Doctor Who, The Matt Smith Era: Younger, Darker, A Little Bit Mad

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Doctor Who fans are a patient lot, but it’s well past time for the series to get back into a reliable weekly rhythm. Don’t you think?

David Tennant was so good as the tenth doctor that the producers were willing to let the show slow down for a little while, stringing together an array of specials that marked the end of the Tennant tenure. But this Saturday in Britain – and April 17 in America – Matt Smith steps into the Tardis for the first time. He’s the youngest doctor in the show’s history, and represents the latest in a series of bold steps taken by the 47-year-old franchise to reinvent itself for younger audiences. There’s already talk, in fact, that Smith might just be known as the young, hip and tredy doc.

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Smith also enters the fray at a time when the series is skewing serious. Last season, in some of Tennant’s final scenes, we saw Doctor Who go dark – very dark – and there were some who considered it a watershed moment for the franchise. Now just about everyone’s wondering: How far will Doctor Who veer into dramatic, unfamiliar territory, and how will the tender age of its new leading star factor into its radically changing tone?

In any case, we’ll be writing plenty more about the series in the buildup to its American return – and we’ll be following the show as it resumes production. But we’re far too excited about Matt Smith, and his big debut, to let our interview sit for three weeks. We rang him up as he did the British press tour earlier this week, and snuck in a few good questions:

Hello Mr. Smith, or should I say Doctor Smith.

Oh I’m afraid I’m not confident enough to be a doctor. I wish….

Well whatever the title, congrats on getting the part. I was reading somewhere that you were one of the very first people to audition, on the first day. I don’t know much about acting but I know enough that you don’t want to be the first person that the producers see. Did that stress you out?

Of course. I had no idea at the time how early I was in the process, but I knew they were seeing a very small list. God knows how many actors, but it wasn’t that many. I just went in and tried to be as inventive and funny and witty and mad as the doctor can be. And that’s what’s really incredible – it’s limitless, all those things that can be going on at the same time in this character’s head. (More at Techland: The Tardis – the best spaceship of all time)

You say “mad,” do you see some madness in the doctor?

Oh I think he’s a little bit bonkers and a little bit restless. But he’s also witty and tender and inventive and kind. The great thing about the doctor is that he’s never one thing, and that’s what’s great about the show. It’s not just about one thing – it’s not bound by any genre or any time. Space and time are literally your best friends, and it just opens the pilot up, so that you can explore this character.

I wasn’t the only one to notice how dark the tone shifted at the end of last year. Does this change your approach at all? Will the series keep pushing in this direction?

I think our series very certainly gets quite dark, in quite a magical way. But with the tone of the new series, they turn it into more of a fairy tale. Steven Moffat, one of the great TV writers, is just a genius and he plays with time and color and he’s so brilliant in the way that he layers the themes on top of one another. I think fans are going to be quite excited about the direction we take things.

As an actor, how do you begin to prepare for something like this? A darker and more fantastical tone?

You know, it’s funny. I knew I had the show a good six months before I was to step in, and that makes it hard, because you can’t really get in contact with the part. So I started writing some short stories about the Doctor and Albert Einstein, just to get my mind going. And it helped me get in the mindset.

You wrote a couple Doctor Who short stories? So do tell: What happens between him and Einstein?

Well, they go off to Egypt and they freeze time and build the pyramids, which is kind of ironic because they don’t know how the pyramids were built and it turns out that someone froze time and built them. And they did it all for this pharoah who had an addiction to grapes, and, well, there you go. They were just random ideas, but I was trying to be as diligent and well prepared as possible.

I think the news of your casting has really galvanized the fan base. What do you think is going to surprise viewers most about your first episodes?

Well, the way we meet most doctors is that they’ve just regenerated and they’re usually a little bit slower. They’re sort of getting used to their new body. But with this doctor, he is almost immediately crashing through time and space. He’s just regenerated and right away we see him thrown into action, trying to understand his new body. And it’s a little bit bonkers. And yeah, I’m 27 and a young face but now the thing is that I try to play up this paradox, that I may look young but the doctor has 907 years of time travel under his belt. There’s a lot of weight there.

But it’s not just you that’s new. I hear we have a new Tardis to look forward to, a new look…

Yeah, even on the filmmaking side of things we have a different camera where we can use 35mm lenses, meaning this whole thing feels more filmic and larger in scale.

So it has to be a trip, to step into these shoes. Tell me about your first days shooting – any out-of-body experiences? This has to be surreal, to all of a sudden find yourself playing the doctor.

Oh yeah, the whole first month. The first day was quite odd – quite traumatic actually – I didn’t quite know what had hit me. I show up and there’s the Tardis on the beach and I’m like ‘Whoah,’ it just looked so surreal. Two things that shouldn’t be together. But then as time continued I became a little more settled and found the rhythm and was more inventive with the character. To my mind it’s one of the greatest characters in the world to play

Your American fans still have to wait almost a month to see you in action. Give us a taste of what’s coming – what do people have to look forward to?

I can’t give too much away but the Weeping Angels are coming back, and the Daleks and a new force known as The Smilers. I think you’re going to like as well this wonderful theme that weaves throughout this particular series, and all I have to say is: Keep your eyes peeled during the first episode because there are four or five things that are very important, that we’re going to keep coming back to.

I know in Britain there’s quite the debate underway, as to whether you are too young to really project the experience and the gravitas of the doctor. Did you approach the show any differently as a result – maybe trying to assert your authority or show everyone that yes, you have what it takes?

No, you can only do that through the content of your work. So I try to let the work speak for itself and people will like it or they won’t. Over the whole series, I think people will see in my performance the whole weight of time, and the weight of the universe…I see the darkness in the doctor and I’m interested in that. The darkness and the loneliness. The truth, though, is that you can’t worry about things like this and you can’t get into that debate. You just have to focus and be as professional as you can be and not let anything get in the way of you creatively.

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