Wednesday, 11 December 2013

BFI Southbank: Matt Smith


BFI Southbank, NFT 1, Sunday 3 December 2013


Amelia Pond meets her Raggedy Doctor. (Image: BBC)

After a magnificent run of BFI events celebrating Doctor Who throughout 2013, Matt Smith’s era was lauded at the end of a year which concluded with “cinema being handed its own arse.”

I suppose the thing with time travel is that the more you travel, the more you’re likely to end up back where you started. It certainly felt like that at the eleventh – er, I mean thirteenth – of the Doctor Who at 50 events. As co-host Justin Johnson pointed out, the season that had given BFI attendees “the most amazing year... [felt] like ages since we started”, but at the same time had “gone very quickly.” I can hardly believe it’s been twelve months since an elated Dick Fiddy, fending off various TV camera crews, told me at the first event that the BFI could have sold out the February screening three times over. And so it went on.... 2013 was the year that Doctor Who, a show made by, and largely liked by, outsiders finally went completely mainstream and, with ‘The Day of the Doctor’ simulcast, triumphantly international (c.f. Steven Moffat’s quote about “arse” and “cinema” above). Watching people of all ages being photographed with the TARDIS prop in the BFI foyer, a lot of whom weren’t even attending Doctor Who at 50, said it all.

After such a victorious 50th anniversary weekend a couple of weeks ago, the hosts were in a buoyant mood. Mr Johnson set the tone by reminding the audience were there to celebrate “the Eleventh Doctor – or whichever number [producer] Steven Moffat decides he is.” Mr Fiddy joined in the jolly atmosphere by saying he was looking forward to a rest, so he could enjoy the “missing eighty-eight episodes Phil Morris has given me to watch for Christmas.”

Next up was a statement from the director of ‘The Eleventh Doctor’, Adam Smith, which Justin read out as Smith was unable to attend (an unfortunate side effect of the Christmas month). A particular eye-opener was the director praising Moffat's impressive “non-stop half-hour soliloquy” in the pub, in which he outlined the whole story of Series 5 and some of Series 6 before he'd written a word. Above all, though, Smith stated what “a proper privilege” it had been to work with an actor as “dedicated, daring and inventive” as Matt Smith had been in his premier story.

For those of you following the minor threads of Fairclough soap opera running through these posts, when ‘The Eleventh Hour’ was first shown in 2010 I was in a new relationship and as a result was giving living in Norwich a go. By the last episode of Matt’s first series, ‘The Big Bang’, I was back in London. While things hadn’t worked out in my personal life, fortunately for Doctor Who and the viewing public, the daring move of casting the youngest actor to play the Doctor had been a resounding success.

The eleventh man in - Matt Smith. (Image: BBC)
‘The Eleventh Hour’ is a very clever piece of work. The pre-titles sequence, with the TARDIS tumbling out of control over the London skyline and the Doctor hanging out of the doors, is so Russell T. Davies-Doctor Who in style it’s clearly intended to reassure the audience they’re watching the same series David Tennant starred in, even though there’s a new actor inside what's left of his brown suit. After the reformatted title sequence (partly a delightful modern riff on the titles of the second Dalek feature film), everything is subtly different. Starting in a little girl’s garden at night, the story sets out themes and imagery that would run through the whole of Matt Smith’s three series. Beginning with a universe of terrors in the house of Amelia Pond (Caitlin Moran) – a giant eyeball staring through the crack in her bedroom wall, an alien creature hiding in a room she can’t see – Moffat and Adam Smith remould Doctor Who into a dark, grown-up fairy tale that gradually seeps into the outside world, with a monster disguised as adults, children and an animal; a common idea in legends and folklore.

Seeing Matt Smith acting on the big screen makes you appreciate just how good he is. Some critics have dismissed his performance as mannered and over the top but, as director Saul Metzstein said on the panel that concluded the evening, the Doctor is “a 1,000 year-old genius and a 14 year-old boy [and he’s] in flux about the two things.” This is clearly the motivation behind Smith's performance and, if you like his take on the character or not, you can't deny that he commands attention from his first scene. For such a young actor to take on arguably the most high-profile role on British television, and make it his own in under an hour, is one helluva achievement.

'The Web of Fear' (Image: BBC)
Before ‘The Name of the Doctor’, brand manager Matt Nichols and his colleague Edward Russell joined Dick Fiddy for a chat about the other celebrations the BBC staged throughout the year. Both of them had been instrumental in setting up Doctor Who at 50 but their achievements don’t stop there. Determined to “do something on a global scale”, clips reels reminded the audience (and apologies for any omissions) of a staggering, brilliant light show in Sydney, new documentaries about the various Doctors, a prom at the Albert Hall, YouTube coverage of the mammoth ExCel event, the world-conquering ‘The Day of the Doctor’ and, my personal favourite, the release of the recovered Patrick Troughton story ‘The Web of Fear’ through itunes. This had meant so much to so many people and it was heartening to hear the clips from the story get a round of applause. It was equally heartening that Nichols and Russell publicly thanked Dick and Justin for all their hard work in making Doctor Who at 50 so memorable. They were awarded a sonic screwdriver each (naturally).

By ‘The Name of the Doctor’, the last episode of Matt Smith’s third series, the dark fairy tale format had got progressively more surreal. The story is a bizarre, almost psychedelic collision of imagery: a humanoid lizard wearing a black gown, ominous nursery rhymes, faceless killers in top hats and formal attire, a troll-like alien in a butler’s suit beating up a Scottish navvy called Archie and a giant, wrecked TARDIS. Clearly, the show has come a long way since RTD. By this stage, Smith’s Doctor has become an older, leaner and more haunted figure. 400 years on from his last regeneration, the changes in his character are striking compared with the fresh-faced youngster of ‘The Eleventh Hour’, so screening both stories together was a smart move. Amid the clever continuity references and mind-bending plot, the simple dramatic point is the Doctor rescuing his latest friend Clara (Jenna Coleman). In the last of these BFI events spanning 50 years, ‘The Name of the Doctor’ was a fitting place to end as, at its heart, it restates the core values of the series: friendship, heroism and loyalty.

Saul Metzstein, Mark Gatiss, Dan Starkey and Steven Moffat
made for a lively panel. (Image: Paul Dykes)
Sadly, there was a Matt-sized hole on the panel afterwards. He’d desperately wanted to come with his whole family, but having just opened in American Psycho, and with a hectic schedule generally, it just wasn’t possible. There was no Karen Gillan or Jenna Coleman either. In a way perhaps it was just as well, as Steven Moffat was on fine form. He dominated a panel that also included ‘The Name of the Doctor’ director Metzstein, Sontaran/Strax actor Dan Starkey and writer producer Mark Gatiss, making jokes about the much-maligned story ‘Meglos’ and wittily claiming “most TV series would be improved by having the Doctor in them – Mr Ben, Holby… imagine how much better they would be.”

The Sontaran Strax is a fine comic creation – so much so that I really wanted to ask when he was getting his own series – and the man behind him is equally amusing. Another in the long list of long-time fans now working on the series, Starkey revealed that the first time Strax’s mask was fitted he thought he resembled “an obese Steven Segal” and that once in the body costume there was “a certain art to going through doors” as Strax is wider than most built into the sets. Starkey was also clearly chuffed to have been awarded his own, exclusive introduction to the cinema screenings of ‘The Day of the Doctor’.

As engaging as the diminutive actor was, the panel belonged to Moffat. At the last of these screenings, perhaps it was only right that the self-confessed “saddest fan”, who has followed Doctor Who since his childhood to the point where he’s now in charge of its international destiny, was given centre stage. In an interview replete with one-liners, it was like watching an experienced comedian with Gatiss and Metzstein as Moffat’s equally accomplished comic foils. Discussion ranged through the casting of the central character – “get someone who you think can create a Doctor” – the fluid nature of commissioning stories under the Moffat regime, favourite stories (Moffat: ‘The Ark in Space’, Gatiss: ‘The Green Death’) to the annoying people who leak surprises in the stories, who are “like the annoying bloke in the pub, with no friends” who spoil jokes. The highlight was undoubtedly when Moffat went into a comedy rant after an Australian fan asked (innocently but rather stupidly) if there would be any more continuity references in the upcoming series. After name checking the abundance of nods to the past (and future) in the stories in the 50th year, he exclaimed, eyes bulging: ‘WHAT ELSE DO YOU WANT?!.... Growing [new] versions of the dead Doctors???”

Look out, Capaldi - I'm coming for you!
(Image: Zoe Ridey)
Afterwards, as I trawled around the bars trying to catch up with everyone, I was already feeling wistfully nostalgic seeing the TARDIS prop (supplied by Hire-A-TARDIS – no kidding) next to the BFI Christmas Tree. At 7 o’clock people were still having their pictures taken with it and it goes without saying that I couldn’t resist, posing on the threshold in anticipation of new adventures in time and space. It shows how enduringly magical Doctor Who is that it can still make grown men and women grin from ear to ear at the sight of a blue wooden hut. As we stumble on through life, via professional and personal successes and disappointments, somehow a piece of magic that grew out an impoverished BBC experiment can still make us feel like excited and dazzled children and believe that anything is possible. How utterly brilliant. How wonderfully British.

So, BFI, an enormous thank you on behalf of everyone who attended Doctor Who at 50 over the last twelve months. And if Dick Fiddy and Justin Johnson aren’t knighted in the New Year’s Honours List, there really isn’t any justice.