Fleeting Foxes: Celebrity Cameos and Guest Turns in Doctor Who

I’m fond of beginning sentences with ‘There’s a parallel universe where…’, but there’s a parallel universe where Kylie Minogue probably tried to kill the Doctor.

You can thank the News of the World. In April 2007, they published an exclusive that claimed, according to a BBC ‘source’, that Kylie’s Christmas turn would see her sheathing herself in metal to play – and we quote, albeit with great reluctance – ‘a sexy Cyberwoman’. It’s a dreadful idea for a story and what’s even worse is that, at least for Tennant-era Nu Who, it really isn’t such a stretch, even if it didn’t turn out this way. They were right about Kylie (if nothing else) and regardless of specifics we do at least get to see her in a waitress uniform, which is good enough for me. But I do wonder about these leaks. Are there people at the BBC who get paid to spread false information? Or are there interns working at Broadcasting House who trade snippets in return for free lunches at the Ivy? Is it done in person? Or do they have mice that bring out little rolls of paper, riddled with exclusives? Normally I conclude such ruminations with ‘I think we should be told’, but on this occasion, it’s actually more fun to speculate.

Certainly her eventual role came in for both good and bad press – the Guardian supposedly describing her as ‘blank and insipid’, which is a fair cop. It’s partly the character: Astrid has no sense of character development, no real backstory, and is as vapid and insubstantial as the spectral data ghost she becomes at the episode’s conclusion: it is thus difficult to care about her, even when she drops off the edge of a cargo bay. Overly explicit signposting doesn’t help – rule one of Doctor Who is that the Doctor is rubbish at keeping his promises and the fate of Astrid, like the fate of Lynda with a Y, is sealed the moment the he agrees to take her with him. If you make these deals without drawing up a contract and negotiating agency fees, it’s a surefire ticket to oblivion.

Do we think of Kylie as an actress or a singer? Surely it’s the latter, at least since she actually got good at it? Her first album is a mess of Stock/ Aitken/ Waterman over-production, saturated with catchy riffs and whatever passed for auto-tuning in 1987. I won’t hear a word said against it, because it spawned a couple of the greatest pop singles of all time, but somewhere between that wobbly debut and the second album Kylie managed to actually have some proper singing lessons, and these days she has a rather lovely voice – so by the time we get to Street Fighter it’s easy to forget that she’s a former soap actress who turned pop star, rather than a pop star who decided to try her hand at treading the boards. (Not that I’m suggesting we actually get to Street Fighter at all; it’s a godawful mess.)

The point is this: it’s easy to look at it as stunt casting, the big name who guarantees the headlines. Sometimes it’s a favour that gets called in – when Mark Gatiss is involved, it’s almost a given that at least one other member of the League of Gentlemen will follow in his wake – and sometimes it’s mutual back-scratching to appease a long-term fan, which is to all intents and purposes what happened with Frank Skinner. That’s the way it’s worked for years, and Skinner’s revelatory turn proves there’s basically nothing wrong with it – in most of his acting work, he plays an exaggerated or muted version of his chatshow self, and Doctor Who is no exception, but he’s still an absolute joy to watch.

It doesn’t always work, as Rise of the Cybermen proves in abundance. It’s not that Roger Lloyd-Pack’s incapable of serious acting – he was a Pinter stalwart, and turned in a series of memorable guest roles throughout a long career – it’s just that John Lumic is a tedious mess of a caricature that Lloyd-Pack stumbles through with a mixture of impotent shouting and quiet seething, as stiff as a board and even more wooden (and yes, I know this is the point) than the expressionless robots he’s had a hand in creating. There are a great many things wrong with the Series 2 Cybermen stories, but Lumic’s shallow characterisation probably takes the crown, and Lloyd-Pack’s grating monotone isn’t far behind. It is a nastier, wheelchair-bound version of his turn in Harry Potter, and that wasn’t very good either.

Certainly there are many eyebrow-raising moments throughout JNT’s run. Beryl Reid was a fine actress, but seriously, what the hell is she doing in Earthshock? More specifically, what’s she doing playing a seasoned freighter captain? Not that a woman couldn’t play this sort of role; just not someone who appears to be completely out of her depth. It looks like a scene from one of those ’80s body swap movies. There was undoubtedly a part for Reid in Doctor Who, but this really isn’t it – a sentiment with which the cast and crew (and one or two annoying hangers-on who seem to end up in every 2 Entertain interview) appear to agree. “John Nathan-Turner had a thing about light entertainment,” says Eric Saward, in this week’s round of Stating The Obvious. Ian Levine complains that “She was a great actress, but she didn’t quite fit what was scripted”, while Davison adds that “She had a perfectly good stab, but she had absolutely no idea what was going on.”

It’s perhaps not terribly fair to classify Reid as ‘light entertainment’. You wouldn’t call The Killing of Sister George light entertainment. It’s a film about an abusive lesbian radio actress. Many of her roles were in comedic farces, but you could say the same for Owen Wilson, who was nonetheless brilliant in The Royal Tenenbaums. It’s for this reason I omitted her from the list of light entertainers I ran off the other week – a list that also omits Richard Briers, who earned his crust as a succession of sitcom characters but who also dabbled with Noel Coward and more than a bit of Shakespeare. Sometimes, you can have both.

Perhaps the problem is that sense of familiarity, rather than the casting per se. As a child, Reid never struck me as inappropriately cast because I simply didn’t know who she was. Fast forward to 2015, and I’m wont to raise an eyebrow when Rufus Hound pops on screen (and starts doing stand-up, no less) – but my children don’t care, because they’ve never heard of him; they’re more likely to spot someone from Hank Zipzer. This is a sound principle, but it can backfire. Most of us have heard the story of the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan, but over time these tales have become so familiar that they’ve lost their ability to shock – with many of the details that would have stunned or appalled a 1st Century Jewish audience largely wasted on a contemporary one.

It isn’t until Nu Who that we see guest stars overtly playing themselves – and curiously, the first time it happens, it’s Andrew Marr, who turns up in Aliens of London, his impossibly long arms barely noticeable amidst a small militia of obese, highly flatulent extraterrestrials. Others follow suit – Tricia, Paul O’Grady, and Ann Robinson, to name but a few – and by the time Patrick Moore pops into shot halfway through The Eleventh Hour, it’s almost what we expect. It’s a trope that’s been allowed to slowly die under Capaldi’s watch, with the notable exception of Foxes, who yawns her way through a Queen cover on the Orient Express. Real-world references remain – whether it’s the Doctor decrying Ridley Scott or quietly insulting Donald Trump – but by and large when we see someone we recognise, they’re more likely to be playing a fictionalised role than filming a gag to be shown in a channel hop playing on someone’s TV.

Is this a good thing? It is and it isn’t, depending on how often it’s done (more on that in a moment), not to mention the characters they play. David Suchet, for example, brings a sinister aplomb to the Landlord, but Tracy-Ann Obermann can’t help playing Yvonne Hartman like a slightly less bitchy version of Chrissie Watts because that’s how the character is written. Flash back to Classic Who and there are fewer examples, but still enough to merit discussion: when we’re watching Survival, for example, are we watching Hale and Pace or Len and Derek? When we’re watching Delta and the Bannermen, are we watching Ken Dodd or the Tollmaster? I’d argue there are definitive answers to both of those, but will leave it to you to work out what they are – is there a point, nevertheless, at which the lines blur? Let’s take it further: when we’re watching the War Doctor, are we really watching the War Doctor? Or are we watching John Hurt? If we’re being truly honest, how much of that reveal was about giving the show a mainstream credibility it was in danger of losing, if it ever really had it in the first place? Hurt was a desperately fine actor – but how far can he genuinely be said to inhabit the Doctor, and how much gravitas does he gain purely on the strength of his name?

We cheer when an established actor comes to Doctor Who, but what many people don’t realise is that higher profile actors – or, more specifically, an abundance of them – simply make the illusion that much harder to maintain. My father counts Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy among his favourite books, and it was inevitable that he would be disappointed by its BBC adaptation: narrative adjustments (and there really aren’t that many) aside, the biggest problem with it is the plethora of guest stars. Most of them are good actors, but there comes a point where they start to compromise any sense of realism, with suspension of disbelief and the integrity of the fourth wall becoming that much harder to maintain. It was bad enough when Stephen Fry turned up in episode three – by the time Spike Milligan, playing the elderly headmaster, pitches out of a window, you’re no longer watching Gormenghast, you’re watching Spot The Celebrity. No one would deny that this lot are good at what they do, but when you cram the cast list with household names and stand-up comedians, you lose the magic.

To all intents and purposes, Doctor Who is the same kettle of fish. For example, there have been various calls among the fandom to cast Michael Caine, or to reflect upon what a wonderful Doctor he’d have been if he was. It’s an absolutely terrible idea – age is part of it, but more pressing is Caine’s legacy as an iconic actor who has essentially built a career out of playing himself. As talented as he is it is now impossible to watch him in anything without constantly being reminded that you’re watching Michael Caine – something you couldn’t say for John Hurt, despite my earlier misgivings – and as such we wouldn’t be watching Michael Caine playing the Doctor, we’d be watching Michael Caine playing Michael Caine playing the Doctor. It’s like casting Sean Connery, who (with one notable exception) lost the ability to play anyone but himself somewhere around 1992, or possibly even earlier. But if we go down that road we have to explore whether James Bond is really a regenerating Time Lord, so let’s leave it there, and preferably never speak of it again.

The same thing happens at the end of Day of the Doctor, when the Curator arrives: all headcanon aside, Baker is not (whatever Moffat tells you) playing an older version of the Doctor; he’s playing Tom Baker playing an older version of the Doctor. There is a subtle, but very important difference, albeit one that’s been lost in the years that have passed since the anniversary special, in which much of the hype surrounding it has dissipated. For one thing, there is an annoying tendency in any expanded universe to fill in the gaps – whether at the behest of the writers or producers or the fans – and thus the Curator has found his Rorschach-like presence solidified and coloured in until the ink blot has lost all its ambiguity, simply because of the obsession to leave no stone unturned. This happens a lot, but in this instance it’s occurred largely because Day of the Doctor is no longer viewed as an event, but rather simply as an episode in its own right, which is one of the biggest mistakes we can make. At the risk of overstating the point, clarifying the Curator as a definitive Future Doctor sucks all the life out of him: the Curator is fun precisely because we don’t know who he is, rather than because he has a backstory.

And yet for all this, there is a sense of wonder and excitement about Doctors We Never Had. Everyone has an anecdote like this in their repertoire, and I hesitate at revealing mine, but when I was in my early 20s – whiling away the summer in a crammed room on the fifth floor of a Reading office block with no air conditioning and windows we weren’t allowed to open – I’d play verbal tennis with a colleague, our favourite games being Bad Production Choices (coming soon: The Straight Story On Ice) and Inappropriate Doctor Who Casting. This was pre-revival, so we could dream big – or small, as it turned out. I don’t think we ever improved upon John Inman.

Flash forward the better part of two decades – cripes, I’m getting old – and the game is still being played, but this time it’s on Facebook and it’s all about whom we might cast next, the ones we wish had been cast years ago before they got too famous, or the ones we wish had said yes when they’d been asked (sit down, Bill Nighy, the kettle’s just boiled). And it’s the second category that’s arguably the most frustrating – Benedict Cumberbatch’s interpretation of Sherlock Holmes might have been very Doctor-like, to the extent that it’s now impossible to imagine him playing the Doctor as anything but a slightly less abrupt version of the Great Detective, but who wouldn’t want to have seen him try? What if it had become the role that had defined Gary Oldman’s career? And honestly, wouldn’t Colin Firth have been absolutely splendid? Sadly, they’re all too busy, famous, or unaffordable – or any combination of the above – but it’s tempting to live in hope that one day the show might get another high profile signing to equal, or perhaps even better the one Moffat pulled off in late 2012.

Hmmph. We should be so lucky.