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31 January 2017updated 02 Aug 2021 10:34am

Olivia Colman is the most likely next Doctor Who – here’s why

Guessing the next Doctor is always pure speculation, but there is a pattern in the history of casting the role.

By James Cooray Smith

The announcement of the departure of the current Doctor Who always brings with it the kind of speculation that otherwise only accompanies a prominent football team requiring a new manager or the need for a new James Bond.

Doctor Who casting-related frenzy, though, always has greater breadth and depth. Actual qualifications, UEFA badges and so on, are required to coach a football team at a certain level, and playing Bond is hemmed by the characterisation – although not necessarily the ethnicity – of the person in Ian Fleming’s novels. 

Whereas, perhaps due to the nature of “regeneration”, and how the incoming actor has a lot of leeway to put their own stamp on the part, when it comes to casting one of the most difficult roles in the history of television, “anyone famous” seems to qualify.

Thus, Susan Calman (jokingly) put herself forward on Twitter, and wasn’t particularly rebuffed by the idea the part has been disproportionately Scottish of late. The equally Scottish Sanjeev Kohli suggested himself, or possibly his alter ego Romesh from Radio 4 sitcom Fags, Mags and Bags. Which led to suggestions that Brendan O’Carroll should get the part, but play it in the style of Mrs Brown of Mrs Brown’s Boys infame. Others suggested Miranda Hart who, while primarily known for comedy, has at least played a leading part in a primetime drama series.

These, fundamentally, are re-runs of the press suggestion in 1980 that Larry Grayson should succeed Tom Baker, or the frequent putting forward of the likes of Ken Dodd every time reviving Doctor Who was suggested in the Nineties. It wasn’t always like this, of course. In the Sixties and much of the Seventies, the UK press was less prone to wild speculation about showbiz.

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There have also been more serious, but even less imaginative, suggestions, that someone who is already playing a Doctorish part in another television or film series, say Alan Davies (who has been suggested every time since 2005) or Benedict Cumberbatch should take the role. That’s emulation, not casting, and while the successful recasting of the Doctor has been described as a “recurring miracle”, it’s also the moment of maximum danger for the series’ continued life. It needs to be done effectively.

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Casting either a light entertainment figure or an actor with a pre-existing persona you want to see imposed on the part is not the way to go about it. You need to find a great actor, and then ask them what they want to do as Doctor Who. You need to look at people like Samuel West, Chipo Chung or Toby Jones, Eve Best, Rawiri Paratene or Tamsin Greig.

This is why the most inviting of the press speculations is the almost endlessly talented Richard Ayoade. There is, of course, the problem that he might not want to put his directing and writing interests on hold to star in someone else’s TV series, but that objection could have also been made to Peter Capaldi.

It’s worth looking at how recasting the Doctor has been approached in the past. The only people to successfully audition for the part of Doctor Who, from an open field, are Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGann and Matt Smith. Jon Pertwee, according to a story he took endless delight in telling, had his agent phone the BBC on a whim, and at the prompting of his friend Tenniel Evans, only to find that he was already on their shortlist.

Mostly though, new Doctors have been people who have worked extensively with those making the decision to hire them. Second Doctor Patrick Troughton had repeatedly worked for then BBC Head of Drama Series Shaun Sutton when the latter was a producer and director. Peter Davison had worked with then Doctor Who’s producer John Nathan-Turner on All Creatures Great and Small. His successor, Colin Baker, also cast by Nathan-Turner, had appeared in a guest part in Doctor Who opposite Davison, and impressed the producer then.

Christopher Eccleston had starred in Russell T Davies’ The Second Coming, and emailed him about the part when the series was announced. David Tennant starred in Davies’ Casanova, made practically simultaneously with the Eccleston series of Who, and was (and is) a devoted Doctor Who fan.

Tom Baker, too, was suggested by a former colleague. BBC Executive Bill Slater, who had directed Baker in Bernard Shaw’s The Millionairess 18 months before, proposed him to producer Barry Letts as a suitable option. Reasoning that Baker, who had been part of Olivier’s National Theatre Company “must be able to act”, Letts and his script editor Terrance Dicks took themselves off to the cinema to see The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, which was then playing and in which Baker featured as the magician Koura, in lieu of an audition.

Bearing this in mind, were Mark Gatiss, and not Chris “Broadchurch” Chibnall, responsible for casting the next Doctor, I’d be off down the bookies to put a sizeable sum on his frequent collaborator and seeming avatar Sacha Dhawan securing the part.

In practical terms, unless Capaldi’s departure is an unanticipated event, most of the work towards casting the new Doctor Who will have already been done. The 2018 series will need to start shooting this summer in order to meet its assumed transmission of Easter next year. All speculation is probably moot. They probably already know who it is. This is a guessing game. Not a time for suggestions.

So, applying all these precedents to new Doctor Who “showrunner” Chris Chibnall ultimately leads you to the conclusion that he’ll cast one of the stars of Broadchurch. As David Tennant is not exactly likely, under the circumstances, that leaves to my mind only one plausible candidate.

The phenomenal Olivia Colman. Please.