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The New Who

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1996-05-25 Irish Times.jpg


How is the new Doctor Who likely to fare in the brave new world of cybersluts and ninja warriors? Hugh Linehan anticipates the special feature-length drama to be screened next Monday

AFTER an absence of seven years, Doctor Who is back. On Monday, Paul McGann, of Withnail and I and Hanging Gale fame, steps out of the Tardis and into the streets of San Francisco. McGann becomes the eighth Doctor since William Hartnell first appeared in the role. Can a series launched the day after the assassination of JFK hack it in the 1990s?

In his first incarnation, the Doctor made an immediate impression, thanks to the impact of his most famous adversaries. Writer Terry Nation apparently took his inspiration for the Daleks from the Georgia State Dancers: "They seemed to be gliding across the floors their feet invisible under their costumes. It was this strangeness I wanted to capture." How this led to giant salt cellars made of scrap metal remains a mystery, but the Daleks were an instant hit with audiences and led to the first Doctor Who merchandising boom -- of course, this being the BBC, you could follow Blue Peter's instructions and make your own Dalek out of egg cartons and toilet rolls.

But a Dalek's lot was not always a happy one. The actors who operated them from within (surely the real bottom rung of the thespian ladder) couldn't get out without someone lifting their lids off, which caused problems when the crew forgot them at lunchtime. A similar problem arose when nature called during location shooting but, with improvisatory talents honed by years at RADA, the operators soon realised that they could just position themselves over a road grating.

In an attempt to cash in on the-success of the new arrivals, a festive single, I'm Gonna Spend My Christmas with a Dalek, was released at the end of 1963 but unaccountably failed to make the charts. Indeed, moot attempts to make the Doctor Top of the Pops have failed, including Jon Pertwee's Who in the Doctor? In 1972 (in his later incarnation as Worzel Gummidge, Pertwee was more successful when he reached the giddy heights on number 33 with Worzel's Song).

It wasn't until 1988 that those merry prankster, The Timelords hit number one with Doctorin' the Tardis. The most famous piece of music associated with the programme, however, is that theme tune, devised by the boffins of the BBC Radio Workshop, and arguably the starting point for most modern dance music.

One of the great strengths of the series, from the 3 point of view of penny-pinching producers especially was the Doctor's tendency to change shape every few years. Hartnell was followed in 1966 by Patrick Troughton, who piloted the Tardis through the Summer of Love to the end of the decade. The first half of the 1970s saw Jon Pertwee at the helm, to be followed by Tom Baker. Baker was arguably the most successful of the lot, lasting the longest and achieving the highest ratings.

IT'S probably because of my age (I'm a Pertwee man, myself), but the Doctors of the 1980s — Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy — seemed a wishy-washy bunch. Certainly the audiences were slipping away. The highest ratings for a McCoy show were 5.5 million, compared to a high of 14.5 million for Baker. In 1989, after 36 years of continuous broadcasting, McCoy got his P45 without a replacement being announced. It must have seemed that the Doctor has gone to join Crossroads and The Sweeney in the TV elephants' graveyard.

So how is the new Doctor likely to fare in the brave new world of cybersluts and ninja warriors? The feature-length drama on Monday marks a break with tradition on several fronts. Firstly, and most importantly, this is an Angle-American co-production, with Universal Television joining the BBC. The show is billed as a feature-length drama by the Beeb, but in fact it's a pilot for a proposed US network series, with all that implies — shot on film with a $3 million budget, the new story is set in San Francisco and stars Eric Roberts (a very good actor who has to carry the burden of always being known as Julia's brother) as the evil. Sylvester McCoy makes a cameo appearance to hand over the baton by morphing into McGann, and Daphne Ashbrook plays the Doctor's love interest.

Love interest? For the long line of post-pubescent girl-women who have acted as sidekicks to the various Doctors, sex with the boss was definitely not on the menu. McCoy has it about right when he points out the Doctor's similarities to another great British celibate. "Doctor Who, I always thought, should come out of the Sherlock Holmes world. British heroes tend to be guys who don't wear their underpants outside their trousers, who are more eclectic and less physically violent."

"The only American thing about this story is that it's taking place in San Francisco," claims producer Philip Segal, but the trailer for the new show looks like a cross between The X Files and Lois and Clark — lots of shadowy lighting and fancy effects. Tacky production values were always an integral part of Doctor Who's charm — in its travels through the galaxy, the Tardis always seemed to land in the same disused Essex quarry. In its search for a new mass audience, the new Doctor Who has no choice; he has to catch up with the times. You never know though, it just might work — he is, after all, a Time Lord.

Caption: Lord of all time? Paul McGann (above) takes up the baton passed on by the previous Doctor, Sylvester McCoy (above left)

Correction: BBC Radiophonic Workshop

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  • APA 6th ed.: Linehan, Hugh (1996-05-25). The New Who. The Irish Times p. 5.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Linehan, Hugh. "The New Who." The Irish Times [add city] 1996-05-25, 5. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Linehan, Hugh. "The New Who." The Irish Times, edition, sec., 1996-05-25
  • Turabian: Linehan, Hugh. "The New Who." The Irish Times, 1996-05-25, section, 5 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=The New Who | url= | work=The Irish Times | pages=5 | date=1996-05-25 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=30 November 2022 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=The New Who | url= | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=30 November 2022}}</ref>