Doctor Who turned 50 last November, an unprecedented run that has seen 12 different actors play the time-hopping alien protagonist (more, if you count the Peter Cushing movies or the assorted non-canonical sketches and specials). Part of the key to the show’s success and longevity is that very fact that the Doctor can change his face, regenerating from one leading man to the next and allowing each new actor to put his own unique spin on the character. But apparently the run of arguably the most popular modern Doctor was considered such a success that the BBC seriously considered the possibility that they’d have to cancel the show when he left, because who could follow him? (The answer, of course, was that Who could follow him…)
Speaking at the Hay Literary Festival, Who showrunner Steven Moffat revealed that the Moffat/Matt Smith era almost didn’t happen, as the BBC thought Tenth Doctor David Tennant had so inhabited the role, and brought so many new fans into the series, that they were worried there wouldn’t be any way to follow his act. “David owned that role in a spectacular way, gave it an all-new cheeky sexy performance and became a national treasure,” said Moffat. “So the idea that Doctor Who could go on at all in the absence of David was a huge question.”
It shouldn’t have been, obviously. Did the BBC hit their head and forget the four decades and nine other dudes who came before? It’s not like Who is the only franchise that’s been recasting its main character for years either. For crying out loud, BBC, your country is the one that gave us James Bond, and that franchise doesn’t even have an in-narrative explanation for replacing the lead like Who does! The fact that anybody with authority thought it was time to pull the eject lever when Tennant and showrunner Russell T Davies left in 2008 suggests either serious memory problems or a spectacular lack of imagination. Thankfully, Davies apparently talked some sense into them, even on his way out the door. Moffat added, “I didn’t realise how many people thought it wouldn’t succeed at all. That was quite terrifying when I found out about it later.”
The trick, of course, was to not try and out-Tennant Tennant, but rather to find the right actor to bring a different attitude and style to the character. While both Tennant and Smith were considered “sexy Doctors” by the appropriately inclined portions of the fanbase, Smith’s portrayal almost actively worked against that, serving up a Doctor who seemed like your eccentric, occasionally crotchety grandfather shoved into the body of an odd-looking twentysomething with chin for miles. And, naturally, some people still don’t like Smith’s take on the Doctor…just like some don’t like Tennant’s, or Eccleston’s, or Colin Baker’s, or Jon Pertwee’s, or…
However, Moffat did admit that even he was skeptical about hiring another young actor for the role, since Tennant had portrayed the dashing, romantic Doctor so very well. His inclination was to cast older, but Smith soon proved himself the right guy for the job. “I said, ‘We are seeing too many young actors,'” recalls Moffat. “Then Matt Smith comes in, and this is what happens when you get casting right.” At 26, Smith was the youngest actor ever to portray the Doctor. Moffat continued, “The moment Matt started saying that dialogue, with his strange manners and his extraordinary face, he was a hot young guy but he also looked kind of like your barmy uncle. I said, ‘I really like him. What age is he?’ They said ’26.'”
Now, of course, Moffat has returned to the idea of an older actor with Peter Capaldi, whose Twelfth Doctor was introduced at the end of the Time of the Doctor Christmas special, and who will launch his adventures inside the TARDIS when the show returns this August. Here’s hoping he so makes the role his own that it’ll be hard to imagine the show without him…and that the next guy (or girl) will prove that wrong once again.