Who was the best Who?

Dr Who is back on a Saturday night and is a fixture on many families viewing schedules. But who is the best Who? Arts Editor Andrew Clarke tumbles back down the time corridor to assess the series past and present.

Andrew Clarke

Dr Who is back on a Saturday night and is a fixture on many families viewing schedules. But who is the best Who? Arts Editor Andrew Clarke tumbles back down the time corridor to assess the series past and present.

As the strains of the theme tune die away, the silence is broken only by a groaning, wheezing sound. Is it the Tardis arriving or me collapsing onto the sofa having run in from a cold and windy garden to catch the must see TV moment of the week - the start of the new series of Dr Who.

It is now the only time where we all sit down as a family and enjoy a programme on television. Saturday night found us sitting down and rejoicing in David Tennant's latest, lightweight but still enjoyable, adventure as everyone's favourite Time Lord. What makes Dr Who special is a combination of good storytelling, engaging actors, spectacular special effects, humour and a good balance between tradition and innovation.

The revitalisation of the old Pertwee/Tom Baker theme music with a new 21st century twist - along with the retention of the Tardis dematerialisation sound effect - is a good illustration of this precarious equation.

This new season promises a good mix of dark and entertaining stories as well as a wealth of familiar faces returning. Script-editor and Dr Who guru Russell T Davies is promising a barn-storming season of stories which see the return of the potato-headed Sontarans, a trip to ancient Rome as well a trip back to the recent past to unearth the mystery behind Agatha Christie's disappearance in the 1920s along with the return of the last surviving Dalek who is trying to spawn an entire new race.

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Other surprises started from Saturday's first episode with a tantalising appearance by Rose (Billie Piper) - followed by her immediate disappearance. Other returning companions will include last season's Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) and classic series companion Sarah Jane Smith (Elizabeth Sladen).

These are designed to lead viewers towards an explosive two-part climax 13 weeks from now which has been designed to keep fans sustained for the 18 month gap between the end of this series and the start of the next - engineered to allow star David Tennant to play Hamlet with the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford for a year.

Watching David Tennant play the Doctor with a mixture of wide-eyed wonder and furious indignation over some galactic crime, and becoming increasingly aware of the debts that this new shiny, effects-laden, series owes to its past - led me to wonder how the old series would stack up when viewed alongside this latest, ultra-sleek incarnation.

The one thing that both series have in common is that the foundation of the series is firmly rooted in good writing. Never mind that sometimes the effects or costumes in the old series didn't always look totally convincing - you can't escape the fact that the ideas behind them were clever and original.

However, reviewing many of the stories from the old classic series - it was a tough job but somebody had to do it - I found that accusations of dodgy effects are harder to make after 1970 with the arrival of Jon Pertwee, colour, bigger budgets and more location filming.

You do get the odd horrific effects shot, but by and large, the monsters and the productions look rather slick. Who can forget The Sea Devils emerging from the water in and around Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight? Or giant robotic mummies stalking Tom Baker's Doctor through the woods surrounding an old priory? Terrifying stuff that wouldn't disgrace this current series.

But, it is the combination of good story-telling along with a charismatic Doctor and an engaging supporting cast which makes the series survive. So how does David Tennant and the current series stack up against its predecessors?

In order to be a good Doctor, the actor needs to bring a larger-than-life personality to the role. This was why Christopher Eccleston's portrayal has been over-shadowed by David Tennant's enthusiastic onslaught.

Eccleston is a terrific actor - powerful and gripping but he finds it hard to exude the wide-eyed eccentricity that the role demands. He was a good Doctor but not a great Doctor.

So who are the great Doctors? William Hartnell kick started the series in 1963. He was called grandfather by Susan, his travelling companion. He was the archetypical grumpy old man - cantankerous and slightly dangerous to know. In his second story, the one that introduced the Daleks, he deliberately stranded the Tardis on an inhospitable planet because he wanted to explore further.

Patrick Troughton, a respected classical actor, took over the part three years later and transformed the Time Lord into a cosmic tramp who frequently dived for cover when new timeless monsters like Cybermen and Ice Warriors came on the scene.

Action man Jon Pertwee took on the Doctor's mantle in 1970 and gave the series a more down-to-earth feel. The series was now made in colour, the budget increased and there was a regular supporting cast with The Briagdier and UNITas well as the Doctor's nemesis The Master, played with a wonderful twinkle by the bearded Roger Delgado.

The charming Jon Pertwee transformed into bug-eyed, curly-haired Tom Baker in 1975 and immediately the series took on a more eccentric, positively gothic atmosphere - at least until Mary Whitehouse, that guardian of public morals, got her hands on the series. Edicts were passed down from on high. The Gothic horror was removed and was replaced by comedy and a pathetic talking dog K-9.

Tom Baker stayed in the series for an astonishing seven years when, after falling from a radio telescope, his Doctor was transformed into a youthful Peter Davison. A new production team tried to put some of the old pizzazz back in the series but by now the production budgets were starting to look a little tight.

Peter Davison made a decent effort to recreate the action-packed nature of the Pertwee years, particularly when it came to big set-piece adventures like The Five Doctors but the tide was starting to turn against the show.

Colin Baker took over the role in 1984 and lasted a grand total of two years before the series was put on hold by BBC boss Michael Grade. When it returned two years later bizarre Shakespearean actor Sylvestor McCoy took over the controls of the Tardis but by now the series seemed tired and dated - unable to match the glossy look that American imports provided.

The series needed a rest but what leading telly writer and Dr Who fan Russell T Davies did when he convinced BBC bosses to resurrect the series was to recapture the magic and inventiveness of Dr Who's hey-day.

Having got the series re-commissioned, Russell realised that in order to survive it was going to have to compete not only with big budget American imports but it was also going to go head-to-head with cinema blockbusters. Audiences were going to have no truck with spaceships on wires or with scenery that wobbled.

Although 1970s Dr Who stands up remarkably well - better than 1980s Dr Who - it is almost impossible to compare the current series with the slow-paced black and white adventures enacted by William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton.

Troughton, in particular, gave a startling performance but the technical hurdles they faced are almost insurmountable to a modern audience. The pacing too is extraordinarily slow to modern sensibilities.

But even back then the series survived because it was driven by good ideas and dramatic plots. Audiences were forgiving if the production team over-extended themselves because the ideas were innovative and challenging. Each week they seemed to be breaking new ground.

Terrance Dicks, Robert Holmes and now Russell T Davies, good script editors have always been at the heart of this series. All three maintained an admirable balance between keeping faith with series continuity but not letting it get too bogged down in the minutia of past events that it derailed the dramatic cut and thrust of the stories.

The most obvious example of allowing writers to rework accepted Dr Who history in order to tell a good story is the classic Tom Baker story Genesis of the Daleks which turned accepted Dalek history, dating from the William Hartnell era, on its head. Russell T Davies has done it again in the modern era with Dalek stories featuring both Christopher Eccleston and David Tenant.

Having praised the glory years of Pertwee and Baker for its audacious storytelling and effective effects work you can't escape the fact that the current series with its state-of-the art digital effects and cinema-style camera work is the best that the series has ever looked.

Where the old series scores is that it had more time to tell its stories. Some characters had perhaps more depth because we had longer to get to know them. It's no surprise to see that the best adventures in this current outing come from the stories over two parts.

The scarecrow adventure, the Cyberman story on alternate Earth, the Ood two-parter and the first season closer and the Dalek-Cyberman war were all stunning stories because time had been lavished on the characterisation. In some of the single episodes, sometimes you feel that everything has been a little rushed to fit it into the 45 minute running time.

In many ways your Doctor is always the Time Lord you grew up with. I am lucky that my Doctors Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker co-incided with a huge leap in popularity in the programme, bigger budgets and an attitude from the production team that Dr Who was a family show rather than a children's show and therefore the horror level could be significantly increased. Jon Pertwee's debut story featured the faceless shop dummies breaking out of a department store window - something that Russell T Davies duplicated in Christopher Eccleston's debut story four years ago.

The series has been reborn - it is a new entity - it's doesn't rely on its past for it current success, but like any good on-going adventure it is informed by its past. Youngsters can come fresh to it, not knowing of its 40 year old history and still get an awful lot from it. Those of us who have revelled in its past, just get a little bit more.

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