Doctor stuck in a time warp

Sat, Mar 12, 2005, 00:00

Profile: He flew through time and space in a police box, fought Daleks and Cybermen, and always had a pretty sidekick. Now the immortal doctor is back, played this time by Christopher Eccleston, writes Shane Hegarty.

A couple of years ago, the people who own the rights to the Daleks got a call from satirist Victor Lewis-Smith. He wanted to make a series featuring Doctor Who's arch-enemies. In The Gay Daleks, the evil dustbins would waggle their deadly proboscises while yelling "Experminate! Experminate!" in that monotonous, yet oddly camp, robotic voice of theirs. It would be a parody of both the Daleks and gay stereotypes. The BBC was on board. What did they think?

No way, said the people who own the Daleks. "We want to protect the integrity of the brand." Lewis-Smith wondered if homophobia was obstructing his intergalactic friends, then the idea was dropped. There would be no gay Daleks.

It was to be just another of many Doctor Who spin-offs, successful and unsuccessful, to have sprung up since his Tardis last popped off the screen. There have been radio shows, comics, novels, internet cartoons, magazines, videos, DVDs, web pages and parodies. But there has been no new Doctor Who series. Until now.

In a fortnight, Doctor Who returns to the screen, eight years after his last incarnation. Already, he has had to face a fearsome foe: the attack of the internet pirates. The first episode has been leaked on to the web, and fans of the timelord can do a bit of time travelling themselves by watching the programme two weeks early. The BBC is publicly fuming, although surely only a cynic could suggest that the resulting publicity has been curiously timely.

Christopher Eccleston plays the Doctor, still residing in the deceptively spacious Tardis but criss-crossing a universe in which advanced building technology now prevents wobbly sets from terrorising the cast. Reactions to the first episode have been mixed. "The chances of him succeeding are impossible to gauge on one episode alone," said the man from the Times, "since so much exposition is required . . . that defeating the evil, mannequin-controlling blob of slime that's come to wipe out humanity is almost incidental."

Website Ain't It Cool News is less forgiving: "From the cheap opening credit sequence to the hammy and frequently inaudible dialogue, it feels like a fan-produced parody of the original series."

Whatever way it goes, it is hardly likely to match the upset caused by Doctor Who's last appearance. In 1996, the BBC joined forces with an American channel for a TV movie that turned him into an action hero, who kissed his sidekick and bombed through San Francisco on a motorbike. Even some of the most loyal fans - "Whovians" - decided that it may be best if Doctor Who quietly retired to where he came from.

Which is the planet Gallifrey, by way of the BBC. Doctor Who was created in 1963 as an educational science fiction series aimed at children aged between nine and 14. Its hero would be a "timelord" crossing time and space in search of adventure in his police telephone box-shaped Tardis (all pub quiz buffs know it stands for "Time And Relative Dimension In Space"). The first Doctor was William Hartnell, who played him as a cantankerous old chap, perhaps not so surprising given that he was supposed to be 750 years old. However, the first programme was delayed by the news of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. "History was made, twice in one day," one Whovian recently wrote, exaggerating the show's historical importance just a tad.

It swooped on to television with a magnificent, chunky theme tune that is about the only bit of it to remain genuinely futuristic. Delia Derbyshire, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop's in-house musician and electronics expert, recorded it, but would later die without telling anyone how she had done it. The Radiophonic Workshop was also responsible for the sound of the Tardis cleaving open the space/time continuum. It was done by scraping a key across piano wire.

It arrived during a golden age of British television sci-fi, a time of Quatermass, The Prisoner and The Tomorrow People. In its early years, with Patrick Troughton as the second Doctor, it could mask the dodgy makeup and effects through the murky, claustrophobic black and white film. By the 1970s adults as well as children were tuning in. Gradually, the educational aspect was set aside as the programme's entertainment value soared. The science became increasingly shaky. Third Doctor, Jon Pertwee, was so pleased by one line - "I reversed the polarity of the neutron flow" - that it became a catch-all solution to problems. How did you defuse the bomb, Doctor? "I reversed the polarity of the neutron flow." How did you get the snack machine working again, Doctor? "I reversed the polarity of the neutron flow."

It hit its peak in 1979, when ITV went on strike and 16 million viewers watched Tom Baker save Earth for the umpteenth time. It had Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams as a writer and a robotic dog, K9, as a co-star. But a series often set in the future was looking increasingly old-fashioned. Its plots were still delightfully preposterous: dinosaurs in London; yetis in the train station; one particularly disturbing episode in which the Doctor was jostled by Morris dancers and tied to a maypole. But in the era of Star Wars, colour television was not kind to its low-budget sets and aliens.

Yet, there was still enough to scare the wits out of a generation of children, who watched from behind the sofa on Saturday nights. Among its cast of baddies, including Autons, Silurians and Cybermen, it was the Daleks who most caught the imagination. Seldom has the combination of an egg whisk, a sink plunger and 24 tennis balls come together to such deadly effect. Their catchphrase, "Exterminate! Exterminate!", made it into the Oxford Dictionary of 20th Century Quotations. Resembling an upturned bin on wheels, the ruthless killing machines had one famous limitation, perhaps best summed up in a Punch cartoon which showed a group of Daleks at the bottom of a staircase and the caption, "This certainly buggers our plan to conquer the universe".

Tom Baker was the quintessential Doctor, a witty, flamboyant, eccentric stumbling in and out of danger while trying not to get his scarf snagged on a Dalek. The reason for the Doctor's various reincarnations, by the way, is that he can regenerate 12 times before he finally dies. It was clear that he had no choice in what form to take. After Baker came the more youthful Peter Davison, then Colin Baker. Gradually, viewers lost interest. Plots were dumb, the writing weak and effects weaker. The Doctor became increasingly weedy, the baddies desperate (exhibit A: a monster made of liquorice allsorts). By the end, nothing about it worked; neither Doctor nor sidekicks appealed. There was no audience craving for the promise of Sylvester McCoy and Bonnie Langford: together at last.

It left the TV screens in 1989, briefly returned in 1996, but has since lived on chiefly through radio plays and a British generation's hunger for nostalgia. That it now returns under the pen of the acclaimed and controversial Queer As Folk writer Russell T. Davis at least suggests that the BBC will take risks with its timelord. Rumours of how he will be updated have kept internet chatrooms busy for a while now. Will the Daleks fly? Will the Doctor flirt with his new sidekick (ex-pop star Billie Piper)? After all, on long nights travelling across the universe a man needs more than his robotic dog for company. That idea might seem pretty mild, but he's now 800 years old and has only kissed one girl. That was back in 1996, when fans were not happy, although it would be small-minded to suggest that it is because a sizeable constituency of Whovians may themselves struggle in the girlfriend department.

It also points to the problems it faces. Doctor Who has to appeal to a generation of 40-somethings keen to revisit their childhood but also to a current generation of children weaned on PlayStations and sophisticated action spectaculars and for whom Doctor Who brings the response "doctor who?"

Davis says he's updated the Doctor and won't be put off by the inevitable reviews saying that they preferred it when there were wobbly sets. But dusting off a generation's treasured memories has unhappy precedent. Recently both The Magic Roundabout and Thunderbirds were resurrected in an attempt to plunder forty-something nostalgia and tweenie pockets, and both were mangled horribly in the process. Doctor Who knows all about bad reincarnations. The time-traveller could yet discover that he was better off staying in the past.

The Who File

Who is he? Time traveller with two hearts, 13 lives and questionable dress sense.

Why is he in the news? He returns to the TV screens on Saturday March 26th, although this week the first episode was leaked onto the internet.

Most appealing characteristic: He's an unlikely science fiction hero, rooted in British eccentricity rather than square-jawed Hollywood cliché.

Least appealing characteristic: The old episodes are best replayed in memory rather than on television.

Most likely to say: "No - not the mind probe!"

Least likely to say: "I'd really love to save the galaxy, but I have a date with a gorgeous girl from Ravalox."