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What a sci-fi guy

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  • Publication: The Age
  • Date: 2003-02-14
  • Author: Chris Middendorp
  • Page: Culture, p. 3
  • Language: English

It's 40 years since Doctor Who started travelling through time and space. Chris Middendorp celebrates.

It was first broadcast in 1963, the day after president Kennedy was assassinated, and it ran until 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down. It was television's longest-running science fiction program and suddenly it wasn't there any more.

Doctor Who could well have been one of Salvador Dali's more absurd creations. This endearingly preposterous example of British sci-fi remains one of TV's finest surrealist experiments.

The series was about a 700-year-old alien with two hearts who travelled through time and space in a blue telephone box.

Who else but a surrealist could have designed the Doctor's chief foe, the Daliesque Daleks? These robotic creations looked like a giant salt-shaker, with an eye on a stalk and a suction cup for a hand, screeching "Exterminate!" at all and sundry. Doctor Who's greatest in-joke was that these unwieldy beings were able to conquer the galaxy. It was truly a theatre of the absurd.

The Doctor himself was a shapeshifter and would regenerate whenever he was old or gravely injured. Instead of dying, the Doctor was able to metamorphose into an entirely different-looking man. When the series ended after 26 years, seven actors had portrayed him.

Last December, the prominent British science fiction magazine SFX published the results of a readers' poll wherein the Doctor was voted the greatest sci-fi character of all time. It's a result I heartily endorse. Mind you, I'm biased; you see, Doctor Who saved my sanity.

I discovered Doctor Who in 1977. I became an instant convert. The Doctor didn't carry weapons. He avoided physical fights. He solved problems by using his brain. He was interested in everything. Most importantly, the Doctor was mysterious.

As an 11-year-old fan, I suddenly belonged to a kiddie cognoscenti who met at the crab-apple tree on Wrixon Street. I became part of a great narrative tradition, for the years of Doctor Who had produced a venerable myth cycle worthy of the Mahabharata.

Those of us who weren't into football or cricket were often isolated. Doctor Who gave us something numinous to talk about. We didn't have to feel left out any more. But more significantly, the series made me see the world anew. If the Doctor could be intellectually curious, then so could I. I began reading everything I could about space and history. Without Doctor Who, I have no doubt I would have gone mad from loneliness or boredom.

In those days, Doctor Who's chief competitor was Star Trek, a less imaginative show that relied heavily on the priapic bravura of William Shatner's machoman Kirk. Essentially a projection of American colonialism onto deep space, Star Trek was preachy and lacked mystery. The crew, in their multi-coloured skivvies, looked like the Wiggles. Trek never turned me on; thus I was saved from fully blown nerd-dom.

Doctor Who was delightfully and idiosyncratically English. The Doctor was really an amplification of the great British eccentric. He had fled his home planet after pinching a time/space capsule. He wanted to see the universe. The Doctor was rather like an explorer in the Sir Richard Burton tradition. His time machine, the TARDIS, was on the blink and he never knew where he was going to end up; it could be 15th-century Florence or a post-apocalyptic planet 10 millennia from now. Invariably the Doctor would get caught up in politics, war or disaster and have to save civilisation. He could solve most crises with a magnifying glass and a packet of jelly babies.

Of all the actors who played the Doctor, the most loved was probably Tom Baker, the fourth incarnation (1974-1981). This wonderfully eccentric individual ended up writing one of the funniest showbiz autobiographies of recent years (Who on Earth is Tom Baker?). His Doctor was a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Harpo Marx. He had a mop of curly hair and the longest scarf in the cosmos. Baker's astonishing charisma rendered him one of the few people who could act with a painted polystyrene "alien" and make it look like Shakespeare.

Doctor Who was an inexpensive BBC production. Videotaped in the era before digital effects, the producers relied on good writing to tell their stories. The scripts tackled the great questions: does the end justify the means? Can war ever be justified? For the answers you'll have to watch The War Games (1969) and Genesis of the Daleks (1975).

The BBC axed Doctor Who in 1989, citing rising production costs and declining viewer numbers. Who fans all over the world penned aggrieved letters to the BBC. So did I. If old buildings can be heritage protected, I wrote, why not a venerable TV show?

The series has had a ghostly afterlife.

First there were rumours. Donald Sutherland would be Doctor Who for a cinema release. Not true. More recently there were whispers that Hugh Grant would portray the Doctor for a big-screen effort. Rubbish.

A telemovie starring Paul McGann as the eighth Doctor was released in 1996. McGann was good but the script was dull. In 2001, the seventh Doctor, Sylvester McCoy, reappeared for some successful audio episodes that were broadcast online by the BBC. The site had more than a million hits.

This year, the BBC will release a 40th anniversary webcast Doctor Who movie, again starring Paul McGann. The script, Shada, was written by the late, great Douglas Adams for a 1979 Who story which was aborted due to industrial action.

The website Dr Who Online advises fans that this revival may trigger the series' return to television. BBC1 chief Lorraine Heggessey was recently quoted as saying: "Yes, it could be coming back."

Let's hope so. Television is crying out for smart science fiction without paranoia or militant bravado. And the rebirth of one of Britain's finest TV characters could be - sorry - just what the doctor ordered.

GRAPHIC: Nine photos: Publicity shot for the episode The Five Doctors. From left, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Jon Pertwee, Patrick Troughton and Richard Hurndall, who played the first Doctor; ABOVE: Doctor No. 8 Paul McGann and the TARDIS; BELOW: From left, the original Doctor, William Hartnell; agent Sara Kingdom (Jean Marsh) inside the TARDIS; Doc No. 3, Jon Pertwee, with Jo (Katy Manning); popular companion Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen); Doctors 6 and 7, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy; and Dalek-creator Davros.

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  • APA 6th ed.: Middendorp, Chris (2003-02-14). What a sci-fi guy. The Age p. Culture, p. 3.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Middendorp, Chris. "What a sci-fi guy." The Age [add city] 2003-02-14, Culture, p. 3. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Middendorp, Chris. "What a sci-fi guy." The Age, edition, sec., 2003-02-14
  • Turabian: Middendorp, Chris. "What a sci-fi guy." The Age, 2003-02-14, section, Culture, p. 3 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=What a sci-fi guy | url= | work=The Age | pages=Culture, p. 3 | date=2003-02-14 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=25 July 2024 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=What a sci-fi guy | url= | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=25 July 2024}}</ref>