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Arts & Extras: Doctor Who to visit MystiCon
Actor Peter Davison will be the media guest of honor at MystiCon, the science fiction convention that starts Friday in Roanoke.
Courtesy of MystiCon
Peter Davison (left) and David Tennant have both played incarnations of The Doctor, the time-traveling hero of the BBC’s popular “Doctor Who.” Tennant is also Davison’s son-in-law.
Wednesday, February 20, 2013
Across the pond, Peter Davison is a major star of British television, with a long career that started with children’s shows and still thrives.
In the United States, though, he’s a cult figure, who has a permanent place in the science fiction pantheon as one of 11 actors to play the time-traveling alien who’s the main character of “Doctor Who.”
He’s about to fly to the Roanoke area for the first time as the media guest of honor at MystiCon, the science fiction convention that starts Friday at Holiday Inn Tanglewood. Other guests include Orson Scott Card , author of the best-seller “Ender’s Game,” regarded by many as a modern science fiction classic, and children’s writer Tom Angleberger of Montgomery County, creator of “Origami Yoda.”
Davison, 61, says he’s never been to Roanoke before, though he’s traveled through the Blue Ridge Mountains and may have driven by it. “For some bizarre reason what sticks in my head is it was once called Big Lick. I don’t even know why I know that, but I do,” he said in a phone interview earlier this month.
Davison’s jovial demeanor and easy laughter somewhat belie his current role as head of the Crown Prosecution Service on the BBC’s “Law & Order: UK,” a British show based on an American original for once, instead of the other way around.
There’s a really good chance that Roanoke Valley residents who aren’t card-carrying sci-fi fans will still recognize Davison — before he was cast as the fifth incarnation of The Doctor, he starred in the BBC’s “All Creatures Great and Small,” based on the best-selling James Herriot novels, as the young rapscallion Tristan. The show aired on Blue Ridge PBS for many years.
His addition to the MystiCon line up rescued the three-year-old convention from a potential disaster.
Originally the convention had advertised another “Doctor Who” veteran, Sylvester McCoy , who played the seventh Doctor, and also the wizard Radagast in the December theatrical release “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” McCoy canceled because of a filming commitment, but no one seemed disappointed when the convention recruited Davison as a replacement. MystiCon president Carla Brindle said the convention’s rooms at Holiday Inn Tanglewood still sold out.
“There’s sort of equal interest, really, in all of us,” Davison said.
A few “Doctor Who” pointers for the uninitiated — according to the show, if The Doctor is grievously injured, he can regenerate, but once he does he’ll have a new appearance and personality, a convenient storytelling device that allows the role to be recast without hurting the continuity of the series. The Doctor travels in a device called a T.A.R.D.I.S., which stands for “Time and Relative Dimension in Space,” that looks like a British police box on the outside but a huge spaceship inside.
The show started in 1963, was canceled in 1989 and revived in 2005, and is now one of BBC America’s most popular offerings. Davison played the role from 1981 to 1984.
Doctor Who fans were additionally delighted when David Tennant , the actor who played the 10th Doctor from 2005 to 2010, became Davison’s son-in-law in 2011.
Davison answered a number of questions from his home in England, including a few submitted to me by fans. (Full disclosure: I will be a guest panelist at MystiCon.)
Q: How did you get into acting to begin with?
I suppose mainly because I failed at everything else. If my parents could have persuaded me to go to university they would have done, but I didn’t get the exams to warrant a good university.
I was keen on acting, so I joined an amateur dramatic society, so they said, go ahead and try that, and I got into drama school and that was it.
Q: Do more people recognize you as Tristan or as the Doctor?
I think probably above Doctor Who, “All Creatures Great and Small” has the widest audience, because it went out on so many PBS stations way back. I would get recognized for being Tristan in America.
Q: Tristan was a loveable troublemaker. Where do you find what you need to play a character like that?
I kind of grew into the part. After about a week of filming I met the real Tristan — Tristan, Siegfried and James, they were based on two brothers and a vet that came together in this practice — it helped a lot meeting him.
I think he’s described on page two or three of the first book as being like a “debauched choirboy,” and I think that really sums up my approach to him. He has a kind of innocence about him, but if he can get into any kind of mischief he will.
Q: Which role has affected your acting more, Tristan or the Doctor?
Probably again Tristan. When I took over The Doctor, obviously I was known for playing Tristan. … One bright TV program thought they would get a panel of children on to give me advice about how I should play the part of the Doctor … I always remember one boy said, “I think you should be like Tristan, but brave.” (laughs)
I think I used that as my blueprint. I think Tristan has informed a lot of parts. Really, you play them differently in the end, but as a starting point, I think probably Tristan has proved to be very useful.
Q: Your incarnation of the Doctor followed Tom Baker, who was in the part the longest, and was very popular. Was it a challenge following somebody who many perceived as having defined the role?
I was certainly intimidated, not so much by Tom’s time with the part, but by my age, which was at that time considerably younger than any of the previous Doctors. … W hen I took over the part, I thought to myself, “Am I too young to play this?”
Q: How did that affect how you played the Doctor?
I could move more quickly, I could run faster, so I was a bit more of an action person than maybe the previous Doctors had been.
Q: Whose idea was it to have the celery in the lapel of your costume?
That was John Nathan-Turner’s, the producer’s idea. I had nothing to do with it at all. He came to me one day and said, “I think we should have something quirky about your costume. How about a stick of celery?” … So I said, “Well I don’t mind that, as long as you explain, before I leave, what the celery is there for.”
And I think we got to the last story ... and they hadn’t explained it, and so I think in a very hastily rewritten few scenes it was explained … and I’m going to leave you to watch the episode. (laughs) You’ve got to give these fans something to ask.
Q: Did David Tennant, your son-in-law, meet your daughter on the set of “Doctor Who”?
He did, yes. They didn’t start going out then , but they met then, yes. … I see my daughter a lot, and David as well. Sometimes it seems like a mini “Doctor Who” convention in my front room.
Q: You and Tennant filmed a “Doctor Who” short, “Time Crash,” together in 2007. Did you know him before then?
I’d worked with him previously. … And there was an occasion, many years before, when apparently he’d come in and sat at our table — I think I was doing a play in London, and he was a “Doctor Who” fan and had just idled over and said “You mind if I join you?” I didn’t even find out it was him until much later.
Q: What was it like stepping back into that role for “Time Crash” after 23 years?
I only just squeezed into my costume, although I did get into it. (laughs) It was on his set, so I felt very much as if it was sort of an alien territory. … It didn’t feel like the old T.A.R.D.I.S. console that I’d known. By the end of it, it was enormous fun.
Q: Were you prepared at all, once you played the Doctor, to have people asking you about it 30 years later, everywhere you went in America?
No, you’re not prepared for that. I mean, I kind of realized the fandom would endure to a certain extent, but not in the way that it has.
When it was originally cance led in Britain, before it returned in its newer form, I did always think it would come back. … I wasn’t happy about it being canceled, it was a great shame, but I think it had lost a little bit of its shine. When it returned in its new minted form it was all the better for it.
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