A Doctor Who Movie?

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The news that the BBC is teaming up with Harry Potter director David Yates to make a big-screen Doctor Who has got people all a-flutter. There is the rejoicing: hopefully, an effects budget that can keep up with the series' ideas! There's the trepidation: but why? Won't they spoil its homey charm? And there's the outrage: not Matt Smith? Not canon? Not no way! But let's take a deep breath and think about this, and see what we really want to see onscreen.

Americans and other aliens may be unfamiliar with Doctor Who, a British TV institution dating back to 1963. It concerns The Doctor (he’s not technically called “Doctor Who,” although the name does inform the first Knock, Knock joke that every child in the British isles learns), an alien survivor of the planet Gallifrey, destroyed aeons ago.

Gallifrey’s inhabitants were known as Time Lords, notable for having two hearts and, oh yes, being able to see through time and build machines to travel through it. One such machine was the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space), an old model machine that the Doctor stole / was stolen by shortly before the utter destruction of Gallifrey in its war with the deadly Daleks. The TARDIS' camoflague system looks like a 1960s police box, or a blue telephone box. Since then, he’s wandered through space, using his vast intelligence, a series of plucky human sidekicks, a “sonic screwdriver” and absolutely no guns to keep history on the right path and protect humanity, who he regards as extraordinary beings, from all comers.

Oh, and every time he’s dying he “regenerates” and turns into a completely new person. Which is handy when your lead actor wants to move on but you want to keep the series going.

Well, yes and no. Certainly, there’s the odd semi-educational outing into history (recent ones include Shakespearean London, Roman Britain and Pompeii, pre-eruption) but then again there are visits to the far future, the end of the universe, alien planets and lots of cheap-to-produce mining colonies and space shuttles. When we say that the whole of time and space are at his disposal, we mean it.

And the Doctor is seldom alone – he tends to travel with human companions, who have recently tended to be hot young women (that sly old dog) which is good news for casting directors. That said, there have been very few known romances in his 900-year life, so the Doctor’s potential as a romantic lead is limited. The good news for the big screen is that the Doctor has a rogue’s gallery to rival Batman, full of monsters, myths and alien creatures who are all out to get him. Put those on the big screen and you’re on to something.

Dearie me, no. There are 17th century clockwork courtiers, angelic “quantum vampires”, mind-reading squid slaves, things from somewhere adjacent to the Black Lagoon, ghosts, lizard people, aliens, werewolves and endless scary robots and beasties – many of whom are just chronically misunderstood and as sympathetic as they are slimy.

The big three, however, are the cybernetically enhanced Cybermen, emotionless, formerly humanoid cyborgs who want to absorb the human race and, well, everyone; the Daleks, terrifying dustbin-looking things that are also mutant cyborgs bent on universal conquest; and the Master, a mad fellow Time Lord who also wants to conquer everything that is or was. Hmm, we're sensing a theme here. All of them would consider it a bonus to murderise the Doctor en route, or at least tie him up and gloat over him – because that always ends well for villains. The Doctor, and his passionate belief in humanity's right to determine its own destiny in its own marvellous way, logically stands in the way of all these conquest plans.

Well, yes, if by “for kids” you mean “for scaring kids senseless and scarring them for life. In a good way.” The series has now shaped generations, mixing innovative science fiction, horror and fantasy with occasional dollops of history, lashings of British eccentricity and slightly wobbly special effects.

Its current incarnation, since 2005, has been wildly popular and cemented it as a fixture in the British TV calendar, even spawning spin-offs in the shape of the more adult Torchwood (they swear!) and the more childish Sarah Jane Adventures (they go to school!). Frankly, the series is as “four-quadrant” as you can get, is experiencing a huge surge of popularity in the US (for evidence, check out the Doctor Who-inspired costumes at Comic-Con this year - and we only took photos of the very best ones) and has never looked better. So the time is right for a Hollywood outing – right?

Well, the impulse of quite a few fans so far has been horror at this news. Why? The series’ slight edge of shonkiness and thorough Britishness is an essential part of its charm, and while the Doctor is technically an alien the idea that he might also be played by a huge star or (shudder) an American is anathema to many fans.

What’s more, the fans seem exceptionally happy with the TV series at the moment. Relaunched with Christopher Eccleston in the title role, it found immediate popularity, but it went stratospheric after showrunner Russell T. Davies (pictured) hit his stride and David Tennant took over the role, and has stayed around about the same level now that Matt Smith is the Doctor and Steven Moffat running the circus. If it ain’t broke, why take it to Hollywood?

Not necessarily. Peter Cushing starred in the series’ only two previous cinema outings in 1965 and 1966, and did a good job even if he isn’t considered one of the official Doctors in the TV canon (we’re onto the 11th now, and in theory-but-probably-not-in-fact the Doctor has only 12 regenerations and therefore 13 lives to live). That didn’t derail the TV show, and there’s no reason that this would either.

The more likely outcome – and what the BBC is probably hoping for – is that the film would be a gateway drug for the series, introducing it to an even wider audience and truly shattering the only-just-cracked American market.

And think of it this way: there are probably also a few ace story ideas kicking around that budgetary restraints have always prevented; the big screen could be a creative outing for those. What’s more, David Yates has already shown that he can bring an eccentric British story to a worldwide audience without compromising its character with the latter four Harry Potter films – he’d seem like a good fit for the Doctor too.

That’s very much up for debate. Yates has said that the plan is to “start from scratch”, which would seem to rule out the current occupier of the bowtie-and-tweeds, Matt Smith, and probably also his higher profile predecessor, the suit-and-Converse-sporting David Tennant. Starting from scratch and bearing in mind that the character is of no fixed appearance and no fixed age means it could be anyone: old, young, maybe (but almost certainly not) the female Doctor who’s often been speculated about.

It’d be interesting to see how long the fans keep complaining if Ian McKellen was given the role, or Bill Nighy, or, hell, Daniel Day Lewis (let’s dream big!). There are obviously eccentric Depp-friendly aspects to the role which you can bet someone is hoping for right now (specifically, the money men) and Johnny Depp does have a demonstrable love of British TV (The Fast Show: Life’s Too Short) so it’s not a totally ridiculous notion, but it doesn’t have to be (and probably shouldn't be) a megastar.

Certainly the fine old tradition of new actors reinventing the role almost from the ground up means that we can hardly object to recasting in principle, and that we should look forward to whatever they’d bring. The success of the recent TV outings means they may well veer young, but who knows? Yates has worked closely with Alan Rickman, and that’s a tasty prospect.

It’s incredibly early days for that sort of speculation – but when has that ever stopped us? In recent years, the Doctor’s Companions have played a massive role in the series’ success: Billie Piper’s Rose Tyler and Karen Gillan’s Amy Pond in particular have given the Doctor heart and energy and emotion when he risks becoming too cerebral, and you’d need a character at least that good to make it work on the big screen. But since the Companions are not generally iconic in their own right (with one robotic exception below) and exist in a sort of symbiotic relationship with a particular Doctor, don't expect to see a familiar character if we get a new Doctor.

You probably still need a mixture of youth (but not too much: he’s not a paedo) and innocence to contrast with the Doctor’s vast age and experience, but they also need to be feisty and funny and not afraid to tangle with all comers. Someone in the neighbourhood of Emma Stone / Jennifer Garner-when-she-was-in-Alias / Hayley Atwell might be a good shout.

Chances are there’ll be a girl; the question is whether there’s more than one fellow traveller, to maximise your appeal across the board, and if they throw in a non-human companion to mix things up (a cooler looking K-9?). Your suggestions please.

Yes, and that’s again up for debate. The Daleks – by some distance the Doctor’s most famous adversary, at least in part thanks to Cushing’s second film outing – do look a little clumsy and slow for the sort of big screen action we’re used to these days, even if they can now fly. The Cybermen might also need an update to fit them for this iEra, which leaves the Master as the most obvious existing baddie.

After that, it’s a question of emphasis. Will this film want to invent its own new Big Bad? Would that be wise or foolhardy beyond belief? Will it take a new baddie from the Davies / Moffat era, or would that tie it too closely to the currently running TV show?

Our instinct is that the Master is the safest option, and offers most in the way of backstory (see, for a brilliant exploration of same, Season 3 two-part finale The Sound Of Drums and Last Of The Time Lords). But given that Yates plans to spend quite some time pulling this together, they could come up with something entirely new and different and still good.

Maybe. Right now, it’s a thing, but it’s a thing involving a really exciting character and a very good director, who isn’t so far known for haring off and doing stupid stuff. It seems to us, in other words, to be a time for rampant speculation and discussion rather than outrage or mega-hyped excitement, and it especially seems like a good time to go and catch up on some Doctor Who if you haven’t seen much.

After some discussion with Kim Newman, who knows all, we recommend: The Aztecs (William Hartnell’s Doctor); The Mind Robber (Patrick Troughton); Carnival of Monsters (Jon Pertwee); The Talons of Weng-Chiang (Tom Baker); Kinda (Peter Davison) and, in the modern era, Dalek or The Empty Child (both Christopher Eccleston), The Girl In The Fireplace, Blink, the aforementioned Sound Of Drums and Last Of The Time Lords (all David Tennant), and, from Matt Smith, The Pandorica Opens, for a hint of just what the show can do with a big canvas.