Rose: “You were useless in there! You’d be dead if it wasn’t for me!”
The Doctor: “Yes, I would. Thank you. Right then, I’ll be off! Unless, uh… I don’t know… you could come with me.”
The original Doctor Who was cancelled in December 1989 after twenty-six seasons, having begun in November 1963. It was and remains the longest running sci-fi show in the world ever. Seven actors had played the title role during that time and the only break came in 1985 when no episodes were broadcast at the insistence of Michael Grade, then controller of BBC1, who disliked the show and thought it had no place on the channel.
That wasn’t exactly the end of the story until the arrival of the new show. In between times, there had been the 1995 straight-to-video film ‘Downtime’ with Elisabeth Sladen and Nicholas Courtney, veterans of the Jon Pertwee/Tom Baker eras. The BBC commissioned several radio productions, with the voice of the doctor variously provided by Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGann and Richard E Grant. McGann, of course, played the doctor in the ill-fated 1996 BBC/Fox TV film version, alongside Eric Roberts as the Master, one of the show’s most celebrated villains. It wasn’t a complete disaster but it did misfire on several counts. The ongoing video and DVD releases have been very successful and the search continues for the lost episodes, wiped during the wholesale clearout of the BBC archives in the 1970s.
Julie Gardner, the head of drama at BBC Wales, commissioned the revived show in 2003, acting as co-executive producer alongside Russell T Davies, the head writer. Davies began his career as a writer for children’s television and was briefly a story consultant on ‘Coronation Street’, but came to prominence as the creator, producer and writer of ‘Queer As Folk’. His other work includes ‘Second Coming’ (starring Christopher Eccleston) and ‘Casanova’ (starring David Tennant).
There was a lot of speculation who would play the doctor in the new show. Richard E Grant and Anthony Stewart Head were thought to be the most likely candidates. The announcement that Christopher Eccleston, who is considered to be rather a serious and intense actor, had been cast in the role came as a surprise to most people. This was soon overshadowed by the announcement that Billie Piper would play the doctor’s companion; a piece of casting that was greeted with deep suspicion by many, myself included.
How very wrong we were.
Russell T Davies was very specific that although the show would revolve around the doctor, the central focus would be his companion, Rose Tyler. He gave her a family (mother, boyfriend and dead father) to ground the story in reality and used this to explore the nature of the doctor who, as portrayed by Christopher Eccleston in particular, is someone who harbours a great deal of repressed guilt and anger and is often capable of being callous and cruel. He is alone in the universe and Rose gives him love. In very basic terms, the doctor is lonely and Rose is stuck in a rut. They gave each other new hope and a renewed sense of shared purpose.
The Doctor: “My planet’s gone. It’s dead. It burned like the Earth. It’s just rocks and dust, before it’s time… I’m the last of the Time Lords. They’re all gone; I’m the only survivor. I’m left travelling on my own because there’s no one else.”
Rose: “There’s me.”
The new show premiered on BBC1 on 26 March 2005.
I am a lifelong fan of the show, although I certainly would not claim to have an expert knowledge about it. I can remember watching it as far back as the Patrick Troughton era (1966-69) and my favourite doctor is Jon Pertwee. I had a huge schoolboy crush on Katy Manning, who played Jo Grant, companion to Pertwee’s doctor between 1971 and 1973. I also have a soft spot for Sylvester McCoy. His tenure as the doctor is not universally well liked but I have very fond memories of the four stories told across fourteen episodes that make up his second season (the final season of the original show). The near-total absence of any budget is very evident and the stories frequently verge on the incomprehensible, but there was no shortage of ideas at work and the episodes have an interesting dreamlike quality to them.