Doctor Who Cuttings Archive

Time files when we're having fun

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IN 1963, few people would have imagined that an eccentric children's science fiction series - dreamt up by a group of outsiders in a BBC populated by grey-suited establishment types - would one day be celebrating its 50th birthday.

Yet on Nov 23, Doctor Who's golden anniversary will surely become the television event of 2013. A fact-based drama about the show's shaky origins has been written by Mark Gatiss, a collaborator on the series and lifelong fan.

Meanwhile, a special anniversary episode is currently being filmed in 3D and will be screened in cinemas across the land.

So why has Doctor Who endured? The simple answer is regeneration. Like the Time Lord himself, the show has adapted to changing times.

Jon Pertwee's jut-jawed, earthbound Doctor heralded a new format for the series as it left the monochrome Sixties. Script editor Douglas Adams's zany intellectualism was tailored to Tom Baker's unpredictable, other-worldly Doctor at the end of the Seventies.

And, most significantly, Russell T Davies's beautifully masterminded reboot in 2005 (after a 16-year hiatus) took the original series' essence of wonder and adventure and stitched it into a big-budget, fantastical extravaganza.

Davies understood that the beauty of Doctor Who lay in its versatile format. Epic space opera; historical adventure; human interest story. Doctor Who remains an ever-evolving pageant.

Last night's episode, The Bells of Saint John, the start of a new run, certainly showed no signs that Doctor Who is limping towards middle age.

The show's current executive producer, Steven Moffat (who also wrote this episode), has previously been criticised for making the storylines too complex for younger viewers, but he has (correctly, I think) argued that children don't want to be patronised, and that an imaginative, well-constructed script is enough to take them on an incredible journey.

Moffat also recognises a crucial facet of being young: children love to be scared.

Viewers in search of thrills will certainly have relished The Bells of Saint John. Set in modern-day London, the plot concerned internet users who, if they clicked on the wrong Wi-Fi provider, found their souls being uploaded and their minds being harvested by a malevolent force.

It was a witty, cautionary tale for anyone who has ever felt overwhelmed by the internet. This was Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror for children, a terrifying tale of information overload but without the grown-up dystopian despair.

Reassurance came with the arrival of Matt Smith's Doctor, inadvertently summoned from a monastery in 13th-century Cumbria by Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman), the mysterious girl he has crossed many time zones to find.

Smith continues to charm with his eccentric cool (we saw the Doctor dispense with the Tardis and roar across London by motorbike) and the extraordinary range of alien and human emotions he can convey.

But the critics' eyes were on Coleman in the pivotal role of the Doctor's new assistant, Clara. We've seen her twice before, of course, but this is the official start of her tenure.

Clara is an engaging character: warm, brave, desperate for adventure. It's clear that her sense of wonder will make her a favourite with children as she travels in the Tardis - or "Snogbox" as she christened it.

She suspected the Doctor was flirting with her, and in these days when the Doctor/ assistant relationship is usually imbued with an emotional attachment, she might just be right.

Big-budget effects, a rapid pace, a sense of fun - there was much in The Bells of Saint John to enthral a 21st-century child. Yet, looking back over the 50 years of Doctor Who that led up to last night's return, it's hard to imagine children thrilling in quite the same way to some of the "vintage" episodes.

Budgetary constraints aside, they would probably be left bemused by the theatrical configuration of scenes, the slow, even turgid plotting and the proliferation of technical dialogue.

"We're being dragged towards a relative continuum displacement zone," declared Tom Baker's Doctor in 1977. Even physicists were left scratching their heads.

Neither should we pretend that Doctor Who has been on an upward trajectory of brilliance since 1963. In the Eighties, the series was frankly embarrassing. Even fans agree that it became tacky, poorly produced and too self-referential. Following the drama's demise in 1989, Doctor Who was little more than a fondly remembered relic. The only new episode was a misguided American co-production in 1996 starring Paul McGann. There has always been an essential Englishness to Doctor Who, a familiarity that's as comforting as cricket on a village green, and the McGann version failed because it was glossy, transatlantic and soulless. Thankfully, Doctor Who's Englishness has survived in the "Gosh! Geronimo!" guise of Matt Smith. As does the Doctor's essential humanity - which is ironic considering he's a 900-year-old Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. Adults are in awe of his intelligence, children love and relate to his openheartedness and curiosity.

At one point last night, the Doctor reassured Clara with his usual wide-eyed zeal: "You can run away all you like and still be home in time for tea!" That's the beauty of Doctor Who. No matter how terrifying the encounter with the Daleks or Cybermen, comfy reassurance is never far away.

Roll on the next 50 years.

GRAPHIC: Fifty years of travel: Matt Smith, the Doctor in the new series; the most famous foe, the Dalek; and the first episode screened in 1963, starring William Hartnell; below, a 2008 Christmas special featuring a Cyberman

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  • APA 6th ed.: Lawrence, Ben (2013-03-31). Time files when we're having fun. The Sunday Telegraph p. 7.
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