By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com November 15, 2011 at 11:16AM
Given our reboot-happy culture, it was only a matter of time before long-running BBC science-fiction series "Doctor Who" got the movie treatment, despite the fact that it's still on the air, and gaining a bigger international audience than ever before. But this afternoon's news that David Yates (who directed half of the films in the mammoth "Harry Potter" franchise) is developing a big screen version still came as something of a surprise. And, with the announcement that it'll depart from established continuity, shunning recent stars like Matt Smith and David Tennant and starting afresh.
Predictably, this has put the Twittersphere in an uproar, but as usual, the fanboy masses are overreacting. For one, the series is such a moneymaker for the BBC that it's likely to continue alongside the movie series for as long as it's profitable to do so. "Superman Returns" didn't mean the end of "Smallville," did it? For another, Yates is at the point where he could get almost anything greenlit, and he's cashing in his chips to make this happen, suggesting that he's as big a fan as anyone out there, and the fact that he's taking his time on the film (he says they're likely to take two-to-three years to develop the script), means that this isn't some quick cash-in. And Yates has proven a sure hand at the Potter wheel, not to mention acclaimed TV dramas like "State of Play " and "Sex Traffic."
The director is looking for a writer now, but in the meantime, thoughts will inevitably turn to casting. The Doctor, a milleniums-old alien time traveler, who changes appearance every time he's 'killed,' has been through eleven incarnations to date, and each one has differed greatly; one of the reasons it's such a great part is its flexibility, from the curmudgeonly near-villain of the First Doctor, to the fearsome-old-soul-in-puppyish-new-body of the Eleventh. But there are certain constants. He's strange. He needs to show a wisdom beyond his years -- even if you were to cast Kirk Douglas in the part, the character is a few thousand years older. You need a certain wit, and a certain strangeness, and the ability to cast fear into the hearts of your enemies without ever picking up a weapon (The Doctor is essentially a pacifist, although that doesn't quite get to the truth of the matter; he's not beyond threatening genocide if he has to).
And the reality is, for Yates' film, he's going to have to be a name. "Doctor Who" might be massive in the U.K, but internationally he's still less than massive, even if the current series has earned bigger ratings in the U.S. than ever before. Clearly the film is, in part, the BBC's attempt to expand the brand, and it's clear from Yates' involvement that this won't be some low-budget affair, with a studio partner likely to come on board long before the film reaches production.
It's not going to be anyone who's done it before -- those clamoring for the George Lazenby of the Tardis world, Paul McGann, to get a second shot, stand down, you're being ridiculous. It's 98% likely to be British -- while the Brits might have cornered the superhero market of late with Batman, Superman and Spider-Man -- though Robert Downey Jr nabbed Sherlock Holmes -- the character is a uniquely British one, and it simply wouldn't be worth the fan outcry in most circumstances -- the Whovian fanbase being stronger than the Holmesian one, in reality. Realistically, it's not going to be anyone under the age of... let's say, 40; Matt Smith and David Tennant have set a new precedent, and any prospective studio won't be delighted with the idea of, say, Ian McKellen leading their big new franchise. So, bearing in mind we're thinking about a few years down the line (we're unlikely to see anyone cast in the role until 2013 or so), who stands a feasible chance of landing the part?
Why He Could Do It: The "Bronson" star has gone supernova since "Inception" brought him to the attention of the mainstream last year, having lined up parts in "The Dark Knight Rises" and "Mad Max: Fury Road," and courted for countless others, including "Snow White and the Huntsman" and "Escape From New York." Thanks to "Warrior" and his upcoming turn as Bane, he's best known as a kind of man-mountain, but he can slim down too, as his masculine-yet-fey turn in "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" proves. Most importantly of all, he's versatile and unpredictable. His line readings are never quite what you expect them to be, something he shares with Smith, whose performance in the show at present is generally seen to be one of the strongest in its history. Plus, he has form with Yates, as he's said to be circling the director's Al Capone biopic "Cicero;" if that comes off, we could well see them team up again.
Why He Might Not: Well, for one, he needs to prove himself as a leading man. The actor's got heat now, but "Warrior" tanked, so he doesn't have an in-built audience yet. "The Dark Knight Rises" will help matters, but "This Means War" and "Fury Road" will be better tests of whether he's able to bring in the crowds, or whether he becomes another, say, Ewan McGregor, reverting to character actor roles. By the same token, he might end up in the stratosphere by the time casting rolls around, and too big for the project. We wonder if he might also find the role a little wussy, although he's not had a problem camping it up in something like "RocknRolla" in the past.
Why He Could Do It: The actor's not quite a household name as yet -- he's still 'that guy off "The Social Network"' to most, as amusingly pointed out on SNL this weekend -- but that's likely to change next year as he makes his debut as Peter Parker in "The Amazing Spider-Man." What we've seen of the actor in the role suggests he's nailed it, and it should make him a megastar. And crucially for a part like this, he is, like Hardy, a real actor, not just a star; he's never seemed anything less than fiercely intelligent on screen, and the doctor battles enemies with his wits, rather than bullets. About the perfect age bracket for where we expect the role to land, he also fits in with the nerd heartthrob vibe that's summed up the last few incarnations.
Why He Might Not; Principally? Franchise fatigue. Sony have already set a sequel to "The Amazing Spider-Man" for the summer of 2013, and Garfield is almost certainly signed up for a third film beyond that, likely targeted for 2015. Even if the hypothetical schedules don't clash (and it's vaguely possible that Spidey could tank next summer, killing any sequels), Garfield's always shown intent to be a serious actor, and may want to find something more respectable to do with his time in between superhero entries. We're also not really sure he has the gravitas needed for the role. Nerdy Peter Parker? Sure. An 900-year-old alien who's seen everything the universe has to offer him? Maybe not.
Why He Could Do It: Cumberbatch has had just about as strong a year in 2011 as his "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" co-star Hardy had in 2010 -- following up an acclaimed turn as the BBC's "Sherlock" with Danny Boyle's stage version of "Frankenstein," the John Le Carre adaptation, with parts in "War Horse," miniseries "Parade's End" and "The Hobbit" on the way. A vociferous female fan-base might make it seem that he's bigger than he is sometimes, but he's certainly working his way towards the A-list, and a few years down the line looks like he might be at the right level to take the part on; indeed, some have taken his version of crime-fighting genius "Sherlock," a show penned by "Doctor Who" writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, to be something of an audition for the character. He's too big now to take on the TV version, but he could be a palatable sonic screwdriver-holder on the silver screen. Plus, his gangly frame gives him a genuinely alien quality than no one else on this list has.
Why He Might Not: For one, taking on The Doctor after "Sherlock" might feel like repeating himself. For another, he's already expressed misgivings about the possibility, telling British chat show host Jonathan Ross that he would feel uneasy about the merchandising and sheer fame attached to the role in the UK, let alone a giant film version. If the persistent rumors of him being involved in a future Marvel movie, possibly "Doctor Strange," are true, he may be another one with a clashing franchise. And he might never become a big enough star for a studio to be comfortable with him in the role; he's not everyone's idea of a leading man. Although that's conversely what makes him a good fit.
Why He Could Do It: When an actor's next role sees them in the lead ahead of Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt, you know it's someone special. And that's the case with Chiwetel Ejiofor, who will headline Steve McQueen's 2012 period drama "Twelve Years A Slave." The actor's been a familiar face in everything from "Dirty Pretty Things" to "Salt" in recent years, and let's not forget, has already co-headlined a mega-blockbuster, in Roland Emmerich's "2012," and endeared himself to the geek crowd in Joss Whedon's "Serenity." It's the latter part that seems like the shortest jump to the Doctor -- sure, he was a bad guy, but he also displayed a loquacious wit, a deep badassery, and the ability to turn on an emotional sixpence. And that's nothing compared to his proper performances, in something like "Othello" on stage, or "The Shadow Line" on TV. Having played everything from a drag queen to an MMA-fighter, he's got range, arguably the most crucial aspect of the part, in spades, and if "Twelve Years A Slave" finally makes him the star he's deserved to be for so long, as we suspect it will, there are few who make more convincing arguments. Plus he's been linked to the part in the past; it's rumored that he was offered the role by Moffat before Matt Smith.
Why He Might Not: We hate that its 2011 and we still have to mention this, but the how-dare-you-cast-Idris-Elba-as-an-alien-space-Viking brigade will shit a brick. If there's any big franchise part that it shouldn't be a problem for -- unlike, say, Bond, which Ejiofor would also be perfect for -- it's the endlessly transforming Doctor (and Moffat & co have been carefully laying the ground work in the series, suggesting that timelords can change race and even gender). But some will kick up a fuss, not least studio executives, concerned about international grosses in a world where, sadly, few black actors bar Will Smith can sell tickets in foreign territories. Even if Ejiofor does win an Oscar for McQueen's film, most will be reluctant to take a franchise bet on him, especially for a reboot of a key property like this. But we'd love it if they had the balls to do it.
Why He Could Do It: The least-well known name on the list, Kebbell made his debut in Shane Meadows' "Dead Man's Shoes" in 2004, before going on to a more showy turn as the sole memorable quality of Guy Ritchie's "RockNRolla." That film, along with a scene-stealing performance as colorful manager Rob Gretton in "Control," brought him to the attention of U.S. casting directors, and he cropped up, to not much effect, in "Prince of Persia" and "The Sorceror's Apprentice." Those films, plus walking out on Mickey Rourke vehicle "Passion Play" soon after filming, could together have been career killers, but the latter was vindicated when the film turned out to be mind-blowingly terrible, and he's had a blockbuster comeback with parts in "War Horse" and "Clash of the Titans 2," the latter of which he's said to be a major stand-out in, to the extent that a third film in the swords-and-sorcery franchise is being tooled specifically to include his character. He can clearly handle comedy, drama and action, and like all the actors here, there's a certain unpredictability to him. Should 'Clash,' or anything in the next few years, really land, he could be a real contender.
Why He Might Not: He could be a little too unpredictable, however; there's always an edge, a slight sense of danger, to Kebbell, which makes him effective in a film like "The Veteran," but if you're the star of a major franchise, you don't want to make the audience feel like you could put a shard of broken glass through their neck at any point. We can't really see him playing the clown in the way that the part often neeeds. At this point, he's still something of a minnow as well, and he'd need to carry a big hit in the intervening years before he becomes a serious candidate.
Honorable Mentions: Like we said, the economic reality of the thing is that an actor under 40 will get the part. Indeed the last time an actor under 50 got the role was in 1970, which means that those who might otherwise be perfect, someone like Bill Nighy, Hugh Laurie, or Gary Oldman, don't really have a chance. Even the relatively youthful likes of Simon Pegg (who played a villain on the TV version), Michael Sheen (who voiced one), Ewan McGregor, Paul Bettany, Gerard Butler, Richard Armitage or Mark Strong are probably not going to be in the running.
Perhaps the only two older actors who could stand a chance are both American; Johnny Depp and Robert Downey Jr. They both have a tendency to be drawn towards eccentric roles, which helps, and we're sure they'd be studio favorites, but they also have plenty of franchises between them, and even then they may be seen as getting on; assuming a fairly brisk 2014 release, Depp would be 51, and Downey Jr 49. One other intriguing prospect in their 40s; Sacha Baron Cohen, who's been moving towards character actor-dom with supporting roles for Tim Burton and Martin Scorsese, and he's planning a more serious performance to play Freddie Mercury. We'd be fascinated to see what he did with the part, but suspect he'd be a tough sell.
Then there are those who just seem wrong for the part. "Immortals" stars Henry Cavill and Luke Evans are just a little too chiseled, plus the former is likely to be on Superman duty for some time to come, unless he pulls a Brandon Routh. The same goes for Rupert Friend, although he's a more interesting actor than some give him credit for, even if his career seems to have stalled a little in the last year or two. There's a lot to like about the idea of Idris Elba, but he's too imposing physically, we think. Conversely, Jamie Bell's too slight, while Robert Pattinson is too brooding, Aaron Johnson doesn't have too much gravitas, Michael Fassbender is too intense, and John Boyega probably too young.
More realistically, Dominic Cooper's somewhat plausible, although he feels sort of wrong to us, somehow. Ben Whishaw's well-suited, but at present not enough of a marquee name, and probably too actorly to reverse that, while Eddie Redmayne is a fine actor, but at present rather lacking in gravitas. Cillian Murphy could be an interesting, if rather offbeat, choice, while if any young American leading man has the right stuff, it could be "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" star Benjamin Walker. Finally, two names that are lesser-known right now, but could find a big break in the intervening years; Tom Hiddleston, who's becoming better and better known as Loki in the Marvel movies, has a lot of the right qualities, while Edward Hogg ("Anonymous") is also eccentric and rangy, although at present better placed to take over the TV version than originate a movie franchise.