I guess Doctor Who is deep into a Bond phase. Sign of the times. Producers realise that some of the old shows attract large and loyal audiences and hate to think they are missing out on something. I’m not sure what that says about producers or the sales executives. I’m all for moving on and putting bigger and better entertainment before an entertainment zonked audience, but what is wrong with coming out with something new and acknowledging it?
Doctor Who earned its buns back in the Sixties with veteran actor William Hartnell zooming onto the 15 inch, black and white screen from somewhere in a distant galaxy later revealed as Gallifrey. A technical problem, which has never been solved to this day, meant that when his Space/Time Machine, the Tardis, appeared on the scene, the chameleon device, used to make the craft fit in with the locale, jammed in Police Box mode. Saving the BBC scuds of cash because now they didn’t need to think up new designs for each episode of the series.
Not that the Beeb seriously considered that a low budget show with an educational base would still be around in some form or another 45 years later. Because that was what Doctor Who was all about. Explaining scientific concepts to young minds and giving them an on the spot chance to see characters like Richard the Lion Heart as a functioning being, rather then a drawing in a book.
The writers soon found that the way to engage young minds was to frighten them into taking up a viewing position from behind the sofa – and keep on doing it. It was a new idea in broadcasting and opened up some frontiers which might not have been breached for years to come.
Probably the most remarkable concept put forward by the programme was the ‘reincarnation’ of the Doctor when the present incumbent had run out of juice or wanted to move on. Whether Hartnell bowed out or was pushed out isn’t certain, but it seems that Verity Lambert, who produced the original Whos, had left the show and her successors were looking for new blood to take the show in another direction. During an epic battle with the Cybermen, Hartnell collapsed but sprang up rejuvenated in the shape of Patrick Troughton, a reasonable look-alike but with a transformed personality.
Where Hartnell had been a grandfather, gruff and overbearing, Troughton was whimsical and fey. Hartnell would put his family and companions in danger just to see what would happen. Troughton just wanted things to sort themselves out – with a little help from the Doctor, of course.
Unfortunately, it seems that the Time Lords, the Doctor’s brothers in brains, were not happy with their man on the spot acting the buffoon and interfering in the lives of aliens and ordered a refurbish.
Jon Pertwee took the series in a whole new direction. Or, more truly the writers gave the actor the possibility of taking the Doctor in a whole new direction. And Pertwee jumped at the chance. During Troughton’s incarnation he had worked with an Army unit, enterprisingly called UNIT, that had been formed to defend the earth against anything nasty coming from extraterrestrials. Its leader was Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart played by Nicholas Courtney. The Brigadier was to become the longest running character in the franchise.
Jon is one of the best remembered Doctors and established the base on which most of the future incarnations would be fashioned. For me he was the best. But then I suppose I would say that, wouldn’t I? I played a dippy Queen of Atlantis in The Time Monster and subsequently starred in The House That Dripped Blood, produced by Amicus, with him. (Incidentally, if you are in London with time on your hands on February 20th. and want to see THTDB, drop into the Barbican. I’ll be introducing the film.)
When Pertwee went, Tom Baker swirled in, teeth a-flashing and scarf a-swirling. His predilection for jelly-babies gave the confectionery industry a jelly baby boost for years as well as helping President Reagan get into the White House. Tom Baker was to be the longest running, and some claim the best and most important, Doctor to date.
Baker was succeeded by Peter Davison. The Doctors were getting younger and younger in their reincarnations and Peter was almost a baby compared to the original Doctor. He abandoned scarves and went for the eccentric cricketer look. I did Warriors of the Deep with him and when the series was canned my part was given as an example of why the show had to go. No hate mail, please.
Colin Baker came next as an amiable, quick-witted Doctor mixed with a soupcon of sarcasm and Sylvester McCoy checked in and out as the series foundered and was banished to outer space without even a Sonic Screwdriver to fiddle with.
The great thing about the old Doctor, before the regeneration in 2005, was that it was the sort of show to which adults and kids could relate. Everyone could be a critic and make remarks about the sets, the dialogue, the plots, the monsters, the villains and everything Who-ish. That was BC (Before Computers). While the unregenerated Doctor mooned around the outermost Galaxies, back on Earth everything changed. CGI became the new special effects and traumatised sets and M&S costumes disappeared.
The new Doctor Who series is really another programme in disguise. When the heads of BBC saw that, whatever they might think, the Who-thing wasn’t going to disintegrate but continue its non-existent existence in the form of films, books and memorabilia, they wanted to capitalise on it. But the viewing public had moved on and they needed to play catch-up. So they decided to throw a reasonable budget at the new Doctor, strip him down to less exotic costumes and leave the monsters and scenery to the CGI department.
What they really wanted to do was Torchwood. But where was the audience? So the fiendishly cunning plot was hatched to use the Who brand, but sneak in Torchwood as a crossover point. Then, when the audience had crossed over to Torchwood, they could quietly dispatch Who into the Cosmos and keep the die-hard fans.
It hasn’t quite worked out like that. Probably due to the fact that they brought in Christopher Eccleston to do the scenery chewing. The newly regenerated show has become much harder and more horrific then the gentle, slightly comedic shows of yesteryear. One of the most chilling episodes of the Eccleston era was the one with the children with gas masks instead of faces wandering around and asking everyone in a pathetic voice, “Are you my Mummy?”
There was also the sexual tension that built up between Eccleston’s character and Rose. A place where former Doctors had never ventured. The confluence between Rose and the Doctor became even more intense when Eccleston decided to hand in his cards (reason to be discussed and denied endlessly) and make way for and even more exuberant and wild-eyed David Tennant.
Meanwhile, the idea of shuffling Who off to the Torchwood camp seems to have been exterminated. Probably because the producers found that many of the Who attributes still worked in the 21st Century. With some much needed updates. It was always a mystery how the Mark 1 Daleks managed to go upstairs or move unhindered on broken surfaces or in confined spaces. That has all been cleared up. Now the Daleks can levitate. And the monsters tend to stay intact.
I remember on Warriors of the Deep how the fat suits worn by the Myrkas tende to come apart the moment the director called “Action”. Another boost to the series’ lavish presentation is that, through the magic of CGI, regiments of Cybermen or squadrons of levitating Daleks can invade wherever they want and wreak whatever devastation the writers wish without appearing through a restricted orifice, in the wood and canvas sets, in single file. Happy days.
Now The Doctor is going through the greatest regeneration of his long life. More gullible audiences of the early 60s probably would have been unable to take a young Doctor. It was still an era of discipline and reverence for the older members of a constrained society. Now there seems to be no problem with having the world and the universe saved by a 26-year-old. Matt Smith is all set to become the 11th Doctor.
Will his age and boyish looks have anything to do with the ongoing success of the franchise? Only time will tell. It has been a long and bumpy ride from the grainy, black and white days of William Hartnell to the HD, super brilliant colour and special digital effects of Matt Smith. The ongoing Doctor Who story has been a dazzling success. Any thought of dropping it and hopping on the Torchwood bandwagon can be forgotten. Whether the Doctor’s new direction keeps him on line for a regeneration in 45 years time I can’t worry about. I have no plans to have a TV set installed in the corner of my sarcophagus.
Read Ingrid’s column every Tuesday at Den Of Geek. Last week’s is here.
27 January 2009