Year after year, New York Comic Con becomes a larger and larger presence in the entertainment industry and within the fan community itself. Yet to rival the size and star power of San Diego Comic Con, each year’s guests and events seem to only build on those that came before them. And although many actors from BBC’s programs such as Doctor Who have appeared at New York Comic Con in past years, this year’s panel, “BBC America Takeover,” marks the first time the channel has mounted a panel dedicated solely to their programing. Smartly taking advantage of the immense popularity of their flagship show Doctor Who, BBC America promoted not just the show itself (and its new spinoff, Class) but a brand new exclusive series to the network, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.
In doing so, it helped to solidify New York Comic Con’s growing role as the television comic convention. In fact, when guests for 2016’s New York Comic Con were first announced over the summer, it looked almost like “The Steven Moffat Doctor Who Farewell,” with the majority of the “Moffat era” actors – along with showrunner Steven Moffat (Sherlock) – scheduled to appear at various events throughout the four-day convention. This year also happened to mark the New York Comic Con debut of Peter Capaldi (The Twelfth and current Doctor) and, at the BBC panel itself, the first public fan appearance of his new companion, Bill, played by the ever-charming Pearl Markie.
All this made for a surprising and exciting Friday morning at Madison Square Garden.
First up, the above mentioned BBC America exclusive series, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. It is based on the novels of the same name by Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy), a series of books that just happen to have been inspired by two episodes of the original classic Doctor Who series written by Adams and featuring Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor.
With a captive audience of Doctor Who and Sci-fi fans, BBC America began the morning’s panel by screening the entire pilot, set to air Oct 22nd on the channel and distributed internationally through Netflix. Billed as a BBC America original (not a BBC proper transplant), Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency has a clever, creative, and intelligently plotted pilot. Elijah Wood plays Todd, a down on his luck American bellhop living in Seattle.
After a series of unfortunate incidents, he ends up owing money to his landlord, needing even more money for a loved one, and then losing his job after coming across a gruesome unexplained murder at work. Did I mention there was also a cute cat present? Choosing Todd’s P.O.V as the audience’s eye is a perfect way to frame the series, giving the audience the same confused feeling Todd has when, out of nowhere, an odd, quirky Englishman randomly shows up at his house.
That oddball is, of course, Dirk Gently, who – after breaking into Todd’s apartment and claiming to be a detective – takes over his life while endlessly haranguing him into being his new assistant. While watching the pilot, I had no idea the original book series was inspired by Doctor Who, yet still found myself making a strong connection and noting just how Doctor-like (particularly Matt Smith’s Doctor) Samuel Barnett is as Dirk Gently. One might even estimate that Todd’s reaction to Dirk seems like a far more realistic take on what would happen if The Doctor actually did show up unexpectedly on your doorstep and asked you to be his “assistant” (the word used in the classic series for companions).
As the scope of the story widens, we begin to meet other great characters, all of who hold as much mystery as the murder at the pilot’s core. There is Todd’s sister Amanda (Hannah Marks), who has a mysterious disease; holistic assassin Bart (Fiona Dourif), looking for one of our heroes; and her very, very reluctant traveling companion, computer programmer, Ken (Mpho Koaho).
They are joined by two sets of law enforcement comic pairings, in local cops Estevez (Neil Brown Jr.) and Zimmerfield (the always-brilliant Richard Schiff), and the government operatives Colonel Scott Riggins (stalwart actor Miguel Sandoval) and his bumbling sniper partner Sergeant Hugo Friedkin (Dustin Milligan).
Without giving too much away, creator/writer Max Landis has given us in Dirk Gently a quirky, stylish show with wonderful performances, supported by great editing and visual style set up by director Dean Parisot. The show owns the oddball quality of the situations each character is thrown into by taking these serious moments and adding just enough comedy to keep it light, interesting and appealing.
After the recent launch of the new fall season of predominantly network television shows consisting of mostly great ideas with lackluster execution, Dirk has that spark missing from previous offerings. I would go as far to say it has been the best pilot I’ve seen so far this season. And I still haven’t talked about the woman being held captive above Todd’s apartment (played by Jade Eshete in a stunning performance) Also, did I mention there’s a corgi dog? I look forward to revisiting this mystery soon and discovering secrets it holds.
For those familiar with the books, at the panel after the screening, Max Landis (creator and writer) discussed his take on the series versus the books themselves, stating he felt his series had more humanity than the books, as Adams often had a cutting blade of cynicism. It was hard for the actors to talk much about the series without giving away key plot points, but they were all excited for the series and happy to be a part of the project based on strong writing. Samuel Barnett talked about how he auditioned by tape, while the creative team stressed he was cast almost instantly based on his strong audition – to them he was Dirk. And watching his performance, it is hard to imagine anyone else playing the role.
The next series up was Class, a spinoff of Doctor Who that takes place at Coal Hill School (now “Coal Hill Academy”) – a place known to Doctor Who fans as not only the school where Clara Oswald taught, but also the workplace of the First Doctor’s companions, Barbara and Ian, who met while his granddaughter Susan was their student there.
When I first heard about Class, I had expected a series similar to the Sarah Jane Adventures, but I was greatly mistaken. The trailer that debuted felt more like an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer with teenage characters, often in adult situations, battling a creature each week.
The concept for Class is based off an idea, according to the panel, of what happens when The Doctor leaves and those from his past adventures are left to deal with things alone. It appears, due to The Doctor’s many travels to Coal Hill Academy, time and space have grown thin around the school, making it easier for monsters and baddies to break in and wreak havoc.
It would also appear to be the perfect show for the younger, Tumblr generation of obsessed Doctor Who fans. In fact, an observation brought up at the panel was the fact that this is the first time a Who series has a main cast too young to remember the break in the series (unlike the youngest actor to play The Doctor, Matt Smith).
And then it was time for the panel we all had been waiting for: Doctor Who.
This panel featured showrunner Steven Moffat, executive producer Brian Minchin (Class, Torchwood), Peter Calpadi (The Twelfth Doctor), Pearl Markie (Bill), and Matt Lucas (Nardole from The Husband’s Of River Song), who will be returning again for this year’s Christmas episode before joining Team Tardis for the upcoming tenth season. One wonders how this will work, considering the last we saw Lucas’s character, he had been decapitated and his body replaced with that of a giant red robot. But, considering this is Who, anything is possible.
Regarding Nardole’s return, Moffat and Lucas expressed that the character will mostly be the same, but also possess new layers, including a sinister side. The panelists also revealed that while Lucas appears in the Christmas episode, Pearl will not make her Doctor Who debut as Bill until 2017, the official start of the tenth season.
A highlight for me was once again seeing and listening to Steven Moffat speak in person. As a fan of Mr. Moffat (a minority position in the Doctor Who fandom), I am always reminded when seeing him live just how funny he is. Something of this humor, especially in print – either out of context or without inflection – I think gets lost. One example was when Steven mentioned being in talks with BBC about the future 100th Anniversary special of Doctor Who … but declined because he would not be available, as he planned “to be dead.”
The Doctor Who Christmas Special this year appears to be a classic superhero story – a tale Mr. Moffat has been wanting to do since he was six-years-old and pretending to be his own made-up superhero, the “Red Rat.”
Greatly influenced by Christopher Reeve’s Superman portrayal, Moffat made the admission that he always found Clark Kent more interesting than Superman himself, an insight into the themes the showrunner has explored during his tenure on the show.
An interesting moment occurred during the panel’s Q and A when an audience member asked each panel member what other Doctor Who character they would like to play other than their own. Funnily enough, Peter Capaldi had the same answer that Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith gave during a panel just one day prior – they both would like to play The Master. It is an interesting observation that two actors, having played the good guy, would want a chance at playing the bad guy for once – the yin to their Doctor’s yang.
Peter ended the panel with a very fitting and wonderful story: an anecdote about how he and actress Jenna Coleman (his previous companion, Clara) came across a man while filming an episode of the previous series. The man was so shocked and nervous on meeting the two actors that he yelled, “Matt! Karen!” and then, so embarrassed by his blunder, remarked to the two actors, “Big shoes. Big shoes.”
Every new season and every new Doctor and companion have big shoes to fill; it is the nature of the series.
But just hearing the famous Doctor Who music again in the teaser trailer brings on that excitement and childlike wonder in the pit of any Who fan’s stomach. The feeling that soon, once again, brains will win over brawn – and the Doctor will come to save the day.
And after the 2016 we’ve all had, Christmas and new Doctor Who couldn’t come any sooner.