In Our Opinion

Q: WHO IS THE MOST INTERESTING DOCTOR ON TELEVISON?

By • May 10th, 2005 •

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‘Star Wars is adolescent nonsense! Close Encounters is obscurantist drivel! Star Trek can turn your brains to purée of bat guano! The greatest science fiction series of all time is Doctor Who! And I’ll take you all on, one by one, or all in a bunch, to back it up!’

Also sprach Harlan Ellison to a convention of 1500 SF enthusiasts shortly after he’d been introduced to the series by fellow SF writer and Brit Michael Moorcock in 1975. Now, thirty years after those, to some ears, inflammatory remarks, the Doctor and his famous TARDIS have once again rematerialised on UK TV screens, making it now not only arguably the ‘greatest’ but also certainly the longest running show in it’s genre, having first appeared in grainy black and white in 1963.

The brainchild of the BBC’s then Head of Drama, Canadian Sydney Newman, who had already created THE AVENGERS for Britain’s ABC TV, the series was, according to producer Verity Lambert, intended to be ‘exciting and educational. He (Newman) wanted to use a time machine as the means of going back into history and allowing contemporary characters to observe critical changes in the world. He said the children’s interests must always come first – and that there should be no bug-eyed monsters.’

The very first Doctor, played by veteran British film actor William Hartnell, was a mysterious, brusque and cantankerous elderly man who travelled in his Time and Relative Dimension in Space (TARDIS) machine with his 15 year old granddaughter (played by diminutive actress Carole Anne Ford who was in fact 22, married and had a three year old daughter). This familial relationship between the Doctor and the first of what would be a long line of companions was introduced to placate the sensitivities of those who might think the idea of an old man travelling around with a young girl a little questionable (this was a children’s series after all). The TARDIS was equipped with a ‘Chameleon Circuit’ which allowed it’s appearance to be changed to blend in with it’s surroundings or time period as and when necessary. Unfortunately this circuit was damaged and the Doctor was stuck with the ship’s appearance as a 1950s British Police Telephone Box.

As the series progressed we would learn that the Doctor was in fact an alien, with two hearts, from the planet Gallifrey and a ‘Time Lord’. We would also discover that whenever one of his life cycles is over he can ‘regenerate’, a useful trick that allowed different actors to subsequently take on the role. Also Sydney Newman’s brief of ‘no bug-eyed monsters’ (or BEMs as they would become known) was very soon put aside as we were introduced to, amongst many others, Icemen, Silurians, Yeti, Sea Devils, Cybermen, Sontarans, Autons and, of course, the Daleks. The popularity of the latter led to two feature film releases in the mid-60s, DR.WHO AND THE DALEKS (‘65) and DALEKS INVASION OF EARTH 2150 (’66), both based on the original TV serials and featuring Hammer Horror star Peter Cushing as the Doctor (a role far removed from his then norm), a hitherto unparalleled merchandising furore, and a whole generation of kids added probably one of the biggest words so far to their youthful vocabulary – ‘Exterminate!’

Back on TV the TARDIS spun on with a further six different Doctors, namely Patrick Troughton (THE OMEN), Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy, with each actor, apart from trying to make the role their own, being required to appeal to the tastes of the juvenile audience of the time. Ironically the series’, like its character’s, future always hung in the balance. Throughout the 60s and 70s, as well as battling intergalactic foes, the Doctor was also up against more earthly bound adversaries, contemporary bigger-budget genre rivals like the British made Gerry Anderson series THUNDERBIRDS, CAPTAIN SCARLET, JOE 90, UFO and SPACE 1999, and the American offerings VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, TIME TUNNEL, and LAND OF THE GIANTS, all appearing on the BBC’s then only competing channel ITV, yet still he prevailed. But eventually, after falling ratings (after being moved from it’s regular Saturday evening slot) it, and he, dematerialised in 1989.

An attempt to resurrect the series was made in 1996 with a lavish effects-laden TV movie produced by the BBC in association with 20th Century Fox, filmed in Canada (suitably where it’s creator originated) and starring Paul McGann (WITHNAIL AND I, ALIEN 3, QUEEN OF THE DAMNED) as a younger, Byronesque Doctor. In an attempt to sell to American audiences the story was set in contemporary San Francisco, featured American actor Eric Roberts as the Doctor’s long-time nemesis, and fellow renegade Time Lord, The Master, was more action-packed and adult orientated, down to the gunning down of resident Doctor Sylvester McCoy (in his best ‘Doctor’ performance) as he steps out of the TARDIS in San Francisco’s Chinatown and his subsequent graphic demise on an operating table in a scene straight out of ER meets the TWILIGHT ZONE, but, although well received in the UK and Australia, there was a poor response in the US, which was after all where the finance was coming from, so it failed to result in a series, which was a pity. I liked it; I thought McGann was a great Doctor, taking a firm grasp of the character in just one showing, and that DOCTOR WHO had finally grown up alongside it’s long-time fans, and I still feel it stands up as an imaginative and stylish piece of TV Sci-fi.

Anyhow, now he’s back, ‘And it’s about time’ the publicity reads (or maybe that was the last one – it’s a good line anyway). The ninth Doctor (not counting the movies with Cushing) is played by Christopher Eccleston (THE OTHERS, 28 DAYS LATER), as a cropped-haired, leather clad and dynamic character that retains the eccentricity, and Sonic Screwdriver, of his predecessors but has yet to show the charisma of the greats Hartnell, Troughton, Pertwee, Baker (Tom, I hasten to add) and even McGann. The interior of the TARDIS has been redesigned (again) but still has basically the same layout as that of 40-odd years ago but also retains elements of the 1996 TARDIS, and once more, for the dads in the audience, he has a youthful female companion, this time in the shapely form of actress/pop-star then actress again Billie Piper as Rose Tyler, and enthusiastic she is too. Although returned to it’s Saturday evening family slot and the basic formula being mostly complete, gone is the old format of cliff-hanger endings to stories presented in the old Saturday morning cinema serial form. Now we are to have 45-minute self-contained episodes featuring villains old and new, including those infamous Daleks (which can now fly by the way, so running up stairs to escape them is no longer an option).

The new series’ writer and co-producer Russell T. Davies, whose writing credits include BOB AND ROSE, QUEER AS FOLK, and THE SECOND COMING, says: “I grew up watching Doctor Who, hiding behind the sofa like so many others. Doctor Who is one of the BBC’s most exciting and original characters. He’s had a good rest and now it’s time to bring him back. The new series will be fun, exciting, contemporary and scary. I’m aiming to write a full-blooded drama which embraces the Doctor Who heritage, at the same time as introducing the character to a modern audience.” and from what I’ve seen so far he’s succeeded. The series is slick, well produced, doesn’t take itself too seriously and is exciting and fun. Some friends of mine have a seven-year-old who is now terrified of plastic rubbish bins after one was shown swallowing someone, with a burp, in the first episode. Now that’s DOCTOR WHO!

However, it’s not all rosy. Lead actor Eccleston has already announced his departure from the project after only one season (13 episodes) and before the second episode had even been broadcast, blaming fear of being typecast and gruelling filming schedules, and the BBC are already looking for a replacement, so, although a second season has been commissioned, the Doctor’s future still remains a precarious one. Does Eccleston know something we don’t and is simply deserting a sinking ship?

Only time will tell, but going back to my original question: Who is the most interesting doctor on television? Darn right he is!

Many of the Doctor’s earlier adventures are available on DVD from BBC Worldwide for those who want to catch up with the past history of the TV phenomenon that is DOCTOR WHO, and the official BBC Doctor Who website can be found at http://www.bbc.co.uk/doctorwho/

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4 Responses »

  1. Very good and interesting article.

  2. Thank you Daniel. The series has moved on a lot since that feature so I’ll do a recap soon 🙂

  3. I’m SO hooked on Dr. Who. I remember watching Tom Baker, who kinda’ creeped me out with the bushy hair thing goin’ on, but the seasons since Eccleston started to carry the TARDIS is some of the best stuff on tv. David Tennant rocked!, so it’s taken me a while to warm up to Matt Smith, but I’m all in and for the duration of the shows run. By far, this is the best Dr anything on the tube. Thx for the article.

  4. Thanks Peg! I promise an update.

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