Doctor Who fights the past and looks for the future

March 03, 2009 | 11:48 p.m.

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No doubt about it, Doctor Who is a character who can stand the test of time — but can he compete with his own past?

With more than 750 episodes aired, “Doctor Who” holds the record for the “longest running science fiction show,” according to the Guinness Book of World Records. The first show aired the day after John F. Kennedy was shot in November 1963 and the character has never been more popular in his native England or America than in the past few years. But that’s part of the problem now confronting the show — David Tennant, the 10th actor to occupy the role of the eccentric time-traveler, has moved on and there are plenty of fans who are still grieving.

More than that, Tennant will be replaced by Matt Smith, a relatively unknown actor and, at age 26, the youngest star to ever be trusted with the TARDIS, the Doctor’s quirky time machine which, to untrained eyes, might appear to merely be a 1950s-era British police phone box.

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“My problem with the newest doctor coming on is that he looks too young,” said Chuck Dietz, a 37-year-old school teacher from San Jose who recently made the 340-mile trip to Los Angeles to attend a Doctor Who fan convention called Gallifrey One (it’s a reference to the Time Lord’s home planet).

It was the 11th pilgrimage that Dietz has made to the convention and arrived with anxiety in his baggage this time. “I don’t think that it works if the role is too young,” Dietz said. “In the classic series, that was the whole premise of the thing: the Doctor was an elderly man or a grandfather.”

William_hartnell_2Indeed, the first actor to star in “Doctor Who” was William Hartnell (photographed on left) who was 55 when the show began but, with his mane of gray hair, looked older than that. On the show through the years, though, the Doctor has changed far more in basic appearance than other longtime pop-culture characters such as James Bond or Batman and the reason for that is an ingenious mechanism written right into the plot; the Doctor has the power to regenerate as a new person, which not only spares him from the mundane problem of human mortality, it has given writers of the show the periodic chance to dramatically re-imagine their hero.

“That’s the beauty of the series,” said James Madison, another Gallifrey One attendee. “Change is a part of it.”

Still, Smith has some big shoes to fill and he also tempted the wrath of “Who” fans by publicly stating that he has never been a devotee of the iconic British television franchise. Known more for his stage work than his television appearances, Smith has starred in BBC adaptations of “The Ruby in the Smoke,” which had him opposite former Doctor Who costar Billie Piper, and “The Shadow in the North.” He also showed up in an episode of Piper’s sexed-up television series “Secret Diary of a Call Girl.”

The next season of “Doctor Who” won’t air until 2010, so fans will be debating in the dark for awhile. Smith, however, has already garnered the respect of most of the cast and crew, most of whom support the choice of the creators to cast him.

“Matt Smith came out of nowhere, but I think he’s just going to be brilliant,” said Phil Ford, who has written scripts for “Doctor Who” as well as its two spinoffs, “Torchwood” and “The Sarah Jane Adventures.” “He’s just got that look about him that I can see what [executive producer] Steve Moffat was talking about when he said, ‘He just came into the room and just owned the part.’ That’s absolutely how everybody sees him.”

Champions of the new actor point out that the little-known Tennant was himself confronted with skepticism when he took over for the ninth Doctor, Christopher Eccleston (pictured below), who had brought a new grittiness and forlorn quality to a role that in the past had been more professorial.

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Still, Tennant became so beloved after taking on the role in 2005 that, to a vast number of fans, he is not the best Doctor, but the only Doctor. Smith, meanwhile, is a question mark.

“There’s so little out on the new guy,” said David Blanchett, who travels the convention circuit selling sci-fi merchandise. “There really there aren’t many photos of the guy. He looks like a typical Englishman and he doesn’t have a big pedigree. There’s just no way to tell what kind of personality he’s going to give to the Doctor.”

Other fans are remaining a bit more open-minded about the young actor.

“I don’t think that youth comes into it too much for me,” said David Leon, who traveled from Las Vegas for the convention. “He certainly would be the youngest that we’ve seen so far, although Tennant has a lot of youthful attributes that he brings to it. I’m looking forward to something new.”

Gary Russell, another well-regarded screenwriter for “Doctor Who” and its spinoffs, said the new master of the TARDIS will win over the old fans and find new ones as well. It is, he said, just a matter of time.

“I think Matt Smith is fantastic,” Russell said. “Completely unexpected choice, but Smith has everything you need for an actor to play the Doctor. He’s just brilliant, full of life and energy. Following David is an incredibly difficult job for any actor. I think there are very few that can rise above the publicity — but I think Matt will be the person to do just that.”

– Michelle Castillo

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All photos courtesy of BBC

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