Because Doctor Who started as a show for children, the writers in the early days never bothered much with URST. But when it came back in 2005 after a 16-year hiatus, the target audience seemed to have changed to geeks, who tend to be teenage boys. For them, URST is a big deal.
So the URST factor was ramped way up between the tenth doctor David Tennant (then 35) and his companion Billie Piper (then 25), and between the eleventh doctor Matt Smith (then 28) and Karen Gillan (23) and again between Smith and Jenna Coleman (26). So this is the question on every fan’s mind this week, ahead of next Sunday’s first episode of the new season: Will URST rear its head again, now that the doctor has transformed into 56-year-old Peter Capaldi (best known as the foul-mouthed press secretary Malcom Tucker in the political satire The Thick of it)?
URST is, of course, UnResolved Sexual Tension, and it’s been a tool of screenwriters since time immemorial. Everyone now knows that resolving URST is the biggest mistake a writer can make. It’s legend that as soon as Lois Lane and Superman slept together in the '90s series Lois and Clark, it went down the ratings toilet. The same thing had happened to the '80s show Moonlighting after Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd got together.
But apparently there is no chance the URST between the Doctor and his lovely assistant will be resolved while Capaldi is at the controls of the Tardis. He told the chief writer, Steven Moffat, that a flirtatious relationship would be inappropriate.
At a Q&A in London recently before the actors set off for their world publicity tour, which reached Sydney during the week, Moffat said: “David Tennant was a magnificent, brilliant, flirty, sexy Doctor, and when Matt came in to do it, he decided that he would be rubbish at flirting. So we haven’t had a properly flirtatious Doctor for years, really. The idea had peaked and gone away, but my God, it worked in its time and Doctor Who’s a lot richer for that scene between Billie Piper and David Tennant on the beach in Doomsday.”
(After the Doomsday episode, Piper’s character married a clone of Tennant’s character, so it became necessary to bring in a new doctor to reboot the URST.)
Jenna Coleman pointed out that there’s a different kind of tension between her and the 12th doctor: “It’s thrown everything off kilter and turned it on its head, especially for Clara, because suddenly she’s faced with this man and she can’t figure him out and she can’t control and he doesn’t respond in the same way as she’s used to, so that is really frustrating and confusing for her … It’s going from being so safe and comfortable with Matt’s Doctor to somebody who doesn’t even register that she’s a girl, or human for that matter!”
Moffat says, “From the moment Peter’s Doctor turns up, she realises she’s in terrible trouble, that he’s just rude to her and, whatever he might secretly feel, he’s just being awful.”
And he is delighted that Capaldi is doing the Doctor with his normal Scottish accent (while David Tennant, another Scot, spoke in London cockney).
Capaldi: “He’s had an English accent for years. The idea that he doesn’t have an accent is ridiculous. I just felt that it was important, as Steven says, to try to bring the Doctor to me. Funnily enough, I think the Doctor is closer to me than, for instance, Malcolm Tucker was. There was a bigger leap, more stuff to do, more distance to cover. I am much nicer.”
According to Moffat, the accent is not important: “His accent must be acquired randomly, it doesn’t make any sense what accent he has. Why shouldn’t he be Scottish?”
The most important factor for any actor who takes on the role is: “You have to be able to talk absolute insanity as if you really mean it, without a hint of irony.”
Deep Breath, a movie-length episode of Dr Who, will show at 4am on Sunday, August 24 and again at 7.30pm, and also on ABC iview.
Test of character
It’s intensely painful but deeply pleasurable to have to decide between Tyrion Lannister and Arya Stark. And between Phil Dunphy and Manny Delgado. And between the eight different clones played by Tatiana Maslany in Orphan Black. And between Billie Proudman and Nina Proudman.
That was the task undertaken by the editors of the US showbiz bible Entertainment Weekly recently for their special issue devoted to “The 25 Best Characters on TV Right Now”. And it was this column’s task when I decided to adapt EW’s list for Australians, who have not seen half of the characters EW celebrated, and would probably disagree with EW even if they had.
This is not a list of the greatest TV characters of all time, because that would have to start with Lucy Ricardo and overflow with the likes of Mr Spock, J.R., Frasier, Lisa Simpson, Tony Soprano, George Costanza and Walter White. But when EW says “right now” in its headline, it does not mean this month, which is the middle of the American silly season, when schedules are filled with repeats and rubbish. EW seems to be using “right now” to mean “broadcast in the past 12 months and likely to be broadcast again sometime in the next 12 months”.
In adapting the list, I have added this proviso: the character must be able to be seen easily by most Australians, either on free-to-air TV or on DVD or download. This week I’m discussing the great international characters, and next week I’ll discuss the Australian characters – for which I’d like your input.
Here are the 10 most interesting characters on TV “right now” (International edition):
1 Saga Noren (Sofia Helin in The Bridge but also Diane Kruger in the US version of The Bridge and Clemence Poesy in The Tunnel).
2 Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock, but also Jonny Lee Miller in Elementary)
3 Arya Stark (Maisie Williams in Game of Thrones)
4 Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons in The Big Bang Theory)
5 Alison Hendrix (Tatiana Maslany in Orphan Black)
6 Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins in Justified)
7 Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski in The Good Wife)
8 Phil Dunphy (Ty Burrell in Modern Family)
9 Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey in House of Cards)
10 Selina Meyer (Julie Louis-Dreyfus in Veep).
In choosing Arya Stark ahead of Tyrion Lannister, EW says: “Even though Tyrion starred in one of season 4’s most unforgettable moments - that shiver-inducing trial speech - Arya spent the season gradually transforming from who she was to who she’s going to be … morphing from cute tomboy to steely child assassin. Her fearless drive and dry wit keep us cheering.” Agreed.
I disagreed with EW’s snobbish refusal to include anybody from The Big Bang Theory, which is Australia’s favourite comedy, and went of course with Dr Sheldon Cooper, theoretical physicist and world expert on Star Wars and Trek. Talking of Asperger’s cases, I had to include both the British and American versions of Sherlock Holmes, and the mysterious Saga Noren from the Danish/Swedish thriller The Bridge, who is such a powerful character she was cloned in a US production and a British/French production.
And while we’re talking clones, Tatiana Maslany plays eight different humans in Orphan Black, all of them fascinating. I agree with EW’s choice of Alison Hendrix: “An uptight suburbanite … equal parts prissy and pissed off.”
Selina Meyer and Frank Underwood are both upwardly-mobile vice-presidents of the US, one clumsy and one suave, one foul-mouthed and one Shakespearean, one silly and one scary, and both essential components of any DVD library.
The character I’ve had most trouble settling on is the ambassador for Modern Family, which is full of beautifully drawn individuals. EW chooses the “exuberant malapropist” Phil Dunphy, but I hate to leave out his stepbrother-in-law Manny – a sensitive teen genius – or his not-so-secret crush-object Gloria Delgado-Pritchett, who transcends both cultural and sexual stereotypes.
To argue about my international choices and to suggest who should be on next week’s list of the 10 most interesting Australian characters on TV, email firstname.lastname@example.org or go smh.com.au/entertainment/blog/the-tribal-mind