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The Doctor: An Article

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Regeneration Nine

A Time Lord

Cardiff, Wales — Question: How many Doctor Who fans does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: Four — one to change the bulb, and three to say, "Nah, not as good as the last one."
Christopher Eccleston knows what he's up against — don't let that cool, laser-eyed northern stare fool you. He is about to leap from the minors to the majors, from character actor to superhero, and while the chances are it will be as sweet as sunshine, the possibility remains that he will perform a belly flop of epic proportions. In front of millions of people. Heard around the world.
Tonight( March 26th 2005), Eccleston will don the mantle of Dr. Who, the ninth actor to play the role on television. You thought I'd say "don the scarf," but the Doctor's trailing muffler, worn famously by Tom Baker in the 1970s, has been banished, along with the floppy hats, celery-bedecked lapels, and other cheesy relics of the past. This Doctor, the BBC wants us to know, is real. He wears a leather jacket. He's the most modern time traveller you've seen.

After a hiatus of 16 years — a mere blip to a 900-year-old Time Lord, but an eternity for obsessive Whovians — the BBC has launched a new Doctor Who series (the original ran from 1963 to 1989) with the triumphal blast usually reserved for Royal weddings. The return of Doctor Who. That's something people are talking about, perhaps thanks to the BBC's indefatigable promotional efforts. The Royal wedding, by contrast, lacks the buzz of even a hundred honeybees.

In order to spread the good word, the BBC has invited hundreds of "opinion formers" to a hotel on the shores of Cardiff Bay in Wales to watch the first episode (Canadians can check it out when the series launches on the CBC on April 5 at 8 p.m.). The opinion they form appears to be a good one: They whoop with delight when Selfridges department store blows up; the appearance of those villainous robots, the Daleks (in a clip from a future episode), is greeted with a wave of applause. And for those who had childhood fights about whether Daleks can climb stairs: Oh yes, they can.

After the screening, Eccleston, 41, sits nursing a pint, ready to concede that taking on this beloved role "could be a poisoned chalice." He is best known as a serious actor, a blade-faced scrapper from movies like 28 Days Later and Elizabeth. But what audiences haven't seen is that he can do wit and whimsy. When asked if he took the role as seriously as he did Hamlet on-stage, he responds, deadpan, "Well, my Hamlet was unintentionally comic, apparently."

In the hands of writer and creative visionary Russell T. Davies, this incarnation of Doctor Who is funny, but not the least bit camp. He's a little odd, a little menacing, as befits an alien from the planet Gallifrey. As Eccleston says, "I wanted the flamboyance and the eccentricity to be in the performance, to see if I could convince you he was an alien just with the performance." This Dr. Who is also the sexiest Time Lord we've seen, although — how to put this delicately? — it's not exactly been a crowded field.

The first Doctor Who episode, An Unearthly Child, aired on Nov. 23, 1963.

It was not, as rumour has it, delayed by the assassination a day earlier of John F. Kennedy, although it did go to air one minute late. As well, the BBC's head of drama, Sydney Newman, complained about the episode's fluffed dialogue and the crabbiness of the Doctor (played by William Hartnell), and insisted the pilot be reshot.

Hartnell's Doctor was a cranky oldster, and as the character "regenerated" he got progressively more approachable and more funky. Jon Pertwee's Time Lord was a Brian Jones-ish dandy; Tom Baker's, a plummy-voiced oddball; and Peter Davison's, a celery-wearing schoolboy.

As the actors changed, almost everything else about the show remained constant: The Doctor travelled through time and space in the Tardis — a police phone box on the outside, a whole lot more within — fighting monsters and evildoers while accompanied by one of his companions, often female, always gormless. The writing was clever — Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) was for a time a scriptwriter — and that made up for the sets, which looked like they were constructed with a glue gun and a box of macaroni.

The devotion of Doctor Who fans is a state of mind — or perhaps a state of suspended disbelief — that can be hard for the outsider to fathom. Did they really enjoy the monster who was covered in hard candy? The terrifying mummies made from what appear to be old diapers?

The best place to understand this state of mind is from inside the Who Shop in East London. This is proprietor Alexandra Loosely-Saul on the Philosophy of Who: "If you actually stick with the Doctor's rules of life, you can't go far wrong. He always tried to think the best of people, and while situations would happen, he would never judge. He didn't go on with guns blazing; he went in using his mind."

A bubbly woman from the north of England (already she is predisposed to liking Eccleston's Who, just on the basis of regional loyalty), Loosely-Saul has been catering to Whovians' shopping needs for 20 years, assisted by her husband, Kevin Loosely. In one corner is a replica Tardis, full-size, for which an American collector offered "a silly amount of money." Above her head in a glass case is a gun from the episode Galaxy Four in 1965. If your eight-year-old had made it in art class, you'd pat him on the head and tell him it was a job well done.

"The BBC was very into recycling. Very green," says Kevinthink we need this kevin, to set up for reader that he, not wife, talks from here on in/vd Loosely. "They'd use bits of hairdryers, everything."

And yet, somehow, it scared the kids. One of the most charming things about the collective nostalgia around Doctor Who is the oft-repeated "behind the sofa" remark. As soon as the familiar theme music kicked in, kids could be found, bug-eyed, watching it from behind the sofa while parents relaxed in armchairs. It was a family experience — of course, there was nothing else on.

"It was pants-wettingly frightening in its day," says Loosely. There would be discussions in the House of Commons, he says, about whether children should watch the show; Britain's moral watchdog, Mary Whitehouse, thumped and railed against it.

While the show was never as popular abroad as in Britain, it does have stalwart fans in Europe and North America, perhaps due, in Loosely's opinion, to a particularly English sensibility. "Americans all think we're mad anyway," he says. "And here's the Doctor, who stops an invasion, and then sits down and has a cup of tea. He'd chuck a bunch of marbles at a monster to trip it, and then try to talk it into giving up."

This time, in an effort to win the hearts of savvy eight-to-12-year-olds and their parents, the BBC has splashed out on special effects, using London's The Mill studio (which also provided effects for the film Gladiator). No more snot monsters, in other words, unless it's very realistic snot.

It used to be that special effects were almost an afterthought, says Mark Campbell, author of Dimensions in Time & Space, a guide to Doctor Who.

Episodes would have to be shot in three or four hours, with special effects crammed into the last 10 minutes, or they'd move into dreaded overtime. "Now, there's a feeling at the BBC that the effects have to be very good," he says.

In the 1980s, Campbell says, under producer John Nathan-Turner, the show became increasingly cultish and aimed at die-hard fans. "You had to have seen an episode 10 years before to understand," he says, "and casual viewers couldn't cotton on."

Michael Grade, the former BBC boss, reportedly loathed Doctor Who and canned the show for good in 1989. (A two-hour telefilm starring Paul McGann appeared in 1996.)

As one commentator said recently, "There was a bit of a bad smell about it at the BBC." It was just too quaint, too backward-looking, too ridiculous — and, in the end, too recognizable a brand not to be resurrected. However, there were complicated rights issues to be worked out; everyone seemed to own a small piece of the pie. "If you have a Dalek story," says Campbell, "you have to get the rights from the estate of [the robots' creator] Terry Nation."

The show found a saviour in Lorraine Heggessey, the former BBC1 executive who commissioned the new series. And Heggessey knew exactly whose vision she wanted to propel the Tardis into the 21st century. One day, she walked past the agent of Russell T. Davies, one of the wonder boys of British TV. She said, "Doctor Who. Russell. We're doing it."

This is, in many ways, Davies's moment. Doctor Who's writer and executive producer is beaming, seated in the hotel in Cardiff after the screening of his baby. Really, he should be in front of the cameras, not behind them. He's asked if the Doctor will finally get to use one of his two hearts — whether there will be any romantic action between the Time Lord and his new companion, Rose Tyler, played by British pop star Billie Piper.

"They're going to be in a state of tension for 13 weeks," he says, and stops, pulls a face. "The men I've said that to!"

This gets a laugh, as expected. It is easy to see why Eccleston says he based his performance, at least in part, on Davies: the mad, roller-coaster speech, the quickness of thought.

Davies might be most famous, up till this point, for creating and writing the original Queer as Folk. Now he's back in Wales, where he was born 41 years ago.

The writer and the star are the exact same age as the show. But while Eccleston didn't watch Doctor Who as a youngster — the sets were too silly, the doctor's voice too posh — Davies loved it.

"One of Doctor Who's best qualities is that it involves the real world, the normal world," he says. "When I was a kid, one of the best things about it was that you could imagine the Tardis landing, and you joining in the adventure in a way you could never imagine being part of the Star Trek crew. That's a really magical thing."

Part of rooting the show in reality as opposed to setting it in the land of one-eyed aliens is to make use of London's landmarks (this despite the fact that the show was shot mainly in Wales). In the first episode, the Doctor wonders where they might find a transmitter, "something round and massive, right in the middle of London." As he says this, Rose points to the London Eye, looming over his shoulder. "Something like that?" Coming in a later episode: the decapitation of Big Ben.

From the outset, there were things that Davies knew he wanted to keep from the original show: the famous woo-eee-ooo theme music; the Tardis; the Doctor's handy sonic screwdriver. And he was equally clear about what had to go, as he explained recently to BBC Radio: "The man is 900 years old, he's got two hearts. Does he really have to wear a funny coat? Doesn't he have enough going on?"

Yes, he certainly does. There are worlds to save, possibly a romance to kindle, a Tardis to keep in shape. Oh, and along the way? Perhaps he can bolster the fortunes of a certain public broadcaster and scare some kids while he's at it.

From Saturday's Globe and Mail Review Section

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