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About time

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  • Publication: The Age
  • Date: 2003-09-18
  • Author: Brian Courtis
  • Page: Green Guide, p. 8
  • Language: English

Brian Courtis takes another dimensionally transcendental trip through time with Doctor Who and TV's nostalgic wanderers

The one certainty about Doctor Who is that whenever it is announced there are plans to bring him back to television, a witty enthusiast will pop out of a Tardis somewhere to tell us that it really is about time.

And it is, of course. About trying to remember just how much fun that time really was. About forcing the memory through the monochromatic mists of a TV youth to a time when storytelling made up for shaky sets that could blow away in a lunar breeze and some not-really-quite-so-special effects.

Somehow with Doctor Who the flaws were immediately forgiven. Never did an audience seem so willing to be taken on a ride.

Just how forgiving we were was evident this week as the ABC launched into a grainy copy of "An Unearthly Child" with William Hartnell, the first of the 700 or so episodes it is screening to help mark the 40th anniversary of the popular British science fiction serial.

Hartnell was the first of eight Doctors to invite us along in the Tardis, that wonderful time-travelling spacecraft wrapped within the ludicrously pedestrian guise of a now-defunct blue London Metropolitan Police call-box.

The Tardis was our first leap of faith as young viewers. It came from the props for the BBC's 1950s serial Dixon of Dock Green, the cop show made famous with star Jack Warner's cosy and much parodied introduction on the beat, Hello, hello, hello.

Reaching for the stars

Not long after catching my first two programs on television, the Coronation and the Blackpool v. Bolton soccer Cup Final on a neighbour's flickering nine-inch TV screen, I sneaked into someone's lounge to catch scenes from a notorious science fiction drama, The Quatermass Experiment.

Three astronauts soared into space from what looked like a bombsite in London. Only one returned home, the missing pair contained within that survivor. In fact all three had been taken over by a space virus that could consume animal, vegetable or mineral, growing until the planet was fully taken over. The sheer horror of the show created outrage and questions in Parliament.

My rewards for this first flight into space were nightmares and a growing fascination for science fiction.

In 1962 the BBC was looking for a Saturday evening program that would bridge the gap between its popular live sports magazine show Grandstand and the teenagers' new-hits show, Juke Box Jury. The Canadian producer Sydney Newman, who had come up with a show called Pathfinders in Space, was head of BBC Drama and came up with the essence of Doctor Who.

The concept presented to the BBC was for a serial that contained a time machine and two young schoolteachers, who would be played by the cardigan-wearing Ian Chesterton and the bouffant-lacquered Barbara Wright. The young audience would be able to identify with their mysterious pupil, a cheery schoolgirl alien played by Susan Foreman.

The curious teachers would secretly follow their pupil home, puzzled by her near-genius levels in some subjects and absolute naivete in others.

The magical touch came next. At home, the space box we would come to know as the Tardis, was the even more astonishing Doctor, a cantankerous anti-hero hoped to be in the mould of Arthur Conan Doyle's Professor Challenger. Into that role slipped William Hartnell.

Hartnell, a familiarly rugged face from early British B-movies set around the army, was the first of eight actors to wrap themselves in this chameleon character. As the years passed, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann were each to bring special touches of themselves to the Doctor.

The show was launched in Britain on November 23, 1963, a little later than scheduled. It followed news reports of the assassination of JFK.

Journeys into space

The plan for those early episodes was to use the Tardis, a unique variation of an H.G. Wells-type time machine, to alternate on journeys into history and through science fiction.

One show might have our plucky adventurers helping a bunch of somewhat dumb cavemen to latch on to the concept of fire, while another could see them battling alien monsters bemused by the sudden appearance of the Tardis gone awry.

The Tardis may have seemed compact from outside, but it was spacious within.

While the BBC's budget for special effects was minimal, it made up for this with the ingenuity of its cast and crew. And the enthusiasm of the film techies and musicians helped add qualities that built up a success.

Among the early winning ingredients for Doctor Who, of course, were its title sequence and the accompanying theme. Australian composer Ron Grainer, who was responsible for the music for the sitcom Steptoe and Son and later The Prisoner, composed the piece and it was electronically realised by Delia Derbyshire and Dick Mills of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

Monstrous behaviour

Among the first edicts of the BBC's top brass were that there were to be no bug-eyed monsters in Doctor Who, nothing that would give its young viewers nightmares. Within four weeks the Daleks made their entrance and plans for a monster-free science fiction zone drifted off into the ether.

I have a special affection for the Daleks. They were responsible for me being thrown out and banned from a local coffee bar. My delinquency involved turning an empty milkshake glass into a model Dalek, twisting a couple of straws and squawking, Exterminate! Exterminate! at the owner. Her response was distinctly Whovian.

The Daleks were wonderfully ridiculous, ready to take over the world though, for a long time at least, apparently unable to travel up stairs. They were easy for young viewers to imitate and, finding kitchen plungers under the sink at home, that's just what we did.

There were other toys to delight in. The robotic pet K9, the metallic dog that ran around like a demented Russel Hobbs kettle on wheels rather than a Jack Russell terrier, was a favourite. And those cuddly furballs, the Yetis, were hard to be scared of. As for the Cybermen, they were straight out of Flash Gordon and a nod towards Red Dwarf.

But it was the Daleks that were special. They found a permanent home in the Oxford English Dictionary and even made it on to the front of a postage stamp as one of the 20th century's enduring icons.

Time to spare?

Few television programs have such a loyal fan base as Doctor Who. The internet is packed with devoted websites and chat forums; there are said to be more books published now than stories told on TV; audio and DVD versions are a success; and the surviving Doctors themselves are in constant demand for conventions, anniversary gatherings and gabfests.

The extraordinary news that the BBC had dumped or erased many of its copies of the early episodes of Doctor Who certainly rallied program followers. Their enthusiasm, whether for helping restore old prints, search the world for rare tapes, or simply share the sort of train-spotting details on production only aliens to the program fail to understand, never seems to wane.

It's easy to excite a Doctor Who fan. Simply mention the possibility that a new series is planned for television, or that a new big-star, big-budget movie version is on the way and they're out polishing the Tardis.

Although they've been disappointed in the past, they will always have time for more Doctor Who.

Early episodes of Doctor Who can be seen at 6pm from Monday to Thursday on ABC TV.


The good Doctor was at least 650 years old when we first met. Clearly, he had weathered well. He revealed his secret, of course, at the end of that first incarnation with us, explaining he could always regenerate his exhausted body and take on a new persona during his travels.

This regeneration was to prove as useful for the BBC show's producers and writers as it was for Doctor Who. New actors, new attitudes and new eccentricities helped extend the life of the series itself. Many were called and, with the internet and audio books continuing the demand, many are still called today.

There are eight versions we came to know well on television, all quite different in apparent age and temperament. So who was the most successful Who? That's largely a matter of taste. Some, like Tom Baker and Peter Davison, attracted huge followings, though the earlier models of Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee are highly regarded. And who knows how Paul McGann would have fared given more time?

The marks-out-of-10 scores attached here are purely personal judgements, probably affected by the stories we watched as much as by the actors concerned. And, of course, when we saw them. Anyway, after 40 years, who knows which Who was best, what made them so, and how, or why? Time travelling can play some funny tricks.

William Hartnell (7/10)

The first TV Doctor. Hartnell began his adventures for the BBC in 1963. A stage and screen actor, who tended to be cast in tough army sergeant-major roles on film, he relished the opportunities the role presented.

This Doctor was crankier and less predictable than future incarnations, perhaps a little more interested in his own galactic research than the safety of his terrestrial companions.

Week by week, the adventures of this long grey-wigged mystery man alternated between science-fiction stories and time-travelling into our more famous historical events.

Hartnell, who had become a tetchy hero to hundreds of thousands of children, decided to retire because of ill health and changes within the production team. Rather than axe the series, the BBC agreed on the producers' inspired solution of a regenerated Who.

Patrick Troughton (8/10)

Took over in 1966, with baggier trousers and quirkier ways. Pixie-ish in manner, he turned to tootle music on his recorder in times of stress. The instrument, which was Troughton's own, perhaps helped give him another connection with young viewers. It certainly changed the mood of the show.

This Doctor also found himself caught up in a dramatic surge of alien monster incidents. There were championship return clashes with the Daleks and the Cybermen as well as meetings with the furry Yetis and chilly Ice Warriors, who came from Mars but thrived in cold climates.

Troughton also decided enough was enough after three years and made his exit in a 10-part adventure called "The War Games". It was during this Who's time that we learned the Doctor was a Timelord, a member of a race of universal overseers who were prepared to observe but never interfere.

Jon Pertwee (9/10)

There was a touch of The Avengers' John Steed and 007 about Pertwee's colourful character. Even a dash of comedy. This third, frilly-shirted Doctor Who was also blessed with a vintage car nicknamed Bessie and lots of James Bond-style gadgets ¤ it was a time for action.

Sent into exile on Earth by the Timelords as a punishment for his meddling, he found himself grudgingly working with a military defence group called the UNIT (United Nations Intelligence Taskforce).

There was also a new villain, The Master, who was played by actor Roger Delgado. This schemer, a rogue Timelord, invited the terrorist mobs of space to invade Earth and, while doing so, help him bump off the Doctor.

Pertwee, who would become the equally distinguished rural scarecrow Worzel Gummidge, moved on after five years. His Doctor regained his licence to travel the galaxy. He copped a lethal dose of radiation from giant spiders but was slowly able to transform into the fourth Who.

Tom Baker (9/10)

The onetime monk from Liverpool took over from Jon Pertwee in 1974 and, with his eccentrically long scarf and mop of curls, made an instant impact on what was already a closely watched BBC hit show.

Energetic, amusing and occasionally plain dotty, Baker found himself immersed in extraordinarily surreal adventures, often with lighter and brighter storylines. Baker himself contributed to much of this humour, but he also had the wit of Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, to call on.

Baker spent seven years with Doctor Who, visiting fans in Australia during the latter part of that reign. Ratings eventually began to falter in Britain and the-then BBC-1 controller Michael Grade said there had to be a new lead in the role if the series was to continue. It was a highly controversial call.

Peter Davison (7/10)

The former star of All Creatures Great and Small (and currently co-star of At Home with the Braithwaites) was the youngest actor to play the Doctor when he took over in 1982.

This time he joined us as an Edwardian cricketer, a lot more gentle than Tom Baker's character but lethal with a cricket ball. And a dab hand also with a sonic screwdriver.

The highlight during Davison's spell in charge was a reunion with his five predecessors in "The Five Doctors", a story written to mark the 20th anniversary of the show. There was also a huge convention for fans at Longleat House in Wiltshire.

But after three years, Davison remembered the advice given to him by Patrick Troughton when he first joined the cast and he left before he risked becoming typecast.

Colin Baker (6/10)

The sixth Doctor was one of the most controversial. Colin Baker also had one of the shortest stays with the series, appearing in it between 1984 and '86.

Baker found his hiring under fire from day one. It didn't get any better for him, with the critics and many enthusiasts attacking the stories produced during his time with the show.

Eventually, Doctor Who went into a BBC-imposed 18-month hiatus in 1985, followed by his sacking a year later. Although the fans still argue over the justice or otherwise of this, it was certainly not one of the program's more successful terms.

Sylvester McCoy (6.5/10)

The seventh Doctor Who, the dandy-ish Scottish actor Sylvester McCoy, included on his CV performances of Brecht, work with children's programs, magic, juggling and an apparently much-appreciated ability to stick ferrets down his trousers. Some of these skills found their way into the ever-changing show.

McCoy's Who wore a 1930s golfing sweater covered in question-mark symbols and a battered Panama hat. His umbrella also had a handle shaped like a question mark.

In his earliest appearances, McCoy played up the lighter aspects of the guy from Gallifrey, but went on to evolve into the darkest and most manipulative of Doctors. His assistant, the sparky streetwise teenager Ace, was played by Sophie Aldred.

After programming disputes, the BBC finally decided to rest the show in 1989 and set off a big protest by viewers.

Paul McGann (8/10)

The star of Withnail and I and The Monocled Mutineer brought Doctor Who back to the screen in 1996 in a 90-minute BBC telemovie produced with American backing. Hollywood-based producer Philip Segal, who remembered the show with affection from his youth, produced the film in Vancouver.

It proved popular in Britain, where it attracted nine million viewers, but wasn't so successful in the States, where the audience went instead for Roseanne. Hopes for a follow-up series were not pursued. Doctor Who stories now have far more chance as books or internet specials.

McGann, whose portrayal won the affection of Doctor Who fans, is first choice in any fresh attempts to revive the series for television. But the what, why and how of where the Timelord might next emerge is still a mystery beyond man.

GRAPHIC: Ten Photos: The space-warping Tardis, above, came to The Doctor via Dixon of Dock Green; The Doctor (John Pertwee, below) has a close encounter with his arch-nemeses, the Daleks.

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  • APA 6th ed.: Courtis, Brian (2003-09-18). About time. The Age p. Green Guide, p. 8.
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  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=About time | url= | work=The Age | pages=Green Guide, p. 8 | date=2003-09-18 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=14 July 2024 }}</ref>
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