Doctor Who Cuttings Archive

The definitive Englishman, tweed coat, time travel and all

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Awise man once told me it was possible to tell everything about a nation from its TV sci-fi heroes, and maybe it's true.

For American viewers, the TV sci-fi archetype came on the original Star Trek in the manly form of Captain James T. Kirk, played by a Canadian who needn't be named. Kirk and his crew wore tight tunics and they were pretty darn aggressive, dropping in on other people's planets and all. The ugly American as space traveller, if you will.

And across the ocean, the TV hero of choice has always been Doctor Who, who predates Kirk by four years. He's a curious character who is apparently of alien extraction but dresses like a proper Englishman, with tweed coat and scarf intact. Doctor Who travelled through time and space, and he did so in a very British phone booth, called a TARDIS. Here was a civilized sci-fi hero.

You must admit either fictional character is representative of his country, though keep in mind I heard this Kirk v. Doctor Who theory from a man running a tiny Doctor Who fan booth at a Star Trek convention, nearly 20 years ago. Wearing a Doctor Who scarf, surrounded by Klingons, the man was trying to solicit signatures for a petition against the BBC decision to end the first series, which happened in 1989. But Doctor Who came back, and keeps coming back.

Doctor Who never really went anywhere, save for the 16-year break between the end of the original series in 1989 and the updated version launched by the BBC in 2005 (there was also a 1996 TV-movie of little note).

The resurrected Doctor Who is a considerable ratings hit for the BBC and has performed similarly well in these parts for the CBC, which is now listed as a co-producer. The high-tech version of the series is one of the highest-rated programs on CBC, which begins airing the most recent season this week in Doctor Who: Series Three (CBC, Monday at 8 p.m.).

As most everyone knows, the role of the good doctor has been played by 10 actors since the original portrayal by William Hartnell. The role in the latest edition has been assumed by the affable film star David Tennant, a welcome change from his predecessor, the intense actor Christopher Eccleston.

As always seems to happen on the series, particularly in the remake, the Doctor happens abruptly upon a comely young lady, in this case, a medical student named Martha (Freema Agyeman), who immediately becomes his co-pilot on fantastic voyages.

The first show sets up the story and by the second episode the duo are back in Elizabethan London, hanging out at the Globe Theatre with William Shakespeare. Television rarely gets this British.

In Britain, some TV critics and Doctor Who fans have criticized the new series, which has been sharply tailored for younger viewers. The show is too slick, say some, and the Doctor role keeps going to rakish young actors. To some Brits, Doctor Who will always be a tweedy old chap, like Jon Pertwee.

A more common carp against the remake is the overabundance of special effects. The aliens on Doctor Who today are CGI masterpieces, compared with the sixties era of the Daleks -mutant creatures from the planet Skaro, who wore metallic plating and rolled after Doctor Who, bleating, "Exterminate! Exterminate!" The Daleks were pretty scary, even if they looked like vacuum cleaners.

The Daleks are back this season, for a two-parter set in Depression-era Manhattan, where the extermination begins anew. Fast and glib, and clearly aimed at the younger viewer, the new series evokes some essence of the original, and Tennant does make a fetching Doctor. And if it pacifies the purists, the Daleks still look like vacuum cleaners.

Check local listings.

John Doyle returns on Monday.

jaryan@globeandmail.com

LOOKING BACK: A WHO'S WHO

William Hartnell (1963-1966)

Best known for playing gruff sergeants in British war films, Hartnell came to producers' attention due to his role as Richard Harris's mentor in 1963's This Sporting Life. Hartnell's arteriosclerosis made keeping a hectic work schedule impossible, forcing him from the show. In 1973, he returned to the role for one story, appearing very briefly, and only sitting down. He died in 1975.

Patrick Troughton (1966-1969)

Hartnell's portrayal had helped make the series a massive success, so Troughton faced enormous pressure. Wisely, he chose not to attempt an impersonation of Hartnell, and assumed a more comedic personality. Troughton returned to the role three times before his death in 1987. Arguably his best story, available on DVD, is Tomb of the Cybermen.

Jon Pertwee (1970-1974)

The series burst into the seventies, preening its new colour and boasting a much faster pace. The influence of James Bond movies on Pertwee's portrayal is readily apparent. Fancy gadgets and karate chops became as prevalent as wit and reason. After leaving the series, Pertwee played the scarecrow in the kids series Worzel Gummidge, thereby endearing himself to younger siblings of children who had loved him as the Doctor. He died in 1996.

Tom Baker (1975-1981)

The actor globally synonymous with the character. A constellation of talents aligned themselves during Baker's reign, giving loyal Who devotees stories that 30 years later remain richly entertaining. The brightest of these episodes: City of Death, the mundane title of which belies a sublimely witty script. (One of its co-writers was Douglas Adams, who had just finished The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.) Baker worked infrequently in his post-Who years, up until becoming the narrator on the series Little Britain in 2004.

Peter Davison (1982-1984)

A huge star in Britain at the time, thanks to his role in All Creatures Great and Small, Davison never fully settled into the role, and his disdain for the admittedly poor scripts glares off the screen. After three increasingly banal years, Davison fled the series and went on to appear in countless English drama series. He continues to play the role of the Doctor, though, in a series of audio CDs.

Colin Baker (1984-1986)

The franchise dipped even lower during Baker's two-year turn as the Doctor. At the time it seemed the scripts were bristling with contempt for the audience. It was the era when the series became top-heavy with self-referential nonsense and complex plotlines. So hindered, Baker groped unsuccessfully to find the character. The best Colin Baker episode: The Two Doctors, but only because Patrick Troughton makes a visit.

Sylvester McCoy (1987-1989)

The actor tried to regain traction for the franchise by playing Doctor Who as a darker, more complex character (what worked for Batman), but the scripts were weak and too familiar for some fans. McCoy was game, but British viewers were likely more engaged in flashier British sci-fi fare, like Red Dwarf, or the imported Star Trek series. McCoy was the last actor to play Doctor Who in its original run.

Paul McGann (1996)

He wore the scarf for a single TV-movie, which disappointed viewers of the original show and bombed miserably in the British ratings. Fans call him the George Lazenby of the Doctor Who franchise.

Christopher Eccleston (2005)

Eccleston garnered immediate respect with his portrayal of the Doctor. A serious film actor (28 Days), he brought brooding intensity to a figure most British viewers had written off as a cartoon character. Eccleston has yet to give a reason why he left the role after one year.

David Tennant (2005-present)

The latest actor to take on the Doctor, he starred in a Christmas Day Who movie in 2005 before moving into the series the next year. He continues to pick up one-off roles in BBC dramas and comedies on the side.

Ken Carriere

Disclaimer: These citations are created on-the-fly using primitive parsing techniques. You should double-check all citations. Send feedback to whovian@cuttingsarchive.org

  • APA 6th ed.: Ryan, Andrew (2007-06-15). The definitive Englishman, tweed coat, time travel and all. The Globe and Mail p. R25.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Ryan, Andrew. "The definitive Englishman, tweed coat, time travel and all." The Globe and Mail [add city] 2007-06-15, R25. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Ryan, Andrew. "The definitive Englishman, tweed coat, time travel and all." The Globe and Mail, edition, sec., 2007-06-15
  • Turabian: Ryan, Andrew. "The definitive Englishman, tweed coat, time travel and all." The Globe and Mail, 2007-06-15, section, R25 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=The definitive Englishman, tweed coat, time travel and all | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/The_definitive_Englishman,_tweed_coat,_time_travel_and_all | work=The Globe and Mail | pages=R25 | date=2007-06-15 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=16 April 2024 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=The definitive Englishman, tweed coat, time travel and all | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/The_definitive_Englishman,_tweed_coat,_time_travel_and_all | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=16 April 2024}}</ref>