Wednesday, 2 October 2013

BFI Southbank: David Tennant


BFI Southbank, NFT 1, Sunday 29 September 2013
















After a screening of the magnificent engine of destruction that’s the climactic two-part story of David Tennant’s third season, the man himself – together with Catherine Tate – was on hand to entertain and inform (another) sold out NFT 1. 


2008 wasn’t great for me. The year before, my marriage broke up; more or less a year on, I was heading for a nervous breakdown that would keep me off work for nine months. As I watched that wonderful scene in ‘Journey’s End’ where the Tenth Doctor and his companions flew the TARDIS, towing the Earth back into position, I’d never felt more disconnected from the optimism of my favourite old TV show.

2013: I’m at the BFI Southbank escorting my ex-wife, who’s remained one of my best friends, to see ‘The Stolen Earth’ and ‘Journey’s End’. Her father died recently and she’d always liked David Tennant, so I felt getting her a ticket would be a good thing to do and a nice late birthday present (thank you again, BFI). Remember back in the first of these reports, when I said you could map the bad and good of your whole life through Doctor Who? That couldn’t be truer today. Having finally reached a good place in my personal and professional life in time for the 50th anniversary, I’m feeling very content and more than a little nostalgic.

An indication of what a big deal 21st century Doctor Who is could be seen today in several ways. Smart security guards were strategically placed along the route to the green room, fingers to ears as if they were auditioning for Spooks; outside the back entrance to the BFI where the guests were due to arrive, a crush barrier had been set up. Over in the foyer, the queue for return tickets stretched from the ticket desks, down the stairs and out through the entrance. There was a tangible buzz in the air as an excited audience waited impatiently to see the man who is now officially the most popular Doctor, having toppled Tom Baker from the position he seemed destined to occupy forever in popularity polls.

Back for more in the audience were companion actresses Anneke Wills (Polly, Second Doctor) and Sophie Aldred (Ace, Seventh Doctor), as well as British film industry royalty Alan Parker and his son (whose birthday it was), a big Doctor Who fan. It was a great shame that Russell T. Davies, the one man who can deservedly take credit for a) successfully reviving Doctor Who and b) turning it into an international cultural phenomenon, wasn’t able to attend after missing out on the Ninth Doctor’s event last month. There was a good reason, though. He was presenting Doctor Who Executive Producer Julie Gardner with the TLWS Sian Phillips Award, in recognition of her creative achievements as a Welsh citizen in TV and film. Typical of R.T.D.’s sense of humour was his instruction to host Justin Johnson about the message he sent the BFI:

‘Don’t read it out in a Welsh accent.’

'The Daleks are the masters of Earth!'
Of course, R.T.D. is no slouch when it comes to knowing his Doctor Who history, so it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that in ‘The Stolen Earth’ and ‘Journey’s End’, we’re seeing the fulfilment of the Time Lord prediction in 1975’s ‘Genesis of the Daleks’, that one day the monsters ‘will have destroyed all other life forms and become the dominant creature in the universe.’ The propulsive tom-tom drums underpinning the soundtrack quicken your pulse, as director Graeme Harper drags you aboard an emotional rollercoaster that is – as was apparent on NFT 1’s big screen – the closest Doctor Who ever came to being an epic feature film.

Four years on from ‘The Parting of the Ways’, there’s been a noticeable shift in the way R.T.D. writes his stories. The Dalek Caan plot really doesn’t bear too much scrutiny: the last survivor of the Cult of Skaro teleports from 1930s New York (‘Evolution of the Daleks’) into the ‘time locked’ (?) Time War. Caan rescues Davros from destruction and the Dalek creator engineers a new race of Daleks, before Caan betrays him as it’s become appalled by the Dalek race’s genocidal ways. Hmm. An even bigger ‘hmm’ is that one insane, crippled Dalek is able to – somehow – manipulate the time lines of the Doctor and Donna (the sublime Catherine Tate) so events converge on the Dalek Death Star. That all this is conveyed through info-dump dialogue (show don’t tell, remember?) indicates where R.T.D.’s real priorities lie: the characters.

The reason Russell’s modern reboot of Doctor Who was such a success was primarily because the audience got caught up in the emotional journeys of the regular characters. You didn’t even have to like science fiction when you could get involved in the Romeo and Juliet-style relationship of the Doctor and Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), the growing realisation by Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) that the Doctor would never love her in the way she wanted, the lonely life of Rose’s mother Jackie (Camille Coduri) as a single middle aged woman, or how Mickey Smith (Noel Clarke) had to grow up without Rose. All human life was there.

So it was with the marvellous Donna Noble – all together now: ‘I’m a temp! From Chiswick!’ Among the stunning special effects sequences of Daleks bombarding New York, aligning 27 planets in their Reality Bomb engine or being blown up by the half-human Doctor (Tennant playing a Doctor-double), the most memorable scene in this two part story is the heartbreaking moment when the Doctor has to wipe his Time Lord DNA from Donna’s mind, meaning she’ll have no memory of the better life she shared with him. In this context, that’s actually worse than dying. Brilliantly played and emotionally shattering.

Catherine Tate herself was on fine, funny form on the guest panel. Either genuinely ditzy or winding the audience up, she recalled watching the Christopher Eccleston episode ‘Father’s Day’ and, as she’d missed the first few minutes, Catherine didn’t realise it was set in 1987 and thought ‘the production values are SHOCKING!’ She made producer Phil Collinson (back for more after last month) positively squeal with laughter, as she ‘didn’t know there were people inside’ the ‘Sultanas’ (the Sontarans to you and me). This was after Catherine had spent a whole day filming with them.

Left to right: Graeme Harper, Phil Collinson, Catherine Tate, Limahl and
host Justin Johnson. (Image:
Sunday 29 September was one of Doctor Who at 50’s liveliest and funniest panels. Phil Collinson is a born giggler at any given opportunity, while Graeme Harper (also back for more) enthused about a series that he’d always felt was ‘a supreme production as far as stories are concerned.’ Catherine couldn’t believe it when Julie Gardner offered her the regular companion role over lunch and Tennant and Collinson backed her up, saying that the production team were so convinced she’d turn it down that they had another companion part and actress lined up.

I’m not the greatest fan of Tennant’s blokey Tenth Doctor – personally, I think the Doctor’s cultural references should be wider than EastEnders and Kylie – but you can see why R.T.D. wanted him to replace Christopher Eccleston. Sporting a ponytail because he was ‘playing Limahl in the Kajagoogoo story’, he’s effortlessly funny, bright and charming, qualities that really come across in his performance and are essential for the leading man on a show with such a gruelling production schedule. Tennant remembered being offered the part of the Doctor while watching rough cuts of ‘Rose’ and ‘Dalek’ at R.T.D.’s house, which he instantly thought was ‘HILARIOUS!!!’ and speculated that if he’d only appeared for 35 seconds at the end of ‘The Parting of the Ways’, ‘would I have my own Big Finish series now?’

Reflecting on his highly successful tenure, which included the regeneration-that-wasn’t at the end of ‘The Stolen Earth’, Tennant was proud to have been ‘part of the moments that take the country by surprise.’ When the time came to move on, he admitted that ‘part of you never wants to leave’ and that Doctor Who was a ‘bitter-sweet thing to move on from.’ Asked what he thought of the news that Peter Capaldi would be playing the Twelfth Doctor with his native Scottish accent, Tennant brought the house down by saying mock critically, ‘I just think it’s lazy.’

One of the most heart-warming things I’ve seen at these events occurred during the request for questions from the audience. A wee boy, kitted out in his own blue Tenth Doctor suit, asked ‘Can I have a picture with David?’ ‘Of course!’ replied the man himself, bounding to the front of the stage as the young one was hoisted up to meet his hero. As the flash bulbs went off, I was thinking of when Master Tennant queued up to meet his childhood hero Tom Baker back in the 1970s. In that same queue was a little boy named Steven Moffat. When that blue-suited young man is producing Doctor Who thirty years from now, he’ll be thinking fondly of this moment.

David Tennant’s Doctor Who was one of the last programmes my wife and I avidly watched together as a married couple, so his tenure will always be special for that reason. By the time the Tenth Doctor regenerated I was on my own. That’s life and Doctor Who, as Mr Tennant pointed out – they keep changing.

For all the up and downs of both, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

1 comment:

  1. Very nice piece, especially the bit about the kiddie at the end there.