Decamot of the month

30 Nov 2017-It's about time

Inspired by the following Decamot items: brass band, serial killer, absinthe, at the edge of a cliff, buttercup, fracking, mathematician, wrecking ball, circus tent, jelly babies

Jodie sat in front of the mirror gazing at her makeup. A good base foundation, gently curved eyebrows, almost imperceptible mascara, and very light pink lips. The professional team had done an excellent job, as ever. Even working in a marquee the size of a small circus tent they had weaved their magic well: the overall look was one of total naturalness, makeup that was virtually invisible. Her skin looked flawless. If only! (Her thoughts, not mine.)

On the table beside her was an opened bag of jelly babies that had been left her by a well-wisher. She knew she shouldn't really, but while sitting there idly, she couldn't resist. The red and the black ones were a little too sweet, and the yellow too sour. But the green ones were irresistible, and had quite a kick to them. So far, she'd had seven.

Her performance today was going to set the tone of her tenure as the first ever female Doctor Who. She was a lifelong fan of the show having never missed an episode from Christopher Ecclestone's Doctor onwards. She'd hidden behind the sofa when the Daleks came on, and sighed with relief when Matt Smith's Doctor narrowly escaped being driven off the edge of a cliff. And as a child, she had dreamed of being one of the Doctor's companions (the late 80s had, after all, been less enlightened times!). But to be offered the main role, well, that was the offer of a lifetime.

In preparation, she'd studied the early Doctors, watching their performances over and over on DVD. She adored the dapperness of Jon Pertwee and Bessie his absurd little motorcar. She loved the sweetness of Patrick Troughton and his predilection for picking buttercups and wearing them in his lapel. She had a secret crush on Peter Davison's, shy, cricket-loving Doctor, and thought of Sylvester McCoy as lovably grandfatherly. What she noticed was the recurring theme of alien Doctor attempting so hard to fit in, but never quite being human. She would have to find something new in the role so that she too could portray that juxtaposition of the nearly passable with the still vaguely alien. Would she be up to the task?

She'd done comedy, Shakespeare at The Globe, Chekov and Poliakoff. She done TV and radio. She was a great voice actor, playing Northern, Southern, London, RP, common-as-muck, middle class, and aristocratic with equal credibility. She had a wide range of skills at her disposal. In her career to date she'd been a whacky receptionist, a distraught housewife, a mathematician, the goddess Venus, and a discredited nurse mascaraing as a doctor. And now she was to be The Doctor. The 13th Doctor if you discounted John Hurt, which seemed terribly unfair considering the power of his acting in that role. She was determined to make sure that 13 would not be an omen.

She was naturally trepidatious, not least because Chris Chibnall, the new head writer (who she'd worked with on Broadchurch) had set them a massive task for the first show of the new series. They'd all got the memo: "New Doctor, New Writer, New way of Doing Things."

One of the "New ways of Doing Things" turned out to be a revisiting of an old way of doing things. The first episode of the new Doctor Who would be going out LIVE in the traditions of the Golden Age of Television as an homage to the origins of Doctor Who. It would be scary, but they'd done it with EastEnders in 2010 and Casualty earlier in the year, so why not Doctor Who?

And to up the ante still further, Chibnall announced in the Memo that the Doctor's role in this opening episode would be improvised. She would be given a costume, props, an entrance and an exit point, and the plot outline, but nothing else. Her words and her actions would be hers to own on the night. It was his way of respecting her integrity as a performer of high standing, and would allow her to set the tone of her Doctor. It was for her to play the role as she chose, and whatever she chose on that night (now this night) would form the backbone of how the first female Doctor would pan out.

To be fair to Chibnall, the risk was not as great as would first appear. Her Doctor would not put in an appearance until the very end of the episode. Beforehand, Peter Capaldi, the outgoing Doctor, would stagger into the TARDIS suffering a fatal wound and Matt Lucas (reprising his role as Nardole) paired up with a resurrected Pearl Mackie (as Potts) would very capably spend the vast majority of the episode racing around Cardiff holding off a small army of murderous robots disguised as members of a brass band. The gimmick for the episode would be that Nardole and Potts had discovered that as long as the band were kept playing and marching, they were moderately safe to be near; but as soon as they stopped playing, they would all turn into psychotic serial killers intent on dispatching the whole of humanity.

So the two companions from the previous Doctor's reign would lead the merry band through the streets of Cardiff in the manner of latter day Pied Pipers of Hamelin thus giving the 12th Doctor sufficient time to re-generate into the 13th Doctor behind the closed doors of the TARDIS. Members of the public (all actors of course) would interact with the merry band as they wound their way in a meandering loop around the Welsh capital. Along the way, for many convoluted reasons, the marching band would nearly stop, or would stop temporarily, thus allowing various buildings, statues and private property (hastily, and flimsily, created during the last fortnight by the BBC props department) to be destroyed.

Nardole and Potts would try numerous things to keep the band occupied until, with three minutes to go, the new Doctor would burst forth from the TARDIS to save the day. Except that, and this was a twist of which Chibnall was particularly proud, she would appear to heroically die at the end of the episode just before Delia Derbyshire's iconic theme music started. This would give Doctor Who its first cliff-hanger for decades (Chibnall artistically objected to stories neatly concluding in 47 minutes week in, week out) and leave the audience wondering: How could the new Doctor possibly survive? And: Could this be a one-episode Doctor like Paul McGann in the late 90s? It was Chibnall's intention to make the second episode irresistible. As soon as broadcasting was over today, he would surreptitiously flood Social Media with theories and counter-theories about how the series would continue. He would then hang around (anonymously) in various Whovian fan chat rooms to gauge the reaction and base the next episode on what he felt would best suit their expectations.

Compared to having no second episode yet written for the following week (filming would start on the Wednesday) having a mere 180 seconds improvised by Jodie Whittaker was a minor concern. What could possibly go wrong?

But Chibnall did not fully comprehend what he'd unleashed inside Jodie. He'd underestimated her commitment, not just to the role, but what that role meant for her gender. Many of the decisions that went into the part (make up, clothes, style) had been taken out of her hands, but Chibnall had offered her the opportunity to establish her voice and her attitude in the those first few minutes of unscripted Who-doom, and she was going to make the most of it. It would only be three minutes of live air time, but it was three minutes that she wanted to own. How she, and the role, progressed from there would depend largely on audience reaction. Get it wrong, and it could act as a wrecking ball for her career.

She absentmindedly slipped another green jelly baby into her mouth, then two more for good measure, as she contemplated one final time the characteristics she wanted to portray in her position as role model to the current generation of schoolgirls: in control; unflatterable; dignified; aloof and yet compassionate; firm but fair with her companions; ruthless with her enemies. And her voice should be commanding: southernish, educated, slightly posh but not patrician, but most of all: clear and well enunciated.

Precision was vital. She had to get the tone just right. There was a fine line to be had between pathos and comedy.

She heard the brass band outside stop playing; this was her cue to go on. She adjusted her wig, was slightly concerned to notice that her nose was a little red and had a distinct shine, but shrugged it off. She took a deep breath, stood up, and sat straight back down again. Something was wrong. She suddenly felt very woozy. Could that be nerves? Surely not! She hadn't felt nerves for years. She looked at her watch: she had to be to on her way, the cameras were rolling and her opening seconds as the new Doctor were already disappearing. She stood up again and staggered to the dressing room door.

She burst through the door and onto the outside set holding out in front of her very own sonic screwdriver. It had been a tradition since October 1966 (the date of the first re-generation) that each new Doctor would have his (or now her) own, specially designed gadgets.

She was clearly late (the band had started to look nervously at each other) and clearly looked out of sorts (even a casual onlooker could see that she was a little unstable on her feet).

For her, what happened next was a total blur. All she could remember was a feeling of warmth, giddiness, and an indescribable bonhomie. Time, appropriately enough given the role, seemed to bend: first slowing to a syrupy crawl, before speeding up again. And her sense of place in space felt disjointed. All that she could remember with any (catastrophic) clarity was her fateful finale: She'd been chasing one of the robotic band members, tripped over a ramp, staggered forward, fallen through a big bass drum, and ended up with her head in the drummer's lap. She'd then looked up at the alarmed percussionist before uttering, in her native, broad West Yorkshire accent, her first line as the new Doctor:

"Eee luv, is that a fracking sonic screwdriver in ya pocket, or are ya just pleased to see me," before rolling away.

She would remember that line for the rest of her career; that and the director shouting: "... and cut."

Somehow in her dazed state, she had found her exit mark. Granted in the script she was supposed to have got there with a little more dignity, but in the few lines of direction that she had been given it clearly said: “The new Doctor falls to the floor and rolls away leaving the audience with its first cliff-hanger in years. Could a Doctor really last only one episode? How will she recover to beat the demonic Brass Band Robots? Fade to black. Closing credits."

As she lay there out of sight, and out of breath, she let her mind wander to what horrors would appear on the front pages of the newspapers the next day.

But she needn't have worried. The newspapers’ reviews were unanimously positive, each featuring Jodie Whittaker on the front page with various headlines. The Daily Mail went with: WHO knew the Doctor could be such fun; The Telegraph decided it was: A tour de force; The Sun had: Phwarr: You can beat my drum any day!; and the Doctor Who Magazine wrote: Wow, what an entrance!

Owen Jones, writing a lengthy article for The Guardian, went furthest, describing her performance as: "A comic masterpiece. Whittaker's is a Millennial Doctor with attitude. ... They [the writers] are, by harking back to the good old days of flimsy Whovian sets, clearly attacking the excesses of capitalism, and ridiculing the wanton wastage and cynical austerity measures of the last 7 years of successive Conservative Governments. I for one can't wait for the next episode."

Jodie's biggest surprise came the next day when she received the greatest complement of her professional career in the form of a bunch flowers and letter of congratulatory affirmation from Tom Baker, the definitive Doctor for viewers of a certain age. "Marvellous performance old gal. I'm so glad you took the advice that I left you on your phone. Chin chin!"

Jodie was puzzled. She'd not had her phone switched on at all the previous day. She quickly turned it on now. And there is was, a message from the great Tom Baker himself, his deep resonant tone unmistakable.

"Good luck old gal. Just be yourself, and you'll be fine. And please accept these specially prepared jelly babies. They were always a particular favourite of mine. No one on the set knew what was in them, so this is just our little secret: The black ones contain Shiraz; the yellow ones, Chardonnay; the red, Cherry Kirsch. And only try the green ones if you dare; they contain Absinthe," and chuckling throatily, Tom Baker had ended the call.