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Who in Toon

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It's been almost 15 years since Doctor Who — one of the longest-running fantasy TV shows in the world — came to an end. Actually, it wasn't really the end. The good Doctor has lived on in countless licensed novels, comic strips and audio dramas featuring many of the series' original actors, as well as a 1996 TV movie starring Paul McGann. And now, McGann's fellow thespian Richard E. Grant (they co-starred in the cult British comedy Withnail and I) takes the

Timelord into a truly new dimension: a cartoon Who. And in a case of quirky timing, the new, animated Doctor Who hits screens just as the BBC has announced a live-action revival.

The 80-minute, six-part animated story, Doctor Who: Scream of the Shalka, can be found online at the BBC's Web site (bbc.co.uk/cult/doctorwho/shalka/). The animation comes from the leading British studio Cosgrove Hall, best known in America for its witty 1980s cartoons Dangermouse and Duckula. Shalka's author is Paul Cornell, whose wide ranging work includes several "Doctor Who" books and the standalone novels "Something More" and "British Summertime." Along with Grant, the voice cast includes the legendary Derek Jacobi (seen in the TV drama I, Claudius and its Hollywood equivalent, Gladiator) in a part that will surprise fans.

"When I was younger, I was a fan of the Tom Baker Doctor Who," recalls animation producer-director Steven Maher, who had the responsibility of designing the new Timelord. "If you ask anybody who was their favorite Doctor, you always find out which generation they're from! But !didn't follow it into later life, so this was a great chance to revisit my past. John Doyle, a senior producer at Cosgrove Hall, is a huge Who fan and owns a full-size Dalek, which we now have in reception, threatening people as they come through the door!"

Like most diehard Who fans, Doyle has an intimidating video collection of the Timelord's exploits. "He sat me down for a weekend with his videos, and it was a baptism of fire!" laughs Maher. 'The first thought I had from the Shalka script was that this new Doctor was a dark, troubled person — at least at the outset so I wanted to give him a darker, more gothic look. To be honest, I think he's very like the early TV Doctors William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton [who starred on the show in the 1960s]. They were both rather Edwardian or Victorian in dress. Hartnell particularly looked like an H.G. Wells time traveller. I also took to the i96os film versions with Peter Cushing as the Doctor, which again had that Wellsian, retro feel."

Richard E. Grant's Doctor is far removed from the cuddly "Have a jelly, baby" image that many people have of the character (though even Tom Baker had dark moments). The ninth version of the Timelord is abrasive, angry and arrogant, and as the story progresses we get hints on how he got that way. Why did series writer Cornell take this line? "I think it's more interesting to go for a character that's not the default," Cornell explains. it also gives the Doctor an emotional journey, the idea he's not set in stone."

Grant describes himself as one of maybe five Britons who've never seen an episode of Doctor Who, though he understands the character in terms of another British icon: Sherlock Holmes in space. Cornell thinks that Grant "was reacting to his Doctor's tendency to leap up and do things. I describe the character as the absolute master of sudden, precise action. It's a distillation, really, of the things I most Like about the Doctor — that he's the center of events, the point about which everything moves."

Grant has actually played the Doctor before, albeit briefly, in the BBC charity spoof Curse of Fatal Death, which also saw Rowan Atkinson and Hugh Grant (no relation) tackle the Timelord.

Naturally, the Doctor has a companion, and in Shalka he meets Alison, a no-nonsense barmaid in a town under alien threat. Alison is voiced by Sophie Okonedo. "She's really feisty and modern and up-to-the-minute looking. She's not a passive character in any way," Maher says. "She's a great contrast to the uptight Doctor."

The story involves the Doctor and Alison facing off against the Shalka, a race of giant killer worms. "I wanted to keep them in the vein of the great Doctor Who baddies," Maher says. "[British actress] Diana Quick was great as the Shalka leader, and then we made her more liquid and guttural so she sounded nonhuman.

When it comes to the serial's look, Cornell has nothing but praise. "It's gorgeous; it looks like a moving graphic novel. This is the absolute best that Flash animation can be at the moment. Friends in the Flash [animation] community say e-mails are going back and forth saying, 'How did they do that?' I loved the Gothic look and the direction — the angled look down at the Doctor in part one, for example. I had almost no contact with the animators during the process, but they did my script proud."

The animation was largely Flash technology, but some extra software was employed for certain effects. For instance, the interior of the Doctor's vessel, the TARDIS — famously bigger in than out — was a CGI model. As Maher explains, 'The inside of the TARD1S is so complex, with the control console and a double-helix stairway, that it was better to build it in CGI rather than draw it from every angle." As well as being a fan of all things gothic, Maher admires the graphic style of anime, citing the Peter Chung's MTV series Aeon Flux as a design influence.

Currently, a new live-action Doctor Who series is in preproduction, probably for transmission next year. No actors have been confirmed yet, and the only name attached to the project is writer's Russell T. Davies, the creator of such provocative dramas as the original British series Queer as Folk and the apocalyptic The Second Corning. What it will mean for the "canonical" status of the animated Doctor remains to be seen, though a Shalka DVD should soon appear.

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