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Doctor Who Primer — Part Two

By Christopher Brosnahan
06 — Colin Baker [1984-1986]
No relation to Tom Baker. Nor any comparison. In fairness, it probably wasn't his fault. He was saddled with a ridiculous costume (a patchwork coat), some awful stories and an ill-advised amount of camp. Not to mention some downright boring companions.

However, he agreed to do it all, so I'm going to blame him for it. This said, Colin Baker himself is a good actor — I just don't think much of him as a person who can create his own characters, and, as The Doctor, you pretty much have to do that. The scenes carried the requisite amounts of emotion, intensity... etc. It's just that nobody cared about his Doctor. Or at least I didn't.

Also, it probably didn't help that Baker's Doctor had the worst story ever, in "Trial of a Time Lord" — a thirteen-parter (THIRTEEN-PARTER!) in which he was accused of being a traitor to Gallifrey. Ratings were down, and frankly, deservedly so. Colin's Doctor was killed off when the TARDIS crashed. His companion was fine, so it can't have been that bad a crash; however, it killed off the sturdy Time Lord. And the viewing public breathed an enormous sigh of relief.

07 — Sylvester McCoy [1987-1989]
Well... they sort of breathed a sigh of relief. You see, McCoy's Doctor started off terribly (although he was still an improvement)... but he got good. He got very good.

McCoy himself was a Scottish actor / cabaret performer, with a tendency to over-act somewhat — and as the series began, he hammed it up (and was encouraged to ham it up) awfully. Also, his outfit had gone into serious 'question mark' overload. He had a sweater with hundreds of question marks on it, and he had an umbrella with a question mark handle. He gurned, he punned... and he had Bonnie Langford as a companion (which will make older Brit readers scream) at first.

But then, somehow... things got good. Things got very good. They started to put together a series-long story, and it was all going to be revealed gradually over a couple of years... a story that would tie everything together. The stories suddenly became more complex, dealing with far more mature material and it was becoming seriously good science fiction. McCoy, meanwhile, once he settled into the role, was a revelation. For the first time since Hartnell, the darker side of The Doctor started to make a comeback, and we began to wonder if there was more to the character than it seemed.

The dialogue started to improve, and, despite the increasingly miniscule budget, the show continued to strive forward. Two of the last stories of the season involved an alien who was fighting evolution in a haunted house story, and another involved vampires and Norse Gods in World War II. Imaginative, well thought out, well written and well performed.

So they cancelled it. That was it. The show was done. The BBC decided that — what with Star Trek: The Next Generation showing it up hugely, in terms of production — it just couldn't compete with American shows. Dr. Who either needed a huge cash injection... or it needed to be cancelled. The show was scheduled, for a year or so, opposite Coronation Street (the number one show in the UK) — so it stopped being quite as much of a ratings hit. And, although it received record numbers against the number one show, it still dropped overall. So, in 1989, the Dr. Who was cancelled.

"There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, and the sea's asleep, and the rivers dream; people made of smoke and cities made of song. Somewhere there's danger, somewhere there's injustice, somewhere else the tea's getting cold. Come on, Ace, we've got work to do." (The last lines of the show.)

Queue long term huge video sales. Long term huge novel sales. No single video or novel sold specifically well — but overall, Doctor Who, despite having been cancelled continued to draw huge money for the BBC. Eventually, they were bound to bring it back.

And, in 1996, they sort of did. But it wasn't the BBC. Well, rather, it wasn't just the BBC. Step in... Fox Network.

08 — Paul McGann [1996]
Paul McGann was the first person to play The Doctor from something that US viewers might know — he was 'I' in Withnail & I. Due to the BBC cutting a deal with Fox, McGann was brought in for a pilot tele-movie, aimed to introduce the concept to an American audience. The show was filmed in Canada, given a decent sized budget, a gorgeous remix of the theme tune and it was hoped that it would do well enough to bring a new series about.

Sylvester McCoy was brought in to be killed off in the first ten minutes of the show (via walking into a gang war), and for the next half of it, McGann didn't know who he was. (Regenerations tend to take rather a lot out of you.) Unfortunately, this happened while he was escorting The Master's (remember him?) ashes back to Gallifrey. Unfortunately again, The Master came back to life, and was played (and hammed up superbly) by Eric Roberts (Julia's older brother) — who was the best thing about it.

McGann was great, Roberts was great and even the companions were pretty good. Unfortunately... there were two issues. Firstly, adding an American style to the show just didn't work. It was too formulaic — there was a car chase in the last half hour, which was totally out of place. Secondly... well, you would have thought the whole time travel thing would have been an interesting thing to have brought into a series about time travel... but no. There was a daft story, with some fun performances.

The ratings in the UK were great. In the US? Barely registered, partially because as an introduction, it sucked. Didn't explain enough about The Doctor, about the TARDIS, about anything. In short, it flopped and it didn't come back. A shame — McGann showed real potential.

Doctor Who was dead.

Until 2005.

09 — Christopher Eccleston [2005]
The BBC brought back Doctor Who earlier this year, after a huge marketing campaign. This was mainly due to Russell T. Davies (author of Queer as Folk), who campaigned long and hard for its return. Not only has it returned, but it's been given a budget, a serious actor in the main part and a sexy new companion in Billie Piper (former teen singer, at one point she was the UK's answer to Britney Spears... which is kind of depressing).

The show has been superb. It's witty, it's funny, it's scary... Eccleston (best known in the US as either Nicole Kidman's husband in The Others or as the Major Henry West in 28 Days Later) is incredibly good in the role, and even Billie Piper has won me over. The writing is great, and it's by far and away the best thing on UK TV at the moment. Even my staunch non-Doctor Who-fan fiancιe is addicted to the new series.

Ecclestone's Doctor is both weird and wacky, while also being dark and dangerous, all at the same time. He's constantly in the moment, and the series has this huge sense of excitement about it. It's worked brilliantly, staunching fears that Ecclestone would be totally serious the entire way through. Things have happened between now and the last few shows, and we're slowly finding them out. The Daleks and the Time Lords have wiped each other out, and we don't know how or why. There's been a Time War. And there's something called Bad Wolf that's been chasing The Doctor — although we've only seen it written in places.

Sadly, tragically — Ecclestone has decided that he's had enough after one season. He's superb in it, but he's terrified of being typecast and hated the amount of time he had to put into the first season (time away from his family). So, when this season finishes... we're down one Doctor. It's a shame, because another few years and I'd have been happy. At the Christmas Special this year, we will be introduced to a new Doctor.

10 — David Tennant [forthcoming]
Tennant has recently become known in the UK, as a result of starring in the (also) Russell T. Davies scripted Casanova, in which he played the lead role. He was superb — funny, but able to play the serious parts, lively, quick and ever so slightly camp.

What will he be like as The Doctor? I don't know. But I'm looking forward to finding out.

: : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : :

Part 01 :: Part 02 :: Part 03


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