INTERVIEW: Doctor Who Am I?

David Tennant’s new character has brain damage. John Naish peeks inside the head of a Time Lord...
David Tennant bounds up, all bright-eyed and beaming. It has taken months to chisel a hole in his manic schedule for this interview and he’s here at the wrong end of a hard day of being Doctor Who. I’m psyched up for the task of squeezing answers from a time-worn narcoleptic, but he’s all spiky hyper, bouncing in his chair, a mass of gangly fidgets and quick-fire chat. It feels ironic that we’re here to discuss his next TV role, playing the disorientated victim of serious brain damage in BBC One’s Recovery.

Head injuries dominated the headlines recently when the Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond crashed a jet-propelled car at nearly 280mph. For days, updates on his critical condition pushed Iraq off the top news slots. Hammond’s rapid and astonishing recovery made the nation sigh mistily. A happy ending. But, says Tennant, it’s a different story for most people who get rushed to intensive care with neurological damage.

Tennant’s role in Recovery shows the sad side. He spent weeks far removed from sonic screwdrivers and Cybermen, researching his character by visiting neurology patients, their carers, nurses and medical experts, with the help of the brain-injury charity Headway.

Keeping it real meant fighting the standard TV format, he says, his vowels slightly stretched by a soft Scots accent: “Headway had felt misrepresented by other dramatic representations of this. They were keen to make sure that we had got it right, and to make sure that there was no happy ending. There are no absolutes about these injuries. Every situation is different. At the one end of the spectrum you can end up like Hammond, but at the other you have got people whose lives are never the same.”

Playing someone so deeply dazed and confused demands a big transformation for our hippest-ever Time Lord, the man who romped as the BBC’s Casanova and first found fame as Detective Inspector Peter Carlisle in the Dennis Potterish musical TV drama Blackpool. In the new role, his puppyish mien (bloody puppyish for 35) and lithe physique must work against him. What’s the Doctor-like secret of his youthfulness? “I’m not fit,” he laughs. “I have no regimen. I’m filming 14 hours a day and that keeps me slim. When I start a job I will go to the gym a bit, but I haven’t been for the past six months of filming on Doctor Who.”

Dressed in civvies, he could be modelling for Topshop, particularly in his everyman garb of jeans, trainers and layered top. It’s Doctor Hoody. I doubt you’d spot him if he were buying a pie from the petrol station. Close up, though, it’s his energy that’s the compelling thing.

But he has to turn that low when his character in Recovery, Alan, a successful builder and family man, is knocked down by a car and thrown into a world beyond his comprehension. “He wakes up altered. He’s got problems with loss of inhibition, with anger, with sequencing,” says Tennant. Sequencing? “Yeah, sequencing.” He slows his rapid-fire chat and acts his way through the enormous challenges a brain-injured person may face simply making a cup of tea. There’s the cup, the kettle, the tap, the tea . . . but which goes when, and how?

I remark that there’s an odd parallel with Doctor Who: while Alan looks the same but inwardly is very different, Doctor Who can have a completely different body but his character is the same. “Gosh, yeah. I hadn’t thought about that before,” says Tennant. I rather suspect he had. But he’s a nice, polite guy, as befits the son of a Church of Scotland minister.

And he’s been doing his medical homework. “Initially, after a brain injury, there’s this period of blessed oblivion. I’ve been told over and over by the experts not to call it a coma. But it’s such a good word. Anyway, you come out of this sleep and then there’s this process of realisation,” he says. “Alan believes he’s fine to start with. But his brain has lost the ability to know these things are wrong with him. Alan has no sense of how he has changed to the outside world. It’s weird, all that brain and identity stuff. It’s like when you start thinking about physics too hard, and after a certain point you start feeling really vertiginous.”

Alan’s loss of inhibition leads him to grab a woman’s bottom just because he wants to. And he says awful things to his wife. “Appropriateness is often an issue sexually, and telling people what you think,” says Tennant. “Most patients’ relationships split up after the injury. Many are abandoned by their families.”

The threat to Alan’s 20-year marriage to Tricia, his childhood sweetheart, is the focal point of Recovery. Beyond the behavioural problems, the drama unpeels the fragile nature of the one thing we’d like to believe is essentially immutable, our personality. Even our soul. “It gets very existential very quickly,” he says. “Is Alan the same person Tricia married? He looks the same but can’t act the same. Emotionally, he’s not capable of being a husband the way he was. It makes me think about who we are and what happens when we change. What is it about the chemical reactions in our heads that give us a personality? What would it take to change them? How many criteria do you need to change to cease to be the person that you were?”

It’s the philosophical stuff of Descartes. But Tennant has also done his own bit of identity-shifting, changing his name from David McDonald, to avoid clashing with another actor, by adopting the surname of his favourite Pet Shop Boy. Questions of identity bear a more earthly fascination for Tennant, too. “On a broader scale, if two people get married, and stay married for 50 years, are they the same people 50 years later?” he asks. “Do you still have a responsibility to be married to that person? Should you be expected to have that responsibility?”

The questions come wide-eyed and fast. I’m minded that this thirtysomething bachelor, while linked in the media to his share of attractive actresses, resolutely refuses to discuss his romantic life. It would be rude to accuse him of commitment phobia, of course, but he’s clearly one for mulling the long-term implications of the concept of “long term”.

He’s also troubled by the long-term prospects of the patients he’s met. “Life can get better and easier for them, yeah. Things can be achieved that might be felt to be important. But the fact is that life is different and must be coped with differently. There were a lot of unhappy stories among the men I met — and it was mostly men who get this,” he says.

Hey, it’s a world away from all that Doctor Who stuff, I quip. Mistake. “No. The Doctor is scarred by losing his race,” Tennant says. “He can’t seem to hold on to anyone. He is entirely alone. Even with the ones who do stick with him. He is, to all intents and purposes, eternal. That’s his tragedy.”

Tennant was obsessed with playing Doctor Who as a boy. So obsessed that it drove him into acting. I wonder if he now faces another well-dramatised sort of tragedy, that of getting what you wished for. Are the stories of being stalked by strange fans true? His answer is characteristically polite and politic. “I’ve never been recognised on a level like this before,” he says. “But it’s an easy show to be recognised for. In certain situations the volume of people can be overwhelming. But I’m very privileged.”

If the nice, down-to-earth-guy bit is an act, I must say, it’s a very good one. He still drives his modest old Skoda. “People are amazed that I’ve got a Skoda. Next time, I’ll want something with ethics that I’m more comfortable with, you know, the eco thing. I’m waiting for someone to bring out something that will run on, I don’t know, cornflakes.”

He worried, too, about the ethics of using the life stories of the head-injury patients he met. “You have to find a balance between research that is representing someone truthfully and carrion-feeding on someone’s experience. I met lots of sufferers and helpers at Headway Essex and listened in on sessions at which people shared their own experiences. I’ve now become a patron of Headway Essex. It is partly because of that sense that one doesn’t want just to parachute in and parachute out . . . uh, can you parachute out? Anyway, I’m very honoured that they asked me to be a patron.”

Tennant’s PR man appears, waving a mobile meaningfully. Lord, we’re out of time, and he’s badly late for his next meeting. No wonder he’s so manic. Doesn’t he worry about burning out? “It is a bit mental at the moment. I feel like I’m slightly oversubscribed,” he says, all grins. “There’s the actor’s fear of the dead phone, but part of it is the Scottish Presbyterian work ethic. I’m also doing it because it’s fun, though. It’s a very exciting time, doing some unique things. That won’t be there for ever, I know that.”

Number crunching

1 million people are admitted to UK hospitals every year as a result of head injuries

100 people in the UK are now living in a permanent vegetative coma

15 minutes is the maximum time a person can remain in a coma without the risk of moderate to severe brain damage

2 times as many men as women suffer brain injuries

For more about the work of Headway: or 0808 8002244

Source: The Times Body And Soul 24/02/2007