Doctor Who - A fifty year adventure in time and space

The BBC celebrate the golden jubilee of the longest running science fiction show in TV history

by Steve Withers Nov 19, 2013 at 12:03 PM

  • Movies Article


    Doctor Who - A fifty year adventure in time and space
    Doctor Who was beginning to feel like the televisual equivalent of Benjamin Button - as the show itself got older, so the actors playing The Doctor seemed to get younger.
    Whilst the current incumbent of the TARDIS - Matt Smith - is the youngest actor to take on the most coveted role in television, he was only 27 when he first picked up his sonic screwdriver, there has been precedent. People often forget that the fifth Doctor - Peter Davison - was only 29 years old when he first began his adventures in time and space. Current show-runner, Steven Moffat, reversed this particular trend when, back in August, the BBC announced that 55-year old Peter Capaldi will be taking over from Matt Smith in this year’s Christmas Special.

    It’s a testament to just how popular Doctor Who has become that Capaldi’s announcement made worldwide news and even warranted its own live show on primetime BBC One. Whilst Doctor Who has always had a strong cult following, the relaunch of the show in 2005 has been a staggering success - beyond the BBC’s wildest dreams. Amid all the current hype surrounding the impending 50th anniversary of Doctor Who’s first airing on the 23rd of November 1963, it’s easy to forget that the series quietly slipped from the schedules back in 1989. An attempt to revive the show with a American-set TV movie in 1996 failed, partly because the story strayed too far from the established mythology. How things have changed, now everyone’s favourite Time Lord is getting more press coverage than John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated the day before that first airing.
    Now everyone’s favourite Time Lord is getting more press coverage than John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated the day before that first airing.
    Much of the credit for the show’s resurgence must go to Russell T. Davies, who ran the show from its relaunch in 2005 until handing over the reins to Steven Moffat in 2010. He brought the show back with a modern sensibility whilst still remaining true to the show’s roots and, perhaps most importantly, he also added some production values. Thanks to the advances in camera technology and special effects, the new shows have a sophistication that was singularly absent from the original series. Gone are the days of cardboard sets, dodgy effects, shooting on video in studios, shooting on 16mm film when on location and running around a disused quarry outside London. Due to the fact that it was BBC Wales who took a chance on revitalising Doctor Who, the series is shot in Cardiff but it never feels parochial. This is a Doctor Who for the 21st century.

    Davies is a fan of the show and thus managed to slip plenty of references to previous events in the Doctor Who universe - both from previous TV episodes and various radio shows and novels. Because, even when Doctor Who was off our TV screens, he was still very active in other media. Davies also had the sense to cast regular collaborator Christopher Eccleston in the title role. The actor brought a certain gravitas to The Doctor and, whilst he only made one series, his performance set the the tone for those that followed - quirky, fun but with a harder edge than previous incarnations. The simple t-shirt, leather coat, short hair and northern accent gave us a Doctor who looked like he could take care of himself. However, Eccleston managed to retain an air of fun even whilst playing a character who was clearly carrying a large amount of emotional baggage.
    Christopher Eccelston brought real gravitas to the role of The Doctor.
    Davies also surrounded himself with talented collaborators when it came to the writing, most notably current show runner Steven Moffat, who wrote many of the most memorable episodes from the Davies era. With Eccleston’s departure, Davis turned to another actor he had worked with previously - David Tennant. It was Tennant, a life-long fan, who helped establish Doctor Who as one the BBC’s most popular shows, even breaking America in a big way. Tennant’s Doctor also had a genuine relationship with Billie Piper’s Rose Tyler - one could even call it a love story. In fact their beach-based farewell across time and space was genuinely heart-breaking. Under Davies the Who empire grew, with spin-off show’s for Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures. It was a particular delight for those of a certain age to see the popular and much missed Elizabeth Sladen make a return. You never forget your first crush.

    When Moffat took over in 2010 he cast the unknown Matt Smith as The Doctor and immediately set his stall out within a perfectly structured first episode that brilliantly introduced Smith and Karen Gillan’s Amy Pond. The relative youth of Smith also allowed Moffat to address head-on the elephant in the TARDIS - the fact that the Doctor often has attractive young female companions. With Smith, Moffat was able to play up the flirtatious elements between The Doctor and Amy, not to mention Jenna Coleman’s current companion Clara Oswald. Although it did backfire slightly as Moffat worked his way through the River Song plot line and Smith had to cop off with Alex Kingston, who was old enough to be his mum. With the arrival of Capaldi it’ll be interesting to see how the dynamic plays out between him and the 27-year old Coleman. Still, aside from Moffat’s tendency to over-write his episodes and cram too much into 45 minutes, Matt Smith’s Doctor has been a great success with the relative unknown proving to be to be both quirky, funny and serious. He also happens to be a genius at physical comedy.
    The relative youth of Smith also allowed Moffat to address head-on the elephant in the TARDIS...
    As the fiftieth anniversary approaches, the BBC is pulling out all the stops with the kind of media saturation that can only happen with a cultural phenomenon liker Doctor Who. There are numerous documentaries and a film about the creation of Doctor Who back in 1963 called An Adventure in Time and Space, with David Bradley playing the first Doctor - William Hartnell. As far as the show itself is concerned, Moffat set up the anniversary special at the end of the previous series by introducing John Hurt as a previously unseen version of The Doctor. He then pulled a masterstroke by releasing a 7 minute prequel to the anniversary special that starred Paul McGann, reprising his role as the 8th Doctor. Not only was it good to see McGann back in the role but it finally gave him a long overdue regeneration scene. The anniversary special itself stars both Smith and Tennant, along with Hurt, which means we’ll have three Doctors on screen. It also brings back Piper as Rose Tyler and is being broadcast in 3D, the last production shot that way before the BBC pulled the plug on its 3D experiments.

    The genius of Doctor Who is the concept of regeneration. The ability to continually recast the title role allows the show to stay fresh and constantly reinvent itself. We are on to the 12th Doctor with the casting of Peter Capaldi but now the concept has been firmly established it’s much easier. Undoubtedly Patrick Troughton had the hardest job, following on from Hartnell’s first Doctor. Since then we have had Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, McGann, Eccleston, Tennnant and Smith. A Radio Times poll conducted last week named David Tennant as the nation’s favourite Doctor but the results were clearly skewed towards the recent series. The same was true of the favourite companion, which went to Billie Piper’s Rose Tyler. So is David Tennant really the best Doctor or do those of us who remember further back than 2005 have a different opinion? Who is your favourite Doctor and why?

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