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Move over Dalek

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1996-01-03 Evening Standard.jpg


It's one more time for relative dimensions in space as Dr Who comes back but is radio a regeneration too far?

WHEN the BBC axed Dr Who in 1989 after 26 years, viewing figures had slumped from 16 million to four million, and it was not so much a cult as a decaying hulk. But space and time do curious things to people and programme schedulers. Dr Who is about to rematerialise on the BBC in the form of Jon Pertwee, his last incarnation-but-four. This time the Tardis has landed in an unusual spot: on Radio 2. Next time, he could be on the big screen, the small screen or somewhere in deepest cyberspace. You cannot, it seems, keep a good time lord down.

Gary Gillat, editor of Dr Who Magazine, says the Doctor 'is still massively popular', with three or four novels published a month. The script for the much-touted film, a BBC co-production with Universal due to go into production at the end of the year, is currently in its second draft.

In 1989, the Doctor (like so many of his colleagues in the NHS) was eventually defeated by underfunding. The sixth Doctor, Peter Davison (1983-86), acknowledges that the sheer scale, ambition and inventiveness of movies like Star Wars set new standards for science fiction drama. 'We couldn't compete,' he says. 'Our resources were too limited.' Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy (1987-89) agrees. 'I was a very frustrated time lord,' he says.

With programme budgets stretched like cat gut, the sets looked like you could punch a hole through them with a butter knife. The Doctor's 'young assistant', once a rival to a Bond girl, ended up more like a hostess on the Generation Game. And despite a goodish team of writers including the young Douglas Adams (credits: City of Death, Shada and Pirate Planet), audiences only had to visit their local cinema to see a world where mountains didn't sound hollow and rocket launchers didn't quiver. It was fantasy, but it looked good enough to eat. Hollywood was doing everything it could to make the scenery convincing. With Dr Who, viewers had to make that imaginative leap themselves. The penny-pinching Dr Who earthscapes seemed to owe less to Nasa than to Blue Peter.

There was also the question of the Doctor himself. In 1963 he was an eccentric boffin, not unlike Jacob Bronowski. Towards the end, he had become a tiresomely nutty professor, more like Jerry Lewis. There are now five surviving Doctors. Some of their time zones intersect, such as Doctors Davison and McCoy, who are currently performing in happy conjunction in Dick Whittington at the Theatre Royal, Windsor. McCoy - who, true to type, is 'a potty pirate' - feels burnished, privileged even, by the experience. 'We ought to have a special tie for the five of us,' he says proudly.

But there is a spectre at the feast and its name is Tom Baker. The fourth Doctor was so reluctant to be associated with his alter egos that his place was famously taken by his Madame Tussaud's effigy at the photo-call for the 20th anniversary episode in 1983. He is said to have dismissed Jon Pertwee as a luvvie. Coming from a man with the longest scarves, silliest hats and fruitiest vowels in prime-time history, it was a brave remark indeed.

To many people, however, Tom Baker is the Doctor. He occupied the part for seven years, played about 26 episodes a year, and his aloof personality and reputation for being a bit of an odd fish seemed perfect for the part.

By contrast, McCoy's 45 episodes in three years seem almost dilettantish.

Both McCoy and Davison sound wary at the mention of Baker's name. Of course, they claim, they all get on fine. But according to Peter Davison: 'Tom took a long time to escape the part and he's wary of being associated with it.'

Unlike them, he never shows up at Who conventions. He just doesn't play the game. 'You don't get to know him well unless he wants to know you,' says Davison.

As with horoscopes, we favour the doctor we were born under. For some, including Alexandra Looseley-Saul of Who Shop International, Tom Baker with his lanky scarf and gum-flashing grin is the echt Doktor. For an older generation it is Jon Pertwee and his bouncing white locks. For still others - including Peter Davison - only Patrick Troughton's scowly gravitas defined the role that (in the opinion of this writer) others have seen lapse into camp.

THE new radio series, The Ghosts of N Space, boasts a storyline spanning the Middle Ages, the Victorian era and the present day. The Doctor confronts one of his most dangerous enemies - a medieval alchemist who has discovered eternal life to appear as a 20th century Mafia boss.

Producer Phil Clarke says: 'Radio is a brilliant medium for sci-fi.'

Though not as fanatical about Dr Who as some, he remembers being 'scared witless as a kid' and enjoyed reuniting Jon Pertwee with some of his co-stars and writer Barry Letts. True to the spirit of the old sets, the new series has a 'nostalgic, slightly wobbly cardboard feel'. How the fabled radiophonic workshop will reproduce the sound of a cardboard set will be fascinating to behold.

Who-eys (not a name they call themselves) will be listening with interest to see if Phil Clarke has kept the faith. Jon Pertwee is not a universally popular Doctor. At least he has the support of Alexandra Looseley-Saul. 'God knows why Jon Pertwee hasn't been knighted,' she says. And on radio his Vic Reeves frilly shirts will not stand out so vividly.

It used to be a familiar tableau: adults watching with a half-smile while the kids hide behind the sofa as the yeti charge down an Underground tunnel. Can the man from Radio 2 and Mr Pertwee work the old magic, or will they play it for kitsch laughs? If they choose the latter, it may be the grown-ups who take refuge behind the furniture - the better to cringe in remorseful privacy.

Dr Who: The Ghosts of N Space, Saturday 20 January, Radio 2, 7.03-7.30pm.

Graphic: Revisiting The Doctor: Jon Pertwee Returns Centre Stage As The Cult Hero Also Portrayed By (Left To Right) Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Sylvester Mccoy, Patrick Troughton, Colin Baker And William Hartnell

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  • APA 6th ed.: Games, Alexander (1996-01-03). Move over Dalek. London Evening Standard p. 49.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Games, Alexander. "Move over Dalek." London Evening Standard [add city] 1996-01-03, 49. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Games, Alexander. "Move over Dalek." London Evening Standard, edition, sec., 1996-01-03
  • Turabian: Games, Alexander. "Move over Dalek." London Evening Standard, 1996-01-03, section, 49 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Move over Dalek | url= | work=London Evening Standard | pages=49 | date=1996-01-03 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=27 May 2024 }}</ref>
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