Thursday, July 4, 2013

Doctor Who and Me - Part Two

In my last post, I told the story of how I wound up joining the cast of the 1996 Doctor Who TV Movie.

When I left off, I had just been cast as Gareth in the film, and to say I was excited would be an understatement. I was ecstatic. As an actor, you basically have to come to grips with the fact that most of what you're going to be paid to do is far from high art, or else this will happen to you (a little NSFW):

So, to get a part in something that you love and are a huge fan of is rare. It can completely recharge lagging creative batteries, and reawaken a sense of why you became an actor in the first place. And here I was, cast in Doctor Who. It was not only my favourite TV series, but it had been effectively cancelled over six years prior to this point, and it had always been filmed in England, with very minor exceptions. To say I never in my wildest dreams thought I'd ever get within hooting distance of appearing in the show is putting it very, very mildly.

The world's least imposing security guard
with his jelly baby
By the time I was cast, my role had changed. When I first read for the part, Gareth was one of the scientists working on an atomic clock from which the Doctor was pilfering a part. The Doctor distracts Gareth by offering him a jelly baby and telling him facts from Gareth's own future. When I got the final draft, Gareth was now a security guard. It made more sense that a guard was attempting to stop the Doctor, but I would never make an imposing security guard by any one's imagination.
While I'd only have the one scene with the Doctor and his companion Grace, the film would cut back to me a couple of times. During one of these moments, Gareth would be shown getting a kiss from a party-goer. Interesting tidbit; the producers contacted me and told me that I could, if I wanted, have my girlfriend at the time play the party-goer. Even though she wasn't an actress, I asked her and she said yes. That is literally the only time that kind of thing ever happened in my twenty years of acting.

So, I read the whole script. Again, for those of you who have never seen the film, it turned out to be a controversial one for many fans. The Master was somehow given the ability to turn into a worm/slug thing and possess people. The Doctor kissed his companion Grace (in a scene that now seems downright sweet after all the lip-locks on the new series). Finally, and most controversially, it's revealed the Doctor is half-human (a fact that, in a stunningly unanimous unspoken decision by fans and producers alike, has NEVER been mentioned ever again).
I'll admit. I was a little perplexed at the changes. And today, with a new series that is totally consistent and faithful to the original concepts, it must seem baffling that they would go so far. But, at this point, I had heard about other attempts to bring back the series in some form that were way, way weirder. Rumours abounded of Spielberg doing it, with Pierce Brosnan or Denzel Washington (!) to star. Putting up with a half-human Doctor and a few smooches seemed a small price to pay if it meant new Doctor Who on the screen.

The day of shooting arrived, or should I say the night. We would be doing a night shoot, which is a particularly awful practice of arriving for work sometime around four o'clock and then shooting until dawn the next day. I arrived, got dressed and met Philip Segal, the producer of the film.

A few words here about Philip. He was then, and I assume is now, a great guy. A really great guy. He was very welcoming to me, and really excited to have a fan on set.  He was jazzed about moving forward with a new series. It was actually palpable. He asked me my thoughts on the story. I said it was great, as my momma didn't raise no fools. He was a genuinely nice man, and his niceness led to another unique moment in my career; after the shooting was finished he sent me a letter in the mail thanking me for my work and letting me know to look forward to more Doctor Who on Fox in the coming year. He'd be proven wrong, but it was still a truly nice gesture.
I was also excited as I'd be working with the new Doctor in the form of Paul McGann. One of my favourite movies around this time was the superb Withnail & I, the story of two alcoholic and poverty-stricken actors:

McGann played the "I" in the title. If you've never seen it, go now, find it, and watch it. I was over the moon that he was going to be the Doctor. Eric Roberts was the Master in this film, and though we had no scenes, he was on set that night, and I thought he'd be at the very least an interesting man.
I got on set, in costume, and met Paul and Daphne Ashbrook, who was playing Grace. Both were very nice, and clearly had good chemistry with each other. I think Paul was a little nervous about the role, not so much the performance aspect but the other side; being part of a cult show carries its own pitfalls. When he heard I was a fan I think he was a little put back, only because he probably (and quite sensibly) didn't want to be trying to cement his performance in front of some slavering fan boy. I stayed away from any sort of fan questions or observations, and we mostly chatted about other things. We talked a lot about Bristol, where he lived. He was a frank, funny and quiet guy. I also around this time met Eric Roberts. He was definitely more, shall we say, imposing? But he wasn't a jerk or anything. In fact he was pretty warm and friendly. He was definitely eccentric, but in a fun way. I watched a few of his scenes that night, and I liked what he was doing, as campy as it was.

Then it was time to rehearse, we ran through it a few times, and suddenly we were shooting. There I was, across from Paul McGann, acting in Doctor Who. It was surreal to me then, and it remains so now. It was over far too quickly, even though it probably took a couple hours. But I was needed for the whole night, so I got to hang around the set and watch and chat with the other actors.
During the breaks in shooting, there were lots of other perks that blew my mind. I got to handle the sonic screwdriver courtesy of some prop guys. I walked right up to the TARDIS and touched the door. I was given jelly baby after jelly baby. I actually managed to pocket one of the ones Paul gave me and for years it was sealed in a Ziploc bag in my house.

My then girlfriend and I went home as the sun came up. It had been amazing. I really thought that we would see many adventures of Paul and Daphne (and possibly another acting friend of mine, Yee Jee Tso) through time and space.

A few months later I sat down with popcorn and the VCR cued up and watched the film's debut on Fox. It got clobbered in the ratings by Roseanne's series finale, of course, and the new series was not to be. I was disappointed of course. And I thought that would be it. No more Doctor Who. Ever. And rights issues between Universal (producers of the film) and the BBC kept the TV movie from showing here in North America for years.
I kept on acting. I went to New York to study theatre. I had my own theatre company for a while. I had a few more good years, a few more lean ones. I got married, and around the time I had my first child I began to be more and more frustrated with my career. It wasn't that I enjoyed the work any less. But it was all the periphery stuff that began to weigh on me. There was the constant near-poverty. The relentless self-promotion. The schmoozing that was vital to finding work that had nothing to do with your talent or effort level. I simply couldn't do it anymore. It was making me depressed and frustrated and bitter, and you can't deliver a good performance from that kind of place. More importantly, you can't have a good life with that kind of attitude.

And so I retired from acting. I put away all the films I had been in. I didn't look at my old work, nor did I go to plays. I focused on other things.  And I don't regret it. I miss the work sometimes; the fun that comes from collaborating with talented people to create something beautiful or fun.
I still watched Doctor Who, though. When it came back in 2005, I was over the moon. And when the rights issues surrounding the TV Movie cleared up enough so that a DVD could finally be released, I bought it. And for the first time in a long time I watched myself. And while I don't regret my decision to leave acting behind, I was proud of that little role in that thing I loved. Because even though I never "made it" and even though I had much larger roles in other projects, if you're lucky neough to be part of something like Doctor Who you have a little piece of forever. And to have that as a fan of the show makes it all the more precious.

That's the power of Doctor Who, and one of the unbelievable things that can only happen to you if you unabashedly love something. So, here's to fans, to nerds, to geeks.
Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor

Please feel free to comment on your own best fan stories, too!

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