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The new Doctor is in at last

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Matt Smith is the 11th Doctor Who as British sci-fi classic returns tonight

Some secrets are harder to keep than others.

For an ambitious young actor, being told to keep mum when you've just landed a major and much-coveted lead role is tough enough.

But when you suddenly discover you're about to become an internationally adored, 907-year-old genre icon with two hearts and 11 consecutive distinct personalities ... it's pretty much impossible.

"I had to keep my mouth shut for three long months," ruefully recalls Matt Smith, the tousled 27-year-old who is the latest to have inherited the venerable role of the Doctor in the time-spanning British science-fiction institution Doctor Who, which returns to North American TV screens - here exclusively on cable's Space channel - Saturday night at 9.

"It's such a big deal in England," Smith says, "I had to wait till they officially announced it. But I found out in November of 2009, and they didn't announce it until January of 2010. I was just going mad, and it went on for weeks.

"I remember there being a lot of speculation at the time, and I was doing a lot of press for something else I was in, and they were asking every other actor in it if they were going to be the next Doctor Who ... every one but me! And I knew that I had it! And I couldn't say a thing to anyone, except for my family."

Karen Gillan, the Doctor's spunky new Scottish travelling companion, had a somewhat easier time of it. "It wasn't too agonizing for me," she admits. "I was the last girl who auditioned. I only had to keep it a secret for a couple of weeks," even from her family - particularly her mother, an avid long-time sci-fi fan.

"I couldn't do that to her," Gillan laughs. "I had to make a choice: I could either call her with this news and then tell her she can't tell anyone, or I could wait, go home to Inverness, tell her face to face, and then let her talk freely about it.

"So I waited until just about an hour before it was officially announced. Needless to say, she was absolutely thrilled. Now she calls me up, 'So, dear, how was your day?' and I know that she's really after a couple of spoilers. So I have to be very careful what I say."

Mother Gillan is not alone. The good Doctor has a vast and uniquely passionate global fan base that takes its respective Whos very seriously indeed.

Much speculation preceded Smith's casting, with rumoured Doctors from Little Britain's David Walliams to Trainspotting (and now Stargate) star Robert Carlysle, and even Joanna Lumley, who played a female Who for laughs in a 1999 Comic Relief spoof.

Typically, when Smith was announced, the Internet was all abuzz, equal parts anticipation and pre-emptive objection - the latter, particularly, over the actor's unprecedented youth. Hired at the tender age of 26, Smith is the youngest Doctor yet.

Infinitely worse, worried some, was that he is also the first to have grown up in an England where there was no Doctor Who to speak of, save the occasional rerun - from 1989 through 2005, the series' only fallow period since its debut in 1963.

"It just wasn't on TV," Smith says. "I mean, you know about it, of course ... it's passed on through the blood, somehow. I don't know. It just is.

"But the fools took it off the air when I was a kid, which was a shame, really. I would have loved to have been 8 and watching Doctor Who - can't think of anything better, really."

Smith has tried to make up for lost time, retrospectively reviewing the work of his predecessors, from the immediate and much-admired David Tennant, back through the single-season ninth Doctor, Christopher Eccleston, and on through the fourth, the longest-running and arguably most popular, Tom Baker.

"I really love Patrick Troughton," he enthuses of the series' second star, from 1966 to 1969. "He's one of my favourite Doctors. He just has that mad Doctor face."

His own take on Who will be similarly eccentric. "I mean, the Doctor is always the Doctor," he allows. "I can only say what I hope it will be. We'll just have to wait and see. But I do think he's quite mad. And the companion he has travelling with him is mad, which I think just adds to the particular energy of this TARDIS (as in "Time and Relative Dimensions in Space," the Doctor's traditional police-box time machine).

"He's bonkers, really, this particular Doctor. He sort of takes things up to the precipice, and doesn't realize what he's going to do until the very last moment. He's quite clumsy, as well, because I happen to be clumsy, so it has to become part of the show, otherwise we'd never get anything shot.

"Sometimes I think it's intentional because that's how he saves the day. He's not your typical hero. I mean, in England, we also have James Bond. But I'd rather be Doctor Who any day of the week."

And then, when he doesn't want to be Doctor Who anymore? Smith has no worries about long-term typecasting. Tennant, for example, survived his five-year run to land the lead in a new NBC pilot, Rex is Not Your Lawyer, and will recreate his award-winning Royal Shakespeare Company stage production of Hamlet - co-starring Patrick Stewart, a genre icon twice over himself in two successful sci-fi franchises, Star Trek and the X-Men - on PBS at the end of this month.

In the meantime, Smith says, he's having the time of his lives.

"We're really pleased," he says of the early fan response back home to his new Who. "We're very, very proud of it. And it just gets better and better. From episodes four and five onwards, I think we really hit our stride. And I just saw 12 and 13 the other day, and they are, if I say so myself, absolutely extraordinary."

From the Doctor we expect nothing less.

Who he is depends on who he's with

The Doctor Who companion is, so to speak, a "time-honoured" tradition, dating back to the the series' beginnings, when original Doctor William Hartnell brought his granddaughter and a couple of schoolteachers along for the ride.

As much as the companions are essentially intended to give the viewer someone "normal" to identify with, they also define their individual Doctors.

"That's just so important," agrees Karen Gillan, whose feisty Amy Pond brings the tag-along total close to 40.

"The first time I read with Matt, there was some sort of spark there," she says. "But I think we were both very aware that these things need to be developed. And that's what we were constantly doing while we were filming the series ... every day, constantly trying to make it better, trying new things, and new ways for that essential connection to manifest itself between them."

It is one of the great geeky perks of this job that I have also been able to interview the three previous companions of the revived 21st-century Doctor Who.

A few selected quotes:

Billie Piper, pop singer turned companion to Eccleston and then Tennant, now the star of Secret Diary of a Call Girl:

"Before I did Doctor Who, I wasn't a huge sci-fi fan. We weren't a big TV family. But I remember people talking about it a lot in school, and at times I did feel I was missing out on something special.

"What's so great about Doctor Who is that it celebrates life and humanity. I missed that before. And now it's something I'm such a huge fan of, and advocate for Doctor Who in such a strong way. It's topical, it's about life and existence and how greedy and how hateful we are at times, and how we forget how wonderful things can be and how special and extraordinary life really is."

Freema Agyeman, the first "companion of colour," who spun off from Who onto its sister series, Torchwood, and now co-stars in Law & Order: UK:

"The part wasn't specified as being 'non-white.' ... It's just such a reassuring and reflective sign of the times. It is so great to get this fabulous female part that isn't synonymous with my colour. It's not stereotypical in any way.

"It's a massive achievement. I'm really honoured. I mean, the show is such an institution. ... I get letters from black children saying, 'I really want to be like you.' That is quite something. I mean, it's nice to have a role model that all children can look up to, that non-white children can also identify with."

Catherine Tate, versatile comedy character actress and star of her own, self-titled, awarding-winning sketch show:

"I don't actually think the process is any different than doing comedy, but the results are different. What's great about doing Doctor Who is that it has a narrative, so it means that I can approach it more as a straight acting role.

"And it's just the one character, and I don't have to have the pressure of writing it. It's a pressure and a privilege, writing. Mainly a pressure.

"But where else would I get the chance to do all these wild things, you know, and get to go home at the end of the day without getting arrested or something?"

GRAPHIC: Matt Smith describes his Doctor Who and companion, played by Karen Gillan, as "quite mad," which "adds to the energy of the TARDIS." PHOTOS: Karen Gillan, Billie Piper, Freema Agyeman, Catherine Tate.

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