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Who's the man?

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The new Doctor Who, actor Matt Smith, lands in the North-East to premiere his new TV series. Steve Pratt hears from the youngest ever Doctor why bow ties are cool and the Tardis is a "sexy thing"

HE came, we saw and he saved the world - again. Then Doctor Who climbed aboard not the Tardis but his tour bus and headed off into time and space.

As flying visits go, this was faster than the speed of Concorde but one that had fans of the BBC's Time Lord cheering.

"After three I want you to shout Doctor Who as loudly as possible, " urged the cameraman.

The 150 children from Sunderland primary schools he was addressing needed no excuse to exercise their vocal chords at raisethe-roof volume.

They were special guests at an exclusive screening - one of only five around the UK - of the first episode of the new series, The Eleventh Hour, ahead of its debut on BBC1 on Saturday.

The stopoff at Sunderland University was part of a BBC Outreach scheme to take the Doctor to what they describe as "communities that are relatively underserved by the BBC".

Whatever the reason, it was good to meet Matt Smith, the actor playing the 11th Doctor and his leggy new companion Amy Pond, played by Karen Gillan.

Smith, a relative unknown, faces the unenviable task of taking over the mantle of the Time Lord from David Tennant, recently voted the most popular Doctor of all time.

The first episode, in which he must save the world from destruction once again, moves at breakneck speed as the newly-regenerated doctor gets used to his body while solving the mystery of a crack in the wall of a house that's actually splitting the skin of the world.

Written by the show's new lead writer and producer Steven Moffat, the entertaining slice of sci-fi fantasy is typical of the new style Whomixing humour, thrills and monsters. In Smith, there's a Doctor who can do slapstick, one-liners and convince when facing off slithering, slimy monsters.

It enables this latest Doctor to find his new look (Harris Tweed jacket and bow tie being the main features), to acquire a new travelling companion (Amy - first seen as a kissogram in police uniform making her possibly the sexiest time traveller yet), and show off the refitted Tardis ("look at you, oh, you sexy thing"). He also gets to say the comforting line, "Trust me, I'm a doctor".

One question never answered, though, is one posed by a youngster in the story, "If you are a doctor why does your box say Police?".

Facing questions after the screening, Smith is adept at making the young audience feel welcome. Even a question about whether he likes fish fingers and custard - eaten by the doctor in this opening episode - is dealt with brightly and efficiently.

"It was custard, which I love, and little coconut cakes with blueberries. I had to eat about 12. It was mad but it was good fun, " he replies.

"Very good question, you've been paying attention, " he says when someone else wonders about the library in the swimming pool mentioned as one of the features of the Tardis.

"I think the doctor is a bit bonkers. He lies on a lilo and reads War And Peace, " he says. Then adds, mindful of an audience not into reading Russian classics, "That's a very thick book".

Playing Doctor Who is more than just another role for an actor. Dealing with and meeting the fans is almost a job in itself, something a meet-the-pubic tour like this demonstrates. Having spent the past seven months filming the new series, he now has to take it to the people who, like the crowd at a gladiatorial fight, will give him the thumbs up or thumbs down.

One of the trickiest questions comes from the person who asks Smith, whose own hopes to becoming a professional footballer were cut short by injury, to name his favourite football team. He doesn't hesitate in saying Blackburn Rovers.

"You are Newcastle fans, right?" he says with a mischievous grin. Mention of Sunderland gets a big cheer.

A reminder of perhaps the biggest hurdle comes when asked to name his favourite Doctor Who. "I love David, of course, " he says to whoop of delight from a David Tennant fan.

He liked Patrick Troughton, before widening the net to ask his young audience, "Does anyone know Tom Baker?". Many of them, of course, weren't born when that particular Doctor was on call.

He produces his sonic screwdriver, the Doctor's all-purpose miracle gadget, from his pocket. He gives it a spin. "You're cool, " says someone in the audience.

Being cool when you're 907 years old is quite an achievement. As Smith points out, "Being the youngest person to play the Doctor is irrelevant in a way because he's 907 ? I mean, find me a 900-yearold who can play him."

The doctor's new look - Harris Tweed jacket, bow tie and jeans rolled up to the top of his boots - is sure to ignite discussion. Smith himself contributed the tie, which is possibly why he conducts a show of hands survey among the audience to see who thinks bow ties are cool.

Opinion is divided.

He'd like to carry on playing the Doctor for some time to come. That makes him more David Tennant, who played the part for four years, than Christopher Ecclestone, who did just one series in the role.

There's time for just one last question and answer interlude.

"Knock, knock" "Who's there?"

"Doctor Who" It's a joke as old as time and the Doctor himself. And with that, the new Who disappears into the night - not to a new galaxy but Salford.

Doctor Who begins on BBC1 on Saturday at 6.20pm.


Caption: VISITING REGION: New Doctor Who Matt Smith and his companion Karen Gillan at the event last night

Spelling correction: Christopher Eccleston

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