Today’s report that “Harry Potter” director David Yates was planning to make a “Doctor Who” movie has caused no small amount of discussion around the online world, and public opinion seems to lie somewhere between “the worst idea ever conceived” and “the most brilliant project of our generation.”
Already a polarizing topic for fandom, some of Yates’ initial comments about adapting the beloved British television series have only seemed to add fuel to the fire. In discussing his plans to give “Doctor Who” a “radical transformation” en route to the big screen, Yates said he plans to “put aside” the current version of the series — which relaunched in 2005 but is steeped in almost 50 years of continuity — and “start from scratch” for the movie.
While Yates’ plans for “Doctor Who” will still unfold under the watchful eye of the BBC, longtime fans of The Doctor’s adventures can’t help but wonder how much will change in this new incarnation of the franchise. As a lifelong fan of “Doctor Who,” I have a few pieces of advice for Yates to consider if he wants to find success in The Doctor’s big-screen future while parting ways with the character’s past.
1. The Actor Makes The Doctor
One of the most unique elements of “Doctor Who” is the series’ ability to recast its lead on a regular basis. Along with current lead Matt Smith, ten other actors have played the role over the series’ long history, and each one has brought a particular set of mannerisms, fashion sense, and even a level of “humanity” (without forgetting that he is an alien, after all).
That’s why, when casting the “Doctor Who” lead, it’s important to keep in mind that the actor won’t simply be inhabiting an existing character — he’ll be creating his own version of The Doctor. And while that may seem like an appealing role for some actors, that blank slate can be as a daunting to an actor as a blank page of paper can be to a writer. There is no single performance to model The Doctor after, but rather 11 very different takes on the character that any new iteration will be measured against. When it comes to choosing the lead, make sure he’s up the challenge.
2. Don’t Let Effects Make The Doctor Ineffective
Even the most loyal “Doctor Who” fans will acknowledge that some of the series’ special effects haven’t been very, well… special. Still, “Doctor Who” has achieved success despite its famously low-budget digital effects and makeup, and Yates would do well to consider why that is. It’s probably not too off-base to assume some of that “radical transformation” he mentioned will be focused on the aliens and other effects-driven elements of the series. And that can certainly be a good thing, if handled properly.
Over the decades, “Doctor Who” has overcome its low effects budget by relying on great performances from its cast and letting its leads pull the audience along at a pace that doesn’t allow them too much time to ponder the rubber costumes or silly ray-guns — after all, when you craft a compelling story, the audience will fill in the fuzzy spots on its own. If Yates is looking to bring “Doctor Who” into the modern effects era, he should remember that the series’ fans would rather be told a good story than watch a sequence of fancy effects.
3. Companions Aren’t Sidekicks
In our era of superhero cinema, it’s easy to lump The Doctor’s companions in with traditional “sidekicks” and similar character archetypes whose purpose is to either be rescued or make a mistake whenever the story could use some exposition from its hero. In the “Doctor Who” universe, despite the fact that The Doctor is a brilliant alien who will outlive us all, he’s rarely framed as being “above” his human companions. Over the years, his companions have been his advisors, best friends, caretakers, confidantes, and in a few rare cases, his love interest. More often than not, though, they’re simply his traveling buddies.
When it comes to adapting “Doctor Who” for the big screen, Yates should avoid Hollywood’s need to establish a clear hero-and-sidekick dynamic. Let The Doctor’s companions treat him as their eccentric, time-traveling buddy and let him revel in showing them the universe. When it comes down to it, that’s the relationship dynamic that made the last 50 years of “Doctor Who” so enjoyable.
4. Remember: Keep It Fun
“Doctor Who” has had its share of serious, somber moments over the years, but at its heart the series has always been about the wonder of discovery, the thrill of adventure, and the joy of returning to a familiar, friendly place after all is said and done. At a time when every adaptation seems to be going after a “darker” version of the source material, “Doctor Who” is the sort of project that relies on its lighter elements for success. While the temptation might be to make “Doctor Who” a more serious affair when it heads to the big screen, it’s worth keeping in mind that everything is already world-threateningly dangerous when it comes to The Doctor.
One aspect of the series’ appeal is The Doctor’s ability to make light of scenarios that would have the average person crying on the floor while curled-up in the fetal position. Don’t give The Doctor a “Batman Begins” or “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” treatment that has him grimacing at the world. Don’t let the big-screen Doctor be a big downer.
5. The Past Can Still Be The Future
Sure, Yates said he wants to “put aside” The Doctor’s past and the 50 years of continuity that comes with it, but when former “Doctor Who” showrunner Russell T. Davies set about relaunching the program, he made sure to include ample nods to the decades of stories behind the character. At first, they were just vague references that only the longtime fans would catch, but as the series progressed, those references to the past became as important to the series’ success as all of the new characters and creatures that were created. Acknowledging the series’ history not only gives the show a sense of weight, but it also rewards fans for the time they’ve spent with The Doctor.
However, that’s not to say the movie should let itself be bogged down in decades of continuity (Davies and current “Doctor Who” showrunner Steven Moffat still play fast and loose with The Doctor’s fictional history), but rather that Yates shouldn’t shy away from making his big-screen version of The Doctor a product of his past. In the end, The Doctor is supposed to be brilliant, fun, and mysterious — and what’s more mysterious than someone who has had years and years of adventures in time and space that he hasn’t told you about yet?
And there you have it, fellow Whovians and “Doctor Who” newcomers: some words of advice for David Yates as he begins work on a task that will make the scrutiny he was under during the “Harry Potter” years seem tame by comparison. Whether you’re excited about the “Doctor Who” movie or terrified by the thought of it, the one thing to keep in mind is that we all want to see the best “Doctor Who” adventure possible — and that’s something everyone can agree on, right?