Television Reviews

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The death last week of the delightful Jon Pertwee has a ring of irony in the light of the concurrent resurrection of Doctor Who (BBC1), a character with a tendency to survive death itself. A publicity person would have been hard pushed to dream up a better stunt. Pertwee's tenancy of the Tardis from 1970 to 1974 is widely regarded as the golden era of the series. Tom Baker had a heroic stab at the role, but no one could quite match the Edwardian self-expression, the stick-insect stalk.

Of course, Doctor Who was a series with two very distinct characteristics. Firstly, it was very BBC. It fitted the Blue Peter era: the special effects consisting of loo rolls, washing-up bottles and sticky-backed plastic. It had none of the production values of US series like Star Trek. This was partly because the Trekkies had the Mojave desert for backdrops while our teams had to make do with a rainswept quarry, but there was something very British about the refusal to espouse anything flashy. Most Brits who left infancy between 1963 and 1980 got their first experience of pleasurable terror from the Daleks. It never occurred to us that their quest for universal domination could be thwarted by building stairs.

The other characteristic is that every new Doctor was thought to be Not as Good as the Old One. It was inevitable that Paul McGann would face the same tirade. The good news is that he was every bit as good. He has the perfect touch: the part requires a theatricality, an ability to ham it up, that has become rare in this era of naturalism and method. In cherubic curls and a fetching black frock coat, he chucked himself about and burbled about sonic screwdrivers with the verve of the greats. Very impressive.

Sadly, the same could not be said for the film. A co-production with Universal Television, it quickly became clear that the Americans had lost the plot. Even the credits were disappointing: the theme tune, orchestrated instead of whooshed out on a synthesiser, was barely recognisable. And no one had told them that we liked spotting the strings holding up the Tardis.

The main word that sprang to mind was "derivative". The opening sequence, with its portentous voice-over, was Superman IV. The San Francisco of 1999 was a spit for the Los Angeles of Blade Runner. The girlie sidekick, a surgeon called Grace Holloway (Daphne Ashbrook) first resembled Cher at the opera in Moonstruck and then Aidan Quinn in Desperately Seeking Susan. And as for the dastardly Master (Eric Roberts): he combined the performances of Arnie in The Terminator and Tommy Lee Jones in Under Siege with little of the elan of either. Add a dash of Indiana Jones, a hint of ER, a smidge of Candyman, a pinch of Point Break and verbal inflexions from Bill and Ted and you've got an idea. All that, and a snog as well. What is the world coming to?

A question also raised by the aptly named Sandy Gall as he crossed The Empty Quarter (BBC2), a desert which takes up half a million square miles of the Arabian peninsula. Gall was to follow the footsteps of Wilfred Thesiger, who went across it by camel in 1947, a time when the Bedouin were still lurking among the sand dunes and robbing each other. Flying out over the tower blocks of the UAF, he noted, mournfully, that "the old Bedu way of life, which survived virtually unchanged for centuries, has now vanished forever."

Nonetheless, there were delights, the greatest of which were Gall himself, and his co-traveller, Robin Hitchcock. The veteran reporter, who resembles Arthur Mullard in all but speech, showed a very attractive streak of old- style eccentricity. He chatted with his camel ("the prophet says love your camel and I think I'm beginning to fall in love just a little with Farha"), and he and Hitchcock swapped phrases like "sparrowfart" and "the morning George" with gusto. Gall was full of anecdotes: how the Sultan of Oman shot himself in the foot during the 1970 revolution, how an oil firm lost an 85-ton bulldozer in quicksand. This was the best of tolerant culture clash, right down to the sneaked scotch behind a backup jeep.