If you’ve not spotted that there’s a certain significant BBC television series celebrating its 50th anniversary this month, then you must have been time-travelling yourself. As a new Doctor Who prepares to take over the role in 2014, Jack Watkins looks at the appeal of a quintessentially British global phenomenon…
Whatever you think about it, you’d have to admit that the only sci-fi rival to Star Trek in its ability to boldly go beyond the realms of a cult following is Doctor Who. In fact, the adventures of the good Doctor have so gripped the imagination of the wider public that the concept has had its very own Doctor Who Magazine (originally Doctor Who Weekly) for nearly twenty-five years. And admiration isn’t confined to the man in the street. In 1999, when the British Film Institute asked critics and industry professionals to vote for the best national television programmes of all time, it came a very respectable third.
Not everybody is enraptured with the world of the time-travelling humanoid alien, though. When the suggestion of a feature on the anniversary was first mooted, for instance, this magazine’s editor commissioned it with a raised eyebrow, adding ‘and see if you can convince me that I should watch it…’.
So what is so special about a ‘Time Lord’, usually in need of a decent haircut, who lives in one of those old police boxes (such anachronistic features in our ‘real time’ landscape that they’d been decommissioned decades before many current viewers were born) and who spends his time getting in and out of scrapes with ‘the Daleks’ –creatures with telescopic arms that are actually reconditioned sink plungers – and whose other enemies sometimes look too silly for words?
Many an academic has lain tossing and turning long into the night, their minds struggling to account for this phenomenal success story, which shows no sign of abating. It helps that one of the programme’s inherent charms is that the doctor changes every so often into a completely different person. It’s a genuinely brilliant concept, meaning that the series has been able to refresh itself with new actors over the years.
The announcement of a new Doctor has always been a mass media event, but when Peter Capaldi was announced as Time Lord number 12 this summer, the BBC was so excited that it even ran a special live broadcast hosted by Zoe Ball: Doctor Who Live: The Next Doctor. A vigorous debate immediately ensued in the blogger and twitterspheres (or so I’m told; like the man himself, I’m far too busy saving the world to indulge in such trivialities), about whether, at the age of 55, Capaldi was really too old to be the latest incarnation.
As any true fan knows, Capaldi is the oldest man to be called on to play the part since the very first Doctor, William Hartnell, who was also 55 when cast in 1963. Hartnell was a memorably sharp-featured veteran of British cinema, who had distinguished himself in the Boulting Brothers’ exquisitely depressing Brighton Rock (1947), and in the very first of the Carry On series, Carry On Sergeant, in 1957. Ill-health forced him to give up after only three years, though, and you can only hope Capaldi has better luck. Perhaps he’ll bring back something of the professorial crustiness that Hartnell managed to convey so brilliantly.
Hartnell was followed by Patrick Troughton, then 46, who went in for Harlequin sartorial effects and sported a pudding bowl hairstyle that made him look like one of The Three Stooges. He was, apparently, an ‘interesting’ character off set, too, with a fondness for the odd glass. Though much loved, like his predecessor he found playing the part a considerable strain, and also lasted only three years in the role.
Jon Pertwee, who came next, added a dash of gentlemanly flair and panache, and always seemed to be trying to fix the Time and Relative Dimension in Space, aka the TARDIS. Another key feature of the stories over the years has been the Doctor’s female companion, and it was Pertwee’s fortune to be assisted by one of the best, the assertive Sarah Jane, an inquisitive journalist, played by Elisabeth Sladen. Many years later she’d even get her own spin-off series, The Sarah Jane Adventures, which went down a storm until Sladen’s sadly premature death in 2011.
The Doctor: Tom Baker © BBC; Photographer: unknown
If this pairing seemed to take the programme to a new level, things were about to get better still. It’s generally felt that Doctor Who reached a creative high point during the tenure of Tom Baker, who took over in1974. Appearing in 178 episodes up until 1981, he’s been the longest serving Time Lord to date. The set designs seen in the early Baker years have been described as having a High Gothic quality, though there were often criticisms that the stories were getting too scary for children, and it even incurred the wrath of Mary Whitehouse, who once, memorably, described it as ‘teatime brutality for tots’.
Yet kids loved Tom Baker, probably the most popular Doctor of all. I recently had the opportunity of interviewing him for another publication, and as I was ushered into the room to meet this warm, endearing man, now with a mop of snowy white hair, I had – just for a moment – that emotional frisson I used to get in childhood when being taken to meet Father Christmas.
Baker told me the casting had come at an unhappy period of his life, and that, with his existance in the real world a kind of living death, “it was only when I was acting the Doctor that I felt truly alive.” He identified with the part so much that he used to embark on nationwide signing tours, visiting hospitals and schools. He recounted one particularly lovely tale of a time when he found himself adrift in Lancashire as an episode he was anxious to see (there were no recordings in those days, so even actors couldn’t see the thing until it was aired) was being screened.
“I knocked on the door of an ordinary terrace house in Preston, at the moment a father was settling down to watch it with his two five year-old sons. He asked no questions and just beckoned me in. I crept into the room and sat quietly in a chair, and as my face came up on screen, you could see the stupefaction on his children’s faces, as they looked back and forth. How could I, the Doctor, be in two places at once? It was just ecstasy. Afterwards, these two little boys said: ‘But who will believe us when we tell them at school?’ So I had to write a note, and then the BBC sent some pictures and a reporter came and made a big thing of it in the local press.”
This was indeed Doctor Who’s ‘golden age’ in terms of its audience figures, which sometimes topped the 13 million mark. Baker’s successors – Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy – have their advocates, but it seems that Michael Grade had long being sharpening the axe, which was eventually wielded in 1989, by which stage viewing figures sometimes weren’t much above three million.
That the revival of the series has been a triumph now goes almost without saying. The shaky old sets have been replaced by CGI and swooping cameras, constant close-ups and incessantly ‘dramatic’ music. Sometimes we old-timers long for a moment’s repose. These are the demands of a modern fantasy drama, however, and it’s creditable that despite its updating the humanity, and essential Britishness of it all hasn’t been drowned out. In the title role Matt Smith, after bright stints by Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant, has seemed to rebottle something of Tom Baker’s childlike sense of wonder and fun. Now it’s Mr Capaldi’s turn. There’s a lot to live up to, but my money’s on him being another good’un.
The BBC is marking the 50th anniversary of the show with a series of programmes throughout November.
For details visitwww.bbc.co.uk/blogs/doctorwho