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Cometh the day, cometh the Doctors

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The adventures of Doctor Who have kept viewers gripped for 50 years, but will the BBC's anniversary spectacular bring any answers to the mystery of the Time Lord Kirstie? McCrum visited the programme's inner sanctum in search of some clues

TRYING to explain the phenomenon of Doctor Who to anyone unfamiliar with it is a mission. A TV series about an alien who travels through time, you could start off by saying. To which you may get a blank look. He's actually a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, you continue, and it's his duty to protect humanity from danger in the shape of spooky, creepy, wobbly baddies along with his trusted companion. What follows could be a guffaw from your audience - "what nonsense", they'll say.

But the real stretch for the imagination comes with the series' longevity. If you sit someone down and tell them this is a series that has expanded across 11 lead actors, more than 30 companions and an astonishing 50 years, your credibility could be stretched beyond breaking point. But still, you can't argue with the televisual evidence.

Doctor Who returns to BBC One next Saturday in a special 50th anniversary adventure called The Day of the Doctor. The 75-minute special episode, starring current - and 11th - Doctor Matt Smith, 10th Doctor David Tennant, John Hurt, who was introduced at the end of the last series as another iteration of the Doctor, and Gavin and Stacey's Joanna Page as Elizabeth I, is nothing short of a cultural event.

After all, it's not every anniversary show that's simulcast - where possible in 3D - on cinema screens in 75 countries across the world at the same time as it hits television screens in the UK.

Doctor Who was first broadcast on BBC One at 5.15pm on Saturday November 23 1963.

Created as an educational family show to fit between the football results and evening entertainment programmes, the initial run starred William Hartnell for three years; Patrick Troughton for almost three years; Jon Pertwee for four years; Tom Baker for seven years; Peter Davison for three years; Colin Baker for two years; and Sylvester McCoy for two years.

A stand-alone movie starring Paul McGann as the Doctor came and went without much fanfare in 1996, and then, after 33 years, it was laid to rest.

Under the direction of Swansea-born executive producer Russell T Davis, the Doctor was fully resurrected for BBC Wales with Christopher Eccleston in the lead role in 2005, and it's been going strong ever since. And with Scottish actor Peter Capaldi due to take over sonic screwdriver duties from Smith next month, its future looks set to continue in the same vein.

In its 50th anniversary year, the series is watched by an estimated 80 million viewers in 206 countries, and has been honoured by Guinness World Records as both the longest running and most successful science-fiction series in the world.

With all of this mythology, a visit to the Doctor Who set in BBC One Wales' futuristic Roath Lock studios in Cardiff Bay could be described as something of a hot ticket.

Rumours have been rife about the content of the special, although the programme's storylines - under Stephen Moffat, the current lead writer and executive producer, as well as under his predecessor Davies - are notoriously well protected.

What we do know is that the Doctors embark on their greatest ever adventure. In 2013, we are told, something terrible is awakening in London's National Gallery. In 1562, a murderous plot is afoot in Elizabethan England. And somewhere in space, an ancient battle reaches its devastating conclusion. All of reality is at stake as the Doctor's own dangerous past comes back to haunt him.

It promises to be a real blockbuster, but in a way, those who are most incredulous about the show's impact are the people involved with the making of it.

Listening to Moffat, an urbane and often sarcastic Scot, talk about the programme at Roath Lock, there's a very real sense that the 50th anniversary is a secondary concern to producing a peerless programme that's very much of the moment.

"Attaching '50' to anything - well, I almost tried to rip the logo off," he says. "Why is that a great thing to say? The kids lead this audience, so telling them that Doctor Who is old is nothing.

"They don't care that it's been going for years - all they want to DoctorWho: Day Of The is on BBC next Saturday at 7.50pm know is what you're doing on Saturday. And when Saturday comes, I honestly think we're going to knock them for six. Not just this weekend, because generally speaking that's what we do."

And what the team is launching on an eager public in seven days' time will undoubtedly make a lasting mark on the legend of the Doctor. As the quick-chatting Moffat weaves his way around the Doctor Who sets, he's enthusiastic about the design and the thrill of film-making.

His excitement being in the Tardis is palpable in spite of the fact that he must have stood by the famed console upwards of 50 times since he took over from Davies in 2008. But, he acknowledges, that all-important suspension of disbelief is part of the enjoyment.

"What we do in terms of setting is making it seem you're not standing in a room around an elaborate table. You can almost define Doctor Who by the fact a huge amount of money was spent on the set, with the absolute ambition that they'd use it as little as possible.

"There are no chairs in the Tardis - the show is unique in that you can't sit down on the main set. You're meant to get out and on with the big adventure."

With that, we're led from the Tardis into what could be described as a barn, but which, in the case of Doctor Who, is a barn in a alien desert used by some sort of hideous monsters, a tribe like the The Doctor One Zygons. Having first made an appearance back in 1975, we do know that these adversaries have been reanimated for The Day of the Doctor.

But any other secrets we hope to be revealed by the set are staying firmly hidden. "How quickly the sets go up can be quite terrifying. That barn wasn't there that long ago," is all Moffat will offer with barely a pause, and with that, we are off again.

The journey through Moffat's mind is as elaborate and entertaining as the whistle-stop tour of the unfinished sets. A fan of Doctor Who since childhood, the TV visionary from Paisley was known for his writing on everything from Press Gang to Coupling. But it was when he came on board Doctor Who as a writer in 2004 that his youthful enthusiasm for the character was truly allowed to run free.

In a way, his devotion to the Whovian cause is what's brought him to this 50th anniversary hoopla fully formed and ready to write the story of the time traveller's life. But contrary to what fans may believe, the show hasn't been long in gestation.

"I haven't been planning this story forever," he says. "To put it mildly, I have enough to be thinking about on a day-to-day basis without thinking about shows I'm going to make in a while. I knew it was coming, so when it was the next thing that came over the hill, I started thinking what we were going to do."

Secrecy surrounding the plot is taken very seriously and Moffat, perhaps understandably, is the most dedicated to keeping the finer points under wraps. What he will say is that this upcoming episode is the biggest tale of the Doctor's life that's never been told.

"If you're going to celebrate Doctor Who, you're really going to have to tell his story. What's it like for him, what's it like being him, what defines him, what defines what he is and all that - how do you make that a mighty moment in his life?" In the context of such a massive anniversary, bringing some of the Doctors back together again was the dream for fans, although Moffat says it wasn't always top of his list, not least because three of them - Hartnell, Troughton and Pertwee - are no longer with us.

"With the three dead ones, that would be some appalling gaps in conversation," Moffat offers in characteristically deadpan style. "I'm not going to tell you what we have decided, but you're going to get every kind of retrospective in the world."

Insofar as they were able to reunite at least some of the Doctor Who actors, viewers have been salivating at the thought of David Tennant (the last one) and Matt Smith (the current one) on screen together. Details, of course, being sketchy as to the exact events which lead to them standing shoulder to shoulder, the fact remains that the two actors are among the most popular on British screens at the moment.

Having played two versions of the same man who had undeniable similarities - their twitchy enthusiasm and general mania could make them appear onscreen brothers - the actors are startlingly similar in real life. Of course, it helps that when I meet them they're decked out in the Doctor's dress-casual suit garb.

So how does the big meeting play out onscreen? Within the bounds of Moffat's Official Secrets Act, they share a few nuggets, starting with Tennant. "The two Doctors are slightly combative, slightly competitive, but they really quite enjoy being in each other's presence as well."

Smith interjects: "They sort of get on and then they don't and then they do. It's like two brothers that are evenly matched fencing-wise."

"Or a conversation with your own conscience," suggests Tennant. "Yeah, that's what I should have said," Smith concedes. Then they smile at each other.

Tennant says that in shared scenes, they tend to switch between "praising each other's ingenuity to trying to undermine the other one at every possibility".

The truth is, fans lap up this effortless cosmic interaction, a fact which has added to the excitement around the anniversary.

Tennant, who left in 2010 after five years in the Doctor's well-worn trainers, takes up the thread: "I was aware when I left that the 50th anniversary wasn't far away, so you can speculate by putting two and two together. With Doctor Who, the moment you get the job, people are asking when you're leaving. The moment you leave, they're asking when you're coming back. So it's a possibility which has always been visited upon you by other people even if not by yourself.

"I had a wonderful time. I left Doctor Who very happy so it's not whether you have doubts about coming back, it's the other 500 things that you have to work out to make it possible. I was always up for the notion of it, it was just finding the space and the opportunity."

And lucky he did, as between appearing in ITV's Broadchurch and BBC One's The Escape Artist, Tennant's career is truly flying. It's a success that undoubtedly awaits Smith after he relinquishes the Tardis to his successor Capaldi after this year's Christmas special.

Tennant is proof, if it were needed, that there is life after Doctor Who, a fact that he modestly attributes to the boost it gave to his fledgling career. "The way the show is now and the level of success that it's enjoyed, I think it opens more doors than it closes to anyone. I think there probably are some people who are bored of me by now."

From his heady successes of 2013, being back in the groove with the Doctor was a welcome trip back in time for Tennant. "Stepping on set at first was peculiar, because in some ways, it's completely familiar. You do it every day for a year so there's a sort of muscle memory to it, and yet at the same time you're thinking, 'What's this I'm wearing?' and 'Surely I'm too old to be doing this?' It's a weird mixture of sensations. The first day Matt wasn't there, it was just me, like, 'Oh, I sort of remember this' and the next day it became something different because we were on the Tardis."

Bringing together the Doctors, of course, means bringing together his erstwhile companions. Smith's Doctor is ably accompanied across the galaxy and beyond by Clara Oswald, played by Jenna Coleman, while Piper's Rose Tyler was the Tardis' female traveller back in Tennant's day.

Smith and Tennant agree that there was something special in having them both share the same space. Smith says: "I think that Jenna brings a real diligence, intelligence and sort of tenacity to her role as companion that challenges the Doctor in a slightly different way. She intrigues him. She's quite forthright and her mind and I think Jenna works very hard at bringing all that to light."

Tennant is similarly proud of Piper's role. "Billie's one of the country's great actors and it's always a joy to work with her. I think she has given Rose Tyler a sort of humanity that captured a nation's heart. I think that was one of the things that Russell did very cleverly when he re-booted the show, was that it was sort of from Rose's point of view. The Doctor was a secondary character really, which is kind of how it was back in 1963 - she was the audience's way in but also she was written in a very three dimensional way. I think Billie embodied that and I think that was then carried on through the next companions. The centrality of that relationship has become the key to the show."

Doctor Who: The Day Of The Doctor is on BBC One next Saturday at 7.50pm

GRAPHIC: Time team: Matt Smith and David Tennant together in The Day Of The Doctor

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  • APA 6th ed.: McCrum, Kirstie (2013-11-16). Cometh the day, cometh the Doctors. Daily Post p. 24.
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