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Carry On Doctor

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For those who grew up in the Seventies, Doctor Who - a cheaply made TV programme about a time-travelling timelord who battled evil monsters - was a defining childhood experience. This month, after a gap of 20 years, the show returns with its ninth doctor and is keenly anticipated by old fans and their offspring alike. Stephen Phelan examines the story behind the successes and failures of this much-loved, enduring phenomenon

From left: Billie Piper in the new series as Rose; Tom Baker with Mary Tamm and K9 in 1978; Jon Pertwee, right, with Nicholas Courtney as Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart

Jon Pertwee as Dr Who in the early Seventies meets his old enemies the Daleks

IN THE universe of Doctor Who, all moments in time are occurring simultaneously. The trick is moving back and forth between them. With that in mind, let's go to Saturday, November 23, 1963, as this curious new programme about an irritable, inscrutable alien gentleman suddenly appears on BBC television, in the space between Grandstand and Jukebox Jury - although most viewers don't notice at first, distracted by the news of President John F Kennedy's assassination, which happened only yesterday.

Next: to Wednesday, December 6, 1989, as Doctor Who, having become the longestrunning science-fiction series in broadcasting history, vanishes from British screens after 26 years of continuous adventures.

And now: to Saturday, March 26, 2005, as the show reappears in a new form for the 21st Century. Like the Doctor himself, who has at this point been played by nine different actors in nine different ways across the decades, the programme is entirely transformed, yet remains recognisably the same entity. This process is known, in the universe of Doctor Who, as "regeneration".

"The biggest change is the date," says new series writer Russell T Davies. "The show is only really different in the sense that we are making it right now, for modern audiences. Perhaps in originally running for 26 years, Doctor Who gathered a certain amount of moss, layers of associations that hid what was underneath. But strip all that away and you're left with the basic idea - there is an alien, there is a human companion, and together they travel in time and space. It's brilliant and beautiful and there is nothing complicated about it."

Having "dropped hints" with the BBC throughout his career, as his knack for writing superior popular television became ever more reliable - Queer As Folk, Bob And Rose, Mine All Mine - Davies has finally been given the keys to Doctor Who's Tardis, the iconic interdimensional phone box that has gone unused for far too long. For his new incarnation, the alien in question takes the shape of accomplished, unpredictable, intensely watchable Manchester character actor Christopher Eccleston. The human companion is a young London department store clerk called Rose, played by minor popstar turned subtle performer Billie Piper. And their travels begin when an army of shop mannequins rises up to slaughter customers - activated by the Autons, a malevolent collective consciousness manifested in plastic. They last threatened the Earth in the early Seventies, when the Doctor was played by Jon Pertwee, and the programme was so popular that even the House of Lords was troubled by The Autons' ability to mould themselves into British policemen, expressing concern about the show's effect on the public image of bobbies on the beat.

"In its prime," says Davies, whose own childhood love of Doctor Who began in the Pertwee era,"everyone watched it. Everyone.

Your teachers would be talking about it at school. Girls were into it, which seems almost inconceivable now. It wasn't just for fans. It was really, really loved by entire generations."

Doctor Who began as a kind of experiment, when BBC television was still a relatively new enterprise, operated by diligent civil servants who hadn't yet formed a clear picture of their remit or demographics. In 1962, the light entertainment department asked the script department if it would be feasible to produce a science fiction programme, and the researchers suggested that a show about time travel or telepathy might best entertain and educate young viewers. The details were thrashed out and argued over by head of drama, Sydney Newman, producer Verity Lambert, staff writer Anthony Coburn and script editor David Whitaker - evolving from a rough draft script called The Troubleshooters, in which three scientists zipped around throughout history, into the stranger and simpler outline of an otherworldly grandfather figure.

Cast in the title role after a long career of gruff comic performances on stage, film and television, William Hartnell played the original Doctor Who as a tetchy, enigmatic old renegade who protects the human race as a kind of scholarly hobby. But the actor himself was a bright-eyed, enthusiastic fellow. He saw the lasting value in a piece of work functionally designed to fill a slot on Saturday evenings.

"This is going to run for five years," Hartnell told Verity Lambert with confidence. We now know that even he underestimated the appeal of the character by an almost galactic margin, and also the artful, pragmatic, week-to-week ingenuity of the production team. They made an affordable time machine out of a thenstandard police telephone box, explaining that it was bigger on the inside because it was "dimensionally transcendent", and that it couldn't change into anything else because the "chameleon circuit" was broken. They designed a cheap and chillingly effective race of exterminating mutants - the Daleks - by encasing them in stark, portable, durable metal shells. And, in 1966, when Hartnell became too old and ill to continue, he was replaced on screen by the younger, spookier actor Patrick Troughton without any break in the storyline, this transformation written in as one of the Doctor's natural characteristics, just like his two hearts, and his "respiratory bypass system".

The Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey - where the leaves are silver and the sky is burning orange - went on to take many other forms, and face many other enemies, including the Sontarians, the Krynoids, the Zygons, the Drahvins and the Yeti. And Doctor Who became less a part of the science fiction genre, and more of a genre in itself.

"The show has always been genuinely exceptional," says Russell T Davies,"and that is mostly because of great ideas the writers and producers had in the Sixties. We're used to the concept of the Tardis now, but think about it. It's f**king genius. And then they come up with the concept of regeneration, which ensured the programme could run forever. Miraculous. They weren't even really analysing it, they were just having a good time with it."

The only concept that Davies now wants to add to the programme is "authentic emotion".

"It's important to learn from the wonderful work Americans have done in recent years, with shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer," he says.

"There is a strong emotional content to fantasy stories now. The Lord Of The Rings was a more sentimental film than it ever was a book, and that's a good thing, because an audience may be attracted to the spectacle of the thing, but they'll only stick around if they feel something for the characters. We're wiser viewers now, and if we're not laughing or heartbroken during a story, then we're not likely to come back to it."

The only element Davies would hope to subtract from Doctor Who is "the nonsense that started taking over the series, the poshness, the frilly language and frilly shirts".

"I started stripping that away when I was writing the first episodes, before Christopher Eccleston was cast [while many reasonable and ludicrous suggestions for the new Doctor were being thrown around inside and outside the BBC, including Hugh Grant and Paul Daniels - Davies himself first imagined the elegant talents of Bill Nighy]. But when you cut out the nonsense, you end up with something very like Chris."

Eccleston has said he took the part to change his typecasted image as a "miserable northern bastard". He fits Davies' vision of a character who "is not jumping around in time and space just because he has to - he's having fun by definition".

"He's quite barmy sometimes," says Davies.

"But when he's genuinely confronted with danger, he is strong and dangerous himself."

Early in the first new episode, Eccleston's Doctor is asked about his apparent Manchester accent, and he smiles with roughly equal measures of obscure menace and benevolence.

"Every planet," he says,"has a north."

Whatever subtle alterations Davies cares to make in the fabric of the universe, he knows this is primarily a reconstruction job. It is his pleasure to restore Doctor Who to the "wildness and scariness" of its peak, and his responsibility - as an independent contractor hired specifically for the project by outgoing BBC One controller Lorraine Heggessey - to return it to the equivalent viewing figures.

"In the end," he says, with a sigh but not without confidence,"it's all about ratings."

When a Doctor Who story titled The Ark In Space was broadcast in January 1975 featuring Tom Baker as the Doctor, and a plot so horrific - the last surviving members of the human race are infested by alien insects - that the organised outrage of Mary Whitehouse prompted a written apology from the BBC, more than 14 million people were watching from between their quivering fingers.

By the time Scottish actor Sylvester McCoy took over the character in 1987, Doctor Who was considered a mid-week ratings failure, playing to a hard-core audience of less than four million while the rest of the country watched Coronation Street on the other side. In what was to be the last regular episode for over 15 years, McCoy's Doctor was seen walking down a country hillside after one more struggle with his old nemesis and rival Time Lord, the Master. "Somewhere there's danger," he said to his assistant Ace, unaware he would not be around to do anything about it.

"Somewhere there's injustice. Somewhere else the tea's getting cold. Come on Ace, we've got work to do."

And then the BBC discreetly ceased transmission. Doctor Who was never officially cancelled - it was put on "hiatus" by thencontroller Jonathan Powell until the producers could find a way to "bring the series into the Nineties". Dedicated fans, who call themselves Whovians, tended to blame the show's decline on Powell's predecessor Michael Grade and series producer John Nathan Turner. Turner had, in fact, made the show progressively less comprehensible to anyone except those serious fans throughout his tenure, recycling old villains and storylines while encouraging Colin Baker to play the Doctor as arrogant, unlikeable, and erratic to the point of schizophrenia.

"It was losing it's appeal," admits Russell T Davies. "It got a bit tired, a bit obsessed with continuity."

And if Whovians were ambivalent about Baker, Michael Grade was positive that neither the actor nor the programme had a viable future, pulling it from the schedules as early as 1985. It returned for one last run with McCoy only when the battle to save Doctor Who was publicised as the defence of a national institution.

"The fans formed strong, organised, almost powerful groups in those days," says Tom Spilsbury, deputy editor of Doctor Who Magazine. "They may not have liked what was happening on the show, but they still wanted it to be there. Then the Sun started a Bring Back Doctor Who campaign, it all became very public and a reprieve was granted, as it were."

Not for long. The show had always been as cheap as the BBC could make it - in theory, the Doctor would go anywhere, in practice he tended to save the planet from inside a threewalled stage facade or a quarry in Oxfordshire - but in-house production couldn't be sustained for so few viewers. Only one way was found for Doctor Who to return, and it worked only once.

In 1996, Paul McGann played the Doctor in a single TV film funded and co-produced by American movie studio Universal Pictures, and broadcast via the Fox network. The character was always different after a regeneration. Patrick Troughton's had been a "cosmic hobo". Jon Pertwee saw the Doctor as an "interplanetary crusader". McCoy said he was "like a wonderful uncle in the family who shows you how much better it would be to live amongst the dangers of the world". Failed monk and boozy bit-part actor Tom Baker left a job on a building site to become the most popular of all the Doctors by virtue of his sheer nonchalance. "When Tom Baker's Doctor was in trouble," says Spilsbury,"he would tell a joke and eat a jellybean."

But McGann's was a whole new creature altogether. He was, he declared,"half-human, on my mother's side". And then he broke a lifetime habit of chaste, platonic relationships with his female Earthly companions by seizing the moment and kissing a girl on the streets of San Francisco. The star himself was sceptical, having been warned by his agent, ex-actress Janet Fielding, that viewers would not accept any deviation from the essence of the character - "two hearts and no dick". And she should know, having played the role of Tegan, the Australian air hostess who assisted Tom Baker's Doctor against the Master, and then Peter Davison's against the Daleks. McGann was, eventually, accepted as the eighth Doctor, but never on television. Having evolved into its own distinct mythology, Doctor Who expanded outwards by other means when it was denied an outlet on screen.

"Doctor Who has more in common with folklore than with science fiction," as author Lawrence Miles once put it, in his capacity as a regular writer of novels about the character.

Hundreds of such adventures have been published by Virgin and BBC Books, and a company called Big Finish continues to release popular Doctor Who audio dramas on tape and disc. The market has always been robust, and lucrative enough to draw most of the lead actors - Pertwee, Davison, Colin Baker, McCoy and McGann - back to put their voices to new stories.

"Put it this way," says Spilsbury,"when the programme ended, there was no reason for Doctor Who Magazine to stop production [it was founded in 1979]. There was still significant interest, still a readership in five figures. It was still a nice little moneyspinner for the publishers.

I think Doctor Who provides a strong link to childhood for a lot of people, and they don't want to lose it. I include myself in that."

Russell T Davies, for his part, saw his own Doctor Who novel, Damaged Goods, as a chance to adapt the character "for adults". His first attempt at prose, written before TV script commissions, began to monopolise his time and career, the plot involved the Doctor in "violence, gay sex, things I could never get away with on screen". Mark Gatiss, the actor and writer best known for his work on popular BBC sick-joke horrorshow The League Of Gentlemen, did much the same thing with his own early Doctor Who novels and audio plays, including Nightshade and Invaders From Mars.

"Lots of death and shagging," says Gatiss. "To me it was still very traditional, old-fashioned Doctor Who, but I probably strained a bit too hard to be grown-up."

"I just didn't believe," he says,"that the people who got control of it would really love it.

But that's exactly what's happened."

The programme has, in fact, been reinvented by qualified Whovians, and under the nose of Sir Michael Grade, now chaiman of the BBC's board of governors. Lorraine Heggessey, a fan herself, waited until another proposed Doctor Who film project had been abandoned before insisting it was "only fair to let BBC One have a crack at another series" - announcing the decision in September 2003, and asking for Davies by name.

"I never asked her 'Why now?'," he says. "I was too excited about getting the job. As a fan, I don't know when Doctor Who stopped being a big joke at the BBC. Maybe it still is. But obviously they worked out there's still an audience for it.

They've had a problem of what to put on telly on a Saturday night, so they looked into the past to see what worked, and figured it would work again. Not just for fans, but for generations who used to love it and want their kids to see it."

To that end, Davies hired Mark Gatiss, Steven Moffat, Paul Cornell and Rob Shearman to contribute episodes. Between them, they had already written a number of Doctor Who adventures for print, audio, and new media (Cornell scripted Scream Of The Shalka, a recent one-off animated internet adventure, in which Richard E Grant provided the voice of the Doctor). More importantly, as far as Davies was concerned, they had proven records on mainstream TV programmes such as Coupling and Casualty, "programmes for everyone".

"The fans come to dominate every conversation about Doctor Who," he says. "But if we're talking about the mad fans, the ones who will probably say it used to be better with shaky walls, then we're really only talking about 25 people. And they can f**k off, it's better without shaky walls. I'm not worried about them having the knives out, because they don't have knives. If they don't like the new show, that just means they'll watch every episode only 20 times instead of 30. Then they'll write me a nasty email, go to bed, and play with themselves."

Spilsbury has been a Whovian since he was four, and he's seen the new show, and if his opinion counts for anything, even obsessive fans needn't worry. "It feels modern and vibrant" he says,"and it feels like Doctor Who."

But what does that mean? Trying to quantify the essential appeal of the character, and the longevity of the programme, is like trying to apprehend the infinite. Davies talks about its "utter British uniqueness, which seems rare now that we've been so indoctrinated by American culture via television". Spilsbury thinks it has a lot to do with "the power of nostalgia". None of the lead actors were willing or able to explain it for the purposes of this article, having discussed the role a thousand times at Doctor Who conventions around the world. But most of them, living and dead, have described their time as the Doctor as the time of their lives.

"It was the happiest period of my career," said the notoriously solemn Patrick Troughton, who actually died at a Doctor Who convention in 1987.

"Doctor Who delivered me from darkness," said Tom Baker, writing off the rest of his life as "rather a muddle and a disappointment".

Veteran support player Nicholas Courtney has appeared alongside every Doctor, [except Colin Baker's], in the role of Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart, a traditional stiff British military man who "never encountered an alien that he didn't attempt to shoot or blow up".

He first took the part of a minor young soldier in a flanking manoeuvre against The Yeti when the original actor broke a leg, and it "somehow managed to dominate the next 30 years of my life", as Lethbridge-Stewart rose up the ranks to help the various Doctors against Axos, the Daemons, Omega, and the dinosaurs.

Courtney, now in his 70s but still a regular guest at the conventions, is almost as matter-of-fact as his character. "The thing about Doctor Who," he says,"is it was never quite like anything else. It often told marvellous stories. There was always humour and humanity. And the fact the character himself wasn't human made him seem more noble, and made us feel more noble, because the Doctor considered us worth fighting for."

That sounds about right. Courtney, by his own admission, is "a nostalgic man", and looking forward to the new series. In the first moments of the first episode, the camera sweeps from outer space, to planet Earth, to Britain, to London, and a new Auton invasion begins. But the Doctor will save us, as he has before. Not because he has to, but because he kind of likes us.

"Homo Sapiens," he once reflected, in the form of Tom Baker. "Puny defenceless bipeds.

They've survived flood, famine and plague.

They've survived cosmic wars and holocausts.

And now here they are, out among the stars, ready to begin a new life. Ready to outsit eternity. They are indomitable. Indomitable."

Doctor Who is on BBC1 on March 26 at 7pm

Gatiss, like Davies, had always idly worried that "if it ever came back on television, it would be mishandled".


The Doctor has been present at some of the key moments in the history, and future, of human civilisation. Here is a few key dates from his diary.

100,000BC Gives cavemen the secret of fire.

2500BC Fights the Daleks near the newly built Great Pyramid.

1200BC Comes up with the idea for the Trojan horse, later mis-credited to Odysseus.

64AD Partly responsible for Nero's burning of Rome.

1500AD, pictured Battles the Zygons at Loch Ness, leaving behind a hufe cybernetic reptile known as the Skarasen.

1666AD Partly responsible for the Great Fire of London.

1746AD Captured by Jacobite rebels in the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden.

1881AD Narrowly survives gunfight at the OK Corral.

10,000,000AD Observes as planet Earth is consumed by the sun.


For a non-Earthling, Doctor Who has always had a superior grasp of the English language. In each of his incarnations, he has been witty, withering, and even poetic in his choice of words at critical moments.

Here is a short compendium of his eloquence.

First Doctor (William Hartnell): "If you could touch the alien sand, and hear the cry of strange birds, and watch them wheel in another sky, would that satisfy you?"

Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton): "The power cable generated an electrical field and confused their tiny metal minds. You might almost say they've had a complete metal breakdown . . . sorry."

Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee): "Allow me to congratulate you sir. You have the most totally closed mind I have ever encountered."

Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker): "Killing me isn't going to help you. It isn't going to do me much good either."

Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison): [On boarding a Concorde jet] "Amazing. This thing is smaller on the inside than it is on the outside."

Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker): "I have been threatened by experts. I don't rate you very highly at all."

Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy): "Let me guess. My theories appall you, my heresies outrage you, I never answer letters and you don't like my tie."

Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann): "I'm half human on my mother's side." [Note: Doctor Who fans were not amused by this significant new information, nor by the glib manner of its delivery. ]

Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston): Tune in soon


The Daleks, the Cybermen, the Autons and the Sontarans became recurring villains in Doctor Who mythology, but other, less effective aliens have been laughed out of sight and memory.

THE NIMON Based on the minotaur of Greek legend, these mythic creatures menaced sacrificial young Arethians (including future Blue Peter presenter Janet Ellis) with their deely-boppers, lanky legs and hieroglyphic loincloth motifs.

THE ZARBI Gigantic ants who fired electricity from their proboscis. Actors inside the cumbersome steel and fibreglass costumes couldn't stand upright and had to rest their tails on breeze blocks.

THE PLASMATONS Indistinct bundles of plastic bags, hovering ominously.

GASTROPODS Genuinely hilarious fuzzy cross-eyed humanoid slugs bent on eating all organic matter in the universe.

THE KANDYMAN Evil creature constructed out of sweets and commissioned to enforce a permanent state of happiness on the citizens of a fascist Earth colony - hindered, or perhaps helped, by his uncanny resemblance to Bertie Bassett.


The Doctor himself is well-equipped for interdimensional adventure - possessing encyclopedic cosmic knowledge, a respiratory bypass system and the ability to regenerate himself when injured. His many loyal, mortal and platonic female assistants have flung themselves into space and time at much greater personal risk.

KATARINA (ADRIENNE HILL) Handmaiden to the ancient prophetess Cassandra, whisked away from the siege of Troy in the Tardis.

Met a painful but plucky end saving the Doctor from the prison ship of Mavic Chen, Guardian of the Solar System.

VICTORIA WATERFIELD (DEBORAH WATLING) Prim Victorian mimsy orphaned by the Daleks, whose tendency toward girlish fright found a positive application when her amplified screams were used to vanquish a seaweed creature.

LEELA (LOUISE JAMESON) pictured An exiled member of the Sevateem warrior tribe, who took up with the Doctor because he looked like her God. Not very bright, but handy in a fracas - particularly with her poisonous Janus thorns, of which the Doctor tediously disapproved.

ROMANA II (LALLA WARD) Big-mouthed fellow Time Lord who regenerated herself after an earlier adventure into an even more lippy companion, taunting the Doctor with her greater understanding of the universe.

MEL (BONNIE LANGFORD) Galactically annoying keep-fit fanatic, who tormented the Doctor with her insistence on a regime of exercise and carrot juice for the health of his two hearts. Sadly never exterminated, but eventually abandoned the Doctor for Sabalom Glitz, a rogue from the ice planet Svartos.

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