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Out of this world (Sunday Express)

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1983-11-20 Sunday Express Magazine.jpg


Out of this world

Happy birthday, Dr Who! On Wednesday the hero of the world's longest running television sci-fi serial will be 720 years old. His last 20 years can be counted, by courtesy of the BBC, in earth's time. The previous seven centuries belong in the annals of the planet Gallifrey from which the Doctor first took off in his TARDIS to Save our threat and world. Phillip Oakes reports

In two decades Dr Who has saved us from an awesome lineup of heavy use including Cyberman, ice warriors and Daleks. He has done battle with Wirrns like giant wasps and Zygons (a new breed of loch ness monster). He has bested the 13th century warlord, outwitted the evil brain of Morbius and defeated The Master, a space outlaw.

Along the way he has collected a worldwide audience of around 98 million viewers and brought joy to the hearts of BBC programme-makers, who occasionally report that Dr Who adventures have so far been bought by 40 or so countries. They're cagey because their estimates are frequently out of date. Keeping up with the Doctor is one of the occasional pleasures of BBC Accounting.

The anniversary is being marked with and 90 minute TV special, scripted by Terrance Dicks, called The Five Doctors in which Our Hero appears in all his incarnations, past and present.

To a non-addict, it is not easy to explain the Dr Who phenomenon. A space-trotting do-gooder who travels the universe accompanied by a team of teenage assistants hardly sounds like a hero built to last. His appeal is blue printed in what's known as the BBC's Dr Who Bible--a reference book for new recruits to the production team which sets out the salient points for earthlings to bear in mind.

"The Doctor is a Time Lord," it asserts. "He possesses two hearts, a body temperature of 60 degrees Fahrenheit and is over seven centuries in age. He has the capacity of regenerating himself into different appearances--his present form being the fifth.

"He no longer resides on his own planet due to his boredom with the super-advanced planet and fellow Time Lords and roams through Time and space in his own personalized ship, the Tardis.

"The Doctor is not infallible. Part of his appeal is in his problem solving capacity when things go wrong, making do with bits and pieces of electronic gadgetry which just happens to be around."

One of the things which most frequently goes wrong is the doctor's spaceship ("temperamental and unreliable" notes the Bible) which, on one memorable trip, took the time travellers to Antarctica instead of an intergalactic pleasure resort.

All the same, it's a remarkable craft. From the outside the Tardis looks like a Metropolitan Police box ... although the exterior is exists in the real world, and the interior is within a different, but relative, dimension. Hence the title Time and Relative Dimension in Space-- TARDIS. It's true existence is outside, time, fashioned by the supreme feats in temporal engineering master by the old Time Lords. This engineering masterpiece also explains the first sight to greet new entrants to the TARDIS; the fact that it is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.

It is a concept of which J.W. Dunne or Einstein would not have been ashamed. But what's most surprising is how painlessly it has been at absorbed into what John Nathan-Turner, the producer of Dr Who calls "the simple, brilliant format which ensures survival. "

No one knows for sure who devised it, but most Dr Who buffs agree that credit is largely due to the veteran producer Sydney Newman and his then assistant Verity Lambert (now a supremo in her own right) who nursed the series through its early days. "It's true to say that it was created by the BBC," says script writer Terrance Dicks. "It's one of those rare examples of a committee successfully designing a horse instead of a camel.

The first Dr Who adventure, An Unearthly Child, was shown in 1963, the year of the Profumo scandal and the Kennedy assassination. The response from viewers was so enthusiastic that the BBC took the unprecedented step of repeating the same episode the following week.

In episode five, written by Terry Nation, the Daleks made their debut and the series had found its most endearing villains. School playgrounds echoed with small boys chanting "Exterminate!" They still do. But although viewers remain loyal to the Daleks, they are not much loved within the BBC. Tom Baker--the fourth Dr Who--blasted them as "dreary, blundering things; moving on one level and talking on one note." "If you think about it," says John Nathan-Turner, "all you need to do to escape a Dalek is climb a ladder." If it is a solution which most viewers choose to ignore.

Seven and a half million of them now watch each episode of Dr Who. Viewing figures have doubled since the programme went into its early evening slot and ceased to be purely a children's show. A four-part story is budgeted at £190,000 and a full Dr Who season costs over £1 million.

"It's big money," says Terry Sampson of BBC Enterprises. "But a lot comes back. With overseas sales and merchandising, Dr Who is the Corporation's biggest honor. The patent of any monster in the series belongs to the writer who created it. (Last Easter the royalties of Dalek inventor Terry Nation were swelled by the sale of Dalek Easter eggs.) But there are also TARDIS tents, TARDIS money boxes, Dr Who board games and wallpaper, Cybermen--sweat shorts, records and comics to spread the profits around.

The fringe benefits don't end there. Terrance Dicks, who was the series' script editor for six years, has "novelized" 50 Dr Who adventures (all in paperback from Target Books) and once found himself mobbed by autograph hunters as a sci-fi convention. "I don't understand it," complained his young son. "They are treating you like a celebrity!"

And so they were, says Dicks. But the credit, he insists, belongs to the Doctor. Or rather, to five Doctors. Each of them has his fans and it's instructive to see how skillfully each actor who has played the part has adapted the character to suit his own style.

"Dr Who has always been a very moral show," says Dicks. "Good invariably triumphs over evil. But in two decades there've been considerable changes in attitude. William Hartnell, the original Doctor, was essentially an anti-hero. He was gruff and he most certainly didn't have the reverence for life that all subsequent doctors have displayed."

"Patrick Troughton, who came next, was much more philosophical; almost a Zen character, who worked played his flute while he worked out a problem. And Jon Pertwee, who followed him, was as knightly as King Arthur as well as being amazingly dandy.

"Tom Baker was a powerful eccentric with 24-ft woolly scarf and a bag of jelly babies in his pocket. While Peter Davison, the current Doctor, is the youngest of the lot; very clean-cut and physical with it.

There been other changes, equally significant. When I first watched the show in the 1960s the prerequisite of a Dr Who heroine was the ability to scream loudly when the monsters approached. His assistants were usually trim little girls who looked as though they came from the best end of Cheam and their function was to get captured, then rescued. Women's lib arrived in 1974 with Sarah Jane Smith, a pert and determined journalist played by Elizabeth Sladen. She was succeeded spectacularly by Louise Jameson as a stone age warrior named Lela who wore a skimpy costume of redskins beneath which she heaved pneumatically as no Dr Who heroine had done before. Suddenly the kids were elbowed aside, but hopeful fathers were disappointed. Leela's rabbit skins were tougher than they looked and every stitch held fast.

Lately the Doctor has been accompanied by a bossy Australian air hostess (Janet Fielding) whose brash confidence in her own abilities "actually conceals inner insecurity." It does not bode well, but it's not yet screaming time again. The fans would never allow it.

Their influence (or support as the BBC would put it) is considerable. The Dr Who production office receives around 130 letters a day and everyone gets a reply. "If people care enough to write, they deserve an answer," says producer Nathan Turner.

There are Dr Who fan clubs in America and Australia. But in England the supporters have discreetly dubbed themselves The Dr Who Appreciation Society. It has 1,200 members pay an annual subscription of £5 and endlessly analyze the doings of the Doctor in a monthly newsletter called The Celestial Toyroom, a bi-monthly magazine called Tardis and the six-monthly comic Masque, given over to Dr Who stories written by members.

There are a dedicated lot, especially the coordinator of the Society, a librarian named David Sanders who shares his North London home with a mountain of Dr Who memorabilia including scale models of Cybermen and Tom Baker in costume. He's in his 30s and unmarried ("No wife would ever put up with all this") and got hooked on the first-ever episode.

"Telly-viewing was so cozy then, sitting by the fire on a Saturday evening. But it's more than nostalgia that's the pull. Right from the start I knew there was something special about Dr Who." Sanders organizes regular meetings of the society where favorite episodes are shown on video and finer points discussed. He can quote lines of dialogue going back 15 years and is proud of the Society's association with the BBC, stressing that they and they alone have official recongnition. "There are some fanzines which had actually speculated on the Doctor's twelfth incarnation. But we'd never do that."

In America they do it differently. Over the past two years Dr Who has taken pride of place at several sci-fi conventions--where sidewalks and hotel lobbies throng with surrogate Doctors (dandified as Jon Pertwee, bescarved as Tom Baker), all paying homage to the time-traveller whose TV adventures are scoring heavily on US networks

"Quite honestly," says Terry Sampson, "there has never been a show like it. All that the marketing has to do is keep pace with the enthusiasm. And that seems to build every day."

Twenty years is a long life for any TV series, especially one which walks the laser beam of science-fiction and whose hero is likely to memtamorphise at the peak of his popularity. "But that's the strength of the format," declares John Nathan-Turner. "There is absolutely no reason why it should ever come to an end. It's like the BBC's own Mousetrap. Twenty years it is no age and all. The show could run for ever."

Caption lined up for this week's 90 minute Dr Who special left to right: Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Jon Pertwee, Patrick Troughton and, in place of the late William Hartnell, Richard Hurndall

Caption Colin Baker becomes the sixth Dr Who in march next year 21 year-old Nicola Bryant becomes the doctor's first American assistant

Caption: the ephemera of 20 years' television success. It was back in 1975 that Davros (main figure, with actor Michael Wisher under all that makeup), creator of the Daleks, clashed with the good Doctor. "Tardis" (top left) is typical of Dr Who fanzines. Daleks (centre) were viewers favorite, less popular with the show's makers. The Cybermen (inset right) were another unearthly enemy

Spelling correction: Elisabeth Sladen

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  • APA 6th ed.: Oakes, Phillip (1983-11-20). Out of this world (Sunday Express). Sunday Express p. Magazine.
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  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Out of this world (Sunday Express) | url= | work=Sunday Express | pages=Magazine | date=1983-11-20 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=10 December 2023 }}</ref>
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