Jodie Whittaker is The Doctor and she is looking to get us back behind the sofa
Doctor Who returns this weekend and it’s all change. Arts editor Andrew Clarke takes a look at what makes this most British of programmes so special
Doctor Who returns this weekend not only with a new face but a new gender, a new production team and a new time slot.
Just as it did in 2005, everyone’s favourite Time Lord is being given a fresh start. The continuity counter has been reset to zero and there’s no better time to become acquainted with television’s time travelling adventurer than now.
Lead writer and show runner Chris Chibnall says that when the show returns on Sunday nothing will be taken for granted. There will be no assumed knowledge – no lingering hold overs from previous series – everything will be explained from scratch. Doctor Who is being reimagined for a new age.
However, before fans have a collective heart attack, Chibnall is also anxious to reassure long-term followers of the show that he’s not throwing the baby out with the bath water. Just as Russell T Davies did when he brought show back with Christopher Eccleston in 2005, the central tenets of The Doctor’s existence were kept in tact from the classic series but no-one was expected to know The Doctor’s back story. The same is true now. The Doctor, played by 36 year-old Jodie Whittaker, will introduce a very new sensibility to the show. The fact she is the first woman to play the role is important but it won’t change the essential nature of who the Doctor is. The character will still be a caring adventurer, out to overcome evil, to defend the underdog and is consumed by an insatiably curiosity about what is round the next corner.
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But, it’s Doctor Who’s ability to imaginatively reinvent itself every few years which has the show to be an important fixture on our screens over the last 55 years. The show today is superficially very different from how it was in November 1963 when school teachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright followed “strange, otherworldly” pupil Susan Foreman home one foggy evening and encountered the first Doctor, played by William Hartnell, emerging from The Tardis in a junk yard.
The Doctor’s personality has changed over the years, a reflection of the actors who have played him, but his underlying character traits have remained unchanged. The Doctor comes from a long-lived race of observers, The Time Lords. The secret to their longevity is their ability to regenerate their bodies when death approaches.
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This integral part of the series idealogy was developed as a practical solution to a real-life problem when Hartnell became too ill to continue in the role and after the Doctor’s first encounter with The Cybermen collapsed on the Tardis floor and became Patrick Troughton.
Each actor has been able to put his stamp on the show. They have managed to attract some of the country’s top actors in both leading and guest-starring roles and that is why the series has continued to thrive.
It’s other strength is the quality of the writing. Certainly, until the series returned in the 21st century it rarely had the budget to match its creativity but it was always much more imaginative than its rather sanctimonious American counterparts like Star Trek, Buck Rogers or Battlestar Galactica.
Much has been made of the fact that The Doctor is now going to be a woman but by trialling the idea by making The Master, the Doctor’s arch-foe, into Missy, they have proved that there is nothing to be lost and everything to be gained by allowing the roles to swap their sex.
The fact that the series will be returning in the high profile Poldark/Bodyguard Sunday night slot means that the BBC still have a lot of faith in the series. Chris Chibnall is keen to promote it as something new. For the first series at least there will be no returning monsters, there will be all new threats, and new terrors to have fans, both young and old, scurrying behind the sofa.
Doctor Who’s Time Travelling Highlights
Nov ‘63: An Unearthly Child. We are introduced to a crotchety old man who turns out to be a rebellious Time Lord travelling with his grand daughter across time and space in a space time machine, that looks like a 1950s police telephone box and is bigger on the inside.
Dec 63: The Dead Planet. We are introduced to the Doctor’s deadliest foe The Daleks, who, at first, are trapped inside a metal city on a planet laid waste by nuclear war. Their evil plans are only temporarily halted and when they return they are a lot more mobile.
Oct 64: The Dalek Invasion of Earth. It does what it says on the tin. The Daleks roam across London and Dr Who gets its first extensive batch of location filming,
Sept 66: The Tenth Planet. The battle against the first generation Cybermen proves too much for William Hartnell’s Doctor. He declares his body is wearing a little thin and he transforms into the more mischievous Patrick Troughton.
June 69: The War Games. After three years of battling increasingly sophisticated Cybermen, Daleks, Yeti and Ice Warriors, The Doctor is put on trial by The Time Lords for being a renegade and he is exiled to Earth with another face change.
Jan 70: Spearhead From Space. Patrick Troughton becomes Jon Pertwee. The series is now made in colour, the number of episodes is cut, the budget is increased and because the series is now set on Earth, there is much more location filming and has a more polished look.
Jan 71: Terror of the Autons. The return of the animated shop dummies from Spearhead From Space but more importantly, the Doctor’s nemesis The Master, played with wicked relish by Roger Delgado, is introduced. The Doctor is now firmly attached to UNIT, the United Nations military wing.
Dec 73: The Time Warrior. The war-like Sontarans turn up in medieval England but more importantly long serving companion Sarah Jane Smith, played by Elizabeth Sladen, joins Jon Pertwee’s Doctor in a repaired Tardis.
Jan 75: Robot. After five years in the role Jon Pertwee’s Doctor succumbed to the deadly giant spiders of Metabelis 3 and regenerated into Tom Baker, the eccentric fourth Doctor with a wide smile and the long scarf.
Sept 77: The Horror of Fang Rock. After three years of gothic-influenced horror, under scriptwriter Robert Holmes, clean-up TV campaigner Mary Whitehouse won her battle to take the ‘tea-time terror for tots’ out of Dr Who and a new production team replaced the dark brooding stories with lighter, more fantastical fare which played to Tom Baker’s love of comedy.
Aug 80: The Leisure Hive. New production team, headed up by long-serving producer John Nathan Turner, new theme, new titles, same Doctor. Tom Baker now in his seventh year has become an institution in himself.
Jan 82: Castrovalva. Peter Davison takes over from Tom Baker in the final act of a trilogy of linked Master stories. The Master is now played by Anthony Ainley who had a silky, wicked laugh and loved to wear a high-collared black frock coat.
March 84: The Caves of Androzani. After three years Peter Davison bows out on a high with this tense tale of gun-running and shady business deals in outer space. Colin Baker takes over the role and everything starts to fall apart.
March 85: Revelation of the Daleks. BBC1 controller Michael Grade describes the series as tired and put it on hiatus for 18 months.
Sept 86: Trial of a Time Lord. The number of episodes are slashed by a third, replaced by a themed season and a reduced budget. No-one is happy, particularly as Colin Baker’s contract is not renewed at the end of the season. He is the first Doctor not to get a regeneration.
Sept 87: Time and the Rani. Sylvester McCoy is now the Doctor. The series has become increasingly cheap looking which undermines the imagination in the scripts. Each season now only has four stories.
Dec 89: Survival. It appears that time has finally run out for the BBC’s long-running Time Lord when the series is cancelled. McCoy’s Doctor appears to have finally defeated The Master but it could all be an illusion.
May 96: Doctor Who: The Movie. Sylvester McCoy regenerates into Paul McGann for this one-off UK-US co-production. Eric Roberts becomes the Master in this good looking but ultimately empty story.
Mar 05: Rose. Doctor Who returns under the aegis of super-fan writer Russell T Davies with Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor and Billie Piper as his assistant Rose. The first story sees the return of those killer shop-dummies The Autons.
Dec 05: Christmas Invasion. David Tennant makes his debut as The Doctor and forms a new, closer partnership with Rose and stakes his case as the protector of Earth.
Jan 10: The End of Time. Tennant’s Doctor utters those immortal words, “I don’t want to go” before regenerating into Matt Smith who teams up with resourceful kiss-a-gram girl Amy Pond. Steven Moffat takes over as showrunner.
Sept 12: The Angels Take Manhattan. Amy Pond’s story comes to a heart-wrenching end as she sacrifices herself to The Weepy Angels in order to be with her husband in a different age. The Doctor and the audience is bereft.
Nov 13: The Day of the Doctor. Dr Who celebrates its 50th birthday by teaming up Matt Smith with David Tennant and missing Doctor John Hurt. Billie Piper returns as a mystical, alternative Rose.
Aug 14: Deep Breath. Peter Capaldi is the 12th Doctor with Jenna Coleman as companion Clara Oswald who had first been seen as a Dalek-generated hallucination during Matt Smith’s last season.
Dec 17: Twice Upon A Time. Peter Capaldi’s Doctor comes face to face with its first incarnation, now played by David Bradley, in this story which is all about being unable to escape your fate. At the end he accepts the inevitable and turns into Jodie Whittaker.