fantasy what Cracker did for the detective series, but whereas the anti-hero of Cracker was a pathologically unpredictable spit-ball of rage and obsession, the lead character of Ultraviolet was a mumbling bore who instantly alienated the audience. Mind you, Simon Pegg killed the otherwise-promising Hippies in exactly the same way, and he somehow got a second chance.

Alan Davies (16-1). I'm not even going to dignify this with a response.

Adrian Lester (18-1). What's amusing is that just in this rundown of Twenty People Who Might Be the Next Doctor Who, there are more black actors than there were in the entire Hartnell era. But whereas Patterson Joseph is far, far too vicious for the role, Adrian Lester is merely bland. Much more interesting is what his appearance on this list says about the way Doctor Who is perceived by the Not-We. Lester is best known for the BBC's Hustle, literally the most predictable television series ever made, usually described by the Radio Times with the obvious euphemism "glossy". But these days, this is how both the bookies and the media-in-general see the Doctor's world: the series is no longer an ever-growing experiment in High Strangeness and relative moral values, it's quite distinctly a "format", related to the Tony Jordan school of License-Fee-draining, guest-star-heavy pseudo-drama. When you remember that the same people responsible for the vacuity of Hustle also devised Life on Mars (which is just as vacuous, but better-camouflaged), the last two years of Doctor Who make a lot more sense.

Adien Gillen (18-1). Aiden Gillen…? Oh, of course: the press still believes in the "Gay Mafia" theory of television, so Gillen is a potential candidate simply because he was seen committing various acts of fleshy man-lust in Queer as Folk. But in itself, this proves that he's not in the running. If Big Russell [footnote 6] were still Best Gay Friends with him, then Gillen would've had a major guest-star part in Doctor Who three years ago. For Davies to insist on casting an old acquaintance now, just as he's about to leave the series, would be bizarre behaviour even for the man who thought "Journey's End" made sense.

Alexander Armstrong (18-1). Back in 2003-2004, when we were still obsessing over the question of who the first twenty-first-century Doctor might be, one reader of the RT suggested that they should cast a new Doctor every week and call it Have I Got Whos for You. At around the same time, Russell T. Davies was expressing his disgust at the tabloid speculation that Jamie Oliver could get the part instead of a "serious" actor. And, hooray! He cast Christopher Eccleston. Yet after five years of separation from the world of mortal men, Davies has brought the programme to a point where the papers are once again more likely to suggest "celebs" than "thesps", which is why the list of candidates to be the Doctor looks frighteningly like a list of candidates to be the nation's leading game-show host: Alexander Armstrong is not only a regular chairman on Have I Got News, but has also been mooted as Des O'Connor's replacement on Countdown. To be fair to Armstrong, he's by far the least offensive of the comedians on this list, and nobody could take issue with his performance as the Modern K-9 in The Sarah-Jane Adventures. But this tells you almost as much about the state of the programme as the Adrian Lester option.

Jason Statham (18-1). Do me a ***ing favour.

Harry Lloyd (18-1). Honestly, it's hard not to like the man. If, indeed, "man" is the word: he looks as if he's still being used as a human toast-rack by the older boys at Eton. After his appearance as Son of Mine in "Human Nature", his interviews for Confidential proved him to be in the well-adjusted middle-ground between relaxed professionalism and boyish enthusiasm, although that's perhaps not surprising for someone who looks as if he should be in the Doctor Who version of Muppet Babies alongside Russell Tovey. I just about managed to accept a Doctor who's roughly my age, but a public-school Doctor born in the 1980s? It's hard to imagine him commanding the authority to save the universe, unless he's going to challenge Davros to a round of the Biscuit Game. (Which Davros would lose, obviously. Because... well, y'know... he doesn't have a spare hand to hold the biscuit.)

And, way down the list of contenders…

Alex Kingston (50-1). Every time it looks as if a new Doctor's going to be required, some idiot suggests that it might be a woman. This year, that idiot was me, although there was a logic behind it. If Tennant has become so popular that he's virtually irreplaceable - far more so than Tom Baker ever was, since people in those days only expected an actor, not a major celebrity and national sex-symbol as well [footnote 7] - then the only option is to introduce a Doctor so shockingly different that the question of "better" or "worse" ceases to be an issue. If there's ever going to be a full-time female Doctor, then it's going to be now, especially when we consider the new producer's preference for hanging around with sexy actresses [footnote 8]. So there's a terrible credibility in Alex Kingston, the only woman on the Paddy Power list, being a candidate. If the programme-makers earmarked her as a potential She-Doctor some time ago, then the banality of the contrived-love-interest scenes in "Silence in the Library" makes a lot more sense: it's the set-up rather than the punchline, the twist being that she's not the Doctor's future wife at all, but someone who's destined to carry his "essence" around after the death of his current body. There are any number of precedents for this in SF television, and besides, the casting of an actress from ER would be seen as a coup by those bottom-feeding telly-whores who believe American TV to be the paragon of all human culture. In other words, exactly the kind of people whom the members of the Doctor Who production team are likely to meet every day.

However, if we're talking about the possibility of a bluestocking Doctor, then… I'd like to propose a rank outsider of my own.

Billie Piper. At the moment, she's happily squirming in her own afterbirth (she's named her newborn "Winston", which shows that she's lost none of her taste or good judgement since she declared "The Satan Pit" to be her favourite episode of 2006). But she wouldn't have to start shooting the 2010 series for another few months, and by then, the glow of celebrity motherhood would almost certainly have been replaced by a professional nanny. A few months after that, the papers would be full of speculation about her husband knocking off the nanny while Ms Piper's in Cardiff, but that's none of our concern. The thing to remember here is that the bigger Doctor Who gets, the more terrified its creators become, and the more they rely on past successes to win audience approval. Reuniting all the recent companions in "The Stolen Earth" might be regarded as a "celebration" of the programme so far, but it could equally be seen as a work of cowardice, especially since the story ends with a thoroughly pointless reprise of "Doomsday". Billie Piper is a proven ratings-winner, and associated with a Golden Age of Doctor Who that's scheduled to end with the departure of Tennant, at least unless they can keep it going by replacing him with someone just as recognisable. For the Doctor to take on Rose's form is no more ridiculous than any other regeneration (old-school geeks may quibble with this, but you can shut them up just by mentioning "Destiny of the Daleks", without even having to resort to "Journey's End"). Two years ago, it would've seemed silly, but then… two years ago, so would this entire list. With one exception, anyway.

Of course, since newfangled Doctor Who was designed to revolve around the companion until Catherine Tate made it impossible, we know that the nature of the new sidekick will be almost as crucial as the casting of the lead. For obvious reasons, Paddy Power isn't running a book on that, but we can make guesses based on Steven Moffat's known tendencies. Assuming that the Doctor's still male, the New Executive won't break with tradition, so it'll be another girl. She's unlikely to come from 2008 again - that'd be too obvious - but at the same time, Moffat won't want to risk alienating the audience by making her too far removed from home. He also wants to push the public's "nostalgia" button, as well as keeping the fans on his side, so the clever money says she'll come from 1963. In which case, she'll probably be an orphan, to avoid the necessity of return-trips to her own period. And since Moffat will want to curry favour with everyone else in Cardiff (q.v. "The Doctor Dances", in which he attempts to flatter to his Big Gay Boss by inventing a version of 1940s England in which none of the men are heterosexual), she'll obviously be inclined towards Welshness.

And, as pop-fate would have it, there's a model for this character. The last twelve months have already given the UK a vulnerable-yet-spunky Welsh girl who's got all the retro-glamour and heart-rending angst of Dusty Springfield, which is why I'm predicting that the 2010 series will be - in a nutshell - Duffy the Vampire Slayer.

Footnote 1. Eccleston came close, by treating the cultural well-being of younger viewers as a sacred trust. It's hard to imagine Tom Baker putting his ego aside in quite the same way, just as it's hard to imagine Eccleston making an arse of himself on a BBC1 panel-game show in twenty years' time.

Footnote 2. One of them wants to impress girls, and the other wants to smash giant spaceships into volcanoes.

Footnote 3. But even Warrington, like anyone over the age of forty-five, would be unacceptable after Tennant. Actually, I suggested him as a possible Doctor in a "Round Table" interview for I, Who 2, circa 2001. Gary Russell was also part of that Round Table, and shortly thereafter, Big Finish cast Warrington as Rassilon. Coincidence…? Yeah, probably. (The same interview saw Gary Russell describing Alien Bodies as one of the best Doctor Who books ever written, shortly before he blacklisted me from Big Finish for being mildly impolite about one of his own efforts. How do these people sleep?)

Footnote 4. There's also the issue of Morton Dill being one of Steven Taylor's ancestors. But let's not be too anal, there might be civilians reading this.

Footnote 5. Unlike, say, such luminaries as Roger Lloyd Pack or Michelle Collins. That's a bit like asking Chris Chibnall to write an episode, but not asking me.

Footnote 6. By now, you're probably sick of my insistence on calling him "Big Russell". But anyone who saw him on-stage at the ITV awards, dwarfing his minions in all three dimensions, will realise how apt it is.

Footnote 7. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: even if they were all still around and all still in their prime, none of the actors who've played the Doctor so far would possibly stand a chance of being Tennant's replacement. Not even Eccleston, whose leering, ogre-like demeanour would make far too many teenagers shout "eww, minger!" after the Boy David.

Footnote 8. Yeah, like I'm any different. Oh, that reminds me: why haven't I been commissioned to write another Bernice audio this year? I want another chance to flirt with Lisa Bowerman.