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McGann to star in a time-honoured role

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1996-05-15 Scotsman.jpg


Ian Brown discovers a new adventurer aboard the Tardis

THE character is unique," enthuses actor Paul McGann about his latest role. "It's almost like there's a touch of the vampires about him. He comes backwards and forwards throughout the centuries. He's supped with Da Vinci and Caesar and Marie Antoinette."

It's Doctor Who, of course. After a seven-year absence, television's most popular time-traveller is returning in a 90-minute adventure, released on video today and screened on BBC1 later in the month. Eric Robertson (brother of Julia) co-stars as the Doctor's arch-foe, the Master.

The BBC has promised fans that the £3.5 million co-production with Universal Television in Canada has remained true to the spirit of the long-running television series. And the film's producers say their star, best known for Withnail and I, perfectly fits the bill.

"Paul has this wonderful quality to him that is really indicative of Doctor Who," says executive producer Philip Segal. "He's got these wonderful eyes, and he looks like he has this childlike quality within him. That's the spirit of the Doctor, and finding that was very difficult. But Paul has it. He was my first choice and always my only choice."

Director Geoffrey Sax agreed: Tasting the Doctor is based on sheer personality. All the actors who played the Doctor in the BBC series were chosen very carefully because of their personality. They all have that certain extra twinkle Paul very much has in him."

The new movie, filmed mainly in Vancouver over 29 days, promises some spectacular special effects. "I think that people expect now a certain production standard and certain production values," says Sax — a tactful reference to the cardboard sets and wobbly graphics of the television series.

The producers are particularly proud of their Tardis interior. "The design is really wonderful," boasts Segal. "Production designer Richard Hudolin has done a magnificent job. We've taken a lot of old-world charm and put it into this set: very ancient switches and lovely antique wood. The detail is really terrific. It's really a masterpiece."

All this will be music to the ears of the Doctor's loyal body of fans, who accused the BBC of killing off a national institution when they dropped the series in 1989 after 26 years. But can big budgets recapture the old magic? Ever since Dr Who was first played by William Hartnell in 1963, he has fought a motley collection of monsters. Unable to afford elaborate effects, the series concentrated instead on offbeat humour and cliff-hanger endings.

In its endearingly tacky way, it remains the most original science concept ever televised. Although the basics — a magical space-time machine, bigger inside than out, a hapless humane hero — were engaging, it wasn't really until the arrival of the Daleks in the mid-Sixties that the programme became a household name. Two cinema films starring Peter Cushing were rushed out at the height of the craze.

Meanwhile the series flourished in the Saturday teatime slot. When Hartnell left in 1966 his on-screen transformation into Patrick Troughton was breezily palmed off as a phenomenon common to natives of the Doctor's home planet. Troughton waded through the dry-ice, fled down corridors, and misdirected the Tardis for another three years.

Despite his good-natured bungling, concern was even then being voiced that Dr Who was too scary for tender infant nerves. A four-part 1967 adventure, Tomb of the Cybermen, even prompted questions in Parliament about television's effect on children.

But what really did for Dr Who was cinema's rediscovery of science fiction in the Seventies. When Hollywood epics like Star Wars and Close Encounters spent millions on state-of-the-art effects, the Beeb's best efforts began to look distinctly old hat. And when big-screen chillers like Jaws got off with PG certificates, and video-nasties entered the home, younger viewers became too sophisticated to be frightened by Dr Who.

The series didn't prosper in the Eighties. Evicted from the weekend slot it had occupied for 20 years, Dr Who was left to carve an uncertain niche at a later time midweek. After Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker, two later Doctors — Colin Baker and Peter Davison — came and quickly moved on, while spiralling costs meant fewer episodes were being recorded each season. Sylvester McCoy, the last incumbent (who briefly appears in the new film), lasted two years before the BBC finally pulled the plug.

Can the McGann charisma breathe new life into the format? "Certainly the option is there for further adventures if the film goes down well with British and American audiences," says a BBC spokeswoman, confirming that McGann would continue as the Doctor. "But it would be more on the X-Files format; four or five 45-minute productions rather than a season of half-hour episodes."

Dr Who is on BBC 1 on 27 May.

Correction: Eric Roberts

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  • APA 6th ed.: Brown, Ian (1996-05-15). McGann to star in a time-honoured role. The Scotsman .
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