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Doctor Who's back: Why do we love him so much?

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2005-12-23 Evening Standard p42-43.jpg


The Time Lord has captured the public imagination this year. It's more Dad's Army in space than silly sci-fi, says a lifelong fan.

That's why we'll all be tuning in to the Christmas special I HAVE an appointment with my TV on Christmas night. I have to see how the new Doctor Who, David Tennant, fights off The Christmas Invasion in an hourlong one-off. I'm not inviting anyone around. I can't run the risk that an auntie will slurp her sherry, or an ex-boyfriend will crack his nuts, as an army of malignant Santas battles to invade the Earth. So I'm locking myself away with the remains of the turkey and a remote control. I'll watch the special on BBC1, and then the repeat on BBC3, and then the repeat of the repeat after that. Who needs humanoids when you've got the Doctor?

I've been this way for more than 30 years. If you've only discovered the Doctor in his 2005 incarnation, come on in - no hard feelings. But where were you when Jon Pertwee faced the Sea Devils in 1972, or Tom Baker was luring the Rutans with a jelly baby in 1978? And what about the dark days of the Nineties when a few thousand of us faithfuls kept the Time Lord's flame burning after John Birt called a final "exterminate" on Sylvester McCoy's Doctor? You should have been there. Don't let people tell you that the scrappy special effects used to spoil the fun, Doctor Who has always been the best thing on the box.

And it's not because it's science fiction. Star Trek - with all those earnest Americans pushing their liberal values on a po-faced universe - has always been my definition of boring. It's not because it's fantasy - I've always thought The Lord of the Rings was for slightly strange teenage boys who'd be much better off with a magazine and a box of Kleenex.

No. At it's heart, Doctor Who is Dad's Army in space. Whereas other science-fiction heroes have fantastic weaponry or superpowers, the Doctor is really just a very eccentric Brit (forget that he was born in Gallifrey for the moment) whose time and space machine is just as likely to land him in trouble as it is to rescue him. He has no weapons - his sonic screwdriver picks a lock, but then so does a hairpin - and he's forgetful, clownish, irritable. If the Daleks are pepperpot metaphors for Nazis (and most Who buffs agree they are), the Doctor is really the Warmington-on-Sea Home Guard transferred to the time/space vortex. Which is why we love him.

Yes, the invaders can be cunning, they can be cruel, they can have all the fire power - but they'll never have the streak of eccentricity that we do.

And that's enough for us to win the day every time. Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Cyberleader?

The Doctor's greatest enemies, the Daleks (who came back in 2005) and the Cybermen (who return in the New Year), were once humans who allowed themselves to become robotised.

It gives them the upper hand for a while - until the Doctor comes along, rigs something up with string, a yo-yo and a "Let's hope this works because we've got no other options left, Sarah Jane" (she was big in the Seventies and joins David Tennant and Billie Piper's Rose in the new series) and, bang, humanity triumphs over the machines. They have vast armies; our hero has only himself and a couple of companions to save the universe. And save it they always do, just like good old Blighty during our darkest hour.

It's no surprise to us Who-watchers that this year's Christmas invasion is rumoured to include topical criticism of the Government's Iraq policy. Over the years, the show has included a great deal of social satire. It tackled the European Union and the 1974 miners' strike in the Jon Pertwee story The Curse of Peladon. It mocked Denis Healey's "Tax the pips until they squeak" in 1978's The Sunmakers.

Sylvester McCoy faced Sheila Hancock as a very Thatcherlike baddie in the late Eighties, and only last year Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper saw off a Murdochtype, intergalactic media monster.

But it's not just the topical bits that transform ordinary men and women into Whoanatics (I've made that word up, it's better than Trekkie). There's something else, something a bit - think carefully before you buy your seven-year-old that Doctor Who annual - something a bit gay. It's a constant delight to me to discover how many of the boys who follow the Doctor's adventures turn out to be friends of Gallifrey as much as they're friends of Dorothy.

As a child growing up in the suburbs, the idea that a man with a magical box could appear and whisk you off on adventures tapped into my latent sexuality.

And that same thrill pumps through me every time I hear the first few notes of the theme tune (and that theme tune must be a big factor in the show's success - has anyone on telly ever come up with anything better?). I think I saw myself as Sarah Jane Smith, emerging from the Tardis on yet another planet that looked like a disused quarry, wearing a pair of totally impractical wedge heels that meant as soon as a Wirrn or a Crinoid attacked she was bound to fall over and scream for the Doctor.

But I think I also saw myself as the Doctor - a strange figure, bohemian clothes, a wandering "other" of no apparent sexuality - a feeling that quite a few boys experience, boys who 20 years later end up in Old Compton Street.

It's almost impossible to defeat a Time Lord. They reincarnate. So in the week that John Birt heads off to the black hole of business consultancy with nothing but a polite nod goodbye from his mate Tony Blair, it's fitting that Doctor Who, which Birt once tried to kill off, bounces back with a new face and a whole new generation of fans. And us old fans? Ecstatic. Word is that in 2006 Sarah Jane's coming back with K9.

Time to get out the wedge heels - there's a universe to save. Now excuse me while I reverse the polarity of the neutron flow.

The Christmas Invasion is on BBC1 at 7pm on Sunday. A new series of Doctor Who begins later in 2006.

Mark Ravenhill's new play, The Cut, previews at the Donmar Warehouse from 23 February.

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  • APA 6th ed.: Ravenhill, Mark (2005-12-23). Doctor Who's back: Why do we love him so much?. London Evening Standard p. 42.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Ravenhill, Mark. "Doctor Who's back: Why do we love him so much?." London Evening Standard [add city] 2005-12-23, 42. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Ravenhill, Mark. "Doctor Who's back: Why do we love him so much?." London Evening Standard, edition, sec., 2005-12-23
  • Turabian: Ravenhill, Mark. "Doctor Who's back: Why do we love him so much?." London Evening Standard, 2005-12-23, section, 42 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Doctor Who's back: Why do we love him so much? | url= | work=London Evening Standard | pages=42 | date=2005-12-23 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=6 December 2023 }}</ref>
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