ATV Icons: Michelle Ryan

Doctor-Who-2005-logoOver the Easter weekend Michelle Ryan guest-starred in Doctor Who as one-off companion Lady Christina De Souza but the actress is still perhaps best known for her role of Zoe Slater in EastEnders.

Despite leading roles in other shows her time on the BBC One soap is still the programme she is best remembered for. However, in our latest ATV Icons profile we take a look back at her career from EastEnders all the way through to Doctor Who via the Bionic Woman.

Over the Easter weekend Michelle Ryan guest-starred in Doctor Who as one-off companion Lady Christina De Souza but the actress is still perhaps best known for her role of Zoe Slater in EastEnders. Despite leading roles in other shows her time on the BBC One soap is still the programme she is best remembered for. However, in our latest ATV Icons profile we take a look back at her career from EastEnders all the way through to Doctor Who via the Bionic Woman.

Michelle Ryan’s big television break came in 2000 when she joined the cast of BBC One soap EastEnders as Zoe Slater. However, before joining the London based-soap she also appeared in several other shows that year. Ryan had a medium role in a two-part episode of Burnside, a spin-off from The Bill. The short-lived spin-off centred on the popular character of DCI Frank Burnside [Christopher Ellison] and his team as they investigated crimes and murders. The series only lasted a season due to poor ratings but it gave Ryan one of her earliest breaks on television. Also before joining EastEnders the actress appeared in an episode of The Worst Witch, a popular CITV series based on the range of novels of the same name.

But of course it was also in 2000 that Michelle Ryan landed her first big role – that of Zoe Slater in EastEnders. Over the next few years the Slater family would more or less dominate the action in EastEnders as they clan of sisters, complete with father Charlie and grandmother Mo, provided writers with plenty of material. Some EastEnders fans even complained that the family were dominating the action so much that the soap should be renamed The Slaters. The Slater family were a rowdy bunch and the other residents of Albert Square certainly felt their presence! Just after a year of living on the Square Zoe found out that her sister Kat [Jessie Wallace] was actually her mother. At Lynne’s [Elaine Lordan] engagement party, another Sister, Zoe and Kat argued about Zoe’s plans to leave the Square with their Uncle Harry. Kat was distraught at the idea because Harry was Zoe’s real father – Harry had raped Kat when she was 13. The argument that followed saw Kat reveal the truth to a devastated, hurt and angry Zoe.

EastEnders-smallFollowing the big revelation Zoe ran away from the Square in a storyline that somewhat echoed that of Diane Butcher’s a decade previous. Zoe was forced to live on the streets and nearly ended up working as a prostitute to earn a living. While living on the streets Zoe befriended Kelly Taylor [Brooke Kinsella] and eventually Kelly would go to Albert Square with Zoe. Zoe was tracked down by Kat and persuaded to return to the Slater Family home after several months away. During her time away Zoe had kept in touch with younger sister Little Mo [Kacey Ainsworth] who, like Zoe, had been deceived by her family about Zoe’s real parentage.

The revelation storyline and the homeless storyline was just one of many that featured Zoe Slater during her five year stint on the soap. After returning home Zoe embarked on a relationship with Doctor Trueman [Nicholas Bailey] but this storyline was abandoned when Michelle Ryan was forced to take time off from EastEnders due to illness. The heavy filming schedule involved with EastEnders had taken its toll on the young actress and she took several months off to recover. When the character returned to Albert Square she came back with old friend Kelly Taylor.

Another romance for Zoe came in the form of Dennis Rickman [Nigel Harman], half brother of Vicki Fowler [Scarlett Johnson] and Sharon Watts [Lettia Dean]. Zoe and Dennis embarked on a doomed romance as Dennis really fancied his adoptive sister Sharon. Zoe desperately tried to keep hold of Dennis but she knew it was a pointless struggle. But Dennis and Sharon’s father, Dirty Den Watts [Leslie Grantham], didn’t want the pair to be together and told Zoe to tell Dennis she was pregnant – Dennis then wouldn’t leave Zoe. Desperate to keep hold of Dennis Zoe did so but then came her dilemma – she wasn’t pregnant and Dennis wouldn’t be fooled for long. But Dirty Den had a solution for that – Zoe would have to sleep with him in order to fall pregnant otherwise he would reveal the truth. Zoe did so and fell pregnant but Den’s wife Chrissie [Tracey Ann-Oberman] found out and persuaded her to have an abortion. Then Zoe, Chrissie and Sam Mitchell plotted revenge on Den – it was to be deadly revenge.

The trio plotted to expose Den’s nasty and manipulative ways, and his various plots, to Sharon knowing she would disown him. It worked but an enraged Den lunged at Chrissie, determined to kill her. Zoe grabbed the nearest thing at hand, a doggy door-stop, to fight him off with. Den fell to the floor seemingly dead. Zoe was convinced she had killed him. However, Zoe had merely knocked the devious landlord out and he once again lunged at Chrissie – who dealt the final deadly blow. But Zoe didn’t know this and for months Chrissie manipulated Zoe into keeping quiet about the incident and guilt tripping her. Sam Mitchell [Kim Medcalf] had seen Chrissie deliver the final blow and eventually told Zoe the truth. Zoe punched Chrissie for her deceit and then fled the country know she could still go to jail for what helping to cover up the murder of Den.

Many soap actors/actresses leave hoping for success elsewhere but few actually achieve it. Michelle Ryan however, is one of those lucky few who have gone on to find success after soap. In 2006 she appeared in one of ITV’s Miss Marple films. The films are the latest television adaption of Agatha Christie’s other famous sleuth, Miss Marple. The role was perhaps made famous by Joan Hickson’s portrayal for the BBC series produced in the 1980s. For the 21st century version Geraldine McEwan was the first actress to play Miss Marple in the ITV series. Ryan appeared in the adaption of By the Pricking of my Thumb as Rose Waters. Amongst the cast of the ITV version were June Whitfield, Josie Lawrence, Clare Boom and Greta Sacacchi.

Following this role Ryan appeared in another ITV adaptation of a famous novel only this time it was Jane Austin’s work being adapted for television. Ryan appeared in Mansfield Park as Maria Bertram alongside Billie Piper, Jemma Redgrave, Douglas Hodge, Maggie O’Neill and James D’Arcy. Also in 2007 Ryan appeared in the six-part BBC mini-series Jekyll, described as a sequel to the famous Robert Louis-Stevenson novel rather than another adaptation.

The series starred James Nesbitt as Doctor Jackman who uses technology to keep his darker side, Mr. Hyde, a secret and for a while he achieves this but then things go very wrong. The six-part drama was written by Steven Moffat and also starred Meera Syal, Paterson Joseph, Gina Bellman, Fenella Woolgar and Denis Lawson. Ryan played Katherine Reimer in the drama, an assistant Doctor Jackman who is clearly attracted to him. However, Jackman is oblivious to this attraction although it is remarked upon on several occasions. The drama aired to mix reviews in the UK and certain edits were made to make the series more suitable for the Saturday night slot it occupied.

Ryan’s next big role of 2007 was to come in America as she was cast in the lead role of Jamie Sommers in NBC’s remake of the Bionic Woman, the cult classic series from the 1970s. The “reimaging” of the class series was overseen by David Eick who was part of the creative team who “reimaged” Battlestar Galactica for the Sci Fi Channel. NBC bosses hoped that Eick would work his magic on the Bionic Woman and Eick wouldn’t be the only connection to Battlestar on the revived Bionic Woman. The series was produced and filmed in Vancouver, Canada, as was Battlestar Galactica – for cost reasons. A pilot episode was produced for American television and it rated well enough for NBC to commission a weekly series although changes to the format of the drama would be made for the weekly show.

Starring alongside Ryan in the Bionic Woman was Katee Sackhoff as Sarah Corvus, the first “bionic woman” and a rival to Jamie Sommers. Sackhoff was also starring in Battlestar Galactica at the time as Starbuck and her time was divided between the two shows and as such Sackhoff was just a recurring character on the series. Other Galactica actors to appear on the series included Mark Sheppard, Aaron Douglas, Jacob Blair and Lorena Gale. While the pilot episode was well received by critics the weekly series was not and one of the criticisms was unfortunately Michelle Ryan’s American accent, which was felt to be unconvincing. For one episode Ryan did use an English accent, although not her own natural accent, when Jamie Sommers went undercover for an assignment.

Production on the series was dogged by creative problems from the start. Michael Dinner was one of the executive producers for the pilot episode but left the production in June 2007. Glen Morgan, who had written and produced The X-Files and Space: Above and Beyond, was hired to replace Dinner. However, Morgan left just four months later due to “creative problems”. Morgan was followed by Jason Katims, executive producer of Friday Night Lights, and then Jason Cahill was hired as a new showrunner. Ryan herself stated the constant change of direction of the show didn’t help it settle down with audiences and ratings declined over the weeks. However, the final nail in the coffin for the reimaged show was the Writers Strike in Mid-November 2007. The Bionic Woman, like many other shows, was affected by the strike and production came to a halt. Although the strike was resolved and other shows went back to production the Bionic Woman did not. NBC used the strike as an excuse to cancel the series which had severely declined in the ratings.

The following year Ryan was cast as the devious sorceress Nimueh in four episodes of Merlin, a new BBC take on the legends of King Arthur and Wizard Merlin. The series is set in Camelot but features the two lead characters as teenagers rather than warriors in arms. In the latest take Nimueh is a sorceress banished from Camelot for practicing witchcraft, which is banned by the tyrant King Uther [Anthony Head]. Nimeuh returns to Camelot to have her revenge on Uther for his persecution of her fellow witches and warlocks.

Nimueh tires to kill Uther’s son, Arthur, and also Merlin on several occasions. In the first season finale Arthur is badly wounded and Merlin turns to Nimueh for help, offering to trade places with Arthur. However, Nimueh takes Merlin’s mother as the price for Arthur’s survival angering Merlin. Eventually the two powerful forces come together in battle and Merlin is victorious – Nimueh is seemingly defeated and killed. However, her final fate is not confirmed and it’s likely she survived. It’s unknown whether or not Nimueh will appear in the forthcoming second season of Merlin. In the series she occupied the role of the “big-bad” of the season, the recurring nemesis that the characters must constantly battle with and defeat. The idea of a “big-bad” for each season isn’t original and was one of the conventions of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off, Angel.

After Merlin concluded on BBC One it was announced that Michelle Ryan would guest-star as a one-off companion in one of the specials of Doctor Who, four of which would air in 2009 instead of a weekly series. Before Ryan’s casting in the series was announced there was speculation in the media that Ryan would join the series as the new full-time companion – replacing the departing Catherine Tate. Ryan’s name was one of several banded about by the tabloid press however, they were closer to the truth than they thought as Ryan was indeed to star in the series – but in one episode only. The actress was cast as Lady Christina De Souza, an autocrat who is also a jewel thief.

Lady Christina encounters the Doctor while trying to escape arrest on a London Bus – which then ends up on an alien world. The episode, Planet of the Dead, aired in Easter 2009 and rated well with over 8 million viewers tuning in and reviews were mostly positive. While Ryan’s appearance in Doctor Who for now is only as a one-off companion the production team noted there was potential for her return in the future – should the team new wish to use her. After all Catherine Tate’s time in Doctor Who started off as a one-off companion in the Christmas Special, Runaway Bride, before Donna Noble was revived for the fourth series. The new executive producer of Doctor Who is Steven Moffat who wrote Jekyll so he is already more than familiar with Ryan’s work. So maybe in the future we’ll be seeing more of Lady Christina in Doctor Who.