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Film: Tardis ready for take-off again

The BBC's finest is about to be revived - and this time, he'll be African American (most probably). By Matthew Sweet
When it comes to cultural diversity, Doctor Who doesn't have a terrific record. From the Acteon Galaxy to the planet Zeta Minor, everybody - apart from the green guys with the rubber tentacles - is a Caucasian Rada graduate. So when the news broke last week that the BBC was trying to persuade Denzel Washington to step aboard the Tardis for a big-screen Doctor Who movie, it was a cause for double celebration. The world's favourite Gallifreyan seems set for a spectacular regeneration, and the choice of actor may punch a sizeable hole in one of the movie world's most notorious glass ceilings.

Official BBC spokespeople stress that nothing has yet been signed, but sources within the corporation claim that Washington is top of the hit- list. Mike Phillips of BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the Corporation, confirmed last week that the movie is going ahead as a co-production with Impact Pictures, a British company run by producer Jeremy Bolt and Paul Anderson - director of the 1997 sci-fi shocker Event Horizon. "Paul wrote an interesting treatment," says Phillips, "and we thought he had a good take on the material, and that it might be a saleable mainstream film. So we made a deal with Paul and Jeremy, and they're in LA talking to studios about making a Doctor Who movie."

"Doctor Who needs to be reinvented for a global audience," argues Jeremy Bolt. "That means casting an international name in the lead role." He won't confirm or deny Washington's involvement, but it's clear that the 45 -year-old Oscar nominee would be a smart choice. And there are other actors under consideration. "What about Laurence Fishburne?" he suggests. "Or Anthony Hopkins?"

Washington, however, is the name upon which Doctor Who Magazine has placed its bets. Since 1979, DWM has been the only reliable source for accurate news and information about the programme. During the 1980s, the magazine had a rather Pravda-like relationship with the Corporation - one Doctor Who producer wasn't above rewriting its reviews to reflect his work more favourably. These days, the BBC comes to the magazine for advice.

DWM's editor, Gary Gillatt, remains cautious about the information currently leaking from the BBC. In "the Gallifrey Guardian", DWM's news pages, he notes that "The prospect of a new

Doctor Who excites no end of rumour-mongering, gossip and wanton bull. To date, news of the film has been classified 'above top-secret' in BBC circles; it is clear that there will be no definitive statement forthcoming until the necessary details are in place."

The world of Doctor Who appreciation contains many strange individuals who delight in starting rumours. When the programme was in production at the BBC, scripts purporting to have been smuggled out of the Doctor Who office - but in reality concocted in some fan-boy's bedroom - routinely surfaced at conventions and club meetings. Overimaginative journalists have also contributed to this culture of speculation. Since the programme went off air in 1989, articles in the press have confidently named Donald Sutherland, John Cleese, Eric Idle and Dudley Moore as imminent big-screen Doctors. One piece, identifying David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson as future incumbents, turned out to be somebody's twisted fantasy. The programme's ability to generate such rumours demostrates its hold on the popular imagination. As any battle-weary Cyberman will tell you, the Doctor is very difficult to kill.

But unfortunately, this enthusiasm has not always been shared by the BBC. Throughout the 1980s, the series was given a low priority by the corporation, and the feeling among a supposed cabal of the programme's enemies - including former BBC chiefs Michael Grade and Jonathan Powell - was that the show should have been tossed into the Time Vortex long ago.

Grade's infamous attempt to axe Doctor Who in 1985 resulted in a tabloid campaign against him and mailbags full of death-threats. So rather totally exterminate the series, it was taken off the air for 18 months, cut from 26 to 14 episodes per year, and allowed quietly to expire in a graveyard slot opposite the Monday night episode of Coronation Street. Ratings fell to around 4m (from a peak of around 18m in the 1970s), and the programme's profile collapsed.

When the final regular Doctor Who adventure (ironically titled "Survival"), concluded in December 1989, the BBC declared that it was considering co-production options. In 1996, negotiations with Universal and Fox TV resulted in a 90-minute TV movie, starring Paul McGann as a more romantically- inclined incarnation of the Time Lord, and Eric Roberts (Julia's brother) as his nemesis, the Master. Ratings for its US broadcast were not sufficiently high for Fox to commit to a new series, and McGann's plaintive remark in interviews - "I don't want to be the George Lazenby of Doctor Whos" - proved mournfully prophetic.

But recently, the Corporation has finally noticed that Doctor Who is one of its most valuable properties. Nearly 10 years since ceasing regular production, it is still the BBC's third most widely exported show - out-performed only by Teletubbies and Pride and Prejudice. Domestically, Doctor Who spin-offs (400,000 books and 2.5m videos sold over the last two years) bring in revenue each year that compares favourably with the bud get of the old TV series. The BBC is currently looking for cash to fund its digital operations. The financial logic of a Doctor Who revival has become unanswerable.

Interestingly, the fast progress on "Doctor Who: the Movie" has scuppered plans by the BBC's drama department for a domestic, small-screen revival of the series. Only a few months ago, Russell T Davies - the talented writer-producer of the Channel Four drama series Queer as Folk - was invited to develop a new series for broadcast on BBC1. Davies is a long-time fan of the programme - the romantic climax of Queer as Folk involved the Who-obsessed hero choosing between suitors on the basis that anyone who could name all the actors to play the Time Lord must be his one true love. Channel Four even altered the production schedule for an imminent Queer as Folk special to allow Davies time to set up the series, tentatively titled Doctor Who 2000. Now that Impact is poised to take the Doctor into the cinema, however, these plans have been abandoned.

"Doctor Who is one of those iconic properties that always presents opportunities," says Mike Phillips. "But it needs a new approach. It needs to be updated and made relevant for today's audiences ... " If Anderson can persuade Denzel Washington to follow William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann through the Tardis doors, then the Time Lord may have a rosy future as the protagonist of a big-budget movie cycle. Washington has a large following that would give the uninitiated a way into the Doctor Who mythos, and a cv (Malcolm X, Cry Freedom, Philadelphia) that will please those keen to see the character's integrity preserved.

But the question remains as to whether this new, shiny, global Doctor Who will be recognisable to those who loved the home-grown original. "Doctor Who stands for what the BBC used to do," Gary Gillatt points out. "It made programmes for the joy of making them, and Doctor Who was always made by in-house staff trying their best, being free to be inventive and original, and having a great deal of fun in the process. That enthusiasm became infectious, and the programme became very popular. But the BBC doesn't now have those in-house people. Everything has to be a 'project' or 'franchise'. Doctor Who was an accidental success."

Little is left to chance in the globalised TV marketplace. A successful regeneration for Doctor Who will require enthusiastic talent. But it will also require monster sales of Denzel Washington action figures.