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What's Up Doc? (The Observer)

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No, The Observer's Rachel Cooke isn't Dr Who's new assistant...but she was one of millions of children who dreamt of filling that role. As the Tardis rematerialises in 2005, she wonders if the magic can be rekindled

I WANTED TO be a journalist from an early age. I was about six. I think, when I began begging fora John Bull printing set for Christmas, and not much older when I started publishing The Interest, a lowdown sensationalist rag with a circulation of one. But when people ask me, as they occasionally do. where I got this idea - Fleet Street might have been a million miles from the city I grew up in - I never give an honest answer. Most often. I'll try to be all clever and Proustian about it. I'll describe the Sunday rustle of my parents' newspapers. how I associated this both with secrets - knowledge to which I then had no access - and the comforting smell of roasting beef.

What drivel. In truth, I wanted to be a journalist because this was the profession of my childhood idol: Sarah Jane Smith. Doctor Who's longest-serving and most glamorous companion. Sarah Jane - who was plucky and dry-witted, and who had a way of wearing I lipgloss (probably by Coty) that made you long to be grown up - was a reporter on Metropolitan Magazine. She walk. into Doctor Who's life in 1973, when he was played by Jon Per-twee. hot on the trail of a story (British scientists had mysteriously begun to disappear). She walked out of it in 1976. when the Doctor, now played by Tom Baker, at last returned her to her own time: MO. In the years between. she Aught all the worst baddiest cybermen, daleks, zygons.

Even more impressively, she became adept at crossing the rough red terrain of alien planets in unsuitably fancy outfits. Mostly she looked like she was about to appear in a Flake ad. Yes, Sarah Jane was quite a girl. Who didn't want to follow in her footsteps?

In our house, Doctor Who was a big deal. My brother and I loved the programme like no other. 'Doctor Who is on in one hour.' a parent would shout as Saturday teatime approached. This was the cue for frantic activity on our part. When we were very small, the ritual was always that we had to have bathed, washed our hair and put on our pyjamas well before the titles rolled. and I lived in fear of missing even the plummy BBC1 announcer saying: 'And now...' The point was that you had to be there, dressing gown and slippers on. when the world was still silently spinning on its axis (younger readers may not know that before the days of the tango dancers the BBC1 logo. appropriately in the circumstances, was a slowly turning monochrome graphic of planet Earth). It was not enough to arrive on the sofa as last week's cliffhanger ending was replayed. Once, delayed by the ancient knots in my hair, I heard the Doctor Who theme from the landing. I moved so fast that my pyjama bottoms slipped and I turned an ankle on the stairs.

We were real fans. Not only did we buy the merchandise (my brother had a battery-operated dale. you pressed a button on its head and it would say: 'What are your orders?' or 'Exterminate! Exterminate!' or - this was the best one for annoying the pare. - a shrill 'You will obey!), but the lore of the series passed, almost without our noticing, into the lore of our family. Until she was three, my younger sister. Rebecca, answered only to the name 'Captain'. This was because the rest of us had decided that, before her hair grew, she looked like a Sontaran call. Captain Linx (Sontarans were powerfully-built aliens with potato-shaped heads and three fingers who were devoted to perpetual war. you could kill them with coronic acid, to which they were extremely vulnerable).

My father's toolbox was not merely full of screwdrivers. It was full of sonic screwdrivers. The shed at his allotment was sometimes known as the Tardis. I learned to knit specifically so I could make my timelord Dad a longed-for Doctor Who scarf. Unfortunately. I got bored with this project early on, and the wretched thing - all eight inches of it - had to be turned into a bookmark.

THIS, THEN, IS a peculiar kind of week for me. Already I am being troubled by stuff I have not thought about for aeons. On Tuesday the BBC launches the return of Doctor Who after an absence of nine years (16 if you don't count the one-off TV movie which starred Paul McGann). The first episode of the new series. by Russell T Davies, writer of Queer as Folk and Doctor Who's new creative director, will be screened at the end of this month. You would have to have been living on Mars - or, perhaps, the third moon of De. Magna - not to know who has been cast as the timelord in his ninth incarnation, but just in case: this time the Doctor is to be Christopher Eccleston, an actor still best remembered for his role in Our Friends in the North. His assistant, Rose, is played by Billie Piper. Each episode is an hour long (they used to last a mere 25 minutes), and the stories are self contained (an end to those cherished cliffhangers• in other words). It will feature the latest whizzy technical effects, so no more hammy duels between men in weird snake-up and Bacofoil suits in Surrey chalkpits. But in many other respects the old Doctor Who endures. Theme tune? Tick. Tardis? Tick. Scary monsters? Tick. tick.

What the new series resolutely avoids is irony. 'If we had tried to be ironic we would have died a death.' says Davies, who is deeply in love with his baby, and thinks it as good a programme. the BBC could possibly have produced. 'It is made for 2005. We have learnt the lessons of modern fantasy drama. This series is all set on planet Earth in the present day. We wanted to stay away from doing three moons and a man in a cape until we had learnt what we were doing. The biggest difference you will see from the old Doctor Who is that this show has emotional content. Viewers used to be happy with mere adventure. I mean The Prisoner was a brilliant show, but it never broke your heart, did it? Awe, wonder, darkness, danger - in our version these things will be really

Fine, but if the new Doctor Who is so modem and realistic. how do the Daleks - whose devilish plans could always be stymied by a flight of stairs - fit in? He cackles. 'Our... fly like bastards. That's all I'll say.'

Davies is a devoted fan of Doctor Who. Long ago, in another life, he published a Doctor Who novel, and the young hero of Queer as Folk, as you may recall used to sit in front of his video recorder, shouting, bring Sutekh's gift of death to all humanity!' (Then he'd go off and have rampant sex.) Such is the strength of Davies's feeling that, were he not involved in the new series, he, too, would be on the internet, trying to read the runes with all the other obsessive. But this doesn't meat. he particularly cares what the diehards make of it. 'They're like members of the Flat Earth Society. It would be mad to take them too seriously. A second series hasn't been commissioned. so we are dependent on ratings. Tits fans are hugely vocal, but there's only about 2,000 of them, maximum.

When I tell him that people do ... quite excited, he is wary. The BBC's hope is that children will watch the show with their parents - and at the moment these children have not even heard of Doctor Who. In any case, buzz does not always translate into viewers. 'You're in the eye of the storm. You think everyone's talking about it. Then you get in a taxi, and the driver says: "Oh. you're bringing that back..."

MAKING ITS DEBUT in flickery black and white on 23 November 1963, Doctor Who was the brainchild of Sydney Newman, a Canadian producer who had been poached from ITV to lift the BBC's drama output. Its start was inauspicious. Pitched as an educational science programme, it began 17 minutes late thanks to coverage of the assassination of President Kennedy the previous day. So few people watched it that it had to be aired again the following week. It was saved from extinction by viewers, who responded in significant numbers to the way the series turned the everyday world unexpectedly upside down.

Doctor Who was at its best when Earth was under attack: when Yetis roam. Goodge Street station, when cybermen stalked the streets by St Paul's. When Sea Devils emerged from the my mass of the North Sea. In this Britain, the mundane was not always what it seemed. Shop dummies could spring to life (these were the Autons, and I can reveal that they make a comeback in the first episode of the new Doctor Who: chairs, telephones, even plastic daffodils could have unexpectedly murderous instincts. Most terrifyingly of all, science was not always to be trusted. In one story, a mining experiment went wrong. Result? Maggots of epic proportions. The Doctor, even when played by crotchety. white-haired William Hartnell, was a child of the Sixties, and always strongly anti-authoritarian, for all that he travelled through space and time in a police telephone box.

During his third incarnation, played by Jon Pertwee, he was exiled to earth and worked for the military under the aegis of a man called The Brigadier. Not even this improved his snippy behave tour. He dressed like a dandy -Jimi Hendrix meets Jitmmy Tarbuck - and was as rude as possible to anyone who tried to rein him in, even poor Sarah Jane. Tom Baker, generally considered the best Doctor of all (it was during. reign that ratings peaked at 16 million), played him as a swivel-eyed, unpredictable Bohemian, quite fruity and correct - he kept a cricket ball in his pocket - but radical too, and given to disdainful wit. 'Local politics are not my concern, would say. Or. 'Fragmentised? Well. I don't suppose we can expect decent English from a machine.' It was impossible not to love him.

AFTER BAKER, THE ROT set in. First there was Peter Davison, fresh from All Creatures Great and Small, and looking far too innocent to be a bonefide citizen of Gallifrey. He was followed by Colin Baker, who played him as a boor. For a time, before Baker was sacked, the programme was on ice for months. Then came Sylvester McCoy. Diehard fans will tell you that during the McCoy years the show underwent a renaissance, with great writing and more thoughtful plots. But I am not convinced. McCoy just seemed a bit silly. Besides, by now we were all too sophisticated to turn a blind eye to such things as wobbly se. and - I swear this true - an adversary who appeared to be made out of giant liquorice allsorts.

By 1987 the number of shows had been halved and the programme consigned to a slot opposite Coronation Street. Finally, Michael Grade, then conroller of BBC, gave the boot to a show he'd always disliked. How the chairman feels about its return, I've no idea (it was commissioned by Lorraine Heggessey who was, until last month, controller of BBC1, after a poll found it to be Britain, most missed TV programme). Still, as the Doctor might have put it, one must always accept the unexpected.'

Dip your toe into the parallel universe that is the fandom, and you could be forgiven for thinking Doctor Who had never been off our screens. Doctor Who magazine is still published, as are the Doctor Who novels. On the Internet, activity abounds. Visit if you wish to find out anything at all about the timelord - follow the links to the 'bumper book of Doctor Who monsters villains and alien species' site, for an alphabetical index of the creatures that haunted your childhood. Most barmy of all is the Dalek Builders Guild. whose website( thedalekbuildersguild) provides members with precise instructions as to how to build their very own pepperpot on wheels (rubber plungers to the ready. gentlemen).

There are around 8,000 'active' fans in Britain, activity being measured by the number of DVDs bought each year (only 10 per cent of them are women), and they regularly attend conventions where they meet former stars of the series 'it's a pension.' says Davies, who accepts he is now inextricably joined to this loony world - and sign up for arcane discussion groups: Did Rassilon know Omega? What does antimatter do? How old is He? (Note the capital 'H')

Why, I wonder, the adoration without end?, I mean I'm fond of the show myself, but there are limits. 'It's the best soap opera in the world.' says Anthony Wainer, of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society (honorary president: Nicholas Courtney, aka The Brigadier). 'It's no different from EastEnders, in a sense. It's warm. homespun, cloth great story. telling.' Wainer, a teacher who owns a full-size replica of K-9, the Doctor's robot dog, become hooked as a child when he fell for the daleks. 'It was easy to become a dalek. You could copy them in the play. ground, and exterminate your teacher.' He sounds breathless at the thought.

'It's charming and funny and very British because it's all about saving the world on a shoestring - or even a piece of string and a bottletop,' says Clayton Hickman, the 28-year old editor of Doctor Who magazine. His circulation - it currently hovers at around 30,000- is, he tells me, on the rise. They're like lapsed Christians. They're all coming back!'

Out in Doctor Who land, the word on the new series is very positive. The fans are thrilled that the show is getting the budget it deserves, and that Eccleston who has real stature - has been cast. 'He's a superb actor.' says Wainer. 'I've done a lot of research on him.' Hickman agrees: 'He's an unusual choice [the smart money was always on Bill Nighy bemuse he's a bloke. But there's a lot of excitement about him.'

Both men are also thrilled that Davies is in charge of the writing, and that Mark Gatiss, of the League of Gentlemen, and Steven Moffat, who wrote Coupling, will pen later episodes. Such commitment harks back to the days when the series was written by its greats: Terry Nation, inventor of the daleks. Terrance Dicks, even Douglas Adams. (True fans see all sorts of writerly influences at play in Doctor Who, from Asimov to John Wyndham; to them the show anything but lowbrow.)

THE NEXT DAY I sneak into the BBC for a private screening. What can I tell you? It is very slick, with some good lines and sinister moments. There is a great bit with the Millenniun Wheel. I enjoy it, but it is not, and never will be -- how shall I put this? - Doctor Who. I hear the theme music and my stomach flips. But then Christopher Eccleston appears, looking dour in his leather jacket, and I have an overwhelming sense of loss. I decide that the only way of dealing with this is to go home and watch a DVD I have bought to help me write this piece: The Robots of Death. starringTom Baker. But this is no help at all. How slow the whole thing seems, and how silly the robots look in their Camilla Parker Bowles-style green quilted jackets. Their spaceship. moving slowly across a strange planet, looks like a Dinky toy being pushed through a sand pit. A human is murdered. The mark of his death? A small red reflector. exactly like one you'd see on the rear mudguard of a bicycle, is stuck to his hand. Good grief.

In someways, there has never been a better time to bring back Doctor Who. Awash with conspiracy theories, suspicion is our lifeblood; CCTV cameras our guardians: genetic engineering our future. If you mistrust various aspects of the world - the way it's run, the increasing population, the dirt, the illness, the concealed misery - then you find consolation in science fiction; says the writer Brian Aldiss.

Perhaps, then, Russell T's Doctor will find an audience. But these viewers must be young, they must know nothing of Gallifrey or Exxilon or Karn: they must see the autons and the daleks with new eyes. Anyone with precious memories - obsessive fans excepted - is probably done for so far as the timelord's ninth incarnation goes. Then again. as The Robots of Death forcefully remind me, the past is not always what you think, and little is to be gained by wallowing in it.

Before Christmas, when it became clear that my father's cancer was in its final stages, my brother went out and bought a Doctor Who DVD for us all to watch together. Dad was too ill, and the box went unopened. At the time, I cried about this: yet another injustice. Now I know better. Some things in life can't ever be retrieved - an enjoyment of green robots in sequins and pedal pushers being one of then).

Dalek courtesy of



Crotchety Hartnell did not expect to be the Doctor for long — originally, only 13 episodes of the series were commissioned, but he ended up travelling to Marco Polo's China, the Aztec empire and revolutionary France during his stint; also fought both the Daleks and the Cybermen. His travelling compaions were played by, among others, Peter Purves (later of Blue Peter) and Jean Marsh


Played the role for slapstick and fought Yetis, Ice Warriors and the Dominators. Many of the episodes from this period are now lost, including his first adventure, 'The Power of the Daleks'. Troughton died at a Doctor Who convention in 1987.

JON PERTWEE 1970-1974

Now in colour, Pertwee played the Doctor as a dandy. Beginning an exile on earth imposed on him try the other Time Lords, he formed a partnership with the Brigadier, military adviser to the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (UNIT); together, they fought the Autons, the Silurians, the Sea Devils — and his arch enemy, the Master.

TOM BAKER 1974-1981

The ultimate Doctor. Baker tackled the Sontarans, Zygons and Rutans — and Davros, leader of the Daleks. His companions included reporter Sarah Jane Smith, the savage Leela, and Romana, a Gallifreyan student. And then there was K-9, his faithful robot dog. He loved jelly babies.


Accompanied by an Australian hostess, Tegan, Davison played a somewhat hapless Doctor. He was accosted by his old enemies with alarming frequency: the Silurians, the Sea Devils, the Cybermen and the Daleks. Also made two visits to his home planet, Gallifrey.

COLIN BAKER 1984-1986

Troubled times for the Doctor. At one point, the series was put on ice for 18 months. After fighting the Rani, a sexy but evil female Time Lord, played by Kate O'Mara, Baker was dropped from the role following plummeting ratings.


A strange time. For one thing, McCoy was at first accompanied on his adventures by Bonnie Langford. For another, he was forced to fight an adversary Called the Kandyman, constructed entirely from giant liquorice allsorts. After season 26, the series was finally axed.


McGann played the doctor in a one-off television film. Unfortunately, ratings were so bad , in America, no series was commissioned. McGann came to be, as he once predicted might be the case, the George Lazenby of Doctor Who.


Acclaimed actor Eccleston (Our Friends in the North, Jude) plays the Doctor in the new series, adopting a more modern, leather-jacketed image. Billie Piper plays his companion Rose Tyler.

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