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Doctor's orders

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Who is the odd one out: Stephen Fry, Matt Smith, David Morrissey, Patterson Joseph, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Catherine Tate, Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans? The answer is Matt Smith, who was unveiled yesterday as the 11th Doctor Who; the others were among the dozens of actors touted for the role.

At 26, Smith will be the youngest ever Doctor. A relative unknown from Northampton, his most celebrated role to date was in the original stage production of Alan Bennett's The History Boys. On screen he has featured in BBC adaptations of Philip Pullman's The Ruby in the Smoke and The Shadow in the North alongside Doctor Who favourite Billie Piper. He won't been seen in the Tardis until the end of the year, when David Tennant, the tenth Doctor, will "regenerate" during the 2009 Christmas special.

But it illustrates Doctor Who's grip on British audiences that a casting decision was deemed worthy of a Saturday afternoon slot on BBC One. The BBC displayed the programme on giant outdoor screens, an honour usually reserved for such national traditions as the Last Night of the Proms and England getting knocked out of the World Cup on penalties.

The unveiling of a new Doctor is now a major news event. But why? First, of course, because Doctor Who is so popular. The recent Christmas special starring David Morrissey and Dervla Kirwan was watched by 11.7 million people; the 2007 special, in which Kylie Minogue helped save the world, attracted 12.2 million. And audiences don't just watch Doctor Who, they love it. Broadcasters use a thing called the Appreciation Index, or AI, to measure viewers' responses. Aside from the soaps, since its revival in 2005 Doctor Who has had the highest AI rating of any TV drama.

It is also watched by a startling cross-section of the population. Television executives have coined the phrase "three-generation TV" for shows that grandparents, parents and grandchildren can enjoy together. It is a channel controller's holy grail and, in finding it, Doctor Who's executive producer Russell T Davies has remade Saturday teatime television.

True, The X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing win similar ratings. But they rely on timeless elements - singing, dancing - that predate television. To conjure up a scripted drama that keeps eight-year olds and 80-year olds captivated is a feat of alchemy. No wonder a host of imitators trail in the Doctor's wake. Nor is it a surprise that Steven Spielberg, the master of family entertainment, thinks "the world would be a poorer place without Doctor Who".

Davies, who writes many of the scripts and oversees all aspects of the show, must take much of the credit. But beneath the childlike glee of a genuine "Whovian" lies a shrewd self-publicist. Davies and the BBC have milked interest in the identity of the 11th Doctor for all it is worth. The Christmas special was called The Next Doctor (it featured a man with delusions that he was the Doctor). Since Tennant said in October that he would quit the Tardis, Davies has barely let an interview go by without touting a replacement; Zeta-Jones was one of his tips.

All this despite Davies's earlier admission that "I literally am not part of choosing the new Doctor Who. I've not been in a single meeting about it. I haven't got a list." This is true: Matt Smith was chosen by Stephen Moffat and Piers Wenger, who will succeed Russell T Davies as executive producer for series five, which starts filming this summer and will air in 2010. Davies, however, has already written Tennant's final episode, without knowing which actor Tennant would regenerate into.

But the Who hullabaloo isn't just a tease; it illustrates that Doctor Who is now more than entertainment; it's a global, multi-million-pound brand. The series is shown in 42 countries, from Belgium to Brazil and Thailand to Turkey. There are two spin-offs, the darker Torchwood starring John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness, and The Sarah Jane Adventures, a children's drama about one of the Doctor's former companions. The merchandise is legion; you can buy everything from your own Sonic Screwdriver (an LED torch) to Cyberman bubble bath (wouldn't the water upset their circuits?).

But Doctor Who is a success primarily because it is so effortlessly entertaining. This is in large part due to the elasticity of its sci-fi premise. Thanks to the Tardis, the Doctor can travel anywhere in space or time. One moment he's rubbing shoulders with Shakespeare, the next battling aliens far in the future. And the Doctor has a further ace up his sleeve: the ability to change not just the actor playing him, but the nature of his character.

According to Tennant, "the Doctor gets to be everything. He gets to be funny and intense, he's a hero, but he's also a bit of a clown, he's an anarchist, but he's strong and dependable and crazy. Like mercury one minute and steel the next. I don't think there's a better character on TV."

This lets each Doctor take the series in new directions, and each generation develop its own favourites. I was always reassured by Peter Davison's cricket sweater, and thought Sylvester McCoy's "question mark" umbrella naff. This doubtless says more about me and my age than their merits.

The point is that each Doctor is allowed to be - supposed to be - different. "That's one of the exciting parts of being a fan of the show," says Tennant, "you know that the Doctor can change. It's not like James Bond, where you know he's a certain type of man, like Tarzan is a certain type of character, or Sherlock Holmes. The Doctor can change quite radically, but there's still an essential Doctor-ness."

So what is "Doctor-ness"? A good Doctor needs to be upbeat and versatile to cope with the roller-coaster demands of the plot. This is Tennant's strong suit. Davison, too, exuded a confidence that kept the action whirring. But the Doctor is also a lonely and, at times, troubled soul. Tom Baker did a marvellous job of being both wry and melancholy; Tennant's predecessor Christopher Eccleston was moodily impressive, although this felt at odds with Davies's wisecracking scripts. Less successful, in my opinion, were McCoy (not just because of that umbrella) and Colin Baker. The Doctor needs authority and their versions felt lightweight.

Which is why Matt Smith is such a bold and exciting choice as the next Doctor. His relative lack of fame shouldn't matter a jot. It's hard to recall now, but before he regenerated as the Doctor, Tennant's most high-profile TV role had been in the BBC3 drama Casanova, written by Davies. Indeed, the key to Tennant's success as the Doctor has been how the crackle of his performances has matched the exuberance of the scripts.

However, Davies's and Tennant's Doctor, great as he is, is not perfect. Those gearshifts from silliness to melodrama have at times worn thin. While Tennant's boyishness (can you think of a younger looking 37 year-old?) has made some fans wish for a return to a more grizzled, grown-up Doctor in the Tom Baker mould.

And who better to create this new, darker Doctor than Steven Moffat, the writer of the most chilling episodes of recent years, the Bafta-winning Blink. Moffat's partnership with Matt Smith - like Davies's with Tennant - holds the key to the series's continuing success. It sounds a ridiculous thing to say about a 900-year-old alien who travels through time in a 1950s police box, but the 11th Doctor needs to take himself a bit more seriously.

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  • APA 6th ed.: Pettie, Andrew (2009-01-04). Doctor's orders. The Sunday Telegraph (England) p. 19.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Pettie, Andrew. "Doctor's orders." The Sunday Telegraph (England) [add city] 2009-01-04, 19. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Pettie, Andrew. "Doctor's orders." The Sunday Telegraph (England), edition, sec., 2009-01-04
  • Turabian: Pettie, Andrew. "Doctor's orders." The Sunday Telegraph (England), 2009-01-04, section, 19 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Doctor's orders | url= | work=The Sunday Telegraph (England) | pages=19 | date=2009-01-04 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=25 July 2024 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=Doctor's orders | url= | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=25 July 2024}}</ref>