Nick Thomas Media Matter
The return of Dr Who to our screens is a subject that seems to be generating an awful lot of excitement, particularly among children of the 60s for whom an enduring loyalty to the show transcends mere intellectual affectation. Some of the finest minds of my generation can be sent into overdrive by a casual reference to the Tardis, or the provocative assertion that Tom Baker was a better Doctor than Jon Pertwee (or vice versa).
There are those of us who never quite got the bug, who watched a succession of actors take on the role through our formative years, but for whom the distinctive strains of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop fail to tingle the spine.
Possibly we were victims of American cultural imperialism, and found any homegrown programme automatically devoid of glamour; or maybe, a not unrelated possibility, we just couldn’t get worked up about something so obviously cheap. The memory that endures, after all, is of tacky sets under studio lights, and extras in silly costumes marching, inexplicably, through swinging London. It was pretty grim stuff.
But enthusiasts will point out, justly enough, that the whole point of Dr Who was in the plots and characterisation, in the unique blend of science fiction with psychological drama rather than any more expensive and much easier reliance on special effects.
It was certainly an interesting concept, and still regarded worldwide as a distinctively British bit of quirky genius. And, now that Christopher Ecclestone has become the latest head to get bolted onto the shoulders of the timeless time lord, the formula doesn’t seem to have changed. He’s still bombing around the universe in an old police box, accompanied, for no very good reason, by a young bimbo for whom he never feels anything more than avuncular affection. I seem to remember from the old days that the bimbos changed more frequently than the Doctors, and that it was their relative merits that got discussed in the playground, doubtless by the very same viewers who now argue the toss over William Hartnell and Sylvester McCoy in the comfort of their clubs. For Dr Who was always very much a boys’ taste, and the addition of a beautiful young assistant to the mixture did much to secure the undivided attention of its audience, while the fact that she invariably got in the way and imperilled the cosmos with her blunderings pandered also to a childhood prejudice not yet abandoned.
Ah, the memories. But hang on, there seems to be one missing. Weren’t we all supposed to be scared rigid by the monsters, waking up screaming in the middle of the night and all that? My only memory of the Doctor’s foes is one of mirth mitigated by a pang of sympathy for the actors inside the suits. It is interesting, though, that the ones that stuck were the Daleks and the Cybermen. They might have looked ridiculous, but the concepts behind them were chilling enough – enemies devoid of personality with whom it was consequently impossible to reason. It is no accident that the heyday of Dr Who coincided with the height of the Cold War. I can hear the purists harrumphing already, so I’d better brace myself for a heavy postbag. (Is there a name for them, I wonder? Doctorites? Quistines?) But if I’m right about that former cultural influence, then what sort of evil will Russell T Davies be throwing at the Doctor in his new scripts? Time terrorists, perhaps, or interplanetary polluters? Bogeymen in foxhunting gear? Tobacconists from the fifth dimension? Or maybe, this being the BBC, just a renegade time lord bearing an uncanny resemblence to Alistair Campbell. That might scare even me.