Matt Smith, 27, might just be the most famous man in Britain. The actor, known before now for his stage work and his starring role on BBC Two’s Party Animals, has taken on the mantle of the 900-year-old time-traveler, known only as the Doctor in Doctor Who, which returns this weekend on BBC America. (In Britain, the show has already had a successful debut earlier this month, on BBC One.)
Yet, speaking to The Daily Beast from rain-soaked Scotland just a few days before the U.K. premiere, Smith emanated a sense of calm.
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“I don’t know how you can prepare,” said Smith regarding the inevitable attention. “I think you can only deal with these things with as much grace and hospitality as possible. You’ve just got to roll with it, really. There are worse crosses to bear, aren’t there?”
Smith may be modest. Since its revival back in 2005 at the hands of Russell T Davies after an absence of 16 years (save a 1996 telefilm starring Paul McGann), Doctor Who has grown into a global phenomenon that stretches far beyond the shores of Great Britain. Christopher Eccleston began the journey in 2005 as the Ninth Doctor but departed after one season, handing over the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver to Scottish actor David Tennant, thanks to a plot contrivance that allows the character to “regenerate” when faced with life-threatening danger. Over the course of three seasons and a series of specials, Tennant would go on to become one of the most popular Doctors ever and a true star in his own right.
Cut to 2010, and a time of major change for this venerable sci-fi franchise, as both Tennant and Davies departed the show last year. Steven Moffat, who scripted some of the series’ most beloved installments under Davies’ reign, and also created Coupling and Jekyll for the BBC, came on board Doctor Who to take over as showrunner. Smith, meanwhile, beat out many British marquee names to secure the role of the two-hearted alien who travels through time and space in a little blue police telephone box.
The casting of then 26-year-old Smith was extremely tricky, since many questioned whether such a young actor could pull off such a challenging role. But Smith apparently nailed the audition and beat out more established actors like Paterson Joseph, David Morrissey, and Russell Tovey (each of whom had previously appeared on the show), among others.
A further challenge is that Tennant’s run on the show was so beloved that he has left Smith with some mighty big Converse to fill. And then there was the character of the Doctor himself. “He’s the most bewildering and remarkable character that television has ever produced,” said Moffat.
The stakes, in other words, are high.
Despite the changes in cast and creative team, the show, which has run off and on since 1963, is still at its core the same Doctor Who, the story of that lonely traveler.
“It’s still got the same spirit and adventure that Doctor Who always has,” said Smith, “but I think with me, Karen [Gillan, who plays Amy Pond], and Steven coming on board and our different creative personalities, the heartbeat of the show beats in a slightly different way, one which I hope is sort of dark and fairy tale-like and a bit bonkers.”
In a series that’s as long-running as Doctor Who, it’s almost necessary to do more than change the wallpaper when a new head writer moves in. Moffat relished the opportunity to make some changes, including changing the titles and altering the interior design of the Doctor’s spaceship, the TARDIS. Nothing, it seems, was off-limits.
"If you make a show like this, you have to make it like you own it," said Steven Moffat, Doctor Who’s new showrunner. "Otherwise, you’re just performing upkeep on a gravestone. It has to be a new, living, vital thing.”
"If you make a show like this, you have to make it like you own it," said Moffat. "Otherwise, you’re just performing upkeep on a gravestone. It has to be a new, living, vital thing.”
Aiding that feeling is the fact that the character is more or less consistent, though each actor has the chance to put his own spin on the role of the Doctor, whose personality can change somewhat with each incarnation.
Smith said he chose to portray this incarnation of the Doctor (the franchise’s eleventh) as more of “an addict” and a “thrill seeker,” one whose need for an adrenaline fix is as extreme an urge as his natural curiosity. It remains to be seen if Smith’s Doctor will retain some of the quirks of Tennant’s witty and cheeky Tenth Doctor, such as his love of puns and penchant for uttering, “Allons-y.” As for who Smith modeled him after? “I looked a lot at Albert Einstein,” said Smith. “I thought of all the people on Earth who would be a little like the Doctor and Einstein’s probably the closest or has a mind that’s the closest to the Doctor.”
“In terms of what Matt brings to it, he’s a sort of an elegant shambles,” said Moffat. “He’s a wonderful sort of energized, professorial Doctor but at the same time he’s sort of a cool young geezer.”
In the U.K., British critics and fans have, so far, embraced Smith’s Doctor. In the Independent, Matthew Sweet wrote: "…The new boy demonstrated that he can more than fill the shoes of his predecessor. Matt Smith fights aliens. He wears tweed. He loves custard. He is the Doctor. And he might be more the Doctor than anyone who was the Doctor before."
But he’s no clone of Tennant in any way, even sartorially. Whereas Tennant’s Doctor wore pinstriped suits, Converse, and chunky glasses, Smith’s Doctor has chosen a whole new wardrobe: one that’s overflowing with tweed jackets and bow ties. Yet, Smith says, it almost went in an entirely different direction.
“We had actually decided on a look previously that was a little more Jack Sparrow-y, really, a little more pirate-y with a long black leather coat,” he said. “But I was always keen that there was an element of the professor to come through and I think what the bow tie and the tweed jacket do is lend themselves to that.”
Smith will be joined on his journeys through time and space by 22-year-old Scottish newcomer Karen Gillan as companion Amy Pond, who Smith says the Doctor meets “in a really brilliant and magical way.”
Moffat, however, is keeping details about Gillan’s Amy firmly under wraps. “Getting to know Amy and all the contradictions about her and the decisions she has to make at the particular time of her life… are the story of this series,” he said. “ Doctor Who is always really more the story of the companion than it is of the Doctor himself.”
Since the revival series began back in 2005, the most recent female companions—aside from Catherine Tate’s plucky Donna Noble—have fallen into a pattern of romantic intrigue with the Doctor, most notably Billie Piper’s Rose Tyler, for whom the Doctor’s two hearts beat strongest.
Smith, meanwhile, deflected questions about a potential romance between the Doctor and Amy. “There might be a little chance of romance, you never know,” he said cheekily. “But you’ll have to watch to find out, I’m afraid. On that one, my lips are firmly sealed.”
As for what’s coming up when Doctor Who launches this month, both Moffat and Smith were keeping more or less mum about any spoilers.
“Adventure and excitement,” said Moffat when asked about the show’s direction. “There will be things that you think you understood at the time but then you’ll discover later on that they meant something else entirely. It’s a proper rollercoaster ride; you don’t get to sit still for a minute.”
“We’ve got some old monsters, some new monsters,” said Smith. “We’ve got the Daleks coming back, the Weeping Angels, Smilers… There’s a great sense of fairy tale in there… I think at its best, it can feel a bit like Pan’s Labyrinth. There’s a magic to it.”
Smith, despite the Doctor being a notoriously demanding role, said that he is on board Doctor Who for the long haul.
“Yes, I would hope to do it for a couple of more years, certainly,” he said. “What’s lovely about the Doctor is that, if you get to play him for a while, he’s such a rich character… He’s not bound by logic, space, time, or genre, so he can go anywhere, be anyone, and therefore he’s constantly inventive. The beautiful thing is that I can’t think of any other part, in world television, where a 60-year-old and a 27-year-old can play the same man. It’s because the spirit of the man is the same. It’s a bit like playing Hamlet, in a way... It’s limitless, really.”
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Jace Lacob is the writer/editor of Televisionary, a website devoted to television news, criticism, and interviews. Jace resides in Los Angeles. He is a contributor to several entertainment Web sites and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.