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Dr. Who Comes Back In Time

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"I've been time-traveling," said Sylvester McCoy -- and he should know what he's talking about.

The diminutive Scottish actor was speaking from London, where he'd just completed a tour of the rebuilt Globe Theater. Visiting that reconstruction of Shakespeare's playhouse is the kind of figurative time travel anyone can enjoy, but it wasn't so very long ago that McCoy was the master of the literal variety, as the star of the British television show "Dr. Who."

The longest-running science-fiction series in the history of television, "Dr. Who" makes a comeback Tuesday in a new two-hour adventure on the Fox network (7 p.m. locally on KOKI, UHF channel 23, cable channel 5), aimed at spearheading a fullscale revival of the popular time-and-space-traveling hero.

For many, he's never gone away. Past episodes of the show continue to be released on commercial video, there's a "Dr. Who" magazine, a series of paperback novels, the occasional radio serial in Great Britain, and well-attended conventions held all over the world every year. The series itself ceased production in 1989, but if anything, that's only increased its fans' devotion.

Not bad for a modest little program that started life in 1963 as a quasi-educational series aired on Saturday afternoons by the British Broadcasting Company. "Dr. Who" captured the imagination of its young viewers (and a lot of older ones, too) by the twist of having as its central figure a man whose command of time and space could conduct the audience through fascinating periods of history, with occasional speculative forays into possible other worlds.

After the premiere episode, though -- a story about primitive man's struggle to master the use of fire -- the show's characters found themselves on another planet dealing with the Daleks, a race of murderous blobs who glided around in salt shaker-shaped mechanical suits. The Daleks proved wildly popular with the audience, and from that point on, the show's educational aspects were replaced by more flamboyant adventures.

What always separated the show from its more in-your-face competition was its high level of quirky charm. Due to an imperfection in its cloaking device, the Doctor's time-space vehicle, the Tardis (for Time and Relative Dimensions in Space), was permanently stuck in the shape of an old-fashioned Police Call Box. And the Doctor himself often seemed to be a few sands shy of an hourglass, even when the fate of the universe hung in the balance.

Thanks to the clever device of imbuing the hero with the ability to "regenerate" into a new form whenever his body grew old or damaged, the producers kept the show fresh through a series of actors who each brought his own brand of quirkiness to the part.

Tom Baker, the toothy beanpole who played the role when most Americans finally got a chance to see the show in the 1970s, remains one of the most popular Doctors, but he was actually only the fourth in a line of equally charismatic actors that began with the grandfatherly William Hartnell and extended through elfin Patrick Troughton, dashing John Pertwee, youthful Peter Davison, batty Colin Baker, and the charming energetic Scot, Sylvester McCoy.

It's to the credit of the current producers that McCoy was invited to recreate his role in the new production's opening minutes, providing a link to the past that builds on the show's tradition and displays a rare respect for what's come before.

In a recent telephone interview, McCoy spoke about the role that made him a household name around the world, and his feelings about handing the keys to the Tardis over to its newest owner.

"Looking back, I feel incredibly privileged to have been able to play the part," the actor said in his manic burr. "After it was all over, I had a wee bit of trouble getting cast in television for a while, but I suddenly found myself getting far more lucrative jobs in the theater and films as a result of it. And I've just finished six months on another television series, so I'd say that trouble's past, as well."

A versatile character actor, McCoy's career has encompassed everything from classic plays to horror films; in the 1979 "Dracula" he worked with Frank Langella and Laurence Olivier -- "most of the part got cut, but if you look, you can see me wearing glasses and looking frightened," he laughed. While preparing for an upcoming stage production of Joe Orton's black comedy "Funeral Games," he noted that his most recent film, the children's fantasy "Leaping Leprechauns," has just been released on video. In that one, naturally, he plays one of the little people.

In short, he's had a fulfilling career, enjoying the enduring popularity that clings to him as a result of his tenure as the Doctor without finding it a detriment to his continued success.

"We stopped making the show seven years ago, so in a sense, I gave up being the Doctor way back then. What's happening now for me is more of a treat than anything else. To have got the chance to go back and to be part of a revival of 'Dr. Who' is a delight.

"It's one of the great television roles, really, it gives you such a scope as an actor. You can be Hamlet, you can be the clown you can be a hero, you can be a coward, you can be all sorts of things within it. The canvas you're working on is so vast, and you can paint so many different colors into it.

"And at the same time, whereas with most roles you just go and do your job and that's it, with the Doctor you're compared with all the others who have done the part, and that's the frightening bit."

The new Doctor who makes his bow Tuesday night is Paul McGann, who McCoy described as "absolutely brilliant, one of our top young actors. His Doctor has this marvelous quality of danger in his eyes, and at the same time a great sense of humor. I think he'll be very good. And he's an old friend of mine, so it was a great delight to hand the role over to a mate -- and in one of the best regeneration scenes that any of the Doctors has ever done."

As an advance viewing of the new show revealed, McCoy's assessment is right on the money. Dressed and coiffed in a manner reminiscent of a young Beethoven, McGann is a fine choice for the role -- a bit more romantic and handsome than most, perhaps, but every bit as eccentric and dynamic.

Though his initial adventure falls right in line with the series' 26 years of continuity, it's absolutely user-friendly for new viewers and those who may remember the old BBC series with scorn for its low-budget special effects should be impressed with the new look of this "Dr. Who," which sports some vastly improved visuals.

"Yes, well, hopefully they would be," laughed McCoy. "We weren't known for our special effects. But that wasn't the charm of 'Dr. Who,' was it?"

No, and one may find the new fully orchestrated version of the classic theme song a bit jarring, perhaps even inferior to the amiably cheesy old synthesizer rendition that rattled viewers' fillings for nearly three decades.

For the most part, though, the improvements are welcome. The show itself is stylishly directed, and the additions to the traditional sets and situations are, for the most part, wise ones. (And perhaps wisest of all, the Tardis remains an anachronistic old Police Box.) Co-produced in Vancouver by Fox Television and the BBC, the presence of an American partner has led some fans to worry that the program's essentially British charm would be co-opted in favor of attracting Yanks into the fold.

Not so, said McCoy. "The producer's British, the director's British, which is very important, the lead actor's British, and the script is written by a Brit. I've seen what the director's done with it -- he's brought that kind of wonderful British humor to lots of things that could have been done quite normally, quite mundanely, and I'm quite excited by it."

Though presented simply as a regular "Fox Tuesday Night Movie," the film is being eyed on both sides of the Atlantic as a pilot for a new series. With its high budget, an appropriately vicious villain in the person of Eric Roberts, and the care that's been lavished on it by cast and crew, it's very likely that Tuesday won't be the last we'll see of one of the best loved of all television heroes.

For the time being, though, what should matter to most viewers this week is that "Dr. Who" is back. And, of course, it's about time.

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  • APA 6th ed.: Vance, James (1996-05-12). Dr. Who Comes Back In Time. Tulsa World p. H1.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Vance, James. "Dr. Who Comes Back In Time." Tulsa World [add city] 1996-05-12, H1. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Vance, James. "Dr. Who Comes Back In Time." Tulsa World, edition, sec., 1996-05-12
  • Turabian: Vance, James. "Dr. Who Comes Back In Time." Tulsa World, 1996-05-12, section, H1 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Dr. Who Comes Back In Time | url= | work=Tulsa World | pages=H1 | date=1996-05-12 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=22 July 2024 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=Dr. Who Comes Back In Time | url= | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=22 July 2024}}</ref>