Catherine Tate and Freema Agyeman (in her first Dragon Con appearance) graced Hilton’s Grand Salon Saturday and answered fans’ burning questions about how it felt to explore time and save the universe beside the 10th Doctor, played by David Tennant. Tate, with her characteristic quick wit and silliness, wooed the audience from the word go, calling the silver carafe of water before her a “flagon” and questioning the contents, while Agyeman beamed her megawatt smile.
Moderator Rob Levy kicked off the panel by asking both women about whether they had any input into Donna and Martha, especially when it came to making them strong characters. Tate replied that she really just said the lines that showrunner and writer Russel T. Davies wrote for them and that all of it was on the page. When asked what each of them look for when taking a role, Tate first joked that she looks for “a massive paycheck,” before adding that sometimes it’s the jobs you turn down that define you more than the jobs you take.
Agyeman, in the thoughtful and articulate way that would mark most of her answers during the panel, said that of course paying the bills is important, so obviously you do need to make that a consideration, but that it is also important to take roles that give you a sense of community and that will help you diversify your resume.
Dragon Con is nothing if not a celebration of fandom, giving us all the opportunity to have an interaction with our heroes. Asked who were the people they were most excited to meet, Freema said that for her The Matrix was everything. Getting to work with the Wachowskis was transformative for her, but she says that she does still get star struck, finding it very hard to just go up to people she admires and tell them how much she loves their work. Tate was excited to work particularly with Dawn French from French and Saunders, and that it was a big deal for her.
What is important for both Tate and Agyeman is mentorship on set for younger people coming in. “You have to always extend the hand of friendship and whatever it is you can do to help. And also, to always remember—I’m very grateful for the people who came before me who as I was coming up didn’t shut the door and go ‘No, the room’s full.’ They just went hey, come on in, it’s really good. And that’s what you have to do. You have to just keep pulling people in and making the party rock.”
Things didn’t go particularly well for Donna or Martha on Doctor Who, and fans have had vocal reactions about both characters. In particular, Agyeman addressed some of the things that she felt were difficult about her character, saying that it felt more like an interruption in Martha’s life because she was independent and educated, and then here comes this madman in a box to disrupt everything. “You don’t get the idea that she’s searching for something in her life,” she said of Martha. “She’s even caretaking the Doctor at some points. You see her in all of her strength and then this unrequited storyline came into it. And it did get stuck on a beat where it felt like that was what was being played all the time. I remember saying to Russel at one point, ‘What are we doing with this?’ He said I think that more people have feelings of rejection or unrequited love or isolation and to just always show the fantasy and the fairytale… is also fabulous but you need the balance. If it doesn’t go that way, what do you do? Are you going to curl up or are you going to stand up? When I was shooting that scene [where Martha leaves the Doctor] tears just kept coming. Graeme [Harper, Doctor Who director] kept stopping it saying that Russel specifically said that we don’t want tears in this. We don’t want it to be like a miserable thing. She has to hold her head up and walk.”
For Donna, Tate thought that it was genius to take someone who had learned so much and grown so greatly and then take it away. “I was more than happy to play that,” Tate said.
One of the things that Agyeman took from playing Martha was to not be afraid to “make about turns” and to do what makes you happy now. Tate quipped that “learn to type” was the most important thing she learned from Donna’s journey.
Agyeman was actually duped into auditioning for the part of Martha. They told her at first that she was auditioning for Torchwood after the producers came to meet her on the set of Doctor Who during her guest spot in “Army of Ghosts.”
“I’m so glad I didn’t know!” she said. To make it worse, her agent then psyched her out by telling her at first that she didn’t get the role before breaking the good news. Tennant seemed to be the only nice person in the process, slipping her an encouraging note before she screen-tested. Speaking of nice, Tennant—Tate and Agyeman agreed—is a dream colleague and friend, as well as a consummate professional. First, though, Tate deadpanned when asked about working with him: “I’m still in therapy. We’ve been covering up for him long enough.”
Asked to contrast television sets in the UK versus the US, Tate and Agyeman both talked about the differences in the available food and catering. “Bless the BBC,” Tate said, “but there you get some tea, a biscuit, or tea and a broken biscuit.”
The thing about US television sets that blew Agyeman away was the concept of a stand-in, meaning someone who would stand in Agyeman’s spot on set as they adjusted the lighting or reset something. It’s not something that Agyeman expected, and at first she did the standing around herself. But then the producers told her that her stand-in felt like she wasn’t doing her job, which Agyeman didn’t want! Still, the whole concept was so foreign to her.
Currently, Agyeman can be seen on the NBC medical drama New Amsterdam. She said that it was a project that she wasn’t sure she wanted to take on, but the pilot had something to say that spoke to the social, political, and economic reality of today—that spoke to the reality that many people live in daily. And, it was also a role that would help her explore her craft as the character is “a trickier fish” than she is used to. The show felt like growth, it had a message, and it connected with her artistically. Part of the strength of the show is that it has one of the most diverse writer’s rooms out there, which makes the stories that are on-screen feel more authentic, something that she hopes for in the future of Doctor Who.
Tate said that she hopes the next Doctor is a ginger and took a moment to remind everyone that the Doctor-Donna was technically the first female Doctor, which she learned from coming to Dragon Con last year.
It was an hour with the Companions that made us wish we had our own TARDIS to allow us to go back and do it again.