It sounds like a bad joke. The BBC is at last getting round to making a new series of Doctor Who, the sci-fi classic which was ditched in 1989. And who do they hire to write it? Why, Russell T Davies, creator of Queer as Folk, of course. Davies promises that the new series will be "fun, exciting, contemporary and scary". The mind begins to boggle. Could we have the first gay Doctor? (His wardrobe would certainly improve.) Will his young charges speak in Ali G parlance ("you Daleks is wicked")? And will Cybermen indulge in unsafe sexual practices?
After easing past the cheap gags, however, the choice of Davies begins to make sense. The man is a Doctor Who aficionado, after all. Fans of Queer as Folk will recall how one of its main characters, Vince, was similarly enamoured. When Vince wanted to see how compatible his Australian boyfriend was, he challenged him to name all the Doctors in the right chronological order. The poor lad couldn't manage it. Could you?
I'm not sure I could. Being a Doctor Who fan is a generational thing. There are people out there in their mid-to-late 20s who would swear that Peter Davison was the best Doctor ever, and those in their 30s who would promote Tom Baker and his wretched scarf as the definitive timelord. Me, I'm from the first generation, which, come to think of it, would itself make a rather good title for a 1960s sci-fi series.
Now, a question: where were you when you heard that President Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963? Possibly you were unborn, but aged three-and-a-half years old, I was watching the very first Doctor Who episode. The two events are for ever linked in my mind - probably this is false memory syndrome - but I know which made the greater impression on me.
After all, who was this Kennedy fellow? As I recall this first episode, a giant fly did battle with an upturned hairbrush, a freakish spectacle that for more than a year I replicated in sketch form whenever my mother gave me a piece of paper to draw on. The first Doctor was played by a stern, ancient-seeming (well, I was three) actor called William Hartnell, whose Edwardian manner may well have been perfectly genuine. After all, he was born in 1908. But my favourite was Hartnell's successor, the saturnine Patrick Troughton, who had the demeanour of a bardish chess champion. Such favouritism was for possibly for no better reason than that I was reaching my peak Doctor Who years, an epoch shared by Troughton's successor, the bouffanted Jon Pertwee. After Pertwee, who left in 1974, my links with the show loosened. As memorable as the Doctor were his enemies - none more so than the Daleks. With their metallic voices, sink-plunger arms and impractical motorisation (why did nobody ever simply run upstairs to evade them?) they should have been ridiculous. Instead they were the most fantastic screen Nazis - remorselessly destructive and completely lacking in a sense of humour.
One contender for the new doctor is apparently Alan Davies, the curly-haired comedian turned actor, who played the eponymous magician-sleuth in Jonathan Creek. Even Ken Dodd's name has been mentioned. Both suggestions hint atDoctor Who's tradition of a very British sort of eccentricity. He is the Bagpuss of science fiction, if you like - born of a make-do, home-grown futurism a million light years away from the shiny technology of Star Trek.
However, in modern marketing terms, Doctor Who is still a great concept, with a strong brand image and loyal following. The only surprise is that Hollywood hasn't yet turned it into a baby-boomer blockbuster movie. It's this lapsed option that has persuaded Doctor Who's neglectful parents, the BBC, to step back into the fray. There was a dire, blandly Americanised version back in 1996 with Paul McGann, a misguided step at modernisation. What is needed is imagination, ambition, verve and a sense of the show's great traditions. And that is just what Russell T Davies is likely to bring to it.
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