Doctor Who: Be afraid, be slightly afraid

The truth is he came to save us not from an alien invasion, but to stop us from turning over to ITV on a Saturday evening. Now that, in the form of Christopher Eccleston, he faces the extra-terrestrial forces of satellite television, what hope does he have of sending the nation's children whimpering behind their Ikea sofas?
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The Independent Online

"Fear makes companions of us all." So said a sharp-eyed, slightly-built man who first appeared on our TV screens in an astrakhan hat, black cape and Victorian cravat, his long, white hair swept back. A curious figure, in good shape for his apparent age, if a little strangely dressed for this, his first appointment on Earth - 5.15pm sharp, Saturday 23 November 1963.

"Fear makes companions of us all." So said a sharp-eyed, slightly-built man who first appeared on our TV screens in an astrakhan hat, black cape and Victorian cravat, his long, white hair swept back. A curious figure, in good shape for his apparent age, if a little strangely dressed for this, his first appointment on Earth - 5.15pm sharp, Saturday 23 November 1963.

Yet given that he was, as we would learn, already more than seven centuries past his first free bus pass, his agility was miraculous.

From the start, Doctor Who's ability to discern key moments in Earth time and space was uncanny. The day before the broadcast of the first Doctor Who episode, President Kennedy had been assassinated, an event that boosted its audience by catching viewers waiting for the early evening news. The day before that first episode also brought the deaths of C S Lewis and Aldous Huxley, writers whose mysticisms would have been at one with The Doctor in his more messianic moods. The day after that first episode, Lee Harvey Oswald was shot. Beyond that weekend, there was change in the air too. Harold Macmillan had just quit as Prime Minister, and Harold Wilson was less than a year from power.

But the real power of The Doctor lay not so much in the Nostradamus factor, as in his colonisation of that crucial nexus on the UK time-space continuum; the Saturday teatime viewing slot.

The hard truth is that he came to Earth not to save us from alien invasion, but to act as a bridge between Grandstand and Juke Box Jury, to stop kids and adults switching over to ITV.

The series was the fruit of the efforts of the BBC's head of drama, Sydney Newman, and two newcomers, producer Verity Lambert and director Waris Hussein. In keeping with his "bridging" role in the schedules, The Doctor had to be a man for all viewers.

As such, he would emerge as a contradictory but compelling character - part bumbling grandfather with a touch of the dandy, part grumpy, moralising authoritarian with a knack for science and a child's sense of the absurd. Lewis Carroll might have recognised him.

But on that damp, unusually warm weekend in November 1963, things were turning out dark indeed. To a nation still numb with the shock of the Kennedy murder only hours before, the sight of established cinema hard man William Hartnell playing a kindly old time traveller was implausible, intriguing and utterly escapist. Bullseye. Lambert's choice of Hartnell was inspired. A veteran of stage and screen, he had started out as a touring Shakespearean actor in the 1920s and by the 1950s had become a stalwart of British film, cornering the market for stone-faced cops and squaddies. He was at first unconvinced about what he saw as a mere kids' show.

Lambert persisted, and he agreed - slyly bringing to the role a hint of an old-hand Shakespearean's King Lear.

But who was the "Doctor"? He was not human, but inhabited a human form. He had two hearts, neither of which was broken by a long succession of comely female assistants. He was not a doctor of any sort, merely assumed to be one, and home was Gallifrey, a planet 250 million miles away. Seldom visited, Gallifrey - as we piece together - was a dull place, a kind of colony for civil servants and middle-management bean counters, hogged by a huge super-computer and lorded over by Time Lords, of which, we find out as late as 1969, The Doctor was one.

But just as important as the oddness of The Doctor was his Englishness. The "Lord" in Time Lord, the Victorianisms, the understatement and coolness under fire, the acceptance of social duty while indulging in slightly outré bohemian manners and dress, the code of honour, the sense of fair play, the suspicion of uniformity, systems and overt coercion - all trademarks of the idealised upper-class English bachelor, and all apparently as alien to us now as, well, aliens.

Hartnell's health failed after three years. Why not slip a new actor in, but leave the part unchanged? So, in late 1966, and to the astonishment of millions of viewers, Hartnell transformed into Patrick Troughton, who at once set out to do battle with the Daleks.

Troughton shed much of Hartnell's severity. In keeping with the time, he was something of an old hippie, long before hippies became old. Beatle-haired, penny whistle-playing, prone to whimsy as much as to brooding intensity, he was astonished to find that his tenancy as The Doctor far outlasted the six weeks he had predicted. Again, Doctor Who had captured something of the spirit of the times. Or were the times making The Doctor? Once more with serendipitous timing, the end of the Sixties Hartwell-Troughton era came the same weekend that the Beatles recorded together in the studio for the very last time, at the start of January 1970. That first Saturday of the new decade saw Jon Pertwee's debut as The Doctor. Pertwee, known for comic roles on TV and radio, brought a return to a sterner Doctor. A dandy driving a souped-up vintage car called Bessie, Pertwee - paternal, grey - he could nevertheless glare like a gorgon and was a stickler for rules. Reaction was in the air. Six months later, the Conservatives were back in power.

But for many Doctor Who fans, the best had yet to come. The end of 1974 brought not only a secure Labour government, but also the arrival of Tom Baker, still regarded by the cognoscenti as theimperator of Doctors - a man whose appropriation of the role has been so complete that nearly a quarter of a century after he ceded power to Peter Davison, he is still seen by many as The One True Doctor.

Baker was a natural Doctor for the late 1970s - enthusiastically eccentric, he'd done a few films, then worked on a building site before being "discovered". Baker's Doctor - floppy-hatted, bright-scarfed, wild-eyed, wild-haired - was the perfect antidote to the Pertwee chill. Prone to speaking his mind, breaking off mid-sentence to stare into infinity, engaging with the world then veering into dreamland, this Doctor had much of the wasted genius rock star about him. He could have been some lost early member of Pink Floyd. Viewers took to him with an affection not bestowed on his 1980s successors, Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy, though all now are undergoing kinder critical reappraisal.

It wasn't their fault. The Eighties were a cruel time for the imagination. The BBC was feeling the pinch. And Michael Grade, in charge of BBC1, was no fan of the series. He loathed it. Indeed, he achieved from behind his shiny desk in west London what an army of rubbery beasties and malevolent intergalactic madmen had failed to do for more than two decades: he killed The Doctor off. Or he thought he had.

Sixteen years on, Christopher Eccleston, one of our finest "proper" actors, is to star as the latest Doctor in a big-budget new BBC series to start at the end of this month. The long span since the end of the last run - overlooking the one-off, US-tinged Paul McGann film of the mid-1990s - has made a clear break with the wobbly 1980s episodes, leaving the new incumbent free to link hands with his esteemed forebears of the 1960s and 70s.

But who was ever scared by Doctor Who? Millions of Britons, who hid behind £26/19 sofas to watch on blurry £67/9 black-and-white television sets. But did they laugh too? Yes - but always with respect. Fear did indeed make companions of us all, as that first Doctor said. Christopher Eccleston has much to live up to - but a life of perhaps several hundred years, and two hearts with which to do it.