Iconic televisual franchises require the careful management of fandom in the age of social media. The delicacy of this enterprise is particularly acute when a long-running program is faced with the necessity of recasting a principal character. Contending with online petitions, viral campaigning, and the potential for negative casting blowback, the actor cast in this replacement role must contend with the dense prehistory of the franchise: its seriality, multiple authors, and intimidating collective intelligence of an always-already mobilized fan base.
Doctor Who ingeniously addressed this dilemma in 1966 through the plot device of regeneration: a mortally wounded William Hartnell instantaneously reincarnates as Patrick Troughton. Thereafter (and especially since the series reboot in 2005), each actor hired to make a creative contribution to the Doctor Who franchise faced a number of practical questions: What aspect of the Doctor’s multifaceted personality to emphasize? Whose hallowed creative precedence to emulate or modulate? How to make performance choices that encapsulate an ever-evolving, fifty-year old character? When does a newly-minted Time Lord establish his performative differences from his predecessors, and when do these differences stretch the limits of fan tolerance? What encoded gestures might be included to signal one’s deference to fans’ communal knowledge, which always exceeds that of the individual performer?
The 50th anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor” (2013), concludes reflexively with Matt Smith stepping quite literally into the ranks of the actors who have preceded him. Given his imminent departure from the show, the gesture is both self-eulogy and immortalization. Moments before this, however, Whovians are also treated to a metaleptic gesture, in which Smith acknowledges his kinship to Doctors past via a playful interchange with Tom Baker (one of the most beloved embodiments of the character). These Doctors offer a panoply of referential gestures: Smith’s acknowledging wink at “the old favourites”; the bashful chuckle on “perhaps I was you, of course”; Baker’s congratulatory handshake and Smith’s wiseguy acceptance; the whimsical finger bite; the revival of Who’s nose; and the final headcocked grin at the camera. Thus, the actors play out the means by which Doctor Who both addresses and profits from the fundamental dilemmas of performative seriality: actors’ creative revisions to venerable televisual characters via the instantiation of their distinctive corporealities.