In recent years, David Tennant has proven that he’s much more than just “The Doctor.”
He’s been a detective (“Broadchurch”). A duck (“Duck Tales”). A “dastard” (“Marvel’s Jessica Jones,” in which he’ll appear for Season 2). And soon, a devil — having just been cast as co-lead character Crowley in Amazon’s limited series adaptation of the apocalyptic fantasy novel “Good Omens.”
Once upon a time an actor like Tennant would have been typecast forever as the time-traveling Doctor of “Doctor Who,” a classic sci-fi hero beloved by many. Once they’ve gone “genre,” actors have often found it tough to escape the label: “Star Trek: The Next Generation” star Sir Patrick Stewart has often told a story about auditioning for a well-known Hollywood director at some point after he sat down in the captain’s chair on the U.S.S. Enterprise, and the director saying that while he nailed the audition, “Why would I want Captain Picard in my movie?”
But the fact that Tennant fans have been given multiple reasons to get excited about the British actor’s latest moves — just in the last week! — is a reflection of how much the TV landscape has changed for performers in recent years.
In broadcast’s peak era, an actor taking on a lead role meant a major buy-in: up to 26 episodes a year, with a commitment to multiple seasons. Getting a series regular job on a stable network drama or sitcom isn’t the hardest work in the world; for many actors, it’s the gold ring. But it is also a promise to play the same character for years, and depending on the show can lead to some degree of monotony, as well as the Hollywood perception that they can “only do” drama, comedy or sci-fi.
It’s still possible for a season of television to take up the bulk of an actor’s year — for example, “Doctor Who” still has a nine-month shooting schedule. And actors who switch genres (think comedian Bob Odenkirk on “Better Call Saul”) must still contend with people who question how they managed to exercise their acting chops.
But the new types of opportunities available for actors now, as the number of series increase and seasons shorten, has changed this standard — and allowed actors and actresses to hop around a variety of projects at the same time.
Take “Good Omens,” which is a limited series for Amazon and the BBC, meaning that there’s not necessarily a plan for more than one season and the full story of the book may be covered in those episodes. (This is a marked difference from, say, the Starz adaptation of “American Gods,” which has only gotten through a portion of Gaiman’s original novel with its first season.)
“Good Omens” follows Crowley (Tennant) and longtime friend/angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) as they seek to prevent the apocalypse their bosses think is a swell idea. Those who have read the book know that if “Good Omens” is a runaway success, there’s potential for future seasons. But it’s not a given, making it an easier commitment than other roles, and giving Tennant time to continue other gigs.
Years after “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” it’s now been proven that actors, especially those have worked in the realm of genre, can find new roles beyond whatever conception of type might surround them. Stewart has found a new range of roles in the last 20 years. Another Starfleet captain, Kate Mulgrew, now plays the tough-as-nails Red on “Orange is the New Black.” And other former Doctors, including Christopher Eccleston and Matt Smith, have been embraced as American preachers or real-life princes.
And of course, Tennant has proven his ability to migrate from complicated role to complicated role, often almost simultaneously. In fact, he was doing voice work on “DuckTales” at the same time he was investigating the horrors of human nature on “Broadchurch,” he recently told IndieWire. “You just find the tone. It’s all about finding the tone, I think,” he said.
It’s rare that an actor will say they don’t want to work, no matter what the gig, but it’s also rare that an actor won’t say they want fresh challenges, unique characters to play. And one of the side benefits of television’s evolution is that this has become possible on a whole new level.