Reverse the Polarity

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Review of Doctor Who, BBC1

In 1989 after 26 years the BBC finally cancelled Doctor Who. Sixteen years later the show has returned to our screens. Previously notorious for feeble special effects and flimsy sets, the new series isn't science fiction on the cheap any more. A multimillion pound budget and an extensive advertising campaign helped the first episode, aired on 26 March, attract ratings of 9.9 million viewers. The following week's episode got more viewers than Tony Blair's interview with 'Ant 'n' Dec' could muster over on ITV.

Doctor Who was the brainchild of the Canadian producer Sidney Newman, brought to Britain by ABC television in 1958 in order to revitalise the staid world of British television. He helped break the sclerotic hold of the upper classes on the medium. Before Newman television 'presented a condescending view of working class people. Television dramas were usually adaptations of stage plays, and invariably about upper classes. I said, "Damn the upper classes - they don't even own televisions!"'

Newman attracted a regular audience of 12 million to his Armchair Theatre series and went on to created a number of fantasy series including The Avengers, Pathfinders in Space and Out of This World. In 1961 he accepted a post as head of drama at the BBC and brought with him the idea for Doctor Who. Newman saw it as a semi-educational serial featuring a wanderer in time and space called the Doctor who'd meet up with the great and the good throughout history. It was first broadcast on 23 November 1963, fighting for an audience in the wake of the assassination of John F Kennedy. However, the second story, which pulled in over 8 million viewers, featured the Daleks who were wildly popular and who changed the format of the show. Though 'straight' historical stories would be part of Doctor Who for the next three years, the science-fiction stories always attracted more viewers and came to dominate. By the mid-1960s Doctor Who was just doing science fiction.

So far the new series has avoided being strangled by its own mythology. Christopher Eccleston is playing a radically different Doctor from previous interpretations, rejecting the ruffs and capes of previous incumbents and keeping his Mancunian accent. Significantly, the Doctor isn't posh any more, something which marked the series right from the start. First played by William Hartnell, the Doctor insisted he was 'a citizen of the universe and a gentleman to boot!' It took us six years and two Doctors to learn that he was a renegade from the cosmic aristocracy of the Time Lords, and that he'd broken their strict non-intervention policy with the rest of the universe. He rejected their society to explore the cosmos in a stolen Tardis and helped the oppressed wherever he found them but he remained something of a patrician. Patrick Troughton played the second Doctor as a scruffy 'cosmic hobo' but he was obviously still a toff and when Jon Pertwee appeared as the third incarnation of Doctor Who in 1970, playing the part as a dandy in silk-lined capes and frilly shirts, one paper remarked that his interpretation was 'very definitely Harley Street'.

By contrast, Eccleston's take on the good Doctor is much grittier - a deliberate attempt to avoid the 'foppish' elements of the character which had put him off the programme when he was a kid growing up on a Salford council estate. His companion, Rose Tyler, played by Billy Piper, is also a step on from the screaming sidekicks of the past who were all too often there to be rescued by the Doctor or have the plot patiently explained to them. Rose is a post-Buffy companion every bit as central to the series as the Doctor. And it's a series where council estates, dead-end jobs and racism need confronting every bit as much as Daleks and Autons. And that's to be welcomed. Doctor Who always worked best when it used its science-fiction premise to address real issues. Jon Pertwee's 'The Mutants' was an anti-apartheid story, 'The Green Death' a pro-ecological tale. Tom Baker's definitive Doctor defeated inter-galactic tax collectors in 'The Sun Makers' with the cry, 'Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your claims!' Sylvester McCoy's Doctor defeated Margaret Thatcher herself - thinly disguised as Helen A - in 'The Happiness Patrol'.

I'm glad it's back. After more than 600 episodes, 150 stories, two films, three plays and a TV movie, it's nice to see there's life in the old boy yet.